Friday Foto Talk: Likes & Dislikes ~ Shooting in National Parks, Part I   17 comments

Sunrise over the Continental Divide, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

After several weeks of relatively involved Foto Talks, I’m in the mood for short and sweet this week.  As my annual pass to National Parks (NPs) expires, I’m trying to decide when (or even if) I should buy another one.  I probably will.  But it’s made me consider all that I love (and all that I don’t) about America’s National Parks.  I’d love to hear what you think of my likes or dislikes.  Or if you have any of your own you’d like to add.  So fire away in the comments!

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.


National Parks are photo-worthy.  Of course it’s easy to like the scenery and wildlife of the parks.  It’s mostly why they were protected in the first place.  Nearly all of the parks are photogenic.


NPs are crowded.  All that beauty and wildlife draws a lot of visitors.  Nearly all of the parks have seen steady increases over the past few decades.  And with recent drops in the price of gas, people are on the road, flocking to the parks.  Visitation is exploding.  Of course a few parks have always been busy: Yosemite, Great Smokies, Grand Canyon.

But two fairly recent trends are bothersome, at least for those of us with some history in the parks.  One is the increase in off-season visitation.  Another is exploding visitation in parks like Zion and Rocky Mountain (which has recently leapfrogged both Yosemite and Yellowstone).  Even small, out-of-the-way parks like Great Basin (which I recently visited) can get busy in summertime.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them:  Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them high up in Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.


NPs are diverse.  Most parks are all about mountains, forests and streams.  Others are more famous for their wildlife.  But many others feature history or pre-history.  The newest unit, Stonewall National Monument in New York, even celebrates LGBT (gay) rights.


NPs attract very non-diverse visitors.  I don’t know how much of a dislike this is because I think it’s slowly changing.  But parks are lily white.  Black Americans in particular are few and far between, especially in the big nature-dominated parks of the west.  Latinos are beginning to visit in greater numbers, probably because they have families to entertain.  But they’re also under-represented.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.


NPs are managed for people.  Most parks go out of their way to make parks accessible to everyone.  And this includes the disabled.  It’s actually in their charter.  They were created with a dual purpose in mind, which if you think about it is a pretty difficult pair of opposing values to simultaneously succeed at.

But they do a good job.  There are accessible trails and fishing platforms at Yellowstone and other parks, for example.  Roads give access to the best attractions, and lodging plus camping allow staying inside the park (as long as you make reservations early enough).


NPs attract all sorts of people.  Here’s a sad fact:  many people bring way too much with them when they go on vacation, yet they routinely leave common sense at home.  People arrive ready to have a good time, and that’s fine.  But for so many, a good time means getting loud and raucous.  You won’t see the same people in a NP that you see at a trailhead for a remote wilderness area, getting ready to hike in for a week of self-sufficient existence.  That doesn’t mean you won’t find these hikers in NPs (I for one, haha!).  It’s just a numbers thing.

In nature, around wildlife especially, being the typical noisy human being is simply not appropriate.  It ruins the atmosphere and impacts all sorts of creatures, including other humans.  But sadly it’s all too typical.  Many young people don’t learn how to have a different sort of good time until well into adulthood.  It’s one of the things I am thankful for.  I learned early on.

Next time we will continue with some general advice on shooting in national parks.  Happy weekend everybody!

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake in the alpine terrain of a less-traveled area of Rocky Mtn. NP, Colo.

17 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Likes & Dislikes ~ Shooting in National Parks, Part I

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  1. What you’re saying rings very true about some of our National Parks here in South Africa as well, Michael.

    Addo, Kruger and Table Mountain attract huge numbers of visitors, and not all of them are well behaved – but that presents a teaching opportunity. Luckily we”old hands” know where the quiet(er) spots are! We’re in the fortunate position that the majority of visitors to our National Parks are South Africans, a situation not seen in most if not all other African countries. White South Africans have a genuine connection to the Parks, instilled in them generation after generation, but due to our Apartheid past, that connection did not exist for other demographic groups. It is however changing at pace now, with targeted work through SA National Parks’ mission statement of “Connecting to Society”, introducing those previously excluded segments of our country’s population to the opportunities provided by the Parks.

    • Thanks for your comment Dries. I only have Kruger to judge by, but I definitely saw some similarities. I imagine Kruger by far draws the most foreign tourists, probably for a very good reason. It’s awesome! One big difference is the rules about staying in your vehicle except for picnic areas and blinds. That was a tough one for me, and the only time I violated it (to shoot a dung beetle), a black rhino appeared out of nowhere between me and my vehicle. Fortunately he was merely curious, but for a minute I thought the great picture I got of him would be my very last! I hope both in RSA and USA we see a more representative population visiting our parks. It’s important for their futures.

  2. Why demographic diversity in the parks is important?
    In response to some of the posters, its important because the changing demographics of the US are more ethnically diverse and growing. IF the parks are to remain relevant to the majority of the population, it has to appeal to them and it really appeals to a mostly white middle-class/upper-class crowd. This is increasing since the cost of visitation is rapidly increasing. So parks have to diversity their staff and who they appeal to to remain relevant.

    But here’s a tangent for you:
    As someone remarked above, there are a lot of Asians. This is particularly the case in places like Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon. I read a blog recently that questioned why foreigners paid the same amount to go to our taxpayer-funded national parks as we do. I’ve been thinking about this for a few months and I am persuaded that this isn’t fair, and that there should be additional fees for non-citizens (we could just use the driver’s license or state ID as indicator). The extreme numbers of foreign tourists bused in June and July for Zion, Bryce and GCNP really inhibit ones enjoyment and tax the system.

    What do you think?

    • Tina,
      While I understand how much foreign tourist visitation has increased in U.S. NPs, and definitely abhor big bus tours, I do not think all foreign tourists should pay more. Big tours should, and probably already do, in order to get a permit to operate inside parks. But to ask the odd European or Asian or any independent tourist to pay extra is a hard pill to swallow. In some countries you pay more than the locals to get into parks and other protected public places. I’ve never liked that. After all any foreign tourist is contributing by staying in hotels, eating out, paying for guides, etc. etc. That’s the extra right there, and it’s just greedy to set up a two-tier fee structure for public places like parks. BTW, Zion’s mandatory shuttle system actually works pretty well, and I see places like Rocky Mtn. doing the same in the near future (right now Rocky has a voluntary shuttle). One thing I don’t like is when I see Americans treating foreign tourists rudely. I’ve been treated so kindly in foreign countries that I feel obligated to return the kindness. Be welcoming to them, even though I realize it’s difficult when they appear in a huge group, getting off a bus that sits there and idles, filling the air with diesel fumes (which the NPS shouldn’t allow). They come in big groups partly because they have an unreasoning fear of safety in America. The other reason of course is for Asians especially they save tons of money going in big groups. Euros are more savvy and know the fears are overblown, so you see many more independent Euro tourists.

    • BTW I agree that diversity is important. As I said to another commenter, there’s a huge difference between having diverse groups of Americans visiting and diverse groups of foreign tourists (although it would be great someday to see a lot of Africans traveling). Americans are the ones who are responsible for making sure the parks are not overly commercialized and adequately funded. Foreign tourists help support the parks of course, but they can do nothing if Congress decides to starve the Park Service or privatize the parks.

      • Privatize the parks:
        Shudder. PErish the thought. I refuse to even debate this idea w/ people.
        I appreciate your comments on the two-tier system and while it may seem unfair, it actually makes good policy sense. That said, I usually very much enjoy the foreign visitors, even more so than american. Usually, they are quiet, polite, and so well-behaved. I enjoy shooting their group shots and doing portraits for them, and the conversations with the English (or Italian) speakers is fascinating. Tales of this is their trip-of-a-lifetime, and finding out about other places from there–definitely makes for great interaction and enjoyment. I’ve not seen rudeness toward foreigners, but I tend nowadays to go when I can avoid the masses. I have an aversion to people touching me in crowds, so maybe I’m missing out.

        One thing I wonder about, do you have issues with the limitations of where you can go to shoot? I am often frustrated by lack of access to remote areas to shoot, or no-stopping rules in remote areas. My hip is going out, so long hikes with gear (like out at Bisti recently) are increasingly out of the question. Thoughts?

        • I usually just stop wherever I can get my van off the road, and if it’s empty I pull to the right and make sure it’s not too near a curve, putting on my flashers. I haven’t found many limitations, but in NPs you have to be aware of all their rules. Where there are a lot of people you can’t get off the trail to shoot if it’s in a sensitive area. Rangers really don’t like that, and it’s really not cool anyway. I can’t bring myself to shoot anywhere unless I can get the exact point of view and composition I want. So in NPs I either stop on the road if I see something or hike well away from popular areas, where I can just shoot how I want. I’m pretty gentle and don’t follow social trails, but I’m not somebody who thinks people should just watch nature from afar, not be in it and touch it. I’ve never gone into Bisti. For one thing I didn’t go there before it became popular. I might do it one day but all the popularity has shoved it way down the list. White Pocket is the same, though I did go there years ago before it became the hot thing.

  3. Hi,
    Enjoyed your post and agree with a lot of your comments.

    “Most parks are lily-white”
    I would agree with this statement. I’ve talked with rangers at several parks (Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde etc) about the diversity issue. But in a roundabout way. One seasonal ranger who teaches recreation at a big 10 university echoed my own observations about cultural differences in how different populations enjoy the outdoors. Some populations are very “urban” in the way to relate to the world, so they don’t come with the same notions that are more common from germanic peoples that inhabit the east coast.
    The culture clash is shocking at times.
    9 years ago I camped at Devil’s PostPile at a plum spot on the river. I got there wednesday to get the spot and a friend joined on Friday. Several large latino families descended. I mean multi-generational families with lots of tents. Groups of them would actually WALK THRU OUR CAMP within feet of us as we sat in front of the fire, walked between us and the fire 5 feet from us to get to the river rather than take the trails!! We were flabbergasted! It was kids with teenagers and some adults. They didn’t have the same concept of personal space that we did. Then the noise. They would crank the amps from their car stereos and leave doors open hundreds of yards away and the entire campground could hear late into the evening. Neither of the two male rangers would deal with it.
    Hiking to the various waterfalls we had these large groups of latinos who would walk 4-5 abreast on hiking trails, meandering, and not move to the side to let us pass. Loud voices bitched and moaned about how long it was taking, and their feet hurt. We looked down and noted the high heeled espadrilles and other pretty urban shoewear (I got a shot of this) inappropriate for the outdoors. The loud exuberance served as a dampening blanket on our own enjoyment. Instead of going to see the major sights there, we went in search of hard hiking trails for surcease.

    I vowed to never again stay in a national park campground.
    But I broke that vow back in April at Great Sand Dunes and regretted it again. The antique big Class A that pulled into the spot next to mine on the lowest loop overlooking a sage flat in front of the great iconic scenery of dune and mountain disgorged their two small kids (aged approx 5 and 7) who proceeded to play outside on their own with zero supervision. I’m part of the generation that played in the forests unsupervised quite happily, but in this case, they proceeded to pull up sage brush and other flora bushes to collect on the roadside in front of our RVs. The little boy climbed up the ladder to their 12′ roof on the RV. When I finally said something to them about would their parents be upset if they were up there, they merrily informed me their parents said it was ok and carried on. In the 18 hours I was there–never once saw the parents come out of the RV. They ran the generator all day and into the nite, turning it back on at 630am. When I emerged, exhuasted from all their noise (I had windows open for air circ), the entire road in front of both RVs was covered in bright chalk drawings and uprooted plants.

    There are some interesting differences in the way certain social and ethnic groups enjoy the parks for sure. And the park service is keenly aware of this given the discussions they are undergoing on outreach. But part of their own challenge is their staff–and I don’t mean their structural diversity. Many of the rangers I’ve spoken with have what I call and “Eastern” attitude about how we enjoy and experience the outdoors. Most of the middle-aged rangers I spoke with are either from the Eastern half of the US or midwest in which we seem to have been taught an “awe-of-nature” that is expressed in our quiet, understated demeanor in parks and strong sense of consideration of other’s enjoyment–as in, don’t disturb other people. We don’t generally bring radios, try to minimize our presence in terms of noise, and have strict ideas about what’s allowed in the outdoor experience. This is a clear contradiction with certain social and ethnic groups and the way they enjoy the outdoors.

    Its a big challenge. Because you add that to the overcrowding that you have already mentioned, and to me, it makes the parks less appealing. I’ve done probably 20 parks and monuments in the past 4 months and I crave the wilder places now. I did a number of the parks/monuments in April and was spoiled by the quietude and wildlife. Come may/june/july and so many places are overbaked with noisy and often poorly behaved tourists. But I don’t blame them. I blame me, because the experience I’m hunting for is best found in wilder places with more subtle beauty. Away from the teeming masses of “sheeple”.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for commenting Tina! I guess I have to agree. I have found the cultural differences quite stark. I’ve traveled through latin America. Many latinos visit the beach in their home countries, and I totally love the way they enjoy themselves. There’s not much in the way of mountains that are close enough for them, particularly in Mexico and Central America (South America is better in that regard). So the richer latinos are the ones you see out in the mountains, in smaller groups. For the most part they do the same thing here as they do in the home country. But really, littering and destruction of resources is against Federal law and you should have demanded that a law enforcement ranger put a halt to it. Also, there are quiet times in campgrounds, including use of generators, and that also needs to be enforced. If there is a next time I would be forceful with the NPS. They so often seem to want to stay in the SUVs and not bother with things more difficult than driving around, giving the occasional traffic ticket. While I totally get the whole big latino family thing (same was true of Italians when they first started emigrating here), and actually enjoy it, they need to be educated on what is appropriate behaviour in a NP. And fined if a warning doesn’t sink in. Money talks, and the threat of fines will definitely make them change. They need to meet us in the middle somewhere, and I know most are reasonable and are happy to do it. I avoid campgrounds for the most part, and definitely prefer my nature pristine and quiet.

      • Littering and destruction of property….
        A group of rangers I chatted with in the morning also told me I should have notified them but I was hitched to my trailer and would have had to drive around looking for them with trailer in tow. Lesson learned.
        Generators: I spoke with one of the supervisors about this at GSDNP & this led to a long convo about culture (in this case–urban/suburban people needing their TVs etc hence generators). He gave me a comment form and asked me to fill it out since they were reworking their mgmt plan of GSDNP. I did. They did have quiet hours, but they turned in on during those hours. Basically, their generator use dictated my sleeping hours. I was trapped in a way–I needed to be there to shoot early in am.

        I lived in Italy for more than 5 years, in austrian border towns and south in Naples, Calabria, and Sicily. Up in the northern mountains of Alps, I was always amidst the Germanic peoples in my hiking adventures, even tho we were on Italian soil. Sometimes there’d be dudes in lederhosen even! In the south, the southerners weren’t camping or hiking sorts unless scientists or wealthy. I hiked everywhere. Even my Italian husband would get “dressed up” to go hiking. Its really a mindset as well as cultural. It is strongly related to social class, tho that will set a lot of people off.

        • Yes I think that’s the story for most of Latin America too, related to social class. The “masses” tend to just go to the beach. That will change here, as latinos become more and more Americanized. Probably won’t merge to the extent that European immigrants did, but they will to some extent.

  4. Michael – I can see why you have listed those dislikes but the truth is that it is good that people want to visit our NPs. Crowds are definitely a pain but for most people, summer is the only time they can take off from work and school and go. We took a cross country trip from NJ to Cali and back again in 5 weeks. We left as soon as the kids finished school – around June 9. We hit Yosemite around the 3rd week of June and Yellowstone on July 4th. There were some crowds but really not too bad. I was surprised that you mentioned that visitors are non-diverse. Wherever we went, we heard so many different languages. There were large groups of Asians at Yellowstone which we tried to steer away from. They all pulled out their cameras and took selfies and group pics and generally blocked the view ( I can say this – I’m Filipina. Haha). My husband and I were at the Grand Canyon in April and I would say that the visitors there were quite diverse. At one point, we took a shuttle and I as I looked around, ! was struck by the diversity.
    I also like that our NPs are managed by people. My cousin is a ranger at Yosemite NP. He maintains and fixes trails, many times out in the backcountry. Sometimes he’s away for weeks at a time. He is also on the avalanche control team which can be quite dangerous.
    Here are my likes:
    1. They are the most beautiful and grandest places in the US – God’s creation in all its splendor. To me, being close to nature helps me to feel close to God. The majesty and grandeur of the mountains, the peace and calm of the forests, a sparkling blue lake, the power of an immense waterfall, the intricate detail of a delicate wildflower, the beautiful mating call of a songbird, the graceful gallop of pronghorn in a vast meadow – I feel God speaking to me through nature.
    2. They are protected. I am so grateful that the National Park Service was created 100 years ago “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”(Wikipedia)
    3. They are for everyone. They are a gift to all citizens of the world.
    Obviously I am passionate about National Parks! Thank you Michael for the beautiful images. My husband and I are planning to go to Rocky Mountain National Park next week (wedding near Estes Park). We hope to drive up Trail Ridge. We can’t hike too far due to my arthritis in my knees plus the elevations will probably have an effect on my breathing since I have asthma but I am looking forward to the trip.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Luna (if it’s okay to call you that). I didn’t mean diversity in that way I guess. I really meant Americans, not visitors from other countries. In my next post I mention that. But diversity of Americans, especially African Americans, is poor. I do very much appreciate the fact they are protected. The only gripes I have are regarding the way they are protected, specifically what the NPS does with their very much limited budget. Have a lot of fun in Rocky, and definitely take it easy at elevation. It really takes a week or more to start to get used to it. You did well to hit them as early as possible in the summer. I strongly feel you go anywhere, including parks, whenever you can. That’s the “best” time to go in my opinion.

  5. I’m with you on the crowded part. I’ve noticed Arches has become more crowded even over the last couple of years, forget the last 30 years, which I think is how long ago I first found the place. Even Capitol Reef, which has been more off the beaten path, has picked up considerably more crowds. If you want to avoid the crowds, you really need to go in the far off season, which for those parks means winter. If you do go during the busy time of the year, you need to get the idea into your head that it’s not a wilderness experience at all, you are seeing some cool sights in an amusement park-like environment.

    Diversity not an issue at all, seems a little odd that it would be some sort of consideration, don’t really care who else is there, mostly I wish they weren’t there.

    • Thanks for the comment Patrick! Interesting you mentioned Arches area. I sure have noticed the whole Moab area explode in the past couple decades. We went down there in the late 80s when I was working in Nevada, mountain biking. It felt like a place for those “in the know”. Now it’s a big off-road destination. Arches is pretty small so it can’t really handle the crowds well, so very late fall to very early spring is best there. My best shot of Capitol Reef so far was in December. But for some parks winter means closed roads and skiing or snowshoeing. Rocky has that issue, with all that visitation crammed into summer. One thing to do in summer to escape crowds is to do longish hikes, and at off times. I often go late in the day, and arrive someplace an hour or so before sunset. Then hike back in the dark. But just recently I camped out there a couple nights for star shots. Death Valley is a special place for me, perhaps because when I started going it was so off the radar. Now of course it’s not, so instead of spring, which used to be my favorite time, I like winter best there.

  6. I think it’s important not to go to NP’s at peak season. We were at Glacier and then 5 1/2/ days at Yellowstone last year the first week of Sept. and that seemed to be a perfect time. I didn’t find people to be obnoxious or rude except nearly getting bonked by a selfie stick. The night before entering the park we stayed at the Chico Resort for my birthday. Daughter surprised me with Champaign in the room. The room was so pretty I was taking photos and Rebecca said, “Mom, look! I was so surprised at how she made my day so special. We stayed 3 nights at LaMar Buffalo Ranch which was wonderful…and 2 nights at Old Faithful Hotel which we thoroughly enjoyed. HMM Oh yes, we stayed someplace else in a cabin because Rebecca wanted to go to a campground. She slept in her hammock under the stars which she enjoyed, but it was a cold night for her. I guess you have to do that once. We had no noise problems. I took an am photography class that was nice because we were at sites before most people get out of bed. I think for Scott and me we want to be comfy and our camping days are probably over.
    I don’t mind a lot of people until it gets so crowded that you can’t see anything which is evidentially what Yellowstone is like in July and much of Aug.
    The class we took about the micro organisms and geysers was awesome, 3 days. If you haven’t hiked to Lemon Creek I recommend it with a guide a lots of bear spray.
    I so want to go back!

    • Thanks Annette! I actually love Yellowstone because it’s so big it can handle the crowds better than some other parks. I actually worked at a park for a summer once, and when you do that you see the worst behaviours. 99% of people are great, there are only a few annoying ones. I’m very much a person who likes nature when it’s pristine, and that includes only natural sounds, very dark night skies, etc. I want to go back to Yellowstone too!

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