Phenomenal Photos from a Decade of Outdoor Adventures

The 2020 Share the Experience Photo Contest Winners
Christian WilliamsNPF Blog
Photographer taking a picture of a river canyon at sunset
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - NPS Photo / Victoria Stauffenberg

The results are in! The winners of the 2020 special edition "Best of the Decade" Share the Experience photo contest have been revealed. From the over 13,400 submissions, these 11 shots showcase wonderful moments over the years from the more than 500 million acres of federal recreational lands and waters across the country.  

As the official photo contest of America’s national parks and federal recreational lands, Share the Experience invites amateur photographers to submit their favorite views, moments, and experiences through this annual competition. Let your mind wander while you gaze at the night sky in a Dark Sky Park or live out your dream to see brown bears in their natural habitat as you learn more about these beautiful places and the contestants who captured them. Many thanks to all who submitted, and congratulations to our Share the Experience photo contest winners! 

The National Park Foundation strives to ensure that all people feel welcome and have opportunities to discover their own personal connections to parks. We hope you’ll feel inspired to get out there yourself and take some photos to enter in the 2021 Share the Experience photo contest, which runs now through December 31, 2021.

Grand Prize Winner 

Mark Gruenhaupt

Starry skies in San Juan National Forest

San Juan National Forest

Mark Gruenhaupt

Location: San Juan National Forest, Colorado 

This year’s grand prize winner captured a mesmerizing photo of the Milky Way just above a camping area at the San Juan National Forest. Encompassing about 1.8 million acres in the southwestern corner of Colorado, San Juan National Forest provides various terrain ranges from high-desert mesas to alpine peaks, with thousands of miles of back roads and hundreds of miles of trails to explore and experience. This was a particularly special opportunity to enjoy the splendor of the San Juan Mountains for photographer Mark Gruenhaupt. 

"Photography has the power to draw people to these places so that they can experience them in person and join in caring for and preserving them."

“This photo is special to me because it was an awesome week that my brother and I were able to share, and an opportunity to get out into nature during such a difficult year of being locked inside. It was an amazing night of soaking up the Neowise Comet, the Milky Way and an incredible number of stars on display in the quiet of Colorado’s backcountry. My photo was taken in July of 2020, during COVID-19. With so many negative things associated with that year, I felt like it was appropriate to share something that was beautiful and positive from this time. Photography has the power to draw people to these places so that they can experience them in person and join in caring for and preserving them.”

Second Place

Rudi Jensen

A hiker stands overlooking a lake shore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore 

Rudi Jensen

Location: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan 

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore encompasses over 40 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. Situated on the largest, deepest, coldest, and most pristine of the Great Lakes, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore derives its name from the many sandstone cliffs that dot the shoreline. In addition to the sandstone cliffs, the park includes beaches, sand dunes, waterfalls, lakes, and forests, making it this winner's favorite place to hike.

“Our trip was in September of 2019, and while I have many amazing photos from this trip, none of them capture the land, lake and human interaction quite like this shot. In this photo you get the pristine beauty of the land mixed with the power of Lake Superior. I was lucky enough to capture the moment my brother first walked out to the edge of the shoreline. It was the first time he had ever been there and truly something he would never forget. I think this photo will absolutely inspire outdoor enthusiasts or even newcomers to get outside and into a park. I have told so many people about my hiking trips and always hear, “I need to check that out.” To do more than show photos of our experiences at parks, my friends and I have been accumulating extra gear so we can take people with us, rather than just talk and show people our trips.” 

NPF’s Communities & Workforce programs help inspire and diversify the next generation of outdoor leaders. In 2020, NPF and our partners expanded our support of service corps crews which provide young adults with hands-on experience as they complete priority projects for park partners in places such as Pictured Rocks.

Third Place

Kathy Ritter

A pontoon boat on the shore of a lake at sunset

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests 

Kathy Ritter

Location: Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, Arizona 

The two-million-acre Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests encompasses magnificent mountain country in east-central Arizona along the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains. The Apache-Sitgreaves has over 30 lakes and reservoirs, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, which is more than any other Southwestern National Forest. This location is a fisherman’s paradise! For this winner, the forest serves as “a relaxing and beautiful respite" for her husband through their retirement.  

“When I was a youngster, I wanted to be a photographer. My dad, in all his wisdom, suggested perhaps I do something that actually made money, like follow in his footsteps and be an Engineer. He added, I could be a photographer when I retired. So that's exactly what I did. I only got serious into photography after I retired. I bought a new camera, read, studied, practiced, and improved. Ironically, I have been retired a decade now, and this photo, taken in August 2020, is a culmination of my efforts to get to this point. My practice and patience allowed me to capture this magical moment as it unfolded before my eyes. Winning this contest is a dream come true.”

Scenic, Seasons & Landscapes

John Vermette

Night sky behind a natural bridge rock formation

Natural Bridges National Monument 

John Vermette

Location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah 

Thousands of years ago a river changed course, cutting through solid rock and creating one of the most magnificent natural bridges in the world. The bridge forms a window into a sky filled with thousands of stars bright enough to cast a shadow. On March 6, 2007, Natural Bridges National Monument became the first International Dark Sky Park certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. The goal of a Dark Sky Park is to preserve the skies and educate the public about light pollution and how they can make a difference. The very same stars the ancestral Puebloans observed 800 years ago can be viewed from these bridges thanks to the National Park Service.  

“This photo was taken in 2016, during my first visit to National Bridges National Monument. I spend a lot of time camping on public lands and don't know where I would do that without them. The National Park Foundation does an incredible job and without them the parks as I know them would not exist. Even if one has never been to a national park, and maybe is unable to, photos I and others take can still inspire them to visit these places.”

Urban Playgrounds

David Caldwell

Waves splashing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate National Recreation Area 

David Caldwell

Location: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

In 2016, David revisited one of the first parks he remembers from his childhood and captured this winning photo. 

“Golden Gate National Recreation Area has always been one of my favorite places because it was part of one of the first big national park trips I took. I was there in 1994 to visit family at Yosemite and I remember taking a great picture of the bridge on an old film camera. I have been traveling the national parks, monuments and historic sites my whole life, but it seems like it’s been a lot more fun in the past 10 years because I have family and friends to share it with. I have a travel partner and a little blue crocheted “buddy” that acts as a stand in for my niece who is autistic. My sister made the blue guy, and he is the key, he sends a story about all of the stops we make back to my niece so she can learn about the country through his travels. My niece enjoys being able to find the little blue guy in the pictures as well as see the beauty in our country; she loves looking at all the pictures “he” sends back.”

Along with stunning views and memorable moments, Golden Gate National Recreation Area supports 19 distinct ecosystems with over 2,000 plant and animal species. Thanks to a grant from NPF, the park is restoring a rare wet meadow habitat in the Marin Headlands area of the park. The project will benefit the wetland habitat that these sensitive species depend on and improve biodiversity and ecological resilience at the project site and in adjacent areas.

Friends, Family & Fun

Madi Lynch

A young person sand boarding on a dune

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve 

Madi Lynch

Location: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado 

“This picture is just fun and happy and kind of silly… I selected this photo because I think it really captures the adventurous and freeing mentality that a lot of people have discovered this year. This was the first time I had flown since the pandemic began and I was in desperate need of a break from work and school and staring at the same four walls. As we were driving up, we were astounded by the beauty and the diversity of mountains, sand dunes, forests, and the desert landscape. For 48 hours, my mind was clear, and I felt like I had escaped everything that was going on in the world by being surrounded by nature. Being surrounded by the natural beauty of this earth and all it has to offer really humbled me and in a time of so much darkness with the pandemic, this picture reminds me of the little moments in life that can get you through anything."

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is full of adventure but sledding down the dunes is an absolute must during your trip! You can also see the park via four-wheel tours, horseback riding, and park ranger-led nature walks and summit climbs.

By preserving these places, we can increase awareness of the parks to diverse communities and create opportunities to expose youth to these lands that belong to us all. Through a collaborative partnership, NPF is proud to be supporting the launch of a new Leaders of Color (LoC) crew initiative at the park which will promote leadership development in the environmental field for young members of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. This initiative will support the critical needs of the park including backlog trails work and invasive species removal while fostering a career pathway from service corps to the National Park Service for BIPOC participants.

Historical & Cultural

Jennifer Rasmussen

A old cannon on a battlefield at dusk

Stones River National Battlefield 

Jennifer Rasmussen

Location: Stones River National Battlefield, Tennessee

The Battle of Stones River began on the last day of 1862, the battle produced important military and political gains for the Union, and it forever changed the people who lived and fought here. This photo sparked a sense of hope in uncertain times for this contestant.

“This photo was taken in December of 2019. I chose this photo to represent the “Best of the Decade” because it’s a good reminder. Not long after this photo was taken, our country, along with the rest of the world, was hit with something that I don't think anyone could've imagined. We entered a pandemic and are still coping with and recovering from this today. This photo reminds us of two things… the Civil War supply wagon reminds us of what our country has endured throughout its history. We always have a way of persevering though, learning, changing and becoming stronger because of it. Secondly, the sunset. Sunsets, in all of their beauty, are a time to reflect on the happenings of the day, while also being a reminder that there is a new day coming with a story yet to be written.”

Wildlife

Tom Fenske

A grizzly bear mother plays with her three cubs

Katmai National Park and Preserve 

Tom Fenske

Location: Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska 

Capturing this photo of a mother bear and her three cubs in their natural element was a special moment for this photographer and park enthusiast.

“For years I have been captivated by images of bears feeding at the top of Brooks Falls. This was a long-awaited trip of a lifetime to see that in person. What I did not realize was how much I would enjoy all the other bear encounters throughout the park. It was fascinating to get to see the bears up close and watch their interactions with each other and their surroundings. It was a very hard process to select a photo for this contest as most of my best images were taken in the last decade and on public lands. This photo is from 2019 during my first trip to Katmai National Park and Preserve. It was an unforgettable experience and definitely a highlight of the decade.”  

While Katmai hosts an incredible density of brown bears, offering visitors an unprecedented opportunity to study and view bears in their natural habitat, sport fishing, boating, backcountry hiking, and camping are just a few of the many other activities you can enjoy. NPF has helped to preserve visitor experiences like these by supporting a service corps crew that re-routed part of the Dumpling Mountain Trail at Brooks camp to ensure hiker safety and protect wildlife habitat. Crew members removed invasive species and cut down brush that led to the Brooks Falls viewing platform, improving visitor safety and negative wildlife encounters.

Adventure & Outdoor Recreation

Matt Robertson

A tent with a light on a mountaintop above the clouds

Mount Rainier National Park 

Matt Robertson

Location: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Home to six groups of Indigenous peoples, iconic views, and vast wildflower meadows, Mount Rainier National Park welcomes nearly two million visitors a year. It's a number that is telling of the wonderous views and countless memories to be made at this park.

“Mount Rainier is one of my favorite national parks. During one of my college summers, I worked for the Olympic National Forest Service, and I had the opportunity to explore the Pacific Northwest, including Mount Rainier. This photo was taken nearly two decades later, in 2017, when I went back to visit Mount Rainier. Parks and public lands and waters have greatly contributed to shaping me into who I am and have provided countless adventures climbing, running and backpacking. I will be road tripping with my wife and two kids, age 3 and 5, through Utah and Arizona this summer. We have been taking our kids to national parks since before they could walk to start developing their love for national parks. I hope others are inspired to get out there, and not only experience parks through photos, but experience them first-hand.”

The National Park Foundation supports programs that offer opportunities for people to experience parks first-hand, including Mount Rainier. For example, NPF supports a service corps crew for LGBTQ+ young adults at Mount Rainier that is helping to protect sensitive wetland resources and restore damaged meadow areas along the Skyline Trail. Programs such as LGBTQ+ service corps help people feel safe and comfortable as they explore parks and different careers within them.

Fan Favorites

Rebecca King

Starry skies over a lake in Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Rebecca King

Location: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

This winner was lucky enough to spend six months living in Yellowstone and visiting the Teton area often. The captivating photo was chosen because “it’s a great representation of the grandeur of the Tetons. Sharing beautiful imagery and great stories are what make people realize how fleeting wild spaces can be and what inspires them to love, respect, and nurture the land and wildlife. I was feeling very reflective because my time in the area was ending, but I also was inspired and hopeful that I would be back. What a great send off the Tetons gave me in this moment.” 

This truly special park boasts a diverse ecosystem with 310,000 acres of terrain ranging from summertime wildflower meadows to rushing whitewater streams. As you can see in the photo, these mountains provide an unbelievable view of the night sky. And fun fact, these mountains are ancient, containing some of the oldest rocks in the National Park System, dating to nearly 2.7 billion years ago.  

So how can we help ensure that these mountains and waterscapes thrive for years to come? One thing we can do is help make our parks more sustainable. NPF works with partners such as Subaru of America to reduce waste in our national parks. As part of a pilot program, Grand Teton National Park is one of three parks that have diverted more than 16 million pounds of waste from landfills since 2015. Learn how you can play a role in helping to significantly reduce waste at our parks by following these steps to reduce your footprint in national parks when planning your next trip.

Tommy Korn

Two young people walk through the forest at Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park

Tommy Korn

Location: Olympic National Park

Parks give us stories and memories to pass on to our loved ones and the opportunity to disconnect with our devices so that we can reconnect with nature. Washington state's Olympic National Park protects vast wilderness, years of human history, and ecosystems, like glacier-capped mountains, a 73-mile-long coastline, and rainforests. Who needs a phone when you've got serene views like this?

A visit to Olympic National Park gave this contestant a “moment to leave the distractions of the busy world and to focus on the things that matter most - my family and nature! After spending months online with remote learning, my family was eager to take a break! We took this photo in June 2020 just before the peak of the pandemic. The COVID pandemic put everything into perspective about the fragility of life and the importance of utilizing time wisely.”

NPF is proud to have invested over $4 million to support the restoration of waterways at Olympic National Park, following the Elwha and Glines Canyon dam projects there. NPF helped to reopen more than 70 miles of pristine spawning and rearing areas for salmon populations as the river returns to its natural and free-flowing state.


These one-of-a-kind photos demonstrate the awe and beauty that live in our recreational lands and waters and hopefully inspire you to experience them first-hand, take photos to cherish for years to come, create memories that will last a lifetime, and do your part to help support these special places.

The 2021 Share the Experience photo contest is now open, so don’t miss your chance to inspire others to experience one of our national treasures, submit your favorite shots here.  

The 2021 Share the Experience photo contest is hosted by the National Park Foundation and Booz Allen Hamilton, the contractor and partner for the Recreation.gov platform, in partnership with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and Recreation.gov. Share the Experience is the official photo contest of America’s national parks and federal recreational lands, showcasing the more than 500 million acres of federal lands and drawing entries from across the United States. 


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