A shooting guide to some of country's most incredible landscapes
Photo by: Tim Fitzharris
For nature photographers, America’s national parks are the most exciting venues in the world. Nowhere else can you find such dramatic combinations of wildlife and breath- taking scenery. Not only is the potential for outstanding imagery unmatched elsewhere, but the infrastructure of roadways, lodges, campgrounds, and stores makes access and logistics simple. Here’s one very experienced photographer’s take on the 15 not to miss—plus one that will break your heart.
Quick Tip: At any park, your first stop should be the visitor center, where the staff generally have on-the-scene knowledge of the nature and state of the attractions. They can tell you where wildflowers are blooming, elk are rutting, and waterfalls are surging, and can provide an up-to-the-minute weather forecast and the exact time of sunrise. They can inform you about campsites and road closures, too. Spend some time at the bookstore browsing picture books, calendars, postcards, and posters to get a feeling for the park’s photographic potential. This will not only inspire you but also help you formulate a shooting plan.
This photo: Toroweap Overlook is arguably the most spectacular view in Grand Canyon, is accessed by 60 miles of rough gravel road in the remote northwest sector of the park.
Big Bend National Park (TX)
Photo by:Tim Fitzharris
Big Bend offers stunning scenery, gorgeous flora in all seasons, easily approached wildlife (roadrunners, coyotes, songbirds), pleasant weather, and no crowds except during holidays. Its varied terrain includes the rugged Chisos Mountains soaring to nearly 8,000 feet, expanses of cactus and creosote-studded Chihuahua desert spread over tilting planes, and dark canyons of the Rio Grande. Photographers neglect it only because of its isolated location in southern Texas. Plan to visit in late winter/early spring when temperatures are mild and wildflowers at their peak.
Must shoot: Chisos Mountains with iconic agave in the foreground.
Insider tip: See the breathtaking vistas on Farm to Market Road in nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park.
This photo: This strawberry cactus bouquet was grabbed in the shade of a white umbrella that diffused harsh desert light, resulting in rich color.
Badlands National Park (SD)
Photo by: NPS.Gov
Badlands’ undulating expanse of native prairie spreads over nearly a quarter-million acres. Its name derives from the impassable jumble of gullies, buttes, pinnacles, and spires that gouge its surface. The exotic landforms, rich colors, and changing skies beckon the landscape photographer above all others. But for wildlife shooters, Badlands offers easy access to two spectacular adjoining parks: Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. These are strongholds for prairie megafauna—bison, pronghorn, mule and white-tailed deer, and coyote, plus a plethora of playful prairie dogs.
Must shoot: Vampire Peak in the purple twilight.
Insider tip: For shooting bison, set yourself up against a good background ahead of their line of travel—they seldom change direction.
Death Valley National Park (CA, NV)
This photo: NPS.Gov
Death Valley’s airy wilderness is furnished with tinted mudstone hills, wind-sculpted dunes, twisting canyons, snow-clad peaks, green oases, and table-flat stretches of sand and gravel, perhaps offering the greatest variety of scenery of any park. When conditions are right (check with park headquarters), the spring bloom of desert wildflowers can be outstanding. Death Valley is hot, so plan shooting here from November through March during warm, blue-sky days and cool, starry nights.
Must shoot: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sundown or sunrise.
Insider tip: Don’t shoot during midday’s harsh light; cool off instead in one of the park’s swimming pools (Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells).
Want to see more beautiful photos from our National Park Round-up? Head on over to our Bonus Gallery.