Moab locals have a term for March through November, when swarms of tourists descend upon our fair city to experience their very own Canyon Country adventure. We call it “no left turn season.” As in, don’t even bother trying to turn left anywhere on Main Street because, well…it just ain’t gonna happen. Those other three months? They’re glorious. Absolutely glorious. Milk isn’t perpetually sold out, you can go out to eat without waiting 45 minutes for a table and hotel rooms can be had for prices that won’t force you to take a 401(k) loan. And the best part? Even the most popular locations for photography can be visited in relative peace and quiet.
Moab winters are generally mild and short, with the occasional snowfall and single digit to sub-zero temperatures thrown in to remind you that though this is a desert, it is the high desert. The town rests at 4,000’, with Arches National Park averaging 5,000’ and Canyonlands National Park - Island in the Sky district and Dead Horse Point State Park sitting around 6,000’. Your best chance for snow is in December or January, although I’ve seen it snow as early as late October and as late as March. Typically though, February is quite mild and the temperatures are pleasant…but the tourists haven’t yet figured that out. Shhh…
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Moab with fresh snow on the ground, I sure hope your camera batteries are charged and you’ve got plenty of memory cards because you’re gonna need ‘em. The combination of vibrant red sandstone contrasting with powdery white snow under a brilliant blue sky (or fog, if you’re extra lucky!) is simply irresistible to photographers. There is a downside to a fresh blanket of snow in Moab - access, or rather the lack thereof. Both National Parks are often closed for several hours while maintenance crews work to plow the roads after a snow storm. Additionally, locations you’d typically access via a four wheel drive road are all but inaccessible by vehicle. If you plan to visit areas like Marlboro Point or Tukuhnikivatz Arch, plan on a very long and cold hike. Some canyon roads, such as Highway 128, are prodigious producers of black ice. Considering that these roads parallel the Colorado River, you would be wise to use extreme caution while driving to areas like Castle Valley or Fisher Towers.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITE WINTER LOCATIONS
Canyonlands National Park
In Canyonlands you’ll find several easily accessible locations that provide opportunities for dramatic winter photography. On rare but truly special days, inversions push the cloud layer into the canyons below the rim, giving new meaning to “Island in the Sky”. Oftentimes, patience pays off when sunlight finally breaks through to illuminate features above the canyon bound clouds. Stick around, folks!
Some of my favorite locations to photograph in Canyonlands include Candlestick Tower, Mesa Arch Green River Overlook and Grandview Point.
Candlestick Tower - Best photographed in the morning with a longer lens from an unmarked pullout on the right side of the main park road approximately one mile past the intersection with the road to Upheaval Dome. Walk a short distance toward the canyon rim and find a perspective that affords a good view of Candlestick Tower, the obvious sandstone tower in the distance. This is a killer spot during inversions.
Mesa Arch - I avoid this spot at all costs any other time of the year because there are usually so many people there, and everyone’s jockeying for “the spot”, that it takes away all the magic of the moment. In winter, it’s well worth a visit but it will probably still be busy. Get there at least an hour before sunrise as it is highly unlikely you’ll have it to yourself and you’ll want to secure your tripod spot. Dress warm, bring a hot beverage of your choice and maybe even some chemical hand warmers. There are many compositional options here and you would be wise to bring lenses ranging from ultra-wide to 200mm telephoto. This will allow you to shoot everything from the classic Mesa Arch scene to interesting backlit canyon features with Airport Tower and Washer Woman Arch below. Also, don’t bail right after sunrise. The glow on the underside of the arch is good for at least two hours after sunrise. Explore the canyon rim in both directions but watch your footing - a thin layer of ice often develops on the sandstone and isn’t obvious. A fall here would likely result in death.
Green River Overlook - One of my favorite locations in the entire Moab area, with views stretching all the way to the Henry Mountains near Capitol Reef, this spot has potential in the morning and afternoon. It is often photographed with a wide angle lens but doing so tends to minimize the impact of the White Rim canyon fingers below. I’ve had some surreal moments here, watching storms move across the landscape and nuclear sunsets explode in the west.
Grandview Point - At the very end of the main park road, this area can be shot from the designated viewpoint but I recommend exploring the canyon rim via a trail that proceeds southwest on a wide slickrock shelf. There are interesting rock formations and potholes that catch snowmelt and freeze solid overnight, both of which can be interesting foreground subjects. Keep your eyes peeled for funky juniper trees, too. I always enjoy photographing these twisted old trees after a fresh snow as primary subjects in their own right. As with Green River Overlook, visit in the morning and afternoon as the light is interesting at both times.
Dead Horse Point - Not technically in Canyonlands but close enough to be included here, Dead Horse Point State Park is my #1, most favorite place in SE Utah. The views are off the charts in nearly every direction from this peninsula surrounded on three sides by ever-changing canyon views. Bring everything you’ve got - you’ll need it. Wide angle vistas, panoramas and intimate landscapes at sunrise or sunset, all accessible from multiple trails along the canyon rims. Bonus: stay in a yurt in the park and you’ll enjoy pitch black night skies with millions of twinkling stars and you’ll get to sleep in since you’ll already be in the park!
Locations Around Moab , But Not in a Park
There are over two million acres of BLM land in SE Utah, with thousands more managed by the state and the Forest Service. Much of it contains views worthy of a national park and should absolutely be on your radar. Some locations have drive-up access, others require four wheel drive and most demand that you spend some time in hiking boots. Below are three of my favorite, easy to access in winter spots sure to make your shutter finger twitch with excitement.
Castle Valley - Located approximately 16 miles from Moab on Highway 128, I usually describe this area as a mini Monument Valley. Castle Tower, Parriott Mesa, the Priest and Nuns and many more spectacular features offer ample opportunity to burn through memory cards. The road that accesses the town of Castle Valley affords easy roadside access to many incredible views, as does Highway 128 as it continues northeast toward the Fisher Towers and beyond This area can be photographed morning or afternoon, depending on where in the area you are. Most compositions are best with lenses ranging from 16-50mm in focal length.
Fisher Towers - Keep on truckin’ for a few miles past Castle Valley and you’ll soon catch sight of the tallest sandstone tower in North America: the Titan. Almost 1,000’ tall, this beast and the other spires around it collectively form the Fisher Towers and they are quite the impressive photographic subject. There are several spots alongside 128 from which to shoot but my favorite, and an area classic, is a mile or two past the dirt road that ends at the base of the towers. You’ll cross a cattleguard and then immediately on your left is an unmarked pullout just above the Colorado River. Park here, step out of your car, turn around and prepare to be gobsmacked. There before you is the Colorado River leading to the Fisher Towers and then on to the La Sal Mountains! It’s easy to want to use a wide-angle lens to take it all in but doing so makes the towers and mountains really small in your photo. Better to use a longer focal length, which compresses the distance between the Fisher Towers and La Sal Mountains, giving both more prominence in your image. Depending on how cold or mild the winter weather has been, the river could be completely open and reflecting the whole scene, or covered in ice and snow. Either way, it’s a win.
La Sal Mountains - Most photographers visit Moab for the red rock views but the La Sal Mountains should not be overlooked as they are filled with abundant aspen groves and views that start in an alpine environment but end in the desert below, providing images that include both with a fascinating environmental contrast. In the winter, access is more limited but you can usually drive most of the Loop Road and part of the Geyser Pass Road, both of which provide ample opportunities for roadside and backcountry photography. Bring everything from wide angle to telephoto lenses on your trip into the La Sals. I’ve snowshoed into Gold Basin before and it’s a magical winter experience. Avalanches aren’t uncommon on steeper slopes so those who venture into the backcountry should have sufficient knowledge of avalanche behavior. If the Loop Road is open from the Castle Valley side, I recommend driving up to the hairpin turn where views of Castle Tower, Round Mountain and all of the valley can be photographed ten feet from your car.
Arches National Park
There are so many photographic possibilities in Arches that honestly, it can be a bit overwhelming at times. That’s why I wrote an ebook to help photographers make sense of their visit to this truly magnificent place. I hope you’ll consider supporting me and this website by purchasing a copy of eFotoGuide: The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Arches National Park. It’s only $15 and your purchase will help me continue to provide free, useful content like this post, as well as real-time updates on current photography conditions each season.
To get you moving in the right direction, some of my favorite spots in Arches for winter photography are Delicate Arch, The Windows, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace and the Courthouse Towers area. eFotoGuide has all the information you’ll need to shoot amazing photos at these locations, and sixteen more inside the park.
Late winter snow storms can be especially exciting as the snow quickly melts, producing small, ephemeral waterfalls that can be used as dynamic foreground elements. Keep an eye out for potholes that collect the snowmelt, too. Whether frozen or not, they’re always an eye-catching foreground.
I hope this guide to winter photography in Moab helps you to create memorable images here in Canyon Country. Check back often as I’ll post a spring photography guide sometime in March/April to help you find the best spots for wildflowers and other great spring spots!