You may not of heard of Cathedral Rock, but I’ll bet you’ve seen pictures of it. Sunset shots of Cathedral Rock are one of the iconic images of the Southwest and it is on the ‘bucket list’ of many a photographer. Situated near the beautiful and quaint little town of Sedona Arizona, it is in the heart of the famous “Red Rock” landscape that has captivated so many of us. If you plan to make a trip to the area, then read on and let me help make the most of your visit to Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op.
I thought I had done a solid job researching Cathedral Rock before my first trip. I had read How to Photograph the Southwest by Laurent Martres (a great series of books for any landscape photographer) as well as a number of other books and internet articles. For some reason, I had gotten the mistaken impression that I could just drive up a half hour before sunset, walk five minutes down a nice little path, set up my tripod and be good to go. Well, as it turns out….you can’t. I didn’t get a decent shot until my third trip here. Here is what I wish I had known:
First of all, you have to find the place:
- Cathedral Rock is located in a park about 7 miles from ‘downtown’ Sedona. If you look online you might easily get confused about exactly where the park is and what it is actually called (I certainly did). Sometimes it is referred to as Red Rock Crossing Park…other times as the Crescent Moon Picnic Area Park
- This website provides a map and good directions. If you are using GPS, be careful that it selects the right place. You specifically want the Crescent Moon picnic area in Red Rock Crossing Park. Again, leave early and give yourself plenty of time.
- From the “Y” (intersection of US89A and 179) in downdown Sedona, drive west on US 89A. Just outside of town, turn south on FR 216 (Upper Red Rock Loop Road). Drive about 1.5 miles and follow the signs to Red Rock Crossing. All roads except the short segment leading from Red Rock Crossing Road to the picnic area are paved
- GPS: N34° 49′ 33.78″, W-111° 48′ 26.7114″
Plan to be at the park at least an hour and a half before sunset:
- Why so early? Well the first reason is because sunset will actually be 30 minutes before the “official” time because mountains to the east will block light on Cathedral Rock. I didn’t know this my first trip and as I pulled into the park, I was greeted by an incredible sunset…but Cathedral Rock was dark: completely in shadow. I didn’t get a shot worth keeping.
- Second, traffic in Sedona can be challenging. It’s one of the few places I’ve photographed in the Southwest where you have to add extra travel-time to your schedule because of traffic.
- Third, you will need time to scout the area (see below).
- As of June 2018, you can’t enter the park after dusk but they don’t ask you to leave if you are already there. However, you are not allowed to stay in the park overnight (no Milky Way shots).
My favorite vantage points:
- I wasted my second trip to the site by rushing from one end of the park to the other trying to find the ‘classic’ views I had seen in all those photographs. The park is pretty big and if you don’t know the best vantage points you should expect to invest a lot of time scouting locations.
- Let me save you some effort by sharing a map with my top 4 favorite spots to set up and photograph Cathedral Rock:
- The map below covers a wider area and lets you see where Cathedral Rock is located in comparison to Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing Park:
A word to the wise:
- Don’t try to cross the river unless you have a waterproof bag for your camera. Although parts of the river are shallow (there are even ‘stepping stones’ at one location), the rocks are very slippery. I have seen a couple of photographers fall in the river and I’m sure it ruined their day. Frankly, all my favorite locations are on the north side of the river, so I haven’t had an overpowering urge to tempt fate.
- There are a slew of different passes and tickets for the multiple photo ops around Sedona. I found it throughly confusing and expensive. The one-day entrance fee (Day Pass) is $10 per car at Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing . A better option if you are going to be in the area for a couple of days is to buy a Red Rock Annual Pass for $40. It will allow you access to all the Red Rock areas including Crescent Moon and it also serves as a parking pass for all the scenic parking areas around town (otherwise, you will pay repeatedly for parking and it will likely add up to more than $40). This link will take you to a website with details about the ticket options.
- Although photography is best near the end of the day when the setting sun shifts the color of Cathedral Rock into wonderful red hues, there is plenty you could do here if you have interests other than photography (God forbid!)
- Cathedral Rock is off in the distance a bit, so you won’t need an extremely wide-angle lens. Most of my shots were taken between 35 and 50mm on a full frame camera (22-31mm on a crop-frame APS-C camera).
- You will need a tripod to take the long exposures necessary to give the water that entrancing ‘silky’ look. A tripod will also come in handy since you will likely want to use HDR to capture the full dynamic range…especially as the light begins to fade.
Hope you get a chance to visit Sedona soon!
Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op