Best Photography Spots in Utah and the South West United States
The South West United States have some of the most unique landscapes in the whole of the U.S. In September 2018, Celina and I spent three weeks travelling around Utah and Arizona, and discovered some truly incredible places along the way. Here are the must see places that we were lucky enough to visit on our journey.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park was the first stop on our tour and the first real glimpse of the unique desert landscape that we would be travelling through for the following three weeks.
Delicate Arch is the iconic arch that appears on all of the Utah license plates and is obviously a must see. The hike is around one hour from the carpark and is moderately strenuous. The best time to go if you want the place (at least somewhat) to yourself is at sunrise, as sunset can get incredibly crowded. That said, even at dawn we had to wait our turn to get a shot alone under the arch.
For photography, double arch, with its colossal twin arches is also a must-see. In the afternoon it was packed, so I returned at night to escape the crowds and try to shoot the Milky Way through the arches. With this kind of photography, lighting the foreground appropriately always proves somewhat tricky. I had some luck, as when I turned up there was a group of other photographers who had already illuminated the arch with lights.
For our entire time in Arches we based ourselves at campsites in nearby Moab, which had all the facilities you could ask for. Be sure to stop at the Quesadilla Mobilla truck for an incredibly tasty quesadilla!
Canyonlands National Park & Dead Horse Point State Park
If there’s one spot on our trip that I wished we had stayed longer at it would be Canyonlands. The National Park covers a massive area, with a huge number of different lookouts onto the incredible landscape below you. The most famous spot for shooting sunrise is Mesa arch, although it gets incredibly busy, with photographers lining up to get the perfect view of the sun rising through the arch. We decided to avoid the crowds and go to the lesser visited, and rather morbidly named, Dead Horse Point State Park for sunrise. The park is basically a single lookout point, accessed just off the main road through Canyonlands. The view here is amazing, with a dramatic view of the Colorado river winding below.
Our favourite lookout in Canyonlands was the Green River Lookout, which offered spectacular views of - you guessed it - the Green River canyon. One place that I regret not stopping at is the Shafer Trail Viewpoint, with dramatic views of the Shafer Canyon Road winding up along the canyon walls. As I mentioned earlier: half a day in the park was simply not enough!
After Arches and Canyonlands we continued on to our next destination - Monument Valley. The desert is much more open here, with impressive lumps of rock (Buttes), jutting into the sky. If you’re looking for a place that truly feels like the Wild West that you’ve seen in Western movies, this is it. When driving South towards Monument Valley on Highway 163 you’ll reach the well known ‘Forest Gump Point’. It’s well worth stopping for a quick shot of the iconic road disappearing into the distance. It’s also rather entertaining to watch tourists play chicken with oncoming traffic as they try to get shots in the middle of the road. We decided to shoot there at sunrise and had the place to ourselves.
We were lucky enough to land a spot at ‘The View’ campgrounds which, as the name implies, has a fantastic view over monument valley. As we were setting up our tent we heard from another photographer that we had chosen a good time to be there. Two times a year as the sun sets, the shadow of the West Mitten is cast exactly on the East Mitten, creating a cool mirror image. When I posted this on my Instagram a few people pointed out that it looks like the two rocks are giving each other a high five!
Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon
Horseshoe Bend is a spot that had always been on my radar and we decided to stay a couple of nights in Page, Arizona to check it out. We had heard that Horseshoe Bend gets really busy but we had no idea just how busy. Even at the crack of dawn there were tons of people around - it’s just one of those spots that is simply a victim of its own success. Regardless of the crowds, Horseshoe bend is truly a sight to behold - photos don’t do the sheer size of it justice. I was shooting with a 12mm lens and was only just getting the full bend in the frame -it’s truly enormous. I shot it at both sunset and sunrise, and found sunset a little better for photography, despite the fact that you are shooting directly into the sun.
Antelope Canyon is the other major attraction in this area, and one that in hindsight, we should have definitely booked further than one day in advance. There are two separate canyons to visit - Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. Upper Antelope Canyon is supposedly more picturesque and is subsequently fully booked more often. For photography, the best times to visit the Canyons are when the sun is directly overhead, so that the light illuminates the narrow walls. When the conditions are right, you may even see the famous ‘light beams’ pouring into the slots. These ‘peak times’ sell out very quickly, and in the end we had to settle for Lower Antelope Canyon at an almost optimal time (around 11.30am). That said, the Lower Canyon was still incredibly beautiful. With tour groups funnelling through the canyon non-stop, we were hurried along quite a bit by our guide, but still managed to get some nice shots of the incredible coloured walls. It’s definitely another one of those places where you have to accept its popularity.
Grand Canyon National Park
We couldn’t drive through the South West without stopping at the Grand Canyon. It was one of busier parks we visited and we did well to book our camping spot quite far in advance. The Grand Canyon can be visited from the south or the north, but 90% of visitors only see it from the south rim - including us this time! I would love to have the chance to return to visit the more remote North Rim. The South Rim does however provide a good infrastructure and plenty of different viewpoints that you can easily walk or shuttle between.
The most famous spot for photographing the sunset is Hopi Point, and it’s not a bad option. The point allows you to shoot both in an easterly and westerly direction, to make the best of the lighting conditions. We took the shuttle a couple of points past Hopi and allowed enough time to walk back to Hopi in time for the best light. For sunrise, we chose Mather point, however we found sunrise a little disappointing. The canyon is so deep that it took a very long time for the light to rise and spill into it, and by this time the light was already very bright and harsh. In general, I found the Grand Canyon quite challenging to photograph well. The distances are so big that the landscape almost looks two dimensional, and you need to get creative with compositions to create interesting shots. Despite this, it is well worth a visit - it is the Grand Canyon after all!
Bryce National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park was one of my personal highlights of our trip. Being at the highest elevation of all the places we visited (at almost 3000m), the air temperature during the day was much more hiking friendly, and it was markedly cold sleeping in the tent at night. Landscape wise, Bryce is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It takes the form of a natural amphitheater, filled with thousands of so-called hoodoos - Rock towers formed by the repeated freezing and thawing of water. It really does look like another planet.
Sunrise here was truly magical, with the low sun making the rocks look as if they were glowing from the inside. All of the viewpoints around the amphitheater are easy to access, and our favourite was Sunset Point - which gave us easy access to the popular Navajo loop, as well as the spectacular Thor’s hammer. If you have time, the Fairyland Loop is worth doing, allowing you to escape the crowds and stretch your legs. The whole hike took us around 5 hours, so it’s definitely a fair distance - make sure you bring plenty of water!
Zion National Park
Zion is the most visited national parks on this list, and for good reason. It offers spectacular scenery and some world class hikes, as well as a chance to enjoy some greenery in between all the red rock of the surrounding landscape. Angels landing is one of the most popular hikes of the park and to our luck, it opened up the very morning that we arrived, after months of closure due to a landslide. I had seen pictures of the trail, with its chains leading up a narrow knife-edge ridge, and was definitely curious as to how gnarly it would be in real life. Let’s just say that the pictures are accurate, and it’s definitely not one for those with a fear of heights. The trail is incredibly exposed, with 1000 feet drops either side and real danger if you’re not paying attention. If you’re up for the challenge, it’s one of the most exhilarating hikes you’ll ever do, and I can’t wait to do it again one day. The view from the top isn’t bad either!
The other viewpoint I had on my list was Observation Point, which is one of the highest viewpoints in the park. It actually towers above Angels Landing, giving you a different perspective of the canyon. It’s possible to hike here from the valley, but it’s a long and strenuous route. I wanted to be here for sunrise, and spent a while researching how to get there in the shortest possible time. I learnt that the most time efficient way would be to drive to the East Mesa trailhead by car, and hike 1 hour from there. To get there you drive up and out of the park on the 9, before turning left onto a small road (North Fork Country Road). After a while this turns into a dirt road and continues a little further before you reach the trailhead where you can park up. This ensures you can be at the point for sunrise, and on both occasions that I did this, I was the only person up there until at least an hour after sunrise. Having a view like that all to yourself is quite a special feeling.
The Narrows is another must-do hike in Zion, taking you (literally) up-stream through the canyon. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time or motivation to rent an extra pair of shoes for wading through the water, giving us a solid reason to go back.
Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire is a place that I’d seen a lot of on Instagram, and it’s well worth visiting if you’re in the Vegas area. The park itself is small, but has some really amazing scenery. The road through the park is an attraction itself, offering some fantastic leading lines that you can use in your compositions. Being in the middle of the Mojave desert it can get unbelievably hot there, and like all of these places, the best time to visit for hiking and photography is early in the morning or around sunset. If you can handle the heat, the Fire Wave is definitely worth hiking to.
The South West is undoubtedly one of the most unique places that I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, and even after three weeks I felt like we only scratched the surface of what there is to see in the region. Although we managed to tick off four of the five national parks in Utah, with only Capitol Reef remaining, we decided to spend multiple days in each location to allow us to get a real feel for each area. We’d highly recommend this approach for anyone planning a similar trip.
Have you visited this part of the U.S.? Let me know in the comments which photography spots we missed so we can make sure we go next time!