Photographing America (When & Where)

Photograph America in One Year (or one lifetime)

Question: “What is your favorite park to photograph in the U.S.?”

This is the number one question I get asked about outdoor photography.  For it I have two answers depending on the asker’s attention span.  The short answer takes one second and the longer response takes one year on a calendar as you’ll see below.

Short Answer: Glacier National Park!

There is no other park in the country that offers such photographic diversity as Montana’s Glacier National Park.  With over a million acres of pristine mountains, lakes, waterfalls, gorges and glaciers, there is something to capture around every corner.   The front country campsites are not crowded like Yosemite and Yellowstone and there are plenty of back country trails that lead to a wilderness that maintains its sense of “wild” which many parks have lost.

Like wildlife?  Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, bison, elk, deer, black bears and grizzly bears are abundant within the park.

The only downside to Glacier is the short window of opportunity to visit due to the snow.  In just a couple months, the park transitions from spring wildflowers to autumn color.  Then it is winter again.

In order to better answer the original question, “What is my favorite park?” I have to say…

Long Answer: “It depends on when.”

Sure I could spend all of my August in Glacier National Park, but what about the rest of the year?

What if, for example, I was interested in photography, but I work a 9 to 5 job with only two weeks off per year?  And I only have off the second week in May and the fourth week in October?  Where should I go then?  Well, not Glacier.

Here is a calendar that is ever evolving with updates that could possibly help with your travel planning.  But first, here are a few more thoughts to keep in mind to maximize your vacation days. (Check out this helpful calendar from Lonely Planet to get started.)

Traveling with the intention of bringing home some captivating landscape images requires much more foresight than traveling without a camera.  Just about every park across the country has a week or two in which it has more photographic potential than the rest of the year.  Factors such as snow pack, water flow levels, wildflower blooms, wildlife migration, autumn leaves, weather patterns and trail accessibility all play a role in determining when to travel to a particular location. (Too many variables to fit into this short story.)

Seasons play a huge role in both subject and light in outdoor photography.  My calendar is broken down by seasons beginning in the spring with the wildflower and waterfall season.  In the summer, I like to focus on hikes out to mountain lakes.  In the fall, I look to the forests transitioning from green to yellow to red and orange and gold.  In the winter, I head to the desert or the tropics.  Some people love winter scenic shots.  I prefer not losing my fingers or toes due to frostbite.

Becoming an amateur weatherman is as helpful as knowing how to use a camera (as is eternal optimism when you guess the forecast wrong.)

For every location I mention, it is a good idea to call ahead before you go because each year optimal conditions (particularly wildflowers and autumn leaves) will vary by a week or two in either direction.

March kicks off the wildflower season in the U.S. so I figured my calendar should begin with spring and end with the winter.

Autumn is my favorite season for photography and I am torn every year during the months of September and October.  There is no way to possibly time all the peak Fall color across the entire U.S in one season.  (There is a cool autumn map from Yahoo below.)

There are 59 National Parks in the U.S. (at the time of this writing) and I include all of them in this theoretical one year calendar.  Why not?  I’ll also include many National Forests and State Parks as well that are particularly photogenic.  Many of which are less famous but offer more opportunity for original compositions.

Yes I know there are more days than 4 weeks in a month, but that just complicates my calendar.  It would be helpful to have a personal jet pack to make any of this feasible.  Also, don’t waste any time sleeping or eating.  There’s too much to see! (And this is only a few of the highlights.)

NP = National Park          NF = National Forest       SP = State Park


Week 1

Wildflowers of Joshua Tree NP, California

Wildflowers of Death Valley NP, California

Week 2

Wildflowers of Big Bend NP, Texas

Nearby – Guadalupe Mountains NP, Texas – Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico

Week 3

Wildflowers of Arizona – Saguaro NP / Lost Dutchman SP

Nearby – Scenes of Sedona / Grand Canyon NP / Petrified Forest NP

South Rim Sunset #8195
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Week 4

Florida – Birds of Everglades NP

Nearby – Fish of Biscayne NP / Dry Torgtugas NP

Alaska – Northern Lights and tolerable weather at the same time


Week 1

Plantations of South Carolina / Congaree NP

Week 2

Springtime in Texas #0222
Luling Texas

Wildflowers of Central Texas

Places in particular: Brenham / Luling / Seguin / Fredericksburg / Austin / Ennis

Willow Loop Road / Enchanted Rock SP

Week 3

New York City’s Central Park in Bloom

Nearby NYC  – Waterfalls of the Finger Lakes Region, New York / Watkins Glen SP

Waterfalls of Smoky Mountains NP

Waterfalls of Arkansas, Ozark NF and Ouachita NF

Week 4

Wildflowers of California – Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve / Shell Creek Road

White Sands Starburst #0877
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico


Week 1

Wildflowers of the Four Corners Region of the Southwest – Arches NP / Canyonlands NP

Nearby Regionally – Slot Canyons of Page, AZ good for a sunny day / Wild Backcountry of Escalante, UT / Capitol Reef NP, UT / Zion NP, UT / Great Basin NP, NV / White Sands NM, NM / Mesa Verde NP, CO / Great Sand Dunes NP, CO / Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, CO

Week 2

Multnomah Falls #2650
Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, OR / Gifford Pinchot NF – Too many to name!

Week 3

Waterfalls of Yosemite NP, CA

Week 4

Waterfalls of Washington – Mt. Rainier NP and Olympic NP


Week 1

Alps of Oregon – Wallowa Mountains

Rolling Farmland of Palouse, WA / Palouse Falls SP

Vernal Falls #3788
Yosemite National Park, California

Week 2

The Dakotas – Badlands NP, SD

Nearby – Custer SP, SD / Wind Cave NP, SD / Theodore Roosevelt NP, ND

Week 3

Northern California – Mt. Shasta Region

Nearby – Lassen Volcanic NP / Pinnacles NP / Redwood NP

Bristlecone Pines of the White Mountains

Pear Lake Reflection #3316
Sequoia National Park, California

Burney Falls / Mossbrae Falls

Week 4

Detour into Canada if you can – Banff and Jasper and Yoho are incredible!


Week 1

Grand Tetons NP, WY / Wind River Range, WY – Hiking trails open for business

Week 2

Sierra Nevada Mountains of California – Back country hiking

Sequoia Trifecta #3553
Kings Canyon National Park, California

Sequoia NP and Kings Canyon NP

Week 3

Wildflowers of the San Juan Mountains – Ouray and Telluride, CO

Week 4

Sawtooth Mountains, ID – Alice Lake Region – Should be a National Park


Week 1

Crater Lake NP, OR – good visibility / Mt. Rainier NP, WA – Spectacular Wildflowers

Iceberg Lake Wildflowers #5926
Glacier National Park, Montana

Wildflowers of Central Cascades – Jefferson Park, OR – Canyon Creek Meadows, OR

Week 2

Glacier NP, MT

Week 3

Glacier NP, MT (It gets two weeks because it’s the best!)

Nearby – Be sure to visit Waterton Lakes NP on the Canadian side

Week 4

Hidden Lake #5617
Glacier National Park, Montana

Autumn in Alaska – Denali NP – Mt. McKinley visible on a clear day

Bears eating Salmon – Katmai NP


Week 1

Autumn in Alaska Continued

All the other Alaskan National Parks – Lake Clark NP / Glacier Bay NP / Kenai Fjord NP / Gates of the Arctic NP / Kobuk Valley NP / Wrangell St. Elias NP

Week 2

Wyoming – Fall Color – Yellowstone NP

Colorado – Fall Color – Rocky Mountain NP

Week 3

Wyoming – Fall Color – Grand Tetons NP

Colorado – Fall Color – Maroon Bells Wilderness

Michigan – Fall Color – The Upper Peninsula / Isle Royale NP

Minnesota / Wisconsin – Fall Color – Voyaguers NP / Lake Superior Scenic Fall Drive

Week 4

Tennessee – Fall Color – Smoky Mountains NP / Fall Creek Falls SP

New Mexico – Fall Color – Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway / Taos

Utah – Fall Color – Wasatch Range

Maroon Bells #5847
Near Aspen, Colorado


Week 1

Colorado – Fall Color – San Juan Mountains – Telluride and Ouray

Vermont & New Hampshire – Fall Color – White Mountains / Franconia Notch SP /

Kancamagus Highway

West Virginia – Fall Color – Blackwater Falls SP / Babcock SP

Week 2

Washington – Enchantment Wilderness – Larches / North Cascades NF – Mt. Shuksan

Aspen Sunlight #8465
Telluride, Colorado

Ohio – Cuyahoga Valley NP – Hocking Hills SP

Massachusetts – The Berkshires

Virginia – Shenandoah NP – Skyline Drive

Pennsylvania – Ricketts Glen SP / Ohioplye SP

Week 3

Maine – Acadia NP

North Carolina / Virginia / Tennessee – Blue Ridge Parkway / Smoky Mountains NP

Oregon – Silver Falls SP

Hawksbill Crag #6725
Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

New York – The Catskills / The Adirondacks / Finger Lakes

Week 4

Arkansas & Missouri – Ozark NF / Ouachita NF / Lake of the Ozarks / Buffalo National River /

Hot Springs NP

Kentucky – Mammoth Cave NP


Week 1

Buffalo River #6776
Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Guadalupe Mountains – McKitrick Canyon Autumn

Nearby – Carlsbad Caverns NP

Week 2

Zion NP, UT – Autumn in the Canyons of the Southwest

Week 3

Texas – Lost Maples SP / Guadalupe River Cypress Trees / Garner SP

Zion’s Subway Trail Water Slot #7882
Zion National Park, Utah

Week 4

Take a week off and share Thanksgiving with Family and Friends


Week 1

Puerto Rico – An escape from the cold and a chance to practice your Spanish

Week 2

Big Bend NP, TX – Fall Color – Cottonwood Trees

Big Bend Castle in the Sky #0626
Big Bend National Park, Texas

Week 3

Bosque Del Apache, NM – Bird Migration

Week 4

Virgin Islands NP – Christmas on the beach?


Week 1

McWay Falls #3067
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

California Coast – Big Sur / Pfeiffer Beach Keyhole / Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP

Nearby – Channel Islands NP

Week 2

Death Valley NP, CA / Alabama Hills, CA – See Mt. Whitney covered in snow

Week 3

Lake Tahoe, NV – Beautiful shoreline, snow skiing opportunities

Week 4

Movie Road Arch #8952
Lone Pine, California

Yosemite NP, CA – Winter Scenes – Beautiful, Uncrowded, pack your tire chains


Week 1

Yellowstone – Winter Scenes – Get the classic Bison in the snow shot

Week 2

Waterfalls, Beaches and Mountains of Hawaii

My order of favorite islands based on photographic potential:

Na Pali Coast Sunset #9589
Ke’e Beach, Kauai

1 Kauai, 2 Maui, 3 Big Island, 4 Oahu, 5 Molokai

National Parks: Haleakala NP, Maui & Hawaii Volcanoes NP, Big Island

Week 3

Hawaii Island Hopping Continued – One week is not enough

Nearby – Well not really nearby, but if you want to check off what is probably the last National Park on your list – American Samoa NP

Week 4

Desert Southwest in the Snow – Nice contrast of white snow on orange rock formations

Bryce Canyon NP / Arches NP / Canyonlands NP / Monument Valley TP / Valley of Fire SP

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