10 iconic monuments in North America (and how and when to photograph them)

First published:
June 6, 2022
July 28, 2023

10 iconic monuments in North America (and how and when to photograph them)

First published:
June 6, 2022
July 28, 2023

Photo by Edwin Verin

10 must-visit photography destinations in North America and how best to photograph them

America is full of iconic landmarks, but what about monuments? From natural wonders in Utah, South Dakota and Wyoming to manmade memorials in Washington and New York, there are plenty of incredible monuments with a story to tell and a lot to offer photographers keen to find a new angle on a classic. Here are some of the best monuments to get you started … 

1 Statue of Liberty, New York

Since this copper statue has been photographed by millions of tourists from across the world you’re going to have to get creative. A gift from France in 1881, the traditional way to visit the Statue of Liberty is to take a ferry tour to Liberty Island. However, Battery Park in Manhattan, a helicopter tour and the deck of the Staten Island Ferry are all popular off-the-beaten track places to photograph it.

The Statue of Liberty by Mike Traylen
Author tip: You could try shooting the full moonrise atop the Statue of Liberty's torch. To do that get yourself to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey on the night of the full Moon. Check the time of moonrise and use the PhotoPills app for incredible accuracy.

2 Monument Valley, Utah & Arizona

What happened to Monument Valley? Its famous wind-eroded ‘mittens’ make this one of the most famous landscapes on the planet thanks to endless Westerns and other movies, but it’s oddly rarely photographed. Located in the Navajo Indian Tribal Park on the Arizona-Utah state border, the only way you can get to most of Monument Valley is with a Navajo guide, so consider signing-up to a photo tour. 

Dirt road at The Hub in Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona, USA by Edwin Verin
Author tip: As with any landscape the best times to photograph Monument Valley’s dramatic formations is during the golden hour just before sunset and just after sunrise. There is only one road around Monument Valley so it’s a case of shooting from the laybys unless you have a Navajo guide. 

3 Lincoln Memorial, Washington

The temple-like marble monument to America’s 16th president is a breathtaking sight, but it’s also one you can have a lot of fun with as a photographer. Bring a lot of lenses and take a variety of scene-setters and more abstract close-ups. The Lincoln Memorial faces east so for the best light, the longest shadows and the fewest tourists get here really early in the morning, or if not at least wait until late afternoon. 

Lincoln Memorial at sunset with lake reflections, Washington DC by Songquan Deng
Author tip: You can also shoot the Lincoln Memorial from afar by positioning yourself close to the World War II memorial and having it mirror in the aptly-named Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. 

4 Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

The presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) look to the east so just after sunrise is the best time to photograph Mount Rushmore. It opens at 05:00 a.m. and besides the perfect lighting it’s wise to get here early to avoid the crowds, which begin to arrive at 09:00 a.m. Don’t miss the quirky side-view of George Washington. 

Side view of President George Washington at Mount Rushmore by Julie
Author tip: The faces are illuminated between 9:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Since the site closes at 11:00 p.m. it’s therefore very difficult to take any kind of night photography. 

5 Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

One of the best-preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings in North America, Montezuma Castle was built by the Sinagua people between 1100 and 1425 AD. It’s a massive monument – five storeys, 20 rooms and 35 feet deep – but sadly it’s not possible to enter any of the cliff dwellings. So pack a zoom lens to get close-ups, though you’ll want to have the context of the white limestone cliff-face.  

Montezuma's Castle - a cave dwelling which can be found in Cape Verde, Arizona, by Steve McDonald
Author tip: Montezuma Castle makes for a fabulous stop on a photography road trip. It’s just 50 miles south of Flagstaff, which could serve as a base for visiting not only Grand Canyon National Park 75 miles to the north, but also to meteor crater, the world’s best-preserved impact site, about 45 miles east. 

6 Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

A steep-sided mass of dark columns of rock rising from the grassland, Devils Tower was the first national monument declared back in 1906. To get close-up views of the kind rarely seen take the short Tower Trail that circles the monument. You might even see climbers ascending Devils Tower, which can add valuable context for its massive size. Also consider Red Beds Trail, which will give you all kinds of landscape photography opportunities. 

Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, U.S.A. by Edwin Verin
Author tip: Even before you arrive you can get some good shots using a zoom lens of Devils Tower perched above trees and grassland from various laybys and viewpoints along Highway 24 to the east.

7 World Trade Center Memorial, New York City

If you were alive on September 11, 2001 you’ll know how much it shocked the entire world. However, its moving memorial built at the base of the Twin Towers is in danger of passing into history unnoticed. That’s a shame because it’s a powerful place, with its dramatic pools in the footprint of both the North and South Tower, mirrored surfaces and engraved names of the victims. All around are skyscrapers, giving the plaza an eerie feel indeed. 

A flower lays near a name at the Ground Zero Memorial gardens in New York by Caitlyn Stewart
Author tip: This is a monument to 2,977 citizens murdered by terrorists and it remains a painful place for many thousands of people, so be respectful when photographing the monument. Wait patiently if people are blocking your shot. 

8 Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Everyone’s talking about space tourism, but it’s going to be a long while before anyone gets to go shooting on the Moon. Cue the Craters of the Moon, a stark and barren region of cinder fields on the Snake River Plain in central Idaho. In the daytime you can look for leading lines in composing barren-looking landscapes while at night this International Dark Sky Park is a playground for astrophotographers. 

A dead tree at Craters of the Moon park with a storm looming on the horizon by M.Goodwin Photography
Author tip: NASA astronauts Gene Cernan, Alan Shepard, Joe Engle and Ed Mitchell visited the aptly-named Craters of the Moon in August 1969 to learn about volcanic geology prior to their Apollo missions to the actual Moon. 

9 Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota

Here’s a private monument that should be well known … and probably finished by now. Begun in 1948, this 641 feet long and 563 feet high sculpture depicts the Lakota chief on horseback. For now only the head is finished (and has been since 1998), but it’s much larger than the heads at Mount Rushmore just 17 miles away. 

Crazy Horse Memorial, taken during the Sturgis Rally by Josh & Connie Weakly
Author tip: Consider doing a special tour if you want to get up close and personal to Crazy Horse’s face. If you are here for sunset bear in mind that between May and September a laser light show begins shortly after. It uses the mountainside as a giant 500-foot screen. 

10 Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah

Rainbow Bridge National Monument is one of the world's largest known natural bridges. It’s in a side-canyon off the Lake Powell National Recreation Area is a sandstone formation set amongst red rocks and canyons. You can’t drive to Rainbow Bridge. Access is via a seven-hour boat trip from Lake Powell.

The Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Bridge Canyon on the shores of Lake Powell by Jamie White
Author tip: The boat tour arrives late morning when the Sun is high in the sky. That makes sunset or sunset shots impossible, so bring a circular polarizer to lessen glare. If you can position the high Sun close to Rainbow Bridge try a ‘sunburst’ shot using a small aperture (f/18 or thereabouts). 
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