I fit just enough time in my Arizona trip for an overnight stay at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. I had never visited the South Rim before, and wanted to take the opportunity to scout some locations in the hopes of returning some day. I found out the hard way that it is nearly impossible to scout the South Rim in such a short period of time.
The Grand Canyon runs roughly east-to-west, with some twists and turns here and there. This means that in order to capture the light at the correct angle in the morning or evening, each location will have a preferred time of year to photograph. The sun does not always set in the west or rise in the east. Depending on the time of year, it may rise in the northeast or the southeast, and set in the northwest or southwest. This will in turn change the angle of the sun vis-à-vis the intended subject. In the Grand Canyon, this is complicated by the steep canyon walls. Thus, in order to get that glorious reddish first light on a subject, you need to be at the right location at the right time of year in order to have the sun rise at the right location to where it will shine down into the canyon at first light.
Based on recommendations by a photographer who had been to the South Rim many times, I selected the Desert View pullout for sunset and Yavapai Point for sunrise. Unfortunately, neither provided the result I was looking for. I think this is perhaps because the photographer said these were good locations for winter, but had not considered how much the sun angle changes as the seasons transition through spring and into summer. While they were great for shots looking directly into the sun for sunset or sunrise, neither provided the light on the subject that I sought. For Desert View, by the time the sun started to produce the warm, reddish hues that make evening light magical, most of the subject was in shadow. For sunrise, at first light, there was only a tiny sliver of light that shone on the subject. But, about twenty minutes after sunrise, there was plenty of light washing across the scene at Yavapai Point; it simply was not the magical first light that photographers get up early to see and capture.
But, the visit to the Grand Canyon did bring with it a couple of other lessons. First, I will never, EVER, visit the park in the summer. There were already too many people visiting there for my taste, and it was only early April. When I drove into the park at 5:00 a.m., one of the entrance gates was already staffed. I cheerily greeted the park ranger at the gate, and joked, “Wow, this is the earliest staffed park gate I have ever seen.” When he did not respond, I queried, “So, how early do you staff the gate?” When I thought I had misheard his rather perplexing response, I asked him to repeat it: “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” Wow, I thought. Do I really want to visit a park that is so paranoid about getting all of its entrance fees out of its millions of visitors that they are secretive about when they staff the gates? But I think that photographically, the dead of winter might be more interesting, as well. I always find that snow adds a great contrasting element, especially with the red colors of the rock and the blue of the sky. I have found this to be true during my visits to Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter.
Second, I learned that the thing that we treasure the Grand Canyon for – its visual beauty – is being seriously undermined by pollution, primarily from southern California. While I am accustomed to seeing some hazy landscapes in the summer in Alaska, that is from our frequent forest fires. It is not a constant state of being. But the Grand Canyon is constantly inundated with pollution, with some days being worse than others. I think I was there on a good day, based on some of the photos they had on display at the Yavapai Point Geology Center.
These images and more are available in my Newest Images gallery.