How the West Was Won

By Nathaniel Smalley

The American Southwest, a land of raw elements and rugged terrain, a place where only the hardiest wildlife and plants survive. This corner of the world has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries. Once known as the great frontier, it drew settlers from all corners of the world seeking to make it their home. Today we read in history books about ‘How the West was won’, but my recent travels throughout Arizona and Utah would indicate that the wild west is anything but tamed. While crowds of tourists surely pour down its main highways in the summer months, just over the distant hills remains a land of unexplored beauty and silence. There the sun rises and sets over a stunning landscape, painting shadows in the corners that act as a supporting cast to the elaborate sandstone formations.
This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest. I was recently asked by Arizona Highways to lead a Best Of The West Photo Workshop for them in April of 2018, this was the perfect opportunity to scout for that upcoming itinerary and fill out my portfolio in those areas of the State.

My adventures of the season took me to countless iconic destinations across the gorgeous Arizona landscape. Monument Valley has long been known as the back yard playground of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, most notably John Wayne. Standing there overlooking the vista dominated by towering rock buttes that are illuminated by the setting sun one quickly realizes why many have been so easily drawn to this magical place.

The beauty of this region extends below the earth’s surface as well, deep into narrow slot canyons that have been forged by flood waters rushing over the sandstone for centuries. These powerful torrents carry rocks, logs and other debris with such force that they carve out fantastic underworld realms that are incredible places to explore and even better to photograph! During the Spring and Summer months sunbeams occasionally make it down through the top of the canyon walls painting the walls with light and revealing their amazing textures and patterns. Walking through the chasm one can often hear the call of a Raven perched by the top echoing through through the passage, or that of a Great Horned Owl if you’re lucky!

The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there during the season when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth burdened by the weight of time was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that dose justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.

Another location that I photographed during this whirlwind tour was the beautiful Canyon de Chelly. Here a towering sandstone spire rises up 750 feet from the canyon floor reaching to the sky. The Navajo Nation has a fantastic legend about Spider Woman surrounding this formation that would impress even the most dedicated comic book enthusiast. Sunset overlooking this valley is unforgettable.

No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.

The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Best Of The West Photo Workshop you can find complete details at this link. Three spots filled the day it was announced and space is limited. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my group and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!

Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops


Hunt’s Mesa: A Sacred Place

Author:  K. Meng Tay

This past week I was a trip leader on an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop to Monument Valley and Hunt’s Mesa with LeRoy Dejolie.  This workshop not only provided magical photo opportunities, it left me with a lasting impression

We disembarked from our vehicles about 100 yards from the top of the mesa. Our acclaimed Navajo photographer and author, LeRoy DeJolie, addressed the group (not exactly in these words): “This is a sacred place to my ancestors. This is where my grandmother lived without water or electricity. As we walk to the top I want you to look down and not open your eyes until I told you to do so.”

We stood next to each other at the top of the mesa, our eyes still closed. When LeRoy told us to open our eyes, there were a plenty of “oohs” and “wows” and even some tears. Before us was one of the most majestic views that all of us have ever seen.Hunts1

The above panoramic picture is a merger of 8 shots taken at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO 200. Post-processing with Lightroom 6.

It was about 3 pm when we arrived at Hunts Mesa. You couldn’t have asked for better conditions for photography – majestic view, interesting subjects, good lighting, plenty of clouds. The Spirit of Hunts Mesa had welcome us.

Storms clouds started to form when I took this shot below at 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO 100. Within an hour or so, the clouds turned dark, indicating imminent rain.


It rained as we were getting ready for dinner. John Holiday, our outfitter and his team, prepared a dinner that is worthy of a Michelin star. Don’t let the anglicized name fool you. John is as native as the dirt and trees in Monument Valley. The name Holiday was given to his grandfather by a white man when he could not spell his Navajo name. His team of cousins and nephews performed flawlessly taking care of our group of 19. They drove us on treacherous terrains that required four-wheel drive vehicles and caused many of us to close our eyes.

The team prepared our meals, set up our tents, and cleaned up after us. They educated us on Navajo culture and customs. An often misunderstood and mistreated group, this team exceeded everyone’s expectations. Praises overflowed.

The rain was a blessing in disguise as we will see later. As we retire to our tents, the patter of the raindrops was trying to soothe us to sleep. As if to comfort us, a full-moon appeared. Like a night-light, it guided us to where we need to go when mother nature beckons. To top it all, the stars appeared and shined brightly at us. A glorious night indeed.


What a scene when we woke up in the morning. We are up in the clouds! A convergence of rain, temperature and other weather conditions filled Monument Valley with fog. We were in a perfect spot, up on Hunts Mesa, to see this rare phenomenon – a blessing to any keen photographer. This shot was taken at 1/200 sec, f/9 at ISO 100.

As we broke camp, the fog rolled in amongst us. The Spirit had come to hug us and say good-bye. We had come to take pictures. We left not only with iconic pictures, but with great respect for the Navajos, their land, culture, customs and as fellow human-beings. Indeed, this is A Sacred Place.

K. Meng Tay is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Monument Valley: An Inspiring View from Hunt’s Mesa

Author: Megan Galope

Last May, I made the wise choice to attend the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops Monument Valley/Hunt’s Mesa workshop. It was led by renowned photographer LeRoy DeJolie, a Native American who is very familiar with the area. This workshop took us to Monument Valley several times, where we were able to photograph the Mittens, Totem Pole, and Yei Bi Chei.

IMG_9679-editedThe Mittens at Sunrise

IMG_0721-editedTotem Pole and Yei Bi Chei
We also were given a special treat when we were able to meet with Effie Yazzie and take photos of her herding her sheep with her dogs by Ear of the Wind.

IMG_0946-editedEffie and her dog Molly at Ear of the Wind arch

During the 5-day workshop, we also visited Mystery Valley and Teardrop Arch, as well as Agathla Peak.
IMG_0585-editedTeardrop Arch

IMG_9511-edited-bwAgathla Peak

The highlight of the trip, however, was the night we spent on Hunt’s Mesa. This mesa that overlooks Monument Valley is difficult to get to on one’s own, and requires a Navajo guide. The view is breathtaking, and our tents were set up so that we were able to awaken to the wonder that is Monument Valley.
IMG_0100-editedHunt’s Mesa – The view of Hunt’s Mesa from our tents.

LeRoy DeJolie was very helpful to all participants, sharing insider tips and tricks to get better images. This workshop is being offered again this May, and space is still available. You can find the details about it here: Don’t miss out on an amazing experience!

Megan Galope is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.