One of the great things about living in Vegas is that I’m only about three hours from Zion National Park, located in southern Utah, just outside the town of Springdale. Zion is a landscape photographer’s dream. If you can’t find something to photograph here, your in the wrong business 🙂
There are a few basics you should know about the park before you go. First, the best place to stay is in Springdale, UT or inside the park at the Zion Lodge. While you will see lodging in Cedar City and other communities near the park, Springdale is right at the park’s door and will save you significant travel time. The Best Western is conveniently located, clean, quiet and affordable. Hotels fill fast in Springdale so book VERY early. Beginning in April and through October, rooms are hard to come by. You can also camp inside the park.
If you can get to Springdale somehow without a car, you won’t need one to access the park or the town. The local bus system is clean, comfortable, dependable, operated by friendly people and free. I am not the kind of person who usually enjoys such amenities but in Zion, I do. It’s great. And don’t be bummed about taking the bus into the main canyon. I usually don’t enjoy such restrictions but in this case, it was no hardship and in fact, I thought it was great.
Also know that while affordable (around $100) hotel rooms are available, cheap food is hard to come by. If you are on a budget, you’ll probably find most of the area restaurants spendy. Bring your own food or shop at the local grocer. A new Subway chain store is opening soon in Springdale and will presumably offer at least one low-cost option.
Do note that it costs money to enter the park. If you regularly shoot inside this or any other National Park, the annual National Park Pass for $80 is a bargain and also supports park efforts.
One other thing – if you are driving, be aware that the Park Rangers driving police cars are peace officers and have the same power as any cop, i.e., they can and will give you a ticket if you speed. The fines are stiff and while I’ve never received a ticket, many of my friends have. Slow down and drive carefully.
As for the photography – there are lots of places to shoot, but many of the iconic shots you want are only available off the Zion Canyon Scenic Road.
This main canyon of Zion National Park is served only by shuttle busses, running every seven-15 minutes from early morning until late at night. You may also stay at the Zion Lodge, allowing you to take your car further into the park (reservations may be hard to get.) The photographic opportunities start at the bridge crossing the Virgin River at Canyon Junction, where the view from the bridge is iconic and outstanding in the right light. Further into the park, assessing the weather will be important; the Emerald Pools are best photographed when it has been raining, but The Narrows can’t be entered or photographed when the river is high. Taking the 80-minute round trip on the shuttle and talking to the rangers will help point you in the right direction for light and conditions. Keep an eye out for seasonal opportunities such as waterfalls and wildlife.
There are some cool places off the beaten path that you can drive to. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but here are a few that I like.
Zion – Mt. Carmel Highway
The highway between Canyon Junction and the east entrance to the park passes through a long tunnel into a beautiful stretch of unique rocks, hillsides and formations. The rocks and textures are quite close to the road and easily accessible. Light is important: flat skies create flat light and the drama of the textures is muted. This is a quick, fun drive and well worth the time, especially if you have clouds or weather.
Kolob Terrace Road
This road stretches north from the town of Virgin, passing hills and overlooks, eventually ending at the Kolob Reservoir at just over 8000 feet in elevation. The Left Fork Trailhead, about six miles up, marks the beginning of the nine-mile roundtrip backcountry hike to The Subway–one of Zion’s iconic photography destinations. (You need a permit to hike in the back country at Zion. See the Ranger office for more information.) Toward the top of the road, the Lava Point Overlook provides a panoramic view of Zion Canyon in the distance. Interesting skies and weather will also serve photographers well on this very scenic road.
Kolob Canyons Scenic Road
Roughly an hour to the north of the park, this short scenic road has many photographic opportunities overlooking the towering cliffs of the Kolob Canyons. On my recent scouting trip I thought this road may have been my favorite. When it rains, waterfalls pour over the red rocks, dropping into Jurassic Park-like scenery of green trees and rock temples. This is well worth the drive. The panoramic view is served by multiple pullouts and an overlook at the end. It is best to visit on a day with puffy clouds, snow or stormy weather.
Zion in Spring can be a magical place. It’s also very nice in Fall. If you go in the Summer expect very large crowds and bring a bag full of patience. Zion is one of the most popular national parks and gets more visitors than most.
For more information on Zion, visit http://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm.