Capturing fall in Coyote Gulch

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Nov. 5.

Variations of the photo above have probably been captured more times than any one spot in the entire Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And for good reason. Together the ribbons of water, the tarnish on the cliff and the colorful leaves of fall have all the elements of a dream photograph. But each time I return home and begin editing, my mind starts spinning and I think, “I could have done more. Maybe if I moved an inch to the left I could have made the composition more balanced… Moved back and given the tree more breathing room… Opened the shutter for another 2 seconds…”.

This last trip through Coyote Gulch I thought I nailed it. I composed three different angles, shot my favorite 2-second exposure length, and as I said before, I had the brilliant color of the tree. How could anything possibly go wrong?

Well, technically speaking, nothing did go wrong. It’s just… well, this location is just too damn perfect! And the thing with photography is it’s all about perfection. You see a shot, think about it, plan it and then execute it. Sure, there’s lots of shooting-on-the-fly that goes on, but I can guarantee more than 80 percent of all the magical shots that you see in Outdoor Photographer have been thoroughly thought out. Now I’m not saying that every last detail has to be sussed out in order for a shot to be made – of course with photography, adaptability is key – but keeping a watchful eye on the weather, knowing the time of year the colors change, etc. can greatly improve your odds of making that once-in-a-lifetime shot. And doing it again and again and again.

The shot above is far from a once-in-a-lifetime shot, but it has all the elements of a solid image – great lines, smooth motion and amazing color! Now I didn’t necessarily pre-visualize this shot, but I did make a conscious decision to go into Coyote Gulch when the colors were changing.

Although I have absolutely no qualms with backpacking alone, I still prefer to explore with friends. And that’s when Coyote popped up. I had two choices; either take Shane, James, Jacqui and Will rappelling into the Egypt slots and explore Llewellyn Canyon, or head into Coyote Gulch where I knew the colors would be firing! Because none of these four had ever been to Escalante before, I decided to go with the “color-firing” trip instead of the 300-foot-rappel trip.

I have been in Coyote Gulch five times – the first time was when I was 10 – but it has only been the last two times that I have been through the canyon as a professional photographer. The first time I shot the falls above was in the middle of the day. There was a harsh highlight on the right flank that I had to avoid and being the impatient, fledgling photojournalist that I was, I only gave it my 2-minute best go. But when I came home and started editing, I immediately regretted my haste. The image by many standards was “gorgeous,” but by mine, it was far from perfect!

Going back again, this time with the knowledge of the mistakes made before, I planned ahead. I knew the colors were going to be golden and I had the low light of late fall and evening going for me too. I just knew it all the elements were aligning. All I had to do was press the shutter and wait…

The Journey

 

James and Will above The Crack.
James and Will above The Crack.

 

Shane in The Crack.
Shane in The Crack.

James and Shane lower the packs before entering the "squeeze."
James and Shane lower the packs before entering the tightest part of the crack.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

After the crack, we descended the snow-like sand to Coyote Gulch, just upstream from the Escalante River confluence.
After the crack, we descended the snow-like sand to Coyote Gulch, just upstream from the Escalante River confluence.

 

James and Will work their way downstream toward the Coyote Gulch and Escalante River confluence.
James and Will work their way downstream toward the Coyote Gulch and Escalante River confluence.
Shane heads upstream through the throngs of color.
Shane heads upstream through the throngs of color.

 

The first of many waterfalls in Coyote Gulch.
The first of many waterfalls in Coyote Gulch.

 

Coyote Gulch, shot from the bench parallel to Jug Handle Arch.
Coyote Gulch, shot from the bench parallel to Jug Handle Arch.

 

Jug Handle Arch, Coyote Gulch, Escalante.
Jug Handle Arch, Coyote Gulch, Escalante.

 

Our first night's camp with Jug Handle Arch in the background.
Our first night’s camp with Jug Handle Arch in the background.

 

Shane and James work on coffee and breakfast.
Shane and James work on coffee and breakfast.

 

Shane.
Shane.
James.
James.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Jacqui.
Jacqui.
Will
Will.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Moki steps leading out of the canyon.
Moki steps leading out of the canyon.

 

Will leads Shane up the Moki steps on our way out of the canyon.
Will leads Shane up the Moki steps on our way out of the canyon.

 

Shane (far right) tops out.
Shane (far right) tops out.

 

James and Shane wedge themselves back down the crack with the Moki steps.
James and Shane wedge themselves back down the crack with the Moki steps.

 

Coyote Gulch Natural Bridge.
Coyote Gulch Natural Bridge.
A lone Cottonwood in Coyote Gulch.
A lone Cottonwood tree in Coyote Gulch.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The corner before the narrows and mini-waterfalls.
James and Shane check out a massive rincon.

 

Shane alone on a ribbon of color.
Shane alone on a ribbon of color.
The start of the narrows.
The start of the narrows.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A late-eve stroll over Jacob Hamblin Arch.
A late-eve stroll over Jacob Hamblin Arch.

 

Coyote Gulch with Jacob Hamblin Arch to the right.
Coyote Gulch with Jacob Hamblin Arch to the right.

 

Jacob Hamblin Arch, Escalante, Utah.
Jacob Hamblin Arch, Escalante, Utah.

 

Jacqui crosses the Rabbit brush flats on our way back to the truck.
Jacqui crosses the Rabbit brush flats on our way back to the truck.

 

Wait, wait... Group photo!
Yes, the obligatory group photo!

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