Q&A With National Park Photographer Mason Cummings
As a landscape photographer, there’s no better place for Mason Cummings to practice his passion than the national parks. With his enthusiasm for the outdoors and inspiration drawn from nature, he takes any opportunity to explore and capture the beauty of our national treasures. His adventures have allowed him to enjoy many unique experiences that he shared when we spoke to him.
How long have you been a photographer?
I've been a photography hobbyist since I took my first photography class in high school, but only started pursuing it on a more serious basis about five years ago.
What inspires you about the national parks?
National parks boast some of the most spectacular wilderness areas in this diverse and beautiful country. As a landscape photographer, I can't help but be drawn to them like a bug to a light.
That said, they're much more than a place to take pretty pictures. I see them as places to find balance in my life, places to reconnect, and places to be mystified by the intricate beauty of this planet. The thought of capturing even just a fraction of that beauty and sharing it with others is what motivates me to be a photographer.
Still, the significance of national parks extends far beyond the beauty and recreational opportunities they offer to humans.
National parks are critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems and thus a healthy planet. Some of our last remnants of untrammeled open spaces, they are living laboratories and classrooms. They’re also some of the last remaining natural assemblages of biodiversity, and provide critical habitat to many of our threatened and endangered species.
In a time of accelerating environmental degradation, national parks are some of our most important resources as a country.
Where did you first find your park?
To be totally honest, I can’t remember which park I first visited, but I first truly found my park at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. I was working as a trail crew intern, exploring and photographing the park extensively on the side.
Spending time in the park almost every day, I was constantly making new discoveries in one of the most biologically rich landscapes in the country. GGNRA is also unique because of its proximity to such a huge urban center. It made me realize the importance of urban parks, and how important it is for everyone to have access to the outdoors.
Why is the Find Your Park/Encuentra Tu Parque movement important?
Everyone needs to find their park. It doesn’t have to be the Grand Canyon or Yosemite – it doesn’t even have to be a real park. People simply need to be able to get outside and connect with the natural world. In this day in age I don’t think there’s anything more important.
We’re growing disconnected from nature in our increasingly urbanized world. A critical part of the Find Your Park movement is about re-establishing that deep connection we have with nature. The more people that are able to get out and experience that connection, the better the world we’ll leave for future generations.
On top of that, spending time in parks is just downright fulfilling, fun, and it’s even proven to be good for your health. Everyone should have the opportunity to find their park for that reason alone.
What is your best national park memory?
Every national park experience brings fond memories, but the one that stands out most is a trip I took with a friend to the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. It's truly unlike any other place I've ever been, and it also took more effort to get there than almost any other place I've explored.
The total absence of sound in the remote canyon labyrinth was probably the most surprising thing to me. It's funny how easy it is to forget that we're constantly in the presence of noise – even in the alpine backcountry there's the sound of birds, the wind in the trees, and the streams in the distance. Most of us will never have the opportunity to experience total silence, but the Maze is just about as close as it gets.
The lack of noise is matched by a clear night sky that is far removed from the glow of city lights. Being in such an alien landscape while the Milky Way shines bright almost evokes the feeling of being on a different planet.
The stratification of the steep canyon walls is also totally fascinating. Eons of erosion and weathering sit right there before you, stacked like the layers of a cake – eternity in a single moment. That may sound a little crazy, but make the trip to Canyonlands and you'll understand. Ancient petroglyphs dotted throughout this seemingly inhospitable terrain only add to that sense of ineffable mystery.
What is the most unique experience you have had in a national park?
A couple years ago I experienced an 80+ degree temperature difference in a single day in Death Valley National Park.
A friend and I started hiking at 2:00 am in order to catch sunrise at the summit of Telescope Peak – the highest point in the park at 11,043 feet. The temperature was barely 20 degrees when we reached the top, more than two vertical miles above Badwater Basin – the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Standing on top of that vertical relief was unique on it’s own (don’t worry, we didn’t start hiking from the bottom).
Later that day we stopped at the famous Mesquite Dunes, not too far as the crow flies from Telescope Peak. Being late April, I knew it was going to be hot down there, but that morning I was actually looking forward to the warmer air on the valley floor.
It wasn’t long after we reached the dunes that we began questioning our decision. It was nearly 105 degrees and I’m not built for heat, so we weren’t about to hike through the dunes and stick around for sunset as planned!
How many national parks have you visited?
27, if I'm counting correctly:
- Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Colorado National Monument
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Arches National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Sequoia National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Devil's Postpile National Monument
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Pinnacles National Park
- Redwood National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
- National Mall
- Vicksburg National Military Park
- Fort Sumter National Monument
What is your favorite national park you’ve visited so far?
It’s tough to pick just one, but there's something about being high in the mountains that really does it for me. Kings Canyon National Park epitomizes the rugged alpine terrain that I've grown to love over the years.
One particularly salient experience is a backcountry trip I took with two friends in Kings Canyon a few years ago. It was among the most physically demanding trips I've ever taken, yet also one of the most rewarding. Once we got off the Pacific Crest Trail and into some of the more remote basins, we didn't see a single other person. Kings Canyon is the Sierras at their biggest, boldest, and best. It would take a lifetime of exploring the park before you become fully acquainted with its rugged beauty.
What national park are you most excited to visit in the future?
It's a long list, but I would have to say that I'm most looking forward to exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, right in my own backyard. I grew up in Colorado, but it wasn’t until recently moving back to my home state that I’ve had the chance to begin properly exploring the backcountry of Rocky – no less with a decent camera setup. I’m a total nut for alpine lakes, so I hope to eventually visit all of the park’s 150.
Also high on my list are Olympic National Park, North Cascades National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Denali National Park and Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Grand Teton National Park, Acadia National Park, and many more. Again, it's a long list!
Do you have any tips about planning or making a trip to national parks you can share?
Make an effort not to enjoy the whole experience through the viewfinder of your camera. After all the planning and anticipation that goes into national park visits, it's all too easy to get sucked into the urge to capture every amazing detail without actually taking the time to absorb your surroundings.
Appreciation for the landscape turns into determination to immortalize the moment. That's a big reason I save the vast majority of my shooting for magic hour (the 30 minutes before and after sunset/sunrise). Not only is the light consistently at its best during that time, but it ensures ample time to actually experience these incredible places without being inhibited by the need to capture their beauty.
Mason Cummings is a nature and outdoors enthusiast, and most drawn to photographing drama in landscapes. He believes that this planet is so rich in diversity and beauty that he can only hope to begin to scratch the surface of its splendor. As a digital content producer and photographer for The Wilderness Society, he has spent the past year shooting some of the country’s most scenic unprotected landscapes. You can view more of his captivating photography here.