Richard Bird Photography | Field Report - Arches and Canyonlands

Arches and Canyonlands Field Report

Shot with Pentax K K-5 IIs, 15, 21,50 and 70mm Limiteds (Last Updated March 2015)

The Arches and Canyonlands are desert landscape national parks located in southern Utah. The town of Moab, is conveniently located between the two parks and makes a great base for the photographer. At 500 square miles, Canyonlands is the larger of the two and is divided into 4 districts. I only cover the Island in the Sky district in this report, as it’s the closer to Moab and more accessible than the other districts. The Arches national park is more compact and has a relatively well developed road system. It can get hot here in the summer, so spring, winter and fall are the preferred seasons. Precipitation is pretty low, but there can be occasional snowfall in winter.

The Arches national park is famous for its over 2,000 sandstone arches, including the iconic Delicate Arch, but there many other photographic opportunities with scenic vistas and eroded sandstone formations. Island in the Sky is a huge Mesa bound by the Colorado and Green rivers, most of the views here are down into the various canyons around the edge of the mesa

It is only a 15 minute drive from Moab in the Arches, so this provides good access for sunrise and sunset shooting. Canyonlands Island in the Sky is about an hour away. Moab also offers plenty of options for exploring the regions, such as river rides and rafting, hot air ballooning and off road driving tours.

There is a small airport in Moab, but for my travel I found better flight service into Durango, about 150 miles east of Moab. Grand Junction is another regional airport just over 100 miles from Moab. Salt Lake City is the closest major airport, approximately 230 miles to the north. Moab has plenty of accommodation ranging from inexpensive motels to more upscale condos and house rentals.

My visit was over four days in May and there plenty of photographic opportunities beyond those that I cover in this report.


Delicate Arch and Cache Valley

The hike to Delicate Arch starts at Wolfe Ranch, about a 30 minute drive from Moab, followed by an approximate one hour hike up to the arch. The hike can be divided into three sections. The first third is fairly easy over some smaller hills. The middle third is over some fairly steeply graded slickrock. The final third is less steep, but the final hundred yards is on a ledge with a steep drop off on one side. The ledge is wide enough for two people to pass and should not be difficult unless you have a strong fear of heights. The total elevation gain is a little less than 500 feet.

Delicate Arch, early evening light

Delicate Arch, early evening light


Delicate Arch is popular spot and you will likely be sharing the spot with many other other hikers and photographers. The Arch is best photographed late in the day when it picks up the light from the setting sun. Depending on the number of people and your comfort with walking out on the sandstone ledges you may able to experiment with shots from different vantage points.

Make sure you stop on your ascent or decent over the slickrock. There are many excellent views of over Cache Valley, especially photogenic during the evening golden hour. Near the start of the hike, you will find the Wolfe’s Ranch. The log cabin and corral have some nice textures in the old wood beams. Also look out for the Pueblo petroglyphs. 

If you continue about a mile beyond Wolfe ranch on the park road, you will find a parking area that leads to the upper and lower view points for Delicate Arch. These give you a view of the arch from the other side. The upper view point is the better of the two from a photographic perspective. You will be shooting from a distance so you will likely need a lens of around 200mm (on APS/DX). There is no direct access to the arch itself from the viewpoint due to the ravine you will be shooting over.


Courthouse Towers and Park Avenue

Courthouse Towers and Park Avenue are close to the park entrance, only about 15 minutes from Moab. Both locations offer good roadside shooting. There is also a short hike connection the two locations if you want to get away from the road. There are a number of good photo opportunities here at both sunrise and sunset. The La Sal mountains in the east provide a great backdrop for evening shots, but are in silhouette at sunrise. There a number of interesting rock towers, fins and other formations, including the Courthouse Towers, the Organ, the Three Gossips and the Sheep.

The Organ, Arches National Park

The Organ, early morning light

Windows Section

The Windows section about a thirty minute drive from Moab. As you approach the Windows section of the Park you will see the Balanced Rock and associated rock formations. It’s fairly close the the parking lot and there is a circular path around the rock, providing good shooting locations at both sunrise and sunset.

As you enter the Windows sections, the Garden of Eden is worth a roadside stop, It provides a nice sweeping vista of some sandstone spires that light up well in the warm end of day light.

First stop from the Windows parking lot is Double Arch. This is a short ten minute hike on a sandy trail, to an impressive double arch. Double Arch is in shade later in the day, so it’s best photographed early in the morning. The arch is high up, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of alternate vantage points.

The main attraction in the Windows section are the North and South Windows arches and Turret Arch. There is a short gravel walkway to all three arches from the parking lot. The path runs between the Windows and Turret arch. From the path, Turret Arch is best photographed at sunrise and the Windows at sunset. You can get up close to both arches, so there are plenty of vantage points on all sides. There is also a loop trail around the Windows, which provides a good view of the east side of the Windows and some options for sunrise shooting. The trail is fairly easy with just a couple of spots with some clambering over rocks. The trail shouldn’t take much over an hour to hike.

The Spectacles arches

North and South Window arches in evening twilight

Broken Arch

As you drive north on the park road, approaching the Devils garden, you will find a pull out on the right hand side of the road and a trail that leads to Sand Arch and Broken Arch. It is a pretty easy walk on level ground to the arches. No more than an hour round trip (excluding photo time.) Sand Arch is on a spur near the start of the trail. The arch is hidden between two fins and is usually in the shade, but it is worth the visit.

Broken arch is that the end of the walk - you can actually see it in the distance when you start the hike. The best photo opportunity is from the far side of the arch and shooting back through the arch. This a good morning location. The hike also has a number of interesting stunted bushes and shrubs that can provide some foreground information.

Broken ArchBroken ArchArches National Park

Broken Arch at Sunrise


Devils Garden

The Devils garden is at the far end of the park road, about 45 minutes out of Moab. There are two potential hikes here. The shorter hike, about an hour, will take you past Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch to the spectacular Landscape Arch on a maintained, gravel trail. At 290 feet in length, this arch is thought to be possibly be the longest natural arch in the world. I saw the arch in the middle of the day, but light is best on the arch in the early morning.

Landscape ArchLandscape ArchArches National Park


Landscape Arch, Mid-Morning

The second half of the Devils garden hike extends in a loop that will add at least two more hours of hiking time. The trail is considerably rougher beyond Landscape arch, but will get you up on top of some sandstone fins and to Partition, Navajo and Double O arches.

On your way to the Devils garden, there are roadside stops to provide views of skyline arch and the fiery furnace. If you are inclined there is a trail up to skyline arch. Access to the Fiery furnace is only via a ranger led tour, on account of the ease of getting lost.



Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is in the Canyonlands national park about an hour and a quarter out of Moab. There is a short 15 minute hike up to the arch itself over a fairly uneven trail. Make sure you bring a flashlight if you arrive pre-dawn to catch the sunrise. This is a classic sunrise location. There is an expansive view facing east towards the colorado river. The washer woman arch is visible towards the left side of the view. As the sun crosses the horizon, the underside of the arch is illuminated and glows bright orange. You can also get on the rock ledges to the left and right of the arch for some alternate vantage points. This is a popular photo location, so expect company from other photographers at sunrise. The morning I visited, a tour bus deposited 30-40 tourists at the location restricting photo opportunities for a while.  

Mesa Arch at sunrise

Mesa Arch at sunrise

Canyonlands Overlooks

The main park road provides access to a number of overlooks. In addition to Mesa arch,  the Shafer Canyon, Buck Canyon, Orange Cliff and Grand View Point all provide impressive views over the canyon lands to either the Green river or Colorado river. The overlooks are within a few miles of each other, so it’s feasible to get a taste of each of them 2-3 hours. I had cloudy skies when I visited, but Green River, Orange Cliff and Grand View face west or would and likely be the best bets for sunset. For sunrise I would try Grand View Point or Shafer Canyon.

Green River overlook

Green River overlook

Each of these overlooks has good parking and its fairly easy to get out and explore the canyon rim. There are plenty of large rocks and stunted or dead trees for foreground interest.


Dead Horse Point

Dead Horse Point is a Utah state park, just outside the entrance to Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. It is geologically part of the same mesa that forms Island in the Sky. Dead Horse Point is about 45 minutes from Moab. Since this is a separate park from Canyonlands there is a separate admission fee. ($10 when I visited in 2013.)


Tree on the EdgeTree on the EdgeDead Horse Point, Utah Dead Horse Point at Sunrise

The point provides some spectacular views of a gooseneck on the Colorado river and the surrounding canyons. There is good parking and easy access to the canyon rim. With views to the southeast and southwest the location photographs well at either sunrise or sunset.

I didn’t have time to explore, but there are plenty of hiking trails that lead to additional overlooks.


Goblin Valley

The valley is about 100 miles west of Moab, but it is all easy highway driving and for me, well worth the visit. Goblin valley is filled with eroded, mushroom shaped columns, known as goblins. It is an official Utah state park, but facilities are fairly limited. There are rest rooms, parking and some picnic tables, but not much else. Goblin valley is normally dry, but there had been heavy rain the day before I visited, turning the valley floor into very slippery mud,

Goblin viewGoblin viewGoblin Valley


My full galleries for the Arches and Canyonlands are at