Camping the American West | California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada | Destination Wedding Photographer Personal Post

 

Sitting down to write this blog post was quite the endeavor. The trip I am about to describe has been DECADES in the making. I have always wanted to explore more of the American West by car (and live on the road) but I just didn’t really know how. I first thought about buying a van and renovating it to be a sleeper camper. Although I found heaps of helpful websites (The Vanual being my favorite), not being handy and having never been camping, I felt extremely at a disadvantage. I looked into renting a van from various companies (Base Camper Vans being my number one pick) but I found them to be nearly as expensive per day as a hotel room! I put it out of my mind until fate stepped in.

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Two years ago, I met Carly Jurach of Someplace Images at the United Photography Conference. Although we kept somewhat in touch sporadically via social media, we had really only met once when I asked her to second shoot a wedding in Palm Springs with me in 2018. When planning, I casually mentioned that I wanted to do a road trip and see some of the National Parks. Being an avid camper, Carly was sold in a hot second! She had the car and I had the plan: Palm Springs to Arizona to Utah and then Las Vegas!

Truth be told, Ben was a little hesitant: I was about to spend a month in a car with a girl I had met once. In retrospect, this decision could have gone incredibly awry but, luckily for me, Carly is a true gem who eased me into the world of BLM Land & #vanlife. Below is all of my travel advice for a rad camping adventure of your own! 

Palm Springs

We started in Palm Springs because my wedding was at La Quinta Resort & Spa. It just so happens that Carly’s parents and grandparents live about 15 minutes from this venue. They are an avid part of the RV community in Cathedral City. Now, living in an RV means something ENTIRELY different in Palm Springs. These communities are INSANE. We drove into the community to find full lap pools, golf courses and custom golf carts worth up to 10k. We provisioned for our trip by buying food, ice and water from Costco and Walmart after shooting our first wedding as a team. Carly had most of the physical items we needed to survive our trip (propane stove, portable grill, hearty sleeping bags etc.) but I did have to go to REI and buy hiking boots and base layers. I had ZERO idea what I was doing but the good folks of REI helped me get everything I needed!

While we were in Palm Springs, we celebrated Carly’s birthday by shopping in Downtown Palm Springs and brunching at The Broken Yolk Café followed by a lovely dinner at Maracas Mexican restaurant. We were also able to shoot at the Glamis sand dunes and Joshua Tree near the stunning West entrance of the park! After our stay in California’s paradise, we were off in our Subaru.

 

Page, Arizona

 Our first destination was Page, Arizona. We drove up through Phoenix (funnily near where Carly and I met). We decided to save time and not drive through Sedona but if you have more time, I would suggest the more scenic route. We arrived at Horseshoe Bend for our second couples’ session of the trip! We were able to snap Morgan & Brent at sunset. There are so many angles of the bend it is hard to decide where to stand but if you walk far enough to the right, you can easily avoid the crowds. The walk to the bend is only a 10-minute trek but what can be tricky is the time zones. I have never laughed harder trying to figure out what time zone we are actually in.

We then camped on BLM Land at a place called Stud Horse point. It was stunning and we were able to explore the hoodoos in the morning before our next adventure. We then got to explore the iconic Antelope Canyon. Now photographers may have questions about this. We booked the photo tour of Upper Antelope Canyon with Navajo Antelope Canyon. It seems that there is better light in Lower Antelope Canyon but they do not offer photo tours of that canyon. The canyon is CRAWLING with hundreds of people so the photo tour is the only way to get a clear shot without any tourists in it. Your need to bring a tri-pod and professional camera to be on the tour but you don’t need to use the tri-pod to shoot (I shot hand held with a high ISO). We went at 2:30PM but it seems the best light (and chance of seeing light beams) is in the morning tours but those were sold out. Beams are also not year round; they mostly occur in summer months! Rattlesnake Canyon seems the best option if you want to photograph a couple or engagement.

Middle & Southern Utah: Zion, Bryce, Mystic

 After Page, we journeyed on to Utah. Our first stop was to Kanab to see if we could get a permit to see The Wave. Now, MONTHS earlier, I entered the Online Lotto but we did not get so lucky; there are only 20 people allowed to visit the Wave per day and they administer 10 online in advance and 10 in person. We went to the permit office at 745 E. Highway 89 to enter the lottery. About 200 people showed up for the 10 slots available. Needless to say when the names were called at 9AM, we were not among the lucky winners. We headed to Zion as a consolation prize.

Zion is incredible. I think this was the point in the trip that I was the most in awe and I didn’t really expect it. Driving into the park was magical. You drive past these dinosaur-like mountains and feel super tiny and insignificant. It’s rad. I wish we could’ve spent an extra week here. There are a staggering amount of hikes and rivers to explore. We chose to do one of the top rated hikes in the world: Angels Landing. It probably took about 3.5 hours and was a lot of up hill switchbacks but super worth it. We were also able to snap our third couple at Observation Point (which is only about a 10 minute hike up). At sunset, we saw some long horned sheep hanging out mountain side. Again, rad.

After Zion, we traveled to Bryce which was COLD. It dropped about 15 degrees in Bryce and there was still snow on the ground in late March. The trails that are best for hikes here would be Navajo Trail or Peek-a-boo but you can also drive to various overlooks to admire all the crazy rock formations. We warmed up from our chilly time in Bryce with a trip to the Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe. These are such hidden gems. We were the only people there and paid next to nothing to soak in naturally heated mineral water for up to 6 hours. They also have amazing school busses that have been transformed into bohemian sleeper campers. It was a bohemian paradise for sure.

 

Eastern Utah: Moab

 From Bryce Canyon, it’s about a 4 hour drive east to Moab. Moab is an awesome little hippy town full of amazing hikes, national parks and great food. It just so happened to be Jeep Week in the city so it was busier than usual but it didn’t end up being all too bad considering we did all our hikes at sunrise! Our first day, we got to town and camped on BLM land before waking up and hiking to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. The hike is about 3 miles mostly up-hill but TOTALLY worth it. My favorite view of the arch is actually from across the way. We also got to explore Windows snapped an epic shot of Courthouse Towers (where Thelma and Louise was filmed) and did a lesser known hike a bit outside of Arches. If we had more time, we likely would’ve ventured to Canyon Lands and explored more there.

We got to photograph my high school pal Allison and her darling family at sunrise before catching breakfast at Eklecticafe with Carly’s childhood friends Joelle and Erin. All of these ladies are extremely outdoorsy and have rock climbing, cross-country skiing and mountain biking as hobbies. Needless to say, I felt like a super delicate DCer with my city-life perspectives. Talking with them about their lifestyle definitely inspired me to spend more time in nature and less time at my desk.

 

Las Vegas, Nevada

 Our final destination was Las Vegas, mostly because that was the cheapest airport to fly out of. I had only been to Vegas once before and it is not my favorite city but I found a new appreciation of the town. Carly and I had the 7 hour drive to plan what the heck we wanted to do in the city of gambling and sin. We decided to see Thunder from Down Under which was one of the better decisions of my life. The show itself was so insanely fun and so was the crowd! We camped at the RV park behind Circus Circus and tanned by the pool to cure our hangovers before shooting at the Neon Museum with our final couple of the trip!

I can’t really sum up the impact this experience had on me. I am walking away more exhausted than I have been on any other trip but I am also feeling like I gained years on my life. I am thankful every day for meeting Carly and for her patience with me on our crazy trip while teaching me the ways of camping. I am in awe of all the incredible people we met on our journey and other-world like places we got to experience. I loved living on the road and undoubtedly will return to a simpler, more mobile lifestyle in the future. Van life: 10/10 would recommend.