The “Grandest” Canyon Painted by Snow
Article & Images by Todd FedericoOne of the main reasons that I enjoy landscape and nature photography is that it is my time to reflect and savor the solitude. This can be a difficult task as one visits the popular photogenic sites and seeks to bring home some of those iconic images from the precious jewels across our country. The obvious way to avoid crowds at our beautiful national parks is to visit in the off-season with respect to tourists.
Recently, during the winter I had the opportunity to spend several days at one of the most frequently visited National Parks—The Grand Canyon. This was a great way to avoid the massive crowds that gather along the South Rim at the peak tourist season. Logistically, the Grand Canyon in the winter was easier to plan—the rooms along the rim were more readily available and I was able to get a cabin within yards of the canyon rim on short notice because there are far fewer tourists to contend with during the off-season. There is much more room to maneuver, not just along the rim, but in the stores, restaurants and historical sites such as Kolb Studio. Although some facilities, for example, the Arizona Room steakhouse and the ice cream shop (who wants ice cream in winter anyway?) were closed for the season, there is no shortage of amenities.
The snow falling on the canyon creates unique views that do not occur in most visitors’ travel photographs. The white snow contrasts the red, orange and brown tones in a complimentary fashion. There is also a symbolic contrast – snow in an area typically associated with the desert heat of Arizona. Photographically speaking, the opportunities along the South Rim in the winter seemed greater in the winter than they had when I have previously visited the area during the summer tourist season. One of the main complaints of photographers (and some visitors) when visiting the Grand Canyon is the haze that appears and hangs over the canyon during the daylight hours. The haze is created by pollution from near and not-so-near urban areas like Los Angeles. The haze makes the crystal clear photographs that appear in publications elusive to the photographer visiting the canyon with limited time. The haze is greatly reduced after thunderstorms, but the tourist/photographer may not chance upon that opportunity unless visiting during the monsoon season. In the winter, however, the better air quality and reduction of haze will produce photographs that will more closely match the clear shots that appear in books and magazines.
The public transportation is excellent in the Grand Canyon, but another benefit to visiting in the winter is the option to not have to rely on the shuttle schedule. The road out to Hermit’s Rest viewpoint is closed to private vehicles during the summer. In the winter, however, you are free to travel with your own vehicle on Hermit’s Road - weather permitting. During my time at the canyon, however, there were significant road closures due to snow and even the public shuttle service was not running for a couple of days. I was actually prevented from traveling by vehicle for one full day. I was only able to hike and actually could not open the door to the cabin due to the massive snow drifts. I had traveled from New England to Arizona only to find myself still shoveling a path for myself and my automobile! The weather is unpredictable, so keep an eye on the weather forecast when traveling in the wintertime and plan an extra day on each end, if possible, due to the limited snow removal equipment in some municipalities outside the immediate Grand Canyon area.
If your winter shots are going to contain actual white snow and not turn slightly grey, you must set the automatic exposure compensation for +1 to +2. You can also spot meter on the white snow and compensate by approximately +2 stops according to the zone system. In the alternative, you can shoot in RAW and alter the exposure later. If you are like me, however, the less time spent on the computer correcting the image, the better. I prefer to get the exposure correct in camera to avoid time in front of a computer monitor. As a result, I frequently check the histogram to ensure that the exposure is precisely the way I prefer it to look and to ensure the snow is actually white. The sensors in our cameras will tend to turn the snow grey if left set on autoexposure and some compensation is required in camera if you want to avoid post-production tinkering to obtain “pure” white snow.
You must also take care to protect your equipment the same as you do in other winter photography. Most modern camera equipment is fairly sturdy and can withstand the winter cold with no difficulty. Some protection, however, from snowfall may be required. I have found that the shower caps that come complimentary in most hotel rooms are quite sufficient for everything short of complete downpours or blizzards. I also attempt to avoid changing lenses while it is snowing and carry two camera bodies when it is possible to avoid any chance of exposing delicate internal components to snow and rain. The real danger is from condensation when your photographic equipment is brought back indoors from the cold outside. I purchased plastic zip seal bags at the grocery store that were large enough to hold my entire backpack for my outdoor excursions.
There is no better way to experience the Grand Canyon than to travel below the rim to the canyon floor. Ironically, traveling from the top to the bottom can be much easier to arrange in the winter months. I was able to book a venture down to the Colorado River in the traditional manner - on the back of a mule - without the twelve-month advance reservation that is typically required. The temperature rises significantly as one descends deeper into the canyon. In the winter, expect snow and ice at the rim. Where traditional winter clothing is required at the top, it felt like a typical fall day at the Phantom Ranch lodging facilities located at the bottom near the Colorado River’s edge. Admittedly, the mule trip itself is not entirely conducive to photography beyond “vacation-like” snapshots, although there are plenty of opportunities if one acts quickly enough due to the frequent rests that must be given to the four-legged guides. In addition, during the initial descent down the Bright Angel Trail at the beginning of the trip, much effort is spent clinging to your mule due to the perception that it seems dangerous. The mules prefer to walk on the outside of the trail as if they want to offer the passenger every opportunity to see just how far down they will be traveling, but the guides assured us that they have never lost a rider. I would certainly not recommend this trip if you are afraid of heights.
After some recovery time at the bottom of the canyon for my bottom, I discovered that there are some fantastic photographic opportunities on the canyon floor that I did not anticipate. I long to return more properly equipped. The mule rides limit photographic equipment to one camera and lens. The rest of your “luggage” must fit into one small plastic bag, so an equipment junkie such as myself was left longing for my camera backpack safely locked at the top of the canyon. There was a family of mule deer that seemed to have made their home in the vicinity of Phantom Ranch and were clearly somewhat accustomed to the presence of humans. I did not foresee that there would be any opportunities for wildlife photography and consequently, I did not plan accordingly. Furthermore, the skies in the evening were much clearer than those experienced in urban areas. The opportunities for nighttime photography, including experimenting with star trails, are enhanced in the clear winter skies due to better air quality. Also, the evenings are comfortable at the bottom of the canyon in the winter given the increased temperatures near the Colorado River. A zoom lens with a broad focal range such as an 18-200mm or 24-120mm would have been ideal given the wide range of subjects available and will be my choice of lens for my next visit to the bottom of the canyon.
I have read that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is sometimes preferred by photographers due to the lack of crowds and the ability to obtain views not obtained by the typical tourist. However, the North Rim offers limited accessibility – the roads are closed in the winter. The South Rim is open year-round and more accessible to travelers. As a result, it is extremely crowded. You cannot have the canyon all to yourself during the summer vacation unless you hike some of the more remote trails. The South Rim in the winter allows for more elbow room at the most traveled viewpoints. In addition, the photographic opportunities in the winter will be different than the typical compositions if snow blankets the canyon. In my opinion, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the winter is a great alternative due to the reduced number of tourists and the ability to see views so familiar to many in a new light – one that has been painted white with snow.