A National Park Secret

Gary Hart Photography: New Day, Grandview Point Sunstar, Grand Canyon

New Day, Grandview Point Sunstar, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony 12-24 f4 G
12mm
1/8 second
F/18
ISO 100

America’s National Parks have always been busy in the summer, but in recent years the summer crowds have virtually overwhelmed many of our parks. Between gridlock on the roads, more cars than parking places, and hip-to-hip tourists at the vista rails, what was once an opportunity to commune with nature has become a survival of the fittest endurance test.

My solution has been to avoid the national parks in summer, but for many summer is the only time to visit the special locations they’ve longed to see for their entire lives. And the only thing worse than visiting Yosemite or Grand Canyon in summer, is never visiting them at all.

Though I can’t make the crowds go away, let me offer an experience-based suggestion that is guaranteed to enhance your national park experience: Sunrise. Or more accurately, the morning hours from about thirty minutes before sunrise until around two hours after sunrise.

For most people the idea of rising before the sun on a vacation is laughable, but therein lies the genius. If you can overcome the urge to be most people, you can enjoy America’s most crowded national parks, at the height of the summer rush, in glorious peace. You won’t be alone, but you’ll be savoring the day’s first rays with a microscopic subset of the park’s total visitors, kindred spirits who relish nature and solitude as much as you do, who speak softly, stroll slowly, and respect personal space.

About this image

As much as I try to leave the national parks to the tourists in summer, my desire to photograph the lightning and rainbows of the Grand Canyon’s summer monsoon leaves me no choice. A couple of days ago, Don Smith and I guided our photo workshop group out to photograph sunrise at Grandview Point on the always crowded South Rim. Grandview is one of Grand Canyon’s most popular spots, but leaving our hotel about 45 minutes before sunrise got us out there about a half hour before the sun, and long before the tourists had even hit their snooze button the first time.

There were just a couple of other cars in the parking lot, the same lot that in just a few hours people will be circling in vain for five, ten, even fifteen minutes. Having Grandview virtually to ourselves, the group was able to spread out and find their own view of the canyon without competing with the teaming midday hordes that most people experience there.

Along with a few other people in the group, I set up in front a concave sandstone rock with a view across the canyon to where the sun would soon appear. Because this is my first trip with my new Sony 12-24 f/4 G lens, I’ve been making a point to familiarize myself with it, so I twisted it on and went wide. With a clear horizon and relative dearth of clouds, I dialed my f-stop to f/18 to ensure a good sunstar when the sun crested the horizon, and composed a frame.

When photographing a sunrise, the advancing light makes it impossible to set the exposure very far in advance. In these rapidly changing conditions, I love my mirrorless Sony a7RII’s pre-capture histogram in my viewfinder—I just kept my eye on the histogram, dropped the shutter speed in 1/3-stop increments as the horizon brightened, and was ready to hit the ground clicking the second the sun appeared.

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5 Comments on “A National Park Secret

  1. Your pictures keep me breathless while viewing them, then I take a deep breath when I stand it no more.

  2. Beautiful photos, Gary. Just to add to what you mentioned about the crowds in the NP’s, my wife and I celebrated our 50th anniversary in early June from Salt Lake down to Phoenix and stopping at the parks along the way. Capitol Reef, Burr Trail (paved part) and Kodachrome- beautiful and virtually nobody there. Bryce and Eastern Entrance to Zion and South Rim GC Eastern Entrance to GC Village- a little crowded but manageable. Zion Valley (shuttle) and GC Village- couldn’t find a parking place at either and we said to hell with this and drove on. I had been to Zion Valley in off season but wife hadn’t. I’m sure Yosemite is now about the same as Zion Valley & GC Village.

    I think May, Sept & Oct (weather permitting) are my favorite travel months.

    Thanks again, Gary

  3. Beautiful shots. As much as I hate mornings that is, as you said, the time to go. Interesting about the Sony having a pre-capture histogram. Makes me want one.

  4. Fabulous images, Gary, as always. So true about getting up extra early to beat the crowds– most people don’t get up at the insane hours photographers do! 🙂

  5. What a fantastic photo, Gary! I love it to get out before sun too as it’s the same with crowded places like Dresden and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains here in Germany.

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