For the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, I had a dream assignment photographing the national parks. I traveled to and photographed all 59 (at the time) of the U.S. national parks in one year for National Geographic. While other Nat Geo photographers were spending up to a year on assignment in a single national park, I was racing through them at breakneck speed. It was a whirlwind year filled with more beauty and nature than any one person should ever get to experience in such a short timeframe.
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If you’re doing the math, you’ve probably realized that photographing 59 national parks in 52 weeks is close to impossible, and you’d be right. But I was crazy enough to pitch it, and they were crazy enough to let me try to do it. Looking back, it was without a doubt one of the most challenging years of my life. I was out photographing every sunrise and sunset, I hiked all day, edited late into the night (when I wasn’t shooting astrophotography), and got very little sleep for the entire year.
I had so many blissful, “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming” moments as well. In a country as diverse and picturesque as the United States, the national parks represent the best of us. They are the places we hold most sacred, for their purity and jaw-dropping beauty.
Prior to this assignment, I had already visited about half of the U.S. national parks, either on my own or on assignment for various publications. The national parks are very special to me; they are where I fell in love with exploring the outdoors, and they played a big role in me becoming a photographer. For the centennial of the Park Service, I wanted to challenge myself and to give back to those places that had given me so much over my lifetime.
It’s very hard to distill an entire year of amazing national park scenery into a short list, but I’ve tried to share some of my favorite images and moments here. If you were to ask me tomorrow or next week to do the same exercise, I’d likely have a completely different list.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
I love photographing sand dunes, and there is perhaps no better place to do so than Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado. These are the tallest dunes in North America, tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and offer endless opportunities for creative photography. My favorite moment from visiting this park came not from capturing the light and shadow at play on the dunes during sunrise and sunset, but from backpacking far into the dunes and spending the night under the stars. The lack of light pollution, coupled with the fantastic tent location and the brilliant star display overhead, was a night to remember. In fact, this image ended up becoming the cover of the book about the project, A Year in the National Parks: The Greatest American Road Trip.
Death Valley National Park
If you visit Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California, you will no doubt end up setting your tripod next to a line of other photographers. Many photographers I know hate this aspect of national park photography, and I can understand why. I, too, try to look for different and unique views in my photography. However, there’s nothing wrong with capturing famous vistas. Personally, I enjoy standing shoulder to shoulder with other passionate photographers, sharing tips and a fun conversation. I’ve learned a lot from others, taught many younger photographers my own tricks, and have genuinely enjoyed the comradery of such a scene.
This photo reminds of not only of what an amazing scene Zabriskie Point can be to photograph but also of the friends I’ve made standing at such popular vistas who share my passion for photography. My recommendation is to spend some time shooting at these busy spots, and then forge out on your own to create unique imagery. Both avenues are worthy of your time as a photographer.
Redwood National Park
There are certain memories that, when I think back upon them, still feel incredibly real. This glorious early-summer morning in Redwood National and State Parks in California is one of them. I went hiking by myself along the coastal trail. The air was cool and crisp, I remember a gentle breeze blowing, the songbirds were singing and jumping from branch to branch…it was simply a perfect morning in nature. If I shut my eyes, I can travel back to this moment without delay and still feel the gentle breeze and hear the birds chirping. I live for these moments in nature, as they have dramatic ways of refilling my spiritual cup. I’m not a very religious person, but if I did worship, it would be right here in this cathedral made of trees.
Crater Lake National Park
One of my photographic goals for the project was to capture each park in as many ways as I could, which would inevitably find me staying up way into the night to capture a glimpse of the Milky Way. There are a lot of great “dark sky” national parks, and I consider Crater Lake in Oregon to be one of the best for stargazing and astrophotography. This particular night was one of the most memorable photographing the night sky, as the reflections on the lake blew me away. I was lucky enough to find an old weathered tree for a foreground, which completed the image.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
If you were to ask your friends which of the national parks are their favorites, I doubt you would hear them mention Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It’s certainly one of the lesser-known among the likes of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Don’t count out those quieter parks though—Theodore Roosevelt is one of the great hidden gems in the park system. There, you can find badlands as impressive as those at namesake park Badlands National Park in neighboring South Dakota, as well as beautiful rivers, incredible wildlife such as coyotes, wild (feral) horses and massive herds of bison. I loved finding the off-the-beaten-path gems within the park system, and this park—named after the “Conservation President”—was one that blew me away.
Grand Canyon National Park
One of the great sights in all of the national parks is watching weather systems roll in over the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The thunderstorms during the late spring and summer months can be immense and awe-inspiring. Standing at Hopi Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I watched as this fierce thunderstorm slowly overwhelmed the North Rim with menacing clouds and torrential rain. I felt as if I was witnessing something truly special, and I was so fortunate to capture it on camera.
Katmai National Park & Preserve
Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska is known for its large population of grizzly bears. Most photographers in Katmai will spend a lot of time at Brooks Falls hoping to recreate the famous photo (Thomas Mangelsen’s “Catch of the Day”) of the spawning salmon precariously perched in mid-air right before a hungry grizzly closes its jaws on it.
However, I fell in love with Kukak Bay on the east side of the national park, where few visitors reach and wild grizzlies roam free. Exploring by boat, we were able to get close to and spend time with locally known grizzlies like “One-Ear,” who showed off her two young cubs. National parks are special places where wildlife can wander protected as they have for millennia, and getting to see these famous grizzlies is one of the great wildlife experiences one can have not only in the park system but anywhere.
Acadia National Park
Surprisingly, the northeast U.S. does not have many national parks, but the few there are really fantastic. I first photographed the Bass Harbor Lighthouse as soon as I got to Acadia National Park in Maine, simply because I knew it was an iconic shot, and I was anxious to capture it. But I kept returning to this scene over and over again, mesmerized by the rock, trees, lighthouse and the changing colors of the sky. It is such a “zen” scene along a rocky coast in the great state of Maine, and over time it became one of my favorite views in all of the parks.
Rocky Mountain National Park
On a yearlong quest to visit all of the national parks, it is impossible to visit each at the best season for photography. Seasonality was a constant challenge on this project. I visited Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado toward the end of autumn and missed the fall foliage that makes this park so famous. One gorgeous morning at Dream Lake made up for the lack of autumn color. I don’t remember ever seeing such a fiery sunrise, and the aptly named Dream Lake reflected the brilliant colors. The snowy logs leading up to the deep reds of sunrise on the mountains make this image—and moment—one of my favorite from the entire road trip.
Grand Teton National Park
If you were to ask me what was one of the most beautiful scenes I experienced in all of the national parks, I would say it was this morning at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Sure, it’s a famous vista, and there are likely to be numerous photographers there every morning. I happened to visit Grand Teton during the height of fall foliage, when all leaves were exploding with autumn colors. Add to that the surreal pink sky from a beautiful morning sunrise, and you get one of the most iconic and incredibly stunning scenes in all of the park system. It was a view almost too perfect to believe.
Sometimes during this project, I felt like it was completely unfair to take credit for any photos because it was truly nature that was doing all the heavy lifting.
See more of Jonathan Irish’s work at JonathanIrish.com.