Palo Duro’s Slot Canyons

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.

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Palo Duro Canyon Panorama November Morning 1 : Prints Available

Morning light shines across the Palo Duro Canyon area, turning the rock a pink-ish orange and the sky pink and blue hues. Far below, our car sat, and we’d made the first part of our climb to explore the hidden Llano Slot Canyons.

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.

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Palo Duro Canyon Rim Sunrise 1 : Prints Available

On a hike to Palo Duro’s secret slot canyons, we paused at the top of the canyon rim to take in the cool November sunrise. The valley of this amazing state park stretched out below us, but we had miles to go before the real payoff – the Central Utah Slot Canyons.

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.

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Morning at Upper Central Utah Slot Canyon 2 – Palo Duro : Prints Available

Sunlight streams over the cliff’s edge and we are on the edge of Upper Central Utah Slot Canyon. From a tiny crack in the ground, we made our way down from this point into the most beautiful section of these pristine slots.

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Morning at Upper Central Utah Slot Canyon 3 – Palo Duro : Prints Available

Pink and blue sandstone shows its colors as sunlight begins to fill the beginning section of the Upper Central Utah Slot Canyon in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

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.

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Llano Slot Canyons – the Upper Slot 3 – Palo Duro : Prints Available

Formed from the rare but repeating rainfalls in the Palo Duro Canyon area, these Llano Estacado slot canyons present a beautiful experience for those fortunate enough to explore them. I was gifted the opportunity by two friends who knew the area well. In this particular slot – known locally as the Upper Central Utah Slot Canyon – the morning sunlight of a cool November day turns the sandstone shades of orange and pink and purple. This area is virtually untouched by humans, and there are no signs of human interference in this pristine portion of the Texas panhandle.

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Llano Slot Canyons – the Upper Slot 2 – Palo Duro : Prints Available

Texas slot canyons are rare and beautiful. While most folks may be familiar with those in Arizona and Utah, they are not aware of these creations in their own Texas backyard. This image shows Central Utah’s Upper Slot Canyon, one of the hidden secrets of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Formed by infrequent rainfall but rainfall that occurs and causes flooding in the same locations over a long period of time. The sandstone, usually found between 3100 and 3200 feet in elevation, gradually erodes and forms delicate striations and curves. This slot is one of the Llano Slots and resides in the Llano Estacado.
The hike to reach this location covered 9 miles by the time we’d gone out and back, and we were able to explore three different slot canyons. Each slot had its own unique look, and when the morning light of this November day was overhead, the indirect light turned the sandstone walls of the canyon hues of orange and purple.

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.

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Central Utah Lower Slot 3 – Palo Duro : Prints Available

The Central Utah Slot Canyons are located in a remote and seldom seen portion of Palo Duro Canyon. The beautiful rock structures are found in a series of three slot canyons – Upper, Middle, and Lower Slots. This is a view of the Lower Slot Canyon as warm morning sunlight filters in through the sandstone walls. Over the course of an hour, the walls seemed to change from a purple glow to an orange glow as the indirect sunlight progressed through the canyon.

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.

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The Subway – Palo Duro Canyon : Prints Available

This rock formation – unknown to most visitors to Palo Duro Canyon, and even to many of the park rangers – is called ‘the Subway’ by some of the locals who have visited this location many times. Located just above the Central Utah Slot Canyons in a remote region of the park, this beautiful rock structure has been cut by erosion from wind and rain.

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,

Rob
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My Happy Place

As a husband and father of two little girls, I don’t have much quiet time. And apart from spending time with my wife and kids or a select few close friends, I generally prefer time by myself. I get asked occasionally to meet up with a photographer to go shoot somewhere, and while it sounds ok, I’d mostly just rather enjoy a quiet morning by myself and shoot whatever comes my way. I stay away from photography clubs and meet-ups. Shooting with 5-10 other people sounds like torture. My wife says I’m just anti-social. I embrace that 🙂

With that said, I often find retreat at sunrise along the Pedernales River. I live only about 25 minutes away, and this little oasis of a state park is one of my favorites in the Texas Hill Country. I know most bends of this river as if I was raised along its banks. I generally know where the sun will be rising and setting depending on the time of year; I know when and where the autumn leaves will be the most brilliant; I know where I can shoot for the best effect – even in the middle of the rapids.

As fall approaches, the leaves of the cypress will be turning colors in about a month, and at this point the trees look full and healthy. I have high hopes that this year’s color change will be beautiful, especially after the last few disappointing years. This past week I was out one morning before sunrise and even found a few new perspectives that I look forward to trying in mid-November.

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Pedernales October Sunrise 1014-3 : Prints Available

Glorious morning light welcomed me on this October sunrise along the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country. The soft light added a tint of orange to the cypress, making them appear ready for their Autumn colors. I had to get a little wet in this image. Standing in the middle of the river will do that!

I’ve added an underwater, waterproof case for my camera to my photographic options, which makes from some interesting perspectives. I’ve got a ways to go before mastering this technique of showing both underwater and above ground views, but it shows promise and is certainly unique. When the nearby fish cooperate, it makes for pretty amazing results:

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Pedernales River – Sunrise with the Fish 1 : Prints Available

This split image was captured just after sunrise along the Pedernales River. Captured with an underwater filter, small fish swim beneath the surface of the calm, cool water in this pool. Overhead, a beautiful sky welcomes the last day of September on a perfect morning.

Regardless of when or what I shoot, I do enjoy my time along this river. I’ve seen it at raging and destructive flood levels, and I’ve seen it as it is now – as a trickle. Some of the cypress that I photographed last week still had debris 15 feet up in their branches from the flood a few years ago. In the quiet and as I attempt to tread lightly on these cool mornings, I am sometimes privy to wildlife sightings. I’ve seen raccoons, armadillos, wild hogs, countless lizards and frogs, buzzards, goats, and even a few rattlesnakes. I’ve seen a lot of fish in the pools along the river, too. I’ve only brought along my fly rod one time, but one of these days I’ll bring it again and try my luck at angling.

For now, I’ll enjoy my quiet time out there, from the time before sunrise to climbing some class three boulders to get the perfect angle. Pedernales Falls is one of my happy places.

Vaya con Dios, my friends,

~ Rob

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Hill Country Morning at Pedernales Falls

I don’t know if anyone reads these blog entries, but I write them for Google search engine optimization (SEO) and as a way to share a little about my experiences. This past month, I haven’t had much time to shoot for myself, but a few days ago, I finally had a chance to visit one of my favorite places in the Texas Hill CountryPedernales Falls State Park.

I live fairly close to this state park, and I feel I know parts of the river basin like my own back yard. I’ve photographed this stretch of limestone canyon too many times, but I still return here because it always seems to look a bit different based on water flow and lighting. And in this blog entry, I’d like to take you through my morning in a chronological order, sharing both actions and thoughts. Should you choose to read this, I apologize ahead of time for the flip-flopping back and forth between present and past tense. So here goes:

4:45am – I never used an alarm clock. I look over at the digital readout and contemplate whether I’m getting out of bed now or in three hours.

4:50am – I roll out from underneath warm covers, walk to the large windows in the bedroom, and look out at the clouds. If it is clear, I’m staying home. If it is cloudy, I’m back in the sack, too. I look up. The sky is a patchwork of white clouds. It has the potential to be a nice sunrise. So I crawl back in bed, knowing my eventual fate.

5:01am – Back out of bed – clothes on – and into the kitchen

5:17am – Out the door – Moonshine Mango Tea and a peanut butter cream protein bar in hand, along with a tripod, lens, several flashlights and an L bracket (for vertical oriented shots) in my backpack.

In the dark of the car, I turn on the radio and put on Coast to Coast AM (590AM), but the guest is Nancy Sinatra, and I don’t care. I’d rather hear some good conspiracy talk about bigfoot or UFOs. So I turn on a Nancy Griffith CD to keep me company.

5:51am – Arrive at the park headquarters for Pedernales Falls State Park. I stop and fill out the form using my parks pass. I can barely read the small print on my parks’ pass. I hold the card at arm’s length and this helps bring the small numbers barely into focus. They should give me a permanent pass since I’m here so much, but rarely when anyone is actually manning the shop. My visiting hours are before sunrise or at sunset. I know they need the form, along with my parks’ pass number, filled out because this helps keep track of visitors as well as helps with funding.

5:58am – Arrive the parking lot. Surprise! I’m the only car in the parking lot. Just the usual, I think. Out of the car, and the coolness of the air hits me. This is glorious – I’ll need long sleeves! First time this season. I put on my headlamp, my military grade flashlight in my pocket, turn on the GPS, and with my backpack strapped on, head down the path to the overlook. From the overlook, if it was daylight, I’d have a commanding view of the landscape and the falls as the river flows west to east. As it is, the moonlight illuminates the valley below in a soft light – enough light where I could probably make it down to the river without a flashlight.

6:10am – I start the trek upstream – going over boulders and across small sand bars. The river is low, so I’m not anywhere near the water. I know this place well, I think to myself. Up and down a few larger gulleys, with sand slipping into my shoes, and I’m close to one of my favorite spots.

6:22am – I realize I’ve gone too far upstream. Everything always looks a bit different in the dark. I double back and head towards the water. As I approach the river, I can hear the rush of small cascades. I also realize the river is lower than usual, so I won’t have to wade across the stream to reach the rock from which I want to shoot.

6:30am – There is a dim glow on the eastern horizon. I want to shoot with a moonlit landscape, so I know I’d better hurry. Jump across a few small washes, walk along a sandbar, then some Class 3 rock climbing/scrambling takes place as I go up and over a limestone wall. I’m pretty good at this, I think, and drop onto a large layered rock where I can look both west and east and see the river in both directions.

6:36am -The sky in the east is a beautiful dark orange shade and its beginning to glow, but I’m shooting west at one of my favorite bends in the river. Using the L-Bracket, I quickly take a few long exposure test shots using an 11-24mm L lens. I get the lighting right, then proceed to take 6 vertical images that I’ll stitch into a large and wide panorama to show the beautiful curve in the river. I shoot this scene several more times, each with a different focal length, to ensure I don’t have any regrets in post processing.

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Pedernales Morning Moonset Panorama 1 : Prints Available

Shooting west at sunrise in Pedernales Falls State Park, the sun turns the clouds a beautiful pastel shades of orange and blue against a brightening morning sky. This September panorama shows one of my favorite places to photograph the Texas Hill Country. In the sky, the nearly full moon can be seen setting as the sun begins to rise on the opposite horizon.

Comprised of 9 images, this photograph can be printed large – at least 9 feet wide – and will show plenty of detail. For larger and custom sizes, please do not hesitate to contact me.

6:59am -Then I turn and shoot to the east to capture the perfectly calm water and high clouds that are beginning to show orange and blue color. I’m always amazed at the beauty of this place – and the sky – and how fleeting these colors are.

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September Sunrise at Pedernales Falls Panorama 174 : Prints Available

One of those perfect moments between night and the break of day, this panorama comes from the rocky limestone banks of the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country. The water was calm, and I could see Guadalupe Bass gliding in and out of the rock below. In the distance, coyotes were howling. All in all, it was a pretty nice morning.

7:03am – I return to shooting towards the west. The clouds this direction are pink and blue and have a nice reflection in the water. I can also see large fish swimming about ten feet beneath me (I’m on a rock overhang with my tripod feet at the very edge of the ledge.)

7:13am – I finish here and know that this is the official moment of sunrise. But I also know I have time to shoot the actual sunrise because it’ll be at least 20 more minutes before the sun rises over the cliffs. So with more scrambling, I’m up, over, and back down large rocks to a different location and shoot again towards the west.

7:21am – While I’m setting up, I can hear the howls of coyotes in the distance. First, one lone coyote cries out, but is soon joined by the yips of several more. It is a distinct call in the country that I’m very familiar with. The sounds remind me of growing up in the country, as well as time spent more recently at my parents’ ranch on cool autumn nights.

7:42am – I find myself on the top of a very large boulder – probably about 10-12 feet off the ground and I scramble up the side of this large limestone rock. On top, the surface runs off at an angle, so I adjust the legs of my tripod to steady the camera. I’m set up, focusing on rocks, an oak tree, and the river behind it. In the distance, the sun will soon rise over the cliff. I want to capture the moment the first light descends into the valley. I know with the lens I have, that first light will create a beautiful starburst for the final image. So I wait – and I wait and wait. Sunrise always seems to take longer when you are waiting for it. Finally, the moment arrives. Got the shot. Time to climb down and follow the light. So I’m back in shadows – a little closer to the cliff – and wait for the sun to again reach over the cliff and light the area I’m at.

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September Sunrise at Pedernales Falls 173 : Prints Available

As one of my last images taken on this perfect Texas Hill Country morning in September, this photo shows the sun peeking over the cliff as high clouds begin to fade overhead, giving way to a deep blue sky. Beneath my perch, the cool, clean waters of the Pedernales River wind their way through the limestone canyons in this sanctuary not far from my home.

8:19am – After three moves and capturing three different perspectives of sunrise, my time here is finished. Walking back – across sandy areas, over rock formations, and finally up to the parking lot. I see a mother and baby wild pig. I wonder what a baby wild pig is called. A wild piglet? Just don’t want to get between mother and piglet. What’s great is I didn’t see any people at all until my walk back to the car – and I appreciate the solitude.

8:42am – Back at the car. I think about how cool it was then I reminisce about my summer shooting for my Colorado Gallery. But now is home time. Time to play with my little girls.

It was a nice morning – rejuvenating for the soul and for my mental health. I always feel closer to God out here, too – certainly closer than inside the 4 walls of a church while a preacher talks at me. And I know I’ve been blessed with this 4 hour escape. It was a peaceful time, beautiful sunrise, and a moment I’ll take with me.

Vaya con dios, friends,

~ Rob
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