Mesa Arch (Canyonlands National Park)

November 4, 2016

A sunrise view of Canyonlands National Park through Mesa Arch.

Joyce and I just returned from a monumental (no pun intended) trip to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. We camped at Devil’s Garden at Arches NP for the first few days and then moved on to a motel in Moab (Canyonlands Best Western) for a few more days. I plan to share some of my images and experiences in the next several editions of Nature Frames.

My photographic adventure to Mesa Arch began with a mid-day scouting trip, shortly after breaking camp at Arches National Park. I didn’t want to hike to Mesa Arch for the very first time in the pre-sunrise darkness, not knowing anything about the photo set-up. We arrived at Canyonlands, about 30 miles from Arches, after lunch and checked in at the Island in the Sky Visitor’s Center. I immediately found a park ranger so I could get the scoop on Mesa Arch. He explained how to get to the trailhead and suggested I get there early to set up because of crowds. I replied, “Okay, I’ll be there about an hour before sunrise.” The ranger looked at me and said, “You better try an hour and a half. Things are slowing down post-season but there might be as many as 75 – 100 people there in the morning.” I almost said, “Are you joking?” but I knew he wasn’t.

Next, Joyce and I took the six-mile drive to the site, so I could scout the short trail to the arch and decide where I would set up my tripod the next morning. Upon arrival, we ran into several nice tourists like ourselves, and one of them even took our picture with Joyce’s iPhone. You can see that on my Facebook page, if you like. I immediately found my preferred vantage point where I could capture the best view of the valley through the arch. On the way back to Moab, Joyce timed the trip at exactly 47 minutes, an important piece of information to help place me at the site the next morning at the appropriate time.

That evening I set my alarm for 5:15 A.M., which would put me at Mesa Arch around 6:15 if I allowed myself 15 minutes to get dressed and on the road. Everything worked out the next morning and I pulled into the trailhead parking lot around 5:20 A.M. in the pitch dark. Unfortunately, there was already a van and a car in the lot. Wow!

I donned my headlamp and proceeded down the trail, much of which was what the locals refer to as “slick rock,” which are huge expanses of solid rock on which trails can only be marked with rock stacks or “cairns.” I followed the cairns down to the site, only getting confused one time, and eventually made it to the arch, which is perched at the edge of a mesa with a certain-death drop on its other side.

As I suspected, there were headlamps everywhere and soon I was interacting with a group of about seven German filmakers and photographers. It didn’t take much to see what they had planned so I asked, “Are you filming that guy while he photographs the arch?” The director said, “Yes, that is exactly what we are doing.” I was disappointed to see that the main photographer had his tripod set up exactly at the spot where I had planned to place mine. It was still dark so he was just making adjustments and talking with the rest of the group. I joked that I didn’t make it there early enough and he said, “No, no, you will just interlock your tripod legs with mine and we will photograph from the same location.” Soon I was talking and joking with the entire group, and I learned that this was their third trip from Germany to photograph Mesa Arch. They also explained that by the time the arch began “glowing,” as demonstrated in the featured image, there would likely be up to 100 people standing around us!

It was then that I realized that nobody can ever have Mesa Arch to themselves at sunrise, on any day of the year. Even in the middle of January, when it is well below freezing, I could be assured that a throng of photographers would be standing diligently, waiting for the arch to blaze with morning light.

As the first traces of sunrise began to reveal the canyon and buttes through the window of the arch, several photographers came up from behind us and began setting up their tripods. A nice man from Virginia asked if he could set up next to me, and we worked it out where he could be as close as possible without interfering with my shot. I could tell that he and his friends were pros and had been there many times before. Instead of being pushy about me having the “perfect position” they offered advice to maximize my chances for a great shot. Usually, I’m not very interested in “advice” but these guys were really gracious and obviously experienced at capturing Mesa Arch at sunrise.

As the valley began to glow with light, I lost track of the crowd behind me and began to click my shutter. When the sunburst or sun star occurred as the sun struck the edge of the arch, I couldn’t believe how many shutter clicks I heard. I looked up from my camera, and realized that I was surrounded by more than 50 people, many with tripods, enjoying the same morning sunrise over Mesa Arch.

Just as the sight was at its best, the arch glowing bright red from the rising sun, a man began crawling on his knees toward the opening to get a closer shot. “Don’t even think about it!” were the words from the man to my left. The embarrassed encroacher looked up to argue his case, but he didn’t have a chance as all of the photographers glared at him. Next, the “enforcer” next to me told the fellow that he could come over and take a few shots from our premium viewpoint, and even use his tripod if he liked. The code of photography at Mesa Arch was becoming clear to me. Everybody was civil and helpful, as long as you didn’t try to cross the line! It made me think about duck hunting and how I wished that my fellow waterfowlers were better about following the same such code.

At around 8:15 A.M. the sun was illuminating the arch with its greatest intensity. I realized that I had been standing in my spot for over two hours and my feet were feeling it. Soon after that, the image began to lose its impact and I decided it was time to give up my position. I turned around to the still growing crowd of people and said, “I’m leaving now; would somebody like my spot?” You can only imagine the response. I jokingly told the first man to make it to my position that I required $50 to relinquish the stake. Perhaps, I waited a second too long before telling him I was kidding.

As I began to walk around to other vantage points, occasionally photographing but mostly talking to other visitors from all over the U.S. and the world, my feet began to feel better. It had been a great sunrise and everybody was in a good mood. After all, we all knew that we were standing at one of the most beautiful places in the world. Finally, I headed back up the trail to the parking lot, wondering along the way how I ever could have missed one of my turns coming down earlier in the dark.

When I made it back to the parking lot, I was greeted by a huge gathering that I can only describe as a “tailgate party.” A table was set up between two vans and it was covered with bagels, fruit, juice, coffee and other breakfast delicacies. I said, “Are you guys having a tailgate party?” They responded “Why not?” and offered me a bite. They explained that they all had been Rhodes’s Scholars and had kept up with each other over the years, frequently making trips to iconic sites such as Mesa Arch.

Finally, I loaded my gear and headed back to Moab to join Joyce for a proper breakfast. Yes, Joyce decided to sleep in that morning and I couldn’t blame her after sleeping in a tent in the high desert for the previous two days. Later, as we sat in downtown Moab for breakfast, she listened to my story about my crazy morning at Mesa Arch and all of my new German friends. I was likely rambling beyond what was necessary to get the point across, but she listened intently for the duration. That’s what wives do.

Thanks for looking,


Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images:  DannyBrownPhotography.Com







16 comments on “Mesa Arch (Canyonlands National Park)”

  1. Awesome vista – Sounds like you and Joyce had an awesome adventure 🙂

  2. Nice!! Love the story. Sounds like you guys are truly enjoying retirement  I really want to visit Arches. Now I want to go to Canyon lands too!!!

    Sent via the Samsung GALAXY S® 5, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  3. Beautiful picture, can’t wait to see more. Don’t need to tell you to have a wonderful time, I can see that happening in your account of the trip.

  4. Wow. What a fascinating story. It is so wonderful to “travel” along with you on your fantastic adventures.

  5. A spectacular photo and wonderful cooperation among the photographers. Thanks so much.

  6. Thanks for personalizing the experience so graphically.

  7. Thanks for sharing your account and images of one of the most beautiful places on earth! Just think about how many people that spot has given hope and joy to.

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab®4

  8. Danny, Loved your story, and very detailed explanation of your morning travels to the Arch. I dream of doing a night time lapse there some day.

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