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5 National Parks For Summer
Summer brings warm weather, long days and family vacations—elements that add up to make it the busiest time of year in the national parks. That makes some folks shy away, but savvy photographers know plenty of opportunities still abound for making beautiful images in the most amazing of America’s wild places. To that end, we asked award-winning nature photographer and national parks expert QT Luong to recommend the best national parks for summer visits. He’s made more than 300 trips to the parks, and as the author of Treasured Lands—a 480-page compendium of photographs of the national parks that’s filled with useful information for his fellow photographers—Luong is uniquely qualified to highlight the best parks and special places within them to photograph wilderness unencumbered by crowds.
Here, in Luong’s own words, are his top five national parks to visit in summer.
1. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic National Park. Butte Lake Area. Cinder Cone rim and Lassen Peak, sunrise.
A convenient and uncrowded mini-Yellowstone with more diverse volcanic terrain.
Lassen is one of my favorite national parks for summer visits because even in the middle of summer you will not be among the crowds. It’s only about five or six hours from the San Francisco Bay area, but it’s the least visited of all the national parks in California. It is the 40th most visited national park, so only 21 parks are less visited—and quite a few of those are in Alaska.
The park’s volcanic terrain is beautiful, but what really makes it unique is that it’s a dictionary of volcanic features, with more variety of volcanic features in that park than in any other. You have lava flows and the four different types of volcanoes there, and at the same time you have some of the thermal features that you see in Yellowstone, like hot springs. In addition to all the volcanic terrain, you have lakes, mountains and forests similar to the Sierras. It is the snowiest place in California, so if you go during the spring up to about May, most of the roads are closed. It’s an ideal summer park for that reason, too.
2. Kings Canyon National Park, California
Kings Canyon National Park. Palisades and Isosceles Peak from Dusy Basin, sunset.
A comfortable, backcountry alternative to Yosemite.
Kings Canyon was conceived as a wilderness park when it was created, so they limited the number of roads. There is one road that goes into the Cedar Grove valley, which is kind of a second Yosemite but less crowded. For that alone, I would say it’s an interesting alternative to Yosemite for those who want to go to a quieter area. But most of the park is backcountry and is not accessible by road. In Yosemite, you have a road that crosses the park from west to east, but in Kings Canyon you cannot cross the park. To access the high country, you need to go hiking.
Summer is a great time to visit Kings Canyon’s high country because of its high elevation. At about 10,000 feet, those areas get snowed in until fairly late in the year. It’s not until the beginning of June that the trails are free of snow. It is possible to explore those areas on a very long day hike, but in general it is better to go as a backpacking trip.
For people who don’t have a lot of experience backpacking, I think it’s one of the best areas for a first trip. Because it is California, during the summer the weather is very stable, and you’re almost sure not to have any sustained rain. Sometimes you might have an afternoon thunderstorm, but they don’t last long, and the weather is mild, so you don’t need to bring a lot of gear. Often when I go backpacking in the Sierras, I don’t even bring a tent, which helps when you’re carrying a lot of camera gear.
My image of the reflection in the lake at sunset was taken at a place called Dusy Basin in the park. I think that’s one of the best backpacking trips for photography. There’s a bit of elevation gain, but it doesn’t take that long to hike up there. And then you have this beautiful light because that range is facing straight to the west, it’s at high elevation where it receives the last light of sunset and the alpine glow, and you have all those calm lakes that reflect the range. For someone wanting to try backpacking and go for a place with great photographic possibilities, it’s one of the best choices.
3. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin National Park. Bristlecone pines on Mount Washington, afternoon.
Lightly traveled with drivable access to high elevations and bristlecone pines.
Great Basin is another of my favorite national parks to visit in summer. Great Basin is very uncrowded, number 51 out of the 61 parks in terms of visitation. The reason why is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s centrally located but far from anything, and it’s not well known at all.
Great Basin is like an island. It’s located in the Great Basin Desert, with a mountain range that rises from the desert floor, so even in the middle of summer, when you go up to the higher parts of the park, the air is pleasantly cooler, whereas below it can get up into the 100s. It is also snowed in for most of the year. In general, there is a window from only about late-May to mid-October when the road to the summit is open.
When you visit during the summer, you can access the sights of very high-elevation terrain, such as the bristlecone pine trees. That’s one of my favorite things to see in the park. Those trees are the oldest trees on earth, and they are just so photogenic. They live in general at about 11,000 feet, and they need a very dry climate, so you see them only on the mountain ranges that are above the desert. In the summer, you can drive the main road, Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, and from there it’s only about an hour-and-a-half hike to see the bristlecone pines.
There’s also a back road to Mount Washington. You can drive right to the top of the mountain. There, you are above the bristlecone pine trees and hike down. When I was there in the early 2000s, because it was not marked on the map, I didn’t see anybody for a few days. When I was preparing Treasured Lands I noticed that the National Park Service put it on the new map. But it’s still very out of the way. That’s one of the rare roads where you absolutely need four-wheel-drive.
4. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park. Upper Grinnell Lake and Glacier, late afternoon.
A photographer’s favorite with wildlife, dramatic scenery and cool temperatures.
Glacier is considered by many to be one of the top national parks for nature photographers. It’s the northern part of the Rocky Mountains—the wilder and more preserved part, where the entire ecosystem is still intact. That’s where you find some of the largest mammals in North America without going to Alaska: the grizzly bear, moose, mountain goats and wolves, among others.
As far as scenery is concerned, compared to the other parks farther south, the mountains look more dramatic because the cliffs are limestone, so they’re steeper. This combination of pristine and more dramatic geography makes it a top park.
My photo of the lake with some icebergs in it—that’s Upper Grinnell Lake. Most of the glaciers retreated or disappeared before the park was designated, and scientists estimate that if the trend continues, maybe by the end of the next decade, those glaciers might be gone. It’s certainly a good time to go and see it while it’s still there.
It is one of the more popular trails in the park, so when you hike there in the summer, the trail is busy, but I wouldn’t say it is crowded, because it is a bit of a strenuous hike. It can be done as a day trip, but it is a fairly long day trip with some elevation gain. The thing that I’ve found in the national parks is that even in the most crowded of parks, if you get only maybe two miles from the trailhead, you will have lost 95 percent of the people, if not more.
The wildflowers often don’t get going in the park until mid- or late-July. One of the places where you can see carpets of wildflowers is Logan Pass, which is very accessible. Sometimes the wildflowers will last all through the whole summer season until August. You have to stay on the boardwalk, and it is a good thing that the National Park Service has installed it and prohibits off-trail hiking there, so that visitors will not trample all over the place in the fragile alpine meadows.
Despite this limitation, it is a place where you have such easy access to high-elevation terrain. You can drive to the pass and then do a short hike of a mile or so. That will be a good choice for people who don’t want to hike very far. And even along the road that goes through Logan Pass, which is called Going-to-the-Sun Road, you have spectacular scenery just on the side of the road. I’ve made images of bear grass flowers from near a roadside pullout. That’s the type of scenery that you can access because you have a road that goes so high.
Glacier National Park is renowned for its wildness, and the wildest part of Glacier is the North Fork, yet it is an area that is road accessible. Although Glacier is one of the top and most popular parks, I found the North Fork very little traveled. Maybe this is because you have to drive on unpaved roads. A 4WD is not necessary, you just have to drive carefully. This road leads to two lakes where you can drive to the edge of the lake, each with a campground with a great location. It’s a very nice experience because you just camp by the lake, and in the morning you roll out of your tent and take a short stroll to photograph.
5. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier National Park. The Paradise area is the snowiest place on earth. The area’s wildflowers take advantage of the short snow-free summer, blooming profusely from about mid-July through late September.
Wildflowers, rainforests and mountain peaks for hikers of every skill level.
Mount Rainier is one of those parks that fits into the short season category, because the base of the mountain is the place with the most snow in the continental U.S. Because of that, the wildflowers bloom pretty late—July is normal. In 2011, at the beginning of August, it was still a solid snowfield.
The most well-known place for seeing the flowers is called Paradise. It’s popular because it has the best mountain wildflower carpets that I’ve seen in North America that are readily accessible. It’s so good because the place receives so much snow that the soil is very moist. At Paradise, there’s a network of trails, so you can go for a very long and strenuous day hike, or you can go for a short hike and come back. There’s something for every hiker. From there you can photograph those carpets of wildflowers with Mount Rainier in the background. It may be the most popular spot for visitors in the park because those carpets of wildflowers are renowned.
The most popular spot for photographers could be Reflection Lake. You just park right next to the lake, so there’s no hiking. And it does help because in the summer if you want to make this image, you have to come to the lake at 5 o’clock in the morning. In the entire park, if you want to have a combination of wildflowers and the mountain reflected in a lake, Reflection Lake is the best place. There are other lakes in the park, but I didn’t see as nice wildflowers on their shores.
At Paradise, you have the flowers but you’re fairly close to the mountain, so it’s a bit foreshortened. When you are on the other side of the valley, hiking in the Tatoosh range, you’re far enough from Mount Rainier that you see the whole mountain from the base to the summit. Paradise would be the popular spot, Reflection Lake would be the popular photo icon, and the Tatoosh Range is one of the places where you can find something different, with fewer people. Mount Rainier National Park has other mountains than Mount Rainier.
For an even more out-of-the-way experience with even less people, you can go to the northwest corner of the park. The Carbon River entrance gives you access to an inland rainforest, which is not something that people expect from Mount Rainier National Park. It’s a great area; there’s a lot of diversity, and it’s very quiet. To get there, you have to drive some unpaved road, so that keeps the crowds away. When I was there in the middle of summer, there were very few people. The roads are passable without 4WD. They aren’t difficult, just unpaved. And they are off of the main park road, so that’s why you don’t see a lot of people. In general, for most of the national parks, it’s like that. Especially in the larger parks where there are several entrances, the main entrances get crowded because that’s where everybody goes, but the secondary entrances are often uncrowded.
In Treasured Lands, I wanted to pay as much attention to the lesser-known gems as to the well-known national parks. I’ve also made the point for each national park to try to cover not only the main areas but also those out-of-the-way areas that give you a more complete sense of the geography of the park, and which helps you get away from the crowds.
How To Avoid Crowds In The Parks This Summer
Short of traveling in the offseason, here’s how QT Luong suggests avoiding crowds in the national parks this summer.
See more of QT Luong’s work at terragalleria.com.