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A Sample Full 8-Day Photography Tour Itinerary of America's Southwest National Parks

a tour that begins and ends in phoenix arizona

All our itineraries are custom designed for your specific tour needs. This is just a sample itinerary. It does not have to be a photography oriented tour. Your tour can start and end in almost any location.

This Sample Tour Itinerary includes the following major sites:

Arrival Day
This would be the day you fly into the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.  We use a nearby hotel that provides free airport shuttle service.  We like to get together in the evening with you for dinner and go over the first tour day.

Day 1
We could get an early start and on the way out of town we can visit a nearby desert park with Saguaro cacti and mountains in the background.  Some walking would be required for good photographs.  An especially early start would also help us avoid the extreme desert heat.

Jerome is perched on the steep sloops of Cleopatra Hill, part of a larger mountain called Mingus Mountain. It is often called America’s “Most Vertical City” and its “Largest Ghost Torn”.  It was once the fourth largest city in the Arizona Territory, historically the largest copper mining camp in Arizona, and legendary at the wickedest town in the west.  The population of Jerome peaked at about 15,000 in the 1920’s.  As Arizona’s largest copper mine it produced an astonishing 3 million pounds of copper per month, worth a total of 3 to 5 billion dollars.  It has 92 miles of tunnel going to a depth of almost a mile.  Jerome became a National Historic Landmark in 1967.

Today’s Grand Hotel was originally constructed in 1926 under the name of the United Verde Hospital. Opened in 1927, the United Verde Hospital became in 1930 the most modern and well equipped hospital in Arizona and in possibly in all of the western states. The hospital was closed in 1950 as the mining operations started to diminish. The building stood unused for the next 44 years until the rehabilitation plans began in 1994.

It will be best to visit Sedona on this first tour day.  Most of Sedona is best photographed in the late afternoon and evening hours.  The most scenic formations and cliffs are more exposed to the evening light than the morning light.  In the morning you would be shooting directly into the sun at the better locations, a photographer’s nightmare.

Designated by USA Weekend Magazine as "The Most Beautiful Place in America,” picturesque Sedona makes the rugged West comfortable and inviting. Situated at the mouth of magnificent Oak Creek Canyon, cooled by the enchanting flow of Oak Creek, and punctuated by dramatic monoliths in the surrounding red rock country, Sedona’s exuberant beauty is irresistible.

The northern Arizona region of Sedona is characterized by the huge red sandstone monoliths surrounding the city, also known as the Red Rocks of Sedona. Three such features are Oak Creek Canyon, the Coffee Pot Rock, and Thunder Mountain.  Much of this scenery is breathtaking with canyons and valleys that are directed off the plateau margin and drain towards the south into Salt River. Sedona has become a center for the arts and a mecca for spiritual pursuits. To the north-east, the area was inhabited by another prehistoric culture, the Anasazi, who also vanished between 1300 and 1450. Some authorities suggest that the Native American Hopi may have descended from them.

Day 2
We could start the day photographing from a high Sedona overlook at sunup.  I would then recommend another location that is fairly good for early morning light on the lower end of Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona.  We would then go to an area in Oak Creek that is particularly good for morning light, with lots of variations in color.

Other good photo locations would be considered as we travel up Oak Creek on the way to Flagstaff, Arizona, passing the San Francisco Peaks, traveling through part of the Painted Desert, and traveling through part of the Navajo Reservation on the way to Monument Valley Navajo Park.  There are many photo ops all along the way.  A late afternoon and evening photo tour through Monument Valley is again the best photo time.  Morning shoots in MV are OK, but not great.

The landscape of Monument Valley is dominated by immense spires, mesas and buttes formed from red, orange and white colored sedimentary rock.  Monument Valley is instantly recognizable as the sweeping backdrop of the classic Southwest. A striking panorama of windswept desert punctuated by immense sandstone monoliths ascending some 1,000 feet (300 m) above the earth, this desolate countryside evokes a timelessness that few others can. Monument Valley has been the setting for over 16 major motion pictures (including the unforgettable John Wayne masterpieces Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), as well as countless commercials, making it easily one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and legendary landscapes in the world.
The remoteness of this otherworldly place sets it apart from the crowds and hectic pace of outside life. Surprisingly, the area has hardly changed in the years since Monument Valley’s film debut in 1925 (The Vanishing American). It has been one of Hollywood’s favorite shooting locations, becoming an enduring image of the American West as the setting for more Westerns than any other site. The supreme backdrop for gunslingers, settlers, soldiers, Stetsons, rifles, spurs, gunfights, stampedes, runaway stagecoaches, showdowns, heroic rescues, cattle rustlings, cavalry charges, and Indian attacks, Monument Valley embodies a romanticized tribute to the untamed frontier.  John Wayne himself referred to this isolated valley it as the place "where God put the West."

Positioned within the Navajo Indian Reservation on the Arizona/Utah border, Monument Valley is not only a Navajo Nation tribal park, but a current residence. Families continue to live, love, and create here as they have done for generations, their livestock grazing on the slopes of the monuments, unheeding of the visitors thrilling at their sparse pasturelands. They live among the specters of the ancient ones who abandoned their nearby cave and cliff dwellings hundreds of years ago. To them this land is known as the Valley of the Rocks, the playground of rivers past. Their spellbinding art, culture, and traditions infuse this remarkable topography with a uniquely Navajo flavor.

Day 2 & 3 options include Navajo National Monument (Indian ruins in part of Tsegi Canyon),  and Tsegi Canyon overlook, a place that almost everyone misses but which can be very photographic and colorful with the right light.

Day 3
There is a lot to get excited about as a photographer in this area.  We will again travel past Tsegi Canyon and up the Navajo Scenic Highway 98 on the way to Antelope Canyon, Page Arizona, Horseshoe Bend, and Lake Powell.  We recommend Antelope Canyon in the AM and a tour to Rainbow Bridge National Monument in the afternoon.

There are two different sections of Antelope Canyon.  I recommend a “Photographers Only” tour to the upper or lower canyon.  By paying a little extra, we would have more than twice as much time to photograph the canyon using a tripod.  Otherwise you are herded through with a tour crowd and are not allowed the use of a tripod, which is almost mandatory for clear sharp photographs in the canyon’s low light environment.

Casual tourists often overlook Antelope Canyon because it is not a national or state park. However, Antelope Canyon is instantly recognizable as one of the most-photographed slot canyons in the American Southwest. Its narrow passages, intricately carved sandstone, gently undulating curves and hollows varying from 3 to 9 feet (1 to 3 meters) wide and occasional shafts of radiating sunlight piercing through the soft colors and shadows are unsurpassed in breathtaking tranquility.

Antelope Canyon is composed of two separate canyons. In Navajo, the canyon names are Tse' bighanilini, meaning "the place where water runs through rocks," and Hasdestwazi, or "spiral rock arches." Its English name comes from the herds of wild pronghorn antelope which used to roam freely throughout the area.

Antelope Canyon was primarily eroded through the soft Navajo Sandstone by countless flash floods. During the monsoon season, rainwater runs into the extensive basin 7 miles upstream from Antelope Canyon and then funnels into its narrow passages, deepening and smoothing the already flowing rock walls.  Rain falling even dozens of miles from the canyon can funnel into them with very little prior notice, making a trained guide a requirement for all visitors. Antelope Canyon’s safety systems have been heightened and flood-proofed since 1997, when eleven tourists were killed in the Lower Canyon by a sudden flash flood that swept away the wooden ladders. Today’s ladder systems are bolted into the rock face, and deployable cargo nets are ready at all times.

We have to admit that the tour boat ride to Rainbow Bridge in the afternoon is quite spectacular when you have a camera in hand.  The immensity and impressiveness of the natural bridge itself is beyond the scope of words.  As a photographer, it is also a “must shoot”.

Located in the rugged, isolated canyons at the feet of Navajo Mountain, Rainbow Bridge was known for centuries by the Native Americans who have long held the bridge sacred. Ancient Pueblo Peoples were followed much later by Paiute and Navajo groups who named the bridge Nonnezoshe or "rainbow turned to stone." Several Native American families still reside nearby.

By the 1800s, Rainbow Bridge was probably seen by wandering trappers, prospectors, and cowboys. Not until 1909, though, was its existence publicized to the outside world. Two separate exploration parties - one headed by University of Utah dean Byron Cummings, and another by government surveyor, W.B. Douglass - began searching for the legendary span. Eventually, they combined efforts. Paiute guides Nasja Begay and Jim Mike led the way, along with trader and explorer John Wetherill. Late in the afternoon of August 15, coming down what is now Bridge Canyon, the party saw Rainbow Bridge for the first time.

The next year, on May 30, 1910, U.S. President William Howard Taft used presidential proclamation to designate Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Grey were among the first visitors to make the trek by foot and horseback from Navajo Mountain. Rainbow Bridge became more accessible with the popularity of river running in Glen Canyon after World War II, although the trip still required several days floating the Colorado River plus a seven-mile hike up-canyon. By the early 1950s, people could travel upstream by jet boat from Lee's Ferry. Glen Canyon Dam was authorized in 1956. By 1963, the gates on the dam closed and rising Lake Powell began to engulf the river and its side canyons. Higher water made motorboat access to Rainbow Bridge much easier, bringing thousands of visitors each year.

The combination of the blue waters of Lake Powell with its’ backdrop of colorful cliffs is quite unique and cannot be compared to any other location.  In the Southwest it is an unusual combination worth shooting in the morning or evening.

Day 4
On this day we recommend a morning walk to Horseshoe Bend, followed by a drive to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim by way of the Navajo Bridge, Lee’s Ferry, and the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

Horseshoe Bend is best photographed in the morning hours, although not too early. Horseshoe Bend requires a walk of 20 to 25 minutes on a sandy trail each way.  To photograph the entire view, you will need an especially wide angle lens.  You will need a 22mm or wider lens with a full frame digital camera.  If you do not have a full frame digital, it would be best to have a lens wider than 16mm.  Otherwise you can stitch more than one image together for a full view

A short ¾ mile hike takes one to another hidden jewel that is just beginning to become known to the general public and is not yet publicized on sites such as Wikipedia.  Besides the monument formations, there are some interesting Painted Desert colors as well.  It is worth the hike if we have the time.

Both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon are best photographed from the late afternoon through and beyond sunset.  Mornings are good, but not as colorful.  We do know of a few locations best photographed in the morning.

Worthy of its rank as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon overwhelms the senses and captivates the imagination with its spectacular combination of incredible scale, dramatic views, awe-inspiring rock formations, and untamed beauty. Over a mile deep (1.6 Km) at its deepest point, 18 miles (29 Km) across at its widest, and 277 river miles (446 Km) long, the Grand Canyon is deemed to be one of the world’s most visually commanding landscapes, an immensely majestic gorge with temple-like bluffs; plummeting depths; fiery chestnut cliffs, towering plateaus; and vibrant, labyrinthine topography dappled with deserts, plains, forests, mesas, lava flows, cinder cones, streams, waterfalls, and one of America’s premier whitewater rivers.

Of the five million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park, only 10% get to experience the rugged solitude of the North Rim. More than 1,000 feet (305 m) higher than the South Rim, here the Canyon reveals its perfect balance of serenity and power, peace and intensity. Here one can absorb the breathtaking enormity of the Grand Canyon, unmatched in majesty and magnificence, and appreciate the subtleties of one of the most studied geologic landscapes in the world.

Not only is the Grand Canyon a crowning gem in America’s national park system, but as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canyon is considered to be of outstanding significance to the common heritage of the entire human race. John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who took three months to explore the Grand Canyon by boat in 1869, described its stunning vastness as “the most sublime spectacle in nature,” saying of it that, “the glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon - forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.”

Untamed and isolated, the North Rim remains little changed from what it was in 1908 when President Teddy Roosevelt frequented the area as one of his favorite hunting retreats. With elevations ranging from 8,000 to 8,800 feet (2,438 to 2,682 Km) above sea level, the North Rim is a forested plateau nestled on the desert highlands of Northern Arizona.  Blanketed with mountain ash, fir, pine, spruce, birch, and aspen, the pristine seclusion of the North Rim instills visitors with a sense of peaceful exhilaration.

Due to its broad scale, both in elevation and extent, Grand Canyon National Park nourishes an extraordinary diversity of habitats within a remarkably compact geographic area, its equivalent only found elsewhere in a 1,500-mile stretch. Its impressive biological resume includes numerous rare, threatened, and endangered plant and animal species, as well as some endemic species, like the tuft-eared Kaibab squirrel found only on the North Rim. Within the boundaries of the park there are over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammal, 47 reptile, 17 fish, and 9 amphibian species. Visitors may spot goshawks, porcupines, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, California condors, antelope, coyotes, mountain lions, northern goshawks, ground squirrels, or the ever popular black-bellied Kaibab squirrels.

Day 5
We would spend the early morning hours on the GC north rim at a few of the better morning photo locations.  After our morning shoots, we would drive to Bryce Canyon National Park for some good late afternoon and evening light.

Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is a geologic masterpiece considered by many to be the most colorful of all the National Parks. Sometimes referred to as a forest of stone, Bryce is unique due to its thousands of delicately carved spires, called hoodoos, which rise in brilliant color from the canyon floor. Centuries of wind, water, and geologic mayhem have etched what was once mere sedimentary rock into towering pinnacles and immense amphitheaters. These superb formations stretch for miles along the eastern edge of the 9,000 foot high (2,743 meters) Paunsaugunt Plateau. Evening and early morning light bring the brilliant hues of these formations to life, giving them a lustrous transparent glow.  It is just a quarter of the size of Zion National Park.

With rim elevations that vary between 8,000 and 9,000 feet (2,400 to 2,700 meters), Bryce canyon transcends over 2,000 feet (650 meters) of elevation and three distinct climactic zones. This diversity of habitat provides for high bio diversity. Over 160 species of birds, dozens of mammals, and more than 1,000 plant species proliferate within the canyons and plateau that compose Bryce. While touring in the park one may see black bears, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, ground squirrels, marmots, mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, Rocky Mountain elk, and even possibly mountain lions. And should one care to search, one may find migratory hummingbirds, peregrine falcon, swifts, swallows, jays, nuthatches, ravens, eagles, owls, and California condors taking wing.

Bordering the rim of the canyon are ponderosa pines, high elevation meadows and fir-spruce forests, beyond which spread panoramic views of three states, up to 160 miles (260 km) distant. This area boasts some of the nation's best air quality, which, coupled with the lack of nearby large light sources, creates unparalleled opportunities for stargazing. Stargazers can see 7,500 stars with the naked eye, contrasted with the 2,000 or less that can be seen most other places.

Day 6
We would spend the early to mid-morning hours shooting the best locations at Bryce Canyon, after which we would travel to Zion National Park, which is only about 1 ½ hours away.

Bryce Canyon is one of those unique places where the morning hours are generally much better for the lighting and color that Bryce is famous for.

We would spend the mid-day and evening hours shooting Zion National Park.  Because Zion is a deep north to south canyon, neither the very early or late evening hours are particularly good within the canyon.  The best locations for early and late light are just outside the southern entry to the canyon floor and up the side canyon of the east entry to the park.  One exception would be the “Kolob Canyon” area of Zion to the west, which would require a round trip drive of about 1 1/2 hours, plus the photo shoot time.

Massive canyon walls ascend toward a brilliant blue sky. To experience Zion, you need to walk among the towering cliffs, or challenge your courage in a small narrow canyon. These unique sandstone cliffs range in color from cream, to pink, and to red. They could be described as sand castles crowning desert canyons.

As Utah's oldest and most visited national park, Zion’s topography is an exquisite spectacle of canyon–mesa country. Encompassing one of the most scenic cliff-and-canyon landscapes in the USA, Zion’s 229 square miles (593 km) are internationally known for their dramatic canyons, towering rock faces, overhanging cliffs, sparkling waterfalls, hanging valleys, high plateaus, rock formations, dripping springs, shaded pools, and particularly for the Virgin River Narrows – one of the premier hikes on the Colorado Plateau. The word Zion is ancient Hebrew meaning a place of refuge or sanctuary, and Zion National Park is just that – an exquisite respite from the surrounding world.

The Virgin River winds its way through Zion Canyon’s scenic 15-mile stretch, cutting through reddish and tan Navajo Sandstone, nourishing the landscape, and serving as a natural corridor for exploration. The Canyon is up to a half mile deep, serving as a haven for rock climbers with massive cliff faces radiant in the sunshine. Some of Zion’s most noted geographical features include the Virgin River Narrows, a gorge as narrow as 20 feet (6 m) wide and up to 2,000 feet (610 m) deep; Angels Landing; Emerald Pools; Hidden Canyon; The Great White Throne; Checkerboard Mesa; The Three Patriarchs; the Temple of Sinawava; and one of the world's longest arches, Kolob Arch.

The Kolob Canyons region in the northwest of Zion National Park is little-traveled in comparison to the more popular Zion Canyon, but every bit as stunning. Home to Horse Ranch Mountain, Zion’s tallest peak, as well as twisting slot canyons, sinuous arches, extravagantly streaked and colored rocks, hanging gardens, drifting streams, and picturesque gorges with sheer cliffs towering above emerald vegetation. The name Kolob comes from Mormonism, where it is considered the dwelling closest to the throne of God.

Zion National Park encompasses 5,000 feet of elevation change. Such unique geography and resultant variety of microclimates allows for remarkable plant and animal diversity: Zion is home to over 78 species of mammals (including 19 species of bat), 291 species of birds, 44 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 8 species of fish. Visitors to Zion can spot badgers, bank beavers, bats, bighorn sheep, cougars, coyotes, desert cottontails, foxes, jackrabbits, Merriam's kangaroo rats, mule deer, porcupines, raccoons, rattlesnakes, ringtail cats, rock squirrels, skunks, and whiptail and collared lizards. Soaring over canyons or chasing one another through the trees can be found bald eagles, California condors, canyon wrens, dippers, gnat catchers, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, pinyon jays, red-tailed hawks, and white-throated swifts.

Plant species common to Zion include cottonwood, cactus, datura, juniper, pinyon pine, ponderosa pine, box elder, sagebrush, manzanita shrubs, cliffrose, serviceberry, scrub oak, yucca, gambel oak, aspen, and various willows.

Day 7
On this day we will leave Zion and drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon NP by way of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Toadstools Trail, Echo Cliffs, parts of the Painted Desert, and the Little Colorado River Gorge.

Starting near Cameron, Arizona, the Little Colorado River has carved the “Little Colorado River Gorge”.  In this area, it begins to make a very rapid 2,000 ft. (610 m) descent in elevation over just 30 miles (48 km) to the Colorado River.

The narrow gorge of the Little Colorado conceals an astonishing depth. In contrast to the Grand Canyon, the walls are almost colorless, gray, grim, and forbidding. The visitor views it with admiring eyes and awesome wonder.  Along Arizona highway 64 there are two especially good views of the deep, narrow Gorge and its finely layered upper limestone cliffs that contrast with the massive sandstone below.  Metal hand rails provide safety at the jagged canyon's edge. Numerous native vendors sell their handmade crafts at both overlooks.

We will enter the park through the “east” entry, with our first stop at the Desert View Watchtower scenic viewpoint.  Some of the better photographic viewpoints are along this “east rim drive” on the way to Grand Canyon Village.  If time permits, we will take a walk to one of the south rim’s least visited yet photographic viewpoints that few people know about.  Sunset photography on the rim from some of the better viewpoints will be a priority.

We book rooms near the south entrance to the park because they have better accommodations than the accommodations within the park.

Day 8
The early morning hours will again be spent shooting the Grand Canyon from some locations that also have good foreground formations.  Mid-day we will head south past the San Francisco Peaks, through a beautiful quaking aspen forest, past Flagstaff, Arizona, over the Mogollon Rim, and stop for a visit at the photographic Montezuma Well and Castle areas.

We will visit one of the best locations for morning photography, and work our way along the rim as the sun rises over the eastern edges of the Canyon.

Formed long ago by the collapse of a limestone cavern, water flows continuously into Montezuma Well through underground springs, providing a constant supply of warm, fresh water.   This unique aquatic habitat has served as an oasis for plants, wildlife, and humans for thousands of years.  The prehistoric Sinaguan people took advantage of this source of water by irrigating crops, and visitors can still see traces of ancient lime-encrusted irrigation ditches from past farming activity

Montezuma Castle is a 5-story cliff dwelling constructed under overhanging cliffs and over a hundred feet above the Verde River. Montezuma Castle is one of the best preserved Indian ruins in the Southwest. Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well were misnamed, as the Sinagua inhabitants abandoned the area long before King Montezuma of the Aztecs was born.