From the white sandy beaches of Florida to the golden plains of the Midwest to the towering Rocky Mountains, the United States is home to an impressive diversity of scenery just waiting to be captured by photographers. And the best part? You don’t even need to spend a bunch of money on fancy camera equipment—some of the best photos these days are taken on cell phones!
Whether your tastes veer toward shorelines, rivers, or the many mountain ranges found throughout the country, all you’ll need is a pair of hiking shoes, your basic hiking gear, and a camera. Here are some of our favorite outdoor photography destinations to add to your bucket list.
1. OLD FAITHFUL, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING
Capturing a compelling image of Yellowstone’s signature spout takes a bit of pre-planning. During the peak summer season (late May through August) the boardwalk surrounding the Old Faithful geyser can be jam-packed full of tourists. Plan your Yellowstone trip in the spring or late fall for fewer crowds, more interesting weather, and more wildlife photography opportunities. (Plus driving in Yellowstone is much more enjoyable when it’s not bumper-to-bumper traffic.)
The nearby Biscuit Basin and the Chromatic Pool are well worth a stop as well, as these geothermal features produce some truly unique landscapes.
2. GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING
If you’re already visiting Yellowstone National Park, it’s well worth the trip to drive just south to Grand Teton National Park. Just like with Yellowstone, plan to visit the Tetons in what many consider the “low-seasons,” which is spring or autumn. Summertime is lovely, but you will encounter a significant number of visitors, so exploring in the low seasons makes for a better overall experience.
One of the most well-known photography destinations in the park is the Snake River Overlook. Just a half an hour north of the town of Jackson, the overlook has inspired decades of photographers as the site of one of Ansel Adams’ most famous images. The majestic Snake River winds in front of the towering Tetons, creating a unique depth. Don’t be afraid to hike around a bit—most visitors simply take a shot from the parking area, but a slight change of angle can change the whole perspective of the scene.
Visit the Mormon Row Barns in the morning to capture the classic image of historic wooden barns illuminated by the sunrise with the towering Tetons in the background. (Keep an eye on the weather forecast each day—if you can catch a storm coming over the mountains, it adds impressive depth to the popular scene.) And pay attention to the surrounding sagebrush as you drive—it’s quite common to see moose near Mormon Row.
3. YOSEMITE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
For years, Yosemite has been photographed by the greats, like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and Jimmy Chin. It’s a playground for elite outdoor athletes, and for good reason. Resting in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Yosemite National Park is home to breathtaking landscapes unlike any other in the country. Yosemite is open year round, which means you can find compelling photography opportunities in all four seasons. The Tunnel View lookout point is perhaps one of the most photographed sites in the park, with a sweeping view of the El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. (You’ll get the best shot in the morning light illuminates the craggy cliffs.)
El Capitan, also known as “El Cap” within the outdoor community, has made headlines in the past years as rock climbers set speed records on the impressively steep face. Odds are high you’ll be able to spot the tiny moving figures of climbers as they make their way to the top. See if you can find a fresh view of the towering rock.
Add Half Dome and Yosemite Falls to your “must-shoot” list as well, as both sites are iconic Yosemite landmarks. As with all outdoor locations, don’t be afraid of rising early and staying out late to get the best light on the rocky faces—just don’t forget to bring along your headlamp.
4. ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, MAINE
One of the East Coast’s best photography destinations, Maine’s Acadia National Park is small yet mighty. Most of the park is located on Mount Desert Island, home to the town of Bar Harbor and a few other small communities, and the remainder of the park is on the Schoodic Peninsula, east of Bar Harbor. This smaller section is a little harder to reach, requiring about an hours’ drive from Bar Harbor, making it a perfect location for travelers seeking a respite from summertime crowds. A third part of the park, Isle de Haut, is accessible only by ferry and sees even fewer visitors.
Most visitors choose to stay on Mount Desert Island, and Park Loop Road (accessible from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center) is the perfect place to kick off your adventure. Ask the park rangers where they would recommend you shoot. Chances are they will mention Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the East Coast (hit it at sunset), scenic Eagle Lake, and the wooded trails of Sieur de Monts. Be sure to plan plenty for several days at Acadia National Park to explore, find your photography spots, and wait for the right light.
5. HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII
Sometimes a photographer’s eye asks for something different. Something fresh. And a trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a fun opportunity to step outside the ordinary and challenge your photography skills. Located on Hawaii, the biggest and southernmost island in the state, the national park encompasses two active volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Within park boundaries, you can explore from sea level all the way up to almost 14,000 feet, and there are plenty of hiking trails to guide you to the best photographic outlook. Chain of Craters Drive and Crater Rim Drive both offer stellar views (again, go at sunset for that nice, warm Pacific light).
Note: Always check the park’s website for current conditions and any potential park closures before heading out.
6. CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, VIRGINIA
Located on the Virginia coast, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is perhaps most famous as a refuge for migratory birds and the diminutive Chincoteague Ponies, descendants of modern-day horses who have lived on the island for centuries. The refuge encompasses more than 14,000 acres of beach, marsh, dunes and maritime forest, and the abundance of wildlife makes for compelling nature photography.
A variety of trails including the Freshwater Marsh, Woodland, Black Duck, Swan Cove, Lighthouse Trails, and the Wildlife Loop allow easy access to bird watching and the soft, almost-dreamy scenery of the island. The Wildlife Loop is open to cars after 3 p.m., so pack a dinner and plan to find a good spot. Once you find one, pull off and wait for the gentle evening light to welcome the birds.
Also be sure to visit the Lighthouse Trail, which offers an up-close view of the historic Assateague Lighthouse. It’s worth hiking in early to catch the morning light on the lighthouse.
7. LAKE MCDONALD, GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA
Glacier National Park never feels quite as hectic as Yellowstone, yet is home to sometimes other-worldly scenery that’s perfect for the adventurous outdoor photographer. Stop at Lake McDonald near Apgar Village for one of the easiest (and best) photography opportunities in Glacier. The wide-open view of the lake leading to craggy mountains is quintessentially Montana, and right in the village there’s a convenient market that makes the area’s best huckleberry milkshakes.
If you’re ready to hike a bit (and have your can of bear spray at the ready), head up to the Grinnell Glacier Trail, which leads past stunning turquoise lakes above the treeline and where you’re likely to meet friendly mountain goats. (Take their picture, but don’t bother them, please.) Then hop back in your car and drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which reaches its highest point at Logan Pass. The road is busy, but once you reach the pass, hop out of your car and hit the trail to feel like you’re on top of the world. Pack a wide-angle lens for the landscapes and a long lens for wildlife portraits.
Written by Jess McGlothlin for RootsRated Media in partnership with Royal Robbins.
Featured image provided by Ariel Sultan.