While it has long been a dream of mine to hike the PCT, since May of 2011 when I first heard about it, it wasn’t until April of 2014 that I ultimately felt comfortable making the commitment to hiking the 2663 mile expanse of the trail in earnest. There were a variety of reasons for delaying my decision, a knee injury, work, relationships, etc, but the real reason was that I didn’t believe I could complete it. For a long time the Pacific Crest Trail was a pipe dream, like climbing Everest or crossing the Sahara on foot, something I would always think wistfully about while others actually did it.
In April of 2014, I found myself with a six week hiatus from my show at the time, ABC Family’s Chasing Life, and decided to take an expansive two week trip through the four corners region of the American Southwest. My sister and nephew, free for a week because of Spring Break, decided to fly down and join me, and, with me wanting to share the places I’d fallen in love with over the last few years of hiking and exploring, we set out for a desert expedition that was both inspiring and enlightening for all of us.
Our first stop was Zion National Park, in Southwestern Utah, one of my favorite places on Earth and a natural layover point from Los Angeles. We arrived after nightfall and set up camp, and immediately upon landing, I became intoxicated by the smell of wood fires and budding spring leaves in the icy early spring air. We set up camp quickly, and then I insisted on a walk under the half moon to look at the stars and embrace the night air. We hiked a mile up the Pa’Rus Trail, along the banks of the Virgin River, saw a gray fox and several deer, and, when it got too cold for my sister and nephew, they returned, while I stayed beneath the stars taking photographs.
The following morning, we rose early, and I took them to the Emerald Pools, the first trail I like to hike upon arriving in the park. It’s an easy, 6 mile loop, and a good place to introduce people to the park, I’ve found.
Immediately, they were hooked on the park, and we opted for a second day there, where I led them up the Virgin River to the Wall Street section of the Narrows, the infamous corridor where the river cuts through 2,000 foot high walls on either side, and light only touches the bottom for a few hours each day. It was an enriching experience, and while it was my second attempt at the Narrows, it was the first time I’d felt like I’d been able to capture it in photographs. We spent all day in the 40 degree water, floating my nephew downstream in his dry suit and playing the “zombie game” whereby we tried to stay ahead or behind all the other hikers in the river (fun for the boy, and necessary for my photography).
We left Zion that night, and raced down to Page, Arizona, where I’d purchased tour tickets for Antelope Canyon, where I had long dreamed of shooting (as have most other photographers I’ve met). I took the special “photography tour” offered by http://www.navajoantelopecanyon.com, a smaller, more intimate experience specially catering toward professional photographers. I took the two-canyon tour, first exploring Rattlesnake Canyon, then Upper Antelope Canyon, two notorious slot canyons on Navajo Land, only accessible with a guide.
We left that afternoon and popped down to Horseshoe Bend, another place I’d never seen, hiking the two miles out to the notorious bend in the Colorado River. I sat on the edge of the cliff face and felt engulfed by the vast expanse of sandstone and dark green water, before finally pulling myself away to continue our journey south, to the Grand Canyon.
The next day, after taking in the views at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we continued on to Monument Valley, a treat for the film fan in my sister. We took photos at John Ford’s Point, and stepped out onto the iconic stretch of Highway 163.
Our next day found us at Canyon De Chelly National Monument, on the Arizona/New Mexico border, where we drove the rim and took a guided horseback ride deep into the canyon. One of the most inspiring aspects of the entire trip was gaining an appreciation for Navajo culture, and seeing the history and vibrance of the people carved from the land which I’d grown to love so much in the past few years.
The next day I dropped my sister and nephew at the Albuquerque airport (following an impromptu drive-by of a few Breaking Bad locations), and turned north, to Mesa Verde. It was still cold on the mesa, and stormy, and at one point I found myself taking shelter in the Cliff Palace ruins from an unexpected hail storm. I returned to my car cold and wet, but thoroughly inspired by the ruins and the mysterious history of the place.
I continued on to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, and spent the night taking photos of the milky way beneath the blood-red moon of a lunar eclipse. The peacefulness and solitude of the Needles has always drawn me to it, and the next day, hiking out to the Confluence Overlook, where the Green River pours into the Colorado, I decided, finally, to embrace the idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
There were a few reasons for my decision. Firstly, that day was April 15th, the two year anniversary of my best friend Erik’s death back in Iowa, which was in many ways the catalyst for my seeking solitude in the outdoors in the first place. Secondly, it was my longest hike to date, as I wound up turning the 8 mile Confluence Trail hike into a 24 mile hike down to Chesler Park and back, which was the first time I’d seriously pushed my physical limits since my knee surgery the year prior. Thirdly, I had begun to grow complacent in my photographic and hiking endeavors, revisiting the same places and taking the same kinds of photos. I needed a new challenge, I needed to push myself even further.
I left the Needles the next morning, and drove straight to Arches National Park, where I sought out another photographic landmark, Delicate Arch. I waited for nearly three hours to get a clean photo of the Arch, without any of the hundreds of other tourists impinging on my shot, but I eventually got several that I was happy with.
Satisfied, I moved on to the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands, only to find that the campground was full, and I was facing a long search for a new place to camp. Fortunately for me, a retired couple from Montreal invited me to share their camp, and even cooked me a delicious meal in their camper van, dubbed their “Sherlock Home,” because it took them on a voyage of discovery, and because it was their home for nearly six months. It was a beautiful gesture, and I was extremely grateful for their hospitality.
I got up early the next morning for another stop on my photography bucket list, Mesa Arch at sunrise, and spent a few hours with a dozen other professional and amateur photographers, in a rather surreal experience, talking shop and taking ultimately very similar photographs.
I left Canyonlands and proceeded on to my final stop, Capitol Reef National Park, where I’d read about the beautiful orchards and looked forward seeing the spring blooms on the apple and cherry trees. I left my campsite with the intention of a taking an easy stroll along the Fremont River, and wound up hiking nearly 17 miles without water, trying to cover as much ground in the criminally underrated National Park.
I slept soundly that night, and in the morning made the long, 12 hour drive back to Los Angeles, with a heart full of love for the Southwest, and a new goal to pursue, one that will officially kick off one year to the day after my decision to hike the PCT.
Most of the photographs in this blog are available to view or buy on my photography website: www.daturaphoto.com