Zion National Park, UT
Zion National Park is truly a remarkable place to visit, hike, enjoy nature and to photograph. One of the most recognizable photo locations in the park is The Watchman Overlook. From the Canyon Junction Bridge looking south you are presented with a romantic view of the great southwest like few other places.
The Watchman Overlook has many wonderful things going for it: the curving Virgin River leading your eye into the distance, beautiful trees lining the riverbed, a rocky riverbed that creates soft wrinkles in the water, a layered mountain range in the distance with The Watchman watching over the scene. And at sunset (or sunrise) you get the glorious red glow of the Watchman’s cliffs and rosy red clouds in the distance.
As with great photographic locations, this iconic scene attracts many participants which can turn an easy shot into a frustrating situation. On a beautiful evening, I have seen as many as 50 photographers crowded onto this narrow bridge - with traffic (including Zion shuttle buses) streaming by.
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). Although the distance to this location is an easy 40yd walk from the parking area – you are shooting off of a narrow bridge that has continuous traffic going by. Always be aware while standing on this bridge.
GPS Coordinates & Elevation
4,024 Ft Elevation
Google Maps Birds-Eye-View
Click link above to view location in Google Earth
CLICK HERE to get driving directions to The Watchman Overlook.
The Watchman Overlook is just north of Springdale, UT (in Zion National Park). From Springdale, drive to the south entrance of Zion National. From there, drive 1.3 miles north on UT9 and you will see a small parking area to the left and a bridge (Canyon Junction Bridge) to the right.
If parking is available, park on the left and walk the 40 yds or so to the bridge overlooking the Virgin River. The view for the Watchman is facing south.
If parking is not available on the left, you can drive past the bridge (heading east on Zion Mount Carmel HWY) for about 400 yds and there are additional parking spaces on the right. If no parking is available there you may have to drive back to the Zion National Park visitors center and catch the shuttle back up to the Canyon Junction (the third shuttle stop) and walk back the 100 yds or so.
Best Time of Day to Shoot
The classic Watchman shot is at sunset as the red glow of the late sun paints the right side of Watchman peak and the clouds . However, in the fall you can also get a nice shot at sunrise as the sun will paint the left side of the peak.
Important: there is only space for about 10-15 photographers on the bridge overlooking the Virgin River at a time. And really only 2 to 3 premium spots to get the : 1) S curve of the river, 2) the tree to the right of the river and 3) the mountain to all line up. Depending on the time of the year you will need to arrive between 1 and 3 hours before sunset to get a premium spot. For sunrise, there are usually less photographers there but I would arrive at least a half hour before sunrise to get the premium spot.
Also, you will be standing on a narrow bridge with traffic (including the Zion shuttle buses) going by the whole time you are shooting. It is extremely important to be aware of your surroundings while on the bridge.
Best Time of Year to Shoot
You can shoot The Watchman in the spring, summer, or fall. However, the VERY best time is in the fall (last week in October to the first week in November), as the crowds are greatly reduced and the trees, brush, and foliage are yellow, golden, and red.
What Lens(es) Do You Need
You will mainly be shooting with a wide angle lens (16mm – 35mm).
Once you have paid for the admission into Zion National Park, there are no permits required.
Direction of the Shot
The direction of the shot is south @ 180°.
Special Nuances of Shot
From a composition standpoint, this shot is as straightforward as they come - as you simply set up a tripod on a bridge and point your camera and shoot. With that being said, this shot is all about the light, the clouds, the color of the trees lining the Virgin River and the crowds. The first three elements will greatly affect the fourth.
From an exposure standpoint, the dynamic range between the brush and the bright sky is extreme and you will most likely need to bracket and blend images to get the exposure right. The shot above is a blending of 2 exposures.
Be patient with timing of this shot - and wait until the late glow on the side peaks and Watchman peak before taking the picture.
Special Equipment Needed
Other than a tripod, there is no need for any special photography equipment unless you plan on doing a panoramic shot. I rarely use a polarizer for landscapes (as the polarizing affect is not consistent throughout the sky). However, you might consider using a polarizer to remove the reflection of the Virgin River and to help "pop" the colors during the fall season.
You may also want to consider a tilt/shift lens to compensate for the slight keystone effect while pointing down toward the river.
Number of Other Photographers to Expect
This spot is one of the more popular spots for photographers in the park. On a beautiful weekend evening you will see upward of 40 tripods planted against the railing of the bridge waiting for the setting sun. There are only 3- 5 premium spots to get the S curve of the Virgin river, the overhanging tree lined up just right with the Watchman.
Zion is known for a wide range of weather conditions. Temperatures in the summer can exceed 100° and get below freezing in winter. Temperatures vary with changes in elevation and the day/night temperatures may differ by up to 30°. The most important thing to be aware of is the possibility of flash floods. They come quick and can be deadly.
I use Verizon, and there is cell service in The Watchman overlook.
The Watchman overlook is just north of Springdale, which is a GREAT little town on the south entry point to Zion National Park and has an abundance of nice lodging and outstanding eating establishments.
There are two nice campsites just inside the south entry to the park (just north of Springdale): South campground and Watchman campground. The South Campgrounds have 117 campsites on a first-come basis. The Watchman Campground has 175 campsites and can be reserved up to six months prior to your arrival date online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Reservations are strongly suggested: The campground is full every night during the reservation season.
There is also an excellent RV Park call Zion River Resort, with campground and cabins located in Virgin, UT, just by the Kolob Terrace Road turnoff of UT-9 to get to the Left Fork Trailhead. It’s a very nice place with a grill and self-service, coin-operated laundry mat.
Nearby camping and lodging
Camping - click on the campground below for directions
Lodging - click on the lodging below for a TripAdvisor review
Desert Pearl Inn
707 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Cable Mountain Lodge
147 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale
1127 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
As mentioned, Springdale is a GREAT little town with no shortage of excellent restaurants and brewpubs. I have my favorites for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For breakfast, I split time between Oscar's Café and Meme's Café. For lunch, Oscar's Café and Cafe Soleil are always good. For dinner, the Spotted Dog Café and King’s Landing Bistro are good choices. Again, there is no shortage of good dining in Springdale.
Nearby Restaurants - click on the restaurant below for yelp review
The Spotted Dog
428 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
948 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
205 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Hurricane, UT
849 Zion – Mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT
Other Photography Opportunities Around
The closest airport to Zion National Park is in Las Vegas, NV. McCarran International Airport (LAS) services most of the major airlines in the US.
Area Guides and Workshops
If you were looking for a photography guide for a trip in Zion – I would recommend Enlighten Photography Excursions. Seth Hamel is based out of Springdale/Zion and knows the park and canyons very well. He is a super nice guy and an excellent guide/instructor.
Enlighten Photography Excursions
The Photographer's Ephemeris is a very valuable tool for landscape photographers to determine the direction of the sunrise/sunset & moonrise and 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.
Here is a link to a great resource for all things Zion National Park (Joe Braun’s Zion National Park visitor’s website).