Archive for September 2010

Jackson and the Trip Home

September 22, 2010 - 11:56 pm No Comments

With green ski slopes surrounding the town and streets lined with empty bars and restaurants, I could tell that Jackson really hops in the winter. For us, it seemed quiet and sleepy.

Welcome to Jackson

After checking into our room at the ironically named Virginia Lodge, we headed back to the center of town where Stef treated me to a fabulous birthday dinner at Snake River Grill. After consuming some delicious pork shank, we strolled into the store next door called By Nature Gallery that sold upscale fossil relics. Very cool!

Arch of Elk Antlers

Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

The famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar was pretty empty, but we took a moment to sit in the saddles by the bar before leaving.

Stef in the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

The Silver Dollar Bar was packed and had a great band. We sat and chatted with some fellow travelers for a moment, but we couldn’t stay out too long as our flight home was scheduled for early in the morning.

At dawn, I headed over to the reception desk at the lodge to catch some wifi. I plopped down in a giant, overly soft leather couch on one side of the. I’ve always felt a little weird about public leather furniture. Do people’s germs stick and fester on leather more than on velour or wood or plastic? I get skeeved out when public leather touches my skin.

Checking our flights, I noticed that our flight home was delayed for a couple of hours. A great thing for Stef, because she really needed another couple of hours in bed.

Outside, the sun slowly rose behind the mountains, turning the sky blues from dark to deep to cheerful to pale. When I start sensing the end of a trip, I start thinking about home, about what may changed while I was away, even though in this case I’d barely been gone a week. As I cling to my last few hours of adventure, I wonder what mundane things my friends and family are doing at home, and I get depressed knowing that I’ll be doing those same things very soon.

It’s been one of those trips where everything just works out perfectly. We always missed the crowds, doing hikes and seeing sights and finding wildlife before buses full of tourists showed up. Wrong turns resulted in tremendous viewpoints. We’re quite satisfied with the wildlife we saw without even trying. Except for a night in the car in Yellowstone, we booked rooms where and when we needed to. And the weather was perfect. There was no rain despite a continuous forecast for it, and the sun always came out when we stopped the car.

When we dropped off our rental car at the airport, the odometer revealed that we had covered a total of 1703 miles on our trip, an average of 213 miles a day. Sounds like a lot, but it seemed quite manageable.

Our Ride Home

Before we knew it, we were home. We headed straight to the bar, where Stef and other friends had organized a surprise birthday happy hour for me. My friends are pretty cool sometimes. 🙂

Now, it’s back to real life…

The Grand Tetons

September 21, 2010 - 6:01 pm No Comments

The alarm went off. It was still dark and cold. Stef and I made our way to the lodge’s observation deck to watch the sun rise over the Tetons. Hot chocolate kept my hands warm as we found a spot on the edge of Willow Flats, the huge expanse of mushy scrubland between the lodge and the mountains.

Elk bulls pierced the cold morning air with passionate bugling. The mountains slowly changed color as the sun came up behind us.

Dawn at Mount Moran

Sunrise in the Grand Tetons

Sunrise on Grand Teton

Sunrise in the Grand Tetons

We returned to Horseshoe Bend for some more scenery.

Mount Moran

Mount Moran

Mount Moran

Up to this point, Stef and I had seen bison, elk, and bighorn sheep, but we agreed that moose and bears were the coolest animals and were disappointed that we hadn’t seen any.

As Stef drove is up the winding road on Signal Mountain, Stef screamed out “Holy fuck, a bear!” Sure enough, about 50 yards ahead of us, a black bear was crossing the road. I fumbled with my camera and tried to get a few quick shots.

Holy F, a Bear!

We stopped the car and I hopped out. The bear was quite small, so I looked around for a large, mean Mommy bear and gingerly took a few more pictures before the bear disappeared into the foliage.

Black Bear on Signal Mountain

Vans and cars stopped around us. Camera-toting tourists curiously crowded us to ask what we had seen, but the bear was already scampering off. Stef and I were proud to have had our quiet moment with the bear.

Loud-ass Cricket Thing

A short walk up the Signal Mountain trail took us to the Jackson Point Overlook for an impressive view of the park. The air was crisp, the scenery was a lesson in geology, with every conceivable landform within view. The spot would be cool field trip for a geology class.

View from Signal Mountain

Stef & Jeff on Signal Mountain

Thistle Couple

From there, we headed down to Jenny Lake for a short ferry ride and a couple of highly rated hikes. Hidden Falls was surprisingly dull for something hidden, and Inspiration Point offers a surprisingly uninspiring view of Jenny Lake.

Toe Socks & Chaco's

Inspiration Point

Boats at Jenny Lake

Bridge Over Jenny Lake

We hit the road again and made our way across the rather flat interior of the park. The maps are deceiving. The park is tiny, and you could very easily drive through the whole thing in a day. Stef, always the outdoors type, groaned every time she saw a runner or biker, wishing she were doing the same. What a glorious place to be active.

Road to Grand Teton

At one of our stops, I ran into a Trek America driver. I worked for Trek America in the summer of 2004, and I tried to strike up a conversation with him, but he wasn’t interested or even friendly. Was he threatened by the fact that I had already done what he’s doing? Scared that I might be critical of him? Or did he just not like my toe socks?

We came upon a group of people gathered along the bank of Snake River. A moose bull was resting in the foliage on the opposite bank. Everyone was taking photos and waiting for the rest of his family to show up. We had seen a bear and a moose on our last day!

Sleepy Moose

Just before saying goodbye to Grand Teton National Park, we drove up to the Snake River overlook where Ansel Adams took his famous photograph. I wanted to pay homage to Ansel and take a similar photo, but conditions made it difficult. I tried my best.

Snake River

We’ll be spending our last night in Jackson. We fly home tomorrow morning.

Colors, Colors Everywhere!

September 20, 2010 - 10:42 pm No Comments

The hike up Geyser Hill to the observation point was a bit strenuous and cold first thing in the morning, and it felt even colder when Old Faithful didn’t erupt as scheduled. Bracing ourselves against brisk winds, Old Faithful teased us with tiny queefs.

Finally, it erupted. It’s much less impressive when viewed from far away but an interesting perspective nonetheless. From such a distance, the geyser’s signature whooshing sound cannot be heard. With similarly freezing tourists on either side of us, we watched in silence.

Old Faithful Erupts

After hiking back down, Stef and I followed the wooden boardwalk across Upper Geyser Basin. It was still early and chilly, but nasty fumes from the geysers and steam vents kept us warm as we walked. It was surprisingly busy, with families and camera-toting Asians crowding around geysers and waiting for the next scheduled eruptions.

Geysers dribbled and burped but were mostly gray and boring. The geothermal pools were more interesting to me. Their dazzling colors and mysterious stillness made me want to stick my hand in, but I held back. Unfortunately, people have been throwing garbage into these pools for decades. Trash settles and blocks the natural underground plumbing, disrupting microecosystems and diminishing their color. Shame.

Geothermal Pool in the Sun

Beauty Pool

Morning Glory Pool

Sawmill Geyser

Stef Walks the Upper Geyser Basin

From there, we dashed over to another geyser hot spot, the Black Sand Basin.

Runoff at Black Sand Basin

Emerald Pool

Before leaving Yellowstone, I wanted to get one last look at Grand Prismatic Spring. I knew that somewhere, there was vantage point to see it from above, but I didn’t know where it was, and park maps for the area were useless. Following the advice of a park ranger, we drove to the Fairy Falls trail and followed it a bit before veering off to hike up a hill.

From above, the view is spectacular. A gentle breeze silently wafts away the steam, revealing a full spectrum of colors that you never get to see on the ground.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Stef & Jeff at Grand Prismatic Spring

The trail is not marked, but this hike should be required on any visit to Grand Prismatic Spring. Truly amazing, and a great way to finish Yellowstone.

We hit the road and headed south. On our way out of Yellowstone, we learned that the Antelope Fire had closed down a good chunk of the park up north. Once again, we lucked out.

Jeff at the Continental Divide

As we approached Grand Teton National Park, the grasses became thicker and more golden. The area around Lewis Falls was particularly beautiful. The purple Grand Tetons (French for “big tits”) greeted us in the distance.

Lewis River

Lewis Falls

When you first enter on John D. Rockefeller Parkway, the scenery is spectacular. Jagged, picturesque mountains resemble the massive stone peaks of Glacier National Park, only with less snow and vegetation. Trees are awash in fall colors, and late afternoon sunlight fills everything with a golden glow. Yellowstone had none of this! Yellowstone may be good for wildlife and geysers, but for landscapes, Grand Teton National Park is where you want to be.

Colors of Grand Teton

Colors of Grand Teton

Colors of Grand Teton

After a few phone calls, we learned that many of the lodges were closed for the season. I know it’s the end of the season, but why is everything closing down when these parks are still so busy? Jackson Lake Lodge was pricey, but it was the cheapest available room in the area, so we grabbed it. After checking in, I asked the lady at the front desk if there was a good spot to go for sunset, and she recommended Oxbow Bend, a small lake just down the road.

We arrived there to find dozens of photographers with their huge tripods and lenses pointed at the bushes on other side of river. Apparently, a moose family had been out the evening before, and they’d been sitting there for hours just waiting for it. Wildlife photographers have a patience I can’t even begin to understand.

Stef at Oxbow Bend

Oxbow Bend

Oxbow Bend

Back at the Jackson Lake Lodge, we relaxed on the deck overlooking the meadow and watched the sun disappear behind the Grand Tetons and felt night slowly descend over us. Quite a view.

Sunset at Jackson Lake Lodge

Pink Fluff on Mount Moran

While waiting for a table at the lodge restaurant, we sat in the Shining-esque lobby and struck up a conversation with an older couple from Columbus, Georgia. My friend Rob lives in Columbus, but they didn’t know him.

Stef has been having some stomach problems, but that didn’t stop her from ordering elk at dinner. It was very lean and delicious, but I’m not sure exotic meats are what Stef’s ailing tummy needs. I had the duck, which was also quite delicious.

Moose Butter

Along with the gastrointestinal issues, Stef’s legs are killing her and her feet are covered with blisters. We both have sunburned faces and chapped lips. All this adventure is taking its toll. Vacations are rough!

Tomorrow’s the last day of our adventure. We’ll start the day with a hike around highly recommended Jenny Lake and then head further south to Jackson Hole for our last night.

Early Morning at Old Faithful

September 20, 2010 - 7:20 am No Comments

We were uncomfortable and cold and stinky, but we didn’t get busted.

Woke up at dawn, just in time for this morning’s first Old Faithful eruption.

Old Faithful Erupts #1

At the moment, I’m trying to warm up with a blueberry muffin and hot chocolate in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. Looking out the giant windows, I see better-rested tourists with hot coffees gathering around Old Faithful. Stef and I are about climb up Geyser Hill to view Old Faithful’s next eruption from above. It’s scheduled to blow at 7:50am, so we have to book it.

A Day in Yellowstone

September 19, 2010 - 9:25 pm No Comments

Before setting off, we worked out a plan for the day. The main roads of Yellowstone are shaped like a figure eight, so there’s no way to avoid backtracking if you want to see the whole park. It’s kind of a pain.

We drove into the park and found a giant elk waiting for us in the parking lot. A ranger worked frantically to keep warning cones up in a circle about 200 feet from the animal, warning people to stay back and running around to reposition them every time the elk took a step in any given direction.

Bugling Elk

Every few minutes, the elk would stoop his head and make a loud, dinosaur-like sound that was something between a squeal and a groan. Turns out that this is called “bugling,” and elks do it to mark their territory and attract females.

Due to some faulty map-reading and a wrong turn, we didn’t get to the Lamar Valley for wildlife watching. Not a big deal, since it seemed like the Lamar Valley was on fire. Smoke filled the air, and many of the smaller roads and trails were closed.

Morning Mountain Sunshine

Smoky Drive Through Yellowstone

We came across a herd of bison on the side of the road. These animals are huge, and they’re not shy. While we drove slowly, I gingerly leaned out the window to take pictures.

Roadside Bison

Stoic Bison

Skipping the Lamar Valley meant that we arrived at Mt. Washburn earlier than scheduled. The sky was perfectly clear, and the air was cool and crisp. At 10,243 feet, Mt. Washburn is the highest point in park. The hike to the top climbs 1,491 feet from parking lot and took us about two hours. I’m not a hardcore hiker like Stef, and that’s about as much as I can handle. Clicking noises and conversation all the way up kept any bears away.

Stef on Mount Washburn

From the cold and windy top of Mt. Washburn, we could see the extent of the forest fire. Turns out that Yellowstone fires are given specific names, and this particular one was called the “Antelope Fire.” Literature in the lookout tower said that it was caused by a lightning strike and now covered 600 acres. Rangers were working to control it.

Forest Fires in the Lamar Valley

Lookout Tower on Mount Washburn

The Top of Mount Washburn

Shadow Monster

Path on Mount Washburn

The Mt. Washburn hike was moderately scenic. Aside from a few angry crickets that attacked Stef, we didn’t see any wildlife. If Mt. Washburn is the best hike in the park, then this is not a good park for hiking.

In contrast to Glacier National Park, the trees of Yellowstone are almost exclusively evergreen. Things are greener, but it also means that things are more monochromatic. Photographically, it’s a little less interesting.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to geysers and hot springs. Our first stop was the Norris Geyser Basin, a windy, stinky moonscape with ribbons of color.

A wooden walkway takes you past geysers that are oozing, spurting, bubbling, erupting, splashing, leaking, steaming, gushing, trickling, and simmering. Geysers that aren’t doing anything are really quite boring. Baseball caps blown off the heads of unsuspecting tourists litter the basin. In the cold breeze, the warm steam from the geysers feels good, but the pungent smell of rotten eggs means that you can only stand in it for a moment.

Pinwheel Geyser

Porcelain Basin

Porcelain Spring

Porcelain Pools

Geyser on the Firehole River

Bacterial Mat

Artist Paint Pots

Shallows of Firehole River

By far, the most colorful and active feature was Grand Prismatic Spring. Because steam filled the air, it was hard to appreciate its true size.

Bridge Over the Bacterial Mats at Grand Prismatic Spring

Orange Bacterial Mat of Grand Prismatic Spring

Orange Bacterial Mat of Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior Geyser Runoff

Excelsior Geyser Runoff

We arrived at Old Faithful as the sun was setting, just in time to watch it erupt. Pretty cool. The eruption is surprisingly quiet, sounding a bit like a waterfall from a distance.

Old Faithful at Dusk

We went back to see another eruption under the stars. Just enough ambient moonlight and illumination from inside the Old Faithful Inn to see the eruption.

Old Faithful at Night

As the most popular attraction in Yellowstone, Old Faithful is quite commercialized, with three overpriced lodges, a giant visitor center, and huge parking lots all around it. For dinner, Stef and I treated ourselves to a luxurious meal at one of the lodge restaurants. Stef’s wild boar was porky, tough, and seasoned a bit too sweet for me. I had lamb.

Night. We needed a place to sleep. We wanted a room at one of the lodges, but they were all booked. We are 20 miles away from the nearest campgrounds. They’re probably full, anyway. What can we do? We know it’s against the rules, but Stef and I have decided to sleep in our car in the Old Faithful Inn parking lot. It’s cheap, it cuts a lot if driving out, and it gives us a great starting point tomorrow morning.

We’re right by the front door of the lodge. Stef thinks that park rangers are less likely to check a car that is parked so conspicuously. I hope we don’t get busted.

The Yellowstone Dilemma

September 19, 2010 - 12:23 am No Comments

Another early start, leaving Glacier National Park before dawn. On the snowy road just outside the park, we came across two horses that had been hit by a car or truck. Bloody and mangled, one obstructed a lane, another was on the side of the road. It was gently snowing, and the horses were not covered in snow, so it must have just happened. A grisly, sad sight.

Welcome to Blackfeet Nation

Heading south through Montana, the landscapes were beautiful and varied. Black cows dotting grassy, featureless hills. Slopes covered with red and green bushes. Giant, rocky mountains in the distance. Large, circular fields with center pivot irrigation. A blanket of dark gray clouds loomed overhead for most of the ride.

The roads between Glacier and Yellowstone are mostly narrow, two-lane highways. I can’t imagine how much traffic there is in the high season between these parks. But there was nobody on road today, so it was a breeze.

I did the driving. Stef hit the radio scan button repeatedly and entertained me with Mad Libs. She says I suck at Mad Libs.

It was just before Helena that a cop pulled me over for speeding. Stef had been doubling the speed limit all over Montana, and this guy stops me for going 86 in a 75. After telling him that we were on vacation and driving a rental, he cracked a half-smile, said he’d lower it to 85 in 75, and told me all I’d have to do is pay a $20 fine on the spot and that would be the end of it. Montana is cool!


Montana Speeding Ticket

We stopped in Helena for lunch. Seems like a fun, little college town.

As we neared Yellowstone National Park, Stef worked on a finely tuned itinerary for the next two days. We were a bit disappointed with the lack of wildlife we had seen up north, and we were very anxious to see bison and moose and bears in Yellowstone.

After passing through gateway town of Gardiner, we finally reached the Roosevelt Arch, marking the historical northern entrance to Yellowstone.

Roosevelt Arch

Stef & Jeff at Yellowstone National Park

45th Parallel North

We checked in at the visitor center at Mammoth Springs and learned that almost all of the campgrounds were filled up or closed for the season (a strange combination). Our plans for the next couple of days in Yellowstone counted on getting strategic places inside the park to sleep each night, so now our plans were shot to hell.

Tempers flared. Stef and I eventually agreed to make the most of our last few days, sticking to our itinerary as closely as possible and promising to be flexible when things didn’t go perfectly.

We took a quick walk around Mammoth Springs. Surprisingly unimpressive. The little pools of water are sort of colorful, but the most of it looks like a white, chalky mess.

Jupiter Terrace

Minerva Spring

Cleopatra Terrace

Main Terrace

Main Terrace

Happy Cyanobacteria on the Main Terrace

Happy Cyanobacteria

Dead Trees on the Main Terrace

Hit the road in search of a place to stay for the night and saw our first bison. Such cool-looking animals!

Bison Butt

Bison in the Grass

I pulled into one of the nearby campgrounds, but my charm wasn’t enough to secure a space. Stef got on her Verizon phone (Yellowstone is not AT&T friendly) and desperately called every motel in nearby Gardiner. We made our way past a bunch of neon “No Vacancy” signs to a Travelodge, where Stef got what might have been the last available room in the area.

Yellowstone Lodge Travelodge

There’s a lot to see in Yellowstone. Since we’re not staying in the park, we’re going to lose a lot of time driving. We’re going to have to pretty much wing it tomorrow.

Glacier National Park: Magnificent

September 17, 2010 - 8:40 pm No Comments

It was still dark when we left Great Falls. It was cold and drizzling, which was not a good sign, because we knew all of that would turn to ice as we made our way north.

O'Haire Motor Inn

The dimly lit highway made things even more ominous. Sulfur lamps every few hundred yards illuminated the roadway ahead, but the absence of cars and pitch-blackness all around made us feel like we were on another planet. Oncoming headlights every thirty minutes reminded us that we were, indeed, still on Earth.

Things started getting hairy when we got low on gas. There wasn’t much around, and a few of the gas stations were closed because it was either too snowy or too early. We finally found an automatic pump station in the tiny town of Valier that saved us.

On these open stretches of road, radio stations come in and out, and there are never more than three or four on at a time. Stef impatiently tapped the scan button, hoping to find something to keep us interested. One station featured a woman enthusiastically describing what every local school and nursing home would be having for lunch that day. On September 17, in case you were wondering, Shelby Senior Center had Sloppy Joe’s.

Rain turned into snow. As the sun slowly came up, we could see that the empty fields on either side of us were covered with eerie, white stillness.

The snow was a little discouraging. I worried that parts of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the main thoroughfare through Glacier National Park, would be closed, throwing our finely tuned itinerary out of whack. I knew we were cutting it close, as the Going-to-the-Sun Road was scheduled to close for the season in three days.

On the Frozen Road

Frozen Grass

View of the Snowy Field

As we got closer to the park, the uphill roads became more slippery and more curvy, but we had enough daylight that things weren’t so scary anymore. The surrounding mountains were massive and picturesque, and all the trees looked like they were covered with powdered sugar. A veritable winter wonderland.

Curious Cows

Curve to the Right

We finally arrived at the eastern entrance to the park, a town called St. Mary. After breakfast, we found a gift shop filled with a variety of huckleberry products. They’re marketed quite aggressively because they are indigenous to the region. Wine, cream soda, salad dressing, ice cream, chocolate. I bought a chocolate bar that oozed huckleberry filling when you bit into it. Tastes like a mix of raspberry and blueberry.

A quick stop at the visitor center revealed that they had closed the Going-to-the-Sun Road about 30 minutes before we arrived. The snowstorm hit the park quite hard at the higher altitudes, making part of the road impassable. Consulting the map, we quickly came up with a new itinerary that would take us on the Going-to-the-Sun Road as far as we could go, then back out and up to Many Glacier for a hike.

Glacier National Park Sign

Inside Glacier National Park, the scenery is amazing. The massive mountains are dusted with snow, highlighting layers of folded rock. The sides of the mountains are covered with flecks of orange and yellow and green. Snow-covered alpine trees make the whole scene look like a Bob Ross painting.

Impressionist Trees

Road to the Mountain

Going-to-the-Sun Road

St. Mary Lake

Tree on the Mountain

Cloud on the Mountain

Conifers and a Mountain

Bob Ross

Ironically, there aren’t many glaciers in Glacier National Park. There may have been when the park was first founded in 1910, but most have melted away. Some blame global warming.

We pulled off the road for a quick hike to a waterfall down below. All of the guides and signs posted around the park warned us that there are bears around and that it’s best to be somewhat noisy to announce your presence. Stef and I wanted to see a bear, but we didn’t want to get mauled in the process, so I made stupid clicking noises with my mouth as we walked.

Wild Stef

Stef at St. Mary Falls

Jeff at St. Mary Falls

View from St. Mary Falls

St. Mary Falls

We finally got to where they blocked off Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s a shame, because the snow was letting up and it looked like we could have gone quite a ways further. But I guess the park rangers know what they’re doing.

End of the Road

At one of the viewpoints, we ran into a guy who had completed the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road the day before, he said the half we had seen was definitely the better half. That made us feel a bit better.

Mountains in the Clouds

Shore of St. Mary Lake

Glacier Pine Cones

Lichen on the Bridge

Aside from a couple of mountain goats wandering the road, we didn’t see much wildlife. Stef and I were a little discouraged, but I’m sure we’ll see more down in Yellowstone National Park.

Mountain Goat

Boat and the Mountain

We turned north and headed up to Many Glacier. More of the same scenery. After we stopped at Many Glacier Hotel for a tremendous view of Grinnell Point across Swiftcurrent Lake.

Grinnell Point

Stef and I parked the car and spent a few hours hiking through the mud and slush along Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The views are simply breathtaking.

Grinnell Point

Grinnell Point

Grinnell Point

Stef on Swiftcurrent Lake

Mountain Stream

The Mountain Sun

Lake Josephine

Stef on the Bridge

We finally got to the end of the trail, a muddy embankment on the shore of Grinnell Lake. The view was simply breathtaking. Again, the whole scene looked like a painting. Standing on the water’s edge, Stef said that it looked I was in front of a backdrop.

Mount Gould in the Sun

Mount Gould in the Sun

Mount Gould & Grinnell Lake

We soaked in the scene as the sun began to set. Stef and I had to head back before it got dark. I didn’t want to know how cold and scary it would be after it got dark.

Lake Josephine

Trees on the Trail

Boat on Swiftcurrent Lake

Instead of hitting the road and driving through the snow all night, Stef and I decided to splurge and stay a night at the Many Glacier Hotel. It’s a charming snow lodge with a lot of local history. The lobby is dimly lit, with paintings and historical documents adorning the walls. High ceilings, a giant fireplace, guests sitting around and relaxing on warm, comfortable couches, staff prancing around in their lederhosen, and a violinist filling the room with catchy tunes.

We had dinner in the restaurant, which featured huge windows and a beautiful view across the lake. After having huckleberry ice cream and a huckleberry martini for dessert, we called it a night.

Huckeberry Martini

Glacier National Park is truly magnificent. I struggle to think of a more magical place in the US, and not even the Grand Canyon can match it’s grandeur. While the snow made driving a bit treacherous, it helped to make the views even more impressive. I could definitely see myself coming back and spending more time here.

In the morning, we head south to Yellowstone National Park.

Mermaids in Montana

September 16, 2010 - 10:44 pm No Comments

Woke up at 7am to see beautiful clear skies and a sunlit Devil’s Tower through the back window of our truck. It’s cold. Stef’s got a high-tech sleeping bag, but mine sucks. Hands and feet are frozen.

Hopped into the public shower at the campground to get warmed up. The “public shower on a road trip” dilemma. Do you shower with your sandals on to save your feet from fungus, or do you shower with your sandals on and risk them stinking up the car for the whole day? I kept my sandals on, and it turns out that Stef did, too.

We headed back over to Devil’s Tower for a morning walk around its base. Good to see it at different times of day, because the sun hits it differently. Again, I found that the walk around was a little too close to the base, and it’s hard getting the true perspective of the thing.

Devils Tower

Stef at Devils Tower

Rock at Devils Tower

It’s not quite symmetrical like I had always imagined. One side has a gentler slope. If you get the right angle on it, it’s quite beautiful.

Devils Tower

“Plop, plop, plop.” That’s the sound of a red squirrel systematically dislodging pine cones in the branches above and letting them fall to the ground all around us. Doesn’t matter if we’re underneath. The red squirrel has no worries.

Devils Tower


Devils Tower

Cows at Devils Tower

Lots of senior citizens and bikers around. We’ve been surrounded by them for days. Seems like this is a popular route for them.

Driving west from Devil’s Tower, the Wyoming landscape is full of yellow scrubland, with bluish mountains in the distance. Lots of cows and horses. I’m a bit disappointed we haven’t seen a bison yet.

Red Truck in Wyoming

Mountains and Scrub

Crazy Woman Creek

Highway in Wyoming

Welcome to Montana!

Heading north into Montana, hills of goldenrod, tope, white, and patches of faded green scrub surrounded us. A blanket of gray loomed overhead.

We stopped in Billings for a nice lunch and hit the road again. As we zipped across the scrubland, a drizzle and stiff wind battered us from side to side. Stef was a champ, driving between 90 and 100 mph most of the way and aggressively passing on the narrow 2-lane highway while I worked on my blog.

Cell phone service in this open country is spotty. Stef seems to be having better luck with Verizon than I am with AT&T. Wifi is hard to find, too. As everything piles up, this is going to make for some enormous blog entries.

Big Sky in Montana

Judith Gap Wind Farm

Road to Great Falls

We decided to stop for the night in Great Falls. At our guidebook’s recommendation, we stayed at the O’Haire Motor Inn, famous for it’s tiki bar/lounge called the Sip ‘n Dip.

Dinner at the Sip 'n Dip Tiki Lounge

We grabbed a quick dinner and then headed out to see the actual falls. At night, they are not so great.

When we got back to the Sip ‘n Dip at 9:30pm, the place was raging. Locals crowded the bar while an old lady sat in a booth and banged out some tunes on her keyboard. Through one of the windows behind the bar, a mermaid playfully danced in the adjoining pool. What a concept! She was quite the performer, constantly smiling, doing acrobatics, flirting with anyone who made eye contact with her. I was completely mesmerized by the mermaid. Stef was not impressed with the number of pictures I took (56).

Mermaid at the Sip 'n Dip

Mermaid at the Sip 'n Dip

Mermaid at the Sip 'n Dip

Mermaid at the Sip 'n Dip

Jeff & the Mermaid

After a few minutes, the mermaid was joined by a merman, who did nothing but float and stare awkwardly into the bar. Lame.

Merman at the Sip 'n Dip

On the other side of the bar, “Piano Pat” wailed away on her keyboard. She’s a local celebrity.

Piano Pat

We’re making it an early night tonight because we need to get an early start tomorrow morning. Our goal is to get to Glacier National Park by 8am, and there’s still a lot of Montana to cross…

Rushmore to Devil’s Tower

September 15, 2010 - 9:31 pm 1 Comment

Returned to Mount Rushmore first thing in the morning so that we could catch the morning sun shining on the presidents’ faces.

Entrance to Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

George & Tom



Grand View Terrace

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Jeff & Stef at Mount Rushmore

We walked along the trail in front of the memorial for some different perspectives, had a quick bite in the café, and then hit the road for Crazy Horse Memorial, the Native American answer to Mount Rushmore and a privately funded operation. The sculpture itself is massive but far from complete, so it’s not all that impressive.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Next to the parking lot is an enormous visitor center filled with “authentic” Native American souvenirs and cosmetic jewelry. All this schlock really cheapens the experience for me, and I appreciate the tastefulness of the National Parks in this regard.

At $10/person, the Crazy Horse experience isn’t worth it. The view from the highway is good enough.

Aside from the big billboards and cheesy attractions, the landscape of the surrounding area is beautiful. Craggy, anthropomorphic rocks carpet poke through a blanket of dark green forest. Stef and I think they should expand on the Mount Rushmore idea by carving American heroes, maybe one from each state, into the mountains everywhere. It would be a lot of work, for sure, but the place would make a killing.

Rocks in a Field

Our next stop was Wind Cave, one of the largest caves in the country. Inside the cave, they didn’t allow tripods and didn’t have railings for me to use to take longer exposures, but it didn’t really matter. It was mostly a dark, narrow walkway through vertical cracks, no big expanses or creative lighting like they have at Carlsbad and Luray. Stef seemed to enjoy it, but I found it underwhelming.

Colors of Wind Cave

Boxwork in Wind Cave

Large Wildlife on Roadway

Lunch was in Custer. We picked an authentic-looking Western restaurant and shared a buffalo burger. Tastes halfway between beef and lamb. I enjoyed it.

There seem to be a lot of Russian and Ukrainian exchange students in the area. Our young waitress was Russian. As I usually do with foreigners, I tried to joke around with her to show her that Americans (everyone assumes I am American) aren’t all stupid and humorless. When she ran through the list of dressings for our house salad, I smiled and told her I wanted Russian dressing. As I said it, it occurred to me that she might not know what Russian dressing is (it’s not really Russian), and that it might sound awkward. After an uncomfortable pause, the waitress excused herself. An embarrassed Stef glared at me and told me it sounded like a pick-up line.

We hit the road again. Stef volunteered to do most of the driving so that I could work on this blog and my photos in the car, which was a fantastic idea. I’m making slow progress on the blog, but with sunlight streaming in through the windows, it’s nearly impossible to see my photos. Do they have lightproof goggles that you can hook up to a laptop that can give you a view of your display? Nerdy, but I’d get a pair.

We stopped in Deadwood, Wyoming, since it has a cool name and is supposed to be a historic western town. Turns out it’s not much more than cheap-looking casinos and souvenir shops.

Stef & Jeff in Deadwood

We made a pit stop at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where “Wild Bill” Hickock and “Calamity” Jane are buried. By all accounts, Jane was an ugly hooker obsessed with Hickock, whose dying wish was to be buried next to him. She got her wish, but I wonder how Hickock feels about it.

"Wild Bill" Hickock's Grave

Deadwood from Above

The last leg of today’s journey was to Devil’s Tower. In the official literature, Devil’s Tower doesn’t have an apostrophe, but I’m going break convention for grammatical accuracy. Devil’s Tower is an oddly shaped magmatic intrusion made famous by the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It’s one of those weird places that I’ve always wanted to visit.

Field of Gold

Approaching Devils Tower

Steer at Devils Tower

Devils Tower

We arrived just as the sun was setting. At the park entrance, Stef and I bought an annual National Park pass for $80, which should save us a bundle on this trip alone. The drive into the park took us past a field filled with friendly, chirping prairie dogs. We pulled onto the turnout to sat hello, but we had to push on to beat the quickly setting sun.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

Devils Tower

The visitor’s center takes you pretty close to the base of the tower. Too close, I think. When you’re that close, Devil’s Tower doesn’t stick out from the surrounding landscape, and it’s much harder to appreciate its grandeur. We took a short walk around the base. The sun painted the rocks orange, and the sunset filled the sky with color.

Devils Tower

Columns of Devils Tower

Stef & Jeff at Devils Tower

Wyoming Sunset

Wyoming Sunset

After Labor Day, everything in the area starts to close down, including the restaurants. We were lucky enough to find a little diner just up the road, called the Tower View Restaurant, still serving food. The husband and wife who ran it and the adjoining gift shop were very friendly. Stef described them as a “Bob and Ethel.”

We arrived at our campground near the base of Devil’s Tower just as the last wisp of light disappeared into the night.

Stars Over Devils Tower

We’re spread out in the back of our truck, tucked into sleeping bags. I’m exhausted. It’s only 9:30pm, but it feels like it’s 2am. Another big day tomorrow.

Straight to Mount Rushmore

September 15, 2010 - 6:20 am No Comments

After landing in Rapid City and getting a warm feeling inside when we saw our three bags waiting for us, we hopped over to the Hertz counter and picked up our shiny, big, white Toyota Highlander. Stepping out into the rental car parking lot, the air was fresh, with the scent of a distant wildfire. And the view was tremendous. Stef and I were excited to hit the road.

Ready to Go!

The short drive to Mount Rushmore took us through the Black Hills, so named because the dark green Ponderosa pines covering the hills makes them look almost black, especially when a cloud passes over. The landscapes were magnificent. Immediately, I knew that I’d need to resist the urge to stop the car every five minutes to take another landscape shot.

My trusty GPS took us straight to the Mount Rushmore parking lot, where Stef took extra care parking our big Highlander. After a short walk past the visitor center and café, there we were, standing right in front of George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe. After a bumpy start to the trip, it was so nice to finally be seeing something cool.

Mount Rushmore

George & Tom

The Fifth Head

It’s bigger than I thought. And the perspective is weird. The trees below make it look like the whole thing belongs on a model train set. The sculptures are intricately carved, and striations in the rock slice through the presidents’ faces. Stef and I agree that the best thing about the sculpture is Abe Lincoln’s pouty lip.

We walked around a bit, and I took pictures like crazy. Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun is behind the memorial, so I vowed to return the next morning for some proper pictures.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

When it got dark, we were happy to learn that there was a nightly performance and light show at Mount Rushmore, so we stuck around. I staked a good place for my tripod, and the crowd started to gather around us.

Having a tripod and a big camera makes me the go-to guy for “Can you take my picture?” We joked around with most of those people, but one particularly child-molester-looking guy that wandered over creeped Stef out. He had it all: the haircut that stayed unstylish no matter how many times he ran his hand through it, the engineer glasses, the mustache, the tucked in dress shirt, the Members Only jacket, the short pant legs, the awkward pauses, and the mistimed laughs. He made me take five pictures of him.

The “performance” was a park ranger coming out and giving us a melodramatic speech about the four presidents and their upbringing, followed by a short film about Mount Rushmore and its construction. The “light show” was a slowly illuminated spotlight on the presidents.

Mount Rushmore at Night

When it was time to find our campground, my GPS wasn’t so trusty. It led up into the hills on windy, pitch-black roads, and then told us to take a turn on a road that didn’t exist. Don’t trust the Garmin when you’re looking for the Mount Rushmore KOA. After stopping at three grungy motels for prices and availability, we finally bit the bullet and got a room. Probably best, since the beds were probably more comfortable than sleeping in a tent, and we badly needed a good night’s sleep.

It was a bumpy day, and moods flared, but everything worked out. We woke up this morning vowing to be in a better mood and looking forward to the first full day of our adventure.