The Top Three Western States for Landscape Photography

19 Sep

As landscape photographers, we all have different visions and reasons to shoot the subject matter we chose.  At times, the experience of traveling to these places is as lasting a memory as some of the images that I create.  The following is my personal list of western states that I enjoy the most for landscape photography,  some interesting statistics, and characteristics that embellish them.

1. Colorado

Land Mass – 104,000 square miles or 8th largest in the country

Population – approx 5 million  or 22nd most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including the entire western border from Dinosaur National Monument to Grand Junction and Cortez

Pro’s:  Arguably the most scenic mountains in the US accompanied with superior wildflowers, and the most prolific autumn foliage in the Western United States. Diverse topography featuring many southwestern geologic features including sand dunes and red rock.  Summer monsoons and early autumn storms make fine art landscape photography possible at almost any time of day.  More accessible roads and fewer hiking and camping restrictions than found in most states.

Con’s: No access to beaches or coastline, eastern part of the state is flat, ATV’s are very popular and disruptive to solitude

Summary:  There is no better place in the United States to photograph than Colorado if mountains are your subject matter of choice.  Here you’ll find more than 60% of the 14,000 ft. peaks located in the United States. That’s more than twice as the next state Alaska, which is more than six times its size! Addition, Colorado also boasts some of the most dramatic weather in the country, hence the name colorful Colorado. In the summer months, the afternoon skies are littered with clouds during its monsoon season. Fall arrives early in the alpine areas and it is typical to get snow during peak fall foliage. This phenomenon is uncommon or not possible in most other states. Spring brings budding aspens and wildflowers in the foothills of its ranges. A true four season state, Colorado offers the best of the best for alpine scenery mixed with enough topographical diversity and southwestern reds to make every connoisseur of the landscape a happy camper.

2. California

Land Mass – 163,700 square miles or 3rd largest in the country

Population – approx 37.2 million, which is  the  most in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited – 40% including most of the areas south of San Francisco to San Diego, most of the Sierra Nevada’s and the Channel Islands

Pro’s: The most diverse topography, best alpine lakes, longest coastline, largest island, best sand dunes, tallest mountain, highest waterfall, and most national parks in the country.

Con’s: Poor air quality/smog, overcrowded parks, state running out of funds and tourism is being affected

Summary: The most obvious choice for number one, due to its sheer size and location California finishes a distant second on my list. While the Sierra Nevada’s offer some of the best backpacking in the world, there are too many clear days and way too many bugs to rate it ahead of the mountains in Colorado for landscape photography.  Air quality can also be an issue there, as it is in states desert park’s like Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  Yosemite and its sister parks King’s Canyon/Sequoia offer big views, lakes, trees, waterfalls and certainly crowds. In the spring, the Mohave Desert is joy to photograph as is the eastern Sierra during all seasons. California’s coastal ranges from Santa Cruz to Santa Monica are arid, homogenous and somewhat uninspiring.  However, its beaches offer as much opportunity as anywhere in the country. The Golden State is a place landscape where photographers have to work much harder to get original, high quality landscape shots.


Land Mass – 84,900 square miles or 13th in the country

Population – 2.7 million residents or 34th in the country

Approx. Percentage of State Visited: 80%

Summary: Utah seriously challenges California for the number two position on this list. I gave the nod to California for its diversity and size, but Utah probably offers more bang for the buck and as a whole is arguably a more photogenic state.  Utah’s most famous scenery comes from the southern part of the state, some of which it shares with Arizona like Monument Valley and the Wave. One also can’t forget the Subway, the Watchman, Mesa Arch, Zebra Canyon, the Narrows, Calf Creek Falls and Delicate Arch as well many others…From its famous national parks to the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains in the north, Utah offers world-class scenery throughout.  Its diverse climate and landscape makes it an excellent choice for visitors year round.

Pro’s: Most iconic southwestern landscapes in the country, easy to find solitude, five national parks, slot canyons, fall foliage, deserts, above average wildflowers and excellent alpine scenery.

Con’s:  High entrance fee’s to state parks, no access to coastline, middle part of the state is generally uninteresting, ATV’s very popular

Honorable mention: Wyoming, Oregon

Not included in these rankings: Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico

I’d love to hear some other opinions on this subject whether you agree or disagree. Please feel free to chime in!


9 Responses to “The Top Three Western States for Landscape Photography”

  1. John September 21, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    I’ve only been to Colorado as a kid so I’ll take your word for it. My tops are Utah, Oregon, Cali, Idaho. I rank Oregon much higher because of the diverse landscape; the coast which IMHO is more breath taking than Cali, cascade range you have countless number of waterfalls & mountains not to mention lush green forests & awesome wildflowers in the spring. To the east you have desert & mountains…best of both worlds in one state.

    Best Fall foliage (again, IMHO) is Vermont, NH, & upstate NY. Utah may have high fee’s but they do have some of the best state park campgrounds I’ve ever seen.

    Great post!

  2. wildmoments September 21, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    Thanks for your comment John and I am glad you like the post.. I wrote it to inspire discussion. I agree with you about Oregon. I spent a little over a week there in May of this year and drove nearly 2,000 miles around the state. I was incredibly impressed with the beaches, waterfalls, and certainly the mountains. It was too early in the year to visit Mt. Jefferson and Proxy Falls. I also didn’t visit the Painted Hills.

    The two main reasons why I didn’t put Oregon in my top 3 are: 1) the state has a serious clear cut logging problem 2) the weather. Also, I thought the Columbia River Gorge was actually a little overrated. I think it photographs well, but logistically it is awkward as certain exits are only available on one side of the road or other. The solitude really isn’t there either and the noise pollution from the highway detracts from the overall wilderness experience. Factor in the how certain areas of the Gorge are state parks or national forest and the fees can get a little high. And from what I understand, the area also has a bad reputation for vandalism and/or car theft.

    Despite that, I still think Oregon is far more scenic than its neighbor to the north, Washington and I’d rate it higher than my home state of Arizona as well as Nevada. I haven’t spent enough time in Idaho to give it a fair shake (having never been to the Sawtooth Mountains) and have only been to City of the Rocks National Preserve (not impressed) and the Bechler River Area of Yellowstone NP (love it!).
    Do you have any recommendations of special places to visit there?

    As far as the foliage goes…yes, I absolutely agree the East Coast is much more colorful and better and I was only referring to the Western States. Thanks again for your comment.


  3. John September 21, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Hey now, whats wrong with the weather in Oregon? You get used to it after a few or several years :-). We wear wet suits; I kid you not. I agree with you on your other points and since I live just an hour away from the Columbia Gorge I go there often. Navigation wise it’s best to travel east from Portland, and yes the car break-ins are really unfortunate and seems to get worse every year.

    Overall I’d also agree Oregon has Washington beat but it does have a few notable places such as St Helens, Mt Rainier and Olympic National Park.

    Idaho is quite impressive for vast diverse landscape. My favorite areas:

    Owyhee Canyonlands/Owyhee Uplands Back Country Byway
    Craters of the Moon National Monument (even my kids were impressed here)
    Shoshone Falls
    Hells Canyon/Snake River
    Balanced Rock
    Bruneau Sand Dunes & Observatory (awesome place for astrophotography)
    Sawtooth Mountains (Stanley Lake, Redfish Lakes, Galena Summit)
    Ponderosa State Park, Roseberry ghost town, Cascade Lake, Payette River Canyon
    Lost River Range (“Idaho 12ers”)
    Pioneer Mountains
    Castle Rocks State Park
    Elk Creek Falls Recreation Area & Scenic Byway (3 waterfalls)
    Great Rift (considered to be the largest, deepest, and most recent volcanic rift system in the continental US)
    Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway

    • wildmoments September 22, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

      It’s not so much all the rain as it is the dreariness of the winter that would bother me. I think Washington has more iconic destinations that Oregon, but I don’t think the state is as pretty as a whole, especially the coastline. I really like both the Palousse and the North Cascades too. I thought the Cascades were extremely scenic (despite all the rain when I visited) and the solitude was fantastic too. I haven’t been to Mount St. Helens or the Enchantments and Mt. Rainier and Olympic I think are both a little overrated and overcrowded.

      Rainier can be spectacular for photography depending on air quality and flowers, but I was not that impressed with the hiking. I found Olympic to be rather disappointing. The drive around the pennisula is particularly unpleasant (E.G – mobile homes and impoverished towns) and the park itself it too spread out and disconnected. While it may be the most diverse park in the country, it certainly isn’t one of my favorites.

      Thanks for the comprehensive list of places in Idaho. While I didn’t particularly care for City of Rocks (too much bovine) – I was very impressed the cabins and old ghost like remains in the area. I now can refer back to your comment the next time I plan on visiting. I really appreciate and enjoy your participation in this discussion.

  4. Devon Wichers December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    i agree with what you said about Colorado probably since I live here, but still i find sights in this state that still make my jaw drop. if you go to deckers canyon where the souh platte river is I think you’ll find some beautiful places for photography, and if you can try to find the crags, and hike the tail to the top of them. you’ll find some nice spots there as well. of course as long as you like to hike.

    • Devon Wichers December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

      by the way, you should visit missouri sometime. the water is warm, and the landscape is beautiful.

      • wildmoments December 16, 2011 at 11:12 am #

        Hi Devon,

        Thanks for your comments. Are you talking about Missouri the state? Where do you recommend going? Happy Holidays, Michael

      • Devon Wichers December 16, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

        yep Missouri the state is what im talking about, and you should go to branson missouri. it is beautiful there.

  5. Devon Wichers December 16, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    yep the state, and branson missouri. it is beautiful.

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