The alarm you set – what feels like ten minutes ago – is sounding off, meaning that it’s time to get up.
What have you gotten yourself into with this, you think. “Am I really waking up right now? At this hour? What is it, 3:30 a.m.?”
On this particular morning, it is something like 3:30 a.m., and your group of Backcountry Journeys photographers is getting ready to head out into the dark night to get ready for a sunrise shot at Canyonlands National Park, which is just outside of the town of Moab in southwest Utah. The sun isn’t rising earlier on this day, in fact, it’s still several hours away from peaking the horizon. Yet, here we are setting out extra early in order to photograph Mesa Arch, an icon of the National Parks system.
From downtown Moab, and the confines of our warm and comfortable beds, it is a tad under an hour drive to get to the parking lot at Mesa Arch where a short “night” hike awaits.
It’s not warm outside. In fact, it could be better defined as “d@#* cold out.” And, here at the Islands of the Sky District, it is the definition of DARK. More stars than you’d ever seen before blanket the high desert sky, providing the only natural illumination at this hour.
“This is what I came here for,” you whisper to yourself, putting on a brave face for the others in the vehicle as you take that last sip of hot coffee while bundling up to brave the cold.
A mostly empty parking lot is indicative of potential success for our early arrival. “Our guide told us last night that we need to be here first!” Or, at least, close to first.
Those who’ve visited Mesa Arch for sunrise know that the most important component for success is arriving before the masses. Mesa Arch has become one of the most iconic and sought after photographs in the southwest United States, and certainly a major highlight on Backcountry Journeys’ Canyons of Utah: Arches & Canyonlands photography tour.
The landscape-based itinerary is littered with iconic scenes, including Balanced Rock and Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, as well as Mesa Arch and Grandview Point at Canyonlands, among several other spots.
And even though Delicate Arch is considered the most famous natural arch in the world, it is Mesa Arch that just might be the most coveted shot in Utah.
Mesa Arch clings to the edge of a towering canyon wall at one of the higher points at Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District. Vast and jaw-dropping views of canyons, rock features like Monster Tower, Washer Woman Arch, Airport Tower, is framed by the La Sal Mountains on the eastern horizon. It is a complete composition.
As the sun rises in the east, a prepared photographer can train his or her tool towards the arch and achieve a photograph of the arch, with soft light illuminating the scene with a perfect starburst from the sun either at the horizon or later on in the morning bouncing off the arch itself.
The fresh batteries you put in your headlamp last night prove to be a wise purchase as it now lights your way as the group hikes the ½ mile trail taking us up and over a small hill before dropping down to the cliffside and what we got up so early to come to see and photograph. Our trail is pretty typical of what you find in the desert southwest: rocky, uneven surfaces surrounded by loads of biological soil crust, which even now while barely awake you recall your guide talking about the evening prior. Something about not stepping on it is all you could recall. You can’t recall why, though, at this moment, but you do your best to avoid it.
“There it is,” you exclaim as we crest the hill and the arch comes into view. “It’s smaller than I thought, but whoa, I can’t wait to see this in the light. I can’t wait to photograph the magic!”
Mesa Arch is what geologists call a “pothole arch,” which might not mean much reading this from home but when you are surrounded by the many arches and other natural rock formations in this corner of Utah, understanding how they formed begins to become of great interest. Even at 5 a.m.
A “pothole arch” is an arch that forms when a pothole (small depression) on top of a rock mass merges with an alcove on a rock face. The light opening is often smooth and rounded at the top, casting light down into a room-shaped opening below.
As for photography, Mesa Arch is at its best at sunrise, and timing is everything! It’s important to be there prior to the sun peeking from the horizon as it says “good morning” to the high desert. Even more important, it is crucial to arrive earlier than early so as to get there first and get a spot. The Mesa Arch shot is a specific one, and while your BCJ guide will certainly challenge you to find a creative way to photograph this spot, there isn’t a ton of creativity involved in getting “the shot” here. Because of its incredible popularity, Mesa Arch typically receives a large number of photographer and tourist crowds every morning who will gather together in a tight grouping just a few feet from the arch itself. Everyone gathers together in a packed group just a few feet behind the arch itself, as shown in the below image.
While one can photograph Mesa Arch anytime they’d like to, we choose sunrise to photograph Mesa Arch because this is when the scene is at its best when the arch frames perfectly the rising sun and landscape below. As the sun rises it illuminates the underside of the arch, casting a brilliant orange hue. A starburst from the sun is also available as it first peaks on the horizon, and then again, if you are willing to wait, as it hits the arch itself.
So, we arrived early enough and got the best position we could have wanted in order to shoot the scene. It’s certainly still dark, and sunrise is still a bit off. But, we got it! Blue Hour begins and we start to consider our settings and fidget with our tripods and wide-angle lens so that we’ll be ready. ISO at 100, or 64, if you have it. We want to be ready because we won’t have a ton of time when the sun hits the horizon. Set your camera to either Manual mode, or Aperture Priority. We’re determined to get this shot with a starburst when the sun hits the horizon, so get your aperture to somewhere in the neighborhood of f/18 to f/20 (read more on creating starbursts in landscape photography). If you are in Manual Mode, then work your shutter speed to ensure that you are exposing properly, keeping in the front of your mind that as the light increases, this setting will change. Shooting with the histogram? If so, this should be easy.
“There’s the sun!” someone hollers out with unadulterated excitement. Snap, snap, snap. Clicks from cameras fire away with fervor. There is a sense of anxiety from the anticipation that is palpable. It’s so much fun you’re not even cold anymore! The sun begins to light the scene, and the clicks continue. An unaware tourist looking for a selfie wonders into the scene to which the lineup of photographers audibly decries.
“Get out of there!” the boldest in the group can’t help but yell out. The selfie-artist, previously unaware of his actions, sheepishly obliges, cartoonishly backing away and out of the scene.
As the lighting changes, the underside of the arch will typically begin to glow a soft orange, providing an even better scene. After that light begins to taper, the majority of onlookers and photographers will vacate, taking off for warmer places like coffee shops and eateries back in Moab. Your BCJ group stays, though, and keeps on photographing. Now is a great time to work on creativity, looking for alternate angles on this familiar scene. We stay because we love photography, but also because after some time passes, we’ll have another opportunity (free from the crowd) to catch a starburst using the arch itself. Really Cool!
The trail back to the vehicle seems so much less treacherous in daylight than when we navigated it earlier in the dark. Coffee and a hot breakfast are next on the agenda and sound terrific. What is all that weird looking black stuff on the ground all around me here?
“You didn’t step on any of that, did you?” you hear your guide exclaim from behind. “That ‘dirt’ is ALIVE! It’s the biological soil crust I was talking about at our orientation meeting last night.”
Biological soil crust is a living soil that creates a crust over the landscape. It is found throughout the world but is especially prevalent and relevant here in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. In many places, soil crust comprises over 70 percent of all living ground cover. The knobby, black crust here includes lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria, but is dominated by cyanobacteria.
“Think of it as an incubator for life here in the desert,” your guide continues. “Ever wonder how a lone plant or tree grows in this rocky, dry, desert climate? It’s this. It promotes plant life by taking nitrogen from the air and changing it to a kind of nitrogen plants need. Without it animals, and even humans, would not be able to survive well in this climate. It also helps slow erosion.”
And, it is delicate as your grandmother’s antique vase! “even a single footprint can kill it.” Some areas that have been stepped on may never fully recover, while some may return in five to seven years. Mature crusts can take 50 years to strengthen.
Back in town for coffee and breakfast, your group discusses the experience at Mesa Arch. It sure is a unique one. Did we have great success up there in the cold? Our images are awesome, and you can’t wait to edit them so you can really share them. Was it even all that cold, or early? Those things don’t seem to matter much now.
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, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands 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 spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and 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.
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)