Glacier National Park, Montana, has some of the most stunning landscapes of any of the national parks, which easily hide the crowds from view. Photo by Ben Horton.
The road ahead was in chaos. My friend Alan and I were in Death Valley for the weekend, and we hadn’t expected to come across this many people in one place. Dozens of cars were jostling for parking and people were running through traffic. Some of them didn’t bother parking at all; they stopped in the middle of the road, leaned out their window and took photos from the car. All were photographing something in the same direction.
We reached down for our cameras and flicked the power on. It felt like the Wild West, and we were preparing for a showdown. Whatever was making everybody so frantic was hidden from us, but as we approached the masses, we slowed down along with the crowd and searched the horizon for what was causing the commotion.
Alan spotted it, just a few feet from the road. It was a sign displaying a graphic of a camera, with an arrow pointing west toward the mountains.
Every single person in that crowd was pointing their camera west with the arrow—some with their smartphones, others with tablets, and some with professional DSLRs stacked with filters and mounted on tripods. There was a distant mountain range, but the light was actually optimal to shoot in the opposite direction—toward a range that looked nearly identical.
The Narrows of Zion National Park, Utah, are crowded for the first few miles, even chaotic, at times. Few go through the process of getting a permit to hike from the top down, but those few often find themselves alone. Photo by Ben Horton.
On that other side, the alpenglow was lighting up the peaks and bringing out the bright, earthy colors for which the Mojave Desert is known. In contrast, the subject of everyone’s attention was dark and backlit. We hesitated there, sure we were missing something, but eventually decided that there was nothing to explain it other than that sign, pointing with confidence to the west.
Perhaps their goals were different from ours. We had the goal of finding unique landscapes and details that most might miss, whereas they may have been using their cameras as a journal, to document their adventures in the park. These are two very different ways to look at photography, and it’s why I almost never come home with any personal images.
The chaotic scene stayed with me over the weekend. It was fascinating, the influence that the sign had. It had turned an average view of the park into something that would no doubt be photographed thousands of times a day. That landscape is now, in effect, iconic, recognizable, and has been shared with millions of people who have never seen Death Valley for themselves.
For many years, the primary role of photography in the national parks has been to serve as a means of conservation, to popularize the efforts to save these places for future generations. A photograph brings the parks into clear view of people who have never had the chance to visit one themselves. Famous images have been etched into our minds as if we were standing there with the artist when the image was captured. Landscapes we’ve never visited are familiar to us, down to the small details.
National parks are like that sign, in a way, drawing us toward a place we might ignore if it didn’t have that auspicious title. Take Joshua Tree as an example. Before it was made a national park, less than a million people visited it every year. Even with its close proximity to Los Angeles, it was more of a hidden gem for climbers, writers and rock stars. Until 1994, it was “only” a national monument, though it was managed by the National Park Service. After being designated a national park, people began going out of their way to visit Joshua Tree, and now there are over two million visitors a year. Every year, that number climbs.
Photographing the Narrows requires a tripod, waterproof protection for your camera and a keen eye for framing. The most important thing I learned on this journey was to avoid any sky or sunlight in my framing, and to be patient enough to use a tripod for every shot. Photo by Ben Horton.
The title “national park” is powerful marketing. We know that a place with that distinction is raw, natural, with dramatic and unique landscapes. As photographers, these places draw us with the promise of capturing that distinct feeling in an image. As a culture, we go to them to escape, feel refreshed, and reconnect with nature, but we also want to see for ourselves the places that have inspired us through photographs. Those photos never show crowds. As more people visit the parks, the chance that we’ll find these iconic views unoccupied is nearing zero.
For the photographer looking to create something unique, staying motivated when so many people are filtering through the parks presents some challenges. When standing on Glacier Point in Yosemite, or after the short hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, it can feel impossible.
The outline of Delicate Arch has become a symbol that represents the state of Utah, not just the park. It’s the primary graphic on the state license plate, and it has its own billboard as you cross the border from Colorado into Utah, welcoming visitors who seek the arch.
I’d never done the short hike to see it for myself, though I’d tried at least a half-dozen times. I always turned around when I saw the parking lot overflowing with people and the trail looking more like a queue. Avoiding lines isn’t something I only do in nature; I’m that way in the city, as well. On my last visit to the arch, I would have turned around again, but I was there with my girlfriend who had joined me on an 8,000-mile road trip through several national parks. By now, she knew when I needed to be pushed out of the car.
During the day, there was a long line of cars stretching along this road through Zion National Park. When I returned to take this image at night, I had to wait 20 minutes for a car to come along and light up the switchbacks. Photo by Ben Horton.
With her pressuring me to get out of the driver’s seat for a while, we put our heads down and got in line. We reached the overlook and were among hundreds of people, all standing there waiting to have a photo taken with the arch, one after another, posing with their arms raised.
The procession was endless—we waited no less than two hours for an image of the arch without people in it, and in that time, the light had long since turned gray and flat, so I gave up. My only captures were photojournalistic documentation of the crowd itself. I get grumpy in these situations. I know that being a professional doesn’t mean I have any more right to use the space than they do—some might argue that it means I have less of a right to the space, and there’s perhaps some validity to that. I was there hoping to take something that would add to my portfolio, while they were there to document their experiences.
The three-mile round-trip walk to Delicate Arch and back is Utah’s most popular hike. To experience the arch alone, consider going in winter when Arches National Park is at its emptiest. Photo by Ben Horton.
The path to the arch follows a ledge along a sandstone bluff. On the walk back to the parking lot, I came across a break in the rock only a short climb above us. Had I taken a satisfactory image of the arch, I wouldn’t have bothered climbing the 20 feet or so to see what was there, but just above the trail, I found an angle I’d never seen photographed before. It wasn’t ideal for a landscape photo, but it was perfect for an image that would convey a sense of place. The rock opened up to a view that framed Delicate Arch, and from here, there was no crowd blocking the view. Walking the trail, following the signs and waiting in line, I had put blinders on. I’d assumed the best angle was the one where everybody else was, where the signs led us. Although it may have been the ideal spot for a landscape had I been alone, it wasn’t the best angle in that moment.
When the goal is to create a unique photograph, I try to skip the viewpoints where a constant onslaught of tripods have all but worn three dents in the end of a well-paved trail. I believe that we must go further, and put more effort into our search for images than the crowd in order to find a new perspective on the landscape. It means more work and far more failed attempts, but when everything comes together, it also means having something unique. It won’t just be an image that stands out in our collection—it will stand out from everyone’s collections.
Sometimes all it takes to find a unique view is to break off of the main trail. This keyhole view of Delicate Arch is only 20 feet from the main trail, yet I’d never come across an image from this vantage. Photo by Ben Horton.
The parks are more popular now than ever before. Portions of them have, by necessity, been pacified to keep visitors safe and organized. In the national parks, the domestication ends when the pavement ends. Step out of the queue, and onto the dirt, and suddenly the parks are as we imagine they should be. Rarely is it a long walk to solitude.
The best part of being a photographer is the freedom it gives us to wander. With cameras in our hands, our paths don’t follow the trail, but wind between subjects. No sign can predict the light or point you toward a moment. Leave the signs behind and the blinders come off, our creativity begins to wake up. We trade the iconic for the remarkable.
Ben Horton is a National Geographic Explorer and photographer. His passion is telling stories of adventure that can inspire people to access the outdoors and to care about the world in which they live. See more of his work at benhorton.biz.