PHOTOGRAPHING VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK
My “Mountain to Sea Photo Travels” led me to photograph Nevada’s Valley of Fire Park several times. On each visit, I spent days photographing all that Valley of Fire State Park had to offer and still felt I had barely scratched its surface. For here lies a park with a unique beauty that is difficult to convey in a two-dimensional medium.
How does one capture roads that twist and turn around cotton candy-colored Aztec sandstone one minute then veer into mountains of limestone the next minute? All I knew was this truly was a Valley of Fire and I had to try to capture it.
Photographing Valley of Fire is an exhilarating experience as the Valley serves up incredible subjects just begging for a click of the shutter around every turn. In fact, it is one of the most colorful desert landscapes I have ever seen.
Where is Valley of Fire State Park?
Valley of Fire State Park is about an hour northeast of Las Vegas and 16 miles south of Overton, Nevada on the Valley of Fire Highway. The park can be reached from Interstate 15 at the town of Crystal by turning east on the Valley of Fire Highway or from Highway 169 just south of Overton and turning West onto Valley of Fire Highway.
What Makes Valley of Fire So Special?
As mentioned above, Valley of Fire is a landscape filled with surreal colors that resemble a landscape from outer space! The park is about 46,000 acres of preserved land filled with Aztec sandstone created by sand dunes over 150 million years ago. But colorful Aztec Sandstone is not the only draw of the park, incredible hills of limestone and historic petroglyphs also exist in the park alongside an assortment of wildlife.
The sandstone and limestone rock formations in Valley of Fire include slot canyons and arches that delight all who visit. Although the park’s jaw-dropping scenery is visible to all who drive through the park, enjoying some of the park’s hikes to beautiful arches, crazy rock formations, and slot canyons is the best way to experience Valley of Fire.
Valley of Fire Park History
In 1912 a road was built through what is now the park. The road was part of the Arrowhead Trail connecting Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Then in 1920 an AAA official happened to be traveling through the park at sunset when everything glowed red and named the area Valley of Fire. In 1934 the park became the first Nevada State Park and is today, the largest Nevada park.
Map of Valley of Fire Attractions
Driving Valley of Fire State Park
As can be seen by clicking in the above map, portions of Valley of Fire State Park lie directly off the east west highway called Valley of Fire Highway. Features off the Valley of Fire Highway include the popular Elephant Rock on its east side and Beehives on the western side of the park. Mouse Tank Road also called White Dome Road is the park’s main interior road that runs north and home to the park’s most spectacular scenery including Pink Canyon and Fire Wave. Campground Road is another northern drive off the Valley of Fire Highway where the famous Atlatl petroglyphs and other well-known arches are located.
Mouse Tank Road (also known as White Dome’s Road)
Photographing Valley of Fire Park- Something You Should Know
Valley of Fire State Park has a wonderful visitor center filled with information about the park’s history, geology, and hiking trails. However, for photographers, the information is limited to officially recognized destinations.
Many of the Valley of Fire photo destinations posted on the internet that draw photographers to the park are not officially recognized features and therefore not marked on any maps or brochures.
Case in point, in 2017, I made my first trip to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada with very little knowledge of the park other than pictures I had seen on the internet. So my first stop was at the Visitor Center where I expected to obtain maps and/or directions to all the photo stops I had on my list. Unfortunately, I left with directions to only two places and no information about all the other places I was planning to photograph.
Yes, there I was ready to photograph the park with no idea where to go and no internet access for guidance! Please learn from my mistakes and research all the photo destinations you wish to capture before coming to the park. In fact, my experience is what led me to write this post about Photographing Valley of Fire State Park.
Valley of Fire Best Photo Spots
I believe all the above spots can be found on park maps. Now let’s look at the photo spots that are great photo stops but more difficult to locate, especially for those unfamiliar with the park. Several of these names are not official and can change depending on who is writing about them.
And let’s not forget historic cabins and park wildlife nestled in the sandstone and limestone formations including herds of desert bighorn sheep.
Valley of Fire Photo Location Information
Pink Canyon/ Pastel Canyon
Pink Canyon, aka Pastel Canyon, is a section of the Kaolin Wash located at Wash No. 5 off Mouse Tank Road. After passing parking lot 2 and before arriving at parking lot 3, you will drive past a small pulloff called Wash 5. This is the entrance to Pink Canyon which is a photographer’s paradise with stunning pink curved walls begging to be photographed. In fact, this is one of my favorite parts of Valley of Fire.
Photograph this Canyon in the early morning hours and park in the small pulloff by the Wash if at all possible. Just be aware you will have to move your car by 9 A.M.
Begin photographing the canyon at least an hour before sunrise and continue photographing it until the light becomes too harsh.
Fire Wave is likely the park’s most well-known feature and photographs of the Wave are what initially drew me to the park. Although Fire Wave was not an official feature in the park, its popularity lead the Park to create an official Fire Wave Trail and include the feature among the park’s named stops finally.
That is the good news. But the bad news is that because Fire Wave Trail is an easy hike, the Wave gets a ton of traffic. Particularly disturbing is that photographers tend to stake out their positions in the Wave hours before sunset by leaving their gear all over it. This ruins photography opportunities for everyone else so please don’t do this.
I made three different trips to photograph the wave at sunset and every time was not able to successfully photograph it. In fact, scenes resembled Mesa Arch in Dead Horse State Park at sunrise. As can be seen in the photo below, I could not capture the iconic shot of the wave. There were 6 camera bags laying around. Instead, I had to move way to my left and alter my composition substantially.
If at all possible, consider a trip to photograph Fire Wave at the slowest possible tourist times, but definitely not in the heat of summer. To avoid crowds, on partly cloudy days with soft light, Fire Wave can also be photographed in the morning hours. I know my next trip to the Wave will be in the morning hours just after the park opens!
The Fire Wave trail itself has a number of photogenic spots besides the Wave well worth spending time photographing as you hike.
Same equipment as Pink Canyon but without a need for a flash or reflector. However, here I prefer a tripod over a monopod.
Valley of Fire Arches
Note- Most arch names listed below are not official names and may be called other names by different sites. However, I have tried to use the most commonly used names.
The park contains many arches with only a few having an official park name. Surprisingly, most of the park’s arches have been named by visitors which explains why one arch may have so many different names. Bob’s Arch List is one of the best online resources for Valley of Fire arches that I have found. Of note, the arches in Valley of Fire are on a much smaller scale than the arches from Arches National Park but still spectacular. See: ARCHES AND CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Now let’s take a look at a few arches I recommend photographers put on their photo list. But don’t stop with these 5 arches, there are so many more arches to photograph including some very good ones by the Park’s east entrance.
This arch is located on the campground loop road on the left before the road connects back with the Valley of Fire main highway. The arch is in the second group of rocks about .1 miles from the campground loop road and not in the rocks closest to the road. It is a very small arch about 3 feet tall and can only be seen by looking into the rock crevices. The arch was made famous when it appeared on famed photographer’s David Muench’s Book cover: Windstone Natural Arches Bridges. Update- This arch was destroyed in the summer of 2021.
Arch Rock is also located on the campground loop road and is well marked. Here I recommend photographing the Arch from the road in the afternoon and from a path behind it in the morning hours. Both views are good although the view from the front is the best.
To locate Fire Cave, head into the wash directly in front of parking lot 3. When the wash opens up, head to the right, and just before you encounter a trail leading down a hill, stop and look to the left for Fire Cave.
Fire Canyon Arch
This arch is just a short walk off Fire Canyon Road by a wash. When you see a rock that looks like a turtle (pic below) stop and walk into the nearby wash and the arch will be to your left.
The Arch is located close to the east entrance to the park and can be photographed both from the road and from a trail that begins at a parking lot. You can’t miss this arch as it is right next to the East entrance parking lot.
Recommended Photo Gear and Time of Day:
- Windstone Arch is a very tight space that is best photographed with a wide-angle lens and preferably a monopod. The legs of a tripod will get in the image! A lens cloth is also very handy due to the amount of dust in the arch. Best photographed in the mornings just as the sun has risen to pop light into the Arch. It makes a great photo from both entrances as shown in the photos below.
- Arch Rock, is best photographed with a lens in the wide-angle to 200mm range, a tripod, and a polarizer. It can be photographed both in the early morning and late afternoon hours.
- Fire Cave -I found a lens in the range of 35mm worked best however I only photographed this arch once. Early morning hours work seem to be the best times but compositions inside the arch itself I believe are possible at different times of the day.
- Fire Canyon Arch can be photographed with a wide-angle lens as well as a telephoto lens depending on the composition. Here again, a polarizer and tripod are recommended. I photographed this arch in mid-morning light.
- Elephant Rock is best photographed with a wide-angle to 70mm lens on a tripod and with a polarizer. This is a great sunset location but can be photographed at many different times of day.
Striped Rock is across the road from Wash 5’s Pink Canyon pull-off. This is a wildly colored rock referred to unofficially as Striped Rock. One look and it is easy to see how it got its name. Although the rock is visible and can be photographed from Mouse Tank Road, it is best photographed by hiking to the front of the rock.
Depending on where you photograph the rock formation, I recommend using a lens in the 28-200 range as well as a tripod and polarizer. However, use a polarizer very carefully to avoid unnatural-looking colors.
Crazy Hill Area /Parking Lot 3
Crazy Hill area is located off parking lot 3 on Mouse Tank Road. There is a spectacular rock formation called Crazy Hill that is reached by walking the wash in front of parking lot 3 and then veering right once the wash opens up. I did not find the hill on my first or second trip and only found it on my third trip too late in the day to photograph it. Although Crazy Hill was a stunning sight, the colors in the Hill do not photograph well in bright light so be sure to visit this area in the early morning hours. I will definitely head straight there on my next visit to Valley of Fire.
Alternatively, Crazy Hill can be reached by hiking the Seven Wonders Loop Trail. Note- this is one of Valley of Fire’s trails that the park closes during periods of high temperatures. This trail is usually opened sometime in September through early spring.
Besides Crazy Hill, the entire area is a photographer’s delight with wonderful compositions everywhere you turn including two great arches.
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Early morning is best. Parts of the area are also good at sunset and in late afternoon.
Fire Canyon Road (Silica Dome Rd)
Fire Canyon Road is on the right off Mouse Tank Road just past the Rainbow Vista Trailhead. Although the area may not initially look as spectacular as other stops off Mouse Tank Road don’t be fooled. Parking at it’s pull-offs and hiking around will lead to some beautiful arches including Fire Canyon shown above as well as other photogenic rock formations and patterns. Also at the end of the road, an overlook makes a good sunset or late afternoon photo stop. This is also a favorite hangout for the park’s bighorn sheep.
The Beehives are located directly off Valley of Fire Highway on the western side of the park. I have photographed the Beehives both in morning and afternoon light and found both times of day to work depending on the time of year. However, I struggled to create anything beyond a post card time photograph of the Beehives. After photographing the Beehives, take time to walk the area as it has photographic potential.
This rock is by the Visitor Center and is best photographed from it’s western side in the late afternoon light.
There are many places to view petroglyphs in the park including the following two locations, both with photographic potential.
This is the site of a historic petroglyph off the campground loop road that should be on every photographers photo list.
Atlatl Rock is a large boulder on top of sandstone that was named for it’s petroglyph of an atlatl. In case you are wondering, an atlatl was a throwing stick used to throw arrows and spears. The petroglyph can be viewed by climbing a metal staircase shown in the photograph below.
Do be aware that climbing this rock is otherwise prohibited.
Petroglyph Canyon Trail
This trail is about a mile from the Visitor Center off Mouse Tank Road and leads to many sights of petroglyphs before coming to a small tub of water the park has named Mouse Tank. The name Mouse was derived from a Paiute Indian who hide out in this area.
Mouse Tank Road
Mouse Tank Road offers a number of places from which to capture Valley of Fire. Choosing a location depends on if you are after the Instagram Photos everyone takes or if you want your own uniques image of the amazing road. Here are a few options to choose from:
Other Valley of Fire Photo Spots
Here are a few more photo spots in Valley of Fire. I have no photos of these locations since I was not able to visit the locations in decent light and/or did not find them that photogenic.
Valley of Fire Seven Sisters is a collection of 7 tall eroded rocks just past the east entrance to Valley of Fire. Despite numerous attempts, I could not come up with a pleasing composition of these formations and don’t find them nearly as photogenic as other areas in the park. However, I am listing them here in case you wish to photographing them
Rainbow Vista Trail
This is an easy 1-mile trail to the Fire Canyon Overlook. Despite reviews online, from a photographer’s perspective, I found the views to be too busy and not that scenic. In fact, the parking lot offered better access to photogenic subjects, especially colorful rock formations such as the following that were directly across from the parking lot.
Slot Canyon on White Dome Trail
I have never taken the time to photograph this location so can offer no photo advice. On my blog, I will only post and provide advice about areas I have photographed. Therefore this destination is listed here for FYI only.
Desert Bighorn Sheep are quite plentiful in the park at all times of day but especially in the early morning and late evening hours and make great photography subjects. They even hang out in the Visitor Center parking lot greeting visitors.
Gamble Quail hang out under a bird feed behind the visitor center and are quite easy to photograph from the patio in the mornings.
Other park wildlife include snakes, lizards, turtles, coyotes, bobcats, jackrabbits and squirrels.
Best Time to Visit Valley of Fire:
Update: This park and all Nevada state parks will require reservations to visit beginning in 2023.
The official park hours are from sunrise to sunset and a gate providing access to Mouse Tank Road is only open during those hours. However, since the Valley of Fire Highway provides access from Overton, Nevada west to Interstate 15, the highway through the park remains open all hours. Just be aware that if you are visiting any part of Mouse Tank Road, you will be asked to leave shortly after sunset.
The best time to make a photography trip to Valley of Fire is from late October through the end of March. During the rest of the year, it can get so hot that the park can temporarily close trails. I have photographed Valley of Fire twice in November and once in February and the weather and photography were perfect every time.
Valley of Fire is an incredibly fun destination to photograph and makes a great day trip from Las Vegas. In fact, I found it to be much more scenic for photographers than Red Rocks in Las Vegas. If you would like any prints, notecards, or other products from any of the images shown in this blog, be sure to visit my stock site at: Valley of Fire Photos. Also check out my Valley of Fire gallery for additional pictures from the park.
I hope each of you have an opportunity to photograph this amazing park and enjoy your time there as much as I have.
Thanks for joining me on a “Road Trip Friday” adventure and be sure to check back soon for my latest photo destination.