Among the many areas of our great nation popular with nature photographers, few surpass the vicinity of Moab, Utah, for a wealth of iconic subjects in a concentrated area. Just a stone’s throw away from the heart of this high desert gathering place are two of the national parks that give Red Rock Country its name: Arches and Canyonlands.
Famed Arches National Park boasts more than 2,000 arches, a greater collection of red rocks in one place than perhaps anywhere else in the world. These fascinating forms are never static. Surprise Arch was discovered only as recently as 1963, while Wall Arch just collapsed in 2008. These marvelous natural sculptures start as depressions in a freestanding stone wall or “fin.” Add just the right mixture of wind, rain, and freezing and thawing temperatures working on the soft Entrada sandstone, and you get a hole or “window.” Let the erosion process percolate for a few more centuries/millennia and some of these windows will morph into full-fledged arches. Inevitably, however, these great stone sculptures will collapse.
Such famed landmarks as Delicate Arch, Landscape, Turret, Double, Double O, Skyline, Navajo and Panorama arches are just waiting there to be freshly reinterpreted by a new generation of photographers.
As the quintessential symbol of Utah, Delicate Arch is definitely not to be missed. To reach this famed red sandstone monolith, begin the moderate mile-and-a-half climb in mid to late afternoon. Park in the lot and follow the crowd up the hill. Make sure that you are in the lot for the hike to Delicate Arch and not the one for Delicate Arch viewpoint.
Almost all of the other arches mentioned above are reached via easy walks. One exception to this is the famed composition of Turret Arch through North Window. Getting into position for that particular view will require a bit of scrambling up a low, fairly steep rock wall in the dark. Best to scout it in daylight on an earlier day, and start out extra-early on the morning of your shoot. It is a popular and really tiny spot so don’t be late.
In addition to arches and more arches, there are lots of other great red-rock formations here. Soon after entering Arches National Park, you will come to the imposing presences of Courthouse Towers and the Three Gossips. These photograph best in dawn light
The only entrance to Arches is right off Route 191, just a few minutes north of Moab. Continue heading north for another few miles to the well-signed left turn for Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is divided into three distinct districts: Needles, accessible about two hours south of Moab; The Maze, extraordinarily rugged and virtually inaccessible except via the river; and Island in the Sky, just north of Moab.
The pleasant drive up the winding road to Island in the Sky will lead you to such photo icons as Mesa Arch and the vast expanse of Green River Overlook. For the best opportunity to capture Mesa Arch, arrive at the parking area 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise, stroll the easy quarter-mile path to the arch and be ready to share this popular and small spot with lots of other photographers. Green River Overlook is just a quick 10-minute drive from here and makes a great secondary shot after the sun is well up—and again at sunset.
If you’re feeling adventurous and you are in good shape, consider the short hike to the top of nearby Aztec Butte for an interesting composition of the ancient granary at the top.
The town of Moab is a popular gathering spot for tourists and adventurers. Mountain bikers flock here to pedal the many red-rock trails. As a result, clean and modern motels are in great supply as are restaurants and eateries of just about every stripe.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com.