An inside look at the national parks

Hard-won photos of the National Park Service’s ‘Treasured Lands.’

  • Inspiration Point, Channel Islands National Park, California.

    QT Luong
  • Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska.

    QT Luong
  • Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

    QT Luong
  • Cascade Creek, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

    QT Luong
  • Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park, California.

    QT Luong
  • Cannonballs, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

    QT Luong
  • Taft Point, Yosemite National Park, California.

    QT Luong
  • The Doll House, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

    QT Luong
  • Pine Creek Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah.

    QT Luong
 

Tuan (Q.T.) Luong has been down many pothole-filled roads during his 20-year quest to photograph every national park in the country. He once nearly lost his vehicle to the deep ruts of an unpaved thoroughfare to Sheep Mountain Table at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. He was better prepared for a drive up Mount Washington in a remote corner of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park; for that, he borrowed his wife’s SUV. But while the vehicle provided peace of mind on switchbacks so steep he had to take them with three-point turns, it didn’t help when, in those pre-GPS days, he took a wrong turn and missed sunset — the landscape photographer’s ultimate nightmare. And when Luong finally did reach the summit in the dark, one of his tires went flat.

During his quest, Luong survived a mosquito attack at Biscayne National Park in Florida, snapped photos with a cholla cactus barbed into his backside at Joshua Tree National Park in California, and narrowly avoided being stranded by flash floods at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

The perseverance and suffering paid off: Luong’s Treasured Lands — at 456 pages and nearly 7 1/2 pounds, with more than 500 photographs, 60 maps and 130,000 words — is the single-most monumental literary achievement during a year that brimmed with words and pictures dedicated to the centennial of the National Park Service.

Calling it a coffee-table book, or even a picture book, would be dramatically shortchanging Treasured Lands. To be sure, it is a visual feast. Luong’s compositions, many taken with a 5x7 large-format camera, are mesmerizing: Witness the full-page picture of a hiker looking down into Yosemite Valley from Taft Point at sunset. But it's much more than that, because of its geographic completeness and the attention to detail that only someone who has lived and breathed the parks for a long time could provide.

Born in France to Vietnamese parents, Luong gave up a career as a computer scientist to become the first person, by 2002, to photograph all U.S. national parks with a large-format camera — something even the late, great Ansel Adams could not claim. Luong, now 52, taught himself how to operate that camera, which hikes the weight of his backpack to as much as 70 pounds. He also figured out how to undertake the project without financial backing, so he could do things exactly the way he wanted. That included going back to the same parks repeatedly to find the extraordinary image.

Luong made sure, for example, that he photographed at each of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park in California, all three islands that make up National Park of American Samoa, the three main keys of Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida, all five districts of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and all three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, including Elkhorn Ranch, in North Dakota. He shunned the obvious, waiting for the right moment or returning for it. He stepped into Paurotis Pond in Everglades National Park with an alligator, to better capture the side lighting on the Spanish moss-covered trees at sunset. He hiked, climbed, swam and rappelled into Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park, to retrieve an unexpected image of a pair of juvenile owls sitting on a rock in a slot canyon.

“I'm not sure I've been particularly relentless,” says Luong, who lives in San Jose with his wife, two children and dog. “If someone's hobby is, let’s say, running, they will train several times each week. … I suppose I keep returning (to the parks) because I don't think it is a finished job. Besides new places, I like to see different seasons and weather, and I like the combination of the new and the familiar.”

Luong says his photographic park forays number more than 300, a figure he terms a “conservative estimate.” He has visited all but American Samoa and Kobuk Valley, Alaska, at least twice, and 46 parks at least three times. He’s been to Death Valley 11 times, second only to Yosemite, which he’s visited so many times, he’s lost count.

Yosemite literally is a whole other book for Luong — he published Spectacular Yosemite with Universe in 2011, and his image of Yosemite Valley graces the cover of Ken Burns’ documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. (Luong himself appears in the fourth episode.) Looking for what he thought would be short-term studies in the U.S., he chose the University of California, Berkeley, because of its proximity to the climbing mecca. And he never left.

However, Luong found the Sierra Nevada less impressive than the glaciated peaks of the Alps, where he mountaineered and guided during college. So, in 1993, he tackled the 20,308-foot summit of Denali, then still called Mount McKinley. There, he acquired what he considers the most difficult shot that appears in Treasured Lands. After a bush-plane ride and two weeks of solo climbing, the film in his pro Nikon snapped during rewinding because of the extreme cold. He couldn’t risk inserting new film because opening the camera would likely have clouded the shots he’d already taken. So Luong made the shot with a point-and-shoot. 

Within weeks, Luong visited the highest and lowest points in the National Park Service. His Death Valley days contrasted dramatically to those at Denali, and he marveled at the range of biodiversity.

“There were a lot of new experiences for me in Death Valley, but I was impressed by how easy it was to access the park, as opposed to the mountain summits,” Luong says, “and I realized that this was a benefit of the National Park Service infrastructure.”

Ease of access seldom seems the motivation behind the choice of the scenes that Luong records in Treasured Lands. In fact, the degree of difficulty is so pervasive as to seem deliberate. But he says that isn’t the case.

Then call him undaunted and uniquely inspired. Tuan Luong, after all, has a Chihuahua named Peanut and says, “Despite widespread skepticism, I’ve run half-marathon distances with him several times.”

Luong’s work stands out on the crowded shelves of national park tomes because of the generosity not just of his vision but of his accumulated wisdom. Dayton Duncan, who wrote and co-produced Burns’ landmark documentary, pens the forward for Treasured Lands, but the remainder of the book’s words are from Luong. Each park gets its own chapter, as well as an introduction summarizing its most appealing characteristics and best seasons.

For an avid photographer and national park fanboy like myself, the real treasure trove is buried in Luong’s descriptions of the images, which are plotted on a map and accompanied by precise directions, details and anecdotes. Where else, for example, will you learn that bison, pronghorn and prairie dogs are more easily observed in South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park than in its more highly touted sister park, Badlands? Or read an admission that he and a friend were so overcome with awe at John Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay National Park that they almost failed to notice an oncoming brown bear? Or cop the honesty of a gem like, “Despite its name, I didn’t find Inspiration Point too inspiring,” about a perch above Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park? (Now that I’ve been there, I agree; it doesn’t live up to the hype.)

Luong’s generosity extends to the practical: He offers purchasers of Treasured Lands a more portable and easily readable electronic version of his photos and commentary. At TreasuredLandsBook.com, he even offers links to merchants selling his book at discounted prices.

Best of all, Luong is willing to share turn-by-turn, step-by-step directions to the exact locations of his images, as well as commentary about the best time of day, or season of the year, during which to photograph them. Most photographers treat such data like state secrets, merely sharing camera and exposure data, which usually are useless because conditions and lighting are ever-fluid variables.

“More often that's a way to prevent others from getting a similar shot,” Luong acknowledges. “This stems from insecurity and runs opposite to what I am trying to do with my photography, (which is to) inspire people to want to see with their own eyes the places I saw. I also recognize that I've benefited from the collective knowledge of many landscape photographers, and I am trying to pay it forward.”

We, the fans and stewards of a marvelous system of history and protected landscapes, are the beneficiaries.

Treasured Lands
QT Luong (foreword by Dayton Duncan)
456 pages, hardcover: $65.
Cameron + Company, 2016.

Contributing editor Glenn Nelson is the founder of The Trail Posse, which documents and encourages diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.