How to Plan a Canyonlands National Park Photography Itinerary

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Are you looking for a Canyonlands National Park photography itinerary from two boomer travelers who’ve been there and done that? Alan and I created this itinerary based upon a photography trip that we took to Canyonlands. Even non-photographers will appreciate it!

When is the best time for a do-it-yourself Canyonlands National Park photo trip? Alan and I vote for fall.

During the autumn months, golden wildflowers contrast against the red sandstone landscape making a stunning addition to Canyonlands National Park photos. However this vast park is beautiful any time of the year. It’s a gorgeous national park adventure!

Is a 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 itinerary near Moab, Utah.

Come along as I introduce you to the best photo spots in Canyonlands National Park for a two-day itinerary that’s sure to please, even for non-photographers. This is 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.

Sunlight illuminates a rock formation in golden light on a Canyonlands National Park Photography tour.
Sunlight illuminates a rock formation near Mesa Arch.

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 photography adventure and the best sunrise in Canyonlands National Park.

From Moab, it’s about a 40-minute drive to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands (website here). For the best photography results, it’s important to arrive before any hint of daylight so that you have time to set up.

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 Canyonlands sunrise has been captured—both famous and not so famous.

Photographers set up to photograph the sun illuminating an orange glow onto Mesa Arch at sunrise.
You won’t be the only one photographing a Mesa Arch sunrise.

Boomer Travel Tip

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

A burled tree skeleton sits on the red dessert at an Island in the Sky overlook at Canyonlands National Park.
A tree skeleton is the star of this Canyonlands photo.

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.

Mesas and canyons cut deep into the earth can be seen at the Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park.
Green River Overlook.

Boomer Travel Tip

Looking for a national parks books reading list? Here are our recommendations for 52 of the Best National Parks Books.

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.

A petroglyph that looks like a four-legged animal etched into a rock cliff near Moab, Utah.
Petroglyph in Moab, Utah.

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.

A woman is in a harness climbing a sandstone cliff near Moab, Utah.
You might see a rock climber practicing her skills.

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.

Rock formations reflect into the Colorado River.
A peaceful Colorado River scene.

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 (official website) 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.

Bright, blue sky is visible through the beige sandstone of Wilson Arch.
Wilson Arch is worth a stop.

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.

Jagged rock edges reflect the sunset at Needles Overlook in Canyonlands National Park.
Needles Overlook on an afternoon when the sunset wouldn’t cooperate. We didn’t have enough clouds!

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 Canyonlands 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?

Day Two: Hike to Delicate Arch for a photo shoot

In Arches National Park, the red stone Delicate Arch rises above the sandstone backed by a bright blue sky.
A different perspective on Delicate Arch from the usual photos of this famous Arches landmark.

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.

Landscape Arch stretches over rocks and green evergreen trees in Arches National Park.
Take the time for the moderate hike to Landscape Arch.

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.

Peek through evergreen trees to view a dirt road etched into the desert far below at Islandsin the Sky, Canyonlands National Park.
The view through the trees from Island in the Sky. We want to drive that road!

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.

a sunset peeks through the clouds on a Canyonlands photography tour
Alan’s sunset
Rocks glow red from a Canyonlands sunset.
My sunset at Island in the Sky on a cloudy evening.

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.

Boomer Travel Tip

Check out our Utah Travel Planner before your trip to this iconic Western state.

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. It’s on our list for next time.

More things to do in Moab, Utah

While photography tours are fun, there’s much more to do in Moab:

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