Photographing The High Desert of Northern Arizona

I had this trip planned to Arizona several months ago – and due to unforeseen circumstances, had to reschedule twice. The plan was to fly to Flagstaff, visit Petrified Forest National Park, and then head north to Page, where we would stay for several days.

High Desert around Page, Arizona

I remember visiting Petrified Forest National Park when I was in college – back in 1980-ish. The photo below is from that trip. My grandfather was with me. He had a tough time believing the rocks laying on the ground were once trees – but I’m not sure he ever believed people walked on the moon either. That was my grandfather. I miss him.

Petrified log at Petrified Forest National Park c. 1980 (Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.8 on Kodachrome 64)

For this trip, I’ll naturally take some digital photos, but I’ll also be shooting medium format with my Mamiya RB67 on Kodak Portra 160 film. I am anxious to compare the medium format images to some of my old 35mm images from long ago. The image above is actually very nice, and the colors of Kodachrome are very pleasing, and natural.

Below is a new image of the same log I photographed back in 1980. I wish I would have taken time to shoot from the exact same spot. I love deep blue skies, but actually think the clouds in my old photo look very nice.

Petrified log shot in 2021 with my RB67 on Portra 160 film.

Sharing about a trip to Northern Arizona is a huge undertaking. I mean, that’s a huge area to cover in a single blog post, so it will somehow need to be brief, sharing only the highlights of such a trip. We’ll see how I do.

And another thing. Because of our current pandemic, the Navajo Nation wasn’t completely open at the time of my travel. So, I wasn’t able to get to the best places to photograph. Antelope Canyon is one of the places I wanted to visit, but couldn’t. In Monument Valley, the iconic Left and Right Mittens were closed. So, even though I was disappointed, I did the best I could to photograph the things that I could.

We flew into Flagstaff and drove to Winslow for our first couple nights. I wanted to visit The Petrified Forest National Park the next morning, and then the following morning we would drive to Page. While in Winslow, we stayed at La Posada – a hotel that was designed by Mary Colter back in the 1930’s. At that time, people in the US commonly traveled long distances by train. This hotel (along with others) was designed, as part of the train station, to allow travelers to take a break. Traveling by train for several days can be very tedious. My wife loves history, and this was a treat for her to be able to see and learn more about Mary Colter and her work.

Close up of the tree they call “Old Faithful” because it’s been visited so much – like Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Digital image taken with my 5D Mark IV and 24-70mm f/2.8L lens.
The Desert View Watchtower is an interesting stop on the way to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Designed by Mary Colter and completed in 1932. This is shot with my RB67 on Portra 160 film. I actually like the colors from Portra film.

On our first day in Page, we drove to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. If you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon in person, I would highly recommend it. The north rim is much more remote, and harder to get to, but it’s (in my opinion) well worth the extra effort to visit. It’s much more natural. The south rim is nice, and that’s what most people see. It’s just more commercialized, and crowded. The north rim is over 8000 feet high. The south rim is around 6,800 feet high. From the north rim you can see the south rim of the canyon about 10 miles away. You can also see Humphrey’s Peak (snow capped for part of the year) near Flagstaff (50+ miles away).

While at the Grand Canyon, I took a short hike out to Bright Angel Point and took several photographs. We also drove to several other viewpoints along the canyon rim – and several of them were very natural, rugged and uncrowded – compared to what I was used to at the south rim. If you expect railings to block you from walking off the edge of the canyon, you will be surprised to find very few. Much less than at the south rim.

Along the trail to Bright Angel Point. Shot with my RB67 on Portra 160. I forgot my polarizer, but the skies were very blue even without it.

The next day we drove to Monument Valley – where the formations I wanted to photograph most were still off limits. The Navajo people have had a more difficult time with the pandemic, so they are still locked down somewhat and don’t want visitors yet. I completely understand, and will have to plan to travel back here at some point in the future to get photographs of the famous mittens and other formations on Navajo lands.

One thing I will say, regarding the formations in Monument Valley, they are much larger, than I imagined. I guess I know the mesas and buttes that make up Monument Valley, and much of the southwest for that matter, are big, but you just can’t grasp the immense size until you stand amongst them. Photographs can give an idea of shapes and colors, but size is very difficult to represent in a photograph. I would say this is also very apparent in the previous photos of the Grand Canyon. The immense size just cannot be represented well in a photograph – and the feeling you get when standing there in person cannot be duplicated.

While in Page, I visited Horseshoe Bend several times to capture the bend at different times of day, in different lighting. Horseshoe Bend is very interesting, and beautiful. It’s also a bit of a strenuous hike to get there and back. It’s about 3/4 of a mile each way, and it’s uphill on the return – so a bit harder. And the sun can be very intense, so I always carried my water bottle for that hike. There’s a small viewing area with a railing, and plenty of open area for hiking around the rim to find the perfect photo spot. If you suffer from any form of vertigo, or have a fear of heights, I wouldn’t suggest spending too much time walking around the rim of the canyon. It’s over 900 feet (300 meters) straight down.

I got several comments because I carried my RB67 on a tripod on all but one of my trips there. I saw one other person shooting film with a nice vintage Canon AE1. It’s fun when people recognize what I’m carrying. Part of the fun of film.

Horseshoe Bend shot on my RB67 with a polarizer on Kodak Portra 160 film. Seems a bit bright – but it was a bright day. The polarizer made the water, and the sky darker, which looks nice.

Towards the end of our trip, we drove up to Kanab, UT to see what it was like there. I was pleasantly surprised to find a very cool camera shop in town – that specializes in film photography and equipment. They have a great selection of all kinds of vintage equipment. If you’re ever in Kanab, UT, stop by and say hello.

I will admit, carrying the RB67 around, on a heavy duty tripod, is difficult. Satisfying, but heavy. After this trip, I will think a bit more before taking this camera on a trip again.

Arial view just south of Midland, Texas

Here’s an interesting tidbit. On our way back from Arizona, I took the photo above with my phone. Notice the white squares scattered throughout the image. Those (most) are oil wells. Below is a close up of one of the squares from Google Maps. Notice the silhouette of an oil well pump. It’s amazing how many wells are pumping oil in West Texas!

Close up of oil well in West Texas

I love the American Southwest – especially Arizona. If you ever have the chance to visit (I hope you can visit more than once) please come, enjoy, and take lots of photographs!