4 Essential Steps To Photograph Beauty In A National Park Road Trip

Fall Colors In Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Fall Colors In Great Smoky Mountain National Park


When we were on our long national park road trip, oftentimes we had to deal with uncertainty. 

  • What about we can’t arrive at the park early enough to recon and select the best spot to photograph?  

  • What about we can’t even see the park due to some unexpected reasons like the government shutdown!?! 

  • What about we reached the sunset location but couldn’t find a perfect overlook? 

  • What about the overlook was blocked by trees?  What about other photographers took your spot? 

In fact I have encountered all these scenarios in this trip (see my trip journal).

If you care about making the most out of your trip and bringing the best pictures to home like I do, I’d like to suggest the following contingency plan.

The following advice is based on my years’ of travel experience.  In reality, there are tons of uncertainties, as long as we keep ourselves flexible, and always be prepared (with the right eyes and skills), we can, in my opinion, always see and capture beauty no matter where we go.

1. Do Field Recon

If you plan to visit a national park more than one day, save your first visit to recon the park.  Figure out your sunrise, sunset spots and plan your logistics for the second day.

On the photo shoot day, estimate your drive time to “the vista”, not just to the park entrance.  Many great vistas require quite some driving after you enter.  Google maps typically only estimate distance to the park entrance.  If you are an iPhone user, drop a pin of the vista in your best estimation and estimate your travel time.  That will give you more accurate estimation how long it takes to get to where you want to go ideally and avoid fumbling around backup plans.

If you can’t do that, my suggestion is to at least arrive at the park entrance 60-90 minutes before sunrise / sunset, particularly for larger parks, or arrive at your sunrise/sunset spot at least 20-30 minutes earlier.  Of course if you want to spend the day hiking and engaging other activities, by all means do it.  Just make sure to get to your “vista” on time.

Here are my favorite photos of my 2.5 month national park road trip, which typically combined field and digital recon.

2. Do Digital Recon

If you can’t recon the park in person, do a digital recon on your way there.  For example, get the free download of the park map (most official park website has digital maps), and pick the overlook that gives you maximum views, such as a mountain or hill top.  Ideally you can minimize sun blockage both in front and at the back so you can buy time with light.  

This digital recon approach however always involves some risks because you never know what you will actually see until you get there.  Therefore, it's best if you can combine field and digital recon to prepare for your landscape photoshoot.

Here's my story of how I combine digital recon and field recon in Iceland and Yosemite.

3. Arrive early to select vantage point

If you can’t do digital recon either due to lack of phone reception or internet (which happened often for me during the trip), be prepared to simply stop at any overlook 20-30 minutes before sunset.

Ideally you pick a high point to stand, such as on a ski area summit, on a roadside overlooking a valley, or a slope top in a grassland etc.  The higher you stand, the farther you can see and the more magnificent view you’ll get. 

Another reason for standing higher than your surroundings is that the sun stays longer with you (instead of being blocked by a mountain), and you’ll likely see more striking sunset colors.

Of course the real scenario is hard to describe because every sunset and location is different, you just have to experience it and get the best out of it.

For example, see my impromptu stop at Lincoln NebraskaLoveland Summit in Colorado, Paradise Ridge Winery in California

4. Select other parks and subjects

If the national parks are too far away from your road trip route, look for alternatives, eg. state parks, national recreation areas, national monuments, national forests, national grassland, lakes etc.  You should easily find them on your smartphone map.  National forests might be my last choice because photographing trees in dim light situation in sunset hours is not ideal. 

I wrote the best time to photograph trees for your reference.


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