Top 20 National Parks for Photography

The 63 National Parks in the United States are among the most photogenic places on the planet, so this was our hardest Top 10 List to choose.  Instead, for the first time we ranked the top 20!  We still had to leave off some all-time favorites, which says something about the natural beauty of this country.  We previously released a ranking of the top 20 photography destinations among the other National Park Service sites.  Click here to see all of our Top 10 Lists.

10. Arches (Utah)

There are too many fantastic sandstone wonders to count in this park

9. Channel Islands (California)

Giant coreopsis provide nests for western sea gulls atop rocky cliffs rising from the ocean

8. Katmai (Alaska)

Alpine scenery and Brooks Falls, the world-famous salmon fishing grounds of grizzly/brown bears

7. Great Basin (Nevada)

Cave formations, snow-covered peaks, and photogenic bristlecone pine trees

6. Haleakalā (Hawai‘i)

People come from around the globe to watch the sunrise and hike rainbow-hued Sliding Sands Trail

5. Badlands (South Dakota)

Awesome geologic features and a surprising diversity of large mammals

4. Dry Tortugas (Florida)

Fish teem in the turquoise ocean water surrounding a picturesque brick fort

3. Bryce Canyon (Utah)

Bright orange hoodoos fill this giant natural amphitheater that lights up at sunrise and sunset

2. Death Valley (California)

With little vegetation, the earth is laid bare here in all its raw and colorful glory

…and finally the #1 National Park for Photography:

1. Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Unbelievably colorful geothermal features and numerous charismatic wild animals

The Next 10

11. Grand Canyon (Arizona)

12. Yosemite (California)

13. Denali (Alaska)

14. Mesa Verde (Colorado)

15. Grand Teton (Wyoming)

16. Great Sand Dunes (Colorado)

17. Mount Rainier (Washington)

18. Glacier Bay (Alaska)

19. Glacier (Montana)

20. Virgin Islands (U.S. Virgin Islands)

Glacier National Park

Overview

Officially, since 1932 this American-Canadian natural reserve has been called Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.  We will focus on the U.S. side since you still need a passport to cross the border (when it is open).  The million-acre Glacier National Park was established in 1910 as a tourist destination and to protect its wildlife, including grizzly/brown bears.  It is open year round, but sees more than half its visitors in July and August.

Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Going-to-the-Sun Road, St. Mary Lake, Logan Pass, Many Glacier Hotel, Iceberg Lake

Must-Do Activity

The world renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road was built to cross the park from east to west in the 1920s.  At its highest point (6,646-foot Logan Pass), the road crosses the Continental Divide, an imaginary line where a raindrop drains all the way into the Atlantic Ocean on one side and into the Pacific Ocean on the other.  Hidden Lake Overlook near the Logan Pass Visitor Center is known for sightings of mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and hoary marmots.

Best Trail

Avalanche Lake is located at the end of a two-mile one-way hike from the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.  We spotted a grizzly/brown bear on the way back from our hike there.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Hidden Lake often reflects the image of Bearhat Mountain, which is why we chose it as our logo design for Glacier National Park (see below).

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Vehicles over 21 feet in length or eight feet in width are prohibited in the middle sections of Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Good dirt roads lead to campgrounds at Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake on the west side of the park.

Camping

St. Mary and Fish Creek Campgrounds accept reservations and several others are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Related Sites

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (Montana)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

This design we created to celebrate Glacier National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – When were the iconic “red jammer” buses first introduced to the park?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Top 10 Most Depressing National Park Service Sites

Depression is not usually celebrated, but sometimes it is important to remember the terrible events that happened in the past.  You can either choose to avoid these National Park Service (NPS) sites or learn from them.  Southwest Pennsylvania is somewhat famous in the NPS for having three sites with an unpleasant history.  Click here to see all of our other Top 10 Lists, which are much more uplifting!

10. Whitman Mission National Historic Site (Washington)

Following a devastating 1847 measles epidemic , 13 missionaries were killed by grieving Cayuse families

9. River Raisin National Battlefield Park (Michigan)

American prisoners were slaughtered here during the War of 1812

8. Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument (Mississippi)

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers was assassinated for his civil rights work

7. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site (District of Columbia)

The place where President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth

6. Johnstown Flood National Memorial (Pennsylvania)

More than 2,200 people died when a dam broke on May 31, 1889

5. Freedom Riders National Monument (Alabama)

Site of a 1961 public beating and bus burning where, fortunately, nobody was killed

4. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (Colorado)

A senseless massacre by the U.S. military took place here and at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma

3. Manzanar National Historic Site (California)

A Japanese internment camp during WWII, as are Tule Lake National Monument and Minidoka National Historic Site

2. Andersonville National Historic Site (Georgia)

This infamous Civil War prison is now site of the National Prisoner of War Museum

…and finally our #1 most depressing NPS site:

1. Flight 93 National Memorial (Pennsylvania)

The freshest wound of any of these historic sites, it is an emotional place to visit

Honorable Mentions

Booker T. Washington National Monument (Virginia)

Representative of the tragic life that all slaves led throughout the United States

Antietam National Battlefield (Maryland)

All Civil War battles were horrifying, but this one had an especially high casualty rate

Fort Necessity National Battlefield (Pennsylvania)

Rounding out the three southwest Pennsylvania sites is this ignominious George Washington defeat

Freedom Riders National Monument

Overview

On May 4, 1961, an interracial group of “Freedom Riders” boarded two buses in Washington, D.C. bound for New Orleans to test whether southern bus stations were following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation in interstate travel.  On Sunday, May 14, the Greyhound bus was met by an angry mob in Anniston, Alabama that broke windows and slashed tires.  Eventually police officers cleared a path for the bus, but it was forced to stop just five miles outside town where a bundle of flaming rags caused an explosion and fire inside the vehicle.  Everyone escaped the bus although there were attempts to trap the seven Freedom Riders on board.  Joseph Postiglione’s iconic photo of the burning bus appeared in newspapers across the country, encouraging more Freedom Riders and changes to laws.

Highlights

Greyhound bus depot, Trailways bus station, site of bus burning

Must-Do Activity

President Obama established Freedom Riders National Monument in 2017, so the park is still under development, but they do already have an outstanding Junior Ranger program.  The National Park Service (NPS) has temporary displays inside its visitor center in the historic Anniston bus station and outside is a beautiful mural of a Greyhound bus and an audio recounting of the 1961 events by Hank Thomas, a survivor.  Down the road on Highway 202, the bus burning site is currently just an informational display in a field.  We were there for the 60th anniversary events, when 400 luminaria were placed to represent the total number of Freedom Riders.  Several other murals can be found around Anniston, including a second Tramways bus at Noble and 9th Street with Charles Person’s audio description of events that took place that same day. We also recommend the excellent Freedom Rides Museum (admission charged) in Montgomery, Alabama, where similar violence took place on May 20, 1961.

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

In the alley next to the NPS visitor center, in front of the life-sized mural of a 1961 Greyhound bus is a lamp dedicated in August 2013 to the bravery of the Freedom Riders.

Peak Season

Spring

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/frri/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Street parking is free outside the NPS visitor center.  To access the bus burning site, be sure to park off Old Birmingham Highway and not along the busy Highway 202 shoulder.

Camping

South of Interstate 20, campgrounds can be found in Cheaha State Park and Talladega National Forest, which also provides dispersed camping and great backpacking opportunities.

Related Sites

Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (Alabama)

Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Park (Georgia)

Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument (Mississippi)

Explore More – Who was the future U.S. Congressman who took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides?

Flight 93 National Memorial

Overview

One of the most emotionally difficult places we have ever visited is the Flight 93 National Memorial in southwest Pennsylvania.  Most readers remember the details of September 11, 2001 vividly and the feelings of that day still resonate.  Thanks to the courage of the 40 passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93, the airplane crashed only 18 minutes short of its target in Washington, D.C.

Highlights

Museum, Memorial Plaza, Wall of Names

Must-Do Activity

Even if you never saw the Hollywood film, the story of Flight 93 is well known.  The National Park Service (NPS) has put together a high-quality museum near the airplane crash site and the memorial itself is simple yet strong.  One wall is inscribed with this excellent quote: “A common field one day.  A field of honor forever.”  The focus is on the bravery of the 33 passengers and seven crew members that stood up to the four hijackers that tragic morning.  Since it is essentially a mass grave, the actual crash site is off limits except to family members of the victims, but it is marked by a large boulder visible from the Memorial Plaza.  We left after our visit feeling both saddened and empowered.

Best Trail

An allée (formal walkway) leads from the NPS visitor center past the 40 Memorial Groves of trees (planted in 2012) to the Memorial Plaza and the Wall of Names.  You can also drive to the parking lot at the visitor shelter next to the Memorial Plaza.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The names of the Flight 93 passengers and crew are on the 40 marble panels of the Wall of Names (the NPS visitor center is visible in the background).

Peak Season

Summer and the September anniversary

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/flni/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

We camped on state forest land near Stoystown, Pennsylvania.

Related Sites

Johnstown Flood National Memorial (Pennsylvania)

Fort Necessity National Battlefield (Pennsylvania)

Gettysburg National Military Park (Pennsylvania)

Explore More – Where was the United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey bound for on September 11, 2001?