"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." - Wallace Stegner, Writer, Environmentalist, & Historian
Other than having seen this quote many times over the years during my visits to our National Parks, I had no idea who Wallace Stegner was. I've never read one of his novels or short stories. But I must say I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment regarding our National Parks. Americans have had many great ideas in our history, but I don't believe any one idea has so positively affected all Americans as our National Parks, preserving these spaces for everyone's enjoyment, recreation, and serving as a point of national pride.
At last count I'd been to just a fraction of our National Parks, about 16 out of 63 total parks. I have a lot left to go! But of those 16, I thought I'd list my favorites, from most favorite to slightly less favorite (I guess?), along with one of my favorite prints from each park.
Acadia National Park
I've spent more time in Acadia National Park than any other, owing to its proximity to my home. I've been known to drive up in the middle of the night, about 3 hours, just to catch the first light of sunrise reflecting off of Otter Cliff. The photograph above was taken on one such occasion, though instead of photographing Otter Cliff from Boulder Beach, I opted to scramble down into Monument Cove.
And while I've explored quite a bit of it, the great thing is I still have spots I haven't seen. I need to plan some time there soon.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite was the second national park I'd ever visited, but having spent a lot of time looking at Ansel Adams' and many others' images of the place, I couldn't wait to get there. I still remember being in awe the first time I drove into the valley to see these enormous walls of granite rising thousands of feet on either side. Then we rounded a bend and there as El Capitan standing before us! I was just dumbfounded.
I've been to Yosemite three times now, and it still has not been enough. Heck, I've barely even scratched the surface. Some of my most popular prints have been captured there, including El Capitan, above, and Sentinel Dawn. It's one of my favorite parks simply because of how incredibly beautiful it is. The trees, the granite cliffs, the meadows. Everywhere you look is natural beauty. The kind of place that just being in makes you happy.
Denali National Park
I've visited Denali twice now, and I have to say that Denali is an incredibly difficult park in many respects. The first time I visited was in May, and the park road wasn't open beyond the Toklat River. I was able to see the Mountain, but it was from a distance and left me wanting more. The landscape was still amazing and I was able to make some beautiful images. The second time I visited was in August. There's a saying that only 20% of Denali's visitors ever see the mountain. Much of the time it is shrouded in clouds. My photograph "Denali" shown above, was made on our ride into the park near Eielson Visitor's Center. The next morning, we could see the mountain from our campsite at Wonder Lake. As the day wore on, clouds built and we were drenched with a torrential rain that lasted a couple of days. Finally, on our last full day of camping, the rain stopped, allowing us to hike more comfortably, but it wasn't until we were riding the bus back to the park entrance that the mountain showed itself a bit again. It almost felt as though it was mocking me.
From a natural beauty standpoint, Denali is just amazing. But it's difficult to get to and more difficult to get deep into the park. And then the mountain is so fickle. So while I love it and am dying to go back, this is why I call it difficult.
Arches National Park
Until you actually spend time in the desert, it's difficult to understand the beauty that can be found there. We all have these ideas of lots of sand, dead trees, and rock. But after spending a week in Arches several years ago, I quickly came to realize just how beautiful the desert can be. The arches themselves are such beautiful natural wonders, But we were treated with some incredibly beautiful sunrises and sunsets while we were there as well. The red rocks just seemed to glow as the sun rose or set.
In contrast to Denali, Arches was fairly easy. The weather was dry (duh, it's a desert), and many of the sites are fairly easy walking distance from the parking areas. The biggest hike we took was to Delicate Arch in the dark to catch the sunrise there. That was maybe a mile or two round trip. Also, Moab is right there. Moab was a great little town that I spent some time exploring. I enjoyed being able to leave the park midday when the light was the worst and go hang out at the Moab Brewery! Very different from Denali where, once you get deep into the park, you're not coming out again until you're heading home.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is my most recent national park to be crossed off the list. It was really much more than I expected it to be. I kind of thought I'd go there, capture what there was to capture, and then feel done and not need to come back. And yes, while it is arid and mostly barren, there is still such beauty to see there! The park is so large that I was unable to get to everything I wanted to see (Racetrack Playa, I'm looking at you!). So yes, I missed the Racetrack, and there are some other dune fields and places of interest that just didn't get gotten. So Death Valley makes the list for a return trip!
Dawn in the Dunes above is a prime example of what you can see at Mesquite Flat, while Badwater Basin was every bit as incredible as I imagined. Zabriskie Point was a gorgeous spot to catch sunrise or sunset as well. I didn't find the park too crowded and there are several areas within the park with services, so while it seems a bit isolated at times, you're not totally alone.
For the parks listed below, it's not really that I thought any less of them. It's simply that I didn't have enough time in them to really explore and experience it. I'll explain in each description, but I want you to know I have every intention of spending a more reasonable amount of time in these parks as soon as possible.
Mount Rainier National Park
I was in the Seattle area on business several years ago and had a day to myself. So I decided to head to Mount Rainier for a visit. I spent some time in the Paradise section, where I made the image above. It was a beautiful day but for the most part clouds obscured the summit of Mount Rainier, putting a bit of a damper on things.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I've been to the Smokies twice, and while I've had a few days to explore a bit, I just don't feel like I saw it all. Absolutely beautiful both times I went. It's close enough for me to drive there in a day or two. Might have to go sooner than later!
Grand Teton National Park
In 2020, Kristen Wilkinson and I took a road trip to the Sawtooth Mountains to photograph. On the way back, we stopped in Jackson Hole for the night and planned to quickly explore Grand Teton National Park the next day. We did manage to capture sunset when we arrived, and then were up early to photograph sunrise and the early morning light on the peaks. We spent a grand total of about 5 hours in the park, and stopped at some of the more well-known spots, but Tetons certainly deserve more attention than we were able to give it that time.
Badlands National Park
The day after visiting Grand Teton National Park, we passed through South Dakota and visited Badlands National Park. This was another quick visit, but we arrived for sunrise and explored for a few hours before having to get back on the road and drive back east toward home.
Glacier National Park
I need to find a way to rectify this quickly. In 2019 I made Glacier a side trip while Kristen and I were in the Palouse photographing. It was a 5 hour drive so we figured we could take two days, go see Glacier quickly, and then head back to the Palouse before we got on our flight home. What I saw was stunning. The Going-To-The-Sun road was closed, so I missed that, and we had to drive around the park to get to Many Glacier, St. Mary's and Two Medicine. We didn't have much time to hike and explore. So much left undone.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I visited Teddy Roosevelt National Park this summer on a road trip with my son and brother. It was beautiful, and we experienced quite a bit. The bison and longhorns in the park, as well as the wild horses and the prairie dogs, were really cool. This one gets an honorable mention because I liked it, but I felt like the three days we spent there was plenty, to be honest.
So, that's my list of my favorite national parks! This summer, I should be able to add Yellowstone to the list of parks I've visited, and hopefully in the future I'll add a few more. What are your favorite National Parks, and why? Comment below!