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Mystery Cave — a Deep Alcove High Above the Escalante River

Updated: May 31, 2021

On the last day of the backpacking trip down Main Moody, BJ and I attempt to find a cave I photographed many years before.

The cave along the Escalante River, upstream from its junction with Main Moody Canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

More than a decade before this trip, I photographed the scene above from within a deep cave in the Wingate sandstone cliffs high above the Escalante River using a 4x5 camera and transparency (slide) film. I was standing in the dark at the back of the cave, photographing a wall in bright sunlight on the opposite side of the river. The dynamic range of the scene was so extreme it would have been impossible to record on a single sheet of film.

Extreme Brightness Range and Exposure Blending with 4X5 Film

I had just learned a technique that would allow me deal with this extreme range of brightness—something that had not been previously possible with slide film. The technique involved combining several different digitized slide film exposures in Photoshop® into one image that showed every detail—from the darkest shadowy foreground to the extremely bright wall in the background. This scene seemed like the perfect subject for this new technique.

I made several exposures—one for the deep shadow areas, one for the bright wall, and one for the middle tones. At home, I scanned the film, aligned the images as best I could, and then used masking techniques in Photoshop® to blend the images into one photograph. This was the result.

Would Modern Digital Cameras and Post Processing Techniques do Better?

Since that time, there have been significant advances in digital photography. Not only do modern digital cameras have a huge dynamic range as compared to slide film, but the techniques for blending images have become much simpler and more precise. I was certain I could do better now with my modern digital camera and knowledge of Photoshop®. That's why I wanted to re-visit this site and re-photograph it.

Alas, it was not to be. The muddy conditions of the Escalante River and the thick growth of willows on the river banks and terraces made it too difficult to get this far upriver from our camp—at least given our time constraints. We were forced to turn back. I may try again another time.

Meanwhile, I have attached a video of our attempt to get there and our return up Moody to the camp at the trailhead. The video is as amateurish as my first attempt to blend exposures from a scene with high dynamic range (HDR) but it gives you an idea of the conditions and what it is like to hike Moody.

If anyone is interested in exploring the canyons of the Escalante, I highly recommend BJ's company Llamas 2 Boot as guides and outfitters. Here's a link to their website

Video of the attempt to reach the cave upriver, our failure to do so, and the trip back to camp at the trailhead.



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