The American West conjures images of soaring red rock mesas, otherworldly red sandstone formations, and rippled red sand with cactus, wildflowers and animals.
Though popular for Western movies long before color film, the region around Moab, Utah, became a magnet once Kodak splashed all that red across the big screen. Today it’s a hub for recreation and tourism with Arches NP the centerpiece for red rock desert in all its glory. In addition to more than 2,000 of its namesake natural arches, Arches is a riot of great landscape photo and recreational opportunities.
Arches is a relatively small park by any standard. You can drive from the entrance to the loop at the end of the road in half an hour or so with the max speed limit of only 45 mph in open areas. That’s a theoretical driving time however, due to the character of the park. Many signature locations are visible from the road and it’s virtually impossible to make the drive without stopping. And stopping often!
If you’re inclined to walk a bit, many stops feature short improved trails for closer visits to the structures. If you’re inclined to walk further there are longer trails too. The round trip from the Devils Garden Trailhead to Dark Angel Arch is roughly six miles, but along the way you’ll be treated to Tunnel, Pine Tree, Landscape, Partition, Wall, Navajo, Private, and Double O arches.
In fact, most trails are clearly marked and well maintained simply to encourage visitors to use them rather than striking out cross country. Belying the rugged nature of the terrain, the soil is surprisingly fragile and subject to damage from casual walking.
A critical feature in much of the area is a dark, irregular surface on the ground called “cryptobiotic” crust. It is actually a complex of bacteria, mosses, lichens, algae, and cyanobacteria that not only stabilizes the sandy soil against wind, but also provides a foothold for plants while helping retain moisture and nutrients for their growth.
Casual steps that break up the crust cause long term damage taking as long as 250 years to repair. If you want to explore beyond the established trails it’s important to avoid damaging the cryptobiotic soil. You can manage to avoid it in many places by sticking to the bottoms of sandy washes and exposed rock as you walk, but you have to pay attention to your foot placement and sometimes wend a circuitous path to reach your destination.
While you could easily “cover” Arches in a day, there is every photographic reason to extend your stay and explore beyond the bounds of the roads and parking lots, while also returning to the familiar icons at different times of day.
Not only is the light better early and late in the day, the crowds are thinned. I find that most casual visitors don’t arrive till well after sunrise even as they may linger to watch the sunset, making early morning the premium time for views without people. But if you’re a dedicated travel photographer that likes to include people in your shots, count on lots of opportunities at popular locations throughout the body of the day.
With adjustments in your clothing and daily routine for the season, Arches is a compelling location twelve months per year. Especially in spring summer and fall, you need to recognize that remaining for the best evening light will return you to Moab long after most restaurants have closed. The great colors in the sky provide incredible silhouettes in the terrain long after a late sunset.
We fall into a routine of eating lunch as our main meal, whether from the ample supplies in our vehicle or with a quick trip back to Moab to a favorite restaurant. Evening meals are more often a “sack dinner” from our daypacks, followed by a headlamp-illuminated hike back to the road.
Temperatures can soar from May through October, so it’s important always to carry and consume an ample supply of water whether hiking or simply riding in your car. Sunscreen is mandatory in the high desert air and bright sun of course, but frequent breaks in the shade will add to your comfort while extending the hours you can endure away from air conditioning.
If you can manage it however, I find the photo opportunities are better and the crowds thinner if I visit in the “off” season from September through March or so. The temperatures are moderated, even cold in winter, and you won’t have to contend with crowds as in the peak season. With the shorter days it’s also possible to enjoy morning and evening light while not losing sleep, and even managing to find restaurants that are still open.
I’ve used virtually every form of photographic gear in Arches, ranging from 4x5, 6x7 and 35mm film to the most advanced and the most basic of contemporary digital cameras. If you recognize and work with the strengths and weaknesses of each, you’ll always find great photo subjects in Arches.
Having said that, your strategy for framing and exposing shots will be driven by your gear. Extreme wide-angle lenses for example can show “too much” terrain around a feature and make it seem small unless you get close enough to fill the frame with it. But that same wide-angle lens has a built-in advantage few recognize. It has the potential for very great depth of field, allowing you to keep in focus everything from your feet to the horizon when using smaller apertures.
Where’s the advantage in that? You can lower your shooting position and use the foreground features to block out things like roads, parking lots and other people by “hiding” them behind bushes, rocks, even small folds in the land. Your photos will show both the details of the foreground and the dramatic red rock formations further up in the frame while leaving out everything in between. Following rain showers when the potholes in rocks fill with water, you can also get down low with your wide-angle lens to create dramatic and interesting double images showing both the formation in the background and its reflection in the water close at hand.
It’s an advantage for such shooting to have a tripod that gets really low to the ground, but I’ve done about as well with wide-angle lenses simply by resting the camera right on the ground close to a puddle or wildflower, then adjusting my depth of field to make sure that both the puddle or wildflower and the background formation are in sharp focus.
Especially in midday light another camera feature or accessory will be a great help for photographs of people. It might sound crazy to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but if you add a strobe or turn on your camera’s built-in strobe, within it’s range limits it will “fill” or do away with those nasty shadows that often obscure people’s faces even as the landscape turns out fine. I sometimes get strange looks when people see me using a strobe in bright desert sunlight, but the resulting photos get looooong looks from viewers. The results can be that dramatic.
Another important addition to your camera kit is not camera gear at all. It’s a good, comfortable daypack. You need something to comfortably carry both your camera gear, extra food and water as you hike along the trails or cross country. Mornings and evenings can be quite cold in winter, but even the days warm nicely, so it’s always a good idea to carry extra layers of warm clothing when you visit in the off season.
While I enjoy and use good camera packs, most don’t provide enough room for the things I need in addition to my camera gear. If your camera pack won’t hold everything, try lashing the extras outside the pack or even switch to a roomier conventional daypack and use the extra clothing to pad and protect your camera gear.
I’ve been known to spend an entire week in Arches National Park and wish for more time, in spite of its small size. If your time is limited and you hope to see more country in addition to Arches, Moab is still a good center for your exploration. Within reasonable driving distance are Island in the Sky and the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park, Newspaper Rock, Dead Horse Point State Park, Potash Road, the La Sal Mountains, Castle Valley and much more.
For more information about visiting Arches National Park, visit their site at http://www.nps.gov/arch/index.htm . For more information on Canyonlands NP visit their site at http://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm . For info on Dead Horse Point State Park go to http://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse and for a wealth of detail about visiting Moab and the surrounding area go to http://www.discovermoab.com/ .
And last but not least, if you would like detailed advice for photographing specific locations throughout the region I highly recommend Volume 1: Photographing the Southwest by Laurent Martres (link to Amazon.com). It’s ISBN 0-916189-08-02 (v.1) for the book or ISBN 0-916189-10-4 for the CD ROM version. You can find the book also through your local library or book store.
Click the thumbnails to see larger versions of these images. See more images in Hank's album "Arches National Park".