Bryce Canyon National Park – A Quick Guide To Photography

July 30, 2016 ·

QT Luong
Hoodoos and snow from Sunrise Point, winter sunrise. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
Hoodoos and snow from Sunrise Point, winter sunrise. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

The main attraction of Bryce Canyon National Park for visitors and photographers alike is Bryce Amphitheater. The first time I looked over the rim, I was astonished bythe innumerable brightly colored freestanding hoodoos, spires, fluted walls, and pinnacles.

Besides a short section of Hwy 17 crossing the park from east to west, the main park road travels on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau for 17 miles, offering easy access to overlooks. However, all the iconic views are located close to the park entrance, in the stretch from Sunrise Point to Bryce Point.

You can visit the park year-round. Due to its 8,000 to 9,000 feet elevation, it doesn’t get as hot as other Colorado Plateau locations in summer, although visitation is heavy at this time. Winter is maybe the most interesting season, as it multiplies the opportunities of contrasting verticality and ridges, blue shadows and red rock. It gets cold, however. As I was camping on my first visit there in November, I was shocked that the temperatures dropped to 0°F at night.

View of Bryce Amphitheater hoodoos from Sunset Point at dusk. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
View of Bryce Amphitheater hoodoos from Sunset Point at dusk. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

The densely packed, brightly colored hoodoos in Bryce Amphitheater are so stunning that any of the overlooks offer opportunities for striking images. However, my favorite is Sunset Point, situated within the amphitheater, rather than on the rim, as it offers striking views in several directions. Since Sunset Point is one of the most popular destinations in the park, with limited space, I would advise coming early to stake out your spot for sunrise. Alternatively, nearby Sunrise Point also offers an extensive view over the Queens Garden area, also best at sunrise, and there is more room to spread out there.

Despite its name, Sunset Point is excellent throughout the day, except at sunset. Since the amphitheater is east-facing, sunrise offers by far the most dramatic conditions, with warm and low light striking the hoodoos. However, there are numerous possibilities offered by the changing light. In mid-morning, you can shoot backlit to take advantage of the reflected light that makes the hoodoos glow from within. In the late afternoon, only the top of the hoodoos are lit, creating striking contrasts. At sunset, the hoodoos are in the shade of the rim, but 15 minutes later, the even, frontal light of dusk revealed the subtlety of the colors that are lost in direct sunlight, and the sky took on a deep dark blue color.

Douglas Fir in Wall Street Gorge, mid-day. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
Douglas Fir in Wall Street Gorge, mid-day. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

Overlooks are spectacular, but you shouldn’t miss hiking into the amphitheater to get a different perspective and sense of scale. Sunset Point happens to be the trailhead for the Navajo Trail (1.3-mile loop; 500-foot elevation gain).It is the most popular trail in the park, and for good reason.

Along the way, you pass two of the best-known sights within the amphitheater: Thor’s Hammer and Wall Street. Thor’s Hammer is a strikingly shaped hoodoo situated on the north loop of the trail. Because it stands out from its surroundings, there are a number of compositions possible, either from above or slightly below, all best at sunrise. On the south loop of the trail, Wall Street is a narrow corridor between two rows of tall hoodoos that soar high above you. Two tall Douglas fir trees grow straight between the walls. Craning your neck to catch a glimpse of the top is a very different experience from looking at the hoodoos from afar, and creates an intimacy with the landscape that results in more personal photographs.For an unusual perspective, I walked right to the base of one of the fir trees and pointed the camera straight up.

Although at midday, rock formations tend to merge when observed from the overlooks, from close and below, by choosing angles and making use of shadows or reflected light, it is possible to make photographs with depth even at that time of the day. Wall Street is in the shade most of the time, so it is a favorable midday location for photography. However, in winter, I had to be careful with my footing, since the trail stayed icy because the sun doesn’t reach the floor. The spots of rock that were hit directly by the sun were excessively bright compared to the rest of the scene. As I stood for a while waiting for the sun to move and those  “hot spots” to disappear, I began to feel the cold wind that tunneled through the gorge.

If you want to see more of the amphitheater from below, you can continue on the equally popular Queens Garden Trail (2.9-mile loop), emerging on the rim at Sunrise Point. Keep in mind that the park may look like a desert, but it is high country (8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation), and going up the canyon will be harder than hiking down.

Silent City in Bryce Amphitheater from Bryce Point, sunrise. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
Silent City in Bryce Amphitheater from Bryce Point, sunrise. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

Inspiration Point overlooks Silent City, which is the densest area of hoodoos found in the park. Similar to the other amphitheater overlooks, the light is best at sunrise, whereas at sunset the light comes from the wrong direction, leaving the hoodoos in the shade. At nearby Bryce Point, the angle of light at sunrise is more favorable than at Inspiration Point because it hits in front of the hoodoos. Both overlooks are higher and less crowded at sunrise than Sunset Point. Also, since you will be pointing your camera northward, the more southerly sunrise angle of the sun in winter illuminates the hoodoos better than the more northerly angle of summer. Hiking the relatively flat trail between Inspiration Point and Sunset Point lets you find solitude, new angles, and foregrounds of weathered trees. That trail is part of the 11-mile Rim Trail that follows the entire rim of the Bryce Amphitheater.

Forest seen through natural bridge. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
Forest seen through natural bridge. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

The Bryce Amphitheater ends at Bryce Point. Further south, instead of hoodoos, the view is dominated by forests contrasting with the red rock of Natural Bridge, a stone arch that spans 85 feet across and 125 feet high. The bridge is difficult to photograph because there are rails that limit viewpoints. In midmorning, the arch is backlit, but its underside catches an attractive warm glow from reflected light. In the afternoon, it is front lit, but shadows can be distracting because they break the shape of the arch. I waited for a passing cloud to eliminate them.

Bristlecone pine tree at sunset. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
Bristlecone pine at sunset. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

Rainbow Point marks the end of the main park road, as well as the highest point in the park (9,100 feet). As you look  northward, the whole park stretches before you with a view that is best photographed at sunrise. Yovimpa Point faces south. From there, you stand on top of the Pink Cliffs out of which the Bryce Amphitheater hoodoos have been carved, overlooking a subalpine forest with views stretching out to the Four Corners area. They are well lit from the late afternoon until after sunset. The Pink Cliffs are the topmost level of the sequence of rock layers called the Grand Staircase, whose steps are named for the dominant color of rock: Pink, Grey, White, Vermillion, and Chocolate. Yovimpa Point is one of the only places where the Grand Staircase can be seen.

I hiked the quiet 1-mile Bristlecone Loop Trail, which is the easiest in the park and follows the rim, passing multibranched specimens of bristlecone pine, some of which are almost 2,000 years old. The trees are grayish, but in the last light of sunset, their color matched those of the hoodoos. Because I was photographing with the sun at my back, which maximizes the color, I couldn’t use a wide-angle lens because my shadow would intrude in the picture. I stepped back and used a focal length slightly longer than normal.

Water Canyon from hoodoo window. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.
Water Canyon from hoodoo window. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.

Because it is accessed through Hwy 12 rather than the main park road,Water Canyon is a much quieter area and is unusual because only its top is covered with hoodoos, while a stream flows its base.The mostly flat 1-mile (round-trip) trail ends at a grotto filled with moss in the summer. My first visit to the cave was in November when thin ice stalactites filled it. In a late March visit, I was surprised to find them much thicker, and less photogenic. The area around Mossy Cave has several natural arches that I enjoy scrambling to explore. I made the photograph just when the shadows were about to creep up the rock formations.

bryce-canyon-map

The text of this article is excerpted from Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks


 Q T Luong
August 2016

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QT Luong is a full-time photographer from California, known for being the first to photograph all 59 US National Parks - in large format. Ken Burns featured him in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009). His photographs, published in dozens of countries around the world, have been the subject several magazine profiles, solo gallery and museum exhibits. He the author and photographer of "Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America's National Parks" (treasuredlandsbook.com), a large format book where photographs of the 59 US National Parks are augmented with detailed photography locations notes from which this series of articles is drawn.

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