The adventures of a Philly couple taking heed to “Go West” || Western United States Travel Photography
“Go West Young Man” is the famous quote for exploring the vast areas this country has to offer. Well what happens when two visual artists who are married to each other (one a photographer and one a cinematographer) heed this advice?! The result- an Epic and Beautiful 2 week RV road trip of a lifetime! Western United States Travel Photography
While I have had the joy of exploring most of the Western states on another epic road trip my dad, brother, and I took when I was 9, soon after my parents divorced and then later in life while I was a traveling activist living in a VW Vanagon!!. – this was the first time Al had seen this vast wilderness. You may remember 4 years ago we also rented an RV and explored the Southwest (check out the links for those blog posts at the end of this article).
How does one prepare for such a large undertaking? We started by reserving a 26 foot RV from Cruise America (the same company we used the last time). Then we made a list of all the places we wanted to see, people we wanted to visit, when was the best time to travel, what dates did our schedule allow for, and what was actually reasonable to accomplish! We settled on the first 15 days of June and stopped booking any clients for those dates (about a 9 months in advance). Then we prioritized what we wanted to do. We bought a National Park Annual Pass and I poured over my trusty Rand McNally Road Maps, researched on the internet, and talked to friends for advice. Finally it was settled. We had an itinerary so that we could plan with our friends and family that we were visiting along the way (and we were sad we had to cut out some visits and shorten others). We also knew we wanted to be somewhat fluid and just live in the moment. Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and the Badlands were must see (along with the fun tourist stuff like The Corn Palace and Wall Drug!!) We were also traveling with our 41/2 year old boxer/bulldog/pitbull Bella. She proved her road worthiness with our first RV trip and knew she would have a blast riding around the country with us! Yellowstone gets crazy busy and everything fills up Really Fast. There are also very few places you can go with a dog and we didn’t want to leave her for long periods of time in the RV if it was hot! Her idea of the best vacation is just sleeping so we knew she wouldn’t mind being left behind while we had some solo adventure time!!
While we had rented an RV before we weren’t avid RVer’s so we made a few reservations at KOA’s along the way and added one RV park last minute while in Yellowstone. We are so glad we did since some of the campgrounds were closed due to grizzly activity and all the others booked up fast as they don’t take reservations. I did some meal planning and we got almost all our groceries before we left. Snacks and beverages (as well as eating out) can really add up and blow through your budget quickly!
Al did all of the driving. BUT- I did offer every day to take my turn behind the wheel! But he loves to drive and I honestly didn’t mind having the chance to just gaze out the windows, take lots of pictures, and enjoy the ride. I was also the “snack getter”, “navigator”, and “planner” for the daily adventures! We also listened to a lot of DC comic audio adventures along the way. This made time fly by even faster on the open road!
After driving late into the night and sleeping for a few hours at a truck stop we finally made our way to Troy, Wisconsin to visit a photographer friend. Tim lives on a beautiful lake and took us for a nice boat ride and then later we took a boat tour of Lake Geneva. Troy is just a small town but the whole area was so beautiful and so nice just siting by the lake chilling and catching up. It was a great start to our trip.
Our next stop was 8 1/2 hours away- Mitchell, South Dakota and The Corn Palace. While on one of my cross country trips years ago I had stopped here with some friends. Every year they change out the murals all made out of corn!! I think that is just so cool! Too many its just corny! lol!! But we based our route with this being our first major attraction!! And it didn’t disappoint with this years theme- Music!! There also happened to be a live band playing outside so we enjoyed some non driving time and took in the local scene. We had intentions of staying at the Pierre Grasslands until we realized how hot it would get in the open prairie so we found a great RV campground along the Snake River where we watched a huge storm roll in. I have to say being in a large metal box gave me a little concern!!
We were well rested and ready for our day of driving, visiting the Awesomely touristy Wall Drug and even checked out this super cool vintage car place, Pioneer Auto Show. They had a ton of classic cars and Al was in heaven. I even found a 66 Thunderbird model car to give him as an Anniversary present (he is restoring a ’66 Thunderbird so it was Perfect!!) Driving through the vast open lands was beautiful!! Soon we entered in the Badlands, one of the Most Amazingly beautiful places. We hiked around a bit, saw some super cute mountain goats, watched a TON of prairie dogs, and saw our first bison of the trip!!
When I was 9 and on my first cross country trip, we were running out of gas and ended up and a small Indian town called Scenic in Wyoming. We got our gas from a big steel drum and my dad And I went into the local saloon. The floor had sawdust and we sat at the bar for drinks. He had his beer, I had my soda, and my older brother who was too nervous to come in, waited in the car LOL. I have a photo (actual film) of this saloon in my scrapbook. It always made a huge impact on me. I remember the sign saying “No Indians allowed”. The NO was crossed out with deer antlers. And on the other side of the sign it said Indians allowed, but in Lakota and the white men couldn’t read it!! Al and I went to this town which now only has a population of 5 1/2 but has an actual gas station. We spent some time talking with the man who owns the gas station and we wandered around the town. I always attribute that trip to the beginning of my wanderlust lifestyle. Travel is such a huge part of who I am and I am always seeking to explore new places, new people, and new cultures. Taking these photos were some of my favorite parts of the trip!!
As we were heading to the Grand Tetons we drove through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and stopped at Wounded Knee. We talked with some of the locals, bought some jewelry and one of the women told me to go pick a little sage from a small patch near by. We walked around and gave our prayers to the graves and looked at the area the siege at Wounded Knee with the American Indian Movement took place in 1973 (just 2 years before we traveled through the area when I was a kid). I have a history of doing work with AIM and other Indigenous people and Al is part Native American so this was an especially emotional part of the trip.
After a couple hours of driving we arrived at Custer State Park, a wildlife reserve in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. It is South Dakota’s largest and first state park and despite being named for a despicable man, it is beautiful and we saw a TON of bison!! I think one of my favorite moments of the trip came while we were in Custer. Al and and I got off the main road and traveled around on some of the smaller back roads for a bit. We hardly saw any other cars. We pulled over next to a bunch of prairie dog homes (staying on the road as not to drive over any of them) and made lunch. We just sat back taking in all the peace and quiet around us. We also saw a bunch of Pronghorn in the area.
The Black Hills are considered a sacred site to the Lakota. Being there it is easy to see why. We were lucky that the weekend we were there was one of two weekends a year that an organized hike happens to the top of the Crazy Horse Memorial. While Crazy Horse himself would probably be appalled a mountainside was carved in his honor, it is important for people to realize the importance of the Black Hills to the Lakota people. The area was already desecrated when Mount Rushmore was carved so this gives a good counterbalance. The Memorial is far from being complete and has been worked on since 1948. They don’t use any federal funds. I remember seeing the area in 1975 before the tunnel was carved. It was incredible to take the 6 mile hike and be right where his head is. When finished, this will be the largest stone monument in the world.
We spent two days in the Custer KOA. This served as a home base as we visited Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, exploring the closed down Jellystone Amusement Park, sitting by a campfire, and a little three card poker in the infamous Deadwood. Al even ended up winning about $90. That’s a pretty good haul over three card poker LOL!!! We also got to feed the donkeys that approached the car on the road. The donkeys used to give rides but have since been let free to roam and they love people and they love junk food LOL!!
Next we headed North towards Grand Teton National Park. The jagged snow-covered caps of the Grand Tetons is one of those top travel and nature sites one should see. There are just are no words! Along the way to the Gross Ventre Campground, we saw a moose lounging along the river and the following morning woke up to 3 moose eating right behind where the RV was parked. We explored around Signal Mountain and Jenny Lake. We took a beautiful hike into the wilderness, always on the lookout for bears and making as much noise as we could. We had reviewed what to do in case of a bear attack and remained vigilant on all our hikes and of course Bella was tucked safely away in the RV (the weather was perfect and it never got even warm in there).
The most spectacular part of the trip was just around the corner- Yellowstone!!! We decided in route to hire a private Safari guide for part of our time in Yellowstone. It was hard on Al always having to find a place to pull over whenever we spotted wildlife. This way we could both just sit back and have someone teach us all about the area and take us to spots animals were known to be located. It also was super helpful to have scopes to really be able to see the animals that were far off in the distance. We never would have known they were there. We were concerned though about leaving Bella while we were on a four hour Safari.We knew we couldn’t just leave her in a parking lot in the RV and there weren’t any dog kennels in the immediate area. Since we were going to be mostly around the Lemar Valley we decided to rent a cabin in Montana for the night. So that changed our plan a bit so we needed a place to stay for this first day in Yellowstone. We managed to get the last RV spot at Fishing Bridge. Only hard sided RVs are allowed they’re due to the grizzlies in the area. We were blessed we were able to book the spot as we were in route despite losing phone connection several times!
In 1988 wildfires drastically altered the landscape and ecosystem of Yellowstone. With 1.4 million acres being burned, it was easy to see the remnants of the fires as we explored this 2.2 million acre National Park. Just thinking back to the beauty that surrounded us for those couple days brings tears to my eyes. The environment has been a cause I have fought for many years. Having had the privilege to stand and photograph it in all its beauty is something I will keep in my heart forever. And again while I had been there as a kid, and later in life briefly, being able to travel and capture this part of the country with Al made it all the more special. Especially just a few days before our 9th wedding anniversary.
We entered Yellowstone at the South gate first stopping at Grant Village and then West Thumb. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is some of the most spectacular hot springs I have ever seen. They were so colorful and each one so different. And it’s amazing how they empty in to Yellowstone Lake.
Next on to the most famous Geyser in Yellowstone- Old Faithful. It’s so fun to watch in anticipation as it starts to bubble up and then completely explode. It’s equally cool to watch the reaction of the crowd especially kids. After watching the excitement we walked around eating ice cream cones and checking out some of the hot springs near there. We were attempting to go to the Norris geyser area but it was temporarily closed due to a death. Two siblings decided to get off of the pathways and one of them fell through the very thin surface. It’s such a shame and such a terrible way to die and especially for his sister to witness it. But it was an avoidable death. It’s so important to follow the rules and Stay on the pathways and boardwalks and far enough away from wildlife while in Yellowstone. It’s such a shame how many instances I’ve seen just since we have left of people violating these common sense rules. We were able to circle back through Norris as we left a couple days later through the West entrance.
After a very full day we headed to our campground at Fishing Bridge. It was dark when we pulled in so we couldn’t see how crowded it was. Still it was nestled in the woods and it was obvious there was a ton of wildlife all around. Bella was extremely sensitive to the smells in this area when we took her for her walks.I know she could smell the bears and all the other animals she didn’t recognize. But other than that she was doing great on the trip.
We headed out early the next morning to explore Canyon Village and do some hiking. It was great to get out once again on foot and explore the area. We saw some really cool waterfalls and it wasn’t crowded at all. We then headed to the cabin in Montana to get Bella all settled in. The Big Moose Lodge was perfect. We were staying in a log cabin built in the 1940’s. We hung around a bit until Bella got comfortable. Although she did eat her collar while we were gone in protest LOL!! At 4:00pm we met Emil, our safari guide from Safari Yellowstone. at Tower Roosevelt. This was the best investment. Emil was absolutely fantastic. He had a long history as a conservationist and we found we had a ton in common. You can see how much he loves his job and watching the animals. He took so much pride and the whole experience was fantastic. This being Spring there were a ton of newborns. We saw newborn grizzlies, pronghorn, coyotes, and even wolves. In 1995 14 gray wolves were re-introduced into the park. Today there are 95 wolves and seeing them was one of my biggest desires. Emil made that happen. For about an hour we had the unbelievable privilege to watch a wolf pack, including newborn pups, playing in and around their den while the sun was setting. While we were too far to see with the naked eye, or even really capture with my 70 to 200 mm lens, he had 3 scopes set up for us to observe through. It has to be one of the most magical moments in my life. We are hoping to get to Yellowstone in the winter sometime to see how different the ecosystem and wildlife activities are. We would love to work with Emil in the future to produce a video and photos capturing what an amazing experience having a private safari is.
The next day we were heading out of Yellowstone but not before eating breakfast in a small town Cook City and spending most of the day The Mammoth Hot Springs area. This was the last of the sections that we had yet to cover. The Mammoth Hot Spring terraces are so cool. They reminded us of Pamukkale in Turkey. We even saw a huge bull snake here. Glad it was on the other side of the walkway LOL. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Yellowstone National Park, you truly are missing out. Everyone is always so interested in going to somewhere they view as exotic like somewhere overseas. We have been to some amazing places and there are many more we wish to visit but we knew it was time to make seeing this part of the country a priority. It truly is beyond words.
The rest of our trip was going to be dedicated to visiting friends and family. Our first stop was Salt Lake City to visit Reinard, Jennifer, and Terra. We stopped by for a couple days on our first RV trip but this time we only had a couple of hours. While that was way too short we made great use of our time and it was fantastic to see them. Our Bella loves Terra, we so wish we lived closer because we know they would truly be BFF’s. It was great catching up with them and hanging out at a local area where people let their dogs run free and even jump in the river. Of course Bella had no desire to jump in the river LOL!! We also ate dinner at one of the best vegan places I’ve ever eaten, All Chay!! It was so amazing. We split a ton of dishes so we got to try almost everything.
We had a 9 hour drive between Salt lake city and our next destination of Florence, Colorado to visit Lynn, Deb, Emma, Kieran, and Liz on their peaceful land. But we made the only “mistake” of our trip -walking out to the beach at Salt Lake. It was soooo smelly and there were sooo many flies. We didn’t stay long before getting back on the road to Florence, Colorado. We stopped there on our last RV trip but also two years ago we captured Lynn and Deb’s beautiful wedding. A visit to the land is always the perfect rejuvenation and spark of energy needed to return to city life for a while. Our visit was filled with lots of laughter, storytelling, playing with baby chicks, eating yummy food, and of course finishing the night with sundaes and ice cream cones!!!!! Bella was super happy to run around and play with her friend Opie. It was the first dog she got to play with the whole trip. After a laid back breakfast of French toast and hanging out, we hit the road to begin the 11 hour drive for our next destination Columbus, Ohio to see my dad and his wife Ruth. We were only going to be there for the night and then part of the following afternoon. But we did get to see the Cavs win game 5 (and they later went on to win it all!!)
I lived most of my life outside of Columbus in a small town called Granville, Ohio. Columbus was the “Big city” lol!! I went to college at Kent State and moved to Columbus upon graduating. I lived in two well-known areas, the Short North and German Village before my life of hard core activism began and I hit the road. My dad and Ruth drove us around showing Al where I had lived and showing me how much Columbus had changed since I was last there we made a quick stop to eat Vietnamese food from the North Market. It was a super fun visit and so glad we are able to add them at the last minute into our itinerary.
Here are some of the photos from our trip. Most of them are from my camera but I did include a couple photos I only had via Instagram. Al is working on a short video about the trip so stay tuned. Here are links to the full galleries if you want to see more of the spectacular beauty we encountered. If you want to order any prints or wall art you can do so directly through these links. Western United States Travel Photography
Make sure to click to see more photos
Animals we saw:
Bald eagle, black bears and cubs, grizzly bears and cubs, coyotes and pups, pronghorn, prairie dogs, mountain goat, mule deer, big horn sheep, moose, elk, bison, and wolves.
Past blog posts