Revisiting Mesa Arch

January 12, 2024  |  Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

A quick Google image search for Mesa Arch, easily the most popular feature in Canyonlands National Park, will bring up no shortage of spectacular sunrise photos. Often, the sun has just risen over the La Sal Mountains, in the distance, and the photographer has gotten a sunstar somewhere under the arch. The underside of the arch usually appears to be glowing a vivid orange. It's a stunningly beautiful location and one I couldn't wait to get to so I could put my own stamp on it.

Mesa Arch in Moab, Utah, frames the La Sal Mountains, Washer Woman Arch, Monster Tower, and Airport Tower, at sunrise on a summer morning.
Dawn at Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch in Moab, Utah, frames the La Sal Mountains, Washer Woman Arch, Monster Tower, and Airport Tower, at sunrise on a summer morning.

In August of 2015, I spent a week in Moab visiting Arches National Park, but I also spent a couple days in Canyonlands. Unfortunately, I only left myself one sunrise at Mesa Arch. I rose early to drive to Mesa Arch from my hotel in Moab, and luckily, I was the first one there. The arch is a popular sunrise spot among photographers, and it gets crowded, so I was happy to be first so I could pick the exact composition I wanted and stake out my spot before others showed up. It's not unusual to see two or three rows of photographers elbowing each other trying to make their images.

It had been raining steadily my entire drive to the arch, and I was afraid I wasn't going to get anything. But as I said, it was the only morning I had to photograph sunrise there, so I hoped for the best. Rain passes through the desert quickly and usually doesn't last that long, so I was hoping it would clear out just in time for some magic. It did stop raining as I pulled into the parking lot, so it seemed that maybe things would work out.

Once I picked my spot and set up, the hordes of other photographers weren't far behind. For the most part, people were courteous. The guy next to me didn't know how his camera worked, and kept popping the flash, which ruined a few early exposures before the light got good, and other photographers who wanted similar compositions all seemed to be playing some weird game of Twister in trying to occupy the same real estate as one or more other photographers. But thankfully, the morning I was there, there were no fights, and everyone was pretty courteous, unlike some stories I've heard.

Once I was set up, it was just a matter of waiting and hoping. I could see a break sort of materializing on the horizon, so I hoped it would be enough to allow the sun to shine through, for at least a few moments. This is one of those times, where as a photographer, I had to put all my eggs in one basket, and hope I'd chosen the right composition. There wouldn't be a second chance at this image not anytime soon.

As the light began to come up and we entered blue hour, some color started to fill in the clouds just behind the mountains. It was just a bit at first, but slowly got to the point where soft pastel hues of pink, yellow, and orange filled in beneath the arch. I snapped away, making sure my settings were correct and trying my best to manage the exposure, since the sky beneath the arch had grown brighter than the arch itself and I wanted to be sure I didn't over- or underexpose the photo in the wrong spots.

Just as quickly as the color arrived, the clouds moved in and turned the scene to gray again. There was one other hope for a break, but it didn't really materialize. I hung around for some time, hoping against hope something would happen, but eventually, it began a light rain again so I packed up and made my way back to the hotel.

Fast forward eight and a half years. I had edited a few of the images I made that morning, but none of them ever really captured the way it felt that day, or the way it looked, to be honest. It was a difficult scene to work, and the fleeting color only made it more difficult. I'd never really been happy with my edits. Then, this past week, I was going through old images to send to my agent when I came across these images again. I decided to try and edit them again, using new skills and techniques I've learned over the years. The result is the image you see above, and also two other images from Canyonlands, that you can see below. It makes me want to get back there soon!

The Abajo mountains are visible in the distance with Monument Basin in the foreground at Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Island In The Sky

The Abajo mountains are visible in the distance with Monument Basin in the foreground at Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

The late day sun carves shadows into the vista from Grand View Point trail in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.
Canyonlands

The late day sun carves shadows into the vista from Grand View Point trail in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.