Photographing Sunsets in Zion National Park

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Sunset and Sunrise are the best parts of the day for most photographers.  But, when you visit a place like Zion National Park — where you spend most of your time at the bottom of a deep canyon — photography can get tricky.  I am no expert, but I did manage to get a few good photos around sunset, during my visit to Zion.  Here are some suggestions that may help.

Location

Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah, near the town of Springdale. To reach the bridge, drive into the park from town, to Canyon Junction (about 1.5 miles from the Springdale entrance). There is limited parking on either side of the bridge, and up the scenic road (assuming it’s open to private vehicles).

To reach Canyon Overlook, drive through the park and through the Zion – Mt. Carmel Tunnel.  At the east end of the tunnel, there are some small parking areas.  Park here and hike the 1/2 mile trail to the overlook.  This trail is short enough that you should be able to make your way back to the trailhead after sunset, before dark.

My Visit

On the first day of my trip, I wasted no time getting out of Las Vegas.  I knew exactly where I wanted to be at sunset.  I had seen photos taken at that location online.  I knew exactly how I wanted to frame the shot, down to the placement of the tree limbs.  All I needed was some clouds and a little bit of dramatic light.  Oh, and I needed to get there.

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I ended up getting everything I wanted.  I think this picture is simply magical.

You’ll find this view from the bridge over the Virgin River, near Canyon Junction.  No matter the time of year, you’ll be able to drive to this spot in your personal car.  The scenic drive into the canyon begins at Canyon Junction — and it’s closed to private vehicles from spring to late fall.  But, Route 9 is open year-round, so you can drive to the bridge, squeeze into a parking spot, and capture a great photo of The Watchman — that distinctive mountain peak that towers over Springdale.

And there are other good shots available in this spot, too.

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Look to the northeast, and you’ll see the Mountain of the Sun, Twin Brothers, and East Temple.  Late in the day, they are often lit brilliantly.

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And even later in the day, the light may be more selective.

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On the next night, I returned to this same spot.  There were more clouds — too many to be pretty.  But, they did allow one burst of light through, for just a moment.

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Just to the south of the East Temple, on the other side of Route 9, Bridge Mountain may also be nicely lit.  You can take all of these pictures from the bridge, or the Pa’Rus Trail, which runs under the bridge and follows the river back to the visitor center.

Be aware, though, this is a popular spot.  You’ll probably be surrounded by several (or several dozen) photographers and casual visitors, and they’ll all want that same tree branch in their shot.  So, arrive early and hope for the best.

You don’t have to shoot from the bridge.  Instead, you can head down to the riverbank.

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On my next-to-last night in Zion, I returned to the Canyon Junction area, but this time I left the crowds on the bridge, and scurried down the embankment to the water’s edge.  It seemed that far fewer people make the effort to climb down here, so maybe you’ll have a better chance of finding a good spot.

As you can see, you can frame up some nice shots here.  Use a tripod and a slow exposure to give the river a smooth surface.  As much as I like the looks of the river and the clouds, though, the mountain itself didn’t really pop…

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… until about 30 seconds before sunset.  Just before taking this picture, I thought the moment had already passed, and I had started to pack up my equipment.  Then I looked back and saw the glow on the Watchman.  Now, the mountain was pretty, but the sky was less exciting.

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I had one final night to get it right, and on the last night in Zion, I returned to the edge of the river, and took this shot.  Light on the mountain? Yep.  Colorful clouds in the sky?  Check!

Canyon Overlook

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You might also find another great sunset at the end of the Canyon Overlook Trail.  Here, you’re looking down Pine Creek Canyon, towards the entrance to the Virgin River Canyon.  That means, you’re looking at some of the same mountains as you were at the bridge — that’s part of the East Temple and the Twin Brothers on the right.  Look down, and you can see Route 9 zig-zagging up to the tunnel, and down towards the bridge and Canyon Junction.

From the viewpoint…

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… you can look straight up at the East Temple — which will probably be hit with some brilliant light at some point.

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The sun will be setting directly behind Bridge Mountain.

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This spot might give you a nice sunset, but it’s tricky for a couple of reasons.  For one, the valley floor will be dark, and the sky will be very bright since you’re facing the sunset.  Also, the pictures seem somewhat lop-sided to me, because the East Temple on the right is so dominant from this viewpoint.  Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic place to watch the day come to an end.  Just remember, you must hike back to your car before it’s dark.  Bring a flashlight, just in case you need it.

Sunrises

I spent more time on sunsets than sunrises because, well, it’s a vacation, and I don’t want to get up that early.  But I did sacrifice some sleep on a couple of days to check out the sunrise.

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You’ll be able to see some great sunrises in the bridge area — you’ll just need to look in the opposite direction.  As the day begins, the warm glow will slowly sweep across the mountains and down into the valley.  I took this picture along the Pa’Rus trail – that bridge simply begs to have its picture taken.  You can shoot from the path or from either side of the river — just try to find a nice spot with a view of the cliffs to the northwest.  It wouldn’t hurt to scout a few locations the previous evening, so you’re not wandering around in the pre-dawn dark.

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For an easy, and spectacular shot, check out the view from the Zion Human History Museum (stop #2 on the shuttle route).  Not long after sunrise, the light will spill across the Temples and Towers of the Virgin. There’s not a lot of creative ways to take this shot — it’s just there, but it’s much more impressive in the morning than the evening.

And keep in mind, just about anywhere in the canyon, the sunlight will eventually sweep through.  Just check out this time-lapse that shows daylight arriving in several spots around Zion Canyon.

The Bottom Line

If you have a favorite spot to shoot a sunrise or sunset in Zion, I’d love to steal it from you — I mean, I’d love to hear about it.  Drop a note in the comments section below, and share it with everyone.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the time-lapse video of my drive into Zion on that first night, as I arrived at the park and took that magical photo of The Watchman:

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