Spending time in the great outdoors and national parks has never been more popular. The ability to socially distance and breathe fresh air is appealing in these pandemic times. One fantastic U.S. destination is Utah.

Beautiful southern Utah boasts five national parks in relative proximity to each other. Known as the Mighty 5, it’s a photographer’s dream to have so much scenery available in one area.

You’ve probably seen gorgeous photos of Delicate Arch at sunrise and are already dreaming of taking a photo of your own there. But did you realize that you would have to wake up at 4 a.m. (even if you’re staying at the nearest campground), drive to a crowded parking lot, hike a steep 1.5 miles one-way in the dark with your equipment, and fight for a spot to set up your tripod among the other photographers?

Sounds like a hassle! So, this article (part one) will tell you the places to get great photos in Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks that are easily accessed by people toting photography equipment. Part two will discuss the Escalante area, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

Arches National Park

Nowhere in the world has more natural stone arches in one place. One nice thing about this park is many great photo opportunities are available right off the road.

As you enter the park, the Park Avenue Viewpoint gives you a look at a fantastic canyon. The trail has a steep descent, so get your shots from the viewpoint railing. Continuing along the road, you’ll be able to grab photos of well-known rock formation such as the Three Gossips, Tower of Babel and Courthouse Towers. Several miles later, there is a turnout for Balanced Rock, a photographer favorite. You can get photos from the parking lot, but a very short path will get you closer.

If you take the turnout to The Windows area, the road will terminate at Double Arch. This is a flat, easy half-mile round trip hike to see two large arches joined at one end. This is my favorite arch. If you want to get underneath the arch, some rock hopping is required, but you can get some great photos on the approach.

If you want more arches (and who doesn’t?), you’ll find pullouts for Sand Dune Arch and Skyline Arch further up the main road. These are easy 0.3-mile and 0.4-mile round trip trails.

Finally, at the end of the road, you’ll come to the trail for Landscape Arch. This is a 2-mile round trip hike, but it is a mostly flat trail with a gravel base. It’s worth it for great photos of the longest arch in the country.

Canyonlands National Park

Near Arches, Canyonlands is a park split into several sections. In the northern Island in the Sky section, Mesa Arch should be your first destination. This arch offers an amazing view because it’s at the edge of a cliff. The short half-mile round trip trail distance makes it extremely popular. However, it’s an easy trail with beautiful vistas, so it’s worth dealing with the crowd.

Two overlooks off the main road provide great photo opportunities. They are the Green River Overlook and the Grand View Point Overlook. At Grand View Point, you can walk a trail along the canyon edge as much as you want to get different perspectives.

BONUS: Dead Horse State Park is right outside of this park and is worth a visit. It’s like a baby Grand Canyon. You can drive to the end of the road that leads to several viewpoints.

On the way to the southern Needles District of the park, stop at Newspaper Rock Historical Monument for clear petroglyph photo opportunities just outside of the parking lot. Once inside the national park, the short Roadside Ruin trail provides you with photo opportunities of an old Native American granary (although it’s tucked under a rocky overhang and there’s not a lot of angles available for shooting).

The Cave Spring trail may look enticing because it is short, but it involves climbing two ladders. However, it does feature an old cowboy camp and some rock paintings that you can get to before the ladders.

For canyon views, the Slick Rock trail gets you on top of the rocks for panoramic scenes. While this trail is over two miles long and quite uneven, you don’t need to walk too far to snap a great photo. If you are pressed for time, you can skip the Needles district (which is a 2-hour drive south from Island in the Sky) and focus your efforts in the northern part of the park.

Capitol Reef National Park

Upon approach to the park from the east, you’ll head through beautiful gray cliffs with spots of red and purple. It looks like a moonscape. While the area isn’t full of turnouts, try to find a place to stop and grab a shot.

Some of the easier trails for photographers include the Grand Wash trail. While this is a 4-mile round trip, you only need to go halfway to enter the narrows and then turn back. While these narrows aren’t as narrow as the slot canyons you’ve read about in Bryce or Zion, they still provide great photo opportunities without the tight squeeze.

Capitol Gorge trail, at the end of the scenic drive, is an easy trail that brings you to some pioneer graffiti. You don’t need to continue the trail as it climbs to the waterpockets. Sunset Point is another short and easy three-quarter-mile trail to a panoramic viewpoint.

Capitol Reef park has some historic cabins and Mormon buildings that are beautiful to photo against the stunning rocky backdrop. There are also numerous orchards in the park. The campground is set among these trees along the Fremont River. It’s a great spot for some photos, and there’s also a delicious pie shop nearby run by the park (to make it worth your while).

The National Parks in Utah are great dark sky parks, but I found Capitol Reef to be the darkest. If you can stay in the Fruita campground, you’ll have a great chance at a starry Milky Way evening.

Hopefully you’re packing your gear and getting ready for a Utah photography vacation. My next article, part two of the series, will discuss the Escalante area, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.