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Epic National Park Road Trip Recap

Tetons

Whew! It only took six months, but I have finished the recap of our epic 3-week trip out west! This trip taught us a lot, especially about what we need to work on the road. Of course, we saw some amazing sites and the ones that I can’t wait to return to may surprise you!

For most of this trip, the weather was much hotter than I had expected. I feel like I wrote the phrase, “we were planning on hiking at X, but it was too hot” at least five times throughout the recap of this trip. The middle week at Yellowstone and Glacier was really the only one where it wasn’t oppressively hot. I would love more time to explore Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt without dying of heatstroke.

One thing that really surprised me through my recapping this trip is that three days in Yellowstone really seemed to be enough to see the highlights. Yes, with more time we could’ve gotten off the beaten path and explored some of the backcountry, but I feel like I saw what I wanted to see. I would love to return to Yellowstone someday, but it’s not going to be high up on my list.

On the other hand, with three days at Glacier, we barely scratched the surface. Yes, we managed to visit each of the areas in the park, but we were only able to do a few short hikes. I would love to go back later in the season and spend more time in the Many Glacier area and maybe even hike to Grinnel Glacier. I will definitely do my planning in advance to get a room at the Many Glacier Hotel!

Mountain in the Clouds

But the area that I really want to return to is South Dakota’s Black Hills. The other day, I was trying to figure out if we could manage a camping trip to Custer State Park next summer (no, I don’t think we can). Even though we had a full week there, it didn’t feel like enough! Of all the stunning National Parks we visited on this trip, it’s funny to me that this is the place that stands out the most in my memory.

I know I have mentioned this a few times already, but if you are looking to stay inside a National Park, lodging can be found less than a year out as long as you are flexible. I still hear people saying “I didn’t plan this trip a year in advance so I know I’m not going to be able to get a room in the park” and that is just not true. Keep checking for cancellations and subscribe to the park’s email list. We got our room at Rising Sun Motor Inn two months out and Old Faithful Inn two weeks out. Don’t give up!

Needles Highway

This was the first trip we took where Chris was working remotely and we learned a lot from that too. If you are working remotely from a hotel with at least one other person, spring for a suite with a door that closes. It was really nice when we were at the Roosevelt Inn and Suites in North Dakota and I was able to go in the bedroom and close the door when he was in meetings. Country Inn and Suites is a chain hotel that has this feature as well. The full kitchen at Roosevelt was nice to prepare lunches while he was working too. An AirBNB would also be good for this purpose.

Alright, I think that’s all I have to say about this trip! Check back next week when I share about some of our other explorations this summer!

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

Heading Home

Indiana Dunes National Park

After three weeks on the road, exploring the western United States, it was finally time to head home. We left Watford City, North Dakota, and started on I-94 towards Detroit. The first night we stopped at a hotel in Moorehead, Minnesota, which is basically a suburb of Fargo, just on the other side of the border. I don’t know how you determine which states you have visited, but in my mind, I need to spend a night to make it count, which is why I chose Moorehead as a stopping point.

Inside the Mall of AmericaIn the morning, we continued heading east to one of the places I desperately wanted to visit as a child, The Mall of America. The Mall of America is the largest mall in the United States at 5.6 million square feet. The mall is home to 550 stores including 2 mini-golf courses, SeaLife Aquarium, and a 7-acre amusement park. It really was a sight to behold. It was a great stopping point for us to get out and stretch our legs during a long driving day and a place to find unique lunch options. If you are in visiting twin cities, The Mall of America is a good place to explore on a rainy day, but be aware that a lot of the attractions do require reservations in advance. I’m not as into malls as I was in my teenage years, so this isn’t really a place I wanted to spend that much time.

Wisconsin DellsAfter stretching our legs at the Mall, we continued on to the Wisconsin Dells where we were meeting some friends. Since we were just driving through, we didn’t have a ton of time to explore the Dells, we mainly just stuck to walking down the main drag. We did stop in a cheese shop and got some cheese curds because I think it’s a requirement in Wisconsin. I do wish we had time to explore the water and actually see the Wisconsin Dells. After meeting our friends, we continued on to Madison for the night.

The next morning we decided to hit the road early and we were actually able to avoid traffic in Chicago, which is unheard of. Our first stop of the day was at the final National Park of the trip, Indiana Dunes. Being the Fourth of July, the beach was already packed when we arrived so we really just did a drive-through and saw the Century of Progress homes on Lake Front Drive (top). The park is much smaller than the other ones we visited and (I’m sure I’ll get some flack for this) is primarily a beach on Lake Michigan. It was great to get a peek at my Great Lakes again after being away for weeks! Before being designated a National Park by Congress, Indiana Dunes was protected as a National Lakeshore (the same as Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks) and I really feel like that is a better description of what this is. It does not feel the same as a Yellowstone or even a smaller park like Theodore Roosevelt. In my opinion, this was a political move to bring tourist dollars to the state. If you are looking for a beautiful Lake Michigan beach outside of Chicago, definitely check out Indiana Dunes. If you are wanting a traditional National Park experience, go out west.

Alright, that is the end of coverage for this epic three-week trip! Next week, I will do my final recap and then I can move on to telling you about the other fun things we got to do this summer!

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

Exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park

CCC Pavilion in Theodore Roosevelt National ParkLocating in northwestern North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States. It averages about 600,000 visitors a year which might sound like a lot, but if you compare it to the 4 million that visit Yellowstone or Yosemite each year, 600,000 is not much at all. Coming from Glacier (which averages about 3 million visitors), the difference is very noticeable.

We started our exploration of Theodore Roosevelt in the North Unit which was closer to where we were staying. Of the two main units, the South Unit gets most of the traffic so when we arrived in the evening, we only saw a handful of other cars in the whole north unit. The north unit has a 14-mile one-way scenic drive that showcases the unique geological features of the park. There was plenty of parking at each of the overlooks and fresh air to breathe.

The South Unit of the park is larger than the north and is much busier. The South Unit has a 36 mile scenic loop drive that allows you to see the highlights of the park. Four miles of the road is closed indefinitely due to a landslide, although the area is open to hikers and bicyclists. Right where you have to turn around for the road closure there was one of the biggest prairie dog towns we saw on the trip.

Bison of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife is the highlight of a trip to Theodore Roosevelt. Muledeer, antelope, bighorn sheep, wild horses, bison, and prairie dogs can easily be seen in the park. When we were in the Black Hills we were SO excited to see a bison. By the end of our week in North Dakota, we were begging them to get out of the road so we could go home!

We had planned to do some hiking during our time at Theodore Roosevelt but with heat spell that was going on this summer, we determined it wouldn’t be safe. One day we stayed at the park until the sun went down and the temperature didn’t get below 90. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is on our list to return to outside of the summer or when Chris isn’t working so we would be able to hit the trails before the heat of the day.

If you are looking to visit a national park and get away from the crowds, definitely head to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, especially the North Unit. If I were to do this trip again, I would shorten the amount of time we had here, though. Unless you are doing a lot of hiking, you can see this whole park in two to three days.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to check back next week when I detail our experience at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

Glacier National Park: Exploring Many Glacier

Swiftcurrent Creek

In the summer of 2021 Glacier National Park, instituted a reservation requirement to drive the ever-popular Going-t0-the-Sun Road during the day. These reservations were very difficult to get and many people chose to postpone their trips to Glacier. Those that did not were able to get to the road early in the morning or in the evenings. Another option was to explore the other areas of the park that are not on Going-to-the-Sun Road. One of these areas is the Many Glacier area.

This area is home to the picturesque Many Glacier Hotel. At the base of a mountain on Swiftcurrent Lake, this is where I want to stay on my return trip to Glacier. The hotel is also the base for one of the park’s boat tours. The boat ride across Swiftcurrent Lake can help cut some mileage off of one of the longer hikes.

Dock on Swiftcurrent Lake

Many Glacier is the jumping-off point for one of the more popular hikes in the park, The Grinnel Glacier Trail. The 7.6 Mile (although boat rides can shave off 3.4 miles) round trip hike gains 1840 feet in elevation and gets you a view of the 152 acre glacier, one of the largest left in the park. When we visited at the end of June, most of the trail was still snow-covered and rangers were in the parking lot, dissuading people from embarking on the hike.

Unfortunately, road construction on Many Glacier Road left us with much less time to explore this part of the park than we had originally hoped. We ended up just walking the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail around the lake before heading back to the car so we could make our reservation for the boat tour in the Two Medicine area of the park. Because of our limited time in Many Glacier, I definitely want to return and maybe try my hand at the Grinnel Glacier hike.

Since this is one of the areas of the park that didn’t require a reservation this year, the small parking areas filled up early in the day. I was hoping the road construction would keep people away but that did not appear to be the case at all. If you plan on exploring the Many Glacier area, plan to get there early to make sure you have a place to park.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to stop by next week as we explore the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Etsy and Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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East Side of Glacier National Park

Wild Goose Island

After leaving Yellowstone in the morning, we arrived at the East Side of Glacier National Park after about seven hours on the road. The famous Going to the Sun Road hadn’t opened for the season yet, so the east side of the park was pretty quiet.

Baring FallsEven though we knew we couldn’t cross Logan Pass, we turned on our GyPSy guide and drove the part of the road that was open. One of the hikes the guide recommended as an easy hike on the east side of the park was the hike to Baring Falls (left). The hike is less than a mile round trip and was a good way to ease into hiking in Glacier with only 400 feet of change in elevation. At a 25 foot drop, Baring Falls is by no means the biggest waterfall in the area, but it is definitely one of the easiest hikes on the east side of the park. We saw a deer grazing near the water, which was a nice treat.

Room at Rising Sun Motor Inn

Our room at Rising Sun.

After our hike, we headed to our room for the first part of our time in Glacier at the Rising Sun Motor Inn. This location wasn’t my first choice, especially so early in the season with the Going to the Sun Road closed, but the room was available two months ahead, so we grabbed it. The motel-style hotel is not my favorite but I will take it if it allows me to sleep inside a National Park. The rooms were clean and the private bathroom was a big step up from our Old House Room at the Old Faithful Inn. We hardly saw anyone else around. The downside to staying at Rising Sun in 2021 was that the restaurant, Two Dog Flats, was closed for the season due to staffing shortages. I didn’t think anything of it when we got the email in advance. I figured we would be able to find some food outside the park in St. Mary. I did not realize how dismal the dining choices would be. If I had it to do over, I would’ve planned to cook on our camp stove in the Rising Sun Picnic area across the street.

Overall, I enjoyed our stay at Rising Sun, but if you’re booking early in the season, be aware that the Going to the Sun Road probably won’t open until the end of June or early July and that really limits what you can see. If Two Dog Flats is closed again, you may want to try to find lodging on the west side of the park where there are more services.

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Etsy and Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Yellowtone National Park Overview

Bison in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first national park and was signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 to protect the otherworldly landscape that is Yellowstone. Located in northwestern Wyoming and spanning into Idaho and southern Montana the park encompasses 3,400 square miles, and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is separated into distinct geological areas formed by geothermal features unlike anything I had ever seen. From the sprawling Yellowstone Lake to hot springs and geysers and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you could spend weeks in the park and not see everything. Ever since we were driving around Yellowstone, I have been trying to figure out how I am going to recap this enormous park!

We only had three days to see as much of the park as we could. Of course, I wanted to hit the highlights: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Surprisingly, in such a short time, we were able to see everything we had hoped to and more.

Old Faithful InnStaying in the park helped us tremendously. Driving in and out of the park can take away 2 or more hours of your time and when you are battling the record number of visitors that are coming through the gates in 2021, you need all the time you can get. While exploring the park, we heard many people say that you cannot get a room at the Yellowstone Lodges unless you book a year in advance. We managed to get our room at the Old Faithful Inn two weeks in advance. Just keep checking and it helps to subscribe to the Yellowstone National Park Lodges newsletter. They sent out a newsletter that they were opening up more rooms for the 2021 season and I was able to snatch one up before they were gone.

Staying at the Old Faithful Inn (above) was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. The Inn was built in 1904 from locally sourced materials including lodgepole pine. We stayed in one of the Old House rooms that has walls made of logs. Staying in that (admittedly small) room, you really got a sense of the history of the place. The GyPSy guide called the Old Faithful Inn the only building in the park that feels like it belongs. The Disney Nerd in me understands now where the idea for the Wilderness Lodge came from. Probably the best part of staying at the Inn is sitting out on the Mezzanine and watching Old Faithful erupt without having to be crowded around strangers and enjoying a drink.

Walkway at Mud Volcano

Walkway at Mud Volcano just before the rain

Another trick we learned when visiting the park in the summer was to leave in the middle of the day. The parking lots filled up and it got hot, so we headed to one of the towns outside the park for food and air conditioning. Then, we headed back into the park as the day guests were leaving for the day and we explored until the sun went down. We also got lucky with the weather. Our first day in the park was forecasted to thunderstorm most of the day and I think this kept some visitors out. We managed to time it so we were driving when the worst of the rain was coming down and we managed to see most of what we wanted to on that first day.

Now that I’ve given you a little overview and some tips for making the most of your time at Yellowstone, next week I will begin to recap the highlights of the park! Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Etsy and Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave Header

Jewel Cave was discovered in 1900 when two brothers felt cold air blowing out of a hole in a canyon. They opened the hole with dynamite and found a cave lined with calcite crystals, which is where Jewel Cave gets its name. Word of the cave reached Washington and Theodore Roosevelt named Jewel Cave a National Monument in 1908.

Up until 1956, only about 2 miles of the cave had been explored. Famous rock climbers Herb and Jan Conn explored Jewel Cave for twenty years and mapped out over 65 miles of the cave. Herb Conn wrote a scientific paper about airflow in the cave and based on pressure changes, he estimated that 95% of the cave has never been explored. With 209 miles of cave mapped, Jewel Cave is the 3rd largest cave in the world. Experienced cavers are still exploring the cave and finding new rooms and passageways that no other person is known to have explored.

Calcite Crystals in Jewel CaveIn 2021, Jewel Cave National Monument is undergoing elevator maintenance to resolve chronic problems with the elevators. The elevators are expected to reopen in the late fall. When planning this trip, I didn’t think we would be able to visit Jewel Cave because of this maintenance, but for now, the park service is offering a modified tour. This tour involves walking down (and then back up) a steep hill and the park service describes it as “moderate to strenuous”.

I’m not sure if people were staying away from Jewel Cave because of the elevator repairs or if this park just isn’t as popular as Wind Cave because it doesn’t have the “National Park” designation. Either way, we arrived around 9:30 AM and there were only a handful of other people on the tour with us. It was a much more relaxed experience and even though we only go to see one room of the cave, I enjoyed this tour a lot more than Wind Cave. If you only have time to tour one cave in the Black Hills, I recommend Jewel Cave.

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Etsy and Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument is located in the northeastern corner of Wyoming, only about an hour and a half away from Rapid City, South Dakota. Signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on September 25, 1906, Devils Tower was the first National Monument in the world. The monument is a popular place for rock climbers as well as hikers and others who just want to see this unique geological feature for themselves.

When planning this trip, I originally wanted to visit Devils Tower on the way from Custer to Yellowstone, which would’ve had us arrive mid-morning on a Saturday. Then, I learned that the parking lot fills up early, especially on weekends, and it is not uncommon to have to wait a while for a spot. Since we had quite a bit of ground to cover that day, I decided it would make more sense to make it a day trip from the Black Hills, and that way we could also see Spearfish Canyon on the way back.

We left Custer after Chris got off work and arrived at Devils Tower around 5 pm. There were only a handful of people around and we had no trouble parking. The visitor center closes at 6 but I was happy to see that the passport stamp is outside so that if you arrived when the visitor center was closed, you would still be able to get a stamp. Because we wanted to see Spearfish Canyon before sunset, we didn’t have much time to explore the monument, but we did get to walk a little bit of the Tower Trail.

Roughlock FallsSince this was our last day in the Black Hills, I may have tried to cram too much in, especially with the three-hour round trip drive to Devils Tower. But, we did enjoy the GyPSy tour of the Northern Black Hills and the drive through Spearfish Canyon. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a beautiful drive that follows a river that has cut through these high rock walls. Spearfish Canyon is an absolutely beautiful area that just blew me away! There are several places along the way to stop and enjoy the beauty of the canyon. We got out and stretched our legs at Roughlock Falls (left). Several scenes from Dances with Wolves were filmed in this area and maybe recognizable to fans of the film. We had planned to checkout Deadwood this day, but the road was closed for a parade or something so we just kept driving. I guess we will just have to come back with more time to explore the Black Hills!

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Etsy and Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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Wordless Wednesday: Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Custer State Park

Path Around Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a large park on the scale of some of the most popular national parks. If there is some type of outdoor recreation you enjoy, I’m sure it can be found at Custer State Park. From hiking and camping to rock climbing and scenic drives, there is something for everyone at Custer.

Getting Ready for the Hay RideThe 71,000 acres of Custer State Park is home to a variety of wildlife. The best way to see the wildlife is to drive the Wildlife Loop Road. Bison, Big Horn Sheep, Mountain Goats, and Prairie Dogs can be seen along the road. For my birthday, we took the Hayride through the wildlife loop road (left) and it was fun because our guide slowed down in areas where the animals are likely to be found and talked to us about them. At the end of the tour, we had a chuckwagon cookout and sing along which was a lot of fun and the food was good too! If you’re in for an off-road experience, the Buffalo Safari Jeep tour looked fun too!

Needles Highway

Probably the most scenic drive in Custer State Park is the Needles Highway. The Needles Highway takes you through pine forests and the unique needles rock formations. The drive isn’t for the faint of heart or those with oversized vehicles because there are some hairpin turns and one-lane tunnels through the Needles. I have heard that the road can get pretty crowded in the summer but we found that driving in the late afternoon or early evening we were able to enjoy the drive without crowds. We enjoyed the drive so much that we did it several times while we were staying in the area.

There are several good lakes for paddling in the park but Sylvan Lake (top) is probably the most popular. The unique rock formations are fun to paddle around and explore. It is a landscape unlike I had ever seen before. The downside of Sylvan Lake is that is fairly small and we had gone around it twice in probably less than half an hour. We were going to check out the bigger Stockade Lake after but when we got there it was closed due to bacteria. Oh well, I guess that gives us a reason to return, right?

The Black Hills really surprised me. I didn’t expect the scenic beauty that can be found at Custer and the surrounding area. I would love to return and be able to explore deeper into the park. I would love to stay at one of the many campgrounds or lodges. If you are going to be in the Black Hills, be sure to check out Custer State Park. You will not be disappointed.

Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip, check out the Epic National Park Road Trip. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Etsy and Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.

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