Photographing the Watchman in Zion National Park

The Watchman with Rabbitbrush

The Watchman is the most photographed icon in Zion National Park for a couple of reasons.  First, it is a beautiful and shapely rock mountain that happens to “face” the valley from the South and it glows at sunset.  Second, it is near the South Visitor Center and is easily seen from the paved and much used Pa’rus Trail.  Most photographers feel obliged to have a good Watchman shot in their collection and you should too.  The challenge is how to put your personal touch on an iconic shot.  Here’s how.

The Watchman and Virgin River from the Canyon Junction Bridge

The Watchman is really a sunset shot.  As the sun sets in the West, it will illuminate the west side of the Watchman and the adjacent hillside.  This will give it a nice golden glow against the red colored sand stone and rock.  My only complaint when we were there is that we had mostly bald skies and the right side of your photo can get washed out or even blown out because of the bright setting sun and white skies.  I used a polarizer, a 2 stop and 3 stop grad (graduated neutral density filter – see camera kit), and even my 9 stop circular grad (also in the camera kit) when I wanted to slow down the water in the Virgin River.

A good reflection from a calm pool in the Virgin River

There are really three good compositions, in my opinion.  The most popular is to use the Virgin River as a foreground in one way or another.  Second, you can use the various Cottonwood trees and Rabbitbrush bushes for foreground.  Lastly, you can get out into the grassy meadow along the Pa’rus trail that has rocks and small trees and bushes and use that as a sweeping foreground.  All of these are good options to explore your creativity, and I encourage you to try them all for practice and to see what you really like.

Rabbitbrush lit up by the late afternoon sun

The obvious route is to hike from the Visitor’s Center south on the Pa’rus Trail and along the Virgin River 1.4 miles to the Canyon Junction Bridge.  There is also a shuttle stop, here.  There is a small parking lot at Canyon Junction that fits about 10 cars and you can hike the other way, south, toward the Visitor Center where you can look at the Watchman the whole way.

Our ideal spot is to park in the Ranger Amphitheatre Parking Lot in the South Campground and hike north.  You cut off the crowds from the Visitor Center and get at least a half mile head start on the Pa’rus Trail.  This parking lot was absolutely empty the three times we used it.  You also cross several foot bridges that give you a chance to compose the Watchman with the Virgin River in the foreground.  There is also river access so that you can get down to the Virgin River to shoot up at the Watchman.

I think my favorite spot was a broad grassy area on the east side of the Pa’rus Trail about a mile from the Visitor Center.  The night I was there, I saw about 50 deer lazily grazing and used the yellow and gold grass, as well as the many rocks and a few small trees as foreground.

The very popular and “cliché” shot is from the Canyon Junction Bridge.  Be prepared for a crowd.  There were about 10-15 photographers set up on the bridge the night we were there.  Even though we had worked our way down the trail shooting for most of an hour, we still got there in time to get a good spot and watch the sunset.

We spent three sunsets photographing the Watchman and surrounding area along the Virgin River.  There are so many options and different kinds of terrain to suit everyone’s needs.  Remember, don’t just plop down your tripod and get the tried and true shot, move around to make some angles; look for interesting and unique foregrounds; and create your own perspective.

Let me know which composition you like best.

We used Photographing the Southwest Volume I by Laurent Martres as our main guidebook on our trip, and as always, Robert Hitchman’s newsletters.  To see more of our photography, please go to www.pamphotography.com.

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