Lightning, rainbows, and clouds across northern Arizona

July has turned out to be a good month for photographing weather across northern Arizona. For a few days in the middle of the month I was able to capture images of lightning, rainbows, and colorful clouds at sunset near Sedona and the Grand Canyon.

The conditions on 13 July 2015 were about perfect for late afternoon photography. Deep moisture was present across the eastern half of Arizona while very dry air persisted across the west. This allowed storms to form over the eastern half of the state while clear skies allowed the setting sun to shine brightly on the landscape near Sedona.

Visible satellite image showing clouds across eastern Arizona and clear skies across western Arizona.
Visible satellite image showing clouds across eastern Arizona and clear skies across western Arizona.

Cathedral Rock was nicely illuminated by the setting sun and shafts of rain caught the sunset colors. A faint rainbow was also present adding an additional dimension to the scene.

Lightning flashes behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning flashes behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning and a partial rainbow frame Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning and a partial rainbow frame Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

After the sun set, I repositioned so that I could catch twilight colors in the western sky and lightning from additional storms. In the background can be seen the highly textured shape of the Cockscomb.

Lightning splits the sky behind the Cockscomb in Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning splits the sky behind the Cockscomb in Sedona, Arizona.

The next day proved to be difficult for lightning photographs but the sunset colors on the clouds over Cathedral Rock were very dramatic.

The setting sun lights up the anvil of a thunderstorm behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
The setting sun lights up the anvil of a thunderstorm behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

Sensing a need for a different location, I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon a few days later (16 July) hoping to get some lightning photos over the canyon. The atmosphere had stabilized some and storms were much weaker and very little lightning was observed.

Visible satellite image showing a decrease in storm activity compared to previous days.
Visible satellite image showing a decrease in storm activity compared to previous days.

Consolation prize was a partial rainbow over the Canyon.

A partial rainbow over the Grand Canyon.
A partial rainbow over the Grand Canyon.

A very nice consolation photo, indeed!

Milky Way Rises over Cathedral Rock in Sedona

With a very clear night and the moon rise not expected for several hours, I set up the iOptron SkyTracker to capture images of the Milky Way and Cathedral Rock in Sedona. The star image was 4 minutes in length and shot at ISO 1600. The SkyTracker works well enough that the stars still appear as points with this long-exposure image.  A second image was then taken using the same exposure settings but with the tracker turned off in order to get a sharp foreground.

The Milky Way rises above Cathedral Rock in Sedona.
The Milky Way rises above Cathedral Rock in Sedona.

Taking the images was easy. So was the post processing. It turned out that combining and blending the two images was harder than I thought.  But the result was worth it.

Walking Through Zion Narrows

Zion Narrows: It’s a trip we have thought about for several years. So when a friend indicated she wanted to do the Narrows this spring, we agreed to join her and plan a trip.

There are two different ways to hike Zion Narrows. The easiest and the one done by probably 99%+ of visitors to Zion National Park is to walk upstream from the Temple of Sinawava—the last stop on the summer shuttle bus. The other is much harder and is a full-day commitment. It requires a long drive to the upper end of the canyon followed by a 16-mile hike down through the canyon. Wading through water is required most of the way—and a few swims are also possible.

The full-day trip requires a permit. We decided that early June would be the best time because water levels have diminished from the high water of spring, water temperatures have slowly increased, days are long and hot, and the summer thunderstorm season has not started. This last point is an important one because this is not a good place to be if it begins to rain hard. Flash floods are possible and there are sections of the walk where no high ground is possible.

So we obtained a reservation for our permit—to be picked up the day before the hike.

But something strange happened to the weather this spring. Instead of the normally hot and dry months of May and June, we had rain and cool temperatures. And then there were the unseasonably strong and early hurricanes in the eastern Pacific this year. Hurricane Blanca, in particular, caused problems because it sent a substantial surge of tropical moisture northward. So what should have been a warm and dry June became a cool and wet June.
A Flash Flood Watch was issued for several days across southwestern Utah because conditions suggested that floods were possible. We declined the permit. Instead, we went hiking and did the Observation Point Trail.

The many switchbacks of Observation Point Trail.
The many switchbacks of Observation Point Trail.
Looking down on Angels Landing from Observation Point.
Looking down on Angels Landing from Observation Point.
Near the top of Observation Point.
Near the top of Observation Point.
Slot canyon along the Observation Point Trail.
Slot canyon along the Observation Point Trail.

The next day, we decided to do the out-and-back version of Zion Narrows since this required far less time and commitment and provided some safety escape routes. At the beginning of the trail the Park Service had posted a sign indicating that a Flash Flood Watch was in effect and that flooding was possible. This didn’t seem to deter the folks intent on hiking up the river. I wonder how many of these visitors actually understood the situation? I certainly did. We would minimize the risk by starting and ending early before thunderstorms developed and we would minimize how far upstream we would travel so that we could stay in the wider and—hopefully—safer stretches of the canyon.

The beginning of the Zion river walk.
The beginning of the Zion river walk.
The walls close in on the river...
The walls close in on the river…
...and a small rock and sand beach appears alongside the river.
…and a small rock and sand beach appears alongside the river.
Deeper into the canyon...
Deeper into the canyon…

And so we set off under mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures. The water was cool but we had brought along neoprene socks and these did a fine job keeping our feet warm. After a few miles, we reached Orderville Canyon, a fine side canyon to explore. The water was shallower here with far less current making for easier travel. Until, that is, we reached some of the deep pools that required some swimming. So—we swam. Not too much farther upstream we were blocked from easy travel. We might have been able to bypass the rocks and logs at this point but with the weather situation looming we were content to let this be our turn-around point.

The beginning stretch of Orderville Canyon.
The beginning stretch of Orderville Canyon.
Around this bend was our first deep water and swim.
Around this bend was our first deep water and swim.
The return trip down Orderville Canyon.
The return trip down Orderville Canyon.

And, sure enough, on the way back, it began to rain. Not much, not long, but enough to be glad we were heading back downstream.

Flood gage for the Paria River.
Flood gage for the Paria River.

Oh, one more thing. While no flash floods occurred in Zion National Park that day, a large flash flood did occur not too far away along the Paria River, another popular canyon hike. Water levels rose from 8 cubic feet per second (cfs) to over 1000 cfs in less than an hour.

A couple of rafts floating down the river

While returning to Flagstaff from a quick trip the other day, we stopped for a few minutes at the Navajo bridge across the Colorado River near Lee’s Ferry. Lee’s Ferry is the launch location for boat trips down the Colorado River through Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon. These rafts had probably launched within the hour and were beginning a multi-day trip down the river.

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Heavy rains in recent days had deposited a large load of silt into the Paria River—which empties into the Colorado River just below the boat launch site. Stream flow increased from a baseline of about 8 cfs (cubic feet per second) to around 1000 cfs.

Stream flow on the Paria River near Lee's Ferry.
Stream flow on the Paria River near Lee’s Ferry.

These boaters may have been hoping for clear water for the initial portion of their river trip—but did not get it.

 

An attempt at car trails

The other day I had a chance to shoot with another photographer—and the subject was car trails. Now, I’ve done star trails many times before but I’ve done car trails only once and that was in the thick fog at the Grand Canyon.

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Okay, let’s give it a try. So we set up along the side of a major highway with construction warning lights in the evening twilight. Is this starting to sound like a bad idea? Well, it all worked out well and no cameras were harmed in the process but standing that close to the road you begin to realize how many drivers aren’t really paying attention to anything but their phone.

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This image is filled with blue light that was the result of a law enforcement vehicle traveling by with its lights flashing.

Oh, and the day after I shot these images I learned from another blog that car trails are a cliché. See, for example, Item #7 from this list.

Wait! I don’t think there are that many car trails with blue flashing lights in them. Does this mean this photo breaks away from the cliché? Maybe. Probably not.