The Richest Square Mile on Earth
My home is in Gilpin County, Colorado. The county seat is Central City. In Central City, a large sign proclaims it, “The Richest Square Mile on Earth.” This title was bestowed in 1859 during the Colorado Gold Rush, when so much gold was mined in Central City, that it literally became—however briefly, until the veins were exhausted—the richest square mile on Earth.
I have my own version of the Richest Square Mile on Earth in terms of landscape photography….
The Island in the Sky is one of three divisions of Canyonlands National Park, a 45 minute drive north and then southwest of Moab, Utah. The Island in the Sky is so named because it is the surviving mesa table top with 1,000 foot cliffs overlooking canyons carved over millennia by the Colorado River flowing westward from the Rocky Mountains and the Green River meandering on its way south from Wyoming. These two great rivers meet at the Confluence just south of Grandview Point at the southernmost tip of the Island in the Sky.
My version of the Richest Square Mile begins at the famous Mesa Arch. The trailhead for Mesa Arch is a 7-mile drive south of the Canyonlands Visitor Center. The drive crosses The Neck a half-mile after leaving the Visitor Center. Driving across The Neck, one can look down 1,000 foot drop-offs on both sides of the two lane road. Climbing through a beautiful, curving rock cut through the Entrada Sandstone, the road tops out on a grassy plain. After several miles of easy driving, a series of switchbacks occurs just before reaching the Mesa Arch trail head parking lot. The hike to Mesa Arch is not long—only about half a mile—it only feels long because of the heavy gear one is carrying and the early hour. To get to Mesa Arch for sunrise photography, I generally rise about two hours before sunrise and reach the trail head about an hour before sunrise.
In 2006, when I first visited Mesa Arch, it was still possible to be alone at sunrise on a winter day. Not long after, however, Mesa Arch became a zoo at sunrise any other time of year, complete with tour buses. I literally have had foreign visitors crawl under my tripod, as well as overlapping their tripod legs with mine. For a digital camera shooter that’s not so much of a problem if one can work completely from the rear of the camera, but to set the aperture and shutter speed on my mechanical shutters, I have to move around to the front of the camera before making each exposure. This is not easy to do in a crowd.
In the past decade, I usually avoid the sunrise crowds at Mesa Arch, choosing to hike in near of half an hour after sunrise. The sunrise rush is over when I arrive, with only a few lingering photographers and tourists, and the calmer atmosphere is much more to my liking. There is still a glow on the underside of the arch and the midground and backgrounds are not so backlit, meaning the sky will appear blue instead of a background of haze or white sky. The sun is more to the southeast, especially in winter, so the lighting angle to the northeast is more cross-lighting than back-lighting. More to my liking.
In 2006 to around 2012, one of my favorite things to do in the whole world was to photograph Mesa Arch at sunrise, then hustle back to my SUV and drive as quickly as possible over to the viewpoint at Dead Horse Point State Park, the next mesa top to the northeast. I would arrive around 8:30, just in time to catch the rising sun as the shadows receded to the Colorado River and the mesa centered in the horseshoe bend (not that horseshoe bend). Cross-lighting for about an hour at that time of day was perfect for a polarizing filter to bring out the bold red color. I made one of my favorite photographs during the winter after a snow, producing a picture color-dominated by red sandstone, white snow, and the cobalt-blue high-altitude desert sky.
[Digression: After photographing at Dead Horse Point, I would head back to Moab for a hearty breakfast, and then cruise the two hours south to Monument Valley to spend the afternoon scouting and getting ready for golden hour of photography to cap off a very long, but absolutely spectacular day.]
So, Mesa Arch and Dead Horse Point—two locations in my Richest Square Mile on Earth. But let’s get back to Mesa Arch.
The next nearest world-class photography location to Mesa Arch is Green River Overlook. Green River Overlook is just past the Willow Flats Campground, 1.3 miles as the raven flies, from the Mesa Arch trail head. The view over Soda Basin from the overlook is rivalled (IMO) only by the views from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This is absolutely a jaw-droppingly amazing view and is an fantastic sunset location.
A mere 3.3 miles (raven again), to the north-northeast, along the road to the Upheaval Dome, is a pull-off for a little known (except among photographers; this location is not advertised in the Park literature because of its sensitive archeological nature) trail to the False Kiva, an alcove weathered out of the sandstone cliff where ancient Puebloans and Utes sheltered from the elements. The hike to False Kiva takes about 30-45 minutes and involves a little bit of scrambling down and up drainages, some steep and rocky switchbacks, and a final climb up a semi-steep embankment. This hike can be treacherous if the slickrock is wet. The view from the back of the alcove, with the rock circle of the kiva in the foreground, the silhouette of the alcove ceiling framing the view of Soda Basin, and Candlestick Butte, is both amazing and haunting, especially near and just after sunset. The awareness of ancient peoples, the immense passages of time—both geologically and in human scale—and the solitude and stillness are profound.
Unfortunately, in 2018, vandals damaged False Kiva, and Park officials instituted new rules making it illegal to enter the alcove. Such a loss.
So, four locations, and counting—Mesa Arch, Dead Horse Point, Green River Overlook, and False Kiva.
The next favorite location in my Richest Square Mile is Shafer Canyon, directly opposite the Canyonlands Visitor Center. Cross-lighting here is best right at mid-day, as the view is directly east. You can explore a quarter mile or so down the rim to find your preferred composition. There is a canyon wall on the left to act as a leading line into the composition, lots of details in the midground, and the eye-catching La Sal Mountains to lead the eyes upward through the picture. Clouds, shadows, and the amazing nature-carved landscape combine for a fantastic Southwest scene.
The final location in my Richest Square Mile is Buck Canyon Overlook, 3 miles due south of the Mesa Arch trail head. Buck Canyon is, to me, the most challenging of these scenic locations, and I have not yet achieved a photograph from this location with which I am totally satisfied, probably because it has just been lower down the priority list compared to some of the other locations discussed above and my early penchant for leaving Island in the Sky by mid-morning to reach Monument Valley in time to photograph late afternoon.
To sum up, six locations—Mesa Arch, Dead Horse Point, Shafer Canyon, Buck Canyon, Green River Overlook, and False Kiva (when open)—comprise my own personal Richest Square Mile on Earth, photographically speaking.