(Originally Published 23 Feb 2013)
I’ve wanted to visit Horseshoe Bend for a long time. It’s a section of the Colorado River that does a 270 degree turn, forming the shape of a horseshoe in the rock. There is a 1000 foot drop to the river bed below the ledge of plateau and the layered canyon walls are basically shear cliffs. It has been photographed many times, and been featured in movies and magazines. While in Kanab, I found out that this natural feature was only about 70 miles away, so I decided to make the trip. I got side tracked a few days, opting out because of bad weather one day and wanting to look around town for a tripod another. Finally I decided to really go and that day I stocked up on snacks and headed out after completing my morning chores. The drive was pleasant, the rolling hills and sand stone cliffs faded from red to tan as I neared Lake Powell. When I arrived at Page, I turned south on Highway 89 to find the turnoff to Horseshoe bend. Right outside of town, I found the route blocked by detour signs and officers flagging people to exit the highway and turn back into town. I pulled over a short ways away and checked my phone to find an alternate route, not knowing why the road was blocked. There wasn’t one within a hundred miles so it looked like I would have to wait out the detour.
Disappointed, I drove back through town and decided to check out one of the many rest spots on the shores of Lake Powell. I chose the Glen Canyon Dam, which stops up water to create the reservoir of Lake Powell and provide electricity to the area. I parked in a gravel parking lot near the lake edge and began to wander around the red and tan rock formations that make up the former lake bed (in times of high water) of Lake Powell. I could see everywhere people had been carving their initials and names into the rock for many years. I found the rock formations very interesting. The sandstone seemed to undulate in waves, just like the blue waters further down the shore. There were also rounded and smooth rocks that did not belong to the area, most likely carried there by the river over the millennia, or deposited eons ago by some glacier that has long since melted away. Their varied colors and smooth texture served as a nice contrast to the rough gritty sandstone.
There was a cool wind that came through the canyon, chilled by the waters below and by the shadows cast by the high clouds. Through the clouds the sun peaked out, bathing an area in light and warmth. I spent a couple hours exploring and snapping pictures in the area, finally walking back to my car, fingers frozen. I turned back towards Page and decided to see if the blocks had been removed. Maybe it was just a temporary detour! As I rounded the corner of the highway and the stretch of road between Page and Flagstaff became visible, I saw the flashing lights of the police cruisers and sighed. I decided to try one last time, after lunch.
I stopped at a place called the Dam Bar and Grill. The inside has tall ceilings stretching up 30 or more feet, and the far wall is one large cement and sandstone facade replica of the Glen Canyon Dam! Hanging and sitting in various areas are old wooden boats and other water craft items highlighting the theme of a large water way. After eating lunch, a tasty chicken sandwich, I asked my server about the road closure. She explained, showing me a picture on her phone, that a long section of the road south of town had collapsed during the early morning. Just sloughed off, ten feet or so by the pictures. I expressed my disappointment, as I had been wanting to see Horseshoe Bend. “Oh thats no problem, its well before the road gave out” She said, “Just tell the officers at the roadblock and they should let you through!”
Well this was good news! I headed back to my car and set off towards the detour signs once more. As I pulled up I rolled a window down and let the officer that approached know where I was heading, and he said that would be fine! Success! I rounded the barricades and sped off towards the turn out.
I pulled into the parking lot, and started up the trail. It was a wide sandy trail littered with shoe prints of every size and tread. A sign at the trailhead had some useful information such as the length of the trail being ¾ of a mile, and uneven in areas. It also informed me that the cliffs around the bend itself were over 1000 ft in some places, and suggested NOT falling off them was the safest bet. Check.
I have to admit, I was totally unprepared for this trip to the bend. I had my camera, yes but not the lens I should have had, or a tripod. I had some food and drinks but that was inconsequential on a short stint between towns as this trip was. Most of all I wasn’t prepared to have my breath literally taken away. As I stepped up to the edge of the cliff, and the two river sections met in front and below me in a perfect round horseshoe shape, I let out a long breath and didn’t bother to let in back in for quite some time. I just sat there staring. I had my hand on the grip of my camera at my side, but didn’t even remember it was there for at least 2 or 3 minutes. I stood taking in the canyon walls, the water, the quiet.
I have lived in Alaska for over 20 years. I have seen wild animals closer than I would care in some cases, I have seen more amazing sun rises and sets than you can imagine. I have developed pictures from all over the world and none of it prepared me for that feeling in my chest as the gorge opened up in front of me. A tightness that told me I would remember this sight till my last day. That something epic was in front of me.
I finally snapped out of it and started surveying the scene. I raised my camera and discovered that my lens was not wide enough to capture the whole scene as I wanted, just shy of it. I took several pictures anyway, trying a few angles and iterations, looking at the various areas in front of me. I also took a series of shots in a row, holding myself perfectly still and level, so that I could digitally stitch them together later. The result was something that I enjoy, and I hope you do as well (see the facebook page or back on the website>pictures).
After snapping enough pictures, most of which I took as near the edge of the rocks as I could get, I sat down cross legged and just gazed again at the formation. I spent a good half hour sitting there at the cliffs edge, oblivion inches away. I sat listening to the wind and the chatter of the other visitors. The water below flowed silently, too far away for the rushing sound to reach my ears. The clouds were puffy white cotton swabs in the sky, drifting southward aimlessly in the wind. After sitting quietly for a spell, I took a few more pictures, including a silly self shot with my phone, to prove I’d been there. I then turned and headed back towards the parking lot. I would stop and looked back, then took a picture here and there as I retraced my steps. I almost didn’t want to leave, the cliff seemed to be calling me back. Once I made it the car, I stood at the open drivers door for a minute debating running back up to have another look. I decided that I had gotten the shots I’d come for and needed to be moving on. I thanked the officers at the roadblock and turned onto the north route back towards Kanab.
As I drove the 70 miles back, I thought back to the days before, how I had let small things deter me from making the trip. The weather wasn’t perfect, I wanted to find a tripod first, how the road closure had nearly made me turn back from the trip. I was reminded of my personal tenant of photography, my number one rule: To be in the right place at the right time. It’s impossible to know when and where both are going to be, at least in nature photography, as there is an inherent randomness to it, but I was reminded that you have try. You may fail, but you can’t succeed if you don’t try! Sometimes it takes forcing yourself out of your comfort zone to be able to see and do amazing things, and that is what I am doing now, in my adventure around the world. It’s that motivation, motivating ourselves that can seem to be the most daunting task, and it’s something I am working on myself. It turns out it’s usually ourselves that need the most work.