In the previous article (parts 1 and 2), we discussed how we planned the driving portion of our cross country road trip, including tools for mapping, weather, and destination selection. In this chapter, we address how we selected and booked lodging and excursions – including how we might have wanted to do things differently, as well as additional tips and tricks we learned.
We also sprinkle in a healthy dose of representative photos, and some tips we used to break up the monotony of nearly 4000 miles of driving.
I will also give you a brief idea how we enjoyed the lodging and events in case you want to follow in our footsteps.
One thing I refrained from doing while gone is posting any updates about WHERE we were to any social media platform. No point letting the bad guys know you are out of town for an extended period of time. Our family did have access to a map of our progress, as well as daily updates about our safety (see part 1 for more)
Quick Reference… There is a Lot Here
- White Sands, New Mexico.
- Albuquerque, New Mexico: Sandia Tramway and Hot Air Balloon Ride
- Bisti Badlands, New Mexico.
- Goosenecks State Park, Utah
- Valley of the Gods, Utah (BLM)
- Monument Valley, Navajo Tribal Lands: Arizona and New Mexico
- Lake Powell, Page Arizona: Rainbow Bridge
- Lower Antelope Slot Canyon, Page, Arizona
- Toadstool Hoodoos, East of Kanab, Utah
- Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
The License Plate Game – And the Marriage Refresher
One of the things we did was the “license plate game”. Surprisingly we spotted 46 of the 51 possible US license plates. The plates we did not spot were Hawaii (no surprise there), Washington DC, South Dakota, Vermont, Connecticut, West Virginia, Kentucky and Rhode Island. We might have actually seen some of those, but many folks had license plate frames that covered up key things like state names. We were really surprised to not see Kentucky since we drove quite near the border. We did spot a smattering of car carriers, two of which were heavily laden with tags from a variety of states… but none proved to be new 🙁
There is a real tangible benefit to spending many hours with your spouse, too. While a fair amount of the time was spent listening to music and programs in the car, we got a good chance to talk and spend quantity and quality time together.
One of the other things we did was to keep a look out for “Welcome Signs” and stopped to photograph them (where it was safe to do so). In retrospect, I wish we had stopped to photograph more signs and oddities that we encountered. For example in Virginia we crossed “Stinking River“, “Pole Cat Creek”, “Consternation Creek” and many other oddly named places and signs. For example, we were less than two miles away from Toad Suck, Arkansas while traveling down I40. Cookietown, OK was pretty far off the road, so although I am a recovering cookie monster I did not stop there.
Lodging and Excursions – Booking Tips
As I noted in the previous article, I wish I had done at the beginning what I did later in the booking process… that is to sign up for one or two hotel chain perks and stick to those hotels where possible. There are a number of reasons why, savings is just one of them. We stayed at several different chains and independent hotels, including Hilton Brands: Hampton Inn, Home2 Suites, Tru; IHG: Holiday Inn Express and Suites; Aramark: Lake Powell Resort (two nights); Mauger Estates Bed and Breakfast (Albuquerque – two nights); Pelican Inn (Cambria – two nights). One side benefit of avoiding staying in big cities is that the rates at most of the Hilton properties, for example, were less than $120 per night – tax included. Hands down the best places we stayed were at the Home2 Suites in Farmington, New Mexico. Good property, service, location and ambiance. Having an available ice machine, mini fridge (with freezer) and in-room Keurig was a plus. Two criteria I used to book rooms included: free breakfast (one less thing to worry about), and free in-room wifi.
Book Through the Property Unless You Get a Stellar Discount
Something else I learned from my trip: if you book directly you are more likely to get concessions and discounts (and fare changes). When you book through a third party like Travelocity or Booking.com, the front desk has less power – and less incentive – to make any changes in your booking. It is also true that third party bookings sometimes offer only the less desirable rooms: why face the road in Lake Powell Resorts when the lake is a much nicer view! Indeed, you would probably prefer buildings 4, or 5 as they have the better views. 1, 2 and 3 all overlook a huge boat ramp. Not a bad view, just not ideal.
Expect Some Disappointments
There were some disappointments, of course. Tru – a new Hilton property in Amarillo, TX tries to behave like a Eurostyle hotel – with small rooms, and few in-room conveniences. And check-in took forever there. There was a Hilton Home 2 suites less than 1/2 a mile away… and I am sure it would have been a more pleasant stay. We did enjoy the trivia board in the Tru. Did you know Amarillo, Texas is the windiest city in the Continental United States (sorry, Chicago). Of course it depends how you measure, but indeed, some articles support the conclusion.
Aramark, is the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park, and Lake Powell Resort. Unfortunately they do a poor job managing a very nice property at Lake Powell Resorts. Problems included no working wifi in our building (and it apparently had been non-working for months)… in lobby was little better. While we had no trouble checking in a little early in every other place, Lake Powell Resorts proved to be the exception. Not only was the food service painfully slow (as we passed time waiting to get a room), but during their peak check-in time they had one front desk operator for the busy period. Mind you Lake Powell has about 800 rooms. The room was clean and in good order, and well located… but the problems made it feel less like a resort and more like a chore to stay there.
By the way, Aramark has several claims to fame, servicing vending machines and uniforms are two of them as well as serving food in correctional facilities… but, I digress.
Photography and Night Photography Considerations
Enroute to White Sands (map item 11) through Texas, and Amarillo, Texas. In particular we passed through Roswell, New Mexico (8). You get a fun vibe in Roswell, and there are even some interesting museums – but we only stopped for a snack and a few photos of the quirky signs.
White Sands National Monument
The first photography stop was not until Alamogordo, New Mexico (map item 12) with the nearby White Sands National Monument (11).
And it was only one night. A lucky night as it would happen. By way of reminder, I do use Weather.gov to check the weather forecast before photographing at night. But White Sands proved a bit more complicated. White Sands is in/part of and next to the Holloman Air Force Base as well as the White Sands Missile Test range. White Sands is NOT a National Park. In essence that means it has “operating hours” and is not open at night.
To get in to White Sands NM for night photography you have five choices:
- Get a back country permit, and camp at least 1 mile away from the road. If you do that you are locked in for the night, and MAY have restrictions on where you can go.
- Call in advance and arrange – for a fee – for a ranger to allow you to come early or stay late. The details required to do this are not clear, but it will not be effective if you want to shoot the rising Milky Way at say 2:00 AM. Shoulder times to normal opening and closing are doable, but must be done weeks in advance – not at the moment you walk in the Visitor Center. I learned about this option through a friend the day before I got to White Sands, so it was not an option for me.
- Try sneaking in. HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest you DO NOT do that! First there are two sets of locked gates. Second, because of where the National Monument is, you can bet that there are remote monitoring devices, and trespassing is likely to get you in a HEAP of trouble. I never would consider this, but I know some people think “it is cool as long as you do not get caught”.
- Join one of the evening programs. They do not run very late or very often, however, so you may not find it suitable for the same reason as option 2.
- Leave your camera out at night all by its lonesome and come back and pick it up first thing in the morning. THIS ONE! Note however, that the ranger informed me that anything suspicious that is discovered during the night is likely to be confiscated and removed. Therefore do not set up next to a road or within easy sight of a road or major path. Also, tape over anything that may flash or glow. You do not want to attract attention.
Obviously I chose option 5. However I got to my location rather late in the day, so did not have a lot of time to scout an ideal location. Originally I planned two days here so that I could scout the first day, as well as have a second chance at night photography if the weather was a problem. It also meant on the first evening I could have determined how bad the light pollution is and made a wiser foreground choice for the second night. But this is also where talking to the rangers comes in handy, especially if you find one who likes night photography. Ranger Jason gave me advice to shoot low, behind a dune in order to block out the light pollution from El Paso. He also suggested where I might go – a place that is not off limits, but the parking lot was roped off so people assume it was off limits. Obviously I was not low enough!
Do understand that you will have to deal with the fear that your equipment may be confiscated, stolen, or buried in a sandstorm (or that you will forget where you put it!). I highly recommend using a trail app, GPS or dropping a pin on your phone where you put your camera. In fact, I kill two birds by also using the camera on my cell phone with the location information left intact.
Tip: In the desert, clouds often dissipate at or after sunset. The forecast for my night of shooting indicated 50% cloud cover until about midnight, but I set the timer to start at about 11:00 PM and discovered it was completely clear (less the El Paso haze, that is).
Not All is Photography … Albuquerque has Plenty To Do
I traveled with my wife, so relentless photography just was not in the cards – nor did I want it to be. We spent two nights in Albuquerque (16, often called ABQ or Burque by the locals) at the Mauger Estates Bed and Breakfast. We also took the Sandia Tramway (18) to the top of Sandia Mountain. Sandia is Spanish for Watermelon, something the mountain tends to look like in the colors of sunset. The entirety of ABQ, by the way is more than a mile elevation above sea level. Take that Denver!
Almost all year round you can book sunrise balloon flights. So that is what we did. Rainbow Ryders did a fantastic job with the balloon flight, well organized and skilled pilot. It was a bucket list (ok, BASKET list) item that I am grateful to have engaged in. We were told landing can be jarring, but ours was as gentle as stepping off a curb. And we landed in a median of a quiet residential neighborhood in the vicinity of where the pilot lives.
And there is much to see elsewhere in ABQ – including Old Town. There is also a Rail Runner train that will take you to Santa Fe for cheap. Unfortunately it runs on a very limited schedule on the weekend – which, of course is when we were in ABQ. That, and the day we planned to go to Santa Fe there was a severe thunderstorm warning in effect. The train station in ABQ is next to the Galleria downtown which appears to be a large failed shopping mall – mentioning that in case you are thinking of going shopping there (which was our plan B when realized the train was not running).
Bisti Badlands – De Na Zin Wilderness
I wish I had a good story about Bisti Badlands (map item 20) in De-Na-Zin Wilderness (Bureau of Land Management). Chaco Culture Center and other interesting locations are nearby. Bisti from the Navajo word Bistahí means “among the adobe formations. Bisti Badlands is about 40 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. I had high hopes for this location based on many photos and the Wiki write up, but … well it did not work out as I hoped. In the same area, apparently is Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness – but is more remote and a Lexus sedan is not the best thing to take on such backroads. There are many trail recordings with photos of Bisti in AllTrails. Unfortunately its not easy to use AllTrails to hike to a SPECIFIC location.
Here are some of my experiences and advice:
- It is at least a mile and a half hike in to see anything interesting.
- Go early,or in a cool season and take plenty of water. I thought my wife might face heat stroke because the 94F temperature and lack of any shade was overwhelming her. She nicknamed the location: Beastly Badlands.
- 7290 is a gravel road. It was in good shape, but you probably want to approach from the west via 371 and 7297. 7290 was closed heading north just past the Bisti Badlands parking area – so despite it appearing to connect you cannot come in from the north or continue through heading north. That may be a temporary condition.
- There is a Bisti Wings formation that I really wanted to see and set up for night photography, but it is on the northern end of 7290 – perhaps 7293 from 371 (marked by Bistahi First United Methodist Church sign) is the way to go.
- Use a tool like AllTrails (e.g. a GPS on your phone with a pre-downloaded map) to plan where you want to visit. You can wander around for hours and find very little of interest.
Fortunately after we left Lake Powell (described soon), we did some hiking at the Toadstool Hoodoos – it is a shorter and more rewarding trail. After spending the night in Farmington, NM, we had a tight schedule to get to Monument Valley in time, but there was enough time to stop in Four Corners (23) where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado all meet. Interestingly each of the different kiosks surrounding the landmark charge different state tax depending on the state they are in. In Bluff, there was also the interesting stop, restaurant and vista of the Twin Rocks.
There is a lot more in the area than Monument Valley. On the way there we passed through Valley of the Gods (26) and stopped at Goosenecks State Park (28). There is a great confluence of interesting geography. And there is still more in the area, including the singular Mexican Hat formation for which the town of Mexican Hat (28) is named. Valley of the Gods, Utah is similar to Monument Valley (30) in its expansiveness, but I do not recommend it for a touring sedan. A high clearance vehicle is a better fit for the environment both in Valley of the Gods, and in Monument Valley.
Hands down the best thing I did in Monument Valley – perhaps the whole trip – was to connect with Phillips Photography Tours for an overnight trip to Hunts Mesa. Phillips supplied the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, vehicle, driving, dinner, breakfast, and guide. If you told me that I was going to be driven for about 5 and a half hours over rugged terrain, I would have guessed the price would be high. Throw in a dinner, a breakfast, camping equipment, and a very great guide named Tully to be the leader, driver and chef and I would not have believed they charge as little for the tour as they did. Indeed, I feel like a 40% tip would not have been too much. In my particular case it was just Tully and me though you may have as many as 3 other photographers with you. Want a clue what the driving was like…
Not only did I get to go to breathtakingly beautiful places, but I learned a lot from Tully, including quite a bit about the Navajo way of life, and even a bit of Navajo language.
If you know my wife, you probably guessed that camping out was not high on her do it list. So for her, a night in Gouldings Lodge (29) was arranged. The onsite restaurant at Gouldings was quite good. I had the Mini Navajo Taco for my pre-trip meal. It was delicious and far, far from mini. Because I had also arranged a tour for the morning following our all-nighter, Tully dropped me off at Gouldings giving me a chance to shower before my wife and I arrived at the View for a 1.5 hour Fords Point Tour. I would go back in a heartbeat. Not only was the experience fantastic, but there is so much photography and night photography potential here that remains undone.
Page Arizona, Lake Powell and Vicinity + Rainbow Bridge
If you have not visited Page, Arizona (36), you have not really lived. Truly. There is so much that is visually compelling in the area, that it is hard to even start. I have already stated my misgivings about Lake Powell Resort (37), but I would STILL go back. And I highly recommend a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge – an immense natural bridge that spans a wash in Lake Powell. Not far from Page are many other impressive sites.
(Upper and) Lower Antelope Slot Canyon
If you have not heard of Antelope Slot canyon on Navajo Tribal lands, where have you been? There are many slot canyons in the area. They are formed when monsoonal rain carves a deep gash in the earth as it makes its way downhill. Lake Powell itself can be described as one HUGE slot canyon. To my eye, Lake Powell and the surrounding canyons – like Horseshoe Bend (36) – are more appealing and interesting than the Grand Canyon. Now that I have been to both the Upper (upstream) and Lower Antelope slot canyons (34), I can say conclusively that the lower canyon which requires stairs, ladders and some maneuvering to keep from whacking your head and limbs, is overall more interesting photographically. Lower Antelope ranges in depth from inches (where you emerge) to up to 70 feet down. The range in depth is what adds to the rich tonality of color you can achieve. Plus the Lower Antelope has some striking features including an overhang (see photo above), and even some arches/windows.
We used Dixie Ellis tours (34) for our excursion. Ala was our guide and while she had not been at it even a year, she was very informative and really knew where some of the most compelling photographs can be found. Her demonstration of how slot canyons form using sand and a bottle of water was interesting and illuminating.
If you wondering can you photograph the canyons at night… the answer is yes, there are a few tours. I was originally salivating over the idea but then realized that there are lots of constraints that may make the effort not worth the trouble or expense. One of the limitations is that you would have to work well with others to get the canyon lit for the foreground. Experience teaching Night Photography workshops has taught me that it is usually best if the instructors light the scene unless there are many different directions and things to shoot – otherwise people get testy about shots being ruined by stray light. The next constraint is the length of the tour… want to line the Milky Way up overhead? It is not very likely that will work for a tour that is not all night (and may not be possible at all). Indeed, the one night tour I nearly booked (link above) started 2 hours after sunset and lasted for 2 hours. You would have to know that will work for what you want. At least you can use Google maps satellite view to realize that the canyon(s) run almost due North-South.
Toadstool Hoodoos (East of Kanab, UT)
As I mentioned, Bisti Badlands was a bit of a disappointment, no doubt in part due to lack of effort on our part, but also because there was not any quick payoff. The Toadstool Hoodoos (41) was a much more approachable hike than and the sixteen mile hike to the Wahweep Hoodoos – something also on my list of places to go. However unlike Bisti, the less than a mile hike to the Toadstool Hoodoos is immediately more striking. Do not neglect hanging a left at the back and seeing the striking white gypsum hoodoos.
After the Toadstool Hoodoos, we ran into heavy road construction so we dropped Coral Pink Sand Dunes from our route in the hope of getting into Valley of Fire State Park before it closed. But, we had less than an hour before Valley of Fire closed, so we called it an early evening at the North Shore Inn, in Overton.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
One of the last places I had set aside to visit was the Valley of Fire State Park, in Nevada. It is 14 minutes from the town of Overton which has about exactly one place to stay, but Valley of Fire is also about an hour drive from Las Vegas. As you might guess, it was also hot in the Valley of Fire. By the time we arrived a little after 9:30 AM on June 6, it was already 89 degrees. I had done my homework, of course, and though I wanted to see it all the reality is that the heat of the day was going to interfere and we were not going to stay overnight. You can stay overnight – with a camping permit. However night photography requires not just a camping permit, but also a separate photography permit, and insurance. I have no idea if – or how – campers can brave the 100F heat that is common in the late spring to early fall, but I knew from Bisti and Toadstool Hoodoos, that an extended hike was not in the cards. The compromise was to drive to all of the vistas I had pre-checked out from sources such as AllTrails, Atlas Obscura
I did elect to hike to the Fire Wave said to be the more accessible version of the famous The Wave in Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona. I have tried 4 times to get a spot in The Wave lottery, all failures. No lottery is required to reach Fire Wave, just the State Park entry fee. Apparently White Pocket in Vermillion Cliffs, has a similarly attractive swirling sandwich effect, but it requires some off road driving.
Those familiar with my favorite place: Alabama Hills, will find Valley of Fire nearly as interesting. Valley of Fire, has many more windows and arches. Valley of Fire also feels more vertical. And while overall, Valley of Fire is very red (and thus its name), there are areas with lots of interesting color variations.
I made an unfortunate decision during my hike that resulted in nearly getting heat exhaustion. My wife was parked in the car, shaded as much as possible at the trail head. I noticed, however that the 0.7 mile well marked Fire Wave Trail, connects to not well marked Seven Wonders trail, and the latter trail intersects the road about 0.7 miles farther. As I set out thinking about taking the short cut to the road rather than hiking back uphill, I had a good cell signal. Unfortunately, once I got near the end of the Seven Wonders trail, I discovered I had no signal, and had to hike back up the road to get to the Fire Wave trail head parking place. About halfway back I had enough signal to ask to be picked up. I did not save myself any exertion in the heat! However I would recommend that plan if you can be shuttled to the start location and picked up at the bottom. I recommend it for TWO reasons, one is obvious: you see more. And more to the point, part of the Seven Wonders trail is – as you see in the photo – a shallow, multicolored slot canyon.
One other mistake I made was not getting gas in Overton before heading to Valley of Fire. As we were leaving Valley of Fire, the projected distance remaining was 24 miles. Luckily, the first gas station was two miles short of that distance!
This article has grown longer than I wanted it to be, but splitting it into more parts was not appealing. One of the things I am glad we did not do is book nights in Las Vegas. There are certainly attractions and places to visit, but by the time we had reached Overton, we decided to bolt to the coast to escape the daily 100F heat and get some wave therapy – as my wife calls it.
Fortunately most of the other prominent issues I faced I have already covered… except one that really fried my turkey: Drone woes.
Drone Haters – Everywhere
Everyone, everywhere, seems to hate drones. Almost everywhere I brought my drone, there was a prominent sign forbidding it. All National Parks and Monuments, for example forbid flying a drone without a special permit – ditto for the Nevada and Utah state parks that I visited. Mind you before I left, I had big plans to survey some of these locations by air rather than solely on foot. I probably would have found better vistas in Bisti had I flown, but the day I brought the drone to Bisti it was gusty. Later I took the drone out at Toadstool Hoodoos, and was really unhappy to have it tell me mandatory controller update required and refused to fly without the update. There was barely enough signal for it to determine an update was needed and nowhere near enough signal to download an update out in the hot open sun. The warning was despite having very carefully checked to make sure everything was in flying order before leaving on my trip. I can not imagine what was so important that it would not let me fly. But DJI (makers of the Mavic Air), you made me unhappy! I had hoped to capture videos like one in Trona, or one in Red Rock Canyon State Park.
First, any and all of the places I wrote about in this two part article present risks of various kinds. Conditions change, and poor preparation on your part could result in loss of property, injury or even death. This is an anti disclaimer as well. No one has asked me to write about any of the tours, companies, lodging or locations, nor have I been paid in any direct or indirect way. If I have praised (or berated) a place, people or company, it is genuine and based on my personal experiences. We always do things that way here at Star Circle Academy, but we thought you might want a reminder.
Happy Trails to You, and please feel free to comment about what we missed, or if you would like clarification.
Bisti Badlands – It took me three trips there to really find things and about 10 miles of hiking the last time. It is really great place to photograph, but finding your way back well after dark is a challenge to say the least. Late fall and winter are good times to go. I would love to go again and shoot after dark.
Chaco Cultural Center advertises itself as a dark skies site but there is a but. You are not allowed to be anywhere but the campground and some pullouts on the main road after dark. The ruins are all in a loop that has a gate that is locked at sunset. According to the website you can pay to have ranger let you in after dark. Don’t know the cost and it is probably high.
Thank you very much for that information! Maybe we can arrange to buddy up and do night photography there! I have re-entered the Wave Lottery for the end of October. If it works out, I’ll be adding in at least a week total of night photography.