Category Archives: Travel

Aurora: The Bewitching Glow

First published 06-Jan-2024. Last revised 07-Jan-2024

Who doesn’t want a photo of a curvaceous near-earth phenomenon called an Aurora? Not you? Well if not, you need not read on. But if you’re thinking that sounds interesting then you’ve found a good place to hone up on aurora and aurora photography. We’ll address what aurora are, how to plan for them, equipment, and photography methods including how to get decent photos from night capable cameras and typical current generation cell phones. In many ways aurora photography is similar to trying to catch meteors – see: Coaxing a Meteor into Smiling for your Camera – only aurora are easier!

Until recently, photo 3, below was the only aurora photo I was ever able to capture, and it was in 2011 while travelling back by plane from the Royal Observatory in London where I had won Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010. While flying over Canada, I noticed an odd glow that seemed to be moving unexpectedly. Suspecting it might be an aurora borealis, I covered the window up as best I could with a dark coat while simultaneously holding my camera against the window for a 4 second exposure on a bumpy flight. The camera immediately registered the tell-tale green color which wasn’t visible to my eye.

Photo 3: Window Seat Aurora Borealis

What IS an Aurora? and What Does it Look like “In Person”?

An aurora (which is named after the Roman goddess of Dawn) occurs when the sun ejects charged particles toward the earth. Those charged particles are warped by our earth’s magnetosphere which concentrates them like a lens and they then collide with components of our atmosphere (in the ionosphere and thermosphere) as high up as 1000 miles to as low as 30 miles above the earth. Note that the magnetosphere is centered around the earth’s magnetic poles, not the geographic poles. The north magnetic pole continuously moves and is presently near 81°18′N 110°48′W which is Ellsmere Island, Canada NOT at the geographic north pole (90°N). The location of the north magnetic pole within the North American continent is fortuitous for those of us who live in the extreme northern United States especially for those in Alaska, and Canada. Though the band of possible aurora sighting locations is broad and includes other northern countries and continents it favors Northern North America. Aurorae (the plural of Aurora) that occur in the Northern hemisphere are called Aurora Borealis from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. Those in the Southern hemisphere are named after the Greek god of the southern wind: Auster and are called Aurora Australis.

Other interesting places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis include the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Lapland, Iceland, Greenland and Finland as well as the Siberian region of Russia. In the south, Aurora can sometimes be seen in New Zealand, the Southern tip of Chile (e.g. Tierra del Fuego) or the Falklands. In the south, however the best place would be on the continent of Antarctica.

All you really need to see an aurora is a reasonably dark sky and sufficient solar wind to produce a strong aurora. Aurora have no seasonality. The anticipated strength (brightness) of the aurora is forecast by the “Kp Index“. Unlike the apparent magnitude scale used by astronomers in which the smaller the number the brighter the object, the Kp scale goes from 1 to 9 with 9 being the brightest and MOST likely to produce aurora. During our sojourn in the Fairbanks area, the scale ran from 2 Kp to 5 Kp – and as I note below that 5 Kp event on December 17th was awe inspiring.

But what does an aurora look like in person?

Blurry cellphone photo of an Aurora:
f/1.8, ISO-3200, 4 sec
Photo 4: Aurora as it might appear to the eye. (Taken with a cell phone)

Most aurora will appear gray to the human eye which is poor at discerning color in dim light. A camera can capture the true color, and that color is generally predominately green due to the interaction of the charged particles with oxygen in the atmosphere. In Photo 4 you can see a peculiar diagonal glow that IS a diffuse aurora partially obscured by clouds and it is close to what it looked like to the naked eye – though the whole scene was dimmer in person.

What an aurora actually looks like depends on the overall sky darkness, the cloud cover, and the strength of the aurora. Just as seeing the true majesty of the Milky Way requires dark skies, the beauty and shape of the aurora is easier to spot in dark skies. A dim aurora might look exactly like the amorphous cloud in photo 4, above. In fact, many people who first notice aurora think they ARE clouds illuminated by moonlight or some distant city lights. A stronger, brighter aurora might have discernable hints of green, red or blue. And the aurora may also move quickly and chaotically about the sky in a display that can only be described as mesmerizing, and evocative. We got very lucky. Of the 4 nights we spent seeking the aurora we saw aurora on 3 of those nights, and the fourth night literally had this author in tears over the sheer beauty of what he saw. Don’t let this meager photo dissuade you… we’ll discuss in a bit how to get much better photos and show you much more delicious examples. We were fortunate in that there were two very large solar flares (class X) that occurred on December 14th

But here is a timelapse from the most energetic of the nights we watched. It zips along at about 15 times the actual speed.

Dance of the Northern Sky: December 17, 2023


Where can you See an Aurora? and WHEN?

Photo 5: Samsung cellphone Capture of Aurora at Borealis Basecamp, Fairbanks, Alaska

The short answer to the question is literally ANYWHERE with great good luck, but the the more accurate answer is near (about 20 degrees from) the north or south magnetic poles when the sky is dark and there is significant solar activity. The sun goes through an 11-year cycle from a quiet period (solar minimum) to lots of sunspots (solar maximum) and back to a quiet period. The sunspots are generally where the charged particles come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The next solar maximum is in 2024 and the previous maximum was 2013 but the years on either side of the maximum can be just as good as the year of the maximum -> so now you know why we went in 2023!

A more detailed explanation of WHERE includes these criteria:

  1. A place with non light-polluted skies
  2. near the arctic or antarctic magnetic poles but preferably not at the poles. The farther you are away from the magnetic poles, the less likely you are to see any aurora activity
  3. generally favorable weather (meaning at least some clear skies).
  4. a season when there is true night/darkness. For example August in Alaska would be a bad choice because it never gets truly dark – which is why it’s called the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. In late December through January Fairbanks and farther north could aptly be called the “Land of Perpetual Midnight”. The more dark, the better the chances!
  5. travel distance and cost,
  6. availability and cost of lodging,
  7. and if you’re looking for that primo shot, consideration of the foreground for your shot (a flat field may not be as compelling as a snow flocked forest with a mountain poking out in the distance).
  8. time on site. Aurora are a “Space Weather” phenomenon and that is apt in the sense that you might confidently book a one-night stay in Seattle, Washington and expect it to rain because it frequently does so, but the longer you stay at a site, the more likely you are to observe the Space Weather you’re interested in and hopefully the less likely that the snow, rain, clouds or fog are to completely blot out your aurora experience. The first night we were on site at Borealis Basecamp it had snowed all day and was a gloomy overcast, foreboding night. We thought it would be a bust and we could catch up on sleep, but at 2:00 AM it cleared enough that the Aurora was pretty awesome.
Photo 6: The first night after heavy cloud cover an aurora broke out. Orion is at the right, Gemini in the middle

One strategy is to book a place and hope that while you’re there you get an aurora. I call this tactic “Book and Hope“. But there is another tactic you can try, too.

Monitor and Go

Another approach is to pick where to go based on monitoring the Space Weather reports for strong solar events and correlating the aurora predictions with weather forecasts. You can immediately arrange travel to an accessible location in the US or Canada at the last minute since there are often 2 to 3 days between the observed solar activity (CMEs) and the increase in aurora activity. The Monitor and Go approach may cost more and require more flexibility. You may find that some of the best locations and tours are booked seasons in advance for those who took the book and hope approach. We are strong proponents of Having a Plan C – which means having alternatives pre-investigated in advance of any possible opportunity to see the aurora.

If not above latitude 45 or so the aurora will be low in the northern horizon. But the closer you get to the magnetic pole, the higher in the sky the phenomenon will occur. In fact, one driver in Fairbanks told me “we don’t call them the Northern Lights here we just call them The LIGHTS because for us they are usually overhead and seldom only in the north.”

If you don’t live in Alaska or Canada, but are lucky enough to live in the northern-most portions of the northern US the chances of seeing an aurora are pretty good on as many as 5 or 6 nights a year when there is significant space weather (Kp index forecast is greater than 5). It may just be a matter of figuring out what nearby location has the darkest skies toward the north. Some of my photo buddies in New England, Washington, and Idaho have managed several times through a year to get captures of an aurora when the activity level is high. See the Viewing the Aurora link, in the resource list below for a better understanding of Kp.

Aurora from New England captured by Brian Drourr
Brian Drourr captured this image near his home in Burlington, VT (used by permission) Click the image to visit Brian’s Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/brian.drourr

Where Did StarCircleAcademy Go?

For nearly all the reasons cited above, we chose to go during the winter to the area near Fairbanks, Alaska, and specifically to Borealis Basecamp which is located about 20 miles north of Fairbanks. We chose December for it’s longer nights and snowy environment (better for interesting foregrounds) even though December in Fairbanks has more cloud cover than say March. We’ll describe more about Borealis Basecamp in the next article, including features of the “igloo” accommodations offered, as well as weather considerations.

Gray, overcast skies at the Borealis Basecamp north of Fairbanks, Alaska, with a cheeky self portrait and a not-live  Grizzly bear.
Photo 7: Borealis Basecamp accommodations. The grizzly bear wasn’t really there 🙂 This was created by combining a panorama with a photo from the Fairbanks Airport all in the Samsung cell phone. The panorama makes the igloo appear squashed (smaller) than it actually is. The model inside is the author’s wife.
Photo 8: The author in a Borealis Basecamp “Igloo” in pre-dawn hours with stars and multi-colored Aurora visible.

There is a downside to Fairbanks, Alaska. By going in Winter… there are only 4 or 5 hours of daylight, and the average high temperature hovers near zero Farenheit (-17 Celsius). Borealis Basecamp is 800 feet higher in altitude than Fairbanks, so is usually a few degrees warmer (cold air sinks and settles in low areas). Borealis Basecamp is situated north of Fairbanks which helps because the light pollution from Fairbanks only affects the southern skies. There are other areas worth considering in the vicinity of Fairbanks as well, like Chena Hot Springs, Chatanika Lodge, Aurora Borealis Lodge north east of Fox, and many more. You can also opt to stay in Fairbanks and charter expeditions that ferry you by van to the best available spots for photography. Or if you are accustomed to driving on ice and snow you can be brave and rent a car. Beware that locals don’t call them “roundabouts” they call them “slide-abouts”. The upside to residing in Fairbanks is that you can avail yourself of the variety of restaurants and amenities in Fairbanks and also get aurora photos. The disadvantage is that the aurora can pop up at any time so generally you’d want to be out from say 10 pm until 3 am to have a good chance of catching what does occur. In our case at the Borealis Basecamp (as is true at nearly ALL aurora oriented accommodations), they notified us by phone when an aurora was visible and it was a matter of looking through the windows to decide if it was worth donning all the layers of clothing and heading out of doors or just staying in bed and observing in comfort. Plus we had the advantage of retreating indoors for breaks or to rewarm as needed. Indeed, one morning the aurora display was dim but really awesome at 8 am!

Photo 9: Multicolor Aurora at Basecamp Igloo 301 – Glow from on site restaurant.

Resources and Links


Coming up In Parts 2 and 3 of this Series:

2 Aurora Photography with A Night Capable Camera COMING SOON.
   + What is a “Night capable” camera?
   + Equipment (Camera, Tripod, warmers, dew heaters, …) 
   + Aurora aspects that dictate settings.
   + Adapting to conditions – both of the Aurora and the weather.
+ What to pay attention to to get the best results (there are 3 keys!)
   + Batteries, camera controls and tripods.
   + Aurora photography goals and considerations for getting a better picture.
+ Preparing for Winter in Alaska
+ Is -20 F survivable? (Short answer, yes!)
+ What should I bring / how should I dress?
+ What is Borealis Basecamp like?
+ Tips from Borealis Basecamp staff.

3. Aurora and Night Photography with a Cell Phone COMING SOON
   + Cellphone cameras – are they usable for aurora photos?
+ Stablizing a cell phone for better photos (both hardware and posture!)
   + iPhone settings – “Night” and “Pro” mode
   + Android phone settings “Night” and “Pro” mode
   + Handheld or stabilized? 
+ How to hold a cellphone if you DO NOT have a tripod/stable base
   + Hands free photos (e.g. tripod plus voice command or bluetooth trigger)

Atlantis Discovered (aka. Santorini, Greece)

It has been almost 20 years since my wife and I first visited Santorini, Greece. On our first trip we spent time in Marathonas (South East of Athens on the Greecian mainland). Thereafter we also visited Athens, Sounion, and Delphi. Next on that first trip we visited Santorini (Firostefani and Oia), and finally Crete. Nine years later we went back to Santorini and stayed in Imerovigli at Absolute Bliss. And nine years after that, from October 23, 2022 to November 6th we spent our time in Kamari and then Oia – which is pronounced EE-ah. You’ll will be saying “aaaaah” a lot. First you should know that the locals call the island either Santorini (a name bestowed by the Venetians) or more commonly Thira. Don’t confuse Thira with Fira – the “main town” on the island. And don’t be surprised if some shopkeepers refer to Oia as “Oh-ia” because they know many tourists won’t get it right!

Our Travel Style

I want to let you know what kind of travelers we are so you can decide if the information we are providing here aligns with your own style of travel.

We enjoy: Off Season, uncrowded, non-hot (i.e. cooler climate), with natural beauty, history, language, and culture. We like mountains and beaches, but are not sun soakers. We have interest in local foods, wines and spirits, but little interest in bars, night-life, parties or crowds. We prefer an authentic local experience and eschew tourist extravaganzas. We prefer a modest budget, but are willing to spend where there is value. We like to explore the surroundings, learn about culture, architecture, language, food and history – preferably not as part of an organized tour. We like to move at our own pace – usually slow and methodical. We are the kind of people who actually visit and read most or all of the exhibits at a museum. We take pictures of food and drink for the memories… usually not to post on Facebook. And I, Steven, in particular always make an effort to be up before sunrise, and out through and after sunset into the night to capture sunrises, sunsets and night photos.



As you might gather we are not much interested in the opposites: crowds, heat, cruising, tours. But, of course, sometimes you can only learn things in tours. For example in November 2021, we took a Viking river cruise down the Rhine from Basel Switzerland to Amsterdam. Some of our very best memories are the things we saw and learned from the tours. But one of the reasons we remember that trip fondly is that it was just as Covid restrictions were ending and our boat with a 180 passenger capacity had a total of 48 passengers with a crew of 49 – so it met our “uncrowded” preference far more than we could have anticipated.

Sunset, Oia

About this Article… It’s a Travel Guide

In contrast to many of our prior articles, this is intended as a travel advisory of sorts: things to know before you go. In the next article we endeavor to offer some photography tips – both night and daytime, as well as cell-phone photography tips including on-phone editing of images. Santorini is a bit of a challenging place for Night Photography… why the challenge will be explained in the next article as well.

Santorini – one of about 220 Cycladic islands – is well known as a destination for summer travel, and it’s probably the most photographed island EVER with its white cave houses that are often literally carved into the steeply sloped volcanic rock, windmills, and a plethora of blue domed churches all nestled up and down the caldera of a dormant volcano. The island was once called Strongyli (the round island). But then it blew it’s top forming the large caldera filled with the Mediterranean blue waters – and subsequent eruptions formed two fire islands (Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni). But in the process of blowing its top – it did so in a way that makes the Mt. Vesuvius destruction of Pompeii seem like child’s play. Indeed the eruption of Strongyli and the tidal wave produced is believed to have been the event that provoked the end of the Minoan Civilization.

TIP: Santorini due to its plethora of steep, irregular steps and inclines is not a good place for the mobility impaired, or those with low energy, bad ankles or bad knees.

Travel To Santorini and Interisland Travel

A cruise ship slips out of the Caldera in the Evening. (Good bye to the crowd!)

We often tell people about our wonderful experiences in Santorini. Some of our friends who have visited Santorini only in the context of cruise ships, or during the hectic summer months have questioned what we liked about our visits. See More Tips about Santorini, below for why we think cruise ship based excursions are not as enjoyable unless you actually spend days on the island. Note that the high season is mid June through early September. Offseason in Santorini is October through early April, with most shops closing at the end of October and reopening in mid to late March.

If your only experience of Santorini has been as a result of an excursion from a cruise ship, you really have missed a lot of the charm of the island.

We have not visited any of the surrounding islands that are visible from Santorini (Sikinos, Folegandros, Ios, Anafi) – but you can reach many of them via a passenger or car ferry. Ferries run irregularly in the off season. For example, to get from Santorini to Sikinos – about 15 miles to the northwest, there are two ferry lines. Zante leaves from Santorini at 7:30 AM on Thursday, November 17 and takes two hours arriving at 9:30. You could then return the same day leaving at 13:35 and arriving at 15:30. Santorini Cruises has ferries on days Zante does not, but there are no ferries on Wednesday, or Saturdays in the month of November that go from Santorini to Sikinos. go-ferry.com is one of the best resources we have seen to find schedules. If you want to go farther, e.g. to the southernmost large island of Crete, expect a similar lack of options and much longer transit times. E.g. from 6.5 hours to 11 hours travel time depending on the ferry and the route it takes. Also, we were warned that if you use a ferry with a rental car, there is additional insurance required. I priced out a 2-passenger ferry from Heraklion to Santorini and back two days later WITH a bed/birth and it was 290 Euro (). For just reserved seats it was 145. Open seating (on the deck) was 139. The locals tend to prefer the ferries.

Finally, you should also know that getting from Athens airport to Santorini by ferry is also possible. It’s a 90 minute bus ride and about 6 Euros to get to the port in Piraeus (and about 65 by taxi). Travel to and from the Greek mainland to Santorini takes about 8 hours by ferry – vs 45 minutes flying time. In the off season there is often only one ferry per day and the cheapest round-trip for a ferry is about 135 per passenger. For this reason, we have generally always preferred to fly directly to and from JTR (the Santorini Airport code).

We have concluded that travel by air is the most efficient and reliable means to reach Santorini – in part because there are fewer restrictions and much less travel time.

Typical Ferry Schedule and costs Athens (Piraeus) to Santorini and back. Not including bus or taxi from Eleftherios Venizelos Airport (Athens) to the port of Piraeus.

Flights, Business Class and Layovers

Arriving in Munich

Because we live on the US West Coast, even the BEST flying connections to get to Santorini require two or three flights and at least 18 hours of travel each way. So this is one area where we are willing to spend to upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy – but not to Business or First Class. Why? Practical considerations. Comfort is of value, but it does not make sense to us to pay 3 times the fare for the flights (as is normal for Business Class) when we can spend that extra money on better lodging, meals, gifts and excursions.

Moderately long layovers are a travelers FRIEND.

For example our flights to Santorini took about 22 hours with no layovers longer than about 3 hours, whereas on the way back, we flew from Santorini to Munich where an 18 hour layover allowed us to stay at the Munich Hilton for 250 for one night – with breakfast. The value add for that Hilton is that no taxi or shuttle is required. We got a comfortable night of sleep in before the 13 hour flight from Munich to Denver. Also note that by taking that layover, we ended up with a $300 cheaper airfare so the stay in the Hilton paid for itself! We did not pay for premium economy upgrades for the shorter flights (3 hours or less) but the Denver to SFO leg may have well been worth an upgrade as it was a United Airlines flight (all other legs were Lufthansa) and we were crammed in a full flight with only center seats. I’ve only ever had one GOOD experience with United, all other experiences were zero star affairs… so needless to say I avoid United (and American and Delta, for that matter).

The Munich Airport Hilton

One last comment about layovers vs direct flights and cost: I’ve come to prefer moderately long layovers between flights to short ones. Why? Well several reasons: a longer layover allows you to get off the plane, have a real-person sit down meal, toilet break, walk, etc. And more importantly a too-short layover may result in high stress and missed connections as happened to us when our 77 minute scheduled layover in Denver was cut to less than 60 minutes by a late arrival and then we had to go through customs, fetch our luggage, recheck our luggage and go back through security to get to our next flight in ANOTHER terminal. In fact, by the time we actually got OFF the plane our next flight was already boarding – so we missed it. A 3 hour layover would have been FAR more comfortable and I’m frankly perturbed that such an aggressively short layover was even offered. Had there been a Munich to SFO direct flight available I’d have preferred it! But also note that off season, almost all flights to and from Santorini go through the Athens airport.

Getting around on Santorini

There are buses and a few taxis – but no Lyft or Uber. We frankly never invested any effort in learning the bus schedules because even the locals point out that the buses run infrequently. Our preferred method of travel is a rental car plus walking. Surprisingly TWO WEEKs of car rental WITH full insurance was a scant $330 US dollars in October, 2022 (through rentalcars.com)! But be forewarned, you’ll want a SMALL car (to be able to navigate some narrow roads, tiny parking places, and traffic), and there are very few automatic transmission cars available… so be sure you’ve practiced using a manual transmission. One day rentals from many places will be 45 or more euros per DAY in the off season.

Rental cars – especially via the airport are cheap and most efficient for thoroughly exploring Santorini.

The biggest problem you’ll face navigating the island is parking, and some peculiar winding one-way and dead-end roads. And remember that many of the destinations along the caldera rim (hotels, houses, and restaurants) are ONLY accessible by foot paths including plenty of stairs – something that may become painfully obvious if you rely on the normal means of navigation (Google maps). The good news is that the island is small enough you can circumnavigate the WHOLE island in less than half a day… nothing is more than an hour drive from anywhere else. The key places on the island to get to and from are the airport on the southeastern side of the island near the town of Kamari, the Athinios Port near the middle of the Caldera on the west side of the island – that is where most ferries arrive and depart, and the Old Port of Fira where many of the cruise ships and pleasure cruises arrive and depart. One tip about the maps, use google to load maps of Santorini before you leave to go there. But you’ll probably discover that having a data plan and the ability to make calls while on the island is quite helpful. Verizon, for example, offers a “bring your plan” for $10 per day that provides reasonable amount of calls and data.

Lodging In Santorini

We have stayed in a variety of places around the island, mostly along the Caldera rim. Prices on the island range from quite cheap ($50 USD a night away from the caldera) to outrageously expensive ($3000 USD/night) in the OFF SEASON. For views that are about as gorgeous as you can imagine, the caldera rim (and any of the towns along it: Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli, and Oia) are hard to beat – provided you actually have a view and a modicum of privacy. Expect that wherever you stay along the caldera you’ll have two impediments: parking (if you rent a car) and lots of stairs.

The first place we stayed 18 years ago: Sun Rocks, Firostefani was expensive when we first stayed there, and has gotten progressively more expensive. We stayed in two different rooms there, including their most expensive “Experience Room” which is located at the bottom of the property with gorgeous views and quite a lot of privacy. We still have very fond memories watching a violent storm roll in while room service brought us Dakos (rusk bread with tomatoes, olive oil, feta cheese and capers) – see Foods, below. Firostefani is NOT in Fira, so it’s a bit quieter, but it’s still a quite walkable distance into Fira. There are many other properties in Firostefani, too.

Later that first trip we stayed in the 5-star Katikies Resort in Oia. It was nice, but rather prohibitively expensive. We had to move to there because Sun Rocks closed at the end of October (and did so again this year) – along with much of the rest of Firostefani.

Absolute Bliss, Imerovigli, Santorini. Oia is near the center of the image in the distance.

On our next visit we stayed in Imerovigli at Absolute Bliss. We still hold that experience up as about as close to ideal as one can get – and it was reasonably priced. It has marvelous views, the service and breakfasts were fantastic, and the manager of the resort showed us great kindness. Indeed I slipped and fell on my elbow along the high road. When we asked about where to find bandages she offered to drive us to the hospital – and kept up with us for the remainder of our stay. Fortunately the damage to my elbow wasn’t that bad – and the cuts and scrapes were mostly caused by me trying to prevent my camera gear from getting damaged.

Our most recent trip we stayed in two locations on opposite sides of the island. The first in Kamari was called Santorini Crystal Blue Boutique Hotel. It was hard to find, indeed, I recommend that to get there you do what we eventually did and just call them! They have a private parking lot about 300 meters away from the property. They, like most properties close in the off season. The Melitis restaurant on site was absolutely fantastic. Thereafter we stayed in the Marble Sun Villa Caldera House in the center of Oia. Being centrally located was nice. Being directly on a travelled path in all of Oia was a bit less nice. From extensive searching the Marble Sun is one of the VERY few caldera properties that afforded two private master bedrooms. That’s why we chose it since we were sharing the space with some dear friends of ours. There are multiple ways to book the property we stayed in, including through the Caldera Houses site, on hotels.com, via VRBO, booking.com and more. I recommend taking a look at all avenues since the rates and availability sometimes vary considerably. And there are MANY properties available. What you are unlikely to find is an inexpensive property with a nice view, parking, limited walking and central access to a town.

More Tips About Navigating Santorini

Crowds can be a PAIN and cruise ships bring crowds. But you can consult port calendars and avoid caldera locations on heavy cruise ship days.

As I noted, we’ve been to the island 3 times over 18 years. And what we observed on our last trip was a bit disheartening. On our first trips the island was almost universally uncrowded in October and early November. Our most recent trip was much more congested than we expected. We are not sure of the why, except that Covid seems to have created a pent-up demand. One day there were SIX cruise ships – each adding about 2000 or more passengers. Effectively the population of the island doubles (or triples!) on such days so the throngs of excess persons made the narrow walkways and smallish shops unpleasant in much the same way as attempting to depart from stadium full of people. Indeed, we scheduled an early boat tour of the volcanic islands to be sure we wouldn’t have to fight the crowds for space but did not realize that when we got back from that half day cruise we would be competing with thousands of cruisists for a seat on the cable car to get back up to Fira. It took an hour and half waiting in line. The 330 steps or a donkey ride up are also possible alternatives.

Here comes (or goes) another crowd. Each cruise ship or ferry carries from 800 to 5000 passengers. This is a Viking Cruise Ship so is on the smaller end of the scale.


A little Greek can go a long way to unlocking a pleasant experience. Kalimera! (Good Morning) Kalispera (Good Evening), Ef haristo’ (Thank You), and Parakalo’ (Please)

I am a big proponent of learning some simple phrases in the native language of any country you may visit. You may be surprised how much more welcoming people are when you make an effort to greet, ask and thank them in their native tongue. Think about it for a moment: if someone came up to you on the average street in the US and asked you in Swahili where to find the nearest Taco stand… would you understand? Wouldn’t you think the person a bit rude or at least naïve? Well the same goes in any other country. As a rule we have found the Greeks on Santorini to be friendly, and helpful ALWAYS, but it sure doesn’t hurt that I am careful to greet them, and especially thank them in Greek. Sure my Greek may not be all that great – it’s a tough language – but by starting in Greek I’ve had some truly heart warming and compelling discussions with the locals – many of who are NOT local at all, but come from various other countries and work their butts off on behalf of tourists. There are many sources to learn Greek, so we won’t copy them here.

A couple of tips I picked up after listening to the Greeks… the town of Megalochori is pronounced with the “g” sounding like an h or a “y”. Ditto for the popular dish “Gyros” (Year-os, not Geer-os or Guy-ros). The town of Monolithos is not “Mono-lithos” but Mon-oh’-lithos with the emphasis on the second syllable. That’s the way you would do it in English – emphasizing the third from the last syllable, but it took me a few listens to get it right. If you pay attention to the Greek letters, you can start to pronounce words on sight… you just have to remember that what looks like a P (Ρ or ρ) is a Rho – an r, what looks like an V (ν) is a lowercase N. What looks like a y (γ) is a gamma – a lower case G (Γ). What at first glance passes for a N (Π) is actually a capital Pi (P). Thus what might at first glance read as Napkin (ΠΑΡΚΙΝ) is really Parking! On the mainland you’ll see lots of ΠΑΡΚΙΝ signs – on Santorini nary a one, but you may see the more universal white P on a blue background meaning parking, or more likely, lots of NO Parking symbols.

Two street signs that are worth noting are the “Do Not Enter/One Way sign” and the “No Parking” (on this side of the street) sign. The no parking sign is routinely ignored, by the way!

Do Not Enter (One way) Sign – May be red on Blue instead of Red on White
No Parking (this side of the street)

Recommended Places to Visit, Things to Do (and Why!)

A map (from Google Maps) of Santorini also called Thira. We will later refer to the numbered items. The caldera rim includes all those areas around the interior of the island bordering the Mediterranean.

These are in no particular order. Note that many are closed in the off season… check before you go. The numbers below correspond to the locations marked on the map, above.

  1. Kamari. While it is just south of the airport, you have to drive inland for a bit before you can make a left turn onto the road to Kamari. Like most of the rest of the island Kamari is open seasonably, but unlike some towns on the caldera, Kamari has a year-round population and a main square (and a sizeable supermarket). The black sand beach (ok, rocks and sand) is easy to reach, beware however, the sea bed itself is not sandy but is hard rock with ankle busting “potholes” throughout. It’s also on the sunrise side of the island and as our host at Santorini Crystal Blue Boutique hotel pointed out: the sun does not charge a tax for you to see it rise! In all it has a quite different vibe from the caldera side of the island: more laid back. I imagine in summer, however it’s just as or even more crowded. One tip: the main drag along the waterfront is a walking path only, except in the off season. You may choose, instead to visit Perissa/Perivolas which is farther removed but a longer stretch of black rock/sand beach. It’s also worth mentioning that on the way to Kamari is the Cave Winery Museum (also known as the Koutsogiannopoulos Winery). On the same road you also find the Argyros Estates and several other wineries as well as the Crazy Donkey Brewery. Adjacent to Kamari is Ancient Thira, described below.
  2. Ammoudi Bay at the water level in Oia. 287 steps down from the top it’s not a small journey to descend or ascend, but the contrasting rocks, architecture and the absolutely stunningly colored Mediterranean vistas are worth a visit. You may even hire a donkey to get you back to the top if overwhelmed by the ascent. The waterfront restaurants are well known for their seafood dishes.
  3. Ancient Thira. Perhaps my favorite spot on the island. An 8 euro per person entry fee is charged after you’ve driven up a steep set of 21 switch backs. It affords some spectacular views by virtue of its altitude, but I feel a very deep sense of history strolling around among the ancient Roman ruins – and can’t help but imagine what life was like to live in that town in that era.
  4. The Domain Sigalas winery is near Oia, north of Finnikia. The views are not spectacular, but the hospitality is awesome, and the wines are better than any other winery we visited. Try the Apiliotis and the Vinsanto – both dessert wines made from sun dried red and white grapes respectively. Check to be sure they are open as they have limited hours (and menu) in the off season. Santos winery has spectacular views… but beware its one of the wineries that is heavily hit by tour buses and that gives it a very touristy/industrial feel. Venesantos winery – which we didn’t visit – has a higher recommendation rate on TripAdvisor than Santos.
  5. Prophet Elias Monastery on the highest point of the island is worth a visit. The monastery may be closed off season, and there are some steep stretches of narrow roads to navigate – but the view is excellent. The nearby town of Pyrgos sits up on a large hill and is strongly reminiscent of hill top towns you might find in Europe. One restaurant near there that comes highly recommended (but which we were unable to visit) is Metaxi Mas. At some point in your island driving you’ll find yourself on at least the shoulder of the hill where Pyrgos is, so it’s worth a stop.
  6. The Santorini Lighthouse located at the extreme southwestern edge of the island is another worthwhile visit. You can’t visit the interior of the lighthouse, but you will get views of the caldera from a different perspective. Off season most every surrounding restaurant will be closed except perhaps closer to the town of Akrotiri which has a small year-round population. Combine your trip to the Lighthouse with a visit to the Red Sand Beach and the ancient Akrotiri archeological site. Follow the signs to the Red Sand Beach. Off season parking near the church should be easy. Take good shoes if you decide to take the trail down to the beach itself, though the best shots can be taken before the trail gets more difficult to navigate. For best pictures of the Red Sand beach, try to get there in the morning hours.
  7. Fira and the Old Port. Fira is the capital city of Santorini, sits along the Caldera and offers either 330 steps down to the old port, or for 6 euros each way you can take the cable car. There isn’t that much compelling down at the port, and beware – it’s where most cruise ships passengers are tossed out by the tender boats (the cruise ships do not dock). But there are several possible cruises available from the old port, including the next suggestion.
  8. A boat tour of the volcano. There are half day and nearly full day options. The half day option takes you to Nea Kameni where an improved (but still fairly strenuous) hiking trail will provide great views of the caldera, smoking fumaroles, and if you have a good guide some interesting history of Santorini – including how it got its names, and the frequency of eruption. After Nea Kameni, the boat stops at Palea Kameni where “hot springs” warm the water with sulfurous aromas. Hint: “Hot” is probably not quite accurate; tepid is a better description. New on a last trip was an additional 5 euros or so per person to disembark on the Nea Kameni island and take a tour. Still worth that, however! On the longer cruise you can continue on to Thirassia – the fisherman’s island and either brave a steep walk up, or hang around the few shops and restaurants down at the water level.

I didn’t mention it as yet, so I will now… there is a walking trail between Fira and Oia that will provide lots of great views. Allow from one and a half to 3 hours each way should you choose to make the trek. And one last thing… there are a lot of one way roads and one of those one-way roads will lead you INTO Oia from Imerovigli, but you can’t take that road out of Oia. This is called the “high road” and its worth following all the signs headed toward Imerovigli from Fira, but instead of turning (left) toward Imerovigli, keep headed North. There are some great vistas from the high road, including some pull outs, snack sheds and even a few luxury properties. There is also a trail up one of the volcano cones which forms another high point on the island.

There are also several museums scattered around the island, including a new one called The Lost Atlantis Experience in Megalochori near the Grigoris Bakery (see below). It seemed like a tourist trap so we didn’t visit it. And it’s also worth peering into the churches if/when they are open. The Greek Orthodox touches and Byzantine architecture of some of those 400+ churches on the island is fascinating.

Unique Foods, Gifts and Restaurants in Santorini

There are few things we recommend you try.

Tomato Balls (τοματο κεφτεδες). aka Tomato Keftedes. They are fried treats made with local Santorini cherry tomatoes. Every place we tried them they were good… and each place made them a little bit different. Some more like flat pancakes, some resembling the “balls”. All of them were delicious.

Galaktoboureko (Γαλακτομπούρεκο) – while not unique to Santorini, this Greek Custard Pie is quite different from the familiar baklava. Galakto means “butter”. You can think if it as a custard burrito usually soaked in sweet water or honey. We had tasty versions of this dish from several sources, including the Furnissimo Bakery near the airport in Messaria (Μεσαριά) on the corner of the road leading to Kamari, the Family Bakery close to Fira in the town of Megalochori (Μεγαλοχωρι), and the Grigoris Bakery on the southern outskirts of Megalochori. If they are out of Galaktoboureko, Bougatsa is similar enough to give it a try. If you’re in the Kamari area, the Erotokritos Cretan Bakery comes highly recommended, but we didn’t try anything from there. Oh, and for an island with only 15,000 permanent residents, there are a surprising number of bakeries… we have only listed the ones we personally visited.

Vinsanto – literally “holy wine” is a dessert (sweet) wine made from native assyrtiko grapes that are harvested and allowed to dry in the sun for up to two weeks before they are juiced. Almost all the dozen wineries on Santorini make this wine, some are noticeably better than others. The resultant wine is quite sweet and may be strongly redolent with “raisin” flavors. A similar but far less common dessert wine is Apiliotis which is made the same way, but using Mandilaria (red) grapes. And while we’re talking about wine, there are several species of grapes that are indigenous to the island, almost all of them are used to make white wines – including the aforementioned assyrtiko grape.

Dakos – this is a simple salad originating from Crete made with tomatoes, olive oil, hard rusk bread, feta and sometimes other ingredients like oregano capers and caper leaves. It is surprisingly good if you allow the tomato and olive oil to soften the bread. It’s a great alternative to Horiatiki the traditional greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and olives. Not every restaurant will carry Dakos.

Alexandros Jewelry has stores in Athens, Fira and Oia. His creations are truly unique and inspiring. Just ask my wife who has several incredible pieces from this premium jeweler. And truly, Alexandros Rogavopoulos and his wife, Gina, have been very kind to us on each of our visits. The jeweler closes both Santorini stores in the off season and he runs the production / creation of jewelry in his Athens workshop.

There are two local brewers in Santorini. The beers are worth a try. The local beers are Yellow Donkey, Red Donkey, White Donkey, Slow Donkey and Crazy Donkey – which is the name of one of the Breweries. If nothing else the mugs and glasses are amusing. Another local brand is Blue Monkey from Ftelos Brewery on the Caldera side of the island which looks like an interesting brew pub but we haven’t visited it.

Our top 5 restaurants in Santorini

  • Naos – Expensive, creative fine dining in the heart of Oia. They close from late October to November and reopen for Christmas.
  • Skiza – a pizzeria and more with a great view in Oia. They are one of the few places that is open year round. The prices were reasonable and the meals really delicious.
  • Skiza’s sister restaurant Skala in Oia serves a variety of Greek favorites is also open all year.
  • Cacio e Pepe: Italian restaurant in Fira.
  • Metaxi Mas. In Exo Gonia (Έξω Γωνιά) – we really wanted to eat here because it came highly recommended by several on-island people, but alas we didn’t get a chance.

Of course there are many more restaurants we have tried, and we were only disappointed in two of them – but only mildly so. Remember that many restaurants like the Melitis in Kamari are closed in the offseason. Indeed at least half of all the restaurants we visited from October 23rd through November 5, 2022 were partially closed (with limited choices), closing, or about to close. Oh, and there is a Thai restaurant (called Paradox) very near the bus terminal in Oia. It was surprisingly good.

Where to get Great Photos in Santorini

Last Evening in Fira, Santorini (2013)

I chuckle as I write this. While doing my typical pre-sunrise and sunset walks, camera in hand, I got asked that question a lot by people wearing cruise ship stickers. There are a LOT of sites that hawk “best place to take a photo” and two of those spots are well traveled – and happened to be literally feet away from our Oia lodging. But DO NOT be waylaid by such concerns. The island has so many beautiful vistas and fascinating shots my best advice is … shoot the heck out of the place. There are doorways, bougainvillea, cats, dogs, people, churches, steps, walkways, pools, domes, and of course the beautiful coloration in the water of the caldera and the volcanic cliffs themselves. And on top of all that, there are sunsets, sunrises and night vistas. It’s really hard NOT to get a good shot if you follow some simple guidelines about composition and exposure (coming in the next article). Anything that includes color, architecture and scale will make your viewers jealous, guaranteed.

In the next articles, we’ll address cell phone photography, cell phone based image adjustment, and night photography in Santorini.

Night in Oia. Taken with an iPhone 13 Pro Max by tricia Christenson

Cross Country – Parts 3, 4 and 5

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

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.

Lake Powell Resort and Marina, Page, Arizona (great view from the Driftwood Lounge)

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

The photography portion of the trip. Click Here for a larger view.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
El Paso, We Have A Problem

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:

  1. It is at least a mile and a half hike in to see anything interesting.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Monument Valley

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…

Descending Hunts Mesa

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

Rocky Mountain Sunrise

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!

Lessons Learned

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.

Sometimes you just need a cool sea breeze and the sound of the waves to rejuvenate you after a lot of driving and heat. We stopped at the Pelican Inn, Moonstone Beach, Cambria, California for a few nights of bliss.

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.

Disclaimer

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.

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

If you already read this and are looking for the rest of the article (parts 3, 4 and 5)… Look HERE.

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

See The Rest of the Article!

>>> Click here for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift