I have been planning another trip to Big Bend National Park as there are photographic ideas that I want to try and hiking trails that I haven’t been on yet. So last weekend my oldest daughter and I went and camped a couple of nights and I tried to get some of these things done. November is a great time to go camping and hiking in Big Bend – the weather was nice, the high temperatures were in the mid 80s Fahrenheit and the lows were around 50 F. You’ll probably need to reserve a campsite a few weeks in advance. I camped in Chisos Basin, which is beautiful, but there are several other campgrounds in the park. Below is a photo overlooking the campground at Chisos Basin just before sunset.
One of the first items on my list was sunrise at the balanced rock. So on Monday morning, I got up and headed out about an hour and a half before sunrise. First I had to drive down a bumpy dirt road to the Grapevine Hills trailhead (about 20 minutes) and then hike the trail in the dark to get to balanced rock (about 30 minutes). The trail is a sandy and mostly level trail between the hills that is easy to hike until you get to the end where you must do a bit of climbing to get to the balanced rock (see the map below). There was enough predawn twilight when I got to the climb to make out the trail up the slope without stumbling around too much.
I knew that the view through the balanced rock would overlook the desert roughly to the east, but I couldn’t exactly tell where the sun would rise in relation to it as it is difficult to pinpoint on my sun tracking app. It turns out that I couldn’t quite get sunrise through the gap as there are cliffs and boulders where I would need to stand.
Another issue is that once you make it up to the balanced rock, you can stand close to it but there are boulders at your back that prevent you from stepping back for a more panoramic shot. My solution was to climb one of these boulders, set up my tripod on it and shoot wide. The image below was shot 20 minutes before sunrise at 14mm, which is ultrawide, to take in the balanced rock and the landscape.
As you can see, the sun was going to rise quite a bit to the left of the opening from this point of view. But I still like the way these photos turned out in the predawn twilight even without clouds in the sky. Below is another image shot at 24mm a few minutes later. For scale, I could stand under the rock and raise my hands and perhaps touch it (I did not do this).
These images are HDR merges which gives you a final image with a lot of range. I then used Lightroom’s new sky detection mask to work on the sky and the landscape separately. I wanted more texture and color in the boulders and I needed to even out the dramatic gradient of light across the sky.
I didn’t think it would get much better at the balanced rock so I climbed down, took a few more photos that didn’t turn out well and went to another location. I ended up at this yucca growing between two boulders waiting for the sun to rise over the distant mountains. I thought that the yucca would look good as a foreground with the sun starred on the horizon. This involved setting up and staring at the horizon until the first bit of sunlight peeked over and then taking multiple sequences of photos.
To get the sun-star, you have to stop the aperture way down and this reveals any kind of dust on your lens or sensor, so I had to spend a little time cleaning this image up in Lightroom as well. I also did similar work with the sky detection mask as I did to the previous images.
After this I hung around to see what the valley between the hills would look like in the morning sun and shot a few more photos. Then it was a hike back to the trailhead and a drive back down the bumpy dirt road back to the highway and in to town to find some breakfast.
The balanced rock at sunrise was crossed off my list, but I would like to see it on a morning with some high clouds to catch a little pre-dawn light. Maybe someday.