The Beauty of the Navajo Nation and Environs

Last September I was in a motorcycle accident that left me with a shattered clavicle and three broken ribs. A titanium plate in my shoulder and three months in a sling later, I was finally able to slowly begin to return to my normal routine. However, the site of the clavicle break happened to be exactly where the strap of a backpack goes so that seriously limited my travel movements. I had originally been planning a trip to Machu Picchu but given my physical condition, unable to hike with a heavy pack, that was totally out of the question.

So for winter walkabout this year I went out to LA for a week to catch up with some friends and continue to explore neighborhoods for my long gestating, probably never going to happen dream of moving out there. I’ve always wanted to properly explore the lands of the Navajo Nation and the adjacent National Parks in northern AZ/southern UT so this seemed like an opportune time as it’s a reasonable drive from Los Angeles.

After packing up from the militant vegan AirBnB compound I was staying at in Echo Park (complete with round the clock cannabis puffing crew and skate park in the backyard), grabbed a rental car at LAX, spent 4 hours in cross town traffic, and then finally got on the road proper to Phoenix. Had originally shot for getting there around 5p, ended up being about 1a. That sucked.

Next day, drove north to Page, AZ, enjoying the views of the varied landscape and National Parks along the way. As well as the hitchhiking meth addled, Mad Max style desert road warriors. There are a lot of scary ass people roaming around the AZ backcountry! Getting shived then buried in the desert was not how I was planning on this trip going down.

As usual, had only a vague itinerary in mind but with about a week to kill could cover quite a bit of ground. Decided on Monument Valley, The Antelope Canyons and all the other beautiful nature in and around Page, and then Zion and Bryce National Parks. Was going to try and cram in Grand Escalante as well before it’s ruined by mineral mining (thanks a lot Trump, you world class prick) but ran out of time.

Did some research and figured out the best way (and in some cases the only way) to do some of these sites are with local Navajo guides. After getting such a raw deal since the very first Europeans showed up and eventually being sequestered to these stunningly beautiful but resource sparse lands, I was more than happy to pay them for their services and grateful for the opportunity to hear their stories and learn more about this proud and ancient people. Of the many tribal groups in the United States, the Navajo Nation has by far the largest reservation at nearly 28,000 sq. miles, spreading out across four adjacent states; and is the most populous with 350,000 people, many of whom speak the Navajo tongue as their first language.

First up, Monument Valley. Going in with a local guide gives you access to the “back country,” where tourists aren’t allowed to go as there are many private residences along with a lot of beautiful rock formations you can’t see otherwise. I went with Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours (found on for a late afternoon into nighttime tour of the the valley followed by traditional Navajo song, dance, and food. Met my super cool guide John at about 3p and and wrapped up around 10. There were other people who had booked the same tour but apparently got lost in the desert so I was lucky to get a private tour which meant more time to get better shots. Was a couple hundred bucks but worth every penny.

Monument Valley, first view you see upon entrance. The three most famous mesas, or buttes technically which are just small mesas—West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, and Merrick Butte. It only get betters from here.

The famous John Ford’s Point. Had to wait about 10 minutes for the tourists to clear. If there’s one thing I will not abide, it’s people in my nature photos.

My excellent guide, John, looking like a baller beneath the Sun’s Eye. There are several giant holes in the rock face like this throughout the valley, each with its own story and significance in traditional Navajo Animism.

The Ear of the Wind. Inaccessible without a Navajo guide.

A small Navajo settlement in the valley. There are several hundred people who’s ancestral homes are here and still dwell among the sandstone, mostly subsisting off what they make from selling traditional crafts to visitors. I bought sone beautiful silver and topaz jewelry for my Mom and sisters.

Traditional Navajo hogan house.

Inside the hogan, a woman works on traditional crafts while her child chills out on what looked like a comfy sheep skin.

Massive rock formation called the Big Hogan. A natural amphitheater and supposedly spectacular during flash floods as it creates an ephemeral waterfall. It’s at least 100 feet from the ground up to that hole.

Ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock face of the Big Hogan.

Can’t recall the name of this formation. But it’s cool!

The iconic Three Sisters.

The landscapes across the American Southwest are truly otherworldly. Such a special part of the country.

The sun sets behind the Three Sisters.

Jamie, one of my guides, wearing traditional costume for dance. John was on the drum and chant. Which was awesome.

They cooked up some Navajo tacos that were out of this world. Traditional fry bread, covered in steak, chili con carne, and your basic Tex-Mex taco toppings. F-n delicious.

Love making new friends on the road.

Next was Antelope Canyon, both on Navajo land and also privately owned. First thing you need to know is there is an upper and lower canyon and they are completely different in every way. Both are literally overrun with stampedes of tourists. If you want good shots, you can only get them in the Upper Canyon by paying for the photographer’s pass. I used this company The canyon is very dark and the only way to get the kinds of shots you see below are with 15-20 second exposures. My guide was excellent and good at controlling the crowds and keeping people out of our shots. He also mentioned that they might not be doing these photo tours much longer because they’re very disruptive to the other tourists who they herd through like cattle as fast as they can, thus can make more money. So sadly, if you want to shoot there properly, go sooner rather than later.

Inside Lower Antelope Canyon, first main chamber. To give you a sense of how I got these shots, first you must use a remote trigger and a sturdy tripod obviously. Prepare your gear well in advance because once you’re in, you won’t have time to futz with it. Wide lenses are really the only useful lens inside and they won’t let you carry in a photo bag so choose wisely. All these shots were captured on a Leica 21mm Elmarit and Sony A7R II. Long exposures, generally 15-20 seconds, deep stop, I like f/11 on this lens, and low ISO 100-320 depending. I’m very pleased with these images.

Upper Antelope Canyon.

Upper Antelope Canyon.

Upper Antelope Canyon.

Upper Antelope Canyon, in the wintertime, if you can get there as the sun is going down, you can get some truly magnificent shots.

The next day I hit up the Lower Canyon which was a completely different experience. First, because it’s so narrow, there are no photo tours because there simply isn’t room to put a tripod down. It is quite a bit brighter than the Upper but still tricky to get good shots. I didn’t bother to even bring in my big camera so instead took my Fujifilm XF10 which is a small APS-C f/2.8 fixed lens 28mm equivalent that I’ve been enjoying very much. It’s great for street work because it’s small and discrete, lens is a good size, autofocus is very responsive, and more resolution and less noise than the similar Ricoh GR II. Got some decent shots but sometimes it’s not about that. It’s more fun to just put the camera away and take it all in. Lower Antelope Canyon is definitely one of those places. There are several tour operators there. I don’t think there’s much difference. I went with Dixie’s.

Lower Antelope Canyon.

Lower Antelope Canyon.

Lower Antelope Canyon.

Lower Antelope Canyon.

A few hours to the north into southern Utah are Zion and Bryce National Parks. Zion in particular is magnificent with tons of great hiking trails. You could easily spend a week in there, camping and trekking. Park entrance fee at both is $30 and they take card.

Zion National Park. The scale and grandeur of these mountains have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Zion National Park.

Zion National Park.

Zion National Park.

After spending the morning hiking in Zion I did the 90 minute drive to Bryce for late afternoon walking and to catch the sunset/moonrise over the Amphitheater. Though I think it’s better to spend at least a day in each park, if you get up early and have a well planned schedule, it is possible to do both in one day.

These interesting sand stone formations are called hoodoos and are the result of thousands of years of wind and water erosion, much like the mesas in Monument Valley.

Sun setting over the Amphitheater. I went down and explored a bit but you can easily spend days hiking around the hoodoos.

Moonrise over the Bryce Amphitheater. It was bloody freezing!

My last couple days in Page I just chilled out, did some local hikes, ate huevos rancheros and Navajo tacos, and made several attempts to get to Horseshoe Bend on my own before giving up and hiring a horse guide. Again, a serendipitous move. Parking is extremely limited and I tried to drive over twice and was unable to get into the lot. There were people parking along side the highway. And also getting towed! This led me to the horse tour ( which turned out to be way better because riding horses is fun and the guide took me to a much less crowded vista. Confirms one of my “Truths of Travel”—you get exactly what you pay for. Pay a little more and you will most often be pleasantly rewarded.

Deserts are always best explored on quadrupeds.

The horse guide’s (nice guy, don’t recall his name) dog, Lucy. Super friendly and inquisitive, she followed some other hikers and disappeared never to be seen again. I asked the guide about her and he very nonchalantly said, “She knows her way home.”

Horseshoe Bend. If you get vertigo easily, stay away from the edge because it’s a long drop down and every year at least of handful of poor souls lose their footing and that’s the end of them. If you want the best shots here it’s actually mid day to avoid half the feature being emerged in shadow, sunset, or long exposures in the middle of the night.

Beautiful colors of the slowly meandering Colorado river.

Page, AZ is a great jumping off point for all the surrounding natural beauty but this small town simply does not have the tourist infrastructure to accommodate the literal hordes of visitors. I went on the off season and it was still nuts. Hotels totally booked up. People everywhere. I can’t imagine the high season. Whenever I think of high season in heavily touristed areas I think of the boat traffic jam in the underwater caves outside Phuket, Thailand where, unable to dislodge, several hundred people spent an hour in a dark cave while Thai boat guides tried to untangle their mess. I’d imagine Page in the spring to be about that same. That’s when the magical light beam comes through in the Upper Canyon that Chinese Buddhists believe if they stand in, they will get a favorable rebirth. Yep.

Lifted from Google Images. No credit available.

Lifted from Google Images. No credit available.

Also, this is coming along. For a guy who’s been only concerned with images for screens for the past 15 years, the learning curve for high quality photo printing has been steep. But figuring it out and soon will be able to offer this print up to 24x36’ on a variety of paper stocks, even canvas or metal. More image choices soon.