Winter has settled in across northern Arizona with snow covering the ground and ice in the canyons. This is a beautiful time of the year for photography if you do not mind being cold while finding that special location.
We hiked up the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon on a well-traveled but snow-packed and icy trail. Some sort of boot traction (e.g., YakTrax, Kahtoola) would have been useful but with care and an easy pace we were able to move about without any difficulties. The water level in the creek was about normal making for fairly easy stream crossings. And there are quite a few.
The afternoon sun bouncing off the high canyon walls and then reflected in the water created the right setup for photographs and all that was needed was some interesting ice to complement the scene. We found plenty.
This is a moderately high-walled canyon and very little direct sun shines down on the canyon floor so that it remains quite chilly even in the afternoon. As long as we kept moving we stayed warm. Stop to take a picture — and get cold.
Slide Rock State Park is a great place to visit. The water from Oak Creek becomes channeled as it flows through multiple layers of sandstone resulting in some deep and narrow pools of water. On a hot summer day the area is filled with people swimming and having a grand time.
If you arrive here early in the morning you can catch some beautiful light reflecting off the high sandstone cliffs onto the water below.
Earlier this year I had an opportunity to take part in a photo workshop at this location. After that summer workshop I was determined to return in the winter and capture some images with snow on the sandstone. Snow isn’t rare in this location — it’s at an elevation of around 5000 feet, after all. But snow doesn’t last long at these elevations in Arizona, either.
A recent series of snow storms put snow on the ground at elevations even lower than Slide Rock so this was a great opportunity. I left Flagstaff before sunrise and the temperature was a very cold 0°F at an elevation of 7000 feet. By the time I had descended down Oak Creek Canyon to 5000 feet the temperature had warmed to a balmier 19°F. To make it even more uncomfortable, there was a down-canyon wind blowing to bring on some wind chill.
Still, I was determined to try.
The lighting was very challenging as the upper canyon walls began to light up with the rising sun. The normally red rocks were brilliant with snow and it was all too easy to overexpose the upper portions of the canyon walls while being underexposed within the Slide Rock area.
Rather than try to capture “everything” it was more reasonable to focus on the water, rocks and snow that were all still in the deep shadows of the canyon.
As the sun rose higher and the shadows disappeared other photographers arrived. Perhaps they knew better than I that the best light was after the sun was higher in the sky. Or, perhaps just as likely, they weren’t willing to photograph in well below freezing temperatures. Either way, I had the area to myself for over an hour of shooting and I had a great time.
It’s been an interesting spring as the La Niña conditions of this past winter continue to abate. One of the characteristics of this diminishing pattern has been for low pressure systems to drop southeastward from the eastern Pacific and west coast and then across the southwestern states. Springtime low pressure systems routinely move across the southwest and bring strong winds to Arizona and these systems have been quite normal in that respect, that is, it’s been very windy.
But they have also brought the core of the low pressure system farther south than is typical and across Arizona. The result has been a combination of below normal temperatures and above normal rain along with snow in the higher elevations.
We had three days of snow last week — but only trace amounts fell across the area — and now we are having a real bona fide snow event. A few inches of snow have accumulated at elevations above 7000 feet.
Will this be the final event of this winter-like spring? Or will we see snow again? The record books show that snow isn’t rare in May at these elevations — and snow in June has happened on a number of occasions, too.
We’re all looking forward to spring finally arriving before the calendar says summer.
A powerful winter storm moved across Arizona in the last week of the year with substantial snow falling in the high country and even some snow flurries in the desert. In West Fork Oak Creek about 8-12 inches of snow fell in the canyon followed by very cold temperatures. The result was spectacular. Snow was draped across all the trees and even clung to the massive sandstone walls of the canyon. Water dripping down some of the rock walls fell and froze on whatever lay beneath creating some amazing ice art.
Not too far south of Flagstaff lies Pumphouse Wash, a beautiful and narrow canyon that cuts through the Kaibab limestone and Coconino sandstone. The canyon drains from the upper elevations of the Mogollon Rim into the headwaters of Oak Creek. Most of the time Pumphouse Wash is dry with occasional pools but it can run very full during the spring snow melt and after heavy summer thunderstorms.
Shortly after a light snowfall in late November I took a walk up the wash hoping for some interesting photographic possibilities with snow and ice. I wasn’t disappointed. The first image shows a small pothole scoured by the erosive actions of the occasional flood waters. It was filled nearly to the brim with rain and snow melt, perfectly blended with leaves and pine needles, and then frozen in time.
Elsewhere in the canyon a sycamore tree had shed its leaves among the boulders of the wash and upon these leaves some snow was still in place.
Although it was a sunny day in northern Arizona very little of that sun was able to penetrate into the confined narrows of Pumphouse Wash. And I had the canyon to myself that day.