Memories - Utah Road Trip, August 2015

Back in 2015, Kimberly and I were talking about taking a road trip somewhere. One night, we had gotten on the topic of meteor showers and she admitted to me she had never seen one. I knew that the annual Perseid shower was in the beginning of August, so I started doing some research and saw a lot of great night sky shots from Arches National Park. I showed Kimberly, and we decided that we would go west.

I thought about what kind of photos I wanted to take. Definitely night sky shots. I wanted to get photos of meteors. I also wanted to be able to get landscape shots, and have the ability to zoom into some far away objects. I setup an account on Borrowlenses.com and rented a Nikon D810 and the two lenses of the Nikon, “Holy Trinity” that I did not own - the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G ED and AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (I already owned the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED).

While we were planning the trip, we realized that the Sturgis motorcycle rally would be winding down as we set out on our trip. Thinking we would like to see that, we set our first stop for Sturgis, SD. 

When the Saturday morning of our trip came, we packed up all our gear, loaded the cooler with various road trip goodies, and set off towards South Dakota.

I drove up north into Wisconsin, then started heading west through Minnesota and into South Dakota. Being from the Chicago area, I was pleasantly surprised to see speed limit signs that said 80 MPH! I was so amazed that we had speed limits that high in this country, that I didn’t even feel the need to exceed the posted limit. While we stopped for dinner, I made reservations at a hotel chain in Wall, SD. After dinner, we hopped back in the truck and kept driving. As night started falling we watched numerous thunderstorms start to pop up all around us. It wasn’t too long until we ran head-first into a thunderstorm. At the beginning, the windshield was pretty well covered in bug guts. By the time we got through the storm, the windshield looked brand new! That downpour was insane!

We got into Wall around 11:00 and pulled into the hotel. We went inside and gave them my name for the reservation… Only to find out they didn’t have it. Not only that, but they were full since Wall isn’t far from Sturgis. There was nothing they could do. Highly frustrated, we left and went to every hotel in town, only to be told the same thing – they were full. I pulled into a gas station while Kimberly was on her phone locating alternatives for us. Eventually, she came across this place called, “Frontier Cabins”. She called and found out that they had a cabin left, but they were closing in 5 minutes. Kimberly said, “We will be there in 2!” I pulled out of the gas station and realized that Frontier Cabins was right across the highway from where we were. We went inside and got our cabin for the night. No sleeping in the truck for us!

We woke up Sunday morning, got ready for the day, then set out to explore Sturgis. First, we went to Deadwood and walked around. We had lunch here, then left for Sturgis. We stopped at the Full Throttle Saloon (before it burned down), and had a drink. After that, we left and went to a nearby Air Force base – hoping to catch some jets taking off/landing. Unfortunately, they weren’t flying on Sunday, but we did check out a little museum here. We went back to Wall and checked out Wall Drug. Now we can say, “Been there. Done that. Don’t need to do it again.” We grabbed some dinner and headed over to The Badlands since it was down the road from Frontier Cabins.

We got to The Badlands around 7:30. We didn’t have much light to work with due to the sun going down and storms around on the horizon, but we did manage to get some good photos in the area. I even managed to get a photo of a lone buffalo using the 70-200 lens.

We left The Badlands at dark and went back to our cabin. Looking up at the night sky, you could already see so many more stars than you can back in Chicago. This just made us more excited to get to Utah.

We got up Monday morning, packed up the truck and hit the road. We made two stops along the highway at Mt. Rushmore (which, if you have never been there before, is allowed). We took some pictures of the landmark from both locations and hopped back in the truck and started off again.

While driving, I noticed that the whole state of Wyoming is pretty much devoid of cellular service. Not even Verizon and their great coverage worked. I did find, “Boner Rd.” in Wyoming. I’ll admit to a childish giggle or two.

We continued to drive down into Colorado. Made a stop in Denver for some coffee, then hit the road again. Getting up into the Colorado Rockies, we noticed a few scenic overlooks. We jumped out and took photos at each location – admiring the beauty of the mountains.

Burger King was our stop for dinner tonight. Let me tell you, a 5-star restaurant would have been very jealous of the view from this BK!

After dinner, we hit the road again. It was starting to get dark and I didn’t want to drive through the mountains at night. Partly because of the unknowns (animals, rock falls, etc.). Also, I really wanted to be able to see the mountains as I drove through them. The beauty really is stunning. So we stopped for the night at a Comfort Inn, in Eagle, Colorado. Again, the view this hotel has – stunning! Plus, it has windows that open! Fresh mountain air that night made for some great sleep!

We woke up Tuesday morning, feeling refreshed and ready to go! Utah was only a few hours away. Driving out of the mountains into Utah, I noticed that the sky was clouding up. We arrived in Moab, UT and stayed at Archview Campgrounds. As excited as I was about being in Moab, my feelings of excitement were quickly turning to dread as I noticed that it was raining in the desert. That’s right! I plan a huge road trip out to the desert, where the sky should be clear and I could get great shots of the stars, only to have it raining when we got there! Well, we had a few nights to figure things out, so we decided to setup camp. Before the trip, I bought a new tent with a removable top so you could see the night sky.

Handy tip kids – setup your new tent before you go camping. This way you aren’t in a rush, getting pissed off, and exploding in what could only be described as a Tourette’s Syndrome style tirade of swearing at the tent itself, and those who designed it.

Eventually, we figured out the tent situation and got camp setup. We took a quick trip into town (Moab) and picked up a few supplies and went back to camp.

As night set in, we came to realize that while it does cool off at night, there was no breeze to keep air moving. Sleeping was difficult as we need a blanket on us to sleep, but without air movement to keep us cool, we couldn’t have a blanket over us.

The next morning, we awoke to the sun being out and things looking up weather-wise. I made breakfast on the camp stove; eggs, bacon and sausage patties in an iron skillet – awesome! Looking around, I started to realize Utah would be more beautiful than I had initially imagined…

We cleaned up and drove over to Arches National Park. It took a little while to get in, but once we got through the gates, we were almost immediately hit with beautiful scenery. Commence photography!

As we drove through the park, I kept seeing signs stating, “4x4 only past this point”. At one point, we decided to try it. So I twisted the knob and put my truck into 4x4 and off-road we went! This brought on a whole new appreciation for the park. There are miles and miles of marked 4x4 trails that lead to more advanced hiking trails and hidden arches. Not to mention, there is almost nobody out there in the way of tourists.

While we were off-roading, I looked up to see that my Garmin GPS actually knew the trail we were on! Cool! Then I looked at my phone – full 4G LTE and phone signal! In the middle of the desert! What the hell is wrong with you, Wyoming?!

We spent probably an hour off-roading in the park. Eventually, I noticed on the GPS that we were getting close to the highway leading into Moab. I pointed that out to Kimberly and said, “I bet we will be able to hit the highway from this trail.” About 15 minutes later, we were on the highway! If you pay attention to the signs along the highway, you’ll notice that there are a lot of marked trails all along it. Moab is a pretty well-known off-road destination. There are many places to rent Jeeps and other off-road vehicles, take guided tours, and see all sorts of nature. I highly recommend it!

After dinner, we went back to the campsite and I started setting up my gear to shoot the meteor shower. If you have never shot meteor showers or night skies before, here’s what you need to know:

The Obvious
You need to be some place dark! You want to get away from cities and be out in the country or somewhere you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

The Gear
* Tripod
* Remote shutter release
* Camera body capable of high ISO settings
      * I used a Nikon D810
* Wide angle lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or better
      * I used a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G ED

The Settings
ISO
= 6400 – 12800 (I tried using both)
Aperture = f/2.8
Shutter speed = 15 – 20 seconds (I experimented with both)
Keep in mind, any more than 20 seconds and you could start to see star trails in your images due to Earth’s rotation.
Auto Focus = Off
Lens Focus = Infinity

Meteor showers may originate from a certain spot in the sky, but they can appear anywhere. If you’re using an application on your phone/tablet like Sky Map to locate the source, you can aim your camera that direction, but that doesn’t mean you will see more meteors. I shot for 4 hours and aimed my camera different directions a few times, even aiming it straight up to see what I could capture. Sometimes you’ll only get the tail end of a meteor. Other times you’ll get the whole thing. A lot of the time, you’ll just get great pictures of stars and the Milky Way. Honestly, if looking at the night sky is your thing, you won’t be disappointed with anything you capture.

During the night, we saw a lot of meteors streak across the sky. While we were walking to where we wanted to shoot from, one meteor appeared and looked like it was coming straight at us! It was super bright and left swirling debris trails in its wake. Of course, the best meteor of the night appears when we aren’t in position! We wrapped things up at 3AM and went to bed.

The next day we got up, I cooked breakfast again and we went to the Canyonlands. Wow! I’m really appreciating the beauty of Utah. We spent a few hours exploring around the Canyonlands. To be honest, we could have spent the day exploring here too. Maybe next trip…

After the Canyonlands, we went and checked out Dead Horse Point. The Colorado river cuts through here. Just like Arches and Canyonlands, there’s also tons of off-road trails through here. We spent about two hours here looking around. In the distance, there appeared to be a man-made, multi-level water reservoir in the middle of the desert. Couldn’t figure out what it was, but the stark contrast of bright blue against the brown background really made it stand out.

We wrapped up our day and went back to the campground. After swimming in their pool that I’m sure was fed water from the Arctic (seriously, it was so cold you only needed to be in there 5 minutes before you felt chilled to the bone), I made dinner and we relaxed while talking about making another trip here in the future.

The next morning, we packed up camp and started the journey home. We took a more direct route home this time. Traveling from Utah through Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa.

If you’re looking for a great place to shoot the night sky and capture meteors, I highly recommend you check out the Moab, Utah area and the surrounding parks. It’s incredibly dark and the stars you see with the naked eye are breath-taking; not to mention what you see with the camera on a 15 second exposure!

Jason