Summer is the most popular time to visit the national parks. With so many to choose from, where should you go? Which national parks will provide the best photographic opportunities in the summer?
Posted July 2, 2017. Updated and re-posted June 13, 2020.
Health Notice: Due to the coronavirus outbreak you should follow all current and future CDC health and travel recommendations (including social distancing), as well as any specific national park regulations. Some national parks are limiting the number of visitors and some parks require an advance registration to enter the park.
One of the best places to start is with 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 in 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 parks I have already photographed, I trust Tim’s advice for the places that I haven’t been to yet. His recommendations for the best seasons (marked with an X) are in the first column in the spreadsheet that follows.
I found several online articles recommending the best national parks to visit in the summer. If an article recommends a park I put an X in that article’s column opposite that park on this spreadsheet. You can quickly see which national parks are the most recommended.
I picked this set of articles because they are better than most of the other articles I found. With some exceptions, the advice they give is going to send you to the best parks to photograph in the summer.
So how do you decide where to go? I suggest you give the most weight to advice from experienced photographers. They are more likely to know what other photographers are going to like. On the spreadsheet above I would give the most weight to Tim’s suggestions in the first column. Second, I would take a look at the most recommended parks. All 12 parks in the list that follows (Most Recommended National Parks for Summer) are excellent places to go in the summer.
Most Recommended National Parks for Summer
Sequoia/Kings Canyon 7
Grand Teton 6
Great Smoky Mountains 6
Crater Lake 5
Mammoth Cave 5
Apostle Islands 4
Kenai Fjords 4
Your choice of national parks also has a lot to do with where you live or travel. If you live in Colorado or if you have to travel to Colorado for your job this summer, should definitely consider going to Rocky Mountain National Park, the Great Sand Dunes, or Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park because they are so close, even though they are on only one or two lists. If you are going to be in Alaska in the summer, Denali is a must see despite being on only one of these lists.
The Lonely Planet list (below) is the only list to recommend National Parks in Canada. Banff and Jasper National Parks, both in the province of Alberta, are excellent parks to photograph in the summer.
There are other articles on the internet recommending places to go but a note of caution is in order. I’ve had people recommend “great” places to take pictures which often turned out to be average at best. I bet that has happened to many of you too. The same is true for internet articles. People who aren’t serious photographers are sometimes quite clueless as to what photographers will find interesting. When you read an online article does it come from a well known photographer or a highly respected publication like Outdoor Photographer? If it does that is a good sign. If it is an unknown photographer or publication, be more cautious.
You could go by the pictures that accompany an article to see if it really is a worthwhile location, but that could be misleading too. An article I read on the beautiful scenery in Montana was headlined by a photo of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. I’ve seen several other examples recently of photos that didn’t match the locations in the travel articles. Some photo editors really are clueless.
After you read an article recommending a particular place, it would be a good idea to do a Google Image search of that place and see what you turn up. Of course the photos you find are no more reliable than the people who posted them on the internet. Well captioned photos by professional photographers (“Maroon Bells photographed from Maroon Lake in Colorado in December”) are more reliable than wild guesses like “this is somewhere in Montana” and the photo might not be of Montana at all.
All of this is important so you don’t waste precious time. We all have limits on our shooting time, so you want to make the most of it. As National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson says, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff!” So you should spend your limited photography time at the best locations.
It helps to know which month in summer is the best to go to a particular park. That is why this chart from Lonely Planet is so useful. This chart is second in importance only to the places recommended by Tim Fitzharris, so give this chart a lot of weight. If you are going to Acadia or Yellowstone in the summer, June is the best month.
So look at the spreadsheet above, the Lonely Planet chart, and the links below. Think about getting Tim’s book or one of the other excellent scenic location guides linked below. Then go exploring at one or more of our beautiful national parks this summer.
More Places to Go
For more suggestions (and to learn where I would go in the summer), be sure to read the companion article to this one, The Best National Parks to Photograph in Summer.
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. In addition to Tim’s book recommended above, another book deserve special mention.
Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong is far and away the 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. 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.
The National Park Series: Where to Go and When – There are now over a dozen articles in my national park series.
My Article Links
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 Two Favorite Introductions to Landscape Photography. If you only get two books on landscape photography, these are the books to get.
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
Articles: The Best National Parks in Summer
5 National Parks for Summer – Outdoor Photographer
6 National Parks You Should Visit This Summer – Conde Nast Traveler
10 Best National Parks to Visit In Summer – Metro US
Top National Parks to Visit in Summer – Trip Savvy
6 U.S. National Parks to visit this summer – She Knows
15 Best National Parks to Visit in the Summer – Local Adventure
7 National Parks to Visit in June – Superfeet
Top National Parks to visit this Spring & Summer 2017 – Globetrotter