Advice For Shooting in Utah's National Parks

Advice For Shooting in Utah’s National Parks


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.


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

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.


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

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.


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.

Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Zion National Park

Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Bryce Canyon National Park

Copyright Mike Nielsen - Arches National Park

Copyright Mike Nielsen - Canyonlands National Park

Copyright Frank Kovalchek - Capitol Reef National Park

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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.

Some Older Comments

  • Scooter March 16, 2011 09:46 am

    I did a 3 week road trip through all these parks a few years ago in May (awesome time to go by the way), and
    although Zion, Bryce, and Arches were indeed spectacular to behold and photograph, our favorite park was Capitol Reef. It's like everyone forgot about this park, and good for us... no crowds!
    The Burr Trail was stunning from start to finish. Go in the morning and take the day to explore both by car and on foot.
    We took the main highway all the way south to Kodachrome State Park, where more hoodoos and goblins and whatnot dot the landscape, making you feel like you're on some remote planet.
    There are so many "off the beaten path" parks to see in Utah. Every time we went 10 miles out of our scheduled tour, we were pleasantly surprised. Goblin Valley, Pink Coral Sand Dunes, Old Paria Town, Crystal Geyser.
    Best advise is to get up and out early, and get off the beaten path!

  • Rebekah March 15, 2011 10:44 am

    Thanks for this - am about to embark on a trip to this area (I'm from NZ) so this is useful for me. Will have to balance taking photos with not boring my children though!

  • Carole Jeffs March 12, 2011 06:00 am

    If you are going to be there April 15th to the 17th they have an excellent photo workshop going on. Its by Michael Plyler he is a professional photographer and field archaeologist. He his the director of the ZIon Field Institute and lives right there in the mouth of the canyon. He really knows his stuff! He takes you to places in the park that are off the beaten path and really pays attention to the light when choosing his shooting locations. I have taken several of his workshops and have found them very helpful even though I am a professional photographer and also run workshops in the area (generally not Zions though...the fees are to high to justify doing a workshop there legally...unless you charge a fortune!)
    This is the link to the workshop site
    also if you want to do a low key private tour of the area contact me . I live between Zion Park and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

  • Carl Shortt III March 12, 2011 01:44 am

    Great write up! Thanks so much. I have a trip planned to all these places with Juan Pons coming up in May. Your info here is greatly appreciated.
    I look forward to your other writ-up for each park that you mentioned. Will be waiting with baited breath.

  • Marty March 11, 2011 12:28 pm

    I hope you do write follow-up pieces on each park. You put a lot of useful information in this one and reading stuff about these parks from a photographer's perspective is a real treat!

  • Michelle Goodall March 11, 2011 11:16 am

    Great article. Couple of weeks ago I spent 3 days shooting Arches and Canyonlands. Sure wished I had more time cause that wasnt enough.
    Thats the 2nd time I've been there. But, this time I got some great shots!

  • Bruce from Ohio March 11, 2011 11:01 am

    What timing. I'll be in the parks in 4 weeks and can't wait! Thanks for all the posts left for amateur photographers like myself. Hopefully I'll have some nice pics to share when I return. Anyone knowing any off the beaten path restaurants between Bryce and Zion feel free to let Me know.

  • J March 11, 2011 06:27 am

    Other suggestions: Antelope Canyon & other slot canyons, and the infamous Wave, around the Paige area. The tours last a big chunk of the day so you definitely need to put in some good time for photos and enjoyment. Dead Horse Bend of the Colorado river really gives you an intimate encounter with the vast canyons. For Bryce Canyon, I highly recommend Navajo Trail for the moderate hikers if you have time. The view down into the heart of the canyon where the isolated spruce trees have somehow grown is striking. Bring plenty of Gatorade to replenish yourself during those long dusty hikes.

  • Michelle March 11, 2011 03:48 am

    We went to Zion, Bryce, and Arches this summer and all of them were amazing.

    Must sees at Zion include the Angel's Landing trail (though it's a little strenuous to get to the peak), a hike in the Narrows, and the Subway formation.

    At Arches a somewhat little known attraction is the Fiery Furnace, a maze of sandstone fins and arches. However, make sure you keep track of where you are, as it's easy to get lost.

  • keith clark March 11, 2011 03:38 am

    On a shoot last summer in nearby Western Colorado, I only had a few hours in Arches and must say it is an amazing place. I wish I had time to hike and explore it more and will in the future sometime living in the Denver area. I am not a landscape photographer and only take pics while hiking, but parks in Utah offer everyone the opportunity for great shots whether you are a die hard landscape shooter or just someone hiking around.

    Another different type of southwest/desert park is Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado - i was there last week for a short hike for the first time - amazing place with sand dunes as high as 750 feet.

    my snapshots are here: along with another national park - Colorado National Monument which near the Utah state line. All amazing places to visit.

  • Denver March 11, 2011 03:21 am

    For a very slight detour in Zion, the little known Grafton ghost town in Springdale is worth the extra time to shoot pics as well.

  • B. Gordon March 11, 2011 03:10 am

    Spent the coldest day of my life shooting in Bryce Canyon in January...Minus 23 degrees according to the Park Ranger. Best pictures ever with contrasts of the red and orange rock, and the snow. Heading to Arches for Spring Break, and Zion's in the fall is breathtaking. It helps to have friends or family who can keep an eye on Zion's, because the fall colors come and go so quickly. With all the snow pack this year, spring in Utah will be great at all the National Parks and other areas in Utah.

  • Caitlin March 11, 2011 02:40 am

    I love this post! I spent my teenage years living in Utah and I have grown quite fond of its beauty and majesty. You completely captured that massiveness of the rock formation that so many people remember whether they have visited as a young child, or as an adult. HERE'S A TIP******VISIT MOAB! They have even more fun rock formation to climb through, the rocks have made tunnels and caves that let the light in, in an almost perfect manner.

  • Kate Wilcox March 7, 2011 05:51 am

    I went to the desert southwest in May of 1995. It rained 14 of the 21 days we were there making for spectacular desert flowers. We camped in Zion at (I believe) Lava Point on Memorial Day, the first day that season it was open because of snow. Most of the tourists were foreign and only one day was oppressively hot.

  • M. Allen March 2, 2011 01:32 pm

    My family will be visiting Utah (Zion and Bryce) for the first time this April. Does anyone have recommendations of a guided photo tour? Thanks!

  • Doug Sundseth March 2, 2011 08:58 am

    We've visited Arches and Zion, both of which are beautiful, and plan to visit the other Utah National Parks this year. I'll also strongly recommend Natural Bridges National Monument (on one of the roads from Moab to the other parks), which is worth a day's visit, and Goblin Valley State Park (very near the entrance to the Maze section of Canyonlands, which is worth at least part of a day. I'll mention that there's not much near either one, though, so lodging is limited unless you're camping.

    If you're willing to sully yourself by leaving Utah, Colorado National Monument is less than 2 hours from Moab (just over the Colorado state line) and Monument Valley Tribal Park is on the border of Utah and Arizona, about an hour south of Natural Bridges. Both are very much worth the time and effort.

  • ScottC March 2, 2011 03:35 am

    Amazing scenery, makes me look forward to getting back to the States. Not so many vistas here in Europe, but some gorgeous natural locations nonetheless. The Swiss and Schwabian Alps in the background.

  • Doc Holliday March 2, 2011 02:36 am

    I went to Bryce, Zion and the north rim of the Grand Canyon last June. Beautiful. I called it an 'up & down' trip because you look down at Bryce, up at Zion and down, again, at the GC.

    Your should also consider going to the Pink Coral Dunes (southwest of Zion, you will need an ATV to cover any ground at all. Get up early so you can beat the guys with sandrails that play in the park) and Painted Desert (right next to the entrance of Grand Staircase) State Parks.

    If you enter Zion through Mt. Carmel on the east side of the park, they are often working on the road. They, sometimes close the road. This route also goes through the long tunnel. If you have an RV, they charge you $15 to go through the tunnel -- beyond what they charge to get in -- because the have stop all traffic to get RV's through the tunnel. The entrance through Springdale, is much easier. The Virgin River flooded this winter between Springdale and Hurricane, so might check that everything is open.

    Be sure to check out Kolob Canyon on the northwest side of the park, up by Manti.

    I was not impressed by the North Rim of the GC. There were no big crowds there when we went-there's only one small campground. Lots of driving to get to vantage points. There is nothing here, except the park concession, so be prepared to spend, at least, $1 more per gallon for gas than stations outside of the park

    Zion is CROWDED. You can't drive into the park, you have to take tour buses. Crowds and bus schedules make morning/evening shooting challenging. The shuttle driver told me about 'Menu Falls', which is not on the map. It was the best falls to shoot in Zion. Is a bit of a walk though. When I go back, I will go in April or May to avoid the crowds.

    Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is a MUST see. It's about thirty miles east from Bryce. If you prepare for it, it gets my nod over Bryce. The road in is very rugged, (4WD low range or ATV rugged), and it can be very hot there. I have been a lot of places in my life that were primitive, but it is abundantly clear that if you venture into this place without adequate prep, it can kill you real fast.

    Persons who are disabled can get a free pass to all federal recreation areas. THis gets you in and a 50% discount on all federally run campgrounds. Ask at the entrance stations going into the park or go to a NFS ranger station and ask for it. They don't advertise these, so you have to ask for them.

    The light in all these places is fantastic and very challenging, (and frustrating). I have images similar the one in this story from Zion. None of mine look the same as the illustration-different light. Take, at least a polarizer. I used 4 & 8 NDFs, too. Wide angle lenses go without saying. You have consider what you are going to take with you, because you will be walking a lot in very hot weather.

  • Remi March 1, 2011 04:16 pm

    the first picture of this photo album was taken in Zion's National Park this winter
    And i agree, both bryce and zion's are excellent places to photography, and great to play with light. The was some snow when I went to Bryce, that was even better :)

  • Matt March 1, 2011 01:07 pm

    Having lived in Utah my whole life and visiting a couple of them, these are great tips! As mentioned above : bring LOTS of water!!

    Here's when I last went a few years ago (Taken with my first digital camera, a 2.1MP P&S that's now about 10 years old now)

    That was also before I did any editing on my photos

  • Karave March 1, 2011 12:31 pm

    Just a FYI. If you plan to go into the back country in Utah always plan ahead. You may need permits to travel in some remote areas. Like you say it is beautiful, but rugged and can be dangerous.

  • Joseph March 1, 2011 11:00 am

    I highly recommend working on a photographer`s day when you`re out there... (It changes, but here`s a summer day) Up before dawn, shoot through to mid morning - head back to town / hotel for a siesta, head back out around 5pm (late afternoon) shoot through sunset - go back home.

    You miss the hottest part of the day, have very nice lighting while you are out - and miss the bulk of the crowds.

  • Alex Esplin March 1, 2011 08:39 am

    @Celesta: Summer is really crowded in Zion, so I'd recommend early spring or late fall after schools have started. Also, fall is a little more colorful down in the lower elevations in the park.

    Early summer you start to get the crowds, but if you're lucky you can catch the cactus bloom. In my obviously biased opinion, there are few flowers more beautiful than a cactus blossom.

  • Trudy March 1, 2011 08:28 am

    I've never been to Utah but I've always loved the beautiful imagery of nature from there. Great tips. I hope to see some of this myself within the next few years.

  • Alex Esplin March 1, 2011 08:22 am

    I grew up in Southern Utah and I'll provide a hearty "I agree" to everything in this post, especially the admonition to take plenty of water if you're shooting in the summer.

    Another thing worth planning your schedule around is moonrise over Zion canyon. On the north-east side of the big tunnel at the top of the switchbacks is a short, easy hike call the Zion Overlook trail. This trail ends at the top of the huge arch that overlooks the switchbacks. The view from up there is _spectacular_ when the full (or mostly full) moon gets high enough to shine down into the canyon.

  • Celesta March 1, 2011 08:10 am

    When is the best season to visit Zion?

  • Jessica March 1, 2011 07:18 am

    Wow, thanks for this. As a Canadian city girl about to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, this couldn't have come at a better time!