Top Photo Spots: Moab, Utah

Top Photo Spots: Moab, Utah

When it comes to the American Southwest, it’s hard to find a place that embodies that more than Moab, Utah. Moab is home to two national parks, a state park and countless other locations to explore.

Arches National Park is located just north of Moab and is known for preserving over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the world famous Delicate Arch. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks scattered across the landscape. An if that isn’t enough to get your blood pumping, the deep red sandstone creates an amazing scene as it vibrantly glows at sunrise and sunset.

Canyonlands National Park is located about 45 minutes away from Moab and preserves a colorful landscape eroded into countless canyons, mesas and buttes by the Colorado River, the Green River, and their respective tributaries.

Needless to say, Moab is a photographers paradise. I’ve spent a lot of time in this region over the past several years and am excited to share with you my favorite spots. Let’s go!

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    Hotel Recommendation

    There aren’t any hotels in the national parks here, but if you want to be as close as possible to Arches, book a room at the Holiday Inn Express Moab. This will put you less than a 5 minute drive from entrance of Arches NP and about 5 minutes from the main part of Moab. If you’d rather stay in Moab proper, I suggest the Hampton Inn Moab.

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    Nearest Airport

    Canyonlands Field Airport (KCNY) is about a 20 minute drive from Moab. If you can’t find a flight into Canyonlands, the next best option is Grand Junction Regional (KGJT) in Colorado which is just over an hour and a half drive.

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Delicate Arch

How could I not start this list off with Delicate Arch? This is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of Moab and a bucket list item for landscape photographers around the world. The hike to the arch is about 1.6 miles (3.2 round trip) with an elevation gain of around 500 feet. The hike can be quite difficult in the summer because about 1/3 of the trail is a steep hike up a massive slab of sandstone which leaves you fully exposed to the desert sun. My suggestion is to go in the late afternoon so you can arrive at the arch about 30 minutes to an hour before sunset. This will allow you to avoid the intense heat if you’re there in the summer. Either way, just bring plenty of water, some snacks and a handheld GPS and you’ll be fine! The GPS is highly recommended because while the trail is well marked by rock cairns along the way, it can be easy to get off track if you’re hiking back at night.

Delicate Arch at sunset can be crazy. Despite the difficult hike, you’ll likely be sharing the arch with 50, 100 or more other tourists and photographers. My advice here is just to embrace the chaos and have fun. Before the sunset light peaks on the arch, don’t let yourself get bothered by people standing beneath the arch and taking pictures, it belongs to them just as much as it belongs to you and me. When the light gets right, feel free to politely ask people to get away from the arch.

The real magic begins after the sun sets, when 95-100% of the people head back to their cars. While there may be a few other photographers who stay as well, it’s very common to have the entire place to yourself at night, which is just incredible. I highly recommend a visit to this arch in the summer, when the Milky Way rises shortly after night begins. The shot above was taken just after midnight on June 8th.

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Mesa Arch

A close second to Delicate Arch is Mesa Arch, located in Canyonlands National Park. The hike to Mesa Arch is a piece of cake compared to Delicate but unlike Delicate Arch, Mesa Arch is a spot you’ll want to photograph at sunrise. Canyonlands NP is quite remote compared to Arches NP, but because the hike to Mesa is so easy (just over 1/4 with virtually zero elevation gain) it attracts a decent amount of people even at sunrise.

The trick here is to get there well before sunrise. Each time I’ve photographed Mesa Arch, we got to the arch about an hour before sunrise. Two of those times we were the only ones there and the third time one guy had beaten us to it.

After you get your fill of the arch, be sure to stop at all the pull-offs on the way back out of the park. There are some incredible views inside Canyonlands NP!

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Corona Arch

One of the most stunning arches in all of Moab isn’t even located in a national or state park. Corona Arch is on BLM land and is free to the public! This beautiful, partially freestanding arch is 140 feet tall and 105 feet wide. It was made famous by a group of climbers who set up ropes atop the arch and turned it into a giant swing. You can look up the videos on YouTube if you’re curious. After a few (predictable) deaths, swinging from the arch was banned which is good, because you can still see the damage the ropes caused to the arch at the top if you look close.

To reach the trailhead for Corona Arch, drive north from Moab and turn left on 279 before you get to the Arches NP entrance. The drive up 279 is incredible, with the Colorado River to your left and vertical sandstone cliffs to your right. Eventually you’ll see a gravel parking lot to your right and a sign at the trailhead will confirm you’re in the right place. The hike to Corona is similar to Delicate Arch in length and elevation gain: 2.5 miles roundtrip with around a 480 ft elevation gain. The main different is that this hike involves holding onto chains as you walk across a steep slab of slickrock, climbing up a separate slab of slickrock while holding onto a chain and scaling a ladder to get over a boulder.

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The Windows and Turret Arch

This view, looking through the North Window at Turret Arch in the distance, is another highly sought after composition from Moab. However, it’s a bit deceiving because getting to this vantage point is actually quite dangerous. The parking lot for The Windows is between the North Window and Turret Arch. You’ll first have to make the fairly steep hike up the North Window, then scramble down the sandstone rocks to a path that leads off to the left. From there you’ll have to scramble some boulders and scale some other boulders to get up to a ledge. This is quite difficult to do with a camera backpack and tripod so if you have a friend to hand everything off to it will be much more doable. Once you reach the ledge, you’ll then have to climb up to an obvious point to get the best view of Turret Arch.

If you have any hesitation at all about your ability to make this climb, don’t do it. If you fall, you’ll have about 50 feet to go before certain death. If you go in the winter and the rocks are covered in ice and snow, it would be a suicide mission! All that said, countless photographers have gotten to the vantage point before, but you are doing it at your own risk. If you’re going to do it, go with a friend and take it slow.

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Balanced Rock

Quite possibly the easiest spot to photograph in all of Moab, Balanced Rock is also one of the most incredible formations to behold. This giant rock formation is 128 feet tall and the boulder at the top takes up 55 of those feet (the size of three school buses).

To get to Balanced Rock, just take the main road in Arches NP (Arches Scenic Drive) about 9 miles into the park and you can’t miss it. The parking lot is just off the road and the rock is just a few steps from there.

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Park Avenue

Arches National Park has quite possibly the most stunning entrance of any other national park. For the first several miles, your jaw will be on the ground as you gaze up at these sandstone giants. The first hike you’ll reach goes by the name of “Park Avenue” and you should absolutely take the tip to explore this leisurely stroll with your camera in tow. The end of the trail (which you’ll also reach by car if you just stay on the main road) is pictured above. The formation on the left is called “The Three Gossips” and the two giants on the right are “The Organ” and “The Tower of Babel.”

Funny story: There are many sandstone formations within arches nation park that have a certain…phallic…nature. Apparently, there used to be a sign at the base of “The Organ” but people kept steeling it and placing it at the base of “more deserving” rock formations throughout the park. Who knows if it’s true or not but I’ve never had any reason to doubt a park ranger!

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Double Arch

To get to Double Arch, just head to The Windows Rd where you’ll find the North Window and Turret Arch. After the parking lot for the Windows, just keep following the loop road to the next parking lot. The trailhead there will lead you right to Double Arch, a pothole set of arches with a span of 148 feet wide and 105 feet tall. You can photograph the arches from the trailhead, but you’re also more than welcome to climb up the rocks and view them from beneath like in the photo above.

landscape arch

Landscape Arch

While Landscape Arch isn’t the most photographic arch in the park, it is certainly the most at risk for falling apart in our lifetime. At 290 feet wide, it’s also the widest arch in all of Moab. There used to be a trail that led up beneath it, but massive sections of the arch have fallen down as recently as 1991 so the trail has since been closed. For now, you’ll have to photograph the arch from the end of the trail, which is about 1.5 miles from the parking lot. The hike is incredibly beautiful though and countless photo opportunities can be found on your way to the arch.

Conclusion

Again, Moab is a photographers paradise and you should absolutely make plans to visit this incredible part of Utah. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below!

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  • whodeytink

    James, thanks so much for this post. I am going to Moab over Thanksgiving and will be visiting these parks. Can’t wait. Your photos are all beautiful – hope I can capture things as well as you have.

    Mark

    • Thanks Mark, you’re going to love Moab and all it has to offer!

      • whodeytink

        I’ve been there before but it has been a long, long time – probably 20 years. Utah is one of my favorite states for photography.

  • Mary Hulett

    James, Congrats on your 9 year anniversary. I am so happy for you in all that you have accomplished from going from a Cabela’s employee to self-employed and enriching photographers lives. This post is especially helpful. You gave some excellent tips and sites to visit. Thanks also for your directions. My husband and I are going this Fall 2016 and we have never been. So this is especially helpful. THANK YOU.

    • That’s awesome Mary, you’ll love it! Let me know if you have any questions!

  • Gerrit Gillespie

    James, thank you so much for this post…. we have been to Moab and the parks you mentioned in your post…. we loved every bit of that trip and the images you posted bring back a lot of great memories. Your willingness to share what you have found and what you have done is greatly appreciated!!! I love looking at your work!! Keep it Up!!!

    • Thanks for the kind words Gerrit, I truly appreciate it!

  • Florian Seyfert

    Great article James! I just went to Moab and Arches NP this past March for the first time and absolutely fell in love with that area. Can’t wait to go back!
    Also, one other thing I noticed is how easily accessible most of these spots are, even for families with with kids. Delicate Arch is probably the only exception as it is a somewhat longer hike up to it and you have to be more careful once you get up there due to the big hole in the middle of that area.
    Can’t wait to see what is next on your list! Big Sur? Grand Canyon? Banff?

  • Paul Weimer

    I need to see this place in full. Only did a “Drive by” a couple of years ago

    • Yes you do! One of the most incredible places in the U.S. 🙂

      • Paul Weimer

        It was a wild hare. I was headed from Denver to Mesa Verde and realized I could squeeze in a brief visit to Arches with a big ol’ detour. TOO brief, as it turns out.