Terra Galleria Photography

National Parks: What’s in a Name?

I have seen quite a bit of confusion about how many national parks there are in America, and what distinguishes them from other public lands, including state parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and other units managed by the National Park Service. In this article, I break down the names of the public lands and examine the significance of the designation for the 59 national parks.

The national parks and other public lands

The Yosemite Grant (1864) marked the first time a nation had set aside a large tract of pristine land for all people and for all time. Even though the notion of public land and its preservation dates back further, the national parks would be their first tangible embodiment. Yosemite was initially administered by the state of California and became a national park in 1890. Yellowstone (1872) happened to be the first national park because at that time, Wyoming was a territory and not a state, so Wyoming could not administer Yellowstone.

The creation of national parks set up in motion a vast movement to preserve public lands. State parks are similar to national parks, but the main difference is that they are under state rather than federal administration. The first state park, Niagara Falls State Park was established in 1885 in New York. As of today, there are more than 10,000 state park units in each of the 50 states. In addition, parks are also maintained by local government entities. All those parks are quite clearly named “state park”, “regional park”, “county park”, etc..

America’s federal public lands, owned equally by all Americans, have expended well beyond the national parks. They now cover about a quarter of the U.S. land (618M acres) and encompass many types of lands all with the word “national” within their name. They fall mostly into four systems, depending on the agency that manages them.

  • The National Park Service (NPS) manages the National Park System (84M acres), with 417 units, including 59 national parks. Although it is the most well-known land management agency, responsible for some of the country’s most famous landmarks, the NPS manages the smallest amount of land. The NPS mandate is both to keep landscapes unimpaired for future generations and to offer recreation. NPS lands are at the same time more regulated and more developed than others. They are discussed in more detail in the rest of the article.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages the National Wildlife Refuge System (96M acres), which consists of 562 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. Like the NPS, the focus is both on conservation and recreation, with both being more wildlife-centered than NPS lands. 86% of FWS land is Alaska. In the continental U.S., FWS land consists mostly of wetlands, and are often closer to cities than other public lands.
  • The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages the National Forest System (193M acres), which comprises 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The USFS has a multiple-use mission, and their lands allow extractive activities such as logging, grazing, and mining, as well as a wider range of recreational activities. Many national forests are located near national parks. Unlike the other three federal land agencies, the USFS manages a significant amount of land in the eastern U.S.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the National System of Public Lands (245M acres). Most of BLM lands were not set aside but inherited, are nameless, arid, and intended for multiple use, like USFS lands. However, a small subset of “flagship” BLM lands are designated by Congress and intended for conservation and recreation, forming the National Landscape Conservation System (32M acres) that includes 873 federally recognized areas, including national conservation areas. BLM lands are situated almost exclusively in western states.
Any of the lands above can also become a wilderness area (“designated wilderness” or simply “wilderness”) by congressional designation. This provides for an additional layer of protection on top of their current status. Wildernesses are managed to preserve primeval character without permanent improvements (such as roads) or human habitation. wilderness study areas are set aside by the BLM as part of the National Landscape Conservation System while awaiting for their confirmation or dismissal as designated wilderness.

Eldorado National Forest

The National Park System

As of this post, the National Park Service (NPS) manages a total of 417 units, including both natural, cultural and historic resources of national significance. Here is the complete list by designation type. Each of them is called a “National Park System Unit“, or “National Park System Area”, or “National Park System Site” but since this sounds a bit long, some refer to them as “national park” or even “park” for brevity. A better abbreviation would be “park unit” or “park site”, because in the strict sense, “national park” refers to a specific designation. It’s not a matter of capitalization (eg: “417 national parks v. 59 National Parks”) since the correct usage is that “National Park” is capitalized only when it is a proper noun (eg: “Acadia National Park”).

If you look at the National Park Service website, the terms they use are all over the place, which supports the idea that “national parks” is just a shortcut rather than a systemic use. In other words, if all the units were “national parks” as some argue, why wouldn’t the NPS always use the term “national park” to refer to them? Compare the NPS text:

How many areas are in the National Park System?
The system includes 417 areas

What is the largest national park site? Smallest?
Current information on acreage for units across the National Park System

What is the most-visited national park?
View a list of the most-visited sites in the National Park Service

How many national parks are there?
The system includes 417 national parks

What is the largest national park? Smallest?
Current information on acreage for national parks

What is the most-visited national park?
View a list of the most-visited national parks

National Park System units include a total about 25-40 designations, depending on how you count them. Those include but are not limited to:

  • National Park
  • National Monument
  • National Preserve
  • National Historic Park
  • National Historic Site
  • National Memorial
  • National Recreation Area
  • National Seashore
  • National Lakeshore
  • National River
  • National Battlefield
  • National Battlefield Park
  • National Battlefield Site
  • National Military Park
and there are many variations. Just looking at the four types of military sites give you an idea of how confusing the nomenclature is. Personally, I’d favor three designations, one for primarily natural resources (maybe national scenic site), one for primarily cultural resources (maybe national historic site), and national park. National monuments are different because they can originate from presidential proclamation, and they can be managed by other land agencies than the NPS. A national monument ran by the NPS should be either a national scenic site or national historic site, while non-NPS national monuments could keep that designation.

Point Reyes National Seashore

National Parks: the name matters

Amongst the 417 park units, there are currently 59 national parks. Those who call the park units “national parks” sometimes refer to those 59 national parks as “named national park”, “full national park”, “full-fledged national park”, or “national park with full status”. This in itself is an admission that there is a difference between them and the other types of units. That difference is the name.

In theory, since the National Park Service General Authorities Act of 1970, all park units have the same legal status and protection. The collection of 417 park units is a system of equals. However, as Yogi Berra would say “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” If the designation name did not matter because “all park units are national parks” like some argue, why did so many national monuments saw their initial designation changed to national park? This started with the Grand Canyon (national monument: 1908, national park: 1919), and since then a total of 25 national monuments have been redesignated as national parks. And if the designation name did not matter, why are there several campaigns underway to upgrade the designation of Chiricahua National Monument, Craters of the Moon National Monument, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, amongst others? The effort needed is not insignificant, as it requires clearing legislation in Congress, no easy taks in a climate of increasing partisanship and legislative gridlock. Only Congress (House and Senate) can designate a national park.

This report on the campaign to rename Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore states:

A U.S. House committee has advanced a plan to change the name of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore so that it reflects the reality that it is a “national park.” … The Indiana Dunes already is a national park. This measure would make that clearer to tourists and local visitors by renaming it Indiana Dunes National Park … “I hope that the full House considers this important legislation as soon as possible, so that we can quickly begin to harness this national recognition of the Indiana Dunes…”
First, note that Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore already has “National” in it, so it is the “national park” label that brings recognition. Second, the idea that “Indiana Dunes is already a national park” would be self-defeating. It applies to other units as well. By that logic, all of them should all be renamed “national park”, not just Indiana Dunes. But if all the 417 units are renamed national parks, then how is that going to increase the recognition amongst them? If you look at H.R.1488 – Indiana Dunes National Park Act, a long list of specific reasons is given why Indiana Dunes deserves to renamed a national park. The author of the bill recognizes that the national parks form a select group and intends for Indiana Dunes to join them based on merits.

Chiricahua National Monument

National Parks: How do they differ from other units?

Since the very start of the National Park Service, the national parks were recognized as the crown jewels. While there are controversies about other public lands, nobody disputes the value of the national parks. Stephen Mather’s National Parks Portfolio (1916) included 8 national parks plus the Grand Canyon, which at that time was a national monument only because legislation to establish it as a national park had failed to pass. Subsequent NPS-sponsored editions of the National Parks Portfolio illustrated most national parks extensively on several pages, while only a paragraph was devoted to each national monument. In doing so, the NPS was comfortable with some park units being more equal than others. More recently, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, who as historians have certainly a deep understanding of the National Park System, told its story mostly through the national parks, at the exclusion of other park units. In the companion book to the film, they made sure to include one landscape photograph (by me) for each of the 59 national parks, and none for the other park units. Although the recent official position of the NPS is that all units are equal, this hasn’t been always the case, and the perception from the public and media has been that the national parks form a select group.

What sets the national parks apart? According to the NPS nomenclature, “Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas.” By contrast, for instance, “a national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.” This official explanation implies that national parks, being larger and more diverse, are more valuable. The NPS at one point argued against redesigning Pinnacles as a national park because the park unit did not “include the full range of resources usually found in national parks” (source). The same reservations are even more valid regarding Indiana Dunes. At the same time, the explanation allows for the inevitable exceptions (note “generally” and “usually”). Some of the exceptions stem from the way national monuments are established. Some of them stem from regional differences, for instance one would not expect a Midwest national park to match the natural resources of one located in Alaska, yet as a system representative of America’s nature, one would like to have a national park in the Midwest. There will also be exceptions that result from the whims of history.

While from an administrative point of view, all parks units are equal, this is not the public perception. The prestige of the national park designation attracts more public attention. There are quite a few books about the national parks, but only one covers all the NPS units. This prestige has been earned by the fact that historically, almost all national parks are large and diverse areas where international visitors could spend a week, something which could not be said of most of the NPS units. However, the recent renaming efforts were meant to bring more tourism to the local communities. I think this is a questionable reason for designating a national park. The mission of the NPS is to preserve the most unique sites in the country, not to increase tourism to particular areas, which is by definition a concern of local political interest, not national interest. Moreover, economic development should be viewed as a benefit of protecting beautiful lands, not the reason for doing so.

There is no evidence that a national park would receive more funding just for being designated a national park – rather than for the reasons that led it to being designated a national park. Although there is nothing in legislation which says explicitly so, in practice, national parks are subject to more regulations. Activities that consume resources such as extraction, hunting or off-road vehicle use are generally prohibited in national parks while authorized in other park units. Many of the Alaska national parks consist actually of a “national park and preserve” with the national preserve explicitly created to allow resource-intensive activities.

I mentioned before that “national park” is often used for brevity instead of “National Park System Unit”. Some favor the term not only for brevity, but also to emphasize the equal status of all park units. To follow this logic to its natural conclusion would mean dropping all the confusing designations altogether and call all units “national park”. Are you ready for a Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Park (the townhouse where the wounded Polish freedom fighter lived, 0.02 acres) alongside Yellowstone National Park? How about a President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Park? Does anybody seriously believe all park sites have the same significance? In any system of equals some entities are more equal than others. Some park units are clearly international attractions, and some are not. Although from an administrative point of view, all units are equals, it is clear that some are more valuable than others, and it is not unreasonable to distinguish them with a name. Calling all units national parks would dilute the significance of our most special places. An award doesn’t confer any special rights to anyone, besides calling themselves an award-winner, but that does not make it an insignificant nor useless label. I think the “national park” label, we are simply recognizing with a name what is a reality on the ground.

Yellowstone National Park

Would you agree that “national park” should be reserved for a selected group, or should all NPS units be called that way?

Exploring Isle Royale National Park by Water

Isle Royale is a roadless national park more than forty miles long, and exploring it in depth on foot requires backpacking or long hiking days, which contributes to its reputation as an involved place to visit. A little known alternative way to explore the park is by water, which allows you to make short work of destinations that are quite far to hike to or to get to locations inaccessible to hikers. In this post, I will describe the options available from Rock Harbor, which is the most popular and scenic of the two entry points into the park.

Canoeing & Kayaking

Ferries can transport canoes and kayaks for a fee. With your own kayak, you can go wherever you please, but the hazards presented by open waters make it an endeavor for experienced paddlers only. Lake Superior is almost like an ocean with a rocky coastline, cold water temperatures, sudden squalls, and possible large waves.

If you don’t have your own, the Rock Harbor Marina rents canoes and kayaks. They are stored at the floatplane dock on Tobin Harbor, and their use restricted to safe Tobin Harbor, which is only about 4 miles long from Three Mile to Scoville Point. I found a canoe most useful for going to Lookout Louise. Since we were carrying photography backpacks, we found their canoes to better choices than their kayaks for keeping gear dry.


To go further than Tobin Harbor, I rented a aluminum 14 feet long fishing boat with a 15 HP motor from the Rock Harbor Marina. Like with their canoes and kayaks, there are restrictions on where you can go. You have to stay in Rock Harbor, between Moskey and Scoville Point (12 miles), and you cannot go around Scoville Point into Tobin Harbor. The landings have to be at a dock, and those are marked with the letter “D” on the NPS map. Within those limitations, here are the three most rewarding destinations I have found.

Tookers Island is a very small island, however, it has two camping shelters from which you can catch sunsets and sunrises with a few steps. The small size allows easily photography in each direction over water, with neighboring islands adding interest to the compositions. This makes Tookers Island maybe the most scenic place to camp in the entire park. Isle Royale’s campgrounds are unique in the National Park system in that 19 out of the 32 campgrounds are equipped with shelters which make camping unusually comfortable. They consist of three-sided wooden structures with a roof, the fourth side being an insect screen with a door. All shelters are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and we found out the hard way that Tookers Island is quite popular with boaters. They had claimed all the two shelters by the time we arrived.

The Edisen Fishery dock gives access to three diverse day-use sites, and although it is on Isle Royale, there is no access from the trail system. The historic commercial fishery is situated right from the dock.

The left trail leads in 0.25 miles to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, oldest on the island (1855). The first floor features a museum, and I climbed the staircase to the room that used to house the light for a relatively rare high view of the coastline.

Following the right trail for about 0.4 miles, we arrived at the historic Bangsund Cabin, which is the base for the longest continuous wildlife study in the world. That study of the predator-prey population interaction of the wolves and moose has been going on for more than five decades. The population variation is well captured by a system of differential equations. Back in college I first heard of Isle Royale in math class through those equations. At that time, I had no idea where the place was located. The study is currently carried on by Rolf Peterson, with help from his wife Carolyn (Candy) Peterson. Both proved to be gracious hosts. Rolf enjoys showing visitors their vast collection of moose antlers and skulls, and both welcomed us into their home to discuss Rolf’s research and other moose-related topics.

At the end of Moskey Basin, next to the dock, a small peninsula provides a scenic location to catch a sunrise. Some of the shelters in the nearby campgrounds face directly the water. It took about one hour by motorboat to go from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor Marina, and this is because of two no-wake areas. This was followed by a 30 min floatplane flight, a 6-hour drive, a 5-hour flight, and a 1-hour ride, and I got home in San Jose in the late evening!


Isle Royale National Park comprises more than 450 surrounding islands, and the most remote of them is Passage Island, separated from Isle Royale by several miles of Lake Superior waters, enough to accommodate a commercial shipping lane. Passage Island is not grazed by moose, so its denser vegetation makes for an interesting comparison with Isle Royale’s. To travel the open waters off limits to rental boats, we booked a guided excursion on the tour boat M.V. Sandy, operated by the Rock Harbor Lodge. For families and anybody who would rather not operate their own watercraft, guided excursions on the boat M.V. Sandy includes trips to Lookout Louise and the Edisen Fishery, with a schedule that varies according to the day of the week.

If you add the availability of the lodge, campground shelters, and water transportation, with a bit of planning, you can explore quite a bit of Isle Royale with less effort than its reputation as difficult-to-visit wilderness would lead you to expect.

Accessing and Working Isle Royale’s Lookout Louise

Carolyn and Rolf Peterson, who together have raised a family on remote Isle Royale, lamented that Ken Burns didn’t roam the national park, but instead just zeroed in on a single overlook. Which one did he choose? Lookout Louise.

Expansive elevated views do not come easily on Isle Royale because of a combination of gentle peaks and dense forest cover. The position near the tip of the island atop a cliff sets apart Lookout Louise from the few other high points available along the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which forms the backbone of Isle Royale. On previous trips, I had hiked a large part of the 40-mile trail, however, I had missed Lookout Louise, which forms its northeast terminus.

The reason becomes clear when you look at the map. If traveling on foot, you’d be coming from Mount Franklin, and then you’d have to backtrack for 5 miles along the section of the trail between Mount Frankin and Lookout Louise. Visiting as a day trip from Rock Harbor would entail a hike of almost 20 miles round-trip.

This landlubber eventually figured it out that crossing the waters of Tobin Harbor makes Lookout Louise a quick outing from Rock Harbor. The distance on water from Rock Harbor to the Hidden Lake dock is about a mile and it took us 20 minutes to paddle a canoe.

After skirting Hidden Lake (a moose habitat), the trail gains 300 feet elevation within a lush forest, and you reach Lookout Louise a mere 0.6 miles from the dock. During the summer season, you can rent canoes and kayaks at the Rock Harbor Marina, and they are conveniently stored on Tobin Harbor. The outfitter provides canoes without even a single line, but I had brought an utility cord, so we were able to tie the canoe to the dock. On some days, it is possible to visit Lookout Louise on a guided trip with the MV Sandy tour boat, but you’d be standing at Lookout Louise at midday.

The views from Lookout Louise range from west to northeast, and I had to “work” that overlook. When I arrived there in the late afternoon, at first I saw only one opening between the trees towards the west facing Duncan Bay and Five Finger Bay. I normally try wide views before looking for details. However, 3 hours before sunset, the view was strongly backlit, to the point where a good photograph didn’t seem possible. Given the difficult light and the limited size of the opening, I reached for my telephoto lens, looking to isolate a graphic image.

Shooting right towards the sun to make the most out of the backlight, I liked the high-contrast silhouettes of the multiple tree-covered ridges against the texture created by shimmer of the water. Pointing the camera just a bit more towards the west yielded a more hazy effect, with the texture of the forest barely visible.

One hour later, the sun had moved and the shimmer left the area where the ridges had the richest shapes. However, I noticed that I could now create a symmetrical wide-angle image. The trees would contribute rather than distract. I centered the sun and stopped down the lens to f/22 to create a sun star. The tree in the middle was aligned with precision to tame the brightest areas of the water. While the image below is a HDR blend, almost the same result could have been obtained with a single frame from the Sony A7R2 with its great dynamic range.

Shooting towards the northeast and the tip of the island (Locke Point), the side lighting in the late afternoon delineated the forest beautifully, however, finding a satisfying composition proved tricky, as trees were obscuring views. By bushwalking a few yards off-trail to the edge of a cliff, I found an open viewpoint, and tried to balance the composition by including a foreground tree.

However, I was not pleased that the tip of the island was hidden by a ridge of trees, which may seem unimportant until you realize that the eye naturally converges towards that point. After another half-an-hour of stepping through bushes, I eventually found the viewpoint I was happy with, one that appeared in none of the photos I’d seen from Lookout Louise. Locke Point was now well separated. Small detail, big difference as far as I am concerned. I was glad that I kept looking.

After making the previous photograph, instead of waiting for the sun to get lower, I thought I’d have enough time do a quick roundtrip to the dock to get my panoramic head that I left in the boat. On my way down, I was elated to spot a moose walking on the Greenstone Ridge Trail. It was thanks to the late hour, as they don’t like to come out during the day, and to shoot at 300mm handheld with a shutter speed of 1/320s, I increased ISO to 3200. Isle Royale is famous for its population of wolves and moose. With just two left, you’d expect the former to be elusive, but even though there are more than 1,500 moose, there are not that easy to spot. On my previous two trips, I was unable to photograph one, so I found it well worth missing the sunset to be able to stalk the magnificent animal!

Back from Lookout Louise, paddling the glassy waters in semi-darkness was a delightful and serene experience. We’ve been told that the coast guard doesn’t want people to canoe at night, and happened to reached the dock just in time before nightfall.

More images of Isle Royale National Park

Treasured Lands: Photography Tips and the Book as Object

I received the following question by email: “… I was wondering about the level of photography tips you offer in this book. I am primarily interested in learning some of your techniques (both while capturing the shot & post), and so that content to me is perhaps more important than the final photographs themselves (as I can always enjoy those through your website / Google+)…”

Photography tips

The photography tips in Treasured Lands are ideas and principles rather than technical details. With a few exceptions, such as exposure for the Milky Way which doesn’t vary much, I do not provide camera settings. I think their usefulness is greatly exaggerated since they vary with equipment and environment, not to mention that modern cameras will often deliver a usable image in automated modes.

The work of some photographers derives its distinction mostly from digital post-processing. I am not part of them. My post-processing can refine an image, but the work is essentially done in camera. Processing is always secondary to timing and composition. In the big picture of things, I do not think it is that important in my photography. Since the photography commentary in the book is a “big picture” view, I have entirely omitted post-processing. In the case of images captured on film, which make a large proportion of the book, the goal of that post-processing has been simply to match the transparency – a task not as trivial as it sounds since we are translating a transmissive medium into a reflective medium, but that would be irrelevant for readers.

One easily missed aspect of Treasured Lands is that if you read the book cover-to-cover, which I doubt anybody does, you could get a decent education in landscape photography. The notes are the sum of my experience, of which photography is part, so I’ve laced them with musings on a number of photography topics (see image below). In theory, it would be possible to learn quite a bit by reading the notes, possibly even more than by taking a workshop with me. However, the educational material is not readily found unlike in a technique book because the focus is not on photography how-to. Besides technical considerations picking up the best time of the day and of the year and getting there have also to be considered as part of what goes into a picture.

Part of the Index for Treasured Lands, showing the the “photography” entry

In a book with 500 images, if I had commented on the light, technique, and composition for each of them, this would have quickly become tedious, since a great deal of repetition would have taken place. My approach has been to elaborate on each idea only once. For instance, on page 30, under the “Hoh Rain Forest” entry, I define “soft light” and explain how to find it and why it is generally favorable for forest photography:

In the rest of the book, there are many other forest photographs. However, although “soft light” is occasionally mentioned, the explanations above are never repeated. Rather, the book builds upon them with additional considerations, for instance about on page 95, under the “Giant Forest” entry:

This succinct, but informative treatment fits in with the fact that Treasured Lands is several books in one.

The physical book

I do not agree that the “final photographs” are best enjoyed via the internet – anyways, how could they be final in electronic form, when their ultimate realization is the gallery wall and the printed page? If you are used to viewing photos on a computer screen, I think you will be surprised by the experience of leafing through the book.

First, there is the level of detail available in print. Until the next software update, terragalleria.com displays images at a size of 550 pixels. At 350 dpi, the printing resolution for Treasured Lands, this represents a printed size of 1.57 inches. For comparison, the thumbnails on the pages of photography notes in the book are 1.6 inches across. One reviewer has complained that those thumbnails are too small to represent a location, but in fact they offer the same amount of information as the web images! In the book, many images are printed full bleed. That is 12.25 inches across, about an order of magnitude larger than the thumbnails. There is a non-obvious way (for now) to view them on terragalleria.com at double the resolution, and those images are provided by default to Google+ followers, but the difference in resolution with the printed image is still consequential.

Second, although the photos on terragalleria.com can sometimes be sequenced with great care, you view them one after another. Treasured Lands embraces a design with multiple images per spread, in which the interplay between the images add to the individual strength of each of them. Although design was a collaborative process, many of the ideas have to be credited to the great art director Iain Morris.

Two of the spreads for Canyonlands National Park. Horizontal shadows echo each other on the two vertical images, and the Needles and the human figures of the Great Gallery do likewise on the panoramic images. Stars and moon contrast, while diagonals create a symmetry.

There are less easily quantified, but no less important differences that result in a different level of engagement with a book as opposed to a screen. Books are physical objects with weight and, yes, smell, that of the paper and of the ink. Speaking of which, there is quite a bit of ink: the weight of the dummy is 3,160g and the finished book is 3,295g which means that 135 grams of ink (4.7 oz or 2/3 cup) were used. You hold a book in your hands and turn the pages. The materiality of a well-printed book is a great part of the joy of reading and viewing. Books have been and remain vehicles for civilization. Some of my most prized possessions are books, especially if signed. I don’t think anybody would say the same of a PDF!

Return of the Mountaineer

Mountaineering led me to photography and rock climbing brought me to California. About twenty years ago, my friend from France visited me and we went climbing in Yosemite, tackling the classic “Central Pillar of Frenzy” on Middle Cathedral. Like many in Yosemite, that climb follows cracks in the rock. Instead of pulling on holds, you’d jam your fingers or hands in the cracks. The next day, both of my wrists hurt, and instead of climbing, we hiked. Back in the Bay Area, I was still in pain and saw a doctor. The diagnostic was devastating. I was told that I could not climb cracks again. The initial culprit wasn’t even rock climbing, rather improper keyboarding technique that had led over the years to repetitive stress injury (RSI), but climbing made it worse. For the next twenty years, I did not do a single multi-pitch rock climb.

Contributing to keep me away from the rock, I married a self-described acrophobic and started a family. The forced retirement focussed my efforts on the national parks photography project. Over the next two decades, I would visit Grand Teton National Park five times, the average number of visits for each national park. Each time, I would photograph the striking Grand Teton peak from afar, as if the mountain now belonged to a different plane, within sighting distance, yet now inaccessible. As the years passed, I became more curious about what the view from the iconic summit would look like.

This year, as I was planning a Grand Teton trip to view the eclipse with my brother-in-law Nhon, it occurred that since he’s become such a strong climber, even though we had never climbed together in the mountains, we could team up to climb the Grand Teton. If the world was going to end after the eclipse, at least I would have stood on the “Grand” before I died!

The Plan

The Grand Teton is one of the classics of American mountaineering. As can be guessed from its sharp profile, there is no hiking route to the summit. Even the two easiest and most popular routes, the Owen-Spalding and Upper Exum Ridge, require technical rock climbing with ropes. We set our sights on the Direct Exum Ridge because the route, which combines the Lower Exum Ridge with the Upper Exum Ridge is listed in the historic book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Since the 7,000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead to the summit seemed to be a bit too much to handle round-trip in a single day, the first step was to secure a backcountry camping permit. Most of them are provided on a first-come, first served basis, and competition is fierce as only 18 people are allowed to camp at our preferred site, the Lower Saddle. When we showed up at 5:30 am at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, 10 people were ahead of us, but by the time it opened, at 8 am, more than 50 were behind us. The process was efficient and we were happy to walk out permit in hand.

The Garnet Canyon Trail

We started at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead (6,650 feet) in the early afternoon. From there, we followed the trail up Garnet Canyon for 5,000 feet elevation gain in 7 miles. Since it is such a steep hike, I didn’t expect it to be that popular, but when the views opened up above the forest, I began to see why it was the case. The scenery along the trail was rewarding in itself and with such an elevation gain, the scenery changed from forest, to subalpine meadows, then rocky terrain with glaciers. As the impressive peaks got closer, we were grateful to be able to easily refill bottles with the sweet water of the cascading mountain stream. From Jackson Hole, the mountains are only a backdrop, but on the trail, they are surrounding you. I felt I was coming home.

The last photo is of Chris and Aleksandra completing a single-day ascent and descend of the Grand. I had climbed with Chris two decades ago while he was working at Stanford on the first of his two PhDs. I had not seen him since, but he invited us to a prized campsite in the park around the eclipse time (Thanks!), for which he started planning seven years ago. Fittingly, our reunion was below the Lower Saddle. A few days later, Chris and Aleksandra would be back on the Grand to view the eclipse.

The Lower Saddle Camp

Our objective for the afternoon was the Lower Saddle (11,650 Feet), which is the pass between Middle Teton (12,805 feet) and Grand Teton (13,776 feet), and the highest campsite that can be used to climb the Grand Teton. Besides the superlative views both on the Wyoming and Idaho side at sunset, we had a good look at our route for the next day, which follows the prominent ridge in the center of the Grand Teton. I felt a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. Winds can be howling at the Lower Saddle, so we were glad to have found a campsite protected by rock piles.

The sunrise

We set up the alarm for 4 am and started towards the mountain, made more mysterious by the night. While scrambling in the dark resulted in some wandering off-route into unstable talus – and a bit of cursing when the slopes gave way underfoot, it was wonderful to witness the arrival of the dawn and sun during the approach to the climb. At such high elevations, the alpenglow takes on a magical quality that I had missed by watching from below on all those years. I could now clearly grasp the structure of the mountains from a high perspective. Because it was a demanding climb for me, I had taken only a 24-70mm lens. In retrospect, the 16-35mm might have been a better choice, but multi-image panoramas worked fine for the scenery. The camera was the mirorless Sony A7R2, and that was one time when I fully appreciated its smaller size and lighter weight compared to the DSLRs!

The Exum Ridge climb

We roped up at sunrise. The route turned out to offer excellent climbing, with the sheer walls more intimidating than difficult thanks to positive holds. It had been two decades since I climbed with a pack on my back and I was glad to be following. The sun did not visit us until the junction with the Upper Exum route, and the wind contributed the chill. Although it might sound unpleasant, I relished the memories brought by having fingers numbed by the cold to the point of not feeling the rock. I tried to warm them up with my breath. I was elated by the exposure and the privilege of being in a place where man normally doesn’t belong. After completing the difficult climbing parts of the route, we coiled the rope so that we could move faster towards the summit – which is always further than one thinks.

The higher we got, the better the view, as seas of peaks began to unfold. However, this doesn’t necessarily translate to more compelling pictures, and in the hazy midday, I hardly felt like photographing from the summit. It is so difficult to succeed as a mountaineer and a photographer at the same time! However, even if the images from lower are better, it is eventually the experience and memories that make it worth the effort. Although I slowed down our party by running out of gas on the hike down the Garnet Canyon Trail – we would not return to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead until midnight -, I was happy to be able to steer my aging body towards a bit of youth. As with the eclipse, the top remains etched in my mind and I know that I will not look at the mountain the same way as I did before the climb.

View more images of Grand Teton National Park

Solar Eclipse over the Tetons: Photographing (?) the Real Icon

Summary: For the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 in Grand Teton National Park I chose a backcountry location discovered by William Henry Jackson. My shooting plan to capture this iconic shot did not involve straight photography, but rather a timelapse and a 360-degrees panorama.

Attending or not attending ? That is the question

I am a landscape photographer. Without the connection to the land, photographing a celestial event doesn’t get me that excited. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the difficulty and admire well-crafted close-ups of celestial objects. However, those astronomy pictures lack the sense of “being there” which defines most of my work. They could have been made in a wide range of locations – and are best shot with telescopes. Tens of millions were expected to see the 2017 eclipse, the most accessible ever in America during our lifetime, and therefore the most viewed ever. Most of their successful close-up images would be similar, whereas I am striving for the distinctive.

The last total eclipse in America happened 38 years ago. The next best thing to a total eclipse is an annular eclipse, which occurred in May 2012 in America. To photograph it, I traveled to West Texas because the sun would be low on the horizon at eclipse time (story and photos here). When I learned of the 2017 eclipse, I was initially disappointed that it would happen at midday in summer. The sun would be overhead, high above terrestrial features. To include both the sun and the landscape, one would have to use a very wide-angle lens, which would make the sun tiny in the picture.

I initially thought about sitting this one out. But I read that a total eclipse is something else, to which a partial eclipse barely compares, and this made me curious. Even if I would not come back with a great picture, I’d be able to witness a total eclipse with my own eyes without having to travel to the ends of the earth. Sometimes, the experience must supersede the photograph.

The most spectacular location ?

Since the eclipse is a natural event, I wanted to experience its power in the midst of a pristine landscape rather than in the city. Looking at the coast-to-coast 70-mile wide path, there were a number of national parks traversed. However, it was pretty clear to me that the most spectacular location would be Grand Teton National Park, home to one of the most striking mountains – if not the most striking – in the country. Would you agree?

This sit well with me, since I am mostly known as a national parks photographer, and many readers have asked me for a followup to Treasured Lands. Experiencing a spectacular natural event at a spectacular location appealed to others as well. If monetary value is an indicator of desirability for a location, note that the Washington Post article Airfares to solar eclipse destinations soar to astronomical levels mentions Jackson WY as the airport topping the charts of overpriced flights.

Pursuing the iconic shot

Map of Grand Teton National Park. In red boxes: Grand Teton and Table Mountain. All front country areas are east of the Teton Range.

There was just was a slight problem. Standing in any of the park’s easy-to-access front country areas, the Tetons would be west of you, but at the 11:36 am totality time, the sun would be coming from the Southeast (133.3 degrees azimuth). To me, choosing Grand Teton National Park to photograph the eclipse and not including the Grand Teton in the picture meant missing what would be a defining shot.

Others recognized that this was the iconic shot of the event. Astrophotographer Alan Dyer, in his excellent 296-page ebook How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse presciently writes “How many hours will it be after the eclipse before images like this begin to pepper the internet, garnering thousands of hits and likes”. The image in question was a composite of a large sun in the western sky over the Grand Tetons superimposed with a wide-angle image taken from the Wyoming side. What I didn’t expect was that despite their usually strict standards, even the venerable National Geographic didn’t resist the temptation, displaying on their Instagram an image even more outrageous than Alan Dyer’s example of what not to do (see image and read commentary on the controversy). Although I strive for truthfulness, I admit having done my share of digital alterations. However, I’ve always tried to honor reality by not publishing such images of something that could never exist, even if labeled as “photo illustration”. Nature photographs derive much of their power from the assumed connection with reality.

Following the footsteps of William Henry Jackson

In this case, the solution to the problem was pretty simple: find a backcountry location northwest of the Grand Teton to photograph from.

Photographer’s Ephemeris screenshot with South Fork position aligning sun and Grand Teton

Tracing the position of the Grand Teton at a 133.3 degrees azimuth with the Photographer’s Ephemeris yields a location on a trail in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. The hike from the South String Lake Trailhead is 13 miles RT and only 1,700 feet elevation gain. However, having been at Cascade Canyon Forks before, I remembered that from that location the shape of the Tetons appeared quite distorted and indistinct because you are standing so close and low. This was confirmed by a photo from my friend Mike Cavaroc, a nature photographer and hiker living near the Tetons. In addition, the position in a deep canyon would not provide any view of the horizon. I had read that the sight of the land from a mountain top was special during an eclipse, and was as interested in the light on the land as in observing the sky.

Grand Teton by William Henry Jackson, 1872

I looked for a higher vantage point on the west side of the Tetons that would preserve its iconic shape and allow a view of the horizon. The flat-topped, 11,106-foot peak called Table Mountain sits just at the border of Grand Teton National Park. Although nowadays the immense majority of photographs of the Tetons are from its Wyoming side, the first ever photographs of the Tetons were made from Table Mountain in 1872. Or more precisely from near Table Mountain. The photographer was none other than William Henry Jackson, whose photographs were instrumental in establishing Yellowstone National Park, and on that occasion he and his party happened to have made the first ascent of Table Mountain. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants! Read about Jackson’s efforts.

The only reason why the view isn’t photographed more often is that the effort to reach Table Mountain, from the Teton Canyon Trailhead, is even more substantial than to reach the South Fork, since it involves a 11.5-mile RT hike with 4,000 feet of elevation gain. But if Jackson did it in the 19th century, is it too much to ask of us, with our modern outdoor equipment and lightweight cameras, to hike the mountain?

Pinpointing the backcountry location

Although William Henry Jackson benefited from a “tabula rasa” (pun intended), because nowadays there is a trail to the summit of Table Mountain, all the modern photos of the area tend to be taken from that summit. Such are the effects of a beaten path. While sitting at home planning for the trip, I thought I could find a better location.

First, looking at the published photos from Table Mountain, I noticed a foreground with a slope and snowfield that I found distracting. I much prefer a view that shows the full height of the mountain from its base in the South Fork to a truncated one. So did William Henry Jackson.

Tetons from the top of Table Mountain

Second, using the Photographer’s Ephemeris, I determined that if shooting from the Table Mountain, the sun would be placed right of the Middle Teton. Centering the sun a bit better called for moving north on a ridge adjacent to the summit. While the excursion looked good on the map, I wasn’t sure of the exact nature of the terrain. It so happened that I had the perfect opportunity for reconnaissance, as exactly two days before our hike up Table Mountain, my brother-in-law and I climbed the Grand Teton. We were able to confirm visually what the map had indicated, and pinpoint the particular spot on the ridge were we wanted to be, just before a sharp drop.

Photographer’s Ephemeris screenshot with sun direction from ridge north of Table Mountain

A third reason for not shooting from the summit is that Mike Cavaroc had warned me of possible overcrowding at the summit – not a good situation for photographing a 360 pano, let alone commune with nature. It turned out he was right. A headcount on Table Mountain accounted for about 250 people and 7 dogs. This is illustrated by the following crop from my 360 panorama. The distance from my viewpoint to Table Moutain was nearly half a mile. This short distance made a big difference. Don’t settle for the obvious location!

Table Mountain summit during eclipse, crop from 360 panorama

A Non-Photography Shooting Plan

The totality lasts about two minutes, but it represents the crux of the experience. Since this was my first total eclipse, I didn’t want to spend that time looking at an electronic screen. But I still sought to capture as much of the experience as possible. Although I carried a medium telephoto zoom (70-300mm) and a square filter made of Baader Astro solar film, I mostly planned to set up a pair of Sony A7R2 with wide-angle lenses and no filter.

The first camera would run a timelapse to capture all the temporal extent, starting from five minutes before totality to five minutes after totality, at the shortest possible interval of one second. A longer time span than the 12 minutes wouldn’t be that useful because the variation in light is rather slow farther from totality, and extended shooting of the sun without a filter isn’t the wisest thing to do. As calculated at home, framing both the sun at an elevation of 49 degrees and the Tetons in the horizontal orientation needed for video required using the 16-35mm f/4 lens at 16mm. That camera would run basically unattended once the timelapse was started.

I would use the second camera to create a high-resolution 360-degree panorama during totality to capture the spatial extent (technique explained here), and in particular as much as possible of the eerie light and 360-degree sunset-like glow that happens at totality. Since I’d forgo the time-consuming nadir, this would require me to shoot 12 frames at 14mm, which would take most of the two minutes, but since I am using a rotator with click stops, I would not have to look via the finder at any time, and could instead keep my eyes directly on the sun, sky, and landscape.

I deliberately renounced trying to make single still photographs but was hoping to be able to extract them either from the timelapse frames, or from the 360 panorama, which is about 27,000 pixels wide by 13,500 pixels high. This is quite a bit more than the trendy 360 video captures and could be used to make prints of tremendous quality. Let see how this turned out.

Eclipse day

On August 21st, it was a bit tough to wake up at a 2:30am, since the day before we had gone to bed past 1:00am after descending from the Grand Teton. My brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I drove for two hours from the Colter Bay Campground in Grand Teton National Park to the Teton Canyon Trailhead. Even that early in the morning, motorists were already staking out pullouts. At 5:00am, more than a hundred cars were already at the dusty Teton Canyon Trailhead. Fortunately, two deputies were there to make parking an orderly process. We began the steep ascent via the Face Trail and soon were hiking in T-shirts despite the early hours.

Late summer wildflowers on Trail to Table Mountain

The trail turned out to be spectacular, and worth hiking even without the final view of the Tetons and the eclipse. Even when the destination is the greatest, the journey can be its own reward.

Approaching Table Mountain

We bypassed the Table Mountain summit and headed directly to the ridge. However, arriving at about 10am, we found the spot occupied by a photographer who had camped there the night before to make sure he got it. If you have a good idea, you won’t be the only one! In order not to get in his view – and not having him in ours, we had to scramble down the ridge, which meant that I’d miss parts of the horizon in my 360-degree pano. Yet, I was able to capture more than 180 degrees of horizon. Even on the busiest day in the history of Grand Teton National Park, we secured a spot with no one else is sight for half a mile.

I had brought only one cable release, which doubles as an interval timer for timelapse. At the last minute, I thought that if I used it on my 360-degree camera, I would’t have to engage the self-timer as I normally do in order to avoid vibration from pressing the shutter. With 12 frames, and a 2-second self-timer (I normally prefer 5 seconds), the time savings would amount to 24 seconds, almost one quarter of the totality. Not something to be scoffed at! With the same goal, for the panorama camera, I kept a relatively short shutter speed of 0.5s, and this would also prevent the sun would not be blurred as it moved. Since I had to stop down the lens a bit for depth of field, this resulted in a ISO of 800. I am not sure what is the exact value of the f-stop, since the lens, an adapted Nikon 14-24mm, does not transmit metadata to the Sony camera.

This was possible because Sony cameras support a downloadable timelapse app that I could use to run the timelapse. I did a short test run of the app, and it appeared to work fine. Since I was anticipating the exposure at totality to be around ISO 100 f/4 4s, I set up the lens wide open and the ISO at 400. At five minutes before totality, this resulted in a shutter speed of 1/400s. I anticipated that the shutter speed would slow down to 1s at totality, which was the longest possible shutter speed that would not disturb the timelapse interval spacing.

The totality came, and it was awesome. Having seen before the northern lights and erupting volcanoes, I can confirm that it is the most awesome spectacle in nature. And having witnessed a partial eclipse before, I can now say with confidence that it doesn’t even remotely approach the experience of totality. This is one occasion where I did not expect pictures to do justice to the beauty and strangeness of the experience.

The results

The 360 degrees panorama turned out to be quite difficult to assemble, due to the variation in brightness during the eclipse, and the fact that it was shot near a mountaintop. I am grateful to Jordi Navarro Isern of Spain for his expertise in putting it together.

Check out the interactive 360 degrees panorama.

Tetons and horizon during eclipse, crop from 360 panorama (larger image)

As I was starting to shoot that 360 panorama at totality, although engrossed in the moment, I couldn’t help notice that the shutter sound of the timelapse camera was odd. It didn’t seem to slow down any bit. Shortly after the eclipse, a quick review confirmed my suspicion. Although the letter “A” was displayed, the camera app had acted as if the exposure mode was manual, and the shutter had remained at 1/400s for the whole sequence, which represented an underexposure of 8 f/stops! In the past, I had used the timelapse app before, but not in variable light.

Here is the raw, uncorrected time-lapse where the constant exposure captured the dramatic changes in light. (YouTube Link)

I do not know about lower in the Valley, but at 11,000 feet, it actually didn’t get dark like it did in the video, but rather like a twilight just a bit darker than the 360 panorama, maybe like 30 to 40 minutes after sunset. I noticed only one star – visible on the interactive VR 360 degrees panorama. A few years earlier, shooting with Canon cameras would have meant those frames would remain dark because brightening them would result in much noise. The combination of capabilities of the Sony sensors and Lightroom processing made it possible to salvage those shots with little effort: Here is the result of applying the following settings: Exposure +5, Shadows + 50, Luminance noise + 70, Color noise + 100. I will post a corrected video later as well.

Beginning of totality

Diamond ring


Fortunately, my mistake did little to mar an awesome experience, and I am grateful that modern camera technology is so forgiving! Besides practicing and rehearsing in similar conditions before such a rare event, there are few things I would have planed differently. As for the execution of the 360 panorama, next time, I will consider either automating it with a Gigapan or simplifying the capture by shooting a 15mm fish-eye on a single row. This will allow me to attend even more cameras, and maybe tackle the close-ups, although they are not my primary goal. The whole experience left me totally in awe, and you will see me again under the shadow of the moon. I hope that this long write-up has inspired you to plan your own future eclipse trips.

Upcoming Local Presentations

After a well-received exhibit in San Jose, and a summer of productive travels, this fall I will continue to present my work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

All the presentations are about my project to photograph the national parks, and include an illustrated lecture (aka “slide-show”), a Q&A session, and a book signing for Treasured Lands. Copies will be available for purchase if you don’t have your own yet.

The presentations are hosted by various groups, however they are all open to everybody and are free. Here is what has been scheduled up to October, with more to come in the fall.

Gallery Director Genevieve Hastings introduces lecture at Art Ark, June 2017

Sunnyvale Photographic Club

Monday August 28, 7:30 PM

Murphy Park Recreation Bldg
250 N Sunnyvale Ave., Sunnyvale,
More info

Palo Alto Camera Club

Wednesday, September 20, 7:00 PM

Palo Alto Art Center
1313 Newell Rd, Palo Alto
More info

Sierra Club Santa Cruz Group

Thursday, September 21, 2017 – 7:00 PM

The Live Oak (Green) Grange Hall
1900 17th Ave, Santa Cruz
More info

Light and Shadow Camera Club

Tuesday, October 10, 7:00 PM

Church of the Nazarene
2575 Coit Drive, San Jose
More info

I’ll be delighted to meet you on one of those occasions!

Voyageurs National Park’s gem: Anderson Bay

While the scenery of lakes and North Woods is beautiful, locations within Voyageurs National Park tend to look undistinguished. However, I have a clear favorite: Anderson Bay, which maybe has the most beautiful and varied short trail in the park and includes the best view in the park.

View from the top of the cliffs

Most of the views in the park are at water level since the heavily forested land has little elevation. Elevated views are rare and in general obscured by forest. After a half an hour hike from the boat landing, you’ll find what could be the most spectacular view in the park, as you stand on the top of white granite cliffs that abruptly rise 80 feet from the water, overlooking Anderson Bay dotted with islets typical of the North Woods.

The main view is facing East, and the scene works well as a silhouette at sunrise. In the autumn, the sun rises directly above the bay, whereas in the summer, it rises further left, behind a ridge, which isn’t as good. Looking towards the West, there is also a lovely view of the Anderson Bay.

The main view becomes front-lit at midday. On my first visit, in autumn, my most successful photograph was made in the even light of dusk, when the daylight-balanced film recorded blue tints. I aligned a group of nearby trees with two tree-covered islets to create a photograph with rhythm. Notice how some trees have changed in the interleaving two decades.

Rainy Lake

Continuing further the trail (counterclockwise), you reach the rock-lined shore of Rainy Lake, the largest in the park, near the Anderson West campsite, a good base for exploring the area. The trail hugs the shore closely, and you can easily wander on the rock slabs, which feature some of the oldest exposed rocks on earth. They are half the age of the Earth (2.8 billion year), and even older than those in the Grand Canyon. The light there is best early or late in the day.

Before leaving Rainy Lake, you arrive at beautiful Windmill Rock Cove, near the Windmill Rock Campsite. I preferred the mood of the cloudy weather of my first visit to the sunny weather of my second visit.

Beaver Ponds

While the trail it is well marked with cairns, it is lightly used and requires a bit of attention to follow. Shortly before the end of the loop, the trail overlooks a beautifully textured beaver pond which is best photographed in soft light. Beavers are important agents of change, as they rearrange the landscape by building dams, and Voyageurs National Park is a great place to observe the American beaver.

The Anderson Bay Loop Trail is about 1.75 mile-long. It is accessed from the landing dock by a 0.25-mile spur trail. To see another beaver pond, instead of returning to the landing, you can continue on the right fork on the trail towards Peary Lake, which is start of the Cruiser Lake Trail.


The Anderson Bay Loop could be reached via the Cruiser Lake Trail system (9.5 miles one-way) that crosses the Kabetogama Peninsula from Kabetogama Lake. However, by far, the easiest way to get there is by boat.

You’ll need your own, since the location is not visited by the tour boats, and that is reason enough to rent one. With a large boat, you need to start on Rainy Lake, whereas boats smaller than 21 feet can be portaged from Namakan Lake at Kettle Falls, allowing you to start in Kabetogama or Crane Lake. At the back of Anderson Bay, you’ll find a large dock and a day use area with picnic tables and a toilet, and for camping, you can stay at one of the two sites previously mentioned.

Voyageurs National Park boating guide

Voyageurs National Park may sound more difficult to visit than the other national parks because you are traveling by water, but this is what makes your experience there unique. After reading my tips for getting on the water – based on my three visits to Voyageurs National Park – you’ll see that driving a boat through Voyageurs National Park is quite simple.

While it is possible to catch a glimpse of Voyageurs National Park from the road (see descriptions for Ash River and Kabetogama), to really see it you must get on the water. The National Park Service (NPS) organizes a few tours, there are water taxis and shuttles, but to have more freedom to explore, look for wildlife, and to carry all your gear easily, it is preferable to have your own boat. Boats there are like cars in other parks, and most of the time you’ll prefer to have your own, right?

Despite the fact that most of the park cannot be reached by road, Voyageurs National Park is not considered a wilderness. Rather most of the destinations within are classified by the NPS as frontcountry, with the distinction that you reach them by boat rather than by car. You’ll see many other boats, especially in summer. While this limits the solitude, it will be reassuring if you don’t have prior boating experience.

Understanding the lay of the waters

Voyageurs is a mosaic of land and water. Lets break it down its waterways:
  • The park comprises four large exterior lakes: Rainy Lake (pictured), Kabetogama Lake, Namakan Lake, Sand Point Lake, and a small portion of Crane Lake, which form the park’s frontcountry. Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, and Crane Lake are the entry points into the park, and where you will find outfitters that can rent you a boat. The exterior lakes are interconnected via “narrows”, which here mean narrow navigable channels.

  • The narrows between Rainy Lake and Namakan Lake which is navigable because of a dam forming Kettle Falls. With a boat shorter than 21 feet, you can bypass those narrows by a short mechanized portage, where a truck hauls your boat on a trailer for about a quarter of mile. In 2017, the cost was $25 each way.

  • In addition, there are a number of smaller interior lakes which are not connected to the five exterior lakes, to which you hike. Those lakes, such as Beast Lake (pictured) offer more of a backcountry experience, with more quiet and solitude. The NPS parks canoes or rowboats on the shores of many of them, and they are available to visitors for a small fee. You can make a online reservation and pick up keys at a visitor center one day prior to the trip. Note that you may not portage your own boats into the interior lakes because of the risk of spreading aquatic invasive species into these pristine lakes.

Boat options

Unlike at other national parks, there are no concessionaires within Voyageurs National Park. You rent your boat from one of the many outfitters located in the communities surrounding the park. There is plenty of choice. On my last trip, I rented with Voyagaire in Crane Lake. Besides a great choice of boats, they are professional and helpful. Here is my assessment of the options.
  • Canoe and kayak. Voyageurs is a superb destination for paddling, however it is fairly large park (341 square miles) with big lakes whose waters are plied by a multitude of motorboats, often at full speed – there are few one no-wake areas, mostly near Kettle Falls. For those reasons, if you want to primarily paddle, the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a better choice if you’d like a quiet experience. A kayak could still be useful for exploring shallow areas if you use a houseboat, although with care, a small motorboat can navigate them as well. As mentioned before, you cannot bring your own boat into the interior lakes.

  • Motorboats. The most basic boat you can rent is a aluminum fishing boat with a 15HP motor. While they are adequate and will get you anywhere, I found a 17 feet boat with 40HP motor to be a worthwhile upgrade (about $120/day in 2017). Not only the maximum speed increases from 15mph to 25mph, but more importantly, the motor is equipped with electric start, which is much easier to use than a manual start. A 17 feet boat is stable enough to stand in, which is definitively useful for photography. In addition, a fiberglass hull will absorb the waves better than a aluminum hull. There are larger motorboats for rent, but past a certain size, they cannot be portaged at Kettle Falls, which means that you cannot explore both Rainy Lake and the three other lakes on the same trip.

  • Houseboats. Houseboating is an experience which is unique to Voyageurs amongst all the other national parks. They are like floating large RVs and offer you the comfort of home, with beds, sitting areas, a full kitchen, and a full bathroom. Another advantage of a houseboat is that it gives you more overnighting options. Houseboats may use any designated houseboat sites on a first-come first-serve basis, and can be parked pretty much everywhere, even at undesignated sites, whereas campers are limited to their reserved sites. The drawback, besides the cost is that houseboats are rather slow (7 mph). While they would be great for fun a trip with family or friends, I did’t feel I’d really use the amenities since I’d spend all my time exploring and photographing. Also, houseboats cannot be portaged at Kettle Falls. Houseboating is a popular activity, so reserve in advance.

Boating tips

The idea of renting a motorboat for the first time was a bit intimidating on my first trip, especially since I was traveling solo, but I found out that they are quite easy to operate even without prior experience. The motor has only two controls: forward/neutral/reverse and the throtle. Unless you are going full speed towards an obstacle, it’s difficult to hit anything, and you don’t have to worry about staying on a road! Here are a few lessons learned:
  • Make sure you have enough fuel: On my return trip from Anderson Bay to Kabetogama, a storm had created big waves. In the middle of Kabetogama Lake, my fuel ran out and, deprived of momentum, the boat began to bob up and down, out of control. I was very worried of getting stuck on the lake with just a few hours of daylight left. Fortunately, I found a spare fuel tank left by the outfitter under a seat and somehow figured out how to swap it with the empty tank. On my next trip, not only I asked the outfitter for a generous spare tank, but I made sure to refill at Kettle Falls. With a few side trips, roundtrip to Big Island from Crane Lake used about 20 gallons with 45HP.
  • Beware of rocks: There are many submerged rocks on the lakes, and only some of them are marked with buoys. Hitting a rock will damage your propeller. If there is a risk of hitting rocks, slow down and lift your motor. Rocks are by far the main hazard for water travel.
  • Understand navigation channels: Safe boating channels are marked by green and red buoys and you must stay between them. Knowing which one should be on your left and which one should be on your right can be confusing. The rule is that the red buoy is on the right side of the channel when facing upstream (“Red, Right, Return – The Red buoy is on your Right-hand side when Returning to the source of the water”). Generally, the water flows north into Canada so the source is south. So for instance on Crane and Sand Point Lakes, traveling north, red will be on your left. Knowing which direction the water flows isn’t always that easy, since Namakan Lake and Kabetogama converge. More details.
  • Use GPS: On my first trip two decades ago, keeping track of where I was on the water using the map was quite tricky, since all the places look the same. This year GPS Apps made it a breeze, but I made sure to have offline maps downloaded. Cell phone was available with ATT but not Verizon.

Camping and Lodging

Many resorts surround the park. Within the park, the only lodging option is the historic Kettle Falls hotel, which is reasonably priced unlike many park lodges. They offer a water shuttle if you don’t have your boat, as well as boat rentals, so it could be a good base.

If you don’t use a houseboat, there are more than 200 tent campsites in the park, and they are accessible only by boat. If there is no sandy beach, a dock is provided. Sites have tent pads, picnic tables, primitive toilets (bring your own paper), and bear-proof food lockers. You must make a online reservation for a specific site and a specific date. Once done, you need to carry a printed receipt, but if you didn’t plan at home, the visitor centers have computers and printers that you can use to this effect. You reserve the whole site: sites are meant to accommodate only one party, so reserve early if you can.

When choosing an island to camp, I picked Houseboat Island on Sand Point Lake because of its tiny size, which made it easy to access a range of orientations to photograph. At night, shooting towards the north offers an opportunity to capture the Aurora (which didn’t appear despite a KP 4 night) while the Milky Way showed up in the south.

A Gift from Kabetogama, Voyageurs National Park

Two weeks ago, on the first day of the trip to the North Woods national parks, I woke up at 5:30am to catch an early flight from San Francisco to Saint-Paul Minneapolis, arriving in the mid-afternoon because of the time difference. This was followed by a five-hour drive, without a stop for groceries nor dinner, to reach Kabetogama on the outskirts of Voyageurs National Park with just half an hour left before sunset.

On my previous trip to Voyageurs National Park, almost two decades ago, I photographed a beautiful sunrise at Kabetogama, near the picnic area of Woodenfrog State Forest Campground, and the resulting image was used as the cover for the slipcase of the limited edition of Treasured Lands. With no time for scouting, I returned to this spot since I knew I would be able to shoot towards a small island (Bittersweet Island) in the western direction. Fortunately, at those northern latitudes, the sun set at 9pm, so I was hoping for something, even though it was mostly a (long) travel day.

From the picnic area, the island was too elongated, and there was not as much separation as I wished between the island and the background lakeshore, but one way to solve the issue was to make an aerial photograph using a Phantom 4 Pro, which was permissible although drones are banned in national parks, since I was standing on state forest land rather than national park land.

After looking around, I found a better ground viewpoint, which was from the boat launch area within the Woodenfrog Campground, shortly after the beginning of the campground loop, with some aquatic grasses for foreground. From there the island was less elongated and better detached from the much more distant lakeshore. We photographed there until about 10pm. While the mosquitoes were quite reasonable until sunset, after sunset they came in full force, and I was able to continue photographing only thanks to a bug jacket with a built-in insect net.

Voyageurs National Park has over 200 designated campsites, but none of them are accessible by road. The largest nearby road-accessible public campground is the Woodenfrog State Forest Campground, which has 61 sites – the other public campground at Ash River has only 8 sites. Used on a first-come first-served basis, the campground was almost full, but we were able to locate a few vacant sites. After pitching our tents while battling the mosquitoes, and eating some food we had packed in our luggage, we came back to the boat ramp to try a bit of night photography around 11.30pm, when the sky got dark. We experimented with my adjustable lantern (the excellent Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini) to find a suitable light level for the foreground.

Sony A7R2, Sigma 20mm Art, Metabones EF/FE. 15s, f/2.0, ISO 6400

When my friend Tommy noticed a green color band on a photo he had just taken, which was not visible to the eye, his first reaction was that his camera must be broken. While at the Arctic Circle, the Aurora manifests itself with mostly green curtains high overhead, at more southern locations, it is usually low on the horizon with a few spikes and often takes on purplish colors. Exactly a week before, the Kp index (an indicator of solar activity) was at 6, one of the highest levels, but I had just returned from a trip to Hawaii, and was not prepared to travel. On that night, the Kp was forecast at 2, a low level of activity, so with no expectations of seeing the Aurora, I was much excited and grateful for the unexpected gift. Going beyond the eye, the camera recorded also the afterglow of sunset, the foreground illumination from the lantern, and a few wandering fireflies. I kept the shutter speed at 15s to avoid having the stars become trails instead of points, and confident in the image quality of the Sony A7R2 even at ISO 6400 after Lightroom noise reduction, I stopped down my lens one f/stop from wide open for better sharpness. I set up a time-lapse, but the show lasted just for a few minutes and the Aurora was gone. We would not see it again, even on a Kp 4 night. Although the trip was just beginning, Tommy joked that we could go home. The photograph turned out indeed the favorite from our week in the North Woods (a situation reminiscent of my experience in Glacier Bay) and it was made on a day when I awoke in San Jose. No matter how long your day has been and how late it is, it is worth showing up!

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