Buying Happiness

March 16, 2023  •  Leave a Comment


Money cannot buy happiness, so the saying goes. But it can put a national park pass in your wallet. Next best thing. 

The natural world is remarkable. Not only beautiful, it positively impacts the health and mental well-being of those who spend time in it. I could have personally vouched for the "happiness factor" years ago, but the relationship between nature and human health has been studied for a while now and there's quite a bit of research which indicates that exposure to the great outdoors can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.

The recommended "prescription?" A minimum of two hours weekly. 

Our non-photographer friends might not view some of what nature photographers do as therapeutic - like starting the day at 0-dark-thirty - but it's all good. Whether or not a session produces an image, there's something to be said for simply experiencing the place and whatever we were privileged to see. 

National parks aren't prerequisites. Neither are exotic destinations. Nature can positively impact your wellbeing anywhere the great outdoors can be found. Town parks. Your backyard. 

Likewise, you can shoot anywhere. Don't despair if an NPS site isn't nearby. There is no shortage of interesting subject matter in nature, wherever that may be.

That said, the national parks are undeniably special. And the fee for an annual pass is a bargain.

Is a National Park Service property on your "to do" list this year? It is true that many have experienced a significant increase in traffic over the past few years. My local parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, each posted record attendance in 2021. The numbers were staggering - perhaps not exactly conducive to creating some of those health benefits, like reduced blood pressure. 

We'll see if that remains the case in 2023. Both last summer's high price of fuel and the flooding in Yellowstone had a big impact on tourism in the Greater Yellowstone region over the course of 2022. The two parks were blissfully uncrowded. 

Still, it's best to assume - whichever park is on your radar - there will be a lot of visitors, and hope you will be proved wrong.

If you're not a fan of crowds (is anyone?), there are ways to manage the situation. The most obvious: if you have scheduling flexibility, avoid the high season. When that's not possible, try to stay away from weekends. That's when folks living in nearby zip codes are more likely to pop in.

Simply keeping photographers' hours makes a huge difference in terms of avoiding traffic. You will no doubt be entering the park very early. Most people don't begin to show up until around 9am. When it starts to get busy, that's a good time to exit and explore nearby areas like national forests, state parks, or Bureau of Land Management acreage. Head back into the national park as the dinner hour approaches; that's when most of the other folks will be on their way out.

Similarly, if you've got your eye on a hike you know is popular, plan to start very early. In Grand Teton National Park, I won't go near the Jenny Lake Loop or Taggart Lake trails in July and August - but I have the luxury of living nearby so can afford to be more choosy. Be there just after the sun comes up and you'll most likely have no issues getting into the parking lot, even in the middle of summer. You probably won't be able to check more than one of these hikes off your list per day, but you'll want to be on the trail when the light is better anyway so that's not necessarily a big deal.

Get off the beaten path. Don't plant your tripod in the same spot as the hundreds (thousands) who came before you. Overlooks are there for a reason, Emissaries From AntiquityEMISSARIES FROM ANTIQUITYCoastal redwoods (Sequoia Sempervirens) grow in a narrow strip along the Pacific Ocean. The tallest trees on earth, they reach nearly 380 feet in height. Here, two of them create a frame through which more of their cousins are visible in the magical fog resulting from heavy rain.

Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
Redwood National and State Parks, California
so by all means enjoy the view. But there's always much more to see - and photograph - if you're willing to exert the effort. At the overlooks most visitors never stray far from their cars, and the vast majority of park visitors don't check out lesser-known areas. Then there's the backcountry if you're adventurous. Find more unique subject matter and lose the people. Win, win.

Whatever you do, get outside and into nature. Often. You'll become a better photographer, and it's good for your soul. 

"Come to the woods, for here is rest."
~John Muir

In Local News

It may still be snowing, but Yellowstone is beginning to prep for spring. The park closed yesterday to oversnow travel, bringing the curtain down on the 2022-23 winter season. Seems like those Yellowstone NPS employees might be cockeyed optimists, but you never can tell. Spring opening dates (weather permitting) are:

West Gate - April 21
East Gate - May 5
South Gate - May 12
Beartooth Highway and Dunraven Pass - May 26

In Grand Teton NP, grooming of the Inner Loop Road is coming to a close. Once it's clear of snow it'll be open for biking, hiking and running. It'll re-open to vehicle traffic on May 1.


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