The Grand Canyon Monsoon
by Gary Hart
Few locations are better suited to (relatively) safe lightning photography than the Grand Canyon. Each summer, a large portion of the Southwest United States is assaulted almost daily by thunderstorms. The Grand Canyon is in the heart of this activity—even if lightning isn’t happening where you are, there’s a pretty good chance that a thunderstorm will be visible somewhere from one of the Grand Canyon’s expansive vistas.
The onset of the monsoon season ranges from mid-June to early July; it typically lasts through August, and sometimes as late as mid-September. Any time in this window can work, but your best chances for lightning will come mid-July through August.
Some days the monsoon thunderstorms rage all day and into the night, but more typical are days that dawn relatively clear, with clouds building as the sun heats the air. Usually by late morning or early afternoon the skies are blooming with dark, cumulus pillows.
Grand Canyon locations
With just a couple of exceptions, my greatest Grand Canyon lightning success has come when I’ve been on the rim opposite the lightning activity. It’s safer, and because distant lightning can be photographed from far more locations, I get more composition flexibility.
Despite being separated by fewer than 20 straight-line miles, the differences between photographing the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims are significant. The South Rim has broader vistas and more easily accessible locations from which to choose. Cell phone connectivity, while far from perfect, is much more widespread and reliable on the South Rim.
The North Rim has far fewer people, a predominantly southward view (the direction from which the thunderstorms often travel), and nice views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the canyon’s East Rim that aren’t possible from the South Rim. And for those looking for something unique, the North Rim also has lots more infrequently photographed locations. Cell connectivity is limited to the Grand Canyon Lodge, and only for certain carriers.
Given the four hour drive from rim to rim, and weather forecasts that really aren’t granular enough to determine which rim will be better on any given day, on any given day it’s best to pick a rim and stick with it. When I split a multi-day visit between rims, I try to time the rim-to-rim drive for early morning, usually right after sunrise, before the storms have a chance to form. Early morning is usually the best time to scout locations, always a good idea before trying to photograph there.
South Rim (from west to east)
All South Rim views are north, plus west and/or east.
- Hermit’s Rest shuttle stops: You have a variety of views here, all north, plus east and/or west. Hopi Point is my favorite, with open views west, north and east, plus a little shot of the Colorado River far below. The downside of the Hermit’s Rest Road vistas is that in summer they’re only accessible by shuttle, bike or foot—it’s difficult to change locations quickly here, and if you’re out there and lightning starts up nearby, you’re pretty exposed.
- Mather and Yavapai Points: Separated by almost one mile of paved, north-facing, rim-hugging trail, Mather and Yavapai Points are a good combination of variety and relative safety. They’re also right in the heart of the South Rim tourist activity, near the Visitor Center, campground and hotels (and medical clinic)—easy to get to, ample parking, but swarming with people whose priorities are far different from yours. Mather has views north, east and somewhat west, while Yavapai faces north, west and somewhat east. I usually park at one end or the other (there’s more parking near Mather than Yavapai) and walk the rim between the two until I find a view I like. One downside is that the views here are probably the most frequently photographed at the Grand Canyon.
- Highway 64 vistas: With the exception of Yaki Point, which is only accessible by shuttle, bike or foot, all of the designated views along Highway 64 east of Mather Point are easily accessed by car, with close parking for hasty retreat. All are predominantly north-facing, but the farther east you get, the more the views open. Near Desert View the Colorado River bends ninety degrees, making Desert View, Navajo Point and Lipan Point my favorite South Rim vistas: Not only do they offer views across to the North Rim and up and down the canyon east and west, they also offer views up the north/south trending section of the canyon. And the South Rim’s best views of the Colorado River are at these east-most vistas.
Most North Rim views are predominantly unidirectional (south, east or west), with an occasional secondary direction.
- Grand Canyon Lodge: The Grand Canyon Lodge is the hub of North Rim activity. Its adjacent view platforms provide excellent cross-canyon views to the South Rim, with the added bonus of being just a few strides from the safety of the lodge. Here you can set up your camera and let it fire away while you comfortably monitor both it and the lightning show through the lodge’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
- Bright Angel Point: Just a five-minute walk from Grand Canyon Lodge, Bright Angel Point provides nice views south and west, and a less impressive view to the east. There are also several east and west views on the trail to the point. The downside of Bright Angel Point is its extreme exposure—you don’t want to be caught out here with lightning nearby.
- Cape Royal: The features that make Cape Royal the best location for photographing lightning also make it among the most dangerous. An exposed rock outcrop protruding into the canyon, Cape Royal is the North Rim’s best combination of views east, south, and west. Unfortunately, not only is Cape Royal quite exposed, it’s a nearly half mile walk (sprint) from the parking area. I only use Cape Royal to photograph lightning when the activity is comfortably across the canyon (in which case it’s a great spot).
- Cape Royal Road: The road to Cape Royal has several vistas facing east, northeast and southeast. Vista Encantada, Roosevelt Point and Walhalla Point are all great places to photograph lightning east of the Grand Canyon—not only are the views good, they’re also wide and distant, with nice canyon features for your foreground. View highlights include the Grand Canyon’s East Rim and the aptly named Vermillion Cliffs. Each vista is just a few steps from the parking area, close enough that you can set up your camera on the tripod and wait out a storm in the comfort of your car. As an added bonus, the eastward views make these great locations to capture an afternoon rainbow above the canyon.
- Point Imperial: At 8,800 feet, east-facing Point Imperial is the highest drivable vista within the National Park. Its clear view of the Vermillion Cliffs, and northeast to southeast views along the East Rim, combined with photogenic foreground red-rock towers, ridges, and gorges, makes Point Imperial one of my favorite Grand Canyon locations. And while there’s room to roam here, some of the best views are just a few yards from the parking lot. Point Imperial is also another good spot for afternoon rainbows.
- National Forest Service (NFS) roads: Just north of the National Park boundary is a network of unpaved but well maintained NFS roads that provide access to infrequently photographed east or west (but never both) views. East of Highway 67, check out East Rim View for more views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the East Rim. Also worth checking out, but a little more remote, is Marble Point. The views west of Highway 67 include Fence Point, Fire Point, Timp Point, among others. With at least 20, one-way miles on unpaved roads, you’ll need to allocate at least a half day for a west-side trip, but the opportunity to photograph beautiful, infrequently photographed canyon views justifies the inconvenience for me. Some roads are far more accessible than others out here, so rather than trusting maps or your GPS, check with the Visitor Center or Wilderness Office for the recommended routes.
North Rim or South Rim, rain or shine, night or day, the Grand Canyon is a natural masterpiece, an unmatched cross-section of nearly two billion years of Earth history at your feet. Witnessing the millisecond lifespan of a lighting bolt above a landscape that took billions of years to form is a life-shaping experience. Each time you stand on the rim, do yourself a favor and forget your photography long enough to appreciate the oceans and deserts preserved in each layer, the relentless force of wind and water that revealed them, and your good fortune to be able to take it all in.
You can see Gary Hart's full Shooting The Monsoon article here