Top Landscape Photography Locations of the American West

Top Landscape Photography Locations of the American West

Traveling the American West in an RV full time has allowed me to discover incredible locations. This is not an extensive list but it includes some of my favorite areas for landscape photography due to their variety of photographic opportunities.

Death Valley National Park

The name of this park does not immediately evoke wanderlust. Many mistakenly believe Death Valley is simply a vast desert with nothing interesting to offer except exceptionally hot temperatures and this could not be further from the truth.

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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park. © David Kingham

First time visitors are overwhelmed by the variety of Death Valley, from the salt polygons formed in Badwater Basin, the vast array of sensually rolling sand dunes, mud cracks, the mysterious sailing stones on the Racetrack, to the soaring mountains surrounding the valley.

Spring storms leave dramatic fileds of mud cracks in Death Valley National Park. © David Kingham

Spring storms leave dramatic fields of mud cracks in Death Valley National Park. © David Kingham

The best times to photograph Death Valley is December through February when temperatures are pleasant or in March when, approximately once a decade, a super bloom occurs and the vast desert landscape erupts with fields of wildflowers. I highly recommend the eBook DESERT PARADISE: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide To Death Valley National Park.

Dramatic sunset skies reflect in the salt flats of Death Valley National Park. © David Kingham

Dramatic sunset skies reflect in the salt flats of Death Valley National Park. © David Kingham

Zion National Park

The towering sandstone cliffs, combined with the lush valley below, make this park a must-photograph location. The Virgin River has carved its way through the Navajo Sandstone and the most dramatic display of this is in the Narrows, a wide and tall slot canyon that is the most popular attraction in Zion – and for good reason. The hike in the water can be strenuous and you will likely want to rent canyoneering boots and dry pants from one of the local outfitters for this excursion.

Zion Narrows © David Kingham

Zion Narrows © David Kingham

The Virgin River then leads into the Zion Canyon, a lush oasis with endless photographic opportunities. To escape the crowds, a visit to the west side of the park is highly recommended. Although less visited, it is equally spectacular. The hills are literally made of stone, intermixed with trees and bighorn sheep.

Three Apostles Sunrise © David Kingham

Three Apostles Sunrise © David Kingham

The best time to visit the park is in the early spring when the cottonwoods begin budding and turn a vibrant lime green. Fall is equally beautiful when the cottonwoods turn bright yellow, which is generally the first week of November.

Zion National Park © David Kingham

Zion National Park © David Kingham

Grand Teton National Park

The Tetons are a classic park that need little introduction – the peaks rise dramatically from the flat plain below and are infinitely photogenic. Although I have been here countless times, I still find myself in awe when I see them.

As the sun sets the clouds are mysticaly illuminated over Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park. © David Kingham

As the sun sets the clouds are mystically illuminated over Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park. © David Kingham

The best time of year to visit for photography is in mid June when the wildflowers are blooming. Be sure to look for vast fields of Balsamroot along the Antelope Flats Road. Fall can also be photogenic in the Tetons, where you can find groves of aspen on the north side of the park near Oxbow Bend at the end of September.

A magical morning in Grand Teton National Park. © David Kingham

A magical morning in Grand Teton National Park. © David Kingham

San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado

By writing about this area, I feel like I am giving away a secret little-known outside of Colorado. This area is often dubbed the Swiss Alps of North America. Lacking any formal national park designation, this area goes largely unnoticed. Dramatic, rugged peaks rise high into the sky but, unlike most other mountain ranges which are older, these mountains are covered in lush green fields of tundra and wildflowers.

San Juan Mountains, Colorado © David Kingham

Blue Lakes, San Juan Mountains, Colorado © David Kingham

The mountains are young in the grand scheme and, therefore, still have large amounts of soil for flora to grow. This area is vast and there is relatively little information out there on it. To get you started, some of the towns in the region are Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, and Telluride. During summer, my favorite areas are around Silverton and Ouray, where the mountains explode with wildflowers.

San Juan Mountains, Colorado © David Kingham

San Juan Mountains, Colorado © David Kingham

Many of the locations are hard to reach and require a four-wheel drive vehicle or long, strenuous hikes to access. Some of my favorite spots are Ice Lakes Basin, American Basin, and Yankee Boy Basin. The wildflowers begin in July in certain areas and can last into mid August at high elevations.

Aspen leaves rain down on County Road 5 near Ridgway, Colorado. © David Kingham

Aspen leaves rain down on County Road 5 near Ridgway, Colorado. © David Kingham

However, fall is my favorite time to be in the San Juans – the immense stands of aspen trees glow in bright yellow and sometimes red. When contrasted against the snow-covered peaks, the photographic opportunities here are endless. I would highly recommend my friend Jason Hatfield’s eBook Colorado’s Fall Colors – A Photographer’s Guide.

A spectacular sunset erupts over Dallas Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. © David Kingham

A spectacular sunset erupts over Dallas Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. © David Kingham

Page, Arizona

The dramatic photographs of Antelope Canyon attract droves of photographers to this small Navajo town every year, and for good reason. The swirling patterns carved in the delicate Navajo sandstone inspire awe into every photographer – combine this with the incredible light beams that start in March (but are most dramatic in summer) and you have a photographer’s haven.

Antelope Canyon © David Kingham

Antelope Canyon © David Kingham

Upper Antelope Canyon is where the primary light beams occur and, thus, it is exceptionally busy. There are many other canyons that have their own unique qualities, however. There is Lower Antelope Canyon, which has become quite busy as well, but if you arrive early in the morning you can avoid the hordes of tourists and capture incredible photos. Canyon X is my personal favorite. In portions of the canyon it is deeper than Upper Antelope and just as dramatic. The tours are limited to one group at a time, so if you’re looking for a less stressful experience, this is it.

Glowing sandstone in Upper Antelope Canyon. © David Kingham

Glowing sandstone in Upper Antelope Canyon. © David Kingham

Secret Canyon, although small, has beautiful curving lines that are worth seeing. Both Canyon X and Secret Canyon can only be visted using the tour company Hummer Adventures. Another favorite is Rattlesnake Canyon, which can only be visited with the company Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours.

Page, Arizona © David Kingham

Alstrom Point, Page, Arizona © David Kingham

There is much more to Page than the slot canyons. There is also famous Horseshoe Bend, a dramatic bend in the Colorado River, but there are also places like Alstrom Point, which give you an incredible view of Lake Powell from above (4WD required), along with Studhorse Point and Toadstools. Close by is the famous ‘Wave’ formation in Kanab, UT which requires a permit via lottery. Also in this area is White Pocket, a dramatic rock formation prime for photography, plus Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world. In short, this area is a prime landscape stop.

Page, Arizona © David Kingham

Page, Arizona © David Kingham

Camera and Lens Recommendations for American West Landscape Photography

Landscape photography makes use of a variety of lenses, from ultra wide angle to extreme telephoto. The most common lenses for landscapes are Ultra Wide Angles and Normal Zooms. The best bodies for landscape photography currently are the Sony a7RII and the Nikon D810. I personally use the Fuji X-T1 with the 10-24mm lens as a departure from the norm. I love having an extremely lightweight system for hiking, plus the dynamic range, color, and detail of the Fuji sensors are incredible. Discover more why I love this setup my Review of Fuji’s X-trans CMOS II Sensor and X-mount Lenses.

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David Kingham is a nature photographer and leader of photo tours at Exploring Exposure. His travels can be followed on Nomadic Destiny: Finding Purpose on the Road. Originally from Colorado, Kingham lives and travels full time around the American West, pursuing his passion for landscape photography.

1 Comment

  1. Man, I’d love to see all of these places in person.

    Reply

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