Lightning over Wupatki National Monument

Lightning at Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

It was only a few days ago that I photographed an evening barrage of lightning over the San Francisco Peaks and the Cinder Hills. Those photographs were taken from Wupatki National Monument—right at the entrance pullout off of Highway 89. And, now I found myself in this same location shooting lighting from an early afternoon series of thunderstorms—except looking in the other direction across vast grasslands.

Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wupatki National Monument.

The most amazing lightning strike of the day occurred before I had set up the gear. The bolt landed miles away from the storm in a sunny area. This was a classic “bolt from the blue” and would have surprised anyone in that location. The radar image below shows the bolt landing a fair distance from the storm.

Lightning continued in this direction for more than an hour. As the storms would move to the northeast newer storms would develop north of the San Francisco Peaks and move over Wupatki National Monument.

Lightning at Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning at Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Storms move to the distant northeast at sunset.
Storms move to the distant northeast at sunset.

After shooting at this location for awhile I decided to reposition to Wukoki Pueblo with hopes that lightning to the north would continue and I could get photographs with lightning and the pueblo. I was not disappointed.

24-hour lightning plot ending 1000 MST 12 September 2021.
24-hour lightning plot ending 1000 MST 12 September 2021.
Radar with lightning overlay for 1304 MST 11 September 2021.
Radar with lightning overlay for 1304 MST 11 September 2021.

Again, storms would move to the northeast and then be replaced by new storms from the southwest. This went on for several hours. The lightning plot below shows how many lightning strikes there were in this region during the afternoon.

I had hoped that thunderstorms and lightning would continue through sunset and twilight but it was not to be. Eventually, newer storms stopped developing and the other storms moved far to the northeast.

Lightning over the San Francisco Peaks

The data and models suggested there would be convection from the San Francisco Peaks northward to Grand Canyon and into far northwestern Arizona. At best, however, these would be weak storms and would probably dissipate by late afternoon. With that in mind, I headed to the south rim of Grand Canyon. And the models were right about both the location and weak character of the storms. After shooting for a short time I left well before sunset.

Sunset at Wupatki...before the lightning.
Sunset at Wupatki…before the lightning.

As I was leaving, radar data showed a strong storm well to the southeast of Flagstaff. Leaving Grand Canyon National Park, I was able to see the storm in the distance and hoped I might get a few good photos at sunset. I stopped at Wupatki National Monument to take a few photos just as the sun was dropping behind the hills to the west. A moment later, I saw a flash of lightning. Then another…and another. These flashes were almost 40 miles away but were clearly visible.

Lighting composite taken over a 3-minute period
Lighting composite taken over a 3-minute period
Lighting composite taken over a 3-minute period
Lighting composite taken over a 3-minute period
8-second single exposure.
8-second single exposure.
Lightning composite taken over a 4-minute period.
Lightning composite taken over a 4-minute period.
Lightning composite.
Lightning composite.

I spent the next 90 minutes shooting lightning photos from this spot. The storm was moving towards me and the lightning bolts were getting closer, larger and brighter. There were lots of cloud-to-ground strokes with multiple branches and leaders lighting up the sky. Because these lightning bolts were south of the San Francisco Peaks and the Cinder Hills, there are no photos showing the bolts in contact with the ground.

24-hour lightning map.
24-hour lightning map.

Above is a plot of 24-hour lightning ending the morning of 10 September 2021. There are two distinct clusters of lightning around the San Francisco Peaks. The cluster to the northwest occurred during the afternoon. Many of these were visible from the South Rim of Grand Canyon. The cluster to the southeast of the San Francisco Peaks occurred during twilight.

And what of the time spent at Grand Canyon? Yeah, this is what I saw.

Weak showers at Grand Canyon.
Weak showers at Grand Canyon.
Some mammatus.
Some mammatus.

Glad I left early and caught the second act.

Lightning and Reflections

We have been in a “monsoon break” in northern Arizona for a week or so, but there can still be some convection during these periods. A few days ago, some isolated showers and thunderstorms developed to the north of the San Francisco Peak in the late afternoon and early evening.

Lightning reflected in the ponds of the Kachina Wetlands.
Lightning reflected in the ponds of the Kachina Wetlands.
Lightning reflected in the ponds of the Kachina Wetlands.
Lightning reflected in the ponds of the Kachina Wetlands.

This was a good opportunity to capture images of thunderstorms and lightning with reflections in the ponds of the Kachina Wetlands.

Radar image of storms north of the San Francisco Peaks.
Radar image of storms north of the San Francisco Peaks.

Above is an image showing the thunderstorms and lightning north of the peaks.

One more thing: the mosquitos were pretty intense—but it was worth it.

Sunset Convection and Lightning

It was a pleasant evening in Sedona watching thunderstorms as the sun sank lower in the western sky. It was mostly clear in that direction allowing sunlight to illuminate storms in the east. This is one of my favorite setups: clear in the west and stormy in the east.

Early evening sunlight illuminates thunderstorms and Cathedral Rock in Sedona.
Early evening sunlight illuminates thunderstorms and Cathedral Rock in Sedona.
Early evening sunlight illuminates thunderstorms.
Early evening sunlight illuminates thunderstorms.
Lightning from a distant storm after sunset.
Lightning from a distant storm after sunset.
Lightning from a distant storm after sunset.
Lightning from a distant storm after sunset.

The setting sun produced wonderful pastel colors on the clouds and occasionally illuminated the rock spires and buttresses in the middle distance. And after sunset, distant storms showed large anvils along with occasional bolts of lightning.