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 about great locations that aren’t in the national parks? This article has answers.
Posted January 18, 2017. Updated February 10, 2018.
Tim Fitzharris Recommends The Best Seasons for the National Parks
One of my favorite sources of information for the U.S. national parks is How to Photograph America’s National Park, Digital Edition (the new edition) or National Park Photography (older edition) by Tim Fitzharris. 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.
How accurate is this list? I’ve been to fourteen of these parks in the seasons Tim recommends and he is right on target. As an example, Tim says it is worth visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in summer, fall, and winter, with summer and fall being the very best seasons. I’ve been going to Rocky for decades and I’ve been there in every season of the year. I agree with Tim’s assessment. You can skip spring (unless you happen to be there anyway). From my perspective, winter, summer, and fall are all good with summer being better than winter, and fall is my absolute favorite due to the golden aspen and the elk rut.
So my own experience agrees with Tim’s recommendations, so I trust his advice for the places I haven’t been to yet.
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.
Best in Winter
Best in Spring
Great Smoky Mountains
Best in Summer
Best in Fall
Great Smoky Mountains
Going to the best parks for each season is a good way to have a great photographic experience.
QT Luong’s Extraordinary Photo Location Guide to All 59 National Parks
Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong is far and away the best collection of photos taken in all of our national parks. This is a cross between a big, beautiful; coffee table book and a photo location guide. It doesn’t give you a lot of photography advice, like Tim’s book above. What makes it so valuable is that it gives you the location for every single photograph in the book. If you see an amazing photo and want to know where it was taken, you can look up the location. It also covers all 59 national parks while Tim’s book covers 20 of the best national parks plus a few extra locations.
This past fall I went on a spur of the moment trip to Acadia National Park. I was my first trip. I didn’t want to carry Luong’s book with me, since it is so big, so I pulled it of the shelf and photographed every page of the Acadia National Park chapter with my iPhone. I used those iPhone photos (examples below) for reference while I was in Acadia, along with the chapter on Acadia in Tim’s book which I did take along with me. Some classic Acadia locations were in both books, but each book had some great locations that were not in the other book. I was glad I had the location information from both books.
Each night at the end of the day I checked the weather forecast for the next day (weather helps determine the kind of location). Then I looked at the Acadia chapter in Tim’s book and the photos on my phone of the Acadia chapter in Luong’s book. Using the locations from both books I picked the locations I most wanted to photograph the next day.
Both books provide maps. Tim’s book has fewer locations but more detailed photography advice.
Luong’s book has more photo locations but less photography advice.
An example of the location information in Treasured Lands.
Lonely Planet Picks the Best Months to Visit the National Parks
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.
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 Big Bend in 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
While Tim’s book (either version) gives good overall coverage of the most popular national parks, and Luong provides the best location guide to all of the 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.
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.
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. You can find all of my favorite scenic location guides in this article.
Want to go on a road trip to several national parks? Check out the map above and this article.
National Park Series Overview
The National Park Series: Where to Go and When – An Overview
National Park Series Links
The Best Months to Photograph the Best National Parks – When are our best national parks at their photographic prime? This is your guide to the best months for each park.
Colorado Fall Color Travel Guide – 2017 – This is my guide to Colorado in the fall. It has over 100 pages of information on the best places to go, the best times to be there, plus suggestions for places to stay and eat. This guide is updated every year in the summer.
Lonely Planet Article
Photo Guide Links
You can find all the books listed below in the Scenic Photo Location Guides section of my photography store which is powered by Amazon.com.
Photo Guides to the National Parks
How to Photograph America’s National Park, Digital Edition (the new edition) by Tim Fitzharris.
AAA’s National Park Photography (older edition) by Tim Fitzharris.
Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong
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 which is described below.
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.
Guide to Photography and the Smoky Mountains by John Netherton. My favorite guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, plus it is an excellent book on nature photography, even if you never make it to the Smoky Mountains.
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 Yosemite. This 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, also by Hudson, don’t buy PhotoSecrets Yosemite because every page 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. This book is the winner, of the 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 at Amazon.
Scenic Photo Guides which Include National Parks
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 (Northern California) by Gary Crabbe and Laurent Martres
Photographing California, Vol 2 (Southern California) by Jeffrey Sullivan
Photographing Washington by Gregg Vaughn and Laurent Martres
Photographing Oregon by Gregg Vaughn and Laurent Martres
Colorado Scenic Guide: Northern Region by Lee Gregory
Colorado Scenic Guide: Southern Region by Lee Gregory
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