Icons Of The National Parks

Our quick guide to some of the best U.S. national parks for shooting

In this brief guide to the best national parks for photography in the United States, we aim to give you a glimpse into some of this country’s greatest treasures. Many of the parks we list here are huge. Yellowstone, for example, our first national park, is more than 3,500 square miles. That’s bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island put together! With so much to see, it’s impossible to be comprehensive on these pages. Rather, we hope that what you see and read here will inspire you to make plans to get out and explore these parks on your own.

Under “Best Times,” you’ll see that we frequently comment about the crowds of summer and the relative quiet of the other seasons. While it can be frustrating to deal with crowds, keep in mind that the vast majority of all national park visitors never venture more than 100 feet from the side of the road or the parking lot. Head off onto a trail, even a more popular trail, and you can find yourself almost alone within just a few minutes. All of this is to say that you have plenty of opportunities to enjoy solitude and get photos devoid of other people, even during the busiest times of the year.

Olympic National Park, Washington
Best Times: Because of the possibility of extreme weather on the Olympic Peninsula, summer is usually considered the best time to visit Olympic National Park. The variety of the landscape here is considerable, from coastline to temperate rain forest.

Most Iconic Locations: For most people, the coastline and the famous haystacks of Pacific Heights are Olympic’s calling card. Sitting just offshore, the haystacks tower out of the water, with trees dotting their peaks. These favorite subjects are often rendered as backlit silhouettes. Up into the mountains, Hurricane Ridge gives you a commanding vantage point over the Olympic Mountains. Quinault Rain Forest is a verdant, moss-covered sanctuary.

Joshua Tree National Park, California
Best Times: Spring and fall are the best times to photograph in Joshua Tree. The weather is good, and in spring, if you’re lucky, you may see the trees, for which the park was named, bloom. Like the rest of the desert Southwest, Joshua Tree can be very hot in summer, while in winter, keep aware of flash floods that can accompany rain. Despite the pervasive drought in Southern California, flash floods can occur without warning.

Most Iconic Locations: The park sits between two major desert systems, the Mojave and the Sonoran, which creates a varied landscape. Other than the signature eponymous trees that are prevalent, there are massive granite cliffs and lumpy boulders in the Jumbo Rocks area. In spring and fall, expect the boulders and rock faces to be populated with rock-climbing enthusiasts from all over the world. The Cholla Cactus Garden is an excellent location early and late in the day when you can use sidelight or backlight to capture the distinct glow from the cactus needles. Bring a polarizer to help maintain contrast, and try to shoot during the very edges of the day to bring out the best of Joshua Tree.

Yosemite National Park, California
Best Times: The huge crowds that clog the roads in Yosemite in summer thin out in late fall and winter. While many roads in the park are closed in winter, you can still move around quite a bit. We’ve run more than one OP cover of Yosemite in winter, as the juxtaposition of fresh pillows of snow and hard granite peaks can make a truly special photograph. Spring blooms, summer storms and fall color are all magnificent in this most iconic of the U.S. national parks.

Most Iconic Locations: Perhaps no one explored and photographed Yosemite as completely, and certainly none more famously, than Ansel Adams. To see the most storied locations, flip through Adams’ book Yosemite, and you’ll find all of the best areas of the park. Tunnel View is probably the most famous vantage point of the valley, with its view of El Capitan and Half Dome. Tuolumne Meadows and Ahwahnee Meadow, with its view of Half Dome, are legendary sites for landscape photography. Go to Washburn Point and Glacier Point for views of Half Dome and the surrounding peaks from above.

Death Valley National Park, California
Best Times: During spring and fall, the conditions in Death Valley are at their best. Winter can see unpredictable rainstorms and flash flooding, and during summer, the temperatures can rise mercilessly. In 2013, a new June record was set when the park saw 134º F!

Most Iconic Locations: Many of Death Valley’s best photo locations require getting away from the paved roads and parking areas. The Racetrack is the famous playa where you can see the mysterious sailing stones. The drive to the Racetrack is best accomplished with a 4×4 with high clearance, and when you’re there, tread very carefully to avoid scarring the delicate mud flats. Sadly, in recent years, a number of the sailing stones have been purloined by unscrupulous visitors. Zabriskie Point and Eureka Dunes are other areas not to be missed.

Everglades National Park, Florida
Best Times: Everglades is best photographed in the dry season (December through April). Wildlife concentrates near “gator holes,” temperatures are mild, and mosquitoes are fewer. Wet season (May through November) tends to be hot, humid and rainy, with lots of bugs.

Most Iconic Locations: The mangrove swamps of the Flamingo and Gulf Coasts certainly say “Everglades,” as does the sawgrass prairie at Shark Valley, and, of course, the wading birds—you’ll find 16 different species, including white ibis, wood stork and egrets.

Arches National Park, Utah
Best Times: Arches is open and accessible year-round. In winter, the tourist buses are somewhat less frequent, but the park’s manageable size is both a blessing and curse for photographers. The blessing is that it’s relatively easy to explore the majority of the park and all of the famous natural arches; the curse is that large tour groups find it just as easy to explore.

Most Iconic Locations: Delicate Arch is undoubtedly the most famous spot in the park, but it’s also the most crowded, with tourists as well as other photographers. Consider hiking to spots like Turret Arch or Double Arch where you stand a better chance of solitude. Stay on the trails, and be particularly careful with tripods to protect the park’s biological soil crust.

Yellowstone National Park, Montana & Wyoming
Best Times: Every season has its own treasures in Yellowstone. The park is open year-round, although at some 3,500 square miles in size, it’s impossible to generalize about accessibility in winter, but controversial snowmobiling access can get you into unique areas. That said, between the incredible geothermal activity, magnificent landscapes and intense wildlife activity, there’s something to photograph all year round. Summer crowds can make traversing the park difficult, so be prepared to move slowly.

Most Iconic Locations: While geysers, the famous Grand Prismatic Springs and free-roaming bison are top subjects for many visitors, the forces of water have left a distinct mark on the park, which has its own Grand Canyon carved by the Yellowstone River. Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls are just two of the more than 300 falls in the park. You can photograph bighorn sheep at Dunraven Pass, and Lamar Valley is a good place to spot elk and maybe even a black bear or a grizzly.

Glacier National Park, Montana
Best Times: Glacier is best in the summer when temperatures are warm and vegetation is at its peak. Summer is also the time when you’re likely to get big thunderstorms that create dramatic skies. For photographers, the mountains and lakes are the most popular subjects in the park. Winter is magnificent here, but conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, to get to the prime locations.

Most Iconic Locations: St. Mary Lake is a classic alpine lake that offers spectacular reflections of Little Chief Mountain. Grinnell Glacier is the most famous glacier in the park. It’s a considerable hike to get to it, but well worth it. Hidden Lake is just a short walk from the road, but offers some of the most iconic views in the entire park. Hidden Lake is famous for being almost right on top of the Continental Divide.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, California
Best Times: Yellowstone is famous for being the first national park in the U.S. Many people think that Yosemite was the second, but it was, in fact, Sequoia National Park. With the creation of Kings Canyon National Park immediately adjacent to Sequoia, the two parks have melded into Sequoia & Kings Canyon (SEKI). Located in the High Sierra, there’s limited access in the colder months, but spring through fall are prime time throughout SEKI.

Most Iconic Locations: The giant sequoias for which Sequoia National Park was named are extremely popular with the throngs of tourists who traverse the main thoroughfares. Getting away from the massive trees, however, you can hike into the high country where you’ll be greeted with magnificent alpine vistas, granite mountainsides and high mountain lakes. One of the most spectacular locations is Mineral King which, at 7,500 feet of elevation, is reached by a narrow 28-mile road and features some of the best scenery in the Sierra.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Best Times: As one of the most popular parks in the entire National Park system, there’s no bad time to visit the Grand Canyon. Winter has always been particularly popular with landscape photographers who want to catch the possibility of fresh snow against the red rock and desert flora. Summer offers the chance to capture booming monsoon thunderstorms, but those dramatic skies can be hazardous due to lightning strikes along the canyon rim. The North Rim is closed in winter, and crowds are smaller in spring and fall.

Most Iconic Locations: If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, prepare to be stunned. It’s truly aptly named, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed visually as you struggle to take it all in. We can’t possibly do justice to the range of photo possibilities available to a photographer. Toroweap Overlook is a perennial favorite spot, although the compositional possibilities are somewhat limited. Mather Point is probably the most famous vantage point to capture a big view of the canyon. If you’re in shape, hiking down to the canyon floor, with a guide, will get you into less photographed territory. The North Rim isn’t to be missed if it’s open.

Zion National Park, Utah
Best Times: Fall provides pleasant climate and dramatic colors. Winter is beautiful with the snowfall, but many areas require special equipment to access. Summer is hot. Spring brings a variety of weather, as well as wildflowers, which peak in May.

Most Iconic Locations: Zion is blessed with many arches (including Kolob Arch, one of the world’s biggest free-standing arches, and the easier-to-access Crawford Arch), plus spectacular canyons. Some canyons require special skills and gear, but others don’t, and there are nice overviews of several canyons from scenic viewpoints. The Virgin River and its Narrows are also especially photogenic.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee
Best Times: Great Smoky offers good photo ops year-round, but tends to be more crowded in summer, and parts aren’t accessible in winter. If you want fall colors, you’ll find them beginning in mid-September in the higher elevations, descending as autumn progresses. You’ll also find conditions for pristine winter snow photography, as well as spring wildflowers. Different hiking trails provide a variety of subject matter year-round.

Most Iconic Locations: The classic overview is from overlooks along U.S. 441 and Clingmans Dome Road. There are many waterfalls, including two you can drive to, Meigs Falls and Place of a Thousand Drips. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer the best chances of wildlife encounters. Many historic log buildings can be found in the park.

Acadia National Park, Maine
Best Times: Fall in New England offers lovely colors, which peak in mid-October, and relatively mild conditions. Summer can get busy, and winter, quite cold. Native asters and goldenrods bloom in late summer.

Most Iconic Locations: Cadillac Mountain provides an exceptional overview of the area, plus good sunset/sunrise shooting. Somes Sound is “the only fjord on the East Coast.” Eagle Lake and miles of Acadia coastline offer great photo ops, from the pastoral to the dramatic.