I got the short end of the driving stick today. Heading into Aspen (and looking out the window) I assumed all the driving today would be on twisty little mountain roads. I figured I might as well do my share in the morning while I was fresh and caffeinated.
We stopped for coffee and croissants at a chocolate shop. The coffee was great and the chocolate croissant was a solid (in a light, flaky way) pastry.
After that, I got behind the wheel and we headed up into the Rockies. It. Was. So. Twisty.
I’m talking driving along at no more than 35 mph, 20 mph around the curves, and 10 to 15 mph around the (numerous) hairpin turns.
We gained a lot of altitude. We hit a new high for the trip (10,800 feet). The scenery (what I saw of it beyond the yellow lines anyway) was stunning.
It took a good couple of hours to get to Ourey, Colorado. Sadly, the Alchemy/Western Pharmacy museum I’d added to the itinerary wasn’t open. We decided to stop for another impromptu picnic lunch. Dad purchased a canned substance known as “potted meat” at one of the trading posts yesterday, a “food” (I use the term loosely) he remembers fondly from road trips of his youth.
It was… edible. However, the consistency felt like the unholy union of baby food and cat barf.
Dad, however, loved it.
Potted meat aside, it was a nice stop for a picnic. The park had a large waterslide area and the delighted shrieks of children (and adults) wafted by on the breeze.
Dad took over driving, even though I’d planned to get us to the winery stop on our itinerary. I don’t feel that bad about only doing 1/3 of the driving by mileage though because we discovered the Rockies have a flat plateau in the middle! Dad’s portion of the drive was almost entirely flat (albeit at 8,000 feet).
The winery we stopped at made some lovely whites and had a lovely dog, Seamus, with an insatiable appetite for ear scratches.
Again, we expected the drive into Aspen to be mountainous. It was to a certain extent, but nothing compared to this morning! After passing the Aspen airport, they’d poured money into a four-lane highway built on bridges. Demand and supply I guess.
Even in the summer, Aspen is popular for outdoor sports, like downhill mountain biking and rock climbing. Dad did manage to find a room at the Mountain Chalet. Cozily-worn out furniture filled the room. It even had a little kitchenette and dining nook.
Dad’s friend Ron recommended a casual 5-star restaurant for tonight, Element 47. They offered a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Dad and I each got a different wine pairing. His premium pairing won consistently but they did serve some interesting curveballs on my standard pairing.
Moab, UT – Arizona – New Mexico – Colorado – Mesa Verde – Durango, CO
While I napped yesterday, Dad did some more thorough route planning for the next few days. The oppressive heat has made him reconsider our original desert route. We’re still going to drive down to Four Corners for the novelty, but then we’re cutting back into the mountains and getting to Denver via Aspen and Boulder.
The drive down to Four Corners was pretty boring after yesterday. Once you’ve seen one desert you’ve kind of seen them all.
However, we did find some fun stops along the way, including the aptly named Hole N’ The Rock…
A trading post with outdoor jail photo op…
And a truly excellent 1950s style diner, The Patio Diner, in Blanding, Utah.
We both got burgers and shakes. The shakes are three times too big but delicious and the burgers are everything you’re looking for in a diner hamburger.
All the states we’ve passed through have had excellent welcome signs, but, apparently, visitors are not welcome in Arizona. We crossed the Arizona border twice and neither had a fun sign. This was the best we could do.
The Navajo Nation (that actually owns that corner of Arizona anyway) did much better.
Believe it or not, this is a Welcome to New Mexico sign.
The Navajo Nation charges $5 per person to go into Four Corners, which is kind of steep for a photo op, but I think they’re entitled.
After Four Corners, we headed north, back into Colorado for at least the third time on this trip. Dad remembers Mesa Verde from the road trips of his youth. He read me the Walker of Time series as a kid about the cliff dwellers who lived there so I was excited to see the ruins in person.
I snaked us up to the top until we got to the parking area for the cliff dwellings. At first we thought they’d managed to restrict views to a paid tour ticket. However, with a little brazen attitude, I pushed forward and discovered there was a viewing platform accessible to everyone with a great view.
From there, you could go on a ticked tour down into the village. However, given all the emphatic “Bring Water” “Rough Terrain” “Hike not recommended for those with heart or lung conditions” signs confirmed we’d made a good choice to NOT DO THAT.
Dad wound us back down the mesa so I could enjoy the views. For our accommodations tonight, he found a cool historic hotel in downtown Durango that will get us within about 250 miles of Aspen.
The return to the mountains didn’t bring much relief from the heat though. Durango was still blisteringly hot. The hotel was charming but the elevator was out of commission. Fortunately, a wiry young man hauled our bags up to the second floor for us. The room is the smallest so far, with a queen and twin, but it’s fun. There are a lot of patterns on the wall. And there’s air-conditioning.
There’s an old-fashioned narrow-gauge coal-powered train that drives by on scenic tours. It’s very loud. If it were actually for shipping I’d be worried, but I assume they don’t give midnight scenic tours.
Durango is a really cute downtown. They’ve made a big effort to make the new buildings blend into the historic architecture. There are also a lot of excellent dogs.
We strolled a couple blocks to a gastropub, El Moro, with a really interesting menu.
We ended up just grazing on appetizers but they were delicious. The honey-sambal chicken drumstick had quite a kick! None of their desserts involved ice cream, so we decided to wander another couple of blocks for sundaes.
As soon as I saw the Unicorn Sundae on the menu at Cream Bean Berry, I knew I had to have it.
Dad actually had one too, but they turned out completely different due to our topping choices. (Also, the kid serving the ice cream told Dad he’d just run out of pink whipped cream and asked if white would be okay.)
We got good news from the car repair place this morning! Although they would have to special order a $400 tire from Denver to exactly match the specialty tires on the car, they could supply a generic tire that would work by mid-morning for $150. Huzzah!
We checked out of our hotel and left our bags at the front desk while we went to a couple of tasting rooms within walking distance. We didn’t have anything mind-blowingly amazing but Colorado is definitely an up and coming wine region (thanks to Climate Change probably).
We summoned an Uber to take us back to the Grand Junction Firestone. Our driver turned out to be a font of information about the region. I think he must run a private tour company. When he found out we were headed for Moab he told us to get off the highway at “Danish Flat” (easy to remember since we’d just had one!) once we were in Utah and take the side road, Route 128, instead. He told us it was much more scenic.
We reunited with our car. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between the $150 tire and the three other $400 tires.
We hit the road again and our only mistake was not stopping for lunch in Grand Junction. We passed a point of no return about 20 miles out and suddenly there was nothing (literally nothing) till Moab. Thank goodness for granola, Bugles, and latte-flavored Oreos!
We found the Danish Flat exit and it took us past a ghost town called Cisco. A sign claimed it wasn’t abandoned and forbid trespassing and drones… but I find its assertion dubious…
The first part of Route 128 heading south wasn’t that much more scenic than the highway, but it may have been the only time (other than the ocean) I had been someplace where you couldn’t see any buildings, cars, or infrastructure in any direction. However, once we got to the Colorado River, which the road followed for the final three-quarters of the drive, it was stunning.
Steep red cliffs loomed on either side of the car. Rafters floated along next to us. Given the 107 degrees the car thermometer registered, we were jealous of the group who *accidentally* capsized their raft.
The scenery only improved when the road parted company from the river again. We drove through a field of impressive buttes that, honestly, were more impressive in some ways than Monument Valley (where we were seven years ago, almost to the day).
We’d planned to go to Canyonlands before settling into our room in Moab, but we felt like the scenery on the drive pretty well covered it minus all the other tourists. We opted to spend our afternoon at the two-bedroom condo with an in-unit washer and dryer we’d booked for the night. After the stress of yesterday, it was nice to relax and do a couple loads of wash.
I took another nap and we went out to a lovely dinner at Desert Bistro a few blocks away. Dad and I had fun perusing their wine list, which was pretty deep. Dad asked the server if he should order the Boom Boom Syrah or a local Moab wine. Without hesitation, the server told him to go with the Boom Boom.
The appetizers and salads we ordered were fantastic and very refreshing. I didn’t think the entrees were quite of the same caliber but they were still very tasty.
Jackson Hole, WY – Green River, WY – Flaming Gorge, UT – Douglass Pass, CO – Grand Junction, CO – Palisade, CO
The Parkway Inn breakfast spread was nice, though it was impossible to serve yourself anything without being in someone’s way. We wanted to hit the road ASAP anyway since we had a long way to go and no internet connection to speak of.
The interesting thing about today is that we weaved in and out of Utah on our way south. I didn’t realize how strict the liquor laws are in Utah until we reached the border and found a Saloon on the Colorado side with shot glasses that said, “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for tomorrow you may be in Utah.”
I brought a soft cooler and some picnic supplies with us. I actually wasn’t sure what the food situation would be like in Yellowstone, so I thought we might have to fend for ourselves more (little did I know the scarcity would be related to kitchen fires rather than remoteness). We finally put it to use today and picked up some deli meat, cheese, and a couple of spreads for a picnic.
We drove through Green River and realized though my grandfather was born in Colorado, he actually grew up in Utah. Dad matched up pictures from Grandpa Dean’s past to the scenery we passed on our way to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
Dad found us a nice picnic ground. We were completely alone except for a New Zealand man who wandered through right as we sat down and then disappeared into the bush again.
As we kept driving through Utah, we were on the lookout for poorly-rendered and/or brightly colored dinosaurs. We found several photo-worthy specimens.
The drive got greener once we crossed back into Colorado.
We made great time through a small range of mountains between us and were within an hour of our final destination when, all of a sudden, we heard a pop followed by a hisssssss.
What’s a road trip without a little car trouble, right?
We had a flat tire. A very flat tire. (Though, as Dad pointed out, it was only flat on the bottom…)
We’re still baffled how it happened. We’ve been on some bad roads on this trip but this one was actually pretty decent!
We pulled off to the side and prepared to change it. We got out the jack, found the right spot, and finally even used one of the towels I packed to cushion our knees on the rocky pull out.
However, that’s when we realized the rental car company put special safety lug nuts on the car. They were twice the size of the wrench we had! Oops.
On the bright side, we had one bar of cellular service, which was just enough to call AAA. Unfortunately, it’s not like mountain passes have addresses you can share with your roadside assistance provider. And, once he was in the mountains and also didn’t have reliable cell service, it was like a game of telephone between us, dispatch, and him.
Eventually, after about two hours, he found us at the top of Douglass Pass. He also didn’t have the wrench needed to remove the tire so he had to tow us 30 miles into Grand Junction.
He was the kind of guy you’d never believe in a work of fiction. He was a crazy gun-toting conservative (word of advice folks, don’t lead with a story about the time you got into trouble in California with a Nevada concealed carry permit if your passenger is wearing rainbow sunglasses) but he’d also written part of an episode of Next Generation back in the 80s and canned his own jams and jellies to sell to benefit retired service members. Go figure!
He warned us they might need to drop ship a tire from Denver, so we might be stuck in Grand Junction for another night. We won’t know anything official till the Firestone opens tomorrow morning. We left our keys in the overnight drop box and a note pleading for assistance.
We called an Uber to take us to our hotel in Palisade, the Wine Country Inn. Without car trouble, we would have arrived in plenty of time for dinner and a couple of tasting room visits. As it was, we rolled up a little before 10 PM and the lady at the front desk regretfully informed us every restaurant in Palisade was closed for the night, except for Papa John’s! They delivered till 1 AM.
Well, lemons into lemonade, right? I went to the hotel bar and told the woman to sell me a bottle of her finest Colorado red. She said, “I assume you have a price point in mind?” And I replied, “It’s been a long day.”
The wine wasn’t phenomenal but it did go excellently with pizza. However, never order a half-anchovy pizza. Their little fish carcasses stick to the pizza cutter and contaminate the rest of the pizza. They taste like Sealion Point smells at Seaworld.
Miles driven: ~450 (but 30 of them were on a tow truck and 15 were in an UberXL)
This morning, I was the early bird. I actually got up about 10 minutes before the alarm went off. I verified the previous night’s storm had blown away and we had gorgeous morning light for our photo ops. We threw our stuff together and headed for the car. I really wanted to get to an area where the bison often congregate in the morning (near the Mud Volcano). But we also wanted to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near our hotel while the light was good.
We decided to go to the Canyon first and avoid backtracking. I’m glad we did because we had the whole place almost to ourselves!
The light was also beautiful on Lower Falls, which we saw from the North Rim Drive.
Having seen the real Grand Canyon, this seemed… small. Pretty. But small. We didn’t stay too long since there wasn’t any place easy to walk to and we had a date with some bison.
We got back in the car and headed south. Again, I had my eyes peeled for one or two bison (maybe a baby bison if we were lucky). Right as we entered the Hayden Valley and crossed Alum Creek we found THE ENTIRE HERD.
There were so many bison.
We could see the ones closest to the road very clearly but the rest disappeared into the morning mist, which lent the whole scene an ethereal quality.
The closest ones were right next to the road, and in fact, we kept having to shuffle back as they got closer and closer. Clearly, our presence did not disturb them in the slightest.
A couple of baby bison played with one another till they got shushed by someone’s mom. The bison also made a weird low, bellowing sound. I’m not sure if it meant “I’m hungry” or “I’m horny” or both.
A couple of males also got into a gentle tiff about 25 feet away. However, it didn’t seem like a very serious disagreement since neither of them stopped chewing during the “confrontation.”
We probably stood there for about half an hour admiring the bison. Mission very successfully accomplished.
We headed out before the morning heated up too much and made our last Yellowstone stop: Sulphur Caldron (stinky) and Mud Volcano. There’s a three-quarter of a mile path around the hydrothermal features there. It went up a bit but since it was still in the high 50s it wasn’t too bad.
We had a guidebook so I was able to narrate our tour. We learned how quickly hydrothermal features can change. In the past 50 years, the formations and springs in this area had come and gone and changed temperature dramatically after several earthquakes.
Dad really enjoyed taking photos in front of the billowing steam.
We also saw another bison up on the hill after encountering a fair amount of bison poop on the boardwalk (to be fair, there were lots of signs warning that the bison used the paths).
We didn’t have any more specific stops planned in Yellowstone as we headed toward the south entrance. We spotted several more bison and this very impressive elk butt.
The southern entrance road was definitely less scenic than the rest of the park, though of course by this point we’re pretty spoiled for stunning scenery. The temperature kept creeping up so we didn’t stop again on our way out of the park till we had a bathroom break right near the entrance. Even though this is only middling scenery as far as Yellowstone is concerned it’s still pretty beautiful.
From there, we had less than a hundred miles to get to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In hindsight, we could have made it farther today since we didn’t need all day in the Park, but it was nice to have a restful afternoon. We booked the hotel a couple nights ago because we were afraid Saturday night might be tough.
We arrived in time for lunch. We tried to go to a good looking BBQ place since we haven’t really gotten our good BBQ fix on this trip, but they were serving a boring brunch menu. Instead, we went across the street and had serviceable if not stunning Mexican food at El Abuelito Family Mexican Restaurant. Dad ordered a jumbo margarita and boy did they deliver!
I ordered an extra straw.
We still had time to kill so we went to the art festival right next to our hotel. It was interesting to stroll through for about 20 minutes. Then we found some lovely grass in the shade to plan our next move. I think Dad would have been happy to stay there all afternoon though!
Eventually, we did get up and went to Cowboy Coffee Co. for some excellent iced coffee. Dad also needed a lens cap keeper so we found an actual camera store that sold them. I guess if any place can keep a camera store in business one that’s less than 100 miles from Yellowstone is as safe as it gets.
We checked into our room and, for the second time on this trip, thought we had a broken door. It turned out it was just very finicky. The room had two doors, one exterior and one interior. Odd, but, in this case, we figured at least there was another exit!
The early morning finally caught up with me and I took a nap to revive myself for dinner. Dad identified a couple of possible places in town. We ended up sitting at the bar at the most popular restaurant in town, Trio. We split two half bottles of good wine and had a lovely evening watching the chef in front of us cook chickens in an enormous wood-fired oven.
Tomorrow is another long driving day so we called it an early night.
West Yellowstone, MO – Idaho – Yellowstone National Park
Breakfast was available till 9:30. I was pushing it a little, but it was still only about 9:20 according to the clock in the room when I got to the lobby. Someone was already cleaning up so I wrestled some eggs from his grasp and claimed the last slice of toast. It turned out the clock was 12 minutes slow…
We had decent wifi this morning so we dawdled a little bit at the hotel. I put two things on the agenda before returning to Yellowstone: visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and cross the Idaho border.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center lay directly across the road from our hotel so we started there. The website said if you got there early you could hear the wolves howl. Unfortunately, due to our later than anticipated start, it was closer to mid-day and already quite hot. All the wolves were napping out of view. However, our timing for the Grizzlies was perfect.
They have a Junior Rangers program for kids up to 12 years old. Every few hours, they clear the bears out of the main habitat and invite a group of about 30 kids in to hide food in the enclosure. They throw apple slices in the water and bury carrots, dog food, and other treats under piles of rocks and logs. It’s a win-win for everyone. The kids get to feel involved, the bears get mental and physical stimulation, and the treats ensure the bears are visible to the guests.
We arrived right as the kids entered the habitat. We watched them hide the food and do their best Grizzly impersonation (most needed a lot of work).
They cleared out and about 10 minutes later two Grizzlies were invited into the enclosure. We saw two female bears, Spirit and the oh-so-imaginatively named 101. Both bears had been removed from the wild due to an over-reliance on human food.
They trundled out and started investigating the new smells. I’m not sure if they were more interested in the food smells or the kid smells though. It was neat to see them, but I’m just as glad we didn’t run into them in the wild.
After that, we took a 30-minute round-trip detour to the Idaho border. We missed the sign so we actually drove into Idaho and turned around. I think it counts.
After that, we got gas and headed back into Yellowstone.
The main road basically makes a figure-eight through the middle of the park with entrances branching off at each cardinal direction. Last night, we covered the eastern entrance, the top of the bottom circle, and the western entrance. Today, we decided to start with the most touristy stop: Old Faithful.
It’s slightly less faithful than it used to be, but it still goes off about every hour and forty minutes, give or take fifteen. We arrived about half an hour after it had gone off. That gave us time to grab a bite at the hotel. Dad remembered it well, since it’s where he stayed with his family when he was 5 years old.
We moseyed out to the geyser a little early and it’s a good thing we did. As soon as we got to the viewing ring it went off! It’s an impressive geyser. Even in the extreme heat, a prodigious amount of steam billowed off the fountain.
So far, Old Faithful has lived up to expectations but the bison have vastly exceeded expectations.
I grabbed some informational brochures and maps at the Visitor Center. There basically isn’t cell service in the park. I don’t mind being unplugged at all, but it does make navigating and answering questions a little challenging.
We stopped at another large hydrothermal area close to Old Faithful. We got out and walked along the boardwalk. I thought it was someplace I had a guide to but it turned out to be Biscuit Basin. (I never did figure out where that other place was.)
I loved the color of the bacteria mats (delightful name, no?). The leather-like formations are much more delicate and well-formed than the pond scum I’m accustomed to in Florida.
Biscuit Basin had its own little geyser that bubbled up periodically.
The most striking sight was Sapphire Pool. It’s deep, crystal clear, and an unnaturally bright shade of blue.
I tried sticking my foot in the river and expected ice water. However, the river was so wide and shallow that after a morning in full sun it really was just pleasantly cool.
After that, we made our way up the western side of the figure eight. The scenery to the north is spectacular. We gained even more altitude and drove past incredible rock formations. I knew Yellowstone was beautiful, but I never imagined anything like this.
Our timing was again good because we spent most of the hottest part of the afternoon in the air-conditioned car. We didn’t get to Mammoth Springs until late afternoon. To further cool things off, a storm rolling in kicked up a refreshing breeze. The storm clouds provided a stunning backdrop for our photos.
Lightning in the distance finally hurried us back to the car. The rain hadn’t quite hit so we stopped for a bathroom break in Mammoth. Bonus points: we got an up-close look at a deer grazing by the restrooms.
We flirted with the storm for the rest of the day. Every now and then we’d get a quick shower but we mostly stayed ahead of it until we were buttoned up for the night.
Coming across the top of the figure eight and down the side we passed through the Lamar Valley (good for wildlife but we were a bit too early). However, there was a huge back up of cars. I hopped out (since we were just sitting there) to see what had everyone so excited. It was a black bear!
Fortunately, he was at the bottom of a deep valley so it felt pretty safe. How cool to see a bear in Yellowstone! (Still glad it wasn’t a Grizzly though.)
We saw the petrified redwood tree from the car (at least we’re pretty sure that was it).
We didn’t stop at Tower Falls because we didn’t want to get soaked if the storm hit and didn’t want to miss dinner at the hotel since dining options are limited inside Yellowstone.
On our way to the hotel, we missed our turn thanks to some bad Google Maps directions. But there was a bison chilling right by the side of the road! We would have missed him if not for the inaccurate instructions.
We stayed at the Canyon Lodge, a very new addition to the park. So new they’re still working out some kinks. Including the fact there is only one dining room for the old Lodge, this new Lodge (which is BIG), and all the cabins. There really wasn’t an easy way to walk from our building over to the dining room (which seems odd for an outdoor recreational vacation destination).
Oh, there was one other small problem too, which was that the kitchen was on fire. As we approached, a security guard stopped us and told us the building had been evacuated because of a kitchen fire. Everything looked under control, but it was going to be all night (or possibly week) before that kitchen produced any food. That meant the entire population of Canyon Village was at the general store rooting around for something to eat for dinner.
Pickin’s were slim. We had ice cream. I had graham cracker and moose tracks (with peanut butter cups), so that’s well balanced, right? It’s got grain, protein, and dairy
We’d done such an efficient job sightseeing we didn’t have too much left on our list for the next day. The only trouble is without cell or LTE in most of the park, we’ve had to resort to old school methods: maps and guidebooks!
Given the midday heat we experienced at Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin and the fact most tourists are in the park between 10 AM and 6 PM, we decided to get up early and do our sightseeing before the park got crowded and hot. Plus, the animals are more active at the same time! So it was a win-win. Except for that part about the 6 AM alarm…
Custer, SD – Sheridan, WY – Montana – Cody, WY – Yellowstone – West Yellowstone, MO
We drove a VERY long way today. Fortunately, our early night meant we were up early. The Bavarian Inn provided a lovely breakfast spread. Obviously, many items were catered to young guests with a sweet tooth but there was also yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, and an espresso machine Dad fell in love with. My favorite novelty was the pancake machine.
We sat outside in a lovely garden and enjoyed our coffee and breakfast.
The woman who checked us out was extremely nice and gave us some recommendations for our route. Our goal was to get as close to Yellowstone as possible. Unfortunately, there was nothing to do along the way.
I drove while Dad searched for something, anything along our route. He finally came up with a BBQ place for lunch. Killy’s Smokehouse Deli was… serviceable. It wasn’t the best BBQ I’ve ever had, but we got to try a bunch of their different ribs and their potato salad was perfect (just the way I like it).
We took a short detour up into Montana. We thought that might be the only way to check it off our list, but on the (boring) drive toward Billings, we reconsidered just after crossing the border.
Instead, we decided to extend our day’s route through Yellowstone and stay in West Yellowstone (which is in Montana). It meant a lot of driving, but we’d be in Yellowstone in the early evening, so it would be beautiful. (It also opened up an opportunity to check off Idaho without a big detour.)
We turned around in the non-existent town of Aberdeen and crossed back into Wyoming and headed toward Yellowstone.
The scenery was gorgeous! Driving through Bighorn National Forest showcased fascinating rock strata.
We stopped at Shell Falls and contemplated what it is about waterfalls that so captivates humans.
We reached Cody, the last outpost of civilization before Yellowstone’s eastern entrance. It has a few attractions, but nothing especially caught our attention. We wanted to keep moving. We just stopped for a photo op outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and a bathroom break at the visitor’s center.
Then, we pressed on into Yellowstone. The scenery did not disappoint! It was gorgeous long before we entered Yellowstone.
At the park entrance, I talked dad into purchasing a lifetime senior National Parks pass for $80 dollars. All he has to do is visit three more national parks to break even!
Our timing was perfect because the light was gorgeous.
I really really really really wanted to see a bison. I kept my eyes glued to the terrain as we wound through the eastern part of the national park. Suddenly, we saw a few cars pulled off to the side of the road. Lo and behold there was a stately bison grazing right by the road.
I was ecstatic. I considered my trip to Yellowstone complete. Little did I know…
Not many miles later we saw a whole herd of bison grazing!
And there were elk!
A bison crossed the road in front of our car!
And then a mother bison and her calf walked past us!
It was magical.
A storm on the horizon produced an incredible sunset.
It got dark just as we left the park and headed into West Yellowstone. Our hotel was very nice. It was either new or recently refurbished. The only weird thing about the room is that the sink was not in the bathroom. (This turned out to be a theme in the next couple of hotels so I wonder if it has something to do with skiing or extreme winter?). It was past 9 so we rushed over to the only restaurant in town still open, The Slippery Otter.
It was a cute pub/sports bar. The food wasn’t life-changing, but it was tasty and they offered a fun 5-beer pick-your-own flight. Dad got all the dark beers and I picked a more varied assortment of Montana brews.
We started today with another breakfast of champions: donuts.
Everyone knew everyone at the local donut shop, Daylight Donuts. The service was extremely slow due to friendliness. Without a schedule to keep to, the eavesdropping was delightful rather than irritating.
Plus, it gave me more time to study the donut display. I selected a smorgasbord of options: glazed buttermilk, lemon buttermilk, walnut swirl, cinnamon swirl, and an apple Bearclaw.
The glazed buttermilk was too sweet but, surprisingly, the lemon buttermilk was well balanced. I think my favorite was the walnut swirl. We didn’t get Chadron’s signature donut because it involved peanut butter (which I just learned Dad isn’t a fan of in baked goods).
After the long drive yesterday, we were able to take things at a slower pace and see more attractions. We drove into Hot Springs, South Dakota for our first stop at the imaginatively named “The Mammoth Site.” This place is really, really cool.
There’s a 10 -minute video presentation between the gift shop and dig site. It’s extraordinarily well-produced because while it is informative it’s never boring.
The Mammoth Site started life as a sinkhole. During the last ice age, it filled with hot spring water, attracting male mammoths for an easy meal and bath. However, the steep, smooth sides meant that if a mammoth fell in, it couldn’t get out. Over time, sediment built up over the bones and filled in the sinkhole. The sediment was harder than the surrounding limestone, so it actually turned into a hill.
In the 1970s, a developer bought the surrounding land, intending to turn it into a housing development. When one of the first bulldozers on the site hit a mammoth tusk, he recognized it and called in a paleontologist to confirm the find.
Once they’d assessed the magnitude of the find, he sold the land at cost so scientists could continue excavating.
The bones are technically fossils, but they’re extremely fragile because they haven’t yet turned to stone. All the organic material has been leached away by the hot spring waters, but the bone is still bone. That means they must preserve it as they excavate it.
What’s really unique about The Mammoth Site is that they leave as many bones in situ as possible, only removing the most fragile. So far, they’ve excavated down 22 feet (about 1/3 of the way) and discovered 61 mammoth skeletons plus a couple of intact short-faced cave bear skulls (which are extremely rare). They’ve found numerous other smaller mammals, crustaceans, and a couple of fish as well.
The walls are decorated with informative paintings to give you an idea how BIG these animals were.
You can also go downstairs to the bone lab where they work to preserve and study the fossils they remove from the site. I really enjoyed our stop and would highly recommend The Mammoth Site to anyone who finds themselves in South Dakota.
Our path to Mt. Rushmore took us past Rush Mountain Adventure Park, which looked pretty small (just a zip line, gravity-coaster ride, and some other obstacle course things). However, it also boasted a cave tour I thought looked interesting. I convinced Dad we should stop and see it since it was right off the road and hardly even counted as a detour.
Once we parked the car we discovered, again, ADA has been completely ignored here. I’m pretty sure there was no way to get from the steeply sloped parking area up to the park facilities without climbing about four flights of stairs! At this point, Dad looked extremely skeptical (remember, we’re up at about 7,000 feet so the air is pretty thin).
We made it up the stairs and bought tickets for a cave tour leaving in 15 minutes and the gravity coaster. I made another trip to the car and back (up and down all those stairs) to get our jackets since the cave is constantly 58 degrees. I should not have bothered (more on that later).
Our guide for the tour was knowledgable and a good presenter. He gave the standard spiel about not touching the rocks because the oils on our hands damage them and emphatically told us to use the handrails. However, he added an additional detail that in places where there weren’t handrails, if we started losing our balance we should grab a rock. This should have been a warning sign.
Spoiler Alert: this was the twistiest, steepest cave tour I’ve ever encountered. The path wound down through tight squeezes, required climbing steep grades or stairs while hunched over to avoid hitting your head, and went up and down and up and down!
The review I read on Tripadvisor said it was “an easy walk” and that, “while there were a few stairs all but the infirm should be able to complete the walk.” That review was clearly written by a very fit person.
We did complete the walk but we definitely didn’t need our jackets since we continually worked up a sweat navigating the path. That said, I still had a blast. The *challenging* terrain gave a better sense of what it would be like to explore caves before they became tourist attractions.
A local miner discovered the last chamber on the tour. The journey from where we entered to that point used to take 3 hours of crawling. The miner noticed a sloped line that indicated water used to flow down somewhere into the cave beyond what had been explored. However, the passage was completely blocked with dirt. This guy came back with enough food and fuel for two days and stayed underground to dig through.
When he breached the next chamber, I’m sure his jaw dropped. It’s by far the most impressive in the cave. Stalactites drip from the ceiling, thatching it in jagged spikes. Flowstone cascades down the center of the sloped floor. The edges featured some impressive stalagmites and columns.
Having discovered this breath-taking place, he could name it anything he wanted. He took a look around and decided to call it “The Big Room.”
Well… he wasn’t wrong.
We made it past the last hurdle to escape the cave (a 7-step ladder with a low hanging rock at the top nicknamed “Headache Rock”) and returned to a sun-drenched, flat (albeit staircased) landscape.
On our way out, the guide told us we could come back for one of their “Adventure Tours” that requires squeezing through a 10-inch high tube. No thank you!
The gravity coaster was a fun novelty. It twisted and turned all the way down the mountainside which gave you a great view while hurtling along the tracks. Everyone sat in an individual vehicle and had control of the brakes. A chain hauled you to the top, where you released the brakes and zoomed down the mountain.
The exit of the coaster was almost at the same elevation as our car (as long as you didn’t mind walking through a field). I was a good daughter and fetched the car to pick up Dad.
Our exit was temporarily blocked by a wayward cow crossing the highway.
We wound through some more twisty roads until we came upon Mt. Rushmore. Amazingly, the Mt. Rushmore parking garage has a new-fangled invention called “an elevator.” It was a relief.
Mt. Rushmore was pretty cool. We were a lot closer than I thought we’d be and it wasn’t an absolute zoo. Our stop at the cave pushed our arrival at Mt. Rushmore into the late afternoon, so the light was good for photographs.
We drove past Crazy Horse on our way into Custer, South Dakota. I used our limited cellular connection to find a couple of promising restaurants for dinner. I’m so glad we picked Skogen.
The restaurant is run by a couple who started out in the midwest, lived in California for six years, and wanted to move back to the midwest. They fell in love with Custer and opened this restaurant. Everything was exceptional!
Originally, we planned to press on through 200 more boring miles and stay in the middle of nowhere tonight so we’d be closer to Yellowstone, but the evening was so lovely we decided to stay and linger over our meal and a good bottle of wine.
We stayed at a really charming motel, the Bavarian Inn. Unsurprisingly, we had no trouble falling asleep!
We woke up this morning ready to hit the road. We decided to aim for Mt. Rushmore and see how far we made it. However, before we left civilization behind we had two stops to make: breakfast and a grocery store, for healthy road snacks (aka Bugles).
We stopped at a Village Inn just outside Denver in Loveland. I’d never heard of it but apparently, it is a well-known chain. Well-enough known Dad has a usual order, the Ultimate Skillet (all bacon).
I decided to be indecisive and try everything on the menu (their Choose 4 Breakfast). I had scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and French toast. Honestly, Dad’s was better but it was still good road trip fuel since I wouldn’t need to eat for the rest of the trip (just kidding). Dad’s decaf coffee also tasted strangely of blueberries.
After breakfast, we discovered the only non-organic grocery store around was Walmart (shudder). We loaded our cart with salty snacks, cookies, and a case of water. We loaded it in the car and turned our bow (hood?) toward adventure!
And by “adventure” I mean Wyoming.
Fort Laramie was a neat stop. Most of the old buildings are gone but many have been reconstructed. The visitor map also indicates where buildings are currently missing from the landscape.
The Visitor Center had a few interesting displays about the various eras of function the site carried out (from fur trading post to a resupply stop on the Oregon Trail to Fort). However, I raised an eyebrow at all the descriptions of how nice the white settlers were to Native Americans. I’m not sure the Native Americans would tell the same story…
We didn’t linger too long since we wanted to put more miles behind us. Yesterday, I inadvertently realized we could drive through Nebraska (which was not on the original route) and only add 45 minutes to our trip. Since neither Dad nor I have been to Nebraska we decided to take the road less traveled and cut through the northwestern corner.
The scenery was not at all what I was expecting (aka Iowan levels of cornfields). Instead, rocky hills and sloping valleys greeted us. I did most of the driving today while Dad used our intermittent LTE to look ahead for things to do along our new route. We could have kept driving into South Dakota, but there’s a fair amount of interesting stuff between the border and Mount Rushmore. Since it was already late afternoon, we decided to stop for the night in Chadron, Nebraska so we could play tourist tomorrow.
Chadron is the epitome of small-town America. And the Best Western we stayed at is the epitome of budget motels. At first, our door appeared to be locked from the inside, but no, silly us, you just had to lift the handle up to get into the room. Also, this is the least ADA accessible building I have ever seen. It’s two stories and there is no elevator. The entire building is surrounded by curb, except for one ramp by the front desk… which can be blocked by a parking space.
Fortunately, dinner turned out to be much more successful. In this tiny town, there are four restaurants owned by a woman named Helen (or at least her name is on all of them!). We went to Helen’s Pancake and Steak House.
We had wonderful sandwiches for dinner. I had a classic BLT and Dad had a crunchy chicken sandwich with one of the moistest chicken breasts we’ve ever encountered.
This morning, I kissed Trish and the kitties goodbye and headed off on The Great Western Road Trip with my dad.
We decided to skip the most boring parts of the drive and fly to and from Denver to begin and end our adventure in Colorado. From there we’ll make a loop up through Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone, then head down to Four Corners, swing through Mesa Verde, and return to Denver. All told it’s about 2,600 miles and we have 11 days to do it.
This is an unusual trip for us because other than our flights and a hotel in Denver for tonight, we have made no firm plans or reservations. We’re just going where the wind takes us (and hopefully we’ll find hotels along the way because I am NOT prepared to camp)!
Our flight from Chicago to Denver was shorter than I remembered and we flew past the most amazing (and photogenic) cloud formations.
Dad told me horror stories about the Denver airport baggage claim process, but our bags appeared promptly. We successfully followed the overly-complicated instructions to the Sixt car rental shuttle and acquired a very nice Volvo SUV for our expedition.
The Denver airport is truly in the middle of nowhere so it was about a 45-minute drive to Denver. We checked into our room at The Brown Palace, which is an interesting historic hotel. It’s built on a strange triangular plot of land. The building is also triangular with a spacious atrium through the middle of its 10 or 12 stories. When we arrived, a live pianist sat at the grand piano playing a Disney tune. The music carried pleasantly up to the sixth-floor hallway as we went to drop off our bags. The bellman was extremely friendly and chatted with Dad about the history of the hotel while I lagged behind to film some shots of the atrium and piano.
The Brown Palace is a few blocks south of where I stayed by the convention center a few years ago. I actually remember the area quite well and there are a couple of lovely restaurant districts within walking distance. However, we decided not to push our luck by overexerting ourselves too soon in the mile-high city and had dinner in the restaurant attached to our hotel, The Ship Tavern.
There are indeed miniature ships on display in Ships Tavern. The decor is a bit aged and in need of a facelift to make it charming again but the service was extremely friendly and attentive. I had a flavorful, succulent, perfectly cooked slice of prime rib with potatoes that must have been half butter and a side of crisp veggies. Dad had a burger he ordered because it looked so good going by.
We called it an early night. As of tomorrow, we’re without an official itinerary. All we have to guide us is an app called Roadtrippers where we’ve mapped out our rough route and some points of interest along the way. I have my fingers crossed!