We drove the rest of the way to Chicago, and got in around 3pm. We unloaded / swapped car stuff and verified that Janet had not been charged three weeks worth of parking passes for leaving the Subaru in her spot, then wandered down to Mariano’s for some food.
As summary, below is our after the fact “itinerary” for the trip. Overall, I think we made good use of time. There was the potential for one additional day at the end, but we didn’t really feel the need to stay in the Badlands another day or have any in between places to stop on the way back to Chicago. Plus, it’s not really bad to get back a day before having to return to work so that there is time to unpack and get things squared away.
As far as cost, I think we did very well. We didn’t get stuck paying hundreds of dollars for a night (ie. Yosemite). We did stay in a few slightly more expensive hotels in Estes, Co. but that was easily offset by spending three nights in the car and a nine nights camping. That said, I don’t really like sleeping in the car, and I’m not trying to present it here as a good alternative to a hotel, but rather a necessity brought on by the situation of trying to find reasonable accommodations from both a cost and proximity perspective, whether that ber camping or a hotel, on a last minute trip.
||Slept in Car
||Estes Mtn. Lodge
||RMNP – Mt. Ida
||Peak to Peak Lodge
||RMNP – Sky Pond
||Drive to Leadville
||Slept in Car @ Trailhead
||Drive toward Tetons
||Drive to Tetons
||Slept in Car
||Jenny Lake CG
||Jenny Lake CG
||Jackson Lake Lodge
||Coulter Bay CG
||Drive to Yellowstone
||A Wyoming Inn
||Indian Creek CG
||West Thumb Basin
||Mammoth Hot Springs
||Drive to Glacier
||Hidden Lake Trail
||Wind Cave NP
||Drive toward Badlands
||Drive to Chicago
- Owl: Ran over during the night on the way to Billings to sleep for the night. Stretch of road where we saw ~10-12 owls along the road. (3 of which were feathery road kills) Some flew up as we drove past and almost hit. One was just standing in the middle of the road, looked at us and then didn’t move.
- Grizzly bear: From Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot after Grinnell Glacier hike. Up in the clearing on the mountain behind the gift shop/motel.
- Mountain goats: Grinnell glacier hike (4), Highline trail hike(5), along hidden lake hike (1)
- Big horn sheep: Highline Trail hike. 11 total. 2 sets and one standing alone. 1 along Grinnel Glacier hike. RMNP along road near visitor’s center (5)
- Black bear: Mama bear and her two cubs while descending in paintbrush canyon. Matt saw one that ran off in the brush along same area. One possible huffing bear at Fish lake.
- Moose: Mount Ida at the end of the hike. Alerted by the guys fixing the fencing near the parking lot. Saw the bull moose head peek up around a big boulder and then took off.
- Ptarmigan and baby chicks: up on Mount Ida in Rocky Mountain NP
- Grouse and maybe chicks (much bigger): Along Jenny Lake; beginning of the hike prior to entering Cascade Canyon.
- Hawks along the road leaving Glacier in rural MT in the Blackfoot reservation area
- Osprey nests and sightings in Yellowstone canyon.
- Bald eagle soaring above Swan Lake.
- Two swans in Swan Lake (Hermitage point hike)
- Marmots pretty much all parks.
- Pikas in rocky areas of higher altitudes.
- Mule deer walking around Avalanche Lake
- Two fawns with fading spots beginning ascent of FIsh Lake trail
- Deer all over. One near the trail descending near the chalet on highline trail
- Pronghorns all around in the sagebrush along the highways out West
- Bison in Yellowstone. All single sightings. Some near Norris basin campsite.
- Daddy Long leg in the tent
- Elk: Exiting Yellowstone park area near the West entrance. Group in Hayden Valley. Group descending paintbrush canyon at the end of the hike in the forest on the way to the car.
- Fox: Tetons campsite area.
- Beavers and Pelicans: Oxbow Bend, Tetons
- Chipmunks and squirrels along rest areas/near benches
- Cows along the highways. Almost hit one driving towards Glacier NP; free roaming cows, one in the road.
- Sheep along the road.
- Ducks. Diving in the tetons
- Toads in the Badlands
- Rattle snakes: Badlands (two on the Notch trail)
- Horses in Teddy Roosevelt NP / Bison in Teddy Roosevelt near campsite in the morning
- Prairie Dogs in Teddy Roosevelt NP
- Bighorn sheep / Bison driving through Custer State Park
- Bighorn sheep driving into the badlands.
We wandered through Wall Drug again in the morning for coffee. Refills are only 5 cents!… As advertised on multiple billboards. Apparently Wall doesn’t have any dedicated coffee shops, so we we inadvertently played the tourist role of getting nearly free coffee at the end of the 100 mile billboard chain.
It was very foggy in the morning and as we entered the park due to the rain the night before, but it had mostly cleared up just after entering the park. A little lower altitude maybe?
First stop was at the yellow mounds overlook long enough to discover the clay-mud that had been created by the rain the night before. It was slippery, so it made climbing the hills dangerous, but also sticky which had the effect of walking around with 5 pound mud boots on until the clump got heavy enough to fall off. Continue reading
Up, breakfast and then started driving South towards Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. It was a little rainy for the drive through Custer. Apparently, since it’s on a main highway, there’s a “loophole” where you don’t have to pay the state park fee of $20/car if you’re just driving through, which we were planning on doing to get to Wind Cave. The rain had stopped by the time we arrived at Wind Cave.
We went to the visitor center and confirmed what had been discovered on the drive in – that the elevators were out of service. Elevators out of service meant no entering the cave, which was the primary thing to do in the park. Beyond that, the recommendations were wildlife car tours, short hikes and ranger talks. One of the ranger talks was happening while we were around near the natural entrance of the cave, so we went out to catch the latter portion of it. The natural entrance to the cave was much smaller than might be anticipated from other caves like Mammoth – it was maybe the size of a basketball or just a bit larger. The other known natural entrance up north is only the size of a grapefruit (or softball, if you prefer sports).
We found a short hike to do, but it was stopped shorter by a bison sipping water from a mud puddle on the path. We stood around for a short bit hoping he’d decide to move on, but he was not so inclined, so we drove back through Custer and out toward the Badlands – arriving in Badlands around 4pm.
As noted, the park isn’t huge, so we headed up the main drive again stopping at a few of the same spots and a few new ones on the way. We did a few shorter hikes, some of which seemed to be kind of hikes to nowhere and improvised a few “hikes” in the form of some random wandering into valleys, but it didn’t seem there was much for variety or longer full-day hikes. On the way out of the park, we stopped a the visitor center for a while, drove up through Medora and then stopped at the other visitor center on the other end of the park. The second visitor center had a little more information about Roosevelt and how the park was formed, but we did not do much more park exploring at that end. It appeared that there were some decently long trails in that area, though we didn’t really have a plan and it was getting later in the day, so we didn’t explore those. It could also be possible that by this time we were generally tired and lacking motivation to fit anything new into the itinerary as tends to be the attitude once we set ourselves on the home-stretch.
We departed south toward Wind Cave National Park, planning on finding somewhere near Rapid City to stay for the night. Ended up at the Ramada Inn.
We drove the remainder of the drive from Billings to Teddy Roosevelt National Park, getting there in the afternoon. Found a campsite at the Cottonwood campground that was sufficiently shady and set up the tent under a tree. Stopped at the picnic area to make lunch and then headed further into the park.
The park consists of one main drive. It is normally a loop, but a portion of the road was closed, so the drive was more of a backward question mark shape. We drove a portion of it, stopping off at a few of the overlooks and adding wild horses to the animal checklist. I think the original park entrance was the furthest point on our drive where we had a walk through the prairie dog town. The prairie dogs were not particularly skittish, so we were pretty close to some of them. We got to observe the “all clear” squeal and wave (the meaning was determined the next day by the ranger in the visitor center).
After sunset, we drove out to Medora (the town at the entrance to the park) on the rumor that there might be something interesting to see or do in town. Whoever gave that information was incorrect as there was not much open, or even lit up enough to see after 8pm. We drove back to the campsite, took a few more pictures of the stars and went to bed. Continue reading
The plan for the day was to do Grinnell Glacier hike along Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake Josephine, Grinnell Lake and then Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier. We didn’t start super early, so we just left the car at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and walked the extra 1/2 mile or so down the road to avoid parking issues at the trailhead. The hike was mostly a gentle climb along the lakes until the end where it became a little more exposed and finished with a set of switchbacks to get over the ridge to the glacier.
At the top, by the lake, it was pretty chilly and the wind picked up as well, which, like Sky Pond, seemed kind of odd given how protected the lake itself was. The breeze must have been curling over the peaks and coming down the mountain face. The water was cloudy blue and, not surprisingly, cold with a few small icebergs floating across in the breeze. Apparently it wasn’t cold enough to prevent a couple of younger (and stupider, maybe) guys from jumping into the lake to climb up on of the chunks of ice, but this was far from a common activity.
After hike, as we returned to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, there was a large group gathered along the edge staring off into the distance. Someone had spotted a grizzly up on the mountain and everyone had gathered to watch. It was quite distant and a few people had setup powerful spotting scopes to watch, but I was able to get some pictures. Continue reading
Attempt number two at Highline Trail followed the same basic plan as the first, but with vastly improved results. It was an excellent day for the hike, low fog in the morning rising up and leaving a nice afternoon. Highline is a 12mi one-way hike (I guess you could hike out and back). It has some awesome views, particularly on the first half and with the morning fog lifting. I think I would give the first 1/2 of Highline Trail the award for most beautiful trail I have hiked.
We opted to do the offshoot, adding an additional 0.6mi uphill climb at about the half-way point to the Grinnel Glacier overlook. The climb was more arduous than the 0.6mi would indicate. It’s a moderately steep, straight line, exposed trail. We got to the top and had a snack overlooking Grinnell Glacier.
The peak of the trail is at Granite Park Chalet. The chalet itself is two buildings with maybe 8-12 rooms. Even if you’re not staying there though, there are toilets as well as a limited selection of snacks and water available if needed. We sat down on the porch to rest for a while.
The descent was more wooded as opposed to the rockier terrain of the climb. We passed through a couple huckleberry and thimbleberry patches. There weren’t as many spectacular views, probably in part due it being later in the day and all the clouds having lifted. We did find one swath of grass and bushes pushed aside like something big had come through the area recently, so it’s possible there were bears in the general area.
Being one-way, there is a need for a shuttle at the end and there was a line waiting for it. Come to find out, the shuttles are often pretty full by that point and they only save two seats on each one to make sure that some people can get on at the next stop. After the first shuttle passed, the driver realized the issue (there were maybe 30 people total waiting) and radioed back for a few more shuttle busses to be sent. They arrived pretty quickly considering the distance from anything resembling a base, and we got back to Logan Pass with enough time to tack on Hidden Lake trail as well, which was about a 3-mile round trip. The very end of Hidden Lake trail was closed due to bear activity, so we were only able to go as far as the overlook. Continue reading
Our plan was to hike Highline trail and we attempted to do just that. Up early, made oats and coffee for the ride, and drove up to Logan Pass to get parking before 8:00. It was slightly rainy / foggy, so we dressed appropriately (raincoats, etc) and started down the trail, but we didn’t make it ½ mile before the rain got worse. There were no signs that it would be changing, so we turned around; deciding to try again the next day.
We returned to Apgar CG but the rain seemed to be persisting even at the lower elevation so we headed back towards Kalispell, mainly just to kill time. We ended up stopping at a grocery store for a food restock, coffee and to plan out the rest of the trip days. The rain had let up in town, and we headed back to Apgar to find a smaller hike.
We chose the hike out to hiked to Fish Lake, which was a pretty nice hike (other than the first part, which doubled as a horse trail and was full of poop). The rain did start again just about the time we got to the lake, so we didn’t hang around long. We also may have heard a bear in the woods – we could not see to confirm and it’s generally not recommended to get closer to investigate.
After the hike, we did a bit more wandering around the Lake McDonald Lodge area and checked out a few of the gift shops before returning to camp for the night. Continue reading
We woke up and drove from Kalispell about 30-40 minutes into the park. This was our first time in the park, so we weren’t quite as sure what we were going to find. We arrived around 10:00 and the first order of business was, of course, finding a campsite, which we successfully did at Apgar campground (the southernmost campground, closest to the entrance). There was a small village area there where we poked around for a little bit (half a dozen shops, cabins, a beach where watercraft can be rented, etc) before stopping by the Visitor Center to get oriented.
We eventually decided on a hike to Avalanche Lake and headed that direction driving up Going-to-the-Sun Road which is an attraction in and of itself. Parking was a bit of a trick, but it was late enough that people were finishing the hike and we found a spot. Avalanche Lake was a pretty simple hike, mostly through cedar forest, covering about 730 vertical feet, with the elevation slightly weighted toward the latter half of the hike. There is one small waterfall along they way and then three more small ones cascading down into Avalanche Lake (which may well vary by season). Continue reading
For the final day in the park, we drove up to the Mammoth Hot Springs area and hiked the loop there. The hike goes past a portion of the driving tour route, but we skipped doing the full drive. I’m sure Mammoth is not the only area to have them, but it’s unique aspect is the number and size of the terraced pools coming down some of the hills. These are beautiful to see, but hard to photograph from the trail – I think a camera drone could get some very cool shots.
Before heading out, we stopped at the Visitor Center to see what was there (and probably for Janet to get a magnet in the gift shop), and to use their WiFi to book a hotel in Kalispell, MT.
We made one last stop on our way out of the park at the Boiling River, which had been closed as of our last visit. Got lucky and found parking pretty quick in the minimal parking lot. We walked down to the river, waded in and lounged in the mix of scalding and cold water for maybe 45 minutes. The river access is pretty well loaded with warnings – the most important of which seemed to be to not submerge your head and risk getting a parasite (amoeba), which we heeded and seem to have avoided. Overall it kind of had the vibe that the NPS would rather people not be in the river at all (this jives with the minimal parking), but had resigned themselves to either providing access with warnings or just having people pull off the road anywhere and find their own access with notably less safety. Continue reading