Our Blitzkrieg Road Trip Through US National Parks

The Start of our National Park Photography Trip

Just to be clear as to the purpose and origin of this National Park Photography Trip: In 2007ish my wife and I bought a few acres in Costa Rica. In fact I am writing this right now in Costa Rica at a friends house (next to an organic dairy farm; coconut ice cream…yummy) as we plot and plan our next move; which is to build a B&B/Photo Education Center. So it is now 2010 and we had the great idea to sell everything not important to us, retro fit our 4 cylinder Chevy S10 with a lockable topper and cruise control and drive down to Costa Rica with all our earthly possessions in tow taking pictures along the way. Now as many of us have learned in life, things don’t always go as planned and we adapt to new situations. Even though we had done our research and thought we had good route picked out, news of the American-Mexican border and people continually being gunned down there kept reaching our ears and computer screens. People we knew would send us articles about the untrustworthiness of the border, photo magazines and podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis even mentioned the problem. On top of that, a recent dispute at the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border also came up. All this actually didn’t dissuade us, it was the fact that Thanksgiving was coming up and we found someone who listed a partial shipping container on craigslist from Florida to CR. So we were in Arizona 2 days from getting ready to cross into Mexico, we find a shipping container; decide to drive to Florida in 3 days for turkey dinner with my parents and to unload our truck into the hands of some guy from Craigslist.

Our truck and camping out of it

We decided to leave in the fall, this is when I decided to leave my job as an instructor at a Cincinnati college teaching photography, which I was quite sad about. This meant that as we made our way south our hope was that the temperature would remain moderate and the parks we were going to visit would be nearing the end of their season so we could get decent camping spots. Our National Park Photography Trip was essentially managed day-to-day, which didn’t allow for many advance reservations and many of the parks want a two-day notice if you register online. Overall it went very well, there were very few parks that were at capacity, especially if you are arriving mid-week.

Our truck needed to have in it everything we wanted to bring to Costa Rica plus all our camping supplies. So this meant getting rid of more stuff than we wanted and getting a truck topper. We had that topper retrofitted with metal bars on the inside. I made a shelf to put items up top and lockable windows with padlocks. With security taken care of we also added Ipod ready stereo (podcasts and audio books are a must), aftermarket cruise control and helper springs on the rear axle to help out our load. Remember this is a 4-cylinder light duty truck. We also took out the child seats in the back to make for more room, I bolted down a fireproof lockable safe in replacement of one of the seats and we had our website www.kimberlybeck.net plastered on both sides of the truck to set out on our national advertising campaign. Everything worked out very well, we packed everything we didn’t need for camping first and put all the essentials in the cab or in easy access near the tailgate .

So this brings me to my Photography Review of places we visited. My first recommendation is to add more time to the trip. We had too little. Our plan was to be in Costa Rica in 2 months, 3 tops. Figure 2 weeks from Mexico to CR, which leaves 6 weeks to travel in a crazy zigzag pattern across the U.S. This is not enough time to see all the parks and natural wonders our great nation has to offer, this left us with 2 nights average at a location. If it was a monument maybe one night, if it was a large national park we may only get 3-4 nights tops. The good was that we saw so much, the bad is that we did not have that much time at each place for scouting locations for the best photos.Advance online research and ranger stations helped a lot in finding the most scenic places and when to go.

A huge money saver on this trip was buying an annual park pass; they are eighty dollars and will get you into most Bureau of Land Management areas.This means if the park has “national” in the title you will probably get in with the pass but if it has “state” in the title such as a State Park then you are out of luck.

1st Stop Minnesota

I grew up in Minnesota so the first leg of the trip was not so much a national park visit as a week of R&R in Minnesota lake country with my grandparents. Although not a park per se northern MN is definitely worth visiting. Its relaxing, the people are friendly plus you can take pictures and fish at the same time, that way you are sure to come back with something.

If you could do only one thing in MN I would recommend a multi-day canoe trip across the Boundary Waters, it’s up near that little tip in northern Minnesota and you end up somewhere between MN and Canada. Many of the lakes have a no wake rule so you may not even run into boats with engines, just you, your camera and serenity. There is also Voyager and other parks. We went to Itasca State Park where you can walk across the Mississippi at its headwaters.

South Dakota – Wall Drug, Badlands, Black Hills and Wind Cave National Park

As you drive along the interstate in South Dakota you will see many signs for Wall Drug offering homemade pastries and other notions and potions. You will see so many signs in fact that you will have no choice but to stop here. Evidently the couple who started the drug store offered free ice water to stage coaches and caravans that patron their store, a tradition that still stands today, making it a very famous and well known drug store and a good stop for provisions before you head to the parks.We picked up an egg carrier for our cooler, a back support for the drivers seat, pie, homemade ice cream and other miscellaneous items.

If you are in the area the Badlands National Park is a must see, you drive across prairie and suddenly you come upon a big scar in the earth. The Badlands is a long and skinny park and you can see most of it by driving through and stopping for short hikes and overlooks. We camped one night outside the park in a KOA; this allowed us to see sunset and sunrise.Around sunrise and sunset colors are often more saturated, shadows are more defining and there is less contrast in a scene making it an optimal time for taking pictures.

Badlands South Dakota

Badlands South Dakota


Nikon D300s, 50-500mm @ 270mm, Tripod, Cable Release, SinghRay 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F8 @ 1/1250, ISO 200

Wind Cave National Park is situated in and around the Black Hills. This little known National Park has a lot going for it, for one obviously the Wind Cave portion of the park and if you happen to arrive on National Park Appreciation Day as we did, you can get a FREE cave tour which was a lot of fun.I have been on a few cave tours and due to the cramped quarters tripods are often not allowed. This is when I make sure and bring at least 1 flash, a TTL cord or some kind or commander unit for the flash (Nikon SU-800 or pocket wizard) and my trusty Joby Gorillapod Zoom. Wind Cave also has an abundance of wildlife including bison, elk, pronghorn, coyote and mountain lion. We arrived shortly after season so the camping spots were plentiful and the Elk bugled (i.e. played his nose in a trumpet like fashion) us to sleep at night, you can’t ask for much more.

Wyoming – Devils Tower, Bighorn National Forest, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton

Devils Tower National Monument is a large volcanic intrusion of crystallized rock columns sticking out of the earth creating a huge rock monolith. Climbers from around the world come to climb and camp at the top of the tower, which is the size of a football field. We were there in early October and the leaves were changing colors, it was beautiful. Below the tower is a river next to the KOA and in the morning you can get a perfect reflection of the tower as the morning sun lights it up purple to orange, this is the shot. Ask for a camping spot in the back of the KOA next to the river, you can thank me later. Remember to bring a polarizer for the mile or so walk around the base of the tower for those late afternoon shots, this will really help your skies turn blue and make the monument pop.

Devil's Tower Wyoming

Devil’s Tower Reflection


Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, SinghRay 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F13 @ 1/10, ISO 200

I found that National Monuments in general we could spend just 1 night at and sometimes 1 day, trying to get sunrise or sunset. Being they are usually smaller than national parks and have a central point of interest whereas national parks and forests are usually much larger with more points of interest.

Bighorn National Forest was a great one-night stop between Devils Tower and Yellowstone.I could easily have spent more time there, especially if we passed during a warmer part of a season, there was a very inviting lake that screamed swimming hole. We ended up camping at the southwest edge of the forest, our campsite was right next to a beautiful little river and it was FREE because we were there after season.Of course, this meant that the river was freezing and that there was no running water but you can’t beat sleeping next to a river. I thought Bighorn had a lot of potential for photography and recreational enjoyment. We also had the opportunity to share our propane with a Swedish couple who had just finished climbing Devils Tower and the water temperature did not stop them from bathing nude in it!

National Forest camping is nice because they often don’t get the crowds that the National Parks have, plus you often don’t have to deal entrance fees and you can usually collect firewood with little restriction.

Yellowstone is huge and due to its elevation much colder earlier in the season than surrounding areas as we found out. Our nights were in the 30’s in early October. For this reason we did not see nearly enough of Yellowstone spending only 3 nights 4 days here. It’s also one of the busiest parks making it hard to get a camping spot and you need a lot of patience driving. It is busy for a reason though, you can see a lot of wildlife just by driving through the park. Increase your chances by going early morning or late afternoon. Also there is a lot of thermal activity, geysers, mud-pots, hot springs, and other things that create colorful, interesting and otherworldly landscape images.

Yellowstone Buffalo

Buffalo in Steam Yosemite

Nikon D300s, 50-500mm @500mm, Tripod, F6.3 @ 1/3200, ISO 200

Grand Teton National Park has a great sunrise that turns the mountains and the sky pink.If you’re lucky like we were you can get a campsite next to Jackson Hole Lake (site #68 was exceptional). We spent 3 nights there; the hiking was great, the views beautiful and Jackson Hole Lake was a great foreground subject to reflect the Teton Mountain Range.

Jackson Hole & Grand Tetons

Tetons behind Jackson Hole Lake


Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, SinghRay 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F18 @ 1/6, ISO 200

California – Yosemite, Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Death Valley

Yosemite National Park is a picturesque waterfall filled valley between granite cliffs, the cliffs are extensive and the valley is small and narrow far below. Yosemite is extremely popular with tourists and photographers a like so space becomes an issue in the small valley. It is often difficult to see everything you want to see in a day due to the crowds or even get a camping spot reservation. It is difficult but with good reason, the waterfalls are beautiful, the hiking is great and the stones are monolithic; it’s a very iconic place. I wish I could have experienced more of Yosemite while I was there but when you go to a park you need to relax, slow down and not fight traffic or people. Large and popular parks like this make it a good idea to go on a photographic tour if you have limited time and can’t find all the hotspots yourself.Yosemite and many other parks offer their own photography tours; also you can find many in the back of Outdoor Photographer or AAA park guides. My favorite hike was a late one on Sentinel Dome at sunset. The hike brings you up on top of one of the granite monoliths, you can oversee the valley and at sunset and the valley, granite cliffs and waterfalls were bathed in orange light and were glowing, the light was gorgeous.

Yosemite Valley at Dusk

Lookout at Sentinal Dome – Yosemite


Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @24mm, Tripod, Cable Release, SinghRay 3 stop hard step Graduated ND Filters, F16 @ 1/30, ISO 200

Santa Cruz and the surrounding area was a fun stop, there are surf competitions and sea life. You can see sea lions, sea otters, and seals at the waters edge. Inland at Henry Cowell State Park the giant Redwood trees make you feel like an ant.

When photographing things that have very large (the Redwoods) or small dimensions it is often a good idea to put a person in the image to help lend a sense of scale.

Henry Cowell State Park Redwoods

Redwoods in Henry Cowell


Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F8 @ 1/15, ISO 400

Death Valley was one of our favorite National Parks, there is so much variety and unlike all the other parks where we were arriving at the tail end of the season, we showed up in Death Valley right at the beginning. With the highest recorded temperature on the western hemisphere of 134 degrees, their season starts in October and runs through the cold months. There are sand dunes, salt flats (the lowest elevation in the US) , Mount Whitney (the highest place in the US), Mosaic marble canyons, ghost towns, rocks that move, mineral colored mountains, desert fauna, flowers, two golf courses (one is the Devils) and so much more. You can get the lowest and highest point in the US in one Photograph! This is a good park to splurge on the 4×4 jeep rental and check out those places that not everyone can make it to. Death Valley is a photographic wonderland and I think many don’t realize the variety of scenery it offers. Just be sure not to go in August.

Death Valley Badwater Basin

Salt Flats

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @18mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F16 @ 1/640, ISO 400

Death Valley Eureka Sanda

Death Valley Sand Dunes


Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @24mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F16 @ 1/40, ISO 200

Nevada – Lake Meade and the Valley of Fire

We spent only one night in The Valley of Fire State Park. I wish we could have spent more time here but we wanted to make it to Utah before it got to cold to camp. Valley of fire has a lot of beautiful red sandstones formations that blaze orange/red in the evening. Also it is located right next to Lake Meade, which is a very photogenic lake at sunset.


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