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Advice For Shooting in Utah’s National Parks

Image: Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Utah bills itself as the National Park capital of the United States and I happen to agree with them. Utah contains five national parks in all, each in the southern portion of the state chiseled out of, and into, the ancient sandstone laid down hundreds of millions of years ago. Time and the elements have shaped the land with many unique features including some of the largest arches and canyons in the world.

This area of Utah can be a landscape photographers paradise but a little planning should be involved before jumping in a car and heading to Southern Utah. Getting there is indeed, half the fun. The national parks are not close to any large airports or metropolitan areas, thus almost requiring either a flight to large city or an adventurous road trip.

All the parks require a entry fee, ranging from $5 to $25 per vehicle and are good for 7 days. If other National Parks are in your future, it may be wise to purchase the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For $80 ($10 for US Seniors over 62) the pass allows entry for the holder and up to three adults or children practically all US National Parks as well as many other federal agency properties which charge a use or entry fee. It does not cover camping and a few other items. There are a few fee free day planned for 2011, which include: April 16-24 (National Parks Week), June 21st (First day of summer), September 24th (Public Lands Day) and November 11-13 (Veteran’s Day Weekend). Expect these days to be busy.

Before we being, there are some general photography tips which cover all of the parks, the most important of which, I feel, is get up before the sun every day. On any given day this area of the country receives more than average sunshine and it is one of the big draws or the region. Take advantage of the wonderful light on the sandstone by rising well before sunrise to take advantage of the Golden Hour. Not only that, depending on season, getting up early will likely be the coolest part of your trip!

And be warned, this is area of Utah is rugged, harsh country. While there are paved roads and campsites with amenities, even some paved hiking trails, always carry plenty of water and personal supplies. Especially sunblock and a good hat. In summer the temperatures will regularly top 100F.


Image: Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Arches National Park is located close to Moab, a growing town which serves as an excellent refueling and resupplying point for adventure in Souther Utah. Because of its proximity and the hotel accommodations located therein (perfect if you are not the camping type), Arches is a busy park. Open year round, the visitor center only closes on December 25th and is worth a stop for a primer on what the park has to offer.

As the name implies, the highlight of this park are the hundreds of natural arches carved into the sandstone walls and fins. The most famous is Delicate Arch, a photo of which adorns the Utah state license plate. It is best visited in the late afternoon as most shots are taken facing mostly East with the La Sal Mountains in the background. One of my personal favorite formations in the park is Marching Men from the South (pictured here), approached via a 4×4 only trail or by foot in the park’s Western limits.

The Park Service has great recommendations on its site of formations and the best time of day to shoot. Mid-day is a good time to take a break or walk a trail if your stamina is up for it. The Devils Garden is an enjoyable hike as a loop and can even yield a photo or two at mid-day. Did I mention carry lots of water? Always.

Bryce Canyon

Image: Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Bryce Canyon National Park is know for its hoodoos, tall pillars of rock standing as sentinels against a slow erosion from wind and water. They are an excellent place to examine the different layers in sandstone structures and stratification. The park is a long, single drive which remains on a platue above the hoodoos offering excellent views to the East.

Camping in Bryce Canyon is ideal as a number of the best view points are within walking distance. And with names like Sunrise, Sunset and Inspiration point you can expect the views to be worth the drive. The names can be a bit of a misnomer, as sunrise is equally as good from Sunset Viewpoint as from Sunrise Viewpoint. And don’t forget the moon rise! If you can plan your trip around the time of a full moon, it is worth adjusting your schedule. The expansive view to the East is equally good to witness the moon starting its walk across the Utah sky.

After sunrise, before the heat kicks in during summer, head down into the hoodoos and pass by Thor’s Hammer, The Queen’s Garden and Wall Street. As the sun passes noon and starts to get beyond the rim above, the harsh light will begin to fade and make for interesting shots amongst the hoodoos. The rim of Bryce canyon National Park is over 8000′ in areas, so expect to be a bit winded of higher elevations are new to you. Give yourself a day or two in the park to get a feel what the reduced oxygen feels like.

In the winter the park will be hit with snow storms at times and this may cause road closures until plows can clear the way. Otherwise the park is open year round, including the visitors center. Winter snows on the red rocks create some of the most stunning photographic art in the state. Bring lots of water.


Image: Copyright Peter West Carey

Copyright Peter West Carey

Canyonlands is a massive, sprawling park nearly impossible to see in a day. And forget about trying to photograph it in less than a few days or weeks. The park centers on the joining of the Green and Colorado Rivers, both of which have carved out the awe inspiring canyons. Island In The Sky is the area closest to Moab and easiest to visit, providing great visibility over both of the major canyons. If you have access to a 4×4 vehicle, by all means, travel the White Rim Trail, a two or three day event, longer if you stop to explore on foot often. This is an area down close to the canyons, complete with some natural bridges fit for walking. Being further down into the canyons means less direct sun in the morning. Bring a gradient filter to help balance the sun lighting the tops of formations before it catches the valley on which you stand.

Both morning and evening light are gorgeous over the chiseled landscape of Island In The Sky where the canyon walls and shadows make photography easy. Over at the Needles District are more spires, towers and canyons with quite a few more hiking trails. The canyons can provide some respite from summer heat. For a change of paces, drive to the West side of the park (no small feat!) to the Maze District with its labyrinth of twisting and turning colors and stratified rocks. The saturation of these formations is spell binding at sunset. Bring lots of water.

Capitol Reef

Image: Copyright Frank Kovalchek

Copyright Frank Kovalchek

Capitol Reef National Park is a long sliver of a park which butts up to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the south. The park has limited roads and a lot of the best exploration is done on foot. It is fairly easy to approach as Hwy 24 cuts through the center of the park although it is the least explored (by tourists) of the National Parks in Utah. You can read that last line as “No Crowds”. The park encompasses an original pioneer homestead and fruit orchard as well as the Waterpocket Fold, a giant wrinkle in the earth extending in the park’s southern reaches.

Not only are the chocolate hued Moenkopi sandstone formations, which dominate this park, incredible to see in the late afternoon light as they light up to a warmer copper, there are a number of pictographs and petroglyphs to be viewed, more easily reached than other parks. While driving options are few in this park (unless you have a high clearance 4×4) there are a number of wandering options to get up on top of the sandstone and capture the vastness of the realm. Bring lots of water.


Image: Copyright Frank Kovalchek

Copyright Frank Kovalchek

Zion National Park is a canyon lover’s paradise. Zion Canyon, the main attraction of the park, is cut sometimes 2000′ down into the park. The photography here can be a bit easier as the canyon internally will be light with reflected light. A tripod will be needed for such an occasion. Photos of the silky water moving through the carved and rusted canyon walls (maybe with an occasional hiker passing through) are a favorite.

Weeping Rock is a quick hike and the spring-fed waterfall bursts with colors in fall. It is a short 25 minute diversion which can turn into an all day event for the flower loving photographer. The Court Of The Patriachs, a long wall of beautiful sandstone footed by green forest, is best shot in the morning hours.

I feel overwhelmed and limited with the space of this post and realize I barely touched the surface of the opporunities of the National Parks in Utah. Perhaps I will write a post on each park to delve deeper into what they can offer a traveling photographer. If you have any suggestions of particular spots, formations or areas you love photographing in this wonderland, please leave a comment.

Barring more words, I will leave you with more photographs of this great land.

Image: Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Zion National Park

Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Zion National Park

Image: Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Bryce Canyon National Park

Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Bryce Canyon National Park

Image: Copyright Mike Nielsen - Arches National Park

Copyright Mike Nielsen - Arches National Park

Image: Copyright Mike Nielsen - Canyonlands National Park

Copyright Mike Nielsen - Canyonlands National Park

Image: Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Capitol Reef National Park

Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Capitol Reef National Park

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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