Autumn in Zion

Aside from those rare stormy days when wispy clouds slink through Zion Canyon, my favorite time to visit Zion National Park is during the autumn as the cottonwoods along the Virgin River become bright yellow in the cooling temperatures.

On Saturday I was scheduled to spend the morning in Grafton, where I would be shooting family photos for a former editor of mine at the newspaper. Since the old ghost town near Rockville put me in the Zion neighborhood, I invited my wife to join me for a trip through the park after the photo session.

I arrive early in Grafton to scout out some locations for the photos. This gives me a chance to walk around the buildings and get a few personal photographs along the way. No matter how often I visit this picturesque community, I always find a new scene or even just a composition I haven’t tried before. This time around, it is the back-lit glow of the window in an old cabin.

Fall colors are also a plus for this particular visit and one tree, located in a meadow near the “Etta Place Cabin,” jumps out at me with its bright yellow foliage. The recently reconstructed cabin was where Katharine Ross’ character from the 1969 film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” lived. Her famous bicycle scene with Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy) was filmed right here in Grafton. In fact, earlier this year I tried to bring Katharine back to Grafton for the first time since she filmed that scene there in 1968. She was in town for The Stage Door‘s two-night production of “Love Letters” with Wilford Brimley at the Electric Theater in February so I offered to show her around. Unfortunately, it had been raining heavily and the road to Grafton was too muddy. But I still played “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” while we attempted to get there.

Following the photo session, we head to Springdale for lunch. State Route 9 through Springdale is in the midst of a major construction project so be prepared for long waits. After a delicious lunch at Oscar’s, we finally make it into the park. Even in late October, Zion is still extremely crowded. The visitor center parking lot is full, as is every other parking spot between the entrance and Zion Canyon. I’m grumpy about crowds, especially in nature, so we scrap our idea of visiting the canyon and decide to return on a weekday with hopes of fewer people.

Instead, we continue along SR 9, up the switchbacks and through the 1.1-mile Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. While the east side of Zion is not known for its fall colors like the canyon, I’m hoping we might still find some nice colors. However, as we emerge from the tunnel I realize the elevation is higher so many of the leaves are past their peak. Still, we decide to visit Petroglyph Canyon to see what it has to offer. Because I don’t trust just anyone who might be reading this, I’m not going to tell you where Petroglyph Canyon is located. But the canyon delivers. While the yellows at this elevation have mostly dimmed or fallen, the reds are at their peak.

It’s common to see red in the rocks around Southern Utah but red leaves are significantly rarer. Petroglyph Canyon provides the opportunity to see both of them together as well as some towering ponderosa pines.

Of course, Petroglyph Canyon also delivers on its name. And this is why I don’t print its location (because some people are horrible human beings and think its OK to deface archeological relics).

While exploring the canyon, I stop to sniff a few trees. That’s right, not only am I literal tree-hugger (I hug ancient bristlecone pines), I’m also a tree-sniffer when it comes to ponderosas. Most here in the Southwest have a sweet scent that ranges from vanilla to butterscotch. There are a number of subspecies and varieties of pinus ponderosa but the one we have in the Four Corners region is subsp. brachyptera.

As for the red leaves, I’m not entirely sure what type of tree produces them. A friend of mine believes it’s the bigtooth maple, acer grandidentatum, also known as the canyon maple. Either way, I feel pretty lucky to see so much of it in Zion. If it wasn’t for the red rock cliffs I might think I was walking through New England.

After leaving Petroglyph Canyon, we decide to continue exploring. So we continue east, out of Zion and toward the Kanab area. After spending some time visiting Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab Canyon (the site of my second-favorite concert experience and a pretty great animal rescue organization), we found ourselves driving through Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

I wasn’t too excited about hiking though sand but Cammie convinced me to go for a short walk. I’m glad I did, because photos are much better out on the sand than from the convenience of the viewing platform. All you have to do is get low and simple footprints begin to look like massive dunes.

Yet my favorite shot is partially an accident. The star effect above is on purpose, thanks to a small aperture setting, but the depth of the shadows at this low angle and the light flares surprise me when I look at the image on the back of my camera. I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder when I shot it because I was holding the camera near the ground, so it’s nice to see my experiment pay off.

* All of the photographs in this blog (or anything in the Photography section of are available for purchase. Send an email to to inquire about specific images. Prices for unframed, signed prints are: $25 for an 8×10 or 8×12; $35 for an 11×14 or 11×16; and $45 for a 12×16 or 12×18.

  1 comment for “Autumn in Zion

  1. Rita
    November 1, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    Beautiful pics, Brian, and always love your description of your journeys. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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