The Colorado Plateau is a dry, desert landscape that covers 130,000 square miles and straddles the Four Corner region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. More national parks are located there than anywhere else in the United States. Visitors/photographers flock to the well-known parks—Grand Canyon, Zion, Brice, Canyonland and others—but far fewer train their cameras on the stark beauty of Wupatki Pueblo and Sunset Crater National Monuments in northeastern Arizona.
At first, it’s easy to think there is nothing there to photograph, especially excellent compositions, but the landscape of the Wupatki/Sunset Crater area is an excellent lesson in creating more with less. Geology and the tenacity of life have shaped the land. Stark, black lava flows, wind-rippled cinder dunes, rusty red sandstones and vast expanses of multi-hued sedimentary layers create a fascinating palette that also includes desert grasslands and forested uplands. These are vistas best captured during the early morning and late evening hours when the low rays of the sun enhance the colors of the rock and the atmosphere has a magical quality.
Even as wind and volcanic eruptions have buffeted this terrain for millions of years, life has adopted to the extreme conditions. Vegetation is sparse, but presents a rugged and special kind of beauty if you have the patience to find it. Many species of wildlife also find homes here: coyotes, pronghorn, mule deer, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, antelope ground squirrels, and numerous reptiles and birds. It requires even greater patience and time to see and photograph the animals that live in Wupatki/Sunset Crater area.
Despite being one of the lowest, warmest, and driest places on the Colorado Plateau, the Wupatki/Sunset Crater area reveals human habitation for at least 10,000 years. The height of human activity was approximately 850 years ago when the Wupatki Pueblo was the tallest and largest structure here. Although no more than 100 people lived in the pueblo, it was central to the lives of thousands of people within a day’s walk. Like Wupatki, other nearby pueblo sites, Wukoki and Lomaki, were carved from the rock. Although the Wupatki Pueblo is only opened from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. MST, ask park officials if it is possible to photograph there earlier or later during the day. Those magic hours are when you can learn the most about creating more with less.
As you follow the 18-mile section of the Loop Road from Wupatki to Sunset Crater Volcano and climb in elevation, the landscape changes from grassland and cold desert shrub to pinyon/juniper woodlands, and then ponderosa pine forest.
Sunset Volcano erupted a mere 900 years ago, and stands 1,000 feet tall and a mile wide. Red, yellow, pink, and white mineral deposits among the lava flows, lava tubes, cinder barrens and spatter cones gives the crater its name. Since biological life is sparse, the geological “life” of the crater and surrounding area become the primary subjects for your camera. It’s their unique shapes and colors, otherworldly textures and spectacular arrangements that should capture your eye and challenge you to create interesting images that reveal much more than what you thought were there.
Although the backcountry of Wupatki/Sunset Crater is not open to the public to protect archaeological sites, there are a number of small trails with many excellent photography positions. The 38-mile loop road will also take you to other pueblo sites and vistas of the nearby Painted Desert.
If you plan to photograph in the Wupatki/Sunset Crater National Monuments, then remember this is a harsh land, so make sure you have plenty of water, wear a hat and apply sunblock. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees F during the summer months and, although the weather can be relatively mild during the winter, cold temperatures and snow are possible. Regardless of what time of the year you photograph in the Wupatki/Sunset Crater National Monuments, be prepared for sudden changes in conditions.
A visit to Wupatki/Sunset Crater National Monuments will challenge your photography skills in totally different ways than most other national parks. It’s sure to be a learning experience that will broaden your photography interests and abilities.
Image credit: sprokop / 123RF Stock Photo
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