Mesa Arch Sunrise: How to Beat the Crowds & Get the Shot (2022)

Mesa Arch sunrise in Canyonlands National Park Utah cover image.  Text overlaying an image of Mesa Arch with a sunstar at sunrise.

One of the most iconic photos in the United States is the Mesa Arch sunrise in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A perfect rainbow arch frames distant spires as the first light of day warms the sky and fills the frame.

What these mesmerizing photographs do not depict is the massive crowds that pack into a small space each morning to capture that magical moment. Tripods are lined up, legs interlocking, as hordes of visitors battle for that perfect angle.

This guide to photographing sunrise at Mesa Arch has been created to ensure you learn everything you need to know for taking the perfect picture. This includes how to beat the crowds, angles to consider, choosing the right lens, and more.

A perfect morning for photographing sunrise at Mesa Arch.
A perfect morning for photographing sunrise at Mesa Arch.

If you are interested in purchasing a print of Mesa Arch sunrise, please visit our Utah Photo Gallery to shop fine art prints.

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Photographing Mesa Arch Sunrise Overview

In order to capture the perfect Mesa Arch sunrise photo, it is important to follow these simple steps for preparation:

  1. Arrive at the Mesa Arch trail early to claim your spot: 70-90 minutes before sunrise should be enough.
  2. Bring a tripod: This will hold your spot & help prevent camera shake in low light.
  3. Know your shot before you arrive: There are a few popular compositions requiring different lenses and angles. Know what you want so you set up in the correct place and have the right lens. Find the most popular compositions in this guide.
  4. Bracket your shot (or use HDR Mode): Shooting directly into sunlight creates a “high-dyanmic range” scene. Phone photographers should use HDR mode, camera users should bracket.

Other considerations, compositions, and photographic inspiration will all be found in this guide.


When to Arrive at Mesa Arch for Sunrise

Photographing the stars and dawn color at Mesa Arch 90 minutes before sunrise.
Photographing the stars and dawn color at Mesa Arch 90 minutes before sunrise.

Year-round, there will be a lot of people trying to occupy a small space at Mesa Arch for sunrise. In order to make sure you have the exact composition you want, you need to be one of the first 5 or so people to set up your tripod.

Most photographers arrive one hour before sunrise. Accordingly, you should aim to arrive at least 70 minutes prior, though 90 minutes prior is best.

Park at the Mesa Arch Trailhead and walk the short half-mile in (0.5 miles /0 .8 km). It won’t take you more than about 10 minutes to complete.

What typically happens when visiting Mesa Arch is that the first photographer there will “set the line” with their tripod placement. This means every subsequent arrival will stand next to that person, but never in front (that would be rude.)

Being the first to arrive means that you get to be the one to set the line. That can be a very important factor in getting the shot!

For perspective, we arrived at Mesa Arch a full 2 hours before sunset as we were visiting Canyonlands National Park in peak season. Only one person had joined us after 45 minutes, but about 10 more people came in the next 15 minutes. This means that one hour prior to sunset, new arrivals were already having to settle for whatever space they could find.

Camera Settings

A perfect sunstar at Mesa Arch.  This requires the correct camera settings and positioning.
A perfect sunstar at Mesa Arch. This requires the correct camera settings and positioning.

If you wish to achieve the sunstar effect, you will want to photograph with a high aperture (F-stop) and set your frame so that the sun is being partially blocked by the arch. This combination of factors creates the star shape.

You will need to be shooting in Manual or Aperture-Priority mode in order to control your F-stop. Set your camera to F20 & ISO 100 first. If you are shooting in full manual, adjust your shutter speed until the exposure looks good. If you are shooting in Aperture-Priority, the camera will set this for you.

Be aware that shooting with a high aperture will mean a slow shutter speed that may be prone to some motion blur if hand-holding. For this reason, it is best to use a tripod and a 2-second self-timer to avoid any shake. You may also want to bracket your photo so that you can blend or choose the best exposure.

Instagram composition of the Mesa Arch sunrise
Vertical photos work well, especially for sharing your Mesa Arch photos to Instagram

If you are using a cell phone rather than a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you will want to enable “HDR Mode”. The phone should take care of the rest!

To quickly recap, the ideal settings for shooting sunrise at Mesa Arch are:

  • Aperture F20
  • ISO 100
  • Shutter Speed Variable, but around 1/100
  • 2 Second Timer
  • 3 Exposure Bracket (or HDR Mode)

Where to Stand

A young girl sits in front of Mesa Arch  during sunrise.
Introducing the human element adds scale and a sense of wanderlust to your images.

The best way to know where to stand for sunrise is to study the photos throughout this guide and get a sense of whether you want to include the entire arch or come in tighter, focusing on just the left side of the arch and the spires in the distance.

How far away you set up your tripod and how centered you are depends entirely on whether you are hoping to shoot wide-angle or zoomed in. Additionally, there is some seasonality to consider as the sun does not always rise in the same place.

The PhotoPills App is a photographer’s best friend for figuring out where to set up. This app has an “Augmented Reality” (AR) setting that syncs with your phone camera and will show you exactly where the sun will rise and set (as well as the moon and milky way!)

Once the sunrise is happening there will be too many people to move around, so being handy with a compass or using the PhotoPills app are very important to being in the right position.

Best Lens for Sunrise at Mesa Arch

A close up of the spires of Canyonlands.
Choose a zoom lens to add some diversity to your photos.

The best lens to photograph sunrise at Mesa Arch is a wide or super wide angle lens. For full-frame cameras, this would mean something in the 16-35mm range, which would be the equivalent of 10-24mm on a crop sensor (APS-C) camera.

A zoom lens is a better option than a prime lens as this will have some flexibility in your composition and you will likely be shooting at a high aperture to get the sun star effect (F20 or higher).

The exact lens you chose for your shot will be based on what you have available and which composition you wish to capture.

Photography Tips & Equipment

If you are just planning on photographing sunrise at Mesa Arch with your phone, you should still bring a tripod and ensure that “HDR” mode is enabled. This is a useful setting when shooting into the sun.

You can certainly snap some beautiful photos with smartphones, but we are passionate about photography and use a lot more equipment than that. Below are the essential bits of photography gear we use as well as explanations on why they are useful.

  • Camera: We use the Sony a7riii and have been in love with it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, beginners may want to consider an entry level DSLR. This will allow you to start to understand manual settings and eventually decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in more heavily.
Equipping the PolarPro CPL filter.
Equipping the PolarPro CPL filter.
  • Lens: The lens we use most frequently is the Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS as the length of this zoom lens allows for a diverse focal range while being sharp corner to corner.
  • Tripod: A tripod is essential if you are shooting in low light and want to keep your images noise-free. For Mesa Arch and whenever possible, we use and recommend the Artcise Carbon Fiber Tripod. It is very tall, which can be useful for crowded places, and extremely sturdy.
    When traveling or going on very long hikes, we often bring the Manfrotto Be Free instead. It is not as stable but is more lightweight and easier to carry.
  • Filters: A Circular Polarizing (CPL) filter is very useful for adding contrast in the sky and for cutting glare, which helps to bring out the colors. We use a CPL for about 80% of our landscape photos. The best CPL we have found is the quartz line from Polar Pro.
  • Microfiber cleaning cloths: We always keep a stash of microfiber cloths in our bag to help clean the lens between shots. You will inevitably find dust or precipitation on your lens at some point!
  • Batteries: Be sure you have fully charged your camera battery prior to arriving and bring a spare! You don’t want to arrive early, get your spot, and then realize your battery is empty or has failed.
  • Memory Cards: Much like batteries, check your memory card the night before to ensure you have plenty of space and bring a spare in case your primary card fails.

Mesa Arch Sunrise FAQs

The most iconic view in Canyonlands National Park.
The most iconic view in Canyonlands National Park.

Below are the most commonly asked questions for first-time visitors hoping to photograph in Canyonlands National Park.

How early do I need to arrive at Mesa Arch for sunrise?

Most photographers will arrive one hour before sunrise, so you should aim to arrive 70-90 minutes prior to sunrise at Mesa Arch as space is very limited and getting the right spot is important.

What is the best lens for photographing Mesa Arch?

The ideal lens for capturing Mesa Arch is 16-35mm for full-frame cameras or 10-24mm for crop sensor (APS-C) users. This focal distance is enough to capture the entire arch on the widest end while also allowing the photographer to zoom on the distant spires for another composition.

What are the best settings for photographing sunrise at Mesa Arch?

If you are using a tripod, you will want to shoot at an aperture of F20 to get the sunstar effect and set your ISO to 100. Set your shutter speed at whatever you need for the right exposure, probably around 1/100 but this can vary.

Do you need a tripod for Mesa Arch?

You will definitely want to bring a tripod even if you prefer to shoot handheld as it will help you hold your spot in the inevitable crowd. A tripod is also very useful for capturing the sunstar effect at sunrise since a high aperture and slow shutter speed are necessary.

Is sunrise at Mesa Arch worth it?

If you are a photographer, yes! This is one of the most spectacular and iconic photos you will add to your portfolio and is easily captured with a little preparation. If you are not interested in photography, however, you may want to avoid sunrise altogether as the large crowd makes for a poor viewing experience.

Is Mesa Arch better at sunrise or sunset?

Sunrise is absolutely the best time to visit Mesa Arch. The sun will come up perfectly framed by the arch and create incredible light on the entire landscape.

Crowds can be a pain, but this guide explains how to beat them and capture that perfect magical moment.

How long is the hike to Mesa Arch?

The hike to Mesa Arch is only half a mile in (0.5 miles/0 .8 km) and won’t take you more than about 10 minutes to complete.

Which of the national parks is Mesa Arch in?

Mesa Arch is the most iconic feature in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District.

Can you camp at Mesa Arch?

You are not allowed to camp outside of officially designated campgrounds in any national park. The nearest campground is Green River, and the nearest hotels are in Moab.

Where do I park for the Mesa Arch Trail?

You will find plentiful parking and restroom facilities at the Mesa Arch Parking lot.

Other Utah & Regional Photography Guides

Zebra Slot Canyon photography in Utah.
Discover all the best slot canyons in Utah with our complete guide.

If your visit to Canyonlands National Park is part of a larger road trip or adventure around the Southwest, you may also find some of these regional guides useful:

Utah Guides

Eastern Colorado Guides

Northern Arizona Guides

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