Sunday, April 8, 2012

Chasing April Moonrise, Northern Arizona

Chasing April Moonrise

[Photo: Moonrise over Sunset Crater Volcano.
Click on image for larger version.]
The hunt for this month's Full Moon moonrise shots began last week on Tuesday, four days before the Full Moon on Friday. 

That's right: you have to get rolling early, or it will pass you by again for another month. Time, and the Full Moon, waits for no one.

That's especially true because there's this phenomenon known as "the weather". Even here in sunny Arizona, you just can't trust it. Especially around the Full Moon. 

[Photo: Moonrise over Sunset Crater.
Click on image for larger version.]
My favorite day of the month for shooting nature landscapes featuring the moonrise is the day before the Full Moon. Yes, one day early. Why? Because the Full Moon occurs at sunset, and by the time it clears what's on the eastern horizon (forests, hills, mountains, etc.) it's often too dark to capture anything other than the moon. 

But since the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day, by shooting the day before the Full Moon, you have almost an extra hour of daylight to work with. Two days before, almost two hours more. It doesn't matter that the moon isn't quite fully illuminated. It still looks great. 

A place like Flagstaff, Arizona is great for moonrise shots. It has untold acres of public land, enjoys a lot of clear sky days, and has such a variety of environments relatively nearby, from the San Francisco Peaks to the smaller volcanic mountains, to the Painted Desert, and the red rock canyons of Sedona. Plus, it's not a congested city like Phoenix. Here you can get outta town in a few minutes.

So this time I launched myself north, onto the Coconino National Forest via US 89. Tuesday, with the lengthening spring days affording more time to get on location before moonrise. 

[Photo: Moonrise over Wukoki Pueblo Ruin.
Click on image for larger version.]
Exiting the highway onto the road into Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, we viewed the colorful cinder cone hulk itself from the open expanses of Bonito Park. The moon had been up for two hours already. I drove on, looking for a suitable foreground before the sun went down.

North of Sunset Crater, I drove down out of the Ponderosa pine forest zone and onto the southwestern reaches of the Painted Desert. On Wupatki National Monument, we stopped to check out the Wukoki Pueblo ruin. Built atop a big chunk of red sandstone, it was three stories high and housed two or three families. With a sweeping view all around, it's a fascinating piece of prehistory.

[Photo: Moonrise at dusk, Wukoki Pueblo Ruin.
Click on image for larger version.]
This is a good example of using something tall in the foreground when the moon's this high in the sky before Full Moon.

On Wednesday I was glad that I got some shots the evening before, because the eastern horizon was clouded out. The weather thing.

So I was banking on Thursday, the day before Full Moon, to be there for me. As the afternoon wore on it wasn't looking very promising. Lots of blue sky, but lots of clouds in the east, too. 

At 5:00 PM it was decision time: go for it, or go home. The eastern skyline was mostly cloudy, but there was a significant patch of it that was clear. Maybe, just maybe...

[Photo: Sunset at Doney Mountain.
Click on image for larger version.]
I drove north to Sunset Crater again. The view from Bonito Park was nice except that the sun wasn't shining on the volcano, due to clouds around the San Francisco Peaks to the west. Another decision point: hang out here, or try for something more dramatic further north. I felt like going for it.

Another 30 miles north, I pulled off the highway onto the north end of Wupatki National Monument. This time I headed for the Lomaki pueblo ruins, which are small but quite photogenic. My planning, using the excellent The Photographer's Ephemeris, gave me a good idea of where the moon would rise, and when. But when I got to the parking lot and trailhead for the ruins, I could see that I was shut out by the clouds. The open part of the horizon was further south from this vantage.

[Photo: Sunset light on trail up Doney Mountain.
Click on image for larger version.]
So I drove south, hoping for a suitable angle and location for the moonrise. I was the only vehicle on the road through this desolate, beautiful landscape. The low angle of the sun was lighting up the blond dead winter grasses, blowing in the strong springtime wind.

The Loop Road through Wupatki and Sunset Crater briefly wanders onto the Coconino National Forest. There, the Forest Service has a little parking lot with a short, easy trail up Doney Mountain, which is actually three volcanic cinder cones. You get to hike up the smaller two. 

But more importantly on this crucial April evening, it looked like it might just be a suitable location to photograph the moonrise. So I hit the trail. 

[Photo: Moonrise from Doney Mountain.
Click on image for larger version.]
What a great spot. Wild land all around, a clear view. No powerlines, or people. The wind was so fierce that it seemed to almost knock me over, but it was a small price to pay.

I made a few shots from the summit of the smallest cinder cone. No moon in sight. Where would it appear, relative to the cloud bank on the horizon? Would the clouds block moonrise totally, until it was too dark for a good moonrise shot?

Meanwhile, I was enjoying the scenery, and eyeing the trail up the taller cinder cone. Wondering what sunset shots might await me there. I started up its trail.

[Photo: Moonrise from Doney Mountain.
Click on image for larger version.]
But I didn't get far. There was the moon, seemingly out of nowhere. Stop, set up tripod, shoot. Make a variety of compositions from close up to wide angle, with the sunset coloring the clouds.

Finally the sun was down, it was getting dark. I walked the trail back down to my truck. The ever brilliant, ever rising moon "followed me home" on the drive back to Flagstaff.

Friday, the night of the Full Moon, was clouded out. See why I start three or four days early?

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.