Earlier this year I spent the better part of week photographing the area around Moab, Utah . I had visited once before back in 2013, but I only had a couple days to cover nearby National Parks (Arches and Canyonlands). That visit was spent running around like a maniac photographing the highlights, especially Delicate Arch, False Mesa and Mesa Arch. Although I was ecstatic with the images I came home with (see the next three shots), I was painfully aware that I had failed to fully explore the area’s photographic potential. I intended to better address that opportunity this time.
I started my first morning at Moab by making the short drive to Arches National Park. My goal was a sunrise shot that has been done so many times it is almost considered trite: Turret Arch framed by the arch in the North Window.
I found the view to be amazing…which wasn’t surprising…that’s why everyone wants the shot. But what was surprising was that it isn’t an easy shot to get. I got there well before dawn to scout around and slowly realized that to get to the spot where you can see Turret Arch thru the North Window, you had to crawl over a huge boulder that had a good 30 foot drop on three sides. I tried it three times before I could make it. To be honest, my heart was pounding and the adrenaline was flowing…. the fall to either side looked like a bottomless abyss as I tried to find handholds on the smooth sandstone boulder. As I blindly lowered myself down to the other side I had one of those moments when you wonder: “Is this really a good idea?” Yes, I do love the image I captured but just the same, I won’t return unless I bring some rope and a buddy (at least that way someone could tell them where find my body).
After my pulse calmed and the adrenaline shakes subsided, I headed further into the Park. One spot that I had completely missed on my previous trip was a small panel of Native American petroglyphs near the Wolfe Ranch on the Delicate Arch trail.
Over the past few years, I’ve started specifically seeking out petroglyphs to photograph. I find them fascinating and surprisingly beautiful in a stark, non-embellished way.
Another panel I hiked to later in the week was the Courtyard Wash Panel (between Arches and Moab). Sadly, it was defaced by some morons back in the 1980s. The vandalism resulted in a loss of much of the color and definition but the figures are still quite striking.
As the hours passed the light became more harsh so I shifted from photographing to scouting. But even with direct light, the dramatic clouds and sandstone monoliths still caught my eye.
For sunset, I wanted to capture a panorama from an incredible vista I had seen on the internet. Unfortunately, none of the photos I had seen had provided much info on exactly where the heck it was. A bit of time on Google Earth had narrowed it down but I still had to invest an hour or so wandering around in the desert until I found the spot. And I’m glad I did! As the sun began to set, a wicked rainstorm blew in from the north darkening the skies in the distance. Fortunately, the sky behind me to the west was clear and the result left me in awe:
Low-angle, golden sunlight illuminated the red sandstone which contrasted against the dark and threatening sky. Then, just to top it off, the rain spawned a rainbow. Truly a spectacle.
So where is this spot? Actually, it is easy to get to once you know where it is. Just drive north on the main road (Arches Scenic Drive) to the Balanced Rock parking lot. Instead of turning right into the parking lot, turn left onto the dirt road directly across the street from the parking lot. This is Willow Flats Drive (BLM 378). Go about 1000 feet (this is past the bathrooms) and park on the side of the road just before the sign that informs you that this is a 4WD road (the road up to this point is fine for regular rental cars). From here, hike about 400 feet north along the rim of the ridge. The vista is to your right (east).
That night I headed to Canyonlands to try to catch a moon-rise at Mesa Arch. I’d heard that moonlight can light up the bottom of the arch (a look similar to the iconic sunrise shot). Unfortunately, the skies were overcast and although I enjoyed the solitude and quiet of the desert at the night, I didn’t create any photographs that were particularly impressive.
Back to the hotel in Moab, four hours of sleep and then off to Dead Horse Point State Park (near the entrance to Canyonlands NP). I had photographed this overlook six years ago but the view was so impressive I had to try it again. This overlook is on the point of a tall ridge that allows you views to the east:.
A five minute walk on the paved trail and you come to the western viewpoint:
My last trip to Moab was during the summer and my son and I still laugh about the time we tried to hike one afternoon when the mercury hit 105. After a miserable hour slogging thru the baking sand we decided to head back into town grab a couple of cold drinks and relax in an air-conditioned movie theater. As it turned out the A/C in the theater was busted, but at least we weren’t in the sun!
Well, the spring weather on this trip was wonderful. Temps never got higher than the low 70s and I took full advantage by hitting a bunch of hiking trails. One particularly enjoyable trek was the Park Avenue Trail. It was like I had the whole place to myself.
Arches was odd that way: when I would drive into the Park before dawn, I wouldn’t see a soul. But by mid morning long lines of cars were backed up at the entrance waiting to get in and herds of tourists filled every parking lot and pull-off. But even in the middle of the day, whenever I hiked away from my car for five minutes it was like I was the only person there. I’d bet my Nikon that most visitors never get more than 100′ feet away from their vehicle…heck, some of them probably never even roll down a window. Those poor folks really don’t know what they are missing.
That evening I made my way to the Green River Overlook at Canyonlands (about an hour from Moab). This is an incredible, drive-up location with an elevated view of the Green River and the surrounding badlands that is particularly impressive at sunset. The late afternoon cross-lighting on the cliffs is really quite dramatic view and the colors are rich and earthy. My favorite image of the evening was made with a long telephoto lens which allowed me to pick out details of the colorful and tortured cliffs cut by the river.
At 3:30 am I was up and heading back into Arches. I made a quick stop to photograph Courthouse Tower which was brightly illuminated by the full moon:
My goal for the morning was one of the most memorable locations in the park, Double Arch. A quick five minute hike from the parking area and I was setting up my three small led lights on tripods. Over the next hour, I experimented with different locations for the lights and adjusted their light output settings to illuminate the areas of the arch not lit up by the moon. This trip coincided with the Lyrid Meteor Shower . It was pretty cool to see the ionized gas trail of the meteors as they burned up in the atmosphere 60 miles over my head.
Standing alone under this massive arch with falling stars streaking across the heavens above you is a humbling experience. It is moments like this that remind me again why I adore photography.
Then I made the short walk over to Turret Arch to see if I could make use of the full moon. This image was my best effort:
After sunrise, I crashed at the hotel for a bit then headed out again in early afternoon. I had heard raves about the Devil’s Garden Loop Trail which meanders by a half-dozen arches along its 7 mile (round trip) length. I wanted to do some night photography at some of the arches along this trail so I wanted to scout it out during daylight before returning during the dark.
Possibly the most impressive sight on the hike was Double O Arch. Double O features an expansive and inspiring view of the distant landscape through its larger arch, especially when the afternoon sun lights up the red rock. I was there for over an hour photographing from different perspectives and chatting with a volunteer Park Ranger. It is one of those classic landscapes of the American West that leaves an deep and lasting impression.
On the way out of the park that afternoon, I had to stop for a quick shot of Skyline Arch since it was literally right by the road.
Although it was getting late, I squeezed in one more hike to check out Broken Arch. Unfortunately, it was in shadows by the time I got there so my photos were pretty blah. To make matters worse the hike took longer than I had anticipated which made me late for leaving for my sunset shot at Fisher Towers. By the time I got there, the towers were in the shadows. I had missed the light.
Yes, I am blatantly guilty of packing my shooting schedule full. My trips would be more relaxing and laid-back if I didn’t plan out every last minute, but that just isn’t who I am. Often my over-scheduling pays off…this time it didn’t. On the other hand, all the hiking helped me lose five pounds before I returned home a week later!
Up again at o’dark thirty and back to the Devil’s Garden Loop Trail. When I pulled into the parking lot this time, it sure looked different. Twelve hours earlier I had been forced to circle twice to find an open parking spot. Now there were only two cold and lonely cars sleeping at the trail-head.
One of the things I had been looking for the day before was an arch that faced north.
I hoped to make a long exposure star-trail shot of the North Star through one of the arches. At every arch I passed, I’d pull out my iPhone and use my PhotoPills app to “see” how it would appear at night. The best candidate was Pine Tree Arch but even so it was a tight shot. It would only work if I used a wide lens (14mm) and positioned myself in a tortured spot between two shrubs with the camera few inches off the sand.
To make a star-trail long exposure shot of the north star, I have found that you need to take a series of four-minute exposures…at least 15 of them. Fortunately my intervalometer will do that automatically.
So I programmed it, started it up, then laid down in the chilly sand and spent the next hour thinking about rattlesnakes slithering up to me looking for body heat. Well… I thought about some other stuff too but my mind seems to go off in uncomfortable directions of its own choosing when I’m alone in the desert during the dead of night.
I combined the shots with a free app called StarStax after I got home which yielded this image:
After wrapping up this photo, I really wanted to get a sunrise shot at Partition Arch which was a bit more than a mile further down the Devil’s Garden Trail…but I wasn’t sure I could hike it safely at night. You have to walk on top of some tall and sketchy sandstone “fins’ to get there…which wasn’t an issue during daylight but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle it at night. I decided to at least head down the trail and see how it looked.
Along the way, I stopped at Landscape Arch. It is certainly impressive. It has a width of over 305 feet which makes it the largest arch in the world. I had photographed it the day before but it faces east, so I was shooting directly into the sun. This resulted in a neat sunburst but the harsh contrast and dark shadows didn’t really show the arch to its full advantage:
But at 5 am, with the arch slightly illuminated by the approaching dawn and the moon positioned so it was bursting along the base of the arch, the view was much improved.
By now it was about 5:40 am and dawn was an hour away Between the full moon and the lightening skies to the east, the visibility was pretty good along the trail. So I decided to try for the sunrise shot at Partition Arch. As it turned out my fears were unfounded and I had no problem getting there safely at least 30 minutes before dawn.
Partition Arch isn’t nearly as well known as Mesa Arch, which is kind of odd since they have a lot in common. The bottom of both sandstone arches glow a glorious red as they reflect the light from the rising sun while hosting incredible elevated views of the landscape and distant horizon through their arches. Plus they are roughly the same size and are about the same distance from Moab.
However, a sunrise visit to these two beautiful locals is a totally different experience. If I had been at Mesa Arch at that moment, I would have been lined up elbow to elbow with a couple dozen other photographers jockeying for position. But at Partition, I was all alone.
I’m guessing that the reason that Mesa Arch is an internationally recognized icon and Partition Arch is relatively unknown is simply because you can photograph Mesa Arch after an easy ten minute walk from the parking lot. On the other hand, to photograph Partition at sunrise, you have to hike 90 minutes in the dark along a sketchy trail.
I was enjoying the view and solitude when I was surprised by another photographer stumbling down the trail a few minutes before sunrise. As he set up we got to talking and he excitedly told me that he had made the hike to Partition twice before hoping to catch a sunburst as the sun breached the horizon through the arch, but the weather hadn’t cooperated…so he was back hoping the third time was a charm.
As the sun appeared, the sandstone started to glow as if it was living thing. I had preselected a few different perspectives and with only two of us there I was able to easily waltz my tripod between all of them before the magic morning light faded. All too soon I was saying goodbye to my new friend and headed back down the trail to the parking lot. It was a killer way to complete my visit to the Moab area but I was already thinking about a hot cup of coffee and my next destination: the Bisti Badlands. But more about that trip later.
Moab is one of my favorite areas to photograph in the Southwest. It is a funky, quaint little town that is a great base for photographic excursions to Arches NP, Canyonlands NP and multiple other nearby locations. Even after two trips, there are still a half dozen or more nearby locations that I haven’t had the chance to visit…yet.
Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP