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There’s nothing like getting out in the summer when the weather is warm, the days are long and the landscapes are inviting. In this article, we’ve polled several of OP’s top contributors, asking them for their favorite summer hot spots. This brief list of locations is a collection of ideal summer shooting spots, but they certainly aren’t the only good places to go, by a long shot. Furthermore, these should be thought of as places where your quest for special imagery begins, not as an end, because nature photography is best when it’s not just about ticking a series of checkboxes.
Frederick Sound, Southern Alaska
My favorite photographic subject is humpback whales, especially during the brief summer months in Alaska. One of my favorite locations to photograph them is on Frederick Sound located in southeastern Alaska’s famous Inside Passage. Here, the whales typically congregate to feed by themselves on rich blooms of plankton and schools of herring. On a calm day, I’ve counted hundreds of whale blows from horizon to horizon. Bubble-net feeding is a unique feeding behavior where groups of up to two dozen humpback whales cooperatively work together to feed in schools of herring. Each whale plays a specialized role in the carefully choreographed hunt. The main attack involves herding the frightened fish by diving beneath them, singing an intense sound and blowing bubbles, which act as a net as they rise toward the surface. At the last moment, the whales all rise to the surface with their mouths open and swallow the fish. I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time photographing the whales from the relative comfort of my 22-foot boat and 12-foot inflatable.
Most photographers aren’t going to purchase their own boat to cruise the Inside Passage, so I recommend joining a weeklong cruise on a small yacht with only six to 12 passengers. If you search the Internet, you’ll find several companies that offer these specialized excursions. You also can join me when I return to lead my next humpback whale photography tour in August 2014.
Samuel H. Boardman Coast, Oregon
The Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, north of the town of Brookings, Oregon, is one of the most rugged and scenic areas anywhere on the Pacific coast. The scenic corridor extends 12 miles north of Brookings and consists of coastal forests with steep coastline populated by arches and sea stacks, and punctuated by small sand beaches. This park was named for Samuel H. Boardman, the first Oregon Parks superintendent. He was convinced that this piece of coast should be saved for the public. Here, the photographer will find 300-year-old Sitka spruce trees, amazing Arch Rock and Natural Bridges, and 27 miles of Oregon Coast Trail that weave through coastal prairies, stunning viewpoints, hidden coves, precipitous cliffs and forested sea stacks. Many of the most intriguing beaches and vistas can’t be seen from the road, and the best photography is found by parking at the many pullouts and hiking steep trails through the forest to see where they lead. Use caution as many of the trails end at cliff tops without railings.
The park lies along Highway 101, and there’s no quick way to get there. From Interstate 5, drive west to Highway 101 from Eugene, Sutherlin or Roseburg, and then drive south past Gold Beach, or drive west from Grants Pass to Highway 101 and then north past Brookings.
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Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
I don’t like waiting in line to make photographs! With more than a million acres of roadless wilderness and endless paddling routes, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness offers photographers ample room to spread out their tripod legs. Subject matter includes quintessential lake scenery, rock outcrops, waterfalls and boreal forests where mosses and lichens cover the forest floor. Loons and eagles are common; otters, moose and bear also may make their way onto your memory cards.
There are two main gateways into the wilderness—the town of Ely on the western edge and the Gunflint Trail, which winds up from Grand Marais on the scenic North Shore of Lake Superior. Permits are required and are available online through outfitters or at Superior National Forest Ranger Stations. Be aware that quotas for the most popular entry points fill early. If you’re new to Canoe Country, there are many outfitters available to help you plan your trip, and provide all the gear and freeze-dried food you’ll need. If the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a bit too crowded for you, you can head north into the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park for another 1.1 million acres of lake-strewn wilds, with fewer people and more of a true wilderness character. In both parks, you’ll be canoeing and portaging the same routes, and camping on the same sites used by Native Americans and voyageurs for hundreds of years.
Yosemite High Country, California
I’ve lived in or near Yosemite National Park for almost 30 years, and every summer I look forward to the day the Tioga Road opens. While most tourists and photographers congregate in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley, the Tioga Road provides access to the peaks, rivers, meadows, alpine lakes and shining granite domes of the park’s beautiful and less crowded high country.
Some of my favorite spots include Tenaya Lake, Olmsted Point, Tuolumne Meadows, and the lakes and ponds near Tioga Pass. Afternoon thunderstorms, fairly common in summer, can create beautiful cloud formations and spectacular light shows near sunset. On clear nights, you can take advantage of the exceptionally dark skies to capture star trails or the Milky Way with the twisted junipers at Olmsted Point as a foreground. Yosemite Valley is open all year, but the Tioga Road is usually only open from late May or early June until early November.
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Jasper National Park, Canada
Located along the border of Alberta and British Columbia, Jasper National Park is the largest of the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. The park includes rivers, lakes, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers, with the largest and most dramatic being the Columbia Icefields. The park’s scenic attractions also include Pyramid Lake, Maligne Lake, Mount Edith Cavell and my personal favorite, the Tonquin Valley.
The easiest way to visit Jasper is either to drive four hours west from Edmonton or north from Banff National Park along the Icefields Parkway. The Tonquin Valley isn’t a roadside attraction, so be prepared to either backpack 20 kilometers to camp overnight or join a horseback trip where you can stay at the remote lodge perched on the edge of spellbinding Amethyst Lake. On a calm morning, the rugged summits of the Ramparts reflect on the surface of the lake, which will allow you to photograph one of the most amazing scenes anywhere in North America.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
One of the most beautiful parks in the American West, Rocky Mountain National Park has everything from soaring scenic vistas, deep canyons and abundant wildlife to hundreds of lakes and thousands of miles of streams and waterfalls. Sitting in the north-central region of Colorado, the park has a variety of terrain and ecosystems, ranging from wooded forests to mountain tundra. With many trailheads, access to the backcountry and numerous backcountry campsites allow for off-the-beaten-path exploration and unique locations.
Summer in Rocky Mountain National Park brings pleasant weather, with temps reaching the high ’70s to low ’80s on most days, and frequent afternoon thunderstorms add a chance to capture unique, dramatic clouds and light across the mountain landscape.
At sunset, explore the alpine world of Trail Ridge for 360º panoramas of the Mummy Range and Never Summer Mountains. The small alpine wildflowers in this harsh environment in the summer and lichen-covered rocks and glacial erratics mixed into the landscape make for great foreground landscape photography. Afternoon thunderstorms often bring dramatic clouds to the table, and there’s no better place to capture this play of light, weather and land than up high on Trail Ridge. Use caution, as weather can change abruptly, and lack of cover makes thunderstorms a serious threat. It’s also common for temperatures to routinely dip below freezing up high, even during the height of summer, and snowstorms are possible at any time of the year.
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Every July and August, monsoonal weather patterns arrive in Moab, bringing with them some of the most interesting and dynamic conditions for landscape photography in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Gone are boring blue skies. In their place, dramatic clouds tower high above natural arches, sandstone spires and sweeping canyon vistas. Thunderstorms shower the desert with short, but intense bursts of rain that collect in sandstone potholes, offering crystal-clear reflections of the surrounding landscape. Ephemeral waterfalls cascade off high cliffs, occasionally conspiring to create flash floods that roar through usually dry washes. Moab’s summer monsoons afford photographers an opportunity to create images in conditions that are more reliably dramatic than at any other time of the year. With views like this, your wide-angle to moderate telephoto lenses will get quite the workout. A graduated neutral-density filter will help balance the exposure between that amazing sky and the landscape below.
Moab is a small town in southeastern Utah, and it’s the gateway town to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as Dead Horse Point State Park. The closest major airport is in Salt Lake City. A regional airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, is a 1½-hour drive.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State
This 14,000-foot volcano looms over the Puget Sound basin where I live, a constant reminder to grab a camera and get out into nature. This national park protects a remarkable chunk of wilderness, nearly 370 square miles in size, with a lifetime’s worth of trails and hidden corners. Rainier is justly famous among photographers for its world-class wildflower gardens, especially on the ridges and meadows around Paradise. Yet, those flower shows can vary from year to year, and depending on the snowpack, can peak anytime from mid-July to nearly September.
Happily, Rainier has much to offer even when the flowers are less than ideal. In fact, step away from any of the parking lots and you’ll quickly find yourself in wild, lonely country, with camera-worthy landscapes in every direction. Yes, you’ll find it hard not to take pictures of the spectacular, ice-covered peak of Mount Rainier itself, but if you can force yourself to look away, you’ll find plenty of other pictures worth taking.