Fantastic Photos Taken from Parking Lots

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Moose literally a few hundred yards from the parking lot at Brainard Lake, Colorado. photos from parking lots
Moose literally a few hundred yards from the parking lot at Brainard Lake, Colorado. Rich Grant photos

You Don’t Have to Walk Far to Take Famous Photos in the West

By Rich Grant

Recognize this famous place? You will without all of these people in the photo!
Recognize this famous place? You will without all of these people in the photo!

It’s always a shock to discover that an iconic photo you’ve seen many times – a picture that seems to scream wilderness and adventure — was actually taken from a parking lot.

best of 2020

Or pretty damn close.  So it came as a great surprise last year during a long road trip around the West to learn just how easy some of these classic views are to capture.

Of course, we hiked trails into canyons, struggled up peaks, and toured off the beaten paths at these places too.

But still, some of our favorite views were literally right near the parking lot, including seeing elk and moose.

This poor horse stands in the sun all day at Monument Valley so people can take photos.
This poor horse stands in the sun all day at Monument Valley so people can take photos.

This brings up an interesting thought during these days of COVID-19 social distancing.   There are a lot of people who are older, at greater risk from the pandemic, or have difficulty walking.  Some people don’t have

time to just write off 2020.

For them, this could be the last chance to travel – and these sites could not be better.  Easily approachable, never far from the hand sanitizer back in the car, and not physically exhausting to reach, they are perfect for those who want to experience some of the nation’s best beauty spots.

In this, perhaps the most unusual year of travel ever, it is so tempting (as always!) to visit iconic spots with easy classic photo opportunities.  Which is why we may want to avoid them.  For people who are healthy, this is not the year to take photos from parking lots.

The Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado, just a couple minutes walk from the parking lot (with photographers on the right ready to be cropped out)
The Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado, just a couple minutes walk from the parking lot (with photographers on the right ready to be cropped out)

For people in great risk of COVID-19 who still need to get out and see what could turn out to be the “bucket list” adventure of their life – here are some suggestions where to do it.  For the rest of us.  Let’s give them some space.

Maroon Bells

The Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado, very near the parking lot at 7 am, with the photographers left in.
The Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado, very near the parking lot at 7 am, with the photographers left in.

This group of pyramid-shaped peaks near Aspen, Colorado, is a photography calendar favorite, especially in fall, when the aspens below the peaks start glowing bright gold.  Some 320,000 people visited last year.  You can drive and park very close to the lake in front of the peaks, but you have to do it at 5 a.m.

There are few parking spots, and once they are full, the road is closed and you have to take a shuttle bus.  Right now, until Oct. 8, 2020, the only way to get to Maroon Lake from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. is by bus, and there’s even discussion of requiring advance reservations.

Normally in the fall, just before sunrise, photographers rim the lake and there can even be some nasty words when someone accidentally walks into someone else’s shot.   But there’s no denying, this is one incredible parking lot.   Of course, Aspen is the center of hundreds of miles of trails and the fall season of 2020 might be time to discover someplace else and leave the Bells to those who need easy access.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park near the parking lot (you can see it through the trees -- white dot just left of middle).
Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park near the parking lot (you can see it through the trees — white dot just left of middle).

This national park has more annual visitors than the entire population of Colorado.  The most popular destination in the park, Bear Lake, is another zoo of parking challenges, and at any time other than early morning, it requires a shuttle to get there.  So skip it.

A small herd of elk gather next to a parking lot at Lake Estes, in Estes Park, Colorado.
A small herd of elk gathers next to a parking lot at Lake Estes, in Estes Park, Colorado.

Sprague Lake is Easier

Sprague Lake is easier and prettier.  A man-made shallow lake on the road to Bear Lake, it is basically a reflecting pool with fantastic backdrops and a flat one-mile path around it.

If the parking area is full (which it seldom is), go to the horseback riding center, which has lots of parking just a flat half-mile hike away.

You don’t even have to go into the park.  Lake Estes is just a short walk from the pretty river that runs through downtown Estes Park.

Elk herds wander free around Estes Park, and at twilight, on the nearly deserted lakeshore path, you might (as I did recently) run into a small herd of elk cooling off in the lake.

Or head to Brainard Lake, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, where you can not only take spectacular vista photos from the parking lot, but you may even see the huge moose herd that hangs out here.

On a normal summer, it can be crawling with traffic.

The Colorado National Monument from one of the the parking lots at the many roadside pull-offs throughout the park.
The Colorado National Monument from one of the parking lots at the many roadside pull-offs throughout the park.

But this year, those who are fit should go elsewhere so this magic spot can be a refuge for those socially distancing who are in danger of the virus.

Colorado National Monument

The Double Arch at Arches National Park is a short, flat walking from the parking lot.
The Double Arch at Arches National Park is a short, flat walking from the parking lot.

Located just 20 minutes from Grand Junction, CO, this is a truly undiscovered place, overshadowed by nearby Moab, Utah, but in many ways just as spectacular.  The main road through the park is carved into the middle of a cliff, and while the driver has to keep their eyes ahead, everyone else can see drop-dead (literally “drop dead” if the driver doesn’t pay attention) views off the side.

Arches National Park. If you want to see the Delicate Arch (the one on the Utah license plate) it's a hike with exposure, cliffs and crowds. But there are dozens of other arches and formations easily seen from parking lots in the park.
Arches National Park. If you want to see the Delicate Arch (the one on the Utah license plate) it’s a hike with exposure, cliffs, and crowds. But there are dozens of other arches and formations easily seen from parking lots in the park.

You could take amazing photos here without even getting out of the car, but there are a dozen parking lot viewpoints with simply wonderful shots.

Arches National Park

If you want to see Delicate Arch (the one featured on the Utah license plate), you’re going to have to hike and not be afraid of some exposure, cliffs and crowds of other people.  But the Double Arch?  You can almost shoot it from the parking lot.

To get up close, it’s a 15-30 minute flat walk from the parking lot, or stroll the other direction to the equally gorgeous rock outcroppings known as the Windows section.  Surprisingly, the trail around Balance Rock (another area you can see from the parking lot) was less crowded, when we recently visited, than the much longer and more difficult trail to Delicate Arch.

One of the beauty spots in Canyonlands National Monument is Mesa Arch, which is swamped with people at dawn when the sun shines under the arch, but far less crowded and easily accessible from a parking lot at other times.
One of the beauty spots in Canyonlands National Monument is Mesa Arch, which is swamped with people at dawn when the sun shines under the arch, but far less crowded and easily accessible from a parking lot at other times.

There are too many fantastic scenes is this national park for them all to be crowded.  And again, you don’t even need to enter the park.  The rest stop at Grandstaff Canyon (formerly known as “Negro Bill Canyon Trail) a few miles outside of town, has only a dozen parking spots, but most were empty when we visited at twilight.  The photos within an easy 15 minute walk are as unforgettable as any in the national park.

Dead Horse Point State Park is on the way to Canyonlands National Monument, and actually offers better views from the parking lot.
Dead Horse Point State Park is on the way to Canyonlands National Monument, and actually offers better views from the parking lot.

Canyonlands National Monument

As you drive to Canyonlands NP from Moab, you pass one of the best and easiest photo spots in Utah – the incredible views from Dead Horse Point State Park.

It’s a detour of 24 miles and has a separate admission charge, but photos from the parking lots?  Now we’re talking!

And there are dozens as you follow a flat trail along the rim of the canyon, looking down 2,000 feet to a gooseneck bend of the Colorado River.

In many ways, it’s more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon because this canyon is so steep and narrow.  And it’s certainly less crowded.

Canyonlands also offers more easy shots from accessible turnoff spots in an area named, “Island in the Sky.”  The crowded “headache shot” here is Mesa Arch at dawn.

It’s only a half-mile walk and is a calendar shot for sure, but it’s also hopelessly crowded.

Forego the shot at dawn.  Just buy a postcard of it, and realize that Mesa Arch is beautiful all the time.  So go later in the day.

You can also shoot another of the park’s beauty spots — the Grand View Point — from a parking lot if you choose.  There is a two-mile trail, for those who can do it, to another view that is virtually the same; it’s the walk there that makes the difference.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley -- a picture literally taken through windows from inside the gift shop -- shows how magnificent the view is from anywhere.
Monument Valley — a picture literally taken through windows from inside the gift shop — shows how magnificent the view is from anywhere.

It is impossible to take a bad shot here.  I took one of the famous rocks from inside the gift shop.  The classic shot here is easy to take but extremely dangerous. You’ll know you are at the right spot on Hwy. 163 in Utah when you see the roadside pull-off, the Native American pottery stands, the circus atmosphere, and the dozens of parked cars.

Hwy. 163 in Utah
Hwy. 163 in Utah

It is absolutely insane. This shot is most famous because of the movie Forrest Gump.  It’s here that Tom Hanks runs up a long sloping highway with the famous red rock buttes in the distance. These same buttes have been in dozens of other movies, from John Ford/John Wayne classics to Easy Rider.

The challenge is not just snapping a shot from the road, but rather not getting run down by trucks going 80 mph down a busy highway.  The trucks don’t stop.  Some two dozen of us photographers would gather in the middle of the road, trying to shoot around each other, when there would be a sudden blare of death — a screaming horn of a truck barreling down the highway.

Everyone would scatter, the truck would roar by, then everyone was at it again, jockeying for position in the middle of the road.

It’s all such foolishness.  Especially once you finally get into Monument Valley itself and realize it is impossible to not take a great picture from just about anywhere.   You’ve probably seen the shot of the Navajo woman with a horse on a long rocky point with Monument Valley behind her.  It’s a setup.  You can even get on the horse for a selfie for $10.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon -- you can fight with others for a viewpoint looking down into the canyon...or you can go down into the canyon just a little and find a different view point looking up.
Grand Canyon — you can fight with others for a viewpoint looking down into the canyon…or you can go down into the canyon just a little and find a different viewpoint looking up.

While everyone is awed by the majesty of the Grand Canyon,  most people are probably unhappy with their photos.  Much like the Breton’s fisherman prayer (“O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small“), the Grand Canyon is so vast, and the viewing field on a cell phone is so small, that photos from the rim parking lots tend to be underwhelming.

Grand Canyon: hike just a short ways down a trail from a parking lot, and you might get a completely different look of the canyon, as we did.
Grand Canyon: hike just a short ways down a trail from a parking lot, and you might get a completely different look of the canyon, as we did.

The best piece of advice is to leave the parking areas on the rim and go down a trail.  For those who have difficulty walking, you don’t have to go all the way down. The Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon is the most famous trail in the park, if not the most famous trail in the entire country.

You can hike all 10 miles and 4,300-foot elevation descent to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River, but that requires planning, permits, reservations, money, and a tremendous amount of effort.

Or you can stroll down this, or better, any of the other trails, and just go a short way down to get the perspective of looking up instead of down.

You might even get lucky as we did, and see a mule pack train coming down the canyon instead of up.