Updated 04.02.2020: Is a fall National Park road trip filled with spectacular photography opportunities on your boomer travel list? If sunrises and sunsets glowing over a vast, rugged landscape inspire you, Alan and I recommend our tips for a self-guided Canyonlands National Park photography tour near Moab, Utah.
I think fall is the best time for a do-it-yourself Canyonlands National Park photo trip. Golden wildflowers contrasted against the red sandstone landscape is stunning. Discover the best Canyonlands photography spots on a two-day itinerary that’s sure to please, even for non-photographers. It’s one of my favorite Utah National Parks.
Canyonlands National Park photography tour itinerary
You’ll be getting up early and staying out late on this busy Canyonlands photography itinerary. But these amazing sites near Moab, Utah, are worth it. And you can always catch up on sleep upon returning home.
Not a photographer? Try our two-day tour to experience Canyonlands’ best sunset and sunrise views rather than photographing them. You’ll be seeing the park from a photographer’s point of view.
Day one: Island in the Sky sunrise
After arriving in Moab, settle into your favorite lodging, then set the alarm for an early morning wake-up (at least an hour-and-a-half before sunrise) for the beginning of your Canyonlands National Park photography adventure.
It’s about a 40-minute drive to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. It’s important to arrive before any hint of daylight.
Getting to Island in the Sky: Take U.S. Highway 101 north of Moab for ten miles, then turn left on Utah highway 313 for the 22-mile drive to the park entrance. You’re headed for the parking lot at Mesa Arch, where, just down the trail, many a sunrise has been captured—both famous and not so famous.
Have you seen our Mesa Arch sunrise photo tips?
Bring a flashlight because it will be a dark walk over the short, unpaved trail. I hope you packed a thermos of coffee. You’ll be here for at least two hours.
Stake out your position, then chat with the rest of the photographers who’ve arrived to capture the same Mesa Arch sunrise. You definitely won’t be alone.
Are you here to see the orange glow of Mesa Arch when the sunrise works its magic rather than photographing it? Sit back to enjoy a spectacular Canyonlands scene.
Day One: Green River Overlook
Before returning to Moab for a very late breakfast, continue on the Island of the Sky Road to the Green River Overlook. The sunrise may be complete but you’ll still find plenty of creative photography ideas.
Much of the morning’s good light will have turned to the glaring sun of a high desert day. Spend some time walking the path along the edge of the sandstone cliff that overlooks the buttes and mesas of a vast landscape for a humbling boomer travel experience.
Day one: Drive back to Moab for a late breakfast and a nap
Retracing your drive, just before reaching Moab, take a short detour west on Utah Scenic Byway 279. I know you’re hungry but this experience is worth it.
After about five miles, pull over on the cliff side of the road (be careful of highway traffic). Look up. Do you see the petroglyphs located about 25 to 30 feet up the wall? They’re from the Formative Period—the time of the Anasazi and Freemont peoples.
And what’s that figure on the wall a few feet back up the road? Oh, that’s a rock climber, they make good photo opps too.
Before driving away, stop to admire the red rock landscape reflection in the Colorado River. Don’t be fooled, by the peaceful looking water, there’s whitewater rafting a few miles away. On your next visit, don’t forget to include a rafting trip or another outdoor adventure. Look at how many there are to choose from!
Day One: Canyonlands sunset at Needles
After satisfying your raving hunger, and a well-deserved rest, drive to the Needles district to enjoy a Canyonlands sunset photo shoot (75 miles total). You’ll be driving south on U.S. Highway 101.
Build in enough time to stop at Wilson Arch (24 miles south of Moab). The entrada sandstone arch spans 91 feet and is 46 feet high.
Don’t spend too long at Wilson Arch, you still have miles to go before viewing your first sunset in Canyonlands. I hope you watched your mileage because around 40 miles south of Moab, you’ll be turning west onto Utah Highway 211 for the 35-mile drive to the Needles Overlook.
From the fenced edge, you’ll view mesa and canyons on land that once comprised a ranch larger than the state of Rhode Island. Remember to stay until dark because the best sunset photos come at the end of the sunset (as long as you brought along a tripod for stability). After retracing your steps back to Moab, there’s just enough time for a a beer and burger before hitting the sack.
Day Two: Arches in the morning
Did you sleep in today? This photographer’s schedule is hard work, but who wants to waste hours sleeping when there’s more to see?
I recommend spending your morning at Arches National Park to visit a few of the 2,000 sandstone arches. While you’re there, hike to Landscape Arch—a moderate two-mile walk from the Devils Garden trailhead.
Day Two: Island in the Sky sunset
Later in the afternoon, drive back to Island in the Sky. This time, stop at one of the overlooks you missed on Day 1 when you rushed to watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch.
At the overlook peek through the pines to the valley below. Do you see the marks of a dirt road trail stretching through the wilderness? Next time, bring your 4-wheel-drive vehicle for a real adventure.
Don’t dawdle too long at the overlook, you still have a Canyonlands National Park sunset to watch. Continue driving to the end of the Island in the Sky Road and Grand View Point Overlook.
Walk the trail that travels along the edge of the cliff to scope out your sunset watching spot. If the weather and clouds cooperate, you’re in for a fiery show at the best place for sunset in Canyonlands National Park.
When is the best time to visit Canyonlands National Park?
We prefer to visit Canyonlands in the spring or fall to avoid the summer’s heat and crowds. However, these days, national parks are so popular that you won’t be alone, no matter the time of year that you choose.
And don’t rule out a winter trip. Photographing Canyonlands in the winter can be spectacular if there’s snow on the ground.
Where to stay in Canyonlands National Park?
If photography is your goal, there are plenty of medium range hotels in Moab. You won’t need much else because you’ll be up early taking sunrises, staying out late for the sunsets, and catching a little sleep in the middle of the day. But if you’re looking for a luxury travel experience, consider Sorrel River Ranch Resort.
More things to do in Moab, Utah
While photography tours are fun, there’s much more to do in Moab:
- Enjoy Arches National Park, especially the hikes.
- Explore Dead Horse Point State Park and the awesome views.
- Drive the Poison Spider trail. Alan owes me an article on this one as I was too chicken to go with him.
Check out the websites, tips and products listed on our Utah Travel Planner page for planning your next trip to the Moab area.
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