Last week I expressed some pretty strong feelings for why I prefer the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. And while I’m not about to issue a retraction, let me just say that the relative merits of the canyon’s two sides are somewhat more nuanced. You might even say that last week’s post was authored by Gary Hart, Human Being. This week’s rebuttal will come from Gary Hart, Photographer.
Like so many arguments, the fulcrum of the Grand Canyon North/South debate is not actually the debate’s subjects, rather, it’s the definition of the argument. In this case, the difference really comes down to how you want to define “best.” If best refers to the overall experience of one rim over another—the “best” I argued for last week—then the North Rim’s simple serenity, alpine setting, and visual variety make it the clear winner. But if best only considers the actual vistas from which beautiful images can be made, then I’m afraid the nod goes to the South Rim and its supply of vast, open views of the world’s most magnificent canyon.
Many of the South Rim vistas offer at least 100 degrees of unobstructed canyon view, and some provide more than 180 degrees. (That’s pretty crazy when you consider that the horizontal field of view of my widest lens, the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM, is only around 112 degrees.) This sheer expansiveness is what makes Hopi Point a personal South Rim favorite, along with the three east-most vistas: Lipan Point, Navajo Point, and Desert View.
Hopi Point juts into the canyon farther north than any of the other South Rim vistas, giving it the broadest (easily accessible) canyon views possible from the rim. From here you can look at least 20 miles down-canyon; and up-canyon you can see all the way past Wotan’s Throne and Vishnu Temple to almost as far as the Little Colorado River confluence, more than 20 miles away. There’s even a nice downstream view of the Colorado River that’s responsible for all this beauty.
The three eastern vistas provide the only views upstream, past the Little Colorado River confluence, into the Grand Canyon’s north/south, Marble Canyon section. In this direction you’ll also find the best view of the Colorado River on the rim. Downstream the view is more than 40 miles of red ridges and towering monoliths. From Lipan Point there’s even a peek into the canyon’s Inner Gorge (well known to rafters as home to the Grand Canyon’s most thrilling rapids).
On the other hand, this abundance doesn’t come without its costs. A photographer’s job is to take all this jaw-dropping beauty and consolidate it into a coherent image, no small feat. I learned that the hard way on my very first morning trying to photograph the Grand Canyon, when I was gifted fresh snow on the South Rim, yet couldn’t manage to squeeze one usable image out of my camera (let’s blame the camera).
Fortunately, over the years, familiarity has made me more comfortable photographing the South Rim. I find myself particularly drawn to scenes that allow me to combine the Grand Canyon’s inherent beauty with ephemeral weather phenomena like snow, clouds, rainbows, and lightning. I’ve even learned to read the conditions enough to make calculated guesses at where the best opportunities will manifest. If you look at the gallery at the bottom of this post, you’ll see the product of many of those opportunities—some more calculated than others.
The image I share today came from the third (and final) of last month’s back-to-back-to-back Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. We’d started the day with a sunrise shoot on the North Rim, then packed up and started the 4-hour drive to our hotel on the South Rim. As I mentioned in last week’s post, this is such a nice drive, I usually give everyone ample time for a leisurely trip to make a few stops and enjoy the scenery. But lightning was in the forecast for this afternoon, and since we’d been shut out on our two North Rim days, I arranged for us all to meet up again at Desert View, the first South Rim stop after reentering the park. You’ll need to read the aforementioned post for the details of that shoot, but needless to say, by the time we finished that rather lengthy lightning shoot and reconvened at our hotel, everyone was dragging a little.
When I announced that we’d be heading back out for sunset in an hour or so, the response was less than enthusiastic. The enthusiasm was further dampened by the horizon-to-horizon gray clouds that threatened rain and suggested a complete sunset washout was possible. I countered with the my mantra that the best photography often comes during the worst times to be outside, and while I couldn’t promise great images if they went, I could promise no images if they stayed at the hotel.
Everything in my workshops is optional, but my speech managed to convince all but four to join me (who else just flashed to John Belushi in “Animal House”? (language warning)). Including Curt and me, we ended up with seven hardy souls at Lipan Point (six, plus one hardy soul who stayed out there all afternoon).
Sometimes Mother Nature rewards effort and sacrifice. Almost immediately upon arrival, we started seeing lightning firing over the canyon, about 30 miles distant (this is where the Lightning Trigger’s range is appreciated). But the real story this evening was the sun dropping into the rain curtain that was still delivering intermittent lightning.
The sight was so spectacular, I didn’t even mind that no lightning happened in the few minutes the sun was visible. At one point, one of the women in the group uttered almost to herself, “This is the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen.” I couldn’t argue.
(The toughest thing about this whole shoot was trying not to gush too much the next day in front of those who stayed at the hotel.)