Memorial Day Weekend in Valentine, Nebraska

After having nothing but great weather in Utah I finally ran into some amazing storms in Nebraska. In the past I’ve been in some terrific, nail-biting storms with huge hail, lightning, wind, rain and general mayhem that has scared me to death. Nebraska seems to offer more than its fair share of crazy weather whenever I am visiting. But it’s fantastic for picture taking.

I love the cloud patterns above the Sandhills near Valentine, Nebraska. There was enough of a break in the weather to go out and get these shots.

Storm clouds over the Nebraska Sandhills along Highway 83

Storm clouds over the Niobrara River and Railway Bridge near Valentine, Nebraska

Storm clouds and windmill over the Nebraska Sandhills along Highway 83

But then the sun came out! I took these with my iPhone X.

Kayaking at the Merritt Reservoir south of Valentine, Nebraska

My campsite along the Merritt Reservoir

The Berry Bridge on the Niobrara River

View from the Berry Bridge on the Niobrara River

View of Fort Falls from the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Valentine, Nebraska

I always love to visit Valentine, Nebraska. Ever since the writer Jim Harrison wrote about the beautiful Highway 20 across northern Nebraska I have made Valentine one of my stops in Nebraska. The amazing Plains Trading Company Bookseller bookstore was even open on Saturday so I could stop in and see Duane and get some new reading material. I took my new books down to the Bunk House and had a hearty breakfast while the Weather Channel played on the television in the dining room. In spite of the storms it was another great visit to Valentine, Nebraska.

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Toadstool Geological Park in Northwestern Nebraska

I wish I were a writer. I wish I could conjure up all manner of descriptive boldness to share some of what I experience when I travel with my cameras. I read Karl Ove Knausgaard and Douglas Brinkley (Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America) at my campsite and think how they make it look easy. It is not easy. Sometimes my photographs tell the elemental story and other times there are associated sights, sounds, smells and emotions that I wish I could convey. It’s really hard to put into words the joy of listening to Western Meadowlarks calling to each other in the otherwise absolute stillness of northern Nebraska. I will try to describe some of the not-captured-on-camera parts of my travel experiences. But please bear with me. I only wish I were a writer. A good place to start is with my recent trip to Toadstool Geological Park.

Toadstool Geologic Park is located in the Oglala National Grassland in far northwestern Nebraska. It contains an impressive badlands landscape and has a very small campground. I had been to Toadstool once before and I remembered it being a great spot to take night photographs. It is one of the darkest regions of Nebraska and has fascinating toadstool-shaped rock formations which can become interesting foregrounds elements. I remembered exiting Highway 20 near Crawford, Nebraska and driving down an eleven-mile dirt road to the park. However, the road had been dry and dusty the last time I had driven it. This time it had rained most of the morning and I didn’t quite know what I was in for. I have a four-wheel drive vehicle and have been pretty confident driving on most back roads. From the moment I turned onto the sloppy dirt road I knew that this would be an adventure. I plowed through deep mud and did my best to avoid the huge tire ruts. Somehow I kept my forward momentum and progressed down the road anxiously ticking off the miles. A couple of times I felt that I might actually bog down but somehow my car powered through and kept going. As I looked in my side mirrors I could see the piles of mud forming on my Little Guy RV. After what seemed like an eternity I finally pulled into campsite 5 and heaved a sigh of relief. There was no one else at Toadstool, not even the hardy Nebraskans with their huge pickup trucks who would have thought nothing of the drive in. I counted myself lucky to have made it and to have the place all to myself. I set up camp and enjoyed the solitude. I took a hike in the badlands and scouted locations for sunrise and sunset shots as well as Milky Way shots. When I got back to my camp I found another vehicle who had braved the road and made it safely to camp. We compared driving horror stories and laughed about the empty campground.

I got up at 4 a.m. to find that the moon had set and the Milky Way was in a perfect position over the badlands. I shot for awhile then went back to bed for an hour to await sunrise. Here is one of my Milky Way shots over the Badlands of Toadstool.

The Milky Way at Toadstool Geological Park in Northwestern Nebraska

As I was photographing the Milky Way a train about two miles away started across the flat area in front of the badlands. I liked how its lights lit up the badlands so I got this shot with the train lighting the foreground.

Right after sunrise it began to rain again. I hunkered down in my Little Guy RV and processed my photographs from the night and morning shoot. It rained straight through the afternoon. Large bolts of lightning illuminated the badlands. Then a huge double rainbow came out while it was still raining. I took a photo with my iPhone but quickly retreated back to the camper. It continued to rain for several hours. There were fierce winds. I knew at that point that the road in would be impassible for days and I would be staying at this campsite for awhile. When the rained finally stopped for a second time I got out and see yet another double rainbow. I talked with my fellow campers (we were still the only ones at the campsite) and we agreed that we would have the place to ourselves for some time as no one would be able to get in or get out. We had plenty of food and water so we settled in and enjoyed the solitude. I was able to capture a magnificent sunset as the crazy storm clouds lingered through the fading pink light of sunset.

Sunset after rainstorm at Toadstool Geological Park in Northwestern Nebraska

Sunset after rainstorm at Toadstool Geological Park in Northwestern Nebraska

Here are some of the rainbow iPhone X shots:

Double rainbow over my rig

iPhone panorama of double rainbow over the outhouses

Double rainbow over the badlands

Storm clouds over the badlands

The next day things started to dry out and the badlands returned to their dryer conditions. Two days later a pickup truck drove in and reported that the road in wasn’t too bad. I decided to stay a few days longer to give it a chance to really dry out.

Storm clouds over Toadstool Geological Park in Northwestern Nebraska

Afternoon light in Toadstool Geological Park in Northwestern Nebraska

Wildflowers growing in the sandstone at Toadstool Geological Park in northwestern Nebraska

Hiking through the toadstool rock formations was such a treat this trip because the sun was not beating down draining all the life from you. The rain storms had cooled things off substantially. It was pretty amazing sitting on sandstone rocks formed by the thousands of years of wind.

Sandstone toadstool rock formations in Toadstool Geological Park in northwestern Nebraska

Landscape in Toadstool Geological Park in northwestern Nebraska

Landscape in Toadstool Geological Park in northwestern Nebraska

Parched earth in northwestern Nebraska

Things eventually dried out and returned to normal. The sky turned blue with absolutely no clouds on the horizon. Even the little creekbed started to dry out. I decided it might be a good time to pack up and leave. Although the road in had been a bit harrowing I was so pleased to have had the solitude and the fantastic rain storms in the badlands. The last time I had been to Toadstool it was like a desert. This time I saw water flowing in the small creek for the first time. I’m glad I had the time to stay and enjoy the storms without worrying about having to be somewhere at a particular time. Having freedom while traveling is one of the best things I’ve experienced. Freedom to change your mind, to go where you want to go, to go where the weather decides you should go and to enjoy having your days and nights dictated by the weather, moon, stars and sun. It beats all.

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Night Photography in Valley of the Gods, Utah

I have friends who have photographed in the Valley of the Gods in Utah and I’ve always wanted to go. So I signed up to be part of a workshop led by master night photographer Mike Taylor from Maine. Here is his inspiring website. He scouts some of the best locations and then provides exquisite technical direction so everybody comes away with a terrific shot. He’s also a very nice guy which makes traveling with him to remote locations at night extremely fun.

Six photographers all met up with Mike in Bluff, Utah at the Desert Rose Inn, which by the way is a great place to stay. The food was good and the rooms were first rate (not that we spent a lot of time in them). On the first night Mike took us out to a great location near Bluff where there were very tall hoodoos. I have done a lot of light painting at night before but Mike soon made me a believer in the power of LED panels. That is how we lit up the hoodoos under the Milky Way for the shot below. The panels provided consistent lighting and were much easier to control than flashlights. We could move them to different locations for alternate lighting angles. The weather cooperated and we all left exhilarated and with nice shots.

The Milky Way over hoodoos near Bluff, Utah

The next night we drove out to Valley of the Gods to another shot that Mike had scouted. I was very excited about getting this shot because it was going to be a composite exposure with one shot of the Milky Way and one long exposure of the foreground instead of LED lighting. I have tried this myself but was never satisfied with the results. Mike showed us how to get this shot and I was very pleased that the weather lasted long enough to get the shot. The clouds rolled in right after we finished our long exposure shot. The basic shooting information for the two shots is as follows:

Sky Exposusre: Milky Way – 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 4000
Foreground – 5 minute exposure, f/2.8, ISO 2000 with long exposure noise reduction on. I shot this with a Nikon D850 and a Nikkor 14-24mm lens at 14mm.

The Milky Way and Sitting Hen Butte in the Valley of the Gods near Mexican Hat, Utah

The next night was cloudy so we weren’t sure we would be able to get a shot. We drove down to Monument Valley and scouted a few locations. While we waited to find a good spot we stopped to get a nice milky way panorama. We then found a great butte and set up for the two shot exposure. The weather lasted long enough for us to get the shot.

The Milky Way near Douglas Mesa Road, Monument Valley, Utah

I took the same shot but didn’t make the second long exposure because I wanted to see what the butte would look like in silhouette. I think I like the two exposure shot better.

The Milky Way near Douglas Mesa Road, Monument Valley, Utah

After an exhaustive few days we all said goodbye. I wanted to stay on and photograph but the moon interfered with my plans. I will have to be patient and wait for next month when I will go back and photograph the Milky Way at some of the great locations Mike scouted. Thanks again, Mike Taylor for a fantastic workshop. I hope to see you and Sonia in Maine.

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