orange arch
Hiking,  Photography,  Travel

Visiting Mesa Arch at Sunrise (Canyonlands National Park)

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Seeing Mesa Arch at sunrise (and photographing it) is on many people’s bucket list and it is THE most visited place in Canyonlands National Park.

As it should be.

It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

I thought the photos I’d seen were enhanced in Lightroom or Photoshop to give the underside of the arch that bright orange effect.

Nope.

It actually turns that fire red-orange in real life!

Even if you aren’t a photographer, this is something people of all ages can enjoy.

Keep reading for more information about watching the sun rise at this awesome place! We’ll cover trail stats, tips for photography, and recommendations for managing the crowd.

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mesa arch at sunrise

All about spending sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park!

Mesa Arch is a natural stone arch atop a steep cliff in the Island of the Sky District of Canyonlands.

It is hands down the “must-see” place in Canyonlands.  

Yes, the photos are awesome, but seeing it in person is even better.

The vast scenery of canyons below and the La Sal Mountains in the distance that can be seen through the arch are simply amazing.

red orange under arch

Trail Stats

  • Distance: 0.5-mile loop
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation Gain: minimal
  • Pets: not allowed
  • Bathrooms: at trailhead
  • Time: it takes about 10-15 minutes to hike to the arch

As far as the trail itself goes, it’s quite dusty and occasionally rocky, so plain sneakers would be fine to hike in.

Of course it’s a cool sight to see at any time of day, but the vast majority will agree that sunrise is the best time to visit Mesa Arch. But in order to watch the sunrise, this means you’ll be hiking in the dark.

Hiking before sunrise can prove to be difficult in some situations. We didn’t have any trouble, but if you want a little more detail, here’s a great article on how to find Mesa Arch in the dark.

Here is a map of the loop from AllTrails if you want to reference it.


Side note for a little story…

On the walk back to the trailhead, there was an elderly man helping his wife navigate the trail, helping her step up and over the rocks when needed.

It was clear that she had suffered a stroke & that it had impaired her walking.

It was so heartwarming to see him helping her to the arch so she could witness it.

It also makes me glad there are easy trails out there that people with disabilities can still do.


mesa arch sunrise
Person in a ghillie suit or a random bush? Visit Mesa Arch to find out!

Planning

When visiting Mesa Arch at sunrise, make you reach the trailhead at LEAST an hour before the sun is set to rise.

If you want a front-row spot for photography, get there probably 2 hours before sunrise. No joke.

It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get to the trailhead from Moab. It’s a boring drive, especially early in the morning, but it’s worth it!

When planning your arrival time, use your weather app or simply Google “mesa arch sunrise time” to get a feel for when you’ll need to be there. 

The sun will still illuminate the underside of the arch for a while after sunrise.

So if you happen to not get there in time to secure a front-row spot, you should still be able to get some good pictures once those hard-core photographers clear out.

mountains and canyons
The sun was just about to rise over the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
canyon and spires
Don’t forget to enjoy the view of the canyon below!
  • Tripod– note that you will need a low tripod since the arch is not very tall
  • Headlamp– headlamps with a red light work well in the dark; they provide light while still allowing your own eyes to have some night vision
  • You may want to bring something to sit in/kneel on

Notice in the photo below how low the arch actually is.

In order to photograph the underside of the arch, this is why you’ll need a tripod that is adjustable and can get low to the ground (if you plan on using a tripod that is). I didn’t and was still able to get some decent pictures!

crowd of people at arch
This was well after sunrise. You will notice the fire-orange color on the underside of the arch start to fade as the sun continues to rise.

Trailhead Location

When heading into the park on UT-313, the trailhead is located a little over 6 miles past the Island in the Sky Visitor Center on your left.

The trailhead is well marked & will already have plenty of cars there, trust me.

The entrance fee to Canyonlands is $30, but if you get there early enough no one will be at the entrance station. They may check & ask for payment when you exit the park.

When you first arrive at the arch, you may be a little overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time.

Overwhelmed at the amount of people who have already staked out their prime piece of real estate in front of the arch, and underwhelmed at how small this arch actually is.

Mesa Arch is only about 50-feet wide. There’s only room for about 10-15 photographers in the front.

crowd of people at mesa arch

Mesa Arch Sunrise Photo Tips

A wide-angle lens is a MUST!!! You will see why in the photo below.

The row of photographers will set up almost literally right in front of the arch. So to be able to get the entire arch, you must have a wide-angle lens.

Cell phones can usually get good photos of the arch since their lenses are typically wide-angle, especially the new iPhones.

To get that starburst effect with the sun, try shooting with a small aperture (f16-f22) if you have a DSLR.

Try aperture priority mode & try different f-stops. Remember, the starburst depends on how many blades your lens has.

And also remember that an odd number of blades create double the starburst rays.

Make sure to get photos of the arch from different angles! My favorite spot to photograph from was just to the right of the arch.

Don’t forget to notice the view through the arch! The canyon and spires below are beautiful and have a blue tone just before the sun rises.

canyon at sunrise

Avoiding the Crowds

Unfortunately, you will not have this place all to yourself, but here at some tips for avoiding large crowds.

To avoid the crowds, visit during off season. September thru November are good months to visit. It’s also best to go on weekdays versus the weekend.

Waited out the crowd & was able to snap this tourist-free picture. I love that the arch is framing some of the canyon below!

All in all, I think we spent about 2 hours at the arch, waiting for sunrise then hanging around and photographing it from different spots. I happened to notice that once people get their shot, they tended to pack up and leave. If you wait for the initial crowd to leave you can usually get a front row spot.

And last but not least, don’t forget to put the camera down and ENJOY the view! After all, this isn’t something you see everyday.

melissa of dogwoods & driftwood travel blog

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