Sunrise Photography in the Zion Backcountry

hiking in Zion National Park, Utah

Hiker walks up a slickrock pool as first light hits cliffs above, Zion National Park, Utah

The first week of November is usually my favorite week to be in Zion Canyon in Zion National Park for the peak of fall colors.  There are many other photographers who like this week as well.  I saw more tripods in Zion last week than ever before!  Trouble is, few (to my advantage) venture very far from the road.   On our way up to the east end above the tunnel, we made a quick pit stop at the Human History Museum (the old visitor center.)  Already there were some 20 vehicles parked and 30 shooters lined up to catch first light on the West Temple and the Towers of the Virgin.  This is probably the most popular sunrise spot in the park.  While you can get some very good shots from here and other roadside pullouts, Zion offers equally as outstanding off road and off trail photo ops at sunrise and sunset.   All ya gotta do is get up early and hoof it a little bit with your headlamp.

This year the colors were well past their peak during this time.  Time to adjust your thinking and “shoot what is happening.”  Recent rains and an approaching cold front told me to get up early and catch a colorful sunrise and reflections in slickrock pools.  We scouted one of our  “go to” canyons on the eastern end of the park the day before.   Sure enough, plenty of water in the pools – except this morning they were frozen!   OK, I had to break up the ice a bit with my tripod before I managed to catch Lauri hiking as first light hit the cliffs on the north side of the park road.  A little pop with an off-camera speedlight makes the shot.  In ten minutes it was over.  Light was ho-hum the rest of the day.

fall colors in Zion National Park

The Virgin River and The Watchman in afternoon light with waning fall colors, Zion National Park, Utah.

Adventure Hike and Shoot in “The Subway”, Zion National Park, Utah.

Young female hiker hiking by the often photographed log located in the upper portion of the Subway (Left Fork of North Creek) in Zion National Park

Jordan hiking by the often photographed log in the upper Subway. Hiking adventure in “The Subway” Zion National Park that involves route finding, downclimbing, swimming, and rappeling on a 9 mile one-way hike from the top down the Left Fork of North Creek.

I love this hike and love shooting in this kind of environment. We spent 12 hours, hiking, swimming, downclimbing, and rappelling with lots of gear (wetsuits, helmets, climbing harnesses and hardware, food, water, dry bags, rope, and camera and lighting gear.) At least 5 of those hours were devoted to just photography. With swimming and rappelling down a waterfall we had to pay close attention to keeping your gear dry. On many of the shots we employed wireless TTL strobe lighting. With everything in dry bags, getting gear out for our shots was a labor intensive process. Even though it was in the 90’s in Zion that day, the water in the Subway is frigid and the wetsuits were a must. The slow pace worked out great as we hit the top of the Subway in the desired warm reflected light.

Young female hiker wading the first of several very cold pools of water in the Subway (Left Fork of North Creek) in Zion National Park

Jordan wading the first of very cold pools.

With Lauri and I on this trip was Brooke Bryner who used to model for us and is now an emerging family and portrait photographer near Ogden, Utah. My images of her have appeared in a few catalogs and calendars. Brooke’s younger sisters, Jordan and Madison, were great talent and assistants on this adventure. The day was a great combination of a shoot with very helpful assistants, a good workout, and a sister’s day getaway.

Three 20-something year old sisters having fun splashing through water in the middle of their Subway hiking adventure in Zion National Park

Three sisters having a blast on the upper Right Fork before needing a wetsuit.

Three sisters holding some of the mating frogs found in the Subway hike (Left Fork of North Creek) in Zion National Park

Checking out some of the many mating frogs.

Young female hiker on the last rappel in the Subway hike (Left Fork of North Creek) in Zion National Park

Jordan on the last rappel.

Female hiker walking by pools in the Subway section of the Left Fork of North Creek hike in Zion National Park

Jordan on the lower part of the Subway.

Technical Canyon Hike in Zion National Park’s “The Subway”

by New Mexico adventure photographer Michael DeYoung

I’m also always searching for the ultimate lightweight adventure photographer outfit that gets me into hard to reach places without sacrificing professional results. I haven’t found it yet but I’ll keep trying. An all day hike in Zion National Park’s Subway from the top down put my “bare bones” outfit to the test.

The top-down Subway trip is a 9 mile hike that involves cross country route finding, steep down climbing, rappelling, jewel numbing swims, a brutal nearly continuously wet 6 mile hike out, ending with a punishing 1000 foot ascent to the bottom trail head. In addition to photo gear we packed a wetsuit, canyoneering shoes, harness, rope and rappelling hardware, and all the normal day hiking gear of extra dry clothes, food, water, etc. Though we have most of our own gear, you can get all the top quality gear you need for this hike, including the wetsuits, shoes, rappelling gear, canyoneering pack, good advice, and directions – and even a shuttle – from Zion Adventure Company in Springdale.

Young couple play around on the slickrock while heading toward the entrance to the Subway hike decent, Zion National Park

Youthful energy early in the day. Hiking cross country on slickrock heading toward the entrance of the Subway

Because this was a shoot and I took two hikers that had never done this before, the day took 13 hours. In mid-October that meant all available daylight with a crack of dawn departure starting at 8000 feet at a chilly 28 degrees.


The lightest one body and lens outfit I have is a Canon 50D with the 10-22 EF-S. Remember that not sacrificing quality thing? The quality of this outfit just doesn’t hold a candle to the pro full-frame bodies and L lenses. So, it stays home.

The best body for this shoot would have been a 5D Mark II. Problem is I don’t have a 5D Mark II so I hauled the much heavier and trusty 1Ds Mark III. Canyon shooting is wide angle country so a full frame body is the only option for me. Canyons are a brutal environment for cameras too. There’s a constant threat of getting wet, exposed to windblown sand, and falling and banging around. This may not sound like the smartest place to bring a $6,000 camera. But the 1Ds is made for putting up with this kind of punishment. In retrospect, I’m glad I brought it.

Young couple check the topo map at the beginning of the Subway hike ,Zion National Park

Above the entrance to the Subway from the top. Checking the map for our position. Following visual clues from the guidebook instructions proved to be more useful than the map and GPS for route finding. The “old fashion” way worked better!

I went with only one lens my 17-40 mm and 2 580EX II flashes. The strobes were outfitted with the indispensable and lightweight Radio Poppers which let me place a light with wireless TTL almost anywhere I want. Completing the strobe accessories were a Honl 1/8” grid and some warming gels. Instead of a second lens, I would rather have the lighting capability of the 2 strobes. Unfortunately, one of the strobes went down early in the day so I only had one light that I could fire wirelessly from the Canon ST-E2 transmitter.

Young couple hike around deep pool of cold water in the Subway hike, Zion National Park

After downclimbing into the canyon this was our last pool we were able to skirt around before donning wetsuits and canyoneering shoes.

For support I brought my Gitzo backpack carbon fiber tripod with the Really Right Stuff B-25 ball head. The whole thing is 2.3 pounds. I love that little ball head and it’s amazing how well it holds the 1Ds with 17-40 attached. I wouldn’t use it for general purpose shooting but in tight spots where weight and size is an issue, this tripod and head combo get the job done. All the gear gets packed in a Watershed dry bag. Because we had to keep all the gear waterproof for the 2 mile technical section, every time I stopped to shoot it was 10-15 minutes just unpacking and repacking gear.

Image of male hiker holding day pack over his head while crossing a waist deep pool of cold water in the Subway hike, Zion National Park

Brigham wades an icy pool without a wetsuit.

It’s good that you easily forget about sore backs and aging aching joints after a pizza and a good brew. Already hit the reset button in my brain. I’ll be back for another punishing Subway adventure photography hike in a heartbeat.

Young couple swimming through deep pool in the Subway hike, Zion National Park, canyoneering

Brigham and Madison swimming an over the head deep pool in the upper Subway.

Female canyoneer rappelling in the uppoer portion of the Subway, Zion National Park

Madison rappelling in the upper Subway. The drops are short and easy but this one put us into a chest deep pool.

Young couple hold their backpacks over their heads while walking through deep pool in their wetsuits in the Subway, Zion National Park

Wading in wetsuits in the upper Subway.

Young couple walk through shallow water in one of Zion National Park's Subway hike pools

The Subway gets deeper and more interesting as you descend past the second rappel.

Male wading in a narrow pool in Zion National Park's Subway hike

Brigham wading in a narrow pool in the Subway.

Young couple of hikers hiking in Zion National Park's Subway

Brigham and Madison standing at the entrance of the Subway after changing into dry clothes. You can reach as far as this point from a round trip hike from the bottom up.

How to Create Fall Photography in Zion National Park

My favorite autumn location is usually “the last place I shot” which for fall colors is Zion National Park. Shooting here in early November evokes feelings of having saved the best for last as the peak of autumn colors occurs after the aspens have fully shed and snow is flying in the high country. Fall photography in Zion is no secret. Just drive over the Canyon Junction Bridge during the last week of October into the first week of November late in the day and you will usually see dozens of landscape photographers lined up on the bridge trying to capture a cliché shot of the Virgin River below the Watchman. You won’t find me there. I will search out my own favorite places for adventure and landscape photography. I will share a few of these locations below.

Terry Thompson (High Mesa Productions) photographing sunrise at Canyon Overlook

Photo 1 – Sunrise at Canyon Overlook in Zion National Park

There are three things that draw me to Zion in fall. First is the Virgin River. Water is my favorite landscape subject. I love the blue green hues of the Virgin in low water and its complimentary contrast to the warm sandstone cliffs. Opportunities abound for capturing reflections of fall colors on the water’s surface. Second is the canyon or bigtooth maples that are abundant here. Cottonwoods are nice too but the maples are the star tree for me as they turn yellow, orange and red. I love getting into groves of them when their colorful leaves on the ground mix with lichen colored sandstone and green grasses that create a colorful tapestry. The main attraction though is the signature light of the Southwest, warm reflected light. This is the light that creates the ethereal glow famously seen in many slot canyon photos and in images of the Narrows. Sunlit vertical sandstone walls can “bounce” reflected light onto nearby shaded trees and shaded sandstone walls.

This scenario abounds in Zion both on a small and large scale. The best example of reflected light on a large scale is evident right from the Temple of Sinewava parking lot. Go there in mid-day and look toward the river into the sun. The enormous parabolic sunlit wall behind you as you are facing the river reflects an amazing amount of light on the shaded side of the Pulpit. You just need to train your eyes to look for this reflected warm soft light. It makes for many photo opportunities during mid-day when sunlight is too harsh for panoramic style landscape images. The key to shooting subjects in reflected light is to completely eliminate any sunlit surface or open sky in your frame.

So where will you find me on a typical day of digital landscape photography in Zion? For sunrise I prefer the East end. If you start at the entrance gate you can see the low angle morning light hitting Checkerboard Mesa and other high buttes as you travel west toward Zion Canyon. If you don’t mind a short hike at dawn, try Canyon Overlook (photo 1) and watch the sun light up the West Temple. For a hardier sunrise shoot, try hiking out to Northgate Peaks off Kolob Terrace Road for a sunrise panoramic. After the sun washes out about an hour after sunrise I begin looking for tighter landscapes with reflected light. Walk in upper Pine Creek or any side drainage off East End road and you will find maples and sandstone patterns in reflected light. In mid-day, I really like the Riverside Walk. This mile plus paved trail has many river access points and usually lots of maples and again it is easy to find shaded reflected light (photo 2).

Canyon maples below the north face of  Angel’s Landing along the Virgin River

Photo 2a – Canyon maples below Angel’s Landing

Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River along Riverside Walk in Zion National Park

Photo 2b -Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River

On a separate day, hike the Narrows up to “Wall Street” making sure you are there in late morning to mid-day. The Narrows is just fantastic for unlimited reflected light photography even if you miss the peak of fall colors. Be sure to stop by Zion Adventure Company for a complete orientation, hiking guide and river hiking outfitting if needed. For sunset, especially after a clearing storm I like to head out of the park to get a bigger sky and more of a pulled back view. My favorite place is to head toward Grafton. There are several points en route to Grafton to photograph the golden cottonwoods along the Virgin and last rays of light, alpenglow and even colorful clouds on Mount Kinesava (photo 3), Bridge Mountain and the East Temple and other prominent points in the park.

Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava at sunset along Grafton Road

Photo 3 – Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava

There are also many other good vantage points if you head up toward Eagle Craggs or Smisthsonian Butte. Just remember wherever you go, finding and waiting for good light, using a tripod and other solid photographic technique will result in better photos than just having a super duper pro camera with many megapixels.

Photo Captions.

Zion fall photo 1: Photographer Terry Thompson (High Mesa Productions) from Taos, New Mexico, photographing sunrise from Canyon Overlook. Shot with Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 24-105, Terry lit with a 580 EX II fired wirelessly with ½ cut CTO gel and Honl 1/8 grid.

Zion fall photo 2a: Canyon maples below the north face of Angel’s Landing along the Virgin River. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 17-40 lens, polarizer

Zion fall photo 2b: Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River along Riverside Walk. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 70-200 lens with polarizer

Zion fall photo 3: Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava at sunset along Grafton Road. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 24-105 lens, 3 stop graduated neutral density filter