Up until a few years ago, I hadn't visited Utah since I was a kid. Recently though, I've become a regular at SLC airport, and somewhat of a "visit Utah" advocate. If you haven't been recently, there's a lot of reasons you should visit. First, there are the wild horses, which you know are primarily what calls to me. Second, there are the Mighty Five, Utah's amazing national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion. Third, there are Utah's smaller, extremely accessible state parks, like Kodakchrome, Goblin Valley, Dead Horse Point, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and Antelope Island.
If you're a photographer, you'll not only be in a wilderness paradise, you'll be there with your camera. You've gotta love that! The only thing that could possibly be a problem is figuring out how to see, experience and photograph as many of these iconic places as you possibly can in one trip. Well, honestly, going to the Onaqui HMA in winter and seeing only one horse could be a problem too but when life gives you lemons...
You can go to Antelope Island State Park! During both of my last two trips to Utah, which were planned mainly to photograph wild horses, I also spent time at Antelope Island. If you're into photographing birds and wildlife, visiting Antelope Island is like pressing the easy button. You don't have to hike 10 miles uphill carrying a 30-pound backpack plus all of your food and water in order to make amazing pictures. You also don't need to wear camouflage or hide in a blind for half the night. You truly don't need a guide either. All you need is a camera, a long lens, a car and a bit of patience.
This winter after my failed wild horse expedition to Onaqui, I seriously thought about going back the next morning to try again. I really wanted to get those gorgeous herds of horses in the snow. When I remembered how awesome Antelope Island had been in the summer, common sense prevailed. Since I was headed to the airport in the late afternoon to fly home and Antelope Island is pretty close to the airport, it just made more sense to go there again. I thought wild buffalo in the snow could make up for the wild horse disaster and wow, did it ever.
Last summer I saw jackrabbits, pronghorn, wide-eyed baby owlets and the tiniest peek of a fox running through the grass.
I parked my car on the side of the road, held my breath and let a herd of buffalo flow around the car, causing the best traffic jam EVER.
For more images of Utah's wildlife, click here.
This winter I saw three eagles hunting amidst an enormous flock of ducks. I saw a coyote take down a bird and then saw the eagles wile away his catch.
I insinuated my car into another buffalo traffic jam only this time there were baby buffalo running in SNOW.
I saw mule deer bucks camouflaged in the brush and baby pronghorn nibbling on the long grasses. I'm a city kid so maybe all this is just everyday stuff to you but if it's not - if it feels like a tiny bit of magic - then the next time you fly to Utah, check out Antelope Island.
I saw fat, curled-up porcupines sleeping in treetops and nibbling on tender tree branch buds. I saw amazing things and it made my heart pretty happy. I'm a city kid so maybe all this is just everyday stuff to you but if it's not - if it feels like a tiny bit of magic - then the next time you fly to Utah, check out Antelope Island.
Tips for visiting Antelope Island:
- Antelope Island is about an hour's drive from Salt Lake City. It's an easy add-on to any trip where you fly in and out of SLC.
- If you want to stay at a hotel near the park, the most convenient town is Layton, which is about 30 minutes east. I'd suggest staying at the Hampton Inn.
- Plan to arrive at the park just before dawn. Even if the gatehouse is unmanned, pull right up to the gate. There's a motion sensor, the gate will lift and you can drive into the park. The visitor center opens around 9:00AM but the park is small enough that you can drive it easily without any maps. When the visitor center opens, you can head up there to pay your fee and get a map.
- Road are paved - no 4WD needed!
- I always feel like the road in this park should be a loop but it's not. They key is to drive up and down the few roads that are there very, very slowly so that when you see wildlife, you don't scare it as you approach. You can shoot from a rolled-down car window or, if you're lucky, ease open your car door and sneak a bit closer.
- It's best to go with at least two people - a driver and a spotter. Switch seats every few hours to ensure that the driver gets a chance to shoot too.
- While you can hike (and even camp), you'll see plenty of wildlife from your car. Antelope Island seems small and safe but there are herds of wild buffalo. Buffalo are big. They're fast and they can hurt you. Use extreme caution when you see them. I tend to shoot from the inside of the car, only opening the door to shoot when I'm pretty darn sure the buffalo are headed in a different direction. If you do hike, give the buffalo a wide berth.
- In the summer months there's a little hamburger shack but packing a cooler with water, lunch and snacks is a great idea. You can eat at the beach while you watch for birds and wildlife.
- Gear recommendations: Some of these animals are very, very close but you still need a long lens. The last time I was there I thought I'd shoot with my 100-400 on my full frame 5DIII but it wasn't quite enough. I ended up adding my 1.4 extender which was perfect. You'll be shooting mostly from the car so you can support your lens on the window frame. I even occasionally stood on the running board and supported the lens on the roof of the car. In the right light, there are great landscape opportunities too so don't forget to bring your wide angle lens as well.
- What to wear: Even though you are shooting from the car, dress as though you are hiking. In winter you need boots, snow pants, and all the other cold weather gear you would normally wear for a day outside. I foolishly wore the clothes I planned to wear on the plane and ended up frozen and with wet feet. In the summer I suggest bug spray, sunscreen, a hat, long pants and hiking boots, especially if you plan to walk to the beach for lunch.
- Good luck out there! Shoot me a message to let me know how it goes or if you have any additional tips for shooting at Antelope Island State Park.
- My Return trip to the Salt River in Arizona.
- The Wild Horses of Cumberland Island, Georgia.
- The Wild Horses of Ely, Nevada.