"Sedona Moonrise Glow" - The Sedona landscape glows after sunset as the moon rises above Lee Mountain
Stephen Girimont

Stephen Girimont

Owner, The Intimate Landscape, Fine Art Prints

Return to Sedona: Day Four

Wild coyotes force me to change my sunrise plans, but the sunset went exactly as predicted.

Day four of my return to Sedona began with a serious miscalculation. For some reason, I thought the sunrise was going to be an hour earlier than it was so I found myself sitting in my car in the dark with time to kill. I was parked at the first of two parking areas that gave access to a set of trails in southern Sedona. Since I had coffee and a book with me (on my phone), I decided to simply occupy my time by reading rather than head back to the hotel.

About 10 minutes into my reading, I heard the sound of a coyote howling off in the distance. It sounded far enough away to be of no consequence, so I didn’t really give it any further thought.

As soon as I could make out that the sky was beginning to get brighter, I got out of the car and popped the trunk to retrieve my camera gear.

That was when the coyotes attacked.

Well, OK, maybe “attacked” is too strong a word. “Scared the living crap out of me by howling and barking and generally making a ruckus all around me” is kind of long and wordy, but that’s what happened.

I swear these coyotes decided, when I pulled up in the parking lot, to surround me and see if they could make me stain my britches. That must have been what that one coyote howling in the distance was saying. “Hey guys! Let’s make this chump poop his pants!”

While I didn’t end up in need of emergency laundry services, I was pretty gosh darn startled to put it mildly. As I swung my head around, my headlight was catching the glowing eyes of what seemed to be at least a dozen coyotes in the dark pretty much completely surrounding me.

“Hot Flying Salt!” were not the words that came out of my mouth, but what did come out began with those letters. Discretion being the better part of valor, I slammed the lid of the car trunk closed, jumped back into the driver’s seat and proceeded with all the bravery I could muster to hightail it the heck out of there. I figured a mile of distance between me and my erstwhile canine companions might be enough, so I headed up the road to the second parking area for the same set of trails I was planning to hike.

But now I was facing a bit of a problem: my plans for my sunrise image were well and truly trashed and the sun was quickly approaching the eastern horizon.  I didn’t have much time at all to try to figure something out in the dark. I knew there were rocky cliffs to my left and right and it would be the ones to the right that would be lit by the sunrise. From previous trips to Sedona, I knew just enough about my location to know which trail led up-hill and hopefully to an opening in the landscape to give me a view of those cliffs.

In the gloom before sunrise, not even yet twilight, I was able to make out just such an opening as I was hiking up the trail and I decided to set up my gear to see what I could capture. The fact that I can shoot long-exposure images in the dark gives me the chance to see if I’m in a good location or not before I can determine that with my own eyes. That test image I created has now become the second image in my “Twilight Sedona” series:

"Twilight Sedona #2" - Cliffs above the Yavapai Trail in Sedona in early morning twilight.

What this test image showed me at the time was two things: I could probably do better with the foreground, and there were some clouds building over the cliffs that might hold a great deal of promise for the sunrise, if only I could get into position in time. Turns out I could and I did:

"Yavapai Sunrise" - Colorful clouds at sunrise hang over the cliffs of Yavapai Vista Point in Sedona, Arizona

A change in position of just a few hundred feet further up the trail led me to a foreground for my composition that looked like a garden. The dirt, still dark red from the rain the previous evening stands in stark contrast to the greens of the trees and the light blues of the Agave plants which can be seen. And above all are those clouds which my test shot revealed to me and which caught the sunrise light just as I hoped they would.

Later that morning, when examining the image I had captured, I became curious about those Agave plants which can be seen and decided to take some time that afternoon and scout them out for a possible image later. But my evening plans for this day were already set based on what my weather apps were telling me about the conditions I could expect around sunset. And those plans involved getting into position below the very cliffs I had captured that morning.

Here were the conditions I was expecting and what they meant for my plans. The clouds from the morning were supposed to clear out by the end of the day and rains the previous evening meant the sky should be clean and clear. The nearly-full moon was also going to rise above the horizon in the east a bit before sunset and should be in an excellent position to capture in an east-facing composition.

The sky conditions to the west would also hopefully be just right for the post-sunset phenomena known as a “twilight arch” to form. A twilight arch is the warm, yellow-to-red glow on the horizon before sunrise or after sunset when skies are clear. When particularly bright, it can serve as a light source of it’s own to light up the landscape. It’s very warm color also has a particular effect on the rocks around Sedona: they can glow.

"Sedona Moonrise Glow" - The Sedona landscape glows after sunset as the moon rises above Lee Mountain

I arrived on location to capture this image a good two hours before sunset as I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to place my camera. Hiking along the Yavapai Vista Trail until I came to a spot with a good view of Lee Mountain in the east, I pulled out my phone and used the PhotoPills app’s Augmented Reality setting to visualize where the moon would rise over the mountain and where it would be about 20 minutes after sunset, which is when I expected the glow to begin, if it were to happen at all.

Using the app helped me to determine were best to place my tripod and all that remained was to enjoy the evening and hope that there weren’t any clouds blocking the western horizon that would prevent the twilight arch from forming.

Luck was with me this evening, however, as everything came together perfectly. The glow was simply unbelievable and lasted far longer than I thought it would. It even lasted long enough to light my way down the trail back to my car.

The day that began with me fleeing a pack of coyotes certainly ended on a high note. I had one morning left in Sedona before I had to return home and I had plans for those agave plants I had spotted earlier. But that’s a story for my next blog post.

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