When it comes to landscape photography, I consider the two best areas in the country to be the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. Both areas offer spectacular sights, but what makes them special is the diversity in landscapes that they offer.
Each winter, spring, and fall, Backcountry Journeys hosts our popular Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce workshop where we visit both Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. Spring and fall are often the best times to visit the southwest. Temperatures are mild, we hit spring growth and fall foliage, and parks are usually less crowded. It is one of my favorite workshops to lead as well. Every person who attends is always blown away by the landscape, and it is a lot of fun being able to deliver that experience to attendees. Lodging and food are great too. Springdale, the entry town to Zion National Park, is one of my favorite national park entrance ‘villages’. It has some of the best restaurants and lodging of any national park I have been too. Expect to pig out at Oscar’s in Springdale, UT during the trip – my personal favorite.
But, in terms of photography and natural wonder, I decided to put together a list of my top reasons why a visit to Utah should be at the top of your priority list.
The Narrows refers to about a 20-mile section of the Virgin River, which cuts through the sandstone walls of Zion National Park. On our standard trip, we do the Riverside hike from the Temple of Sinawava. On our hiking trips, we continue and traverse the section of ‘trail’ that enters the Virgin River. From there, the entirety of the trail is water-based (we rent special gear so we’re extra comfortable). The walls of The Narrows are about 50-100 feet wide at any one point, and the walls tower over you vertically by about 1,000 feet. It’s a jaw-dropping sight to see. Scattered with boulders, cottonwood trees, and rapids, The Narrows offers no shortage of photogenic material. The Narrows is my favorite day hike in any national park. It is the most unique natural experience you can have in the United States, in my opinion.
Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its jaw-dropping hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall spires of rock, which consist of relatively soft rock capped by a harder rock that protects the structure from erosion. Bryce Canyon National Park holds the highest density of hoodoos found anywhere in the world. The hoodoos are carved from the Claron Formation, which is a colorful set of rock deposited around 40-60 million years ago. The hoodoos were eventually eroded by millions and millions of freeze-thaw cycles. Bryce Canyon National Park experiences about 200 freeze-thaw cycles each year. During those cycles, water seeps into the rocks, freezes, and expands by almost 10%. Over time, this process along with rain has slowly carved away the hoodoos we see at Bryce Canyon National Park.
The hoodoos are some of the most unique structures you’ll ever see. They provide an awesome subject to photograph. The spires are extremely colorful, sporting shades of red, orange, purple, and pink. These colors are even more evident during golden hour. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park are something you have to photography in your lifetime. You’ll find yourself at a loss for words when you first see the amphitheaters. Now combine that with all that Zion National Park has to offer, and wow, what a trip!
The Zion Canyon
The Zion Canyon is the highlight of Zion National Park. The canyon is nestled in an area of geologic importance called the Grand Staircase. The Grand Staircase, along with Zion National Park, began to form approximately 150 million years ago via sedimentation. Around 13 million years ago, the area experienced an uplift of about 10,000 feet. This allowed rivers to carve and create the canyons, eroding them even further. Today we are left with some of the most miraculous desert landscapes in the world, and that includes the Zion Canyon. The Zion Canyon is 15 miles long and up to almost 3,000 feet deep at sections. It is a relatively small area, but it offers mountains, canyons, arches, monoliths, slot canyons, rivers, thus it is an incredibly diverse canyon. It is also home to 289 birds, 75 mammals, and 32 species of reptile. The canyon almost feels like an oasis with the Virgin River cutting through it. Even though it is desert, the river brings the canyon to life and makes it an incredible place for photography.
Iconic Photo Spots
There’s no denying that Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park have their fair share of iconic spots to photograph. Angel’s Landing is one in Zion National Park. Angel’s Landing towers 5,785 feet above sea level and is one of the more prominent sandstone monoliths in the park. I love photographing the peak from the comfort of the Virgin River, but the top of Angel’s Landing also offers a great view. Now, getting the top is a whole other story. The trail features 21 switchbacks, sheer drop-offs of 1,000 feet, and a section that the park installed cables on for safety…it is a very fun hike though for those willing.
Other iconic spots in Zion National Park are the Court of the Patriarchs (my #1 favorite spot in the park), Great White Throne, The Watchman, and of course The Narrows, which I already mentioned.
Bryce Canyon National Park is home to the famous Thor’s Hammer hoodoo. Thor’s Hammer is a great sunrise spot, as you can usually pair a sun star with the amazing hoodoo and create a total stunner image. Bryce also boasts an area of switchbacks called Wall Street. Wall Street in an iconic spot where you can actually descend into Bryce Canyon and look up at the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. There are no shortage of iconic spots in each park (there’s also a ton of opportunities for unique shots as well). Both parks are a great place to build your portfolio.
Spring and fall can produce some of the most interesting conditions for photography. Zion National Park’s transition from spring to summer usually means that the area is visited by a few storms during spring. That’s great for photographers, as it means killer skies and conditions. I have waited out a few storms in Zion National Park during spring only to be graced with fiery skies and rainbows. Bryce Canyon National Park is thousands of feet higher than Zion National Park, which means a chance of snow during our spring and fall visits. My absolute favorite conditions for photographing Bryce Canyon National Park are immediately after a snowfall. The fresh snow completely simplifies the scene and creates an incredible contrast with the hoodoos. As photographers, we always hope for dramatic weather and I have experienced it a lot in Utah during spring and fall, but the best part about these parks is that there is always something to shoot regardless of conditions. The narrow canyons of Zion National Park are great to photograph on a clear, sunny day and the hoodoos of Bryce glow immaculately during clear sunrises and sunsets.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com