When is the Best Time of Year to Photograph the National Parks?

Denali, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks

Denali, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Parks

Planning a trip to photograph some of our national parks? You will get better images if you visit a national park at its prime season of the year. But when is each park at its very best? And how do you figure out the best time of year for other locations that aren’t in the national parks?

The Best Seasons for the National Parks

These are a questions I have been asking myself while planing a trip to national parks and other places I haven’t been to before. One of my favorite sources of information for the U.S. national parks is AAA’s National Park Photography, an excellent guide to photographing the best national parks by Tim Fitzharris (a more recent version of this book is linked below). If you only get one photo guide to the national parks, this should be it. For each park Tim gives descriptions of the best photos locations, some photography advice, and the best seasons of the year to visit each of the parks. Here is a summary of the best time of year information.

Acadia –             Spring  Summer  Fall*
Arches –             Winter  Spring*  Summer  Fall
Badlands –         Spring  Summer  Fall
Big Bend –          Fall  Winter  Spring*  Summer
Bryce Canyon –  Spring  Summer  Fall  Winter
Canyonlands –    Fall  Winter  Spring  Summer
Death Valley –     Fall  Winter*  Spring
Everglades –       Fall  Winter*  Spring*
Glacier –              Summer*  Fall
Grand Canyon –  Spring*  Summer  Fall  Winter
Grand Teton –     Summer*  Fall*  Winter
Great Smoky Mountains – Spring*  Summer  Fall*
Joshua Tree –      Fall  Winter  Spring*  Summer
Mount Rainier –   Summer*  Fall*
Olympic –            Spring  Summer*  Fall
Redwood –           Spring  Summer  Fall
Rocky Mountain – Summer*  Fall*  Winter
Saguaro –             Winter  Spring  Fall
Shenandoah –      Spring  Fall*
Yellowstone –       Spring  Summer*  Fall*  Winter
Yosemite –            Spring  Summer  Fall  Winter
Zion –                    Spring  Summer  Fall  Winter

Tim lists the seasons he considers worthwhile for doing photography in each park. The underlined seasons are better, and if a season is marked with an asterisk* that is even better yet. The exceptions are Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Zion which are equally wonderful all year around. So from Tim’s point of view it is worth visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in summer, fall, and winter, with summer and fall being the very best seasons. You should skip Rocky Mountain in the spring. From my own experience visiting Rocky in every season quite a few times over many the years, I agree with Tim’s assessment. Based on the places I have been and comparing it with Tim’s recommendations, I am happy to say you can trust his advice. There are two versions of his book, both are out of print, but you can get either version inexpensively via Amazon at the links below.

If we take just the best season for each park (underlined) from Tim’s list and arrange them by season, we get this list of the best parks for each season.

Any Season
Bryce Canyon
Grand Canyon

Best in Winter
Big Bend
Death Valley

Best in Spring
Big Bend
Great Smoky Mountains
Joshua Tree

Best in Summer
Grand Teton
Mount Rainier
Rocky Mountain

Best in Fall
Grand Teton
Great Smoky Mountains
Mount Rainier
Rocky Mountain

I found the following interesting chart at Lonely Planet. The red bars mark the busiest time of the year for that particular park (which you should avoid if you can). You want to stick to the blue bars which are the best seasons in the opinions of the authors of the Lonely Planet guidebooks.

Lonely Planet Guide to the best seasons to visit the U.S. and Canadian National Parks.

Lonely Planet Guide to the best seasons to visit the U.S. and Canadian National Parks

Let’s take Big Bend as an example. According to Lonely Planet, if you want to go to Big Bend, choose Feb-April or Oct-Nov. That is good advice, although winter in Big Bend has its charms (as Tim highly recommends), especially if you get a rare snow fall. Avoid the summer since it is too beastly hot (despite Tim’s recommendation).

I like Lonely Planet guidebooks for their tourist information and this chart in general gives you some good advice. Consider it a supplement to Tim’s advice. Where there are variations in opinion I would usually give preference to Tim’s recommendations. Professional photographers are usually more attuned to what other photographers want to photograph than the people who write for tourists in general.

The Best Time of Year for Other Locations

Some of my favorite photo location guides.

Some of my favorite photo location guides.

While Tim’s book (either version) gives good overall coverage of the most popular national parks, there are more specialized books that cover a specific national park, state, or region of the country in more detail. The Photographing the Southwest series by Laurent Martes is a truly superb example. He wrote three books covering the desert southwest (they are on the left in the above photo) and they are as good as it gets, not only for deciding on the time of year to show up, but also detailed information on the time of day, how to shoot, how to get there, and more. Each location is rated on a scale of 0 to 5 (using hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs) for Scenic Value, Photographic Interest, Road Difficulty, and Trail Difficulty.

One of the ratings pages from Photographing the Southwest, Volume 1.

One of the ratings pages from Photographing the Southwest, Volume 1. Click for a larger version.

This is a quick snapshot of one of the ratings pages. Lets look at one example. In Section 13 the first location is Dead Horse Point State Park. The visual and photographic interest is 5 which is as good as it gets. The dashed line for Road Difficulty means it is a paved road to the location that any vehicle can navigate. The Trail Difficulty is 1 which means it is an easy short walk from your vehicle to the viewpoint. You go to the page 237 for specific advice on the best time of day and the best way to photograph the location.

Dead Horse Point

Dead Horse Point, early in the morning.

I followed his advice to be there early in the morning and created this image.

If you are going to the desert Southwest, these books are an absolute must. They are the gold standard of guidebooks. Martres has also picked other photographers to write books in the series for other states (Washington, Oregon, California).

For my home state of Colorado, the guide books by Lee Gregory are first rate. He also rates locations for scenic value, roads, and the trails to the locations. Lee’s books are linked below.

My favorite national park guides are listed below, along with photography guide books for other parts of the country.

A road trip to the national parks in the lower 48 states. Click for a larger version.

A road trip to the national parks in the lower 48 states. Click for a larger version.

Want to go on a road trip to several national parks? Check out the map above and this article.

Article Links

A Road Trip to All of the National Parks in the “Lower 48″ States

Colorado Fall Color Travel Guide

Finding the Peak Fall Color at the Best Locations

The Best National Parks to Photograph in Winter

One Photographer and Nine Outdoor/Travel Writers Pick the Best Winter National Parks

When is the best time to visit US and Canada’s National Parks? – at Lonely Planet

Photo Guide Links

These links take you to my Amazon.com powered photography store. You get the same great Amazon prices, service, and guarantee. And you help support my web sites. Thanks! Some of these excellent books are out of print. If you want the book, grab a copy while there are still copies availale. After you click on some of the links below you will see a message that looks like this:

Just choose the “Buy at Amazon.com” button to buy a copy.

National Audubon Society Guide to Photographing America’s National Parks: Digital Edition by Tim Fitsharris. This is the newer version.

AAA’s National Park Photography by Tim Fitzharris. This is the original version.

Photographing the Southwest, Vol 1 (Southern Utah)  by Laurent Martres

Photographing the Southwest, Vol 2 (Arizona)  by Laurent Martres

Photographing the Southwest, Vol 3 (Colorado & New Mexico) by Laurent Martres

Photographing California, Vol 1 (North) by Gary Crabbe

Colorado Scenic Guide: Northern Region by Lee Gregory. This is one volume of my  favorite photography guide to the beautiful state of Colorado.

Colorado Scenic Guide: Southern Region by Lee Gregory. This is one volume of my  favorite photography guide to the beautiful state of Colorado.

More of my favorite photography guidebooks for different parts of the U.S.

Photo Guides to the National Parks

Photographer’s Guide to the Grand Canyon & Northern Arizona by Joseph K. Lange, If you are going to the Grand Canyon, this is the book to get. For all of Arizona get Photographing the Southwest, Vol 2 by Laurent Martres.

Guide to Photography and the Smoky Mountains by John Netherton. My favorite guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, plus an excellent book on nature photography.

Photographer’s Guide to Yellowstone and the Tetons by Joseph K. Lange. If you are heading to Yellowstone and/or the Tetons, this is the book to get. An award wining photographer, Lange is also the author of my favorite introduction to landscape photography.

The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite by Michael Frye. This is one of my two favorite photography guides to Yosemite National Park. If you only have a day or so to spend in Yosemite, get Hudson’s book. He hits the highlights. If you have more time to spend, or if if you already know Yosemite, get this book by Frye. Frye is a photographer’s photographer and he will tell you in a lot more detail what you need to know. This is the book to get if you are serious about spending some quality photo time in YosemiteThis is the more detailed of the two books.

PhotoSecrets Yosemite by Andrew Hudson. This is one of my two favorite photography guides to Yosemite National Park. If you are new to Yosemite or only have a day or two to photograph Yosemite, get this book. Hudson hits the highlights, has photos, maps and diagrams, and suggestions as to where you should be and when.  If you have more time to spend, or if you already know Yosemite, get Frye’s book. If you are going to get PhotoSecrets San Franciso and Northern California, don’t by PhotoSecrets Yosemite because all of the Yosemite book is included in the San Francisco/N. California book.

Photographing Acadia National Park: The Essential Guide to When, Where, and How
by Colleen Miniuk-Sperry. This is an award winning five star book. If you are going to Acadia, this is the photo guide to get. Winner, 2014 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards “Travel Book” category and winner of “Best Travel Guide/Essay,” and “Best Interior Design” in the 2014 International Book Awards. Check out the glowing reviews.

Canadian Rockies Guidebooks

Darwin Wiggett wrote a excellent photography guidebook for the Canadian Rockies. It was already out of print when I discovered it and I couldn’t find a new copy on Amazon for less than $150 or a used copy for less than $50.

Fortunately for me, Darwin turned his print book into a series of eBooks that you can buy at his site, one for each national park. The original printed book was 144 pages and covered all the parks. Each eBook covers one national park, each book costs $10, and they are about 90 to 200 pages in length. The coverage of each park is a lot more detailed than was possible in the original printed book. Such a deal! If you get all 8 books at once, the cost is $60.

I was planning a four day photography trip to Banff National Park, so I bought his guide for Banff (114 pages of information). It was a great decision. If you are headed for one of Canada’s national parks, get Darwin’s photo guide for that park.

A photographer’s tip: I put the eBook on my laptop, but I didn’t want to carry the laptop with me during the day. Each night when I planned the next day’s excursions, I took my iPhone and photographed the pages of the book I would need right off my laptop screen. That way I had what I needed on my phone.

How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies – photo guides by Darwin Wiggett