2018 April: SW USA. UT: Druid & Delicate Arches. AZ: Monument Valley; Hermit Trail. CA: Death Valley.

On a campervan trip to southwest USA from 7-26 April 2018, we enjoyed photographing some great sights shown in galleries below. Carol was delighted by her first visit to Death Valley National Park (further below), including sunrise at colorful Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Photo highlights from this trip


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Trip summary

Our 17-hour drive from Seattle to the desert playground of Moab in Utah was split with an overnight rest in pleasant Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Idaho.

Important tip: By scheduling the trip to avoid the full week before and after Easter Sunday (both hectic school vacation weeks), our stay in tourist hotspots like Moab was markedly quieter and more enjoyable! Avoid crowded Jeep Safari week. We prudently booked our campgrounds several weeks in advance. Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley was first-come first served after mid April, with no problem getting a site, though shade is in short supply. Despite checking 4 months in advance, we couldn’t get into scenic Devils Garden Campground in Arches NP, which allows reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Our favorite Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground hosted our pop-top VW Eurovan Camper for four nights conveniently in downtown Moab. On nearby BLM land, red rock Hunter Canyon was a delightful hike of 4.5 miles round trip, blooming with fragrant yellow barberry flowers along a gentle potholed stream. A massive cottonwood tree nicely framed photos of Hunter Arch. Check out the roadside petroglyphs on Moonflower Panel and walk its half-mile canyon. In fantastic Arches National Park, we hiked from Klondike Bluffs parking lot to impressive Tower Arch via the Marching Men rock formations (2.8 miles with 1280 feet gain). The freshly snow-dusted La Sal Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop, such as seen southwest of Balanced Rock. Just before clouds rolled in, golden late afternoon sun illuminated iconic Delicate Arch (3.8 miles with 900 feet gain). Its parking lot was thankfully only half full during mid week. Don’t miss seeing the Ute Rock Art (1650-1850) on Wolfe Ranch side trail. A pullout southeast of Garden of Eden allowed off-trail access to Cove of Caves area on the back side of Double Arch. Walk on rocks and don’t disturb the black biologic soil crust. Also in the Windows Section, we visited Turret Arch and looped a mile around North and South Windows.

In the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome (beware of limited parking) made short but rewarding walks of 1.0 and 0.8 miles. We moved camp to spend 2 nights at dusty Needles Outpost Campground, picked for its hot shower (though Canyonlands’ nearby Squaw Flat Campground is more aesthetically attractive, at trailheads). Best of all was a long-anticipated 12-mile lollipop loop with 1980 feet gain from Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park to charismatic Druid Arch in the Needles District.

Driving south, I liked exploring little-known Recapture Pocket near Bluff. Fascinating Goosenecks State Park overlooks deep, curly meanders of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. A side trip on Mexican Hat spur road gives a closer look at the red wavy patterns of Raplee Anticline (Lime Ridge) along San Juan River.

Just across the state line, don’t miss the spectacular sunset or sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. At sunset, I rephotographed a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.

We booked three nights in Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, served by a handy free shuttle along on the South Rim. On the way into the park from the east, don’t miss the impressive Hopi artwork inside Desert View Watchtower, which was built by architect Mary Colter in 1932, integrating work by other southwest artists. Starting west of Yavapai Geology Museum, we enjoyed walking the 1.3-mile Trail of Time interpretive exhibit, backward in time from today toward the oldest rock in Grand Canyon, Elves Chasm gneiss, 1.840 billion years old. Our main hike was the scenic Hermit Trail from Hermits Rest to Lookout Point (7.6 miles with 2200 feet gain, plus walking between shuttle stop and campsite).

Death Valley National Park


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Late fall, winter, through early spring are good times to visit Death Valley National Park, which is otherwise beastly hot. During our visit 19-21 April 2018, some refreshing sprinkles formed a rainbow over the colorful geology. Parting clouds revealed fresh snow whitening Telescope Peak (11,043 ft), impressively high above Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level). Cresting the Panamint Range, Telescope Peak has one of the greatest vertical rises above local terrain of any mountain in the contiguous United States. At our feet, evaporation from Badwater Basin concentrated crystalline mounds of sodium chloride (table salt), plus calcite, gypsum, and borax (famously mined 1883-1889 with Twenty Mule Teams). Artist’s Drive was worth the short side trip to explore the colorful geologic formation of Artists Palette. More than 5 million years ago, multiple volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals which chemically altered into a colorful paint pot of elements (iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium).

We were delighted to photograph sunrise illuminating a tapestry of golden yellow striated landscape patterns at Zabriskie Point. Next, driving around to Golden Canyon Trailhead begins a great hiking loop uphill to Red Cathedral then back downhill via Gower Gulch (6 miles with 800 ft gain), our favorite walk in the park. Around lunchtime, I enjoyed photographing pioneer-era mining and transportation machines outdoors at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. In rising 90+ degree temperatures, we retreated into the nearby national park Visitor Center to absorb the excellent orientation film.

To escape increasing heat, we drove up Emigrant Canyon Road to 4100-foot Wildrose Campground, where faucets provided tasty drinking water. Helpful tip: dry air cools by 5 degrees Fahrenheit for about every 1000 feet ascended (or 3 degrees for wet air). Along the winding road, we luckily spotted some Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) with two lambs. Campground quiet was suddenly shattered with the loud hee-haw braying of an alpha donkey keeping his herd in line. Invasive burros (Equua asinus, often called donkeys) can be found throughout the backcountry in Death Valley. Originally descended from the African wild ass, burros were introduced to North America. These invasive, nonnative burro populations can grow quickly, damaging native vegetation and spring ecosystems, thereby hurting native wildlife such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Along the hike to Fall Canyon’s dry waterfall (6.7 miles with 1250 feet gain) were some feisty Zebra-tailed lizards (allisaurus draconoides), some creamy yellow flowers of the desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens or desert stingbush) clinging to shaded canyon walls, plus some intriguing rock patterns. But this experience paled in comparison to our previous day in glorious Golden Canyon; so for dramatic build-up one should hike Fall Canyon or other hikes first.

Near Stovepipe Wells, the first light of sunrise high-lit Mesquite Flat Dunes so dramatically as to impress my wife Carol, who previously hadn’t been attracted by dunes. Optionally take your shoes off and enjoy this inland wilderness beach. I love being the first in the morning to form footprints across a tall virgin dune. Most nights, the slate of footprints is wiped clean and wavy. Discover why Lawrence of Arabia was personally attracted to the desert, saying: “It’s clean.”

Just outside Death Valley (on the way to or from Tecopah and Las Vegas), you can camp overnight at Shoshone RV Park and swim in a developed hot springs pool. Thought extinct in the 1960s, Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis shoshone) were rediscovered in 1986 and protected by the land owner in nearby restored ponds. Found nowhere else on earth, Shoshone pupfish are unique to Shoshone Springs.

See also articles on each state: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah), California, and Texas.

USA: ARIZONA

Check out Tom Dempsey’s photographic portfolios of Arizona, USA. Galleries below include exceptional sights in Grand Canyon National Park; Havasu Canyon within Havasupai Indian Reservation; Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell; Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park; Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park; Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area; Chiricahua National Monument; Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson; and Superstition Wilderness near Phoenix. 

Arizona favorite images


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Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon began forming at least 5 to 17 million years ago and now exposes a geologic wonder, a column of well-defined rock layers dating back nearly two billion years at the base. While the Colorado Plateau was uplifted by tectonic forces, the Colorado River and tributaries carved Grand Canyon over a mile deep (6000 feet / 1800 meters), 277 miles (446 km) long and up to 18 miles (29 km) wide. In 1979, UNESCO honored Grand Canyon National Park as a World Heritage Site.


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Photos from Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, by Tom Dempsey, include: South Rim, Yavapai Point, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mojave Point, Pima Point, Grandview Point, Colorado River seen from Moran Point and Lipan Point, Bright Angel Trail, rider on horse train. A flying hummingbird feeds on Indian Paintbrush flower.

Havasu Canyon, Havasupai Indian Reservation

On the Havasupai Indian Reservation, Havasu Creek flows over Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls through Havasu Canyon, part of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. The beautiful color in the pools of Havasu Creek is caused by carbonate minerals settling to the bottom, turning it white, and acting as a reflector of the surrounding green and brown mossy cliffs plus the blue sky. This unique color combination creates a striking turquoise pool, and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world.

Havasupai (or Havasu ‘Baaja) means “people of the blue-green water,” and their people have tended fields in the Grand Canyon for at least 700 years. The Havasupai also lived at what is now called Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail in the main Grand Canyon, but they were evicted by the National Park Service in the 1920’s. Their brush shelters (wickiups) and gardens were destroyed at Indian Garden, leaving the Havasupai Tribe just 518 acres in Havasu Canyon. In the more enlightened year of 1975, fully 187,500 acres of canyon and rimland were returned to the tribe. As of 2005, about 450 of the tribe’s 650 members live in the village of Supai. As of this 1999 photo trip, Supai is the only town in the United States which still receives its mail by mule train.

Tom and Carol Dempsey in Havasu Canyon, April 1999: Having registered for camping permission from the Havasupai Tribe (external link) a few weeks in advance (as recommended), Carol and I parked our car in the dirt lot at Hualapai Hilltop and backpacked the 8-mile dusty trail downhill into Supai Village. About 25,000 tourists visit each year, so advance reservations are recommended. We checked in at the tribal office, then hiked 2 more miles to the campground, passing the wonderful Havasu Falls, one of the most surprising desert oasis experiences in the world. Impressive Mooney Falls was a short walk further downstream. To more fully experience the isolation of this desert oasis, walk to Supai instead of riding a horse or helicopter. But next time we’ll consider having the mule train carry our packs, to make the desert walk more comfortable. Thank you very much, Havasupai people, for sharing your very special canyon with visitors.

Helicopters carry in people and supplies, but the loud chop-chopping roar disturbed my appreciation of this beautiful natural setting. Out of nowhere, a porta-potty suddenly flew over our heads. Helicopters repeatedly flew full porta-potties, one at a time on a very long cable, out of the heavily-used campground, for disposal elsewhere. A composting toilet would seem to be a more cost effective solution. The densely-packed and worn campground in this narrow canyon would have benefited by further restricting the number of visitors per day.


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Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park

Flash floods in Southwest USA deserts have carved slot canyons into Navajo Sandstone creating astoundingly beautiful natural rock cathedrals. Drive to Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park east of Page on Highway 98 between mileposts 298 and 299 in Arizona, USA. Turn south to Upper Antelope Canyon toll booth and parking lot, which has a 4WD shuttle and guide to reach the slot entrance. Or turn north on Antelope Point Road (Navaho Route N22B) to Lower Antelope Canyon (or “the Corkscrew”) parking lot.


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Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Photos from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, in Utah and Arizona, include: Willow Creek Canyon, Broken Bow Arch, Llewellyn Gulch, petroglyphs of bighorn sheep chipped into desert varnish, pink cactus flower, frog held in hands, Bishop Canyon, LaGorce Arch. An Anasazi kiva (ceremonial room) was restored at Three Roof Ruin, on Escalante River Arm of Lake Powell.


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Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Don’t miss the spectacular sunset and sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. In 2018, I enjoyed rephotographing a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.



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Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, in Arizona & Utah

Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area overlaps both Arizona and Utah. Fossilized sand dunes have eroded wondrous striated formations into the Coyote Buttes such as “The Wave.” Over 190 million years, ancient sand dune layers calcified into rock and created “The Wave” in the northwest corner of Arizona near the Utah border. Iron oxides bled through this Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone to create the salmon color. Hematite and goethite added yellows, oranges, browns and purples. Over thousands of years, water cut through the ridge above and exposed a channel that was further scoured by windblown sand into the smooth curves that today look like ocean swells and waves. For the permit required to hike to “The Wave”, contact the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who limits access to protect this fragile geologic formation.


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Sonoran Desert Museum, Tucson

The Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, shows an impressive variety of live native wildlife and plants. A coati (member of the raccoon family, Procyonidae) climbs a tree. A handler presents a live Barn Owl. Pink cactus flowers bloom.


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Superstition Wilderness, near Phoenix

Hike to Weaver’s Needle, cactus, and jagged rock formations in Superstition Wilderness (“the Superstitions”), in Tonto National Forest, near Phoenix, Arizona, USA.


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Chiricahua National Monument

The Heart of the Rocks Loop Trail (7 to 9 miles) makes an excellent day hike through fascinating arrays of hoodoos in the far southeast corner of Arizona, in Chiricahua National Monument. 27 million years ago, huge volcanic eruptions laid down 2000 feet of ash and pumice which fused into rhyolitic tuff. This rock has eroded into fascinating hoodoos, spires, and balanced rocks which lie above the surrounding desert grasslands at elevations between 5100 and 7800 feet. At Chiricahua, the Sonoran desert meets the Chihuahuan desert, and the Rocky Mountains meet Mexico’s Sierra Madre, making one of the most biologically diverse areas in the northern hemisphere. Colorful cliffs of rhyolite (solidified volcanic ash layers) rise 2000 feet above white sycamore trees in Cave Creek Canyon, in Coronado National Forest, near Portal, Arizona.


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Southwest USA favorites from Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada


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See my neighboring state articles for Southwest USA (UtahColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Arizona) and Texas.

Recommended Arizona guidebooks from Amazon.com:

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USA: ARIZONA: Havasu Canyon, Falls, Supai

Beautiful Havasu Canyon flows into the Colorado River, and is part of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. River rafters can hike a long rough trail up to visit Supai, but the normal access is via an 8-mile dusty horse trail from a car park at Hualapai Hilltop (or via helicopter).

Havasupai (or Havasu ‘Baaja) means “people of the blue-green water,” and their people have tended fields in the Grand Canyon for at least 700 years. The Havasupai also lived at what is now called Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail in the main Grand Canyon, but they were evicted by the National Park Service in the 1920’s. Their brush shelters (wickiups) and gardens were destroyed at Indian Garden, leaving the Havasupai Tribe just 518 acres in Havasu Canyon. In 1975, a more the enlightened time, 187,500 acres of canyon and rimland were returned to the tribe. As of 2005, about 450 of the tribe’s 650 members live in the village of Supai. As of 1999, Supai is the only town in the United States which still receives its mail by mule train.

See also my separate Southwest USA articles: ArizonaUtah, and Nevada.

Tom and Carol Dempsey in Havasu Canyon, April 1999

Having registered for camping permission from the Havasupai Tribe (external link) a few weeks in advance (as recommended), Carol and I parked our car in the dirt lot at Hualapai Hilltop and backpacked the 8-mile dusty trail downhill into Supai Village. About 25,000 tourists visit each year, so advance reservations are recommended. We checked in at the tribal office, then hiked 2 more miles to the campground, passing the wonderful Havasu Falls, one of the most surprising desert oasis experiences in the world. Impressive Mooney Falls was a short walk further downstream. Thank you very much, Havasupai people, for sharing your very special canyon with visitors.

To more fully experience the isolation of this desert oasis, I strongly recommend walking to Supai, instead of riding a horse or helicopter. But next time we’ll consider having the mule train carry our packs, to make the desert walk more comfortable. Helicopters also carry in people and supplies, but the loud chop-chopping roar disturbed my appreciation of this beautiful natural setting. Out of nowhere, a porta-potty suddenly flew over our heads. Helicopters repeatedly flew full porta-potties, one at a time on a very long cable, out of the heavily-used campground, for disposal elsewhere. A composting toilet would seem to be a more cost effective solution. The densely-packed and worn campground in this narrow canyon would have benefited by further restricting the number of visitors per day.


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Recommended Arizona guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest Arizona travel books at Amazon.com (look for updates every 1-3 years):

2011: 2004: 2012:
2012: 2010:

USA: ARIZONA: Antelope Canyon Navajo Park

Photo Tips for Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Where:

  • Page, Arizona: Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are very easy to visit, great for both children and adults. Expect crowds. Drive there with your private car (or pay more for a tour booked from Page). Different Navajo families operate Upper and Lower Canyons, which explains the separate admission fees:
  • The Upper Canyon is an easy flat walk in sand. To get there, drive east of Page, Arizona on Highway 98 for several miles, to just before milepost 299. You will see an entrance booth for Upper Antelope Canyon on the right (south). Pay at the booth, park your car, and wait for the next 4WD shuttle & guide to take you to the slot entrance. In 2005, Navaho lands entry fee was $6 (good for one day only), plus $15 for the guided tour & ride to Upper Canyon.
  • Lower Antelope Canyon: Across the highway, to the north of Upper Canyon’s entrance station, you will see a sign marking the short road to Lower Antelope Canyon parking lot (Antelope Point Road, Navaho Route N22B). Pay at the office and walk along the marked trail, which descends into Lower Antelope Canyon on easy ladders and slanted sandstone. The Lower Canyon has less dust, fewer tourists, the best formations, and requires no guide, which allows you much more freedom & time to photograph. Walking straight through without stopping would take only half an hour, but the amazing cathedrals in stone should slow you down, awestruck. In 2006, Navaho lands entry fee was $6 (paid only once if seeing both canyons on the same day), plus Lower Canyon tour fee was $13.
  • Click here for the Navaho Nation’s official web site for “Antelope Canyon Navaho Tribal Park”.

When to go:

  • Entrance station open March-October 8:00am – 5:00pm (Mountain Standard Time year around, never Daylight Savings), charging fees.
  • Entrance Station is closed for the winter season (November – February) but Lower and Upper Antelope Canyon are both OPEN.
  • The canyons are subject to weather closures, especially in hot July-August which is dangerous flash flood season. In May-July (closer to summer solstice), the sun shines most directly into the slot canyons, for exciting light shafts.
  • Midweek is better than weekends, to avoid crowds.
  • Wait for a sunny day with the sun high overhead, best midday, during normal Canyon opening hours 9-5:00. Light quality will be very dull on a cloudy day, not as good for photography.
    • I shot my images on April 12-13, 2006.
    • I recommend 10am to 3pm, in April or October.
  • I recommend all day in each canyon (two days total) for serious photography. If you are sightseeing without a camera, you only need an hour or two in each canyon.
  • Your guide, required in the Upper Canyon, may let you linger for photography (which may cost a little more for extra hours). Large groups come through continuously in Upper Canyon. You must take shots quickly. Try to determine your shot settings at each spot before placing the tripod in the narrow path.
  • You have more freedom to photograph in the Lower Canyon, where no guide is required.


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Photographic techniques:

  • The best lighting is bounced indirect sunlight.
  • Avoid including directly sunlit rocks in the image. An exception to this is capturing a column of sunlight in the dusty air. To get the best shots of shafts of sunlight, shoot when the sun is highest in the sky around noon. Throw sand up into the light column and quickly shoot the falling sunlit dust & sand. If others are present, get their permission before tossing sand. Crowds may also stir up enough dust to brighten the rays of sunlight.
  • If you use film, expose for the brightest rock (but avoid including directly sunlit rocks in the image as described above).
  • Have fun! This is a fantastic place, despite the crowds of people. Smile and be friendly to everyone, and patiently let people pass by in the narrow slots.

Photo Equipment to Bring:

  • Bring a tripod, flashlight, jacket, snacks, & water. The crowds of people in the Upper Canyon will make use of a tripod more challenging than in the longer and lesser traveled Lower Canyon.
  • I recommend a digital camera over a film camera since you can immediately determine the exposure and appearance of images. Check your LCD frequently to confirm image quality. Fill your bell-shaped histogram with good shadow detail, without cutting off highlights. I don’t recommend changing lenses in these dusty canyons (keep your digital sensor clean with a hand-squeezed blower).
  • Using a wide angle such as 17-35mm on a DSLR (~27 to 52mm on 35mm-film cameras) is good. But a 24mm lens (in terms of 35mm-film) will be even more useful in these tight slot canyons.
  • You can widen your lens angle by stitching together multiple shots using software (such as my image on the right).
    • For stitching, take each shot overlapped by a third, with exactly the same focus, exposure and white balance (such as using Manual), using the DSLR at about 24mm (36mm in terms of 35mm-film cameras). Use 17mm if you have to, but stitching may not line up as well on the edges.
    • Least distortion for stitching is usually within the range of 35 to 50mm (in terms of 35mm-film cameras).
    • On a typical DSLR (with an APS-sized sensor with ~1.5x lens multiplier), 24mm is equivalent to a 36mm lens on a 35mm-film camera. (But if you have an expensive full-framed sensor, the lenses are the same size as for film). A DSLR 24mm lens (or longer) usually stitches better than 17mm.
    • Canon supplies a good panorama stitch program in their Zoombrowser program provided free with many of their digital cameras.
    • Adobe Photoshop CS3 greatly improves the Photomerge feature versus previous Photoshop versions.
  • Upper Canyon is darker: I shot exposures of about 0.5 to 2 seconds.
  • Lower Canyon is shallower, a little brighter, and has the most interesting rock formations: I shot exposures of about 0.2 to 1 second.

This article is in response to an email question from Larry 5/23/07:  “Any tips on photographing in antelope canyon. I have a Nikon D2x and wide angle lens 17-35mm.” In reply to my tips Larry said, “Thanks for the great information. I plan to be there on Saturday, but I will definitely go to the lower canyon. Not changing the lens with all the dust sounds like a good idea. I will let you know how it works out. Your photo enclosed is fantastic. – Larry”

See also my separate Southwest USA articles: Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.

Recommended Arizona guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest Arizona travel books at Amazon.com (look for updates every 1-3 years):

2011: 2004: 2012:
2012: 2010: