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.
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.
I love photographing sand dunes, and there is perhaps no better place to do so than Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado. These are the tallest dunes in North America, tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and offer endless opportunities for creative photography. My favorite moment from visiting this park came not from capturing the light and shadow at play on the dunes during sunrise and sunset, but from backpacking far into the dunes and spending the night under the stars. The lack of light pollution, coupled with the fantastic tent location and the brilliant star display overhead, was a night to remember. In fact, this image ended up becoming the cover of the book about the project, A Year in the National Parks: The Greatest American Road Trip.
See more of Jonathan Irish’s work at JonathanIrish.com.