Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Glaciers, Grizzlies and MORE snow!

We arrived in Glacier National Park in mid-afternoon and immediately headed for the famous "going to the sun road."  Unfortunately only 16 miles of the 53 mile road were open due to all the heavy snows from this past winter/spring.  We were told that there were still 40 feet of snow at the top of the pass!  We also found out that the road typically opens July 1 and closes September 19th, but this year, the road is not expected to be open until July 15.  Even without being able to take the whole road, the views from the portion we could drive on were simply incredible.  After driving up the road as far as we could go we returned to the first lodge area of the park to check on lodging prices in the park.  We expected them to be out of our price range, but because of the poor weather and plenty of vacancies, I was able to negotiate a rate similar to what we would have paid outside the park.  The real bonus though, was the view from the room (see below).  I honestly don't believe there could be a hotel room anywhere in the world with a more spectacular view.  Another bonus was that it had a full kitchen so after a good night's sleep we were able to cook a full breakfast (eggs and BACON, yum!) instead of our normal cold cereal.  We had hoped to do some hiking up to one of the smaller lakes only accessible by foot, but it was raining pretty hard and after I slipped on a wet log crossing a creek and nearly broke my forearm, we called it a day as far as hiking goes.  We did get to see another (black) bear, this one fishing in the river.  We bid adieu to GNP, and like many of the places we've been, vowed to return when we could see more of the park.

Our next stop was Yellowstone National Park, but it was more than a days drive away, so we decided to spend the night in Butte, Montana.  I really wanted to see Butte anyway, because my grandfather was born and grew up there.  Butte started out as a mining town (my grandfather and his father both worked in mining) and still is to this day.  It's pretty old relative to other western towns and it's highpoint was the '20-'30s which is reflected in the architecture of the old downtown area.   I don't think I'd make Butte a destination, but if you are passing through, it's worth stopping to check out the mining history of the area.

After an evening in Butte, we headed south to Yellowstone.  On our way we were lucky enough to come across a cattle drive in progress with real cowboys (and cowgirls, as well as herding dogs) all working hard to get all the cattle across an interstate without losing any.  It was great fun to watch for about 15 minutes, especially for Bella.  We arrived in West Yellowstone (a VERY touristy little town just outside the western entrance of Yellowstone) in late afternoon and proceeded to check accommodations in the area.  There were dozens of hotels, but all of the semi-decent ones were either booked or exceedingly expensive, so we decided to head into the park and try our luck with the on-site accommodations.  When we arrived at the park entrance there was a sign that said "All Park Accomodations Full."  Despite the sign, I asked the park ranger if that was in fact the case.  She assured me it was, but said that if we headed down to the Old Faithful area we could check with the lodge there to see if they had any cancellations.  Since we wanted to see Old Faithful that was fine by us.  It's about an hour drive and on the way we saw our first wild bison, first at a distance, then up close (see pics below).  It was kind of funny because there were literally dozens of people pulling over in their cars to get a closer look (and pictures) of the bison, but the bison acted as if absolutely no one was there.  They crossed the road at their leisure, or not.  Sometimes they would just stand smack dab in the middle of the road and you either had to wait for them to decide to move, or you could carefully work your way around them.  We made our way to the Old Faithful Lodge and arrived at about 6 PM.  As luck would have it, they did not have any rooms available, but there was one cabin vacant on the north side of the park about a 2 hour drive away and the rate was very reasonable considering it was actually in the park.  We booked the room, had a quick bite at their on site grille and went out to have a quick look at Old Faithful.  We saw it go off and it was neat, but the area around Old Faithful is VERY built-up and touristy so it kind of takes away from the experience.  Fortunately 99.99% of the park is not built-up so our experience just got better from there.  Yellowstone basically has one big interior loop road with a few connectors in between so we decided to take the western loop up to the north side where our cabin was and then take the eastern loop down south the next day because we planned on exiting the park to the south.  We stopped along the way several times to check out the very interesting geological sites.  In between a couple of our geological site stops, we came around a bend and saw several people pulling their cars over, jumping out and looking into the roadside woods...so of course we did the same to see what all the commotion was about.  It was nothing but a BIG grizzly bear about 40 yards into the woods!  We have seen plenty of black bears, in VA, in GA and earlier on this trip, but this was our first grizzly sighting so it was kinda cool.  This grizzly, much like the bison, seemed oblivious to the fact that there were about 40 people watching his every move.  Yellowstone advises keeping a 100 yard distance between yourself and any bears you come across, but 40 yards seemed like plenty...as long as the car was less than 20 yards away.  Besides, I figured there were 40 other people outside their cars looking at the bear too (Michelle and the kids were in the car watching), I didn't need to be faster than all of them, just faster than at least one of them.  :)

After a leisurely 3 hour drive that included several stops to view geological sites, a second grizzly sighting, Aldous having a run-in with a bison (see pic below), some beaver watching, and slowing down through ANOTHER snow storm (in the middle of June!) we made it to our cabin, which was small, but very nice and very clean.  This little cabin was great, but it had no fridge or microwave so we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at the lodge dining room the next day.  It was a very nice setting, the prices were reasonable and the food was good (I had eggs benedict with pan fried trout, yum!).  I have noticed that the contract concessionaires are not the same at all the federal parks.  The reason I noticed this is because two parks stood out as being the most reasonably priced (food and accommodation) and actually had decent food at their sit down restaurants.  Those two parks were Mesa Verde and Yellowstone and they were both run by Xterra.  For comparison, the price/quality of accomodations/food at Yosemite was pathetic.  I don't remember who the concessionaire company was in Yosemite, but it was not Xterra, I remember that.  I wish the NPS would give Xterra a national contract to run all of them.

After breakfast, we made our way up to one of the major geological activity areas on a hill that overlooks the village we stayed in the night previous.  The area is called Mammoth Hot Springs and if you are at all interested in geological activity you definitely don't want to miss this this area if you make it to Yellowstone.  We spent a good 2 hours walking around and examining this area before Aldous had had enough and was ready for a nap.  We then started on the loop headed east, then south toward the parks south exit (right into the Grand Tetons National Park).  Along this route we saw the yellow stone that gives Yellowstone it's name, the grand canyon of Yellowstone, the magnificent Lower Falls, Yellowstone lake, and a bunch more geological oddities in between.  Of all the parks we have visited, Michelle and I agree that Yellowstone would be the one to visit if you could only see one.  It is not quite as visually impressive as say the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or even Glacier National Park, but it has everything those parks have (to a lesser degree) AND it has it's fantastic array of unique geological features.

We made it to the south entrance by late afternoon and decided to head through Grand Tetons National Park on our way to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the evening.  The drive through Grand Tetons was fantastic.  We were really glad we didn't decide to just head east from Yellowstone.  Just when you think the view can't get better, it does.  We also saw another grizzly, lazily making it's way through a field only about 20 yards off the road.  We arrived in Jackson, Hole around 8PM and started looking for a room.  JH is kinda weird because it's in the middle of nowhere, but there is clearly a lot of money in the area (JH is a big vacation area for the Hollywood jet set, or so I've heard) so the hotels are pricey and there are a lot of pricey boutiques and eateries.  We bit the bullet and got a room right in downtown JH.  The next morning we got a cup of coffee, drove around a bit to see the rest of JH, and then headed east for our next destination, Mount Rushmore.

Wyoming is a curious state, in that the geography in the western part of the state is very interesting, and so is  the eastern side, but the part in the middle is pretty damn flat and boring.  When we first left JH we went through an area that is very mountainous and still had several feet of snow piled up on the side of the road from snow plows.  We stopped for lunch at a little place called "Lava Mountain Lodge."  By the looks of the place we didn't expect much, but they had the best food we ate on this trip per $ spent.  I would love to go back to this area for a few days.  We made it to Casper, Wyoming, where we decided to turn in for the night.  Casper is bit of an industrial town, and that is about the nicest thing I can say about it (as far as we saw).  The next morning we again headed for Mount Rushmore and along the way we literally came across "Hells Half Acre." I had no idea it was a real place until I saw the sign as we whizzed by.  It's easy to miss because the state park setup for parking to view it is closed, apparently because part of the park itself is starting to fall into Hells Half Acre and I guess there is no money to prevent it at the moment.  We stopped anyway and Bella and I jumped the fence to get a closer look.  It's hard to describe other than to say it would make a great set for filming a movie that is supposed to take place on another planet.  After feeding Aldous we set off for MR again, only to pass a sign for Devil's Tower not too far up the road.  I have wanted to see Devils Tower ever since I saw "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" as a kid.  So we made a 100 mile detour to see Devil's Tower, which was well worth it.  If you are in the area, don't miss it.  We then made a beeline for MR, but we only got as far as Spearfish, South Dakota before we turned in for the night.

The next day we got up and went straight to MR.  Michelle and I both agreed that of all the things we've seen on this trip, Mount Rushmore was the biggest bust (no pun intended).  We just expected it to be much bigger than it was in person.  Not only that, but the area is full of very interesting granite rock formations that are beautiful in and of themselves and MR just looks completely out of place in the area.  This was the only destination we visited that we have no desire to see again.  We did not spend much time at MR at all, we really only did a double drive-by.  We hear they do a great laser show at night, but we'll never see it.  The area around MR is setup as a vacation haven, so if you head that way with the kids, you will find plenty of vacation activities in the area.

We now had only one destination left on our trip and that was Badlands National Park, SD.  We made it as far as Murdo, South Dakota before we turned in for the night.  Not a minute too soon, because as soon as we got our hotel room the driving rain and 30 mph winds started that continued on through the next day.  After a restless night with Aldie, we got up a little late and hit the road.  The weather started to break just as we arrived at BNP.  We drove down to the south entrance to see the visitors center down there.  It's also a visitors center for the local Lakota Indian Reservation.  They had some fantastic displays and information regarding the Lakota tribe.  I HIGHLY recommend going to see it if you make it to BNP.  After spending about an hour there, we worked our way north through the park.  Again, the Badlands is one of those places that is exceedingly difficult to describe in words, you really need to see it.  It kind of looks like giants were making clay mud castles.  How is that for a visual?  :) 

After a couple hours driving through BNP and taking some pictures we started on the journey home.  On our way we stopped by chance in Mitchell, Iowa, home of "The Corn Palace."  The best way to describe it is Americana at its best.  If you are traveling along I90 east or west and you need a break, take an hour and stop at The Corn Palace in Mitchell, Iowa.  Be sure to watch their little 15 minute film that tells you all about the history of TCP.  I expected it to be very hokey, and it was, but very interesting nonetheless.  The Corn Palace was really the last interesting thing we saw on our trip.  We did see a bunch of flooding from the Missouri River, but that was very depressing.  I hope those folks get some relief soon.  Here are a few pics from the last leg of our trip.  I'll probably post one more short blog in a few days with my thoughts regarding the whole trip after I've had a bit more time to digest it.
The view from the early part of "Going to the Sun Road" at Glacier National Park.

Bella and Aldous playing directly in front of our room at GNP.  I was standing on the porch of our room when I took this pic.  The view is even more incredible in person.

Another shot from our room.

These are the buses they use for tours at GNP...this was no day to take the top off.

One of the rivers in GNP.

The view leaving GNP.

We caught this bear fishing for his dinner...when he noticed us he bounded out of the water and up into the woods.

Twilight view from our room at GNP.

The view from Butte, Montana.

A cowboy and cowgirl going after a loose heifer.

Cattle drive!

Teaching Bella and Aldie how they used to fetch water in the olden days...  :)

Our first site of wild bison in Yellowstone.

Proof it snowed on us in Yellowstone...in the middle of June.

Our first grizzly sighting...he never would look at me after I pulled the camera out.

Our second wild bison sighting...a little more up close and personal.

"Boil boil, toil and trouble!"

This unfortunate bison happened to cross paths with Aldous during his snack hour.  Aldie said, "tastes just like chicken." 

Sunset at Yellowstone.

Mineral steps at Mammoth Hot Springs

We actually saw 3 beavers in this lake...yes, that is snow.

More interesting mineral deposits at Mammoth Hot Springs.

MHS again, it's kinda hard to tell, but there is water still running down here.

See above.

In the upper left hand corner of the pic is Mammoth Hot Springs Village, where we stayed.

More cool stuff at MHS.

The colors in person are just incredible.

These trees were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Like a giant colorful hot tub!

Hot water rolling down the "stairs"....


More unfortunate trees.

It's quite a view from MHS village.

View at the north end of Yellowstone.

The yellow stone of Yellowstone.

The view to the southeast from the north of Yellowstone.

Bella at the Lower Falls viewing area.

Lower Falls from a distance.

Lower Falls zoomed in a bit.

It was COLD!

Bubbling mud.

The view across Yellowstone Lake.

Lewis lake in Yellowstone, still with a bunch of ice in it...in the middle of June!

First view of the Grand Tetons.

Adolescent (according to the ranger who was there) grizzly at Grand Tetons National Park.

More GTNP.

A nice profile, don't ya think?

Yet more GTNP.

This is the visitor center at the south entrance to GTNP.  I love clever modern architecture.

Right outside Jackson Hole...and it's for sale!

Hells Half Acre Wyoming.

Bella riding the famous western "Jackalope."

Mountain in GTNP disappearing into the clouds.

More Hells Half Acre.

Hells Half Acre is in fact over 300 acres...seriously.

More HHA.

See caption above.

Continuing on with our underworld theme, here is Devil's Tower.

From the other side, closer and with the sun shining on it.

We are at the base of a massive boulder field created by granite breaking off Devil's Tower and falling.

This boy loves three things...food (just ask that bison), rock climbing, and water (as in to swim in).  Give him any of those three and either take it away from him or remove him from the rocks/water and the "hell child" appears in full force.

Devil's Tower has a field opposite of it that is a safe haven for prairie dogs and there are literally hundreds of them in that field.

Washington's profile on Mount Rushmore.  It was raining and that caused the streaking you see on his face.

MR from the front.

An apparently never ending road in the Badlands.

More Badlands.

Bella on a cliff overlooking a portion of the Badlands.

The sun trying to break through on the Badlands.


I think that was the first sun we'd seen in 3 or 4 days.


The famous Corn Palace just beginning its yearly redecoration.

Yea, it's a corny pic (and caption).  :)

Missouri River flooding.

More flooding...

The flooding continues...

You can't even see the river in this pic.  This is just cornfields that have been filled by the overflowing river about a 1/4 mile to the right of this pic.

The last pic we took...the giant arch on the Mississippi in St. Louis.


  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I can't believe you are headed home at last. What an amazing trip you all have taken....and what a blog you've written. I will really miss it. And the photos have been amazing!

  2. Incredible account of the last leg(s) of your monumental (literally) trip. I feel like I've revisted some of my very favorites places. Glacier is very special to me and your account and your photos just reinforce my view that this is the most amazing landscape in the hemisphere. Speaking of remarkable photos, the one above called "success!" is absolutely stunning. Just gorgeous. You need to get that one printed out and mounted and enter it in the Georgia State Fair.

    My question of the day is: When will you be moving out west. (It can be done, you know.)

  3. Thanks for the kind words guys. We REALLY enjoyed our trip. We can't wait to do it again. Seriously. I don't know about moving out west (but stranger things have happened :) ), but we will be back for a visit in the not too distant future for sure. I'm just sorry it took so long to get out to see you all in the first place!