Santa Elena Canyon is the crown jewel of Big Bend. There are many fantastic views in this park, but Santa Elena Canyon at sunrise is my favorite. This is a place I return to every trip to experience again.
After seeing the potential of the sunrise from Desert Mountain Overlook, I arrived at the mouth of the canyon early and walked along the banks of the Rio Grande to find a spot to take in the morning show. The river at my feet and the towering 1500 foot walls of the Sierra Ponce through which the canyon has carved its way rose above me. I was in a front row seat at an amazing location awaiting the sunrise.
The clouds were still moving past and the long predawn exposures were leaving them as streaks in the sky. I made image after image as the light came up in the sky and night became twilight.
The clouds lit up and a hint of a morning light started to slightly warm the wall. My images were all running close to 30 seconds and the results were looking fantastic. The movement in the clouds adding that extra punch that really made the image dynamic. The light slowly faded in the clouds, it was that pause before the sunrise.
Suddenly the sun tip of the canyon walls began to turn orange as the sun rose in the east. As the sun rose higher the orange light worked its way down the canyon wall.
I photographed the fully lit Ponce wall but now the images were very short under a second. The light was intense, but the clouds were now frozen static in the image.
While the scene was still amazing, I thought it was missing the dynamic of the cloud movement. I added a solid ND filter which took my exposure back out to 20 seconds and I was able to capture the warm light on the rocks and the moving clouds.
I could not believe what a show I was getting this morning. I could only hope the camera was capturing the incredible sunrise I was witnessing. I took image after image until the intense light was gone and the morning had become day.
As I packed up my gear, I smiled. I got lucky that morning and had witnessed a scene I had never before gotten in a decade of photographing this place. I had read the right signs in the darkness on the hill at Desert Mountain Overlook and was rewarded with an amazing sunrise at the amazing place that is Santa Elena Canyon.