As a kid, my parents used to take us to national parks during summer break. The western landscapes we toured were so different compared to where we lived on the east coast and each one left me in awe as to how varied and amazing our natural world could be. One place so incredible in its splendor is the Grand Canyon and even after a handful of visits, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the place. With our road trip landing us in Flagstaff, Arizona for a while, it was an easy choice to make the short drive for a visit.
I really enjoy astrophotography and have wanted to take astrophotos over the Grand Canyon for some time. Through a bit of research, I found that that north rim would provide a nice perspective, giving me a full view of the southern sky.
It was still early spring and road access to the area wasn’t open for the season, so a plan to backpack from the south rim to the north (and back) was set in motion. With warm layers packed and too much food rationed, I set out on a 4-day mission to gaze at the stars from the other side of the canyon.
Descending via the South Kaibab trail, it was almost impossible to take my eyes off the stellar and ever-changing view in front of me. Despite having been to the canyon before, the nature of this visit made it all feel very new and different. Descending through the strata, one quickly realizes how easily a fellow hiker turns into a tiny dot against the towering and distant walls.
The hike down to the river didn’t take long, but the descent of over 4,800 feet made my calves very aware of what was happening. With a grin on my face and knowing I had a big day ahead of me, the sun wasn’t down very long before I zipped up my sleeping bag in Bright Angel campground and lulled into slumber by the sound of the nearby stream.
The day started on an easy grade, which meant the majority of the 5,700’+ elevation gain was being saved for the final miles. Things slowly ramped up into steep, eroding switchbacks that made you earn every step. Stopping for water, you can hear the trickling of loose dirt and rocks down the surrounding hillsides, reminding us that the terrain in this area is far from settled. As we rose up through the canyon, the views back down valley only got better as we gained elevation, making great excuses for frequent breaks along the way.
As progress slowed, the eagerness to reach the top of the canyon welled up inside, knowing that making it to this high point didn’t even mark the halfway point of the journey. Maintaining a steady pace, we managed to make it to camp before sunset. Finding a site that looked out over the canyon, we heated up dinner while pitching our tent in the ever-present breeze. Kicking back and taking it all in, being on top of the north rim couldn’t have felt better.
Our trip timed well with the new moon, meaning the stars would have a greater presence in the sky without having to compete with a lot of light pollution. Photographing the Milky Way was one of my primary interests in taking night photos up here, so we were able to enjoy an extended nap before it rose above the horizon a short while after midnight.
Different rock outcrops stand out against the sky and offer great spots to sit and take in the view. During daytime you would be hard pressed to spot them, but off in the distance, a faint glow radiates from different buildings dotting the south rim village. Standing atop the rocks, the milky way arched gracefully through the skies overhead, rising above what little cloud cover there was.
With our mission accomplished and energy reserves fading, the return to camp went by in a blur of pine branches as they passed through the narrow cone of my headlamp. Back at the tent, hot drinks helped shield us from the chill of the early morning air as we truly allowed ourselves to relax. High up on this arid plateau, the wind rustling through the treetops reminded me of the roaring brook far below from the previous night.
This was one of those mornings I chose to forgo the alarm and sleep as late as I could under the coniferous canopy that graciously blocked the morning sun from our camp. My first thoughts of the morning were filled with memories of the previous night’s exploration and curiosity as to how the photos would turn out. Naturally, the next thought was: coffee.
We took our time packing up camp, enjoying a relaxed morning in this beautiful, remote location. At this point, there was no rush or hurry to be anywhere and we could simply go with the natural pace of the day. Patience is one of those virtues that has always been more of a challenge for me, and with 14+ miles to make it back down to the river camp more than a mile below, there was nothing left to do but embrace it and put one foot in front of the other.
Quick Astrophotography Tips:
-Scout locations ahead of time: This is one of the most invaluable things you can do to prepare for a shoot, especially one at night. Make sure to have some of the below-mentioned apps loaded up before you head out. They will prove to be invaluable tools in assessing the night sky ahead of time.
-Get away from the city: The further you can get away from city lights, the less light pollution you will have to deal with, and the brighter the stars and milky way will shine in your images. The western states seem to have more breathing room between populated areas, though the eastern part of the country is far from off limits to astrophotography.
-Add a foreground element: This is something I mentioned last time and I bring it up again because I think it’s that important. Often times when composing a landscape we focus too much on our main subject and isolate it from the surrounding environment more than we might need to. Working with foreground elements can bring a scene together and make it feel more cohesive. So get the shot you have in mind first, and then try variations that pull in other elements from the surrounding environment.
Recommended Tools for Night/Astrophotography:
-the widest-angle lens you can get your hands on, ideally with an f2.8 aperture
-MoonSeeker: gives you details on the status of the moon for today or any day in the future. With stats like moonrise and moonset times, moon phase, 2D and 3D displays of the moons’ position and path through the sky, it’s really handy, fairly inexpensive, and pairs well with their app SunSeeker.
-Star Walk: this phone app is always a crowd pleaser. Point your phone up at the sky and find out what star or other heavenly body you are looking at. It also shows the milky way very clearly. The best feature is the ability to move forward in time to see where things will be positioned at a certain time of night. When scouting a location during the day for a night shoot, this is invaluable in assessing how the milky way will line up with the rest of your composition.
Johnny Roadtrip aka John Lloyd is a road tripping, desert-loving, outdoor photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. With a camera and a cup of coffee, John loves to explore the magic and wonder of the desert southwest, bringing back images and stories to inspire others to get out and create their own adventures.
Follow along on the journey on Instagram @johnnyroadtrip.