National Park Trips received 3,400 spectacular photo entries to the 11th Annual National Park Photo Contest presented by Tamron. It was a difficult task to choose the 2021 winning photos because of the high quality of entries, but the judges have selected this year’s top photos. The best photography in each category, Landscape, Night Skies and Wildlife, was awarded a Tamron camera lens including a 15-30mm and 150-600mm, and is featured in the National Park Journal magazine.
In addition, 30 honorable mention winners receive certificates and are featured on our national park websites.
From walking through the tundra of Alaska to the desert of Arizona, our 2021 National Park Photo Contest winners all had to share one thing in common in getting their spectacular shots: a sense of adventure. Read on to see what went into each of their winning images.
Night Skies Photography Winner
Isabel Guerra Clark from Phoenix, Ariz.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Photographing Arizona’s famous rock formation in Coyotes Buttes North (part of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument) known as “The Wave,” is an adventure that requires luck and dedication in the daylight. But when you bring in the added elements of the Milky Way and a global pandemic, it makes the image Isabel Guerra Clark captured even more mind boggling.
At National Park Trips, we’ve talked to local residents who have been applying for the extremely competitive lottery for years without winning, but it was Clark’s lucky day. After applying only a few times in the past, she won a permit for two on the last day of a six-day trip to the Kanab region.
She hired a local guide to join her as she knew it wasn’t smart to attempt the confusing hike on her own for the first time in the middle of the night.
They left the trailhead parking lot at 2 a.m., bundled in four layers of clothing, and cautiously made their way through the desert for more than an hour.
When they got there, it was so dark that Clark couldn’t even tell they were at the famous location. They played around with lighting up the rock, using Lume Cube lights, while the Milky Way made its journey into the perfect position.
She used her Canon R5 with a 15-35mm F2.8 Canon lens to capture two shots, one exposing the Milky Way and one exposing the foreground and blended them together in post processing.
Clark stayed to photograph sunrise and the classic mid-day shots, getting back to her car at 4 p.m. before starting the long drive back home to Phoenix.
“All the stars literally aligned,” she muses. “The experience was a gift.”
Clark’s advice on those hoping to photograph The Wave? Don’t try to sneak out there. Rangers were out checking permits and the cost of being without one is up to a $250,000 fine.
“It’s such a special place,” Clark shares. “The permits protect it, and it has to be protected.”
She also suggests applying for permits for the less competitive but also awe-inspiring Coyotes Buttes South. Clark got permits for this area as well on her trip and found it incredibly stunning.
Apply for the Wave lottery on recreation.gov four months in advance.
Wildlife Photography Winner
Ann Fulcher from Midlothian, Va.
Lake Clark National Park
Ann Fulcher is a radiologist in Richmond, Va., and while she uses photography as a way to relax and explore the world, it’s not lost on her that her profession and favorite hobby are two sides of the same coin. She spends her working hours looking at medical imaging and her leisure hours editing her wildlife and landscape photography.
Fulcher’s winning photo was snapped in late summer 2019 in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. She joined a small, guided trip to photograph coastal brown bears and says that the experience was fantastic.
The bears were feeding on massive salmon, which were swimming in very shallow tidal pools. Fulcher could see them breaking the surface.
The mother bear in her photo was a busy mom of three cubs who Fulcher describes as “saintly.” Her group watched as the mother spent her day fishing for herself and all three of her offspring.
“The bears have such a plentiful food supply up there that they’re not interested in the photographers at all,” she says. At one point, the mother walked off to fish, leaving her cubs near the photographers.
At another moment during the day, one of the cubs caught a fish. It was its first, according to Fulcher’s guide who had been watching the family all season.
Fulcher always hand holds her Nikon D500 when photographing wildlife as it gives her control of where she’s shooting from. When the cub pulled its mother down to its chest, she snapped the photo with her Sigma 150-600mm lens.
“It’s the kind of moment you live for,” Fulcher muses.
Fulcher’s advice for other photographers? Look more closely at what’s in your own backyard. When her international adventures were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and her job in healthcare became even more stressful, she realized she needed to do something to maintain her own wellness. She started photographing flowers in a makeshift studio in her kitchen, using an old raincoat for a backdrop and found a new love for macro photography. She now shows her macro work in a local gallery.
Landscape Photography Winner
Matt Meisenheimer from Janesville, Wis.
Gates of the Arctic National Park
Alaska is Matt Meisenheimer’s favorite place in the world, so it’s fitting that his winning photo was shot in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in the northern part of the state.
Meisenheimer is no stranger to national parks. Early in his career he worked at parks like Mount Rainier in Washington and Denali in Alaska as an ecologist and biologist where he picked up photography. Today, he works as a guide, showing clients the backcountry of our nation’s parks.
He spends much of his free time backpacking and often plans his trips around a particular shot he’s hoping to capture.
Nearly a decade ago, he saw a picture of the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic and the remote destination quickly made its way to his bucket list. The opportunity finally presented itself in August 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with his wife due with their baby in a month. The situation wasn’t ideal, and he encountered plenty of logistical snags like their bush plane cancelling, but finally he and one of his best photographer friends were dropped in the middle of the park.
They spent 11 days backpacking through the bush where no roads or trails exist, only seeing a couple park rangers the entire trip. The weather can often be brutal that far north with snow and freezing, wet conditions existing even in the middle of summer, but Meisenheimer got lucky and had incredible fall weather.
They’d cached pack rafts near the Alatna River and finished their trip with a 30-mile float to where their bush plane would pick them up.
Meisenheimer saw two or three bears on his whole trip. When they set up camp in the valley pictured in his winning shot, mud had preserved the older tracks of a bear coming from the direction of the granite walls. Meiseinheimer captured the photo with his Nikon D7 with a Nikon 14-30mm F.4 lens, a set-up he loves for backpacking because it’s pro-grade, but half the size.
“I’m always aware of the wildlife around me,” says Meisenheimer. “But I loved this scene because it really gives a sense of what else is out there. It encompasses what Alaska is.”
While an adventure into the heart of Gates of the Arctic isn’t for the average national park traveler, Meiseinheimer has some advice for avid adventurers looking to get into the wild up there.
“Consume as much information as possible,” he advises.
There’s so much information online, and he spent tons of time reading trip reports, contacting people who had been up there before and studying maps. He particularly likes GAIA GPS, which has a plethora of mapping features that are excellent for traveling in the backcountry.
The hardest part of the trip was how heavy the packs were. While 60-80 lbs. might sound unreasonable to average day hikers, when you’re hauling pack rafts and preparing for temperatures that could swing from single digits to 70 degrees in a single day and might encompass rain or sun, the extra weight is worth having the gear you need.
Night Skies Honorable Mention
2021 Winning Photos by Janice Adair (2), Marc Alvarez, Sachin Deshpande (2), Rick Erbach, Josephine Fox, Doreen Lawrence, Xiaoying Shi and Marcin Zajac
Wildlife Honorable Mention
2021 Winning Photos by Emily Bollinger, Christopher Baker, Josephine Fox, Curt Lewis, Cynthia Murphy, Darin Robison (2), Ryan Shean (2) and Vishal Subramanyan
Landscape Honorable Mention
2021 Winning Photos by Debi Bradway, Chris Calhoun, David Closser, Daniel Fowler, Dave Lyons, Abhik Mondal, Susan Sheets, Aurobindo Sundaram, Sam Wilson and Marcin Zajac
See the 2020 Photo Contest Winners
Watch for our 2022 National Park Photo Contest starting in January.