Q&A: Parks to the Moon with Filmmaker Brendan Hall

A young filmmaker sets out on a 10,000-mile exploration of the national parks with his childhood best friend during the centennial of the National Park Service. Along the way, the two record stories of people who work in parks and those who come to enjoy them. His stunning film, Out There: A National Parks Story is a tribute to the national parks, their history and the people who work to maintain their beauty.


I’m here with Brendan Hall, adventurer, filmmaker, National Park fan, and believe it or not, civilian astronaut! But we’ll get into that later. Brendan, thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Yeah, it’s good to be here and good to talk to you guys.

Let’s start with a summary bio challenge. In three sentences, tell us your origin story. How did you grow up? How did you find your way, and what are you doing now?

I love that, three sentences. Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, on a small lake with parents who are psychologists and very focused on mental health and empathy, and connecting with people. I found my way because I got a camcorder when I was 12 with some birthday money, and I fell in love with filmmaking, which led me to film school, and then through road tripping led me to loving national parks and nature. And so today I’m a documentary filmmaker. I make films based around nature and exploration, and especially human connection to the natural world, including national parks. It will soon include space. I’ve been very lucky to travel all around the world telling stories for brands and non-profits, and going to some very wild places.

Brendan Hall with his first camera at age 12.

So what was the first park experience that lit the fuse for you? You mentioned you picked up a camcorder and became interested in filmmaking, but what is your first park memory or the one that really impacted you?

In the middle of college I took a road trip with my friend Anthony Blake that was very transformative for my life. I had spent the summer interning in Los Angeles for a couple of Hollywood film studios, and I thought that was kind of the beginning of the rest of my career. I had always wanted to do narrative and Hollywood films. And then, road-tripping back across the country to the East Coast, we went through seven national parks in six days.

I wouldn’t recommend that pace for most people, but at that age, and just the excitement of seeing national parks for the first time, it was completely eye-opening. For me, it was the Grand Canyon that really changed the course of my life, where I was taking photos for the first time. We were watching a sunset that turned into the Milky Way streaming through the sky. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the Perseid Meteor shower. There were shooting stars through the Milky Way, and then a lightning storm in the distance.

Lightning cracks into the night sky at Grand Canyon National Park, AZ. (Photo by Brendan Hall)

I just thought, this is magic. It made me want to—at least in my twenties—create documentaries rather than narrative Hollywood films, which was a huge departure. I had always kind of pinned my success on trying to be like a Steven Spielberg or a Scorsese, and being in those natural places in these parks changed all of that. It made me want to tell stories of people connecting to these places, kind of like I had. I also wanted to tell a story about the accessibility of these places, because we were just some kids at a viewpoint. We hadn’t hiked to an incredible place. We weren’t some specialty film crew or extreme athletes. We were just a couple of friends who watched a long sunset, and that was enough to change my life. It made me want to tell stories like that for a living.

A nice segue to the film you have on the festival circuit right now, “Out There.” Tell us a little bit about that film and the inspiration for it.

After college—a couple of years after the Grand Canyon experience—I took out a loan and got my first documentary cinema camera and began freelancing. But I was also interning, and then eventually kind of glorified interning in a small role for the National Geographic Channel. In some ways it was what I’d always dreamed of. I was around these amazing and passionate storytellers. I was a part of content that was going on television and around the world. But I was still in an office setting.

So I began dreaming up the most challenging and exciting and meaningful passion project I could possibly create. I also wanted a chance to show my artistic voice and figure out ways I wanted to tell stories—what is that story that only Brendan could tell, based on my life experience, based on my film style. I ended up moving on from Nat Geo and spending a whole summer road-tripping through national parks with my friend Anthony. Our dream behind the project was to create some sort of long-form film showing human connection with the national parks. We ended up spending seven years making this film, my first feature-length documentary.

Brendan Hall and Anthony Blake on the road outside of Redwoods National & State Parks. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

It’s called Out There: A National Parks Story, and it follows Anthony and me on a 10,000 mile road trip through 20 national parks, east to west across the country, all to meet people in those parks and tell their stories.

The film tells the story of a trail builder in Acadia who’s been there since the 70s; a Native American speaker and artist in Glacier; a female solo backpacker in the Redwoods; and then a French Vietnamese photographer in Yosemite, alongside a lot of other voices. Our dream was to create a sweeping and huge national parks film that communicates that odd wonder you have when you’re in those places. It was almost like when you see someone react to seeing Yosemite for the first time, that look in their eyes. How do you take that and make it into a feature length film? We thought that just seeing the passion and connection to parks in the stories of common people like us—who had just fallen in love with these places—would be something really special. The film came out last year and has been seen in the festival world. This year we’re going to tour it across the country and find a home where it can be seen more widely.

It’s fantastic. A lot of road trip films have a sort of obvious arc where you’re going from here to there. But what was really interesting, I thought, is that you’re also learning about yourself. You’re learning about national parks, and it seems like there was a broadening of your perspective as you moved across the country. Talk a little bit about that and the takeaways for you.

There was definitely a big shift in our perspective. When we set out, we just wanted to see landscapes and explore beautiful places and hit all the trails and see every viewpoint in every park. I think the adrenaline of a road trip and just trying to chase as many places as we could was most important—my first national park road trip included seven parks in six days. So when I originally hit the road to make a film about them, I was thinking of quantity over quality, and I definitely wasn’t thinking of rich and patient human stories.

The first big shift was the understanding that these parks are about people as well. Connecting with people and actually asking questions and learning about these places through perspectives different from my own was one of the most special ways to appreciate them. That was a big one for me.

Another thing I learned is that the creation of art in nature—any kind of long-form art project—sometimes takes a lot longer than you think, and sometimes it goes a lot quicker than you think. I ended up spending seven years creating this project. If you had told me that in 2016, I would have keeled over. I would have said, “No, this is gonna be done next year.” It’s been my New Year’s resolution for the past three years to get the film done. But we were very lucky that the final scene of our film, which ties the entire thing together, was filmed in year six, right at the end of the process. It was a testament for me to just keep faith in the idea that some things take more time than you expect.

Another little piece of wisdom we learned—time and again in the parks—was that having one really meaningful experience is better than trying to see everything. Every time we took that one really great hike and really savored and took our time, it was a much better way to connect to that kind of landscape than trying to hit every viewpoint and scrambling and getting nervous that we’d miss everything.

Waiting for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, in Acadia National Park (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")
Brendan Hall and Anthony Blake on the road in Grand Teton National Park (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")
Brendan Hall's grandfather, Jim Hall, on a road trip from North Carolina to Alaska he took in 1952 with a childhood friend. (Photo courtesy of the Hall Family)

It’s great advice, actually, for anybody who’s planning a park trip and trying to tick off every box. I hope it’s not a spoiler, but one of the great human moments in the film is when you realize you were not the first member of your family to experience parks in this way. Talk a little bit about your grandfather, and what that meant to you. 

I had been traveling the parks for years. At this point we’re going on year four, year five, year six making the film and going further and wider to deeper parks and more people. I took a sightseeing flight over Denali, filming the top of Denali, which was amazing and such a life experience. But I was beginning to wonder when this whole process would end and when I’d finally feel like I had captured the park system. And by pure coincidence I was driving home from New River Gorge National Park after filming with QT Luong, who is a subject in the film and I stopped at my grandparents’ house. I had my camera gear with me and my girlfriend, who’s a filmmaker, was also with me. So we sat my grandfather down—he was 94 at the time. I wanted to hear stories about his adventures, because he had talked about road tripping in the past.

As I talked to him, I realized through his photo album he had taken a trip to Alaska with a friend of his at the same age Anthony and I did our national parks journey. He had not only driven to Alaska, but he had gone to five of the same national parks we had. When you look at the photos, it was like side by side, the same trip—the images in there were a mirror image of mine. And what was so astounding to me was that, first of all, he had paved the way for that trip 70 years before we had. I thought we’d done something unique and adventurous and exciting. But what’s so cool is that I’ve been traveling the parks for years, trying to figure out what the ending of the story was and what the meaning was, and it had been sitting in my grandfather’s living room that whole time.

It was for me an embodiment of this idea of preservation, that the whole park system was founded on balancing enjoyment and protection of these landscapes, and the value of keeping them looking the same and keeping them preserved for almost a century. I mean 70 years, and my grandfather and I looked at the exact same sights and ecosystems. It was a moment that will impact me my entire life, I think, to have such a tangible connection to the past like that. When we first set out to make our film, it was on the centennial of the Park Service—celebrating 100 years. For that to be an ending to it all, I can’t put into words how grateful I am and how much it impacted me. And it’s impacting audiences, too, which is really cool. Everyone gasps when they see the photos side by side.

Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Let’s have a practical gearhead moment for a minute. Obviously, there are a lot of people who love to film video and take photographs in parks. What did you use to make the film, and any tips for young photographers and filmmakers?

Something we got lucky with is, I had a Canon C300 Mark II documentary cinema camera when we started filming in 2016. For filmmakers who don’t know, that’s still actually a really great documentary camera. It shoots 4K, with a really nice log color profile and amazing dynamic range. The benefit of that was that through a seven-year filmmaking process, the quality of the image still feels really good and cohesive. We could continue to film and kind of intercut some modern and some past stuff, and it still looked really good. So that was our main camera.

Brendan Hall during the filming of "Out There: A National Parks Story".

We often shot with the gimbal, which was hugely important. It was kind of like an original Ronin gimbal, which is bigger. Nowadays you can get them a lot smaller, which is cool and would have been helpful for us, because I would be hiking this 15-pound camera rig on trails, and any time you see a shot moving up a tree is me physically pushing the camera up. Along with the gimbal, we used a handheld camera, and both a lightweight photo tripod for longer hikes as well as a sturdy or heavy-duty tripod for long lens stuff in the parks.

Some of the time lapses were shot real time. We’d shoot 15-20 minutes of the clouds moving. Without the jittery trees and cars it looks really nice, because it’s through your cinema camera,  which for me just has this look. But we shot a lot of time lapses, on a DSLR as well. So you’re firing off single frames, using an intervalometer setting every 2, 3, 4 seconds. For night lapses it’s every 30 seconds because you’re shooting 20- or 30-second long exposures. We spent a lot of nights sleeping on camping pads for two hours, three hours while the camera moved across the night skies. So a lot of gear.

The northern lights dance in Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

That’s fun stuff. Okay. So just stepping back to the big picture again. I mean, obviously, you went to a lot of parks in the making of the film and your previous road trips. I’m just curious what your park number stands at right now. A lot of people try to get to all 63 of the major national parks, and of course there are 428 national park sites. Are you keeping count? And do you know how many you’ve visited? 

I don’t have my National Park Service sites number. I know that in my lifetime I’m around 46 national parks. I’m 29 now, so the accumulation of that happened very quickly. But now I’m really taking my time being patient, and I’m not rushing anymore to tick them all off. I would like to do it in my lifetime. But I got my fill of a lot of parks very quickly, so I’m excited to take them one at a time.

Any favorites so far?

Man, so many, I mean, what’s so cool is that each park protects a unique ecosystem. For me, my emotional side, I get excited by different parts of each ecosystem in nature. They’re almost like different friends to me or different personalities. It’s also all about the people you go with—you can go to a mediocre place in nature with the best people and have a way better time than a very iconic place with the wrong people, or in a tough state of mind. It’s so subjective what experience you have.

I really love Glacier National Park. It is just stunning and it has all the big features of a national park, in terms of wildlife and landscapes. There are mountains and lakes and grassy meadows, and grizzly bears and goats, even long-horned goats. That part is just amazing. Then also, I think it represents the positives and negatives in other ways, too, where you see evidence of climate change right in your face. There used to be over a hundred glaciers, and now I think there are 30 or less—you can see the side-by-side photos of them disappearing.

Then also the Native American heritage and history there. The Blackfeet Reservation is next to the park. And that heritage is still alive and well, and being told very beautifully by Blackfeet storytellers. But it’s also a story of displacement and being pushed off some of that land for the park to be created. I love Glacier for that sense that it’s a mixture of history and an important American legacy to try to understand—both the positive and the darker sides. And it’s just a stunning place to go. In terms of what makes a national park a national park, all that stuff is really rich there.

Jack Gladstone shares his personal story and connection to the land at his home on the Blackfeet Reservation, outside of Glacier National Park. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

Yeah, absolutely. So we know that when you’re going into nature, there’s always going to be surprises. I’m curious, what was your biggest park fail?

A big one was when we only had a day and a half in Grand Teton National Park, which was way too short, and it was just dumping rain the entire time. We were able to film just one sunset that broke through the rain and the clouds. But we’d also not really planned well. People told us it would get really cold at night. We were young—we were 22—and just like, oh, but it’s summer, how cold could it get? Anthony only had tank tops with him. I was the only one who had a rain jacket. I had accidentally left both my sleeping bag and my pillow at other parks, in motels.

So we got there, we were camping, and we were freezing, and it was raining, and from a filming perspective we were just under-prepared. It was a total mess. I think we have plenty of moments like that where we were just learning camping as we went. That wasn’t something either of us were used to, and so we were dropping camping stoves and ripping stuff, and messing up how we built things. We were hiking with backpacks that were too heavy. I would say it was a constant stumble and bumble.

Photographer QT Luong uses his signature large format camera in Yosemite NP, as seen in the documentary. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

Okay, well, in the course of the seven years of making this film, you also learned at one point that you had been selected for an unbelievable experience. Can you tell us about that?

Yeah. So early in 2021, I saw a news article saying that a Japanese billionaire, an entrepreneur named Yusaku Maezawa, was taking eight artisan creatives on a journey with him around the moon. And I was like, that is just too impossible to believe. So I read more. And what’s crazy is, I could have done anything differently with my day or my life before that moment, and I might never have seen this news article. He had purchased the first-ever seats aboard a Space X rocket called Starship that’s being developed for larger crews and deep space travel to the moon and Mars. His dream is to bring eight artists and creatives from around the world.

We’ve seen astronauts go into space, some of whom created art. But we’ve also seen scientists, and a very traditional kind of person. What if we brought artists and creatives? What would they create and how would they feel, and how would they translate the experience into some kind of medium. I applied on a whim and submitted a little video application and some written prompts, and then that eventually kicked off a year-long process of interviews, a psychological interview, a medical exam, eventually a big-group, in-person interview. At the end of that year, I had a call with MZ the entrepreneur, and he said, “I just want to ask you a few more questions about your application.” So I hopped on Zoom, and he asked, “Do you want to know the moon crew announcement and who was selected?” I said, “Sure,” and that was kind of my “American Idol” moment when I knew that my life would inevitably change one way or the other. And he said, “I’d love you to join the mission and be a crew member.”

So I’m a member of the dearMoon project. There are eight of us from around the world, and I’ll be in the documentary filmmaker role. There are a couple of photographers; there’s a YouTube educator, a choreographer, an actor, a famous DJ and K-Pop star. We’re an eccentric, passionate group that’s eventually gonna go around the moon sometime in the coming years.

The dearMoon Crew, from left: Kaitlyn Farrington, Brendan Hall, Tim Dodd, Yemi A.D., TOP (Choi Seung Hyun), Yusaku Maezawa (MZ), Steve Aoki, Rhiannon Adam, Karim Iliya, Dev D. Joshi, Miyu. (Photo: https://dearmoon.earth/)

It’s a surreal and incredible project that I’m just beyond grateful for. What excites me is that so much of what I learned in national parks can be applied to this in terms of the wonder and human connection with the natural world, and that this is really a human story that we’re telling. It’s not just the Earth. It’s not just the moon. It’s our connection to them. It’s also about the idea of preservation. You know, space is this whole other place to balance enjoyment and preservation—the same way the park system does.

I attribute this space journey to this passion project, my film “Out There.” It just blows my mind that if I had never left after college and taken this road trip, or even gone to the Grand Canyon once in the middle of college, I never would have created this film, connected with my grandfather in that way, or eventually gone to space. It’s just this really cool testament, for me, to just chase what you’re passionate about and get a little bit out of your comfort zone, because you just never know where that first park or that first place is going to take you.

So 300 million people are visiting national parks every year. There’s a massive surge right now, post pandemic. People are getting out there, but visitation is older and less diverse than it should be. What do you say to people who have been reluctant so far to get out there? 

I think the first thing is just to form a genuine connection with nature. That can begin with a city park, a state park somewhere, but closer to you, and then eventually get out to a national park—especially one that’s just totally different than you’ve ever experienced.

If you have the means and you have the ability to go, it’s absolutely worth it to do so, and especially at a young age, too. There are a lot of folks who wait till they retire to first see the park system, which I completely understand, because you’re working and you’re busy, and you have other obligations. But if you’re able, I think you’ll find some of your best personal growth. Push your limits and get outside your comfort zone.

Photographer QT Luong captures a slice of the sunset in Yosemite National Park. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

What we learned, and the reason we called the film “Out There”—it’s not a super national park-y title—but we really believe that some of the best things in life exist outside your comfort zone. We were shown that time and time again through all these stories of the people we’ve met. I think that was the through line of the whole thing, that when you push your comfort just a little bit and get out to a new place that you might be excited but unsure about, the rest will figure itself out and you’ll have a really amazing experience.

I’d also say, for people who have significant means, to support others’ journeys in the parks. More than ever I think we need to make these places accessible. Support organizations that are bringing people out to these places that they might never have access to, and kind of let everyone come along for the ride. In theory the parks are open to everyone, and it’s such a beautiful idea, so important. But in practice not everyone has the accessibility, whether it’s financial means or just the confidence and encouragement that someone like them has a place in the outdoors. The more we can support that as a community, I think, the healthier the park system will be.

What I’d say is, go out and explore, however you’re comfortable-–but also know that outside your comfort zone is some of the coolest stuff. Talking to people, talking to rangers, talking to someone you might never expect to have a conversation with, can lead to a really beautiful interaction.

Okay, well it may be a couple of years yet before you go off to the moon. So in the meantime, what is your next adventure? Have you plotted it out yet?

I haven’t plotted my next big adventure. I want to make a film about oceans because I’m a scuba diver. I think that oceans are the next big ecosystem that is being threatened; coral reefs are disappearing, and that’s all just happening in real time. I’d really like to make a film to help preserve oceans, and highlight that human connection which I think we’ve seen a little bit less of.

Hall scuba dives through rays of light and colorful reefs on Key Largo, FL. (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

We’re also planning a big cross country tour with “Out There,” in late summer, fingers crossed. We want to take the film east to west across the country, hit cities, hit national parks, every kind of community venue you can think of, and use the film as a conduit to share an awesome evening with people reflecting on the spaces, having talks. We’re going to pair live music with it. So my next journey, I hope, is actually going across the country again, but this time being able to share this and connect with people in a whole different way.

Fantastic. Everybody should see it. It’s an inspiring film, and it’s beautifully made. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure. I love the Parks Channel, so I’m here for it.

To meet one of the people Brendan filmed on his journey, check out this video produced and edited by Isabel Shelkin.


Best Winter Hikes in National Parks

From snowy trails to tropical waters to urban adventures, embrace winter with five unforgettable hikes.


I’m going to admit up front that with 21,000+ miles of trails in National Parks picking a top 5 is silly. But if you’ve seen me in a onesie, you know that’s not a deterrent. Here goes anyway, five of my favorite National Park winter hikes:

1. Rocky Mountain National Park: Sky Pond

Get ready to sweat. This hike will take you from 9,200 feet in elevation at the trailhead to just under 11,000 feet at the highest elevation. At nine miles round trip, this trail earns its reputation for difficulty. But it’s worth it when you arrive at one of the most stunning views in the National Park system. You’ll pass Loch Vale, and then ascend the challenging Timberline Falls until you get to Sky Pond where you can see The Sharkstooth, Taylor Peak, and Powell Peak. The incredible view is worth every step. Check the weather and do your research though, because depending on snow pack and temperatures, it can be unsafe and an absolute no go. But when the sun is out and the path is clear, it is unforgettable.

Join Adam and Kathryn of @adventuresofaplusk on their Hike to Sky Pond.

Adam and Kathryn of Adventures of A+K at Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photo by @adventuresofaplusk)

2. Virgin Islands National Park: Trunk Bay Snorkel Trail

For those of you who hate snow and want a winter “hike” on the beach, the Underwater Snorkel Trail at Trunk Bay on St. John is hard to beat. It’s not actually a “hike” unless you count the quarter of a mile to one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Relax on the beach then experience one of the only underwater trails in the National Park system. It’s a great place for beginners with lots of coral and fish and informative plaques along the way. There’s a $5 fee for amenities that include showers, foot rinses, food and beverage concessions, snorkel rentals, and more. And don’t forget to use reef safe sunscreen!

If you’re interested in learning more about the protection of coral reefs, Eilish Nobe’s film The Coral Keepers takes you to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary where you can learn about the ocean through the youths who are protecting it.

 

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3. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Valley Loop

Yosemite during the winter is absolutely stunning, but many of the trails to El Capitan, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Upper Yosemite Falls can be covered in snow and impassable. You could lament the fact that winter weather is preventing you from getting to the high country, or you could take advantage of this fact and hike one of the easiest and most relaxing hikes in the entire National Park System. Yosemite is known for being overrun with people, and I have hiked this trail on three separate occasions and run into zero people attempting the same trail. This 11.5 mile trail takes you on a full loop of the entire Yosemite Valley, passing by Camp 4 and the base of El Capitan, with astounding views of Bridalveil Falls, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. It’s a great way to find peace and quiet in a park that is usually teeming with people.

Check out Alice Ford’s Solo Winter Adventures in Yosemite.

4. Capitol Reef National Park: Cassidy Arch

This 3.1 mile out and back trail is an absolute gem of Capitol Reef National Park. For just under 600 feet of elevation gain you get to see one of the most incredible arches in the entire park. Why do it in the winter you ask? Well, in July and August temperatures can reach 90+ degrees, whereas in January and February temperatures in the mid 40s make this hike quite pleasant. Also, the park is much less busy during this time of year. As with all of these hikes, make sure you check the weather, tell someone before you go, dress for success, and leave no trace.

 

For more Tips on Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park, Ari and Jessi of Trekers have you covered.

Cassidy Arch in Capitol Reef National Park (Photo by John Fowler)

5. Yellowstone National Park – Lone Star Geyser

No list of the best winter hikes in National Parks is complete without the first National Park, Yellowstone. Admittedly, Yellowstone is more difficult to visit in the winter, and takes some research to work out the logistics. But once you get there, Lone Star Geyser is an absolute must for any Yellowstone trip. Lone Star erupts about every three hours, and can erupt at up to 45 feet! It’s a 5-mile round trip hike from the trail head. Bring a thermos of coffee or tea and enjoy the spectacle. If you get cold, remind yourself that you are one of probably less than 1,000 people who get to see Lone Star Geyser erupt in the winter!

 

Check out Cheryl Schoss’s recommendations on traveling to Yellowstone in Winter.

Bonus hike: The National Mall, Washington, DC

It sounds counterintuitive – isn’t DC for summer vacation or school trips? – but winter is a wonderful time to see the most-visited unit in the entire national park system, with over 36 million annual visitors. Day or night, climbing the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to read Honest Abe’s famous speeches, or strolling along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is a powerful experience. If you want an aerial preview of the terrain, check out the Monument Cam of the Trust for the National Mall. Winter in DC is typically crisp and comfortable for exploring the more than 30 National Park Service units in the city.

For a detailed itinerary that’s perfect for families, check out Matt and Cheryl of We’re in the Rockies on a winter trip to DC.

Photo credit: Vladone

Permit Alert: What to Know for February 2024


Yosemite’s annual spectacle. You’ll need a pass for Horsetail Fall Firefall.

Horsetail Fall Firefall is a natural phenomenon that occurs during the winter months, typically in February, when this small waterfall is flowing. The magic unfolds when the skies are clear and the setting sun aligns perfectly with the fall, creating a breathtaking spectacle that attracts photographers and nature enthusiasts from around the world.

The event has gained significant popularity in recent years, which means a reservation will be required to enter Yosemite National Park on the weekends of February 10–11, February 17–19 and February 24–25, 2024. Even if you’re not specifically visiting Horsetail Fall, a reservation is required on these dates. If you plan to visit on Mondays through Fridays (excluding the 19th) no reservation is needed.

Don’t miss this spectacular event – get your reservation at:  Yosemite Firefall at Recreation.gov

Want to know what else you can do in Yosemite in winter? Follow Alice Ford through this winter wonderland.

For tips from some of our other creators on visiting Yosemite and planning a trip click here.

Grand Canyon by Raft

Have you ever wanted to raft the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park? Every February 1 the lottery opens to apply for a permit for a non-commercial trip. Keep in mind these are not trips guided by a company. Grab some friends to help you raft the boats, cook the food, and put up your tent. Alexandra Nevada took her first trip through the Grand Canyon in October 2023. “I didn’t know anyone on the trip prior to going, though they have become lifelong friends,” she says.

This section of the Colorado River is highly technical, and at least one member of your group must have the experience and skills required by the National Park Service. “My advice is to have experienced participants with you,” says Nevada. “Rafting, regardless of rapid classes, is a serious sport. Make sure you review your permit and know what you’re getting into. Call a ranger office to clear up any confusion.”

An avid rafter and Colorado resident, Nevada adds: “We all deserve to have a good time and a unique experience. Permits aid in this and help preserve an area, limit use, and keep our natural and human resources safe. Apply for permits, have patience, and don’t be disappointed if you don’t win a permit in a lottery system. You can always try again next year, or hopefully meet someone who has a permit and jump on their trip. Most importantly, all rafters should learn, live, and love Leave No Trace principles and respect our rivers, leaving them to be enjoyed in the future.”

Alexandra Nevada took “the trip of a lifetime” through the Grand Canyon in October 2023. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Nevada @lexgocamping)

Learn more and enter the lottery for a rafting permit here.

Not ready to do it alone? A number of companies provide trips through the Grand Canyon.

Learn more about commercial trips here.

For tips from our creators on visiting the Grand Canyon and planning a trip click here.

Acadia: Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain

Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is a classic spot to watch the sunrise. For part of the year, from October 7th – March 6th, it’s the first place in the continental US to experience sunrise. Acadia is also in the top ten most popular national parks in the US with 3.9 million visitors in 2022. If you’re planning a trip there this year, you’ll need a vehicle reservation for Cadillac Summit Road from Wednesday, May 22 through Sunday, Oct 27, 2024. Thirty percent of the reservations will be available 90 days in advance (beginning February 22); 70% of the reservations will be available at 10am (ET) two days in advance.

For more information, check here. To book a reservation, click here.

Waiting for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, in Acadia National Park (Photo by Brendan Hall from "Out There: A National Parks Story")

For tips from our creators on visiting Acadia and planning a trip click here.


It's Snow Time! How to Layer Up for Cold-Weather Hikes

Winter is upon us, and while some view it as the season for bundling up in front of a warm fire with a hot cup of coffee, Kevin Morgan believes it’s prime time for spending time outdoors. Kevin is a filmmaker who started the Shenandoah 52 Hiking Challenge. Here, he lays out the science of layering to get the most out of winter hiking.

Some of the best outdoor activities can be enjoyed outside during the offseason. Just because it’s cold or snowing shouldn’t be a reason to avoid all the benefits of being outside. That said, it also comes with the need for some preparation. We encourage you to enjoy this less trafficked, beautiful time of year.

Rarely will you find a time absent from the crowds, but in many cases winter also provides exceptional views from various summits and overlooks, because the leaves have fallen and tree cover has opened up.

With that, here’s some advice to help you enjoy our family’s favorite time of year. When the cold fronts move in and the earth tilts away from the sun, you will often find us heading into the storm. After all, what good is owning a Jeep and extensive amounts of Gore-Tex if you can’t chase a few storms?

Now, heading into the storm sounds a bit over the top. Frankly most days are quite delightful in the winter, absent a storm. And not every adventure has to be a pilgrimage up the North face of a mountain seeking summit peaks.

Keeping Warm and Getting Out

Your local state park is just as enjoyable as the National Park that’s hours away. That trail that’s near the park behind your house – it’s fantastic to get outside during the winter months. We encourage you to check out those trails and parks that are lesser known or listed on the map. We have written extensively about using mapping tools to find unlisted trails and why certain trails may not be listed on your favorite mapping app.

Before I get too far into the preparedness, if you are curious about finding these trails, we have posted more about this on our blog. Finding the easier treks and areas that are more personal to you will ensure that you get outside – because any trail or outdoor activity is better than no activity at all.

Winter can be for everyone. Layers and equipment are important when it comes to enjoying a hike. For me, warmth is paramount and that includes staying dry. This is where your gear serves to change the trajectory of how you feel about being outdoors. We find that when we have a mishap with our planning in the field, it tends to create a sour taste for wanting to go on the next adventure. If you underestimate the weather or the wind chill, you could find yourself miserable on your trek.

Determining How to Dress for Winter Outdoor Adventures

One of the easiest ways to combat the change in temperatures is to dress in layers. This is no different than dressing for a business occasion or special event. For the outdoors, it’s easy to create layering that addresses the changes in climate and temperature.

Many enthusiasts that are new to outdoors in the off season look for the biggest or warmest jacket, and while that’s great if you’re going to Antarctica on an expedition, many times with hiking your number one source of heat is your own body heat. That also means, you need to divide your clothing into layers. This way you can shed the top layers on the portions of your adventure that are strenuous, and your body is generating more natural heat that can be added back when you are generating less. This also means that quality of gear is important. The reason most Gore-Tex and similar materials are expensive is that the fabric allows for retention of heat and dispels moisture. Gore-Tex holds in heat, and that moisture escapes preventing sweat.

Now you can work around that by layering and ensuring that perhaps that outer layer allows for moisture to “get out of that jacket” and the layers underneath are allowing you to stay warm.

For example, many times when you are hiking, you may have elevation change or a shift between a canopy and open sky that cause a temperature change. That, coupled with physical exertion, will change your body temperature.

  • Anticipate roughly a 2-degree temperature change for every 1,000 feet of elevation (e.g. if you hike up a mountain that has a 2,000-foot change from base to summit, you can anticipate the temperature changing by roughly 4 to 5 degrees) plus any wind that may be introduced as you’re trekking up the mountain.
  • Elevation change also increases your body temperature with physical exertion, causing you to sweat or release moisture that will, in turn, have implications on how you feel.
  • Changes in cloud cover, precipitation and the season will determine if temperature shifts are more or less as you travel on your hike. And if you have minimal elevation change, the temperature could minimally change.

Layering for Warmth and Change in Temperature

So where does that leave us? Layers allow you to remove and add garments as you adventure in the outdoors, but it’s not as simple as adding and removing clothing. We have found that there’s a science for which clothing is used, which layer it is, and how you piece them together. It sounds complex but it’s really about making sure that you have the right materials in the right place.

  1. Core Layer … T-Shirt, Underwear, Socks: This is the core layer. You wake up, you put on the core elements of your wardrobe; everything else stacks on top of this. Ensure that the fabric you’re wearing at the base also is designed for activity. Wicking is good for this layer. Cotton is not ideal in many cases.
  2. Base Layer: Think of this as the layer that may not come off at all during your trek. You want to make sure that you’re wearing materials that wick moisture away from you at this layer. Our preference is merino wool for this layer.
  3. Mid-Layer: The layer that serves as insulation and keeps you warm. By adding additional mid-layers, you can increase your warmth. Just as the walls of your house are insulated in the middle, you need to bolster the middle when it’s cold. Typically a puffy jacket.
  4. Outer Layer: The shell from the elements. If it’s raining, you may have Gore-Tex as your shell. If the sky is clear, you might just have a puffy jacket as the outside layer. Read the label closely and look at the brand’s website to determine how it handles “breathability.” We believe that this is one of the layers where you want to spend the most amount of money when buying equipment. It’s worth the investment.

If helpful, reference our Gear List Page for a recommendation of brands that we choose to wear. This list is not the end-all, and everyone has their preference, but we hope that this will help with direction.

Layering by Temperature Range

This is my rule of thumb. You may need to test and learn based on how you operate. I would rather be hot than cold, and my core body temperature is always slanted toward being cold. So adjust for your own needs.

For each of these diagrams, use them as a compass and not a map for yourself. We don’t outline the base or basement layers – the shirt that you may be wearing, the socks, etc. Assume that you will want that layer. This is everything on top.

Cool and above mid-to-upper 40s.

Basic layers are typically good for temperatures that are above mid-to-upper 40s without any inclement weather. This allows you to remove the jacket if it gets too warm or remove the base layer and keep the mid-layer. That base layer is typically merino of some sort, and most of the time I am hiking absent the mid-layer jacket.

Cool and above mid-30s with inclement weather

Good for those days where it is not cold, but there’s inclement weather like rain or wind. The shell will help to break the wind. At certain temperatures, you may choose to add a beanie or gloves. This is also where it’s important to look at the “breathability” of that outer layer.

Sub-30s and below, with or without inclement weather

With the more substantial mid-layer jacket, you’re going to be much warmer and need to see which jacket is best for you. As it gets colder, I add heavier beanies and layer my gloves.

Below 20-25s, with or without inclement weather

Adding a second base layer will increase your warmth significantly, and especially if it’s a wicking material that moves the moisture away from your body. Same as before, as it gets colder, I add heavier beanies and layer my gloves. At this point, I might swap the gloves for heavier duty gloves.

These recommended configurations are based on the Gear List that we have published. And each of these configurations is also based on the temperature that we feel comfortable with. My wife may be wearing two more layers than me at the mid-layer in the form of merino (she likes Icebreakers over SmartWool – it’s splitting hairs). You may be wearing two layers less than me. All preference.

The point with this is to think about adding and removing as you trek up and down the mountain. Absent a mountain, think about cloud cover and if you’ll be hiking in the sunlight or shade. It’s incredible how much the temperature feels significantly colder when the sun is not present.

Good, Better, Best: What’s Right for You With Gear

Brand of equipment is very personal decision for many, while others may pick up the first thing in the rack at the local outfitter. We have very specific opinions. However, the easiest way to think about this is by price point. There is an entry, mid, and high-end price point for all gear.

The house brands are often the entry point and for many stores that are outfitter specific, they are actually pretty good products. If you’re going to be outside frequently throughout the year, it’s worth spending more on gear. And if you can’t afford new, buy used. You might need to recharge the weather resistance on the equipment, but that’s no reason not to buy used. There are plenty of YouTube videos that can guide you through recharging DWR.

House brand to expedition grade, any of these are great for getting outdoors to start. Each will have a different level of performance when hiking. If you hike frequently, you may consider getting the more expensive gear. If you are infrequently on the trails, you’ll need to decide if the high-end gear is necessary.

This same comparison will work for all the components of your apparel. Thinks of it this way:

  • Gore-Tex jackets are made from a material that allows moisture to escape and warmth to be retained. It’s a modern marvel. The North Face has a new technology that’s equal, BUT the point is that if you buy a cheap jacket that does not allow moisture to escape, you will be cold from sweating and you will feel damp. If you run up the trail and exert a lot of energy, all bets are off for ALL fabrics.
  • Waterproofing is not waterproofing forever. Many of the jackets have a time rating on them. For example, Gore-Tex v. Gore-Tex Pro vs. Gore-Tex Paclite all have different ratings. Don’t expect waterproofing for more than an hour in the rain with Paclite. On the other end, Gore-Tex Pro will give you quite a bit of time, but it’s stiff as a board.
  • Merino wool has a wicking capability that is not the same as other fabrics. You may be well-intentioned to buy something that is performance or cheaper, but you could end up being cold because the moisture has not been wicked from your skin and hasn’t been wicked out of your mid-layer and outer shell.

Each layer aids in the process and when one layer is not performing with the rest, you experience discomfort with your outdoor experience.

I hope that this helps with providing a little more information for you to decide about your layering when out hiking or photographing outdoors. Don’t be deterred by the cold. Get outside and Happy Hiking!

Do you live near Shenandoah National Park? Take the SNP52 Hiking Challenge: 23 trail loops, 52 trail segments and just over 150 miles.

A Pixels and Pointers partnership with the Shenandoah National Park Trust.

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National Forests to Visit This Winter

Parks might get more headlines, but our national forests offer incredible adventures in winter. Here are five to visit, recommended by our friends at the National Forest Foundation. Reposted with permission.


Raise your hand if adventuring in the winter months can feel like too much work. No, really! Even as a self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiast sometimes the thought of layering up to go on a hike during the chilliest months of the year has me snuggling even deeper under the covers and hitting snooze for the third time in a row.

The key though?

Packing your bag the night before, insanely strong coffee, and knowing that these five National Forests are even more beautiful in the winter season.

Photo By Matt Hobbs

White River National Forest

White River National Forest currently receives more than 10 million visitors per year. Covering 2.3 million acres in the heart of the Colorado Rockies this National Forest is home to iconic destinations such as Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake. While this National Forest tends to be a hotspot for some of the best backpacking trails in the summer, what you didn’t know is that it is even more magical in the winter season. White River National Forest is home to 11 ski resorts, so, strap in and hit the slopes to see parts of the forest you wouldn’t see in the summer months!

Photo by Chelsea Murawski

Hiawatha National Forest

Year-round this National Forest boasts dramatic shoreline cliffs and classic lighthouses, but Hiawatha is home to a seasonal winter treat known as the Eben Ice caves. While not technically caves, ice stalactites have formed underneath the bedrock creating massive walls of ice which you can walk alongside and admire. To see this winter trail you need to plan accordingly and check weather conditions as the hike to this unique location requires traction in the winter months.

Photo by Rick Williams

Coronado National Forest

Have you heard of Sky Islands? Sky islands are isolated mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. These mountains rise over 6,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor creating a stark contrast between the lowlands and high peaks. The extreme elevation and habitat variations of these geological variations result in a greater diversity of plants, and wildlife. When visiting Coronado National Forest, you can experience all four seasons during a single day’s journey! From hiking amongst desert giants like the saguaro cactus to playing in the snow in the mountains, Coronado is one of the most biologically diverse National Forests in the nation.

Photo credit: Ryan Rishken

Ocala National Forest

Somewhere around March, I begin to tire of my handy snowshoes. The thought of trudging through a snowbank feels way less exciting in spring than it does in December. If you also find yourself wishing for sun, Ocala National Forest is just the spot for you! President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Ocala National Forest in 1908 making it the oldest National Forest in Florida. With over 600 lakes and rivers that boast crystal blue water this National Forest is a secret oasis. So pack a bathing suit, bring some sunscreen, and make your way to the tropics this winter to visit Ocala National Forest.

Photo by National Forest Service

Umpqua National Forest

Where can you find cascading waterfalls views even in the winter season? You guessed it! Umpqua National Forest is nestled on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains and is home to plenty of waterfalls, wildlife and so much more. During the winter season, Umpqua National Forest becomes an idyllic winter wonderland complete with snow-covered trees, and icicles. Bundle up and head out to explore the over 530 miles of beautiful trails and when you are done you can warm up at Umpqua Hot springs. Please plan accordingly as the gates leading up to the hot springs are likely closed for the winter months which will result in needing to hike up to the springs.

As you’ve just read, the National Forest System is large and varied. Your unrestricted support enables the National Forest Foundation to work across the entire National Forest System so we can apply funds to the highest priority projects. Please consider making a general gift today to support this critical work by clicking here. Thank you!


Campaign: Let's Build a Park for Julius Rosenwald

We are proud to publicly release the world premiere of “Rosenwald: Toward A More Perfect Union,” an award-winning short documentary about the greatest philanthropist you’ve never heard of. With your help, we can create a new national historical park to commemorate this incredible story.


When we started the Parks Channel, we had several goals: showcasing amazing places to go, helping folks to get out there – and raising awareness of places and people that played an indelible role in our national heritage. But we must confess, when we heard about this campaign for a new national park, we had no clue who Julius Rosenwald was, much less the impact he had on our country.

A son of German Jewish immigrants who grew up in Springfield, Illinois, just across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s home, Julius Rosenwald would become the Jeff Bezos of his day. In the early 20th century he was famous as the business genius behind Sears, Roebuck & Company, whose catalog enabled customers to buy anything from a baby buggy to a tractor or even an entire house – all by mail.

“He developed the concept of satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back,” said Alan Spears of the National Parks Conservation Association, which is supporting the Rosenwald Park Campaign. “And that helped to bring in a whirlwind of profits for Sears. He became, I think the technical term is a ‘gazillionaire.’ And what happened is that Rosenwald then chose to take that money and support a variety of causes.”

In 1911 Rosenwald met Booker T. Washington, author of “Up From Slavery” and founder of the Tuskeegee Institute. One of the most prominent African Americans of his time, Washington was more famous than Rosenwald, and also more educated. Together, they hashed out a pilot program to build schoolhouses for young African Americans in the Jim Crow South, where resources for education were heavily skewed toward whites. They pioneered a new form of philanthropy: Rosenwald would put up a third of the money. Another third would come from local government, and the last third would be raised by each community.

The impact they had was enormous, creating more than 5,000 schools and associated buildings, and educating a third of African American students across 15 states. Rosenwald also created a fellowship fund that supported a who’s who of Black writers, artists and scientists, from singer Marian Anderson to Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche.

For the rest of the story, please watch “Rosenwald: Toward A More Perfect Union.”

“I think it’s very timely. I think it’s a story that needs to be told,” said Dorothy Canter, President of the Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park Campaign. “It deserves to be remembered because it’s a story about how people contribute to the American democracy.”

Since the Campaign began in 2016, it has successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation mandating that the National Park Service conduct a special resource study of sites associated with Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools. “We envision that the ultimate park will be a multi-site park,” Canter said. “It will consist of a visitor center in Chicago and a small number of Rosenwald Schools. The more people that are out there that support us and organizations that support this park, the sooner the park will be created. And we hope that everybody that’s interested will sign on and help us.”

For more information, visit rosenwaldpark.org

For more on the documentary, visit rosenwaldparkepk.org


Photograph of a hot pool at Yellowstone

The Right Way To Experience Yellowstone...Slowly

Last time we went to Yellowstone it was in an aging borrowed RV with squishy brakes.

The good news is we never went that fast. There was so much to see, our fellow park goers kept the speed limit to a walking pace.


You’ll know immediately if there is a bear within a hundred yards. Cars will just stop, creating a “bear jam” that can last until the bears decide move on. Bison don’t seem to be bothered by cars and freely cross—and often linger—in the middle of the road. It’s a good decision to stay in your car when anything bigger and faster than you is in the vicinity. Best not to risk going viral on social media or worse, not living to regret it.

And why be in a hurry anyway? Nature’s greatest theme park is a spectacle of open plains, forested mountains, deep canyons, cascading waterfalls, explosive geysers, crystal clear hot pools, bubbling cauldrons of mud, scenic lakes and rivers.

Yellowstone is vast, almost 3,500 square miles and it attracts 4 million visitors a year. About half of them will visit between June and August. There are a lot of travel tips on how to avoid the crowds, but going in winter is a good bet to see the fewest people. 

Photograph of a hot pool at Yellowstone
Beate Dalbec / Nature's Best Photography

Alice Ford went on a bucket list trip to see the wolves of Yellowstone in below-zero temps and lived to tell the tale. Her great adventure is worth a watch.

Photo Credit: Alice Ford

No matter when you go, you’re going to have to make a plan about where to stay, where to camp, where to eat and what to do. You’ll need to purchase a pass, but you don’t need a reservation to get in. The grand lodges all require reservations up to a year in advance. If you are into camping, there are a dozen campgrounds in the park and you’ll need to make a reservation for them, too. For expert travel advice, Matt and Cheryl of We’re in the Rockies have the best trip planner with tons of useful information.

Yellowstone sits on one of the biggest calderas in the world, the remnant of a supervolcano that is still active but last erupted 70,000 years ago. Legends of dragons drew explorers to Yellowstone Valley, but the Crow believed there was another explanation for what killed the trees and scorched the earth. Grant Bulltail of the Native Memory Project tells the tale.

Photo Credit: Native Memory Project

Today, if you stay on the boardwalks and paths you’ll be fine, just know that in some places the ground below your feet is heated by magma that is turning glacier-temperature water into boiling hot tubs. This makes for quite a show in the upper geyser basin, where Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the world, can be found. It goes off every 1.5 hours, and the predicted times of launch are posted by the NPS. Half the geysers in the world are here. For what to expect about Old Faithful and how to time your trips, check out Matt’s guide.

There’s plenty of history in Yellowstone, too. If you’re interested in a cautionary tale of what happens if you get lost, there’s the story of Truman C. Everts.

Photo Credit: The History Guy

His misadventure is legend, and the History Guy has the story. A gripping tale of a man who lost his bearings, scalded himself in a geyser, started a vast forest fire, hallucinated from hunger and ended up drinking a pint of bear grease to survive.

After a few days hiking through forests yelling “hey bear” to spook the grizzlies, following the Yellowstone River downstream, and crisscrossing the Continental Divide a dozen times, we finally made our way, slowly, out of the park.

Photo Credit: Author