2013 Dwight Patterson Alumnus of the Year Award


Ralph Hopkins

Award criteria: This award is presented to an alumna or alumnus who has achieved outstanding success in his or her professional career. Service to Northern Arizona University or the Alumni Association is not a requirement. Preference is given to those who have earned degrees from Northern Arizona University.

Graduated: 1986 MS in Geology

Director of Expedition Photography, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, Sante Fe, New Mexico

Most influential figures: Dr. Larry Middleton, Dr. David Best, Dr. Ronald Balkey

Favorite memories: Field work at the Grand Canyon for his MS thesis on the Kaibab Formation, the rimrock of the Grand Canyon, and the many field trips around the southwest with the geology professors.

To explorer, photographer and author Ralph Hopkins, the landscape of northern Arizona is picture perfect. A deep appreciation for the Grand Canyon led Ralph to pursue a master’s degree in geology at NAU. Already a published photographer, he captured images as a student that would later be published by Arizona Highways. Working as a naturalist for an expedition company bloomed into the opportunity to create a photo expedition program. On a winding ride not unlike the swelling motion of the Colorado River, Ralph has journeyed the globe as a photographic adventure guide.

For more than 20 years Ralph has photographed countless expeditions, touring isolated areas and capturing stunning imagery of the natural world.  During the 1990 Colorado River Expedition with the U.S. Geological Survey, Ralph matched historical photos from the 1989-90 Stanton Expedition, which were published in a leading book, entitled Grand Canyon Geology. He is the author and photographer of Hiking Colorado’s Geology and Hiking the Southwest’s Geology. Ralph’s newest work is Nature Photography – Documenting the Wild World, a workbook which pushes the creative and artistic side of photo making.

He is a regular contributor to National Geographic, Nature’s Best, Outside, and Outdoor Photographer magazinesand is a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Ralph’s concentration hinges on documenting conservation and environmental issues in critical habitats, such as the Galápagos Islands, Baja California and the Sea of Cortez, Mexico and the shrinking ice mass in the Artic. Ralph shares his inspiration for photography through instructing others, hosting photo adventure excursions for National Geographic Expeditions, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.  A guest lecturer for National Geographic Traveler’s Photography Seminars, he ventures the nation demonstrating best practices for travel photography.

Ever the adventurer and trail-blazer, it’s not surprising that Ralph encourages students to follow their passion and not accept “no” for an answer. His application to the graduate geology program at NAU was initially denied, but unnerved, he persisted and eventually convinced a professor to take him on as an extra. His determination paid off, and he soon found himself conducting field work at the Grand Canyon for his thesis. Ralph recalls that his NAU experience gave him the confidence to follow his dreams.

He took full advantage of all the outdoors has to offer in northern Arizona, participating in hiking, skiing and whitewater rafting as a student. Ralph’s coursework in geology gave him the opportunity to gain an intimate understanding of the Grand Canyon, a relationship which is renewed annually as he leads photo expeditions along the Colorado River each May. An informative and patient teacher, Ralph uses his photography and instruction to promote conservation and appreciation of the natural wonders awaiting those who dare to venture off the beaten path. 

“Traveling with my camera helps me be in the moment, whether waiting for the magic light along the rim of the Grand Canyon, or waiting for a polar bear to jump out on the pack ice,” Ralph confides.  “After all, being in the moment is what life is about.”