You know that story about the person who visited a U.S. national park and felt unimpressed? Yeah, me neither.
Ever since these lands were preserved and made accessible to the public, they’ve been captivating all who visit, igniting passions for the outdoors and, in some cases, even launching career paths. Understandably, those with a penchant for photography — for capturing a feeling or a story through visual imagery and sharing it with the world — often end up particularly drawn in by the natural beauty of these parks. They take one look at the still tranquility of a Denali wilderness or a full moon over Arches and they just know that that is the feeling they want to pursue in their work.
But every individual has their own relationship with the parks. And in that light, we wanted to take a moment to get to know the people behind the camera, the photographers and creators responsible for those Instagram pages we turn to when we need a dose of national park escapism. Here are their stories.
Christina Adele Warburg-Hon (@christinaadelephoto)
National Park Ranger; Photographer
“To me, our parks are everything. They are my career, home, family, friends. They are so much more than a pretty place to vacation. All the important memories of my life are tied up in the parks. I want other people to see how special they are; I want other people to care about them the same way that I do, to be motivated to visit a park and develop their own connection to it, and in turn, to maybe work as hard at protecting the parks as I do. Maybe then, they will be around for my children’s children to experience the same way that I have.”
The waterfalls returned on October 16, 2016. As usual, it had been a dry summer in Yosemite, and the lack of precipitation had kept the park’s cascades dried up for months, but when the rain fell that autumn morning, it brought the water rushing back with it. Christina Adele Warburg-Hon was in the park that day, Yosemite being one of the many national parks she’s called home during a career with the NPS, and as she watched the granite walls grow from a trickle to a torrent of raging water, she saw it as a metaphor: no matter how dry or sad your life may seem, in one instant, everything can change. That thought gave her hope.
For four years, Christina had lived and worked in Grand Teton National Park, and her love for that area had developed into what she referred to as an unhealthy obsession. She didn’t know who she was away from those iconic lands, and when a series of traumatic events forced her away from the park in 2015, she felt that the love of her life had been ripped away. However, as she worked as a ranger at other national parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion, she learned to find her identity within herself, not to wrap it up in her surroundings. On that fateful day in Yosemite, she fell madly in love with the man she had been dating, and in August of 2017, they visited Glacier National Park, the park in which they would eventually get married. The day before their wedding, Christina was offered a permanent position as a Glacier ranger — after years of movement and struggle, she’d finally found a place to call home.
Christina’s Instagram feed is uplifting, not only in its awe-inspiring images of Montana’s Rocky Mountain wonderland, but in the glimpse it offers into the life of someone who’s overcome countless obstacles en route to their dream career and life. In every caption, you can feel the overflowing excitement Christina has to be where she is right now. “The goal is to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road every single day until it closes,” she wrote in a post dated just a few weeks after the move. “So far, so good.” For someone who has imagined being a park ranger since they were in the second grade, Christina Adele Warburg-Hon is certainly living the dream.
Jason Hatfield (@jasoninthewilderness)
“The major difference that really sets our park system apart is the diversity of landscapes. It’s not just mountains or forests, but enormous glaciers, painted deserts of sandstone, unending canyons, lush fjords, tropical beaches, deep swamps, thundering falls, massive cliffs of granite, seas of dunes, towering trees the size of buildings, and so much more! The fact that so many of these special places were preserved in a time when land was mostly viewed as a resource to be exploited speaks to the hard work of our ancestors in creating such an important and world-changing system.”
Jason Hatfield’s childhood was spent surrounded by the corn and soy fields that stretch across the state of Ohio. While the flat farmlands of the Midwest are beautiful in their own right, Jason couldn’t wait for his family’s regular trips out west, where they’d spend weeks at a time camping and hiking through the likes of Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Part of the draw was the break from northwest Ohio’s scenic monotony — the thundering geysers at Yellowstone, the towering hills of Great Sand Dunes, a fiery sunset over the rim of the Grand Canyon, even the grizzlies of Denali National Park — but there was something deeper at play. Having grown up surrounded by land that was crisscrossed by farming roads and sectioned off by the acre, Jason discovered that it was wondrous to explore the outdoors in a place not structured by man.
Over the past 34 years, his desire to explore more of these diverse landscapes has only intensified. He’s visited 33 of the 60 national parks, and now that he’s older, his adventures therein have grown in intensity. Some of his favorite moments include running rim-to-rim through the Grand Canyon, backpacking in Denali with the eponymous peak dominating the skyline and an endless sea of blueberries stretching to the horizon, and seeing the Northern Lights over Hidden Lake in Glacier. And, with the diversity of the nation’s parks, these awe-inspiring moments just keep piling up. On a recent trip to Kenai Fjords, he and his wife were kayaking in front of a massive tidewater glacier when a quarter-mile piece of ice calved off right in front of them.
Today, Jason makes a living sharing his love for the parks through photography, videography, workshops, and even educational materials such as eBooks and photography tutorials. “My vision is to share the beauty of our world through photographs and videos,” he writes on his site. “I want to reveal all that is breathtaking and beautiful, astonishing and different. Whether it’s a place often visited or not at all, I want others to see the world as I have, to motivate them to see it for themselves and protect our wilderness.”
The Pattiz Brothers – Will & Jim (@morethanjustparks)
“I think it’s that combination of awe-inspiring natural beauty and the foresight our forebearers had to set these places aside and protect them for the benefit and enjoyment of the people that sets the U.S. National Parks apart from anywhere else in the world.” — Jim
“Stepping foot inside a National Park is like stepping foot on another planet. It’s an otherworldly experience that we encourage everyone to have.” — Will
When you ask most national parks enthusiasts about the single moment that led them to fall in love with the NPS, they’ll say that there wasn’t one, that their passion was born slowly, over years of visiting and exploring the parks and succumbing to their natural allure. Jim and Will Pattiz, on the other hand, can pinpoint that exact moment — and it’s the same for both of them. A few years back, the brothers packed up their Prius for an impromptu road trip from Atlanta to the Grand Canyon, and along the way, they stopped at Petrified National Forest off of I-40 in Holbrook, Arizona. As they stepped out of the car and into that eerie landscape of blue mesas and remnants of ancient forests, they knew they’d found their calling.
“We said to ourselves, ‘How have we gone our whole lives and never been to one of these places?’” Will explained. “Which led to, ‘How many other people have never been to one of these?’ Which led to, ‘We’ve got to share these places with as many people as possible.’”
The result? More Than Just Parks, an organization and video project dedicated to encouraging the exploration and conservation of national parks through inspiring short films. Each film highlights the beautiful corners of a certain national park, such as Grand Teton, Zion, or Acadia. Jim and Will agree that by capturing the essence of a park through video, they can provide their viewers with that same feeling of awe that they experienced that day in Petrified National Forest.
Interestingly enough, for all of the exploring they’ve been doing over the past few, the brothers also share the same favorite moment from traveling within the parks. They were hiking up near Obstruction Point in Olympic National Park, looking out at the alpine lakes and the peaks of the Olympic range as they waited for a time-lapse to finish up. That’s when they heard it: nothing.
Everything was still, tranquil. They didn’t need to say anything to each other, but they knew it was a special moment. “For the first time in my life, I experienced a sort of quiet that only lands that remote can offer,” Will said. “It was a serene and utter calm that swept over me, a sort of peacefulness like I had never felt. It was a really beautiful thing.”
Megan Juran (@olympicnationalpark)
National Park Ranger; Photographer; Instagram Manager
“While I may be a little biased, I feel like the national parks are an amazing representation of some of the most beautiful landscapes in our country. They awe; they inspire; they provide us respite from the busyness of the modern world and its demands. They can take us back in time, show us a glimpse into the lives of native peoples, and celebrate lives lost in battle. They are a part of us. They tell of our past, link us to the present, and give us hope for the future.”
After living in Hawaii for a few years, Megan Juran felt that it was time for the next chapter. She started researching areas in the Pacific Northwest to relocate to, and when she learned about Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula, she knew that she had found her new home. Olympic National Park — with its diverse ecosystems, such as glacier-covered mountains, old-growth trees, rainforest valleys, and a wilderness coastline — was the complete package. Today, Megan is finishing up her fifth season as an interpretive ranger at Olympic, a job that places her in one of the most inspiring offices in the world. When she’s immersed in the beauty of the park’s landscapes, she finds herself reflecting on how thankful she is, not only for these amazing public places, but for those who have fought to preserve and protect them.
One of her duties over the past few years has involved building and managing the park’s official Instagram account, a task she’s tackled along with ranger Molly Sullivan of the park’s Wilderness Information Center. One of the most active and well-curated accounts of any U.S. national park, the Olympic page treats its followers to a gallery as gorgeous and diverse as the park itself. Whether they’re highlighting Olympic’s dreamy coast, fog-shrouded forest, or snowy peaks, Megan and Molly pair their personal photos (and those that visitors have tagged the page in) with quotes, poems, environmental lessons, and upcoming event information, resulting in a page that is equal parts thought-provoking and educational.
Even those who have never set foot in the Pacific Northwest will find themselves captivated by the unparalleled beauty of Olympic when visiting the page Megan and Molly have crafted. “I like to post current pictures that are a good representation of the spirit of the park,” Megan said. “While many people who follow our page have visited before, I like to be able to share its beauty with people from all over the world.”
Kylie Fly (@kylie.fly)
“National parks have been telling their story far before they ever became national parks. Using photography as a tool allows us to continue to tell their story. Going to these spaces to photograph and document what we see is a gift and a privilege.”
Like many before her, photographer Kylie Fly found herself falling in love with the rare peacefulness afforded by the national parks. It happened on a trip to Yosemite in the fall, when the turn of the autumnal clock painted every nook of the park with magical brushstrokes. “There was something special about the way the fog hung on the valley floor, lingering into mid-morning,” she said. “Between the crisp autumn air, the golden-yellow leaves blowing across the meadow, and everything being ablaze with the turning of the seasons, I fell in love with the quiet.”
All told, the professional adventure photographer has visited 29 national parks. She’s spotted grizzlies, wolves, and elk in Denali. She’s rafted over whitewater on the Colorado River as it winds through the Grand Canyon. She ascended her first multi-pitch trad climb in Grand Teton, photographed her first truly starry sky in Joshua Tree, and saw her first hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. But for Kylie, the national parks are about more than just checking a bunch of “firsts” off of her bucket list. They’re a celebration of the outdoors, of the American lands that have been preserved for us to enjoy, and she’s dedicated to exploring them and continuing to tell their story.
“There’s something unique and special about everywhere we go outside, but to have a place dedicated to sharing and nurturing its entire story and instilling programs to continue its legacy really shows that the land is valuable and that we care,” she said. “I love that we can share these places as notable destinations but also still enjoy the beauty and wanderlust of getting outside.”
Rob Decker (@robertbdecker)
Photographer; Graphic Designer
“I hope that my artwork not only allows people to celebrate their own national park experiences, but also encourages others to get out and explore the parks. Our national parks are more than just public lands — they’re part of a cultural legacy to share with the next generation. I hope the second century of the NPS will be even more successful than the first. The land that we have inherited is a gift, and we should be committed to ensuring that the national parks remain as beautiful tomorrow as they are today.”
Rob Decker’s love for the national parks can be traced back to his journey to Yosemite when he was 19, during which he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study photography under Ansel Adams. Although the parks have evolved over the past four decades, Rob recognizes that their core spirit — the sense of wonder they instill in all who explore their bounds — remains the same. In his mind, the parks truly are America’s best idea, preserving the country’s most breathtaking landscapes for the enjoyment of all and providing unparalleled insight into the vibrant natural history of our nation.
His National Parks Poster Project aims to inspire the next generation of park-lovers and keep America’s passion for its natural lands alive. Using the graphic style popularized by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the ’30s and ’40s, Rob is in the process of designing posters for each of the 60 national parks, with each one capturing the single, iconic image representative of that park. In Arches, for example, he chose the unmistakable profile of Delicate Arch, and in Rocky Mountain National Park, he opted for a picturesque view of the Continental Divide.
To directly support the parks he’s immortalizing in his work, Rob donates 10 percent of his profits to pro-National Parks organizations. Overall, however, he hopes that the contributions of the project are not just financial, but cultural. By harnessing the nostalgic power of the eye-popping WPA imagery, he aims to instill in the general populace the same awe for our public lands that consumed him from such a young age. He wants people to be encouraged to get out and explore and to take advantage of these amazing places we’re blessed to have such wide-ranging access to. From where he stands, these lands that have been passed down from generation to generation are a gift, and we should be committed to ensuring that they’re as enchanting tomorrow as they are today.
As Ansel Adams taught Rob, in order to capture an image you must first visualize it. And with his poster project, Rob is doing just that — visualizing the iconic images that make up our nation’s parks and preserving their cultural legacy for future generations to enjoy.
Feeling inspired? Want to learn everything you can about America’s Best Idea? Get started here!
Header image by Christina Adele Warburg-Hon.