Bighorns on Checkerboard Mesa
It’s the halfway point of my 100 Days of National Parks Photo Series, and I wanted to mark it by going back to the photo that in many ways marked the beginning of my love affair with Zion National Park, with landscape and nature photography, and with travel and exploration in general. This shot of a herd of bighorn sheep on the slopes of Checkerboard Mesa in Zion is the first photo I took in the park, and marked the point where I stopped shooting randomly as a tourist, and started to take photos with a purpose in mind.
When I entered the park from the east entrance on Labor Day weekend in 2011, I knew very little of what to expect. I’d seen pictures of Zion, read about the area and played a video game set in a version of the park (Fallout New Vegas), but I’d never been there prior to that weekend, and hadn’t really done proper research. As I entered the park, I noticed a sign I was quite familiar with from my trips through Yellowstone, a long line of cars parked in the middle of the road which could only mean wildlife was nearby.
I pulled to the side of the road and my friends and I hopped out of the car, looking for what caused the standstill along the road. We saw the herd of bighorns almost immediately, some resting along the gentle slopes of the base of the towering mesa, others slowly making their way up and around the side to disappear into an adjoining canyon. It was this latter group that grabbed my attention, the light of the morning sun backlighting another Mesa on the far side of the small canyon, and shadowing the leeward side of Checkerboard Mesa where the heard was climbing an increasingly difficult slope.
I noticed the contrasting light immediately, and set my exposure for the background light, hoping to capture the silhouette that came out above. I did it almost instinctually, noticing the textures of the mesa behind, the extreme difference between light and shadow, and the positioning of the bighorns that allowed me to capture them in profile as they moved up and around the mesa’s edge.
Many of my friends have pointed to this as one of their favorite photos I’ve taken, if not their favorite, and in many ways, I would agree with them. I believe in the almost five years since I took this photo I’ve grown considerably as a photographer, honed my eye and my technical proficiency, but never exceeded the stark simplicity and feel of this shot. It’s a shot that means a lot to me personally, and as I start heading downhill into the back half of this photo series, I wanted to take a step back to where I feel my love affair with the National Parks really started, on that hot September day, on the slopes of Checkerboard Mesa.