In my opinion, Texas has one of the most diverse landscapes anywhere in the United States. As my photography business has grown and reached more people across our great state, I’ve had several unique opportunities pop up, and the latest happened this past week – and only reinforced my opinion about the amazing and varied terrain that exists across the Lone Star State.
I was contacted last spring by Todd who runs an incredibly informative blog (with amazing images) called the Caprock Canyoneer. Todd grew up in the Texas panhandle and knows that area and its history better than nearly anyone I’ve met. After months of going back and forth, he arranged for use to meet up with another of his friends, Barry, and explore what they called the Central Utah Slot Canyons – a part of the Llano Slots – located in the remote parts of Palo Duro Canyon.
I rolled into the parking lot before sunrise on the Friday after Thanksgiving – probably around 6:45am. We were supposed to meet up at 7am, and I am never late, especially when afforded an opportunity to shoot in a special location such as this. Not one minute after my arrival, my two new friends pulled up in a black Silverado. They are early, too, and I like that! Having never met in person, I was wondering how we’d work together while covering land without trails. But upon the first handshake and greeting, it was clear these were two genuinely nice and down-to-earth guys. No pretenses; nothing to hide. It was almost as if I’d known them for a long time already.
Back in our cars, I followed them to pullout where we’d leave our cars and begin our hike. Because of the pristine condition of the slots, I cannot divulge the location of our adventure. These slot canyons do not appear on the park map, nor many other maps that I know of for that matter. At one point on our return, Todd and Barry took me by a small canyon closer to the road they called the “Hall of Shame.” This small canyon was filled with graffiti, names carved into stone, and even a monkey face etched into the rock. It was, in a word, deplorable. And it showed why you can’t trust everyone with such natural beauty. I realize that not every person would deface the land, but some will. And I’ve encountered this both in Texas and in Colorado, and it only takes one selfish person to ruin a rock formation that took a million years to form.
After parking along the canyon floor, we readied our gear – cameras, tripods, and lots of water and Gatorade – and began our first challenge – a 600+ foot ascent of the nearest canyon wall. At one point about ¾ of the way up, the clouds turned an amazing pink and blue as the first light of daylight spread across the valley below.
They had warned me there were no trails we’d follow, and they were right. So up we went, hiking the easy parts and scrambling up the more sketchy inclines. But within 45 minutes we were atop the canyon rim, and it seemed all of Palo Duro Canyon spread out beneath our feet. The views were amazing, and through the trees on the canyon’s edge, the first rays of sun filtered through.
And with that, we were off again – heading across a mesa covered in mesquite and tall, dried grasses just high enough to hide the cacti and fallen tree branches and whatever else slithered underneath our feet. Finding my way across this nondescript landscape where everything looked the same in all directions would have been nearly impossible without a GPS or an expert tracker. But still we walked – for many 45 minutes or an hour. I really don’t know as time seemed to stand still and we dodged and weaved our way through the trees and across the grassy land. After more twists and turns, suddenly we stood on the edge of a box canyon.
Peering down into this unnamed box canyon, I wondered how we’d descend further, but slowly and methodically, Barry followed a series of natural steps and loose dirt. There were a few slips and skids on the way down, but eventually we made it to the wash and begin following that path for another portion of the trip. Maybe twenty minutes later, we came to a small fissure, an opening in the ground no wider than a few feet. We had arrived at the Central Utah Slot Canyons. The sun was just rising over the nearby rocky ridge, and I peered excitedly into the dark pink and purple rock that waited below.
Here, my friends explained, the first slot – the Upper slot – started. It was followed by a Middle Slot and Lower Slot. We’d shoot the first portion as sunlight penetrated the sandstone walls, then work our way down to the Lower slot for best sunlight in that location. Down inside the slots, the color was amazing. The indirect sunlight turned the Trujillo sandstone pink and purple and orange only for a few moments before the direct sunlight disarmed the vibrant and smooth colors. Here, I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
Then we were onto the Lower Llano Slot Canyon – and one particular curve seemed to glow with warm light just before exploding in direct sunlight.
Throughout our work-adventure, Todd explained the history of this amazing place. The pride of his Texas heritage, understanding of historical events, and detailed knowledge of the landscape and its features were captivating, and I only wish I could remember half the information he offered.
I could understand now why they both wanted to keep this place under the radar. We saw now signs of humans – no plastic water bottles, no discarded snack bar wrappers, and no names etched in the wall – something these days that seems quite rare.
After several hours of exploring and shooting, we decided it was time to begin the journey back. Aside from a few scratches and prickly pear thorns in my shin, the hike back was uneventful – even sliding down the canyon rim to reach the road wasn’t too bad. It was one of those trips I hated to see end. But I hope to return and hike and explore again with my friends. Until then, I’ll enjoy the fact that we live in one of the most beautiful and diverse areas in all of the United States. And for that I’m thankful.
Vaya con Dios, my friends,