A shooting guide to some of country's most incredible landscapes
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC, TN)
Photo by: NPS.Gov
This is the top park in the eastern United States by virtue of its pristine deciduous forest of a species variety and size found nowhere else on earth. On these mist-shrouded ridges and gentle mountains flourish an astounding variety of plants (1,500 flowering species), mammals (60 species), and birds (200 species). The approachable wildlife, waterfalls, boulder-jumbled streams, spring wildflowers, and intense palette of forest color in autumn make this a superlative destination for all but the colder months of the year. Dependable episodes of gentle rain, mist, and cloud all but guarantee perfect lighting on your grand subjects.
Must shoot: A silky, blurred motion image of one of the cascades along Little River Road.
Insider tip: Avoid the Cades Cove driving tour on autumn weekends. Traffic jams will eat up most of your shooting time.
Rocky Mountain National Park (CO)
This photo: Tim Fitzharris
An iconic mountain park, Rocky Mountain is distinguished by an 11-mile stretch of paved road that winds though classic alpine habitat at an elevation exceeding 11,000 feet, a photo destination normally earned only after arduous uphill hiking. You can drive within feet of a herd of grazing elk, a sunbathing marmot, or an avalanche lily. At lower elevations are a series of pocket lakes reflecting the grand scenery. Autumn showcases the most photogenic bull elk rut on the continent.
Must shoot: Bugling bull elk close-up.
Insider tip: Marmots are comical and easy to photograph at close range. Look for them in boulder fields at timberline.
This photo: In summer, a bull elk in velvet is an accommo-dating subject, but don’t get this close in the autumn rut.
Yellowstone (WY, MT, ID)
This photo: Frank Kovalchek
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone remains the gem of the system and home to a nearly complete array of Rocky Mountain megafauna. In one week you’ll have a good chance of frame-filling shots of black bear, coyote, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and trumpeter swan. The landscape is alive with steaming hot springs, spouting geysers, and bubbling mudpots—animated accents to this wilderness of plunging canyons, towering falls, roaring rivers, pristine lakes, rugged mountains, and sagebrush steppes.
Must shoot: Bison herds against a Hayden Valley backdrop.
Insider tip: Keep away from “bear jams.” Due to ranger-enforced restrictions and fired-up snapshooters, the traffic snarl will keep you from other subjects.
Want to see more beautiful photos from our National Park Round-up? Head on over to our Bonus Gallery.