Arches and Canyonlands National Parks ROCK!!
Literally, these two National Parks are famous for rocks. At Arches, it is the sandstone spires, balanced rocks, fins and arches that stand tall as a testament to the forces of time.
At Canyonlands, it is in those deeply carved canyons where our imaginations are sent on a journey as if traveling down one of the rivers that have done the carving.
There simply is no shortage of incredible scenery to behold in the Moab, Utah, area, which is why Backcountry Journeys offers a photo tour here each spring and autumn.
This November, a group of landscape photographers made it their mission to see and photograph as much of this place as possible. This is their story.
Moab is located in southeastern Utah, not far from the Colorado border to the east, and roughly four hours, by car, to the southeast of Salt Lake City. The town was given its name by the Mormons who settled here in the 1800s. Moab is a biblical name meaning “a land just short of the Promised Land.”
The town and surrounding area is now home to two National Parks along with an additional 1.8 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Because of all of this amazingly accessible public land, the Moab area has developed into a hub for outdoor activities from mountain biking, rock climbing, and off-roading; to hiking, backpacking, photography, and general sight-seeing. There is really something for everyone who enjoys the out-of-doors.
The iconic beauty is what lures photographers like us to the area. Vast expanses of red rock go on as far as the eye can see, and the nearby La Sal Mountains create a backdrop to many of the uber-famous sandstone rock formations. Most of which were all on our agenda for the week. The opportunities for both classic and unique photographs seemed endless!
Our first day of photography was going to be our earliest wake-up call. We set our alarms for 4 a.m. (or earlier) and arranged for wake-up calls through our fantastic hotel’s front desk. You know, in case our phones failed us. Interestingly, this first morning happened to fall on Daylight Savings, which was nice, yet a tad tricky. We’ receive an additional hour of sleep as our clocks would “fall back” at 2 a.m., yet this did create at least some anxiety that we’d mess something up and be late to our meetup time.
Everyone made it right on time, and we were off in the black of the night towards the Islands in the Sky District of Canyonlands. Our first shot would be one of our more important shots, the iconic Mesa Arch. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:47 a.m. that morning, however, the arch is a roughly 50-minute drive combined with about a 10-minute hike. It is also the most popular place for sunrise in the region, attracting photographers much the same way as a summer BBQ picnic attracts flies.
Mesa Arch requires positioning yourself directly in front of the arch, and if you want that position you need to arrive early. There now exists plenty of information on websites that suggest as much, so beating other photographers to that spot requires out planning the planners, so-to-speak. So, we left very early and arrived quite a bit prior to sunrise. Even still roughly three photographers had beat us by a few minutes, but we were able to comfortably fit in the lineup in front of the arch. As the sun breaks the horizon we were blessed with the beauty of the deep canyons and rock features below, the majesty of the La Sal Mountains in the distance complete with a starburst on the horizon.
What a shot this is! There is a reason it’s so famous, beyond the fact that Microsoft put it on their Windows Screen Saver some years back.
This spot is located in the ‘Islands in the Sky’ district of Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is a large park and is divided into five ‘districts,’ including Islands in the Sky, Needles, The Maze, Horseshoe Canyon Unit, and The Rivers. Most of this large park is set aside for wild backcountry use making the area accessible by cars actually quite small. Vehicles can easily access the Islands-in-the-Sky and parts of the Needles, but you’ll need a more adventurous spirit, as well as a detailed plan, to access the other areas here.
One secret to Mesa Arch that many photographers still miss is that it gets really good shortly after sunrise. The bottom of the arch glows intensely red, and the canyons below offer beautifully crisp and interesting backgrounds. We stayed here until we were able to get a starburst at the top of the arch, as well. Just a beautiful spot and an amazing first shot of the trip. As we were packing up, George Fiore, a long-time Backcountry Journeys guest, exclaimed, “Well, that’s it for me. I got what I came for. I can go home now.”
That is just the kind of shot Mesa Arch is. Its a reason enough on its own to come to this area. And in case you were wondering, George didn’t actually go home at this point.
Following lunch, we set off towards Arches National Park to take a short hike to a couple of interesting arches. The park has over 2,000 natural arches, in addition to hundreds of pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. We would not be able to see and photograph all 2,000 of these arches, but the afternoon’s hike would at least check two, Broken Arch, and Sand Arch, off our list. The short sandy trail to these arches also gave us an opportunity to sneak inside fins with sand dunes and slickrock. It was quite immersive and gave us a nice up-close look at the towering fins there.
Our sunset shoot would be at Balanced Rock, one of the most iconic features at Arches, and also one of the most photographed. Its total height is 128 feet, with the balancing rock rising 55 feet above the base. This is the largest of its kind in the park, weighing approximately 3,600 tons!
We photographed Balanced Rock from an area off-set from where most visitors choose to view the rock. This spot offered a wide view of not only Balanced Rock and the rock features near it, but also a nearly 360-degree view that contained the Salt Valley, Fiery Furnace, and more.
For those familiar with the book, ‘Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,’ this spot was near the spot where the author lived in a small National Park Service house trailer during the two years he spent as a backcountry ranger at then Arches National Monument. Author Edward Abbey wrote this book to chronicle his two years living and working at Arches. It has the much-deserved reputation of being one of the finest books written about the American West.
“The wind will not stop. Gusts of sand swirl before me, stinging my face. But there is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning… Life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.” -Edward Abbey
If you have an affinity for this region and have yet to read this book, do yourself a favor and seek it out! Preferably just before, and during, a visit here with Backcountry Journeys on a Canyons of Utah: Arches & Canyonlands photo tour!
Our sunrise location the following morning was Castle Valley, a relatively narrow valley at the foot of the La Sal range that is famous for Castleton Tower and the Rectory, two rock formations that stand towering over the valley.
These formations have been seen in television and film, and have become hugely famous for rock climbing and highlining enthusiasts. We had a beautiful morning and the sun hit the tower nicely shortly after sunrise. We were not treated to a cloud-filled sky, but the faint color we did get, combined with the glow of the red rock tower, was pretty special, as it told a nice story of a southwestern sunrise as the rising sun warmed not only the rock and the world below it (including the cold group of photographers). On our way back towards town, we took the time to shoot the Colorado River from a few vantage points as the great river carves its way through the towering strata.
Clear skies and pleasant temperatures were the order of the day each day during this tour. While we’d have loved some perfectly placed clouds to add color and drama to our images, we certainly appreciated a week of really nice weather. For our afternoon activities this day we decided to head up to Arches for a picnic spread, complete with a dynamite view of the Salt Valley and Fiery Furnace. We also made a stop at the Arches Visitor Center.
Sunset took us back to the Islands in the Sky and the Green River Overlook, perched right on the cliff with huge views of the systems of canyons below. Visible here are an assortment of interesting things; The Henry Mountains, The White Rim, The Maze, Orange Cliffs and of course, the Green River. The Green River comes from Wyoming and collides with the Colorado River near here before continuing towards the Grand Canyon, and beyond.
We were greeted here with somewhat difficult light as there was a bit of smoke in the western sky, but we still managed to get some really nice images from this evening.
Following our shoot, we had dinner at one of Moab’s most famous spots, the Sunset Grill. This restaurant has been in operation since 1993 and is the oldest operating restaurant in Moab. If you’ve ever driven down Main Street in Moab you are familiar with the Sunset Grill whether you know it, or not. It’s that really cool house way up high on the rock wall on the east side of the road. The one where when you saw it you likely said something like, “oh, it’d be cool to live up there!” I say ‘house’ because the building the restaurant resides in was previously the home of the “Uranium King,” Charlie Steen, and his family. (Read more about the history of Sunset Grill here)
Sunrise on day four of our tour was at Turret Arch, one of the truly best locations for sunrise at Arches National Park. Turret Arch faces perfectly to catch the morning glow, as it did for us shortly after sunrise.
This spot is located in the ‘Windows’ section of the park, an area that houses a few arches and windows that should be on everyone’s list of things to see. This includes the North and South ‘Windows,’ the ‘Parade of Elephants’, and ‘Double Arch.’ Following sunrise, we walked the short distance over to compose some nice shots of Double Arch.
You might recall Double Arch as the location a young Indiana Jones ran from at the beginning of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.’ A number of scenes from that film and others were shot on location here.
As we headed back towards town we made a stop at Park Avenue, an area in the park that features tall sheer walls that reminded early visitors of buildings lining a big city street, such as New York City, hence the name. Park Avenue is an outstanding area to discuss the geology of the Park, and to be able to see and touch the rock that is responsible.
We took the afternoon on our final full day in order to see and explore the town of Moab and to rest up a bit prior to what would be our greatest physical undertaking of the tour.
Delicate Arch sits high on a sandstone pedestal, of sorts, requiring a three-mile roundtrip hike across slickrock sandstone with an elevation increase of over 500 feet. Our group made short work of this hike, however, and we arrived early enough to get whatever positioning we wanted to put together the compositions we wanted and to watch the show.
And what a show it always is!
Delicate Arch is the most famous arch in the Park and might be the most famous in the world. It has been previously known as “Cowboy’s Chaps,” “Salt Wash Arch,” and my favorite, “Old Maid’s Bloomers.” It is a free-standing arch with a 46 feet high, by 32 feet wide light opening beneath the arch. It is the largest free-standing arch in the Park and is widely recognized as the symbol of the state of Utah and one of the most famous geologic features in the world.
What a way to spend our last evening together. Following our hike back to the vehicle, we were able to get cleaned up for our final dinner together, at the always wonderful, La Sal House Bistro. There aren’t a lot of things you can absolutely depend on in this world, but knowing that you’ll be treated well at the La Sal House in downtown Moab, Utah, is one of them. Great food, wonderful service, and an inviting atmosphere. Two thumbs WAY up!
It sounds like a great end to our story, but we weren’t done yet! One final sunrise was to be had.
While our final sunset may have been at the most famous arch, our last sunrise would be at the longest. Landscape Arch is located a little shy of a mile down a dirt path in the Devil’s Garden area of Arches National Park.
Several arches, such as Tunnel, Partition, Navajo and Double O are found amongst the braided system of trails here, however, Landscape Arch is by far the star.
It is really hard to believe that a piece of rock like this can exist. In its thinnest section, the arch is only 6 feet thick, yet it supports a span of rock roughly 300 feet long. This is probably the arch most likely to collapse at any moment. In fact, in 1991 a 73-foot slab of rock fell out from underneath the thinnest section of the span, closing the trail that used to run underneath it. The trail will never be reopened, according to the Park, because there is no way to know when another collapse may happen.
Such is the case with every single spire, balanced rock, fin or arch here or elsewhere. The power of water is constantly forming, carving, and breaking these formations.
Change is the constant in the Canyons of Utah. The rock here has been here for millions of years however now is the only time in its history where the features are present for folks like us to bear witness.
Our small group of Backcountry Journeys photographers certainly felt like the lucky ones… able to see all of this majesty while it is still here!
“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
― Edward Abbey
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and has had several of his writings and photographs published in the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.