Terra Galleria Photography

Photographing Oak Flat and Warner Point Trails in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


A few weeks ago, when I drove out of Montrose, Colorado, on the way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a sign warned of winter conditions. I wondered what that meant, but quickly found out as the nighttime temperatures dropped to the upper tens. The next day turned out cold and mostly cloudy. See how I used that light as I hiked the two most interesting trails on the south rim, resulting in images of very different character.

Oak Flat and Fall Foliage

The two-mile Oak Flat Trail (350 feet elevation gain/loss) departing from the Visitor Center let you have a closer look at the canyon below the rim without hiking to the bottom. Unlike the other short overlook trails, the Oak Flat Trail spends most of its length in dense vegetation cover. That made it an excellent choice for those cloudy conditions since soft light is the best for photographing in the forest. There are also a few viewpoints along the trail where you can frame the canyon surrounded by the native forests. The trees are mostly Douglas fir and oak, but there are a few pockets of aspen along the trail. A small stand nested at the base of a tall cliff whose rocks added contrasting colors and textures.

The trail is an excellent place to look for fall foliage. It is named after thickets of Gambel oak that line up most of it, brightening the ground with orange colors in mid-October, in contrast with the darker red serviceberries.

Snow began to fall. In order to capture some of the snowflakes falling, I increased ISO to 400 so that I could get a faster shutter speed (1/320 sec @ f/13) while maintaining enough depth of field to render sharply the shrubs.

In most places, the snow melted almost instantly upon touching the ground, but I found a location where it lingered longer, and I photographed a few close-ups.

My favorite location on that morning was slightly off trail. I spotted an aspen grove in the distance, and bushwacked down a steep slope for a closer view that incorporated both the colors of the aspen and the Gambel oak. The soft light of the overcast sky was much preferable to a sunny day for this scene, but I had to exclude the sky since it was featureless and brighter than the land.

I got lucky that the clouds broke out for a few minutes, illuminating the opposite canyon walls. Because the sky wasn’t clear, the foreground wasn’t in deep shade. Seizing the moment when thanks to the direct sunlight the canyon stood out against the sky (aided in processing by darkening it a bit further), I changed my composition to a wider view that included the sky, giving a good sense of the beauty of the canyon in autumn.

Warner Point and the Canyon’s vastness

The trail to Warner Point (1.5 miles RT) begins at the High Point Overlook, at the west end of the road. When I started, the weather was cloudy, as it had been for most of the day, but having seen a local weather forecast, I was hopeful that the clouds would clear out in the late afternoon.

Along the trail, there are views south towards the San Juan Mountains and Uncompahgre Valley, and north towards the West Elk Mountains, however, the views at Warner Point itself are looking east towards the canyon, which calls for afternoon light. The clouds did break out, but it was fifteen minutes before sunset time, and by that time most of the canyon was in the shade, with only the very top of the rims illuminated.

I focussed in on details of the scene such as a lone tree:

and a portion of the rim and the distant mountains:

What distinguishes Warner Point from the other overlooks over the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is that the views there open up to a 180 degrees panorama, whereas most of the other overlooks offer only the glimpse of a narrow gorge. With the last rays of sun gone from the canyon, the clouds took on a beautiful color, and the more uniform light began to help convey the sense of vastness of the place:

As often for those canyon scenes, my favorite light occurred about half an hour after the actual sunset. Waiting in one place was tough because of the cold, but in the end well worth it. Photographers often leave after sunset, when direct sunlight has left the land, but some of the most beautiful light occurs between sunset and darkness. You should make sure to stay until it is dark – and make sure to bring a light for the hike back! The light at dusk is particularly beautiful because it is at the same time soft and directional, an infrequent and favorable combination. There are no harsh shadows nor excessive contrast to break up the shapes on the land. At the same time, the light comes mostly from a narrow band of sky in the western horizon, as opposed to the whole sky on a cloudy day, or earlier in the evening, so it creates areas of light and shade that help reveal the depth of the landscape. I heightened that sense of depth by adding another layer to the image with a foreground of rocks as the first stars appeared.


  1. Utomo Tjipto says:

    Thank you very much Quan. I have been following your pictures since you published the Large Format website. Very beautiful.

    Happy that you are still very active in taking pictures.


    • QT Luong says:

      Thanks Utomo! My activity level has remained about the same due to two opposite factors: on one hand, I have been a full-time photographer for more than a decade, but on the other hand I am also a father of two.

  2. Greg Rodgers says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tuan. These are gorgeous images. I like the one “looking east toward the canyon” as the sun is going down the best. On the last image – is there a man-made structure on the rock in the center of the image?

    It’s a place I’ve never thought of going to – possibly because of the radioactivity that has been stored at Hanford for so long.

    Did you shoot these with your large format film camera, or your 35 mm DSLR?

    • QT Luong says:

      Hi Greg, I did not see a man-made structure. Yes, radioactivity was a concern, but I assumed that just a few hours would not do too much harm – whereas many folks are still working there year-round. I photographed in digital, some of them with a tilt/shift lens.

  3. Joe Eulberg says:

    Great contrast in the photos – will have to make a return trip there someday

  4. Very nice article and beautiful photos! I need to get back there in the autumn. I was there a few years back in summer. It’s a beautiful place to photograph.

Leave a Reply to Joe Eulberg