Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a journalist and photographer based in Port Jervis, NY and Alexandria, Va.

Filtering by Tag: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park: The Apotheosis of Canyon Country

The Colorado Plateau — redrock canyon country, that is — is replete with national parks and monuments: Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Cedar Breaks, Chaco Culture, Arches, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, Glen Canyon, and many more. Most are destinations unto themselves. But my experience is a bit different with Capitol Reef. Back in 2006, when a backpack into Dark Canyon looked like it would be rained out (don't get stuck in the rain at the Sundance Trailhead with a Toyota Corolla), my friends and I spent a night backpacking in Capitol Reef. In 2010, when the heat at the place we were camping beneath the Henry Mountains climbed to 103 degrees, Jacob and I moved to Capitol Reef where things were only slightly cooler. Last month, when my friends and I were annoyed that our chosen camping spots were either packed with people, full of blowing dust or were frenetic with screaming kids, we spent the next two days in Capitol Reef, the alternative we head to when our original plans fall through.

But Capitol Reef deserves more than that. One of the lesser visited national parks in Utah, it has all the accommodations people unprepared for backcountry travel need: easy trails, green grass, locally-made ice cream and root beer and other stuff tourists like, except that nearly the entire park, much to its credit, is out of Facebook and cell phone range. Most of Capitol Reef is far out of reach of casual tourists, and that's why the park rocks. "The Land of Tilted Rocks" is a slanted redrock badland riddled with slots and grottoes, arches and narrows, and, of course, Cathedral Vallley, a remote icon of the park I have yet to visit. It's a 100 mile-long spear-shaped park that encapsulates all the greatest things about canyon country. One of my favorite protected places in Utah, Capitol Reef is unique among the national parks: In the summer, visitors can pick fresh fruit from the peach, apricot, cherry, pear and apple trees planted by the Mormon settlers more than a century ago.



Image of the Day: Stars Above Cohab Canyon

I'm still working out my technique on by-the-seat-of-the-pants astrophotography, as seen here from my attempt last week at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. My friends and I were camped at the Capitol Reef campground, which sits below the mouth of Cohab Canyon. Capitol Reef has one of the darkest night skies in southern Utah, and we had a new moon, which is the perfect combination for stargazing. The cliffs are lit only by the ambient light in the campground. This is what it looks like before the sun goes down:

I set up my tripod behind the picnic table, aimed above the park's scenic drive, which was just below the frame and over the fence from the campsite, and opened the shutter for 25 minutes, hoping the occasional breeze wasn't enough to blur the image. One problem with the camera I used here is that it takes longer to transfer data and write the image to the CF card than it does to take the image. So, a 25 minute shot becomes a 50 minute shot. I'm using a high-speed 16 GB card in my Canon 50D, and I'm a bit perplexed as to why the process takes so frustratingly long. Oftentimes, I'll shoot an image, and by the time the camera is done transferring the data, I'm either too tired or too frozen to spend another hour taking a single image.

On this trip, a friend of mine brought along an ancient Canon Rebel XT that he was borrowing from a friend. The camera used a cheap CF card, and when I took an image with a 30 minute exposure, I was shocked that the data transfer process was instantaneous despite the large RAW file size.

The next night, I decided to do an hour-long exposure on my camera and then go to bed after I closed the shutter so it could write to the card while I was sleeping. This is what I got:

It's a little blurrier, probably thanks to my low-end-ish Manfrotto tripod and a bit of a breeze. Look closely, though, and you'll see the image is full of dead pixels and grain despite shooting at the same ISO as the top image:

Incidentally, I discovered that nearly every image I took on this trip was marred by several "stuck" pixels, an errant bright red, white, green or black pixel. I think I found a fix for that, and I'm hoping I solved the above problem, too.

I also brought along my 35mm film camera on the trip, too, and the same evening I shot a similar night sky image using Fuji Provia 400X slide film. It'll probably take me a year to go through the roll, so we'll see how this shot turns out then.

10 minutes in the not-quite ghost town of Thompson Springs, Utah

If you've ever driven I-70 from Colorado to Moab, Utah, you've been by Thompson Springs. It's the exit with the Shell station just before the U.S. 191-Moab interchange. If you get off the interstate there, you'll discover a dusty little town long ago bypassed by the freeway now existing as a forlorn reminder of slightly more prosperous days in this lonely quarter of Utah. U.S. 6 & 50, which once formed the main drag through town, now follows the interstate, but the old highway remains in the middle of town, crumbling with age.

Thompson Springs is still hanging on as a settlement (barely), but the derelict old cafe and motels that surely served as a stopping point on the way from Salt Lake to Denver back in the day have become works of art unto themselves, thanks to some creative graffiti artists and, in the office of the Thompson Motel, a massive pile of tumbleweeds.

A week ago, on our way from Capitol Reef to Grand Junction, my somewhat perplexed friends ("How did you learn about this place?" "Why would you ever want to stop here?" they said.) and I pulled off the freeway in Thompson Springs for a 10 minute look around town.

Greeted by Ghosts in Horseshoe Canyon

Some look like aliens. Others look screaming phantoms. One, called the Holy Ghost, looks like a crowned king. Last weekend, my friends and I finally visited the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon after many years of putting the trip on the calendar and either getting rained out (the road is impassible when extremely wet) or snowed out.

Perhaps 3,000 years old, the pictographs that compose the 200 foot wide Great Gallery embue Horseshoe Canyon with a sense of history nearly unparalelled anywhere north of the Mexican border. Visiting the canyon is an incredible experience as long as you bring an appreciation of history along with you on the hike.

Several things to know about Horseshoe Canyon: It's way the hell far from everywhere and 32 miles from the nearest asphalt. It has signs of possibly more than 11,000 years of human habitation (and visitation). It was once called Barrier Canyon, and its pictographs are some of the most extraordinary examples of their kind anywhere. It was Aaron Ralston's escape route after he cut off his arm in Blue John Canyon, which spills into Horseshoe. It's a satellite unit of Canyonlands National Park. And, its rim is inexplicably within cell phone and Facebook range, likely because it's within a long-distance view of Green River, Utah. Its position strategically within Facebook is much to the region's discredit, which means it's not nearly as remote as it seems. But that's another issue.

The hike is short, about seven miles round trip. It's sandy, so if you go, be prepared to hike  uphill on sand on an old oil and gas exploration road and at the sandy bottom of a wash.

Potash Road: Easy Access to Extraordinary

Chances are, if you've ever been to Moab, Utah, you've encountered Potash Road, Utah Highway 279. It's an extraordinary highway running long the Colorado River west of Moab, a ribbon of redrock-flanked chipseal popular with climbers who scale the sheer cliffs above the road. The road ends at a potash mine below Canyonlands National Park.

I spent a couple hours last Sunday morning killing time before meeting friends in Grand Junction before heading home. It's easy to kill time here.

Oh, those silly photographers

Of all the places in the world where the setting sun is knock-you-on-your-ass spectacular, Delicate Arch at Arches National Park is really near the top of that list. And everybody knows it.

So, one summer about six years ago when I trekked out to Delicate Arch to get my own sunset shot at the height of the tourist season, I joined a gaggle of 10 other photographers gathered at the top of the bowl below the arch, each shooter wielding a massive digital SLR camera decked out with a lens about a foot long and four inches in diameter.

Tourists, few of whom spoke English, swarmed the place, each taking turns rushing up to the famous arch to have someone snap a photo of them smiling beneath one of the most iconic natural features in the West. The crowd began to clear out as golden hour — the hour before sunset or after sunrise when the light on the red rocks of canyon country is most brilliant — approached, but as the pros rushed to their cameras to snap the perfect light, a few straggling tourists took advantage of the best moment of the day to have some one-on-one time with Delicate Arch.

“Hey lady!” one photog yelled across the bowl. “Get out the way! Get out of our shot!”

The woman and her kids stayed put, smiling for a quick snapshot and traded places and cameras with another couple.

“We said get out of the way!” another pro yelled. “You’re ruining our shot!”

“We have a right to be here, too,” one of the women snapped back, her words echoing off the sandstone.

Golden hour came and went, and she and some other tourists stayed beneath the arch until the sun had dipped beneath canyons to the west. Perhaps in spite of the idiots behind the big lenses, perhaps just because it was beautiful. The pros, fuming and cursing, opened and closed their shutters with the tourists in every frame.

I remained silent through the whole thing, but when photographers’ egos and sense of possessiveness over public lands begin to match the size of their $5,000 lenses, I get just as pissed as the woman commanded to get out of the shot.

This morning, I decided to get my own shot of another million-dollar scene at Arches, the famous sunrise shot of one of the Windows framing Turret Arch in the distance. I drove out to the Windows at 6 a.m. and, shivering in the 25 degree air, set up my camera (using an 17-85mm kit lens, mind you) at the optimum spot, where I met a retired guy named Mike from Salt Lake who’d taken the weekend to shoot arches and sandstone, apparently as an excuse to get away from his wife.

As he teetered on a ledge, we chatted about cameras and near-death experiences while on photo expeditions and why we haul heavy cameras into remote places.

“It’s addictive,” he said.

“And you come back with a great story to tell of how you got the image you shot, even if the photo isn’t any good,” I said.

Finally, the sun peeked above the La Sal Mountains behind us and began to light up the Windows like a firestorm, and right at the perfect moment, a lone tourist appeared at the base of Window, staring into the sun and occupying both of our frames.

“If you were a real photographer, you’d ask her to move,” Mike said.

“Are you kidding?” I said.

“They always get in the way,” he said, clearly debating with himself whether he should ask her to move.

He didn’t.

Hardly a minute later, the tourist disappeared.

The one fail-safe method for capturing spectacular images un-decorated with the unwashed masses: Shoot pretty pictures where the unwashed masses don't go. If you're going to complain, why not use your camera to make the case for another of the park's arches to become iconic?

People come from all over the world to visit Arches and all our other national parks to see all the famous places the parks are iconic for. This morning could have been that tourist’s once chance in a lifetime to see the Windows at sunrise. I can come to Arches nearly any long weekend I choose to get the shot I want. People should be encouraged to visit these places on their public lands at the most spectacular times of day. These are their parks. When people are unjustly shooed away by photographers angry that stray tourists are going to mar their image that somehow represents some faux sense of wildness (Arches isn’t truly unsullied by mankind, is it?), the moment for which tourists most value a national park may very likely be remembered only for an encounter with the arrogance of a gaggle of egomaniacal photographers who deserve whatever remorse they feel about losing a money-generating image in one of the most beautiful places in America.

The joke is on the complaining idiot with his finger on the shutter release button.

My latest in Popular Mechanics: Is Tar Sands Development Coming to Utah?

U.S. Tar Sands? Canadian Company Seeks to Drill in Utah

Extracting oil sands, or tar sands, is big business in Canada. But there are a few deposits here in the Western U.S. too, and now the Canadian experts are looking to get at them.

The United States’ largest source of oil imports is not the Middle East, but rather Canada: The Athabasca oil sands underlying a huge swath of northern Alberta, containing perhaps 175 billion barrels of oil, have been a steady—and controversial—source of liquid fuel. Extracting it is a dirty business, and a recent plan to escalate development by building a pipeline through the Midwest inspired thousands of people to throng the White House. But while Canada is home to most of the world’s oil sands, the United States can claim an area rich in oil sands, too. A small Calgary-based company, U.S. Oil Sands,, wants to extract the oil from sands found in Eastern Utah.

Read more: U.S. Tar Sands? Canadian Company Seeks to Drill in Utah - Popular Mechanics

Dinosaur gets its Quarry back

Back in 2006, I wrote a six-part series for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel about the budgetary and environmental plight of the region's six national parks and monuments managed by the National Park Service. In my story about Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado border and encompasses the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers, I reported that among the monument's myriad challenges was that the park was dealing with the closure of its famous Quarry Visitor Center and the exhibit hall surrounding the Dinosaur Quarry itself. The buildings were in danger of collapsing because of the shifting soils underneath the structures' foundations. Read that story here.

As of this week, Dinosaur has its quarry back. It took five years, but the National Park Service's shiny new visitor center has reopened, with the Dinosaur Quarry to follow next week. I visited the original quarry pavilion and visitor center shortly before the NPS closed it because of the possibility of imminent collapse, and it clearly needed renovation. But the ultimate loss of the original visitor center meant the loss of another fine (and rather famous) example of the National Park Service's Mission 66 program.

The Mission 66 program was the Eisenhauer-era initiative by the U.S. Department of Interior to breathe new life into the infrastructure of the nation's NPS sites, which by the mid-1950s was fairly dilapidated. If mid-century institutional architecture is your thing, check out the NPS' history of the Mission 66 program here.

Dinosaur's old visitor center was completed in 1958 and quickly became the symbol of the feds' Mission 66 program — a brick and concrete ultramodern edifice placed smack in the middle of a wild desert landscape. The visitor center is just a small part of the modern history of Dinosaur National Monument, which has a fairly prominent place in the history of water in the West: David Brower and the Sierra Club made it their crusade to save the monument's famous Echo Park from being dammed as part of the Upper Colorado River Project, which eventually flooded Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon and the Gunnison River in western Colorado.

Interstate 70: America's greatest freeway journey

Living on Colorado's Front Range, when anyone mentions Interstate 70, two things come to mind: A seemingly endless traffic jam through one of America's finest mountain landscapes between Denver and Vail, and a seemingly endless slog across the mind numbingly boring Great Plains between Denver and Kansas City. In Colorado, we have to strategically time our descent from the mountains on I-70 on a Sunday to avoid the post-4 p.m. exodus from the ski slopes and ensuing mountain traffic nightmare on the way back to the Denver metro in the winter. In the summer, we strategize our descents from the peaks and our exit from Breckenridge bars at happy hour to avoid the afternoon and evening traffic jam that ensues as tens of thousands of weekend mountain warriors clog the highest freeway in America on their way back to the 'burbs. Various solutions to this weekend ritual have been proposed, all of them far in the future and exorbitantly expensive. All too often, it seems, the thought of I-70 around here evokes more handwringing than feelings of well-earned escape and wonderment at the snowy peaks beneath which the freeway threads.

But it's easy to forget that I-70 continues west into Utah through a landscape utterly alien and just as breathtakingly spectacular as anything you'll see driving through Vail or Frisco. A few decades ago, UDOT blasted (at great environmental cost, no doubt) I-70 through the San Rafael Swell and San Rafael Reef west of Green River, Utah and northwest of Canyonlands and Arches national parks. It's a hell of a drive through 100 miles of America's Outback free of gas stations and services of any kind. It's also free of traffic jams and boring views, something you'll appreciate if you're long-hauling it west to, say, Las Vegas from Kansas City.

This western end of I-70 is part of what I think is probably the most spectacular stretch of freeway in the Interstate Highway System: I-70 between Denver and the freeway's end at Interstate 15 near Cove Fort, Utah.

As I continued reorganizing my photo archives today, I found a series of snapshots of I-70 through the San Rafael Swell I took in July 2007 on the way back to Grand Junction (a stunning landscape unto itself if you appreciate deserts as I do) from Great Basin National Park in Nevada. My friend Clinton came up from Texas, and we spent a weekend in one of America's least-visited and under-appreciated national parks. On the way back, as he was driving, I shot the scenery as we traversed the Swell on I-70 in his pickup. The images, most shot at midday at 80 mph, hardly do the landscape justice, but here's a look:

No access to I-70: Where old highways are bypassed by freeways, relics remain

Before there were "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" signs at the state line, state borders were marked with concrete obelisks. I'd love to know how many still exist on long-abandoned highways on the fringes of the state. You'll find very few along modern border crossings, as you'll see if you visit my project, "Welcome to Colorful Colorado: 40 Views from the Border."

One of the most prominent state line obelisks is west of Grand Junction on the Utah line. Old U.S. Highway 6 & 50 splits away from Interstate 70 at Mack and runs roughly parallel, but a mile or two to the north of the freeway as a mostly unpaved county road. Before the interstate was constructed, this was the main highway route between Grand Junction and Salt Lake City.

Seen mainly by the few residents living nearby, ranchers and oil and gas well servicing trucks, the state line marker obelisk along Old US 6 & 50 marks Utah on one side and Colorado on the other. The marker has been defaced by bullets, graffiti and the ravages of time. It's anybody's guess how long the marker will remain there.

Here's more of what you might find along Old 6 & 50 west of Mack, Colorado:

Anatomy of an Image: Delicate Reflection

Delicate Arch is Utah's most iconic natural landform and, almost without a doubt, its most photographed. I have a gazillion Delicate Arch images stashed away, most of them similar to what you'll see in countless other photo galleries and tourist brochures. I've visited Arches National Park more than 50 times, and it's one of my favorite places in the world.

I took a week-long photographic expedition to Utah and western Colorado in March 2010, and I thought I'd really timed the trip badly because most of eastern Utah canyon country was under two feet of snow. But Delicate Arch wasn't buried under snow. The slickrock around it was, however, sopping wet with meltwater, and that allowed me to luck into the perfect photography scenario for Delicate Arch.

I've been trying for years to capture Delicate in the perfect reflection. It worked marginally well another time back in 2006 after a heavy October rain, but the potholes weren't quite as full then as they were last year. When I arrived at the bowl beneath the arch, this is essentially what the scene looked like:

A mud pit. So I started looking around for the perfect pothole...

Not quite.

I was walking all over the place (careful not to track through the mud as other people had) looking for the right puddle and the correct angle. And the damn wind just kept blowing. But just as I was about ready to call it a day (the way it usually works), I found it:

That still wasn't quite right, but a little more experimenting with camera positioning produced the final image, which was rotated 180 degrees to appear upright.

This also begs the question: How many times can you photograph an arch? I probably won't spend much time at Delicate the next time I visit Arches, but it's been fun to photograph over the years:

Anatomy of an Image: Dancing Leaf

Of all the images I've displayed in galleries or coffee shops over the last six months, I get more comments about my "Dancing Leaf" image than nearly any other. I had this printed as a canvas giclée, and it's now hanging at Art on Mountain in Fort Collins. People tend to look at it from a few feet away and think the cottonwood leaf is a three-dimensional object that they can touch and pick directly off the canvas. Or, they think I dragged a leaf across the sand and took a picture of it.

This image was taken in February, 2007, in the sandy bed of Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park, Utah. I was on an off-trail hike up the wash with my friend Chas when I looked down and saw that the wind had waltzed this cottonwood leaf across the sand in a peculiar pattern. It certainly begged for a photograph. This was before I had the money or the inclination to invest in expensive camera equipment, so I captured the image with Canon Digital Rebel XTi with its standard kit lens. Nothing fancy.

The image was touched up using Apple Aperture. I gave it a healthy dose of saturation and increased contrast, among other minor touch ups. Here's the original raw (but not RAW, it's a JPEG) image:

I experimented with some other angles, too:

Here's a crappy un-retcouhed and unedited snapshot of the surrounding scene, showing the wash and the surrounding vegetation:

If you've been to Arches National Park and have never ventured off the park highway to give Courthouse Wash a closer look, it's well worth it. The best part is the lower five miles or so between the park road and the park boundary at U.S. 191 near Moab at the Colorado River. The wash forms a deep-ish narrow canyon. I've never hiked the lower reach of the canyon. My sole attempt was sidelined by unexpected single-digit temperatures one December morning, temperatures I wasn't prepared for.

The upper section is wide open with sweeping views. Well worth a visit if you don't mind wading the water and getting a little dirty. Whatever you do, though, stay away from the cryptobiotic soil crust, which is plentiful on the edges of the wash. Here's a sample of what you'll see there:

This is my friend Chas taking pictures on our hike:

The Canyons Call and I Must Go

So, I have a furlough week coming up in a few months (the corporate parent of  my newspaper is sending each of its reporters on a gainful employment-free, all-expenses-unpaid vacation) and despite urgings to dust off my passport for a trip to Europe, it's time to breathe deeply that sweet pellucid canyon country air.

Ed Abbey's air, that is.

Too long away from the Colorado Plateau makes me break out in hives, endure breakdown after breakdown and generally quake violently with separation anxiety. I was there in October, and it's already been too long.

I first ventured into Utah's canyon country in 1998 during my first summer on ranger staff at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. I'd just dropped off a crew of Boy Scouts at a particularly spectacular staff camp in the northern reaches of the 142,000 acre ranch, met a lifelong friend on my hike into basecamp, hopped in my car and headed out on a three-day expedition west that would change my life forever.

My destination was Arches National Park. It was a brief visit, but I quickly discovered the magic of the landscape, still boiling hot that July evening in the Devil's Garden Campground. That magic just simply cannot be described here because, like the best things in the world, it is something that must be experienced to be understood.

When you visit Arches, do this: Pitch your tent, wait for the white-throated swifts to make their final darts through the evening sky, sit outside in the moonlight and listen. Just listen. Hard.


Even though you'll be surrounded by many other people in the campground, the landscape makes no noise when the wind is calm. In that stillness and calm, you'll discover the power of that landscape.

One raw March day a few years ago — 2002, I think — I hiked to Delicate Arch alone. The trail is normally packed with hundreds of tourists, many unprepared for the hike or the view that awaits them at the trail's end. I passed one other person on the hike to the arch, and she was headed back to the parking lot. I arrived at Delicate — one of the West's most iconic and popular natural spectacles — and had it and its surrounding scenery all to myself. I walked into the sandstone bowl below the arch, looked up, and realized the scene to be nearly frozen in time. No sound, no movement. Just Delicate Arch and me.

Why that was profound is something you'll have to answer for yourself on your next trip to Arches. Since 1998, I've visited Arches National Park more than 50 times and at least once each year since then, except, unfortunately, 2009.

Really, though, the significance of that park is what I attach to it. It was and remains merely an introduction to one of the most alien and spectacular landscapes anywhere in the world. I miss living so close to it.

If you've never explored the Colorado Plateau, here are a few amazing places that you must visit before you die:

Those are just a start. There are others: The Wave. The Canyons of the Escalante. Monument Valley. Dinosaur. Desolation Canyon. Nine Mile Canyon. The San Rafael Swell. Zion...