Utah: A National Parks Extravaganza

In April, Paul and I re-visited one of our favorite photo destinations: Utah. Utah has soooo much to offer photographers: hoodoos, arches, sandstone, interesting trees, grand vistas and so much more. It would take a lifetime to explore it all. On this trip, we focused on Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef and Monument Valley, and some sites in between.

Mesa Arch at Sunrise

Behind the scenes - “The Zoo”

Canyon at Mesa Arch (without the zoo) © Paul Nguyen


We arrived in the night in Salt Lake City with a loooong drive ahead of us to reach Canyonlands National Park for sunrise. By the time we landed and got in our rental car, it was 1 AM. We drove almost 5 hours to Mesa Arch, our first stop. As tired as we were, we had no time to spare. The weather was calm and pleasant - a major difference in conditions from last year when we were here - and photographers were already claiming their positions. We rubbed our eyes and put on our packs. The quintessential Mesa Arch at sunrise photo is an extremely popular one, so if you want a good spot, you have to get there early and almost fight off tourists to do so. Or, you can just shoot in a different area nearby Mesa Arch, and not deal with the zoo that it is at all!

© Paul Nguyen


Our next stop was Arches National Park, which is home to many naturally-occurring arch formations which make for great photo compositions.

Monument Valley

One of the highlights of this trip was our visit to Monument Valley, which neither of us had visited before. Monument Valley is one of the most famous locations in the American West, since countless movies feature its sandstone buttes and long roads. It’s quite literally a symbol of America’s landscapes. We spent the whole day in the area. We drove the 17-mile loop, and scouted for sunset possibilities. The tricky part about photographing in the desert is its dryness; the key to a good landscape photo is good clouds and texture - something that’s often lacking in the desert. We got lucky though, and had just enough clouds for our sunset shoot!

Capitol Reef

Another great part of the trip was getting to explore Capitol Reef National Park - one of the most remote and rugged parks in the Parks system. Most tourists here drive the scenic road through Fruita, only a few miles long, where you can visit orchards and petroglyphs, but the true beauty of the park is only accessible with a 4WD vehicle. The park covers hundreds of miles of arid desert. We drove hours in the night down long and bumpy dirt roads to reach the hidden-away Upper Cathedral Valley to photograph the sunrise at Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. We were the only people around, and experienced the most perfect conditions.

There are so many intriguing formations here, and grand vistas that few ever see.

Middle of Nowhere

From Capitol Reef, we drove through southern-central Utah into the badlands. There are few things to do in this area, unless you’re a photographer or are really into off-roading. We spent quite a lot of time exploring this part of Utah with our drone. The textures of the desert here are best seen from the air!

© Paul Nguyen

Deadhorse Point

We revisited Deadhorse Point State Park after having been here last year. We never quite seem to have great conditions here, but Paul managed to make this great pano.

House on Fire Ruins

Because I take photos of animals everywhere I go!

On every trip, we try to explore some new sights. I found some posts about a canyon where there are some very preserved ancient Puebloan structures, the most picturesque being the “House on Fire.” If you get there at the right time, the sun hits the sandstone underneath, which reflects and illuminates the house. The colors glow and resembles a fire. Of course, the trails weren’t marked very well, and we spent a few hours hiking down the wrong river, but we eventually did find it the next day!

Arches, Again

Neither of us had visited Delicate Arch up close either. Coming to the desert, every photographer hopes for clear nights full of stars. Despite spending a whole week out west, we had maybe one of those nights, and not when we needed it! (We’ll take the clouds, though). We hiked to Delicate Arch in the night, in hopes that the stars would stay out. After getting to the top, the sky had hazed over, and we didn’t make the night shots we were hoping to make. But here’s Paul and his headlamp, illuminating the Arch. Maybe next time!

9-Mile Canyon is not, 9 Miles - A Warning

With the time we had left, we went searching for the elusive wild mustangs that live in the mountain regions of central Utah. Utah is home to a number of herds, each varying in size and scattered across the state, but few people ever see them since they live in very remote areas and can cover hundreds of miles. Sounds like a challenge. What was a leisurely day driving through canyons of petroglyphs, quickly became panic and stress. A few things went wrong here: 1) the directions we were following didn’t match up with GPS/Google Maps. The roads had recently been changed due to industry, and what was supposed to be a looping drive, is now a one-way. (Fun fact - if you ever visit here, do realize that 9-Mile Canyon is not 9 miles - its more like 60 miles.) 2) Since it was early April, parts of the highlands were still covered in deep snow. Some roads are impassable, even with a 4WD vehicle. The snow is either too deep, or the roads are too muddy. 3) Since we intended on making the loop drive, we didn’t have enough gas after spending all of our fuel getting our vehicle unstuck from the mud. 4) There was no cell service, and our phones were dying. 4) We decided to do this on the day we had to be back in Salt Lake City for our departing flight! While all this was happening, and I was panicking, we did see the horses! We saw about 15 horses in the mountains, and they looked as though they hadn’t seen people in quite some time. After snapping some photos and expending what tiny amount of gas we had, we left and backtracked our way to the nearest gas station. Thanks to Paul’s driving skills and the slight downhill grade, we were able to get the car back to the main road by being the most efficient with the gas pedal as possible. We drove over 50 miles this way….when we made it the gas station Paul let out a primal scream I’ve never heard before. What an adventure!

The trek to see the horses was the first time we ever needed to go through a car wash before returning a rental. And, the day didn’t end there either - we made it through a snowstorm in the mountains on the way back to the airport. We sat in our flight seats with not more than 10 minutes to spare. Of course, we have these experiences so that you don’t have them on our photo tours! We’re looking forward to revisiting Utah again soon.