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  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2003
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    Green County, Wisconsin
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    13,067

    Default 17 Days Out West: Yellowstone, Utah, Colorado, Texas, and More!

    Now that I'm back from my out west roadtrip, and have started to catch up on things since I've been back I suppose its about time I start sharing a field report!

    Here's the planning thread to see where things started.

    Long story short, From July 13 to July 31, My family did a trip that totaled 5530 miles, covering 15 States, and stops at 8 National Parks/Monuments, and 1.5 baseball games. The trip was done in a 2001 Mazda Tribute SUV that started the trip with 243,000 miles on it, fully loaded with camping/cooking gear, for a trip that was done with the aim of keeping it as cheap as reasonably possible and still having a completely enjoyable time. This was also the longest single trip I've taken in a very long time, as typically work and other commitments make it difficult for me to get away for more than a week-10 days at a time.

    The final route looks a lot like this:


    Day by Day summaries to come, but some early thoughts:

    Yellowstone was by far my favorite stop, and having visited a large number of National Parks, its probably my favorite of all of them. I went there expecting to enjoy the park, but I really did not have an appreciation for just how big, beautiful, and unique the park is. I also was impressed that nearly all of the negatives I'd heard about the park really weren't an issue at all, the biggest one being traffic. Despite being there on a weekend right in the middle of July, I didn't find the crowds to be a problem at all.

    A close second was Canyonlands, and that is certainly a place I need to spend more time exploring. Natural Bridges was also much more interesting than I had been expecting, especially since it really was only added to the itinerary because it was in the neighborhood of some other things I wanted to see.

    Biggest disappointments were Arches and Monument Valley. "Disappointment" is perhaps too strong of a word, as they were still nice places that I was glad to visit, and Arches is a place I'd still like to go back to and spend more time, but in the context of all the other amazing stuff, I just had higher expectations for those.

    And of course, there were dozens of things along the way that were discovered that I could have never planned for, which of course is why a roadtrip is the perfect getaway experience in my book.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2011
    Location
    Southern California
    Posts
    4,546

    Default

    Looking forward to reading your day-to-day summaries, as you've whetted my touring-appetite!

    I can understand your disappointment with Monument Valley. The first time I saw it, I too was disappointed. It just didn't seem as grand as it appeared in all the John Wayne movies I had seen!



    Donna

  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,067

    Default Day 1: The First 600

    The roadtrip actually started out pretty uneventfully. We got on the road around 9 and started making our way northwest. Our route involved a minor detour, stopping by my parents place for a couple of quick car repairs. That stop only took about an hour, but allowed a nice little detour through the some 2 lane roads of Southeast Minnesota's bluff country, before getting on US-52 and heading back north towards the Twin Cities. Upon arriving in St. Paul, I decided to avoid the quick route of bypassing the downtown areas, and instead got on I-94 and headed directly into Minneapolis, as it was the first day that they'd re-inflated the Metrodome, and I figured that would be worth the detour, despite doing it around 3:30 pm, just as rush hour was getting underway. Once we made it through the cities, we made a short stop for a break at the Cabella's just to the northwest, and other than a stop in Alexandria to refuel and pick up a bucket of KFC, we headed directly for North Dakota. We arrived in Fargo around 9pm, and while it was still light and I was tempted to push on for Valley City or Jamestown, about another hour down the road, we decided to find a motel, and call it a day. I wasn't able to find any good deals with coupons or online sites, so the best deal I could find was the Vista Inn, a older mom and pop, but it had an indoor pool and a hot breakfast for a little over $50. It was nothing special, but it got the job done.

    Day 1: Home to Fargo, ND
    Total Distance: 600 miles.
    Time on the Road: 12 hours.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
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    13,067

    Default Day 2 part 1: Giant Buffalo, North Dakota Skyscrapers, and Wild Horses.

    After stopping early for the night (9pm being early, since it was a hotel night and it wasn't even dark yet!), we had a plan of trying to get out on the road early, around 7am. That, however, didn't happen. After snoozing through the alarm, and then having the mediocre breakfast of eggs and bacon, it was around 9 by the time we were back on the road. This did end up being a big day. Our first two stops were pretty short and sweet. We took a quick stop at the World's Largest Buffalo in Jamestown, giving a pass on the National Buffalo museum because it didn't look like it was really worth the $5 or so admission. From there we continued onto Bismarck and took a look at the tallest building in North Dakota: The state capitol! We didn't go up into the observation deck of this 19 story building, but we did check out the state museum that is free and has some very nice exhibits on the history of the state from Dinosaurs to Native Americas and through the development of modern agriculture and industry.

    Continuing west, we crossed into Mountain Time, made some sandwiches from meat in the cooler, and approached our first National Park of the trip: Teddy Roosevelt. We made a quick stop at TRNP's Painted Canyon Visitors Center , which is basically an I-94 rest area with an amazing view that is run by the National Parks Service. Bison also often frequent the rest area, although we didn't see any this time. There is no charge, although the stop is actually within the park.

    Interestingly, I can't think of any other National Park that actually has an interstate highway running through it. From there, we continued into the south unit of the park, purchased our National Parks Annual Pass, and enjoyed the scenic loop drive. We stopped at several over the overlooks and Prairie Dog towns, giving the most time to the Ridgeline Nature Trail, a half mile self-guided trail that shows off the various plants and impact of fire on the park. A few miles down the road, some sharp eyes catching some color and movement in the distance turned into the best wildlife stop at the park, as a bunch of Wild Horses had gathered about a 100 yards from the road.



    We left TRNP a little after 5, stopped at an Ice Cream shop in Medora, and made our way west again, arriving at the Montana Visitors Center just before 6, and just before the center closed up for the day, grabbed a map and a Visitor's Guide that included a list of every campground in the state that would come in very handy just a few hours down the road.
    Last edited by Midwest Michael; 08-18-2011 at 06:32 PM.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Apr 2009
    Location
    South Central Orange County
    Posts
    249

    Default

    I see by your posts that you've just started giving us the details, but by the looks of your map that was one long trip! I can't imagine taking that much time off to be on the road. You got some great stops in, and I look forward to more information about your trip.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,067

    Default Day 2 Part 2: Montana has the Most Amazing Storms

    Continuing West along I-94, we drove west for about 2 more hours.While traveling, we made note of the dark clouds off in the distance and hoped they wouldn't impact our ability to camp comfortably. We stopped at the Walmart in Miles City to pick up some food to cook as well as a few small camping supplies that would be used during our time in Yellowstone. By the time we got to the check out, you could hear people talking that they needed to get going before the storm, and when we walked outside there was an incredible wind and walking back to the car was like walking through a Dust Storm. We conceded the fact that we probably weren't going to be camping, and decided to make our way farther down the road before the storm got worse.


    I love a good storm, and so the next leg of the trip turned out to be one of the best drives of the trip. The lightning was nearly constant, with sharp bolts shooting across the sky and towards the ground. Yet, there was very little rain, and in fact, you could still see the sun to the west as it was starting to set. The sunset and the storm created some amazing colors of orange and purple and pink, to name a few. I turned the radio over to the AM dial to hear the EMS alerts follow by a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for the area which we had just driven through. The next town down the road was Forsyth, and by this point, the rain had started to pick up, and it seemed like a good time to take a break and find some food.



    Forsyth appears to be a big rairoad town, since a large switching yard seems to take up most of the downtown area. As we drove through, despite the rain, we found a small group of local kids lined up in full wizard gear, awaiting a midnight showing of the final Harry Potter flick. A couple blocks away, there was a 24 hour diner, which I'm assuming caters to railroad workers since it was really quite a detour off the interstate, or even the major road through town. After eating, the rain still hadn't slowed so we decided to look into staying at one of the dozen or so motels located in this small town. However, after calling around to a few of them, and when even the really run down ones were well over $60, it was decided to continue on towards Billings where we knew we'd have a much better choice of options, and based on the coupon books we picked up, we'd have better prices.


    The storm was still pouring down rain as we got back onto I-94, but about 30 minutes down the road, you could start to see stars in the distance, and the rain was easing up. Despite the time, I decided that camping sounded appealing (and cheaper!) and I pulled out the tourism guide and found a couple of options near the town of Custer. The only problem is that a couple of them didn't have great directions, so we turned south towards one that was better marked as also on the way to Little Bighorn. We found our spot, which was primarily a boat landing on the Bighorn River, but camping was allowed there, and it really was my favorite kind of campsite – one where we were the only people there, and it was free! We set up our tent by lantern and headlight, and quickly turned in after a very long, but enjoyable day on the road.


    Day 2: Fargo to General Custer FAS, Hardin MT
    635 Miles
    15 Hours.
    Last edited by Midwest Michael; 08-18-2011 at 06:27 PM.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    May 2003
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    Green County, Wisconsin
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    Default Day 3: Maybe Tomorrow We'll Have Dinner before 10!

    Friday morning started pretty simply, getting up with a quick camp stove breakfast, tearing down camp, and being back on the road around 9. We headed straight for Little Bighorn Battlefield where we looked around, and decided to take part in a ranger guided walk, touring the Native American Memorial as well as Last Stand Hill. It was a long presentation, gave some good information about the monuments, the battle, and what archeologists have learned from discoveries and remains. I will say, the only thing that I found a little disappointing was how one-sided the information was, as in there was a lot of detail about Custer and his troops, but very little information about the Indian Tribes, who fought on both sides, which I found a bit surprising in this day and age.

    After spending about 2 hours at the Battlefield, it was back on the road to Billings, where we spent an hour or two restocking supplies at a Sporing Goods and a Grocery Store. From there it was onto Red Lodge. It was around 3 when we arrived and the town was packed, as it was the opening day of the Beartooth “Iron Horse” Bike Rally. We really didn't spend any time in Red Lodge, except to top off the tank, and then it was onto the Beartooth.

    The Beartooth has the reputation as being one of the most scenic roads in America, and it didn't disappoint. Leaving Red Lodge, its like driving towards a snow-capped wall! Working up the switchbacks, we repeatedly crossed the same stream/waterfall of snow melt working its way down the mountain. We made lots of stops at the switchbacks and overlooks, including a stop at the summit to have a snowball fight on July 15th! However, my favorite stop actually was Lake Creek Falls, a waterfall that sits back, slightly hidden, a couple hundred feet from the road just east of the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. The waterfall is amazing in its power, as is pushes through a narrow canyon, and you can view it from a historic bridge, originally constructed as an original part of the Beartooth in the 1930's, that crosses the creek so close to the falls, that you get sprayed while standing there! You can also take a short hike to follow the creek up the hill, and see a good part of the cascading creek that are out of view from the bridge.

    Our entire trip across the Beartooth took about 4 hours, and we arrived at Cooke City around 6pm. Cooke City is about what you'd expect from a remote tourist town, with the biggest surprise being the price of gas at $4.25 a gallon, which was the most expensive place I saw on the entire trip, 60 cents a gallong higher than Red Lodge, and even a Quarter more than inside Yellowstone! We didn't have any plans to stop here, but a small tent with a couple selling Fried Twinkies, Oreos, and even Fried Sloopy Joes required a snack break and a nice conversation about deep fried foods!

    Finally, we'd arrived at Yellowstone, entering through the Lamar Valley, and it didn't take long to see some of the famous wildlife. Entering the park, we saw a few mule deer, and several bison. We took our time, and started making our way towards our reserved campsite at the Canyon Campground. After turning south at Tower Jct, we ran into the first of our Yellowstone Wildlife Jams. In one case, there was a Black Bear just a few yards from the road, and later well down into a valley, there was an amazing amount of wildlife, including several elk, a herd of bison, and one grizzly bear that could just barely be seen with binoculars.

    With all of that, we finally arrived at the campground after 9 o'clock. Sadly, we could hear a guy just down the counter outraged that there were no sites available, and in fact, the entire park was full because at some point in the morning he'd been told there was an opening. Considering Canyon is a good hour drive from any park exit, that couldn't have been a fun experience. We found our site, which was in the RV section, which I think actually turned out to be a fairly good thing, as it had just as much, if not more space than the Tents only section, and the entire campground has lots of trees so there's as much privacy as you'd expect when you're sharing space with about 250 other people. We set up the tent, started a fire, made dinner, ate it around 11pm, and then went straight to bed.

    Day 3: Hardin, MT to Canyon Campground, Yellowstone NP.
    300 Miles
    12 Hours.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
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    13,067

    Default Day 4: Bring on the Geysers

    Saturday brought what might have been my favorite day of the entire trip. This was our first day really touring Yellowstone, and we set off to explore the lower half of the figure-8 that is the Yosemite Loop road. We started with a quick stop at the Canyon Vistors center, and got some suggestions for areas to see and ways to spend our time, and then headed south through the Hayden Valley towards our first stops, the Sulfpher Caldron, and the Mud Volcanos. After toured the boardwalk, taking in the sulphur smell, and the unusual bubbling mud pots, we continued down along Yellowstone Lake and took a quick look at the Bridge Bay Campground, which was originally the only campground available when I first called for a reservation. I will say I was very happy that we were able to move, because while there were a few decent loops with a little bit of shade, a large portion of this campground is just a giant open field with campers and tents stacked up on top of each other.

    We considered checking out the West Thumb basin, and while we did stop briefly to watch a couple Elk walk along the road, we decided that our time would be best continuing on towards Old Faithful. We enjoyed the drive, making a few stops, including a break at the Kepler Cascades, a nice waterfall just off the road, and made a few sandwiches for lunch along the way.

    It was about 2 when we arrived at the Old Faithful Visitors Center. The Old Faithful area is really one of the only areas where it seemed like there were thousands of people around, but even there, the village area is big enough that it is still managable and it didn't take too long to get around and find a parking spot. There's a lot to see inside the Visitors Center, which is a brand new building that just opened within the past year, but the one key thing is an electronic sign behind the desk which lists the times that 5 of the most regular geyers – including Old Faithful – are scheduled to go off next.

    That sign led us to leave the Old Faithful area and head north to the Lower Geyser Basin and the Great Fountain Geyser, which only erupts twice a day, but was scheduled to go off around 3 o'clock. We made our way up the road, stopping for several minutes to watch a large male Elk that was grazing just off the side of the road, as well as a massive buffalo that was taking a nap just off the shoulder of the road.

    We turned onto Firehole Lake Drive, and found it to be one of the great hidden gems of Yellowstone. There are several lakes and springs filled with the amazing colors, including some water so blue it looks like it was colored with a crayon. We arrived at Great Fountain and joined a small crowd that was also waiting, got a seat. In the distance, we watched the White Dome Geyser, a large cone that spurts a spray of water into the air about every 20 minutes ago, and after sitting for about a woman walked over with the prediction for Great Fountain. She said that based on the amount of water filling up the pool surrounding the geyser, it should erupt around 4:15.

    That gave us about an hour, so we decided to continue around Firehole Lake Drive, and we made our way to Firehole Lake, which is a relatively small area with lots of thermal features, including hot waterfalls, a constantly bubbling spring, and again some colors that don't even seem like they are possible in nature. The road ends right at the Fountain Paint Pots, so we stopped there, walked that half mile boardwalk, before returning to the Great Fountain with time to get a seat to watch the show, as the Geyser threw tons of water and steam into the air for 20-30 minutes.

    Next up, we were planning to enjoy a swim in the Firehole River, at one of the only places within the park where swimming is allowed, just above the Firehold Falls, but due to the still very high water from the unusually harsh winter, the area was closed., so we returned back down to the Old Faithful area.

    It was about an hour before Old Faithful's next scheduled eruption, so we started by getting a snack at the General Store, where we discovered one of the great bargains of the park. Inside a small freezer, they had Montana made Ice Cream treats, including Huckleberry flavored Ice Cream Sandwiches that cost just 79 cents! They had other flavors and other treats, but they were all under 2 bucks, and a much better deal than a $4 ice cream cone from the ice cream parlor inside the store.

    After our snack, we set off to view Old Faithful, but not from the big viewing area behind the visitor center. Instead, we climbed up to Observation Point, which is about a half mile hike up a hill behind the Geyser and offers a perfect view of Old Faithful and much of the Upper Geyser Basin. Its often said that in Yellowstone, all it takes to get away is to walk away from the road a little ways, and that was certainly true here, as we shared the view with just one other family. After watching Old Faithful erupt, we continued on the trail, which works back down past Solitary Geyser, and then down to the Geyser Hill loop which includes some very fun thermal features like Anemone Geyser, which kind of like a toilet on 10 minute loop as a pool slowly fills, the small geyser erupts, and then the water is sucked back into the hole! The walk back down, including exploration time took up a little over an hour, which worked out perfectly, as we arrive back at the Visitor Center area just in time to watch Old Faithful go off again!

    That was the final eruption of Old Faithful before sunset, as it was about 8:30, and once again the size of Yellowstone overwhelms a bit. It took a little over a hour drive back to the Campground, which means we weren't back to our tent until close to 10, and again, a very late dinner.

    Day 4:
    Southern Yellowstone Loop
    147 Miles

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Location
    Melbourne, Australia
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    6,936

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    Michael,

    What I am enjoying so much about your report, is the detail in the description, and that so long after the trip. You must have taken copious notes. Am waiting to see if you actually did get to have dinner before ten, at least once. And looking forward to seeing many more pictures woven in with the text.

    Lifey

  10. #10
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,067

    Default

    Actually, other than writing down miles and saving gas receipts, I didn't take a single note!

    I'll work on getting some more pictures uploaded soon. I had my work schedule change, and between that and trying to cram in some last minute summer fun, I've gotten a little behind on my writing, but I'm starting to get caught up again!

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