Utah has some of the most beautiful national parks and also many within a short distance of each other making it very convenient if you want to visit them all in one trip. This guide will focus specifically on Zion the closest one to Las Vegas should you find yourself there. Zion National Park has some of the most amazing canyons and the contrast between the deep reds and greens of the trees offer great opportunities for photos.
There are plenty of lodges in the immediate vicinity of Zion, a town called Springdale. Unfortunately they are mostly in the $200+ range so for a budget traveler like myself it didn’t make much sense. AirBnbs are plentiful in the nearby towns for about $60+ per night but since I was traveling alone I chose to stay in the nearest hostel which was located in a town called Kanab. The drive is about 45 mins so it will add to your wake up time for sunrise but for about $25-30 it was worth it. Food is cheap as there are many restaurants and supermarkets around. Sidenote: While you can drive the main roads of Zion you are not allowed to drive on Valley of the Floor Road, which leads to many of the trails, unless you’re staying at the main lodge which will run you $400 a night. Thankfully there is a free train that runs regularly from the visitor center where there is free parking. $25 gets you a 7 day pass but keep in mind the park is open at night and there is no one at the toll booths so THEORETICALLY you can enter for free. Theoretically. Now onto the locations!
Junction Bridge is one of the most famous locations to shoot from as it is the first spot you encounter upon entering. This shot faces the mountains known as The Watchmen and is a great sunset location. There are 2 parking lots before and after the bridge but you should still arrive early as it is a popular location and fills up quickly. The best spot is just about the middle of the bridge so you can use the river as a leading line without the trees on the sides obstructing the composition.
I visited Canyon Overlook for sunrise the first morning. The trail lies immediately before or after the tunnel depending on which way you are driving from and there’s a parking lot conveniently located at the base. I usually like to arrive at sunrise locations an hour before in order to set up my time lapses but for this location specifically I would say that’s overkill because of the steep canyons the sun doesn’t technically peak until after “sunrise”. Half an hour before should be good. There is about a 20 minute hike to reach the vista although most guides will tell you its a 45 minute. When you arrive you will see the main view in front of you. This overlook faces the winding road of Zion National Park and so with a properly timed long exposure you can get light trails of cars making their way around the curves. There are several compositions to be made besides the obvious one perhaps using trees or cracks in the rocks as focal points and leading lines. The sun will be rising from behind you so be sure to scout for compositions in the other direction. This is also a good sunset location however I personally didn’t have time to make a return trip.
KOLOB TERRACE ROAD
Kolob Terrace Road technically starts outside the park and winds its way uphill towards park designated territory. The landscapes you encounter on the way up there are similar to Zion so if one wanted to get drone footage to pass off as National Park footage here is where you can fly legally. Located up the road by the Hop Valley Trail Head are the signature hoodoos which are unique rock formations shaped by wind. There are also trails leading up to the Kolob Canyons area but I can’t confirm whether they are photogenic or not since I didn’t make the hike. During my short scouting period I was actually unable to find the hoodoos but from photos I’ve seen they look like great foreground elements for astrophotography. I drove all the way up to the reservoir to see if there were potential waterscape type compositions to be found as well but there was none.
GRAFTON GHOST TOWN
Grafton Ghost Town isn’t actually in the National Park but it’s close enough to warrant a visit. Just outside Springdale there’s a small road that crosses a bridge and leads down to the town. The ghost town is comprised of about 4 buildings though I’m not fully sure which are officially part of it. The cabins make for interesting subjects for long exposure photography and astrophotography if you come during nautical twilight hours.
I’m including Bryce Canyon as a honorable mention in this guide because of its proximity and because I made a stop for sunrise while in the area although you can definitely make dedicated trip out of it. The iconic features of Bryce Canyon are the hoodoos. While there are many hiking trails into the valley of hoodoos I shot only from the vistapoint specifically Sunset Point. There was another spot called Sunrise Point near the rim of the valley but I found shooting Sunset Point at sunrise made for a better wide shot. Even if you are visiting during the warmer seasons I’d advise you to bring warm clothes because due to the elevation and wind it can get quite cold in Bryce.
By far the most famous location in Zion National Park is the Narrows. The Narrows is a trail where you basically hike through a river. Be aware that this trail is often closed because of its susceptibility to flooding which makes it sometimes unhikeable. Information on its access can be found at the visitor center. Obviously since you will be hiking in the water make sure you have waterproof boots which can be rented along with a walking stick. I had my own and used my tripod as a walking stick which I will add is extremely necessary since you can’t see the bottom and don’t want to risk falling into the water with all your gear. A dedicated dry bag or some plastic bags for your gear might be useful because there are areas where the water level can be chest high although the level is usually ankle to knee high but this fluctuates with the seasons. If you plan to hike the entire river make sure to start early because the pace is a lot slower than you would expect. The photography strategy here is to chase the light through the canyons. Because of the steep nature of the cliffs the light will shine in different areas at different times of the day so you will have to plan your compositions accordingly. Compositions can be made with rocks in the river, trees, wall textures, and using the pattern of shadows on the canyon walls.
There are many more trails and locations such as The Subway which requires a special hiking permit you have to apply for and such landmarks like Checkerboard Mesa that I didn’t find to be easily photogenic from a landscape photography perspective. Overall Zion National Park is truly a great photo destination and highly recommended if you are in the Utah area. Check out the links below to the BTPro Travel Video, Vlog, and Travel Tips video.