Pic of the Week 1/17/19
Location: Palo Duro Canyon, TX
Date taken: 1/13/19
© Ben Jacobi
Wow! What an amazing and exciting trip I had to Palo Duro Canyon this past weekend. My good friend and photographer Jaden Corbin joined me on this little adventure. Although nothing really went our way we still got to an unbelievable location and came back with some awesome photographs. To really understand the significance of this image I must go a few years back. I can’t tell you exactly when, but somehow, I came across this discovery on the internet. Palo Duro Canyon had incredibly photogenic slot canyons. I had been to Antelope Canyon earlier that year and understood firsthand the photogenic qualities of slot canyons. But since I don’t live close to Arizona or Utah I would have to settle with something just a day’s drive away.
After some research I came across a blog that was almost entirely dedicated to the slot canyons of the Llano Estacado (https://www.caprockcanyoneer.wordpress.com) and I was blown away by his photographs in these Palo Duro secrets. Naturally, I reached out to the Caprock Canyoneer, but he did not respond to any of my messages. After experiencing one of these places myself, I now understand why. So, I spent a few years reading his blog, checking topo maps, and cruising over satellite images looking for the elusive Palo Duro slots. I was able to locate and mark them on maps, now I just needed to visit them. It was going to take some endurance and skill as reaching these amazing canyons usually means extensive back-country hiking totaling around 10+ miles. Some are even longer distances.
When I was planning this trip I was originally going to hike some of the other slot canyons with my friend Steve (https://www.stevethenomad.com) but due to commitments to work, the uncooperative weather, and half the park being closed for a controlled hunt, we decided to postpone our hike. I had already planned to visit PDC and was planning to visit my friend Jim Livingston who lives in Amarillo (https://www.jimlivingstonart.com) so I decided to go ahead with the trip. After some coaxing, I convinced Jaden to join me. Jaden had never been to Palo Duro Canyon before, so I was excited to share it with him. We left Wichita Falls around 3pm Saturday afternoon. After a long 3 hour drive we turned on Hwy 207 heading south from Claude, TX. I wanted to reach the infamous 207 overlook by sunset and let Jaden take in the landscape. This overlook places you on the rim of the canyon and offers incredible photogenic views of the canyonlands down below. There was just one problem: we missed the sunset by ten minutes. We were so close, but just a little too late. We still managed to snap a few images during the last bit of light and the blue hour, but just before dark it was time to get settled in the for the night and get ready for tomorrow.
I introduced Jaden to Jim and we talked for a few hours before going to sleep. We were going to wake up early and be in the park by 7am. The forecast did not look favorable for the photography we wanted to capture, but we headed out anyways. Early that morning a thick layer of freezing fog moved through the area. The drive to the canyon was crazy. I could only see about 50 feet in front of me and ice accumulated on my windshield as we drove through the fog. Eventually we reached the park and the gate was open. I paid the entrance fee and we drove to our first stop—the El Coronado Lodge/Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center sits at the top of the canyon rim and overlooks the valley below. The view here is truly astonishing, but we really couldn’t see all that much as the freezing fog was thick through the canyon. I had never seen the canyon like this and I took advantage of it and shot off several frames of the foggy scene. We finished up at the visitor center and made our way down into the canyon. As we were driving the fog started to lift and by the time we got to the trailhead parking lot we were almost entirely out of fog. The overcast clouds did still stick around, however. We gathered our gear and began our hike along one of the designated hiking trails. For the next three miles we hiked along a series of trails that took us to a dry creek bed. That was our cue to turn off trail and follow the creek bed.
It’s always fun to go off trail, but you must be familiar where you are going and have a plan. We followed the creek bed until turning north up a specific side canyon that was guarded by a field of massive sandstone boulders. We traversed the rocky surface passing amazing Quartermaster sandstone formations and walls. The boulders grew larger and larger and soon we began our ascent up the rockslide. Hopping from boulder to boulder I am familiar with from hiking in the Wichita Mountains, but the granite rock I’m used to differs from the smooth sandstone here in the canyon. Needless to say, I took my time scrambling and navigating through the boulder and choke stones. Finally, we arrived at the entrance of the slot canyon. I looked up towards the slot and saw the metal ladder that was left in there. One needs to scale a small dry waterfall to enter the slot and the water erosion has made it nearly impossible to do without a ladder or rope of some kind.
We climbed our way into the slot and it became perfectly clear just how amazing this secret canyon is. The smooth sandstone was sinuously carved by frequent rushing water and evidence of wave patterns, whirlpools, and water levels were all around the canyon walls. Strips of silica and mica were imbedded in the sandstone and shone like bright diamonds even in the dull overcast light. The slot took multiple curves following an “S” shape pattern I remembered from satellite images. In some sections we would climb or descend as much as 10 feet in the narrow passageway. The striated sandstone walls narrowed to a point that made using a tripod quite difficult. But after some exploring I found my composition and an area to set up my tripod. There was so much beauty in the slot even with the cloudy skies overhead and it was difficult to narrow down a composition that would make visual sense. Once I found it, I set up my camera and waited to see if any of the light would change. There was the occasional thinning of the cloud layers sending diffused warm sunlight through the slot. Although it is nothing like the early morning reflected light that creates unreal shades of orange, red, and purple on the sandstone walls.
We were more than happy with our shoot and I believe we came back with some great images. Though I did have to spend extra time and care post processing this photo. I had to focus stack to get the closest canyon wall and the furthest canyon wall in focus. It took a total of 4 images to get the depth of field I wanted for the shot. Each image was focused on a specific part of the canyon going from closest to farthest and then blended into a stack in Photoshop. It took a lot longer, but the result is a razor-sharp image all the way though the photo. You can almost feel the sandstone walls just looking at the image. We finished up in the slot canyon and made our way back to the creek bed and then eventually back to the main trail. All in all, we ended up hiking almost 9.5 miles for these photos and it was worth every step!
Because of the sensitive nature of this canyon it will remain a secret that only a few people know. I will not reveal any specific details about the location. While hiking through the slot we found some litter and rock carvings on the sandstone walls. The less people that know about it the more likely we are to preserve this natural wonder. Now if the desire to see this yourself is just too much, I suggest doing your research and studying up as much as you can. One more thing—slot canyons are extremely dangerous and should never be visited during or immediately following rain! If you decide to venture out to the slot, please be careful and be respectful. Pack in what you bring out and leave no trace. I am hoping to complete more PDC slots later this year maybe I will have better lighting and timing for those. Either way, it was amazing to finally visit this canyon and get a great photograph that I have longed to capture for almost two years now.