until the total solar eclipse.

My 20 Favorite Travel Photos of 2021 – A Year in Review

Browse this collection of my favorite travel photos I captured in 2021 - and choose your own favorite!

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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Wherever I go, I always have a camera in my hand. Ever since I picked up my first DSLR camera, photography has been my greatest passion. And telling a story with my photography has been my greatest challenge. That is what makes it so difficult to choose just twenty favorite travel photos from a year of travel.

I captured 3,190 photos in 2021. Actually, I captured many more than that. But after I sorted through the crappy photos to select the best, post processed to make them shine, added captions, and uploaded to my photography website, I had 3,190 photos that I was proud to show to the world.

But now I had to choose just twenty. Just twenty. It took nearly a week of sorting, rating, and fretting over letting certain photos go. But at last, I have the list.

My 20 favorite travel photos I captured in 2021 are listed in chronological order – how could I possibly choose a favorite among these? But what is your favorite? Leave me a comment below!

A Year in Review

It’s been a long, wonderful year of travel. Each year, I craft a Year in Review series to try to sum up my road trip adventures, favorite photos, and stand out travel experiences. You don’t want to miss the best of my year – click to view them all.

I was on a one-week workation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and I needed to get some work done. The condo was nice enough, but I needed a new place to jog the clutter from my mind and let the words flow. Not too far away, I found The Southern Grind Coffee House at Hotel Indigo.

They had an extensive menu of coffee, tea, and food. Coffee was the easy part – mocha latte. Done. Food was something else. They had a special that day. All I remember seeing on the menu was something about strawberries – my favorite fruit – and whipped cream. I had no idea it was a dessert piled high on a plate the size of my face. It made for a gorgeous photo and savory meal while I pounded away on the keyboard.

I love taking classes in making glass art – I’ve done it a few times now during my travels. While visiting Orange Beach, Alabama, I took a short class at The Hot Shop at the Coastal Arts Center.

This particular class was about making glass ornaments – I made a starfish! The final step was to blast the ornament with heat from a propane torch to make the surface pliable enough to stamp it. I captured this photo of the master glassmaker heating the ornament with the warm, soft light on his hands as flames swept across the glass.

This year, I decided to become a morning person. Every day of the week, I get up after a 5 a.m. alarm, and by six, I’m sitting at the laptop. I write for the first three hours of the day before heading out to explore the destination.

That means I’m frequently awake for sunrise, though I’m not always in the most scenic location to see it. That was not the case while staying at a luxurious suite at Turquoise Place by Spectrum Resorts. I walked out onto the balcony each of the three mornings I was there – but this was definitely the most beautiful morning.

I arrived in Panama City Beach, Florida late in the evening. Checked in at the hotel, moved all my various bags into the room, and sat on the bed for five whole minutes. Then, I was out the door. It was nearly sunset.

The Russell-Fields Pier was only five minutes from the hotel – it took twenty minutes to get there. Another twenty to park, and suddenly time was running out. I sprinted along Pier Park Drive – the road had been closed to vehicles – and across Front Beach Road to a public beach access. With just minutes to spare, I set up the camera on the beach beside the pier and captured this – my favorite travel photo of the year.  

The Cape San Blas Lighthouse was a towering icon of the small town of Port St. Joe, Florida. I love capturing photos of lighthouses, but I’m always challenged to find new angles and interesting compositions. It didn’t take long to find what I wanted.

Beside the Gulf County Welcome Center, I found a small park with a public boat ramp. A few fishermen had already returned from a trip to Saint Joseph Bay and were cutting up their catch at a covered station. Nearby, a dozen brown pelicans lingered for a moment to snatch a scrap of food. Every once in awhile, a pelican would take to the sky to fly around the area.

I knew I wanted to capture a photo of the pelicans flying with the lighthouse in the background. But it’s not like I could run left or right to line up the pelicans’ flight path and lighthouse. Instead, I had to wait for just the right moment. It took 147 photos before I finally managed to capture something I could be happy with.

There were a lot of seagulls in Apalachicola, Florida. They shuffled along the wooden boardwalk on the river, fought for position on boat rails, and perched on poles. I think I’m in the minority when I admit I enjoy the chaotic chorus of a dozen squawking seagulls.

I always enjoy capturing photos of seagulls in flight. It’s always better to capture an action – flying, eating, fighting, anything. But this particular photo captured a different action with the seagull’s mouth wide open mid-squawk. This photo was an instant favorite with an over-exposed background creating a natural backdrop.

The gentle ebb and flow of the turquoise water pushed white foam waves across the beige sand. As the water quickly receded, it left behind an abstract painting in the wet sand. The shadows were long, the sun was low to the horizon, and it was the end of another glorious spring day in Florida.

When I saw this vista from the Juno Beach Pier in June Beach, Florida, I felt like this, more than anything else, summed up Florida in a nutshell. I processed this photo on my laptop that night because I was excited to see the final result. Painters have an advantage because they can craft the exact scene they want to show. If I were a painter, this is how I would have depicted this beach.

I spent a day exploring Fort Pierce, Florida – literally. I watched the sunrise at Jetty Park along with fishermen, pelicans, seagulls, and boats. It was a thrilling start to the day as I captured dozens of photos.

Then I noticed a man in bicycling attire sit on a bench. The sun was just thirty minutes above the horizon. He pulled a cup of seed off his bicycle and began tossing handfuls at little birds. I captured a few photos as the birds danced for food. Pat McConaghy spends a few months every year at his house in Fort Pierce. He rides his bicycle to the oceanfront park every morning to feed the birds. I just happened to be there at the right time to capture this photo.

I visit the Blue Ridge Parkway every year – twice in 2021. I spent four days in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, one of my favorite Parkway destinations in late spring.

Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is located at the edge of town. The Parkway Craft Center is located inside the historic manor house high on a hill. At the bottom, within sight of the house, is a large lake. Bass Lake is a very popular place to walk and enjoy time wrapped in nature. That’s where I found a goose family – momma and pappa slowly marching five goslings across the grass. This one, in particular, enjoyed eating the dandelions.

Are you brave enough to walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge? Firmly secured between two craggy outcroppings atop Grandfather Mountain, the aluminum and steel cable swinging bridge has always been a challenge for me. I’m afraid of heights.

On the last morning in Blowing Rock, I was shrouded in a thick fog. I decided to pay the admission fee – a not-insignificant $22 – and drive to the top just in case the peak was above the fog. It wasn’t. I crossed the metal swinging bridge, unable to see the other side – in the middle, I could see neither end of the bridge. It was one of those travel experiences that was equally thrilling and terrifying – and it made for an excellent photo.

Many years ago, I saw a North Carolina tourism website photo of an American flag fluttering in the wind on a rocky outcropping high above a lake. I quickly learned it was Chimney Rock – now a state park – near Lake Lure. I put the iconic vista on my bucket list for places to visit so I could capture my own photo.

First and foremost, I am a travel photographer. That will always be my greatest passion. Sitting on the balcony of my roadside motel just below the Chimney Rock, I did my research using an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This app allows me to see which direction the sunlight beams at different points of the day. I knew the best time of day to photograph the iconic vista was mid-afternoon. Shortly after lunch, I drove to the highest parking lot, rode the elevator through the historic shaft, and found the place I needed to stand to capture this awesome photo.

Everybody needs a hobby. Something to do strictly for fun. Photography started as a hobby that turned into a career, but there are still niches I enjoy for fun. Macro photography is the art of capturing larger-than-life photos using a special lens.

Since I bought my first macro lens nearly five years ago, capturing a macro photo of a dragonfly has been on my photography bucket list. It’s difficult to get close enough to capture a great photo because they are so jittery! Maybe they need decaf? But at Colonial Dorchester State Historic Park in Summerville, South Carolina, I finally captured the photo.

The trick about capturing great photos of food is all about the light. Natural light is the best way to capture the photos to make them look savory, natural, and desirable. That’s why my mealtimes are typically during daylight hours – that makes traveling in the winter more difficult.

When I visited Oceanic at the Crystal Pier in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. I asked for a table beside a window. The large picture window flooded the dining room with natural light and gave me a gorgeous view to enjoy with my food! The crab cake sandwich was endlessly gorgeous to photography. I think it had something to do with the contrasting green lettuce, but it was entirely because of the gorgeous natural light.

It had been a long time since I’d visited the Battleship North Carolina in Wilmington, North Carolina. I lived about two hours away and spent three years attending college at UNCW – I was a frequent visitor to the battleship museum.

When I visited this time, I found many things had changed. The teak decking had been replaced, the ship repaired and repainted, and new sections of the boat opened for exploration. But the biggest change was the addition of the SECU Memorial Walkway – a wooden boardwalk encircling the battleship. It provided an awesome opportunity to see the battleship from a new perspective. I captured this photo at the entrance to the boardwalk, where I found a gorgeous reflection of the battleship completed in 1941.

Coffee is not just a big part of my brand; it’s also a big part of my daily life. I visit local coffee shops as I travel, sampling their beans, asking about their machines, and getting little bits of writing done in between.

When I rolled into Clayton, North Carolina, for a late lunch, the nice lady at the counter told me about Boulevard West. It was the only coffee shop in the small town, and it was perfect! After finishing my first mocha latte, I struck up a conversation with Alycia, the barista on duty. She was fascinated with my career of road trips and travel writing. After making another mocha latte for me – and attempting her best latte art – I asked if I could capture a photo. She was more than happy to pose for me!

Environmental portraits are a big part of travel photography – a segment I had neglected the past few years. In 2021, I stepped up my game in capturing photos of locals in their element while also conducting more interviews for better writing content.

Boyd Owens was one of a dozen potters I met during the day I road tripped along the North Carolina Pottery Highway into Seagrove. Boyd took me around his one-room gift shop and explained the history of “Owens Red,” a particular dye exclusive to his family’s pottery. I asked if I could capture a photo, and he immediately grabbed a pot his father made – and put on his biggest smile.

Sometimes, it is frustrating driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Gorgeous vistas present themselves like cinematic artistry through your windshield. And yet, there is no place to safely pull over to capture a photo.

While driving on the Parkway near the Thunder Ridge Overlook in Boone, North Carolina, I encountered one of those moments. I glanced to my right and caught sight of Flat Top Mountain in the distance, silhouetted against the setting sun, with a narrow valley of pine trees leading the way to the mountain’s base. I turned around as soon as possible, drove back to a gated fire service road, and walked about ten minutes to reach this spot for the photo. Instant favorite.

There are three types of photos in the world of travel photography: establishing shot, story shot, and a detail shot. Wherever I travel, I try to capture all three of every destination, attraction, restaurant, really just any place I visit. The detail shot is the most tedious, and the story shot is the most common.

The establishing shot is the most difficult. After checking out from the Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City, Tennessee, I realized I had never captured an exterior photo of the boutique hotel. A footbridge beside the hotel crossed the busy highway, connecting satellite areas of a college campus. I found the center point in the bridge that aligned with the distant silhouette of mountains and framed this photo. I slowed the shutter speed to blur the traffic, but really it was the partly cloudy sky that made this photo one of my favorites of the year.

Natural Bridge State Park was another travel bucket list item I wanted to check off for years. After spending a few days resting in Lexington, Virginia, I headed south and made a stop at the natural wonder.

I had seen photos of the natural bridge before. But seeing it in person for the very first time still made my jaw drop. Then the question sprang into my mind, “How do I photograph this and show the sheer scale?!”

I didn’t have to wait long for people to walk along the concrete path beneath the arch. That was the easy part. Wedging myself against the stone wall in the corner of the seating area was a bit more difficult. I opted to cut off the sky above the bridge because it was just trees and an ugly-looking wood fence. This was much prettier – and one of my favorite photos of the year.

I traveled to Statesville, North Carolina, for a weekend of “Battles, Bourbon, and Balloons.” I visited Fort Dobbs State Historic Site for the battles and Southern Distilling Company for the bourbon. But when it came to the balloons – I was too chicken.

I stood nearby waiting for nearly an hour while an entire team worked to inflate their hot air balloon. But as the other passengers began climbing into the wicker basket, I decided this was not something I could do – yet. Instead, I remained firmly planted on the ground where I captured this photo. The funny thing about this photo is that it wouldn’t have looked this good if I had been in the air – I needed to be on the ground for the lighting to work like this!

Which of these is YOUR favorite photo I captured in 2021?

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.

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