Capturing America

One photographer is on a 36-year (and counting) quest to capture all of America's national parks. Here's an exclusive glimpse of her incredible journey.

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"I think they thought I'd lost my mind," photographer Carol M. Highsmith says of the moment she told the Library of Congress that she planned to photograph all of America and donate her images for free. "But, I thought, no one is documenting our country, so I'm going to do it." It may seem like quite a feat, but that's exactly the task Highsmith has taken on, and she's been at it since 1980.

A snow scene, created by a sudden mountain blizzard along California Highway 36, south of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
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Earlier that same year, Highsmith had discovered the archival collection at the Library of Congress. Happening upon the turn-of-the-century work of one of the first prominent female photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnston—noting her images of Yellowstone ("She went before cars were allowed, and for that reason, it's so incredible," Highsmith says)—was the true catalyst that set Highsmith out on this 36-year journey. Her newfound love of these historical documents fueled the drive to create a series of her own, one that would live on in the Library of Congress like Johnston's, forever available to the public.

Arches National Park, Moab, Utah
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It's hard not to be affected by Highsmith's love of the United States and appreciation for its natural beauty: "Our parks are our treasures," she says. "We're so fortunate that President Roosevelt had the foresight to preserve them."

This enthusiasm and dedication to create a preserved document has earned her generous backers including Texas entrepreneur and philanthropist Lyda Hill, the John B. Lovelace Fund, and George F. Landegger. These funds have afforded her the time to really explore the "nuances," as she calls them, of each state and each park (she's flown over Denali National Park to take aerial shots, has visited Yellowstone in every season, and traveled to Hawaii to shoot the volcanoes). "People don't realize how vast our parks system really is," Highsmith says. "It's endless."

Now, see a selection from Highsmith's breathtaking collection for yourself.

Walker on the shoreline of the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Fruita schoolhouse, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
The Colorado National Monument, a preserve of vast plateaus, canyons, and towering monoliths in Mesa County, Colorado, near Grand Junction.
A sunset over the desert and Funeral Mountains just outside of Death Valley National Park in California.
Glacier National Park, Montana.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Hudspeth County, Texas.
The Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley, near the Utah and Arizona border.
Muir Woods National Monument, Mount Tamalpais, California.
The Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
The Whispering Pines Motel is a classic mid-20th century cluster of mountain cabins in Estes Park, the eastern entrance to Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.
Lower Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Red Canyon route, Zion National Park, Utah.

 To see the full Carol M. Highsmith Archive and download images for yourself, see loc.gov.

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