QT Luong is an expert on photographing in the national parks. Over the past 23 years he’s made more than 300 visits to all 59 parks. That’s 13 trips each year for a generation. Who better to turn to, then, to find the best places to photograph colorful fall foliage in the national parks?
“I really enjoy traveling in the autumn,” Luong says, “for the sense of change in the seasons as well as for practical reasons like lesser visitation, moderate temperatures and manageable daylight hours. I’ve been trying to catch fall color in each of the national parks where it is found — almost all of them except for some tropical and desert areas.”
In his book, “Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks,” Luong shares more than 500 beautiful photographs, as well as detailed maps and instructional information about his favorite times to visit each park, what trails he uses and what he looks for, as well as detailed explanations of how he made practically every image in the book. It’s equal parts inspiration and information: the definitive photographer’s guide to our national parks.
Here, Luong shares the particulars about ten of his favorite places in the parks to find fall foliage, as well as the images he’s made there. More than simply which parks to visit, he offers specific routes to follow and vantage points to look for. His goal — in the book and with the following guide — is to help photographers make their way off the well-worn path in an effort to make better pictures in the national parks.
– William Sawalich
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains has the finest forest on the East Coast, which is the region in the country with the most spectacular fall foliage. The East Coast is characterized by hardwood forests, and this park preserves the finest of them. The grand champion of biodiversity, Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts the greatest selection of vegetation of any region in the temperate climate zone. There are as many trees (130 species) as in all of Europe. The large variety means more vibrant and distinct hues.
The park is home to one of the largest deciduous old-growth forests in North America, with abundant maple trees, which are quite rare in the west and produce rich reds. There is road access to the highest point of the park, which is almost the highest point east of the Mississippi. This makes it possible to find views of colorful trees extending as far as the eye can see. Because the park spans 5,000 feet of elevation, autumn arrives gradually with a month of difference between low valleys and summits, which means a long fall foliage season.
2. North Cascades National Park
Although the Washington park is not particularly known for fall color, I loved my two autumn visits to North Cascades because I found a great diversity of foliage there. The first time was late September. There were beautiful displays of color in the valley, but it was too early for the alpine larch that turn in mid-October, for which I returned. I was very curious about those trees because they are one of only a few deciduous conifers (another one is the bald cypress I photographed in Congaree), and they are quite limited in range. I hiked to Easy Pass (a misnomer: it’s seven miles round trip with a 2,800-foot elevation gain), which offered great views in all directions. After starting in the late morning, I arrived at the pass in the late afternoon when the larches were beautifully lit, stayed after dark for night photography, and returned at night, aided by the full moon.
3. Zion National Park
Zion is a true oasis in the Utah desert, with the rivers sustaining many deciduous trees as well as carving incredibly narrow canyons. One of the better known is The Subway, accessed through a 9-mile round-trip hike through the Left Fork of North Creek that required route finding, creek crossing and scrambling over rocks. Although I started the hike at sunrise, I got back to my car well after dark, with boots soaking wet from creek hopping. About 3.5 miles into the hike, Kayenta sandstone layers created cascades all over the terraces.
4. Mesa Verde National Park
Zion is probably the best place on the Colorado Plateau for fall foliage, but Mesa Verde was the last place I expected to find fall color, so it was a pleasant surprise. I remembered that due to high elevation, the ruins (which form the main attraction of the Colorado park) are surrounded by conifers. However, the mesas and gently sloping canyons at lower elevations, from the park entrance to Far View, are covered with shrubs. They unexpectedly turned the whole landscape crimson toward the end of September, reminding me of locales much farther north. Open shade created color contrast between the reds of the leaves and the blues of the trunks.
5. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The deeply incised canyons are an unexpected wonder of the Guadalupe Mountains, located in Texas. Within the canyon walls, water sources form cool oases that provide a colorful, lush refuge from the scorching heat of the desert. I had read about fall color there, but I was delighted to find a unique blend of vegetation, where Chihuahuan Desert plants mix with deciduous trees that rival New England in color.
6. Glacier National Park
Montana’s Glacier National Park is a very popular park in summer, but most amenities shut for the season at the end of September. I found that time to be delightfully quiet, with excellent fall foliage present throughout the park. At Saint Mary Lake, most photographers head for the iconic view at the Wild Goose Overlook. Instead, I tried to create a less-common image by looking for fall color on the shores of the lake. Just two months prior to my visit, the Reynolds Creek wildland fire was still raging in the park, closing the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road and forcing campground evacuations. The sight of the recently blackened trees prompted me to have a closer look at traces of fire in the landscape. I came across a forest burned by wildfires a decade ago. I was intrigued to see pockets of trees with brilliant foliage in the midst of burned trees. While I wondered how that could have happened, I created a layered composition by making sure that the separate bands of color remained parallel.
7. Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park has many aspen trees. Their golden bright leaves create the most spectacular autumn foliage found in the West. As a storm approached, I rushed down the Colorado mountain, not wanting to be caught above the tree line. On a bend of the trail, a stand of aspens stopped me in my tracks. I waited for the lull before the rain to make an image, so that each of the bright yellow leaves would be rendered with sharp detail.
8. Acadia National Park
Acadia in Maine was the first Eastern national park I visited. That was 1996. Living in California, I was surprised to find that Acadia packs such a great variety of scenery into such a small area (it is the fifth smallest of the national parks), and I was mesmerized by the diversity of hues. On clear days, the first sunrays to strike the continent arrive at Cadillac Mountain. Acadia remains one of my favorite parks for fall color because of the mix of Northern species (such as berry plants and birch trees) and Eastern species (such as maples). Many of the Eastern species took hold after a fire in 1947 that burned a quarter of the park.
9. Congaree National Park
On my first visit, during the summer, the South Carolina location was known as the “Congaree Swamp National Monument,” so I was surprised to see that the floodplain was not a swamp at all, but instead a dry-looking tract of land dominated by huge trees. Congaree is not a place one thinks about for fall foliage, but after reading about the bald cypress, one of the only deciduous conifers, I returned in the fall, envisioning an image of their bright leaves reflected in dark water. However, the floodplain was dry again. Looking for a more watery environment, I had the memorable experience of riding a canoe through a narrow channel beneath a canopy of trees on Cedar Creek with naturalist John Cely. We observed the creek from an intimate perspective, enjoying the morning quiet of the primeval forest. The black water provided great reflections, which were best captured by waiting for our wake to subside after we stopped the canoe so the creek would return to its mirror-like state. Photographing from the water enabled a perspective that emphasized the graciously arching branches. The park offers a limited number of free guided canoe tours each year with all gear provided, or you can rent a canoe from outfitters in Columbia.
10. Denali National Park
Within the 15-mile section of the road open to private vehicles in Denali, as the elevation rises, the landscape changes from taiga to tundra. On my first autumn trip to Alaska, I was amazed to see the whole landscape turning bright red. In valleys such as Riley Creek, evergreens mix with deciduous trees; those aspen and alder turn yellow during early September. Wanting to depict the aspens as a splash of color similar to the tundra, I scrambled up a steep slope for a higher viewpoint with no foreground. To make the aspens glow, I photographed toward the sun, using a graduated neutral density filter to retain detail in the sky.
Farther up the road, the tundra colors near Savage River also peak in early September, even though the brilliant colors at higher locations at the end of the road have already lessened. Mile 9 and Mile 11 offer potential distant views of Denali to the southwest.
How to Make the Most of Fall Color
Fall foliage is a subject that can be photographed successfully all day and under a variety of conditions. Rather than focusing on technical tricks, it pays most to be attentive to the light. In sunny conditions, if the sun is behind you (front light), often the leaves lack differentiation from each other, making the color look washed out. On the other hand, backlight makes the leaves stand out individually and glow as the light goes through them. Careful control of flare and a background in the shade help there.
Sidelight is my preferred light for contrasting leaves against the sky, one of the scenarios in which I like direct sun. I like that light for photographing grand landscapes with some fall foliage, rather than compositions of trees. The polarizing filter is at its most effective both on the leaves and sky.
Direct sun results in high contrast, which can hide subtle differences in color. All the aspens look yellow and all the tundra red. Lower contrast light, such as early or late in the day, or under clouds, reveal the subtleties of color better. In addition, sunny conditions are difficult for photographing in the forest. Besides the contrast, the shadows break the organic shapes of trees and other growth that make forest scenes such a delight. Although the dappled light is delightful to the eye, once translated into a two dimensional picture, it is often chaotic. Except for distant shots, fall foliage photographs are in general made in the forest. Soft light makes it much easier to create a frame-filling rich tapestry of colors from within the forest.
Polarizers are often key for photographing foliage, autumn or green, even in overcast conditions or in intimate forest scenes that do not include the sky. They don’t always work, but it always worth trying to put one on the lens and rotate it to evaluate the effect. Sometimes, magnifying the image via live view to zoom in on individual leaves makes it easier to judge the effect. As you rotate the polarizer you’ll notice that at a particular setting the leaves that face the sky become less bright and more saturated.
Some leaves are quite shiny, reflecting light and lessening the color saturation, and a polarizer can frequently remove that light. If the leaves are wet, they become shinier than normal, and in that case the effect of a polarizer can be quite dramatic. Rainy conditions bring out the best fall foliage because wet leaves are more saturated than dry leaves, and that’s when the polarizer is the most indispensable.
The polarizer helps reduce distant haze, too, particularly with telephoto lenses. I have not used other filters to combat haze, because I feel it is part of the atmosphere of a shot — especially in places like the Great Smoky Mountains, which were named after the haze!
Graduated neutral density filters are useful to balance sky and land when shooting backlit, which is often the light that makes the leaves appear the most vibrant. If the sky is overcast, GNDs help retain texture. Often one tries to exclude the overcast sky from a landscape, but in shooting fall color, that’s a light that reveals the color well, and sometimes you want the shot to extend to the horizon to give a sense of space.
For more information and to order QT Luong’s Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, visit the book’s website at treasuredlandsbook.com.