“Rocks & Tower at Big Spring Canyon”

Rocks & Tower at Big Spring Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Big Spring Canyon, located in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah, offers an intimate view of the majesty of the region’s canyon country. It’s a microcosm of the vastness and diversity of the park, sporting canyons, sandstone towers, sheer cliffs, overlooks, and a variety of geological formations. During this particular visit, I caught the late-evening light bathing the landscape in a warm glow as distant storm clouds hovered above the horizon beneath a sheet of cirrus clouds. The multi-layered cloudscape added character to the scene, and the blue sky contrasted nicely with the varied earth tones of the rocks. I like the way the lighter-toned rock in the foreground, replete with lichen whorls, stands out against the darker formations and anchors the scene as the distant brooding clouds ponder the arid landscape. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Textured Boulder & Big Indian Rock”

Textured Boulder & Big Indian Rock, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Lisbon Valley is a red rock desert region in southeast Utah which lies a few miles northwest of the farm on which I was raised. Compared to other nearby desert areas such as Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, it’s rather nondescript, lacking the dramatic deep canyons, arches, pillars and rivers of its neighboring kin, yet it holds a special place in my heart. To me, the valley’s stand-out feature is Big Indian Rock, a blade of sandstone reaching above the sage- and boulder-strewn floor below. During my first visit there with my camera, I was fascinated by a huge, angular slab of red rock which had apparently broken off from Big Indian Rock in the distant past and tumbled to the flats below. This boulder was covered in an incredible array of pits, gouges and mottled patches of lighter and darker tones. My first reaction was to juxtapose this weather-etched pattern with the rock tower in the background. A 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens was used to exaggerate the distance between the boulder and the tower, and allowed me to get close enough to the boulder to record its dramatic textures while keeping everything in sharp focus. A polarizing filter was used to eliminate glare from midday rock surfaces in order to better record the colors of the stone, as well as to darken the sky for a more contrasting effect. This image was made in late-March of 1996 and there were patches of snow below the tower (barely visible in this shot), but I recall the day being delightfully pleasant, not just because of the weather, but because it was my introduction to Big Indian Rock and this intriguing “illustrated” boulder. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“La Sal Mountains & Lisbon Valley”

La Sal Mountains & Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

Lisbon Valley is located in southeastern Utah and lies a few miles north of the farm on which I was raised. It’s a dynamic landscape of red rock desert and snow-capped mountains that rise incongruously out of nowhere. It’s a place of canyons and sandstone formations, sage brush and rabbit brush, cactus, cheat grass and fox tails, pinyon and juniper trees, as well as coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, jackrabbits and cottontails, mule deer, antelope and elk, hawks, rattlesnakes and other typical desert-dwelling fauna. I photographed this scene from a ridge where the landscape drops off into the desert valley below. Upheaval thrusts are visible, and the La Sal Mountains cling to spring’s last remnants of snow. This image was made in April of 1996 on a bitterly cold late afternoon, where the chill made for numb fingers and frosty exhalations. Metal tripods act as heat sinks during cold weather and freeze hands and fingers. Still, I’m fond of this image as it represents the varied landscape where I was raised. I’ve explored Lisbon Valley numerous times and felt at peace in the vast silence, surrounded by the scents of desert vegetation, warm breezes and clean air, as well as the stark, harsh environment of rock and sand and life that struggles to persist. Lisbon Valley is also home to a large open-pit copper mine (not visible in this image, fortunately) that is extremely unsightly and environmentally hazardous. Local ranchers are rightfully concerned about the high likelihood of contaminated groundwater, but corporate profits are all that seem to matter. Aquifers, habitats, wildlife and natural beauty are no match for some faceless company’s bottom line. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Brown Fragments & White Hoodoos”

Brown Fragments & White Hoodoos, Bisti Badlands, NW New Mexico (c) Mike Utley

D43-1(S)—Brown Fragments & White Hoodoos, Bisti Badlands, NW New Mexico
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a sprawling badlands featuring fascinating formations known as hoodoos. These strange formations appear as spires, pillars and other twisted shapes, and consist of sandstone, mudstone, silt, coal and shale. Fossils can be found as well. “Bisti” and “De-Na-Zin” are Navajo for “a large area of shale hills” and “cranes,” respectively. (info courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management) I spent an afternoon here a few years ago exploring this remarkable and relatively unknown area about forty miles south of Farmington in northwest New Mexico. Late-evening sunlight drew out the detail in the textures of this barren place of white hoodoos and brown rock fragments. This is a bizarre location. In the midday sun, the rocks are so white it’s painful to look at them. And it’s a good thing it’s a small area because it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinthine confines of the white sandstone formations. In this image, I found remnants of what appeared to be several eroded boulders scattered about, and the russet color contrasted nicely with the white sandstone. The side-lighting created long shadows that gave depth to the scene, and the 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens I used created the impression of the hoodoos stretching to infinity. There’s an alien feeling to the Bisti Badlands, an otherworldly sensation of being in an ancient land of living rock. And even though I’m nearly totally deaf, the silence of the place was surreal. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Rock Formation & Moon at Dusk”

Rock Formation & Moon at Dusk, Bisti Badlands, NW New Mexico (c) Mike Utley

D38-1(S)—Rock Formation & Moon at Dusk, Bisti Badlands, NW New Mexico
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a sprawling badlands featuring fascinating formations known as hoodoos. These strange formations appear as spires, pillars and other twisted shapes, and consist of sandstone, mudstone, silt, coal and shale. Fossils can be found as well. “Bisti” and “De-Na-Zin” are Navajo for “a large area of shale hills” and “cranes,” respectively. (info courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management) I explored this region one day and was amazed at the various shapes and colors of the place. This image is a strange one, however, not because of the rock formations, but due to the bizarre rendering of the evening sky. I used a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens with a polarizer to capture this scene at dusk. A polarizer is a filter that eliminates glare and reflections from surfaces, increases color saturation and contrast, and removes atmospheric haze. Anyone who has worn polarized sun glasses understands this effect. The combination of a polarizer and a wide-angle lens can create some odd sky properties, however, and this can be used for artistic effect as it was here. During the morning and evening hours, the sky displays a range of tones. Wide-angle lenses capture a large swath of the sky and tend to exaggerate this. A polarizer further dramatizes this by darkening sections of the sky by means of eliminating haze, depending on the angle of the lens axis in relationship to the light source. The result can be quite disconcerting, as pictured here. To me, this represents an alien landscape under unfamiliar skies. This same scene without the polarizing effect would be completely different and lack the character this image offers. To top it all off, the moon is depicted as a mere pinprick due to the wide-angle lens, creating a distant, apathetic and lonely feel in the scene. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Sandstone Cliff & Tower”

Sandstone Cliff & Tower, Big Spring Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

NP4-1(S)–Sandstone Cliff & Tower, Big Spring Canyon, Canyonlands Natl. Park, SE Utah
Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah is known for its expansive canyons, sprawling mesas and towering sandstone pinnacles. It also has an infinite variety of more intimate landscapes such as this rock formation standing sentinel above a small canyon. Not everything has to be immense to hold beauty and meaning. I like the contrasting colors, rugged textures and the hint of towers in the background, as well as the sky which seems to go on forever. On this day, two of my young nephews accompanied me (babysitter Uncle Mike) and I had to keep an eagle eye on them as all they saw were rocks and all they wanted to do was climb them. I had the boys nestled in an alcove off to the left to ensure their safety while I composed this image, then we explored some more and had a fun time. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Church Rock”

Church Rock, near Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

D49-1(S)–Church Rock, near Lisbon Valley, SE Utah
Church Rock is a unique sandstone formation located a few miles north of Monticello in southeast Utah. It’s a local icon of sorts, readily visible just off the highway. In 1998, I was commissioned by a local museum to photograph old barns in San Juan County, Utah, and Church Rock was on the list. In the 1940s, the land owner used dynamite to hollow-out a section at the base to use for storage for cattle feed. Visible in this image are the remnants of an old corral and a dilapidated windmill to show the scale of the rock formation, which rises 200 feet above the surrounding desert landscape. The weather the day this image was made was windy and the clouds were magnificent and added texture and contrast to the earthy tones of Church Rock. As for its name, the local myth is that in the 1930s a spiritualist and her small cult deemed San Juan County, Utah and Church Rock to be the spiritual center of the universe, and she ordered the complete hollowing-out of Church Rock to serve as her church. The 16’x24′ hollow section was thought to be proof of this but was proven false. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Boulder, Cliff & Moon”

Boulder, Cliff & Moon, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

D35-1(S)—Boulder, Cliff & Moon, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah
Lisbon Valley is a rather nondescript area in southeastern Utah devoid of the arches and spectacular rock formations found in nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, but I’ve made a few nice images there. I loved the simplicity of this “intimate landscape” of boulder, cliff and moon. The rocks glowed brilliantly in the westering late-evening sun (no color manipulation here), and the darkened sky contrasts starkly with the fiery orange tones. The moon was rendered tiny by the 24mm wide-angle lens I used, which exaggerates the distance between objects in the foreground and background. I’ve always found the surface details of red rock sandstone fascinating, and that’s what I was attempting to convey here. This is a favorite image of mine due to the colors, surface details, lines, forms and overall contemplative tone. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Sandstone Pillars & La Sal Mountains”

Sandstone Pillars & La Sal Mountains., Arches National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

NP25-1(S)—Sandstone Pillars & La Sal Mountains, Arches National Park, SE Utah.
Arches National Park is famous for its many natural arches (more than 2,000 of them, making it the world’s most dense concentration of natural stone arches), but it also contains an abundance of monoliths like those shown in this image. I liked the juxtaposition of the orange desert rocks against the snowy La Sal Mountains and deep blue sky. Arches National Park is a perfect location for stunning natural beauty and contemplative landscapes. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

“Delicate Arch & La Sal Mountains”

Delicate Arch & La Sal Mts., Arches Natl. Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

NP12-1(S)—World-famous Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, SE Utah. This is probably the most iconic spot of the Colorado Plateau, which covers a great portion of the Four Corners area (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico). Delicate Arch is simply incredible and is the most photographed and most famous natural arch in the world. There was no color manipulation here—this is exactly what Delicate Arch looked like that evening when the warm light of the setting sun struck the orange sandstone. It was literally breath-taking. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)