Grand sunsets

Grand Canyon sunsets that blew my mind

The Grand Canyon has been on my bucket list for years — with the North Rim being my dream destination. I had heard how this part of the national park was at a higher elevation, more lush and less visited.

And that sounded pretty good to me.

So I was so excited I could hardly control myself when I stepped out of my truck after two buddies and I arrived at the North Rim Nov. 2 after driving the 1,500 miles to our base in Fredonia, Arizona.

I was NOT disappointed.

Tim Stanley, James Eastham and I arrived early that morning (but too late for sunrise), with the plan to bang around and scout out a place for sunset. 

I honestly was a little surprised with how small this part of the Grand Canyon National Park is. We visited all of the overlooks — Bright Angel Point, Point Imperial, Cape Royal Point, Vista Encantada, Roosevelt Point and Cape Royal Point  — by about 2 p.m.

Of course, we took tons of photos of the impressive scenes at each location.

The only North Rim view we didn't attempt was Point Sublime, which is down a 17-mile off-road trail that apparently is pretty rough. My truck is a fairly high-clearance 4x4, but the Park Service recommends anyone attempting this trek take along a tow strap and chain saw. That was a bit much for us. 

Finally, we discussed the sunset shoot and settled on Cape Royal Point because of the impressive, curved wall of Wotans Throne. This huge formation is located next to the overlook, and faces sunset — which meant that wall would be hit by some gorgeous evening light.

The only thing missing were clouds, which had pretty much dissipated as the day wore on.

Of course.

However, we weren't going to miss sunset at the most famous hole in the ground, so we spent a couple of hours in the overlook parking lot, resting and chatting.

Finally, we packed our gear (including some jackets, since the temps were going to plunge as the sun set) and headed to the end of the trail. 

I set up for my first Grand Canyon sunset on the tip of a rocky outcropping that overlooked Wotans Throne at Cape Royal Point. BTW, I really wasn't as close to the edge as this photo makes it appear. Photo by James Eastham

The perch I chose was at the tip of a rocky point that provided an unobstructed view of Wotans Throne and the nearby Thor Temple. I chose my Sigma 14mm Art lens, an ultra-wide-angle option that allowed me to compose the scene so the wall of Wotans Throne would curve along the left side of the frame, while Thor Temple would still be included on the right side.

It was perfect.

Tim set up next to me (although not quite as close to the edge), while James chose a different vantage point.

Some really nice clouds built up behind us as sunset approached, so I started keeping an eye on them. Often amazing color happens 180 degrees from sunset, and I didn't want to miss out.

And then we waited.

Sunset arrives

Finally, as the sun approached the horizon, a few sparse clouds appeared on the western horizon. They weren't much, but it was encouraging.

Tim and I began taking shots, ensuring we had nice composures and everything was in perfect focus.

We both were using very small apertures (in my case, f/16) to create sun rays. This is a great technique that adds interest to photos, especially when the sun touches the horizon.

Sure enough, as the sun began descending behind the distant horizon, amazing rays spread across the canyon. I love how the rays (seen in the photo at the top of this blog) point to Wotans Throne and Thor Temple, really drawing the composition together.

The formations took on a rose-colored cast as the soft evening sunlight washed over the gorge.

The final print was perfect!

The back shot

I looked over my shoulder to see the clouds away from the sunset turn pastel pink, so I quickly rotated my ballhead and composed the scene below to include another formation that stretched from the Cape Royal Overlook toward the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

Everything about "Cape Royal Sunset" is perfect. The leading lines of that towering formation leads the eye to far wall of the canyon and the mountains in the background. The colored clouds running diagonally from the upper left corner also pull the eye into the frame and provide real depth. And, of course, the rugged side of the Grand Canyon wall adds tons of texture.

Topping it off is that amazing light on the front of the formation.

An unexpected bonus

And then the color drained from the sky. Tim and I stood on that point of rock, quietly debating whether we should pack up or stay a few minutes. The light in the Southwest is so crazy and last so long, but it seemed it was all over. 

So we started to pack our gear up — and then I looked up and saw some clouds right over the horizon burst into color again.

I quickly put the camera back on my tripod and switched lenses to a Nikon 24-120mm f/4. The light on the face of the canyon wall was spectacular, and the formation known as Thor Temple was nicely backlighted.

So I zoomed in to created "Sunset Over Thor Temple," framing the shadowed canyon with the gorgeously colored sky.

I can't decide which is my favorite print from the shoot — they all are really special in their own way.

What I can say is that my first sunset at the Grand Canyon won't be my last.