I originally wrote this post just after I moved to Arizona in the summer of 2019. As a new photographer to the area, I was desperate to find all the best spots and found some pretty amazing locations, locations that made me fall in love with Arizona. Well, it’s been over a year now and my search never stopped. So here are the 10 best family photo locations near Gilbert, AZ, updated edition.
UPDATED: February 9, 2021
1. Phon D Recreation Site | Tonto National Forest
The new top spot for the 10 Best Family Photo Locations near Gilbert, AZ hands down goes to this beautiful recreation site along the Salt River. The rock formations are so unique, and the landscape so beautiful and GREEN! Something that is hard to find around here. I find myself recommending Phon D Recreation site more and more.
COST/parking: Tonto pass ($7/$12)
To park at Phon D Recreation Site (or anywhere within the Tonto National Forest) you need a Tonto Pass. You can pick these up at select, local gas stations for $7 or at the Recreation Site itself for $12. (These prices are what I remember but they may be a little more or less).
This site has a large parking lot and I’ve never had to worry that the lot will be full, although it can get very busy with both photographers, swimmers, and other recreating patrons, especially during the summer months.
I use this site year round, though be aware it will change slightly depending on the season. Despite the usual seasonal changes (greener, etc.), the water level will drop considerably in the winter when the dam is closed upriver. However, compared to other locations along the Salt River (like Water Users) the water level stays more usable and aesthetically pleasing.
This location is also good at both sunrise and sunset, though be aware that there is a mountain to the west that will hide the sun about 30 minutes before sunset. I usually start my sessions about 30 minutes earlier than usual to accommodate for this.
Boulders, water, greenery, and mountain backdrops all make this location stunning!. One of the reasons I love this place is because I’m always finding a new little nook or cranny to shoot in. If someone is already in one of my go-to spots, I just go a little farther on or around that corner and find an even better spot! This is also a great spot for a family outing and one of my family’s favorites.
Session at Phon D Recreation Site: Phon D Sutton Family Pictures, Phon D Family Pictures | Mesa Arizona Photographer, Tonto National Forest Family pictures, Arizona Family Photographer, Gilbert Arizona Family Pictures
2. Water Users Recreation Area | Tonto National Forest
The second best family photo location near Gilbert, AZ is Water Users Recreation Area which is also along the Salt River in Tonto National Forest and only loses to Phon D because it gets a little gross when the water level drops. Otherwise, it’s actually one of my favorite places to play in the water because of its nice beach, and the red cliff backdrop is epic.
COST/parking: Tonto pass ($7/$12)
Just like at Phon D (or anywhere within the Tonto National Forest) you need a Tonto Pass.
This site also has a large parking lot but it also gets very busy during peak seasons with both photographers and recreationers as it is a common place to launch tubes, kayaks, etc.
I have used this location year-round though, as I mentioned before, when the water drops after they close the dam, it can get a little gross, though no less pretty on camera.
In 2020 I was there on October 10th and it was beautiful! The water level was perfect for splashing and playing in. I loved it so much I returned barely two days later with my daughter to take some pictures and was so sad to see the water level had dropped at least 20 feet. Not only was the water gross, but it was also filled with leeches. We still got some amazing pictures, but the moral of the story is to keep a close eye on the water level and when they close the dam.
The areas you have access to also change drastically depending on water level so make sure you visit the site during every season to know the best places to go
I have never used this location for a sunrise session but absolutely love it at sunset. The sun sets almost directly downriver making for beautiful backlit images during golden hour, and gorgeous blue hour images shooting back towards the cliffs.
Beaches (sometimes rocky), water, greenery, fall colors, and red cliff backdrops are just a few of my favorite things about this location. And just like Phon D, this is also a great spot for family outings.
Session at Water Users Recreation Site: Water Users Recreation Area Family Pictures | Gilbert Photographer, Gilbert Spring Mini Sessions 2020 | Gilbert Family Photographer, Mesa Spring Mini Sessions 2020 | Mesa Family Photographer, Salt River Family Pictures | Mesa Photographer
3. Butcher Jones Recreation Site | Tonto National Forest
Okay… at this point I’m realizing I’m a bit obsessed with the Tonto National Forest, because yes, this third location is also located there. If I had to say why it’s the water. I love the movement that water adds to images as well as the greenery that grows nearby you can’t find anywhere else in Arizona (because it’s a desert!). I’ve actually only shot here once because it was closed for quite some time due to fire danger/damage… but it still makes the 10 Best Family Photo Locations near Gilbert, AZ list because I love it that much!
COST/parking: Tonto pass ($7/$12)
The parking at this site is a little more limited as there is no big lot but lots of little pull outs instead. Could get crowded/busy to park during peak times so plan accordingly. Also a lot of photographers and recreationers here during peak months (summer into early fall).
As I said, I’ve only used this site once so far but I imagine it will be good year-round. The water level will probably drop but even if you don’t want to get in the water, there is a nice grassy area just before the beach.
This beach is oriented north to south which makes it decent for both sunrise and sunset. However, it has fairly large hills on either side that mess with your sunrise and sunset times. You can get away with starting a little later in the morning, and a little earlier in the evening to beat the sun coming up/going down behind the hills.
Beach, water, greenery, and mountain backdrops all make this location stunning!
Session at Butcher Jones Recreation Site: Coming Soon!
4. Usery Mountain Regional Park
When my clients want that classic desert and cacti look I take them just one place, Usery Mountain Regional Park, and that’s why it’s number 4 on the 10 Best Family Photo Locations near Gilbert, AZ list. It was the first place I ever took pictures in Arizona and I’ve been in love ever since. Just look for any one of the many trailheads and you’ll find a gorgeous desert landscape speckled with cacti. I especially love the Wind Cave Trailhead, Merkle Trail, and the trails just off the staging area.
Cost/Parking: $7 (for now)
Technically, to do any kind of commercial photography within the park you have to fill out an application and pay a $100 application fee. (I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar existed for Tonto National Forest). However, MOST of the time, the rangers don’t care. I have been stopped once because they were on the lookout for a particular photographer who had been using the park very frequently for shoots and she wasn’t respecting the trails. The message was clear, if more photographers act like her, we’ll start enforcing the $100 fee.
WE DON’T WANT THAT! For all of these locations, please keep in mind that we as photographers are guests and must follow the rules. Stay on the trails, don’t be disruptive, respect other patrons, etc. If we don’t, we will lose access to these gorgeous locations! Please, please, please, be respectful!
Until such a time as the $100 application/fee is enforced, there is a $7/car entry fee payable as you enter the park at the ranger station.
Most of the trailheads have parking nearby. They can get busy during peak seasons and times both by photographers and hikers.
Usery park is very consistent year round though it will have some seasonal changes. In the spring it will be more green and if your lucky, wildflowers! In winter it is definitely more brown, though still very beautiful!
Cacti, wide open spaces, boulders, wildflowers (spring) and mountains.
More sessions at Usery Mountain Regional Park: Usery Mountain Extended Family Pictures, Desert Hawk Trailhead Family Pictures | Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona Desert Family Pictures | Usery Mountain Regional Park, Usery Mountain Regional Park Family Pictures | East Valley Photographer, East Valley Arizona Family Photographer, Usery Pass Family Pictures | Gilbert Family Photographer, Mesa Family Photographer | Wind Cave Trailhead Family Pictures, Wind Cave Family Pictures | Fall Color Palette | East Valley Photographer,
5. Tom’s Thumb Trailhead | MCDOWELL SONORAN CONSERVANCY
If I lived in Scottsdale, this might just be number one on the 10 Best Family Photo Locations near Gilbert, AZ list. I’ve also only shot here once but it left such an impression! Just look at all this green! And the boulders… I think they’re my favorite, iconic Arizona feature.
Tom’s Thumb Trailehad is part of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and there is no fee to enter or park.
There is a large parking lot, I don’t believe you’d ever have a hard time finding space. While it may be busier during peak seasons with both photographers and hikers, its so wide open you shouldn’t have a hard time finding somewhere to shoot.
The one session I shot here was in March, hence all the green. I’ve never seen Arizona so green! But even without the green, this location would still be beautiful because of the boulders and should look fairly consistent year-round.
As I’ve only shot here once, I can’t speak for how Tom’s Thumb is at Sunrise though I believe you’d be able to find a good spot in relation to the rising sun. Sunset was absolutely magical.
Desert, boulders, cacti, other foliage, mountains.
More sessions at the Tom’s Thumb Trailhead: Tom’s Thumb Family Pictures | Scottsdale AZ Photographer
6. Browns Ranch Trailhead| McDowell Sonoran Conservancy
Also part of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy in Scottsdale, Brown’s Ranch trailhead is more desert and less mountain than Tom’s Thumb. These desert boulders are one of the main reasons I drive up to Scottsdale for photo sessions and the Conservancy is one of the best places to get them.
There is a good-sized parking lot with restrooms and an educational pavilion at the Brown’s Ranch trailhead. There is an automatic gate that closes at sunset so make sure you end a little early.
I think most locations in Arizona are good year round, a blessing of living in Arizona. It will be greener in the spring and you might get some wildflowers, and browner in the fall/winter. All around beautiful!
Boulders, Cacti, Hiking Trails
More from my sessions at Brown’s Ranch: Brown’s Ranch Trailhead Family Pictures, McDowell Sonoran Preserve Family Pictures | East Valley Photographer, Scottsdale Family Photographer | Cave Creek Mommy & Me Pictures
7. Papago Park
Papago Park is located in Tempe in the same complex that houses the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens. It’s one of the best family photo locations because of the location, its central to everything and a great way to access wide-open desert spaces without having to travel to the outskirts of the valley. And the rock formations, including hole in the rock, always make for an interesting backdrop.
There is no fee to enter Papago or to park.
Papago Park has many different parking lots located throughout the park so it’s usually pretty easy to find a parking spot. There are especially busy parts of the park, like Hole in the Rock, that can fill up quickly with photographers and hikers so you may have to walk a little way during peak seasons and times.
Another great classic location with a pretty consistent desert landscape year round.
Great for sunset and sunrise because of. the variety of locations within the park.
Cacti, Ponds (see Papago Ponds), Red Rock, Boulders, Desert Foliage.
More from sessions at Papago Park: Pictures at Papago Park | Hole in the Rock | East Valley Photographer, Papago Park Family Pictures | East Valley Family Photographer, Water Users Recreation Area Family Pictures | Gilbert Photographer
8. Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch
I love this location because it’s so close to my base of operations in Gilbert, AZ, and offers so much diversity in the middle of. the city. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is a 110-acre wetland and wildlife sanctuary located on Guadeloupe and Greenfield Rd behind the Southwest Regional Library in Gilbert, AZ. With so many trails you can stop almost anywhere and get a stunning backdrop.
Cost/parking: Free (help us keep it that way)
Just like Usery, technically there is a commercial application required to take professional photos at the preserve. They also tend not to enforce it. Please help us maintain this privilege by respecting the rules and especially the wildlife when visiting. Do not go into fenced-off areas, even if it improves your shot. Do not harass or harm the wildlife in any way. Remember this is a wildlife preserve, we are the visitors.
Additionally, they specifically request that you don’t bring props, or set ups that would interfere with trail traffic. Things that would be difficult to clean up and negatively impact the wildlife are also big no no’s (cake smash, gender reveal, confetti, etc.).
The Riparian Preserve has a parking lot on the Guadeloupe side but it fills up fast, especially during peak photo season and times (October-March, Sunrise, and Sunset). You may also park at the library if needed, and my personal secret parking spot is on the greenfield side and all the way to the back (the library parking lot is not through).
Great for both sunrise and sunset, and all year round.
Desert and cactus, running streams, other foliage, and near the ponds, you get super green reeds and other water plants.
More sessions at the Riparian Preserve: Gilbert Arizona Family Pictures, Chandler Family Photographer, Riparian Preserve Mini Sessions, Gilbert Family Photographer | Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch Family Pictures, Riparian Preserve Photo Shoot | Arizona Kid Photographer, Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch | Mini Session, Gilbert Extended Family Pictures | Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Riparian Preserve Family Photos | East Valley Photographer, Riparian Preserve Family Photographer, Riparian Preserve Family Pictures | Gilbert Family Photographer, Cake Smash Photographer| Happy Birthday Little R
9. Desert Botanical Gardens
It’s a massive botanical garden filled with cacti, succulents, mesquite trees, and so much more… definitely one of the best family photo locations around! Make sure you arrive with plenty of time to scout all the different trails and get a feel for each section as each is very different from the others. My personal favorites are the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop and the Cactus and Succulent Galleries.
Cost/Parking: $30/person or Free on Community Day
Admission prices change depending on the season but typically you can expect to pay $24.95 – $29.95/adult and $12.95 – $14.95/child. Community Day is the 2nd Tuesday of each month and Admission is complimentary on those days. There is no photography fee beyond admission for shooting in the gardens.
COVID UPDATE: You must buy your tickets in advance and let them know what you are planning. You will always need to wear a mask and your clients will need to wear a mask when you’re not actively taking pictures.
There is a large parking lot at the Desert Botanical Garden, typical for what you would expect for such a big attraction. I’ve never had an issue but it does fill up, especially on community days, consider carpooling or taking public transit during peak times.
Beautiful all year round, but especially gorgeous in the spring.
Photography is only allowed during regular business hours which are seasonal so plan accordingly. The park usually opens well after sunrise and closes well before sunset, you can still. find good light but it can be a bit more challenging.
Gorgeous landscaped garden with native plants, towering cacti, sculptures and other rotating installations.
More from my sessions at the Desert Botanical Gardens: Pictures at the Desert Botanical Garden, Desert Botanical Garden Community Day | Arizona Photographer, Desert Botanical Garden Family Photos | Free Admission | Phoenix Family Photographer, Desert Botanical Garden Family Pictures | Phoenix Family Photographer
10. Lost Dutchman State Park
Finally, rounding. out 10 Best Family Photo Locations near Gilbert, AZ is the Lost Dutchman State Park which is perhaps one of the East Valley’s most iconic photo locations. The towering rock formations make for a stunning backdrop to any photo session. The best time for pictures at this particular location is sunrise since the sun comes up directly over the mountain, meaning a sunset session would have the subject squinting into the sun.
Cost/Parking: $50 + $10/car
Because it is such a popular spot the Lost Dutchman State Park has recently introduced a $50 photography fee to take pictures in front of the iconic rock formations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional or amateur hoping to snag a few of your family, any kind of posed photography incurs the fee.
There is an additional $10/car entrance fee to enter the park.
There are several lots scattered throughout the park with easy access to trails and ideal photo locations.
This state park is beautiful year round with, once again, especially beautiful landscapes during the spring. You might even get wildflowers.
Though the park has great variety and you can find gorgeous backdrops at both sunrise and sunset, if you want the iconic Lost Dutchman rock formation in your images, sunrise is the best time as the sun rises directly behind it.
Iconic Lost Dutchman rock formations, cacti, desert landscape.
More from my session at Lost Dutchman: Lost Dutchman Family Pictures | Extended Family Photographer
BONUS: Space One 2 One Lifestyle Studio
I know this post is called “10 Best Family Photo Locations near Gilbert, AZ” but I had. toinclude this bonus location.
It’s no secret that Arizona gets a little warm come summertime so I had to include at least one location that beats the heat. Space One 2 One lifestyle studio in Mesa is one of the best family photo locations because in here, it’s always a cool 72 degrees and sunny. I particularly love this location for newborn sessions to get that cozy “in-home” feeling.
One of the things I love about this studio is that it’s super affordable with rooms starting at $55/hour and maxing out at $70/hour. They also have this awesome cyc wall for an additional $30/hour which is unique in the East Valley.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, ‘Cyc’ is an abbreviated term for cyclorama, Webster defines a cyclorama as “a curved wall used as a background of a stage set to suggest unlimited space.” Its a white wall with no seams to allow for a perfectly white background making the subject really pop.
The studio is located in a strip mall/warehouse at 2450 W. Broadway Rd. #112, Mesa AZ 85202. Plenty of parking.
Studios like Space One 2 One are designed to get gorgeous natural light all day long. But personally, I find I prefer morning light to the afternoon when I’m shooting indoors.
Lifestyle, in-home feel, Cyc wall, natural light, cozy furniture.
More from my sessions at Space One 2 One: East Valley Newborn Photographer | Space One 2 One, How to Give Your Kids Autonomy | Parenting 101 | Space One 2 One | Gilbert Lifestyle Photographer