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The Christmas holiday has been spent with my parents since 2007.  Mainly because family is the most important thing in my life, but also because I want to be sure I maximize quality time with my Mom and Dad while I still can.  Life is so short and if you fail to make the time for those you love, you may find yourself in a place you did not wish to be!

My trip from Denver to northwest Phoenix has become rather routine, in that I follow a couple of common routes.  The last few years, I have also made it a tradition to choose a location in Grand Canyon National Park, to create images.  I do this mainly because the crowds will be substantially lower than during the Summer months, but also because I have found that weather conditions (for me) seem to be more favorable for good photography.

As I started researching light using The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I found that the dates I was planning to drive down would be Waning Crescent to New Moon, so no moonlight may allow for some night-sky photography of the Milky Way over the canyon!  Using The Photographer’s Transit, I set up a few different subject locations to see how that would play out with the setting sun on Saturday night as well as the rising sun on Sunday morning.

Using Weather.gov to check out the forecast temperatures, wind speeds, cloud cover and humidity as the departure date approached, the conditions were indeed looking favorable for night-sky photography on Saturday night.  While I’d have loved to been at the Grand Canyon for sunset on Saturday, that would not be feasible given my schedule leading up to departure.

I had social engagements Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to the departure.  Normally, I would have left on Friday morning, but the Christmas party on Friday night was one I did not want to miss.  I have been traveling quite a bit in 2014 and my friends have been on the wrong end of no social engagements by Pete!!

The Christmas party was fun! Wish I had been able to stay a while longer, but I did have to be up early, so I could get on the road at a reasonable hour.  I made it home and was in bed by 11pm, alarms set for 5:15am & 5:30am.  I must have been tired because I slept hard and actually awoke 15 minutes ahead of my first alarm.  Knowing I had a long drive ahead, I got moving early and was able to get on the road by 6:30am, a full 30 minutes ahead of my planned departure.

My stopping point was to be Cameron Trading Post.  I had booked a room (inexpensive at $82/night!) there, accepting that I’d have a longer drive into / out of the park for night-sky photography as well as lesser sleep for morning twilight and sunrise.  The traffic leaving Denver metro was minimal at best and I made very good time all the way to Del Norte.  Made a quick pit-stop and was then off to Cortez to fill up before heading across the Navajo Reservation to Cameron.

A very uneventful drive, all in all.  I arrived at Cameron Trading Post at 5:10pm, topped off my fuel so I would not have issues with fuel needs when nothing would be open.  Drove the 30 yards across the lot and parked, walked to check into the motel and was greeted with locked doors and a sign in the door stating “We are closing at 5:00pm on Saturday, December 20th for our Christmas Party…”   Uh…Okay…What the heck?!  I searched for an open door or someone who was working the “motel check-in,” but found nobody.  Great…

Walked by to my vehicle, got on my smartphone and looked up the Holiday Inn Express in Grand Canyon Village (Tusayan, AZ).  Booked myself a room, at $100 more per night, and started making my way to Tusayan.  Wanting to be sure I acquired some images, I drove straight out to Hopi Point first to do a little night sky photography.  I had every intention of returning a little later when the Milky Way would be more visible and where I hoped it would be, based on use of Sky Guide and Stellarium, but did want to be sure I got “some” night-sky photography done in the event I was too tired to return.

I was pleased to find that there was almost no breeze and the temperature was fairly reasonable at +39F.  What I had not hoped for was a little more humidity / haze in the high atmosphere which made the sky a little less spectacular.  Not being one to allow a little hiccup to break my plans, I still set up and created a few images.  As my parents always said as I was a young boy “practice, practice, practice!”

Mastering (and I hesitate to use that term) or rather “becoming reasonable facile” in night-sky photography skills takes time and practice, so any opportunity to increase my skills and add more to my toolbelt will be undertaken!!  It was about 6:30pm when I arrived at Hopi Point and normally about 2 hours after Twilight is when the skies are dark enough to catch good images.

My first image had two aircraft pass through the image.  Not exactly what I was desiring, but hey…you get what you get, especially around the Grand Canyon, which is directly in the flight-path for LAX and other airports along with west coast.

Flight Under The Stars

The new few images I took really did not dazzle me, so I decided I would drive to the Holiday Inn Express, get checked in, grab a quick bite to eat and then head back out to Hopi Point.

I knew there would be a fair number of people filling the hotels in Tusayan, but I was not prepared to see that nearly all of the hotels / motels were filled!  Certainly glad I booked my room before I left Cameron or I may have found myself having to skip staying nearby altogether.

Got checked in, took my duffle bag to the room then headed to get some dinner.  After eating and attempting to get on the Internet at the motel to check Weather.gov one more time before returning to Hopi Point.  Unfortunately, CenturyLink has not done much to increase bandwidth or capacity to Tusayan and Grand Canyon Village.  The Mayor has written a letter which was laminated and prominently displayed in my room (and I suspect every room in Tusayan) elaborating as such.  SO, I headed back to Hopi Point with the knowledge that conditions would be much like they were earlier.

Driving the speed limit back to Hopi Point was definitely wise.  A few deer and one cow elk along Hermit’s Rd were enough to catch my attention.  Once at Hopi Point, I got set up and started creating images.  Again, the humidity level or slight haze was just enough (to me) to make anything really stellar less possible.  The first image “Distant Galaxy over The Inferno” came out reasonably okay.

Distant Galaxy over The Inferno

A few adjustments and a reduction in shutter for the next shot provided for the best of the night.

Night Sky over Hopi Point

I tried a few more over the next 10 minutes or so, then feeling I had practiced enough, I packed up and headed back to the hotel.  I wanted to get the first round of post-processing done for the images, so I could start Sunday morning off on a clean memory card (maybe I’m a little OCD.  I do have four 32GB 1066x Lexar CF cards, so it’s not like I couldn’t just swap out CF cards).

Rolled through the first round of post-processing and got into bed around 11:15pm.  Since I had a much shorter drive, I could afford to sleep a little longer and still be able to get out to Hopi Point by 6:30am, well ahead of morning twilight.

The bed at the Holiday Inn Express was pretty darn comfortable (or I was just exhausted from driving 705 miles (roughly).  My body woke up on its’ own at 4:55am (seeing a trend here?), so I got a move on.  Departed the hotel at 5:30am and arrived on location at 6am.  Perfect! Still dark enough to do some early morning ‘night-sky’ photography leading into morning twilight and eventually sunrise.

The calm winds and comfortable temperatures of the previous night were gone; it was +19F (according the the temp gauge on my 4Runner and my Garmin Tactix GPS watch with Garmin Tempe external temperature sensor) and winds probably in the 10-12mph range.

The first bunch of images I created were not really working for me.   Perhaps my brain needed more coffee?  Finally at 6:34am, the first worthy image was created:

Stars & Clouds

Thoroughly enjoyed having Hopi Point all to myself for about 45 minutes.  Suddenly, cars started pulling in like crazy.  I guess folks wanted to get ready for twilight, but just barely!  I was all set up and creating my twilight image, which was a long-exposure (longer than normal by a little bit, but intentional in nature).  Twilight at Hopi Point, shot at ISO100, f/16 for 105 seconds came out pretty good.  Love the detail!!!

Twilight at Hopi Point

About 10 minutes later, the sky lit up and was absolutely stunning!  The majority of people were shooting directly to the East, towards Mather Point and likely missing (in my opinion) a good composition that included more of the Grand Canyon.  I was pointed more northerly in direction and with my 16-35mm zoom set to 16mm, the next image I created was one of the best of the day!

Hopi Point Glow

With the sky all a-glow, I shot a few more images varying from Portrait to Landscape to be sure I had my bases covered.  The light was changing quickly and sunrise was not far off.  As the last bit of light faded, sunrise occurred.

A Hopi [Point] Sunrise

Sunrise over and the light blowing out any details, I packed up and began to make my way around to Hermit’s Rest, stopping at Pima Point and then Hermit’s Rest, mainly to scout the location using my UWA lens (for future trips) then back towards Tusayan stopping off at Mohave Point for one last set of shots.

As I walked out towards the point, the scene played out in front of me in black and white.  I knew this composition would have to be!  Black + White work is starting to become a main-stay of my work.  Perhaps the mixture of work in color & B+W is good for the mind!?  Keeps the skills sharp, for sure.

Olde-School Grand Canyon

My brain was screaming at me…”Hey, have you forgotten about coffee?  Helloooooooo!”  I started to walk back towards the 4Runner, but saw one last composition that had to be created.  The shadows, highlights and colors required I make one last image.

Shadows, Highlights and Colors!

Satisfied that I had enough material, I packed up my gear and made my way to Tusayan.  McDonald’s coffee sure helped and while not the healthiest of meals, an Egg McMuffin certainly made my stomach happier.

Nearly every trip to my folks place involves going South on I-17 out of Flagstaff, so this time, instead of taking 180 over to Flagstaff and down, I went directly to Williams, then West on I-40 to Ash Fork, then South on AZ-89 through Chino Valley, Prescott, People’s Valley to Wickenburg and into Sun City West.  Tired as I was, I made sure to stay up until I was absolutely out of gas, then crashed (yes, it felt great to lay down!)

2014 has been a fantastic year.  Perhaps I should add a couple of these images to my 2014 – Best of…post?!