Top tips for taking photos of lesser-visited waterfalls, glaciers, sand dunes, sinkholes and more
North America has plenty of iconic national parks for landscape photographers, but what if you want to get away from the crowds? There are hundreds of national parks in the U.S. alone, many of them little-visited and yet collectively bursting with everything from vast white sand dunes and mirror-like lakes to red rocks and ‘painted’ hills.
Here are some particularly beautiful destinations that should be more famous among landscape photographers…
1 White Sands National Park, New Mexico
One of the natural world’s great wonders and yet little-visited, White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico is a treasure trove for landscape photographers. Unlike a lot of national parks there are no honeypot sites where everyone gathers. Compositions exploring the textures, shapes and shadows in the almost snow-like white sand and 60ft. high dunes can be taken from almost anywhere on Dunes Drive road, with areas worth exploring including Alkali Flats Trail and Sunset Stroll. Come here for the late afternoon shadows, the ‘golden hour’, sunset and the resulting ‘blue hour’. To be here at sunrise you’ll have to stay at one of the 10 primitive backcountry campsites.
It can be very windy at White Sands National Park. The last thing you want is fine gypsum sand getting into, or scratching, your lens and camera body so be sure to take a lot of care of them. That means putting a UV filter on your lens and a protective jacket on your camera body and taking microfibre cloths and a lens cleaning brush.
2 The Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon
A spectacular yet little-known destination in the eastern Oregon desert, the Painted Hills are 35 million years old multicoloured badlands that glow at sunrise and sunset. Situated within the fossil-strewn John Day Fossil Beds in the heart of Oregon, expect beautiful patterns and colours in the rocks as the light changes during both dawn and dusk.
About nine miles north-west of Mitchell off Highway 26, visit the Painted Hills during the golden hour for some dramatic images. They’re particularly impressive after rain when the red, yellow and black rocks have extra boldness and definition.
3 Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada
Some photographers spend their entire careers in the Canadian Badlands, taking advantage of its geological gems and low visitor numbers. One of the least known yet most impressive national parks in the world, Dinosaur Provincial Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the richest fossil beds on the planet (40 different species of dinosaur have been found here). Photographers can try their hand at capturing the park’s hoodoo-like tabletop rocks. The park authorities run sunset photography tours.
While you’re in the area don’t miss the red rocks of Horsethief Canyon, though the entire Canadian Badlands area of prairies and grassland is worth touring for shots of rural life, ghost towns and for its incredibly dark night skies.
4 Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Hidden between the densely populated urban areas of Cleveland and Akron and close to Lake Erie, Cuyahoga Valley National Park preserves 51 square miles of deciduous forest along the Cuyahoga River. The 65-foot-tall and easy to find Brandywine Falls is perfect for practicing your waterfall technique, as are Blue Hen Falls and Buttermilk Falls. In spring the park’s forests are a carpet of bluebells.
On April 8, 2024 a total solar eclipse will pass over Cuyahoga Valley National Park, throwing it into darkness for 3 minutes 28 seconds and making it possible to see and photograph the Sun’s spectacular icy-white corona.
5 Glacier National Park, Montana
Over a million acres of wilderness in north-west Montana's Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park offers a lot more than its name suggests. Lake McDonald is the obvious place to start, with colourful sunrises and sunsets set against a backdrop of silhouetted peaks. A hike to Hidden Lake or a steep drive called ‘Going to the Sun Road’ will put your camera in front of lakes, waterfalls, wildflowers and wildlife (watch out for moose, goats and grizzly bears). However, its glaciers are in increasingly short supply; be sure to visit its Grinnell Glacier before it’s gone.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder train service visits Glacier National Park on its 45-hour journey between Chicago to the West Coast.
6 Riviera Maya Cenotes, Yucatan, Mexico
What is a cenote? Sinkholes in limestone where the roof has caved in to leave crystal fresh water pools fed by underground rivers, Mexico’s Riviera Maya on its Yucatan Peninsula is famous for hosting thousands of cenote (pronounced ‘say-no-tay’). Try to avoid visiting well known cenotes such as Rio Secreto and Gran Cenote, which tend to be day trip destinations for tourists staying in Cancun resorts nearby.
Whether you visit open, cave or underground cenotes, the clear blue water and the limestone formations – such as stalactites, columns and trailing are roots – visible beneath the surface can make for wonderful photographs from the rim … or using an underwater camera.
7 Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Only a few hundred thousand people each year visit this remote national park near the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. Famous for its vast forests, lakes and waterways, about a third of the region is water. Key lakes include Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point. Fishing, houseboat rentals and kayaking are popular, but in recent years it’s gained fame with astrophotographers for its lack of light pollution. In 2021, Voyageurs became a certified International Dark Sky Park.
Although it’s positioned at 48° North so some way south of the Arctic Circle, strong solar storms can cause the northern lights to sometimes be seen from Voyageurs and along the U.S.-Canada border.
8 Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon is one of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Its Bryce Amphitheater, just southwest of the park visitor center, contains thousands of spires of red rock, each sculpted by weathering and erosion. They're called hoodoos, with some of the most famous being 'Thor's Hammer' and 'Queen Victoria'. They’re at their most magical at dawn and dusk. The quiet Peekaboo Trail, a circular three mile hike through creeks and valleys, offers exquisite panoramas and close-ups of the hoodoos.
On October 14, 2023 an annular solar eclipse will be visible from Bryce Canyon National Park. A kind of partial solar eclipse, it will be possible to see a strange ‘ring of fire’ around the Moon for 2 minutes 15 seconds as it passes in front of the Sun. Cameras will require solar filters throughout the event.
9 Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada
Where can you photograph fjords in North America? An UNESCO World Heritage Site covering over 1,200 square miles on the west coast of Newfoundland beside the Gulf of St Lawrence, Gros Morne National Park’s highlights include the spectacular Western Brook Pond Fjord and the desert-like Tablelands area. The latter’s Green Gardens trail winds down through forest to a dramatic coastline of beaches, stacks and coves.
Gros Morne National Park could be visited as part of an epic photography trip down the Trans-Canada Highway, which stretches almost 5,000 miles from St John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria in British Columbia via Gros Morne National Park, Cape Breton Island, Banff National Park and Yoho National Park.
10 Congaree National Park, South Carolina
The largest tract of old growth, bottomland hardwood forest left in the U.S., Congaree National Park in South Carolina’s area of ancient trees and wilderness has been an UNESCO biosphere reserve since the 1980s. Located between Colombia and Charleston on the coast, try a photo-hike through its old growth forests or explore its Cedar Creek canoe trail.
Visit in spring or fall to avoid swamp-like conditions and mosquitos, though Congaree does boast a brief insect attraction all of its own sometime between mid-May to mid-June when fireflies put on a brief yet spectacular synchronized light-show.