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Try a self-guided Canyonlands National Park photography tour

Updated 10.01.2016

Is visiting a National Park on your boomer travel list? Why not take a self-guided Canyonlands National Park photography tour? You’ll be getting up early and staying out late, but oh the sites you’ll see. Not a photographer? Try our two-day tour anyway to experience Canyonlands from a photographer’s point of view. You might see the park with new eyes.

Sunrise canyon lands park

Sunlight illuminates a rock formation near Mesa Arch.

Day one: A morning at Islands in the Sky

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 tour. It’s about a 40-minute drive to the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands and you want to arrive before any hint of daylight. 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. We’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 Alan’s Mesa Arch sunrise photo or my version? Bring a flashlight because it will be a dark walk over the short, unpaved trail. I hope you packed a thermos of coffee. We’ll be here for at least two hours.


Green River Overlook.

Before returning to Moab for a very late breakfast, continue on the Islands of the Sky Road to the Green River Overlook. If you’re photographing, much of the morning’s good light will have turned to the glaring sun of a high desert day. But spend some time walking the path along the edge of the sandstone cliff that overlooks the buttes and mesas of a vast landscape. It will humble you.


Petroglyph in Moab, Utah.

Retracing our drive, just before we reach Moab, let’s 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.


Colorado River.

Before driving away, be sure 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 our next visit, let’s include a rafting adventure.


Wilson Arch.

Day One: the afternoon belongs to Needles

After satisfying your raving hunger, and a well-deserved rest, let’s drive to the Needles district of Canyolands for a sunset photo shoot (75 miles total). We’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.


Needles Overlook

Don’t spend too long at Wilson Arch, you still have miles to go before the sunset. 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.


The view through the trees from Islands in the Sky.

Day Two: catch a sunset at Islands in the Sky

Did you sleep in today? This photographer’s schedule is hard work, but who wants to waste hours sleeping when there’s more to be explored? 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.

Later in the afternoon, drive back to Islands 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, let’s bring our 4-wheel-drive vehicles for a real adventure.


Sunset at Islands in the Sky.

Don’t dwaddle too long at the overlook, you still have a sunset to watch. Continue driving to the end of the Islands 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 sunset show.

Check out the resources listed on our National Park Travel Resources page to plan your next national park trip.

Have you ever taken a Canyonlands National Park photography tour? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts or questions.


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