You’ve seen that picture before. Even if you didn’t know it was from Canyonlands. Even if you didn’t have any idea where it was. The shot of the rising sun peeking through the narrow slot of a spectacular arch is an iconic image of the West. It expresses the natural beauty of the desert sky with the expanse of the jumbled, eroded landscape. To put it simply, sunrise at Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park, is worth getting up for. It’s worth driving through the pre-dawn darkness. It’s worth braving sub-freezing temperatures. And it will totally up your Instagram game.
Mesa Arch is located inside Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah. From Moab, head north on US 191, then turn left onto Utah 313. Stay straight when U-313 turns off to Dead Horse Point State Park, and continue on into Canyonlands. Once you’re in the park, watch for a well-marked parking area on the left-hand side of the road.
It’s no fun to roll out of a warm hotel bed, two hours before sunrise on a cold January day. It’s a bummer to miss the free breakfast because you’re up too early. And it’s not thrilling to scrape your windshield, then drive through a desolate darkness while thinking about that warm hotel bed.
But I knew why I was doing it. There would be no more perfect time, perhaps in the rest of my life, to capture the stunning sunrise at Mesa Arch. These minor inconveniences would reap big rewards, I was sure.
As I drove, I wondered if I would be the only one there. After all, it takes a bit of crazy to be out here in the dark, so early in the morning. The previous night, I had the Windows in Arches almost to myself at sunset. Maybe I’d be the only one.
Well, I wasn’t. I arrived at the Mesa Arch parking lot to find at least a half-dozen cars already there. Another one, presumably the dot of headlights that had been in my rear-view for quite some time, rolled in behind me.
I had brought a flashlight with me, but I really didn’t need it, because by this time the “blue hour” was well underway, and there was enough light in the sky to make the trail easily navigable. The hike up and over a small hill, then down to Mesa Arch, took just a few minutes.
And then I took my spot in a long line of tripods. Some of the others that had already gathered here were talking about the previous times they had shot a sunrise at Mesa Arch. I wondered if they had the “good” spot.
Before the sun makes an appearance, there isn’t much to see here — just a bright narrow slit that looks like a Doctor-Who-esque crack in space in time.
Sunrise at Mesa Arch
When the sun finally appears, the show begins. Using a smaller aperture (a bigger number, for example, a 22 instead of a 2.8 or 4), you should be able to capture that starburst as the sun peeks over the horizon. You should be able to capture it a second time as well, as the sun moves behind the bottom side of the arch.
Most of the other photographers were to my left, but I really don’t think the shot was better from over there. Just make sure you can see the eroded rock towers in the middle of the shot, and be sure you have a nice view of the entire horizon, without that pile of rock in the foreground violating the horizon line.
Oh, and keep in mind that the sun will rise further to the left in the summer months. In January, the sun rises in the southeast, but by June it will be in the northeast. I suppose you’d get a different picture almost every month, as the earth wobbles back and forth.
So, is there any other picture worth taking here? I liked the photo I took near the southern end of Mesa Arch, perhaps 15-20 feet away from where I was originally set-up for the sunrise. It’s quite remarkable how the rising sun causes the underside of the arch to glow a brilliant orange.
Step back a few more feet and you get a broader look at the arch.
Even further back, you get an idea how Mesa Arch is connected to this cliffside. It’s quite remarkable that it doesn’t just separate and fall off.
Once the sun has slipped behind Mesa Arch, and then risen above it, the most magical moments are over. It’s still neat to visit Mesa Arch at any time of day, but by this point, I decided to pack up and hike back to the car. Since I had already explored most of Canyonlands on the previous day, I decided to head back towards Moab, and find a couple of other great trails to hike.
Here’s a look at the drive through Canyonlands National Park:
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Go ahead, make yourself do it. Sunrise at Mesa Arch is something you’ll never forget, and you’ll get some great pictures in the process. Once it’s over, go back and catch a nap at your hotel. I bet you can even get there before the free breakfast ends.