Terra Galleria Photography

Photographing Cataloochee, the quieter side of the Great Smoky Mountains

With more than 10 million visitors per year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of the national parks, and its most popular area is Cades Cove which receives over 2 million visits per year, more than many large entire parks. Cades Cove is so popular because it has a bit of everything for everyone: historic structures, wildlife, and pastoral landscapes. Fortunately, at the opposite end of the park, Cataloochee offers a smaller version of Cades Cove, one that is considerably quieter. Follow me on a quick tour of Cataloochee and learn the technical choices behind the photographs.

Remoteness has so far preserved Cataloochee’s tranquility. The quickest access, via Cove Creek Road off US 276, is further away from a gateway town than any other significant park entrance, and involves a steep, narrow, and twisting road, some of which is unpaved. The unpaved road via Big Creek is even longer and more rough. Although all the roadside sights can be easily seen within a day, I stayed at the campground. It was not filled up, but note that you need to reserve your site by phone or online, which means prior entering Cataloochee since there is no cell signal in the valley.

There is only one clear view of the mountains in the Cataloochee area, at an unnamed overlook located shortly after the point when the road becomes paved again. The overlook is north facing, so both sunrise and sunset create side lighting. With mostly cloudy skies, the light was weak, but I thought the images I made after sunset made the most out of it, as the ridges were better delineated by the soft backlight and the sky momentarily acquired a bit of color.

An unexpected reward for staying at the campground was to find there a nicer cluster of Mountain Laurel than any I’d seen on the trails. Picnic tables were all around, but by moving in close and pointing the camera up, I excluded them. Is that still a truthful photograph? I chose the moment when the blooms were in the shade while the trees behind were sunlit. Like other small subjects, flower close-ups almost invariably work better in soft light, and if you photograph at a close distance with a wide-angle lens, the foreground becomes a close-up. On the other hand, if the trees had been in the shade, their darker leaves would have let the sky, which was inevitable as the camera was pointed up, create distracting bright spots. The potential downside of this choice of light is that the blooms could be too dark. In the old film days, I would have added a bit of light to the blooms with fill flash, but I knew that Lightroom would easily let me brighten them.

Like Cades Cove, Cataloochee features historic meadows encircled by mountains. This large but relatively featureless landscape needed strong light and shadows to define its structure. I photographed in the late afternoon, as the shadows were moving into the valley, but before they became overwhelming.

The Cataloochee area was once the most populated area in what became Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nowadays it features eight historic sites easily accessible, only two fewer than Cades Cove. I wanted to give a sense of place for my photograph of Caldwell’s House by including the river and footbridge. As is often the case, having the river in the shade turns it into a mirror, whereas direct sunlight suppresses reflections. With the low late afternoon sun, shadows from the trees generated a confusing patchwork of shadow and light, so I waited for the meadows and house to be entirely in the shade.

Shade is a foolproof light for photographing a close-up scene, and I am always ready to make my own, even at midday. However, I noticed that branches of a nearby tree were filtering the sunlight enough to eliminate dark shadows while preserving a bit of direct light, resulting in beautiful illumination. Following the light, I looked for a composition and found those ferns and leaves, whose textures and colors were accented by the sunshine in a subtle way.

Besides looking for close-ups, I busied myself at midday by photographing inside the historic structures, where it becomes all about geometry. The images are not as straightforward as they seem, and necessitated careful adjustments with a shift lens. Fortunately, I could adapt the excellent Canon 24mm TSE to use on my Sony A7R2. For the schoolhouse above, notice how I was able to keep the shape of the back wall a rectangle rather than a trapeze, although most of the scene is located on the right side of the camera. This was made possible by shifting the lens towards the right, rather than rotating the camera. Similarly, for the barn below, notice how, with the central point of perspective located approximately 1/3 up the frame, you see more of the interesting ceiling than of the floor, yet vertical beams have remained parallel. This was made possible by rising the lens, rather than pointing the camera up. The Sony A7R2 almost handled the extreme contrast between the sunny outside and the dark inside with a single exposure, but for a bit more highlight detail, I merged two exposures in Lightroom in each case.

Firefly Variations

In this post, I revisit a firefly photograph in some detail, first comparing it to a similar image made with a different technique, then showing its components images to highlight firefly specifies within.

Single exposure v. Digital composite

I mentioned previously that there are two approaches to photograph fireflies together with the forest, a carefully timed single long exposure or a digital composite from several short exposures. Even if you are not going to photograph fireflies any time soon, note that those considerations also apply to star trails or even light trails from cars at night. The composite approach is safer for two reasons. The first reason is that it makes it possible to use a base exposure while there is still light, so that one can avoid high ISO and a long exposure, a combination particularly problematic, as taken individually, each of them is already the main cause of noisy images. The second reason is that besides noise, a single, long exposure is vulnerable to incidents such as someone shining a light. With several short exposures, you have the option of simply not using the affected frames, whereas a single exposure could be ruined beyond repair.

With the lens set wide open at f/1.4, I focussed at infinity. This resulted in the light from the fireflies forming an out of focus disc of size inversely proportional to their distance, which helped convey the sense of the depth in the forest I had in mind for this photograph. Unlike for others, I had chosen a slightly elevated viewpoint to this effect. However, in the single exposure frame below, some fireflies had flown very close to the camera, resulting in blobs of light that could be distracting.

Single frame, Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm, 8 min at f/1.4, ISO 800 (Click image to enlarge)

For the digital composite, I selected 13 frames, leaving out those with distracting fireflies, resulting in a similar total exposure time. I loaded them as layers in a stack by using “Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers” in Bridge (you can also do that directly in Photoshop with “Files > Scripts > Load Files into Stack”). Then in the Layers palette, I selected all the layers and changed the blending mode from “Normal” to “Lighten”. The “Lighten” blending mode creates a composite by taking for each location the brightest pixels in the stack, and since the fireflies are brighter than the forest, I was done. I tried to use a brigher base exposure for the forest, but eventurally prefered the darker exposure from the first frame of the stack.

Digital composite, Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm, 13 frames, 30 sec at f/1.4, ISO 1600 (Click image to enlarge)

I’d appreciate it if you would let me know which of the two is your favorite? Does it matter that a photo was captured as a single exposure, or does only the result count?

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Photinus frontalis v. Photinus carolinus

Another benefit of making several short exposures is that the individual frames reveal the light patterns of different firefly species better than a single long exposure or a composite does, even if the later is more impressive by virtue of the myriad of lights captured. In the two photographs above, the fireflies appear to be all over the place, blanketing the forest. However, the 30-second exposures let you see the long light trails of the Mammoth Cave National park fireflies with evenly spaced blinks like the Photinus frontalis species. The animated GIF below consists of the 13 frames that make up the composite.

Mammoth Cave National Park fireflies (click image to enlarge)

By contrast, the Photinus carolinus of Great Smoky Mountains National Park have shorter light trails, since they blink only 5-8 times before going dark for a period of time longer than the flashing time. This can be seen in the animated GIF below.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Photinus carolinus fireflies (click image to enlarge)

The difference in flashing patterns was not as readily observed in the final composite image below:

Digital composite. Sony A7R2, Sigma 20mm f1.4 lens. Base exposure: 30s at f/2.2, ISO 200. Fireflies: 28 frames, 30s at f/1.4, ISO 3200

I hope that this series of posts has inspired you to go and seek these bioluminescent beauties that bring enchantment to summer evenings in the eastern forests, and has given you enough information to try your hand at photographing them. Firefly populations are on the decline, due to increased light pollution and habitat loss, so while enjoying them, be sure to thread lightly!

Part 3 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

Synchronous Fireflies Beyond the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once thought to be the only place in North America where the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) can be seen. Fittingly for the most visited national park in America, the event has become very popular, as described in the previous article. During my East Coast trip this spring, I observed fireflies at two other national parks, where you can sidestep the hassle of the lottery, mandatory shuttles, lines, and crowds.

Firefly species

Large concentrations of fireflies tend to occur in humid, dark, and clean environments, and besides Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mammoth Cave and specially Congaree National Park fit this description quite well. The synchronized fireflies found there are of a different species, the Photinus frontalis. Their flashing pattern consists of a quicker flashes at regular intervals of less than a second, which register on photographs as circles rather than the short light trails of the Photinus carolinus. By the way, in some of those photographs, esp. 10:21 PM, you could see a long light trail with a cooler hue. This is the black sheep of the firefly family, the rare blue ghost firefly (phausis reticulata) that glows the wrong color and for too long, lighting up continuously for up to minute. The Photinus carolinus‘s flashes are synchronized in the sense that they blink in unison, but they do not all go dark at the same time. Pauses in the flash pattern occur at irregular intervals. In other words, the males flash synchronously, for several flash cycles, then, one firefly will stop flashing while the other continues flashing, and then the stopped firefly begins to flash again synchronously.

Light trace of a single firefly. 9:21 PM. Sony A7R2, 35mm, 30s at f/1.4, ISO 6400

Congaree National Park

For firefly viewing, Congaree National Park has been recommended by the National Park Service as an alternative to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and here is the park’s firefly information page. No bus nor lottery is necessary there, but it is wise to arrive early since parking is limited. The activity takes place less than a quarter-mile from the visitor center parking lot, and you can witness it along the park’s trails and boardwalks. During the 2018 firefly viewing period, the NPS has put in place a “Firefly Trail”, which goes one-way and starts from the picnic shelter, with the elevated boardwalk reserved for accessible access. The Firefly Trail is roped and is lighted by red lanterns placed on the ground so that visitors do not need to use flashlights. In order to find a viewing spot unaffected by lights, I walked along the Bluff Trail instead. I certainly don’t begrudge the hikers who shined a red light during my exposure. It was so dark in the forest that at one point, as I wanted to check something on my phone and stepped away from my camera so that its display would not affect the exposure, I found myself totally disoriented!

9:24 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm, 14 min at f/1.4, ISO 1600. Composited with 30s at f/1.4, ISO 6400 frame to remove light pollution from hiker flashlight

Like the Photinus carolinus, the synchronization period lasts about two weeks, at but it takes place earlier in the year and night at Congaree National Park. In 2018, The synchronous fireflies became active on May 16 and ended the first week of June. Their activity starts at sunset and lasts only about one hour. The park is also home to other species of fireflies that remain active all night, and I my camera captured a few during a time-lapse that I set next to my tent at the Longleaf Campground.

Digital composite, four frames, Sony A7R2, Sigma 20mm, 15s at f/2, ISO 800.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Maybe because almost all visitors come for the cave, Mammoth Cave National Park’s fireflies are under the radar. In fact, the NPS website’s page dedicated to insects doesn’t even mention them at all.

Digital composite, six frames, Sony A7R2, Nikkor 14-24mm @ 14mm, 30s min at f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Upon arriving at the Houchin Campground one hour before sunset, I noticed fireflies flying upwards on grassy areas while flashing a single sustained yellow light in the shape of the letter J. Since I was focused on photographing the Green River with the colors of sunset, I planned to photograph them later. But by the time the color was gone, so were those fireflies. I subsequently learned that they were the Photinus pyralis that finish displaying by 9:30. My time-lapse camera by the river captured fireflies with a light trail similar to those in the meadow in Congaree.

10:10 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm, 8 min at f/1.4, ISO 800.

Because of torrential thunderstorm rains in the afternoon, I ended hiking a trail quite late in the evening. As I began to notice the now familiar blink of fireflies, I rushed to my car to retrieve my f/1.4 lenses. Not expecting them there at all, I was delighted to see that the fireflies were in pretty large numbers, and synchronized too, the same way as the Photinus frontalis.

10:41 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm, 8 min at f/1.4, ISO 3200.

Except for a few, their flashing looked similar to them, but that species isn’t mentioned in that survey of Mammoth Cave fireflies, so I am not sure which species they were. However, sitting by myself on the trail, I for sure enjoyed the unexpected gift. After so many forest photos, I moved to capture the fireflies with the backdrop of a sink hole typical of the terrain found in the park.

11:15 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm, 8 min at f/1.4, ISO 3200.

A few other spots have now emerged as places to view synchronized fireflies, but I hadn’t seen Mammoth Cave National Park listed amongst them. My experience leads me to think that as you wander in the eastern hardwood forests at night, you might find the next one.

Part 2 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

Photographing the Great Smoky Mountains Synchronous Fireflies

One of nature’s most wondrous light shows occurs during the synchronous fireflies mating season, when the bugs flash at once in a silent symphony of sparks. Synchronous fireflies exist only in a handful of places in the world, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park being the most well known. In this article, I explain how you can view the awesome event and provide detailed tips for photographing the fireflies, an endeavor that is sure to challenge your skills.

What are synchronous fireflies and how rare are they?

If unlike me, you have lived on the U.S. East Coast, you might have seen twinkling fireflies in your backyard. Now imagine the magic of seeing them flashing at once. Upon transforming from larvea into adult insects, male fireflies stop eating for the three weeks of their remaining lives. Given that short time left to attract a partner, they blink in order to court females. There are many species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but only one, the Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) can synchronize their flashing, for reason that are still mysterious. In Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs, researcher Lynn Frierson Faust writes:
dense populations of fireflies are more likely to synchronize in order for the females to be able to answer the male flash (during the dark interval) and still be seen… we found that Photinus carolinous females will refuse to respond if multiple male flash patterns are presented to them randomly
The whole forest becomes similar to a giant Christmas tree, with thousands of flying fireflies flashing about six times in unison, and then going totally dark for about six seconds, and repeating again for about two hours.

9:46 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm f1.4 lens. 4.5 min at f/2.8, ISO 1600. +1.3 Exposure in LR

To see the firefly light show, you have to be at the right place at the right time, and that’s only a few dozen hours per year in a handful of places in the world. The Smokies display takes place only during two weeks each year, with the peak date changing impredictably from year to year, anytime from the third week of May to the third week in June. It doesn’t last all night, but only for about two hours, from 9:30pm to 11:30pm, with the most active time being the middle of this window. The images in this article are roughly arranged by time of the night. Compare the amount of fireflies in the first (9:46) and last (10:35) images – keeping in mind that the exposure time was doubled. Fireflies will not fly if it rains. If it is too damp or too cold, they will not flash. Moreover, while fireflies can be seen all over Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is home to 19 species of which 13 flash, synchronous fireflies are found in large numbers only around the Little River Valley near Elkmont, a forming logging village and now campground, which boasts the largest population of synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere. Only Southeast Asian mangrove forests have displays that rival that.

Logistics

With increasing numbers vying to witness this unique phenomenon, the NPS had to put in place strict rules and quotas, which have been evolving since 2006. Tickets sold out in minutes, so in 2017, the park began a lottery system. In 2018, the restricted period, coinciding with the mating season peak, was from June 7 to June 14 and 21,000 entered the lottery for one out 1,800 passes. Winning the one in ten odds let you park a car at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and board a shuttle for Elkmont. During the restricted period, from 4pm to 11pm, the NPS closes the Elkmont road except for shuttles and registered campers. The Elkmont Campground usually fills up two months in advance, but a few spots sometimes open due to cancellations.

9:42 PM. Sony A7R2, Sigma 20mm f1.4 lens. 30s at f/1.4, ISO 1600. +3.6 Exposure in LR

During the restricted period, almost a thousand people are expected each night in Elkmont. For more quiet, you can instead visit a few days before or a few days after the restricted period, or get a designated backcountry campsite. Note that a backcountry permit does not allow you to enter Elkmont during restricted times.

Etiquette

Flashlights, and in particular white light disrupt the fireflies. To protect them, you should absolutely use a red light. It also helps preserve your night vision – and that of people around you, a common courtesy. Many headlamps come equipped with one, and are standard equipment for night photographers. Otherwise, you can cover your light with red cellophane, provided at the Elkmont Campground and during official viewing sessions. Even a red light is quite bright in pitch darkness, and there is scientific evidence that it interferes with fireflies breeding, so minimize the disturbance by using it only when strictly necessary while walking, and by pointing it at the ground. Once you are at your spot, do not turn on your light.

You should obviously not use flash. When operating your camera, be sure to turn off or cover your LCD, which is also very bright in the dark. If you need to access your bag for gear, be sure to be able to do so without seeing anything so that you don’t have to turn on your light. Despite the official recommendations from the NPS, within a crowd, it is very likely that someone will shine a light and ruin the long exposures required to photograph the fireflies. It doesn’t take much when you are using high ISO. I noticed that the camera red light that flashes while the self-timer is activated was enough to impact the exposure of my second camera.

Locations

The most popular viewing area is along the wide Little River Trail, at the beginning of which many brought lawn chairs. On June 5, I hiked a mile on the Little River Trail and that was enough to not have anybody else around. The bugs fly about 2-6 feet from the forest floor, but the steepness of the hill on the south side of the trail spread them all over the frame.

Digital composite. Sony A7R2, Sigma 20mm f1.4 lens. Base exposure: 30s at f/2.2, ISO 200. Fireflies: 28 frames, 30s at f/1.4, ISO 3200

Because the shuttles disgorge visitors at the Little River Trailhead, and the Little River Trail is the official viewing area where rangers and volunteers direct visitors, during the restricted period, several hundreds will be found there. To avoid them, I followed the Jakes Creek Trail on subsequent nights. On June 6, less than a mile from the trailhead, I had the place to myself again, but on June 7, returning to a previously scouted spot, I had to share it with two photographers, who fortunately were disciplined and considerate.

Photography equipment

Viewing the fireflies is an awesome experience, but most visitors will have only memories of the event. This is one situation where a camera phone will not capture anything.

10:21 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm f1.4 lens. 11 min at f/1.4, ISO 1600. +2 Exposure in LR

It goes without saying that you need a tripod. Any camera suitable for photographing the night sky can work, but the ability to use high ISO and long exposures with little noise is needed for single-frame captures. Specialized equipment will extend your window of opportunity and provide better results. Although in the dark the bugs look quite bright to your eye, they are actually fairly faint, so a fast lens is helpful because you need enough sensitivity to record the individual flashes of the bugs. The best choice is probably a 35mm f/1.4. Unless you are at the bottom of a steep hill, a wider lens (such as the 20mm f/1.4 that I used on my secondary camera) will include portions of the sky between treetops, which create bright spots that could be distracting. The depth of field of a 50mm f/1.4 is just too small. Unless compositing, exposures way longer than 30 seconds are needed to capture many bugs, light trails, and the forest, so you will need an accessory to lock your shutter for a bulb exposure.

Photography technique

Focussing can be quite the challenge because it is dark in the woods and you absolutely don’t want to shine a light. That is compounded by the shallow depth of field of your fast lens, which will not let you have everything in focus. Focussing at infinity or at a closer distance produce different effects, but after trying both I found the former to generate a better sense of depth. A tip of Sony users: the focus ring like is just an electronically coupled actuator, so taping it isn’t useful. If you happen to change a battery, the lens will reset its focusing point, so it is essential to start the evening with a full battery if you don’t want to loose your pre-set focus.

10:30 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 45mm f1.4 lens. 27 min at f/1.4, ISO 3200. +0.7 Exposure in LR

To capture the forest and many fireflies, there are two approaches to exposure. The first one consists of making a single, very long exposure. Besides its purity, it has the advantage of working at any time of the night, with settings in the range of 8-30 min, ISO 1600-3200, f/1.4. The drawback is that long exposure (dark frame) noise reduction will need to be turned on, which will render your camera inoperable for double the exposure time, and even though the camera noise might still be excessive. The second approach is to make a low ISO base exposure of the forest while there is still some light, then keep your camera in place, make several exposures for the bugs, and blend them all. This approach is safer, but you will be hard pressed to make more than one such composite per night.

I have included the camera technical data and start of exposure time, but that alone would be misleading. More often than not, I didn’t come up with the optimal exposure and ended up I brightening considerably the frame in Lightroom – something that is possible with the Sony sensors even at high ISO with noise cleaning quite well in LR. I’ve therefore provided the LR exposure compensation so that you are armed with all the information you need. For reference, on June 7, sunset time was 8:48 PM.

My best tip for photography

The core of the photograph is a forest scene, and no amount of bugs would save a poor composition. I would prefer to get the composition mailed before it gets too dark to see anything. But before it gets dark enough, I cannot know if many fireflies will be active within the composition. Activity varies wildly even within a small area. On the second night, I composed a scene with a stream, since I feel they constitute the essence of the Smokies, and waited. However, by 9:45 pm, not a single firefly had lit the area. I realized that it was a low activity spot – from what I have seen, fireflies don’t seem to frequent riverbanks too much. In a hurry, I looked for a spot with activity and since by then it was too dark to see, I used 6-figure ISO exposures to compose by trial and error. This resulted in the two previous images (10:21 and 10:30).

10:35 PM. Sony A7R2, Rokinon 35mm f1.4 lens. 11 min at f/1.4, ISO 1600. +1.8 Exposure in LR

Fortunately, I learned that the active spots are consistent night after night because activity depends on conditions such as soil composition and plant cover that do not change. Knowing that, after scouting on a previous night for the most active spots as I walked down the trial, I was able to come and set up a pre-dark composition which I knew would have plenty of bugs in it. Even a 30s exposure (9:42) captured quite a few. By the time activity was in full swing, a relatively short exposure of 11 minutes was enough to fill up the frame with lights.

Part 1 of 3: 1 | 2 | 3

New LED Lights for Stationary Light Night Photography

In the past few years, progress in LED lighting has resulted in devices that offer significant advances for night photography. Find out why you should photograph at night with stationary lights rather than light painting, and read my review of my new preferred lights for that purpose.

Cannonball concretions, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 2013. Canon 5Dmk3, Nikon 12-14, 30 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 3200. Lighted by Rayovac Sportsman lantern.

Advantages of Stationary Light compared to Light Painting

The well-known method of illuminating parts of the landscape at night is “light painting”. You move a hand-held light during a long exposure to light up large areas that could not be illuminated with the narrow beam of the light if it was fixed. Although it is convenient to deploy, requiring just a flashlight and no setup, it has many drawbacks. From a photographic point of view, results cannot be visualized, predicted nor repeated exactly. It is difficult to guess how long to shine the light on each part of the subject. You also need “painting skills” to overlap each stroke to produce even light, and in most case the illumination won’t be uniform. From an experiential point of view, the bright light impairs your night vision, creates light pollution, and bothers others who come to photograph or just marvel at the night. For the later reasons, in 2017, Arches National Parks, Canyonlands National Parks, and Grand Teton National Park took the step of prohibiting light painting – although only for workshops with the first two.

The alternative to light painting is to use a stationary light, propped on a tripod, a rock, or a tree. I have favored that technique for many years because it eliminates all the drawbacks of light painting and also works for timelapse. Because the light is stationary, its illumination accumulates over a long exposure, so one can use a dim light level, comparable to moonlight. This is at least one order of magnitude less bright than the lights typically used for light painting, and much less intrusive. In April 2018, Arches and Canyonlands officially approved “using a low level light panel that emits extremely dim constant lighting” for workshops.

Limitations of older lights

On a moonless night, typically the light level I’d aim for on the subject is comparable in intensity to quarter moon, while a full-moon night would require a light level maybe ten times brighter. The Rayovac Sportsman lantern that I described in Lights For Night Photography, typical of that generation of camping lanterns, offered only the choice between two light levels, and even the lowest one was often too bright. To control the light intensity on the subject you had to move the light closer or further, or to wrap light absorbing materials around the lantern. In addition, as pointed out in that post, the LED lights were too cold, requiring a conversion filter. The lantern was also relatively bulky and heavy, at 31 ounces with batteries.

In the interleaving years, new LED lights have emerged on the market, and they represent significant advances for the night photographer. In this post, I will review the three that I currently use.

Left to right: Rayovac Sportsman lantern with added gel (for size reference), Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern, Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro Flashlight and Lantern, HDV-Z96 light panel

Lighthouse Mini Lantern

The Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Lantern brings the following major improvements:
  • Continuously adjustable intensity from 210 lumens to 7 lumens
  • Choice of 360-degree or 180-degree illumination (the later saves batteries)
  • Warm (3500K) light
  • Rechargeable via built-in USB cable (battery lasts 4 hours at brightest setting up to 500 hours at lowest setting)
  • Can provide power (3000mAH) to recharge devices such as a phone via USB outlet
  • 8.4 ounces with battery
As additional features, the lantern uses an interchangeable (unfortunately proprietary) battery, and for support, it features a built-in hanger, folding legs, tripod hole, and a magnet.

Lighthouse Micro Charge

The Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro Charge Flashlight, Lantern and USB Recharger retains the essential features of the Lighthouse Mini Lantern: continuously adjustable intensity from 150 lumens to 7 lumens (via single button, not as precise or convenient as the Mini’s dial) 360-degree or 180-degree, warm light, rechargeable via built-in USB plug, 2600mA charger.

Best of all, its small size and weight (3.2 ounces) means that it stays in my bag all the time. For instance, I used it for the unplanned two night images in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. You can easily carry several for multiple light set-ups. The Lighthouse Micro Charge lacks the additional features of the Lighthouse Mini, but instead can be used as a flashlight (120 lumens). Pared down models without the flashlight (Micro) or charger feature (Micro Flashlight) are also available at a slightly lower price, but I prefer the versatility of the Lighthouse Micro Charge.

Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro Charge and Lighthouse Micro Flashlight

Z96 Panel Light

The only real drawback of lanterns is that they are less bright than the light painting flashlights, which can be an issue with distant subjects. Light panels solve this issue with an array of LED lights. Not only they are brighter, but also they produces a beam of about 65 degrees that concentrates the light more than the lanterns, but is still much wider than flashlights. They are quite a few LED light panels around, as they make great video lights – a market certainly larger than night landscape photography. I’ve found the Z96 panels a good compromise between brightness and portability. Their array consists of 96 (16 x 9) LED lights.

The Z96’s light intensity is continuously adjustable by dial. The unit comes with a warming front filter and a diffusion filter that attach magnetically, a tripod hole, and a removable hot-shoe bracket. It is powered by 5 AA batteries, and lasts about one hour at full power. The unit measures 5 x 1.8 x 3″ and weighs 12.5 ounces with batteries.

The F & V Lighting Z96 UltraColor LED Video Light has a high color consistency (as measured by CRI), and a low power warning circuitry that let you know by blinking that the batteries do no longer have enough power to sustain the current output and that the light will get dimmer. The HDV-Z96 96 LED Light Kit (deceptively branded “F&V”) lacks those two features but otherwise works well for half of the price.

F&V HDV-Z96 96 LED Light Kit with filters and bracket

Conclusion

I hope that this article has convinced you that stationary lights are the way to go for night landscape photography, both from a technical and ethical point of view, and that you’ll find the reviews of my favorite tools useful. Please share with other readers any other alternatives you are using.

Cottonwood Spring Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park, 2018. Sony A&R2, Sigma 20 f/1.4 Art, 15 sec at f/2, ISO 3200. Lighted by Lighthouse Mini Lantern.

Quick Processing Tip: White Application Background

There is no denying that photos look great on a computer screen, because of the transmissive nature of it, like a slide or transparency. However, in an all-digital workflow, it is all too easy to produce images whose tones are too dark. Often, photographers who do not often make prints realize that their images are too dark only after printing them, and in my experience, this is the main source of disappointment with prints. Overly dark images have less general appeal. This is not a matter of technical knowledge, but rather having a proper context to evaluate images. In this post, I’ll provide an easy-to-implement tip that has helped me much.

Rather than recording the actual light intensity like a camera, the human visual system relies on context and adaptation to make judgments of brightness. This results in a number of counter-intuitive phenomena, called optical illusions, that have been well-documented by perception psychologists. Here is one such example: which of the two areas of the central grey bar, marked A and B, is brighter?

The answer is that despite appearing to exhibit a gradient, the central grey bar is a uniform 50% grey, and therefore A and B have the same brightness. A appears brighter because it is surrounded by darker values. The lesson here is that if your surround your image with dark values, it will make it sound brighter than it really is.

Many photo editing applications provide as a default background a 50% grey. Lightroom has even the popular “Lights Out” function (shortcut key “L”) that blacks out the workspace. It is supposed to help you view your photo without distraction, but if you use it to judge its brightness, I can bet that you will end up processing your photo too dark. This is especially true if your ultimate goal is a print, but even on a screen, the photo will appear too dark when placed o a white page such as this one. Some websites allow the viewer to change the background color from white to black, and I’ve seen some nature landscape photographers recommend to their readers to use the later for a viewing experience that does justice to their photos!

My recommendation is to process images with the background color set to white. This can be done in Photoshop in Photoshop > Preferences > Interface, and in Lightroom with Lightroom > Preferences > Interface. In Lightroom, to get a generous amount of white space around your photo, in the Navigator window at the top left of the screen, select 1:8.

Think about the fact that if your photo ends up displayed in a gallery or museum, there are great chances are that it will be surrounded by a white mat! And even in more modest settings, are your own walls light or dark colored? With that in mind, it does make sense to use a white application background, doesn’t it?

Quick Editing/Processing Tip: Camera LCD

Despite a few contrarian voices, the overwhelming consensus is that the RAW format should be the choice for creative photography. A drawback is that RAW images look flat by design, so if you are shooting in RAW, you need to process the image to restore some of its brilliance. Unfortunately, when you are sitting at home processing the RAW image, your memory of the scene may be far removed, and that RAW file is a fairly inadequate representation of it. Sally Mann made the observation in her great memoir “Hold Still” that when you have a photograph of an event, in time the photograph tends to replace the memory, a process that removes some of the memories’s dimensions. That can be problematic if there is a disconnect between the sight that made you excited to take a photograph, and its incarnation as a RAW file.

I had left the summit of Snow Mountain under light flurries, and for most of my hike down, I was inside a damp cloud that had set up on the upper tier of the mountain. After I had hiked down enough, I emerged underneath the cloud, and following the uniform greyness that surrounded me before, I was stopped in my tracks by the sudden brightness of the landscape and the drama of sunrays filtering from the clouds in the distance. The image below was correctly exposed to preserve the highlights in the clouds, as can be seen on the histogram. It is obvious that with default settings, it is way too dark to convey the mood of the moment.

While editing the images to build a selection, the image was dark enough that, should I have not benefited from the fresh memory of the elation of that moment, I may have passed on it, and the image may have never be seen anywhere. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to rely only on memories to be reminded of what the scene looked like. When I was on the mountain, I was not only excited about the scene, but also about the photograph. Would I have felt excited if the image looked that dark on the camera’s LCD? Probably not. The fact is that image wasn’t dark, and this can be seen readily in the image below, a single, unprocessed shot of the camera and computer screens.

Like everybody, after the shot, I almost always give a quick glance to the LCD. Garry Winogrand said “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs”. Even unconsciously, I am always interested in comparing the scene and the photo, and judging how well the camera captured the scene. Based on that, I can confirm that the camera LCD image always looks much closer to the scene than any RAW file. With DSLRs, in bright light, it was difficult to appreciate the LCD image without a viewing accessory such as the HoodLoupe by Hoodman, and with my aging eyes, I had to look over my glasses. Those issues are superbly addressed by a mirrorless camera such as the Sony A7R2.

When processing the RAW file on the computer, the camera LCD image makes for a useful reference point, one that gives you a better connection with the scene. Sometimes it is not that easy to create a final image that even looks as good. But this doesn’t mean trying to only replicate the camera LCD image. However good, it is still the product of a machine, without your sensitivity. In the finished version (I used a slightly different image for illustration so that I wouldn’t have to undo the LR adjustments), I darkened the sky to bring out the texture of the clouds and brightened selectively the greens to accentuate that feeling of spring.

I am curious if you used this approach before. Would you agree that the camera LCD image is the right starting point?

Snow Mountain: Where is it? Is there snow?

North of highway 20, the character of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument changes. Elevations rise, conifer forest dominate, and roads are all unpaved. Snow Mountain, the highest point in the monument, offered an unexpected adventure that reminded me of higher and further mountain ranges.

Getting to the trailhead is half the adventure

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument (part 1) has much to offer, but you have to work for it. Nowhere is that as true as for its namesake peak, Snow Mountain, southernmost peak of the North Coast Range, and the centerpiece of the Snow Mountain Wilderness. Getting to its Summit Springs Trailhead was quite a challenge.

The most direct road from the west side starts from Upper Lake. I followed Elk Mountain road/301/M1 for 15 miles, a road which reminded me of San Jose’s notorious Mt Hamilton Road with its steep switchbacks, but much more narrow and full of potholes. Then I drove the unpaved Bear Creek road/M10 for 13.5 miles, ignoring a sign that warned that the road is closed before its end. At mile 6.5, M10 fords the Rice Fork, a large tributary of the Eel River. When I got there, the river was flowing swiftly, and in the darkness of night, it was difficult to evaluate how deep it was, or what laid on the riverbed. Since it was cold, I donned my waders, and walked across, finding that the riverbed consisted of large stones and that the water level was slightly above the bottom of the doors of my Subaru Forester. Fortunately, with the stream less than 10 yards wide (unlike at Afton Canyon), water did not leak inside the car. This was in late April. Later in the season, the ford would be easier, but it is possible that earlier it would be impassable. I bypassed the Bear Creek Campground, however when I reached the point that was indicated as the trailhead by AllTrails, I was puzzled to see a five-way intersection. Since it was pitch dark, I stopped there and went to sleep after poring over my (electronic) maps.

In the morning, trusting Open Street Map that marks Summit Springs Trailhead at the end of 17N29, I followed that road, only to find it washed out a mile from the intersection. A large black bear ran across, and rejoicing in this indicator of wildness, I was somehow glad I had followed this wrong road. Back at the intersection, now convinced that my map that showed 17N06 stopping short of the Summit Springs Trailhead was not up to date, I followed the sign and arrived at a nice loop with a bathroom where I found no other car. The opening in the photo below is the road as seen from the trailhead.

Although I was able to navigate the maze of forest roads with the TomTom automotive GPS app, the surest way to do so would have been to buy a Mendocino National Forest National Forest map – the Snow Mountain Hiking Association website has some great maps, but they cover only the approach from the east side (the San Joaquin Valley), which has the benefit of not requiring the river ford. Google Maps knows about the ford but marks it as a road interruption, so when I tried to map a route to the Summit Springs Trailhead, it returned a very circuitous road, and I did not try to download for offline use. Where Google Maps got it right unlike Open Street Map and AllTrails (who also gets the trail length/elevation wrong since the trailhead is wrong) are the coordinates and access road for the Summit Springs Trailhead.

Along the trail

Snow Mountain can be reached from several trailheads, with the shortest trail starting at Summit Springs Trailhead. Visiting both summits of Snow Mountain, I measured about 10 miles with 2250 feet elevation gain. In the morning, a sea of clouds covered the valleys, and in the afternoon, sunrays pierced the sky as I emerged back from clouds that had begun to engulf the top.

Being an “island in the sky”, Snow Mountain is home to a diverse array of flora. Many of those plants are at their southernmost geographical limit. The trail had started with manzanita-covered slopes alternating with pine trees. It then entered a dark fir forest, before emerging at treeline to cross meadows that still displayed remnants of color from the last autumn. I read that if you come there in summer, you’ll see a profusion of corn lilly reminiscent of the High Sierra. Below the summit, standing tree skeletons bore witness to a large forest fire from 1987. To accentuate their eerie character, I waited for a cloud to photograph the grove without shadows against a blue sky.

Snow

When I mention Snow Mountain, the question I always get asked – after “Where is it?” – is “Is there snow?”. Prior to visiting, I assumed that with the summit culminating at more than 7,000 ft. you’d find some in winter, but I was surprised to see that much remaining at the end of April. In places, the trail disappeared below patches, and I ended up walking cross-country before finding the trail again. Although not ideal in the snow, especially in the afternoon when the snow had softened, my running shoes were adequate, especially since I had packed my hiking poles with me. They were of great help to keep my balance. The snow was not just on the ground. Rising thousands of feet from the surrounding plains, Snow Mountain is tall enough to create its own weather. Despite the weather forecast calling for a partly cloudy day without precipitation, snow flurries began to fall as I was leaving the summit.

Summit

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is located along the Coast Range Fault, the ancient boundary between the North American plate and the lower Pacific plate, once covered by ocean waters. This ancient tectonic plate interaction has created an diverse geology with numerous bedrock types, including the rare serpentine. The trail comes up to a saddle between the twin east summit (7,056 ft) and west summit (7,038 ft). Unlike the lands below, the rounded summits were barren, revealing multi-hued metamorphic rocks that were part of an ancient undersea volcano. Despite this, and the views in all directions, I didn’t linger long because of cold winds and approaching clouds.

Two days before, at the southern tip of the monument, even starting my hike in the late afternoon, I still used my umbrella for shade. Today I had to keep moving to stay warm. Such are the contrasts found in this undiscovered landscape. During my day on this mountain of some significance, I saw only two other parties. Despite Snow Mountain being the peak closest to the San Francisco Bay where one can have such an adventure, it is overlooked by most, compared to more faraway destinations such as the Sierra Nevada or even Shasta and Lassen, which lie to the north. I hope these posts have inspired you to discover a nearby place where it is still easy to experience solitude.

More pictures from Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.

part 1: South of Hwy 20

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
rank
hours hours
rank
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
Rank
Crowd
Factor
Crowd
Rank
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?