A Year Photographing The National Parks

Ten highlights from an epic tour photographing all of the U.S. national parks

For the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, I had a dream assignment photographing the national parks. I traveled to and photographed all 59 (at the time) of the U.S. national parks in one year for National Geographic. While other Nat Geo photographers were spending up to a year on assignment in a single national park, I was racing through them at breakneck speed. It was a whirlwind year filled with more beauty and nature than any one person should ever get to experience in such a short timeframe.

The book, A Year in the National Parks: The Greatest American Road Trip, chronicles Irish’s adventure.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve probably realized that photographing 59 national parks in 52 weeks is close to impossible, and you’d be right. But I was crazy enough to pitch it, and they were crazy enough to let me try to do it. Looking back, it was without a doubt one of the most challenging years of my life. I was out photographing every sunrise and sunset, I hiked all day, edited late into the night (when I wasn’t shooting astrophotography), and got very little sleep for the entire year.

I had so many blissful, “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming” moments as well. In a country as diverse and picturesque as the United States, the national parks represent the best of us. They are the places we hold most sacred, for their purity and jaw-dropping beauty.

Prior to this assignment, I had already visited about half of the U.S. national parks, either on my own or on assignment for various publications. The national parks are very special to me; they are where I fell in love with exploring the outdoors, and they played a big role in me becoming a photographer. For the centennial of the Park Service, I wanted to challenge myself and to give back to those places that had given me so much over my lifetime.

It’s very hard to distill an entire year of amazing national park scenery into a short list, but I’ve tried to share some of my favorite images and moments here. If you were to ask me tomorrow or next week to do the same exercise, I’d likely have a completely different list.

Sometimes during this project, I felt like it was completely unfair to take credit for any photos because it was truly nature that was doing all the heavy lifting. 

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska is known for its large population of grizzly bears. Most photographers in Katmai will spend a lot of time at Brooks Falls hoping to recreate the famous photo (Thomas Mangelsen’s “Catch of the Day”) of the spawning salmon precariously perched in mid-air right before a hungry grizzly closes its jaws on it.

However, I fell in love with Kukak Bay on the east side of the national park, where few visitors reach and wild grizzlies roam free. Exploring by boat, we were able to get close to and spend time with locally known grizzlies like “One-Ear,” who showed off her two young cubs. National parks are special places where wildlife can wander protected as they have for millennia, and getting to see these famous grizzlies is one of the great wildlife experiences one can have not only in the park system but anywhere.

See more of Jonathan Irish’s work at JonathanIrish.com.