Some of the most astonishing landscape photographs ever taken over the last century are the result of dedicated photographers making the long trek up and over mountains to find the perfect spot for that iconic scene. You can find great shots of mountains simply by driving to a mountain pass or an overlook but there is something special about finding a spot that can only be reached by foot. Below are 5 lower-traffic peaks in 3 main locations to explore for unique landscape photography.
Let’s begin with the importance of “location, location, location.” When thinking of the best places to capture those iconic shots of towering, snowcapped peaks, blazing pastel-colored sunsets, or mystical fogs carpeting the valley floor, you’ll want to explore places that haven’t been photographed millions of times already. While the image of Half Dome rising above Yosemite Valley or Oxbow Bend in Yellowstone will certainly leave you with an impressive photo to hang on the wall, those places have been photographed so many times that visitors probably won’t have to ask where you went to get that great shot.
Instead of simply checking off a list of the most well-known mountain spots for great (though predictable) photographs, finding a spot that is all your own will most definitely add a touch of uniqueness and exceptionality to your photos. So, when it comes to location for your mountain and landscape shots, take the risk of going off the beaten path. You never know what can be found just around the next bend of the path.
Taking a relatively unplanned hike through the mountains might just well take you into the perfect, enchanted spot where you can sit for hours photographing a place that no one knows about but you. However, it can be extremely helpful to plan ahead. The National Geographic Topo! Mapping Software is a great tool that allows you to plan out your hike beforehand. You can easily gauge distances and elevation gains so that you’ll be able to predict just how long it might take you to make it to the summit. There is nothing worse than showing up to the perfect sunset photo opportunity only two minutes after the sun has dipped below the horizon. Another great tool is the Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPS). This software uses satellite images to help you know when the sun and moon rise and set so that you can know the best time and lighting conditions for the great shots you have in your mind. With a little planning you can easily make sure that you are in the right place at the right time with camera in hand.
3 Great Locations with Low-Traffic Peaks for Photography
Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine Highlands
This peak (there are technically 2 peaks, which are called out below) in the northeastern corner of the United States is best known as the last stop on the Appalachian Trail (or the first stop, depending where you start from). Though it is well-known in that aspect, very few photographers make it up to Mount Katahdin because of its remoteness. As the tallest peak in Maine at over 5,200 feet, Mount Katahdin offers some otherworldly views from the top.
The 10 mile round trip hike is doable in a day, though you can also apply for backcountry permits to find a spot to sleep somewhere on the trail in order to be at the peak early in the morning, which is recommended because Baxter State Park is notorious for its foggy weather conditions, so you might want to spend the night and catch the crisp, blue skies and fantastic sunrises. Mount Katahdin does offer great sunset views as well, but since the weather is so unpredictable you have a far better chance at a winning shot at sunrise.
Perhaps the best spot for photographing Mount Katahdin is along Knife’s Edge, a half mile portion of the trail that traverses the ridge between Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak, the two peaks that make up the whole of Mount Katahdin. The trail narrows to just three feet in some occasions with massive drop-offs on both sides. While this trail isn’t for the faint of heart, you can also get some breathtaking photos along Knife’s Edge and once you cross over to Baxter Peak as well.
Lastly, Mount Katahdin offers a great opportunity for wildlife photography with a plethora of moose, deer, black bears, and small mammals. The abundance of ponds will allow you to capture fantastic scenes of moose and, if you come at the right time of the year, their babies.
Elk Knob State Park, Boone, North Carolina
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is considered a great place to experience the thick, hardwood forests of the eastern mountain range running north to south across the continent. Stunning 360º views are usually thought to be attainable only out west. Scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountain range, however, are a number of “knobs” or “balds” which are barren rock outcroppings on the top of mountains. The thick granite or sandstone slabs of rock stop most tree growth allowing for views that take you above the thick canopy cover.
Elk Knob State Park in North Carolina is one of the best of these Appalachian knobs to hike, especially for photographers who aren’t also serious hikers. Though you will gain close to 1,000 feet in elevation from trailhead to mountain top, the trail is paved with gravel and has several benches along the way to allow you to rest and recuperate on your way up and down. A final section of stone steps leads you to the knob itself, which offers fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding blue, hazy mountains that are so characteristic of the region. From the summit, you can see the highest mountains both in North Carolina and Virginia and also enjoy views in several directions. The gnarled beech trees from the sometimes-strong winds allow for interesting foregrounds for your pictures as well.
Capitol Peak, Colorado
Colorado is famous for its several 14,000 foot peaks – 53 of them to be exact. Some of the most well-known 14,000 footers, such as Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park, are pretty popular and more photographed. Capitol Peak, however, is one of the least traversed (and also least photographed) of Colorado’s mountainous peaks.
To get up Capitol Peak, however, you will want to leave early in the morning (or, like with Mount Katahdin, plan to make it a several day trip to better the chance of beating the late afternoon clouds). This is certainly no easy jaunt since it is an 18 mile round trip hike that will require some route finding and advanced map reading. If you do have decent backcountry skills you will be rewarded with a lunar-like landscape characterized by stunning gray rock that light up into ethereal colors at both sunrise and sunset. Capitol Peak’s exposed Knife Edge ridge crossing to the summit is also breathtaking – both for the fear and the beauty!
Once you finish the ascent, your photographic journey isn’t over yet as the path down will take you through stunning aspen forests which, during the spring time especially, light up your path with gorgeous yellow-green leaves. Make sure to pack for unpredictable weather, as storms at 14,000 feet can be seriously dangerous.
The mountain top hikes mentioned above are just a sample of possibilities to explore around the county. There are virtually unlimited amounts of great mountain hikes from Maine to California and everywhere in between.