Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mesa Arch Sunrise in Canyonlands

     It may seem like a daunting task, attempting to get an original shot of the Mesa Arch Sunrise.  You’ve seen it in calendars, on motivational posters, in documentaries, during fine art exhibitions, and in countless online images.  The photo is everywhere, but for good reason.  

     It’s truly one of the most outstanding moments of nature that you will ever witness.  The sun coming up over the Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park, filling up the dark twisted canyons thousands of feet below with soft light, illuminating the colors of the eternal desert landscape.  The alpenglow of red morning rays scorch the massive underside of the arch until it looks like it’s burning.  

     A moment later the sun peaks over the horizon in the shape of a dazzling star.  This is a side of the sun that you’ve never seen before; you’ll feel as though you’re meeting it for the first time.  The phenomenon only lasts a matter of minutes, (probably no more than 15 or 20) but it will enthrall you.  It’s so pure, so beautiful, so intense and extraordinary that on dark lonely days you’ll think back to the time you watched that sunrise and it’ll warm your soul from thousands of miles away.  

     The sunrise at Mesa Arch is so popular, you’re going to have to get there before dawn if you want a good chance at photographing it.  It was Saturday, October 27th.  This date wouldn’t be considered the busy season, but the crowds at the Arch would reflect otherwise.  

     There were over 40 photographers at the arch that morning.  It was 22 degrees and Venus was lying low in the Eastern sky.

     This photo won't mean much to anyone except for me.  It’s a silhouette of the Arch just after I got my tripod and camera set up in one of the last remaining spots under the Arch.  

     Here is the same exact spot just as the sun was slowly creeping up into the sky:

     And more sun...

     And then there is more sun.  Before its rays actually crest the La Sal Mountains in the distance, the alpenglow starts.  This light is so fierce and so beautiful that it appears to set the underside of Mesa Arch on fire. 

     But my favorite part is what comes next- when the sun comes up over the horizon.  It becomes wedged between the mountains in the distance and the crest of the arch right in front of you, creating the famed “Star”.

     Though it may seem like a challenge to get a unique shot of this spectacular sight, I promise you won’t be thinking about that when you’re standing there behind your camera.  Though everyone will agree that it’s outstanding, each person sees it in a different way.  Some see the contrast of dark rocks against yellow sky.  Others see all warm tones.  Some see rays behind Washer Woman Arch in the distance.  Some see the alpenglow, others see the star, some will see both.  Some see an intimate view, others will see a vast one.  Just point your camera to whatever seems right, and bring your colors and shapes back to justice in your digital darkroom at home.  

     If you’re like me and get there on a morning where there were so many photographers standing under the arch that our tripods were all intertwined, then the spot that you pick will be the spot that you’re stuck with for the entire sunrise.  Shoot the same frame again and again and watch the light change, or swivel the head of your tripod around to get as much versatility as you can.  You will probably want a wide angle lens.  It’s a challenging but invigorating experience.  Or, learn from my mistake and don’t go on a weekend but perhaps a Monday or a Wednesday during the offseason, and perhaps get lucky enough to have the whole thing to yourself.

     It gets warmer and warmer.

     I was standing in the middle of the arch where the rocks are built up a bit higher than they are on the sides.  Next time I am here I will get a different spot, though I liked the sand at my feet: distant relatives of Mesa Arch, separated by the power of erosion.

     I'm not sure what created these balls of light which I like to call "sunflakes".  It only happened this intensely during this one photo even though I was snapping them every several seconds.  I believe this must have been the moment when the maximum amount of sun shone through.  The rays are at their longest and the orange light under the arch is at its brightest.  

      Thanks to a wide lens (17mm) you’d never guess that there were about 15 people just to my left.

     To capture the best star, set your camera to its smallest aperture, your exposure to long, and your ISO (where it should be for most nature shots) at 100.

     The Star does not last long, the sun rises too quickly.  Just keep shooting.   

     Before you know it the rays are smaller and your star is disappearing.  

     And then it’s over and the sun is officially above the horizon and behind the Arch.  The light is bursting forth into Canyonlands and revealing the mystery of the desert wilderness.  This is a good time to take advantage of the sidelight.  Here is a view of the canyon just to the North of the Arch:

     The Island in the Sky:

     That infamous desert haze, making blue shadows in the distance:

     A nice landscape portrait of me that I like as I sit tired and happy after the early morning’s events:

     I’m not sure this is an especially good photograph but I like the different perspective of Mesa Arch from afar with some fall leaves in the foreground:

     Mesa Arch during mid-morning sun:

     I had it to myself now that the desirable light was dissolved.  But at any time of day, Mesa Arch is still a sight to behold.  I attempted to capture the Star again, only this time it was above the Arch during late morning light:

     Doing a little exploring and loving these ancient trees and interesting desert plants clinging to the edge of the cliffs:

     This is one of my favorite desert trees, the Pinyon Pine.  This one looks dead, but I don’t believe that it is.  Its roots keep it alive.  These are some of the toughest trees on the planet.

     Here I am standing about 30 yards beyond the arch.  Look closely and you can see it from it’s Eastern side.  This gives you a sort of perspective of the geologic marvel that the Arch is.  It holds fast to the edge of the cliff face, a straight thousand foot drop to the bottom of the canyon.  

     Sometimes Canyonlands National Park gets overlooked because of its famous neighbor, Arches National Park.  But it’s more than worth a visit.  The terrain is completely different than Arches, the landscapes more vast, and there is a stillness here that is unrivaled.

     Mesa Arch is a beautiful wonder, one that I recommend everyone should go see.  And if you can, head out into the desert in the dark hours of early morning.  Drive slowly through the flat roads of the Island in the Sky, count the stars as you hike the half mile out to it, and wait for one of the most beautiful sunrises you’ll ever see.




  1. Gorgeous shots, Laura. You have a great eye.

  2. Why thank you. :) I'm glad you like them!