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Photography Tips for Mesa Arch

How to get that bucket list photograph of the sun rising through Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park

The classic sunrise view through Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district leads a double life, one as a mild attraction to the average tourist to see, and another as a start attraction as a bucketlist photography event for thousands of amateur photographers.
Every morning, year-round it is descended upon by throngs of photographers in the dark early morning hours who will be trying to capture their own photograph of the sunrise framed artistically through the arch opening.

A typical morning at the arch
A typical morning at the arch

Mesa Arch is a pothole arch, getting its start as a small depression that water collected in and weathering over time created this amazing arch facing perfectly into the sunrise.
The canyon drops 1200 behind it and holds some interesting formations which you can capture in your shot using the arch like a giant picture window.
As a bonus, when the sun rises its golden rays will illuminate the underside of the arch adding to the drama and beauty.
Below the rim is Buckskin Canyon with the Colorado River meandering through it still eroding the sandstone as it has done for millions of years.
Through the arch to the left are some named rock formations, there is the Washer Woman, which looks like someone doing laundry over a wash tub. 300 feet to the right is Monster Tower and far behind them is the flat-topped Airport Tower formation.
The rock formations as seen through the arch
Photo Notes
  • Sunrise is the best time
  • Many times there are dozens and dozens of photographers at the arch, many arriving in the dark predawn hours to set up
  • There are often so many people with tripods set up you will have a hard time getting a prime spot
  • Scouting the location the day before and getting your spot figured out for the framing you want will help you on your shooting morning as you will be arriving in the dark
  • Bring a flashlight/headlamp
  • Tripod
  • Make sure your lenses are spotless to minimize flare from shooting directly at the sun
  • Check sunrise times online and arrive 30-60 minutes before the sun rises, but depending on the season, normally arriving 30 minutes ahead will give you fewer options on where to set up. Summer is the busiest time
  • Add 45-50 minutes if coming from Moab to allow for drive time
  • Hiking to the arch from the parking lot takes 10-15 minutes
  • If you arrive early enough with few people already there, don’t set up too far away from the arch, other photographers are going to be right up against the arch so your shots would be of them in the picture, and the chances of getting a pulled back shot are few and far between today due to the popularity of the location
  • There is really only room at the arch for about 25 photographers to get the best shots
  • Lens choice for the typical shot is plus or minus 24mm (35mm format)
  • This is a high dynamic range shot so learning about HDR and how to blend bracketed exposures can be helpful
  • Great images can be made year-round, but summer will be the most crowded with winter being the least
0.3-miles one way from parking lot to the arch
The trail from the parking lot is a loop with each side being the same distance and taking you out to Mesa Arch. The left side of the loop does slightly less climbing than the right side of the loop. 

Mesa Arch Utah Map

$30/vehicle or $80 annual state park pass
Getting there
From Moab take US-191 11 miles north until you reach the left-hand turn to UT-313, continue for 14.6 miles to a junction with UT -313 goes to the left and continue to Dead Horse State Park, continue to Canyonlands National Park 12.9 miles on Grand View Point Road to the Mesa Arch Parking Lot on your left.
Parking ( 38.389211, -109.868125 )
Paved lot

Through Mesa Arch prior to the sun coming up

There are photographs to be made prior to the sun coming up

The washer woman rock formation at sunrise at Mesa ArchThe washer woman rock formation at sunrise at Mesa Arch

Don’t forget to wander around after you have gotten your pictures at the arch. To the right, a short distance are great views down into the canyon that can be enjoyed

Panorama to the right of Mesa Arch


Being creative

Keep an eye out for other interesting subjects like this image of tracks in the sands in the early morning light.Sand tracks at sunrise

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Photography Tips for Mesa Arch

Every sunrise, Mesa Arch is descended upon by masses of photographers trying to capture their own early morning sunrise framed through the arch.

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