The Nature Photographer’s Year
The most common question I am asked as a professional nature photographer is “When is the best time to go to ______?” You fill in the blank – Texas or Tucson to photograph wildflowers; Vermont or Colorado for Fall colors; the Rockies for bugling elk; Alaska or Africa; Churchill for polar bears. As far as I know there are no timetables to consult or atlases that show the progressing seasons. But, unless you know the peak time, you are likely to arrive too late or too early and spend your time photographing the not-quite instead of the couldn’t-be-better. Don’t you just hate to hear “In a week this will be just great” or “Wow, you should’ve been here last week”?
In an effort to make all your photography as productive as possible, I have mapped out an entire year with the best places to go at the best times. Let this be a bit of inspiration, sort of a photographer’s fantasy year. It would be interesting to actually jump in a car for a year and race the seasons from location to location clicking off the miles, cups of coffee and film canisters (let me know how it goes).
A word of warning about the listed times of year. These are the typical dates for each event on a normal year. Unfortunately, normal years are as common as fascinating politicians and low-cal donuts. For example, this last year the alpine columbine in Colorado that should have bloomed the first week of July did not bloom until the middle of August and the fields of alpine flowers that should have bloomed in mid-July did not bloom at all! Consequently, the aspens that did turn golden did so in the middle of October instead of the middle of September, most aspens just dropped their leaves green. But not everything was late. In the Smokies, dogwoods bloomed 2 weeks early and in the Arizona desert poppies were a month early. I don’t mean to imply that you are out of luck if you go somewhere and the seasons are screwy. If you are too early go lower in altitude, farther south or work south-facing slopes. If you are too late go higher in altitude, farther north or work north-facing slopes.
Weeks 1 – Oregon coast. Why go to Oregon in January? Because there is no better place to photograph the Pacific coast and winter. Anywhere along the Oregon coast, all open to the public, it is possible to find wintering birds, seals and whales, great lighthouses and harbors, wonderful tide pools and spectacular coastal landscapes. And you will have the place to yourself! Try Bandon or the Newport area or the dunes around Florence. For more information get a copy of The Photographer’s Guide to the Oregon Coast that I did with Rod Barbee.
Week 2 – Oregon Mountains. When you want to try something different, head up into the mountains where you will find piles of soft snow adorning magnificent trees and draped over the landscape. Any of the half-dozen roads that cross the Cascades will take you to this winter wonderland. Long the way you will find plowed out parking lots, called snow parks, where it is possible to park (a small fee is sometimes required) and also take pictures. My favorite is Santiam Pass on Route 20.
Weeks 3 & 4 – Death Valley and Slot Canyons of the Southwest. For those of you who cannot suffer the cold head for the deserts of the Southwest, in particular Death Valley and the slot canyons of northern Arizona. Death Valley is great in winter because the temperatures are tolerable so you can linger longer. Besides, it is not as if you are going to be photographing a lot that is living in a place called Death Valley so you might as well go in winter. The bizarre landscapes don’t change and you won’t have to worry about frying your film or your brain. Same can be said for the slot canyons. The most famous is Antelope Canyon just southeast of Page, Arizona but there are others less well know that are just as interesting. Try the Paria Canyon area or ask at the BLM office for other locales. Be sure to ask locally about road conditions and permits.
Week 1 – Triple D Game Farm. Triple D is by far the best mammal shoot, with the most marketable animals, the best looking animals and the best handlers and settings. The animals are extremely well trained and many different enclosures are used so you get unique photos and not the same old animal on the same old rock or worn log. It is not as cold in Kalispell in February as you think.
Weeks 2 & 3 – Yellowstone National Park. For those who want wild animals and great snowscapes Yellowstone can’t be beat. From Mammoth or Gardiner, on the north side of the park, you can easily drive to herds of big-horn sheep, bison, pronghorns and elk. Plus, you can take a snow coach tour or rent a snowmobile to visit the geyser basins in the interior of the park.
Week 4 – Gulf coast of Florida. For those cold-blooded souls who crave warmth and good photography. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is a magnet for wintering ducks, long-legged waders and pale-skinned snowbirds. You will find ducks, herons, egrets, spoonbills, pelicans, hawks and osprey, most in breeding plumage. Be sure to spend at least a day at the now famous heron rookery up the coast in Venice. It is located behind the police station on a man-made island and gives you close, eye level views of the nesting birds. This is where those fantastic heron and egret photos have been taken. Also try the Fort DeSoto area south of Tampa.
Week 1 – Harp seals of the Magdalen Islands, Canada. Nothing is cuter or more photogenic than a harp seal pup lying in its icy cradle. The pups are surprisingly easy and comfortable to photograph. You fly to the seal birthing areas by helicopter but the flying weather is often iffy. Go with a tour group that spends more than just a few hours out on the ice or else you will be spending your time on land with nothing to do.
Week 2 – Cuba. Yes, I know this is an odd location for a nature shooter to suggest but on my two trips there I have been so captivated that I would go back in an instant. There is no place else in the world where the people are so friendly, generous and photogenic and this comes from my friend, Bob Krist, who has photographed people all over the world. Havana is a bit crazy but as soon as you get out of the city you will be thrilled and delighted. My favorite locale is the Vinales Valley west of Havana. To visit Cuba legally these days you must have a valid Treasury Department permit or go with a certified tour group. It is easy to go there on the sly.
Weeks 2, 3 & 4 – Desert wildflowers of Arizona. Wildflowers begin to bloom around Phoenix first, then Tucson and then Organpipe National Monument (Tucson and Organpipe are 1000 feet higher than Phoenix). The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is a good place to start. They also have a wildflower hotline- 602-481-8134 – that is updated weekly and gives locations of the current blooms. My favorite locations are the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, Picacho Peak State Park north of Tucson and Gates Pass and the Saguaro National Monument, west of Tucson.
Week 1 – Desert wildflowers of California or Redwoods National Park. Since you are down in Arizona you might as well bop over to southern California and photograph the wildflowers of Anza-Borrega State Park and Joshua Tree National Park. The wildflower hotline number for this area is 818-768-3533.
If you have had enough of the desert, the redwoods of northern California are great this time of year. The understory is greening, there are wildflowers on the forest floor, and fog often shrouds the trees. Be sure to check the beach for Roosevelt elk and interesting driftwood compositions.
Weeks 2 & 3 – Texas wildflowers. A must for anyone interested in wildflowers. The best shows of flowers are right along the highways so you must drive a lot to find your compositions. Start in Austin and head for the National Wildflower Research Center which has handouts detailing driving routes for wildflowers and a wildflower hotline (number changes every year). My favorite spots are northwest of Austin near Buchanan Lake.
Weeks 3 & 4 – Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies are the best place in the East to photograph Spring- wildflowers, dogwoods, rushing streams and mountain scenics. The traffic and nonsense in the gateway city of Gatlinburg can be atrocious but the photography is well worth the inconvenience. Get a copy of “A Photographer’s Guide to the Smoky Mountains” by Bill Cambell to find the best locations.
Week 1 – Utah parklands. This is my favorite time of year to visit the redrock country of Utah, especially Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. You get all the benefits of the park without the summer crowds or heat. Plus, there are unexpected wildflowers that make great foregrounds for your landscapes. Be warned, the campgrounds can be crowded with mountain bikers.
Week 2 – New England. Nobody thinks about going to New England other than in the fall but there is much to see and photograph in the spring. The middle of May is the best time for spring wildflowers and the forests are in full fresh spring-green. At this time fields are greening and the rivers, creeks and waterfalls are full, as well. Anywhere in Vermont, the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine, the Bershires or Cape Cod are great.
Weeks 3 & 4 – Ancient Forests of the Northwest. The old-growth forests of Oregon and Washington is where my spirit rests. At this time of year the forest is overflowing with lushness and you will have the trees to yourself. The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park is the quintessential old-growth forest. It has the biggest trees and is the most accessible. As a bonus, there are often elk wandering through the forest at this time of year.
The Hoh can be crowded and a bit worn looking due to all of the visitation so if you want a old-growth forrest all to yourself try the Quinalt or Queets valleys to the south in the Park or the Sol Duc Valley (my personal favorite) on the north side of the Park.
Week 1 – Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. You can visit these two parks any time of the year and get great pictures. In early June the crowds are small, the meadows are fresh and the animals have not yet been harassed into the shadows. You will also find wildflowers galore from the alpine areas to the valley floor. This is also the best time of year to photograph the many waterfalls of the Valley. Wait for afternoon light to get the best shots.
Weeks 2 & 3 – Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. Many people avoid these two popular parks in the summer but if you go now the herds of Winnebagos are not so bad. In Yellowstone, this is the time of year for baby animals, especially bison and elk. In the Tetons, great fields of blooming mule’s ears and lupine make a dramatic foreground for the impressive mountains.
Weeks 2 & 3 – The Maine Coast and Nova Scotia. This is the time of year when the wild roses and lupines are in full bloom and fog is pretty common. The best traditional harbors are the farthest from Rt. 1. Look for detail shots of the fishing and lobstering gear as well as the standard postcard views. For more detailed information get a copy of The Photographer’s Guide to the Maine Coast that I did with Bruce Morrison.
Week 4 – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. This park is often overlooked but it is a gem. Trail Ridge Road traverses 12 miles of alpine habitat where the earliest summer flowers of Colorado can be found as well as grazing big-horn sheep and elk. The sheep and elk are best right after dawn. Later in the day you can photograph cooperative marmots and the delicate alpine flowers. Trail Ridge Road is also good for mountain scenics and sunsets. Check the aspen groves for nesting bluebirds and woodpeckers.
Week 1 – Olympic National Park, Washington. No other park in the US has so much diversity, so close and so accessible as Olympic. Within 30 minutes of Port Angeles are tidepools, old-growth forests, subalpine flowering meadows with tame mule deer, glacier-topped mountain scenics, and pristine beaches. Hurricane Ridge and Obstruction Point road are best for wildflowers and mammals, the Sol Duc valley for old-growth forests and streams and Tongue Point for tidepools. This is also the best time of year at Olympic’s neighboring national park- Mt. Rainier.
Weeks 2 & 3 – Katmai National Park. We all have seen a photograph of the fish jumping into the bear’s mouth. That picture is a no-brainer at Katmai. The bears are habituated to people so you can get unusually close to them here. You must time your visit to when the salmon are running- June is too early, August is too late. You also must share the park with some occasionally uncooperative fisherman but the photography is worth it.
Weeks 2,3 & 4 – Wildflowers of the Colorado Rockies. In a good year, the alpine meadows of Colorado are a lush red, yellow and blue carpet of blossoms. The most well known spot is Yankee Boy Basin above the town of Ouray but there are dozens of equally good locations for you to discover. The easiest alpine wildflower location, accessible by a paved road, is near the top of Mt. Evans, just west of Denver. You may have to kick a mountain goat out of your composition though.
Weeks 1 & 2 – North Cascades, Washington & Glacier, Montana, National Parks. To keep in the peak mountain wildflower season you have to travel north as the weeks roll by. The Going-to-the-Sun highway provides easy access to the magnificent alpine environment of Glacier. Also look for mountain goats and look out for bears. Mt. Baker and the oft photographed Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascades are at their prime in early August. There are also several easily accessible old-growth forests nearby along Forest Service road #20 between Darrington and the Barlow Pass.
Weeks 3 & 4 – Africa and/or Therapy. Breaking away from the continent, now is the time to head for the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania. Yes, I know it has been done before but the photos are still spectacular. You have to go on a photography tour not just a nature tour if you expect to get great pictures. Be sure everyone has their own window from which to photograph- no point going to Africa and having to wait while someone else photographs. On the other hand, if these last 8 months have finally gotten to you, now would be a good time to take a break, send a postcard to your family and maybe reassess all those asocial behaviors (referring to 7-11 as home, the gourmet donut dinner and the Boxcar Willie fashion ensemble) of which you have grown so fond.
Weeks 1 & 2 – Alaska. This is the best time to visit Denali National Park. The weather is cooperative, the animals look great (caribou have red antlers now) and the tundra has turned beautiful shades of red and gold. Make sure you get back to Wonder Lake for the best photography of Denali. This is also my favorite time to go to Katmai National Park. In September, the fishermen are gone, the salmon are bright red and the bears are fat and happy. Plus, the vegetation has turned a golden hue so you’ll have great backgrounds.
Weeks 3 & 4 – Fall Aspens of the Rocky Mountains. Now is the time when the summer green blanket of aspens drapes the mountain in dazzling gold. The best place in Colorado for aspens are the San Juan Mountains in the southwest corner of the state. Drive the “Million Dollar Highway” between Durango and Ridgeway for miles of aspen scenics or cross Dallas divide between Ridgeway and Telluride for classic views of the San Juans. The Tetons are also wonderful at this time of year (Yellowstone doesn’t have many aspens). In fact, it is hard to go wrong anywhere in mountains of Colorado and Wyoming in late September.
Week 1 – Fall Color of Northern New England. The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont (north of St. Johnsbury) and the White Mountains of New Hampshire are my favorite places to photograph the autumnal colors of New England. In Vermont, drive all the backroads around Granby and East Brighton and in New Hampshire, linger along the Kancamagus highway (Rt. 112).
Week 2 – Fall Color of Central New England. Travel any of the backroads in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts or Maine and you will find lots to photograph. My favorite roads are: Rt 100 in Vermont, Rts. 4 & 113 in New Hampshire, Rts. 8 & 2 in Massachusetts and Rts. 2 and 26 in Maine. If you don’t want to drive so much, stay in Acadia National Park or in the Camden-Rockport area in Maine or the Woodstock or Manchester areas in Vermont. All have classic New England villages, interesting scenes and plenty of nearby forests. For more detailed site information on Vermont get the book I did, The Photographer’s Guide to Vermont.
Week 3 – Fall Color in the Smokies. The forests of the Smokies are the most biologically diverse in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, the range of colors, textures and patterns is equally diverse. Photographically, this means that there is more to photograph than you can shake a empty donut box at (some asocial behaviors are harder to stop than others). Cade’s Cove is the place to photograph but get there early to avoid the considerable mid-day crowds. The Greenbrier area is also a good place for Fall color and to hide from the hordes.
Week 4 – Southern Africa. This is a great time to start a trip to southern Africa- it is not yet too hot, babies are being born and tourism prices are pretty good. My favorite places in South Africa (an astonishingly beautiful and friendly country) are Jaci’s Lodge in the Madikwe Reserve and anywhere in the Sabi Sands Reserve. Kruger National Park is a well known location but it can be crowded and you must stay on the roads to photograph.
This is also a great time of the year to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana. In late October the waters of the Delta are beginning to recede which concentrates the birds and mammals and makes them all much easier to photograph. We went to Eagle Island Camp and loved it.
Week 1 – Polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba. Like the brown bears of Katmai, the polar bears of Churchill are a must for all nature photographers. The polar bear season starts in mid-October and goes to mid-November but the weeks in late October and early November when the ground is snowy, are my favorites. You have to go on a tour to really photograph the bears. Pick one led by experienced bear naturalists and photographers.
Week 2 – The Waterfowl of the Klamath Basin, California & Oregon. In mid-November the Northwestern clouds burst and blizzards of snow geese and swans pour down into the marshes and lakes of the Klamath Basin and Tule National Wildlife Refuge. If that is not enough, there are thousands of ducks and lots of hawks and bald eagles to photograph with the snowy summit of Mt. Shasta as a backdrop.
Weeks 3 & 4 – The Bald Eagles of Haines, Alaska. The Chilkat river in Haines hosts the largest congregation of bald eagles in North America when the chum salmon run is over. Of course, the area also has the largest concentration of rain/snow clouds known to man so the photography is very weather dependent. When the clouds lift though it is spectacular.
Weeks 1 & 2 – Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Bosque del Apache has the best wildlife photography in the West in the Winter. It is well known for wintering sandhill cranes but like the Klamath Basin there are lots of other birds and mammals to photograph. The Refuge’s roads provide easy access to all the ponds and lakes where the wildlife gathers.
Week 3 – White Sands National Monument. Nearby, at White Sands, are the best dunes in North America. The dunes are here year round, of course, but there are less people and wind in December. You can get in early for $35 and have the entire monument to yourself.
Week 4 – (You didn’t really think I would tell you to go somewhere over the Holidays did you?)
Well, there you have it – the best times for the best places to photograph for an entire year. I know you think I am crazy for leaving something out but I couldn’t include every place. I apologize if I have left out one of your favorite spots. On the other hand consider it a little present to you that your favorite place won’t be over run with fellow photographers.