“Let’s do something that’s ACTUALLY fun.” Libby Sauter, Yosemite bigwall climber extraordinaire, turns to me with a pleading look while we’re huffing and puffing and shivering in the Argentinian cold at 18,000ft. “I mean it. Let’s get this mountain over with, and then let’s go somewhere remote and adventurous - but the type of adventure that’s WARM and FUN.” We’re just barely halfway through a brutally difficult six-week speed record mission on 22,838ft Aconcagua, capturing content for adidas Outdoor, and we’re already brainstorming our next project.
Three months and one high-altitude speed record later I am still huffing and puffing, but this time in a very different setting. Libby, myself and our friend Allison are standup paddle boarding on Lake Powell as part of a multi-sport adventure - the very adventure that was conceived during those long cold days on Aconcagua. This time we’re focused on advocacy rather than on the quest for standout athletic performance: we want to playfully explore Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, to capture images and stories that can help advocate for the preservation of these tremendous landscapes.
Libby, Alli and I start out with long slow days of desert trail running and canyoneering before packing up to embark on a two night / three day SUP backpack. We each carry forty pounds of gear - paddleboards, overnight and emergency gear, and my full camera kit - cross-country along miles of remote and difficult slick rock terrain as we gradually descend into the hot maze of canyons that defines Lake Powell. Five hours after setting out from our vehicles we finally reach the lakeshore, tucked away deep in the sunless bend of a canyon.
This is where we’ll inflate our paddle boards and take to the water. But this is also where Libby discovers that she only packed in the blade of her three-piece collapsible paddle and not the shaft, which throws a bit of a wrench into our plans to SUP dozens of miles in the next 48 hours. Hiking back to the cars to retrieve the missing shaft would be a ten hour round trip and is out of the question, but as the old adage goes in these types of adventures: “If you don’t have it you don’t need it.” We devise a way to jerry rig a workable paddle from our combined kit plus a tree branch or two.
The next two days are my personal crux: I am doubling as SUP guide - since neither Libby nor Alli have experience on a standup paddle board or on the lake, while I can draw from my lesson’s of an eight-day solo SUP expedition that I embarked on in these same parts the prior year - and as photographer while also balancing my camera gear on the front of my paddle board, camera and lenses precariously close to a potential watery death.
It’s not an easy setup but this is my favorite way of shooting: as part of a self-motivated, intimate project that results in organic imagery. This particular mission in Grand Staircase is just that - a passion project that combines adventure and creative work in the best possible way. And at the end of our time on Lake Powell and in Grand Staircase, the three of us walk away with a treasure trove of images, memories, and an infinite amount of excitement to plan the next project.
After a rousing Sweet Sixteen round, in which we saw a few upsets, it's time for the Elite Eight, Final Four and ultimately, the championship to see which of the US National Parks our expert photographers voted as the top park! For a recap of the first round, click here.#1 Yosemite Stays Dominant Against #4 Joshua TreeI always tell people Yosemite is one of the ultimate National Parks. I try to make it a point not to repeat travel destinations because there is so much of this world to explore - but I make an exception for Yosemite. I've traveled there three times and will continue going back. Seeing the Valley for the first time, and all subsequent times. It's hard to imagine nature created features like El Capitan and Half Dome, but they're there, they are real and they are ready to explore! - Matt Andrew
You'd think with species like the teddy bear cholla cactus and the Joshua Tree, named by Mormons who thought the yucca species appeared to be praying, Joshua Tree would have more of a chance. However, the always epic and impressive Yosemite defeats the boulder-filled-wonderland.
#3 Glacier is Cooler than #7 Grand TetonGlacier...It's easy to avoid crowds (once you are off going-to-the-sun road). However, it's impossible to miss the grandeur and beauty. That awaits you around ever bend in the trail. - Brian W. Downs
By virtue of this brilliant cinematography, Glacier advances!
#5 Acadia is the Cinderella of the Bracket, Beating #1 Denali
You can be the first person to see the sun rise on the East Coast of the United States from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Or, the LAST person to see it rise in Denali. A 20,000 foot high mountain just seems like you're showing off. And midnight sun? What are you compensating for, Denali? No offense, but no thanks!
#2 Hawai'i Volcanoes Burns #6 CanyonlandsVolcanoes is not just my favorite national park, it’s my favorite place in the world! The other-worldly landscapes, rugged terrain, unforgiving hikes, and amazing views are all completely unique to this park. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and there’s something about being able to see the power of the landscape that really puts you in your place; it makes you feel small. - Joshua RaineyAbsolutely Canyonlands National Park in Utah! It has some of the most stunning and unique scenery on the planet. Sweeping vistas and every shape of rock you can image. To top it off, you can explore it all on dirt roads with almost nobody else around. - Dan BallardFINAL FOUR:#1 Yosemite Ekes out Victory Against #3 GlacierNo question, its got to be Glacier NP. While I live close to Yosemite and love it, Glacier offers so much more for photographers. Not only does it offer amazing landscapes like Yosemite, but it also offers a true wildlife experience as well. You can photograph Grizzly Bears, Big Horn Sheep, Mountain Goats.... and landscapes all on the same hike. Once you get away from the road it is as close to true wilderness as you can find in the lower 48. Its like Alaska without the flight. - Josh Miller
Unfortunately, Glacier couldn't compete with Ansel Adams' favorite national park, where everything seems to be epic, from giant sequoias to waterfalls to Half Dome.
#5 Acadia Tops #2 Hawai'i VolcanoesMy favorite national park is Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park because it's one of the few places on earth that creates a new world every day! - Matt Gragg
New-world-creation is indeed exciting, and everyone knows that lava beats both paper and rock. However, bears beats lava (and Battlestar Galactica). With a varied ecosystem boasting many bears, whales and moose, it's a no-brainer! We get the feeling Hawai'i Volcanoes will revamp and be back, stronger than ever next year.
It call comes down to this...#1 bracket behemoth Yosemite vs #5 seeded Acadia! Sure, Yosemite was the 5th most visited national park in 2017, the Dawn Wall climb in 2015 went on to inspire many and bring climbing more into the mainstream, and many black bears reside in the park. However, the 2018 best US National Park goes to Acadia....because, favoritism. And no, we're not the least bit abashed. #Maine4Life.
So many national parks burst with beauty that it's almost impossible to have a favorite...and yet, that is the exact task we've set for our photographers. Because we love competition for the sake of competition and bragging rights, and inspired by the NCAA basketball tournament currently going on, we have compiled a list of 16 (of the 60 eligible) National Parks, seeded them, put them head to head and let our photographers decide. Which one will emerge as Champion?
In the play-in round, the majesty and awe-inspiring epic landscapes of Banff and Yoho barely eked by Pacific Rim park. Hailing from Canada’s west coast, Pacific Rim National Park is Chris Kimmel's favorite national park. "The rare coupling of old growth temperate rainforest and rugged Pacific coastline make it a magical destination for surfing, kayaking, hiking, beach-combing, and storm watching."
However, as Marko Radovanovic put it, "there is no place like these two parks, where you can feel like you're living in a postcard. At times I wonder, is this real?"SWEET SIXTEEN, LEFT SIDE:#1 Seed Yosemite beats #8 Seed SaguaroSaguaro National Park was unique for me coming originally from the east coast. I was on assignment for NatGeo, and I had never been around that many prickly things before. Unlike the soft grassy-roll-around-in landscape I came from, this landscape seemed to attack at every turn. But at night it is magic! - Joanna B. Pinneo
There won't be any #1 upsets in our bracket...Yosemite, the 3rd most popular park by yearly visitors, and enjoying plenty of movie stardom thanks to a film about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's epic and historic climb of Dawn Wall, moves on to the next round, where they'll be facing....
#4 Seed Joshua Tree defeats #5 Seed Death ValleyDeath Valley is my favorite park because i got married there (or will in 1 week). - Colin MeagherJoshua Tree National Park has it all for me with world class rock climbing, camping among huge boulders and desert hiking in an incredibly interesting arid ecosystem. I love the solitude you can find without much effort by wandering the maze of trails in the evocatively named 'Wonderland of Rocks'. - Andrew Peacock
Sentimental favorite Death Valley can't compete with the varied yet alien landscapes of Joshua Tree. Plus, U2.
#3 Seed Glacier, unhappy with it's low seeding, easily defeats #6 Seed North CascadesNorth Cascades National Park - Because its the most beautiful park no one knows about… Wait on second thought I really like another park more. Death Valley, or Yellowstone. Yea, Yellowstone everyone should go there. - Alasdair Turner
Unfortunately, no one visits North Cascades, ever, to see it's beauty, so Glacier National Park, which straddles the continental divide and is the home to glaciers and grizzly bears.
#2 Seed Yellowstone faces a surprising upset against #7 Seed Grand TetonI would say that having spend several months exploring Gran Teton National Park for a National Geographic assignment makes that place special. You will have a hard time beating the views of the mountains as they rise from the valley floor, the backcountry rock climbing, or the herd of elk in the chill of the autumn mist as they migrate south and of course, the Snake River and it's native cut throat trout. - Jose Azel
Despite being the first national park, established on March 1st, 1872, being the home to incredible sights AND grizzly bears, and the fictional home of Yogi Bear, the huge crowds of tourists drive our photographers out to the quieter but still spectacular Grand Tetons.
SWEET SIXTEEN, RIGHT SIDE:#1 Seed Denali easily defeats #8 Seed Everglades, despite great pun workDenali, because the scale is just so vastly different from anything in the lower 48. It's BIG. On my first trip there, we were told we had to hike 3 or 4 miles from the road AND be out of sight of it. We figured that couldn't be that difficult, but wow, was it ever! We hiked all day and eventually found a little hill to pitch our tent behind and due to the heavy fog that descended, we couldn't see the road. But in the morning, we discovered that on the other side of the hill was a (thankfully unoccupied) bear den. - Dan ShugarEverglades…BECAUSE IT'S MARSH MADNESS, BABY!!!#sorrynotsorry - Mike Basher#4 Seed Arches loses in the battle of 'A's to #5 Seed AcadiaAcadia is my favorite National Park because it has some of the darkest skies on the east coast, and the fall colors are spectacular! - Adam WoodworthThe Utah desert in general is a pretty exciting place to go, especially when you are trying to get a bit of warmer weather either early in the spring of late in the fall. However the way the rock arches have formed at Arches National are intriguing and absolutely stunning to take in and definitely make it one of my favorites - Ben Girardi#3 Seed Grand Canyon upset by #6 Seed Canyonlands, in the battle of....CanyonsMy favorite national park is the Grand Canyon, because of its sheer enormousness and beauty. I love the fact that it holds some of the most complicated and unaccessible terrain in the lower 48, yet at the same time the canyon's beauty is highly accessible to the general public through the developed sections of both the rims. Oh AND I love it because it’s where I first truly, madly fell in love with the great outdoors when my parents took me to visit the South Rim at age 12 - it absolutely took my breath away back then, and still does today. - Sunny StroeerI think Canyonlands needs an honorable mention. Its a quieter park, but because its broken into a few different districts there is a ton to explore, especially if you like 4x4 wheeling. Don't take the part for granted though, its raw, untouched and unforgiving. It will eat you up and spit you out if you aren't careful and heed ranger advice, but that's what makes Canyonlands special. It's vast and doesn't have the Disneyland effect a lot of other parks have in the summer. Also, its an International Dark Sky Park. From the park's website, "The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has granted Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park status to Canyonlands National Park, an honor reserved for the darkest of dark skies and most stunning starscapes." Yeah, its pretty amazing. - Matt Andrew
Again, the sentimental favorite, and 2nd most visited National Park, loses to the park from Utah. Better luck next year, Grand Canyon!
#2 Seed Hawai'i Volcanoes says "Aloha, and aloha" to #7 Seed Banff / Yoho
Despite being the location Instagrammers flock to in droves, Banff and Yoho are both eliminated, simply because this was supposed to be a US National Parks contest. Canada, stop interfering in foreign countries contests!
With the bar not being set too high, all Hawai'i needed to advance was this vote from Sean Davey: "You can see live lava flowing, and, well, it's the only one of these that I've ever been to!"
Come back next week to see the results of the Elite Eight, Final Four and find out which National Park is crowned Champion! While you're waiting, be sure to check out some of our favorite national parks images here!
On July 8th, 2016 Acadia National Park celebrated a gigantic milestone -- its 100th birthday! As the oldest national park east of the Mississippi, and with the nickname "Jewel of the Maine Coast," Acadia is a beloved park for locals and visitors alike. In fact, Acadia is the fifth smallest national park in the country but one of the top ten visited. Just in 2014 alone, more than 2.5 million visitors flocked to the park to enjoy the breathtaking vistas along the Atlantic coastline, the variety of lakes and ponds, the more than 150 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of carriage roads and 26 mountains that the park offers!
Established originally in 1916 as SIur de Monts National Monument and later renamed (twice), Acadia is not only the oldest eastern national park but the first created from private lands gifted to the public through the efforts of conservation-minded citizens.
Supporters and friends of Acadia will be collaborating throughout the rest of the year to continue the community-based celebration in which hundreds of partners will honor Acadia by expressing their bond with the park -- whether it be through events, programs, products, or works of art.
Since the Aurora family is based in Maine and Acadia truly is our little jewel of the coast, we thought it would be great to help celebrate the centennial by asking some of our photographers what Acadia has meant for them. Check out their responses below!
What does Acadia National Park mean to you?Chris Bennett, outdoor photographer, http://www.cbennettphoto.com : When I'm out west and tell people I'm from Maine, I often hear people say that they loved Acadia, that it was one of their favorite parks. They see grand mountains all the time; it's great to have a park in my back yard that is a little different. It may not offer expansive wilderness or huge mountains, but you really get a sense of the raw ocean and the simplicity of life as a fisherman from the smell of the salt air. It's a completely alien experience for someone in a landlocked state like Wyoming or Colorado.
Jake Wyman, commercial and outdoor photographer, http://www.jakewyman.com: It's one of my favorite places in the world, for the natural beauty, dramatic coastlines and the places where I can find serenity and quiet.
What is your favorite season / month to visit Acadia, and why?Jerry Monkman, documentarian, outdoor / conservation photographer, author of The Photographer's Guide to Acadia National Park, http://archive.ecophotography.com: All of them. Winter for the cross country skiing. Spring for the quiet beauty without the crowds. Summer for the spectacular weather and insane energy. And fall for classic New England foliage.
Wyman: Fall and Winter, for different reasons; The Fall for the clear air, brilliant colors, and fewer people.
What is your favorite trail / hike in Acadia, and why?Bennett: The short, easy trail to Ship Harbor on the western side of the island is a favorite. Excellent views for a small effort. Anytime I get a chance to get to the western side I do, there are always less crowds. Some of the western carriage roads offer the same solitude, such as the one up and over Parkman Mountain, or the one to the top of Day Mountain. Both are quite a climb by bike but worth the effort. Any trail on Isle Au Haut is worth the effort, you can only get there by ferry or personal watercraft, and there is a sense of raw and wild island life that you don't get on the big island. Duck Harbor is also the only place to primitive camp in the park.
Monkman: I love doing a loop hike up and over Sargent and Penobscot Mountains near Jordan Pond. Amazing views and lots of blueberries in July.
Winky Lewis, children / lifestyle photographer, http://winkylewisphoto.com: My very favorite trail there is the one up Duck Mountain. It is quick and easy. It was a great trail for my kids when they were younger and now when we hike it my dogs cover the distance about 10 times over because they circle from my kids up ahead and then back to me about a hundred times before I reach the top. There is a wonderful view from the top! So beautiful.
What is something rare you have seen at Acadia?Monkman: Watching Peregrine falcons dive bombing from Eagle Cliff while I was photographing Somes Sound. They go frighteningly fast.
Bennett: Taking a late evening spring walk along the Jesup Path, I watched an owl feed for several minutes, swooping down into the tall grass from its perches in the trees.
What is your favorite memory in Acadia?Monkman: Hiking the Bubbles with my kids, eating wild blueberries the entire time, and following it up with tea and popovers at The Jordan Pond House. We've done it every year since they were born and even as teenagers it's what they look forward to most on our trips to the park.
Wyman: Being alone on the top of deserted Cadillac Mountain before sunrise in the middle of February or January.
Lewis: I am lucky enough to have grown up spending time on Mt. Desert Island in the summer, so many of those trails in the park on MDI are full of wonderful memories for me. My friends and I would take off and go on some fun adventures, often ending up at Jordan Pond for popovers. Now, with my own family, I spend time in the summers on Isle Au Haut, of which about half is Acadia.
What keeps you coming back, year after year?Wyman: Every time that I visit Acadia, I find someplace new.
Monkman: My wife and I have visited every year since 1989 and we just love the combination of dramatic ocean scenery with great hiking up granite domes, paddling in Frenchman Bay, and the ability to choose between dozens of restaurants at dinner.
Do you have any tips for amateur / young photographers on how to get the most out of Acadia?Bennett: Get up early, go on the shoulder seasons, find someplace off the beaten path to make a compelling picture.
Wyman: Don't be overwhelmed by the landscapes; there are plenty of beautiful details to be found. Be sure to visit Schoodic and Isle Au Haut. Try to "see" with your own eyes; there are millions of beautiful images which have been made in ANP, but search for your own original vision.
Monkman: Get up early to beat the crowds to the photo hot spots and to take advantage of that sweet Maine coast sunrise light.
To learn more about Acadia National Park and the 2016 Centennial, please visit the Acadia 2016 Centennial website.
Our photographers have a reputation for being adventurous. In order to produce such dynamic imagery, they need to be in the heart of nature, continuously seeking out new and thrilling experiences. And although we get to see the fruits of their labor from the powerful photographs they create, sometimes there's more to the photograph than meets the eye - an untold story waiting for anyone who asks.
Taylor Reilly recently embarked on one such adventure, which he writes about in a new essay titled, Escaping Desolation.
Escaping Desolation is the story of 3 friends on 1 raft taking a 90-mile 7-day trip down the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons in Utah. The trip runs smoothly until the second to last day when disaster strikes and their boat is sunk in an unexpected way. The decisions made after would determine their chances of survival and their escaping desolation.
There we were, laughing at the top of our lungs about everything, and enjoying every second of rafting 91 miles on one of the most remote stretches of river in the country, the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons in Utah. Then it struck us and the laughing came to a halt. We were out of beer! It was day six of our seven-day voyage and our three man crew only had one six pack of pumpkin beer left in the cooler. Obviously times were desperate, we were floating through an expansive desert canyon in the middle of nowhere, and all we had was a flavor of beer that made unfiltered river water seem appealing. The mission was clear; we needed to find more beer. Somehow.
Just three weeks ago my good friend Tres called me excited that he had just picked up a last minute permit for a rafting trip through Utah. He had just spent most of the summer rafting rivers all over the west and was trying to find friends to join him on one last trip before ski season began. It didn’t take long before Tres had convinced myself, and our long time friend Bobby to join him for a mid-October Green River trip.
Our 3-man crew has all been friends for many years. Bobby and Tres had grown up together and I had met them both in college. Since then, we have taken many trips together and we had all gained a substantial amount of outdoor skills and experience. On top of skiing, climbing and backcountry hiking, Tres, our captain, has been piloting his raft on multiple big rivers across the country, for several years. Bobby grew up hunting and backpacking but now he spends most of his weekend’s mountain biking and climbing. He has worked in the outdoor and action sports industries for years and he is extremely organized and motivated when it comes to any outdoor adventure. I myself have ample experience recreationally and professionally in the outdoors. I have been a climber for just about 20 years, I guided for 6, and I have been around water, rivers, and boats my entire life having grown up in Texas. While we all had various and ample outdoor experience, this would be the first big multi-day rafting trip for Bobby and I.
Our vessel was a 14ft raft with a 4 bay oar frame, and a pile of gear in the back so big that we could have been mistaken for a floating version of the Beverly Hillbillies. For a bit of relevant rafting knowledge: Rafts used for overnight trips use an aluminum frame that holds dry boxes, an ice chest and oar mounts/oars on either side. The captain rows the raft using two 10 foot oars while two passengers can either relax and drink or pitch in as “paddle assist” to help keep momentum through pushy rapids. This is how our 3-man 1-raft team was set up. We had just paddled out of Desolation Canyon the night before and into Gray Canyon earlier that morning, and the “take-out” for our trip was only 12 or more miles, or 1 day, downstream. The plan for this last night of our adventure was to camp just after “Rattle Snake” rapid (2+). First, though, we had to get some beer.
It was around noon and we hadn’t seen anyone on the river since the previous night, and being that it was off-season, we didn’t expect to see anyone from here on out. So imagine our surprise when we came around a large bend and found a group of people spread out over 5 rafts and some paddleboards. They seemed to be having as much fun as we were, and the rules of the river dictate that we had to strike up a conversation in search of a trade. When we found out they needed ice, we gave them two of our solid 5-10lb blocks for an 18 pack of Tecate. Success! They invited us to do a short day hike on the west side of the river just before Rattlesnake Rapid, but we decided to keep paddling and get to our camp, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
Heading downstream with a full case of Tecate to get us to the end of our trip, we started into Rattlesnake rapid. Leading into the rapid Tres suggested that Bobby should row this one. This was Bobby’s first big rafting trip and Tres thought it was his right of passage to captain the boat down a “named” rapid. After all, Bobby had put in his time working hard rowing miles of flat-water into headwinds in the days before, now it was his turn to try something a little more rewarding. I looked over and told Bobby to zip up his life jacket, all the way up to the top. He smiled, laughed, and thanked me. It would be his first Class 2+ rapid to paddle. This stretch of the Green River is in general very mild when it comes to rapid strength, especially during the fall. If anything, the river was shallow and slow most of the way. At this point we were all confident that the end of our trip was just around the bend.
As we entered the rapid, Bobby was on the oars, while Tres and I were relaxing in the front. The rapid formed a wave train down the middle of the river, however the raft spun to the right of the ideal line, and started heading straight towards the 40’ cliff that walled in the right hand side of the river. The raft was now being pushed hard by lateral waves and the three of us realized simultaneously that things were about to get ugly.
As we neared the sandstone cliff jetting out at the apex of the river bend, Tres started yelling, ”Back row right! Back row Right!” Tres started to move towards Bobby to help him slide the right oar into the raft and away from the cliff to keep it from catching and swinging. But it was too late for that.