See 'Sunset Wars' Pictures of National Parks' Amazing Skies

To encourage a love of nature, two National Parks started the internet’s most wholesome war.

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Saguaro National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park

It was an innocuous opening salvo: On May 5, an Instagram post boasted that Saguaro National Park has “the best sunsets in the world.” Taking offense, Joshua Tree National Park fired back. The #parksunsetwars had begun.

The battle begins: Comments on the May 5 Saguaro National Park post show the initial rift.

Spontaneous banter between two parks’ social media teams turned into a week-long hashtag challenge, with other national parks—from Grand Canyon to Gettysburg—joining the fray. Initially drawing from their own stock of photos, the official accounts at Saguaro and Joshua Tree soon began reposting the sunset snaps shared by their enthusiastic followers. [Can you fly with a mummified head? Ask the TSA’s cheeky Instagram.]

“We were very happy to show Joshua Tree just how awesome the sunsets out here are,” says Sharlot Hart, acting lead interpreter at Saguaro, who’s had a hand in the campaign. (Her colleague, Lauren Nichols, was the one to make the fateful post; now on leave, “she probably doesn’t even know what she started,” Hart says.)

Zion National Park

One of the most photographed views in Zion National Park, and perhaps all of the parks, is the view of the Watchman from the Canyon Junction Bridge. Although it has been shot endless times, and you are sure to be shoulder to shoulder with other photographers during sunset, it is still something everyone must do when visiting the park. My favorite spot is right at the center of the bridge where the river leads the eye to the Watchman in the background.

Yellowstone national Park

The Great Fountain Geyser is one of the most beautiful places in the park to photograph at sunset, and it is one of the few that you can drive right up to, making it an easy place to catch the late afternoon light after a busy day of viewing other landmarks in the park.

Acadia National Park

Bass Harbor Lighthouse is the quintessential view in Acadia National Park. If you are looking for iconic Acadia, this is it. To get this shot, sunset is best, and be sure to use a tripod and a wide angle lens (around 20 to 24 millimeters).

Yosemite National Park

The sun sets on Half Dome, as seen from Glacier Point. This viewpoint can be busy during sunset, so get there early to get a good seat for the incredible view.

Sequoia National Park

Visitors walk below giant sequoia trees along the appropriately named Giant Tree Trail. Adding people to images, especially with such large objects as these trees, provides a sense of scale.

 
Crater Lake National Park

My favorite views of Crater Lake and Wizard Island came from the southwest rim near Discovery Point.

Grand Canyon National Park

The rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon is one of my favorite hikes in the world. Most hikers will hike down the shorter, but steeper, South Kaibab Trail (pictured here) and then back up the longer, but less steep, Bright Angel Trail. This photo shows the point at which you start to realize there is a completely different world below the rim. The hustle and bustle of the busy rim village gives way to quiet solitude and grand views.

Great Smoky Mountains national Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the system, and home to approximately 1,500 black bears and more than 240 species of birds.

Death Valley National Park

A favorite location within Death Valley National Park for photographers are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, located near Stovepipe Wells in the central part of the park, which straddles the California-Nevada border. In order to get a clean image with no people in a popular destination such as this, you have to get up very early and hike much farther out than most are willing to venture. However, your initiative will be rewarded with views such as you see here.

Redwood National Park

Sunrise in the middle of the redwood forest was one of my favorite experiences this year. The trees are so tall that it feels like standing in a temple. The forest can be difficult to photograph due to the strong contrasts in sun and shade, so it is best to shoot it with a tripod and a low ISO.

Olympic National ParkSea stacks, which are rock outcrops exposed above the water, dot the landscape along the coast.
Grand Teton national Park

Schwabacher Landing is one of the most iconic and beautiful places to take photographs within Grand Teton National Park. The Snake River, made famous by Ansel Adams, perfectly reflects the Teton Range in the early morning light.

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is the largest U.S. national park east of the Rockies and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend's topographic variety supports a remarkable diversity of life, including 1,200 plant species—some found nowhere else in the world.

Joshua Tree National Park

Did you know that the namesake of this park, the Joshua tree, is not even a tree, but a plant of the yucca family? Whether a tree, plant, or something entirely different, seeing one in the early morning sun is still an iconic and beautiful sight.

Bryce Canyon national Park

The amphitheater at Bryce Canyon is home to countless colorful hoodoos that are consistently altered by sun, wind, and erosion. Hiking through them offers visitors a window into a world changing over thousands of years.

North Cascades National ParkMy favorite place to photograph is from the aptly named Picture Lake, which has impressive views of Mount Shuksan. This is an easily accessed lake that is best photographed during sunset.
Arches National ParkSunrise and sunset alike are great times to view Delicate Arch—it is very difficult to photograph this iconic scene in a bad light. However, sunset is the best time to catch alpenglow on the distant La Sal Mountains as a backdrop to this famous arch.
Great Sand Dunes National Park

It is hard to imagine that at an elevation above 8,000 feet, near the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, you can land upon a scene that could’ve easily been plucked out of the Sahara desert, where you can explore trails by horse, rugged roads by 4x4, and mesmerize yourself with the starry night skies. It’s all there—every day of the year in southern Colorado at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote national parks, accessible only by high-speed ferry, private and charter boats, and seaplane. The islands of the Dry Tortugas are constantly moving and reshaping as a result of weather and erosion.

Mammoth Cave national Park

With over 400 miles of explored cave—and countless more miles of unexplored areas—Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is the longest cave system in the world.

Petrified Forest National Park

Storm clouds threaten the serene beauty of Blue Mesa, near the middle of Petrified Forest National Park.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park's Maritime Heritage Trail is the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park System. The park is home to diverse corals, manatees, crocodiles, butterflies, birds, and more than 500 species of fish.

Mount Rainer national park

To get a classic photograph of Mount Rainier, head to Reflection Lakes in the Paradise area on the southwestern edge of the park, where you can see Washington’s highest peak twice—in the water and in the sky. There is a five-mile loop trail starting at the iconic viewpoint that bands off into the lowland forests that surround the peaceful lake setting.

Virgin Islands National Park

While Virgin Islands National Park is best known for its diverse tropical rain forest and incredible waterways, there are archeological and historic sites scattered across the island dating back as early as 840 B.C.

shenandoah national park

Forty percent of Shenandoah National Park is designated as a wilderness area, representing one of the largest wilderness areas in the eastern United States.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Lit by soft lighting, stalactites and stalagmites grace the entrance to the main attraction at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. This is one of the first scenes you will see when descending into the cave on foot. You can choose to take an elevator all the way down to the aptly named Big Room, but I highly recommend you walk down on foot, which allows for a greater appreciation of how grand and beautiful this cave system really is.

Cuyahoga National Park

North of Hale Farm in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the Everett Covered Bridge, a reconstruction of an 1870s structure that was destroyed in a 1975 flood.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

A rocky outcrop provides a nice foreground to the distant Texas landscape in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I shot this photo about two-thirds of the way up Guadalupe Peak, one of the harder hikes I’ve done on this epic national parks trip.

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park is home to one of the most diverse forests in North America, with 22 plant communities living in the park.

Saguaro National Park

The Gilbert Ray Campground is just outside the south entrance to Saguaro National Park, and it provides some of the best camping sites in the area for both tents and RVs. Here, our Airstream, affectionately nicknamed “Wally,” looks right at home among the cacti.

Kings Canyon National Park

Hiking into Paradise Valley offers some of the best views in Kings Canyon National Park. We backpacked into the valley and spent the night along the river, and it was one of the most peaceful and beautiful camping spots of our entire trip.

Great Basin National Park

Wheeler Peak, at just over 13,000 feet high, is home to a large grove of bristlecone pine trees. These pine trees average 3,000 to 4,000 years old, with the oldest recorded at over 5,000 years old. Great Basin National Park was established in part to protect these incredibly old trees.

Isle Royale National Park

The rocky, lichen-covered coast of Isle Royale juts into Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes.

Glacier Bay National ParkA giant humpback whale breaches the waters of Icy Strait. Averaging 40 to 50 feet long, and weighing over 40 tons, these animals are able to lift themselves out of the water with force.
Kenai Fjords National Park

Large icebergs float freely in the Bear Glacier lagoon.

Voyageurs National Park

Our first campsite in Voyageurs National Park had a great view of Snake Island (pictured in the distance). We were lucky enough to witness an incredible sunset that night.

Denali National ParkA rainbow appears above a small lake near the Wonder Lake area. Extreme changes in weather, including severe thunderstorms, can roll in without warning in this remote area of Alaska.
Katmai National Park

One of the park’s more famous bears, this sow (mother) bear is nicknamed “Uno” because she’s missing part of one of her ears. Uno had two cubs this spring, who follow her around everywhere, learning how to be bears and protect themselves in the wild.

Wrangell St. Elias National ParkAt over 125 miles long, six miles wide, and almost a half mile thick, the Bagley Icefield is one amazingly huge piece of ice. I took a flightseeing trip over the icefield to get a sense of its scale, and it was hard to capture with my camera. Here, an avalanche has left a ring of snow and debris near the mountain from which it came.
Hot Springs National Park

Approximately 700,000 gallons of thermal waters are collected each day in the Hot Springs National Park water reservoir, reaching temperatures of 143ºF (62ºC).

Canyonlands National Park

The most photographed place in Canyonlands National Park is Mesa Arch at sunrise. It is one of the great photography locations in the U.S. When the sun rises, light bounces off of the rock beneath the arch, casting a glow onto the belly of the arch that frames a scene into the valley.

Kobuk Valley National ParkWe couldn’t get enough of climbing up and down these dunes. Since it's such a remote park, we were the only people as far as our eyes could see. I’d recommend coming here with an outfitter and a guide, as this can be a harsh and foreboding place anytime of year.
Rocky Mountain National ParkSprague Lake is probably the easiest place to get to in the park, where stunning reflective landscape sceneries are ready for any photographer at sunrise. A well-beaten walking trail circumnavigates the lake, taking you to several vantage points from which you can capture a beautiful view and photograph of the mountains rising in the east.
Gates of The Arctic national park

Our bush plane flight to the interior of Gates of the Arctic gave us a preview of how remote and beautiful the land would be.

Lake Clark National Park

Alaska from the air is always mesmerizing. In order to get to Lake Clark National Park, we had to fly over some of the most strangely beautiful water we’ve ever seen.

Badlands National Park

There is no better complementary color of Badlands geology than those brought on by the sunsets in central South Dakota. The warm shades of orange, pink, red, and yellow accentuate the depth of blue, purple, ivory, and tan colors seen in the sedimentary layers that make up the landscape.

Glacier National ParkA quick stop off of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road brings visitors to one of the most popular stops in the park—where the view from the Wild Goose Scenic Viewpoint looks onto the heart of St. Mary Lake, Goose Island, with peaks rising 8,000 feet from the landscape in the backdrop.
Wind Cave National Park

About an hour’s drive from Wind Cave National Park is its sister cave, Jewel Cave, part of the third longest cave system in the world and one of the most popular national monuments in the country.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National ParkThe Painted Canyon is one of the most photographed places in the park, thanks to its ornate and artful striations that form ribbons across the canyon walls, as it is seen here.
Volcanoes National ParkThe state of Hawaii is known as the land of rainbows for a reason—they pop up anywhere, at anytime in this place perpetually adorned by sun and water. This rainbow arcs into the rise of volcanic steam from the lava of Kilauea as it roars at its confluence with the icy Pacific seas.
Mesa Verde National ParkThe sun sets early on the Cliff Palace dwelling, casting golden light onto the ancient city. The only way to experience the fine detail of the construction in the Cliff Palace is on a ranger-guided tour.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Cannonball Concretions in the North Unit of the park provide one of the most unique examples of geology in the park, and in the nation. They were eroded when water and wind met sand and mineral, creating a truly unusual sight, and one that can be explored just a few minutes driving from the Juniper Campground, located across the road.

haleakala national park

Friends share the sunset at one of the many overlooks just off Crater Road on the high peaks of Haleakala.

Capitol Reef National ParkA monolith formation in the Cathedral Valley District is one of the most iconic scenes in the park. The loop drive taken to get there stretches 57 miles through a rough and rugged environment, so it takes some commitment (and an all-terrain vehicle) to explore there.
National Park of American SamoaOn the island of Ofu in the Manua islands, you will find a four-mile stretch of pristine paradise beach that has been touted by many as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. When we visited, we were alone with the protected coral reefs, black tipped sharks, sunshine, palm trees, and wild nature.
Channel islands national parkA northern view from Anacapa Island toward its larger neighbor, Santa Cruz Island.
lassen volcanic national parkA winter sunset paints the mountains and clouds in pink. This image was shot from the eastern side of Manzanita lake on a cold and wintry December day.
pinnacles national park

The Bear Gulch area of the park is one of the most popular spots for visitors to explore—and for good reason. It's easily accessible and boasts some of the best scenery in the region. I loved hiking up the Bear Gulch Cave Trail and then down the Rim Trail. If you take this route, rest about halfway through at the reservoir to see stunning views of the rock pinnacles.

Tap images for captions

Saguaro National Park, whose two wings embrace Tucson, Arizona, isn’t one of the big-name parks. But its stunning sunsets more than hold their own against those in Joshua Tree, its bigger Californiacousin. No public consensus has yet been reached regarding which park does, in fact, have the superior sunsets.

“Just know that we’re right,” says Hart.

Not Just a Pretty Face

Nearby festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach draw extra visitors from the Instagramming crowd to Joshua Tree, and like many NPS officials, they’re trying to make the connection, using pretty pictures to communicate visiting information, fun facts, and safety tips.

“We’re like, ‘Please don’t touch the cholla cactus,’” laughs Kristi Rugg, media branch chief at Joshua Tree. “‘Please be careful when you’re hiking; it gets really hot.’”

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Joshua Tree National Park

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Saguaro National Park

A short trip from major cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Diego, Joshua Tree has seen attendance triple over the last decade. Over three million people are expected to visit this year, Rugg says. But it’s also one of 17 big-name parks whose fees may soon double following a 2017 NPS proposal, intended to provide funds for overdue maintenance, that has raised concerns about accessibility.

National parks have been exhaustively hailed as America’s “best idea,” and modern science only adds another voice to the choir. While three days in nature can give a much-needed break to overstressed brains, even a little green time has health and cognition benefits. Scientists and NPS officials alike have argued in favor of keeping the parks open to all. [Learn how climate change will shape the parks of tomorrow.]

“It’s not all about [the rangers], or the people going into the backcountry,” Hart says. “We’re national parks. We’re the people’s parks. So getting people out to take their own sunset pictures, and have that pride in public lands, is awesome.”

The sunset wars are reaching a détente—“this is a war where everyone wins,” a recent Saguaro post graciously notes—but the rangers aren’t done yet. That post also asks followers to suggest the topic of the next battle.

My vote? #parkstarwars

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Saguaro National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park

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