Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah USA

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah USA

Photographing the Mesa Arch at sunrise is something every serious landscape photographer wants to do before hanging up the camera gear.  In order to be there on time requires a bit of effort however that effort is richly rewarded as you watch the sun break over the horizon and under the arch, illuminating the La Sal mountain range some thirty-five miles away and the Colorado River Basin two thousand feet below.  It was 34°F when Deb & I left our hotel in Moab Utah around 4:30 a.m. for the forty mile drive to the Mesa Arch trail head which is in the Island In The Sky region of Canyonlands National Park.  From the trailhead we hiked the rather short trail (half of a mile) in the dark but didn’t require flashlights all of the way as the moon light was wonderful that morning.  Once we claimed a spot for the tripod and set things up we had about 45 minutes before sunrise during which we got a chance to chat with the twenty or so others who arrived before the sun came up.  Make sure to arrive early if you want a good spot!

The exposures for the images posted today range from less than a second to more than thirty seconds and were all taken with a Canon 1D MK III and 16-35/2.8 or 24-105/4 lenses.  Most were taken with Lee and Singh-Ray 4×6 ND grad filters.

Before the sunrise.

Mesa Arch 01

Sunrise….at one of the prettiest places on earth to watch the sun come up.  When photographing sunrises, always use a small aperture of f/18 or smaller which creates the starburst look of the sun.  This is true for any bright light source in your image (street lights, stars, Christmas lights, candles etc). If you want the starburst effect, use the smallest aperture possible.  This means using a tripod because of the longer exposures required but it is worth the effort and creates excellent results.

Mesa Arch 02


Mesa Arch 03

After the sunrise we had some time to explore around the arch and photograph it from many different angles.  The following are a few of our favourites as well as some general shots to give you a sense of the area.

The underside of the arch literally starts to glow a few minutes before sunrise and is amazing to watch.  In looking at the arch, my theory is that the glowing phenomenon is created by the early light reflecting off the cliff face upwards onto the underside of the arch which overhangs the 1800 foot precipice.  The oxide rich sandstone makes the warm early light take on the even richer red & orange shades seen in the images.  I think this next shot illustrates the point.

Mesa Arch 04

From the other direction.

Mesa Arch 07

A group shot!

Mesa Arch 06

The arch from above (you can see a person at the top of the arch for perspective).

Mesa Arch 10

Finally some close-ups.  The Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed arches on the planet so there are no unique or original shots to be taken, that said, you always try to take something that is a little bit different.

It seems that many of the rock formations have their own descriptive names.  In the right central portion of the image below you can see three local landmarks. The ‘Washer Woman Arch’ is in silhouette in front of ‘Airport Tower’ and immediately left of ‘Monster Tower’.

Mesa Arch 05


Mesa Arch 08


Mesa Arch 09


Mesa Arch 11

I trust these images have inspired you to plan a trip to Canyonlands National Park to experience a sunrise at the Mesa Arch.


  1. Simply awesome, you must be very pleased with these! Does this mean you are hanging up your camera gear? 🙂

    • Thanks Arni, and no, there are things on the list to photograph. Serious peer pressure has me wanting to hang up the antiquated MK III though 🙂

  2. Rob smith

    Wow again Scott. Inspiring is an understatement. Need to get over and see this. Beautiful photography

  3. Ben Knechtel

    No shots of the roadrunner and coyote? Isn’t this their stomping grounds? Great shots! Do you sell prints?

    • We didn’t see much wildlife, except for the deer we almost hit driving into the park at 5:00 a.m. 🙂 Yes, I sell prints up to 17×22. Thanks for checking out the blog Ben, its always great to hear from you.