An Expert Take on the Parks: QT Luong

A renowned landscape photographer chooses his top 20 national park experiences
Staff Writer

Buddy Squires

Tuan in the field with his large-format camera in Kings Canyon National Park.

Quan-Tuan Luong is the only photographer known to have taken large-format photographs in all 59 national parks. As such, he's spend thousands of days and nights roaming the remotest corners of the parks, and may have a more diverse parks experience than any other living person. Many of his beautiful, very detailed photographs of the national parks were featured in Ken Burns's blockbuster documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea. Here are his 20 favorite national park experiences:

Yosemite National Park (#2 on the list)
Hanging on a portaledge for the night, I appreciated that nowhere else in the world are there so many big and sheer rock walls providing exceptional rock-climbing, which are so accessible, and situated in a valley as beautiful as the one which spread two thousand feet below. Yet the valley is only 5% of Yosemite, and the rest of the backcountry is also full of gems.

Denali National Park (#10 on the list)
Denali is vast and wild, home to a wildlife-rich tundra and the tallest peak in North America. During my two-week solo climb of the coldest mountain on earth, I experienced some of the most spectacular high camps in my life, as glaciers delicately illuminated by the midnight sun stretched to the horizon. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (#55 on the list)
On my first outing on the live lava fields of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I walked for miles on old, hardened lava towards the active flow. During the return hike, I was startled and frightened to see red lava simmering in the dark, shining through cracks right underneath my feet where I thought the ground was solid. I subsequently spent an entire night watching the creation of new earth as hot lava flowed onto the coastal plain and cascaded into the ocean. I then camped right on the otherworldly summit of Mauna Loa, the biggest mountain on earth, almost 14,000 feet high, without seeing a single plant nor another soul on the way, completing my sea-to-summit experience.

Grand Canyon National Park (#5 on the list)
Although I had visited the rims several times, I did not realize the scale of the abyss until I hiked from the North Rim to the Colorado River, discovering on the way oases, waterfalls and a slot canyon. Although I have not yet undertaken the journey down the river, this let me imagine how exceptional such an experience would be.

Zion National Park (#7 on the list)
Zion is not just a Yosemite in color with great climbing and hiking, but because the rock is soft sandstone, the Virgin River has carved in the Narrows a canyon a thousand feet deep and only a few dozen feet wide, a hike unusual in that I waded directly in the river. I cannot wait to return with canyoneering gear to check out more technical slot canyons.

National Park of American Samoa (#43 on the list)
This remote paradise offers some of the most spectacular tropical scenery I have seen, with steep, pointed forested peaks and tall sea cliffs towering above perfect beaches (Ofu is the most beautiful I have seen anywhere) and pristine coral reefs, combined with a unique opportunity to encounter the Samoan culture.

Channel Islands National Park (#21 on the list)
Each of the five surprisingly wild islands has its own character, abundant wildlife, flora (some endemic), and rewards exploration by hiking, paddling and SCUBA diving. Diving in the kelp (fastest growing plants in the world) felt like flying within a tall forest, moving freely in three dimensions.

Glacier Bay National Park (#31 on the list)
During our ten-day kayaking trip into the marine wilderness of the bay, we saw every possible shade of blue, as we encountered icebergs, ice-chocked waters, and tidewater glaciers calving into the waters with a thunderous sound. However, there was so much on land left to explore, including the tallest coastal mountains on earth, from which we saw the glaciers descend.

Big Bend National Park (#20 on the list)
Big Bend combines three distinct environments: the desert, the mountains and the Rio Grande with its canyons. After hiking up to the top of the Chisos, I slept under a large pinion pine. The next morning, I wandered along the South Rim, admiring the panoramic view of the desert below. I discovered with delight several beautiful, giant agaves, a typical plant of the Chihuahuan desert.

Yellowstone National Park (#1 on the list)
Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, was designated to protect the majority of the earth's geysers, as well as other thermal wonders that make up an otherworldly landscape. Its vast size includes mountain ranges, lakes, waterfalls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is also the only place in the continental United States where every species of native large mammal, including the last free-ranging bison herd, survives today. Approaching the Great Prismatic Springs, the largest hot springs in the country, I could see only thick steam rising from a distance. As I walked on the boardwalk, I became amazed by the vivid gradient of colors, created by different bacteria that thrive at different temperatures.

Olympic National Park (#8 on the list)
Olympic combines three distinct environments: the mountains (heavily glaciated despite modest elevation), coast laced with seastacks, and temperate rainforest whee every available inch is covered with growth. Hiking in the rainforest, I felt  immersed in a  fantasy-like world straight out of Tolkien.

Acadia National Park (#3 on the list)
Despite modest size and scale, compared to the western parks, I am always delighted by the harmony and diversity of coast, mountains, ponds and forest, with some of the most beautiful fall foliage on the East Coast, at the intersection of temperate and northern vegetation zones.

Capitol Reef National Park (#32 on the list)
Little-known Capitol Reef National Park offers more variety of rock formations than any other national park of the Colorado Plateau. My most memorable visit has been to the Cathedral Valley, a majestic landscape of stone and silence. Adorned by huge monoliths with names such as Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, the place is so remote that during a whole day of driving its primitive roads, I hardly encountered any other vehicles.

Canyonlands National Park (#19 on the list)
Canyonlands is a wilderness of rock with some of most remote terrain in the Lower 48: three districts with distinct character, separated by wild rivers. After a jetboat ride, I hiked up a steep trail from the river and spent a night at the Doll House, a fantasy-land of sandstone pinnacles and spires considered to be one of the most remote places in the Southwest, which would have taken nine hours of driving from Moab, although it's only 35 miles as the crow flies.

Death Valley National Park (#11 on the list)
This immense park spans large elevation differences, with unique geology including salt flats and moving stones on mud flats. I enjoy wandering on the dunes at night, after sunset, when the temperature is cooler and other visitors have left. Although the dunes are relatively small, when in a valley it is easy to imagine that they stretch forever.

Glacier National Park (#4 on the list)
The glaciers that carved limestone peaks into steep faces are still present in large numbers, although in diminutive sizes, feeding cascading waterfalls, glistening lakes and wildflower alpine meadows that together form what is maybe the most beautiful alpine scenery in the country, and certainly the most intact ecosystem. Just a few hundred yards away from a popular trail, montain goats approached me so closely that I had switch to a wide-angle lens to photograph them.

Everglades National Park (#12 on the list)
The "River of Grass," the centerpiece of environments with great variety despite lack of elevation, offers unique water-based adventures. Walking in above-knee deep  water, I entered a dense cypress forest rising from black water. The trees were covered with bromeliads and orchids. I couln't have anticipated such a beauty and lushness from a distance.

Redwood National Park (#15 on the list)
Walking among the ancient redwood trees, I felt the stillness of the coastal fog that provides nourishment to the tranquil groves of those giants, the earth's tallest plants. During this May outing, in the deep darkness of the forest, rhododendron blossoms provided brilliant accents of color.

Katmai National Park (#23 on the list)
During Novarupta's eruption in 1912, the largest recorded in modern times, a verdant valley became a desert buried in 700 feet of pumice, ash and vapor-emitting fumaroles, known thereafter as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This otherworldly environment contrasts with the verdant lakes and rivers that form the largest spawning grounds of sockeye salmon, attracting the largest brown bear population in the world. As I was busy framing bear footprints on the shore of Naknek Lake, I did not realize that a brown bear was approaching me from behind until he was a few yards away.

Sequoia National Park (#9 on the list) & Kings Canyon National Park (#16 on the list)
Groves of giant sequoias grow on the gently sloping west side of the Sierra Nevada range, while the abrupt east side is home to the most dramatic peaks of this long and luminous mountain range. I've camped so many times there next to a clear lake, above timberline and far from the trailhead, that it would be difficult to point to a favorite location.

To see Tuan's amazingly detailed, sublime national parks photographs, visit his website,


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