Night Adventure in Monument Valley

Wally Pacholka
24 December 2007

Babak put out the call – someone should take night photographs of one of America’s greatest icons, Monument Valley. I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t step up for a completely justified opportunity to cast aside all responsibilities for a few days of mad adventure exploring new territory for a task like this?

The Geminid meteor shower was going to peak the very next week and I had not yet decided where to shoot it, so it was easy to answer Babak’s call. The Geminids are always a great meteor shower that consistently puts on a good show despite being less popular than summer showers like the Perseids. Winter weather and the busy holiday season no doubt contribute to the lack of interest in this great December shower.

I left Monday morning with two days to cover the 700 mile drive from Long Beach in southern California to Monument Valley astride the Utah-Arizona border near the Four Corners. I planned to arrive the night before the shower’s peak activity to allow time to scout the most scenic locations of the park. I’ve found that photography is like real estate – the three most important factors are location, location and location. If I can drive or hike to a great location then more than half the job is already done.

I often go the “back way” through southern California when I travel to Arizona and Utah – through Joshua Tree National Park via Highway 62. Joshua Tree is my closest dark sky site and I have been going for more than 30 years. I then take famous Route 66 through the remote Mojave National Preserve before the long drive on I-40 into Flagstaff, ending with a side trip along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s a great way to break up a two-day trip with scenic sites. This time I even stopped to see the fossilized dinosaur tracks near Cameron on Route 89. But this time I seem to have taken in a few sites too many as I arrived in Monument Valley at 4:30 PM just as the ranger was closing the gate. The ranger mentioned to me that the park was closed at night but that a “primitive campground” is available inside the park just a half-mile from the Visitor Center. She said I’d have no trouble finding a camping spot as the temperature dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit the night before. Despite the late hour she took my $5 entrance and camping fees and let me through. As I drove into the campground I realized it was right on a high mesa that offered a stunning panoramic view of Monument Valley. So for a total of $10 I got a room with a view. Usually when I arrive at a park I drive or hike around looking for the best places to take photos to return to at night. But here before me was one of the most spectacular views in the world and I didn’t have to go anywhere! It had apparently snowed the day before, which created an even more picturesque setting.

I didn’t need to see the snow to know I was far from Long Beach so my first order of business was to put on a pot of coffee and add enough layered clothes to resemble the Michelin Man. Sipping my coffee and taking in the unbelievable view with the crescent moon hanging in the west above some monuments, watching the stars appear and realizing that Mars and Orion were going to be perfectly situated as they rose over the two Mitten monuments in the East, I knew it was going to be a fabulous night. And it was. I captured 398 images between 7 PM and a few minutes after 1 AM when my batteries finally went died because of the cold. I exchanged them for a second set I keep warm in my pocket, a procedure that would be needed every hour or so. My basic approach was to compose shots with interesting terrestrial scenery where I knew interesting things would happen in the night sky above, like Mars and Orion rising in the east in the early evening, followed by Sirius and Saturn later on. They would add to the basic scene of a fabulous night sky above a good terrestrial scene. I wanted to capture some Geminid meteors in some of the shots, too. There’s no predicting meteors, though, so I just keep taking exposures of the night sky and hope I’ll get lucky with one of the shots. Of the 398 photos I took Wednesday night only two had meteors, and those where faint, but I did capture some outstanding night sky scenes of the amazing stars over this famous landmark setting. The view of brilliant Mars and Orion rising over this great valley was truly breathtaking. Eventually, I laid my sleeping bag out on the picnic table bench and went to sleep under this great sky.

The next day, Thursday, I explored this fabulous park, driving down into the valley and doing some hiking, including the Wildcat trail near the campsite. By late afternoon the sky had clouded over and heavy snow began to fall so I packed my valuables, went into town and got a motel room for the night. The afternoon of the next day, Friday, was cold but crystal clear so I returned to the campsite and set up to shoot that evening, hoping to get the good meteor shot that had so far eluded me. There was more meteor activity almost from the start of the evening than on Wednesday night so I again quickly got to work taking night sky images over this great valley’s rocky monuments. The crescent moon hung higher in the western sky this night, providing great warm light on the monuments to the east where I was shooting. I captured 318 images before my batteries failed, but I was very pleased to have captured 13 meteors, 4 which were “keeper” shots. That’s a very high percentage for me, so this year’s Geminid activity was high indeed.

Uncertainty is the hallmark of this sort of trip. In a great site like Monument Valley you know you’ll have some great terrestrial scenery and you know the sky will be spectacular if the weather cooperates. But finding that combination of location, sky and even some meteors to add to the mix is something you can’t count on. The weather may have been freezing but I’ve long since warmed up and the beauty of the shots I captured will last forever. I’m sure I’ll be ready the next time the call comes.


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