Tag Archives: Zion

A Photographer Commutes on Zion’s Subway: Photo Tips

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

This is pretty much straight out of the camera. I pulled the highlights down a bit, lightened the shadows and increased the vibrance a tad…that’s it!

If you are a photographer, then you know we live in challenging times.  The source of this concern is that there are a LOT of  talented and dedicated photographers out there and they are creating incredible images.  So why is that a problem?  Well, have you ever finally got to one of those locations on your ‘photographic bucket list’, set up your tripod, looked thru the viewfinder, and said to yourself….Crap, this doesn’t look at all like those pictures I’ve been looking at!

That’s the problem I’m talking about.

Heck, you get all excited, spend the money and time to travel to one of these photographic icons….and then the real thing just doesn’t look nearly as good as those images you saw on your computer back at home.

It’s happened to all of us…no matter how good our equipment or how talented (we think) we are.

So when I do get to a ‘bucket list’ spot and I look thru the viewfinder and what I see is there is as good as anything I’ve ever seen on the internet, well, then I know that I’m truly in the presence of something special.   A real Icon.

And I’m here to tell you that the Subway at Zion National Park is one of those Icons.  I don’t care how many photoshopped masterpieces you’ve seen taken by National Geographic Award Winning Photographers …the fact is that YOU can take a photo here that will compare well to the best of them and  make you shake your head in wonder.

Yeah, but here’s the hitch (there’s always a hitch).   It’s not easy to get to the subway.  Access is tightly restricted by a permit system plus you have to be willing and able to make a long hike.

Actually, there are two ways to get to the Subway.  One way involves rappelling and other mountain climbing type skills, so let’s forget about that one.  The second route is shorter and easier… its called the “Bottom-up” hike.  Although easier, it is still about a 10 miles roundtrip hike.  And it isn’t a smooth, easy trail.  The National Park Service calls this a strenuous hike.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was certainly the toughest 10 mile hike I’ve done.  None of it is smooth, straight, level or flat.  You are constantly scrambling up and down over rocks and boulders.  Maybe this explains why less than 1% of Zion visitors make it to the Subway.

My son, Ryan, and I are confident hikers but we still took about two hours (not counting stops) to reach the Subway.  Once you figure in some breaks as well as stops for photography, it would be difficult to do this whole hike in less than seven hours.

But it is worth it!

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

You start seeing these colorful pools as you approach the subway entrance

Ryan and were in Zion this March and the Subway was #1 on our list of hikes.  We got to the trailhead a couple of hours after dawn and started down the trail.   To be honest, compared to other hikes in Zion, this one isn’t particularly beautiful.  To be brutally honest it was a long, tiring slog.  But as we finally approached the subway entrance things started to get very interesting.

Carved out from the colorful sandstone by moving water, the subway is aptly named.   Actually it is a narrow canyon with a thin opening in the ceiling but it really does look like someone burrowed a curving, round tube right thru the rock.

We set up our tripods and took our first shot.  We glanced at the result and then looked up at each other with huge, dopey smiles on our faces.  Shook our heads and got to work.  We were bouncing ideas off of each other, suggesting different angles, perspectives, camera settings…I was almost giddy.  The place is truly magical for a photographer!

The subway was a lot larger than I had imagined, the ceiling was about 20′ tall.  And the colors are amazing!  The chilly water saturates the rock which results in robust reds, fluorescent greens and subtle yellows.

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

“Subway Commuter”  My son’s silhouette helps you appreciate the size of the place.

Ryan thought it would be good to include people in some of the shots.  I’m kind of ‘old school’ and was taught to exclude people from my photographs.  But I’ve come to appreciate how much a human figure in an image provides a sense of proportion and fosters an emotional link to the image.  Looking thru my Subway shots now, the ones with people are among my favorites:  who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?

'Zion's Subway Photo Tips'

It can be hard to come up with unique compositions at the Subway. In this shot, I used a Gorillapod tripod to set up my camera only inches over the water.

The Subway is fully shaded and surprisingly cold, especially when the wind whips thru the ‘tunnel.’  We had a ball, despite the chill and managed to stay on our feet the whole time although the swift current and slippery rocks resulted in a couple slips that certainly got the adrenaline flowing for a moment or two.

There is a waterfall in a chamber at the back of the Subway, but the water levels were too high for us to reach it due to the snowmelt.  Something for our next trip.

We enjoyed the Subway’s magic for nearly 90 minutes before we regretfully packed up to head home.

We decided to stop for a well earned lunch at Arch Angel Cascades.  As we were enjoying our extravagant meal (Cliff Bars) we noticed a young couple coming down the stream headed for the Subway.  We waved and said hi.  About ten minutes later we were putting our packs back on when we saw the same couple heading back.  I guess they weren’t photographers.  They had hiked for 2 hours, looked at the Subway for five minutes or so, then turned around started the 2 hour walk home. Ryan and I were amazed.  Sure, the Subway is beautiful, but I wonder if I would be willing to walk 4 hours to look at something for less than 300 seconds!

The hike back seemed to take forever…possibly because I was dreading the climb near the end of the trail where you have to climb 500′ over less than a tenth of a mile.  That is one steep climb.  Of course my 21 year old son bolted up the trail like some kind of crazed mountain goat.  My 57 year old knees weren’t quite as nubile so he got to wait quite a while at the top before I clawed my way up.

Now, four months later,  the sore muscles are (nearly) forgotten.  But whenever I look at the photos I took that day, I smile and think of a place where you don’t have to be Ansel Adams or Tom Till to take a breathtaking photograph.

‘ Subway Station’ A three frame composite panorama

Photo Tips and Guide for Photographers visiting Zion’s Subway:

Normally, what you would see now on my blog would be a full length article on “How-to photograph the Subway” …but that isn’t going to happen:  Because someone has already done it.  I ran across this guide  by fellow photographer Nico Debarmore when I was first planning my trip.  His article is through, detailed, accurate and I highly recommend it to any photographer considering making a hike to the Subway.

In addition to Nico’s information, let me add a few random thoughts of my own:

Find out about the water conditions  before you hike: 

  • The Left Fork of North Creek is the stream that runs thru the Subway and it is the single most important variable in your visit to the Subway.  The amount of flow and temperature will determine IF you can make the hike and what type of equipment (i.e. neoprene socks/boots/etc) you will need.
    • The best way to get this info is to ask one of the outfitters in Springdale (the little town at the southern entrance of Zion.)  They get daily updates on water conditions from their customers as they come back to return rented equipment.
      • Personally, I found the folks at the Zion Adventure Company to great sources of info…plus they have all the gear you will need to rent at decent prices (and no, they don’t give me a kickback for this endorsement, unfortunately.)
    • I originally tried asking Park Rangers at the desk that issues permits for the hike but they rarely seemed to have up-to-the minute and accurate info (or maybe liability concerns by the management has resulted in instructions for them to be vague?)

Don’t get lost

  • This isn’t a well maintained trail.  However, once you get down to the river you really can’t get lost…you just follow the river.  But the trail from the trailhead at the parking lot to the river can be difficult to follow.  I got lost for ten minutes when I thought a dry creek bed was the trail.  Thankfully I had a “AllTrails” GPS app on my phone and was able to get back to the right trail quickly (that alone was worth the $15 I spent on it!)

Don’t get distracted on the way to the Subway.

  • We stopped and photographed a number of neat little waterfalls and cascades on the way to the Subway…don’t do that.  Hit them on the way back.
  • A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo TipsA Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips
    • Why?  Because there are 3 truly memorable photogenic subjects on this hike other than the Subway (Arch Angel Falls, the Cascade just above Arch Angel Falls and the Crack).  They are all clustered near the end close to the actual subway.  If you dawdle too long during your hike, then these 3 spots will likely be in direct sunlight by the time you get there.
      • So, don’t be a slowpoke and if any of these 3 spots are still in the shade when you reach them on your way to the Subway, stop and take a few minutes to capture some images.
    • A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

      I photographed Arch Angel Falls on the way back from the Subway…by then it was in direct sunlight. If I had taken this  photo while it was in the shade I would have been much happier with the result.

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

The Cascade above Arch Angel Falls photographed in mid morning while still shaded by the canyon walls. This shot was taken in March and the snowmelt provided a nice waterflow. Later in the year (summertime) the current is much reduced and isn’t quite so photogenic.

  • You won’t find a photo of the famous Crack in this blog, because I was in a hurry to get to the Subway and didn’t stop and photograph while it was still in the shade.  I really should have.  Because by the time we returned on the hike back it was in direct, blinding and harsh sunlight.  It wasn’t even worth wasting a shot.  I’ll know better next time.

Avoid the Crowds.  The Park Service allows a maximum of 80 hikers per day to visit the Subway which doesn’t sound like a lot.  However, the Subway can’t really handle more than a handful of photographers without them getting in each other’s way.  You really don’t want to be here maneuvering your tripod here around 79 of your new, bestest friends.

  1. Start your hike at first light (before sunrise if you can).   It will mean leaving your room/campsite early, but you will avoid most of the crowd. Plus, you will be able to get to Arch Angel Falls and the Crack before they get hit by direct sunlight.  Also, if you are hiking in the winter months when there are only 12 hours of sunlight, you have to start early or you will be hiking home in the dark.
  2. Try to avoid April – October.  These are the busiest months.  If you visit during Nov-March you are very likely to get a permit (for example,  the day my son and I visited in March, there were only 11 other people who applied for a permit). However, during the busy April- October timeframe the 80 available permits are in such demand that they are actually doled out via a lottery…so there is NO guarantee that you will get one  (see Nico’s article for more details). .

Bracket your shots

The Subway is at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon, so it doesn’t get much direct sunlight.  The light is subdued and my Nikon D800e was able to handle the dynamic range.  However, the D800 is known for its dynamic range abilities, so depending on your camera, it might be a great idea to bracket your shots just in case you have to use HDR software.

'Zion's Subway Photo Tips'

Ryan and I waving goodbye at the end of an epic photo shoot!


I’ve never seen a place like the Subway.  It is truly unique and for the photographer willing to make the hike, it is a place never to be forgotten.

I hope you get to experience the magic yourself someday soon!





Zion’s Subway Photo Tips

Zion’s Subway Photo Tips



Posted in Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , |

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Last week I returned from an 8 day photo trip to the American Southwest with my son Ryan.  He was on Spring Break from college and wanted to get more experience with his new camera and try some of the area’s world-class hikes.  As for me, I never need an excuse to photograph the southwest and spending time with my son was just icing on the cake.

So now, after flying 4,000 miles, driving another 2,000 miles and hiking 40 miles…I’ve finally recovered enough to provide a quick trip report (with pictures of course)!

We flew into Vegas on a Saturday morning, got our rental jeep and were quickly on the road out of Sin City heading for Death Valley.

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

First Sunlight on Manly Beacon at Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point

I was excited since I’d never visited Death Valley.  Even better, I was finally going to see one of the locations on my “Photographic Bucket List“:  Racetrack Playa.  Years ago I first saw photos of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ and their long trails on the flat Playa.   I’ve been fascinated ever since and this was my chance to finally visit.  I’ll be writing a full blog on this location in the near future, but I can tell you it is as strange, eerie  and alien as it looks in all those pictures you’ve seen.

Racetrack Playa Milky Way

Not of this Earth? The Racetrack is one of those places that sends a deep shiver down your spine!

After a couple of days living off of granola bars, Ryan decided to treat his old man to a nice breakfast on the way out of the park.   There aren’t a lot of dining choices in Death Valley, but the Inn at Furnace Creek looked nice.  They were serving brunch and we were so hungry that he didn’t even ask the price.  The meal was excellent leaving him both contented and smiling.  But when they presented a bill for $70, they managed to wipe away that smile along with a large portion of his Spring Break budget;)

Our next stop was Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada about an hour northeast of Vegas.  We only had 90 minutes to devote to this park but could have easily spent days there.  I had two goals here:

1) Find the mysterious “Windstone Arch” made famous by photographer David Muensch, and

2) Hike out to the “Fire Wave” and catch a sunset.

Fire Cave Windstone Arch Valley of Fire Nevada

Windstone Arch is a petite little treasure. Measuring about 3′ tall it might be a home for hobbits or elves…

Many folks have trouble finding Windstone (also known as Fire Cave) Even though it is only 150′ from the road, it isn’t marked in any way and is hard to see unless you know what you are looking for.  Luckily I had GPS coördinates and walked right up to it.  I was doubly lucky because it clouded up and even started to rain.  Why was that good luck?  Well, Windstone is a morning shot…usually the direct sun in the afternoon ruins the shot.  Overcast skies meant no direct sun and the diffuse light filled the small alcove nicely!



It was still overcast so my sunset shot of Fire Wave wasn’t looking promising but we drove to the trailhead and started hiking anyway…at least we could scout it out for our next trip.  Then, nearly at the end of the trail, the sun squinted thru an opening at the horizon.  We nearly ran the last few yards and I fell over myself setting up my tripod.  This was the scene:

"Sun Worshiper"

“Sun Worshiper”

It was magnificent…dramatic and brief!  Two minutes later, the sun was gone but I was still on a photographic high.  In fact, my son laughed at my giddy mood, but I was too happy to care. After the sun fell below the horizon, I took a look behind me:  This place just wouldn’t stop…a double rainbow!

End to a memorable day!

End to a memorable day!

The next few days were spent at one of my favorites, Zion National Park. We packed in full days of hiking.  Those miles on the trail were a bit less tiring for my 20 year old son than for my less youthful body, but the images I captured were worth every last single footfall.

We hiked up Angel’s Landing our first day…this was the trail I had the most pre-trip concerns about.  Reviews of this hike cited it as one of the most dangerous in the country (six folks have fallen to their deaths on the hike) and critics warned that anyone who didn’t like heights would be sorry.

Angels Landing Summit

View up toward the head of the valley…

Zion's Angels Landing Summit

The view down the valley toward Springdale..








Frankly, it wasn’t all that bad.   It WAS steep and I have no idea how many switchbacks were on that silly trail but the views at the end were breathtaking.

But then, just as we reached the summit, the weather Gods (who had smiled upon us the day before) turned downright nasty. The sun and blue skies vanished.  And then it actually started to snow. Ryan and I looked at each other thinking about how the way back down wouldn’t be all that fun or safe if the trail back got wet or iced-up.  We called it a day.

We checked off another “bucket list” location the next day:  the famous Subway.  Since it was so early in the year, we had no problem snagging two of the 20 daily permits allowed for this hike.

It was a long, rough hike.   Despite a ‘trail’ that looked like a Delta Force obstacle course,  we managed to have some fun on the way:

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

“Samson at the Temple or Stamer at the Subway?”

When we finally reached the Subway, it was everything we could have hoped for.  In fact, when I took my first shot and looked at the LCD on the back of the camera, it was one of those few moments when what I saw looked better than all of those perfectly photoshopped pictures I had admired for years on the internet:

Zion Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

The Iconic Subway: Living up to the hype.

And then, the long hike back…including a challenging ‘scramble’ that involved a 1500′ elevation gain right at the end.  I was a tired puppy and it was a long day…over 9 hours from the start of the hike until we got back to the jeep.  We ate like pigs that night…I figured I had burned off my share of calories!

Our final day in Zion we hiked up the Narrows.

Zion Virgin River Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

The Narrows

A big part of the attraction of this hike (even for photographers) is that you actually hike in the Virgin River.  However, since it was March and water temps were in the 30s, we actually had to rent full dry-suits to avoid turning into human Popsicles!  The good news was that the cold water kept most of the ‘fair-weather hikers’ in their nice warm beds so we had the river nearly to ourselves…which made it a totally different and far more peaceful experience than my previous summer visits.

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Ryan looks down Orderville Canyon as it flows into the Narrows

After the hike we drove up to Escalante (near the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.)  We scouted the ‘Hole in the Rock Road’ before dusk (and nearly plowed into a herd of mule deer).

Devil's Garden Escalante Milky Way

Ryan contemplates infinity…

We got up at 3:30 so we could reach Devil’s Garden by 4am when the  Milky Way would be high enough to photograph.  As you can see above, it didn’t disappoint.  Escalante is so isolated and far from big cities that the view of the heavens is simply incredible.   We shot for an hour and hit the road again.

Ryan noticed that Bryce Canyon was on our way, so less than 2 hours later we were there for sunrise.  I had been checking the webcams and knew that Bryce still had snow…I had long wanted to photograph the hoodoos with snow!

Bryce sunrise with snow

Bryce’s hoodoos are unique and expansive….nothing else like this view anywhere…

Two more hours in the Jeep and we decided to stop in Kanab to try our luck in the daily lottery for at a permit to visit ‘the Wave.’  Well, that was an experience!…Over 150 potential people packed in a little room hoping to be one of 10 hikers who would get permits.  We didn’t win, but ‘nothing ventured….”  We actually drove back the next day to try again but it wasn’t to be.  Afterwards, during a ‘consolation breakfast’ at McDonalds we chuckled about the lottery and decided that next year would be our year to photograph this Icon!

We hiked out to Wirepass Slot on the way back from Kanab and then toured Lower Antelope Canyon.  We finished the day at Horseshoe Bend near Page Arizona.  Five photo locations in 17 hours…we certainly packed everything we could into that day!

Lower Antelope Canyon sunbeam

I’d heard that Lower Antelope doesn’t get sunbeams…I was dead wrong.

Lower Antelope Canyon Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Sand Avalanche

The next morning we decided to try Horseshoe again…I really liked the soft morning light but my favorite shot was a self-portrait from the night before:

Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Wish I had this view from my back porch…


For some reason, I really wanted to see ‘Balanced Rock’  which was a bit out of our way (near Lee’s Ferry).  It is a cool hoodoo, but I can’t honestly say it is remarkably photogenic.  Something about it just appeals to me, maybe just my odd sense of humor:

2016 SW Balanced Rock 03 11 2385

Yup… a big rock

This was our last full day and we drove down to the Grand Canyon.  It would be Ryan’s first time seeing this wonder.

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 11 2515 Raven

This Raven joined us for lunch. It wasn’t shy and was the size of my dog Shadow. Truly an “Apex Scavenger”!

Unfortunately, the afternoon was overcast and the light was flat.  The canyon was still impressive of course, but as photographers, the dismal skies left us a bit disappointed.

Sunset was a bust so after it got dark we splurged on pizza (SO much better than Cliff Bars)!  When we came out of the restaurant, the skies had started to clear, so we headed back to the rim.  I shot until the clouds came back and completely hid the sky.

Grand Canyon by moonlight

Grand Canyon by moonlight

We headed back to the room and I set my alarm for 4 am just so I could check to see if the weather might break for sunrise.  Maybe we could get a few decent shots before we had to head to the airport for the flight home.

Four am came quickly.  I grabbed my beeping phone and my weather app told me it was still overcast, in fact, it was snowing!  So, it was our last day and the weather looked like crap.  The bed, on the other hand, looked wonderful to my sore, sleep-deprived body.  I figured that the chance of a decent sunrise was about nil…so, of course I got dressed and headed to Mather Point anyway.

Glad I did.  I found a spot, got set up and prepared to spend a cold morning shuffling my feet without taking a shot.  But then, somehow, right at daybreak the sun managed to poke thru a clear slot in the overcast skies. It revealed a wonderland of snow, red rock and hoar-frost covered trees.  Shutters started clicking and the tourists at the viewpoint gave up a cheer (I might have joined in)…

Sometimes you do win the lottery...

Sometimes you do win the lottery…

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3206


I could never have asked for a better morning to be at the Canyon…it was a photographer’s dream.

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3237

A photographer’s life doesn’t get much better than this…

To make the day even better, I crushed my son in a our first ever snowball fight (hey, we don’t get much snow in Florida!)2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3241 2

Killer trip.  Great photos.  Fun with my boy.2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3441

Does it get better than this?  If so, bring it on, I’m ready!


Posted in Milky Way Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Roadtrips, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

I couldn’t tell you when I saw my first photo taken in the Virgin Narrows at Zion National Park.  But since that first moment, this became one of the top locations on my “photographic bucket list.”   And with good reason:  the images of sandstone walls glimmering with reflected light were magnificent.  Sort of like Antelope Canyon…only with a river ripping thru it!  Last month I finally got a chance to visit this icon and I have to tell you, it was everything a photographer could hope for.  First I’d like to share with you some of the highlights and then provide some hints for those that hope to make this trip in the future.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

The sensuous curves and dramatic reflected light on the towering sandstone cliffs will touch your soul.


So, first of all, what exactly is the Virgin Narrows?

Over the eons, the Virgin River has carved its way thru sandstone to create the wonder that is Zion National Park.  The Narrows is a section where the river has sliced a thin, deep wound thru the surrounding sandstone…only 20 feet wide in some spots and the walls of the canyon shoot nearly straight up over a 1,000 feet.  Just imagine yourself standing in the river, the walls close on either side, and the sky no more than a sliver of light snaking its way far overhead.  It truly is magnificent.  And if that wasn’t enough, what really makes this a wonder to see is the incredible way the sandstone of the canyon walls reflect light…it isn’t easy to describe…almost a glow, an iridescence…heck, just look at the pictures!

My top Impressions

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

Try some shots while set up in the river for a different perspective.

Here are four aspects of the Narrows that truly stand out:

1)  The light.  I’ve already mentioned it, so I won’t beat this to death, but the quality and color of the light as it reflects off of the sandstone walls of the canyon is amazing.

2)  The sheer number of incredible views.  You know, many of the places I photograph really are ‘one-trick-ponies.’  You go to a specific location for a specific shot, set up the tripod and might not even move it more than ten feet until you leave.    But the Narrows is not a single, specific vista.  Here you are moving the entire day and are treated to new views every five minutes!   I could spend days here without photographing the same scene twice.

3)  Six hours never zipped by so fast.  I know that this sounds like a long hike, but much of the time you will actually be photographing, not walking.  And I was so enthralled with trying to capture the grandeur before me that time just flew by.

4)  I actually enjoyed this hike.  Time for a confession:  I usually don’t really love hiking.  I mean, the actual process of putting one foot in front of the other with a heavy pack in hot weather for a full day…well, I can think of more pleasant things to do.    With that said, this is one of the few hikes I would go on again even if I didn’t have a camera with me.  It-is-really-THAT-cool.  The scenery is non-stop the entire way and the fact that most of the hike is actually in the river itself makes it just plan fun!  My son and I have hiked a lot of places during our years in the Boy Scouts.. but we both agreed that this was the best day of trekking we have ever experienced.  It is small wonder why this is often included as one of the Top 10 hikes in the country.

There are different hikes for the Narrows, which one should I take?

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

To put things in scale, check out my son on that white rock in the middle of the river!

For photographers, I’d suggest you do the “Bottom-Up”  hike in which you trek upstream about 3-5 miles and then turn around and return.  This hike will cover most of the prime photo ops, you don’t need a permit and most reasonably healthy folks should be able to make the hike with no problems.  Another great thing for photographers is that you can catch a sunrise shot, hike the Narrows after sunrise and finish in time to head out to another location in the park for your sunset shot.

You could also do the “Top-Down” hike.  This is about 16 miles starting at the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch.    It can be done in a long 12-14 hour day IF you are in great shape, AND you don’t mind that you won’t have any time to actually stop and take photographs. Photographers will need to plan to make this a two-day overnight hike.  A permit is required for any “Top-Down’ hike and you can obtain them three months in advance at this site.

Since the “Bottom-Up” hike is the one most photographers choose, it is the one I will review in this article.

 What should I expect on the Bottom-up hike?

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

See all the hiking sticks? Folks leave them on this bank at the end of Riverside Trail for the next day’s hikers

This trailhead starts at the Temple of Sinawava.  You first walk a mile on the paved “Riverside Trail.”  Keep your eyes open, there is a lot of wildlife (especially early in the morning).  At the trail’s end you enter the river and head upstream.  Most of the water is waist deep or less and you will cross from one side of the river to the other dozens of times.  With a bit of practice you will learn to recognize where the current is slowest and cross at those spots.  Photo ops begin immediately once you get into the river.   Less than a 1/2 mile will bring you to Mystery Falls (see photo below).

Each bend of the river reveals another photo-worthy vista and you will find yourself stopping often to set up your tripod.

About 2.5 miles from the trailhead (1.5 miles after entering the river), you will see a small stream enter from another canyon on your right.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

You will see Mystery Falls slipping over this bank of sandstone early in your hike.

This is Orderville Canyon.  Although it has a charm all it’s own, the best of the Virgin Narrows is yet to come, so I’d suggest bypassing Orderville and continuing down the main channel.  After Orderville, the canyon gets even more narrow and the photo ops continue over the next two miles until you get to Big Springs (when you see waterfalls coming out of the western side of the cliff, you will know you found it).  This is as far as most folks will be able to reach before having to stop and head back.

When should I go?

The Park Service doesn’t allow hikers in the Narrows when the water flow is high due to snow-melt (usually April to June).   As a result, summers are the most popular time of year to hike the narrows and even though it might be over 100 degrees, the cool river and the shade make it a comfortable trip.

Autumn and winter has fewer crowds, however, the river sure gets colder!  I’ve done this hike in March with a dry-suit (you can rent gear in Springdale for about $55/day) and I was warm and toasty.  The only downside is that the water levels were higher and the water wasn’t quite as clear.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

By noon, the light is harsh and the river is full of tourists.

Go EARLY in the day!  The Narrows can become a real zoo by late morning, especially in summer when there will be literally hundreds of people on the river by noon.  Trust me, you want to be at the trailhead as early after dawn as you can so you can enjoy the river and your photography while the multitudes are still in bed or having a leisurely breakfast.

Also, during the summer, the reflected light is best in early or mid-morning during the summers…by 11am or so you will have missed the best light.  I still regret that I skipped some shots when I first got to the Narrows figuring I’d just take the shot on the way back…but by then the light was harsh and directly overhead…plus the river was so packed with bodies that it was pointless to even pull out my camera.

Note that if you are hiking in autumn, you will find the best light in mid-afternoon.

How to get to the Trailhead

If you are visiting Zion between November and mid March, you have to take the mandatory park shuttle bus to the trailhead (at the Temple of Sinawava…the last stop).  Just park your car at the Visitors Center, which is on the right after you pass the toll-booths at the South (Springdale) entrance of the park.  The Shuttle is free and during the summer (May 9-Sept) the first one leaves at 6am  (it leaves at 7am the rest of the year).  Be on one of the first buses. Here is a link to the 2014 Zion Shuttle Bus schedule (note that it changes every year).

If your trip is between November and early March, you can just drive your own vehicle to the parking area at Sinawava.


You need to be aware that the narrows can be dangerous after a rain…that pleasant, shallow river can turn into a raging wall of rushing water coming at you in a narrow canyon with no way to reach higher ground.  Don’t take this hike if rain is in the forecast.

We photographers love our clouds. You can hear us groan at sunrise or sunset when the sky is clear.  However, clear skies are actually ideal for this location since there will be that much more sunlight to reflect off the sandstone.  If you are spending multiple days at Zion, do this hike on a day with a forecast for sunny skies.


Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

River rocks make nice foreground elements…

Since you are going to be actually hiking in the river for much of the day, there is some equipment you will want to bring that probably isn’t part of your usual kit.

1)  Buy a Dry Bag.  A dry-bag will cost you less than $20 on Amazon and it will prevent your camera, wallet and (electronic) car keys from getting wet.  The rocks in the river are rounded, smooth and often not visible.  Even if you are sure-footed, there is a strong probability that you will trip at least once.

Yes, this means that you will have to pull the dry bag out of your backpack for every shot, but once you’ve done it a few times you will get it down to a science.

2)  Take hiking poles.  Even if you don’t normally use them, make an exception on this trek.  I would have fallen at least three times if I hadn’t had these with me.  A single hiking stick is better than nothing but a pair of hiking poles is really the way to go on this excursion.

Everytime I go on this hike I find new perspectives for my shots...

Everytime I go on this hike I find new perspectives for my shots…

3) Footwear.  Since you will be in the water a good part of the day, you need footwear that can handle it….and this doesn’t mean sandals or water shoes!  You will be jamming your feet against rocks (I still have two bruised toes!)  Wear shoes that give your toes some real protection, have a tread pattern that can grip slippery rocks…and if they provide ankle protection, so much the better.  Also, buy some 3mm neoprene socks (about $15).  These will help keep sand from getting between you and your shoes and rubbing you raw…they will also keep your tootsies a bit warmer.

4) Tripod.  This isn’t an option.  The canyon is definitely a low light photo op.

5)  Clothing.  Quick dry (non-cotton).  Even when water is at its lowest during the summer, there are spots that are chest high in the river. You will get wet.

6)  Food/Water.  You are going to be out for a good part of the day and you will burn some serious calories.  There are some epic spots for picnics.  Climb atop one of the big sunny rocks in the middle of the river and enjoy a nice lunch that includes something more elegant than  granola bars.  You can also develop quite a thirst over 6 hours and you won’t want to drink the river water.  A single bottle of Aquafina isn’t going to cut it.

Looking into Orderville Canyon...which flows into the Narrows a couple miles into your hike.

Looking into Orderville Canyon…which flows into the Narrows a couple miles into your hike.

7)  Hat/Sunscreen.  Really? In a slot canyon?  By mid-day, the sun will be hitting you right on top of the head and during the summer it will be hot.

8)  Camera.  You will be hard-pressed to get high quality shots with anything less than a DSLR.  The dynamic range in the canyon is incredible.  My full-frame Nikon 800E has excellent dynamic range, but even it was incapable of handling the Narrows with a single exposure. If you also have small waterproof point-n-shoot, stick it in a pocket to capture shots of your fellow hikers and those spontaneous events that you will otherwise miss because of the time it takes to unpack your big camera!

9)  Lens.  You really need a wide lens otherwise you won’t be able to capture the full scene from river to cliff top.  Nearly all of of my shots were taken at 16mm or wider (10mm on APS-C cameras).  Your lens does not have to be particularly fast since you will be photographing from a tripod

10)  Polarizer.  A polarizer will help tame reflections and saturate colors.  It will also result in a longer exposure, which helps to produce that ‘silky’ water effect.


Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

Something remarkable around every bend…

1)  Use HDR.  As mentioned earlier, the dynamic range in the Narrows is dramatic.  Sometimes I had to take 9 separate exposures a full stop apart to successfully capture the full range of light in HDR.

2)  Only show a sliver of sky (or none at all) in your shots.  If you include large portions of the sky, it will be difficult to prevent it from overpowering the rest of your image…even with HDR.  In addition, the direct sunlight tends to lessen the beautiful effect of reflected light…which is why you are photographing the Narrows in the first place.

3)  Get Low.  Set your tripod as low as you can…and try some shots set up in the river.  This makes for a more unusual perspective and tends to emphasize the water’s movement.

4)   ISO  Since you are shooting on a tripod, use your lowest ISO setting.  This will result in some long exposure times, but it will maximize the quality of your images and also soften the appearance of the rushing water.

5)  Don’t forget people!  It’s not all about scenery (at least my wife keeps telling me so).  Capture some memories of the folks you spend time with in the river.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

My son Ryan and I share a moment in the Narrows

So there you have it, tips and suggestions to help make the most of your adventure on the Virgin River.  If you get the chance to photograph this iconic location, I’m sure you will have as incredible a time as Ryan and I did!

Take care,

Picture yourself here.  You just gotta make this hike!

Picture yourself here. You just gotta make this hike!



Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide




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