Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

If there’s one photography mecca in southern Utah, it’s in Canyonlands National Park. Photographers come from all over the world to photograph this national park and it’s famous scenery.

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And if there’s one site to see in this photographer’s playground, it’s Mesa Arch. Despite it not being a common name, most people have seen a picture of it: as a pre-installed wallpaper in Microsoft Windows 7. Due to it’s popularity anyone can find countless pictures of it online, but I wanted to photograph it for myself.

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Windows 7 wallpaper

The most popular time to photograph Mesa Arch is just after sunrise. The rising sun creates a gorgeous orange glow on the underside of the arch. Unfortunately, this also means waking up early. This was a photograph I really wanted so right after I booked my plane ticket I looked up the sunrise time for September 4th: 7:03 am. Perfect, I figured I could get there a little early and just wait.

Like most people, I stayed at a hotel in Moab, Utah when visiting Canyonlands NP. But this is still 40 miles away from the trailhead and takes about an hour to drive due to curvy roads. Undeterred, it was still something I wanted to see.

I woke up at 4:15 am and despite arriving at Mesa Arch trailhead at 5:15 am, I notice a few other cars in the parking lot. After the short 0.5 mile trail in the dark, I find four other tripods already camped out. I pick the best spot I can, but quickly realize that my location was less than ideal. Mistake #1.

6:38 am. Not many people showed up after I arrived and it was a good thing as the 'good' spots were already taken

6:38 am. The guy in the light shirt had the best spot.

My tripod isn’t tall enough and the rock in the foreground blocks the ‘washer woman’ seen in the Windows 7 wallpaper above. I was disappointed but had to make the best of it.

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5:45 am

I took some more shots during dawn and was able to move my tripod about six inches to the left, which let me barely fit in the washer woman. Still not as far left as I would have liked, but a lot better.

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6:27 am

Then at 7:03 am, right on schedule, the sun starts to creep above the mountains in the distance. This is when I made my second mistake: using too small of an aperture. Because the aperture (opening of the camera lens) was so small, the starburst effect from the rising sun was way too strong. I should have realized it when I took the pictures, but I didn’t notice it until I got back to my hotel room.

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There’s only about 5-15 minutes where the light casts the orange glow on the bottom of the arch, so you have to move quickly. Once the sun gets too high in the sky, the effect disappears. Before I ran out of time I tried some different angles.

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Even though I got some good shots, I decided to come back the next morning. This time, even earlier.

I arrived at the arch the next morning at 4:51 am, a full two hours before the sunrise. And unbelievably, I still wasn’t the first one there! One other photographer was already there with his tripod set up, so I grabbed the spot right next to him. With a better camera position, I was able to capture the pictures I wanted.

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The moon was shining so bright that it was casting visible shadows on the ground, as evident in the picture below. It was pretty impressive for someone not used to clear skies.

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Even going on consecutive days, it was a scene that was worth losing sleep over, in fact I’d still recommend it to someone not interested in photography. On the plus side, you get to sleep in a couple more hours.