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Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

It’s the second day of our Grand Circle trip, and we planned to see sunrise at Mesa Arch.  Since my mom got a little injury in Arches National Park the previous day, she didn’t join us for the sunrise.  We also thought it’s better for her to rest more so that she would have energy later.  However, it’s really a pity that she missed the best sunrise in the whole trip!

The driving from Moab to Mesa Arch, which is in Canyonlands National Park, was about 45min.  In order to get a good spot for photography, we got up and hit the road very early (4:30am, 2h before the sunrise).  I kinda remember that I was in the driver’s seat, so that D (my husband) could rest.  After all, I am the one who is crazy about sunrise and sunset!  It was still dark when we arrived at the trailhead parking area.  But don’t worry – we had headlights!  So prepared!  The trail was said to be a 0.7 mile loop, so it should be only ~600m to the Mesa Arch.  However, it took us a while to figure out which way to go, because the trail was not that obvious (remember? It’s dark).

We were among the earliest at Mesa Arch!  I tested a few spots with my camera, and finally settled down.  More and more people came.  My spot was probably good, because several tripods were set up besides me.  We were all quietly waiting for the moment.  On the other hand, D was walking around – climbing up and down.

Canyonlands National Park
Waiting to see sunrise

The east started to show some red.  After a while, the first sunshine came out and lighted up the quiet canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park
Sunrise at Mesa Arch

We were still waiting.  The moment has not come yet!  People’s eyes were all on Mesa Arch.  Slowly, the bottom part of the arch started to turn to a burning orange-red color!  This magic didn’t last long, as the sun was rising.

Canyonlands National Park
Burning Mesa Arch

After the color faded on Mesa Arch, it’s officially post-sunrise.  The sky was already bright.  We realized that Mesa Arch was right on the cliff edge.  Overlooking the vast canyonlands was also an unforgettable experience to us. Unfortunately, not a good time for photos (against the sun).

Canyonlands National Park
Overlooking the canyonlands

On the way back to hotel, we were quite excited.  Plus, the breakfast in the hotel (Best Western Plus Canyonlands) was great!

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Horseshoe Bend makes you want a wide-angle lens

After the Antelope Canyon tour, we went to see the Horseshoe Bend, which was only a short drive from Page, Arizona.  To get to the rim of canyon to see the bending Colorado River, one must hike the ~0.7 mile trail.  Yes it’s just a short trail, but imagine hiking in a hot and dry environment (> 37 degree C), under the early afternoon sun, and on a sandy surface.  We had to take a water break every 150-200 meters.

Horseshoe bend Page Arizona
Horseshoe bend trail

When we reached the rim of canyon, the extraordinary view made us forget about everything else.  The jade-color Colorado River plus the reddish sandstone – perfect!  And the horseshoe-like turn (wide sweep) made by the river is simply amazing!  This place reminds me the Grand Canyon, but isn’t the color of Colorado River red there?  I would have to check my Grand Canyon photos later.

Horseshoe Bend
Colorado River makes a wide sweep around a sandstone
Horseshoe Bend
The beautiful Colorado River

Photos!  I tried many spots to take photos.  Luckily I was not afraid of height!  The lens I had was 18-140mm, so the frame could barely cover the whole ring of Colorado River.  However, it would be much better to include more of the canyon and the blue sky as well.   I needed a wide-angle lens, didn’t I?

I also wish I could see sunrise here.  That should make a great photo!  But I figured it might be too tough for my husband and my mom if I requested sunrise/sunset stuffs everyday… At a middle point of our Grand Circle trip, we were already very tired.

 

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An annual light show presented by the synchronized fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA

The warm wind reminds me that it’s almost the time to reserve tickets for a special light show in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   This show is presented by small insects that all of you are familiar with – fireflies.  I guess everybody has good memories of pointing out fireflies in the backyards in summer evernings.  Those sudden light ups are like shooting stars… And if there are a lot of fireflies, they look like Christmas lights.

There is one special species of fireflies living in the smokies.  They are called synchronized fireflies!  As you can guess from the name, these fireflies flash together.  Isn’t that amazing?  How do they communicate to each other?  Why do they synchronize?  They are certainly not doing this show for us…  I heard it’s for their mating, but I am not sure why the synchronization is important.   There are information elsewhere, here I want to talk about my four years’ experience on watching their show – more specifically, how to get a ticket, what to prepare before going, how to get there, and what to expect to see.

So, the most important thing is to get a ticket!  The mating season of the fireflies lasts about two weeks.  Based on the weather, the National Park Service (NPS) will estimate and announce a 8/9 days window for the peak flashing (late May to mid June) of the synchronized fireflies.  The announcement is usually made a few days before April 30th.  Please check their website for the dates!  Before 2016, part of the tickets (“Advanced Tickets) were distributed online at 10am EST on April 30th.  And those tickets were gone within three minutes!   The rest of the tickets were called something like “day before tickets” (you get it today and go tomorrow), and were available through phone calls on a first-come-first-serve basis.  I have had success with both methods.  The key was to be prepared!  No waste of one second.  I could share some tips, but they have already changed the rules!  Since 2016, all the tickets are distributed via a lottery system! Basically, they open the lottery in the end of April, and close it in two/three days.  A week or so after the closing date, people will be notified of the lottery results.    Last year, I was lucky!  Since you can only choose two days in the application, my philosophy was to avoid the weekends so that the chance would be much higher.  If you are unlucky, there is another way to get to see the show – camping at Elkmont Campground!  From the campground, you can simply walk to the site to see the synchronized fireflies.  Remember that those camp sites are also filled quickly.  But don’t be too frustrated if you couldn’t get the date you want.  Check back often in case there’s cancelation.

Now let’s come back to the “normal” tickets.  I haven’t told you that the tickets are actually parking tickets!  Most of the tickets are for standard cars, and up to six people are allowed for one car.  There are a few tickets for busses, which can take more people.  You need to drive to Sugarland Visitor Center.  There will be officers doing traffic control and ticket admission.   Only the cars with tickets are allowed to park at the visitor center.  One car one ticket (the confirmation email that NPS sends out), and the ticket holder must be in the car.  The officer will count people in the car, and give a trolley ticket to each person.  After parking the car, you get into the line (there’ll be a line, a long line) for the trolley.  You need the trolley ticket and 1$ to board the trolley.  I think the trolley starts to take people to the Elkmont area from 7-ish.  Except for campers, no private car can access the Elkmont area during the show days (the 8/9 days for the synchronized fireflies).

The trolleys will take you to the Elkmont area.  From there, just follow the crowd.  At the entrance, you will be given a handout introducing the synchronized fireflies.  You can also get a piece of red cellophane and a rubber band to cover your flashlight/phone.  This is very important, as the white light will disturb and confuse the fireflies!  You are there to see the show, not to be part of it.

Since it’s early June, the sky does not get dark until 9pm.  You will have plenty of time hanging around and looking for a good spot.  You probably want to take a light and foldable chair with you 🙂  Not a bad idea to have a picnic there.

You sit down, and wonder what the show will be like… While the sky gets darker and darker, you see more and more white dots flashing (somehow yellow in photos).  At the beginning, they are not synchronized.  But as the show proceeds to peak time, you will see a wave of flashing.  I mean, not all the fireflies are synchronized to one rhythm.  It’s more like: this region of fireflies synchronized to this rhythm, and that region of fireflies synchronized to that rhythm.  Another thing is that those fireflies have different levels of performance in the 8/9 days window.  I have seen the light show six times (once or twice a year), and I can tell there’s clearly a difference (sometimes a big difference)!  Nevertheless, it’s always an incredible experience.

Being immersed in flashings, you will forget about the time!  And soon you realize that people are leaving.  When you get back to the entrance (where the trolley drops you), there’s a long long line.  We have once waited for more than an hour.  So, might be a good idea to slowly move towards the entrance between 10 and 10:30.

Lastly, I just want to say that be nice to the fireflies, and be nice to people.  Don’t do things that you don’t want other people do to you.  Pay attention to your flashlight and phone!

 

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Bryce Canyon National Park – the unforgettable starry night

Bryce Canyon National Park was the last stop in our Grand Circle trip.  Since we spent three days around Kanab (for The Wave lottery), and we needed to drive 6 hours to Grand Junction, we didn’t have much time in Bryce – only one night and one morning!

When we arrived at Bryce, it’s almost the sunset time.  I think we went to the sunrise point for the sunset (counterintuitive).  Unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy that day.  Thinking about our whole Grand Circle trip, we seemed to have better luck for sunrise than sunset.  Anyways, we were still impressed by the hoodoos!

Shortly after the sunset, we went to our hotel Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn (right outside of the park).  The hotel is like a big resort.  The lobby is Mountain style, and has a lot to offer.  Still, the best part is its easy access to the park!

For the first time in our Grand Circle trip, we went out to do star gazing.  And truly, Bryce is the best place that I have been for stars.  The clouds were all gone, and the starry night sky is breathtaking! I  have never seen so many stars before!  I felt my body was immersed in stars.  I felt lost… it seemed more difficult to tell constellations with so many stars.  To me, who has loved star gazing for two decades, that place was like heaven!

I took out my camera, and tried a few long exposures.  I have always wanted to shoot the Milky Way and the star trails!  It’s cold and windy up there, but I was excited.  If I was more crazy, I should have gone down the canyon and took the shots on one of those hiking trails so that I could have hoodoos in the foreground… Next time!

Since we planned to see sunrise, and we would have long driving the following day, we went back to the hotel to catch some sleep.  Then, the second day we went into Bryce for the third time!  I forgot where exactly we went to see the sunrise… probably the Inspiration Point?  Again, it was a bit cloudy… but better than the previous day.  Where did the clouds come from?  It was clear in the night!  We were among the early ones, and could find a good place to see the amphitheater.  Just like those hoodoos – we were waiting quietly.   It also felt like we were waiting for a show.  It’s a amphitheater, isn’t it?  When the light shined upon the hoodoos, they became alive.  So, at one moment, this part of the amphitheater was playing; and at another moment, the other part of the amphitheater became active.   With sunlight, the color of stones are so glorious – burning orange.  In my eyes, that color felt young and full of energy!

We then drove back to the sunset point, and did about one hour’s hiking on the Navajo Loop Trail.  It was a nice morning hike in the sunshine and cool air – very different from other hikes we did earlier.  Getting close to the hoodoos also allowed us to admire those creatures in another angle.  We were very pleased to finish our Grand Circle trip with such a relaxing hike.

 

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Antelope Canyon – magic of light

For our Grand Circle trip, Antelope Canyon is a must see in the list.  It is the heaven for photographers!  The access to the canyon is restricted, because it is in the Navajo Nation.  Only guided tours are allowed to enter Antelope Canyon.  Thinking that it’s so popular, we booked our tours one and a half months earlier.  Still, the Photographer’s tour was already fully booked.  So we just took the Sightseer’s tour for the Upper Antelope Canyon, which was $50 each.  We could pick a good time – 11:30 to 1:10, when the sun is up high in the sky.

It was a sunny day!  We arrived at the tour company 30 min before the tour, and got the tickets.  The tour trucks took us to the canyon.  Forgot how long it took, but it was not very long.  The tour trucks were open aired but with roofs.  You probably don’t expect to see clean and air-conditioned bus anyway.  In fact, the funky shaky tour truck made everybody even more excited!

Entering the canyon was like entering a magic land.  Outside – so bright so hot; but inside – so quite so mysterious.  With that perfect amount of sunlight – no more and no less – the rocks, in my eyes, looked like flowing water that stopped at some point in the past.  It seemed like time has stopped.  I guess I can’t find a way to describe my feeling…  I could feel that everybody was amazed.

Since the canyon is narrow, we had to keep moving.  There’s no time to look for the best angle and the best setting for photos.  On the way, we passed a few photography tour groups.  They are all with tripods and quietly waiting for us to pass by!

I wish I could have taken better photos!

 

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