Photographing Mesa Arch at Sunrise
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Watching the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park is a magical experience. Utah’s most photographed arch sits perched on a rock ledge and perfectly frames the surrounding canyons, jutting rock formations and the Le Sal mountain range in its backdrop. Our morning hike to watch the renowned Mesa Arch sunrise was one most breathtaking sights we saw on our road trip through Utah.
For those of you planning a Mesa Arch sunrise trek, we wanted to share our experience and tips for enjoying and photographing a sunrise at Mesa Arch.
Perched on the edge of a 500 foot cliff, Mesa Arch overlooks Buck Canyon and the dramatic Canyonlands landscape below with the La Sal Mountains in the distance. With its stunning backdrop the arch is the most photographed in Utah and is instantly recognizable to most visitors.
Mesa Arch is located in the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park and is reached via a short half mile hike form the Mesa Arch Parking Lot.
What’s so Magical about Mesa Arch at Sunrise?
The sun rises from behind Mesa Arch and, as it reaches the level of the arch, the reflections of the sun beams create a magical starburst effect under the arch. Most photographers are drawn to Mesa Arch for this signature sunrise shot of the starburst sun and the warm golden glow it casts on the inside of the arch.
As soon as i saw the images I was hooked on seeing it for myself and, it was for this reason, I made my way there in the dark on a cold November morning!
Is a Mesa Arch sunrise worth the early start?
In a word, yes! Mesa Arch and its backdrop are magnificent throughout the day but the sunbeam effect makes sunrise a truly magical experience.
The downside is that Mesa Arch is a magnet for photographers and sunrise chasers. On most mornings it is common to see a crowd of photographers perched onto the small ledge in front of the arch waiting for sunrise. It can be a bit of a jostle to protect one of the coveted spots with a perfect view of the vista but most are respectful and stay out of each others frame.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: we did a lot of research before our Mesa Arch sunrise visit in November 2019 and loved the experience and the shots we captured. With a little planning, patience and luck (coupled with some of our tips) you should be able to capture this iconic photo too.
How to get to Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch is located in Canyonlands National Park in an area known as Island in the Sky. The Canyonlands Park Entrance is located around 40 minutes drive from Moab, with the Mesa Arch trail head parking lot a further 10 minutes drive into the park. The parking lot at the trail head has space for around 35 to 40 cars.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: most visitors choose to stay in the nearby town of Moab and drive to the park. Moab provides easy access to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park.
The Mesa Arch Trail
The hike to Mesa Arch is a relatively short and easy 0.5 mile looped trail and during the day will take around 15 minutes to reach the Arch from the parking lot. However, if your planning to visit for sunrise you will be hiking in the dark.
If you are visiting in the winter months the area can get heavy snowfalls and severe ice on the trails (which we had) so the short hike can be a little tricky for sunrise.
We found it easiest to make the short hike to Mesa Arch during a daytime visit to Canyonlands so we knew the trail – you can also map the route from the parking lot to the arch so you have an idea of where to go.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: We highly recommend using a headlamp torch when hiking before dawn. Once you reach Mesa Arch there is a small elevated ledge running along beneath the front the arch. It’s unlikely you’ll be the only person at the arch but, if you are, then be aware: it is a 1,300 foot drop to the canyon below.
Photographing Mesa Arch
I get asked this a lot so here’s the details of the photography gear I used:
- Camera and Lens: I used a 16-35mm f4 lens on a Sony A7rII to shoot the sunrise at Mesa Arch. While the 16mm wide angle lens was fine, a wider (i.e. a 12mm or 14mm lens) would give more flexibility when capturing the vista with the entire arch in frame. A photographer beside me on the day had a 12mm ultra wide and the photos were incredible.
- Filters: to help with the starburst photos I used a 3 stop Nisi ND filter. This allowed me to push the exposure time just enough to get the shot while not blowing out the highlights. Due to shadow casts from the rising sun it is worth bracketing your shots. I found a +/- 0.7-1 stop 3 bracket exposure worked best. Then I simply blended the images in Lightroom/Photoshop.
Due to the shape of the arch against in the rising sun there is limited use for graduated filters.
- Polariser: As we visited during the winter I used a circular polariser to remove some of the glare from the snow capped rocks of the arch and canyon below.
- Remote Camera Release: It’s definitely worth having a remote camera release to avoid any camera shake. It is possible to use your cameras built in timer but, as sunrise can sometimes only last a few minutes due to the weather, not using a remote release will cost you some shots.
Tips for Photographing Mesa Arch at Sunrise
Plan ahead to capture the best sunrise shots of Mesa Arch:
1 | Get to Mesa Arch early (really early!)
Mesa Arch is busy at sunrise so you need to get there early if you want to secure a prime photography spot.
Check the sunrise time and aim to arrive at Mesa Arch well in advance:
- Summer: it’s usually even busier in summer so, if you want to grab one of the most coveted spots you’ll need to plan to get there at least 2 or 3 hours in advance.
- Winter: while you will have to contend with changeable and cold weather conditions, there will be considerably less people visiting the park. This means you won’t have to arrive at the arch as early. You may also have the opportunity to photograph the park with a blanket of snow!
- Allow for drive time and hike time: remember to allow around 45 minutes to drive from Moab and another 15 minutes to get to the arch from the parking lot.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: we were there 90 minutes before sunrise during our winter visit and got one of the prime spots. All the good spots were filled about 60 minutes before sunrise.
Due to the structure and location of the arch (it’s a lot smaller that you’d expect and the vantage point is right on the edge of Mesa cliff) there is only enough room on the front row for around 12-14 photographers, with the best spots accounting for 3-4 tripods. If you miss the front row spots it will be difficult to get a good angle for the iconic starburst spot.
2 | Pack a wide angle lens
In order to capture the iconic shot of the sun rising through Mesa Arch you will definitely need a wide angle lens. I used a Sony 16-35mm f4 wide angle lens on a Sony A7rII for my morning shoot at Mesa Arch. I’m happy with my shots but you could benefit from an ultra-wide as you can get closer to the arch.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: while you can take a panorama at Mesa Arch, attempting to do this at sunrise is very challenging. I tried and there were too many photographers taking shots to make the sweeping movement for a panorama possible.
3 | Charge your batteries
This one is easy to overlook but make sure you have spare batteries that are fully charged and ready to go! As you’ll be sitting waiting for the sunrise for a long time chances are you’ll eat up your camera battery more than usual.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: if you visit in the winter your camera will also get extremely cold which can deplete the battery very quickly (especially if you use a Sony camera). So make sure to have a spare or two fully charged in your coat and change it just before sunrise
4 | Take a head torch
While the hike to Mesa Arch is straightforward, if you’re hiking to the arch for sunrise you will be hiking the trail in the pitch dark. Make sure to take a good head torch and ensure it’s charged the night before. You will be thankful you brought it!
5 | Check the weather forecast and sunrise location
The most important planning tip is to know exactly where the sun will rise on the horizon from the perspective of the view under the arch. This changes throughout the year and will dictate where you choose to setup at the arch. We use an app called PhotoPills (Apple / Android) which allows us to know exactly when and where the sun will rise. It was invaluable at Mesa Arch.
We also use some weather apps to plan location shoots at sunrise. The two we recommend are Clear Outside (cloud and humidity forecasts) and the YR.no (weather forecasts) apps. Using these apps you can predict the likelihood of a good sunrise. With these apps, I knew ahead of time that the chances of a god sunrise were slim. Luckily on the day I did get a few minutes of sunshine and got the starburst shot.
6 | Be patient and respectful of other photographers
Despite how the photos look, the arch itself is relatively small. In order to frame the iconic shot of sunrise through the arch, photographers will need to line up close to the edge of the cliff in front of the arch. As a result the best area for photographing Mesa Arch is very small and quickly gets crowded in the run up to sunrise.
In general I had a great experience with the other photographers at Mesa Arch for sunrise. We had various chats in the run-up to sunrise and there was friendly back and forth as we chose our tripod spots and composed our frames. You will be shoulder to shoulder with other photographers and tripod legs will overlap on the front row so it’s worth being careful and patient. There were accidental knocks and bumps but everyone was relaxed about it and it was a fun experience.
Mesa Arch sunrise tip: there were some late arrivals who tried to push ahead of the photographers on the peripherals of the group despite them having been there over an hour earlier in the cold. They did back off when they were called out but I can imagine how frustrating it is to experience.
7 | Bring something to kneel on
A little random but Mesa Arch is low and you will have your tripod set relatively low. This means you’ll either have to hunch or kneel for a while on the rock waiting for the sunrise. I wish I had taken a spare coat or some foam to save my knees!
8 | Winter Visits: Bring layers, gloves and ice grips (for winter visits)
It was extremely cold when we visited Canyonlands in November: I wore 4 or 5 layers for sunrise! It’s definitely worth bringing layers and gloves to allow you to add/remove depending on the temperature. There was also snowfall and significant build ups of ice on the trail so my Yaktrax ice grips were also invaluable.
9 | Hang around after sunrise
One of the things that always blows my mind about sunrise shoots: as soon as the sun rises most people leave straight away and miss tons of good light. The same thing happened at Mesa Arch. After everyone got the starburst shot, they proceeded to leave within 15 minutes.
There are many stunning images to make here after the sun has risen, especially of the canyons below and the arch itself.
10 | Don’t walk on the arch
It goes without saying that it’s forbidden to walk on the arch. It’s an incredible natural wonder so lets keep it that way and stay off it!
11 | Try to stay present and enjoy the view
Don’t just watch the sunrise through your lens. Be present and enjoy the sunrise as much as the photography experience.
The morning I visited we were all resigned during blue hour that sunrise wouldn’t happen due to a low patch of dark cloud. This was actually a good thing as everyone relaxed and just enjoyed the view. Luckily the sun broke through for an incredible 5 minute window that made it all the more magical. I know it sounds cliché but try not to get too caught up in your photo – the view is incredible!
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