For nearly ten years Chris has been trying to get me to join him on one of his trips to the US. For some reason I am always dragging my feet and coming up with excuses, most of which are based on the winter temperatures involved as he is usually over there for ski shoots. This year was no different, Chris was scheduled to be at Snowshoe Resort in West Virginia followed by a quick stop in Colorado. As always the temperatures were in their extremes with a couple of minus 25 days during Chris’s ski shoot at Snowshoe, but it seemed they would be slightly more bearable in Colorado where the forecast was showing a temperate minus 3. How could I refuse?

When you are married to someone who jetsets across the world armed only with a bunch of cameras, a roll of gaffa tape and a woolly hat, there comes a time when you have to stand tall and put your best foot forward. (Though in my case my feet weren’t going anywhere until I had my fluffy white eskimo boots packed – a gift from one of Chris’s previous attempts to get me into winter climes – which Chris insisted I bring and which I vehemently denied I would ever wear). Regardless, my bags were ultimately packed and I was on my way to Colorado where I would meet Chris in Denver before driving through to Vail. Expected elevation – 8,120 feet, current temperature – minus 1 degree, risk of developing frostbite if I didn’t wear my stupid eskimo boots – high.

After a couple of days off in Vail – which was just as gorgeously glitzy as I had imagined – and a quick shoot in Avon, it was holiday time! We were hitting the highway and heading south with the intention of exploring Utah, we had ten days up our sleeves before our homeward flight out of Las Vegas and a huge American 4WD rental at our disposal.  Think BIG – “his and hers” air conditioning, fancy stereo, heated seats, cruise control… (All of which was of no use whatsoever when we slid off the side of the road on Scenic Highway 24 just out of Hanksville during a snow storm)! Not as scary as it sounds, we had actually pulled off to take a photo but the snow was covering a very thick layer of silt-like mud which coated our tyres and meant we weren’t getting up the bank and back on to the road any time soon. Considering the town motto was “Where the hell is Hanksville” it was fortunate we were able to wave down a couple of pleasantly inebriated and very friendly locals who went home to get a chain (of the towing sort, not the tie them up and torture them sort) with which to pull us out, whew!


Our first photographic stop: Glenwood Springs, Colorado. 

Our first stop after leaving Avon was Glenwood Springs in Colorado.  This was a location Chris had visited before when he hiked up to Hanging Lake in the summer, but it was while having coffee in a tiny and very quirky café called “Sticky Fingers” in Minturn that we noticed a stunning picture on the wall of Hanging Lake in winter.  With a little research we discovered the hike was passable with the addition of some chains to provide grip on the bottom of our hiking boots.  A bottle of water and a few energy bars later and we were kitted up and ready to go.  Climbing the steep track through snow, over black sheet ice and alongside some fairly steep cliffs was a fast introduction to America’s great winter landscapes and the best way to set the adventurous mood of our holiday.  The weather was fairly warm at about 4 or 5 degrees by midday, so the waterfall was not fully frozen but still stunning nonetheless.  After patting myself on the back for such a sterling effort making it up the steep climb, the ‘fun’ part was actually on the way down, the results of which were felt for the next few days!


Hanging Lake, Glendwood, Colorado.

From Glenwood Springs we continued across the border and into Utah, first stop Moab.  We could have spent weeks here, not just the three days we allowed ourselves.  Driving alongside the winding Colorado river with vertical red cliffs all around it was hard to know which way to look, so when Chris suddenly pulled off the road telling me to “come quick” and leapt from the truck, I thought he’d seen a body or something floating in the river!  But no, the light was hitting Castle Rock in the distance and we needed to photograph it – like right now, before the light disappeared!  Good photography is definitely all about timing and light, and Chris is never one to miss an opportunity…

Castle Rock, Moab, Utah.

Moab is a wealth of scenic sights with Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park headlining the numerous natural rock features prevalent in this area.  We spent most of our time simply driving around and exploring (at one point taking an hour to drive the 14km stretch of road alongside the Colorado River from our suite at Red Cliffs Lodge into Moab due to our many stops) followed by a full day at Arches National Park.  The park contains the largest number of natural stone arches in the world (over 2,000) and features a scenic drive that twists and turns through a seemingly endless landscape of dramatic and ever-changing sandstone rock formations.  We hiked and climbed and explored and photographed, not wanting to leave when the sun finally set and darkness sent us home.

Delicate Arch, Moab, Utah.

Landscape Arch, Moab, Utah.

 Chris photographing inside Double Arch.

View from Double Arch.

View from our riverside suite, Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab, Utah.

For me, part of being on holiday was leaving my phone turned off and reverting to non-digital forms of entertainment.  Which meant hunching over a paper map in the evenings deciding where we were going to drive the next day.  We chose the scenic back routes 24 & 12 from Moab to Bryce Canyon, via Capitol Reef and the Boulder pass at 9,600 feet, and set out full of enthusiasm – despite the pending snowstorm.  The roads are so well maintained in the US with ploughs out from daylight onwards that driving in the snow was more pleasure than pain.  (Other than if you leave the road of course, which we learnt the hard way early on).  But other than that one mishap, driving through the winter wonderland of snow laden trees and pillow topped fence lines was like something out of a story book.  We explored little walkways and scenic routes when we came across them, and travelled in the constant hope we would find a decent NZ style coffee at any of the tiny towns we passed through (drop in to Eklectica in Moab or Café Soleil in Zion for the best offerings).  Along the way everything looked so attractive covered in snow I even found myself photographing the public toilets at every rest stop!  (Of which there were many – Chris being concerned I would suffer altitude sickness he had me drinking gallons of water every day).

One of the many charming rest rooms I visited on the drive…

We duly arrived in Bryce Canyon catching our first glimpse of this spectacular national park, and the red “hoodoos” this area is known for, through a curtain of falling snow.  Caused by seismic activity around 50 million years ago, the ornately carved and vermilion hued cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau have sustained ongoing weathering – from rain, streams, ice, snow and wind – working separately on the different rock layers to leave rock pillars, windows, balanced rocks and other eerie and sometimes human-like formations bunched together in an ‘amphitheatre’ style setting.  With the wind whipping the snow into stormy flurries the views were wild and moody.  And to top it off, I was in my eskimo boots and loving it!  (Don’t tell Chris I said that).  It gave me an excuse to stomp through the 2 or 3 feet of fresh powdery snow (lighter and finer than anything I had ever experienced), ignoring the cleared trails and instead forging my own path just like the explorers of old… well, in my lime green snow jacket and pocket hand warmers I was a more modern version – but you get my drift.

Our first glimpse of Bryce Canyon National Park as the snow blew around us, Utah.

The following day dawned bright and clear.  It had been the biggest snowfall they had experienced all season and the park looked magical.  Days like this and I can see why Chris loves his job (and why we drove through a storm to get here).  I was already up to photo number 4,287 – give or take – though my hit rate is possibly not quite as good as Chris’s.  But with both of us madly snapping away it was taking a long time to get anywhere fast…

Calm and still the following day…

One of the many natural formations, Natural Arch.

And a drama filled sunrise the following day…

Chris as always, busy on the end of his camera.

Next stop was Zion National Park where we had booked yet another “off-season-discounted-rate suite”, this being the largest one at 1000 square feet!  Frustrated by the overcast weather during our stay here, we nevertheless made the hike up the Canyon Overlook trail only to be stunned by the view from the top which we wouldn’t have appreciated if the sun was out in full force – the valley was very steep so the left hand side would have been in full shade.  I would have liked to spend more time here exploring some of the longer hikes and trails in the park which promised not only spectacular scenery but seemed fairly intrepid as well.  Oh well, next time!

The overlook at Zion National Park, Utah.

From Zion it was back to civilisation (if you could call a night in Las Vegas an accurate representation of civilisation) before our flight home to New Zealand.  Considering the US had never been on my list as a “must-see” destination (having been there as a 16 year old and driven the West Coast with my parents, I didn’t feel there was much else I was missing), I was surprised at just how much the US had to offer – considering we only saw a small portion of it – and how sad I was to be going home.  As kiwis we tend to blow our own trumpet a bit and I always thought we had things down pat when it came to welcoming tourists and putting on a good show.  I have had to eat some humble pie, amongst all the other delicious meals we had over there, in recognising how well the US do so many things.  From the roads (no road works, no boy racers, no traffic cops, and everyone drives to the speed limit) to the people (best example; the carpark attendant who asked if we’d like to hear a song, and proceeded to play his guitar and sing us an original song from his ticket booth as we left the parking building), to the scenery (our mountains are little hills compared to these), to the accommodation (we stayed in suites at every stop, ranging from US$125 to US$179 per night), to the prices (US$27 to fill our truck with petrol, $3 for a 24 pack of mineral water), to the food (best meal; coconut shrimp at Bubba Gump Shrimp in Las Vegas)…  Everything was spectacular and I can only hope Chris will try and drag me over there again, fluffy white eskimo boots and all!

Chris and I enjoy the scenery in Moab, Utah.

A few of my “holiday snaps”…

 Photos and text copyright Chris and Catherine McLennan.
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