Utah’s Beautiful Big Five: Canyonlands

Sunrise at Mesa Arch beginning to make the rocks of the arch glow in the morning light.

The beautiful state of Utah is home to what is known has the big five. What is the big five? It is the collection of five national parks located within the state of Utah.The big five is comprised of Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capital Reef and Zion national parks. Each of these magnificent and popular parks contains their own sense of splendid diversity that makes them highly attractive to a landscape photographer. The rules and restrictions were starting to ease more and more due to the Covid pandemic and the itch to hit the road grew more nagging. It was time to stimulate the senses of creativity, inspiration, and perspectives while capturing new imagery along the way.

The plan was to start at Canyonlands in Moab then venture to Capital Reef, going down south to Zion after that, coming back north up to Bryce, returning to Capital Reef and finishing at Arches back in Moab. The trip would span over ten days and involved a pretty much non stop itinerary of adventure and photography destinations. Even though the trips focus was on Utah it would start and finish in Denver, Colorado with a drive across the Rocky mountains along the scenic interstate 70. This section of stunning road travels through the appealing resort towns like Vail and Glenwood Springs. Driving through the spectacular snow covered mountains I make a mental note to return to this region and explore more of the intriguing White River National Forest that has caught my eye. 

The sun breaks the horizon to the east peering through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park.

After what is over an eight hour drive including stops I finally arrived in Moab. Exhausted and barely functioning between flight and drive time combined. At this point working on mostly adrenaline and motivation towards the start of the trip I pull into Canyonlands National Park. It was already fairly late when I arrived at the Island in the Sky campground. After a little driving around I found a good spot for the night and didn’t bother setting up the tent. Instead I opted to just set up the air mattress in the 4runner that was to be my main base for the the next ten days. All in all it would be a short night has sunrise was not too far away. 

It was still very dark when I woke up and started to make a move to get the day going. The air was cold and there was a good frost on the windshield from the chilly night. The agenda was to head to the Mesa Arch parking lot to prep the gear and make some tea to enjoy the sunrise with. The decision is to get out to the arch early has there is only a small area to photograph the Arch from so it is ideal to get a good spot to frame your image and set up the tripod before anyone else arrives. Once setting out on the short trail there is an amazing sense of gratitude to be out on the road challenging myself creatively, mentally and physically. The night sky is filled with stars complimenting the desert terrain that makes up the hike to Mesa Arch.

The arch can make for a great framing point of perspective to bring in the uniqueness of the desert terrain below.

The trail to the arch is fairly short so it is a quick walk to get there. Upon arriving it is easy to see while even still in the dark why this awe inspiring location draws so many photographers and visitors. After setting down my gear while getting the tripod set up and into position for the composition I scouted for the photograph. Eventually two other photographers and a few sight seeing park goers arrive as well. I actually feel quite lucky to have such a small group here. This location has a reputation for being extremely busy and to share it with only a couple of photographers was a bonus.

The sun slowly begins to rise over the horizon. The focus is on comprised compositions has there is not a cloud in the sky to help facilitate a dramatic vast landscape image. With there only being two other photographers it is nice to coordinate and work together to take turns at various angles of what really is just a small shooting space. It is truly wild to watch everything unfold as the sun quite literally makes the underside of the arch glow an orange red. After maxing out the best the light had offered to create compelling photographs, I was happy with the experience overall and hit the trail back to the parking lot.

Taking amount to appreciate the natural beauty that makes up the landscape in Canyonlands.

Following leaving Mesa Arch it is a quick trip back to camp to eat and get reorganized for the journey ahead. The morning is a delightful one has the February desert has a crisp and refreshing air to its ambience. The Island in the Sky campground is rather nice as well and there is a good amount of space between the sites with great layouts for settling in. A nice feature to find easy to appreciate are the pergolas placed around the picnic tables providing some shade from the hot desert sun.

Around mid morning I leave camp to do a short go around to a couple of canyon overlooks in the park before heading out on the road. The first stop is at Green River overlook where views of the valley below are phenomenal to say the least. Upon exploring around the rim of the overlook and studying angles and compositions eventually there is a few images to be happy with. To add to the feeling of the vastness to the area I am the only one around at the moment and the feeling of solitude completes the experience.

Enjoying some vast feelings of solitude while taking in the spectacular view from Greenriver Overlook.

After leaving Green River overlook it is back towards the entrance of the park. There is a brief stop to do at the Schaffer Canyon overlook to check out the frequented and rightly so viewpoint. There are a few images worth capturing of the canyon, despite the already bright sky of the early day has there is quite a few compositions to work with here. Eventually it is back on the road for a few hours of driving in order to reach Capital Reef National park the next leg of the journey.

Its a beautiful day to be enjoying Schafer Canyon overlook.

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