America's Best Idea: My Favorite National Parks

February 17, 2022

"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.

Waves wash over the cobblestone beach of Monument Cove on a spring morning in Acadia National Park, Maine.

Spring Morning in Monument Cove

Waves wash over the cobblestone beach of Monument Cove on a spring morning in Acadia National Park, Maine.

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.

While other parks may have more grandeur, Acadia has just about everything I could ask for as a landscape photographer. Lots of hiking trails, panoramic views, smaller, more intimate landscapes, and epic scenes of nature doing what nature does.

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.

El Capitan at sunrise in Yosemite National Park.

El Capitan

El Capitan is simply awesome bathed in the warm light of dawn. The sun's first rays of the morning set the iconic granite peak aglow while the tranquil Merced River winds its way through Yosemite valley below. At the base of the majestic mountain is an explosion of brilliant spring blooms, casting a colorful hue on the valley's rich meadows. The deep verdant leaves contrast with the stony gray of El Capitan, creating a vivid and memorable contrast of pastels, blues, and greens. It's a stunning reminder of nature's beauty and of its ability to captivate and inspire.

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, formerly known as Mount McKinley, rises above the tundra in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Shrouded In The Clouds

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Majestic and powerful, the tallest peak in North America stands as a symbol of the beauty of the last frontier, Alaska. Denali rises into the swirl of clouds above the Alaska Range, basking in the late day sun as the vast wilderness spreads out below.

Limited Edition of 100 prints. Each Limited Edition Fine Art Print includes a signed Certificate of Authenticity, mailed separately.

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.

Sunset at Turret Arch in Arches National Park.

Sunset Through Turret Arch

The sun sets behind Turret Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. The fin that Turret Arch is carving out is currently 100 feet wide, and the arch itself is still fairly young.

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.

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes at dawn.

Dawn in the Dunes

First light illuminates the dunes and creosote bushes at Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

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.

Honorable Mentions

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.

Edith Creek pours over Myrtle Falls in the Paradise section of Mount Ranier National Park, Washington.

Spring in Paradise

Edith Creek pours over Myrtle Falls in the Paradise section of Mount Ranier National Park, Washington.

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.

View from Clingman's Dome on an autumn morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Sunrise in the Smokies

The early morning light kisses the ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains as seen from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The soft mist that hangs in the valleys seems to separate the mountains into layers, creating an almost graphic image, while the foremost ridges hint at the autumn foliage covering the mountainsides. This extraordinary photograph is the perfect way to bring the Smokies into your home or office to enjoy the tranquility of this landscape year round.

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!

Goldenrod on the banks of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park.

Teton Wildflowers

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Goldenrod grows along the banks of the Snake River as the Grand Tetons tower above on a summer morning in Wyoming.

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.

Clouds hide the sun in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.


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A passing cloud obscures the rising sun above the pinnacles of Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

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.

A canoe rests on the shore of Lake McDonald on a spring afternoon in Glacier National Park, Montana. Gunsight Mountain and Heaven's Peak stand in the distance.

Afternoon on Lake McDonald

Limited Edition

A small, yellow canoe is pulled up on the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on a sunny summer afternoon. The canoe is empty, and its yellow sides gleam brightly in the sunlight as the calm waters of the lake show barely a whisper of a breeze blowing across the surface. The shoreline is lined with rocks and trees, and the surrounding mountainsides are lush and green. The view of the distant snow-capped peaks is breathtaking, with Gunsight Mountain and Heaven's Peak reflected on the glassy surface of the lake. There is a sense of serenity and adventure in the stillness of the canoe, a reminder of the beauty of this special place.

Large format fine art limited edition of 100 prints. Each print includes a Certificate of Authenticity and serial number, mailed separately.

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.

A sunset over the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Clearing Storm in the Badlands

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The setting sun shines brilliantly through the dispersing clouds from a summer thunderstorm in the badlands of North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The lush green grasses are kissed by the warm glow of the sun, while the otherworldly rock formations, their details expertly captured, create a play between light and shadow that invites the viewer to explore more closely.

Offered as a 100-print Limited Edition. A Certificate of Authenticity is included with all limited edition print purchases, and will be sent separately.

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!