Photographing Capitol Reef National Park

Written by: Local guide, photographer & owner of Capitol Reef Photography Tours - Hunter Page

Laying sights on this geological phenomenon will instantly force your eye up to your camera’s viewfinder. And for good reason. Much like Utah’s 4 other National Parks; Arches, Canyonlands, Zion and Bryce Canyon. Capitol Reef National Park displays scenery that can not be experienced anywhere else on earth! That beauty derives from the Waterpocket Fold; formed over 50 million years ago, with layers dating 250 million years old and with a length of 100 miles long. Showcasing the whole spectrum of colors in variations of sandstone, valleys and springs! The daily erosion process continues and is visible; massive sandstone slabs crumbling and falling from expanding ice in cracks. Rivers slowly erode at the walls, widening and deepening canyons. With so much going on, how do you really capture the essence of a place such as this? As a local photographer to the area, I will discuss the best options to showcase its beauty.



1.  Research BeforehandSpend time on GoogleEarth before traveling. Pay attention to where the sun shines, from sun-up to sun-down. This is actually very straightforward. The Waterpocket Fold travels north to south, so photographing its towering spires, buttes and twisting canyons will best be obtained (with accessibility in mind) on the east or west side of the fold. Sunrise on the east and sunset on the west for the best optimal light. Another thing to note: many of the areas in the park are remote and you should be prepared for any and all circumstances. Fill your tank up with gas, bring extra food and water. Know Before You Go!

2 Best Times Of Day: Sunrise, of course, has angled light, offering contrast in light and shadows, reflecting colors into rivers, streams and just all around aesthetically pleasing colors. This angle of the sun also delivers a yellow/orange glow to whatever it shines onto, hints; goldenhour. 

Lucky for you, sandstone encapsulates and holds that warm glow like it is its sole purpose! The tan, orange and red color of sandstone that exists here gleam in morning light. This all applies for sunset as well. With this in mind, when you want to showcase the true 3D forms of the natural world, getting into a position for the sun to hit at a southwest-like angle (instead of in-direct line of the sun) will allow that form to be shown more effectively. Though, the light that showcases pristine colors, fairly even shadows and highlights (but is not flat) is twilight light! 

This occurs 20 minutes after sunset and lasts about 45 minutes. Capitol Reef’s landscape is full of precipitous cliff faces, buttes and spires. That means these scenes have bright highlights and dark shadows which is difficult to create an all around nice image. This is where twilight light comes in handy!


When photographing canyons, this is a different story. Typically, canyons showcase their best colors or textures in high noon sunlight, when the camera is put away because the light is so harsh. This is a little secret to be able to photograph all day, to create beautiful images. Canyons become ever more special if they make “s” curves. Below I discuss why that is.

3Let's Talk CanyonsCapitol Reef has dozens of beautifully sculpted canyons but photographing them, finding them and accessing them can be quite the challenge! Below, I will present you a few to check out. Finding canyons with “s” curves is precisely what you want. This way you will see the reflecting, golden glows, possibly the best light that exists! Here is why: imagine a direct line (canyon) going east to west, with sunlight traveling the same direction, the light will blare directly to the canyon floor, all day long. That results in harsh and unpleasant light! When you add curves to the mix, the sun will shine on one wall, on a curve, while reflecting light onto the others walls, trees etc. i.e creating that amazing golden glow that canyons are infamous for! In the presence of that light, the shadows also hold amazing cool hues (which your camera will pick up better than your eyes). This offers contrast in color and in light, this is beyond beautiful for you and your viewers. 

If you come upon a north to south facing canyon, this will yield great results in the earlier morning hours. From about 9am to 11am will be the most optimal light. High noon being the least aesthetic time of day. With great light returning in the later afternoon to evening, 2pm - 6pm. As you can tell, timing some canyon takes persistence! Though, you can typically always find a few great curves in canyons no matter the time of day.

4Locations: Sunrise can be tricky, some scouting is usually necessary. If you’re willing to make an early morning drive, you have many options. Cathedral Valley is without question a very unique and photogenic area. You will be rewarded with grand views, spires, no crowds or noisy vehicles. The photographing opportunities are truly endless out there! Be aware - this is a remote area, make sure your vehicle is full on gas and you have enough water! Another option, that would allow you to see hundreds of miles to your north, east and west is to drive up Boulder Mountain. You can point your telephoto lens in any direction and have a hay-day! You will witness an overwhelming amount of land that will take your breath away. Since you are up at 9,000ft, you’re surrounded by aspens and ponderosa forests, lakes and streams. This is an ideal area to escape the heat. P.S fall colors are great up here. As for evening light, Sunset or Panoramic Point(s) are truly ideal for the last light show. You get to witness miles of the Waterpocket Fold getting bathed in flattering light! If you desire to be alone, drive the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. This will suit you well. Standing below precipitous cliffs that stretch out into the oblivion, offering immense depth to your image. If you drive toward Capitol Gorge Road, photograph from outside the canyon and incorporate the 7,000ft Golden Throne in your image. 

Additional Locations: Hiking the Hickman Bridge trail will surely blow your mind. Starting your hike along the Freemont river and rising in elevation to

gain a perspective on your surroundings. After only 0.9 miles you will arrive at the natural bridge. This hike is exposed to sunlight, be prepared. Cassidy Arch is one of my personal favorites the park has to offer. This hike gains a fair amount of elevation but dang, it is so worth it! Having a 360 view is something special. Being able to view Boulder Mountain, Thousand Lakes Mountain, Ferns Nipple and Golden Throne in one spot is a sight to be seen!

5. Save Yourself TimeCapitol Reef Photography Tours offers daily photography trips in and around Capitol Reef National Park. We have scouted locations for months on end, at all times of day, to find what works best! Though, we don’t just take you to amazing locations. We guide, instruct and share years of knowledge as professional artists. We will discuss composition, light, location, camera settings, editing and more! Whatever it is you need or want guidance on. Guests who join these trips leave with more confidence and understanding than they ever had before. Book a trip for an amazing photographic experience! 

Go to my website to book a trip, view landscape images, order prints and more! 

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