Believe it or not, spring has finally arrived in areas of the country that were dealing with a lingering winter. Which national parks are at their photographic best in the spring? Here are my choices, grouped by state from west to east. This list includes the favorites I have been to and want to go back to again, plus the ones I haven’t seen and most want to photograph. Don’t forget, this is national parks week and many of our national parks are having special activities all week long.
Originally posted April 22, 2017. Re-posted April 18, 2018 and updated April 23.
Some of this list will look familiar. The same desert parks I prefer in the winter are the same desert parks I prefer in the spring, with the added plus of spring wildflowers.
California – Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Redwood
California has an abundance of national parks, and Yosemite is a must see in the spring.
Death Valley is horribly hot in the summer, so spring is a great time to beat the heat and photograph this fascinating high desert landscape. It is also remote so keep your gas tank well above half full.
Redwood and Joshua Tree are two very different but excellent parks to visit in the spring, especially if you catch them when the wildflowers are in bloom.
Arizona – Grand Canyon, Saguaro
The Grand Canyon is amazing any time of year. I’ve only been there in the winter. I am overdue a spring trip.
The giant saguaro cactus in southern Arizona are impressive. This is high on my must do list.
Utah – Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point
Oh my! Southern Utah is amazing! Any of the desert parks are well worth your while. Temperatures can range from quite pleasant to pretty chilly (especially Bryce). I am all for quite pleasant. Summers in Southern Utah are just to hot for my tastes.
Not surprisingly, Bryce Canyon is one of the most the most recommended national parks to photograph in spring, fall, and winter. It is one of my most favorite places. If you haven’t been there already, put it at the top of your travel list.
Zion is known for its huge rock walls and unusual sandstone formations.
Capitol Reef has rock formations that look like a giant reef from the air.
Arches is right up there with Bryce Canyon as an amazing place! Just get there!
Canyonlands, like Arches and Dead Horse Point, is close to Moab Utah. Make Moab your headquarters and visit all three.
Dead Horse Point is a state park, not a national park, but it is one of the most stunning viewpoints on the planet.
Colorado – Great Sand Dunes
Dunes 700 feet tall are the prominent feature at Great Sand Dunes National Park. And it is lightly visited in the spring.
When it gets really late in the day the normally light toned sand dunes darken to almost a chocolate brown.
New Mexico – White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns
White Sands is a great spring location, and you can beat the summer heat. The low angled sunlight can turn the white gypsum sand into wonderful colors. Spring temperatures range from chilly to warm and balmy.
While you are in southern New Mexico you should also go to Carlsbad Caverns, one of the most impressive cave systems in the United States. The temperature down in caverns hovers around 56 degrees year around.
Texas – Big Bend
Like everything else in Texas, Big Bend National Park is seriously BIG. I generally prefer mountains to deserts, but Big Bend and White Sands in New Mexico are the exceptions. Like the rest of the desert parks in the southwest, spring temperatures vary widely from chilly to hot.
I recommend you go to Santa Elena Canyon in the morning, Boquillas Canyon for late afternoon light and sunset, and go everywhere else in between.
North Carolina /Tennessee – Great Smoky Mountains
I love the Great Smoky Mountains in the summer and fall. Spring is on my to do list. It is highly recommended as a spring destination.
Book Note: If you are going to the Great Smoky Mountains, John Netherton’s book, Guide to Photography and the Smoky Mountains is essential reading.
Virginia – Shenandoah National Park
I’ve crossed Shenandoah National Park several times going east and west, but never when I have had time to stop. It is reported to be one of our best national parks to photograph in the spring when everything is in bloom. It is on my list.
The Best of the Best
Of the best national parks to photograph in the spring, which are the best of the best? That’s a tough call, but here they are. Keep in mind I am a mountains, canyons and deserts kind of guy. These are really close together on my priority list. Ask me tomorrow and the order will be different. In fact, I have already rearranged this list several times.
Great Smoky Mountains
Photo Location Guide Books
Once you get to a national park, how do you know where the best photo locations are in that park? That is where photography guide books come in. Read my article The Best Scenic Photo Location Guides. A good location guide book will tell you where the best spots are, the best time of day to be there, and give you some photo tips for shooting that location. Two books deserve special mention.
National Parks Photo Location Guides
One of the best photo location guides is National Park Photography by Tim Fitzharris. Tim’s new edition is How to Photograph America’s National Parks, Digital Edition. It is my favorite guide book to 24 of the best national parks. He tells you the best season or seasons to photograph each national park. Tim provides you with a lot of specific location recommendations in each of these national parks along with the time of day for each location plus some photo tips for shooting that location. Because Tim’s advice is so on target for the places I have already photographed, I trust Tim’s advice for the places I haven’t been to yet.
Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong is far and away the biggest and best collection of photos taken in all 59 of our national parks. This is a cross between a big, beautiful; coffee table book and a photo location guide. Luong doesn’t give you a lot of photography advice and he doesn’t tell you the best season or seasons to visit each of the parks. Read Tim’s book for that information. 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.
More Places to Go
For more suggestions, be sure to read the companion article to this one, One Photographer and Nine Outdoor/Travel Writers Pick the Best National Parks for Spring.
Now it is time for you to plan your next trip and work on your own favorite spring places list!
Want to go on a road trip to several national parks? Check out the map above and the road trip link below.
The National Park Series: Where to Go and When – There are now over a dozen articles in my national park series.
The Best Scenic Photo Location Guides – A good scenic location guide can save you hours of time wandering around looking for the best spots.
Nature Photography Books: The Three Essentials. If you only read three nature photography books, put these on your “must read” list.
My Favorite Introduction to Landscape Photography. If you only read one book on landscape photography, this should be it.
All of my favorite photo location guides are in the Scenic Photo Locations Guides section of my photography store which has direct links to Amazon.com. If you use the links in my store you get the same great Amazon prices, delivery, and guarantee and you help support my photography web sites. Thanks!
National Audubon Society Guide to Photographing America’s National Parks: Digital Edition by Fitzharris. Updated edition.
National Park Photography by Tim Fitzharris, older edition.
Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong