Growing up surrounded by the crystal-clear waters and tropical forests of Puerto Rico, Jesse Echevarria fell in love with the brilliance of the night sky, eventually developing a knack for astrophotography and landscape photography. When he moved to the mainland U.S., he encountered serious light pollution for the first time and had to escape to the country’s national parks to find the clear skies he craved.
On a nine-day trip, Jesse and fellow photographer Enrique Cabanillas drove across Utah, hitting all five of the state’s national parks, as well as some other notable landmarks on the way. We caught up with Jesse to talk with him about their journey.
What inspired this trip? Why Utah?
After my first trip to Death Valley National Park, I started learning more and more about America’s parks and, at one point, I found an image of the Milky Way at Arches. I think that was one of the first images I saw from Utah. Since then, the entire state became part of my photography to-do list.
Was this your first exploration of the Southwest? What was your impression of the region?
Yes, it was my first time. Everywhere we went we found amazing locations to photograph. From the huge structures of Monument Valley, to Moab, Road 12, Highway 89, Bryce, and Zion — all the landscapes were diverse and astonishing.
Driving from one park to another took us only two to three hours, which gave us time to hike before nightfall. As expected, every spot was clear of light pollution, which was perfect for night photography.
What draws you to astrophotography? In what ways were you able to better flex those creative muscles in the American Southwest?
I have always been interested in space. Revealing to the eye what has always been there since the beginning of our existence really fascinates me. I also want to show people what’s out there. We live in a society where we drown ourselves in the reality of our daily lives. I want to show people that it’s possible to break the bubble and venture out to seek darker skies. Astrophotography is about being humble, admitting how small we really are and how big and great the universe is.
On my trip to Utah, I wanted to create interesting night compositions at Arches. Shooting the night sky alongside the immense structures of Double Arch and Delicate Arch was a rewarding task. I often seek to merge both landscape and astrophotography — the contrast of both universe and planet really amazes me.
What surprised you about Utah?
I think what surprised me the most was the variety in landscapes. Driving on Road 12 and Highway 89 on our way to Zion was eye candy. We drove from empty desert highways to huge dry valleys, to lush forests, through Bryce, and then to the top of huge mountains with spectacular views.
The Angel’s Landing hike at Zion is often considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. Can you tell us about that hike?
In the past, I don’t remember ever getting myself in a situation where I thought to myself, “If I make the wrong move here, I might die.”
After the first hour of hiking to the base, we started the dangerous part alongside the chains and the steep slopes. There are a few sections where the chains stop and the hikers need to continue without them. My friend bailed on me after the first section, so I had to pursue the rest of the hike on my own.
I’m not afraid of heights, but this really tested me. The most dangerous part for me was climbing to the top after passing the middle — well… trying. I heard someone say, “Oh my God! Going back down is way worse,” so I looked down and analyzed my situation. I sat down for, like, 10 minutes, admiring the amazing red valley view and thinking about my next move. I decided to turn back. I wasn’t ready for that next steep climb to get to the top. I wasn’t at that level… yet!
But I did 80 percent of the hike! Although I didn’t make it to the top, I was energized and euphoric. Coming back down was much harder, but the landscape was mesmerizing. Imagine all this anxiety and doubt alongside a huge colorful red valley painted by the sunset.
What was the dirt bike shoot like?
While driving from Moab to Capitol Reef, we came across some gray terrain that looked like the moon’s landscape. I literally yelled, “I’m turning back. We are going to the moon!”
The area is called Swing Arm City in Caineville. It’s a recreational area for dirt biking and other extreme sports. The moonlike surface was made of bentonite clay. After 20 minutes of taking aerial shots, we started hearing dirt bikes. Cole Christensen and Dallan Wilding, two bikers from the area, approached us looking for a bathroom, and we said that we were photographers on a road trip around Utah. We offered to do a shoot, and obviously they were down with it!
We started in a huge half dome, which they looped around while we stood in the middle. After some jumps, we hopped on the bikes and rode to another area with a huge steep wall and they started riding up to the top.
I’ve never done any sports photography before, but it was fun as hell.
If you return to the region, what would you do differently?
I would visit closer to the summer — the days are longer and the nights are warmer. That means more time to explore during the day and warmer temperatures during the astrophotography sessions at night.
I would also stay more than three nights at Zion. It has way more to offer than just Angel’s Landing, but we only had one day before we had to drive back to Nevada.
Additionally, I would visit when the Milky Way’s galactic center is more visible. It’s the area with most light in our galaxy. On this trip, it rose during sunrise so we didn’t get a chance to photograph it.
Finally, because of all the locations we wanted to visit, our schedule was very tight. We were more focused on waking up early to use the sunrise to our advantage, but I would like to come back someday and focus only on night photography.
The Southwest is a very popular photography spot (Horseshoe Bend, Delicate Arch, and Mesa Arch all come to mind). How would you say you brought your own unique approach to this project?
Honestly, on this trip, I didn’t set myself a goal to create something unique or different from anything else I’ve seen. I just wanted to enjoy the trip. I knew Utah was an incredible playground for photography, so in the end, it was an incredible photographic journey.
A few of the images I think say a lot about my trip were:
Sunset over Delicate Arch: I’ve never captured a sunset this colorful alongside an incredible structure.
Mesa Arch Eye Picture: This is going to sound funny, but every time I see this image I took of Mesa Arch it reminds me of Mordor. I think it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever taken.
The Chain at Angel’s Landing: This image represents a lot to me because of what I faced during that hike and the euphoric emotions that came with it.
Where would you like to travel to in the future?
New Zealand is the big goal. My plan is to go back to Chile and explore Patagonia by the end of the year and move on to New Zealand after that. I don’t know how I’m going to make it, but that’s the fun part, right?