Amateur photographer based out of Seattle, WA.

Trail name: Zebra Slot Canyon
Location: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah
When to go: Spring, Winter, Fall
Distance: 5 miles RT

Grand Staircase Escalnate National Monument, in southern Utah, is home to many natural wonders and landscapes. The area is named for the stiarcase-like geology of the surrounding mountains and canyons, as each “stair” has it’s own distinct geologic features.

For today’s trip, we decided to take a drive down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, just outside of Escalante, Utah. This dirt road provides access to the slot canyons of the Escalante River, and ultimately, Lake Powell.

The trailhead to this hike can be tricky to find, as it is not clearly marked. You’ll need to drive 7.8 miles down Hole-In-The-Rock road until immediately after the 3rd cattle guard. There is a small dirt lot on the right side of the road, which indicates the trailhead. When we went in February, there were no other cars there, so it is easy to miss. Be sure to track mileage on the odometer on the drive in.

The parking lot for Zebra Slot Canyon.
The parking lot for Zebra Slot Canyon.

Once you have parked in the dirt lot, the trailhead will be directly on the other side of the road. As I mentioned before, it is not clearly marked, so you may need to look around for a few to find it. The picture below shows the start of the trailhead.

The trailhead for Zebra Slot Canyon.
The trailhead for Zebra Slot Canyon.

Once you hit the trailhead, it is a fairly smooth hike to the entrance of the slot canyon. It is roughly 2.4 miles from the trailhead to the entrance of the canyon and will take 1-1.5 hours to get back to it. About a mile back on the trail, there is a fence across the wash, presumably to keep cattle out. Don’t be alarmed, as the trail continues directly around it. Also, on another note, the trail can be tricky to follow at times. My brother and I lost the cairns a couple of times, but were able to find our way by following the wash.

After about an hour, we arrived at the entrance to the slot canyon. It is jaw-dropping from the start. As with most slot canyons, the entrance is fairly wide. But, it quickly becomes narrow and tough to maneuver. After about 100 yards of walking, I had to remove my backpack and set it down, as I was not able to fit through the canyon while wearing it.

The beginning of Zebra Slot Canyon.
The beginning of Zebra Slot Canyon.

We hiked for about a quarter mile before coming to a 15-foot chokehold in the canyon. For most people, this would be an excellent spot to turnaround. The canyon is extremely narrow and is quite thirlling up to this point. For those willing to be a little risky (or for good climbers), you can continue up the chokehold for another 40 yards or so before coming to a giant bowl in the canyon.

Hiking through Zebra Slot Canyon.
Hiking through Zebra Slot Canyon.

The bowl makes it nearly impossible to continue on, unless you have climbing gear, ropes, or an expert-level climbing ability. We opted to rest here for a couple of minutes before turning around and heading back towards the entrance.

I enjoyed the walk back out of the canyon almost as much as walking in. With the mid-day light shining on the canyon walls, it was easy to see why they called it Zebra Slot Canyon. The colors of the rocks are beautifully striped and look as if they are from another planet. Quite the view the take in.

Looking back through Zebra Slot Canyon.
Looking back through Zebra Slot Canyon.

Overall, this was an excellent hike. We completed our trip in just under 2.5 hours at a fairly quick pace. We went on a cool February day and saw only 2 other people on our hike out there. I would imagine that closer towards the summer, you may see a bit more people out there. I highly recommend this hike if you are in the area. It is easy to access, not too crowded, and exemplifies the beauty and solitude of southern Utah.

southern Utah Milky Way

Night sky pictures, like the one above, are awesome. I’ll be the first to admit they’re my favorite type of photo to shoot. There’s something very humbling (and amazing) about standing outside in the middle of nowhere, gazing up at the Milky Way and the stars above you. I feel drawn to night photography and pictures of the night sky are special.

I get asked a lot about what gear and settings I use to take these pictures, so I wanted to write an article describing my experience. I will say first and foremost, that I am entirely self-taught. I learned through good-old trial and error. I’ve always told people that for every cool night sky photo I’ve taken, there are 500 more I’ve taken that didn’t turn out. Night sky photos take a lot of time and learning, so be patient when you’re first starting out.

McWay Falls California Big Sur
The night sky lights McWay Falls in Big Sur, California

The Gear

The Camera
I have a pretty long write-up about my gear on the “Gear” tab of this website, but I’ll give a quick run down of what I use at night. For the camera, I will always rely on my trusted Sony A6000 (http://amzn.to/2wosn0y). This is a compact yet reliable mirrorless camera with 24.2MP camera quality. It’s also been on the market for a couple of years, so the price point is a bit lower than most. This is the lower end of the Sony mirrorless line, but is a great choice for a starter camera. It does well in low-light situations and I’ve found that the user controls are intuitive and easy to use.

The Lens
For night shooting, I’ve always relied on my Rokinon 12mm f2.0 (http://amzn.to/2vrI6yK). This is a wide-angle manual lens that gives the operator a lot of flexibility when shooting at night. Not to mention, the frame is comparable to that of a full-frame camera. The low focal point and small aperture allow the lens to deliver high-quality pictures at night with minimal blur. I like this lens in particular because it also doubles as a nice landscape lens. Overall, you can’t go wrong with a wide-angle approach.

The Tripod
As with any night shooting, you’ll need a tripod. The tripod allows the camera to stay still while capturing the photo, and night sky shooting is virtually impossible without it. There a lot of options on the market, but you can’t go wrong with the Sony model (http://amzn.to/2vsKGo7). This is a high-quality and extremely durable tripod which is just compact enough to fit into a backpack. It is 5 feet tall, so taller folks may need to squat a bit, but I have never had any issues with it.

Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument
The night sky is illuminated by the Milky Way in Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument.

The Method

The Settings
Settings are crucial for capturing the night sky. Even a slight variation in a setting can cause a picture to look drastically different. I’d like to clarify that when first starting, I highly recommend shooting in “Night Mode” under “Scene Selection”. This mode allows the camera to automatically choose which setting is best based on the environment around you. Typically, the camera defaults to a long shutter speed (30 seconds) with a low ISO (100-800). This will give you a fairly decent picture, but will oftentimes look quite blurry. This is because the Earth is always moving. While you may not be able to see or feel the Earth’s motion, a camera open for 30 seconds will. For example, stars may appear blurry across the sky or trees may be blurry due to wind.

When shooting, I prefer to have a lower shutter speed (10-15 seconds) with a higher ISO (1600-6400). This will make any light appear brighter while also lessening the effects of movement. For example, the picture of the tent above had the following settings:

Exposure time: 15 seconds
ISO: 3200
F-stop: f4

This brought in the light of the galactic core while also minimizing the movement of the foreground and stars. I prefer to shoot with less brightness and to add colors and exposure in when editing.

The northern lights flicker over Montana.
The northern lights flicker of Glacier National Park in Montana.

For the picture above, I used the same concept. I used a higher ISO 1600 with a shutter speed 4 seconds so as not to blur the trees in the foreground. For this picture in particular, I brought down the brightness of the foreground in post-editing so as to focus the attention on the northern lights.

Conclusion
In conclusion, taking night sky pictures wittles down to personal preference. As I mentioned above, I typically target a mid-range shutter speed (10-15 seconds) while keeping a higher ISO (3200-6400) in order to brighten the sky and minimize blur. Based on user preference, these settings can be adjusted to let it more light (higher ISO) or have a longer exposure (more seconds). I recommend taking a few sessions of photos using the “Night Mode” scene selection and then checking the settings the camera used. Hopefully this helps a bit. Feel free to leave questions or comments below!