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.
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.
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.
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.
I just love pulling out detail of distant objects and composing them using the telephoto lens.
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.
The canyon walls lit up at sunset and made many interesting patterns to try to combine into a quality image.
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.
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!
I also wanted to get a more zoomed in view of the arch, which I thought turned out nicely. Nothing special though!
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.
I also did a cropped version if you prefer it... let me know which one you like more!
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!
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!