The best opportunities to capture Grand Canyon photography are found away from the crowds — and closer than you may realize
More than six million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year and the crowds can be unbelievable. And nearly all of those six million tourists hit the south rim, and most of them don’t venture more than a few hundred yards from their cars or the major viewpoints and shuttle stops. However, with a little imagination, you can have the Grand Canyon to yourself. Really!
If you’re familiar with outdoor photography, you know about the “golden hour” — the hour before sunrise and after sunset. Along with unusual weather (in Arizona that means “clouds”), the golden hour really increases your chance of getting photos that aren’t the same tired shots.
First, you have to get into the park. Wait three hours in the entrance line and you will miss the best light. Here’s the trick — arrive early. It’s best to stay in a hotel or campground inside the park so you are already inside, but you’re going to need advance reservations. Or, you can stay in a hotel in Tusayan, just outside the south entrance of the park. And there is a Kaibab National Forest campground, Ten-X, but you’ll need reservations for these, too. For campground reservations in both the national park and the national forest, go to www.recreation.gov. Finally, you can camp wherever you like on the national forest south of the park in “dispersed sites,” except along the highway. You can’t do this in Grand Canyon National Park.
So you’re staying just outside the park and want to shoot the morning golden light. First, plan your day with a site or app such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE); www.photoephemeris.com. Get the time and direction of sunrise. Then get into the park early; as much as two hours before sunrise, depending on where you’re going in the park. The good news is that there is no entrance line two hours before sunrise.
Where to Shoot
Yeah, right, the most popular viewpoint of all. A good 5.99 million of the 6 million visitors go here, but bear with me. Park your vehicle at the Canyon View Information Plaza about 45 minutes before sunrise and walk the quarter mile to the viewpoint. The trick to avoiding the crowd is to turn right and walk east along the Rim Trail until you can look back at Mather Point. The towering fin of limestone lights up with the coming sunrise and it’s a great opportunity for shots of the ant-like hordes enjoying the sunrise at the top of the drop. This is a perfect example of getting away from the crowds by walking a short distance.
This paved road closely follows the rim west of Grand Canyon Village for 7 miles to Hermits Rest and the Hermit Trailhead. From March 1 through Nov. 30, access is by free shuttle bus only; private vehicles are banned. But it’s still possible to catch the sunrise by taking the first shuttle of the day, leaving from the Hermits Rest shuttle transfer point near the head of the Bright Angel Trail 1 hour before sunrise. You can catch the last bus back one hour after sunset.
The beauty of the shuttle system is you can ride to one of the viewpoint stops, then walk the Rim Trail east or west to get away from the crowds where you can get a unique perspective for your shots. You can even walk to the next stop and pick up the shuttle again. For sunrise, I recommend Mohave Point, and for sunset, Pima Point. As a side note, both are great options in the winter when you can reach them by car.
Desert View Drive
This paved road runs east 25 miles from Grand Canyon Village to Desert View. There is no shuttle service and it’s open all year to private vehicles. It features Moran Point, one of the finest places on the south rim to photograph foreground formations. Sunrise is often spectacular over the Palisades of the Desert and is a better option than sunset to avoid the crowds.
And now the secret: unlike the Hermit Road, the Desert View drive does not closely follow the rim. There are many wide spots to park along the road that are clear of the pavement. From your pullout you can walk north cross-country less than a mile to the rim. If you have a trail GPS unit, save the location of your vehicle as a waypoint; otherwise, you may find yourself walking the road to find your vehicle. There are few landmarks in the open forest of ponderosa pine and juniper. Papago Point is a little more than a half mile of cross-country walking but provides a lonely place to shoot sunrises. Pinal Point does the same for sunsets.
Below the Rim
Day hiking on the canyon trails doesn’t involve the hassle of a permit; even a short descent can open up new perspectives. Just make sure you carry plenty of water and snacks during the summer. The temperature rises as you descend. The classic dayhike is the descent to Cedar Ridge on the Kaibab Trail, which puts you about 1,000 feet below the rim on an open ridge. Here you’ll find great views and O’Neill Butte to provide foreground perspective.
A short descent of the upper switchbacks of the Grandview Trail gives you better foregrounds than the railed viewpoint. The Hermit Trail drops into Hermit Basin where a short walk toward Santa Maria Spring will reveal some great shots. Likewise, walking the Dripping Spring Trail from its junction with the Hermit Trail provides great perspectives at the head of Hermit Canyon.
In the Backcountry
Of course, nothing beats the crowds like a multiday backpack trip, especially off-trail. That gets you into areas that often don’t see a single human in a year. But it’s not for everyone. Off-trail hiking in the Grand Canyon is some of the toughest hiking in the world. Not only must you be fit and have some on-trail experience, you need to plan the journey around access to water sources. Your reward is that you can fill your camera with images of scenes that no one else has captured.
The tourists complain and ask for entrance fee refunds when clouds fill the canyon, but the photographer delights. Weather here is rarely monolithic; instead, there are breaks in the clouds that create mysterious vistas across the depths of the canyon. And snow in the canyon really brings out the colors and depth.
Don’t get fixated on your wide-angle lens. Because the Grand Canyon is not a single great canyon but instead a labyrinth of hundreds of side canyons, ridges, cliff bands, temples, and buttes. There is endless detail to shoot. During the first or last rays of the sun, these details pop out and a single place along a trail or on the rim can give you a rich variety of shots.
Think inside the box, er, frame!
BRUCE GRUBBS is an author with a serious problem: he doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up. His heart focused outdoors, he has worked at wildland fire fighting, running a mountain shop, flying airplanes, shooting photos, and writing books. He is the author of numerous camping and hiking books, including “Grand Canyon Tips: The Local’s Guide to Avoiding the Crowds and Getting the Most Out of Your Visit.” For more on Bruce Grubbs, visit www.brucegrubbs.com.