My Two Favorite Places to Photograph in the Southern Utah
Words and photographs copyright Scott Bourne
Southern Utah offers much for the landscape and travel photographer, but two places you just have to see are Monument Valley and Goosenecks State Park.
Monument Valley offers an iconic view of the desert Southwest. The rock monoliths that rise from the desert floor in the 30,000-acre park are inescapably mesmerizing, and it’s one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been. The Mittens and Merrick Butte form the most visually interesting formation, and you can photograph it from close up or miles away and it’s still stupendous.
I like shooting the rock formations from multiple locations. You can extend your shooting day here by shooting backlit scenes and HDR.
Goosenecks State Park
Located near Mexican Hat, Utah, this small park affords impressive views of one of the most striking examples of a rare geologic formation, known as an entrenched meander. In fact, this is probably the best example you can find on the North American continent. The San Juan River twists and turns through the meander, flowing a distance of more than six miles while advancing one and half miles west on its way to Lake Powell. Gaze at the results of 300 million years of geological activity, where the San Juan River winds and carves its way through the desert 1,000 feet below.
It’s a wide-angle shot, and the best times to shoot here are at dawn through sunrise and sunset through dusk, depending on the time of year.
Southern Utah is a special place. It’s a spiritual place. It’s almost otherworldly. Monument Valley was created as material eroded from the ancestral Rocky Mountains, and was deposited and cemented into sandstone. The formations you see in the valley were left over after the forces of erosion worked their magic on the sandstone. A geologic uplift caused the surface to bulge and crack. Wind and water then eroded the land, and the cracks deepened and widened into gullies and canyons, which eventually became the scenery you see today.
Where to Go:
To reach the refuge from Socorro, head south on I-25 to the San Antonio exit (#139). Follow the exit ramp and you’ll wind up on SR 380 for about 1/4 mile, after which you’ll reach the light at Highway 1. Turn right (south). In approximately nine miles, you’ll reach the Visitor Center on your right, and just after that, the refuge entrance and Fee Booth are on your left.
When to Go:
The winter in Monument Valley and at Goosenecks is often my favorite time to go. The crowds are smaller (sometimes you seem to have the place to yourself), the hotels offer lower-cost (off-season) room rates, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get clouds or even snow.
If you go in the summer (when everyone else does), you’ll have a better chance of capturing big, dramatic storm clouds due to the monsoon season. But you’ll compete with hundreds of photographers for space and it will cost more. It’s a trade-off.
Where to Stay:
The View Motel located inside the park offers a photographer’s dream angle on the Mittens. You can literally photograph the sunrise and sunset from your balcony without ever moving 10 feet from your hotel room. It’s a little more expensive than other options but everyone should stay here at least once. If you can afford it and it’s available, try to get a room on the top floor, furthest from the office. That’s the best angle but literally anywhere on the hotel grounds offers an amazing shot. It’s also a reasonably short drive from here to Goosenecks.
Indian Rte. 42, Oljato-Monument Valley, AZ 84536
If the View Hotel is booked, your next best bet is Gouldings Lodge, which also offers great views of the Mittens but not the proximity.
1000 Main St, Oljato, UT 84536
Stuff to Bring:
Bring cash. It’s $20 per person to enter Monument Valley Tribal Park and drive the 17-mile loop through the red-rock formations. Bring $5.00 to Goosenecks for the day-use fee (per car) with up to eight people. It’s $2.00 per person for bus tour groups.
Gear-wise, you’ll need a tripod, a camera with wide-angle lenses, and if you want to do it, this is a great place for both photographing the night sky and for time-lapse shooting. (If you stay at the View Motel you can shoot the time-lapse in your pajamas from your balcony—just saying…)
Remember that Monument Valley is tribal land. Obey local laws and customs. If you want to pay a guide you can go off the main road, and if you have a few days I highly recommend doing this. If you only have a day or two, drive the main road and then work the areas outside the park. For instance, try the iconic shot of the valley from mile marker 13 on Highway 163, with the highway leading the eye to the rock formations.