Route 89: A Photo Highway

Route 89 carves its way through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Western U.S. It’s a landscape photographer’s dream road trip.

The trek along Route 89 takes in some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. Photographer James Cowlin’s Honda Element and teardrop trailer rig make an ideal setup for adventures along the open road.

Ten years ago, I found myself staring at a map of the western United States looking for my next photographic project. What caught my eye was a string of national parks in a nearly straight line between the Canadian and Mexican borders. When I plotted a road trip to visit those seven parks, I discovered they’re all on or near one federal highway: U.S. Route 89.

Since that discovery, I’ve logged over 20,000 miles along what I consider to be the most scenic highway in America. Highway 89 traverses all of the geographic provinces of the interior West, from the desert mountains and valleys of southern Arizona, across the Colorado Plateau of northern Arizona and southern Utah, through the Rocky Mountains in northern Utah, Wyoming and Montana and into the Great Plains. The diversity of landscapes is a dream come true for the landscape photographer who can make the border-to-border drive.

Left to right: Ocotillo and saguaro cacti along Valley Overlook Trail, Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park, Arizona; The sanctuary in the Spanish mission, Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona; North Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Beginning with our first national park, Yellowstone, federal, state and local governments have had the foresight to protect the most beautiful areas along Route 89. In addition to the seven national parks—Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier—there are 13 national monuments, a national recreation area, 14 national forests, 22 wilderness areas and numerous state parks and historic sites to explore. For those interested in learning about the history and culture of the West, there are three major cities and 150 small cities and towns to visit. By spending time in local history museums and art centers, the traveler on Route 89 can gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of cultures that make the American West an endlessly fascinating place to visit.

A Route 89 trip could be along one section of the road or you could do the whole thing at once. Covering the 2,000 one-way miles between Canada and Mexico can be done in two weeks, but another week or two allows for extended exploration and more photographic possibilities. Since the parks in Wyoming and Montana don’t completely open until the middle of June, summer to early fall is the best time to see it all. If you’re primarily interested in the Arizona and southern Utah parks and monuments, April to mid-June is best before the weather gets too hot.

As a landscape photographer, I tend to think in terms of geographic areas rather than political boundaries, so I’ll detail a road trip on Route 89 in three sections: Basin and Range, the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains. Each geographic province has unique characteristics and challenges, and each could be a separate trip. I’ll start in the mountains and valleys of southern Arizona.

Panorama from Point Sublime, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Basin And Range
The topography of southern Arizona is composed of jagged mountains, some as high as 10,000 feet, widely separated by level valleys. The vegetation in the Sonoran Desert is characterized by the giant saguaro cactus. The best place to photograph this landscape is Saguaro National Park. The image that comes to mind with the word “desert” is of a desolate, dry place of sand dunes and little else. When you visit Saguaro, however, you enter a lush world filled with plants and animals that have evolved to live in a dry, hot climate.

The park is divided into two districts 30 miles apart on the east and west sides of Tucson. If your time is limited, concentrate on one district. They both offer ample opportunities to explore. And there’s much to see—58 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, 74 different mammals and 187 types of birds living among 600-plus species of plants.

Route 89 stretches from the U.S.-Canada border to the U.S.-Mexico border. The major national parks that 89 passes are Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon and Saguaro. Viewing this map can’t help but inspire any nature photographer to ponder the possibilities of a road trip.

My favorite spot for sunset is the Signal Hill picnic area in the westside Tucson Mountain District. From the picnic area, a quarter-mile trail will take you to a rocky hilltop where you’ll find dozens of ancient petroglyphs. These markings on the rocks were created over 800 years ago by ancestors of the Tohono O’odham people who still live in this area. The true meaning of the petroglyphs has been lost to antiquity, but it’s fun to speculate on what was in the minds of their creators. Of particular note is the large spiral that may be an astronomical symbol to mark the passing of the seasons.

South of Tucson there are several opportunities to explore America’s Spanish heritage. Tumacácori National Historical Park preserves the ruins of a mission church established in 1691. Nearby is the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, a military fort built to protect the missionaries. Most beautiful of all is San Xavier del Bac, a still-active mission church that has undergone extensive restoration recently.

The northern edge of the Basin and Range shades into the Colorado Plateau through a mountainous transition zone. This is particularly evident on State Route 89A between Prescott and Sedona, one of the most scenic parts of the entire highway. Going north, you climb to the summit of Mingus Mountain and then plunge down into the Verde Valley through the historic towns of Jerome, Clarkdale and Cottonwood. As you cross the Verde River, the red rocks that mark the edge of the Colorado Plateau come into view.

There are numerous roads and trails that penetrate the wilderness around Sedona. One of the most photographed scenes is the view of Cathedral Rock from Red Rock State Park. If you want to get into the backcountry without too much effort, I recommend a visit to two prehistoric Indian ruins, Palatki and Honanki. Turn west on Red Canyon Road (FR 525) a half mile north of mile marker 364. Drive seven miles to Palatki and then another four and a half miles to Honanki. The cliff dwellings and rock art are special places to photograph, but you may find yourself stopping often along the road to shoot the colorful red rock formations.

The Colorado Plateau
Topographically, the Colorado Plateau is a series of horizontal rock strata marked by cliff faces that the traveler ascends like a staircase. The rocks are carved by wind and water into fantastical forms and enormous canyons. Here and there, the surface is punctuated by volcanic mountains. Much of the plateau is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation so the light tends to be clear and bright. This light makes for highly saturated colors in the many exposed rock layers.

There are many spectacular scenes to photograph along the 500 miles of Route 89 on the Colorado Plateau and everyone who shoots here soon finds his or her own favorites. It’s as though certain places touch one’s spirit and pull one back again and again. For me, it was the Grand Canyon. Before starting the Route 89 project, I spent as much time as I could at the canyon for 12 years. Here’s a short list of my picks for the best places to photograph on the South Rim: Hopi Point at sunset, Moran Point at sunrise and a day hike down the Grandview trail to Horseshoe Mesa. On the North Rim, go to Cape Royal for sunrise and Point Sublime for sunset. See those five places, and you’ll be hooked on the Grand Canyon, and you’re guaranteed to make some great pictures.

Between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, drive the loop road that goes through the Sunset Crater Volcano and the Wupatki National Monuments. Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano on the plateau, having erupted between 950 and 750 years ago. The cinder-covered slopes interlaced with basaltic lava flows have a fiery glow early or late in the day. Wupatki is one of many opportunities to photograph the remains of long-abandoned Indian dwellings.

Route 89 follows a series of river valleys north of Kanab. The high white walls of Zion Canyon await your camera to the west and the red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are on the east. Zion now uses a shuttle bus system from April 1 to October 30. The advantage is that you no longer have to fight for a parking space along the park’s scenic drive. However, there are a few spots with pullouts where I’ve stopped my car to photograph in the past that are no longer easily accessible. Your ability to react to changing light and weather conditions is somewhat constrained. The beauty of Zion Canyon is well worth the limitations, especially when you hike along the well-maintained scenic trails.

One of my favorite parts of the drive over the Colorado Plateau is the Sanpete Valley between Gunnison and Fairview, which is part of the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area. This was one of the first areas settled by the Mormons after their arrival in Utah. Route 89 is the main street of each of the seven towns that are laid out according to Brigham Young’s plan. Many of the buildings are constructed from pale yellow sandstone quarried nearby. Here are a few highlights: the Mormon Temple at Manti, the Central Utah Art Center and Snow College in Ephraim, the historic town of Spring City, now an artist’s community, and the Fairview Museum of History and Art.

A Note On Historic U.S. Route 89

If you’re looking for U.S. Route 89 on a map, you’ll see that it starts in Flagstaff, Ariz. The original route between Nogales and Flagstaff was decommissioned in 1992 after interstates that cover the distance were built. To follow Route 89’s historic path from Nogales, take I-19 north to Tucson, State Route 77 to Oracle Junction, State Route 79 to Florence Junction, U.S. 60 to Wickenburg, State Route 89 to Ash Fork and I-40 to Flagstaff. State Route 89A branches off just north of Prescott and rejoins 89 in Flagstaff.

The Rocky Mountains
Route 89 exits the Colorado Plateau at Spanish Fork Canyon and dips back into the northern part of the Basin and Range as it traverses the Salt Lake Valley. North of Salt Lake City at Brigham City, you begin the ascent into the Rocky Mountains. There’s perhaps no landscape more iconic to the American psyche than the Rockies, and the three national parks along Route 89 in Wyoming and Montana challenge the photographer to look beyond the icons for a special view.

One thing you can count on for help in making unique images in the Rockies is the weather. In my experience, dramatic clouds are more the rule than the exception. When I’m on a road trip, I try to keep the schedule flexible, but it’s not always possible to wait out bad weather. On my border-to-border road trip in May and June last year, I had planned to take my time going north to allow the spring thaw more time. As I left Salt Lake City, however, the forecast was for stormy, cold weather for several days. So I changed my strategy and went straight to Glacier National Park, hoping the weather would improve as I turned around and headed south.

The strategy worked that time. The afternoon in Glacier was stormy with ominous clouds. I set up on the shore of Two Medicine Lake and photographed the changing cloud formations over Sinopah Mountain and then took shelter for a rainy night in my teardrop trailer. The next seven days from Glacier to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon were marked by cloud-filled skies and beautiful sunsets.

Inclement weather fits the mood of Yellowstone perfectly. The geysers, hot springs, steaming fumaroles and mud pots are strange and otherworldly. Stormy skies and subdued light enhance their oddness. One of my favorite areas in Yellowstone is Norris Geyser Basin, a large collection of geothermal features. On my last day there, I headed down the path into the basin late in the afternoon under a very cloudy sky. I could see breaks in the clouds on the western horizon and hoped for some dramatic lighting. Another photographer passed me going out with her tripod over her shoulder and a disgusted look on her face. Well, she really missed an outstanding sunset. It turned out to be the most productive hour of shooting in three days at Yellowstone and resulted in one of my best photographs from the trip.

One last thought about road trips. Try not to be so focused on the next destination that you lose sight of the journey. When you see a scene through the windshield that calls out to be photographed, stop the car and take the shot. I’ve found that these spontaneous moments have produced some of my favorite photographs and the best memories from the trip.

James Cowlin is a freelance photographer living in Oracle, Ariz. His Route 89 project continues to be a work in progress. You can see more of Cowlin’s work at, and you can find out more about Route 89 at his dedicated Route 89 website,

The Teardrop: An Icon Whose Day Is Returning
By Christopher Robinson

When this article was coming together, the photograph of James Cowlin’s Honda Element with its teardrop trailer in tow parked on the road to Glacier National Park jumped out at us. In that image was the embodiment of an adventure on the open road. How many of us would love to be out in that magnificent country searching for photographs and enjoying the simplicity of the car-camping lifestyle?

The teardrop trailer was once a common sight on American highways. In the middle of the 20th century, the plans for these simple trailers were published in magazines and billed as a DIY garage project. The designs were based upon the dimensions of basic 4x8-foot plywood sheets. Today, a number of companies are again manufacturing these iconic trailers. For photographers, a teardrop trailer is a particularly useful piece of equipment.
There are times when full-blown tent camping isn’t what you want to do, and the teardrop gives you a comfortable bed, basecamp and kitchen, plus power for your electronics. They’re small enough to be easily trailed, and you can maneuver them around campsites without drama. If you want to be able to venture off-road, there are versions built for that, too.

Here are a few resources:
Camp-Inn Trailers ( Several models to choose from, with base prices starting at $7,632 for a five-foot-wide 500 Model.
Little Guy Worldwide ( Four-, five- and six-foot-wide models.
The company has a list of dealers on their website.
So-Cal Teardrops ( With a decidedly retro look and several models in various sizes, So-Cal Teardrops start at $5,995 (MSRP). Many options are available.


    Absolutely love this article. I have lived on Highway 89 for 39 years in Ogden, Utah. Many vacations and trips have been spent exploring it from Montana to Arizona-it is the scenic route out of Ogden and back again. The past four years have been spent exploring and camping with a teardrop trailer, a Hunter Shadow. There is nothing comparable to the teardrop lifestyle. It is simple and unique.

    Loved the article and couldn’t agree more. I have made most of this drive a dozen or more times and never been disappointed. I am headed this way again for my retirement and without doubt will be close to Route 89.

    Absolutely love this photo. Wish it didn’t have the large snowflake in the center top as it is distracting to the photo, appears to be stuck on the lens… A really beautiful spot to take a picture is off to the right of the church looking back, you get the church along with the impressive falls in the background. Lovely spot!!! Wish the snow stayed on the trees longer, wish I were there now. 🙂

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