Drinking In Utah

Lower Antelope Canyon
Lower Antelope Canyon Olympus E-M10MarkII,14mm,ISO800,F14.0,1.6sec

Utah is like a Michelin-starred restaurant with a wine list hundreds of entries long. Do you prefer red—the colour of its predominant terroir begging to be hiked, biked or climbed? Or perhaps a white—boating, kayaking or rafting through rivers and canyon streams? Or sparkling—catching a waterfall in perfect light? Even after planning for six months, we knew it was too complicated – we needed help.

In a frantic search of the Internet only days before departing, we discovered Backcountry Journeys had a six-day hiking and photography tour scheduled for the next week. I called, but the trip had been cancelled. But within minutes, Russ Norstrand, a professional photographer and guide, called us back—if we could change our dates a bit, he would lead us on a private tour! Russ became our sommelier.

In this post, we’ll touch on the highlights, just the label on the bottle. In subsequent posts, we’ll share our tasting notes.

Our preference was to sample sites yet to be overrun, but balanced with a few of the well-known stars. “Russ, what do you recommend?”

We had a few days before our guided trip and had identified Wire Pass as a good hike. He suggested we start in Page, Arizona, to see Lower Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend as well. The drive alone was worth it. From California, we followed Interstate 40, the old Route 66. Little traffic, few transport trucks, and scenery stretching to the horizons.

Click on any of the photos to see larger images with captions.

Our first photo session with Russ was Calf Creek at Escalante National Monument. After a five km hike up a canyon, the goal was to photograph the Lower Falls in full sun – and then, after a lunch of chili soup and grilled cheese sandwiches cooked beside the creek, to re-photograph the falls in shade. That evening we were rewarded with an inventive dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, and stayed for the next two nights at the wonderful Slot Canyons Inn in Escalante.

On day two, it was great to be a passenger in the BMW (Big Mormon Wagon, actually Suburban) as we drove to the trailhead for Dry Fork, Spooky and Peek-a-boo Gulch. After 42 km of washboard, there was another three km of “road” with ruts that were the embryos of future canyons. We finished the day in Devil’s Garden, running to catch Metate Arch at sunset, after initially giving up that the clouds wouldn’t budge and let the light peek through.

Days three and four were spent on rosé—photographing the pinks, reds and whites of Bryce Canyon at sunset and sunrise, and hiking through her maze of hoodoos during the day. A highlight was photographing Thor’s hammer at night lit only by the stars (and a small hiking headlamp!).

We continued on to the red-rocked Zion, and were shuttled with the hordes of other tourists to Weeping Wall, Emerald Pools and Angel’s Landing. Many hikes in Zion, even in April, are so crowded that an allotment system may be required.

Angel’s Landing is a razor blade of rock thrust 450 metres into the air. Walking its ridge, sometimes on all fours, while gripping its safety chain was intimidating; being passed by six-year olds, humbling. Zion Narrows was closed because of high run-off, so Russ led us to another canyon, where with neoprene socks and water shoes we waded through the numbing water. Without the crowds, we were able to practice capturing the water in motion and sparkling waterfall.

Our six days with Russ were a feast, with hiking and photo pairings professionally chosen. We started each day before 6 a.m. to catch the soft light at sunrise and didn’t return until after sunset and dinner.

At Russ’s suggestion, we detoured through Moab on our way home. We got to re-drive Interstate 32, chosen as one of the ten most beautiful drives in the world and, according to one source, second only to a road in New Zealand. In Moab, our favourite hike was the Devil’s Garden Loop in Arches National Park, followed by the Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail. Moab is an outdoor adventure town with hiking, mountain biking, off-road vehicles, kayaking and rafting and filled with very fit young adults.

Will we be going back? Yes. Utah has some of the most spectacular scenery we have seen and it is so nearby. We’d love to explore further off-road, so are window-shopping for a used 4WD. But being realistic, we’ll likely rent an off-road Jeep Wrangler from one of the many firms in Moab. Who knew Utah had so many varietals to choose from!


Check out the all-inclusive photography tours and workshops offered by Backcountry Journeys. Russ Norstrand  is a professional photography instructor/tour guide/driver/lunch cook/and hiker.

12 Responses

  1. Utah has been on my “To Do” list for a long time and your artical just reinforces the relivence of that choice.
    Your photography has captured the essence of the area in spades, I expect your guide had some influence in the choices and this is again sublime, I admit, in surprise to see Spice come to the forefront with the spectacular “flow” shot, whow.
    I recently watched a National Geographic presentation on Utah and your writing and pictures are on the same level, superb.

    1. Yes, Russ deserves most of the credit for my shot. Hard to tell where it ended up in the contest, as Wildland Trekking has taken the info down. Last I saw I was #12.

  2. Incredibly gorgeous! Thanks so much for sharing. It would be tempting to fill the walls with such photos. Bet you have some more great memories too. Did you find out about the geomorphological processes?

    1. Russ, our guide from Backcountry Journeys, was very knowledgeable about the geology of southern Utah, pointing out similar sandstone units as we traveled from Escalante thru Bryce and onto Zion. Uplifting, combined with water and wind erosion have created extraordinary features that continue to evolve, sometimes rapidly in geologic time in areas such as Bryce Canyon.
      Of more immediate concern to us was that deep slot canyons can be especially dangerous to hikers as they may be flooded by a storm that occurs on a mesa miles away, sweeps through the canyon, and makes it difficult to climb up and out of the way to avoid the flood. We kept an eye out for regional weather forecasts, and our hike in the Narrows at Zion was canceled because of high water flow caused by some rain combined with a rapid snow melt.

  3. Gloria , what fantastic pictures .Thank you for sharing .The colors so powerful .Sorprendenti in Italian .Grazie j

    1. With the naked eye, the canyons are dark and obscure, but with a tripod and long shutter time, the colours can be vibrant. We didn’t add any post-processing to the Antelope Canyon pictures. Brandon, our Navajo guide in the canyon, shared a secret – if you’re shooting pictures with an iPhone, use the built-in Chrome filter and increase the exposure – you’ll get somewhat similar results.

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