Welcome to the Great Indoors

Photographer Erin Sullivan re-creates natural landscapes while stuck inside 

Photos by Erin Sullivan 

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Pillow Ice Cave


Sugar Sand Dunes


Behind the scenes of the Sugar Sand Dunes


Great Pancake Canyon


Glowing Gore-Tex Cave


Tinfoil Lake


Broccoli Forest


Nightstand Astrophotography


Behind the scenes of Nightstand Astrophotography 


Paper Bag Canyon

The Golden Syrupfall is the crown jewel of the Great Pancake Canyon. To witness its natural beauty, visitors wind their way along the bank of the Syrup River to the base of the cascade. Ambitious hikers can glimpse the top of the syrupfall from a nearby butte, which requires a short jaunt up a soft, steep trail.  

Just remember that there is no swimming allowed in the Syrup River. If you attempt it, you will be removed by the park manager and given a thorough scrub in the sink.

Erin Sullivan is the park manager of the Great Pancake Canyon. She’s also its designer. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut Sullivan into her Los Angeles home indefinitely, she wanted to stay connected to the outdoors. She normally photographs wildlife, landscapes, and people around the world, but now that work is on hold.

She decided to re-create natural landscapes using stuff she had around the house and then photograph the scenes. She cut up a paper bag and turned it into a canyon, smashed granola bars into a mountain range, and smoothed aluminum foil into a serene fishing lake. She quickly realized that in order to generate a sense of scale, she needed to include miniature figures, which she found online.

The result is a series of images depicting diverse natural landscapes that range from forests and canyons to sand dunes and caves. Her titles are fitting: The Broccoli Forest, the Sugar Sand Dunes, the Jello Lake. So far Sullivan has constructed around a dozen scenes.   

Deadvlei, a white clay pan famous for its dark, dead trees, in Namibia. “I was attracted to the places where the clay met the sand of the dunes, and the shapes that were formed; nature replicating itself,” Sullivan says.

This brown bear cub was swimming behind its mother in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. 

When she posted her first miniature landscape, a pillow ice cave, to social media on March 27, it went viral. She has inspired hundreds of people to craft their own miniature wilderness scenes—for example, a flour ski mountain, a paraglider (made from a mask, no less), and a scene from Arches National Park—and post them using the hashtag #OurGreatIndoors

For Sullivan, it’s important to remain connected to creative practices right now. But she cautions against putting pressure on ourselves to be super productive during this unstable time. “I’m taking it a day at a time, and when I do feel creative, [I really go] for that,” she says.  

Photographing the Great Indoors has its perks. Normally, when she’s setting up a shot, Sullivan can’t move a hill or ask a bobcat to shift a few feet to the right. Now, she says, “I get to be a lot more deliberate about where things are, which is kind of a new thing to me.” It takes her anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to set up a scene, and a half hour to an hour to photograph.

The project has gotten her thinking about how texture, lighting, and color converge to produce a realistic image. “I’m trying to make something look like something else. So I need to pay attention to the quality of the objects I’m shooting in order to best make them look like a mountain or a cave or whatever,” she says.

She hopes her images will spark joy and encourage others to design their own miniature adventures. After all, we’re all part of the Great Indoors community right now. “When I started this project, it was . . . a way to keep myself creative. And then I quickly realized that it was much more for my community,” Sullivan says. “And because it’s bigger than me, it’s kept me going.”