Finding Photo Resources: A Guide to Preparation for U.S. Travel

Landscape photo of road that leaves Bryce Canyon by Noella Ballenger 
© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

I love traveling through our wilderness locations. There is nothing more exciting than topping a crest and having a magnificent vista in front of you. This was taken on the road that leaves Bryce Canyon as we were driving to Kodachrome Basin.

It’s about this time of year that I have my basic travel plans in place for my next photo adventure here in the U.S. I typically travel in my own vehicle or via airplane and then a rental vehicle. I know where and when I want to go but haven’t yet planned out all of the details. So how does one go about making sure the particulars of your trip are in place and will work smoothly for you? How do you know just where the best places are and when to be there for the optimum photographic opportunities? Here are some tips that might help you with that final planning.

Gathering the Information

Here in the U.S., travel agents can help you get a head start on your plans, especially if you are familiar with a company that you have previously used for foreign travel. They can be extremely helpful in sharing the resources they have at their fingertips and someone within the company may even have first-hand knowledge about a particular area.

Next, one of my best resources is the local automobile club. If you are a frequent traveler or even just travel once a year, I would encourage you to join an auto club in your area. Not only do they have knowledgeable agents, but they can supply you with a variety of books and maps. As a member of AAA here in Southern California, I know that I can not only find lots of good materials here, but one of the special advantages to this resource is that many of the travel agents are people who love to travel themselves and do so frequently. I try to go in when there aren’t too many people and find out if anyone knows about or is from the area I want to visit. They are usually very friendly and willing to share all they know.

After I have studied these maps and guides from the auto club, I go online to look up the various places I plan to visit. Just by typing a subject or location in the search engine, you get long lists of articles and information that you can check out. There is so much information to be found at your fingertips. If you are into wildlife or birds and birding, check out the National Wildlife Refuges sites, or go to the National Park Service if you want to visit one of the many National parks across the country. In California I go to the California Parks site–every state has a similar site to visit. Just type in Oregon or Florida State Parks and you will be directed to the appropriate site.

If you aren’t online or can’t find exactly what you want, then go to your local library. They frequently have books with lots of photographs and I make note of some of the locations that look really interesting to me.

Then I turn to friends and/or other photographers I know who travel. They may have been to the particular area I want to visit. I contact photo labs and camera stores that I’ve frequented and ask them for any information they may have or other contacts that they may know. Most people are always pleased to share locations when they have had a great time … and if they haven’t had a good time or have been disappointed they share that information as well.

Photo of salt flats in Death Valley , Utah by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

The salt flats in Death Valley are formed in the lowest part of the valley. As water drains into the basin from surrounding mountains, minerals and salt are dissolved and temporary lakes form. Because there is no drainage out of the basin and because evaporation exceeds precipitation, the dissolved salts and minerals are left. After thousands of years a crust formed. Salt crystals expand and push out to make these beautiful formations.

So much of the information we need to sift through can come from non-photographers, so don’t forget about photography clubs and on-line photo forums where you can ask questions about things to see and do at the various destinations. Or subscribe to a photography newsletter, like Bob Hitchman’s Photograph America. His is an essential part of my planning whenever I travel in the United States. Over the years I have come to rely on these sources of information, as it puts you in the right spot at the right time and can also include helpful insight on places to stay and eat. I bookmark or save the information on my computer, so it always accessible for printing when I plan my next trip.

And who knows, after your research if all said and done, you may discard some areas you had planned to visit and choose new ones that appear to be even more to your liking.

Photo of Brown-eyed Evening Primrose flower in Death Valley , Utah by Noella Ballenger

© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

In the spring, in a good year, there are many lovely flowers in Death Valley. One of the books I found at the Visitor Center was Death Valley Wildflowers by Roxana S. Ferris. That helped me identify this Brown-eyed Evening Primrose.

Photo of Mojave Mound Cactus and flowers in Death Valley , Utah by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

Mojave Mound Cactus is a variety of the Claret Cup Cactus. I found this one described in a postcard book called Cactus Flowers produced by the Sierra Press. Postcards are great for finding locations and even identifying species of plants.

Using Your Resources to Plan the Trip

Now that I have gathered lots of information, I sort it into general areas and try to forecast a timeline. I know about how many days I have and about how much territory I want to cover. I generally know my entrance and exit cities (depending on whether I’m flying or driving) and plan those times with some flexibility.

Now I turn to my maps and start marking locations that sound interesting. When I get enough locations marked on the map, I can start to see my route beginning to emerge. I note any special attractions that I might want to see and block some time for those. For details of the attraction or area, I again turn to my computer and print out any added information that I might want to take with me.

There are two computer programs that I like to use to plan and fine tune my trips. One is Google Earth. Here you can put in an address or an attraction and get a feel for what the area looks like, what is near where you plan to be and see if you want to spend the allotted time there. Go to Google Earth and get a free program download and test it for yourself.

You can also get a free trial version or purchase Microsoft’s program, Microsoft Streets and Trips. Once my location is set, it is nice to run the program and it will give you estimates of how far you will travel in a day, special locations, special maps and GPS coordinates. There are even construction updates. And if I know that I am going to be staying at a certain location in a city, I print out a small detailed map that shows me exactly where that is and how to get there.

In today’s world of modern and exciting gadgetry, a GPS is wonderful and has saved me a couple of times, but I tend to use the old fashion means more–maps. I like to mark them up and check them for side roads and routes that I might miss. It’s not the most modern way to travel, but I like visually seeing where I am going on the map. If navigation gets rough in a strange city, then there is nothing as nice as your GPS guiding the way.

Photo of travel resources by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

There are many resources at your disposal.

Packing Your Resources & Getting to Your Location

I always make a small kit and organize my papers within it (my itinerary, reservation list, plane tickets, maps, etc.). Those are all essentials. But it also includes printouts from the computer programs and internet sites I visited, copies of a pages out of a guide book or a small detailed map of a specific location, a copy of Photograph America, and notes on what to see, when to be there, and several other opportunities in the same approximate location just in case I finish early or want to move on. Compulsive tendencies make me number the information so it coincides with the locations on my itinerary and numbers on my map. You can certainly organize your papers in whatever way works best for you.

Landscape photo of Salt Creek in Death Valley , Utah by Noella Ballenger

© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

Photo of sand dunes near Death Valley's Furnace Creek in Death Valley , Utah by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

Using Photograph America’s guide for Death Valley, I was guided to a lovely little location called Salt Creek. Salt creek is fed by McLean Spring and is a small oasis of lush bushes and reeds in very barren surroundings. It is also home to Pupfish, the last known survivors of a fish species that lived in Lake Manly before it dried up at the end of the last ice age.

The sand dunes near Death Valley’s Furnace Creek are well know to photographers. They are big and elegant but there is more to them than just the large overview. There are the small patterns and details. I love going into the dunes just after the wind has blown because the patterns are unique and fresh. Here, wind ripples are at the base of a large dune.

If I am flying into an area, I always try to spend a few minutes before I leave the airport in one of the shops that carry postcards. It is amazing how many good locations you can find by looking at their postcards and noting the locations. This sometimes produces little gems of places that just aren’t picked up by the larger guide books.

Also, motels and hotels frequently have a rack of interesting brochures with local spots and shops and visiting the Visitor’s Bureaus and talking with the folks there can also be extremely helpful. They’ll not only know the favored, fun hot spots, but will often have current information on local road conditions and news.

If I have the time, I’ll also pop into a local camera store. They too are frequently willing to share their favorite local photo hangouts.

Photo of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger All Rights Reserved.

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of several parks in the southwestern corner of Utah.
Tapping into the National Park site gives you a chance to find really nice viewing points,
trails and other points of interest.

So spend some time and gather as much information as you can. I’ve just given you a few of the sources I use and I’m sure you know of more. Make it a fun, fact finding adventure before the real photo adventure of discovery begins. It’s always better to leave and have places that you wished you would have had the time to see than to be wondering what to do next.

Keeping a diary each evening is helpful. I note the places I visited, what I liked or didn’t like, where I ate and where I stayed, etc. All of these little pieces are helpful when planning your next trip to the area or if someone else asks your advice.

Hope you have a super trip and will share some of your good locations with me.

by Noella Ballenger

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