Location/Hike: Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim Viewpoints
While it is true that the viewpoints of the Grand Canyon’s south rim are photographed quite often, and yes part of the reason for this is that they are relatively easily accessible, the other reason for this is because the views from the south rim are truly amazing and unlike anything else on Earth. While this can lead to more of the same from a photography perspective, the south rim also provides a lot of variance through walking paths along the rim, great weather variance and an awesomely unique golden hour lighting effect. If you are willing to hike down below the rim the elevation change completely changes the look and feel of the canyon. I would rate the Grand Canyon an 8 out of 10 from a photography perspective for it’s sheer size, variety, familiarity and accessibility.
There are many viewpoints along the south rim. Starting from the East, I’ll walk through what I observed as some of the more unique photography aspects of each.
Desert View Point
I particularly like Desert View point. It has a unique perspective as from this point you can not only look down the canyon to the west, but also up the canyon as it curves north past the Palisades of the Desert and towards Cape Solitude. In addition to the western and northern views, there is also a great view to the East / Northeast over the Palisades of the Desert. This last view is especially unique because Desert View point is a bit higher in elevation, so looking to the east you can not only see the canyon, but you can make out some of the features and canyons that are in the distances on the surface to the east. I was able to shoot sunset from around this point on a couple of evenings. I really enjoyed the depth that was created as I looked to the west over the plethora of thrones, shrines and temples; this view made the Grand Canyon seem endless. I was especially lucky to have some high and lonely cloud cover and dust in the air in my photo “Sunrays”. This softened the light enough to allow my camera, aided by a handheld GND filter and polarizer, to balance the contrast and tonality of the canyon against the intense light from the sun. Regarding the northern view at sunset, the late evening and particularly post-sunset light on the Palisades was remarkable. That light combined with the extended length of the Colorado River that you are able to see created a great view that was unique to anything else I was able to witness on the southern rim.
Navajo, Moran & Lipan Points
I stopped at these Points on the way out to Desert View point, but chose not to spend an entire dusk / dawn. I did not do this for any other reason than my time was limited to the extent that I was not going to be able to shoot from all points so had to make some prioritization decisions. I future excursions I hope to be able to rectify this shortcoming. But in my defense, I did spend 2 ½ days hard-down with a 103+ fever. Not that I’m pulling for the sympathy vote, but rather just trying to justify this oversight of these viewpoints in my own mind.
I particularly enjoyed Grandview point. It has a bit more of an traditional Grand Canyon view and feel to it when compared to Desert View point. Grandview enjoys a great view across the canyon to the north, but at the same time retaining the riverview to the North / Northeast that one has from Desert View point. In addition to this the spines that can be placed in the foregroung, on the south side of the river, are very photogenic and can add depth to a photo from this vantage point.
This viewpoint is great for those that enjoy walking out, on a non-paved trail, along the rim of the canyon for unique perspectives of the canyon. In addition to the trail that comes from the south and west, from Desert View Drive (the main road) that I describe below in the administrative note, it is also easy to walk east of the point along the rim. There are some great bits of foreground, dead trees etc., along this path that compliment the excellent views across the canyon from this easterly path.
One administrative note on this location. While it is true that in general one can drive to all points east of the Grand Canyon village, Grandview is the one exception. During the peak season (basically all summer), you have to take a shuttle out to the point. Alternatively you can park not far from the access road and hike a small user trail that goes between the access road and the canyon rim. It is a nice walk that is well travelled and at no point should you be afraid of getting lost. You have a pretty good right and left barrier in the road to the east and the canyon rim to the west.
Mather & Yavapi Points
I am the kind of person that enjoys going off the beaten track. Because of this I did not put Mather Point or Yavapai Point on the top of to do list as I figured they would just be full of people and not contain anything particularly unique or spectacular. But the reality of the situation is that there is a reason the biggest parking lot and visitor center was built nearest to these viewpoints; it is because they really are spectacular. This is especially true if you choose to experience these viewpoints during times of the day (particularly at dawn) when there are fewer people enjoy the view along with you.
Dusk and dawn are obviously great times to photograph the canyon. I was lucky enough to catch an afternoon with scattered “little puffy” clouds. I found this particularly appealing as the dynamic of shadow and light created by the clouds added a lot to the beauty of the canyon itself.
There are no permitting requirements for getting to south rim viewpoints. If you would like to experience the backcountry and camp below the rim then you will require permits. Recommended
Usual Suspects Backpack with Camera, tripod, cable release, extra memory / battery, lense hoods.
Per the norm, hard and soft GND filters are very handy to have, particularly if you are shooting at sunset, or just after as the white sands can be quite a bit brighter than the dusk sky (which is an unusual sight as normally the sky is brighter than the land subject matter). I played around with the Singh Ray LB Color Combo (Polarizer) and liked the effect it had as well, but by no means would I consider it a requirement.
I mainly used my 24-70mm lens, and usually at 24mm. While I anticipated utilizing solely my 14-24mm lens, at or near 14mm, I found this made the far rim of the canyon and the associated features seem to distant. I wasn’t willing to make this sacrifice unless an unusually nice bit of foreground was available.
Don’t be afraid to walk around a bit, specifically away from the standard points. The view dramatically changes, and particularly as you descend into the canyon.