Matt Payne Photography Blog: Maiden Voyage To Canyonlands National Park - A Landscape Photography Adventure - January 28, 2020

It is a bit silly to think that I have been seriously engaged in landscape photography for over a decade and up until this month I had never been to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which is a short 3.5 hour drive from my home here in Durango, Colorado. I think there has always been a cloud of negative energy in my mind surrounding the National Parks due to all of the news and stories I have heard about over-visitation, especially to iconic locations within the park system. I am fully aware that Canyonlands is still one of the least popular National Parks as compared to its close neighbor Arches National Park; however, I had always avoided going due to this mental block of images of being surrounded by tourists. It is not like being surrounded by other photographers is anything new to me - I have been surrounded by other photographers many times, including in Iceland, in Portland Oregon during the cherry blossom blooms, at Multnomah Falls, and countless other iconic spots. It is honestly why I am always talking negatively about iconic locations - the experience of photographing them is never a positive one for me. 

Well, fast forward to 2020 and I felt ready to try out Canyonlands. I decided to head to Moab to do some winter camping with my 12-year-old son. We decided to camp near the Green River Overlook. My first impression: what a place!

After setting up camp we decided to start our trip off at the Grand Overlook in the Island in the Sky area of the Park. The views from this area are immense, immersive, and incredible. One could literally photograph this view for hours using a telephoto lens to pick out various compositions in the changing light. And so we did.

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A Canyonlands Perspective (2020)

The depth and breadth offered by various viewpoints in Canyonlands National Park are jaw-dropping, especially in winter. The scale of this place is hard to convey through photographs, even a panorama like this one. Millions of years of erosion from wind and water creates this desert landscape which is a feast for the eyes. Utah is lucky to have such a wonderful collection of vistas.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I really enjoyed my first evening photographing in Canyonlands. The views offered from the Grand View Overlook were really fun and engaging. I used my Sony 100-400 lens to pick out all kinds of details in the distant scenes before me. I probably have a billion more compositions but I really enjoyed the above one for its depth and scale. After photographing here, we hiked a bit down the edge of the canyon and I found myself perched under a shallow overhang at the very end of the last light of the day to capture the below image. What an impressive light show on the canyon walls! I photographed that scene with the versatile Sony 24-105, one of my favorite pieces of glass. 

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Grand View of the White Rim (2020

A winter sunset from the Grand View of Canyonlands in Utah featuring the White Rim.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After photographing that magical scene it was time to retire to warm campfire and cold beer. We awoke the next morning to frost on the inside of our tent but I was ready to go! I was excited to photograph the Green River Overlook which was just a few steps away from our campsite. How awesome. The early light at blue hour from this spot is truly magical. I could stare at this one for a long time. It is another panoramic stitch using the Sony 100-400 lens

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Green River Sunrise Panorama (2020)

On my maiden voyage to Canyonlands National Park, I found myself really excited to see the vast grand scenics offered by the Island in the Sky area overlooking the Green River. The pastel colors seen just before sunrise were quite magical. I love Utah in the winter!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

There are a lot of photographic scenes of interest in such a small area here, and I enjoyed as many as possible in the great light we experienced at sunrise. 

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Black Tree Sunrise (2020)

This black tree was a really cool featuring to find in Canyonlands near the Green River Overlook. The early light kissed the canyon walls and made the sky glow pink and purple before sunrise. What a magnificent view of Utah!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I just love pulling out detail of distant objects and composing them using the telephoto lens. 

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Panoramic Desert View (2020)

The vistas from the Green River Overlook in Canyonlands National Park in Utah are incredible. Distant mountains tower above large cliffs and a rock feature known as Cleopatra's Chair at sunrise.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After enjoying this awesome sunrise, we retreated back to our campsite for some well-earned breakfast. I cooked up my traditional alpine hash browns and eggs for everyone which is always a lot of fun. After breakfast, we decided to go for a hike near Upheaval Dome nearby. My son had a great time in the desert!

After we hiked around for awhile, we scouted around for sunset and found an awesome spot with several I liked. The area we found had great views in three directions with many features to keep our brains working overtime to find something to photograph. I really enjoyed photographing sunset here.

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A Canyonlands Sunset Panorama (2020)

After a vigorous hike near Grand View Point in the Island of the Sky area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, I was struck with awe by this view of the La Sal Mountains and Gooseberry Canyon. There's something magical about the light that hits sandstone at the edges of daylight.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

The canyon walls lit up at sunset and made many interesting patterns to try to combine into a quality image. 

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Pink Winter Chill (2020)

Insane desert views, a cool breeze and a pastel pink sunset were my companions on this magnificent evening in winter at Canyonlands National Park.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

The last light of the day ripped through the La Sal Mountains to the east of us and it was great to try to couple that phenomenon with something interesting in the foreground. 

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La Sal Mountains from Canyonlands (2020)

I really enjoyed this vista in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Sunset light provided some really nice color on the rocks, mountains, and clouds. I'm not an expert on the Utah La Sal Mountains, but I believe we are seeing Mount Tukuhnikivatz, Mount Peale, Mount Mellenthin, and Manns Peak. Please send me an email with corrections!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After this, we hiked the two or so miles back to our trucks and retreated to our campsite for the night, enjoying a nice fire with some people from Denver that had camped next to us. OK remember how I said I was not going to photograph Mesa Arch? Well, after looking at the forecast, I decided it was probably the best option for sunset with clear skies predicted. I woke up really early and was the third person to the arch. I set up my tripod right next to a fellow from France who had no idea what I was saying when I introduced myself. Then the madness ensued. One after another, photographers gathered in a straight line in the darkness to witness and photograph one of the most iconic locations in North America. It bothered me a lot less than I thought it would, but being constrained by the fact that I was glued to one position was really unnerving for me. I don't like being constrained in this way. Regardless, I think I executed the scene well, adding almost nothing new to the hordes of images that have come before mine; but damn, it does look good with that Zeiss Loxia 21 sunstar!

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Mesa Arch Panorama at Sunrise (2020)

Photographing Mesa Arch at sunrise is a rite of passage for most landscape photographers. I talk about my dread of going to this location on my podcast all of the time. It is notorious for its large lines of photographers that set-up well before sunrise to get a chance at seeing the sunrise light up the under side of the arch. While the experience of photographing Mesa Arch was about what I expected, it was nice to run into some people that recognized me. There were some great people here this morning photographing this iconic scene. I can see why people like it. What a beautiful place.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I also wanted to get a more zoomed in view of the arch, which I thought turned out nicely. Nothing special though!

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Mesa Arch Glow (2020)

Photographing Mesa Arch at sunrise is a rite of passage for most landscape photographers. I talk about my dread of going to this location on my podcast all of the time. It is notorious for its large lines of photographers that set-up well before sunrise to get a chance at seeing the sunrise light up the under side of the arch. While the experience of photographing Mesa Arch was about what I expected, it was nice to run into some people that recognized me. There were some great people here this morning photographing this iconic scene. I can see why people like it. What a beautiful place.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

One thing to note that really bothered me about this location. Someone or someones before us had really torn the sandstone up with their microspikes. The sandstone was totally destroyed! Not only did this careless act leave nasty marks on the rock, it also will likely permanently damage the sandstone for longer than any of us are alive. I am sure the person that did this was not thinking about the ramifications of wearing metal spikes on their boots before they left their car for the day, only thinking of how they would protect themselves from busting their ass on the icy trail (which is legit, by the way). This is why I want to keep spreading the word of the Nature First Photography movement. If this visitor had employed the knowledge of Principle #3, Reflect on the possible impact of your actions, it would have made a huge difference. 

After Mesa Arch, we head back to our campsites, packed up, and then drove into Moab. I decided to capture this scene as a panorama, which was a common theme for this trip.

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Sandstone Glow Panorama (2020)

Pillars of sandstone rise triumphantly above the canyon floor near Moab, Utah at sunset in this panoramic rendition of a grand scenic landscape featuring the La Sal Mountains in the distance.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I also did a cropped version if you prefer it... let me know which one you like more!

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Mount Peale & Sandstone Pillars (2020)

The La Sal Mountains including Mount Peale rise above a hillside filled with sandstone pillars near Moab, Utah at sunset.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After this, we head back to our hotel room in Moab, enjoyed some football and cheap Mexican food from Giliberto's Taco Shop, and hit the sack. We woke up really early the next morning and tried our luck at Dead Horse Point State Park, another sunrise destination. I don't think any of my images from this trip are ground breaking but it was fun to photograph a new location and get a feel for it. Next time I go I will be looking for more unique vantages and compositions. I hope you enjoyed the ride!

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Dead Horse Point State Park at Sunrise (2020)

Dead Horse Point State Park at sunrise in winter is a peaceful desert destination featuring the Colorado River and a lot of amazing sandstone cliffs, Juniper trees, and grand vista scenes for miles.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We had really nice sunset light too and I felt like it was a great time to be in the desert in winter. 

That concludes my trip report from my maiden voyage as a landscape photographer into Canyonlands National Park. Which images were your favorites? I'd love to see your comment below!

Posted in Trip Reports and tagged National Park, Winter, Desert.