The Ultimate Mesa Arch Sunrise in Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch at Sunrise in Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch is the crown jewel of Canyonlands National Park. It’s one of the best hikes and top things to do in the park, and photos of Mesa Arch are everywhere, from screen savers to galleries.

There’s no better time to visit Mesa Arch than sunrise. The early morning light illuminates the canyon and brings the orange rock of the arch alive. So whether you’re visiting Canyonlands as a quick stop on your Utah road trip or spending a few days here, catching a Mesa Arch sunrise is a must.

This guide covers everything you need to know for visiting Mesa Arch at sunrise, including the best time to visit, where to stay nearby, how to get to the trailhead, and expert tips for a seamless experience.

Why Visit Mesa Arch at Sunrise

While there’s plenty of beautiful arches in Utah, none are more photogenic than Mesa Arch. The wide arch creates a picture frame, capturing magnificent views of Buck Canyon behind it. From Mesa Arch, you can see for miles out to the La Sal Mountains and overlook White Rim. With views like this, it’s easy to see why Mesa Arch is a famous photography spot.

Catching sunrise at Mesa Arch is a popular activity because it’s easily accessible. While the trail is rugged and not handicap accessible, it is an easy hike manageable for most visitors. While the sun rises, you’ll appreciate the short, relatively flat walk out to the viewpoint!

Located in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Mesa Arch is close to all the best spots in Canyonlands National Park and fits perfectly into a one-day trip.

Snow atop Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

When to Visit Mesa Arch and Canyonlands National Park

The Island in the Sky District, home to Mesa Arch, is open year-round. However, the most popular time to visit Mesa Arch is in the Spring or Fall when temperatures are comfortable. 

To avoid crowds, consider visiting from November to March instead. Crowds are highest from April to June and September to October. From December to February, temperatures are consistently below freezing, and crowds are non-existent. In the winter, you may even capture some snow on the beautiful arch!

The best time of day to visit Mesa Arch is at sunrise! The early morning light makes the canyon behind the arch glow, basked in oranges and yellows. The sunrise causes Mesa Arch to catch fire (not literally, but it looks like it!). Mesa Arch’s underside turns bright orange, like hot coals in a fire. This phenomenon alone is enough to make a sunrise trip to Mesa Arch worth it.

Since sunrise times vary based on the time of year, the exact hour to visit will depend. Use this sunrise tool to check the precise sunrise time for your trip. For example, in summer, sunrise is at 6 AM, which means an early wake-up call. However, in early November, sunrise is at 8 AM.

Read More: The Best Time to Visit Zion National Park

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park at sunrise

Where to Stay Near the Mesa Arch Trailhead

Staying close to Mesa Arch will reduce your drive time when visiting at sunrise. On the other hand, staying further away in Moab means an early wake-up call, especially in the summer when sunrise is already early.

There are no lodges in Canyonlands National Park. The only way to stay in the park is by camping. In the Island in the Sky District near Mesa Arch, there is one campground: Willow Flat Campground. There are 12 sites available here on a first-come, first-served basis year-round. In addition, there are campgrounds in parks surrounding Canyonlands, including Kayenta Campground in Dead Horse Point State Park and Horsethief Campground in the Bureau of Land Management area.

Moab has the best places to stay if you aren’t interested in camping. This small town is located just under an hour from Mesa Arch and offers plenty of hotels, motels, and Airbnbs.

The best hotels in Moab are:

Read More: The Ultimate 8-Day Utah National Park Road Trip

Dirt path and shrubs on the Mesa Arch Trail
Views along the trail to Mesa Arch

How to Get to Mesa Arch Trailhead

You’ll want to arrive at least 45 minutes before the stated sunrise time. Early arrival gives you time to hike out to the arch and get a spot at the viewpoint (it will be crowded!).

If you’re staying in Moab, you’ll want to leave your accommodation at least 1.5 hours before sunrise. From downtown Moab to Mesa Arch, it’s just under an hour’s drive.

You’ll enter at the Island in the Sky entrance of Canyonlands National Park to get to Mesa Arch. Canyonlands charges a $30 entrance fee per vehicle. If you’re visiting multiple Utah national parks, you can get the America the Beautiful Pass to save money. This pass gets you into all 400+ national park sites.

From the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, follow Grand View Point Road, the main route through the park, another 6 miles to the Mesa Arch Trailhead. This small Mesa Arch parking lot has about 25 spots, plus several RV spaces. If you’re arriving 30-45 minutes before sunrise, you shouldn’t have an issue getting a parking spot.

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Mesa Arch at Sunrise in Canyonlands National Park

Overview of the Mesa Arch Trail

  • Trailhead: Mesa Arch Trailhead
  • Round Trip Distance: 0.7 miles
  • Elevation: 88 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Time to Hike One-Way: 15 minutes
  • Pet Policy: Pets are not allowed
  • Facilities: Pit toilet at the trailhead
  • See the trail on AllTrails

The Mesa Arch trail can be hiked as a short loop, totaling 0.7 miles in distance. While an easy trail, the path is rocky and uneven, navigating through rock formations In some spots, the trail crosses slickrock. For this reason, I recommend hiking in proper footwear, like hiking boots or hiking shoes, and avoiding inappropriate footwear like flip flops.

The trail ends at the viewpoint of Mesa Arch. Even at sunrise, expect to see large crowds here. Most photographers choose to set up in a line in front of Mesa Arch with tripods. If you arrive early enough, you can find a spot to capture the beautiful sunrise and the light rays coming through the arch.

If photo spots at the arch are taken when you arrive, don’t stress! There are plenty of stunning locations around the arch with different angles of the surrounding canyon. The arch continues to stay illuminated for at least an hour after sunrise, so you’ll be able to get that perfect shot after some photographers leave. To capture the entire arch, be sure to bring a wide angle lens and brush up on your manual camera settings!

Rock formations and mountains in the distance in Canyonlands
Rock formations and La Sal Mountains in the distance as seen from Mesa Arch

Even if you aren’t a photographer, a trip to Mesa Arch at sunrise is worth it. You can always take beautiful photos on your cell phones! The views are some of the best in Utah’s national parks, highlighted even more at dawn. Plus, after sunrise, you’ll be able to beat the crowds to other top attractions in Canyonlands!

Mesa Arch Sunrise Photo Tips
Proper lighting is essential since you’ll be hiking out to the arch in the dark before sunrise. I recommend hiking with a headlamp to keep your hands free. My favorite headlamp is the Black Diamond Storm 400 – it even comes with a red light setting if you’re hoping to stargaze before the hike!

Tips for a Canyonlands Sunrise

  • Arrive at least 45 minutes before sunrise. To beat some of the crowds at Mesa Arch and capture the rising sun, plan to arrive at the Mesa Arch trailhead at least 45 minutes before the stated sunrise time.
  • Be patient and expect crowds at the arch. There will be crowds at the arch unless you’re visiting in winter. However, if all the “good” vantage spots are taken, don’t stress out! There are plenty of other beautiful places nearby to capture the sunrise over the canyon from a different perspective. Many photographers will leave after sunrise during golden hour, and spots will open up to photograph the arch.
  • Respect others are the arch. Please be respectful when taking photos here. Everyone is here to capture the same stunning landscape. Allow others to take pictures after you’ve gotten your shot. If you’re hoping to take photos of yourself in front of the arch, wait until after sunrise. Waiting will ensure you’re not putting yourself in any other photographer’s sunrise photos.
  • Stay off the arches and leave no trace. It is hazardous and damaging to climb on any arch. While you can walk up to the edge of the arch, never climb on top of Mesa Arch. Walking on the arch can cause damage and result in punishment from the park service.
  • Get a national park pass ahead of time. Canyonlands National Park charges a $30 entrance fee per vehicle. To save time and money when visiting multiple Utah parks, get a national park pass. The America the Beautiful pass gives you access to all 400+ national park sites. Get your national park pass here for only $80.
  • Wear proper hiking boots or shoes. The trail to Mesa Arch is rocky and even, with slickrock in parts. Since you’ll be hiking before sunrise in the dark, it’s even more critical to have proper footwear. I highly recommend either wearing sturdy hiking boots or low-profile hiking shoes with good grip.
  • Pack a headlamp for hiking in the dark. Sunrise hikes require hiking out in the dark. For your safety, I highly recommend using a headlamp instead of a flashlight to keep your hands free. The Black Diamond Storm 400 is a high-powered, budget-friendly headlamp that offers multiple brightness settings and long battery life.
  • Bring a tripod for taking sunrise photos. I recommend packing a tripod for your camera to get those perfect sunrise photos and early morning shots. A lightweight carbon fiber tripod can fit in your hiking backpack and is easy to carry for the short hike to Mesa Arch.
  • Carry plenty of water, even at sunrise. Canyonlands in an arid, desert environment. Even on a cold morning, you should pack plenty of water. It’s easier to dehydrate here at 6,000 feet elevation with low humidity. Read more here about the ten hiking essentials.
Great views from the side of Mesa Arch at sunrise

What to Do After the Mesa Arch Hike

While Mesa Arch is the most popular attraction in Canyonlands National Park, there’s plenty more to see and do! After hiking to Mesa Arch, consider these extra activities to fill out your time in Canyonlands:

  • Drive the scenic Grand View Point Road through the Island in the Sky District, stopping at Grand View Point Overlook, Buck Canyon Overlook, Green River Overlook, and Shafer Canyon Overlook
  • Hike the Grand View Point Trail, a short hike to beautiful canyon views
  • Drive White Rim Road in the Island Sky District, a 2-day rugged backcountry road trip along the canyon floor
  • Hike the Aztec Butte Trail to a historic Puebloan home
  • See the sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park, just outside of Canyonlands National Park

Arches National Park is under an hour from Canyonlands National Park, just north of Moab. For more arch views, don’t miss Delicate Arch and The Windows section in Arches!

Are you planning to visit every Utah national park? Then, check out this post on the best 8-day Utah itinerary.

Read More: The Ultimate 8-Day Utah National Park Road Trip

Grand Viewpoint in Canyonlands National Park
Grand Viewpoint Trail in Canyonlands

Frequently Asked Questions About Mesa Arch at Sunrise

Is Mesa Arch better at sunrise or sunset?

Mesa Arch is better at sunrise. Since your view through the arch faces to the east, you’ll be able to capture the signature lens flares and the fiery orange inside of the arch. While beautiful at sunset too, the lighting is optimal at sunrise.

Is sunrise at Mesa Arch worth it?

Sunrise at Mesa Arch is worth it! The lighting at sunrise is unlike any time of day, with the fiery orange glow of the arch and the soft golden illumination of Buck Canyon. Crowds also tend to be fewer at sunrise than at the peak of the afternoon at Mesa Arch.

How long is the hike to Mesa Arch?

The easy trail to Mesa Arch can be hiked as a 0.7-mile loop from the Mesa Arch Trailhead. The trail takes roughly 30 minutes to hike round trip.

Can you stand on Mesa Arch?

It is illegal to walk on any arches in Canyonlands or Arches National Parks. Walking on the arches is not only dangerous but damages the arch over time. Therefore, do not walk, stand, or climb on Mesa Arch.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Mesa Arch at Sunrise

Sunrise is hands down the best time to photograph and visit Mesa Arch! The short, 0.7-mile hike to Mesa Arch is one of the most popular things to do in Canyonlands National Park.

Be sure to arrive at least 45 minutes before the stated sunrise time. If there’s crowds when you arrive, don’t worry! The arch stays aglow for at least an hour after sunrise, giving you plenty of time to capture that special photo.

Are you planning a Utah road trip? Don’t miss these posts:

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