VISITING DEAD HORSE STATE PARK

Dead Horse Point State Park was my next stop on my “Mountain to Sea Photo Journey.”  A stop here allowed me to capture another beautiful Southwest gooseneck bend.  By the way, a gooseneck is not only a pipe or metal fitting; it is also a sinuous river canyon that resembles the curve of a goose’s neck.  Now that’s my kind of  “gooseneck.”  Plus, gooseneck bends in rivers convey the enormous force of water unlike anything else I have seen.

In preparation for the trip, I scoured the internet for photographs of the park and became giddy with excitement. To be sure I accounted for weather conditions, I allocated four days to photographing Dead Horse Point State Park.  As usual, things did not go as planned and had to leave after spending only one afternoon and one sunrise in the park.

Where is Dead Horse Point?

Dead Horse Point State Park is located just north of Moab, Utah and within miles of Canyonlands National Park. It’s name comes from activities in the past that I will not mention in this blog.
 

Photographing the Famous Dead Horse Point Gooseneck:

The road into Dead Horse Point State Park passes a few interesting vistas, especially at the visitor center.  The drive then continues to its conclusion at the famous Dead Horse Point Overlook gooseneck.  From here the main overlook is just a short walk.  

However, this is not the only location to photograph at the park. Depending on the time of day and sun location, there are a number of good canyon overlooks along trails that branch both to the left and right of the overlook.  

Although I was told that views from the west overlooks were good for late afternoon and sunset photography, my experience did not bear that to be true. Maybe it was the time of year but the light just never hit the best parts of the canyon.  In fact, I found better afternoon locations heading back towards the  Visitor Center. 

To illustrate my point, here is an image of the canyon overlook taken in the late afternoon light.  As you can tell, not only was I photographing into the sun but contrast was unmanageable and sunset did nothing for the landscape.  And yes, this image is on it’s way to the trash bin! 

I will definitely go back and photograph from all the overlooks again but will use my favorite app, Photopills to help with trip planning.  Check out the following post for how I use it to plan trips: Tips for Locating Great Places to Photograph

Morning at Dead Horse State Park

With the dawn of morning, a rare desert event approached Dead Horse Point State Park. Remnants of a hurricane began to arrive along with four to five days of steady rain. Sadly, I was advised to leave my campsite by afternoon since a nearby wash could likely flood the area. This morning would be my last trip to the park. 

Hopes of getting my bucket list shot of Dead Horse Point were fading fast. Despite the rapidly approaching storms, I drove to the overlook an hour before dawn and was initially the only one there.  A little later about 6 other photographers arrived.  In hindsight, it was a perfect morning as we had the place to ourselves. 

Even in the predawn hour, the light was amazing.  The dark storms clouds in the west and the partial sunrise in the east were starting to put on quite a show. Wow is the only word to describe the scene that morning.  It was actually one of the most exhilarating photographic mornings I have ever had.

View of the canyons of Dead Horse Point State Park.

As you can see from the above image, this is not a direct photo of the gooseneck.  The gooseneck is to the right in the background.  If I could have moved the storm clouds directly over the gooseneck, that would have been perfection.  But as most of you know, it is all about compromises when in the field. 

Sunrise?

In the above image you can barely see the light cloud to the left that is the sun.  That was as close to a sunrise as it was going to get that morning so I hesitate to call this a sunrise.  I had to place the sun in this unusual position so that I could capture the little bit of light on the gooseneck bend and also the dark storm clouds to the right.  I was shooting with a 17mm lens and the sky action covered every bit of the scene. By the way, I think I broke every composition rule that morning so please don’t report me to the “Rule of Third” police.

The Gooseneck

Lightening over Dead Horse Point

As you can tell from the above image, the sun illuminated only one side of the gooseneck. Again, if I had stood a little to the right in attempts to capture the entire gooseneck, I would have lost any light on the walls and also the lightening storms to the right. 

On the Way Out

The storms finally rolled in to the overlook sending everyone running to their cars.  But the show was not quite over.  On the way out, there was one pull off with interesting light on a formation so I took my last few shots before the storms caught up with me for good.

Camera Settings:

Small apertures were needed for most compositions at Dead Horse Point due to the expansive vistas. In fact, when I photograph this scene again, I will focus stack three images to improve depth of field. I did not focus stack that morning due to the fast moving storm clouds and the rush to capture the action.  Since the only thing moving in the above scenes was the clouds, I had a good bit of latitude in shutter speed settings. This flexibility enabled me to keep ISO settings lower to reduce any potential noise. 

Gear:

Lens: Lens from 17mm to 200mm are great here.  I did not find any need for a longer zoom than 200mm and mostly used the wide angle lens. In fact there were times I wished I had an even wide lens.
Tripod: Highly recommended and required for sunrise and sunsets.
Filters:  Both hard and soft stop ND filters come in handy at Dead Horse Point.  Also polarizer is necessary at certain times of the day.  I regret that I did not break out my 10 stop filter for a couple shots of the morning storms but there was not much time to play before the lightning and rains arrived.   
Other:  Remote shutter release and mirror lock up were used.

Summary:  

  • There are many amazing photographic potentials of the canyon area besides the gooseneck bend.  Although we all naturally want to capture the famous gooseneck bend overlook image, allow time to photograph a variety of canyon vistas, especially around the Visitor Center.  I did not get a chance to photograph other areas due to the storms so I can’t provide additional details.
  • Always show up – Get out and photograph approaching storms, even if it means you get rained on and/or never leave the car, just stay safe and avoid lightening. Plus what better way to be able to photograph a popular location without people than in a storm. I am sure those photographers who stayed in bed that morning regret not getting these images. 
  • Photographing gooseneck bends anywhere is difficult due to the deep shadows in the canyons.  The best times of day to photograph these deep canyons is at dawn and dusk as it is very hard to manage the light in the deep canyons during the day as my first image illustrates. 

Housekeeping:

Food and Gas:  There is no access to food or fuel at Dead Horse Point or nearby so be prepared to bring both food and water with you and arrive with a full tank of gas.
Lodging:  There is a very nice state park campground within the park and I highly recommend reservations.  There are motels and other campgrounds about 30 minutes away in Moab.  Also just outside the park boundaries are other camping options that include fee campgrounds and BLM land.
Cell:  No cell signal with Verizon except at the Visitor Center where I had one bar of service.

Thanks as always for reading my blog posts and I will see you next week at a new Road Trip Friday destination in the Southwest.

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