We just wrapped up the standard version of Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce. This is a workshop we offer in spring, fall, and winter – each season offers something special.
Spring is a great time for lush greens, spring storms, and even wildflowers. It’s one of my favorite times in southern Utah. And of course, I’d argue that it’s hard to find two better locations than Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.
We break this trip into two – spending half the trip at Zion, and half the trip at Bryce. The parks are located only 2 hours from each other and couldn’t be more different in terms of their landscapes. It offers a great opportunity to come home with a diverse range of images, from the desert oasis in Zion to the glowing hoodoos of Bryce.
We start the workshop in St. George, Utah, which is a great place to start a southern Utah adventure, as it’s in close proximity to both parks.
We met in St. George for orientation and introductions. After orientation, a nice meal, and a good night’s rest, we were off to explore the amazing desert landscapes of Utah for the week.
On the first full day of the trip, we headed out early and made the drive from St. George to the entrance of Zion National Park. I think it’s always a ‘wow’ moment on that first morning. We arrive in Zion while it’s still dark and watch the canyon slowly reveal itself with the dawn light.
Our first sunrise shoot was focused on the Towers of the Virgins. These iconic formations are just outside the main canyon and catch beautiful light from sunrise. They are some of my personal favorite mountains to photograph in the park. Clear skies greeted us on the first morning, but first light on the peaks was beautiful and allowed us to capture some great shots.
After sunrise, we traveled to the nearby visitor center where we hopped on the famous Zion Canyon shuttle for a day trip into the main canyon. The canyon of Zion is speckled with towering red rock peaks, twisted cottonwoods, and my favorite, the Virgin River. The crystal-clear Virgin River cuts through the canyon and turns the desert landscape into an oasis.
We took the shuttle all the way to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava, and hiked the path to the start of ‘The Narrows’ before turning back. The path provides great shots of the Virgin River and red rock, and in spring, lush greens line the river.
As the sun crept higher in the sky, we returned to Springdale (the entrance town to Zion). We ate at Kenton Krueger and my favorite national park restaurant – Oscar’s. Just one stop at Oscar’s and you usually don’t need another meal for the next few days, ha!
That night, we took the group to a relatively unknown spot on the west side of the park. It’s one of those hidden gems that we pride ourselves on at Backcountry Journeys.
It’s a spot that offers jagged red peaks of sandstone and views that rival the main canyon. If you’re lucky, which we fortunately were, sunset light graces the tops of the peaks and they glow bright red. There also wasn’t another soul at this spot and our group had it all to themselves. It was a great night and some of the best light we saw during the trip.
For sunrise the next day, the trend of great light stuck with us. We hiked along the Pa’rus trail with views of the iconic Watchman and Towers of the Virgin. I personally enjoy the Pa’rus because it offers nice pairings of foregrounds with the peaks. You can find cottonwoods, cactus, sage, and the Virgin River along the trail. The light hit later that morning, but when it did, it was dramatic. There was nice color in the sky to the northeast and the Towers of the Virgin glowed orange with some clouds in the sky to boot as well. It made for really nice shooting conditions.
We spent late morning in the Zion Canyon once again. This time, close to Angel’s Landing. We didn’t do the ‘most dangerous hike’ in the park system, but we did marvel at the peak from the Virgin River. The best shots of Angel’s Landing are actually from the river and not from the top of the peak. We found a nice section of rapids that framed the mountain and shot until the light faded.
Now, what would a trip be to Zion without a shot of The Watchman at sunset? So, for the evening shoot, we started on the north side of the Pa’rus Trail, which immediately has epic views of The Watchman with the Virgin River cutting towards it. The clouds faded by the time golden hour arrived, but we were able to capture nice sidelight on The Watchman from the setting sun.
Hard to believe at that point, we only had one morning left in Zion before moving on. Trips go too fast! We shot sunrise the next morning along Highway 9, near the Mt. Carmel Tunnel that was built in 1933. The tunnel is almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor, so we had some extra height and it allowed us to get a unique vantage point on the canyon and specifically on The Sentinel.
Just like that, our few days in Zion had come to a close and we began our travels northeast to Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce offers landscapes that starkly contrast with Zion, and as I said, one of the great things on this particular trip is the diversity in images you come away with.
When we get to Bryce, we take a little bit of time for rest and meals, but usually, turn around pretty quickly to shoot sunset. Our first night featured Sunset Point. In my opinion, there are really four main viewpoints in Bryce that you want to target for shots, and Sunset is up there as my favorite. You can hike down into the hoodoos for a chance to shoot Thor’s Hammer or you can walk the rim, which produces some of the best wide-angle canyon shots. The sunset light fades fast on the hoodoos, but we stuck around to see if the clouds would turn…they never did, but I planned a return for us on the last day of the trip as conditions looked promising – more on that later.
The next morning was our first sunrise. Sunrise is spectacular in Bryce. I think it’s one of the best parks for sunrise. Everything just lines up perfectly, the sun rises right over the canyon for sun star opportunities plus when first light hits the hoodoos, the glowing reds and oranges are hard to describe – beautiful, mesmerizing, spectacular are all words that come to mind, but still don’t do it justice.
We spent the middle of the day eating at a hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint in the middle of nowhere, we pride ourselves on those ‘hidden gems’ too not just photo locations ha! We also did some processing and covered some HDR/exposure blending techniques that are so useful to know when shooting sunrise at Bryce.
For sunset, we ventured to Bryce Point. Bryce Point competes as my favorite viewpoint because of the awesome amphitheater it houses. Some views in Bryce offer great hoodoos, but they can be scattered. At Bryce Point, it’s hoodoo after hoodoo, packed tightly into formation, and it really shows off how impressive the geology is at Bryce Canyon.
We got a little bit of color in the sky that night, but it faded quickly. I had high hopes for the final morning though. Forecasts called for high clouds, which is what you want for fiery light.
We ventured back to Sunset Point for sunrise, and sure enough, blue hour clouds lined the sky and showed promise for sunrise. For our second trip to Sunset Point, we were after a different vantage point. This time we were more north and looked either up or down on Thor’s Hammer. Thor’s Hammer is the most iconic hoodoo in the park and makes for easy, great compositions.
The light got better and better, and eventually, the sun peaked through and produced a sun star. I love shooting sun stars because they make a photo and composition so much more dynamic. We captured the sun breaking through and continued to get sun stars until 20-30 minutes after sunrise when the sun hit a wall of clouds.
We witnessed the best light of the trip that morning. It’s always a great feeling to cap off the final day of a trip with epic light, and we did just that. No matter what, it’s always a little bittersweet too.
Kenton and I had just spent the entire week with a great group of photographers, exchanging stories, shooting together, and building friendships. It’s tough to say goodbye on our trips! But, it’s inevitable. We traveled back to St. George and said our goodbyes before parting ways – but it was an awesome trip!
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
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Video for the Wildlife Photographer
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time