I've never seen the national parks as crowded as they've been over the past few years. The issue is especially acute in the better-known destinations - like Grand Teton and Yellowstone, my two local parks. They're in the top five on the most-visited list.
If you love the parks and enjoy photographing them you might wonder if there's any way (other than venturing deep into the backcountry) to avoid the congestion.
Visiting during the school year used to be a good solution; it was off-peak and reliably quiet. You can no longer count on that as a fail-safe remedy. That said, there are times that are slower. Sometimes just a few weeks can make a world of difference. Take Moab, for example. Mid-March visitor traffic in Arches and Canyonlands is markedly different than what you'll encounter in late April.
Don't discount winter. While many parks can be more difficult to access and navigate, it's worth the effort. (Check first, though. Some places like Yellowstone are restricted to oversnow travel during the winter months.)
There are other strategies:
Consider navigation alternatives
Grand Teton, on the other hand, is easier to traverse. When it's really crowded simply steering clear of the Inner Loop Road will make life easier.
Committed to summer? Consult a park map first to peruse maneuverability.
Edges of the day
Working during the middle of the day can be more difficult; by 9am inbound traffic might be a steady stream. If it's too crowded for you to be productive there's often interesting scenery nearby - like national forests, for example. Explore outside the park boundaries.
Get up a little earlier
Use your legs
Take a walk away from the parking area/designated viewpoint to survey the situation. Sometimes you don't have to go very far to see something special.
A little bit of scale can add important context to a photograph. The image at right, made in Arches National Park, is one such example. Actually I had no intention of shooting anything; this was a late afternoon scouting expedition to prepare for the following morning. I'm not sure why I even brought my gear along.
As I was beginning the hike back to the car, I looked through Turret Arch and liked the way the clouds were stacked. It was a high-contrast scene but I decided to pull the camera out anyway. A woman was on the other side of the arch photographing her two young children. I waited a while to see if she'd move. No such luck. Though the kids eventually disappeared from view, she didn't budge.
I decided to include her in the composition to provide scale. The arch is massive, but there are no other visual clues to make this obvious. I hoped she'd turn her back to me (and that nobody else would walk up there in the meantime), and voilà - it happened.
The significant contrast issues were managed in Lightroom when the image was processed.
Another example, below, is from Death Valley National Park.
It was very early in the morning and the location was mostly deserted - nevertheless, I ended up with company. This woman arrived after I'd been working for a while and walked right into the area I was photographing. She just stood in that one spot, looking around. This was a wee bit frustrating; by now the sun had risen and I was about to lose the shade.
Since it was clear she wasn't going to proceed up the path any time soon, I decided to reframe the composition, using her to underscore the enormity of the rock formations.
The fact that she was dressed in all black was the perfect touch; it made her more visible against the trail.
Exquisite EnormityOxidation has created a magical variety of colors throughout the massive Artist Drive Formation. (Death Valley National Park, California) Are the parks overcrowded? Yes, especially this year with visitation numbers off the charts.
It may not be the experience you hoped for, but crowds don't mean you can't see beautiful sights and make some good photographs.
Be flexible. It'll work out.
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