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Visiting the National Parks | The Traveling Photographer

The National Parks in the United States provide excellent opportunities for stunning landscape, wildlife, nature photography, and Americana. Here are a few travel tips for those unfamiliar with our parks, and those in need of a refresher.

Where and When

  • Try to plan as far ahead as you can. Inside the parks, accommodations and campgrounds typically book quickly and early, particularly for the popular parks in the busy seasons. I booked Grand Canyon nearly 13 months out, prior to my last visit, to get the room I wanted in October. If the accommodation you selected has no availability, call often to check on cancellations. I am known to call a park’s reservation line on a daily basis to secure a room and eventually have been successful.
  • Stay in the park if you can afford the room or if you are camping. Otherwise stay as close as you can to a park entrance. Waking up extra early for sunrise photography, to give yourself time to get to your location and to set up your camera, is not fun. It is also easier to go back to your room during the day to rest, change clothes, charge batteries, or pick up forgotten supplies. Some parks are very, very big. Driving distances can be long, and speed limits slow. In fact, Yellowstone is so big, I usually book two different locations in the park. Also during busy times, the entrance lines into and out of a park can be very, very long.
  • Some National Parks have private accommodations available to rent. Yosemite, for example, has an area called Yosemite West, near Badger Pass and the Glacier Point Road. Check to see if any rental units are available in the park you are visiting.
  • Plan your visit around what interests you most, if possible. Every season is different. For instance, if you want to photograph waterfalls in Yosemite, spring is probably the best season, as the snow is melting and the waterfalls typically flow strong and full. The water may dry up or slow to a trickle as the summer progresses. Rocky Mountain National Park hosts elk herds, in mass, in October. The males bugle and make their play for the females.
  • Visit clusters of parks such as Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite in California; Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef in Utah; and  Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion in Arizona and Utah.
  • Note, fees are required to enter National Parks. Compare entry fees ahead of time. If you are staying several days or are or will be visiting more than one park during the year, purchasing an annual pass might make sense. Seniors can purchase a lifetime pass for $10. (Editor’s note: The price of a senior lifetime pass was increased to $80.00 plus a $10.00 handling fee on August 28, 2017. The passes may be purchased here.)
  • A free annual pass is available for active members of the U.S. military. A number of the national parks have fee-free days.

Plan Your Time

  • Do your research before you go and plan your time. During the busy season try to find locations to photograph that are off the beaten path. The national park websites are a wealth of information. Buy photography books that suggest what to photograph and where. I have been to Yosemite at least a dozen times, and I still found the book I recently purchased invaluable when I visited in February.
  • Read the park schedule for ranger programs and campfire talks and schedule a few programs and talks into your day or night. The programs are usually excellent and cover a range of subjects. There are also ranger-led hikes. Check out the exhibits at the visitor centers.
  • Talk to everyone—park rangers, park volunteers, servers in restaurants, locals you meet in stores, other photographers, as well as the concierge or front desk clerk at your hotel. Ask for their favorite spots or what they think are the best places to photograph and when, and what they have heard from others. I have learned a lot by asking questions. If you are photographing a popular sunrise or sunset site, and parking is limited, ask what time they suggest being at the site, to find parking.
  • Take a photography workshop in the park. Workshops are offered by many photographers, as well as by associations created to support a park. Workshop leaders know where to go and when. During one workshop I attended in Yosemite the photographer who led the group knew exactly where we should set up our gear and when (to the minute) so that we could photograph a waterfall with a giant rainbow in it. I would never have found that rainbow on my own. In Rocky Mountain National Park a local photographer took me hiking on a trail I would never have considered and I found a lovely cascade to photograph amid the colorful fallen leaves of autumn.

Be Aware of Conditions

  • Check the weather and road conditions right before you leave for your visit, and while you are visiting. The website for the park usually provides that information, as well as a telephone number to call. I visited Glacier National Park a couple years ago in the summer. The main road was closed due to a mudslide after a rainfall. I would not have known ahead if I had not called in. In late fall, winter, and early spring, mountain parks may require that chains be carried in your car, even if the roads are clear. The chains may be required to be put on if there is a snowfall, even if you are driving a four-wheel drive vehicle.
  • Some parks require that you take a shuttle bus through certain roads of the park. You are not allowed to take your car. Sometimes a bus is optional but makes more sense due to lack of parking. Check before leaving on your trip to see if the park you are visiting has a shuttle bus. If so, keep it in mind when you are deciding how to carry your gear and what to take.
  • Pay attention to wildfires, which usually occur in the summer. You may experience detours due to nearby fires, and visibility may be reduced. I have had to my change plans more than once due to nearby forest fires.
  • Pay attention to wildlife warnings. When the signs say keep no food in your car or tent, keep no food in your car or tent. When the rangers say bears frequent a hiking trail or campsite, take all recommended precautions. When you are told to photograph bison at a great distance, photograph them at a great distance. There is a reason for warnings. To protect you, and to protect the animals.
  • Take precautions when setting out to hike. Always have water, some food, weather protection gear, a small first-aid kit and whatever else might be necessary for the location you are visiting. Know your physical capabilities and limitations. This may sound pretty basic, but I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people caught totally unprepared for circumstances they encountered.
  • Permits may be required for backpacking in wilderness areas. Stop at the rangers station or visitors center for more information. It is important that the rangers know where you are camping in the wilderness and what trails you are hiking, in case there is an emergency such as a forest fire, and they have to find you, or if you don’t check-in when you are supposed to return.

I love visiting the National Parks in the United States. I have found through the years, though, that many have become increasingly crowded and congested. It is more important than ever to plan wisely and to find those special spots you can enjoy on your own. I found such a spot at the Grand Canyon on an exceptionally crowded weekend. How? I shot the sunrise, catching a 5 am shuttle bus that dropped me near the location I had read about, flashlight in hand. No one else was crazy enough to be up and out except my friend and I. From our little viewpoint we had the entire canyon before us and entirely to ourselves, as the sun rose in all its majesty. It left us breathless.  We took our photographs.  Hiked the rim for several miles, enjoying the crisp early morning air.  And as the crowds began to congregate on canyon over-looks and roads began to fill, we were sipping our coffees and eating pancakes in the hotel dining room, talking about our picture-perfect morning. Our only “compromise” was going to bed early the night before.

Be sure to read more of Susan’s Traveling Photographer columns.

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