The Planning Phase
Although sometimes it’s easier to execute than others, I like to take a semi “big” trip at least once a year. It helps me recharge, develop my passions, and does fantastic things for my bucket list. I started this unknowingly in the summer of 2015 and have had a meaningful adventure every summer since. These trips have been amazing, but we’re so used to putting on display the breathtaking photos and awesome experiences and undoubtedly sometimes make this feel like an unattainable process for those following along. I want to take the time to paint the big picture of this experience and hopefully help anyone craving this type of adventure along the way.
The most difficult parts of planning these trips is timing, people, and place. Through post-grad life, many of my friends have begun their careers and have been operating within the confines of the daunting PTO. This in itself is responsible for complicating both timing and people. In addition, I began this summer with uncertainty about my next move which complicated the process even more. Without knowing where I’d be working and when I needed to be there, weeks passed and my window of opportunity for this trip was quickly closing. My go-to travel partner, Taylor, had just graduated with her Master’s and paralleled my uncertainty of what’s next with the same thirst for adventure. We spent hours on google flights, playing with dates, places, and prices. Things slowly began to settle into place as we locked down the window within which we could take the trip- about three weeks beginning in early June. We discussed with each other, friends, and family and decided to explore the upper West corner of the US, transition into Canada, and work our way down to Colorado. After discussions of who may or may not be joining and accepting the realization that this would be a low-budget trip, we finally locked down our flights just three days before taking off.
**Disclaimer: As I talk about trying to keep a low-budget, there’s just a few things I’d like to point out. First off, camping/backpacking gear is not cheap. There are certainly ways to attempt to get around it. I’ve known people to reach out to adventure companies asking for gear in exchange for good reviews or social media exposure. I also recommend becoming an REI member, because for a small price there are tons of benefits from member only sales to the dividend and more. Invest in quality gear instead of going for the cheap option, because in the long run it will work more effectively and last longer. Also, I want to debunk a myth I often hear. Camping is NOT always free. It’s generally much cheaper than a hotel/hostel/Airbnb, but almost every campground has some sort of fee to keep it running. And when it is free, you are often in a very primitive situation.
The nice thing about trips like this, that involve a lot of camping, driving, and overall simplistic living, is that a) it’s much easier to go with the flow when you don’t have a plane to catch or a reservation to get to and b) you’re really able to focus on the beauty of the Earth and if you see something that looks interesting, it’s easy to pull over and check it out. Although it’s a good feeling to have everything organized and reserved ahead of time when traveling, we saw some of the most incredible views and have the best memories from trusting the process and going with the flow.
The Doing Phase
When we left for Portland, we had a tentative plan to stay for two nights before heading up to Olympic National Park. We would spend a day exploring the city of Portland, and then head out the next day. Our plans changed when we caught this incredible golden hour view of Mount Hood from the plane.
Mount Hood | Oregon
So as it turns out, we stayed an extra night in Portland to navigate the beautiful state that is Oregon. Now you might be thinking, how in the world do you just “stay an extra night in Portland?” Before leaving for this trip, Taylor and I had it very clear that as we both just finished up our Master’s degrees, we needed to be cost efficient wherever possible. And as Taylor is an Airbnb host in New York City, she had a woman stay in her apartment a few weeks prior who was from Portland. They exchanged contact info, and she had told Taylor that if she was ever in Portland to get in touch. So what did we do? We got in touch. After going back and forth through logistics, this woman allowed us to stay in her house in Portland for 3 nights for $50. This just goes to show how being compassionate and following up on connections can really benefit you in the long run.
Voodoo Donuts | Portland, Oregon
One of my favorite parts of traveling is the connection you make with this community of people passionate about exploring our beautiful earth. There is often an unspoken bond among travelers and it’s such a rewarding feeling to share your space with others and have them return the favor down the road.
So as we explored Oregon, I was excited to continue developing a passion for creating photographs. We visited Multnomah Falls, Trillium Lake, and made it to the coast of Oregon. I tried new things and got some incredible shots which kept me so excited and motivated for the rest of our trip. Overall, the first time straying off of our original plan was a great success.
Mount Hood from Trillium Lake (upper) Multnomah Falls (lower) | Oregon
From there, we began our journey up to Olympic National Forest where we had no camping reservation set in stone. We’ve had mixed experience with this, so we tried something we had never tried before. We got online and found a campsite and were on our way. When we got there, we ended up at a better one we found a few miles from beautiful Lake Cushman. After a great conversation with the guy who checked us in, we ended up getting a discount and comfortably were able to set up camp among some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen. At this point in time, I was feeling pretty good about our impromptu spot. Although it’s such a cliché, there is a wonderful inner peace that comes from being in nature completely disconnected.
Lake Cushman (upper) Skokomish Campground (lower) | Olympic National Forest
We were able to drive though much of Washington on our way up to Olympic National Park and enjoy some incredible views all the way up to the park. This state is absolutely breathtaking, and if you haven’t made it there yet you absolutely should!
Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park | Washington
Because we had stayed in Oregon a night longer than we had originally intended, we had to make up for it in a later part of our trip. That’s when we decided to drive through Seattle and stop for only a few hours before heading to our hostel in Vancouver. I’d like to take the time to point out the irony that we ventured to sunny Seattle to escape the DC rain…
Seattle was an awesome city. It was so full of life and we were only there for about 3-4 hours. I was happy we were able to check out the Starbucks reserve, as someone who nerds out about good coffee this place was truly incredible. If you like coffee (even if you hate Starbucks) and are ever in Seattle, you should absolutely check it out.
Our trip to Vancouver from Seattle was relatively short (2-3 hours). We crossed the border with no problem and made it just in time to watch the Caps take home the Stanley Cup #ALLCAPS! Vancouver is a beautiful city, and although it rained almost the entire time we were there, we really got a great feel of this incredible place.
After Vancouver, we took on the biggest stretch of driving yet, 9 hours to Banff National Park. The drive through Canada was absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing to think we have this incredibly breath-taking country attached to the US. Although we were both exhausted from the 4:30 am wake-up call in Vancouver, the views in Alberta gave us life! Up until now, all of our drives from one destination to another had been breathtaking and reminded me once again that the pursuit is happiness.
Unlike our pretty much empty campground in Olympic National Forest, this campground was full of big, rowdy groups. We had to work hard to find our peace at the campsite. It became very clear that Banff is a really hot international tourist destination, and this was only reinforced as we heard all sorts of different languages in our few days there. Banff was one of the most incredible national parks I have ever been to, but there were certainly times in which the touristy feel was hard to escape. We did some incredible hikes that isolated us from the thousands of people and were able to once again reconnect with nature. In order to combat this, I recommend getting up and out early in the day and going during the week.
My favorite hikes in Banff include:
The Inkpots Trail
This trail passes through several water falls in the Johnston Canyon, where I got one of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken. We continued passed the Upper falls to the Inkpots which took us to one of the most unique views of the park that we had seen.
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Inkpots Trail |Banff National Park
Sulphur Mountain Trail
This is an interesting hike. There’s the option to take a Gondola to the top, or do the 6.2 mile round trip and as has been stated many times above, we were here for adventure (and to save money) so we started the 3.1 mile trek to the top. At first this hike was really disheartening… we saw the Gondola go up and down and it felt like we would NEVER make it to the top. When we finally did about an hour and a half later, we were absolutely beat. At the top, we were greeted by hundreds of people enjoying the view, coffee shop, restaurant, museum, and gift shop at the summit. We were able to find a spot to disconnect from the tourists, take in an incredible view, and be proud of the work we put in to enjoy it.
View of Banff from Sulphur Mountain | Alberta, Canada
Photo from the Rock pile at Moraine Lake | Banff National Park
Banff was an incredible experience, but we were excited to head South towards Montana to escape the tourists. I had made a reservation at a campground right outside of Glacier National Park, and when we were arrived we were a little hesitant. It was full of mosquitos, felt semi-deserted and we had a bad gut feeling. It appeared to be empty and we didn’t know how to go about finding our reservation when we couldn’t find anyone to talk to. So we drove around the campground for what felt like 30 minutes until we finally found the campsite with my name on it. Many of the campsites at this ground were right on a beautiful green river but ours wasn’t, so we set out to find the people in charge to change that.
We finally were able to get in touch with the campsite hosts, which were a couple with two young children and a dog named Bob. Being fully transparent, I’ll admit that when we first saw their RV we were worried they wouldn’t be very welcoming. It was a vibe we got from the way they were set up in combination with our initial reaction to the campground. We approached them and introduced ourselves, and asked if we could move campsites. They said they really weren’t supposed to let us, but that it would be okay to move to a campsite on the river. An hour or so later, they were doing their rounds at all the campsites and came to talk to us. They gave us great advice, suggestions, and were and overall blast to talk to. They had such a way of engaging in conversation that really made us feel that they were intrigued by us and our journey. In addition to that, they were such an inspiration. They were living a life of adventure as campground hosts and living so simplistically. Their children were simultaneously dirty and happy. They spent all day outside, growing within nature. I learned a lot from this family and will never forget our short stay in Montana. This experience reminded me to check my own biases as these people were incredible despite my initial reaction. We had a great few days in Montana.
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Avalanche Lake (left) Lake McDonald (right) | Glacier National Park, Montana
It was in our original plans that our next stop would be to meet some friends in Yellowstone for the next three nights. The trek from Montana to Yellowstone was about 8.5 hours, and as our plans changed so did this number. In this change of plans, we would drive to Yellowstone, explore for an afternoon and stay a night, and drive down to Fort Collins to camp on the Poudre River the next day. We headed out of our wonderful campground in Montana towards Wyoming and this drive felt like forever. It began pouring rain, and with no campsite reservation we started to get nervous. Thoughts raced through my head, “I don’t want to set up camp in the rain.” “How are we supposed to make a campfire to cook our food in the rain.” “I’m honestly kind of tired of sleeping in a tent.” And from talking to Taylor, she was feeling the same way.
And to be perfectly honest, by the time we got to Yellowstone I was incredibly cranky. We had been on the road for 8 hours, and were told it would take at least 2.5 more to drive through the North entrance of Yellowstone to the South entrance where we were hoping we could find a cheap motel to stay. Getting nervous as the hours kept passing and we didn’t have a plan, we did our best to enjoy the weirdest National park I’ve ever to.
Yellowstone National Park | Wyoming
We drove through the park with no cell service whatsoever. And this is great and inspiring and helps you connect with yourself and the Earth as I’ve mentioned many times before, but its a daunting situation when the sun is going down and you don’t have a place to sleep. We kept the environment light, we were listening to great music and laughing and feeling so present. Unexpectedly, we realized that Yellowstone and Grand Teton National park are pretty much overlapping and we ended up driving through Grand Teton although that was never on the original itinerary. In hindsight, I’m so grateful for the way things worked out although we were slightly terrified at the time. We got to drive through an incredible view of the park at golden hour and I captured some incredible shots. We felt so at ease that the fear of finding a place to sleep was distant.
Eventually, after trying embarassingly hard to see a bear and 12 hours on the road we made it to Jackson, Wyoming. We were hoping to find a really cheap motel for the night, but as we started calling and stopping into places we realized cheap was not going to happen. It was getting late, and we reached a hotel that told us that there was no place in town that would be less than $200, if that (including the motel 6). As we were reaching the end of our trip, this was an unexpected expense that was not in our original budget. Knowing it was our only choice, we bit the bullet and appreciated the f*** out of sleeping in a real bed and taking a real shower. At the end of the day, it was more than worth it.
The next day, feeling reenergized from the night in the hotel, we made our way to Fort Collins to officially end the trip at Odell Brewing company with some great friends to reflect on our adventure.
The Reflecting Phase
After I finish a trip, I like to take time to really reflect on each day and experience. Although you might go into the trip with a plan and expectations, it almost never goes exactly the way you thought it would. And it didn’t, and for that I’m grateful. As I reflect on this experience, I am so content with how much my passion and ability for photography has been enhanced. I’ve learned so much, and I really feel like it’s beginning to click. We tried new camping tricks and were able to expand our meals from just peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We were vulnerable and leaned into any discomfort we were feeling that made for an honest and wholesome adventure.
My advice for anyone who wants to take a trip like this is start. Start by writing down potential places you want to go, and doing research about what to do when you’re there. Talk to people. I have been on several trips with people that I barely know and are now my best friends, from conversations that started about wanting to travel. And with that, lean into discomfort, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Trust yourself and be flexible and open to new experiences. These big adventures make up some of the happiest and most fulfilling memories I have and I couldn’t have done it without taking those steps.
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*All photos posted taken either on iPhone or Nikon D3400 35 mm*