How I Captured a 40-Mile-Wide View of an Arizona Landscape

It all started when a video production company for an Iowa couple booked a commercial video project with the nation’s largest magazine publisher in association with Arizona Tourism. The fun story here is how we ended up on top of a mountain, in the Arizona wilderness, to take pictures.

We’re hired to produce some short videos featuring food and travel destinations in and around Tucson and Arizona’s southernmost county in Cochise. After three 14-hour days of non-stop driving and filming in places like Chiricahua National Monument, Tombstone, and Bisbee, we can finally exhale into a wrap dinner and chat with the local client.

The arid landscape of Arizona was like a different planet to me, and I was excited to explore it (the two extra days we booked) before we fly home.

What should we see? We had limited time and would rather enjoy nature without the crowd. With endless options – Saguaro National Park, Grand Canyon, Antelope Valley – we asked for a recommendation from the locals. Our new friends didn’t let us down. They recommended Schneeble Hill Road just outside of Sedona mentioning which road requires a 4WD (they weren’t kidding).

A road trip to Schneebly Hill near Sedona, Arizona

Late that night we left Tucson, driving a Hyundai Tucson rental car, and got a few hours on the road before we found some much-needed rest at a roadside motel. We were provided with production equipment, which means we have limited space for camping supplies. At least I had Chacos. They can take me anywhere.

After a quick stop at REI, we had a very light tent (just over two pounds in weight) and a few extra water bottles.

When we got to Sedona we knew we were going to check out Schnebly Hill Road but didn’t have a plan after that. We stopped at a gas station to see if we could find a route map. We saw that Mount Monds, Sedona’s second highest peak at 6,834 feet, had a trail off Schneebly, and our plan quickly crystallized. Instead of taking the direct route to the pass through Sedona, we took a much longer route that Google strongly encouraged. We soon learned why.

Coming in from the northeast, Schnebly Hill Road quickly changed from concrete to gravel and from gravel to huge holes and coarse rocks. It was more of an uphill adventure than driving on the road, which meant that our small SUVs quickly became inadequate. Two miles must have taken 30 minutes.

I should probably have bought the extra insurance on this thing, I told myself, as thoughts of giving up the job before busting the rent bounced into my head. Right before the treacherous incline stretch, we slid into an off-road spot and got off the car. We had a mountain to climb to get to the designated wilderness (where sporadic camping was allowed) before it got dark.

Walking the “road” down to the road, we passed what we could assume was a freshly washed rental car. Yes. the cars. It was a brand new Ford Fiesta with a bright blue color. Did we just get upset? Moments later, as the car swerved out of sight, a screeching sound told us we had made the right decision.

It was halfway into our journey (with an extra mile under my clutter of losing track and having to backtrack) when I started to feel the afternoon desert heat. I was feeling a little dizzy. Was it the height? Did you get dehydrated? I may not have had enough water in the past 3 days (bad habit while at work).

An hour later, halfway up the mountain, I was pretty sure I had heat exhaustion. I had to face the decision, again: Should I call him and turn around? Half an hour’s rest in the shade convinced me that continuing to work isn’t a terrible idea. I took a few sips and looked at the water bottle. I had drank two-thirds of the water today – on the right track – but my thirst made clear that I didn’t bring enough. And because we are in the high desert, we will not find any aquifers. But we continued.

I was carrying a lot of weight in my bag. I should have left my coffee making supplies behind. There is no way to make coffee in the morning with our water restrictions.

My photo camera and three (only) primary lenses were feeling heavy. Should I replace one lens with an extra water bottle? Yes, as long as the lens I left behind was not a 135mm. I’ll get to that.

The nausea and dizziness began to pass as we reached the more technical part of our hike. It was late and the temperature was much more comfortable when we entered the shadow of Mount Monds. We walked through the saddle of the mountain and then started climbing up the steep rocky section. I was glad the dizziness left me balancing on the edge of a cliff.

After losing track a few times in some unmarked and unplanned places, we made it to the flat top. What a relief! Just in time to catch the sunset over Sedona.

We each ate a slice of apple and granola and drank the leftover water all day while we watched the sunset, but it wasn’t the quiet moment I was hoping for.

The sunset revealed the glow of a distant wildfire, something that an Iowa couple know nothing of. We questioned the safety of camping in such a dry environment with multiple fires across the valley, but with slopes between us and our car, there was nothing we could do but wait for the daylight.

An exotic night gives you the way to a stunning view

The hot desert gave way to a cold and frightening night filled with the unfamiliar sounds of unknown animals. Several times throughout the night, I had to remind myself that the sound that struck me awake was the shutter from the nighttime timelapse.

Just before dawn, I recognized a voice I always hear when camping in the Iowa Blas Drift: coyotes. And judging by the symphony of howls, there were a lot of them, and they were just above us.

As the howl turned away, I peeked out of our paper-thin tent and looked out into the hills.

he was there. The most beautiful view I could imagine. We rushed to the edge of the cliff to take it.

After taking some wider angle photos on the 24mm, I decided it wouldn’t. I set the 135mm, a mid-range telephoto, and started strategically shooting across the horizon while imagining these collages into a detailed panoramic image.

It was a perfectly clear morning with mist rising from the valley. We can see for miles. While there is little detail missing from the 40 miles of atmosphere into the mountains, there was none in the valley thanks to the dry air dominating the mist.

The landscape photographer in me couldn’t stop capturing long enough to take in my naked eyes. Between the photos, we pointed out details that weren’t clear the night before.

“I think this is Humphreys” (Arizona’s highest natural point at 12,637 feet), Ryan said, as I continued taking pictures until the desert sun lit up the valley.

The resulting panorama. Click to view in higher resolution.

We ate some instant oatmeal, packed our tent, and started going downhill. It was a mostly quiet hike, but when we hit the road a bright blue bumper, all over, halfway down gave us a good chuckle.

The last mile up to our rental was a challenge, especially since our water bottles had their last drops, but we were well on our way to making it happen. And we have an experience (and images) that will last a lifetime.

We didn’t see a soul on the trail or out of the way, so it was safe to say we were the only ones to see the sunrise from Mt. It was a good morning.

Crop detailed image from a 418 megapixel image

Two years on, we’re still dissecting the resulting 418MP image and finding new details and landmarks every time we see it. Comparing it to the Sedona map makes it still an enjoyable experience.

I hope to one day see it printed to its full potential. Can print over 14 feet in detail at 300 dpi (the number of dots per inch a professional inkjet printer puts in each direction). Even a hotel lobby wall could be lined up 5 feet high and 28 feet wide with little to no detail missing. The next challenge will be framing that brutality (but I have a plan!).

Ryan holds a smaller frame print that captures only half of the scene.

Details about the photo

  • Date: 09/14/2018
  • size: 418.5 Megapixel panoramic stitch
  • Location: Mt. Munds, Sedona, Arizona
  • GPS34° 51’33.444 N 111° 42′ 50,849 W
  • Height: 6,834 ft
View Google Earth with delimiters.

About the authorDave Poyzer (Production Director and Director of Photography) is an accomplished landscape photographer, avid Driftless Area fly hunter, experienced paddleboarder, mountain bike enthusiast, and hockey enthusiast. He has a deep love for all things outdoors, vintage (especially cameras), and third wave coffee. He loves to do the fun business of himself and others whether it be a profession, an art project, or a home renovation from 1898 with his wife, Maria.

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