Story & Photography by Jerry Ginsberg
High on the list of the most photogenic landscapes anywhere is the Beehive State, Utah. With five spectacular national parks, each one special in its own right, Utah is simply not to be missed.
While in the past, I have written tips for a photo trip to Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is such a singularly important place for nature photography that adding an article focused specifically about it seems both necessary and worthwhile.
Arches’ nominal size at just 77,000 acres, belies its scenic and geologic grandeur as well as its great photographic potential. There are so many terrific redrock formations here that the never-ending photo opportunities in front of you might actually make your head spin in wonder.
First among these is – you guessed it! – arches. This relatively small park contains a collection of an estimated 2,000 stone arches, the largest concentration of these otherwise rare formations anywhere on Earth!
A natural arch is created from a narrow slice of rock called a fin. Given enough time, the cumulative effects of wind, rain, freezing and thawing can wear a small hole in a fin. With lots more time, that hole gradually becomes bigger and bigger until the once solid fin becomes a stone arch.
Make no mistake: we are talking here about geologic time. In contrast, the average lifespan of us puny mammals is but the blink of an eye. So, don’t expect to see any measurable change in an arch between one visit and the next—even if the visits are years apart.
That said, the exfoliation of huge chunks of rock and even the complete collapse of a seemingly robust arch do occur spontaneously and can happen, quite literally, at any moment. Try to not be standing in the wrong spot at the wrong moment.
I have in my files images of at least one arch that has since collapsed, leaving only a pile of pebbles.
Besides all of these arches, the park also has many wonderful pinnacles, fins and other towering Entrada sandstone formations that have eroded in their own unique fashions.
Photographing in the park
Among the very best photo spots in Arches National Park are:
- Delicate Arch – The 1.5-mile trail to Utah’s calling-card scene (it’s on the state’s license plates) rises just 600 feet. It can be reached in under an hour but is not an easy hike. A large part of the trail is over slick rock and marked only by small cairns. The best shots are just a few minutes before sunset. Be prepared for lots of people and tripods, it’s a very popular place.
- Delicate Arch Overlook – Reached by a short trail from a parking lot, the overlook gives you a good composition of Delicate Arch from below. You can shoot from this spot in both morning and evening light. Near sunset, you’ll see the rim behind the arch lined by a long row of photographers who took the trail previously described.
- Windows area – Wonderful compositions are all over the place here. The iconic view is that of Turret Arch through North Window right at sunrise. This shot requires a bit of rock scrambling up to a narrow perch. Be in shape. Sunset lights up both North and South Window.
- Trail to Double O Arch – A somewhat lengthy, but easy trail with several photo ops. Start with sunrise at fragile Landscape Arch; about a mile from the parking lot. Continue on to Navajo and Panorama Arches. Both are slightly off trail to the left when going uphill. There is a small sign for Navajo Arch. Stay the course to the end at Double O Arch. Don’t miss the petroglyphs on the pinnacle to the side.
- Double Arch – Spectacular area right along the road. Visible from a parking lot and reached by a very short trail, these arches have appeared in several feature films, including “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Experiment with different angles and optical extraction. Best light is in early morning.
- Skyline Arch – Right along the road. Best light is in the late afternoon when the sun makes the red rock almost glow.
- Devil’s Garden – Compositions are everywhere in this wonderland of pinnacles. Try some shots with and some without the sky. Best for late afternoon light through sunset.
- Balanced Rock – One of the iconic places in this park, a short trail circumnavigates this feature. Lit up in both early morning & late, late afternoon. Don’t forget to also try some more distant compositions from across the road.
- Courthouse Towers – Beside the road just a short distance from the park entrance lie the Courthouse Towers and Park Avenue. And don’t miss the striking formation called Three Gossips just opposite! This area is a great sunrise location.
Astrophotography in Arches
In recent years, Arches National Park has become a popular location for photographing the stars and Milky Way as the arches make a great foreground for shots of the night sky. Where once it was pretty quiet after dark, during the middle of the night under the new moon, Arches can have multiple astrophotography tour groups at popular places. Because of the popularity of astrophotography and the irresponsible behavior of a few photographers, the Park Service has been experimenting with restrictions on light painting in Arches. Check current rules before you go.
When to go
My favorite months in Arches National Park, and the Southwest in general, are April and May, when the weather is likely to be quite mild. However, if you have the time and are willing to gamble a bit, a mid-winter visit might just reward you with striking scenes of fresh white snow on red rock. Winter days can be quite chilly, while summer’s long days are brutally hot and marked by hour after hour of harsh, mid-day light.
One well-paved road winds all through the park. Driving any standard passenger car will be perfectly adequate.
Moab, Utah has become a tourist mecca, replete with motels and eateries running the entire gamut from fine dining to fast food. Try passing on some of the more familiar names and sample the food at some of the local spots such as the Jailhouse.
Route 191 is the main north-south street running the length of town. Traffic here can become a bit sluggish during the busy season, as can the main entrance to Arches.
Jerry Ginsberg is a long-time nature and travel photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the covers and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition and he has been awarded Artist Residencies in several National Parks.