Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved roadtripping. In a world of fast travel, being on the road gives me the freedom to explore at my own pace—to treat every moment like a destination of its own.
As I’ve grown more and more busy, however, the ability to take my time on the road has dwindled; I’ve found myself daydreaming about the luxury of time and flexibility, forgoing meticulously planned-out itineraries in favor of more spontaneous experiences. It’s for this reason that I was thrilled to drive from Bigfork, Montana to Yellowstone National Park with my good friend Isaac, a trip that required little advanced planning and a lot of adventurous spirit.
For camping along a route like ours, what minimal planning was required mainly revolved around researching locations of public land and thinking about sleeping logistics. Before hitting the road, we wanted to have a general sense of where we’d be able to set up camp; also, while on the trip, we discovered that it pays to pitch camp before nightfall and use the remaining hours of the day to explore around your campsite. I’ve been known to try it the other way around, learning the hard way that you might not be able to find a spot to sleep after dark.
For the most part, everything else on this trip was at the mercy of our whims. As we scoured forested campsites and braved vicious mountaintop winds, I was grateful to have the space and time to traverse places like Beartooth Pass, which would otherwise be skipped over on the way to Yellowstone for efficiency’s sake. Instead of keeping a tight schedule and putting all our energy toward a single final destination, we turned our road trip into a journey of many destinations, giving ourselves the freedom to choose whichever road we pleased.
The Itinerary: Bigfork, Montana to Yellowstone National Park
Do: We started our trip in Flathead Lake, which is one of my favorite places to swim anywhere in the world. The water quality is amazing, and the lake is surrounded by evergreens, rolling hills, and mountains. We spent the morning canoeing, then drove down the east side of the lake on our way south. This is a great spot to watch the sunrise.
Eat: Check out Flathead Lake Brewing Company in Bigfork for great food and drinks.
Stay: We camped up in the mountains in the national forest behind Anaconda, an old mining town. With no real destination in mind but to go into the mountains, we wound up at a blown-over fire tower where we spent the night. The next morning, we woke up to crazy high winds and frost covering everything. It was exhilarating, but we were ready to get out of there pretty fast!
Do: On our second day of the trip, we spent most of our time driving between locations. We left the Anaconda campsite and made our way through Missoula, Wise River, and Twin Bridges.
Eat: The best meal we had all trip was at the Wise River Club in Wise River, MT., where we stopped for breakfast. We were served by a guy with a really thick Scottish accent, something that was sort of surprising out where we were in Montana. We overheard him mention to a friend of his that he had been there for over 20 years but we didn’t want to ask him too many questions ourselves—he seemed like a pretty gnarly guy. In the best way, of course.
Stay: We camped in the Custer Gallatin National Forest; Limber Pine Campground, Greenough Lake, and Parkside Campground areas are all good options.
Do: We spent an afternoon walking around and admiring the shops in Virginia City—it feels like an old western town caught in time—although we could have stayed longer. From there, we headed to Beartooth Pass, a totally captivating stretch of road that leads from Red Lodge to Cooke City, and then into Yellowstone National Park. We spent almost 24 hours here; driving the road itself is an unforgettable experience with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, not to mention all of the photography opportunities along the way. Of course, the quicker route to Yellowstone usually passes over Beartooth, but there are so many cool campsites here, we couldn’t resist a stop. Always be on the lookout for the little brown forestry signs leading you right to the perfect site. Also, be sure to bring a jacket at all times of year—it’s cold up here!
Eat: On the Montana side, Cafe Regis and Mas Taco are great local restaurants in Red Lodge.
Stay: We found a campsite roughly an hour out of the way from Beartooth. We pitched our camp before dark and headed right back out onto Beartooth Pass for some exploring—Isaac used this time to practice his downhill skating!
Do: We spent the day at Yellowstone National Park, starting before sunrise—the Lamar Valley is another great place to watch a sunrise—watching wildlife (including three wolves!). The north part of the park is less crowded than the south part of the park and has just as many impressive vistas; however, you won’t want to miss the south side, either. If you’re driving through the park that means you will most likely be driving through Grand Teton National Park as well. Pro tip: If you plan on visiting at least one other national park within the year it will actually be cheaper to spring for the annual park pass instead of paying for both parks once.
Eat: The Wonderland Cafe & Lodge in Gardiner (at the north entrance of Yellowstone).
Stay: The Eagle Creek Campground outside of Gardiner is the place to be for great access to the north side of the park.
The Process: Tips from an Outdoor Photography Pro
How does travel inspire your work?
Travel is the easiest way to be inspired. I was surprised at how much I noticed without the “big destination”—Yellowstone is crazy cool of course, but driving in my old Land Cruiser has a good way of slowing you down, literally and figuratively, and I started to see things in a way that I hadn’t in years. It was very much like when I was younger and was exploring the west for the first time: everything seemed new and special.
What did you pack and why?
I always make lists to prepare for my trips. There’s a lot to pack: I started with my photo gear, the Canon EOS Rebel T7i and Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens, and then filled out my duffle bag with warm jackets, fly fishing gear, and extra batteries. After so many road trips I’ve learned that if anything I always bring too much. I try to pair down, and utilize things that can have multiple uses, like turning my puffy jacket into a pillow.
What was the best photo-op along the way?
Tough choice, but I think Beartooth Pass is unrivaled. Even looking at it on a map, the road’s twists and turns might make you a little woozy. It’s truly amazing to see, and the feeling of being small was front and center during our time there.
What was your favorite photo from the trip and why?
My favorite photo was one I took of Isaac in my canoe at Flathead Lake. It was an amazing start to the trip, and although we’re both out photographing most of the year, the sunrise we got that morning was incredible. It set the tone for the entire trip.
What are your tips for taking shots while in motion?
Shutter speed—go fast! Even for people walking I don’t like to shoot slower than 1/400, and if it’s true action, I’m usually at a minimum of 1/1000 or faster. Taking advantage of Canon’s great ISO performance, a lot of my shots are made using a higher ISO to get my shutter speed to a place where I can freeze the action.
Why do you choose to shoot on a Canon?
I’ve been shooting Canon cameras since I was a kid, and I’ve never been let down by one. I’ve dropped Canon cameras down hills, covered them in mud, left them out in the rain by accident, and I’ve never had one fail on me. To know that what you’re depending on for your livelihood is going to take as much as you can give is something I won’t compromise on, whether I’m shooting personal work near my home or on a full production set in Iceland. Not to mention, the image quality and color science is fantastic.
What features of the EOS Rebel T7i did you find particularly helpful in capturing beautiful shots from the road?
First of all, the form factor is great—it fits perfectly in my hand and is so lightweight! I love the articulating screen and the colors that the sensor gives—editing the T7i files was so easy, and it usually takes me a little bit of adjusting time when switching to a new sensor. I also loved the battery life; I did the entire trip on one battery and still had juice to spare—that’s a big deal when traveling!
What lens did you use and why?
I had the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, and Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM lenses with me, and while I used them all, I would have felt totally comfortable going out with any one of those lenses for the entire trip. This is something that is still true to an extent, but was especially more noticeable when I was starting out in photography: the more options I had, the worse I did. Instead of “seeing” photos and capturing them, I was paralyzed by having too many choices of lenses. I recommend that folks invest in good glass (I shoot almost everything with Canon’s L series lenses), and stick to one lens for awhile before getting anything else. I recommend the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM especially as options for a first lens.
What are some of your favorite technical tricks?
Good question—I learned this one the hard way traveling in Alaska and missing shots of moose and bears. When traveling, put your longest lens on and put your camera in AV mode with your focus point in the center and variable ISO (usually 100-800 is a good range to select). I select an aperture around 2.8-4, and then I put the camera in the floorboard of the car on the passenger side. This way the camera can’t fall off the seat, and when you stop and reach to grab it, it’s set up to take great photos of whatever is in front of you, including fast moving wildlife. I also leave the camera turned on, it’ll go to sleep by itself and wake with just a touch of the shutter button.
What recommendations would you give an amateur photographer looking to improve their travel photography?
In addition to the one lens recommendation above, my advice is to shoot in the good light. It’s important to shoot as much as possible—shoot in bad light, too, but afterwards, compare the photos in good light to the ones in bad light. We’ll all still have shoots and projects and trips where the light is bad and that’s why it’s important to learn to shoot in everything, but learning what kind of light you like and what you like to shoot in is super helpful.