Terra Galleria Photography

Berryessa Snow Mountain: Northern California’s Mysterious New National Monument

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was established in 2015 to protect more than a hundred miles at the heart of North California’s Inner Coast Range. Although its southern tip is located only one hour from the San Francisco Bay Area, for most people, Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is more mysterious than the Sierra Nevada. The first challenge is to locate the monument and its exact boundaries within the mix of USFS, BLM, state, and private lands. Precise maps were hard to come by (the best one is reproduced below) and it took me a while to figure out the roads. During my travels, I did not see a single sign bearing the name of the monument.

California is one of the world most biodiverse places, but the majority of this biological diversity does not reside on the coastline or the Sierra Nevada. Defined in the north by Snow Mountain’s wild conifer forests and in the south by Berryessa Mountain’s oak woodlands and chaparral, Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is home to 1700 plant species of which several dozen are found nowhere else, and 80 distinct vegetation types. It also forms an important wildlife corridor.

(click on map for larger view)

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, long and thin, is bisected by Highway 20 which links Williams to Clear Lake. This post will concentrate on the lands south of Highway 20, anchored by Berryessa Mountain and Lake Berryessa. Snow Mountain is the subject of the next post.

Annie’s Rock, Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve

Less than an hour and half away from San Francisco, Stebbins Cold Canyon is a detached unit (Lake Berryessa was not included in the monument to avoid pushback from boaters) that makes for a good introduction to the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Stebbins Cold Canyon is maintained as an ecological preserve by the University of California, and its trail system is open to the public. The steepness of the canyon leads to a range of habitats and beautiful views, but also challenging hiking – 2,300 feet elevation gain for Annie’s Rock.

The trailhead is on the north side of Highway 128, less than a mile downstream (East) from the Monticello Dam that forms the south end Lake of Berryessa. After walking through a culvert under Highway 128 to get into the reserve, I joined the loop with the choice of the Homestead Trail (east,left) and the Blue Ridge Trail (west,right). As its name promises, Blue Ridge Trail offers over great views both over Cold Canyon and Berryessa Lake on both sides, but as a ridge trail it goes up and down and is quite rocky in places.

After 2.75 miles, I arrived at a junction. I took the right fork for Annie’s Rock Trail, which adds about 3 miles and 1,000 feet elevation gain. Because of the tree cover, there are fewer views than on the Blue Ridge Trail, except for a short spur that leads to Annie’s Rock. The light was beautiful at sunset, but earlier in the day would have revealed the textures in the rock slab better, since it is slightly tilted towards the east and was mostly in the shade.

Back at the junction, I followed the Homestead Trail (about 2 miles) which descends steeply through stairs and then follows the bottom of Cold Canyon. It was now half an hour past sunset time. Although the scene might have looked quite dark to an untrained eye, a long exposure (8 sec. at f/8, ISO 800, 21mm) showed nuances of light, such as the darker tones of the left slope, which was east facing.

It was pitch dark when I got there, but I still checked out the old homestead site for which the trail is named. Although it is less than impressive, pay attention to the light, which I suspect is better than anything you’d observe naturally during the day there. What looks at first like sunlight streaming in the forest in the photo above was the illumination provided by a mini-lantern hung on a nearby tree, while the forest is backlit by the moon. Near the old homestead site, there was a sign warming that “Hikers are rescued every year, particularly for heat stroke. If any member of your party are at all tired, out of breath, dehydrated or overheated you should turn back and return to the parking lot now”, but although it had been a warm day, I enjoyed the freshness of the night.

Knoxville Road

Besides a short stretch of Highway 20, Knoxville Road (also called Berryessa-Knoxville Road) is the only paved road within Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. It runs from the north end of Lake Berryessa and after exiting the monument becomes Morgan Valley Road before reaching Clear Lake. Knoxville Road is a twisting and bumpy road that follows and crosses Eticuera Creek several times.

The quintessential pastoral backroad, it traverses peaceful rolling hills full of oak trees, and gives access to several deserted hiking trails located in the Knoxville Wildlife Area. Although the road is quite narrow, I didn’t have to hesitate to pull out on the side for photos, since during my morning drive, I saw only a few other cars. Both photos on the section were photographed at the edge of the road.

Redbud Trail

The easiest and most popular foray into the Cache Creek Wilderness is through the Redbud Trail, which is accessed via a well-marked trailhead on the south side of Highway 20. The out-and-back trail climbs up a ridge, offering views, then descends to the Cache Creek crossing where most turn around (5 mi RT, 1000 elevation gain/loss), although one can continue to Wilson Valley (14 mi RT). To have a chance to photograph is varying light, I started the hike in the late afternoon, and looked for graphic compositions.

I found plenty of wildflowers along the trail in late April, with the first ones appearing as soon as the meadow next to the trailhead. On the way back, the soft light that occurred when the sun went down was more favorable to depict them.

On my way up, I had spotted a dense patch of lupine along the trail, but the contrasty light did not work well. By the time I got back to it, the light was nice and even, but with the correct exposure for the flowers, the sky was a bit too bright. I again used my mini-lantern to light up the foreground. Since a slight breeze often shook the flowers after I had started a long exposure (20 sec at f/16, ISO 800, 17mm), I had to make several tries.

More pictures from Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.

Part 2: Snow Mountain

By the numbers: most/less crowded national parks

Which are America’s most crowded national parks? Less crowded national parks? Can widely-publicized lists be trusted? Based on my visits, I have a good idea, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In my former career, I dealt with numbers quite a bit, and here I pull out precise answers by careful use of the NPS data.

Counting Visits

The National Park Service makes available a lot of visitor use statistics. Of all of them, the list of national parks ranked by the annual number of recreation visits is the one that has captured the attention of media and bloggers. While it is only a measure of popularity, it has been used to determine the “top” (best) national parks, and more relevant to this article, the more and less crowded national parks.

The numbers for the top and bottom 15 are tabulated below (full data) with the twist that instead of using only last year’s figures like everybody else, I have instead used the average over the last ten years (like I did in Treasured Lands). I am more interested in statistics of lasting value as opposed to snapshots in time, and the average is more immune to variations caused by exceptional events such as the summer of 2017 wildfires in Yosemite National Park that caused visitation to drop from a 5,028,868 high in 2016 to 4,336,890 in 2017, while most other parks saw their visitation continue to increase.

Visits Rank
Great Smoky Mountains 9,951,197 1
Grand Canyon 4,894,769 2
Yosemite 3,996,500 3
Yellowstone 3,601,693 4
Rocky Mountain 3,447,870 5
Zion 3,233,651 6
Olympic 3,137,907 7
Grand Teton 2,824,532 8
Acadia 2,605,536 9
Cuyahoga Valley 2,359,884 10
Glacier 2,320,217 11
Gateway Arch 2,006,982 12
Joshua Tree 1,728,215 13
Hawaii Volcanoes 1,565,752 14
Bryce Canyon 1,565,676 15
Kenai Fjords 291,727 45
Pinnacles 229,210 46
Voyageurs 227,996 47
Black Canyon of the Gunnison 198,211 48
Guadalupe Mountains 175,588 49
Congaree 121,036 50
Great Basin 105,880 51
Wrangell St Elias 72,362 52
Dry Tortugas 62,764 53
Katmai 36,825 54
North Cascades 24,164 55
Isle Royale 17,972 56
American Samoa 17,321 57
Lake Clark 13,402 58
Kobuk Valley 11,939 59
Gates of the Arctic 11,038 60

Great Smoky Mountains National Parks consistently ranks number one in visitation by a large margin, but is it really the most crowded park? No matter which numbers you use, amongst the less crowded, you should expect to find the Alaskan parks, which are remote, vast, and not developped. In the continental U.S., you should find the backcountry parks Isle Royale National Park, which has no road access and no roads, and North Cascades National Park, which except for a short unpaved road is explored by steep trails. Channel Islands National Park shares Isle Royale National Park’s characteristics, but the visitation numbers are very skewed by their inclusion of the visitor center, which is located mainland, whereas only one in ten of visitors make it to the islands themselves.

For some of the other national parks, the number of visits doesn’t always correlate with my memories of how crowded the park was. To take the example of two parks very similar in terrain and access – paved roads only cover a small portion of each, Canyonlands National Park receives 579,000 visits and Capitol Reef National Park receives 783,000 visits. Yet Capitol Reef National Park always felt less crowded than Canyonlands National Park. Note also how parks such as Dry Tortugas, and Great Basin are in the bottom ten, below some Alaskan parks.

Counting Hours

The National Park Service offers other statistics than the number of recreation visits, which is the default option. They are seldom mentioned, but for our purpose one of them is more useful: the number of recreation hours. If two visitors spend respectively 1 hour and 10 hours in a park, you are 10 times more likely to run into the second one. Visits for both are 1, but recreation hours counts differentiate them. To continue with the previous example, Canyonlands National Park receives 4.3 million recreation hours (average 0.83 day per visit) while Capitol Reef National Park receives 1.3 million recreation hours (average 0.18 day per visit), because the configuration of the park is conductive of a quick drive to the end of the short scenic road and back.

The average recreation hours of the last ten years for the top and bottom 15 are tabulated in the two last columns, with the numbers for visits in the first two columns for comparison in the table below.

visits visits
hours hours
Grand Canyon 4,894,769 2 77,132,187 1
Yellowstone 3,601,693 4 75,042,496 2
Great Smoky Mountains 9,951,197 1 73,751,865 3
Yosemite 3,996,500 3 69,060,263 4
Sequoia 1,060,315 21 34,300,080 5
Glacier 2,320,217 11 27,089,324 6
Rocky Mountain 3,447,870 5 23,853,991 7
Zion 3,233,651 6 22,409,146 8
Grand Teton 2,824,532 8 19,163,408 9
Kings Canyon 577,854 29 18,852,981 10
Olympic 3,137,907 7 15,067,414 11
Acadia 2,605,536 9 14,506,845 12
Mount Rainier 1,201,686 18 14,397,328 13
Joshua Tree 1,728,215 13 12,475,720 14
Bryce Canyon 1,565,676 15 10,266,170 15
Capitol Reef 783,314 25 1,275,862 45
Black Canyon of the Gunnison 198,211 48 1,168,051 46
Great Basin 105,880 51 1,161,639 47
Isle Royale 17,972 56 1,151,455 48
Saguaro 721,678 26 1,034,186 49
Pinnacles 229,210 46 912,448 50
Kenai Fjords 291,727 45 903,085 51
Dry Tortugas 62,764 53 733,466 52
Congaree 121,036 50 469,065 53
North Cascades 24,164 55 468,323 54
Guadalupe Mountains 175,588 49 454,766 55
Katmai 36,825 54 284,277 56
Gates of the Arctic 11,038 60 168,313 57
Lake Clark 13,402 58 106,848 58
American Samoa 17,321 57 34,642 59
Kobuk Valley 11,939 59 34,472 60

This is a move in the right direction, but note that Gateway Arch, which feels crowded like a city park, because it is one, is not even in the top 15, whereas the Alaskan and backcountry parks are still not consistently at the bottom. Wondering why despite comparable number of visits, people spend so much more time in Gates of the Arctic National Park than in Kobuk Valley National Park? Quite a few treat the former as the ultimate backpacking destination it is, while most visitors to the latter just fly to the dunes for a quick stroll.

The Crowd Factor: Hours per square mile

While recreation hours are a better indicator of crowds than recreation visits, they don’t take into account the size of the park, which is crucial because everything else being equal, if people are spread into a larger area, the place is less crowded. To continue in the Moab area, Arches National Park receives 4.6 million recreation hours, about the same as the 4.3 million of Canyonlands, yet everybody who has been to both will agree that Arches is more crowded. This is simply because Arches National Park streches 120 square miles, whereas Canyonlands National Park stretches 527 square miles, a surface area more than 4 times larger that dilutes the crowds.

As a “crowd factor”, I propose to use the ratio of the number of recreation hours divided by the park’s surface area. In addition, if we normalize that number by dividing it by 365 (number of days of the year) and by 12 (number of hours in a day as accounted by the NPS), we get a number that roughly indicates how many people one is going to find on a square mile of park at any hour. The resulting data is below, with the crowd factor in the last two columns:

Area Visits Hours Hours
Gateway Arch 0.14 2,006,982 8,027,927 19 13100 1
Hot Springs 9 1,380,780 2,921,406 33 74 2
Acadia 74 2,605,536 14,506,845 12 45 3
Bryce Canyon 56 1,565,676 10,266,170 15 42 4
Cuyahoga Valley 51 2,359,884 6,879,998 22 31 5
Virgin Islands 23 432,377 2,659,118 36 26 6
Zion 229 3,233,651 22,409,146 8 22 7
Great Smoky Mountains 815 9,951,197 73,751,865 3 21 8
Haleakala 45 1,097,150 2,767,447 35 14 9
Yosemite 1,189 3,996,500 69,060,263 4 13 10
Rocky Mountain 415 3,447,870 23,853,991 7 13 11
Sequoia 631 1,060,315 34,300,080 5 12 12
Mesa Verde 81 542,916 3,838,543 28 11 13
Grand Canyon 1,902 4,894,769 77,132,187 1 9.3 14
Grand Teton 484 2,824,532 19,163,408 9 9 15
Voyageurs 341 227,996 1,897,482 38 1.3 45
Capitol Reef 284 783,314 1,275,862 45 1 46
Guadalupe Mountains 135 175,588 454,766 55 0.77 47
American Samoa 14 17,321 34,642 59 0.56 48
Everglades 2,357 989,970 3,642,777 29 0.35 49
Death Valley 5,269 1,041,596 7,861,951 20 0.34 50
Isle Royale 893 17,972 1,151,455 48 0.29 51
Glacier Bay 5,039 480,802 6,175,456 23 0.28 52
Denali 7,408 481,744 6,977,855 21 0.22 53
Kenai Fjords 1,047 291,727 903,085 51 0.2 54
North Cascades 789 24,164 468,323 54 0.14 55
Wrangell St Elias 13,005 72,362 3,328,672 31 0.06 56
Katmai 5,741 36,825 284,277 56 0.01 57
Lake Clark 4,093 13,402 106,848 58 0.006 58
Gates of the Arctic 11,756 11,038 168,313 57 0.003 59
Kobuk Valley 2,735 11,939 34472 60 0.003 60

Using the crowd factor defined above produces drastic changes in rank. It is now clear that Gateway Arch and Hot Springs, by virtue of their tiny size and sizeable visitation are the most crowded parks, the former one by a whopping margin. The small Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Cuyahoga Valley, and Virgin Islands come next, and this is consistent with my experience. Amongst the sizeable parks (more than 100 square miles), Zion is the most crowded, while Yosemite is the most crowded of the large parks (more than 1,000 square miles). The Alaskan and backcountry parks are now all at the bottom, and the list confirms the opportunities for solitude at Death Valley. There is quite a bit to be learned from the NPS statistics, and this post has given you an idea of what can be done with their considered use. It has focused on the top and bottom 15, but the full data can be found on my parks data resource. Do you have any suggestions to improve this methodology?

15 Classic Color Nature Photography Books

One of the best ways to improve your photography is to study a multitude of photographs. The photography book remains my preferred way to look at photographs. Since books are meant to be lasting legacies, the editing standards are higher than those applied in online publication. Sequencing and design elevate the work, reproduction quality can be much better than most screens, which do not provide the tactility and the focussed, distraction-free experience of an art object.

This highly curated selection from my bookshelves includes some of the most remarkable books of color nature photography ever published. It consists mostly of landscape titles that have been an inspiration to me. I’ve listed only one book per photographer, although some of them have authored many titles worthy of this list. Being classics, many of the titles are out-of-print, but they still compare well with work published today.

In Wildness in the Preservation of the World

Pairing Thoreau’s words with Eliot Porter’s photographs, this was an immensely influential book: the first of the Sierra Club’s large coffee table books, and the first book of color nature photography to enjoy wide success. Eliot Porter’s images show a remarkable sensibility to the subtlety of color, fitting for someone who was a pioneer in this domain. The photographs are all of intimate landscapes, a genre he helped firmly establish, with exquisitely precise composition. Link is to the 1st edition – the latest reprint is inferior.

More details, and more Eliot Porter books

The Creation

Ernst Haas, one of the great photographers of the 20th century, a star from the photojournalism-oriented Magnum agency, and a color pioneer, was not known as a nature photographer. However, by sequencing prior work from all over the world, he has managed to create a visual poem whole sheer originality and power remain unmatched to this day.

Within a Rainbowed Sea

Although more challenging subjects have been photographed since 1984, from a purely artistic point of view, Christopher Newbert’s book remains one of the finest collection of underwater photography.

Natural Light

Natural Light, when published in 1990 based on Joseph Holmes’s exactingly masked Cibachromes from 4×5 transparencies was at the pinnacle of color nature photography. The beautiful intimate compositions still inspire.

Drylands: The deserts of North America

Philip Hyde’s photographs participated in more environmental campaigns than those of any other photographer. His color landscapes inspired a generation of photographers. Drylands is the best produced and most ambitious of his books, covering all the five North American Deserts in the US and Mexico.

More details, and more Philip Hyde books

Ancient Light

David Muench has probably published more nature landscape books than any other photographer. Of all of them, I fell this one may be his best. It represents the most adequately the breadth of his work, in an all-encompassing vision of primitive America which has been the core of his pursuit. The core of David Muench photography consists of grand landscapes and monumental subjects, often photographed with a wide-angle lens. Many of the images have a mystical quality.

Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau

Jack Dykinga’s work, centered in the US Southwest desert, combines a documentary style with a sense of graphic design. This book was instrumental in raising the awareness of the beauty of the Escalante area, which was eventually protected in a new National Monument.

See also my review of A Photographer’s Life

Chased by the Light

One of the truly unique projects in all of nature photography. Roaming his beloved north woods for ninety days between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, Jim Brandenburg made only one photograph a day, with no second chance. The results transcent the self-imposed rules and offer a most personal depiction of the spectrum of nature and the passage of time.

Intimations of Paradise

Christopher Burkett photographs intimate portraits of nature with an 8×10 camera. Although the compositions are classical, the images are colorful and exuberant. Self-published with the highest standards, this is one of the most beautiful photography books I own.


Bernhard Edmaier reveals the beauty of a large cross-section of earth’s natural enviroments through aerial photography that focusses on abstract compositions. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth from Above was more influential, but it included many images of humanity’s impact, whereas Earthsong celebrates wild places and their interconnectivity.

Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky

Art Wolfe’s is the most prolific nature photographer of his generation. While Earth is my Witness is the definitive survey of his work, this book remains his landscape masterpiece, often showcasing remarkable skies and creative exposure techniques that are all the more remarkable because they were done in the days of film. Like others of his large-scale projects, the book is organized by ecosystem.

Life: A Journey Through Time

Frans Lanting made his mark in wildlife photography with his artistry. In this book, he provides an all-encompasing survey of the evolution of life on earth, from microscopic photos of microbes to vast geological formations, showcasing in the process biodiversity and esthetic convergences. The bold full-bleed design is typical of the art books by this publisher.

The Natural World

Thomas Mangelsen captured a few of the most iconic wildlife images of all time such as “Polar Dance” or “Catch of the Day”. In addition to the wildlife photographer’s telephoto, he also carried a panoramic camera, which allowed him to create sweeping landscapes that reveal the inhabitants of the natural world in their habitats, that span six continents and range the extremes of climate on Earth. The book uses an unusual format that works well with the panoramic images.

Johsel Namkung – A Retrospective

Choosing very simple – even mundane subjects, Johsel Namkung reveals their beauty in a wealth of detail and texture. Informed by his musical background and his friendships with painters of the Northwest School, his photographs display repetitive but differentiated elements, rhythm of lines, as well as an uncompromising preference for abstraction. A superlative production in all aspects (trim size 16.5 x 13.25).

William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective

William Neill has been pursuing for forty years a pure and consistent vision of nature as a source of solace and spirituality. I originally picked up his Landscapes of the Spirit for this list, but then realized that I liked his new retrospective book so much more (review), so I am including it as a “future classic”, although it has been available widely only for about a month.

Do you have other favorites?

Gateway Arch National Park Image Selection Poll Results and Thoughts

In a previous post, I asked you for input in choosing the Gateway Arch National Park photograph to be included in the Treasured Lands exhibit. Back then, I did not comment on the images in order not to influence answers, so here are my thoughts, together with the poll results.

Poll results

Thank you to everybody who commented or voted on the Gateway Arch photo. I’ve repeated the images in the next section for reference. Here is the tally of the first 100 responses – there were more, but without a paid account Survey Monkey shows only those:

In addition, I posted the four images on social media accounts, resulting on the following number of likes. By the way, the difference in engagement on Instagram (6,700 followers) and Google+ (157,000 followers) is huge!

Instagram Google+
A. sunset 377 (30%) 32 (24%)
B. night 239 (19%) 42 (31%)
C. sunrise 363 (29%) 31 (23%)
D. park 275 (22%) 31 (23%)

I did not post on Facebook because I am aware that the percentage of your posts they show to your followers is limited and varying, whereas it may be less of a factor on Instagram and Google+. Another caveat is that a quick like is not the same as a vote on “which image would you choose?”. So of course the social media likes do not carry the same weight as the poll answers. Yet it is interesting to note that each of the three sources (Poll, Instagram, Google+) results in a different top choice, which always is one of the skyline views. The poll’s choice is more decisive, though.

The images

Image A: River view, sunset

Image B: River view, night

Image C: River view, sunrise

Image D: Park view


Of the three skyline views, I find the sunset photo esthetically more pleasing because of the color in the sky and the cleaner foreground with no pier obscuring the Mississippi River. On the other hand, being backlit, the structures are dark, especially the arch. There was still too much ambiant light for the illumination to take effect, which happened only in the night picture. The courthouse is also better centered in the night photo than in the two other photos. The light describes the Arch the best in the sunrise photo, with many gradations of tones. The sunrise photo also captures a more specific moment with the moon.

From a conceptual point of view, all three skyline views show the Arch in the context of St Louis and the Mississippi River, which is adequate since the Arch memorializes the role of St Louis in the westward expansion. They also all include the Old Courthouse, which adds depth to the park. In addition, the sunset photo has a prominent Western sky and the dawn photo has the moon in the West, which both symbolize well the march towards the West. Unlike the skyline view, the park view was taken from within the park. I like the fact that it includes the grounds, since as explained in this post, the grounds and the park cannot be separated, as together they represent a cohesive artistic endeavor. Eero Saarinen envisioned the arch rising from a small landscaped forest, and the park view depicts this vision. I think a skyline view represents what the park stands for, whereas the park view describes more literally.

Compared to the other views in the Treasured Lands exhibit, a skyline view provides a shocking contrast because you see so much of a modern city in the photo, unlike in any other image in the set. Although the Mesa Verde image depicts part of an ancient city, St Louis doesn’t really form a counterpart because it is not part of the park, and therefore non-park elements are quite prominent in the photo. But the location in a city is a characteristic of Gateway Arch National Park that makes it so different from the other national parks. The other images of the Eastern parks in Treasured Lands are linked by the hardwood trees, and the presence of those trees in the park view make it fit in more seamlessly, while the contrast of the Arch and the trees is striking enough to announce that this is an unusual park.

Part 4 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Nine Ways to Give Back to Your National Parks

On National Park Week, you will get plenty of reminders of what makes the national parks one of our greatest treasures, and of how much they have to offer. In this post, instead, I will outline the many ways you can do something for them in return. While the links within are about the national parks, the principles apply to all our public lands.

Visit with friends and family

Visiting a national park is the easiest and most fun way to support them. Experiencing the parks first hand is what makes you part of the park’s constituency, the foundation that create an emotional connection and inspire you to help preserve them. Even better, try to visit with someone who has never been there, so that you can pass your appreciation to them and allow them to be inspired as well. Seeing a park is believing why it should be preserved. If you have kids, bring them to the parks. Nature is the perfect remedy to screen time and hopefully the great time spent there gives the next generation an appreciation for the parks. Not only they are preserved for the benefit of those future generations, they need their stewardship.

Take care of the parks

Leave the parks in better shape that you found them. Even when disposed properly, 100 million pounds of trash are left annually by park visitors. Taking whatever you bring into the parks out of them (unless you see recycling or composting bins) helps the parks reaching their “zero landfill” goals, and reduces the cost of trash removal. Bringing reusable coffee mugs, water bottles, and bags instead of disposable cups, bottles, and plastic bags reduces waste. If you are reading this, you are probably already following park rules and Leave no Trace principles, but not everybody is aware of them. The parks belong to you, pick up the trash. If you see someone doing something wrong, speak to them or to the rangers.

Share on websites and social media

Social media is a great vehicle for sharing your experience with people whom you do not even know, but are receptive to your message because it comes from a person just like them. They may re-share with their own audience, and who knows who you can reach. A simple picture from a trip to a national park on a social media platform may be the spark that inspires someone to plan a visit there, and a whole trip report can even be more inspiring. To move to the next level, learn about the importance of conservation for our parks by studying their history, for example through Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea series. This will allow you understand how much of a difference you can make, and to become a more informed advocate for them.

Buy judiciously

Makers of a wide range of products donate part of the proceeds towards the national parks. Those products can even include services and trips. For an example, see the NPF gift guide. The apparel company Parks Project was set up to with the goal to contribute to the parks, and they are not alone.

Any purchases in the appropriate stores also help support the parks. In particular, the gift shops found within the park visitor centers are all operated by a conservancy, and the profits go directly to the park. Some conservancies have online stores or affiliate links. Amazon offers a program called Smile which works a bit like affiliate links, as they donate a portion of proceeds from your purchase initiated via smile.amazon.com. Here is a list of charities with “national park” in their name.

Speak up

The National Park Service (NPS) is often looking for public involvement and welcomes public input on new projects and proposals. Here is a list of projects with documents open for comment.

Even when nothing is going on, it is always a good idea to let your elected representatives know that the national parks matter to you, and ask what they have done recently to support them. The NPS has a $12 billion maintenance backlog so budget bills are particularly important. The conservation organizations do a good job keeping track of more specific issues. For instance, the national parks (and other public lands even more so) are facing increased development threats within or near their boundaries. You can help fight those threats by contacting the press and politicians, signing petitions, commenting, sending letters, emailing, or calling your representatives, either in the House or Senate.

Join an organization

Conservation organizations allow concerned citizens to amplify their individual efforts towards a common cause. Most of the national parks are supported by a “friends” or “conservancy” association dedicated to that particular park. Being local, those conservancy organizations have boots on the ground, are more dialed in than national organizations, and often have less overhead since they are smaller.

The two main national non-profit organizations that support the parks are the National Parks Conservation Association, “the independent membership organization devoted exclusively to advocacy on behalf of the National Parks System” and the National Park Foundation, “the official charity of America’s National Parks”. Refer to this explanation of the difference between them.

Beyond the park associations, more generalist environmental organizations have played a prominent role in advocating for the national parks. John Muir, the Sierra Club’s founder, was instrumental in their early development. The Wilderness Society advocates for keeping lands pristine, which is a major part of what the national parks are about. All four are excellent organizations and I am a member of them.

Donate money

The only direct donation to the government you can make is a contribution towards reducing the national debt: you cannot make a donation to an individual department. This is a reason why so many non-profit organizations were setup to work directly with the government. Besides a straight gift to a non-profit, you can get your employer involved. Many of them match charitable contributions made by employees, doubling the impact of each dollar you give. Others participate in workplace charitable giving campaigns. If your workplace is looking for a place to give, suggest a program such as Earth Share, or one of the non-profits that support the parks. A good site to research non-profits and evaluate their effectiveness is Charity Navigator.


Because of The NPS is understaffed, a network of dedicated volunteers helps hold the loose ends together. The NPS has about 22,000 employees. More than 250,000 volunteers, who donate collectively millions of hours, perform such work as trail improvement, habitat restoration, waste removal, or visitor education. Each hour that you volunteer is an hour of service that doesn’t need to be performed by a NPS employee, freeing them to work elsewhere in the park. The NPS page for each park lists specific opportunities, or you can search the nationwide volunteer portal (enter “National Park Service” as the agency). A volunteer day is a great excuse to spend time in a park with like-minded people.

Put your skills to work

Creative and artist minds can contribute their skills directly to the parks through the Artist in Residence program, open to artists of all kinds, including visual artists, musicians, and writers. If you have the time, it offers a great opportunity to get yourself intimately acquainted with a place and share your work, with free lodging within a park, and sometimes a stipend. By drawing your inspiration from the parks, you can create something wonderful that will help in turn draw attention to the parks.

Scientific minds can contribute their skills to the NPS vision of “parks for science and science for parks” via Research Learning Centers. The parks are great places to conduct research, and science helps the park by informing management decisions, which are critically important in a period of environmental changes.

If you want to be able to make a difference every day, and join a community truly dedicated to the parks, look no longer than the NPS current job listings. I learned recently that working at the NPS can be quite a sacrifice, as some rangers find themselves “paid in sunsets” and unable to pay rent or afford groceries. People of NPS were the first who received my acknowledgments in Treasured Lands, but I resolved to remember to thank each of them in person for doing their jobs when I visit the parks.

Depending on your time, resources, and abilities, there are many ways for you to make a difference for our parks. By taking action in some of the suggested ways, you are giving back to these treasured lands that have given us so much!

Starting Large Format Photography in Death Valley

By the fall of 1993, I still didn’t own a car. Back then, the same UC Berkeley student group that I joined for my first trip to Yosemite organized a yearly outing to Death Valley during the Thanksgiving school break. I didn’t know what the place was about, but I had known its name since my childhood through the Lucky Luke comics that take place in the Old West.

The drive was my first excursion east of the Sierra, and the vastness of the open spaces matched what I had imagined before of the American West. However, besides its vastness and aridity, the Panamint Valley appeared at first a barren and unremarkable valley. After that, my introduction to Death Valley was again atypical. We arrived in the late afternoon and set up camp at a higher elevation campsite, maybe Wildrose, where the night was quite cold. The second day, after checking out the Charcoal Kilns, we set out for the 14-mile round-trip hike with 3000 ft elevation gain to Telescope Peak. On the way, I noticed white patches on the floor of Death Valley proper, and at first naively wondered if those were snow. Rather late in the afternoon, we reached the top of Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley at 11,049 feet, where a few snow patches were still lingering, and got back to our camp quite late.

On the third and final day, we drove down to the Valley itself for a bit of sightseeing and stopped at Badwater. The touristy spot impressed upon me more than Telescope Peak because the desert features were close at hand. I stood directly on the salt flat for the first time, an environment new to me. Six months before, I was standing on the top of Denali, the coldest mountain on earth and the top of North America, but here was the place with the hottest recorded temperature on earth and the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. I was able to appreciate the contrast because I saw both, and began to gain an appreciation for the diversity of nature in America. There were similarities too, better illustrated by the photograph below from Dante’s View made on a subsequent visit – only in this post not from Thanksgiving 1993. If you compare it to the Denali summit photo, the valley with the salt flats echoes the glaciers. Each park represents a unique environment, yet collectively they are all are interrelated.

Between my visits to Denali and Death Valley, I had begun to study the landscape photography tradition in America, which is much stronger than in France, where humanist photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau were prominent. Amongst the first books I bought in America was a copy of Eliot Porter‘s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World that I kept at my bedside for weeks. I visited local museums and discovered the experience of viewing Ansel Adams‘s prints in person. They were by far the most beautiful I’d ever seen at that point. Compared to my experience, my photos of Denali disappointed me, so I was eager to try a new approach. I decided to try the same camera as the masters, the large format camera, which was not only a change of gear, but more importantly, a move towards a more deliberate approach to image making. The Death Valley trip was the maiden voyage for my new Tachihara 4×5 equipped with a 5×7 inch extension back.

Because Telescope Peak was a rather rigorous hike during which I needed to keep up with the group, I had not carried the large format camera the day before. Now was the chance to make the much-anticipated exposure. While the group strolled out to the middle of the salt pan, before rejoining them, I stayed behind and took a single picture of the Badwater pond, my second 5×7 exposure and only large-format photograph of Death Valley on that trip – an image that wouldn’t be possible today because of a new boardwalk. When a week later, I inspected that transparency on a light table, I was astonished to see more details than I noticed when I was standing at the scene. That photograph started me on a journey that continues to this day.

Book Review: William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective

In the 1990s, as I was discovering Yosemite, one local landscape photographer served as an inspiration. It wasn’t Ansel Adams, but a younger large format photographer, for he was working in color and had created a body of work that felt original and personal, no small feat given the shadow cast by the elephant in the room. This photographer was William Neill, and his Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness, published in 1994, the same year as I made my first large format exposures of Yosemite, remains one my favorite photography books about the park, above my own.

William Neill’s latest book William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective has a Yosemite cover and contains a portfolio of Yosemite work (chapter 5), but it goes well beyond, spanning 40 years of photography. Besides covering a vast geographic range, the book illustrates all that nature landscape photography can do more than any other monograph I’ve seen, demonstrating the many ways to abstract a scene.

Maybe the photographic foundation of Neill’s work is his sensitivity to patterns. In his grand views, special light conditions cause the skies to complement the elements found on the land. However, the vast majority of his images are intimate scenes where his eye for abstraction excels. Although this strand pervades all of his work, it is particularly in focus in the three San Francisco Exploratorium books, starting with By Nature’s Design (chapter 4).

Neill’s travels took him to several of the most beautiful nature locations in America, but his images go beyond the literal, united by a quiet sense of balance, peace, and connection in nature. Having visited and photographed most of those locations, I am admirative of the emotional clarity he was able to bring to his work. His 1994 image of Hawaii Volcanoes “Lava flow entering the Sea at Twilight” was the first I saw of the phenomenon, and remains for me the definitive interpretation of that subject. It appeared in the 1997 book Landscapes of the Spirit (chapter 1).

With all those books dating from the 1990s, a new publication had long been overdue. This is particularly the case because in the 21st century, while continuing his pure and consistent vision of nature as a source of solace and spirituality, Neill has expended its expression by fully embracing digital photography. Digital is the tool which has allowed him to photograph from a boat during a necessarily quick cruise to Antarctica (chapter 2), create an entirely new body of impressionistic work (chapter 6), and re-interpret images in black and white (chapter 3) – two more paths to abstraction.

William Neill Photographer – A Retrospective incorporates portfolios from those six areas of his work, each introduced by a thoughtful essay by the photographer. The book’s introductions by photographers Art Wolfe, John Weller, and Neill each contribute insight on the work from diverse perspectives, and as a measure of the attention to detail that went into the book, they are printed on a different matte paper.

Three of the portfolios correspond to the themes he explored extensively during the last quarter of the 20th century. They seamlessly combine classic images made with 4×5 film, which form less than half of the book, with new work along the same themes. A dozen of pages at the end of the book reproduce images at a thumbnail size, providing an overview of each portfolio as well as camera and lens details. While I have usually little use for such details, it was interesting to confirm guesses about the medium used for each photograph. The three other portfolios are about the new lines of work.

While each image is strong and delightful, the dialog produced by their careful juxtaposition and sequencing brings the work to another level. The work’s beauty is well served by an elegant design with plenty of white space, and two bleeds introduce an element of surprise. The printing on smooth satin paper is to the highest standards. This is a beautiful and inspiring book that exudes excellence in all of its aspects, the definitive opus of a master.

When books are sold via retail distribution channels, after the publisher, distributor, and retailer have taken their shares, only a tiny portion goes to the author/photographer. When they choose to offer copies directly (William Neill does at the links in the blog) consider supporting them and getting a signed copy. Also, a more elegant edition with a cloth cover and tipped in image was available as a pre-publication special offer and a few extra copies remain.

Gateway Arch National Park: Thoughts on a Name

Gateway Arch just became America’s 60th national park. Following my visit to photograph it, I elaborate on why it is an odd choice, try to understand why and how the name change happened, and voice my personal opinion about the new name.

Why was Jefferson National Expansion Memorial renamed Gateway Arch National Park?

In the 1930s, St. Louis attorney Luther Ely Smith spearheaded a local movement for a memorial site and convinced Franklin Roosevelt to establish it by presidential proclamation in 1935. Since then local politics and funding have guided the development of the memorial. The recent name-change proposal originated again with a community partnership, this time including the city of St. Louis, Bi-State Development, Gateway Arch Park Foundation, Jefferson National Parks Association and Great Rivers Greenway. It was embraced by the national politicians from Missouri in a bipartisan way. In the summer of 2017, they introduced legislation to change the name in Congress as Gateway Arch National Park Designation Act S. 1438 and H.R. 3058.

The timing is not coincidental. In 2010, a design contest took place to “re-envision the visitor experience” of the grounds. The winning firm brought back Saarinen’s original master plan, which included a continuous park linking Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse. In addition, the museum below the Arch is expended and given a new western entrance, and other improvements take place along the river and north side. The renovation, which is the most significant alteration of the grounds since the Arch was built, will be completed in time for a July 2018, grand re-opening of the museum. The project cost $380 million, including $221 million raised from local business interests by the Gateway Arch Park Foundation. With that much money spent, the majority of it from private sources, it is not surprising that someone associated with the fundraising would want to mark the renovation in a lasting way:

this new name will best reflect the magnificent renovations and visitor experience we will unveil in a few months

The name change has two components: “Jefferson National Expansion” replaced by “Gateway Arch” and “National Memorial” replaced by “National Park”.

Why “Gateway Arch”?

The primary reason for the name change was that the memorial is effectively known as “Gateway Arch” to most visitors. The name Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, quite a mounthful, never stuck with the locals, nor did it connect with St Louis. It could be that “Jefferson” became less than important than when the memorial was established, because in 1943, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was built in the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC. Rather than memorializing Jefferson, the Arch celebrated his main contribution to the westward expansion, the Louisiana Purchase.

While it sounds more recognizable and familiar, the new name of the park substitutes what is being memorialized (the National Expansion, Thomas Jefferson and St Louis’s role in it) for the physical symbol that represents it (the Arch), and now omits the function of the park (to memorialize). It looses the meaning of why the Arch was built and turns it into another structure, celebrating the Arch rather than its reason for being. Simplicity was traded for seriousness. Over the course of my visit to the park, I asked a number of rangers what they thought of the name change. The most supportive answer I heard was “I have no opinion”, and the most frequently voiced was that abandoning the old name diminished the park.

Why “National Park”?

Name change proponents made the case for “Gateway Arch” but not for “National Park”. The only justification for the “National Park” component of the name that I found is in the National Park Service press release, incidentally, a document that contains a curious (revelatory?) slip in its title: “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Renamed Gateway Arch Park”:
better communicating to the public its status as a national park
However, making clear the connection of the site with the National Park Service (NPS) is not a reason specific to the Arch, and would call for renaming all the NPS units “National Park”. All the documents related to the name change are silent about the park’s merits.

By contrast, when other NPS units were promoted to “National Park”, that upgrade was a big deal, and often the result of a campaign just to do that based on the park’s merit. As an example H.R.3641 – Pinnacles National Park Act devotes 4 long paragraphs – findings (2) to (5) – to emphasize what makes Pinnacles unique, and H.R.1488 – Indiana Dunes National Park Act uses no less than 14 findings to establish the merits of the area.

Recently, the goal of the other name upgrades has been to bring more recognition and visitors, and an eye towards local economic benefits. As an example, Rep Sam Farr stated in his floor speech advocating for changing the name of Pinnacles National Monument to Pinnacles National Park:

the new national park designation would strengthen the region’s economic and tourism potential
The same arguments are found within the campaign to rename Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to Indiana Dunes National Park. However, I could not find a written reference to economic benefits in the case of Gateway Arch. As the top attraction in St Louis, and an internationally recognized American icon visited by more than two million each year, it is not clear if a designation change makes a difference.

Could it be that this redesignation was just an accidental byproduct of the primary name change? Maybe the fact that Gateway Arch is not the entity being memorialized led to removing the “Memorial” designation. What were the possible replacements? The preference of the National Park Service, was for “National Monument”, which they thought was consistent with the size of the grounds and the example set by another American icon, the Statue of Liberty. “Monument” would have certainly described the park appropriately. Is it possible that the administration’s evisceration of national monuments had devalued the designation in the eyes of the decision makers, therefore leading to the change from National Memorial to National Park instead?

Should Gateway Arch have been named a national park?

The NPS manages 417 park units, but there are only 60 national parks, which makes “National Park” an exclusive designation, one which has to be approved by Congress. Those are our most special places. Does the name appropriately recognize the merits of the park? In a previous post, we saw what makes the Gateway Arch and its grounds one of the standout places in America, but again, that was not argued by the proponents of the name change. On the other hand, it is quite evident that Gateway Arch stands apart from other national parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite.

According to the NPS nomenclature:

Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas.
First, while the size of the Arch makes it an impressive monument, the size of the grounds is diminutive for a national park. Gateway National Park’s area is 0.14 square miles (91 acres). For comparison, the next smallest national park, Hot Springs National Park, at 8.6 square miles is about 60 times larger, and the average area of the 59 other national parks is 1,375 square miles. Second, while a few of the existing national parks – Mesa Verde, Hot Springs, Dry Tortugas – are centered around a man-made resource, none is 100% man-made, unlike Gateway Arch National Park, which was built on forty razed city blocks acquired by the Federal Government by eminent domain.

Hot Springs National Park comes the closest to Gateway Arch National Park, in that both do not encompass large areas, are located in a city, and are centered around structures. Both feature some man-made landscapes, with Dan Kiley’s design being more noteworthy than the Grand Promenade. On the other hand, amongst their historic structures, Bathhouse Row is more unique than the Old Courthouse. Hot Springs has 26 miles of trails and a campground. The scenery includes southern hardwood forests, hills, rock formations, and a gorge with a stream, but it is undistinguished, and the main natural resource is the hot springs system. Gateway Arch has, well, the Arch. Hot Springs has an older history both as a site and a protected area, but no memorial or national historic site had been promoted to national park before Gateway Arch. I consider the two parks to be roughly on the same level, oddities amongst the other national parks. The word “generally” in the NPS definition was precisely there to allow for such exceptions, and I find that they spice up a bit the system, as long as they remain just that, quirky exceptions. Given the push to develop a NPS system that tells an inclusive story of America, it is conceivable to include one 20th-century landmark amongst the national parks, and if so, I cannot think of a better choice.

However, I can only hope that this exception doesn’t become the rule, and open the door for more national parks in the same vein. There are already quite a few questionable national park proposals at different stages of the legislative process, such as this and that. Approving them would water down the land conservation ideals that led to the creation of the national parks, dilute the “national park” brand, and eventually make the designation meaningless.

How did that happen?

The National Park Service does care about the distinction between national parks and other units. The acting NPS director stated in July 2017:

We believe that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is too small and limited in the range of resources the site protects and interprets to be called a national park.

Members of Congress and in particular the Missouri delegation thought it appropriate to overrule the NPS on behalf of the local community. As locally elected politicians, representatives and senators have to advance local interests, while by definition national parks are of national significance. In our case, maybe the decision was caused more by a limited understanding of the NPS system than a desire to benefit local communities, compounded by the absence of clear guidelines. The later problem was identified in this 2013 CRS report:

Today, there are more than 20 different designations (i.e., titles) for units of the National Park System, reflecting the diversity of the areas. There is no statute that sets out and defines all the designations, and Congress has discretion in choosing the type of designation for a unit being established.
The bill passed in the U.S. Senate on Dec. 21, 2017, and U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 7. It was signed in law by President Trump on Feb 22. Such an approval did not have to be automatic. In 1929, Congress passed a bill to create a national park in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, part of the oldest National Forest in the southern United States, but President Coolidge listened to recommendations from the NPS and vetoed it. The St Louis newsweekly Riverfront Times muses that this might go down as the “least controversial move of Donald Trump’s presidency”, but yet it manages to be the most controversial of the NPS names.

Gateway Arch National Park is such an odd sheep that the main reaction I’ve seen from my informed audience is perplexity. Among the general public, most people do not know or care about the meaning of the national park designation, however, I hope that this name change awakens them to the idea of merit for national parks. Then, maybe legislative changes, such as a statute defining the designations or vesting authority to the NPS could be possible. Do you agree?

See more images of Gateway Arch National Park

Part 3 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Photographing Gateway Arch National Park

Thanks to my early visit to Gateway Arch National Park, it looks like as was the case for 58 and 59, I was the first to photograph the 60 national parks. This time it was only by a few days, as some of the people who had photographed the previous 59 national parks showed up less than a week later. On the other hand, my margin for being the first to do so on large format film is much larger, since to the best of my knowledge, nobody else had done it for the 59 previous national parks yet. Thank you to St Louis Magazine for reporting on my visit.

Challenging conditions for photography

This February trip had a drawback: the park was under construction. A major renovation is scheduled to be completed only this summer. Although most of the work is now taking place at the underground museum, the surface is full of temporary structures, signs, and fenced areas. When standing close to the Arch, I had to frame it against the sky to exclude them. For the large format photos, I prefer more context.

When you go further from the Arch on the park’s grounds, the North and South reflecting ponds, with their graceful curves mirroring that of the Arch, are an essential landscape feature. Usually, they are filled year-round, but because of the construction, they were drained.

From outside the grounds, there are two axial distant views available, both showing the Arch aligned with the Old Courthouse. One is from Kiener Plaza, west of the Old Courthouse. It features a sculpture called “the runner” located in a fountain that normally makes for a nice reflection pool. However, that fountain turned out to be drained for the season. It is filled only from about mid-March to November. By photographing from a distance, I avoided showing the empty fountain, but yet, that was not good enough to commit large format film.

The river view

The other distant view is across the Mississippi River. The official viewpoint there is the Mississippi River Overlook located in Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park (85 W Trendley Ave, East St Louis, Illinois), open from 7AM to 10PM. The park, whose webpage is titled “BEST view of the Gateway Arch”, is also home to Gateway Geyser, the tallest water fountain in the U.S., capable of reaching a height of 630 feet, which matches precisely the height of Gateway Arch, with “eruptions” taking place daily at noon, May through September. The Mississippi River Overlook is a tiered accessible structure whose 40-ft height provide a view of the Mississippi River and St Louis Skyline, with the Arch and Old Courthouse in perfect alignment. The driving distance from the Arch to the Overlook via the Eads Bridge is about 2 miles one-way, but if you walk, you can save half a mile by taking the ramp and elevator from the bridge to the street via the East Riverfront Station.

Unfortunately, the photographs taken from the Mississippi River Overlook are marred by power lines, especially at daytime. Not a big problem in the digital age, but to stay faithful to my practice of not digitally removing elements from photographs, I found alternative views along the river. The city has a plan to transform the whole east shore area into a bird park with scenic views, doubling the surface area of the National Park, but this proposal had been floated for years and so far not much has happened.

Image A: River view, sunset

In the while, wandering the east shore of the Mississippi is problematic because of private property and the industrial activity centered around the large Cargill grain elevator. Trucks and freight trains on several railroad lines frequently ply the area, and a grain conveyor and dock used to load barges is located exactly opposite the Arch, intruding into views, such as this one with the Old Courthouse profiled against the sky rather than against a high-rise building.

Image B: River view, night

I went there four times, at midday, twice at sunset, and at dawn. I timed the later attempt for the full moon, the only day in the month when the moon can be photographed centered inside the arch at dawn. The day before, when the moon would reach the desired position, the landscape would be too dark compared to the moon, and the day after, the alignment would occur well past sunrise. Centering the moon in this photograph dictated yet a slightly different viewpoint.

Image C: River view, sunrise

The park view

I spent much time on the distant views because in them the construction is barely visible. To create a landscape photograph photographed from within the park that includes the Arch and its grounds, I had to avoid including the construction or the drained ponds, and find a viewpoint from which the Arch is not occluded by trees, and where the angle of view shows enough of its curved shape. I found only one spot that met all the criteria, just south of the Old Cathedral parking lot, where a small mound hid the Arch’s base.

Image D: Park view

I was hoping that because the park’s small size and limited natural resources, a single visit would be enough – unlike for the other national parks, which I have visited in average five times. However, a return to photograph the Arch with the filled reflecting ponds appears inevitable.

In the while, I need to choose an image to stand for Gateway Arch National Park in the updated Treasured Lands exhibit, which consists of one image for each national park. I’d be grateful if you could let me know which of the last four you prefer: A, B, C, or D and why. I will not be replying to comments so as not to influence your choices (I’ve already written too much!) but be sure that I read carefully and appreciate every one of them!

Update April 30, 2018: poll closed, results are here

Part 2 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Gateway Arch National Park: First Impressions

On February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park, our 60th national park. Believing that the national park designation carries a special meaning, I greeted the news with perplexity. However, I traveled to St Louis, Missouri, that same week to try and extend my record of being the first to visit and photograph all the national parks. This post presents what I found at this most unusual national park.

On Feb 28, a light drizzle greeted me in St Louis, but the rain soon stopped. After a long day of travel, instead of looking for dinner, I donned all the layers of clothing I had brought with me and walked to the Arch. The low clouds that were swirling around it enhanced its power. At first, they obscured the top, but lifted through the evening to reveal the entire structure. Entranced by the Arch, I stayed until rangers chased me away past 11 pm, the official closing time of the Arch’s grounds. I photographed the Arch for four consecutive days, but images from this evening remain my favorites. In particular, the following image is the first I made of the Arch.

Family obligations and a speaking engagement had kept me in San Jose for a few days. Upon arrival in St Louis, I checked in at the City Place St. Louis – Downtown Hotel. It is a particularly convenient base for visiting Gateway Arch National Park because of the location two blocks away from the Arch and the Old Courthouse. The helpful and friendly staff exchanged my room for one with a view of the Arch (below) at no additional charge. Hotels guests can park with in-and-out privileges for $20/day at the adjacent Mansion House Garage, which is cavernous, but quite labyrinthine. However, if you are traveling lighter than I did – I packed my the 5×7 large format film camera kit and a full digital kit – you could easily do without a car since St Louis has an excellent transit system, including a light rail system that extends to the airport.

Expecting just another monument, I was awed by the Arch. The combination of size and purity of form was nothing like I’d seen before. One number sums the size: at 630 feet (192 m) high and wide, it is the world’s tallest arch and the tallest man-made monument in the entire Western Hemisphere. However, that’s one thing to know about the size of the Arch, only by standing at its base you realize how large it is.

Besides the size, the Arch exhibits a particularly pure kind of beauty. It was designed as an inverted catenary curve; a shape such as would be formed by a heavy chain hanging freely between two supports, and its section is an equilateral triangle 54 ft (16.46m) at the base, but only a slender 17 ft. (5.18m) at the top. With a stainless-steel skin, it reflects the light and the sky.

Maybe because its beauty draws from mathematics and the way it changes so much with light, as a former scientist turned photographer I found it particularly moving. I’ve visited the other iconic monuments in America, which are surprisingly few: the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and to me, the transcendent power of the Arch easily surpasses them all, like a modern version of the Pyramids.

The Arch is more than a shiny monument. Besides its size and beauty, it is a technological and engineering marvel. It used more stainless steel than any other one project in history. Looking at the slender curved pillars, it is hard to imagine that you can take a ride to the top. However, they are hollow and hide a remarkable transportation system, an ingenious combination of Ferris wheel, escalator, and tram, which each year takes a million visitors on the trip to the top. It is quite a squeeze, as you ride aboard something that could be described as a tiny spaceship pod.

Windows on the observation platform are tiny because they have to withstand an intense pressure, but their 45-degree angle let you look straight down vertically and also to the horizon. The view of St Louis was spectacular, and a ranger pointed me to a landmark 30 miles away. On a mid-week winter visit, there were no waiting lines to purchase the $13 ticket for the ride, and although you can stay as long as you want at the top, in between the arrivals of the trams, the observation platform was uncrowded. However, on a Saturday several dozens lined up, and I guess summer would be worse.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was established in 1935, to commemorate Thomas Jefferson (Presidents Washington and Lincoln were already memorialized on the National Mall), his Louisiana Purchase, and the resulting westward expansion of the U.S. The park is located along the Mississippi River, on founding site of St Louis, where the Louisiana purchase was completed in 1804, and near the starting point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1947 a competition took place to select designs for a monument. Although it was his first major project, the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won the competition, but he would not live to see the completion of the structure. Historically, the Arch is a masterpiece of modern architecture and marks one of the first uses of structural engineering, in collaboration with Hannskarl Bandel, to study the feasibility of a structure.

There is more to the park than the Arch. The grounds were designed by influential landscape architect Dan Kiley to complement and reflect the Arch. It could be said that they reflect each other, and cannot be separated, as together they represent a cohesive artistic endeavor, one of the most significant contemporary man-made landscapes in the country. The landscape around the Arch reflects the curves of the structure in many elements. It was interesting to identify them in the curved walkways, stairways, and even the shape of the railroad tunnel entrances, and the curvature of the overlook walls.

The design of the park created an axial relationship between the Arch and the Old Courthouse. The Arch is the tallest structure in Missouri, as the Old Courthouse had been once. While the Arch is an exemplar of mid-20th-century architecture, the Old Courthouse is an exemplar of mid-19th-century architecture. The dialog between those two structures adds depth to the park.

The Old Courthouse dome is in the Italian-Renaissance style similar to that of the National Capitol. Both were under construction at the same time, but the Old Courthouse was completed before, therefore becoming an inspiration for many civic buildings in America. Although the exterior is classic and stately, the interior is elaborately decored. Each floor features its own style, and they become more ornate as you go up.

In addition, the Old Courthouse is historically significant, as the place where the Dred Scott case began. One of the most important cases in American history started there in 1846, when the slave family of Dred and Harriet Scott successfully sued for their freedom. Several appeals resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857 which reverted the St Louis court’s and precipitated the Civil War.

The room where the case took place no longer exists, but inside the building, most of which is open to the public, you can see two circuit courts restored to their historic appearances. When I visited, the Old Courthouse also served as a visitor center and museum for the park, as the main visitor center and museum located underground beneath the arch is being rebuilt, part of an extensive renovation of the site that will be completed this summer.

All of this makes the Arch and its grounds one of the standout places in America, with several areas and themes. However, it also stands apart from the other national parks, an idea that I will examine in a subsequent post.

See more images of Gateway Arch National Park

Part 1 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4