A Winter Weekend in Arches National Park
Arches National Park is one of those parks where you can see almost everything in a single weekend. It's also one of those places you can return to again and again and still come back with stunning new images. Because I'm crowd-averse, I like to take my trips there during the off-season (late October - early May), but it's also good to visit later in the Spring during the desert wildflower and storm seasons. Here's a typical Winter weekend trip, with two full days' itinerary...
It's a Friday night; I've just driven in from my home West of Denver, CO, and it's after dark. The first order of business is checking into a hotel (I'm not a big winter camper; during the warmer months I like to check in to one of the BLM campgrounds West of Moab). As usual, I've planned out my sunrises and sunsets in advance; mid-day I like to leave open for exploration and wandering.
Saturday morning it's up and out 1-1/2 hours before sunrise. My gear and I pile into the car and head up the road; the entrance to Arches is only a couple of miles North of town, but getting to the end of the park road and the Devil's Garden trailhead is a 22-mile drive. I pull into the Devil's Garden parking lot (right by the park campground) with 1/2 hour to spare. The gear is warm, but the air outside is below freezing, and old snow coats the ground where the Sun hasn't melted it yet.
Tripod, camera, and I begin the trek along this well-maintained dirt trail, and in just under a mile we reach the sunrise target: Landscape Arch. Flexibility of angle is limited here; the old trail which used to bring hikers next to the arch has been closed since a series of rockfalls in 1996, and photographers are forced to take pictures from relatively far away; a viewpoint towards the right side provides a good shot, as do several points more towards the center. A wide-angle lens of at least 28mm is required to fit the entire arch in a 35mm frame.
After sunrise has graced Landscape Arch with its golden glow, I pack up and continue up the trail. The next mile and a half take you through fin canyons and up over the fins themselves; with the right lighting, there are many interesting lichens and sandstone patterns to please the macro lens. After that scrambling, I arrive at Double O Arch in time for an early morning shot while the lighting is still good. Although I like to take the entire Devil's Garden trail, including the primitive return loop, today I head back to the trailhead and catch a bit of mid-morning breakfast, pre-packed.
By now it's working on towards 10am, and the sunlight is washing out the scenery. Time to get out of the light and into a bit of shade. Back down the park road a short distance is the pull-off for Sand Dune Arch. There are two keys to photographing Sand Dune Arch: finding a 5-minute span when there aren't any other people, and realizing that it photographs like a slot canyon. Any time around mid-day is probably fine; this trip I arrive around 10:30am; the light is still hitting the back wall a bit, but mostly it's hitting the fin behind me. The arch glows red-orange with its stained and textured surface; footprints are my biggest worry. After taking several shots, I head down the trail further to Broken Arch. Although it's best photographed in the evening, it succumbs to some polarization and cloud cover, and I get off a reasonable shot.
With a morning's fun behind me, I head back into town and grab some lunch. Several galleries, some excellent bookstores, and the information center serve to while away the time until afternoon rolls around. With the short Winter days, I'll head back into the park before dinner; in Summer, it's an early meal before sunset. I take a stroll around Park Avenue for a while, but the lighting is too bright for a good picture. Tonight's a relaxing shoot at Balanced Rock. Several good viewpoints exist for this landmark; tonight I opt for a pull-off before the Balanced Rock parking lot. From this vantage point, I also get a good look towards the La Sal Mountains over the spires of the Windows area (similar shots can be had from the Balanced Rock trail). After a sublime sunset with ruby red rocks and cloud-topped mountains, I head back into town for dinner, stopping along the way for a twilight shot of Sheep Rock and the Three Gossips.
The next morning isn't quite as early, just an hour before sunrise. The destination: Courthouse Towers. Sunrise in this area provides lots of photographic subjects, including The Organ/Tower of Babel, the Three Gossips, and Sheep Rock. Some walking is necessary to get the best views of each of these, but it's still possible to capture it all within that magical 20 minute sunrise period. From there it's up to the Windows area, where Double Arch awaits; this famous icon isn't well-lit by either sunrise or sunset, and early morning to mid-morning provides the best lighting. If you can't resist, the famous picture of Turret Arch taken through North Window can be had just across the way (hike up to North Window, walk through and follow the somewhat obvious path up to the photographer's seat on the rocks); this view is best taken at sunrise, but early morning shots are still nice... bring a really wide-angle lens.
I traditionally take some time on each trip to explore something new; the middle of the day is a great time to do that, so I head out of the park and look for petroglyphs West of town, using a guide I picked up at the information center. When afternoon rolls around, it's back to the park for the crowning sunset - Delicate Arch. The Delicate Arch trail is about 1.7 miles each way, beginning at Wolfe Ranch (nice with warm sunlight), heading out over some Chert-strewn hills, and then up a very long slickrock slope before arriving at the distinctive bowl on which Delicate Arch rests. With luck, just the right amount of snow will provide a nice foreground for the scene, and sunset colors the arch from deep ochre to ruby red. In the background, the La Sals reflect the afternoon sun on snow-lined peaks. As dusk settles in, I scramble back down the trail, head for a quick dinner and then home...
All images and text copyright © Les Barstow