Canyonlands National Park, UT
The Mesa Arch is the “crown jewel” of the Canyonlands National Park. It is truly one of the great wonders of the southwest and provides a view you will never see anywhere else in the world.
What makes the Mesa Arch so special is the combination of several improbable events coming together at the same spot. First, you have an oddly placed arch teetering on the ledge of a 1,000ft. vertical drop. Then you have this magical red glow that only appears under the arch for the first hour or so after sunrise. And finally, you have this unworldly view of Buck Canyon with its moon-like floor and perfectly placed monuments. All of this topped with a spectacular view of the rugged White Rim and the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
When you first see the red glow under the arch at sunrise you cannot help but to be astonished, and looking around you ask yourself, “How did this happen?”
Trail Difficulty (2 out of 5)
I would rate the difficulty of this trail as a 2 on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being most difficult). The hike to the Mesa Arch is a moderate ¼ mile hike from the parking lot. The trail is well maintained and well marked.
GPS Coordinates & Elevation
Google Maps Birds-Eye-View
Click link above to view location in Google Earth
CLICK HERE to get driving directions to the Mesa Arch parking lot.
The Mesa Arch is located in the Island in the Sky District of the Canyonlands National Park. The closest town is Moab, UT (50 miles). The directions are from Moab, UT.
From Moab: Travel northwest on US-191for 11 miles until you reach the entrance to the Canyonlands National Park. At this point, take a left on UT-313 and drive west and then south 27.5 miles. On your left you will see the Mesa Arch trailhead parking lot. You will pass the Island in the Sky Visitor Center @ 20.4 miles.
From the Mesa Arch parking lot, follow the well-marked trail for about 0.3 mile until you reach the Mesa Arch. Just after starting on the trail, there is a split (straight or left). The trail is actually a loop, meaning you can go either way and end up at Mesa Arch. To keep it simple, I always stay straight on the trail.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
The Mesa Arch is a sunrise shot! At sunrise, the sun reflects off the red rocks below the arch and creates one of the most amazing sites you will ever see. The red glow from under the arch lasts for about an hour.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
This shot can be taken any day of the year. The only requirement is the sun not being blocked by clouds.
In the winter months, the sun rises all the way to the right of the arch. During the months of May through August, the sun comes up on the left side of the arch and is blocked by the distant ridge for the first several minutes after sunset. The best months are March, April, September, or October, when the sun rises just to the right of the “washer woman” monument in the distance.
My favorite time is when there aren’t a gazillion people there.
What Lens(es) Do You Need
There are many compositions available for this shot. You can use lenses ranging from 11-50mm. The arch is about 25ft. across and you will be standing about 5-7ft. from it.
The Mesa Arch is in the Canyonlands National Park and an entrance fee (good for 7 days) is required ($25). It can be purchased at the visitors’ station.
Direction of the Shot
The direction of the shot is mainly east @ 100°.
Special Nuances of Shot
This shot can be easy or difficult, depending on your composition, what time of day you shoot, and how many other tourists/photographers are with you at the arch.
Generally, photographers shoot this at sunrise. Depending on what time of year, you could be one of 30 people trying to crowd into a fairly small area. Some tourists can be pushy and downright rude. Just make sure you arrive early, stay focused, and stand your ground.
From a photography standpoint, it is almost impossible to shoot this at sunrise and not blend or HDR the image. The dynamic range of the arch and looking directly into the sun is extreme.
You can shoot the arch from straight on, to the right, to the left, or even a panoramic. I would suggest you scout the location the day before to find your composition. Because once other photographers arrive, there is little positioning.
NOTE: The arch will glow for 1 1/2 to 2 hours after sunrise - so it is not imperative to arrive for sunrise. In fact, the best shots happen about an hour after sunrise, when the early crowds are gone.
Special Equipment Needed
Other than a tripod, no special photography equipment is needed unless you plan on doing a panoramic shot. If you arrive 2-3 hours before sunrise, I would suggest bringing food and drinks.
Number of Other Photographers to Expect
The Mesa Arch is a very popular destination for tourists and photographers. I have seen upward of 50 tourists/photographers at the arch at sunrise, and it can be a madhouse.
The arch is only about 25ft. across and there are only about 3-5 premium spots for photographing the sunrise. If you want one of the premium spots for sunrise, you will need to arrive 2-3 hours before sunrise.
If you miss sunrise, don’t be too upset. The red glow under the arch lasts for about an hour after sunrise, and you can still get a great shot once the sunrise crowd is done.
The Mesa Arch is in the Island in the Sky District, which is a high desert climate where temperatures can vary up to 40° in a day. Spring and fall are nice, but summer can get into the 100s. The monsoon season (in late summer) brings violent but brief thunderstorms, which often cause flash floods.
I use Verizon, and there is LIMITED cell service at this location. Cell service is spotty in the Canyonlands Park and is not a strong signal until you get back to Moab.
The Mesa Arch is deep in a remote section of the Canyonlands National Park, and the nearest town is Moab (50 miles). Moab is a nice town and has an abundance of lodging.
The closest campsite to Mesa Arch is the Willow Flat Campground (1.5 miles west) by the Green River Overlook. This little campground has 12 sites and is available year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Sites are $15 per night.
There is also a campsite at the Dead Horse State Park (17 miles north and then east). The Dead Horse campground has 20 sites (17 standard partial hookups and 3 yurt). Sites are $15 per night.
Nearby camping and lodging
Camping - click on the campground below for directions
Willow Flat Campground (1.5 miles west by the Green River Overlook)
Kayenta Campground (17 miles north - Dead Horse Point)
Horsethief Campsite (16 miles north back toward Moab just past turnoff to Dead Horse Point State Park)
Cowboy Campsite (15 miles north back toward Moab just past turnoff to Dead Horse Point State Park)
Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review
Red Cliffs Lodge
Mile Post 14 Hwy 128, Moab, UT
INCA Inn and Motel
570 N Main St, Moab, UT
100 W 200 S, Moab, UT
There are no restaurants or lodges in the park. Moab, UT, is the nearest town (50 miles) and has a nice choice of restaurants. There are several good places to eat in Moab. Eklecticafé is a nice place for breakfast and the Desert Bistro is a high-end place for dinner.
Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review
36 S 100 W, Moab, UT
352 N Main St, Moab, UT
Twisted Sista's Cafe
11 E 100 N, Moab, UT
The closest laundry mat is - Moab Laundry Express LLC @ West 100 North, Moab, UT. Open 24 hours and has Wifi.
Other Photography Opportunities Around
The closest airport is Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), which is 230 miles west and services most of the major airlines in the US. Walker Field (GJT) in Grand Junction Colorado (110 miles north and then east), is a small regional airport and services United Express, SkyWest/Delta, and America West Express/Mesa Airlines.
Area Guides and Workshops
The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise/moonset from any place on earth on any day (past and future). Click here to take you to The Photographer's Ephemeris for this location.