The Ultimate Guide To Arches & Canyonlands

They may be two of the most photographed parks in America, but you still can get original images with a plan and the right astronomical tools
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January sunrise at Mesa Arch, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches and Canyonlands are two of the nation’s most beautiful national parks—and two of the most heavily photographed. Delicate Arch is a stunning natural sculpture, but a simple snapshot of it has no more impact today than a song you’ve heard on the radio too many times. So how can you create your own unique interpretation of a magnificent place? Here’s a four-season guide.

In Arches and Canyonlands, the best photos usually aren’t about flowers or fall color. Almost always, they’re about rock and light, with weather as the final ingredient that can make a good image extraordinary. On human time scales, the rock is almost unchanging (although Wall Arch collapsed earlier this year). Light is the variable that the photographer can most easily control. My yearlong effort to make fresh images in the parks began with in-depth scouting for the best lighting angles of the most photogenic areas. I used Heavenly Opportunity (http://weba.viawest.net/~fcs/ho/), a program that gives the azimuth and altitude of the sun and moon for any specified time, day and location, to determine the right day for the image I envisioned. In several cases, the window of opportunity lasted only a few days.

Arches National Park
Let’s start with Delicate Arch. The long axis of the fin in which Delicate Arch is carved has a compass bearing of 80º. That means that the classic shot of Delicate Arch and the snow-covered La Sal Mountains is arguably best done from March 19 through April 15. Come earlier, and the arch is only rim-lit at sunset because the sun is setting too far south to light the visible face of the arch. Come later, and the sun sets behind an obstacle, so the bottom portion of the arch is in deep shade at sunset. Come in the fall, when the sunset angles are analogous, and there’s no snow on the distant La Sals, which then blend in to the bright sky near the horizon at sunset.

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Turret Arch through North Window at sunrise, Windows area, Arches National Park, Utah
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South Window through Turret Arch at sunrise, Windows area, Arches National Park, Utah

Want a more unique shot of Delicate Arch? Come back at winter solstice (plus or minus about a week, ideally), and you can shoot the setting sun through the arch. I used color-negative film in my 4x5 when I shot it, overexposing one stop for better shadow detail, then had the film drum-scanned. Color-negative film has a much wider latitude than transparency film; a high-end drum scan captured all that detail in digital form. Digital shooters will probably want to experiment with HDR software, such as Photomatix
Pro 3.0 (www.hdrsoft.com), to try to hold detail everywhere in the frame.

Want a genuine shot of the full moon through Delicate Arch at sunset? The tolerance on this one is very tight, so I bought a Brunton Pocket Transit (www.brunton.com), a tripod-mounted, highly accurate compass and inclinometer, to calculate the very best day in 2007 to shoot the moon through the arch at sunset. The moon must be at a bearing of 115º to 117º and have an angular elevation between 4º and 8º to appear within the arch while you still have your tripod on level ground. There actually are many more possibilities—if you can cling to near-vertical sandstone like a gecko!

No day in 2009 falls perfectly within those parameters, but August 4 should work. At sunset at 8:23 p.m., the moon will be at a bearing of 121º and angular elevation of 5.4º. Be forewarned that the setup may be tricky on sloping sandstone above a significant drop and the base of the arch will be shadowed at sunset. If possible, scout the area the evening before with a mirror-sight compass or, better yet, a pocket transit, to determine your tripod location and to get insurance shots of the moon through the arch starting about 45 minutes before sunset.

The second most famous vista in Arches surely is the view of Turret Arch through North Window. From the main Windows area parking lot, hike the short trail to North Window. Go through the arch, scramble across the narrow gully and up onto the ledges on the far side that offer this classic composition. From August 24 through April 18, North Window gets full sunrise light.

I found a far more unusual shot while scouting around Turret Arch. By scrambling onto a precarious perch about two feet wide above a 20-foot drop, I discovered that it was possible to frame up South Window through Turret Arch. I then used the transit to determine that I could shoot the sun rising through Turret Arch and South Window simultaneously on about eight days a year, April 28 through May 1 and August 11 through August 14. After getting skunked during the four-day window in April, I returned in August to make the shot on 4x5 color-negative film.


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Left half of Double Arch at sunset from the east wall, Arches National Park, Utah

One of my favorite arches in the park is Double Arch, also in the Windows area. This extraordinary desert cathedral actually has three openings: two in a vertical plane and the third in the “roof.” Unfortunately, these arches don’t get sunrise or sunset light at any time of year. By scrambling up the east wall to the highest ledge, however, I discovered that the setting sun would drop right into the western arch from March 2 to March 22, and again from September 20 to October 10. (Be forewarned that mountaineers would call this Scramble Class 3 or 4; a slip would mean serious injury or death.) I hoped that the warm light of the setting sun would bounce off the rock behind me and bathe the normally shadowed interior of the arch in a warm glow. After making some test shots in the spring, I returned in the fall and shot it on 4x5 color-negative film using my widest lens. By using the front shift on the 4x5, I was able to make two overlapping frames that stitched together perfectly, since each rectangular image was cut from the same image circle.

Landscape Arch, the longest and most fragile arch in the park, gets sunrise light at any time of year. Time your visit for October 2 or March 7 (plus or minus a few days) around 3:40 p.m., and you can shoot the sun kissing the thinnest part of the arch. Viewers’ eyes will be drawn to the brightest part of the image—the sun—and then to the thinnest part of the arch, emphasizing its fragility. I handled the extreme contrast with color-negative film.

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Landscape Arch with sunstar emphasizing the thinnest part, Devils Garden area, Arches National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park
If Delicate Arch is the most famous sunset shot in the area, then surely Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky mesa of Canyonlands National Park is the most famous sunrise. During the fair-weather months, even at sunrise, you practically need to take a number to get a space for your tripod. Although the weather is benign in summer, it’s not the best time to photograph Mesa Arch. The sun rises directly over the La Sals, which means the light is less colorful by the time it reaches the arch. Shooting directly into the sun also magnifies problems with haze. In summer photographs, the La Sals are often almost invisible behind a shroud of backlit dust. I decided to photograph Mesa Arch in January, when the sun rises as far to the south as it will for the entire year. At the latitude of Arches, the angle of sunrise (and sunset) varies by more than 60º from summer solstice to winter solstice. By choosing to photograph near winter solstice, when the sun rises well to the south of the La Sals, I was able to capture the most colorful possible light and to minimize problems with haze.

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Winter sunrise at Grand View Point, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

One of the toughest challenges in my yearlong quest was photographing the spectacular view from aptly named Grand View Point. This overlook, at the southernmost tip of the Island in the Sky, provides a panoramic view of Monument Basin, the White Rim and the Needles District. The scenery is indisputably grand; the problem is the lighting. At any time of year, Monument Basin, the most photogenic feature visible from Grand View Point, is shadowed at sunset by Junction Butte and Grand View Point itself. At sunrise in summer, the sun comes up behind the La Sal Mountains, dulling the color of light that reaches into the canyon below. Ultimately, I decided that my best bet was the dead of winter, when Monument Basin would be backlit by the rising sun.

In January 2008, with the predawn temperature in the single digits, I relocated the tiny but tough juniper I planned to use as part of my foreground and set up my 4x5 field camera. A heavy bank of clouds covered most of the sky, leaving a narrow gap at the eastern horizon that was rapidly closing. With only minutes to spare, the sun rose into the gap. The dark clouds blocked the bright, white light from the sky around the sun, and the vibrant color of undiluted sunrise light blasted through the gap, turning the clouds a fiery red and the foreground snow magenta. Two minutes later, the light show was over, but I already had captured my favorite image of Grand View Point.


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Delicate Arch and the La Sal Mountains at sunset, Arches National Park, Utah
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A weathered juniper and the Green River Overlook glow pink at dawn, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The feature that first grabs your eye at the Green River Overlook on the Island in the Sky is the scalloped cliffs of the White Rim more than a thousand feet below. A telephoto shot that includes only those curving ramparts, however, doesn’t really capture the feeling of being there. To give the image depth and a sense of place, I wanted an interesting foreground. After extensive scouting, I discovered a weathered juniper with great character. I returned before dawn for several mornings and used the tree to frame up the White Rim far below. One morning, a broad bank of clouds, which was behind me and out of my frame, lit up a spectacular red. The colorful clouds, in turn, threw a soft, pink glow over the entire scene in front of me. By the time I realized what was happening, it was almost too late. I was only able to expose two sheets of 4x5 film, each requiring a 30-second exposure, before the glow faded. The unusual light makes this image my favorite rendition of a remarkable place. I recommend working this overlook from September through March, when the distant buttes are sidelit at sunrise.

Dead Horse Point State Park lies on the same broad mesa that contains the Island in the Sky district. It gives visitors an awe-inspiring insight into the power of flowing water working patiently and inexorably for 150 million years. From the canyon rim to the Colorado River far below is a precipitous drop of 2,000 feet. This is primarily a sunrise location. For the warmest light, shoot between May 1 and mid-August, when the sun rises north of the La Sals, or from late October to mid-February, when it rises to the south. Don’t be a guardrail geranium—in other words, don’t plant yourself at the first spot along the guardrail that gives you a glimpse of the canyon below and remain rooted for your entire morning’s shoot. If you search along the canyon rim, you can find foreground elements that will give your images more depth and interest. I chose a lone Utah juniper, growing from a crack in the arid rock, that illustrated how tenacious life must be to survive in this harsh yet beautiful landscape.

First-time visitors to the Moab area, or those with limited time, would do well to concentrate on Arches National Park and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands because they are so accessible. Reaching the most spectacular arches in the Needles District of Canyonlands requires long day hikes or backpacking; exploring the Maze District requires a multi-day expedition on very long and difficult 4WD roads. Regardless of where you go, know the angle of sunrise and sunset, keep your compass handy, and remember that great lighting is the key to great landscape photography.

 

Want a genuine shot of the full moon through Delicate Arch at sunset?
The tolerance on this one is very tight, so I bought a Brunton Pocket Transit (www.brunton.com), a tripod-mounted, highly accurate compass and inclinometer, to calculate the very best day in 2007 to shoot the moon through the arch at sunset. The moon must be at a bearing of 115° to 117° and have an angular elevation between 4º and 8º to appear within the arch while you still have your tripod on level ground. There actually are many more possibilities—if you can cling to near-vertical sandstone like a gecko!

 

Resources
Arches National Park
(435) 719-2299
www.nps.gov/arch/

Canyonlands National Park
(435) 719-2313
www.nps.gov/cany/

7 Comments

    Arches and Canyonlands National Park contain some of the most breath taking scenery in the United States. Chocked full of hundreds of natural arches, slick rock canyons, balanced rocks.The dynamic forces of wind, water and geologic upheaval have created a landscape of extraordinary beauty and have left for us a plethora of photogenic treasures.

    To Moabfan; your willingness to accept the excuse of park officials is naive; this is undoubtedly the most reproduced photograph of the area and surely has more to do with commerce than environmental concerns. If environmental concerns are legitimate and consistent, shut down all access and let the market of photos to date be the witness to nature. Access contradicts protection; pick a cause and be consistent. Believe what you say and demonstrate it by staying away.

    In the otherwise admirable photograph from Grand View Point, it appears that the horizon is not level. Being familiar with the area, I doubt that the land actually has that much slope. (Unlike, say, Bryce Canyon, which ascends well more than a thousand feet from the north to the south end.) So there is yet an opportunity to capture an even MORE favorite image of it. Or else rotate it a bit in an image manipulation program to prevent frozen fingers.

    The park service in Arches has closed off the walkway behind North Window so you cannot duplicate the picture presented in this article of Turret Arch through North Window. There are many signs posted that this is a sensitive soil area and I would encourage other photographers who care about the parks not to violate these signs. Rather look for other opportunities, they are abundant. It’s more fun to find your own view than to duplicate another photographers vision.

    Having photographed Turret Arch through North Window in 2000, I have to take issue with the closure of this area. The amount of soil at risk we are talking about is about 20 square feet. Given the immensity of the park, I find it difficult to understand how saving this area is an ecological necessity. It seems more likely they are worried about someone falling and are using this an excuse. One could walk all around this area where the sign is not posted doing damage. Another example of being a little overzealous in my opinion.

    I just returned to this area in April 2009 and to my surprise, the area is now open. Whether this was due to someone taking down the barricade or the National Park Service, this was a good move. As I climbed to the area where the picture was taken I realize there was even less ecological necessity to this having been closed in the first place. My guess is the NPS caught hell for this from photographers.

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