Top tips for taking photos of canyons to salt flats and mountains to natural sandstone arches
Some of the most photogenic landscapes on our planet are found in North America. Vastly bigger than the whole of Europe, the USA and Canada host a variety of otherworldly landscapes worth capturing, from turquoise lakes and glaciers to buttes and deserts. Here is just a sample of some of the destinations that should be on any landscape photographer’s bucket list...
1 Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
If you ever wanted to explore the scenic landscapes of the Canadian Rockies, Canada’s first national park is where to go. Highlights include epic views of the azure blue waters of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Bow Lake and Peyto Lake, though its soaring peaks and wildlife (think elk, bighorn sheep, deer, bear and mountain goats).
If you’re going to travel to Banff then consider tacking-on a visit to the slightly more remote Jasper National Park to the north. It’s a land of glaciers, lakes, waterfalls and dark skies. The annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival is held each October.
2 Death Valley National Park, Nevada
Strung out on a 130 miles-long valley, photographing Death Valley’s three million acres demands planning, with many of its hiking trails only usable in winter, though there are myriad stop-offs, overlooks and viewpoints you can drive to. A vast area of salt pans, sand dunes and canyons, Death Valley National Park is also home to ore mines, ghost towns, charcoal kilns and petroglyphs.
Although vast panoramas are what most people expect, Death Valley National Park is also home to many slot canyons – narrow channels with sheer rock walls – such as Titus Canyon, Golden Canyon and Mosaic Canyon.
3 Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The entirely drivable Island in the Sky region of this national park is on top of a 1,500 ft. mesa, with endless vistas across the region's carved mesas and buttes from its Rand View Point Overlook, where you can photograph lightning storms approaching in August. It’s also home to the drop-dead gorgeous Mesa Arch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the White Rim country far below, which you can frame within the arch.
There are campgrounds in the Island in the Sky region, but if you’re visiting the former then the Kayenta campground in the adjoining Dead Horse Point State Park makes for a fabulous location. It’s a short drive or walk to Dead Horse Point, a stunning 2,000 ft. overlook above a bend in the Green River that offers a breathtaking view of Canyonlands.
4 Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite’s rocks, trees, waterfalls, rivers and sunsets have been an inspiration for generations of landscape photographers. Don’t miss the six-hour hike up the John Muir Trail to the powerful Verbal Falls and Nevada Falls, dubbed nature's ‘giant staircase’, and prepare to see rainbows in the resulting mist. The iconic Half Dome is an even longer hike, though other locations – such as Tunnel View – are drive-by viewpoints that will get you panoramas of the iconic El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls.
For just a few minutes across a few evenings in February, Yosemite National Park’s Horsetail Falls appear to catch on fire as the setting Sun strikes the water. Prepare for crowds … and pray for clear skies at the critical moments.
5 Arches National Park, Utah
This unexpectedly small region of eastern Utah is a playground for landscape photographers. Although it’s home to over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, visitors mostly flock to the mighty Delicate Arch in the east of the park, which involves a short hike. Get there really early if you don’t want people in your shot, but don’t overlook it. Ditto Balanced Rock and the Courthouse Towers close to the entrance, rock formations that tend to get bypassed in the race to reach the arches.
Since most visitors leave at dusk, try to camp in the Devil's Garden area to the north. The only campground in Arches National Park, it will get you late-night and early-morning access to the iconic Landscape Arch, Black Cave Arch, Double O Arch and Tower Arch.
6 Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah border
The famous ‘mitten buttes’ are inside the boundaries of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in northeast Navajo County, Arizona and known locally as Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii.
Created by erosion and weathering, the vivid red sedimentary rock ‘mittens’ or pinnacles are some of the most photographed rocks on our planet. It’s possible to drive a 17-mile loop called ‘Valley Drive’ to see the highlights, hike the 3.2-mile Wildcat Trail loop and/or visit on a half-day or full-day Jeep tour with a Navajo guide.
On October 14, 2023 there will be an annular –‘ring-shaped’ – solar eclipse observable for 4 minutes and 16 seconds from Monument Valley.
7 Denali National Park, Alaska
Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, can be found in Denali National Park, though it’s just as famous for its views of the Alaska Range, Reflection Pond and grizzly bears.
Its official website offers some excellent tips on where to take photographs from the Denali Park Road. However, the park is just as famous for the possibility of seeing the northern lights. However, at 63° N Denali National Park is a little too far south of the Arctic Circle for reliable displays.
As well as checking an aurora forecast to see what ‘space weather’ is incoming, to successfully see and photograph the northern lights you’ll need a clear, dark sky. So visit Denali National Park around New Moon between September and March.
8 Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee-North Carolina border
The most visited national park in the US and good for visiting throughout the year, the 500,000 acres of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are home to mountains, meadows and rivers, elk, deer and black bear – and drop-dead gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can walk a section of the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion, with other trails ideal for landscape photography including Clingmans Dome Nature Trail, Mount Cammerer and Ramsey Cascades.
If you want a 180º panorama then hike or drive up to the circular concrete Clingman's Dome Observation Tower in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, surely one of the world’s most stunning observation decks.
9 Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Wyoming
These two adjacent national parks are usually visited together. If you approach from the south you first hit the Grand Tetons National Park, whose jagged Teton Range of the Rocky Mountains forms a backdrop to iconic photography subjects including Jenny Lake, Schwabacher's Landing and the Snake River Outlook. Hang around the river and eventually you’ll see moose, though black bears are more elusive.
Slightly further north, Yellowstone is famous for its hot springs and Old Faithful geyser, but don’t overlook the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the incredible colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
If you’re after elk, stay at the Madison campground in the park’s west and get yourself down to the Madison River at sunset. You may also see bears, coyotes, moose and bison.
10 Zion National Park, Utah
At Zion National Park you can start the day waiting in the dark beside your tripod for the rising Sun to clip the top of the Towers of the Virgin rock face and, over the course of several minutes, slowly drape it in orange light. Then you can be off on the Emerald Pools trail in search of its weeping waterfall or hiking up to Angels Landing for a panoramic view.
The bridge near the Canyon Junction shuttle stop is a fine place to capture the Watchman – Zion’s iconic 6,545 ft./1,995 m sandstone mountain summit – with the Virgin River in the foreground.