Photographing Mesa Arch at Sunrise

Text and photos: © Cheyenne L Rouse

Hiker Mesa Arch

Hiker Mesa Arch


Location facts: Imagine a magical red rock arch that lights up as it frames a vast wilderness of towers, spires, mesas and canyons. Mesa Arch is another wonder of nature that will fill you with a sense of awe when you see it, especially when you see it at sunrise. The magic only happens at sunrise, so set your alarm; this is going to be an early day.

Skill rating: The short trail from the parking lot leading to the arch is rated EASY the hard part is waking up well before dawn to arrive before the sun rises. (I don’t do mornings so waking up before sunrise is VERY tough for me)

Photo Tips: This could be one of the most exciting and anticipated pictures that I have ever taken. I had seen images of this arch in magazines many times and wondered for years where it was and finally, after a little detective work, I found it. This was well before the “internet age”, nowadays it is pretty easy to find the locations that you see in pictures with all of the information available on the web. It also depends on how hard you want to work to get to a particular location; in this case the work is easy. Some of the locations that I have sought have meant days of backpacking through the wilderness or climbing a mountain to get the shot that I desired, so when I say that this location is easy I really mean it.

I suggest getting to Mesa Arch at least a half hour to 15 minutes before sunrise, the Visitors Center posts the sunrise and sunset times daily, this will give you time to find your spot and get set up. Due to the popularity of this arch you may find yourself tripod leg to tripod leg with other ambitious (some would say crazy) photographers. There is not much set up space as it is a pretty tight area, so the earlier that you can arrive the more likely you are to get the spot that you desire. Be careful not to get too close to the edge near the arch it is right on the rim of the canyon and one wrong step will land you on the White Rim Trail 1000 feet below.

When I shot Mesa Arch I arrived as early as I could to avoid any crowds, well I was too late as there were already a few photographers positioned and they were not terribly happy to see one more person added to the crowd. Certainly we would like to think, I know that I would, that we will be the only photographer that will be shooting in a particular location but unfortunately you will be hard pressed to find photo-solitude anymore, especially in Southern Utah, it has become a photographers Mecca, the secret is out so expect company.

After you arrive and have chosen your spot, set up your camera and tripod and get out your lens, a wide angle lens will give you excellent results – I keep my 17mm on my camera and find that it has become my “normal lens”. Keep your other lenses at hand for a quick change as you will only have a short time (about 5-10 minutes) to capture the arch in all of its morning glory.

No matter how bright the sky gets don’t shoot until the sun lights up the arch, it will be hard to be patient here because the scene is so amazing and your trigger (shutter) finger will be itching. Check your exposures, metering off of the sky above the arch is good or just go with the exposure that your camera chooses. I would suggest bracketing here to insure that you get the shot. Setting your aperture to a small setting (f/16 or higher) will maximize the depth of field. I think a horizontal shot works best here but you may want to experiment, put a longer lens on your camera and shoot a vertical, remember there are no rules so have a field day.

Take the time before the sun rises to look around and notice where you are; you are standing at one of the most amazing sunrise locations in the country. As you look through the arch you can see the La Sal Mountains looming in the distant, Washer Woman Arch and Airport Tower down in the canyon standing at attention waiting for the sun to rise. Just think, a huge segment of the population is sitting in morning traffic somewhere on a freeway at this very moment and you are here in the wide open wilderness that is Canyonlands National Park, WOW – life IS good!

It is almost show time and you might be feeling the butterflies in your stomach about now, excited about the phenomenon that you are about to witness. Ok here goes, the sun is rising and the arch is starting to glow. The sun rises on the left side of the arch in summer and on the right side in the winter, which side is it on for you? By now the underside of the arch should be bathed in a rich intense red and you may be jumping up and down unable to contain yourself knowing that you are photographing such a beautiful and magical scene. Wait until you have finished shooting to do your jumping up and down!!

I also wanted a shot with a hiker positioned on top of the arch and wondered how the other photographers would react to my desire. I politely asked if anyone would mind if my friend got on top of the arch. They didn’t seem to mind, most of them anyway, I got one grunt from the crowd but majority rules so my friend made his way up to the top of the arch. This arch is much smaller than it appears in pictures; it is only about 50 feet long and 5 feet wide so use caution when you do this, as the drop into the canyon is a long one.

Disclaimer: Hiking on arches has always been discouraged by rangers but is not prohibited at least not at the time of this writing; you should check with the rangers first. The silhouette of the hiker on the arch has turned out to be one of my most popular shots; it is so inspirational and beautiful.

Recreational activities: The most common activity here seems to be photography although sightseeing and picnicking are popular too. Remember to use extreme caution when hiking on arches and canyon rims. Make sure to check with the rangers at the visitor’s center for hiking safety information and guidelines.

Best season: year round
Best time: sunrise
My lens choice: Wide-angle – 17mm

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2 Comments. Leave new

Thanks so much for your details. I’m in Moab now and planning on shooting the Mesa Arch tomorrow at sunrise.

You are welcome! SOOOO…….how many other photographers were there at sunrise with you? Last time I was there I knew I couldn’t be with a crowd so I opted to shoot the arch under moonlight with the stars….I had it ALL to myself and it was MAGICAL! I hope you got some GREAT photos!