Great American Road Trip Report- 2012
This is a belated report on our summer road trip to several western National Parks. Although late, I hope it can still help some people who might be putting their trips together now. I don't have a fabulous memory so I may forget some things! We spent about half the time camping and half the time in motel/hotel. In considering my opinions on things note that we are budget conscious and do not require luxury or fine dining during our trips (unless we were going to a foodie destination). Also, because we do a lot of camping we make most of our meals and consequently you will not see a lot of info on restaurants here. We have two kids who were 8 and 10 at the time of the trip.
Day 1 – Leaving after hubby got home from work but we ended up leaving later than planned as we had a dead battery that needed to be replaced. But, better now than having it happen far from home. Finally got off from our home in the western suburbs of Chicago and drove to Great River Bluffs State Park in MN. Due to our late start we arrived in the dark and set up camp. It was quite buggy so we had to work quick! Too dark to get much of an impression of the park yet.
Day 2 – We finally got to look around the park a little bit. It was a nice little park. Our campsite was nothing special. We took a short hike to a bluff that had a nice view. But this was really just a place to stop so we didn't spend a lot of time exploring. Long drive day. After our long drive we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National Monument. We got the first of our National Park passport stamps. Son and hubby enjoyed looking around the museum and watching the movie in the visitor center. My daughter wasn't that interested in it so she and I found a nearby geocache (we didn't do a lot of geocaches, but we wanted to get at least one in each state). We continued south and entered Badlands National Park. We enjoyed the view as we headed through the park and stopped at our lodging for the night – The Badlands Budget Host Inn. The price was very reasonable and the location is excellent. It was a bit shabby, but it was clean. After getting settled we headed into Interior to find something to eat. There is not a lot to choose from. We ended up eating at the Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill which is a little hole-in-the wall type place. We enjoyed the homemade pizza and everyone there was very nice. After eating we headed back to the motel and the kids enjoyed a dip in the above ground pool to cool off on a hot day. I had been looking forward to attending the night sky program in the park but we were all beat and decided to turn in early.
Day 3 – The location of the motel paid off this a.m. I woke up early enough to go outside and catch the sunrise. It was peaceful and watching the beautiful color change on the badlands was a pleasure. We packed up and headed to the visitor center and enjoyed looking around there then spent the morning taking a few of the trails then took our time driving through the park on the loop road. The scenery is spectacular in an otherworldly way. We spotted bighorn sheep, antelope in a few different spots, and my daughter's favorite prairie dogs. After the loop road we got back on the interstate and headed towards Rapid City then south on 79 to Hot Springs to visit the Mammoth Site where you can view a mammoth dig in situ. It was interesting to see and the kids both enjoyed it too. After the Mammoth Site we drove to Wind Cave National Park where we took the Natural Entrance Cave Tour. This was a fun tour for our whole family. We saw our first bison near the entrance to Wind Cave. Next we drove up to get our campsite for the night at the forest service campground of Horsethief Lake. This is forest service so there are no showers and pit toilets only. We thoroughly enjoyed this campground! The location is beautiful! After setting up at one of the walk-in tent sites we took a walk on the nearby trail. Next we drove over to view Mt. Rushmore and we walked around there a bit more and looked in at the museum with info about how the sculpting was done. We saw our first mountain goat with two kids on our way to Mt. Rushmore. We headed back to the campground and enjoyed a fire followed by a peaceful sleep.
Day 4 – After a nice camp breakfast the kids took a morning dip in Horsethief Lake. Got on our way and made a quick stop at the 1880 steam train in Hill City. Their schedule didn't work out for us so we weren't able to take a train ride. We drove some on the smaller county roads with beautiful scenery up through Lead and Deadwood to get back up to I90 where we headed west. We made a quick stop at Vore Buffalo Jump. The kids were interested in the use of the jumps by native Americans but we didn't think the site itself was that spectacular. From there we headed to Devils Tower National Monument. We stopped an took some pictures at our first glimpse from the highway. Funny, but hubby didn't think he would be that interested in DT, but he ended up really enjoying our time there. We got into the Park and scouted a campsite. Our site had a terrific view of the tower! After setting up camp we drove up to the tower and took the walk around the base. We stopped frequently to watch the climbers. They are astounding! We took some walks near the campground and the kids just loved watching the prairie dogs. We cooked up dinner at the campsite then attended an interesting ranger talk at the campground amphitheater about climbing at the tower. No campfire tonight because their was a ban. But from our campsite we could see climbers' lights on the tower and were entertained just watching them and contemplating their journeys. A nice way to end the day.
Day 5 – July 3 - We packed up after a quick camp breakfast and westward ho again. One can certainly see why Wyoming is called big sky country! The views are expansive. It was awesome to see the mountains rising in the distance. We stopped and met my parents, who were on their way back from their own trip out west, at a rest stop a bit past Sheridan. There was also a forest service (I think) visitor center across the road from the rest stop that had some nice natural exhibits that we enjoyed. Back on our way we headed west on 14. What a beautiful drive! We stopped at Shell Falls, which were beautiful. We also saw some hummingbirds flitting around there. We continued on to Cody where we checked into the Big Bear Motel. The view from the hotel was beautiful. There are nice chairs outside each room to sit on. Our room appeared fairly newly remodeled. The beds were comfy. We enjoyed a nice swim in their pool after our long drive. We headed to the Cody Stampede. We enjoyed the rodeo. The kids loved the rodeo clown. We had nice folks around us telling us more info about the rodeo industry.
Day 6 – July 4 – Got up early and went to the Buffalo Bill Museum. This is a fabulous museum! We all had a great time there. When we got out though Cody was getting ready for their 4th of July parade. When we entered the museum I asked if we would be able to get out of the parking lot due to the parade and the woman at the desk said yes, but there was a barricade. Luckily the parade had not started yet and we went around the barricade. It took us a few blocks to be able to get off of the parade route but we finally did. The kids got a kick out of “being in the parade”. We wouldn't have gone around the barricade but we had reservations for a rafting trip that we had to get to. We made it to the River Runners office in time. This was the first time rafting for my kids and I. Our guide was entertaining. This was a perfect trip for families. Just enough rapids for a little excitement and everyone got wet. I wasn't sure how the kids would do on the trip but they both loved it and want to do one again. After the rafting we drove to Yellowstone NP. The drive along 14 into Yellowstone is spectacular. We made our first stop at the Fishing Bridge visitor center and looked at the exhibits there and picked up the Junior Ranger sheets. We went out and walked along Yellowstone Lake for a bit then went to the picnic area and cooked up some burgers. My daughter was enchanted by watching the gray jays one of which grabbed a piece of hamburger off her plate. After eating we checked into the Lake Hotel where we stayed in a cabin. It was a nice little cabin and very comfortable. We settled in then went outside to watch the little 4th of July parade that goes around the hotel area. It is just some of the park vehicles decorated – but it was fun. There was a big bison sleeping across the street and the kids were amused that he never stirred during the parade. After the parade we headed over to Old Faithful. We spotted a nice big bull elk on the way. We arrived at OF and found good seats. Can't say exactly what time we were there but it was late afternoon/early evening. This was a great time to be there as it was not crowded at all. We watched some of the other geysers off in the distance to wait for OF to put on its show. OF was quite faithful and began to erupt right about the predicted time. We enjoyed the grand thermal show put on by OF. The visitor center was closed so we wandered into Old Faithful Inn and looked around. The grand fireplace was terrific. There was a fiddler playing. We bought some beverages and the kids had ice cream cones and we found an unoccupied couch to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. Headed back in the dark (saw a fox cross the road) we got a little turned around but finally found our way back to our comfy cabin.
Day 7 – Very early morning today because we wanted to get a site at Jenny Lake campground in Grand Tetons NP (don't gasp, we aren't done with Yellowstone yet!). Jenny Lake is a first come, first serve, tent only campground. Many reviews consider it to be one of the most beautiful places to camp in the U.S. Headed south and made it to Jenny Lake campground about 7:00 a.m. Many campers were already up. We drove through looking to see which sites would be vacated. Determining what the views would be for each potential site was a little difficult because the mountains were covered with fog. We found the one we thought would be great and the incredibly nice gentleman who was vacating let us come into the site and look around and said it was the best site in the campground and we should definitely take it. So we put our tag on the post under his and went to pay our fee. We also left a couple campchairs since they were not yet ready to go and we headed over to the Jenny Lake visitor center area. We took a short walk and ate some breakfast. We donned our hiking boots and caught the first ride across Jenny Lake to hike up to Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point and beyond. I grabbed one of the treking poles at the boat dock to use. There were only a few other people on the boat with us so we had the trail almost to ourselves. This is a wonderful hike in a stunningly beautiful park. The kids loved the marmots. Hidden falls are nice, Inspiration Point has wonderful views and we dallied there for awhile. We kept going past inspiration point for awhile and found a nice quiet spot for a snack. After our snack we headed back, by this time Inspiration point was getting a bit crowded and as we headed back down the trail was clogged with people coming up. I highly recommend getting that first boat over to beat the crowds! By the time we got back across the lake and to the campground about noon there were several cars looking for campsites and it was full by about 1:00. We set up camp and by this time we could see what a fabulous view we really had. This was an awesome campsite! Next e we enjoyed the views as we drove south to the Moose entrance. We took a short hike there then went into the visitor center, which we thought was very nice. We headed into Jackson Hole to replenish supplies and stopped at the Snake River Brewery to sample their beer (and root beer for the kids) and have a snack. We thought the beer was tasty but not out of this world. I can't remember exactly what we all ate but it was ok. Back at GTNP we stopped again at the Moose entrance visitor center breifly then we drove around more of the park and took some small hikes. Even though our views were somewhat hazy due to the fires south of the area it was still spectacular! After our driving and hiking we looked for a place we could make some dinner and found a picnic area with a fire ring to cook over. After dinner we headed back to the campground then attended a ranger program at the visitor center about the difference between Grand Teton bison and Yellowstone bison. We had a small fire and enjoyed our campsite then turned in fairly early.
Day 8 – Got up and packed up fairly early today. The mountains were socked in and you could not even tell the Tetons were there! Headed back to Yellowstone didn't stop at sites right away because we were getting a site at Norris campground which is first come, first serve. Although we did have our first sighting of a whole herd of bison on the way there. The kids loved seeing them. We were hoping to get into the lower loop of Norris but those sights were all snagged by the time we got there about 10:00 a.m. But we did find a nice sight with a fair amount of privacy. The campground was full by about 4:00 p.m. After setting up camp we set out to explore. We started out at West Thumb and worked our way up the different geyser basins and paint pots. It was a beautiful day and we loved the otherworldly scenery. My son especially enjoyed the bubbling mud pots. I think the beautifully colored pools were some of my favorites. After a lot of hiking we stopped back at our site and grabbed bite to eat then we drove through firehole canyon drive then stopped and swam in the firehole river for awhile. My daughter had the most fun putting grass by a little mouse hole and watching the mouse pull the grass in. Funny the little things that get them excited. On our way back we were in our first bison road block although our side of the road was only slightly delayed – but the kids were thrilled. We got back to the campsite and made a delicious meal, took a little walk, then went to the ranger talk about how Native Americans used all the parts of the bison. The kids really enjoyed all the ranger talks we went to. Enjoyed popcorn by the fire and got into the tent. Ranger woke us up about 11:00 because oops we forgot a citronella candle on the picnic table. At least we didn't get a ticket.
Day 9 - Climbed out of the tent and quickly pushed my son back in who was following me out as I realized there was a bison 10 ft from the tent! She was rubbing her head all over a small pine. We watched her as she made her way through the back of our site. After breakfast we drove the north loop of Yellowstone making various stops along the way. We also did the Black River Plateau Drive – we enjoyed this little back road – we had it virtually to ourselves and we stopped an had lunch on the side of the road here. We spotted our first black bear along the road between Black River Plateau and Tower-Roosevelt – a mama with two cubs! Stopped in Canyon Village for showers and laundry then we walked Artists point, etcetera. We ended up doing a lot of backtracking today because we couldn't find one of our cameras but this turned out to be serendipitous because we ended up seeing a grizzly mama and two cubs and another grizzly. We also saw our first and only moose. This was also the time we saw a woman standing almost nose-to-nose with a big bull elk! Cannot believe the stupidity of some people. We missed seeing wolves by a few minutes (I was so disappointed at that). We also saw our biggest bison road block today on the way back north to Norris. Our side of the road was not affected, but the southbound side had cars stopped for at least 2 miles. We were amazed at the number of people getting out of their cars. We told a few people that the bison were a couple miles ahead but they didn't seem to care. Another nice night at the campsite.
Day 10 – Relatively early morning – packed up and headed north. We made a quick stop at Mammoth to make a lost camera report. Headed north on 89and up to Glacier NP! It was a very nice drive up. We stopped for lunch at Richwine's Burgerville in Polson. It's a cute little drive-in. We found to the food to be very good, especially the huckleberry shakes. We drove on the eastern side of Flathead Lake – what a beautiful drive. We should have stopped to get some huckleberry preserves along here becaue once we left Glacier heading east we couldn't find any. When we arrived at Glacier we first stopped at Apgar Visitor Center and checked out the exhibits. Very busy here. We headed east on Going to the Sun Road. What a stunningly beautiful drive this is! There were a few construction stops, but that just allowed one to sit and gaze at the view. We were able to drive close enough to the weeping wall to open the window and get wet. Kids loved that! We stopped at a few pull offs along the way. We also stopped at Logan's Pass. Nice exhibits. There were some bighorn sheep in the parking lot. We also spotted mountain goats on the drive. We walked around in the snow a bit. We were disappointed that there was too much snow for the pikas to be out. After finishing going-to-the-sun road we headed up to the Many Glacier area and checked in to the Swiftcurrent Motel. We liked the little cabins and it is a beautiful area. We took one of the nearby trails then went to explore Many Glacier Lodge a bit and we also went to a ranger talk there on wildflowers which we enjoyed. The kids enjoyed skipping stones in the lake. On the way back to the motel for the night we drove through Many Glacier campground to scope it out since we would be staying there the next night. We had a relaxing night in the cabin.
Day 11 – First thing in the morning we walked through Many Glacier campground and picked out a site. We got an awesome one. We had a beautiful view of a mountain peak right behind us and a stream running right behind with a little rocky beach that the kids could play at! This is a wonderful campground. After setting up camp we donned our hiking boots and walked up to Redrock Falls. We absolutely loved the multicolored rocks in the stream bed that we crossed over. The hike to redrock falls was a really nice hike and a beautiful destination. Once we got there we lolled around for awhile and ate lunch. It was quite a warm day and we cooled off in a stream on the way back down. When we got back down there was a ranger with telescope to look for mountain goats up on the mountain. After our hike we relaxed at our campsite and played in the stream behind our site. We later looked around in the nearby ranger station, visitor center then went to a picnic area and cooked up lunch. One of our practices on this trip was to do most of our cooking at picnic areas rather at the campsites due to bears. Actually, that is required at Many Glacier campground. We did another walk then went to a program at the campground amphitheater by a Native American gentleman which was nice although it wasn't really what we were expecting. He did a bunch of his own songs whereas we thought we were going to hear traditional tales and songs.
Day 12 – We got up to go to the ranger led morning bird watching hike. We had a nice time, but unfortunately we did not see many birds although the ranger was able to identify many by song. He also pointed out some bear signs on trees. We learned quite a bit. After that we went back to the campsite, ate breakfast and packed up and went to check in to Many Glacier Lodge. After checking in we did another trip across going-to-the-sun road and back stopping and hiking in various spots. After a long day we explored the hotel more and just enjoyed sitting outside and looking at the view. We ended up eating at the Interlaken Lounge and found the food to be pretty good. Got to bed fairly early. The beds were comfy.
Day 13 – Up early, hubby and the kids did some fishing and we all watched a beautiful sunrise. Several photographers were also set up to catch the sunrise. After that we checked out and headed out. We saw our only bear in glacier on the way out. Long drive today to Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota. Once we got there we stopped into the visitor center then drove over to the campground to find a site. We found a walk-in site with a nice view and set up camp. As we were setting up a couple of bison came walking right by our site. It is very common for them to come through. After setting up camp we took a leisurely drive through the park then went into town to look around. Came back to our site to make dinner. There were a couple of wild (feral) horses wandering around. Very cool to have them so close. We had a resident toad in our site that the kids enjoyed. They poured some water on the ground by a chair and he was more than happy to hang out in the wet shady spot.
Day 14 – Drove through the park again. We took a nice hike, visited the prairie dog towns, watched the majestic horses up on a bluff, had a pleasant wait while bison crossed the road. We spent more time at the visitor center and toured TR's cabin. Took the ranger guided walk – it was short and sweet. It's neat to imagine TR out here in the North Dakota badlands. They have a desolate beauty. We went into Medora and played some mini-golf, swam in the pool right by the mini-golf place, then stopped in at the Cowboy Cafe to eat. It's a cute, kitschy little place. The food was good. My son enjoyed his first buffalo burger. After dinner we grabbed our fishing poles and did a little fishing. Both kids got some bites and had a good time. Back to the campsite to relax. The night sky was beautiful! The next day we packed up and headed home.
A big road trip with a lot of moving around is not for everyone. But we enjoyed it and for the most part felt we had about enough time in each place. It was wonderful to see the diverse beauty in our country. Thanks to all the other trip adviser contributors for their help in our planning. I hope this report helps others in their planning. We are currently planning our next big road trip.