As many photographers feverishly work to gain followers and likes on social media, another photographer has quietly been walking and photographing a series of trails. Bart Smith has quietly walked and photographed the entire U.S. National Scenic Trail system and U.S. National Historic Trail system. That’s 11 National Scenic Trails and 19 National Historic Trails and that translates into 35,000 miles/56,327 km of walking and photographing. To put that into perspective, most people haven’t even flown that many miles. Bart is the first person to walk all these National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails.
Articles on Bart have appeared in many publications, from Backpacker Magazine to The Seattle Times, to international news sources like The Guardian. He currently has 8 published books and contributed to 10 others, with 2 more coming out this September. One will be on the National Historic Trail system and the other on Trails of the Pacific Northwest.
I initially met Bart in the 90s when he was working on his first book on the Pacific Crest Trail, and again a bit later after he finished that project. We sat down recently for a talk and this is what I learned.
How did you get into photography in the first place?
My dad was an amateur photographer, so I grew up around photography, and my mom’s best friend was Galen Rowell’s mother, so I was always looking at his photographs and they inspired me. After spending time as a construction worker, I eventually picked up photography full-time. Since then I’ve been spending about 8 months a year photographing on the trails.
For me long-distance hiking and photography are mutually exclusive, how do you do it?
I was fortunate and lucky, and my wife’s been extremely supportive. On the trail, I sometimes stop and camp in some of those special places to make sure I get good light on the scene. Some places I would need to return to and photograph at another time, which was easier to do along the National Historic Trails. Along the historic trails, I would need to photograph some of the historic buildings along the way. For the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, Fort Union was 8 miles off trail, but I had to photograph it. So that’s walking 8 miles there and 8 miles back to make sure I had the image.
I remember you using a large format camera when you were working on your first book, do you still use that?
No, that camera was stolen. I shoot with a digital SLR these days.
Have you moved to a mirrorless camera to save weight?
Tell me a little bit about walking and photographing the National Historic Trail System, is it difficult?
Some parts are because they cross a lot of private property, like along the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail. But there I called all the ranchers and they all said I could cross their land if I would be respectful of it. The National Historic Trails also don’t honor the best parts of American history either, like The Trail of Tears, they sometimes showcase our worst moments. That trail was a bit spooky too. I thought I was walking past abandoned houses, but then I would see a hand pull back the drapes a bit – and that’s creepy. If you’re driving along a National Historic Trail, you don’t think twice about crossing a river on a bridge, but for settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail a river could be debilitating.
After all those miles walked, what was your best day photographing along the trail?
I had been walking for many miles through flat terrain, but in the distance I could see Courthouse Rock, so I camped near there that day between it and Jail Rock. That night, there were some cool clouds that moved in and this squall line dropped down right behind Courthouse Rock. Clouds were moving, the moon came out, there was lightning, and by the next morning puffy clouds were everywhere at sunrise – it was beautiful.
Another time was along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which is the shortest of the trails at 54 miles. I was able to view and photograph all these people walking over it on the 50th anniversary commemorating that famous walk.
Have you ever heard of QT Luong who photographed all the U.S. National Parks and put out the book Treasured Lands? He reminds me of you because you’re the guy photographing all our National Trails.
I have, and I saw him on that Ken Burns documentary on National Parks. I still need to pick up his book.
What is your favorite National Scenic Trail?
The Pacific Crest Trail. There is an environment you can sink your teeth into and it tells a linear story.
What is your favorite National Historic Trail?
The Oregon Trail. There’s just so much history along it.
What was your scariest time on the trail?
I was walking the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, but part of it is now a highway. There is no shoulder and I’m pushing my baby buggy of hiking and camera gear as fast as I can before getting to a shoulder in the road. I didn’t want to get hit, and I didn’t want to create an accident either.
What do you like about photographing for these trail books?
Doing the books motivates me to get on the trail. Also, doing these books forces you to photograph different things. I enjoy that aspect of it.
What’s your trail name?
Infinite Dust, I’ve had a lot over the years, but I’m sticking with that one.
Location: Mosier, Oregon
As a long-distance hiker, I have sharpened my photographic perspective over the years on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide, the Canadian Divide and most recently walking across Iceland. My goal is to capture the wonders I see in nature for the enjoyment of all those with an eye for the extraordinary.