You’ve seen the pictures. We’ve all seen them! But it’s not the same as taking your own picture, right? The experience is the fun. A nice photograph is a bonus.
While we were in Page, Arizona visiting Antelope Canyon, we decided to visit Horseshoe Bend, a meander of The Colorado river just 2 miles south of Walmart on Hwy 89. From reading my guidebooks, I imagined a place quite remote, and in fact, Horseshoe Bend is no longer remote and infrequently visited. While doing my online research, I ran across a few articles and posts written by people who were concerned about whether they would even be able to make the hike to the overlook, something I hadn’t even considered. In the posts and articles I read, it seemed as if you parked in a dirt parking area, and then hiked over a hill to the overlook. It was suggested that some people might have trouble with it, but that most people, including senior citizens, would be ok if they just took their time and rested as necessary, and that the hike itself was only about a half mile long. So, I was thinking that this hill might discourage some people, and that although there might be a couple dozen people there, it wouldn’t be overly crowded. The worst part of it for me was the report that there is no fencing keeping you from falling off the cliff, and so it pays to be smart and stand back. Having fallen off a cliff in the past, I can say I don’t recommend it.
Well, when we got there, we found a completely different scene. The parking lot has been paved and there is a toll booth with someone taking $10 for parking. We paid our $10 and searched for a parking spot. I don’t know how many spaces they have available, but there were only a couple left when we arrived about an hour before sunset. There could be 100 spaces, or more. People come in groups, and there are even tour busses that drop people off here, so just because there are 100 spaces, doesn’t mean there are only 100 or 200 people.
This area was upgraded with new parking and a toll booth in the last year to accommodate the crowds of people who have been showing up at this once ignored location. The trail has also been re-routed so that more people can access the bend. The trail now curves around the hill rather than going right over it, so it’s less steep, but there is still a slight decline to the overlook, and a slight incline on the way back to the parking lot. This shouldn’t cause a problem for most people, and in fact, I think you could even do it in a wheelchair. The problem is getting a decent viewpoint once you arrive at the location.
To my great relief, the main section of the viewpoint has been fenced off, so you can stand right at the edge and photograph the bend without the fear of falling over the edge. When I got there the fence line was packed with people, but I decided to sort of elbow my way in there, since I think this location is best for photographing the bend, and also, as fate would have it, it has the fence now. I found a spot and held my ground. Only one couple asked me to move so I wouldn’t be in their selfie. I backed away to get out of their frame, and then moved right back where I was.
I’m guessing, but there must have been 500 people present for sunset at this location. A fair number stood back behind the fence, but there are cliffs and rocks on either side that people were climbing on, climbing over, crawling over, and sitting on. The drop from this unfenced area is probably around 1,000 feet. There were people here from all over the world, if the languages I overheard are any indication. This included some languages I couldn’t identify, but may have been Eastern European of some kind, as well as Asian languages of various kinds. Most of these people speak English as well as their native tongue and flip back forth between the two with ease. I took 4 years of Spanish in high school, and still can’t speak it, although it’s probably the one language other than English that I can at least understand.
I took several snaps with my iPhone of the tourists climbing over and standing on the rocks because frankly, they seemed a bit cavalier in their actions. Every year I hear at least a couple stories of people who fall into canyons and off cliffs and die taking selfies or having their photos taken in locations like this. There was a group of tourists who were taking selfies with a super long selfie stick so they could get the whole canyon behind them into the frame and standing right at the furthest edge possible before falling off. I’m very grateful that they didn’t fall off because that’s a situation I wouldn’t have wanted to witness in any event. Everyone survived sunset that evening. Whew!
And then there was the photographer who took his place beside me behind the fence. He walked up rolling an expensive bag containing all his cameras and photo equipment. He set up his lightweight, carbon filter tripod by putting two legs on one side of the fence and one on the other. Seemed like a good idea. I watched as he then attached his camera to the top of the tripod. As he did this, the sun was sinking quickly behind the horizon. I’m not sure if he even got a picture of the actual sunset, because it was moving so quickly at this point, and he was kind of fumbling with getting the large camera body attached to the tripod head. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with these things! However, I was concerned that he might lose control of it, and it would fall into the canyon and crash on the rocks below.
Anyway, his camera caught my eye for sure. I even asked him what it was because I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like that. It was almost a perfectly square box, and except for the lens, had almost no other bells and whistles visible. Very sleek, while also boxy and bulky. He told me it was a Fujifilm Medium Format Camera. I said, “Oh!” and smiled and nodded. Then, he felt the need to mansplain to me about what a medium format camera was, and how it had to do with the size of the sensor. I smiled and nodded. He took a couple of quick shots and then put it away and brought out a full frame dslr. He was a nice enough fellow though, and we chatted about how nice it would be if the clouds lit up to a nice red color, and how beautiful it would be. I told him I paid my $10 admission, and I planned to stay for the whole show just to find out what happened next, but the clouds never turned red while I was there, and I stayed for about 15 minutes after sunset.
In case you’re interested, a Fujifilm medium format camera will run you about $10k and that doesn’t include a lens.
And speaking of cameras, I ran across a couple of problems with my photo equipment while I was on this trip, and these things caused me some trouble when I was at Horseshoe Bend.
I mostly find that my Nikon cropped sensor cameras work just fine for what I use them for. I like them because they’re lightweight and easy for me to maneuver around with. However, Horseshoe Bend presented a problem I don’t often encounter, and that is that I wasn’t able to get everything into the frame that I wanted to. Most full frame cameras can get a bit of the foreground in the frame, in this case, the whole bend in the river and even a little bit of the rocks and cliffside, to heighten perspective. However, my cropped sensor Nikon will not do this. I use a Tamron 18-400mm lens most of the time, which is a good general-purpose lens for traveling. I can pack light with it! However, it was frustrating not to be able to get the whole scene into my image, even at 18mm.
Additionally, my wide-angle lens, which I usually bring on a second camera body, has broken, which won’t allow the camera to make an image while on autofocus. So, I was unable to use it either at Horseshoe Bend or at Antelope Canyon, which was a big disappointment. The fine-tuning ring of the lens is broken which is preventing me from getting anything into focus at all, either manually or while on autofocus, so I’ll be taking it to the camera repair shop in Denver next week. Grrr!
And to add some unsolicited photo advice about this location, I would suggest coming here not at sunrise, but perhaps mid-morning, when the whole scene is evenly lit by the sun. I think the average travel photographer will find this easier to compensate for, as the location is very high contrast at sunset. While most photographers these days compensate for these types of situations by doing two or more images, one set for proper sky exposure, and one set for the canyon, which is dark at this time of day, another possible solution is to use a Graduated ND filter. My solution was to leave the sky out and just photograph the river and canyon. If there is anywhere I’ve been that screams out for panos and photo stacking, this is it.
On a lighter note, I’ve included a photo here of the love locks already beginning to show up on the fence at the overlook of Horseshoe Bend. This fence was only installed in the last year, and there are already two padlocks on it. In case you don’t know, this is a sign of endless and unbreakable love started in Paris on the bridges over The Seine River. Lovers inscribe their initials, seal it with a kiss, lock it onto the bridge or fence and throw the key into the river.
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