Pic of the Week 2/28/20
“Lower Utah Slot”
Location: Palo Duro Canyon, TX
Date taken: 2/23/20
I had an incredible adventure this past weekend. I met up with my good friend and hiking buddy Steve Pemberton for an ambitious hike in the Palo Duro back country. This area is quickly becoming my favorite place in Texas. I know I haven’t been to Big Bend yet, but there is something about this canyon that keeps me coming back to discover more and more. We met up with several local hikers and all together our group was 11 hikers. Steve, Alma, Bary, Katrina, Darla, Heath, Amber, Devin, Teri, and I all met along the alternative park road 5 before beginning our ascent up Mesquite Mesa. Greg was running a little late and he met up with us closer to the top.
Our first stop was to a place I am very familiar with, the Central Utah slots. The last time I was here I photographed some nice light in the upper portion of the slot. The lower section looked to be impassible with water and mud. I was very excited to see there was virtually no water in the slot. We climbed down into upper Central Utah and I felt a sense of nostalgia as I placed my hands along the smooth sandstone walls. Hard to believe it had been almost a year since my last visit. I made my way out of upper Central Utah and ignored the amazing striations and wave-like patterns of the slot. I had my eyes set on another target. This time I was going to photograph lower Central Utah.
Between upper and lower Central Utah there is another shallow slot we call “middle”. This slot has some amazing shapes and patterns, but I have yet to find a photogenic composition of the area. I quickly bypassed middle Utah and found my way towards lower. The canyon walls started to rise as I came around the bend. Now the unmistakable “subway” feature was visible, and I followed it to the head of lower Utah slot. This slot can only be accessed (safely) by entering through the mouth (exit). This means you must traverse the sandstone and as you follow the gash in the Trujillo you can just barely see the sandy bottom of the slot. I could feel the excitement well up inside me.
After some careful navigation, I was at the mouth of lower Central Utah. The sun had already been out for almost three hours now and the sun was starting to climb over the canyon. Harsh light was hitting the cliffs off to my right high above the slot. This was the light I was hoping for. Down in the depths of the slot I started to scout out for a few compositions. I noticed the warm reflected light on the subway above the slot and how it contrasted with the cool blue shadows of the slot canyon itself. I set up my camera and tripod and took a few test shots. Though the composition was nice the light wasn’t quite where I wanted it—so I decided to sit and wait.
The light started to wrap around the serpentine curve and fall a little more on my scene, while this light was nice it was only in an isolated area of the composition and so I moved on to another photo I had scouted earlier. This time light was falling on the rock jam near the head of the slot. These rocks and cliffs were in direct sunlight and sent glorious reflected light on the walls of the slot right in front of my camera. I once again, set up my tripod, but now I was fighting to catch the light in time. I found my composition and captured a few images. I had finally photographed lower Central Utah, but I wasn’t finished there.
I zoomed in a little tighter on my current shot and found that I liked that composition was well. With the light fading quickly on the slot, I captured a series of bracketed and focus stacked images with the simpler composition. This ended up being my favorite from the lower Central Utah shoot. I love the soft warm glow of the walls in the foreground and the cool dark tones towards the mouth of the slot. High above, the subway hangs overhead and completely blocks out the sky making the slot feel even more compact. I love the mood from the lighting in this image and although it did take some extra post-processing time, I found it to be worth it.
© Ben Jacobi
The more I visit these locations the more I find myself steering away from the wide-angle shots and trying to compose a more intimate image of landscape. Sometimes you do need the wide lens, but there are times when a tighter crop simplifies the composition. I spent the next hour shooting various images of lower Utah, but nothing was quite like this photo. Being satisfied with what I photographed, I returned above the slot and waited for the rest of our hiking party to finish up their photos taking in the gorgeous canyon scenery. If you would like to hear more from this adventure keep reading, but if you just wanted to learn about this photo you can stop here.
***The adventure continues***
We gathered up our gear and made our way out of Central Utah slot. Two hikers from our party decided to turn back as they were interested in seeing other locations. This next leg of the hike would take me to a slot that I knew about but had never seen in person—Boulder slot. But before we could see Boulder slot we first must get down from the mesa. We followed an old ranch road for a short distance before it made a sharp curve around a tall mesa. Near the peak of the curve we started hiking down the steep 40% grade. Loose rock, dirt, and scree would crumble with each step we took. Were someone to slip and fall it would be a bumpy ride down.
Cell phone image
Eventually we made it down the 360ft hill and reached Cita creek. Crystal clear water ran down white sandstone boulders while storm clouds began to build to our southwest and we decided to stop for lunch. The canyon was empty and peaceful. All we could hear was the wind blowing through the grass and trickling of the creek. After our lunch we began to hike to our next target. We followed the creek to the next draw. The draw forked as we climbed in the creek bed and we took the eastern one to head to the slot. We scrambled up some large boulders before reaching another steep climb. We must now go up another 300+ foot to reach the draw. Again, the rock, dirt, and scree made the climb difficult and we took our time.
After some sketchy descents we reached Boulder slot. This slot was not as photogenic as Central Utah (though few are), but it was still a fascinating slot to explore. The light was much harsher in the slot and I was thinking I might not get any good photos. I got some decent images, but after the dynamic light from Central Utah, Boulder just didn’t feel the same. We did not spend too much time in Boulder, and we gathered our party before moving along the rim of the mesa to investigate the next two draws.
As we climbed over the mesa, North Cita Canyon came into view. Dappled sunlight hit the cliffs and highlighted the multicolored rocks of the canyon. Deep oranges, bright whites, blues, greens, grays, purples, and browns were speckled all around the canyon like the splattering of a paintbrush. This scene, so spectacular, that it must be photographed. Unfortunately, I just snapped an image with my cell phone. There are a lot of things I regret not taking photos of along this hike. We followed along the rim of the canyon to the next draw. Would there be slot canyons here?
Cell phone image
Nope. Instead we came to a huge narrow that curved its way down the drop off at the end of the mesa. The cliffs were at least forty feet tall and looked fairly photogenic. As we made our way closer, we discovered a mini slot with a hanging fin over the “slot”. Its hard to imagine what type of forces would carve into the stone but leave a thin bridge over the rock. Immediately across the way we could also see another “subway” feature. Although not nearly as large or long, this was still an exciting find. It seemed the deeper we get into the back country the more fascinating geology we come across.
Our hiking party continued east keeping close to the rim of the mesa. Storms were starting to fire up near Tulia, some 40 miles away. Our blue skies and sunshine started to become grayer and cloudier. While our chance for rain was low, it was not 0%. Our next target came into view and we started to head towards it. Another narrows, but this looked to have some slot-like features. We would need to get closer to investigate. We hiked around a segment of brushy mesquite and huge cactus passing between the desert plants. About halfway to the narrows I felt a raindrop hit the back of my neck. Soon after a torrential sheet of rain came pounding on our hiking party. This was the first thunderstorm we would be caught in that day.
Cell phone image
I scrambled to get my rain jacket and find some cover. Three of us huddled up in a mesquite grove. It did little to keep us dry, but it did stop most of the hail. Oh yea, it started hailing. Not huge or significant hail, but enough to make you take shelter from it. After a few minutes the rain passed, and we tried to regroup. Instead of going down into the narrows I stayed up top hoping to catch a rainbow over the canyon. Conditions weren’t right for that, so I made my way to the narrows and hiking group. Due to the unexpected weather we decided to dub the area “Stormy Narrows”. Stormy Narrows did have a shallow slot that stair-stepped its way down to a series of smooth channels and drop offs. Again, I pulled out my phone and snapped a few images, but nothing with my camera. Rain on a hike can really bring down morale.
Cell phone image
Now all the slots would be muddy, slick, and even more dangerous. We finished up at Stormy Narrows and began another climb. All that dirt, loose rock, and scree was now wet and even more slippery. Once we climbed back out of the narrows Bary got cell phone reception and checked the radar. Sure enough, another larger thunderstorm was heading our way. It was long at all before we were once again seeking shelter from another storm. Some of the hikers had found a small outcropping in the rock and suggested we take shelter there. We sat around waiting on the rain to pass and when it did a brilliant rainbow spread out over the canyon. And again, I pulled out my phone and snapped a few images. I was starting to get tired.
Cell phone image
Our last target for the day was the elusive Canoncita slot. No one in our hiking party had ever been to this location so we did not know what to expect. We made another climb in the dirt and mud and my legs started to burn. I knew I wasn’t going to have much energy left. We hiked for another mile before reaching an old ranch road. This would be the path that would take us to the main Canoncita slot and then we would just need to hike back out. Along the way, we decided our turn around point would be 4pm. We reached Canoncita by 4:30pm. I was tired and beat I didn’t even care too much about exploring this slot. I didn’t even take out my phone to capture any images. I was starting to check out. Instead of going back up and down Mesquite mesa we made the decision to go around it. This would add another 4 miles to our hike, but it would be on mostly flat ground. Once we got down from the mesa.
The crew finished up at Canoncita and we started to make our way down the mesa. I don’t remember too much about this other than there were a lot of tree branches we had to push through and some large boulders to scramble around once we hit the creek bed. As we hiked north towards our exit trail we came to the Landslide Lake. Somewhere between 2008 and 2012 a wall of the canyon collapsed in this area and dammed up the creek creating a 3 acre lake right in the middle of our path. We skirted the side of the lake, carefully navigating the muddy banks and trying not to fall in. Just at the end of the lake we came across a bog that had quicksand in it. We instantly searched for another path around the quicksand and thankfully, everyone made it through just fine. Although now we were less than 2 hours from sunset and we still had almost another 8 miles to hike. We quickly realized we would not be getting back before dark.
Following the dry creek we eventually met up with a game trail that took us down to Cita Creek. From Cita Creek we would need to follow it back to the east and then the north until we ran into the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River. The sun started fading fast as we hiked along Cita Creek. My legs and my spirit were done. I was lagging behind and keeping everybody of continuing on. I had to make frequent stops as my legs were now starting to seize up. Just a few minutes rest would help me continue for another mile or so. Our goal now was to reach the creek and river confluence before nightfall. We barely made it in time passing over barbed wire fences from old ranches and sharing the trail with a couple of cows.
Bary, pointed out a feature I have longed to see Cathedral Peak, but given my fatigue and with darkness closing in. I only took a half-hearted glance at the rock. Only three more miles to go. The sky started fading into the night and soon starts were visible overhead. The wind started to pick up which prompted me to put on my jacket. Maybe under different circumstances I would have appreciated the quiet night, but I just wanted to get back to my car. After another mile I was done. I had to stop my legs started cramping and I couldn’t go on. Some of the other hiker were gracious enough to give me some of their water and a few provisions. This gave me just enough energy to get through the rest of the hike.
Hiking by the light of our headlamps, we came to our last hurdle—crossing over the river. Steep muddy banks prevented us from finding a way around. There was a very sketchy looking log that fell over that we could possibly traverse, but I knew I couldn’t do it in my condition. I went off to search a little further upstream of the river and I found the legitimate river crossing not a few hundred feet from our location. “Huge logs!” I shouted back to the group. Bary came over and confirmed this was the crossing he was searching for. Now we just needed to straddle the log and inchworm our way across the river. Everyone made it across just fine and our reward was a familiar trail and the peace of mind knowing we were less than two miles from the Equestrian parking area. The hard part of the hike was over. Now all I had to was put one foot in front of the other and just follow the leader.
We made it back to the Equestrian Trail in just under an hour. The time was now 10:30pm. We were cut up, muddy, wet, smelly, tired and hungry—at least I was. Finally, after almost 15hours I was not hiking. I lied down on the picnic table with my entire body throbbing. Bary graciously continued on from the Equestrian Trail to his vehicle and picked us up and drove us the .8 miles back to our cars. I sat there in the driver seat of my 4Runner just trying to digest everything that happened today. There were times where I thought I was going to spend the night in the canyon. But thankfully, our hiking group kept pressing everyone on. I am so grateful for their patience and understanding. Instead of making the four-hour drive back to Wichita Falls I got a hotel for the night. I got to take a nice hot bath and let my muscles soak and I got to sleep in a cozy bed. I learned quite a bit from this hike, and I gained a new respect for the Palo Duro Canyon and natives and settlers that once lived there.
If you would like to see more of this adventure Steve Pemberton has a couple of videos up of our hike. You can find them here: