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Try a self-guided Canyonlands National Park photography tour

Canyonlands National Park photography tour: Updated 02.10.2018

Is a National Park adventure filled with spectacular photography opportunities on your boomer travel list? If natural arches illuminated by the sunrise and sunsets glowing over a vast landscape inspire you, Alan and I recommend a self-guided Canyonlands National Park photography tour.

Moab, Utah, makes a central headquarters for visiting Canyonlands National Park. Start your search for hotels in Moab with us.

You’ll be getting up early and staying out late on this busy Canyonlands photography itinerary. But the amazing sites you’ll see 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 views rather than photographing them. You’ll be seeing the park from a photographer’s point of view.

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

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.

Getting there: 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 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. You’ll be here for at least two hours.

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

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 for a humbling boomer travel experience.

A petroglyph etched into a rock cliff near Moab, Utah.

Petroglyph in Moab, Utah.

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.

Rock formations reflect into the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

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 adventure.

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

Wilson Arch is worth a stop.

Day One: the afternoon belongs to Needles

After satisfying your raving hunger, and a well-deserved rest, drive to the Needles district of Canyolands for a 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.

Jagged rock edges reflect the sunset at Needles Overlook in Canyonlands National Park.

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.

In Arches National Park, 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.

Day Two: Arches in the morning and 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.

Peek through evergreen trees to view a dirt road etched into the desert far below at Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park.

The view through the trees from Islands in the Sky.

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, bring your 4-wheel-drive vehicle for a real adventure.

Rocks glow red from the sunset at Canyonlands National Park.

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 websites, tips and products listed on our Utah Travel Resources page for planning your next trip to the Moab area.

The photographs on this page are a combination of mine and Alan’s. I used a Panasonic Lumix (here’s the latest version of my camera) and Alan took his Canyonlands photos with a Canon 5D.

Do you have tips for 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.

Disclosure: Affiliate links are included for your convenience. However My Itchy Travel Feet receives a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

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Photos of Canyonlands National Park with tips for where to take the best photos.


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