A Blind Sunrise at Grand Canyon National Park

Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon
Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon

On a recent trip to Grand Canyon National Park I shot what I’m calling a blind sunrise, and it was an interesting experience. I wasn’t actually “blind,” but what I mean is that I had not visited the location during the day and had no idea what the landscape was going to be like from that location and therefore no plan for what compositions I would be shooting. Also, since it was a sunrise, I arrived while it was still completely dark, so I had to wait until the start of the sunrise before I could even begin planning. Here’s the full story.

The Grand Canyon is huge. I don’t know what else to say. I arrived in the afternoon and took the shuttle bus out to the first viewpoint on Hermit Road. I walked most of the rim trail toward Hermits Rest, which is the last, western-most viewpoint on the shuttle bus line. There are several viewpoints along that part of the rim trail, and I spent time at each one. It was essentially a scouting expedition. I was looking for the location where I wanted to be for the sunset that night.

Normally I like to scout both sunrise and sunset locations, and frequently I decide to photograph both the sunrise and sunset from the same location. The Grand Canyon is so large, however, that it’s difficult to evaluate all the potential locations in one afternoon. At a place like Bryce Canyon, it’s much easier to do that. When I was at Bryce Canyon, I knew that afternoon the three locations where I wanted to position myself for sunrise and/or sunset. I’m not saying those are the only good locations or that I visited every possible viewpoint in the park, but I had a pretty good idea of what I was interested in shooting over the next couple of days based on the kind of images I had in mind. At Grand Canyon, I couldn’t possibly make that kind of plan in one afternoon.

I could have returned to the same location at sunrise that I had visited at sunset, but I wanted to experience some of the other viewpoints during my trip. Looking at the map, I found three locations on one of the other shuttle bus routes that I had not yet visited which looked like they might provide a good angle for sunrise. I selected one and decided I would go in blind.

The next morning, I took the first shuttle bus to the viewpoint. I stepped out of the bus and walked into the night. It was completely dark. I found the rim trail and headed down to the actual viewpoint. There was no light at all, except for the stars. I knew the Grand Canyon was right in front of me, but it was complete blackness except for the stars. They were extremely bright, and when I looked up I could immediately see the Milky Way. It was plain as day. I sat and waited for some light.

Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon
Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon

As the twilight began to develop, I started to see some vague shapes forming in the canyon. As the light increased, more of the landscape of the canyon was revealed. I was now able to plan what compositions I wanted to make once the sun started to rise. As the increasing light slowly illuminated the canyon, it was like a surprise being uncovered before my eyes, and the anticipation made it a fun experience.

In the end, the sunrise was not that great because it was completely clear that morning. But it was still worth it, and I made both of the photographs above. After I finished I went to one of the other potential sunrise locations I had considered. Based on the kind of composition I ended up making, I might have preferred that location. That’s why I like to scout the area first. If I have a certain kind of image in mind, then I can find the best location from which to make that image. I did enjoy this “blind” sunrise experience, however!