Taking a U.S. National Parks Photo Tour is the dream of any landscape photographer.
The United States has 59 national parks, several hundred state parks and ancestral Indian reservations that are no less impressive behind the viewfinder. It would take years to visit all these places where nature remains intact despite the action of man.
However, there are some National Parks which visit is essential if you are into landscape and nature photography.
The US West Coast is the most spectacular area, and there, we can find canyons with impossible shapes, endless deserts, and valleys where new compositions arise with every step.
Throughout this article, we will help you plan a US National Park photo expedition on your own, and we will show you where to take the best photos of the West Coast.
In addition, we will provide with many useful tips so you can get the most out of your camera and come back from your photo tour with real masterpieces.
American Photo Tours
These are some places that I recommend you to visit when taking a West Coast USA photography tour.
Yosemite Landscape Photography Workshops
Yosemite, in California, has always attracted indigenous tribes, artists, explorers, climbers and, of course, photographers. We spent more time in this NP than in any other during our West Coast US tour.
If you want your United States National Parks photography tour to include dreamy panoramic views, you can not leave Yosemite outside. However, Yosemite is more than vast landscapes and granite walls.
In Yosemite, we can photograph natural phenomena as spectacular as the Firefall or the Moonbow, but for this, we need to travel in February and June respectively.
Here we speak deeply about the best things to photograph and to see in Yosemite National Park.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS
The desert landscape of Death Valley is often ignored by the mass of visitors who cross every day from Las Vegas to Yosemite. However, from a photographic point of view, it is a true paradise. Here we can find the most massive dunes in North America and sedimentary mountains that will add a wondrous colors palette to your photos.
If you really want to get the most out of Death Valley, I recommend you photograph it at sunset and at dawn, otherwise, the hard sunlight in the morning will vanish all the colors of the landscape. Also, doing night photography among the high dunes is an otherworldly experience. The light pollution in Death Valley is null and we can enjoy photographing the Milky Way Core during the summer months.
Another option is to photograph Death Valley in spring, to see and shoot the extraordinary phenomenon the wildflowers covering the desert landscape. We speak further about this and other plans to do in Death Valley here.
ANTELOPE CANYON PHOTO TOURS
Although it is not a National Park, taking an Antelope Canyon photo tour is one of the best experiences you can have during an American photo expedition.
This canyon is located in northern Arizona, close to the border with Utah and within the Navajo Indian Reservation. It consists of two main sections: Lower Antelope, narrower and longer, and Upper Antelope Canyon, shorter and wider. The last is usually visited by most photographers as you have the option to do a dedicated photo tour.
It is true that the Upper Antelope Canyon photo tours are expensive, that you can’t do them on your own, nor spend as long as you would like working on each composition, but I can tell they are completely worth it.
The best time to take an Antelope Canyon photo workshop is from June to August since the sun is perpendicular during the midday and we can see the light beams that made this Canyon famous.
You only need one day of your United States photography tour to discover this natural wonder, so I would not hesitate to combine it with other national parks located nearby.
If you are adding this stop to your West Coast America photo tour, do not miss our guide to visiting the Antelope Canyon where you will find all the info in addition to a free ebook with all the compositions, techniques and tips to photograph it.
Another place where we can take one of the best photos of the West Coast of the United States is Horseshoe Bend, just 10 minutes from Antelope Canyon. The best time to photograph the most famous bow of the Colorado River is during sunset. Make sure you arrive well before sunset as it is a very popular and crowded location.
MONUMENT VALLEY PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR
Like the previous one, Monument Valley is not a national park, but it is located within the Navajo Indian Reservation, in Arizona, three hours away from the Antelope Canyon.
However, it is one of the most photographed places in the American West and I highly recommend your visit during a United States photo tour.
Although Monument Valley can be visited on your own, certain excursions require hiring a Navajo guide and a 4×4 car. One of the most interesting is the Hunt Mesa overnight photo tour. During this tour, we will have a night photography session, where we will learn how to photograph the Milky Way and the next morning we will shoot one of the most beautiful scenes of the valley at dawn.
Whether you decide to hire a photography tour, or if you want to visit it on your own, you cannot miss this valley during your US West Coast photo trip. You can check the best viewpoints of Monument Valley here.
GRAND CANYON PHOTO TOURS
The Grand Canyon, located in Arizona, is one of the biggest photographic challenges you can face during a US Western Parks photo tour.
The official viewpoints are not the most photogenic points in the national park. This, added to the huge amount of tourists that flock in the key lookouts at sunrise and sunset, makes it difficult to capture the real scale and beauty of the Grand Canyon.
Also, more than anywhere else on the West Coast, harsh light conditions (such as clear and flat skies) will make the Grand Canyon lose its magic.
To capture with your camera all the details of the Grand Canyon I recommend you to hire an airplane tour. The photos you can get from the heights exceed in originality and detail to anyone you can take from the best viewpoint.
Even so, try to be the first to arrive during sunrise and sunset at the viewpoints that we cover in this guide of things to do in the Grand Canyon.
VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK PHOTO TRIPS
A stopover to photograph the red rocks of the Valley of Fire should be mandatory if we are traveling through Las Vegas.
This state park is located just 1 hour from the “Sin City”, in Nevada, and offers a few unique compositions. Like the Grand Canyon, sunset and sunrise are the best times to photograph it.
ZION NATIONAL PARK PHOTO WORKSHOPS
If you plan your trip well in advance, I recommend you to include Zion National Park, located in Utah, to your itinerary. You will need a special permit to photograph The Subway, which is, from my point of view, the most photogenic place in this national park. However, to make the route that takes you to this area, you must get a permit. Here you will find more details about this and other things to do in Zion National Park.
BRYCE NATIONAL PARK PHOTOGRAPHY TRIP
Bryce Canyon, also in Utah, is one of the most surreal landscapes that we can cross during our US National Parks photo tour.
The rock formations also known as Hoodoos will invite us to try and play with all our lenses.
One day is enough to photograph the most outstanding viewpoints and hike an easy trail where we can capture the details from a closer perspective. If you decide to include Bryce in your West Coast photo tour, do not miss all you can do in Bryce Canyon.
ARCHES NP PHOTO TOURS
Located in Utah, Arches National Park is the favorite spot for most photographers. Who does not want to create a composition using one of their hundreds of rock arches in the frame? If you’re going to photograph this national park, I recommend that you spend at least two days, since, in addition to the infinite photography possibilities, the most impressive images are often captured during summer nights, when the Milky Way crosses some of the arches.
Also, it will be necessary to pay particular attention to the hours when you are planning your visit since finding the arches in backlight will make getting quality photographs more complicated.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK PHOTO WORKSHOPS
Near Arches National Park we find another national park that we will like to include during our Western United States photography trip. It is Canyonlands NP, where, as its name suggests, we find infinite canyons carved into the ground.
As with the Grand Canyon, the best time to visit Canyonlands is at sunrise and sunset. Another nearby place we can visit is Dead Horse Point, where we can photograph another meander of the Colorado River, something less striking than the Horseshoe bend mentioned above, but also recommended.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK PHOTO TOUR
In Wyoming, we can find the historic Yellowstone National Park, another must for landscape photographers and also, in this case, for wildlife photographers.
In this national park, we can photograph a wide range of landscapes: geysers showing the geothermal activity of the terrain, hot springs full of colorful bacteria and large snowy peaks.
If you are mainly interested in making a wildlife-oriented photography trip, I do not recommend visiting Yellowstone NP during the summer, since the massive number of tourists that visit the park during this time scare the wildlife away to more remote areas: Grizzly bears, black bears, buffalos, moose, wolves, coyotes, foxes …
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK PHOTO TOUR
Linked to Yellowstone to the south, it is located the Grand Teton National Park where the Rocky Mountains cross from the United States to Canada.
The landscape is quite similar to those of Yellowstone, with a high mountain range always in the background. The wildlife moves from one park to another through greenways, and so do visitors who usually visit both parks on the same trip.
The photographs that we can expect in this park are usually mountainous landscapes and the best time to visit it is during the spring and the fall during the leave peeping season.
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK PHOTO WORKSHOPS
One of the most impressive national parks that we could include in our American photography is the Olympic NP, located in Washington. This park usually stands out for its lush and humid forest of natural beauty where we can find remote virgin beaches with sea stacks and distant glacial peaks.
Frequently, during an Olympic National Park Photo Tour, it is very common to also include Mt. Rainier National Park, only two and a half hours away. In this National Park, we can photograph during the spring a stunning subalpine meadow covered with wildflowers.
US WESTERN NATIONAL PARKS PHOTOGRAPHY TOURS
All the places mentioned above deserve to be included in any US National Parks Photo Tour. However, distances in this country are large and we can not visit all the mentioned locations in less than two-three months.
Most photographers focus on covering only one area. For example:
- Olympic + Mt. Rainer in 10 days
- Yellowstone + Grand Teton in 10 days
- Arches + Canyonlands in 7 days
- Zion + Bryce + Antelope Canyon + Monument Valley + Grand Canyon + Death Valley + Yosemite in 10 days (you can see a route like the one we took in our 10-day West Coast road trip)
- Arches + Canyonlands + Zion + Bryce + Antelope Canyon + Monument Valley + Grand Canyon in 15 days
- Arches + Canyonlands + Zion + Bryce + Antelope Canyon + Monument Valley + Great Canyon + Death Valley + Yosemite in 20 days
We give you an example of an itinerary for a 15-day West America photo tour and another of 20 days.
15-DAY US NATIONAL PARKS PHOTO TOUR ITINERARY
This possible 15-day US photography tour itinerary focuses on the most representative National and State Parks in Utah and Arizona.
Day 1: Arrival in Las Vegas
Day 2: Valley of Fire State Park
Day 3: Zion Canyon National Park
Day 4: Bryce Canyon National Park
Day 5: Capitol Reef National Park
Day 6: Goblin Valley State Park
Day 7: Canyonlands National Park
Day 8: Dead Horse Point State Park + Arches National Park
Day 9: Arches National Park
Day 10: Arches National Park + Monument Valley
Day 11: Monument Valley
Day 12: Monument Valley + Horseshoe Bend
Day 13: Antelope Canyon + Gran Cañón
Day 14: Gran Cañón
Day 15: Las Vegas
20-DAY US NATIONAL PARKS PHOTO WORKSHOP ITINERARY
In the case that we can make a 20-day photography tour, we would follow the previous itinerary and then we would add the following 5 days:
Day 16: Mojave National Preserve
Day 17: Death Valley National Park
Day 18: Yosemite National Park
Day 19: Yosemite National Park
Day 20: San Francisco
PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR NEEDED AT THE US NATIONAL PARKS
We already wrote an article about the best photography equipment for traveling.
In this section, we will talk specifically about the photography gear to travel to the US National Parks.
DSLR OR MIRRORLESS CAMERA
The best option is always to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses since, with a phone camera or a compact camera, it will be difficult to capture all the beauty hidden in the national parks.
Most of the scenarios that we are going to shoot are extremely wide landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley or Death Valley, so we will require, not a wide, but an ultra wide-angle lens. Also, if we are doing night photography, the lens should be very bright (we recommend using lenses with apertures (f) wider than 4.
A telephoto lens will also be very useful for photographing wildlife, for example, if we travel to Yellowstone or to photograph details of vast landscapes.
To see deeper about the specific lenses that we recommend do not miss this section in our article dedicated to travel photography equipment.
A reliable tripod is essential, not only to capture sharper images and to increase exposure times. On some tours, a tripod is mandatory, as in the Upper Antelope Canyon photo tour.
In addition, we should carry a tripod as sturdy and light as possible so we can take it during our hikes when necessary. A leveling base/L shape plate will be very helpful when photographing panoramas composed by different shots.
You can see our recommendations here.
As we already broke down in our guide on lens filters, the use of filters is a must if we want to take our photographs one step further. And for such a trip, I would not hesitate to carry at least one 6-stop ND filter and a 10-stop ND filter. We always use the Lucroit filters, as they offer the lens photography filters that best suit our needs as we explain in the above article.
We also collaborate with them, offering a 10% discount when buying through this link.
10 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING THE US WEST COAST
These are some tips that we hope you find useful during your US National Parks Photo Tours:
1. Shoot in RAW. This is applicable for any photography tour. Raw files gather more information than any other file such as Jpegs; fundamental to make the most of our images when we edit and process them once we return from our trip.
2. Travel at the best time. Research in advance what is the best time to visit each of the places you want to photograph. For example, when you can see the Yosemite Firefall, spot more wildlife in Yellowstone or capture the light beams in Antelope Canyon.
3. Do not fall asleep. Almost all the National Parks have very little light pollution. If you have the possibility to choose the dates in which you travel, do it during the New Moon and take the opportunity to photograph the Milky Way.
4. Be the first one. If you travel in high season, try to arrive well in advance to the main viewpoints and best locations before sunrise and sunset.
5. Use all your lenses. You will find interesting using all your lenses with different focal distances in most of the US National Parks. It may be convenient to shoot both with a wide angle to capture the whole scene but don’t forget to use the telephoto lens to focus on details from the same viewpoint.
6. Use filters. The light is usually very tricky in some of the areas of the American West, so do not forget to use lens filters. They will be handy while shooting waterfalls, fast-moving clouds, etc.
7. Take panoramic shots. In numerous parks such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon or Yosemite, the use of panoramas is essential. The landscapes are incredibly wide and with a single shot, sometimes it is difficult to capture all the scene.
8. Go photographing even if the weather is bad. Sometimes the most original scenes and moments do not always take place during the most comfortable moments for visitors. Storms can change the whole scene and it can be the best time to take unrepeatable photos.
9. Plan the shots. If you do not use it yet, I recommend that you start using Photopills to plan shots with the moon, the sun or the Milky Way.
10. Be creative. The typical postcard photo is everywhere on the internet. If you really want to take photos that thrill and drag the viewer’s attention, try to show your own vision of the different popular locations.
The best Western U.S. photo locations
These are the 10 places to take the best pictures in the US West Coast:
- Delicate Arch crossed by the Milky Way – Arches National Park
- Mesquite Sand Dunes at sunrise – Death Valley National Park
- Grand Canyon during an airplane tour – Grand Canyon National Park
- Horseshoe Bend at sunset – Page
- Light beams in Upper Antelope Canyon – Page
- Sunrise from Hunt Mesa – Monument Valley
- Taft Point at sunset – Yosemite National Park
- The Subway – Zion Canyon National Park
- Sunrise Point at dawn – Bryce Canyon National Park
- Grand Prismatic Spring – Yellowstone National Park
We haven’t visited all these places yet, but we hope to photograph them very soon.
WEST COAST GALLERY
To show you some of the places described above, below you can find some of the pictures I took during my US National Parks photography tour.
You can see our full West Coast gallery here. I hope my photos inspire you and help you plan your next photo tour to the American West.
CAPTURE THE ATLAS PHOTO TOURS
We plan photo tours for small groups in Capture the Atlas. Getting the license to operate in the United States, although we live here, is somewhat difficult, so we can not provide with dates for the upcoming group tours yet.
However, if you are going to travel to the West Coast (or to the East, since we live in Philadelphia) and you want us to be your photo guides, do not hesitate to contact us.