Matt Payne Photography Blog: An Adventure To Grand Canyon National Park And The Desert Southwest In Spring - March 22, 2020

Right before the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, I made plans to go on a week-long landscape photography trip to Arizona with my friends Kane Engelbert and Shane McDermott. We had grandeur plans of spending time in Grand Canyon National Park and other secluded locations in the desert southwest. At the end of my trip, I was going to attend the inaugural Outsiders Photography Conference in Kanab, Utah and do some fun podcasting events. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus had other plans for me. Days before my departure, we learned of the growing spread of the virus and many states were issuing limitations on large group gatherings. The Outsiders Photography Conference was cancelled as a result. I decided to keep my trip plans in place and head for Flagstaff, Arizona to meet up with my friend Kane. He had gotten us a hotel room there where we would depart from the next day to head into the Grand Canyon. Upon arrival in at the Grand Canyon, we were both struck by how empty it was of people. What a treat! We did some scouting and found some amazing locations to photograph from on the south rim with some extended hiking involved. Off we went. We were greeted with storms and great light - a true photography delight.

Arizona, Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Landscape, Rainbow, River, Sunset, desert, photo

Rainbow over the Colorado River

From a vantage point on the rim of the Grand Canyon, I was lucky enough to witness a great rainbow right over the Colorado River in Arizona.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

If you have never been to the Grand Canyon - it really is a magical place. Perhaps the most magical way to experience it is not from the classic road-side parking lots and vantage points, but rather from vantages that require some exploration. Exploring a new place on foot is really one of the best parts of landscape photography for me. Spending time in nature and taking in all of the wonder - its really why I do this. Discovering interesting plants, rock formations, patterns, and all of the intricacies that nature has to offer keeps my attention diverted away from the crazy reality of the civilized world - truly a welcome thing in these troubling times. 

Arizona, Clouds, Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Scenic, Grand Vista, Landscape, Sunset, desert, photo

Grand Canyon Scenic Sunset

As dramatic clouds pass over the Grand Canyon at sunset, I enjoyed the grand scenic view overlooking a large chunk of the National park looking west. The Colorado River is just barely visible from this vantage, but provides excellent scale for just how impressive this canyon really is in size.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Looking down at the Colorado River at sunrise is a truly magical experience, one I won't forget anytime soon.

Arizona, Chuar Butte, Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Scenic, Grand Vista, Landscape, Sunrise, desert, photo

Lazy River Sunrise at the Grand Canyon

Sunrise light catches the tips of several buttes rising high above the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River below. Of special prominence is Chuar Butte as seen at center - it dominates the view from many vantage points in Grand Canyon National Park.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

As bitter wind cut through our clothing, I huddled near a small cliff wall to watch the start of the day unfold before me in the canyon below. A lone tree stood guard on the rim, providing a really nice foreground element and a sense of scale. 

Arizona, Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Scenic, Grand Vista, Landscape, Sunrise, desert, tree, photo

Dawn Awakening at the Grand Canyon

A withered old tree stands guard above the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River at sunrise. The Grand Canyon National Park holds a great deal of wonder and mystery, especially at dawn.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

As the light slowly evolved through the morning, I was captivated by the shadows on the rock walls across the canyon from me, several miles away. Using a telephoto lens, I was able to peer deep into the heart of the canyon and revel in the intricate details found in the layers of rock accentuated by the early light of day.

Cliffs, Erosion, Grand Canyon National Park, Sunrise, photo


Layers upon layers of erosion revealed by sunrise light in Grand Canyon National Park.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Of course, I'm always a sucker for the grand scenic and the Grand Canyon is probably the ultimate location for that type of photography.

Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Panorama, Sunrise, early light, layers, photo

Grand Canyon Sunrise Panorama

Early light illuminates a variety of layers in the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River carves out a line below - the roar of the river was just barely audible from my location, but it was quite calming.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We decided to explore deeper into the park via our 4x4 vehicles on some rather insane roads and found ourselves in some wonderful terrain that very few people ever get to see in person. We found some magical vantage points along the rim that really provided the essence of the Grand Canyon - a view of the Colorado River surrounded by huge cliffs and layers of geologic time.

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Desert Branch

A dead branch cuts through an overwise grand view of a massive cliff wall lit up by the last light of day at sunset in the Grand Canyon.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After a long hike out to a remote location on the rim, we found ourselves perched above some of the finest scenery in North America. What's not to love about a river, cliffs, sunset light, and precarious rock pinnacles?

Arizona, Cliffs, Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Sunset, layers, pinnacle, photo

Grand Canyon Pinnacle Sunset

Gazing down upon this impressive rib of rock and this enormous pinnacle on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset, I found myself in awe of the sheer scale of it all. The Colorado River, a mile below me, reflected late light, revealing an almost chocolate coloring to it.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

As the sun parted ways with us, my mind was blown by the sheer scale of the scene before me. 

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Meandering Through the Grand Canyon

The Colorado River, a full mile below me in this vantage point in Grand Canyon National Park, reflects the last light of the day. The clouds above were a vibrant reddish orange color, which offered nice light by which the river could reflect back. The Grand Canyon is such an amazing place.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After sunset, soft light cast on the river below and the cliff walls of the canyon, making for quite a special scene to photograph.

Arizona, Cliffs, Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, Sunset, layers, photo

Carved by Erosion

The Colorado River is an amazing thing to see from the rim of the Grand Canyon. It has been carving through the layers of rock for a very long time, revealing the wonder and beauty of the layers of rock deposted throughout time.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Being the crazy adventurers that we are, Kane, Shane, and I decided to haul ourselves all the way back up there again for sunrise, which did not disappoint at all. The soft morning light made for a magical scene indeed.

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Alpenglow Grand Canyon Panorama

Prior to sunrise, diffused light bounces off of the atmosphere and hits the top of landscape features facing east. This is known as true alpenglow. It creates a soft magical light that we photographers refer to as "glow" and it is quite amazing to witness in person. It is highly rewarding. In this panorama of the Grand Canyon prior to sunrise, I really enjoyed seeing the river wind through the canyon below me as the diffused light began to light up the walls of the canyon to the west. What an amazing place to see in person.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Shane had a great time taking it all in as well!

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My friend Shane enjoys a dangerous perch in the Grand Canyon.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I was still captivated by the details found in the rock across the canyon. I could have spent hours just gazing into the various nooks and crannies of the canyon, each vantage a window into time long past.

Grand Canyon National Park, Sunrise, Telephoto, layers, shadows, photo


Using a very long focal length (560mm), I focused in on a small section of rock across the canyon from me, showcasing the light play of light-shadow-light. The Grand Canyon is a marvelous place to photograph.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Shane was pumped too!

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My friend Shane poses at sunrise at the Grand Canyon.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After our time at the Grand Canyon, we decided to head deeper into the Desert Southwest for some exploration. We had been eyeballing a location on Google Earth and using Shane's drone, we found some really amazing places to photograph. Kane, being the Google Earth expert he is, found some awesome places for us to explore. I'm confident these are places very few people have seen before. I am really fortunate to have such wonderful friends to take me with them on these adventures. I appreciate you more than you know. We of course were very careful to not disturb the desert ground as we hiked into the unknown. We did encounter some cryptobiotic soil and avoided it at all cost. 

Desert Southwest, Geology, Hoodoo, Pillar, Ribbons, Sunset, pareidolia, photo


A massive Hoodoo rises from the valley floor below me in this canyon found in the Desert Southwest at sunset. My friend Colleen Miniuk taught me about pareidolia, which is the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern or object (often in nature). Ever since learning about this concept, I can't help myself but to see things in nature that resemble other things not in nature. The geology of this place is astoundingly fascinating. I could spend a lifetime exploring and trying to understand it.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Much to our surprise, as we were out exploring, the scene changed quite suddenly and revealed one of the most explosive sunsets I can recall photographing. It was quite surreal. 

Desert Southwest, Clouds, Hoodoo, Landscape, Sunset, bounce light, canyon, vibrant, photo

Rising from the Ashes

One of the most vibrant sunsets I've ever witnessed created some pretty incredible bounce light on the landscape of this Desert Southwest scene. A massive hoodoo seems to rise from the ashes of the canyon floor below, receiving a good dose of bounce light off of the wall of the canyon below my tripod. What an intense but peaceful sunset to witness.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

The toll of the situation surrounding the Covid-19 virus had finally caught up to us and Kane was summoned back home to Denver to help his family. That also meant I was going to cut my trip short since I wanted to get home as well. One last day of exploring with Shane was that was left. The night before, Kane, Shane, and I huddled around footage of Shane's drone to see if we could find some interesting compositions on foot. Kane used Google Earth to locate some great spots and relayed those coordinates to me, which I plugged into Gaia GPS. Using the coordinates in Gaia, Shane and I were able to find this freak show of a canyon that Kane had discovered in the drone footage. We were blown away.

Desert Southwest, Erosion, Sunset, canyon, geologic, photo

Ribbons of Erosion

Soft sunset light illuminates ribbons of geologic erosion in this remote canyon in the Desert Southwest.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We were delighted to find these two small hoodoos here as well, which really provided a nice anchor overall to this composition. 

Desert Southwest, Hoodoo, Sunset, geologic, photo

Nature's Slingshot

Two hoodoos pose as a slingshot facing a geologic freak show in the Desert Southwest at sunset.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We ended the night at our trucks and I decided to set-up a star trail sequence of the canyon below. I had fun editing and creating this one using a variety of tricks and tools I have learned and discovered over the last decade of photographing the night sky. 

Night, Nightscape, North Star, Polaris, Star Trails, canyon, Desert Southwest, photo

Timewarp Canyon

When I first laid eyes on this canyon I knew it would be a blast to photograph some big beautiful star trails over it. The orientation of the canyon walls was nearly perfect in terms of alignment with Polaris (the North Star), making the concentric circles a nice match for the composition below. I actually did this one as a panoramic of sorts - I did a very long exposure of the foreground area below the sky and then panned up to capture the star trails above for two and a half hours of night sky rotation. The star trails sequence was then blended in with the foreground below. Some fun details... Stars: 30s; f/2.8; 14mm; ISO 3200. Foreground: 339s; f/5; 14mm; ISO 1600. Heaps of noise reduction.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

At sunrise the next morning, I made one last image of the scene near our vehicles and really enjoyed taking it all in one last time before the drive home to Colorado.

Erosion, Panorama, Ribbons, amphitheatre, canyon, desert, geologic, layers, photo

Desert Amphitheatre

This scene is truly one of the most insane things I've seen. I call it a geologic freak show. Erosion reveals layers that look like ribbons extending out into the desert canyon. I edited this as a panorama to give it more of a amphitheatre feeling. I hope you dig it.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I hope you enjoyed my images from this trip into the Desert Southwest. I had hoped to stay out longer, but was happy with the time I did get exploring the outdoors. Until next time...