National Park Hot Spots Of The Pros

A selection of favorite places for photography in the national park system

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Zion National Park, Utah. Fuji GX617 Panorama Camera (this image has been cropped), Fuji 105mm, Fujichrome Velvia, Bogen 3021 tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead

The national park system is the ultimate playground for nature photographers. Between parks, monuments, preserves and other designated locales, it’s impossible to fully explore and photograph them all. In this issue of OP, we place a special emphasis on the U.S. national parks and, in connection to that, we asked a select group of top pros for their favorite hot spots for photography in the parks. There’s no way to include all of the amazing locations in a single issue of OP, much less a single article, and we don’t think of this list as being the definitive national parks hot spots. However, we do hope that you’ll be inspired by these images and the pros who made them to go out and explore some of these places or, better yet, to find your own hot spots. And when you do, please show us your best shots. The Your Favorite Places section of the OP website is the perfect place to show your favorite locations and to share ideas with your fellow readers—log on to

Arca-Swiss F Field Camera, Schneider 110mm Super-Symmar, Fujichrome Velvia, Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead

Jack Dykinga
Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend is one of those places I fell in love with at first sight. Its spare Chihuahuan Desert vegetation and sky-island mountains feel like my Sonoran Desert home in Tucson. The actual Big Bend in the Rio Grande marks a circuitous border between Mexico and the United States. There are camps along the bluffs lining the river where you’re standing in the U.S. looking across a stretch of Mexico at the Chisos Mountains in Texas. You find that this mighty river has zigged and zagged all over the place. Seemingly every bend provides yet another chance at reflections in the river or startled waterfowl on the wing.

For me, the stratification of plant life from river level to the Chisos Mountains, with life zones defined by annual rainfall, typify nature’s adaptation. Giant species of yuccas (giant dagger) and agave (Agave havardiana) give way to oaks, pines and junipers. With flowering yuccas and agaves and sprinklings of bluebells (lupines), a spring in Big Bend can be spectacular. All you need is rain! There are amazing vistas where sunrise and sunset light colors the Chisos mountain crags. This a desert landscape where light can streak unimpeded across an open land, rim-lighting the convolutions and providing cool shadow textures, enough to make any photographer smile.

See more of Jack Dykinga’s photography at

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Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park.
Canon 50D, Canon 10-22mm zoom, ISO 400, 1⁄60 sec. at ƒ/5.6, Gitzo tripod

Dewitt Jones
Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park: There are a number of volcanoes in our national park system. In only one park, however, are those volcanoes active. As you watch the lava pour into the sea from the vent at Pu`u O`o, you feel as if you’re staring at the dawn of time.

The same is true as you walk the trails around the Halema`uma`u Crater. I stood there on the rim at sunrise just after a new vent had opened in the crater. A great shot, an even better experience. Seldom do we get to see the forces that build the planet up. Usually, as landscape photographers, we’re photographing the forces—storms, water, erosion, wind, ice—that tear it down. Here, however—raw earth, raw power, raw beauty.

An hour after I shot this photo, they closed the park as that giant plume, full of sulfur dioxide, settled over the area. This was raw nature, not an E-ticket ride at Disneyland. My eyes were burning, but my CF card was full of wonderful images.

Yosemite National Park, California. Canon 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm zoom, ISO 100, 3 sec. at ƒ/4, Gitzo tripod

Yosemite National Park: I’ve spent more time in Yosemite than any other park in the system. John Muir was right when he called the Yosemite Valley the “sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra.” Muir was also right when, in the high country of Tuolumne, he coined the phrase, “the range of light.” Tuolumne Meadows is one of the most magical places on the planet. It reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings [see Basic Jones, OP, October 2009].

The names of the peaks and the climbs of Tuolumne are a constant reminder of the magic of the place—Cathedral, Unicorn, The Hobbit Book. But it’s not just in the vistas that one finds magic. It’s everywhere. Spend a day along the Tuolumne River anywhere between the meadow and Waterwheel Falls, and you’ll see. A thousand little grottos to delight your eye and challenge your photographic skills. Perfection!

See more of Dewitt Jones’ photography at

David Muench
Sequoia National Park, California

Along with its neighbor, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park is a jewel of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Named for the groves of massive trees that grow there, Sequoia and Kings Canyon together have some of the most isolated and wild land in North America. Visitors who have never visited often are surprised to discover how much of the land is accessible only by foot (or on horseback). With so much backcountry, reaching pristine, unspoiled landscapes is easy, and the more self-sufficient you are as a hiker and camper, the deeper into the wild you can trek safely.

Among the most dramatic and beautiful natural features in Sequoia are the countless high mountain lakes. Serving as perfect reflecting pools when winds are calm, the lakes make for spectacular photography. With the craggy, granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the groves of ancient trees and the miles and miles of trails linking one alpine lake to another, it’s no wonder that photographers like David Muench have been exploring Sequoia National Park with their cameras since the park was founded. (An interesting fact about Sequoia: While most people know that Yellowstone was the first national park, the second wasn’t Yosemite or the Grand Canyon; it was Sequoia.)

See more of David Muench’s photography at

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Pentax 67, Pentax 55mm, Fujichrome Velvia, Bogen 3021 tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead

James Kay
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah • Zion National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park: Nothing can prepare you for your first view of Bryce Canyon as you stroll up to the canyon’s rim. Carved from the sediments of an ancient lakebed, the multitude of pinnacles, hoodoos and crumbling sandstone towers filling the amphitheaters of Bryce are unique even here in this region of wildly convoluted, dissected desert landscapes. With an unobstructed horizon to the east, the first rays of the rising sun illuminate these formations with warm soft light as seen in this image captured from Sunset Point with a graduated-neutral-density filter. Sunrise at Bryce Point is perhaps the best single location within the park to capture the entirety of Bryce, but each overlook provides a unique view. If, after a while, all the overlooks begin to look the same, drop down into the canyons via the Navajo Loop Trail or the Peekaboo Loop Trail to photograph the formations from a completely different perspective.

Zion National Park: November cottonwoods glow in the late-afternoon light along the banks of the Virgin River beneath the sandstone walls of Zion Canyon. Freshwater springs gush from the base of the cliffs throughout this deep desert canyon and join with the waters of the Virgin River to create a lush desert oasis. When I first set out to photograph the canyonlands of southern Utah over 20 years ago, I was immediately attracted to these well-watered, desert-riparian environments. Zion’s unique combination of waterfalls, streams, lush vegetation and towering sandstone formations creates a diverse tapestry of photographic subjects. By early November, long after the aspen trees of Utah’s high plateaus have shed their leaves, the cottonwoods, maples and oaks along Zion Canyon reach their peak of color just as the crowds begin to thin out. As conditions vary from year to year, it’s best to check in with the rangers for a fall-colors update before you go.

See more of James Kay’s photography at

Nikon F100, Nikkor 70-300mm, Fujichrome Velvia

John Moran
Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Shaped by water and fire, in flood and drought, the subtropical Florida wetlands known as the Everglades spills far beyond the borders of the national park that bears its name. The “River of Grass” flows slowly, inexorably south from Lake Okeechobee in south-central Florida to the Ten Thousand Islands and Florida Bay.

Contiguous with Everglades National Park to the south and east, Big Cypress National Preserve comprises a vast swath of what has been called Eastern America’s Last Great Wilderness. Sprinkled with distant palm hammocks, wide vistas call out to the landscape photographer. Hey, Montana! This, too, is Big Sky Country.

Wood storks, otters and white-tailed deer. Turtles, roseate spoonbills and alligators by the score. Even the occasional black bear and the elusive (and nearly extinct) Florida panther. You never know what you’ll come across on a tour of Big Cypress National Preserve.

Extending due north 21 miles into the heart of the ’Glades from Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), the out-and-back Turner River Road is a personal-favorite photo drive here. An adjacent canal offers a steady diet of photo ops, especially early and late in the day.

A long lens, a quick finger, a dose of serendipity—and you may come back with some keepers from a day on the prowl in America’s first national preserve. Leaving the car behind, I suggest a paddling trip through the mangrove tunnels of the Turner River or an off-road swamp slog in a cypress slough.

See more of John Moran’s photography at

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Olympus E-330, Olympus Digital Zuiko 50-200mm, Manfrotto tripod and head

Rob Sheppard
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina-Tennessee

The Smokies have long been one of my favorite national parks. This is a place of mountains, streams and wildflowers. While it’s one of the most visited of our national parks, you always can find interesting locations that aren’t crowded with people.

The soft, rounded mountains of this part of the Appalachians are appealing to me. When shot at dawn or dusk from a high spot in the park, you can get the classic shot of ridges of mountains going off into the distance. Mornings often hold clouds in the lower areas, so you can get clouds below as well as the mountains heading off toward the sunrise color and light. Skyline Drive at the southern end of the park is a terrific morning location, although you’ll often share prime spots with other photographers.

I also love the wildflowers in the spring and the streams just about anytime. There’s a wonderful feeling of green that pervades the park in the spring, timed perfectly with wildflowers and full streams (this depends on the winter rain, of course, and this year there has been plenty of that). Many roads travel alongside the streams through the Tennessee side of the park.

See more of Rob Sheppard’s photography at

The Facts About Photography In The National Parks

In recent years, there has been a lot of information and misinformation about photography in the national parks. The following information comes directly from the NPS Digest, which can be found on the website:

Commercial Filming and Still Photography Permits
Lands of the United States were set aside by Congress, Executive or otherwise acquired in order to conserve and protect areas of untold beauty and grandeur, historical importance, and uniqueness for future generations. This tradition started with explorers who traveled with paint and canvas or primitive photo apparatus before the areas were designated as a national park. The National Park Service permits commercial filming and still photography when it is consistent with the park’s mission and will not harm the resource or interfere with the visitor experience.

When is a permit needed?
All commercial filming activities taking place within a unit of the National Park system require a permit. Commercial filming includes capturing a moving image on film and video as well as sound recordings.

Still photographers require a permit when:
1. the activity takes place at location(s) where or when members of the public are generally not allowed; or
2. the activity uses model(s), sets(s), or prop(s) that are not a part of the location’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities; or
3. the Park would incur additional administrative costs to monitor the activity.

You can always check with the individual park if you have any questions about photography. Go to for information on contacting any of the parks.

More About The Parks

The question always seems to come up when we do an article like this one in OP. “How many national parks are there?” The answer isn’t completely cut and dried. There are 58 national parks in the National Park Service (NPS), but that’s only a fraction of the total number of sites the NPS oversees. Of particular interest to nature photographers, there are also 18 preserves, 18 recreational areas, 10 seashores, 4 parkways, 4 lakeshores and 2 reserves. So when you’re reading this article and you’re stunned that we omitted (fill in the name of the park, preserve, recreational area, seashore, parkway, lakeshore or reserve that you can’t believe we seemed to disregard), please realize that the system is huge and the number of available pages in the magazine are comparably few. We wanted to show some of the variety of the park system in this article and, hopefully, inspire you to go out and take advantage of what the NPS has to offer.

NPS Facts
The first national park was Yellowstone, established by Congress on March 1, 1872. The actual National Park Service (NPS) was established by Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916, when he signed the “Organic Act,” It’s the Organic Act that spells out the mission of the NPS: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” As the NPS has grown, so have the overall number of people who visit. In 1920, approximately one million people visited the sites in the system. By 2008, that number had grown to 175 million.

* Entry Fees *
Of the 392 total number of sites the NPS oversees, only 147 charge entry fees, and those fees range from $5 to $25. The money from those fees remains with the NPS. You also can buy an $80 annual pass, the America the Beautiful-National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which gives you access to the NPS sites, as well as federal lands managed by four other government agencies. Those over age 62 can get a lifetime SeniorPass for $10, and citizens with disabilities are eligible for a free lifetime Access Pass.