The winners of The Washington Post’s 2023 Travel photo contest

(Amy Garrick)

Travel can often feel like a spiritual experience — a time when we are able to unplug and connect with our world, our family and friends, and, most importantly, ourselves. This year’s Washington Post photo contest winners represent both the togetherness and solitude we find in travel, with a lone penguin atop an iceberg, Wes Anderson-like symmetry in White Sands National Park and more.

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We combed through hundreds of photos to find this year’s best. Here are the three winners and nine honorable mentions, along with the photographers’ stories in their own words.

Captions have been edited for length and clarity.

Karen Davis, Alexandria, Va.

Camargue horses are an ancient breed, native to the marshy wetlands of southern France. Napoleon rode a Camargue horse in his war campaigns. Today, most of the horses are semi-feral, cared for by French cowboys, called Guardians. I went to southern France in May to photograph these horses in their native element. The morning we were to photograph dawned cool and threatened of rain. It was a 30-minute drive down bumpy country dirt roads to reach the coast. We donned hip wader boots and slathered on mosquito repellent, then slogged through slippery, muddy marshes and knee-high water to reach the tide pool and the horses, with their Guardians. The Guardians ran the horses through the water at us. (They seemed to enjoy a frolic in the water.) The rain held off, and morning sunlight peeked through the gorgeous blue, cloudy sky, creating a lovely contrast to the white horses. The squawks of flying flamingos added to the excitement of being in such a wild and primitive place.

Amy Garrick, Washington, D.C.

This photo was taken our second day on land in Antarctica in December. We spent the afternoon on Paulet Island, an island overrun with penguins everywhere you look. They’re cute but rather stinky. We saw baby penguins being fed by their parents. They also make weird honking noises — a bit like geese. On the way back to the ship, we took a zodiac around and came across this piece of ice and a penguin was climbing to the top. It felt like it was about to dive off, as if it were climbing a diving board. I snapped the photo thinking it was a National Geographic moment. Antarctica is unlike anywhere else — so remote, so untouched. It’s beautiful and otherworldly. It’s a day that will live in my memory.

Linda Rubenstein, Washington, D.C.

On the drive from El Paso to White Sands National Park, I remember being struck by the starkness of the landscape as I got farther into New Mexico. But that was nothing compared with what I saw when I arrived in the park late in the afternoon in November 2022. I was utterly astounded by its otherworldliness, and I felt as if I had landed on the moon. The dunes were like small mountains whose surfaces and textures were ever-changing by the direction of the wind, and the sun’s reflection on the white sand was blindingly bright. My feet sinking into the cool sand, I climbed atop one of the sand dunes to survey the landscape and saw only one other person in this area of the park, perhaps the owner of the lone vehicle in the lot. The wind was fierce and whipping the sand about, and I thought that these unusual yet well-placed protective shelters were a perfect respite from it.

Cassidy Girvin, Charlottesville

I often escape the sweltering humidity of East Coast summers by traveling to the Southwest. For a few days in June, I did nothing but log miles in Utah, both on foot and by vehicle, on the dirt roads, scouring the landscape for unique features. These remote desert badlands are easily overlooked by passersby, but to a photographer, their intricate patterns and textures provide ample compositions. Here, the setting sun illuminates the contours of the desert. Using a drone to capture an overhead perspective, one sees a scene not easily discernible from the ground.

Su Hawn Chung, Jersey City

Key West in August is silent. The heat and humidity keep reasonable people from getting on a skiff. It’s so quiet that it’s deafening, and the air feels like weighted blankets. We had spent all day looking for tailing bonefish. That is where the water is so shallow that the tail of a fish sticks out of the water, allowing fly-fishers to spot them, walk to them and make an offering to see whether they will take it. This was the last “flat” of the day. My friend Joe spotted a small group of fish happily feeding about 60 feet from where he was. A little too far to make a cast, he needed to close the distance by walking silently. All you could hear were the gentle lapping of the water and Joe’s sun shirt flapping. It was a moment of having to close the last “mile” in solitude, where others become a sightseer rather than an active help — something that all of us can relate to in different aspects of our lives.

I took this photo on the first night of a week-long backpacking trip in the Central Cascades in Washington in September 2022. As darkness fell, the wind picked up, and we quickly realized that placing our tent on top of that hill was a bad idea. Intermittent gusts were flattening the tent. As my buddy was packing up his things to move to a more sheltered spot, I ran across the lake to take advantage of the only photography opportunity I had that night.

Mark Gadomski, Hollywood, S.C.

My wife and I took a month-long trip to northern India in November 2022. Toward the end of our trip, we splurged on a riverboat cruise along we the Ganges River. During the cruise, our boat stopped one late afternoon to visit the Shiva temples near Kalna in West Bengal. Built in 1809, the temple grounds contain 108 Shiva temples arranged in two concentric rings around a central courtyard. When our small group headed back to the boat, I lingered behind to enjoy some solitary time in the peaceful, serene setting. It felt very tranquil and meditative. In this quiet space on the outskirts, I noticed a lone monk briskly cleaning each temple, darting in and out of the structures. That’s when I took this photograph.

Jassen Todorov, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge made a magical appearance in April’s late-afternoon fog. This scene is extremely rare because of the rapidly changing weather, so I felt extremely fortunate to witness and capture it while I was flying my Piper Warrior plane at 2,000 feet. Being a concert violinist and professor of music at San Francisco State University, I often get inspired and listen to music while flying my plane. This view is not only ethereal but also extremely dynamic and musical.

I was exploring the Yongsan train station, en route from Seoul to Gwangju in June, when I noticed the light beaming down this massive staircase. Through the passersby, I noticed a lone soldier on the steps and really loved how the light was hitting him and how he was framed. Unfortunately, the station was pretty packed, so I had to wait for a clean shot. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to capture the few seconds where no one else was in frame — aside from a pigeon. Candid portraits are one of my absolute favorite things to capture, and having just spent the past several days in Seoul, most of the candids I shot were in crowded markets or streets, so this moment of solitude was very special.

Bret Saalwaechter, Washington, D.C.

During a trek along the green volcanic slopes of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in May, I sat at the edge of a clearing and watched members of the Kwisanga group as they basked in the morning sun. The adults had already packed away their morning meal of bamboo, leaves and foliage, and they were lounging about grooming each other amid moments of wakefulness and a midmorning nap. The younger gorillas began roughhousing and alternated between wrestling with each other and harassing their parents, sneaking up on them, only to flee when discovered in the act. As I lay prone to photograph the family’s behavior, one young gorilla suddenly took interest in me and made a quick army crawl over to investigate. We shared a moment of mutual contemplation, and I could see him full of curiosity, wondering what to make of my camera and the hairless primate behind it. Although the encounter lasted for only a few brief seconds, I felt intense awe as he stared at me for what seemed like an eternity.

Judy Guenther, Springfield, Va.

I took this image on an evening in Reine in the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway in September 2022. The Lofoten Islands are above the Arctic Circle and are known for their rugged landscapes, colorful fishermen’s huts, beautiful water and stunning skies. I was standing on a bridge that joins two of the islands in this island chain in early evening on a day that can only be described as magical. The sky was so blue, with white, puffy clouds, and the calm water reflected the red huts facing the evening sun along the shore. The peace, serenity and awe that I felt standing in that place is hard to describe in words.

Julia Kerr, Washington, D.C.

I took this picture from the window of a room in the Peninsula Excelsior hotel on the final night of a three-week trip to Southeast Asia in August 2022. I went with a travel buddy from high school — we’re in our 30s now — and this was our first big trip together since covid. We traveled first to Singapore, then to Indonesia, then back to Singapore for one last night before our flights back home. At first we were bummed that our final night was stormy, but as we sat in our hotel room staring out the window, listening to the thunder, exhausted and unexcited to return to “real life,” we appreciated this light show from Mother Nature, illuminating the city we enjoyed so much in the early days of our trip.