Eastward through South Dakota

Hi gang! After the past several posts here, you’re probably wondering if this one is going to include yet another national park visit. The answer to that would be yes… two actually! After leaving Grand Teton National Park, we headed east toward South Dakota. We’ve been making several stops in SD, and here’s what we saw:

Motorcycles: Lots of motorcycles

This one was actually completely unintentional. We planned on stopping in the old western style town of Deadwood and then continuing to Custer. What we didn’t realize at the time we were making plans was that our visit would overlap the biggest motorcycle rally in the world. Luckily, we were still able to find an RV park that had space for us! The heart of the rally is in Sturgis and the event bears the same name, but every town within a 50-mile radius is completely full of bikers. And when I say full, I mean FULL, as in the streets become parking lots for motorcycles because there isn’t enough room elsewhere. It really was something to see… all the unique bikes and the unique characters that went with them. We spent a few hours exploring the historic town of Deadwood, but it was kind of hard to take in the whole wild west vibe when everyone and everything was covered with black leather and the sound of throaty bikes filled the air.

1147569_10153562778325355_1293223837_oThis was the scene in downtown Deadwood, SD. We were going to visit Sturgis as well but decided against it after seeing this.

Mount Rushmore

We continued on to Custer, South Dakota, which was also completely full of bikers. We wanted to stay there so that we’d be in close proximity to some of the attractions on our list, the first of which being Mount Rushmore. Karen had never been and wanted to check off that national landmark, but we didn’t really need a lot of time there. I mean it is what it is… four heads carved into a mountain. It is impressive to see, sure, but we wanted to save most of our time exploring some of the more natural wonders the area had to offer. The image at the top of this post is one that Karen shot at Mt. Rushmore.

Wind Cave National Park

This park is located about 30 minutes south of Custer, and is a very unique national park. The park covers nearly 34,000 acres and is home to one of the country’s last remaining intact prairies. Hidden beneath the surface is one of the world’s longest caves. It’s hard to tell just how long the cave is because it’s still being explored, but several hundred miles of cave has already been mapped. Karen and I took a tour of the cave on her birthday and really enjoyed it. You don’t see all the usual cave formations, like stalactites and such. Instead, the cave features this interesting boxwork on the walls and “ceilings” that’s formed from eroded limestone. You can see a picture of it below. We were wondering why it was called “Wind Cave” because it wasn’t windy at all inside. The reason is because at the single natural entrance to the cave, which is just a small hole, has a constant flow of air coming out of it. We were told that the wind coming out of that little hole has been known to reach over 70 mph! After touring the cave, we drove around the prairie and photographed the wildlife. There is quite a lot of different animals that call this park home and they are basically all over, so they’re really easy to photograph. We saw a lot of buffalo, mule deer, elk and prairie dogs, all within close proximity to the car. This park was also far less crowded than the recent parks we visited so the animals seemed more comfortable being in close proximity to the road (and at times, ON the road.)

644240_10153564594875355_1850748359_nThis is an iPhone shot I took of the boxwork inside Wind Cave. 

WindCaveNP-19This is one of Karen’s shots from Wind Cave National Park. Everywhere you went, there were bikers.


I know. You’re thinking, “You said this was all South Dakota!” Well, the bus stayed in South Dakota, but Karen and I took a day trip south to visit Toadstool State Park, which was about 30 minutes south of the Nebraska border. Karen had yet to check Nebraska off her state list and we heard this park was pretty interesting. It was kind of like a mini badlands, with lots of formations called… you guessed it… toadstools. Aside from the hour of driving on an unpaved road, the park was an easy visit, with a parking area and a 1-mile loop trail that you could take to see everything. The only bummer for us was that we were there midday, so the light wasn’t very good, but hey, we saw something really cool… in Nebraska.

1150175_10153575391830355_543447921_nMy iPhone shot from Nebraska. This was about all we saw for the first hour driving in NE. 

1008985_10153568221275355_308013630_oHere is my iPhone pano from Toadstool State Park. Pretty cool formations here. 

Badlands National Park

Our second national park in one week! We parked the bus in Wall, South Dakota, which is about 1o minutes north of the entrance to the park. This made it easy in and easy out. I had been to the badlands before, but this was Karen’s first time. The Badlands hold such a different landscape than what we’ve been seeing in recent weeks, with a mixture of grasslands and wild orange and yellow rock formations. We’ve been driving into the park every day for either sunrise or sunset to go exploring. With this park, you can go hiking if you want, but there’s definitely lots of opportunities to see things right from the road, as many of the spectacular overlooks are off the main road. This was nice for us because we could work out of our trunk instead of lugging our gear around.

Here’s a side note about Badlands National Park: If you plan on visiting for more than a day, bring food with you, because there is hardly anything in the park or in town. Well, ok, there ARE eating establishments, but the finest place in town got three stars on Yelp (with explanations that it would really be 1.5 stars if located elsewhere) and every entree came with a side of tater tots. My health-conscious wife is counting down the hours until she can shamelessly indulge at a Whole Foods.

994328_10153574885370355_1032567676_nAn iPhone shot of a Badlands buffalo

BadlandsNP-314-Edit-EditKaren got this shot of me after we shot sunrise in the Badlands

1009242_10153582213385355_736712283_oMy iPhone shot of Karen this morning.

We’re spending one more night here in the Badlands and then heading eastward toward Minneapolis, the town I grew up in! More to come…

Yellowstone: America’s first national park

Yes, that’s right. We went from one national park to another! This past week, we’ve been exploring Yellowstone, which is America’s oldest, and largest, national park. The park is not only huge, but it’s incredibly diverse, with everything from wildlife (and lots of it), to geysers and other geothermal features, to huge waterfalls, to open prairies. You could literally spend weeks exploring everything.


We parked the bus at a campground in Gardiner, the small town right at the north entrance to the park. From there, we would head in and spend hours driving around as far south as Old Faithful, which is in the southern area. Because of the time of year, the sun sets extremely late, giving us a bit of an extended golden hour… very nice if you’re a photographer!

During this visit to Yellowstone, I really wanted to focus on shooting some of the amazing geothermal features here. Not only are there geysers, but the warm springs and colorful pools can make for very interesting images. Just north of Old Faithful is a series of walkways (miles long) that wind around a very active geothermal area, full of pools and bubbling springs. We spent a good amount of time shooting there (the area is known as Upper Geyser Basin) as well as the Grand Prismatic Pool area, which is referred to as Lower Geyser Basin. We’ll probably even return to these areas again before we leave the area.

BenGrandPrisAbstractThis is a detail shot of the geothermal terrain reflecting the twilight sky at Grand Prismatic Pool, at Lower Geyser Basin.

BenMammothSpringsMore geothermal features, at Mound Terrace, which is located just south of Mammoth Hot Springs. This is a great sunset area.

We also explored the Canyon Village area, known as the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and famous for the huge Upper and Lower Falls. We’re still trying to find an angle from which to shoot the falls where there is nice sunset light. And of course, the amount of wildlife here is pretty amazing. You don’t have to hike for it either. When driving around the park, just wait for a traffic jam and then get your camera ready. Chances are, there is some kind of animal or animals hanging out on the side of the road (or IN the road). We’ve seen loads of elk, goats with their babies and bison, all from the road. I ALMOST got a fisheye shot of a bison walking down the road as we [slowly] drove by.

BisonInRoadA classic Yellowstone traffic jam.

We plan on hanging out in the area for a few more days, returning to some shooting locations and exploring some more. I also am trying to arrange a lightpainting shoot of one of the vintage yellow busses the park uses for public transportation (similar to the red one I photographed in Glacier National Park.)

If you follow me on Facebook, keep your eye out for new Yellowstone images, as I’m trying to post at least one per day!


Karen’s shot of Chromatic Pool in Upper Geyser Basin. She used MY a polarizer filter to cut through a lot of the reflection. I would have liked to have gotten a similar shot, but I realized that my polarizer fits my old 77 lenses and not my new ones. Needless to say, there is a new one in my Amazon cart right now!

More to come!


Glacier & Other Montana Goodness

Hi everyone! Here’s the Monday weekly update. We spent most of the past week in Glacier National Park, exploring and photographing. I had not been to the park since college, and it was Karen’s first time there all together, so we were both pretty excited. The bus was parked about five miles from the park entrance, so it was really convenient to get in and out. We would head in mid-afternoon and stay through sunset and twilight, which is actually after 10 pm this time of year. That was actually a good AND bad thing. Good because we got an extended golden hour, and bad because there were some roads that were closed in the park after 9 pm so we couldn’t really shoot the nice light in those areas.

BenGlacierValleyAn evening shot of the beautiful valley. 

Glacier National Park is still home to several small glaciers, but there’s not nearly as many as there used to be, and one guide told us that by 2030, there probably wont be any glaciers left there at all. Even the glaciers that you do see there now look more like big patches of snow. You cant really compare them to what you’d see in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. But regardless of the actual glaciers, this park is just beautiful, with lakes and green valleys setting the foreground for the beautiful Rocky Mountain Range. Most of the snow had melted by the time we arrived mid-July, so it would be nice to return a little earlier in the year one day to see some more white caps.

The park is home to a few beautiful lakes, and Karen and I took a boat ride on Lake McDonald to get a glimpse of the park from the water. In my last post, I mentioned that the park used a fleet of restored vintage busses for public transportation. Well, I guess that’s a theme here because the boats used for tours are old and restored too. Quite beautiful, actually.

BenMcDonaldLakePanoWe took an hour long cruise on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in this 1929 wooden boat. I thought an antique treatment was appropriate.

Kar-GlacierBoatHere’s an iPhone pano I shot of Karen during the boat tour.

While we were there, I also got to lightpaint a bus from Glacier National Park’s vintage fleet. The park owns 33 busses that were made from 1936 to 1939. This Model 706 bus was make by the White Motor Company of Cleveland ohio in 1936. It was restored and had its powertrain modernized by Form Motor Company back in the year 2000.
The most difficult part of this light painting was dealing with all the black areas on the vehicle. Those areas either absorb all the light falling on them and become a black hole, or reflect light of a certain angle back into the camera like a mirror. I had to light the black areas from odd angles to pick up the texture of the material, or light the ground surrounding it to get an interesting reflection. The same is true of the front bumper, which would have come out black had I not strategically lit the ground and other areas to produce a nice reflection to define its shape. Since it doesn’t really get dark until close to 11pm this time of year in Glacier, I chose to capture this image in a barn where darkness could be achieved while the sun was still up.

Some interesting details: The White Motor Company went out of business in 1980. When they went bankrupt, Volvo bought their assets. In 1999 Ford bought Volvo. A year later they had a special interest in restoring these buses since they, in essence, owned the assets of the company that originally created the buses. Once 2005 rolled around, Volvo stopped being a profitable division of Ford, so Ford sold the company to a Chinese company in 2008. Good thing Ford owned it back in 2000, otherwise these buses might not have been lovingly restored. Glacier still owns one of the original unrestored buses that I didn’t get a chance to see. I hear it’s not in the best of shape.

Red-Jammer-smallMy lightpainting of one of Glacier’s vintage busses.

BenGlacierWaterfallYou can see this waterfall right from the main road in Glacier National Park.

After leaving Glacier, our next goal was Yellowstone, so we headed south. We did make a few stops on the way, though. The first was called the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, Montana. This place has an enormous collection of old Americana. Some of the stuff is pretty cool. Some is a little weird. I was drawn to an old vintage service station on the property, and you can see an iPhone shots of that below. There’s also loads of old cars, buildings and other random things, including “Area 51” space ships.

BenMOAmuseumAn iPhone shot of the old service station in the Miracle of America Museum.

About an hour north of Missoula is the National Bison Range and we stopped there along our travels as well. The Bison Range is a National Wildlife preserve and is home to 300-400 bison. There are a few gravel loop roads on which you can drive your car around the range. We only spent an hour or so there, as the sun was setting pretty quickly, but we were still able to see groups of bison. One of them even walked up right alongside our car and into the road. It’s a neat place to stop if you’re already in the area.

BisonRange-13One of Karen’s shots from the National Bison Range.

We spent one night in Missoula and then continued south toward Yosemite. The bus is now parked about 30 miles from the park entrance and Karen is off exploring. Where am I, you might ask? In Cleveland, Ohio, presenting my Photoshop Creativity 1-day seminar. I flew out yesterday and will return tomorrow to join Karen in the park. Since Yellowstone is so huge and magnificent, we plan on spending a good amount of time there. More to come!

Wandering around Washington

In last week’s post, we had just finished exploring the Columbia Gorge area, which runs along the border between Oregon and Washington. This week, we continued on to Walla Walla, Washington, which also happens to be Washington wine country. Now, if you read this blog regularly, you’re probably thinking, “wait… weren’t you just in wine country a few weeks ago?” And the answer would be yes! Only that was the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which specialized in Pinot Noirs. While Karen and I enjoyed our time in the Willamette Valley, pinots just aren’t our thing. We like BIG reds, and that’s exactly what Walla Walla has to offer. We tried lots of tasty cabernet and syrah there. Before we got to Walla Walla, we contacted our great friend Carl “The Wine Wizard” to ask for recommendations. Carl’s knowledge of (and taste in) wine is just spectacular, and he directed us to many fantastic wineries. Two of our favorites were Pepper Bridge and Woodward Canyon. We also loved Long Shadow, which is kind of an interesting place because they bring in a different wine maker for each wine they offer, so their wines were all very different, but the quality was there in all of them as well.

We also happened to be in Walla Walla for my birthday! It was nice to spend a birthday driving around vineyards and tasting wine! Karen also took me for an hour-long massage at a spa in downtown Walla Walla.

KarBen-PepperBridgeMe and Karen at Pepper Bridge (I’m sporting my new bespoke hat). This may have been my favorite winery in Walla Walla. Their bottles are quite spendy, but I ended up getting one as a birthday present to myself. 

After spending three nights in Walla Walla, we continued on to the Palouse area. The Palouse is in Washington as well, and it’s basically a big wheat-producing area. The draw for us as photographers is that the area is covered with green, rolling hills… similar to what you would see in Tuscany. Very beautiful. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate at all while we were in the area, so I really don’t have any photos to show for it. When we saw that the rain and clouds weren’t going to clear up, we took the drive anyway up this tall butte that overlooks the area, just to see what we could see. We saw clouds. The top of the butte was literally IN the clouds. Karen got a kick out of a photo she took that is completely white. Lovely shot of the Palouse, right?! Even though we didn’t get any good images, we could tell how beautiful it was, and how spectacular it must be on a partly cloudy day, with the shadows and sun spots dancing on the hills.

While the bus was parked in the Palouse, I also took a drive to the middle-of-nowhere, Washington to photograph another little gas station. The rain made it tricky here as well, as I was only able to shoot from the car window.

OldTexacoThis is the little Texaco I shot in middle-of-nowhere, Washington. It’s just an iPhone shot I snapped while sitting in the car hoping the rain would stop. 

While we were driving to the Palouse, I had noticed some transmission issues on the bus. It was acting odd in first gear and I began getting error codes. This made it so that our next stop was Spokane, WA where there is a diesel shop that can work on the kind of transmission that’s in my bus. They concluded that the issue was likely caused by a bad sensor. They replaced the sensor and we were on our way. Before leaving, though, we explored town a bit and paid a visit to the largest wagon in the world! Exciting stuff!

Karen-GiantWagonIf you look close enough, you can see Karen standing next to the world’s largest wagon.

BenShootingStationEn route to Spokane, we went a little out of our way so that I could photograph another vintage service station.

Once the bus issue was seemingly fixed, we headed east into Idaho and spent the night in Coeur d’Alene. Our goal is to make it to Glacier National Park as soon as possible, but when we left Coeur d’Alene in the morning, the bus issue came back. It hadn’t been fixed after all. Considering it was a transmission problem, and those can be ugly, we opted to turn around and go back to the diesel shop that had worked on it in Spokane. Bummer, huh? Luckily, they were able to get us in on a Sunday and after a bunch of testing, it turns out that three parts need to be replaced in the transmission. The shop has two of the parts in stock and we hope another shop in town might have the last part needed, but we won’t know until Monday rolls around. Ah, the joys of bus life!

A few more fun things:

I had mentioned in a recent post that I just bought a Brompton folding bike that fits in the bay of the bus. I had been eyeing them up for a while, and I’m really loving it. When I ordered it, I added an after-market electric conversion, which means that I can pedal like normal, I can do a mixture of peddling and electric, or I can just use the trottle on the handlebars to go all electric. Below is a rough iPhone video of me unfolding the bike.

A rough video of my new Brompton folding bike. 

Since this post includes a few vintage gas stations, I wanted to throw one more in there. This isn’t a new image, but it’s one I’ve been working on for a while. When it comes to these gas station images, I often end up doing some serious retouching work. Check out the before and after versions of this one by dragging the slider left and right:



Crater Lake: Checking off another national park

Our travels take us to the most amazing places. This past week, we spent our time at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon. We parked the bus at an RV park right on Diamond Lake, which is only a few minutes north of the park’s entrance. I was excited to go shooting there, not only because the scenery is fantastic, but because I just got my new 5D Mark III camera, as well as some brand-spankin’-new lenses. I just love playing with new toys tools!

A Crater Lake image I shot with my new Canon 8-15 mm Fisheye Zoom.

There are a lot of really interesting things about Crater Lake. First of all, it’s not actually a crater. It’s a caldera, which is a deep basin formed by a collapsed volcano, post-eruption. Nearly 8,000 years ago, it was a mountain. After a massive eruption, the mountain collapsed and formed what is now the deepest lake in the United States (1,943 feet at the deepest point). Because no water flows into the lake (all of the water comes from rain and melted snow) it’s some of the purest water you’ll ever see. The vibrant blue almost looks unreal.

A pano of the lake. If you look hard enough, you’ll spot Karen shooting too.

Another interesting thing is that just about all of your viewpoints of the lake are more than 1,000 feet above the water’s surface. There are various places to stop along the main road that loops around the lake, and if you’re a photographer, plan on using a pretty wide lens in order to get the whole lake in your shot (unless you’re shooting panos). The lake is 4 miles x 5 miles wide. There is, however, one trail that will take you down to water level. The trail leads to a small dock where you can catch a boat for a tour of the lake, which we did. The general boat tour is about two hours long and costs $32. per adult. To ensure a seat, you should make reservations in advance. The trail down to the water takes about 30 minutes, and it’s a pretty steep hill. It feels even steeper on the way up!

Our boat tour approached “Phantom Ship,” a formation peaking out of the lake.

Another view of Phantom Ship. This one was shot from the rim.

Even though we were visiting Crater Lake in the middle of the summer, we were blown away by the amount of snow still on the ground. There were a lot areas where the snow was still several feet deep, yet the temps reached 80+ degrees during mid-day! Part of the road that circles the lake was still closed due to snow. The main negative to all the melting snow was all the still water lying around. Still water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and those suckers were plentiful and aggressive! In some cases, it was hard for us to even concentrate on shooting. Luckily, we still had some serious bug repellent cream from last year’s trip to Africa, and that seemed to help ward them off.

Here I am, along side the main loop road, which was still lined with snow!

After spending our days shooting, we would often end the night at the Crater Lake Lodge, a beautiful building nearly 100 years old. The lodge overlooks the lake and has a beautiful interior that includes some massive fireplaces. We would settle in some comfy chairs, order some drinks and reflect on the day.

Overall, we had a great week at Crater Lake, and it was nice to check off another national park. Now that I’ve been to all 50 states, my new goal is to hit all the national parks. Karen keeps a National Parks Passport book, where she logs all our visits to National Parks, Monuments, Historical Sites, etc. If you’ve never heard of these books, and you like visiting national parks, check out Karen’s post about them HERE.

After leaving Crater Lake, we’re going to move on and explore more of Oregon. There are a lot of beautiful things to photograph here, and summer is the best time of the year to do it!

A waterfall right off of the main road that circles the lake.

I couldn’t resist taking this sunset shot of a funky RV in an overlook parking lot.

A family interlude

The National Park wasn’t the only thing we saw this past week. En route to Oregon, we made a stop in Salt Lake City to visit some of my family. I don’t get to see them often, so it was great to catch up. We met my aunt Jeanne and Uncle Ken at their house just north of the city. We had lunch there and spent a long time talking about what’s new in our lives. They have been anxious to meet Karen, and wanted to hear our whole story, from where we met down to how I proposed this year. We returned the next day, where we had a little gathering that also included my cousins Cathy and Lisa. I hadn’t seen them since we were all kids!

Me with my cousins Lisa and Cathy.