A beginners guide to planning a photography trip to Southwest US

A beginners guide to planning a photography trip to Southwest US

Mesa Arch at Sunrise by Sean Ellis

Top tips for taking a trip through the red rocks of the Four Corners region

The red rocks of America’s Southwest region make it every landscape photographer’s dream destination. Up here on Colorado Plateau, there are endless horizons, captivating canyons, eroding arches and incredible amphitheaters that lay testament to the power of water, wind and the passing of time. It’s here that the US National Parks system comes alive.

In fact, there are over 50 protected areas to explore with a camera, and that’s just scratching the surface in a region with wildernesses to explore to your heart’s desire. Where and when should you go? What should you photograph? What route should you take to get the most out of it?

While there are numerous incredible locations to photograph in other areas of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – including Grand Canyon National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park – here we concentrate on the For Corners region and southern Utah, where perhaps the most photogenic landscape exists. Here’s what you need to know … 

1 See the Four Corners

Monument Valley. Photo by Ingrid Smith-Johnsen

Marking where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet at 5,000 ft. above sea level – almost a mile – is the Four Corners Monument. It’s not particularly photogenic, but the region it sits in indeed is. Some of the best national parks and state parks within a few hours drive of where the four states meet include Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Goosenecks State Park and the world-famous Monument Valley Tribal Park. Just west of the latter is the town of Page in Arizona, home to photography favourites Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon.

What joins these states other than simple political boundaries is that they all sit atop the Colorado Plateau, a series of tablelands reaching 12,000 ft. carved by water and wind. The region includes a red rock desert, alpine scenery and high-elevation plateaus. Any time of year is good to visit, though the monsoon – which brings clouds and some rain – usually occurs between mid-June and September. It can get very hot in summer during the day and very cold at night in autumn, winter and spring.

Author tip:

With its famous mittens the major drawcard Monument Valley can get crowded so book accommodation well in advance. Although everyone will tell you to stay at Goulding's (which has all kinds of accommodation), the newly built The View Hotel is closer to the action and the ideal place from which to photograph the sunrise. As soon as that’s over get in the queue to drive the dusty 17-mile Monument Valley Loop Drive, though the only way to access backcountry routes is on a guided jeep tour. 

2 Explore the ‘Trail of the Ancients’ 

Black and White ruins. Photo by John Chedsey - f/8 | ISO 200 | 1/250s

Native American culture is a major reason to photograph the Four Corners region. A great way of interacting with its many sights is to drive the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byways, which despite its designation is off the beaten track and largely on tribal land.

On its way through the land where Puebloans lived for thousands of years before Europeans arrived you’ll see and photograph incredible cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, ancient villages of Hovenweep National Monument, Utah, huge religious buildings called kiva at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, incredible rock art along Nine Mile Canyon, Utah and Navajo culture in Canyon De Chelly, Arizona.

Author tip:

Although you can stay in motels and resorts in nearby towns and drive in for the day, the remoteness of some of these attractions – and the fact that the best light is in the ‘golden hour’ and ‘blue hour’ close to sunrise and sunset – makes them best visited in RV, motorhome, camper van or with a tent. 

3 Take a red rocks road trip from Las Vegas to Denver

Arches 13. Photo by Ingrid Smith-Johnsen

One of the best ways to see and photograph some of the best the region has to offer is to drive the 750 miles between Sin City and Mile High City.

Starting in Las Vegas and aiming straight for Utah, your first port of call should be Zion National Park (for its Court of the Patriarchs, The Watchman and The Narrows) before hitting Bryce Canyon National Park to capture its magnificent amphitheater of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock). If you want solitude then don’t miss Kodachrome Basin State Park – home to equally beautiful hoodoos – and the lesser-visited Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Calf Creek, Long Canyon, Hells Backbone Ridge, Capitol Reef National Park and the otherworldly Goblin Valley State Park. Then it’s time to hit Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky) and Dead Horse Point State Park – surely the jewels in the crown for any landscape photographer. Colorado National Monument is also well worth a final stop on the way to Denver.

Author tip:

Arches National Park has become a victim of its own success, with a timed entry ticket system beginning in 2023. A good way to combat that is to book in advance to stay in its basic Devil’s Garden Campground. Arches is open all night, as is Canyonlands National Park, where Willow Flat Campground is a good choice if you want to photograph the world-famous Mesa Arch at sunrise (which is ideally positioned in spring and summer) when its underside it lit up in gorgeous shades of orange. Get there early and work with the other photographers there so you can all get your shot – space is tight! Light painting is banned in both Arches and Canyonlands. 

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4 Rock art and astrophotography

Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument. Photo by JuRitt - f/7.1 | ISO 100 | 1/125s

Petroglyphs – rock art preserved by the dry climate – are everywhere in the Southwest.

You can find hundreds just using Google Maps, but known hotspots include Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, Newspaper Rock close to Canyonlands National Park in Utah and, closer to Salt Lake City, Fremont Indian State Park, a centre for archaeoastronomy – the study of ancient or traditional astronomies – which hosts thousands of petroglyphs depicting celestial bodies and astronomical phenomena.

Author tip:

Its lack of light pollution and its high elevation – something that makes its skies exceptionally clear – makes the entire region a hotbed for stargazing, astronomy and astrophotography. The Four Corners has the highest concentration of certified International Dark Sky Parks in the world, which guarantees that there won’t be glaring lights at campsites and hotels. If you want to take advantage of dark skies, aim for the week before a New Moon. The Milky Way looks best in spring (low in the southeast) and summer (high in the south). 

5 Explore backcountry Utah

Glimpse of Utah lake. Photo by Joel Galbraith - f/9 | ISO 400 | 1/100s

It may have five world-famous national parks – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef – and over 40 State Parks, but if you’re after unique compositions then consider going off the beaten track in Utah.

It’s not difficult because much of the state (population 3.5 million) is backcountry run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the USDA Forest Service, which includes hundreds of remote campsites, recreational opportunities and photographic landscapes that in any other state would be protected. If you do venture into the backcountry be sure to have a 4WD vehicle (many roads are gravel).

Author’s tip:

One great example of an area of Utah that few visitors get to is Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest east of Salt Lake City, which is both accessible and wild. It occupies 2.2 million acres of northern Utah and southwestern Wyoming. Inside it you’ll find ski resorts, but also scenic byways and backways that are a photographer’s dream, such as Mount Nebo Loop Scenic Drive, which climbs to 9,000 ft. and offers views of the Utah Valley and the Wasatch Mountains.

6 Capture a red rock ‘ring of fire’ 

The path of the 'ring of fire' annular solar eclipse on October 14, 2023. Photo by Michael Zeiler/GreatAmericanEclipse.com

On October 14, 2023 this picturesque region will be within a 125 miles wide path of an annular solar eclipse, also known as a ‘ring of fire’ around the moon. Not to be confused with a total solar eclipse, it’s caused by the moon being slightly too far from Earth on its elliptical orbit to cover all of the sun.

The path begins in Oregon and moves through northern California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas, crossing many national parks and state parks, with Capitol Reef National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Goosenecks State Park and Chaco Culture Historical Park getting among the longest views of the ‘ring of fire’. Here’s an interactive map.

Author’s tip:

Although capturing an eclipse in a beautiful landscape is a tempting prospect, unless there’s thin cloud this is an eclipse that in close-up must be photographed only using a solar filter. The sky won’t go dark, but since 90% of the sun’s light will be blocked mid-morning expect the light levels across the epic landscapes of the region to be odd-looking for at least 30 mins either side of maximum eclipse.