RealImaginaryWest 2017 Lite Day 2 – The Jolly Green Giant & the Big Badlands

From our motel in Madison, Wisconsin, we followed I-90 West to Badlands National Park with brief stops at Green Giant Statue Park in Blue Earth, Minnesota and The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Despite getting in late last night, I was awake at 5am. I suppose it’s always harder to sleep in a new bed. By 6:30am we were out of the motel and refueling across the street. With all of our meat still solidly frozen, there was no need to buy ice for the cooler. After Becky grabbed a coffee at Starbucks, we were back on I-90 again by 6:50.

Crossing Wisconsin & On to Minnesota

It was a beautiful morning! Last time we passed through Wisconsin, the sky was a very strange color due to forest fire smoke from way up in Alaska and Canada. This time we had magnificent sunny blue skies and good early morning light. Wisconsin is wonderfully green and pretty in summer. We’ll definitely spend more time here on some future road trip.

Since we got going early, there were no traffic problems through the often-congested Wisconsin Dells area. When we crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota near LaCrosse, our chances of hitting any traffic at all dropped to almost nothing.

Overlooking the Driftless Region of Wisconsin from Jacksonville Pass on I-90 near Tomah, Wisconsin on a summer morning
Overlooking the Driftless Area of Wisconsin from Jacksonville Pass on I-90 near Tomah, Wisconsin

In the past we’d never been on I-90 across Minnesota beyond the first exit. We gradually worked our way west from Pepin along the Mississippi through heavily-wooded regions of the state. As we passed directly west this time, we noticed a significant transition in the nature of the land. After winding up the hill from the Great River and onto Minnesota’s rolling hills, it was as if all the trees were different and more sparse. The land also transitioned from mostly woodland to entirely agricultural. This dramatic change told me we were now on the Great Plains.

Cumulus clouds stretch across the sky over I-90 and prairie farmlands near Blue Earth, Minnesota.
Cumulus clouds stretch across the sky over I-90 and prairie farmlands in Minnesota.

Green Giant Statue Park & Blue Earth, Minnesota

A billboard along I-90 near Blue Earth, Minnesota encourages tourists to stop and visit their 60' Jolly Green Giant.
A billboard along I-90 encourages tourists to stop and visit the 60′ Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota.

By 10:50am we’d crossed half the state. We stopped for an early lunch in a small town called Blue Earth. Besides the town’s eccentric name, it also has a 55-foot, 8,000-pound statue of the Jolly Green Giant we have all seen on numerous Green Giant labels and television commercials. He made his first appearance at the dedication of I-90, as the very last section was completed near Blue Earth in 1978.

The Story of the Jolly Green Giant Statue

People gather at Green Giant Statue Park in Blue Earth, Minnesota to photograph a 60-foot tall statue of the Jolly Green Giant.
People gather at Green Giant Statue Park in Blue Earth, Minnesota to photograph a 60-foot tall statue of the Jolly Green Giant.

At the time, the Green Giant company operated a canning plant in Blue Earth and was headquartered 60 miles north in Le Sueur. The idea for erecting the statue to attract travelers on the new transcontinental freeway originated with local radio station owner Paul Hedberg. On his weekend program he would interview families passing through Blue Earth on US-169, providing them with samples of Green Giant vegetables. Many children inevitably asked where they could see the Jolly Green Giant. So with the company’s blessing, Mr. Hedberg assembled funding from local businesses to bring the Giant to life in time for the freeway dedication.

One year later, the Green Giant company merged with Pillsbury, and the brand has changed hands a few times throughout the years. However. another company still continues to can corn and peas at the plant in Blue Earth. And the statue attracts 10,000 annual visitors. Each year the Giant Days festival is held at the adjacent Fairbault County Fairgrounds.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest 2017 Lite Day 2 – The Jolly Green Giant & the Big Badlands

RealImaginarySmokies Day 6 – Exploring the Ghost Town of Elkmont & Cruising the Cherohala Skyway

We departed Elkmont and got stuck in traffic for 90 minutes heading up to cross the park on Newfound Gap Road. We then drove US-74 west to NC-28 and NC-143 to Robbinsville. Finally, we drove the spectacular Cherohala Skyway across to Indian Boundary Campground in Cherokee National Forest.

Do We Have a Mouse?

It’s always a good night for me when it’s warm enough that I don’t need to wear socks. Last night was one of those nights. At 4:45 I was awake, and amid the still darkness, I wondered if we had caught our mouse. We’d been trying to catch him for the last two days to no avail. He thwarted our first attempt and managed to make off with every bit of the bait.

After finding my socks inside my sleeping bag, I quietly exited the tent, trying not to disturb Becky. I walked up to the car, turned on my LED lantern, pulled on the car door handle AND—it was locked! Crap! Forgot about that…this was certainly less dramatic than I’d imagined!

Our second, somewhat more improvised mouse trap lying behind the driver seat (Photo by Becky)

I retrieved my keys from the tent, unlocked the car this time (that Toyota beep is awful loud in a dead-silent campground!), pulled on the handle AND—saw that the bottle and the sticky trap were still together, but totally jostled out of position from where I had wedged it on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The outside fringe of the sticky trap had been gnawed around, just like the day before, and then I saw the box rock! The mouse was still there, but was he inside?

I slowly picked up the trap and peered in through the front—and sure enough, a long tiny tail on a little tiny mouse about two or three inches long was stuck inside! YES!!! We finally got him!!! He was small enough that he probably would have been able to get inside the bottle and eat the bait with no problem had I not added the sticky trap as an extra hurdle. I set the trap down on the picnic table and went over to the tent to share my jubilation with Becky. “We got him! Do you want to see it?”

Now What?

When Becky said no, my mind moved on to letting him out of the trap. I hadn’t given much thought to this until now—and I felt profoundly sad and even guilty. This poor scared, tiny little creature was stuck in my trap and no longer in my car, but now I have no idea how to let him go. While he was obviously quite strong to be able to jostle a 12-ounce glass bottle around, he was too delicate for me to free from the sticky trap without some serious injury; furthermore, I’d probably get my fingers bitten up in the process. I could just leave him for a predator, but chances are that it too would get stuck in the trap, or worse yet the bait in the bottle could attract a black bear to investigate.

I was all out of ideas, I had no Internet service and therefore no Google, and it was still before 5am…so I asked Becky what I should do. She told me to just put him in the dumpster. 🙁 I felt terrible about it, but that’s what I did. I hoped he would break loose in there, but I didn’t think that was likely.

I concluded that I hate these sticky traps, and that I’m never going to use one again. I have no idea what I could have done better to deal with a mouse taking up residence in our car on a camping trip, but I knew the way I chose was too inhumane to use it again. (UPDATE: I Googled later and found out that you can release a mouse from a sticky trap, but it’s not very easy to pull off on the road. If I’d known, I’d have tried to get him out.)

Remember folks: keep your food safe in hard-sided lockable containers, and don’t leave your car open long enough for wildlife to move into your car for the winter. They can make a real mess, and it’s hard to get rid of them. Out West they have a saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear,” and that seems to be true for all wildlife. I know this experience has made us extra careful on the road and at home.

Shooting Elkmont

After crawling back into bed, I got up again when my alarm went off at 6:30. This was our last day here at Elkmont, and I wanted to take advantage of the still air and soft, even, early light to shoot some panoramas of our campsite and the abandoned buildings. Even the slightest breeze makes it difficult to get a clear 360° image, and the winds have been almost nonexistent first thing in the morning. I had my pano rig set up not long after first light, and thought that shooting our campsite from the top of our picnic table would offer a good vantage point. This is usually no big deal, but today I did something stupid and earned my injury for the week…

The Picnic Table Incident

I was standing on top of the picnic table next to my camera and decided to walk around and check the leveling on my panoramic head…I took my first step, and realized I had made a terrible mistake! As I set my foot down onto nothing, I thought, “Oh no, well I guess I better be ready to land on the bench!” And then I realized…I’d missed the bench! I was going all the way down! In this split second, I realized I’d better be ready so I don’t twist my body all up and really get myself hurt.

So I came down on the one foot, turning myself enough that my upper body continued to fall backwards, past the bench. This saved me from bumping my head, tearing my groin, or twisting a joint, but it meant breaking my fall with my legs on the bench and my hands on the rocky ground! Ach! And when I landed, I looked up just in time to see my camera and tripod coming down after me!

Thankfully, everything landed softly on top of me. No damage came to my equipment or me, save for one sore wrist and a gravel rash on my hands. After the adrenaline passed a bit, I of course set up again and got my shot on top of the picnic table. Then I moved on to the Elkmont Historic District…

360-degree panorama of Site N1 in Elkmont Campground. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

The Saga of Elkmont’s Appalachian Club and the Creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Elkmont’s oldest structure, the Levi Trentham cabin in Daisy Town, built in 1830

The Sneed cabin in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district

The Hidgon cabin in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district

A children’s playhouse in Elkmont’s Daisy Town district called “Adamless Eden”

I know that heading is a mouthful, but there’s a story here with all of these abandoned buildings and the old cemetery I found on Tuesday. You see, back in 1908, Colonel Wilson B. Townsend set up a logging camp where Elkmont Campground is today. Lumber was transferred to his sawmill by a railroad he built and extended to Knoxville. When most of the timber was gone, Townsend advertised Elkmont as a mountain getaway. In 1910 he sold land to an affluent group of Knoxville outdoor enthusiasts who formed the Appalachian Club. They built the Appalachian Clubhouse and several vacation cabins, creating the small neighborhoods of Daisy Town, Millionaires Row, and Society Hill.

In the 1920s, the young National Park Service sought to create a national park in the Eastern United States. The movement to create one in the Great Smoky Mountains was started by certain members of the Appalachian Club. Due to maneuvering by politically influential members who desired to create a national forest rather than a national park, cabin owners in Elkmont were allowed to obtain lifetime leases when the park was created in 1937. Meanwhile, residents in less affluent areas like Cades Cove were flat-out evicted through eminent domain.

The last lease in Elkmont expired in 2001, which would have allowed the park to proceed with demolition plans it had at inception. However, some leaseholders’ descendants succeeded at placing Elkmont on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. This caused a 15-year debate that finally resulted in the preservation of most of Daisy Town and two other structures further up the mountain. The rest of the buildings will be demolished early in 2017.

I unfortunately did not get to photograph inside any of the abandoned cabins, as all were posted with “NO TRESPASSING” signs, and several of them had collapsed floors and roofs. Things were still plenty creepy though! I did, however, shoot a panorama inside the Appalachian Clubhouse, which was restored in 2009. This was thanks to a ranger who was kind enough to let me in while he performed some maintenance.

360-degree panoramas of abandoned vacation cabins in Elkmont’s Society Hill district. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Continue reading RealImaginarySmokies Day 6 – Exploring the Ghost Town of Elkmont & Cruising the Cherohala Skyway

RealImaginaryWest Day 15 – Colorado Springs & Pikes Peak

We took a short drive to spend the day with our friends, Lexi and Joe, in Colorado Springs. After going to the top of Pikes Peak on the cog railway, we got lunch and visited the penny arcade in Manitou Springs. Afterward, we visited Helen Hunt Falls and Garden of the Gods. We headed back to my cousin’s in Denver not long after dinner.

Starting for Colorado Springs Early…WAY Early!

We got up and on the road at 6am today. We were headed to Colorado Springs to spend the day with our friends, Joe and Lexi. They wanted to get a jump on the crowds heading up to Pike’s Peak, so we agreed to meet at their house at 6:45. Neither Becky nor myself are what you call “morning people”…but in three days, we would be back home—in the Eastern Time Zone, which is two hours ahead of Colorado. So as much as we’d have loved to sleep in, it really was practical to get going way early.

The sun was already cracking the horizon by the time we got on the road. The air was a little hazy, but that only added to the dramatic look of the golden light and dark shadows on the terrain ahead of us, and on the Rocky Mountains to our West. Though we were heading from one major city to the next, the drive was a mere 45 minutes, thanks to my cousin’s house being as close to the edge of Denver’s suburbs as you can get. The farther south we went on I-25, the more it felt like we were in the foothills rather than on the plains like in Denver.

Becky with Lexi and Joe

Now Lexi and her family are originally from Cleveland. I met Lexi on the exact same day as I met Becky for the first time, actually! She was already a good friend of the family by then. Becky’s sister, Rachel, was actually in Lexi’s wedding three years ago. Lexi ended up in Colorado Springs with her two brothers when her mom remarried a few years before that. Lexi’s husband, Joe, was good friends with Lexi’s brother, who recently married one of Rachel’s best friends after he moved back to Cleveland. Lexi came in for our wedding, and we met Joe when they both came in for her brother’s wedding. So yeah…we know Lexi and her family…but today would be our first time really getting to know Joe. So far he seems like an OK guy…

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

We pulled into Joe and Lexi’s driveway a minute or two after 6:45. They both rushed out and told us to jump in their car so we could get to the train in time to get good seats. For the rest of the day, Joe did all the driving, which was an awesome break for us!

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway station in Manitou Springs

In 20 minutes we were at the station for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in the mountain town of Manitou Springs. Parking was painless, and we were in line for good seats for the first train of the day, which departed at 8am. The station was rather compact, with just enough room for a ticket office, a gift shop, small restrooms, and an area to queue passengers boarding the train. Unfortunately, they do not allow outside food or drinks—not even water bottles—and therefore the prices remind you of what you’d pay in a movie theater. Joe was kind enough to buy each of us a 32-ounce bottle of water, but my eyes popped out when I saw it cost him $13!

Speaking of water, I was glad that we were on the first train, and therefore there was not double the amount of people because of returning passengers. I’m sure the small restrooms get quite a bit of use since there are no restrooms aboard the trains. Altitude and hydration were still foremost on my mind, being that even on the ground we were already at 6,000 feet. Since it’s a 60-90 minute trip each way, I knew that managing my drinking and peeing would be critical to my comfort today.

As we waited for the train, we could see splendid examples of the reddish colored Pikes Peak granite all around. This rock was everywhere in and around Manitou Springs, and really contrasted well with the green of the pines and aspens all around us in the golden rays of the low morning sun.

Up!

Passengers enjoying the view as we ascend Pikes Peak on the cog railway

Tree-covered slopes give way to rocky ones as we ascend toward the tree line, where the climate is too harsh for trees to grow.

We were on the train and out of the station at 8:07am. From here on up to the top, the conversation amongst ourselves was intertwined with that of our conductor and tour guide, Luke. Luke was a young man who looked to be at most 25, but easily could have been much younger. He shared quite a bit of history on Pikes Peak and the railway. He shared that Pikes Peak had several names before it was finally called Pikes Peak. The mountain is named after Zebulon Pike, who mounted an expedition to climb to the summit, but failed. And while Pikes Peak is but 1 of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners”, or mountains over 14,000 feet, there are very few mountains between it and the Great Plains. This makes it the most prominent mountain in Colorado’s Front Range, making it appear to stand alone for hundreds of miles over the Great Plains to the east—all the way to Kansas.

As Pikes Peak has a story that is unique among Colorado’s mountains, the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway also has a unique story among Colorado’s railroads. Back in the 1880s, railroads were built primarily for industrial purposes to take advantage of the state’s many mining opportunities. After a ride to the summit of Pikes Peak on the back of a donkey, Zalmon Simmons of Kenosha, Wisconsin and founder of the Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Company, saw a business opportunity. He decided to build a railway to make it way easier to go to the top of Pikes Peak, and he did it purely for tourism. He went home and lined up investors, and two years later he was taking people to the top of Pikes Peak for a cool $5 each—that’s $125 in today’s money. The railroad was a hit back then, and since our early train was completely full, I’d say it’s still a hit today. The good news is that the cost of tickets has not kept up with inflation, as round-trip tickets cost only about a third of $125—and that may be why they sell water at $3.25 per bottle.

Anyway, there are three cars on each train heading up and down the mountainside. There’s an aisle down the middle with three seats on the left side going up, and two seats on the right side. The seats are arranged front-to-front and back-to-back, meaning every passenger faces another passenger. Before we embarked on our 18-day journey, a friend back home warned us that we want to get seats that angle up rather than down. And about 15 minutes up the mountain, Luke suggested that we introduce ourselves to the folks across from us—we were heading into our first 25 percent grade, and we’d probably be getting more familiar with them as a result. This was easy for us, because we knew each other, but we followed his advice nonetheless. Becky and I were angled down on the way up, though, and we really didn’t have any problems staying in our seats.

Joe points out at something when we are well above the tree line.

Each set of seats facing each other has it’s own window. On the bottom, the windows are all open, and it’s easy to see over them and take pictures. By the time you pass the tree line into alpine elevations, the temperature is decidedly cooler, so Luke told us we could close our windows and turn on the heater for the rest of the trip. The heater made things quite comfortable in spite of the 36°F temperature at the summit. I would still recommend having at least one or two extra layers of long sleeves handy though, not just for the trip, but the summit too.

Before we reached the top, Luke advised us that we’d have a little less than an hour there, and that the train whistle would blow ten minutes before departure. He said it was important for round-trip passengers to be on the train at departure—Otherwise we would “slowly transform into hikers—and what a hike it is! Thirteen miles in one direction from the summit back to Manitou Springs. And for you runners out there thinking, ‘thirteen miles!’, yes, they do have a marathon each year, going up and back down the mountain.”

The Summit of Pikes Peak

The view at the top!

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 15 – Colorado Springs & Pikes Peak

RealImaginaryWest Day 14 – Two Miles High in Rocky Mountain National Park

After setting out from Craig, we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park at about noon. We drove scenic Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park, spending about 90 minutes at the Alpine Visitor Center along the way. Finally, we proceeded to the Denver suburb of Aurora to spend the evening with family. (Ignore the map for now…Google Maps is being dumb 😛 )

Once again, we got a later start than we hoped. Though we weren’t out incredibly late, we didn’t get to sleep until around 11 last night. We wanted to be up and on the road by 6am to possibly beat the traffic rush at Rocky Mountain National Park, but that didn’t happen. Yesterday took a lot out of us, and rather than using the bonus time from not having to pack up our tent to get an early start, we opted for more sleep. We managed to get on the road by about 8:30.

What Might Have Been

Travelers Inn, our motel in Craig, Colorado

Beyond our last day in Yellowstone, we couldn’t make reservations at Grand Teton National Park, and we didn’t have any at Rocky Mountain National Park. This gave us the option of spending either two nights at Grand Teton and one at Rocky Mountain, or vice versa. We ended up staying the two nights in Grand Teton. Our original plan was to spend one night—last night—camping in Rocky Mountain, which would give us the better part of the day to hike in the east side of the park near Bear Lake.

However, on our first full day at Grand Teton, we wound up at the emergency room in Jackson because I was dehydrated. We had planned on hiking up into Cascade Canyon. Since we didn’t want to leave without a hike, we decided to extend our time at Teton—and we dropped the plan to camp one night in Rocky Mountain National Park. All of this resulted in having time only for a basic drive through. Now with the late start, my original goal of hiking near Bear Lake looked like a major long shot. I often wonder how things would have gone if we hadn’t juggled things around so much, because I had drank enough water like a good boy! C’est la vie…

Reality In the Rockies

I can’t really complain too much…for being a couple of first-timers doing this on our own, well over a thousand miles from home in strange, rugged lands, without our moms or dads or any locals by our side to help us avoid dangers, we’d seen and done an awful lot without dire consequence in the last two weeks! Adventure awaited us yet again as we set out for our fifth and final national park for this trip. Up until 9 days ago, Becky and I had only ever seen 6 of the 47 national parks in the Lower 48—and in this one trip we’d almost doubled that number and seen places we’d only ever read about in books, seen on TV, or dreamed about. I always thought this would be a lot harder…and I’m really glad we decided to do this!

Anyway, we started out east on US-40 with me driving to the next town, Steamboat Springs, which was almost an hour away. We traversed high desert for most of yesterday, so I was hoping for some trees today. The maps depicted national forests just a few miles to the east of Craig, but yesterday we saw nothing of these woodlands on our drive in from Wyoming, not even in the distance. Most of the drive from Craig to Steamboat Springs followed the Yampa River and a railroad line. It was pretty country but not spectacular, with a lot more greenery than anything we saw last night. The scenery really started to improve just as we entered Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Springs

While Craig seemed more like a blue collar town where the locals worked at growing, mining, or making things, Steamboat Springs instantly struck me as a larger version of Jackson, Wyoming…a fancy ski resort town with a lot of tourist money flowing through. On the mountain in the distance, you could see grassy green ski trails between the trees, although we were not yet close enough to make out the lifts. The architecture as well screamed “rustic ski resort!”. You could tell they worked hard to appeal to international tourists too, with all their speed limit signs in both imperial and metric units.

The plethora of retail along the main road had me hoping for a decent place to score a quick breakfast. Also, the amount of water I’d been drinking made the stop totally necessary. We still had nearly two hours of driving to get to Rocky Mountain National Park, and this was the most sizeable community for quite some distance. We drove through most of town when I finally just pulled into a Starbucks. One of their La Boulange breakfast sandwiches would do the trick for me, and Becky was happy to get coffee and dig into our trail mix.

Our Big Fat Bag of Potato Chips

When air pressure outside the bag drops, air inside the bag expands to equalize pressure.

Among the many things we packed for our trip back home in Northern Ohio were two bags of Trader Joe’s Hawaiian-Style potato chips. Somewhere in South Dakota, Becky noticed that she couldn’t get them to fit into one of the plastic food bins in the trunk. By the time we’d reached Cody, Wyoming, the bags were puffed up like a balloon, and Becky wondered what had gone wrong with the chips! She knew that sometimes a bag would spoil and expand, but she couldn’t believe it had happened so fast. She opened one of them, and the chips seemed perfectly fine…but she was still mystified as to what was going on.

When Becky brought this to my attention, I asked her what happens to air pressure at higher elevations. I saw the light bulb go on instantly! Back in Ohio, we live below 1,000 feet, but by the time we were in Cody, we were around 5,000 feet, with much thinner air, causing the air in the air-tight bags to expand. Our last bag of chips had survived some pretty high elevations so far—most of our time in Yellowstone was over 7,000 feet, and we’d crossed Powder River Pass in the Bighorns at over 9,500 feet. Now came the ultimate test—Trail Ridge Road—which at one point surpasses 12,000 feet! When I rummaged for my camera in the back of the car, as Becky was taking over on driving, I remembered our our big fat bag of potato chips and put them in the back seat so we could hear when it pops. Either it was gonna blow today or not at all!

Rabbit Ears Pass & US-34

On the road again, we ascended from 6,700 feet in Steamboat Springs to over 9,000 feet over Rabbit Ears Pass. The highway hugs the side of a mountain most of the way up, giving way to spectacular views of lakes below, and snowy peaks far off into the distance. About halfway between Steamboat Springs and the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, US-40 and US-34 are marked as the Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway. The two roads fork just before the town of Granby, where US-40 heads southeast to I-70 and Denver, and US-34 proceeds northeast into the park.

US-40 follows the Colorado River through some semi-rugged terrain east of Hot Sulphur Springs.

For several miles, US-34 follows the resort areas along the shores of Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake. The lakes were rather large with giant mountains rising up on the opposite sides. There were a number of marinas, motels, vacation houses, and mobile homes all along the highway. We crossed the fledgling Colorado River a couple of times here, as the road closely follows it.

Finally we passed beyond Shadow Mountain Lake, turning northward and more uphill, and saw a sign that we were entering Rocky Mountain National Park. The busy resort area gave way to forest and meadows on both sides of the road. All around, everything was green and peaceful.

Looking to the mountains across Lake Granby

Rocky Mountain National Park

Not far down the road we came upon the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, which is just outside the Grand Lake Entrance Station. We stopped here so Becky could get our friend’s National Park Passport book stamped, and of course, so we could use the restroom. The visitor center was small, but extremely busy. It was close to noon, and every family was there with their kids. One room had a relief map of the park and its features. You could press a button and get one to light up—but it was of little use with the never-ending stream of kids repeatedly pushing all of the buttons out of shear boredom.

While Becky looked for the stamp, I looked for a park ranger. I suppose it was wishful thinking, but I asked if it was realistic to get a hike in at Bear Lake and still be back in Denver by 5:30pm. She told me that driving and parking there at this time of day is no picnic, and that we’d probably run out of time for a hike before we found our way to a trailhead. She suggested options along Trail Ridge Road…some were along the Colorado River, while others were in the alpine areas of the park. She warned us to be careful about lighting in the alpine areas, since there’s no cover.

The Grand Lake Entrance Station

For some reason I still thought we should head for Bear Lake, but I was more open now to checking out something in the high country, especially the Alpine Visitor Center. The west side of the park was green with lots more trees, but Bear Lake was on the more interesting rugged east side of the park. Besides its ruggedness, the east side was also within a two-hour drive of Denver, which made it exceptionally popular. The alpine regions through the center of the park sounded like a worthy compromise.

Ascending the Trail Ridge

So we got back on the road, which for about 10 miles passed through forest land, with the Colorado River on our left, and mountains towering to our right. The Colorado at this point is just at the small beginnings of the mighty river it turns into downstream. The valley narrows gradually until the road takes a hairpin turn to the right and begins ascending a long switchback that surpasses two miles above sea level!

Along the way were spectacular pulloffs, but we were unable to stop—not so much due to time, but due to urgency. Since we were going up a road that topped out over 12,000 feet in elevation, I had been drinking plenty of water to thwart a repeat of my dehydration episode at Grand Teton National Park. So even though I took care of things back at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, I had to go pretty badly…again.

We passed right on by the Fairview Curve and on to our first restroom opportunity at the Lake Irene Picnic Area. After relief, I felt a bit woozy and just told Becky I wanted to sit for a minute and get used to the altitude or whatever was bothering me. I hadn’t eaten a lot so far today, and we’d just gone up a switchback with numbered U-curves with a full bladder, so who knows for sure if it was one of these factors or the altitude.

It didn’t seem like we were two miles high up where we were. I looked around but didn’t find Lake Irene…I just saw a bunch of cars and a few picnic tables with people kicking back for lunch. We were still subalpine with trees surrounding the little meadow here. The only indications you were very high were the millions of hungry mosquitoes trying to eat you before the cold came back and killed them, and your body feeling funny and telling you to slow down.

I decided to eat a few slices of bread to calm my stomach. Becky was chomping on trail mix or almonds we had with us. All of a sudden, POP!!!

We looked at each other and thought for a second, and then we began giggling. Our science experiment in air pressure had ruptured at just short of 11,000 feet above sea level! The bag had ripped open along its bottom seam. We laughed some more about how low the air pressure must be, and started snacking on the chips too.

A few minutes later we felt jolly enough to continue up the road. About a mile down, we crossed the Continental Divide for the eighth and final time. After a few miles more, we ascended above the tree line to the alpine elevations—where only the smallest plants and grasses manage to survive. Another switchback later, we arrived at the Alpine Visitor Center, way up at 11,796 feet.

Looking southwest from above Medicine Bow Curve toward part of Trail Ridge Road that we drove on below Medicine Row Curve as we approach the Alpine Visitor Center.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 14 – Two Miles High in Rocky Mountain National Park

RealImaginaryWest Day 13 – Grand Teton National Park to Craig, Colorado

After a boat ride and a short hike up to Inspiration Point at Jenny Lake, we depart Grand Teton National Park and Wyoming for Craig, Colorado. This takes us most of the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where we head tomorrow.

Waking Up

After a few days at altitude slowly dehydrating me and making me feel like garbage each morning, waking up today was really easy. First light came, and my bladder reminded me of how much water I’d been drinking to rehydrate after yesterday’s visit to the hospital in Jackson. My bladder woke me up around 1:30am too. Oh the price we pay to stay healthy while roughing it…

More Wet

Once I’d returned from the restroom and was able to consider less urgent matters, I noticed our tent was covered with water droplets. I complained to Becky about how wet everything was still…and she informed me that it had rained again overnight. Grrr!!! That explains it! (I must have slept better than I thought!)

Since we had to pack up this morning, this was disappointing. It became downright frustrating when I realized that water was inside the tent again too, and that all of our damp towels left out to dry overnight were now quite soaked instead. I did not expect rain to be this much of a problem out West where summers (I thought) were mostly dry.

Most of all I was beyond irritated with our tent. Every time it rained, water got inside. I really expect any tent I own to do two major things: 1.) keep me warm, which this tent was not great at, and 2.) keep me dry…major fail. I came to find out later that you’re supposed to seal these things at least once a year. (You’d think they’d put that in the setup instructions!) And maybe it’s unrealistic on my part to expect a three-season tent to be all that warm.

Anyway, expectations aside, our Coleman Rosewood 4-person tent is a great starter tent. But this road trip did expose some weaknesses. It didn’t ventilate exceptionally well in the heat, but it also didn’t hold onto heat overnight. Also, the poles are made of fiberglass, and break easily even under extraordinary care—they’re also not easy or even possible to repair, and replacements cost almost as much as the tent. It also has a high profile which gets flattened by strong winds like we experienced in De Smet, South Dakota. Maybe we’ll look into an upgrade for next year…

So with a soaked tent and soaked towels, packing up was going to be a drag. I picked up the driest towel I could find and started wiping. I still saw water droplets. Our entire rainfly was also wet on the inside…condensation from our breath in the cold air. We could probably pack everything up now and dry it off in Craig, but I wasn’t fond of having a damp tent in the car all day long. Tonight’s rain potential had also inched up from 0% to 10%. Awesome. Ten percent seems to be all it takes this summer.

The best course of action seemed to be to leave the tent up to dry here for a few hours. This meant an extra hour of driving from Colter Bay to Jenny Lake and back from our hike, and tacking on an extra 30 minutes to our drive down to Craig. And checkout time is at 11am. Bummer.

Off to Jenny Lake

By around 7am we had everything but the tent packed up, and we were on our way to Jenny Lake for one last hike before leaving Grand Teton National Park. Yesterday the plan was to take the shuttle boat across and hike up into Cascade Canyon. Since we had a 6-7-hour drive ahead of us, we’d do an abbreviated version of that this morning. The shuttles run 10 minutes apart, so I guessed it must take just under 10 minutes to cross the lake. With a 30 minute drive back to Colter Bay and another 30 minutes to dry off and pack up our tent, I estimated that we needed to be on a boat back a little before 10 o’clock. This would give us about two hours to hike—not a ton of time, but hopefully enough!

Along the way, I saw a sign for North Jenny Lake and a scenic drive. I remembered seeing this one-way road along the lakeshore on the map. Being impulsive and curious, I decided to check it out. It was a pretty little drive with a few pullouts and OK views along the lake, but it wasn’t anything seriously impressive like I’d hoped. My mind was wandering anyway…I kept thinking about whether we shouldn’t see about a late checkout to give us a little more time on the trails.

The light was beautiful, so I couldn’t pass up a quick stop at Willow Flats Overlook to capture a high-resolution panorama. This can be printed HUGE, since the original is 24817 pixels x 8272 pixels. The low-hanging clouds looked so cool!

I also grabbed this shot with a clearer view of Grand Teton.

This ground squirrel foraged around the fringes of the parking lot at the Willow Flats Overlook.

Parking at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center was a breeze when we arrived at 7:50! Coming in yesterday just before 11am put us at the peak of the crowds. Of course, it was time for me to hit the restroom again. Becky also wanted to comb the gift shop one more time to find a “Jenny Lake” souvenir for her best friend, Jenny, back home. This would easily take us up to 8 o’clock, which is when the camp office at Colter Bay opens. Before we get on the shuttle and leave cellular range, I could call and ask for a late checkout.

Unfortunately, Becky came up empty again. They only had stickers and fridge magnets, and everything else had sold out. We did, however, get OKed for a noon checkout! Awesome! Now we’ll definitely have time for a good hike.

Taking the Shuttle Boat

Round-trip fare for the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake was $15 per person. This seemed pretty steep for a short trip, but when you figure in the remoteness and the short four-month tourist season here, it’s more understandable. It would definitely save us time, too, as it shaved a six-mile hike to Inspiration Point or Hidden Falls down to only two miles round-trip. What really sweetened the deal was that they also sold Jenny Lake water bottles at the docks—so we had more water, and Becky finally had the gift she wanted for her bestie!

A shuttle boat head back to the docks by Jenny Lake Visitor Center.

Becky enjoys the ride across Jenny Lake in the crisp morning air.

The lake was very calm. Winds here seemed to be calm overnight and intensify with the sun throughout the day. Becky said she heard that Jenny Lake is hundreds of feet deep, which would keep the lake from getting too rough for very long. This made for a smooth ride across. The overnight storm had also left behind some beautiful low clouds between us and Mt. Moran.

I was a little torn between hiking to Inspiration Point or Hidden Falls. The driver taking us across shared that Hidden Falls was an easier trail but had no view, while Inspiration Point has an elevation change of 600 feet over the course of a mile and an extraordinary view at the end. We probably could have done both, but the trail in between was closed.

I asked the driver how long it took to get to Inspiration Point, and he way very vague. It was pretty difficult to judge someone’s physical condition and acclimation to the altitude. He said it takes him about 30 minutes, and that most people should expect it to take at least 45 minutes. This sounded like it would work for our timeframe, which at this point was a little over 2 hours.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 13 – Grand Teton National Park to Craig, Colorado

RealImaginaryWest Day 11 – Old Faithful & Moving to Grand Teton National Park

Old Faithful was the last sight we saw in Yellowstone before we packed up at Grant Village and moved on to Grand Teton National Park. After we scored a campsite, we relaxed along the shore of Jackson Lake and had dinner. Our nightcap was a short drive up to the summit of Signal Mountain.

Waking Up to Rain… Lovely

After spending a lot of time cleaning and drying off our tent when we packed up at Canyon Village the day before, I woke up at 5am this morning in Grant Village to the sound of rain on our tent.

I was already plenty anxious about getting an early start and moving down to Grand Teton National Park today. I was especially nervous about moving because all of the campgrounds at Teton are first-come, first-served so we had no reservation. I wanted to be completely packed, go see Old Faithful, and then beeline directly to our next campground as early as possible. Having to dry a wet tent all over again could jeopardize getting our next campsite. Boy was I annoyed.

As the rain continued to fall and I continued to stew, I expressed my irritation to Becky. She told me that all that negative energy and anxiety did absolutely nothing to help us, and that it robbed me of enjoying things. “Roll with the punches,” she said. I realized she was absolutely right.

So even though the rain hadn’t stopped, I took my wife’s sage words to heart—I stopped stewing and started thinking. I suggested that we get up right now, go see Old Faithful erupt, and then hopefully come back after the rain to a dryer tent to pack up.

Becky dug the idea so we got up at about the same time the rain stopped. We shuffled off to the restrooms and got on the road at about 6:30am for the 35-minute drive to Old Faithful.

Old Faithful

The Grand Loop Road passes below the overpass for the Old Faithful Road.

Old Faithful steamed quietly when we arrived.

People begin to disperse after an eruption with the historic Old Faithful Inn as a the backdrop.

Old Faithful is by far the most famous and most popular attraction in Yellowstone National Park. The otherwise two-lane Grand Loop Road actually widens to four lanes with a freeway-style trumpet interchange that takes you into Old Faithful Village. It’s so strange to see such urban infrastructure inside such a wild and vast national park, but it makes sense to keep traffic moving in order to minimize air pollution in this pristine place.

Besides the geyser, Old Faithful Village itself is quite extensive. There are a few stores, restaurants, and lodges here, including the historic Old Faithful Inn. The visitor center sits only one or two hundred yards from the geyser everyone wants to see. We arrived here at about 7am and checked for the next predicted eruption time. Unfortunately, the visitor center doesn’t open until 8am, and the time posted in the window was from just after close the night before.

So we were here, but we had no idea when the next eruption would be…but I didn’t panic, since there weren’t any people gathered as if it was about to blow. Finally, I found a sign that said I could find geyser eruption predictions at @GeyserNPS on Twitter. I pulled out my phone and hoped for good cell service… Huzzah! The feed predicted the next eruption at 8:12am, plus or minus ten minutes. I also found out I could call a number for other geyser predictions.

To say that Yellowstone has geysers is an understatement. When we drove around the park yesterday, we realized that there are not just a few geysers, but that there are a few geyser basins that each have several geysers! Old Faithful is only one of many steaming holes in the ground that erupt hot water every so often in what is called the Upper Geyser Basin. So since we had plenty of time before we needed to stake out a particular spot, I called the prediction number to find out if any other geysers were expected to erupt nearby. It turned out that Daisy Geyser may be a possibility, so I made sure we picked a vantage point where we could see both in case they went off at the same time—how cool would that be!

A fun fact about Old Faithful is that it is not the largest, tallest, or hottest geyser. It is, however, the most dependable big tall geyser in the park. It has been erupting about every 90 minutes for years, with varying heights of a few dozen feet to 200 feet. While you can’t quite set your watch to it, its dependable vertical spectacle is how Old Faithful earned its name and its spot as the top attraction in the park.

Old Faithful at its peak during eruption at 8:05am on July 12, 2015

Old Faithful erupted for us right on time at 8:05am. I’d read that Old Faithful often “plays” a bit with smaller eruptions, but there was no play involved here. About a minute or two before water burst forth, the geyser bellowed much more steam. The water pushed higher and higher, and then stayed at peak height for about a minute and slowly died down into a tiny fountain. Finally the water stopped and the geyser returned to just a steaming hole in the ground.

We didn’t see Daisy erupt, but Old Faithful was very cool all by itself. It was time to get back to pack up camp and move on in time to get a campsite in Grand Teton. My first choice of campground was Jenny Lake, which was a good two hours away. I knew that was a longshot, but my backup campground at Colter Bay wasn’t much closer, and I was nervous both could fill by noon.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 11 – Old Faithful & Moving to Grand Teton National Park

RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

Our first full day in Yellowstone took us to Tower Fall in the morning and Mammoth Hot Springs at midday. We grabbed lunch outside the park in Gardiner, Montana, then found some wood and a moose on our way back to Canyon Village. We closed out the day at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and ate a late dinner back at camp.

Our First Full Day

Has a full week already past? Are we only on Day 9? Just yesterday I told Becky that 1 week and 2 hours ago (because of the time change) we left! It also doesn’t seem possible that today was Friday and that we still have more than a week to go…wow…we planned all this??? I don’t know how we did it, but I know we could only have been this successful from working together! I know I couldn’t have done this as well without Becky!

Today’s entry starts with the end. Right now I’m sitting at a biggole fire that took longer than I hoped to build, but I’m feeling content that I am warm, our tent is still good, we haven’t run out of money, and we are doing OK. It’s been tough sometimes and we’ve gotten in each other’s hair occasionally, but we have really enjoyed ourselves over the last week. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve gotten to see a lot of the country!

I feel like we’ve done really well so far, but today I know my “OMG Yellowstone!” mania pushed Becky way too far. We were up at first light this morning in time for sunrise. We were out before the tourists wake up to clog all the roads and scare away all the animals. And then we ran almost all day without much downtime. It’s almost midnight now, and we still aren’t quite in bed. The original plan for tomorrow was to start early like we did today, but I know I ran Becky ragged, so I doubt it will work out that way.

Enduring the Cold

Let’s rewind and go back to how last night went. Becky was super cold, and had to cover her face with the top in-between blanket. It was by far the coldest night we’ve ever slept in. We’re up around 7,900 feet in elevation here at Canyon Campground, which means the atmosphere is much thinner and the temperature in turn stays much colder—often only in the 60s for a high and down into the 30s at night, even in July. By contrast Mammoth Campground, near the park’s North Entrance, sits at about 6,200 feet and experiences temperatures that are roughly 10 degrees warmer. I was concerned about whether we’d get rain or wind on top of the cold at night, but thankfully the winds calmed after dark and it only rained during the day.

Layers are key to beating the cold. Becky and I both wore at least 2-3 layers up top, and I had two on the bottom. We had two blankets between our sleeping bags and our air mattress to insulate us below, and then another one inside the sleeping bags to keep us warm on top. Without the extra blankets, we would have been unbearably chilly! But as it was, everything was rather comfortable for me, so long as I kept my hoodie up to keep my ears warm.

Yellowstone Mania

Steam rises from Wabash Hot Springs at sunrise.

Tower Fall

The Yellowstone River as it passes out of its grand canyon

Now I wanted to be up early enough to get some photos of sunrise at Yellowstone Falls, which is very close to our campground. Becky agreed that she’d get up at 5:30am and we’d be ready to go at 5:45. We got going right on time. The weather was definitely brisk, but the mostly cloudy sky looked to make for interesting images so long as the clouds didn’t completely block out the sun. After shooting the falls, we planned to go back to camp to shower up, then hit Mammoth Hot Springs and come back to camp again for early dinner and maybe a nap. Later, we’d go back to Yellowstone Falls in time for sunset.

When we drove out to Yellowstone Falls, however, there was a thick blanket of fog over the entire canyon :-(. This would not do, and I wanted to take advantage of the early light, so I decided we’d upend everything we’d planned and drive an hour to Mammoth Hot Springs right away. My mania had kicked in, and it wasn’t even 6am…

A few miles down the road from Canyon Village, we stopped at the Wabash Hot Springs Overlook, since it looked like our last good opportunity to take advantage of the sunrise. As I set things up, it was awesome to watch the sun cast its first light on mountains that had to be miles and miles away.

Things were starting to warm up, but my stomach started asking for food and Becky started asking for coffee…so we stopped by the Tower General Store. It was too early for it to open, so we made use of the time and hiked the short trail to 132-foot Tower Fall.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone

After packing up at the Ponderosa Campground, we got breakfast and hung out a bit in Downtown Cody. Then we stopped by the ginormous Buffalo Bill Center of the West—which was way way bigger than we expected! Next, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, making a quick stop at the Lake Butte Overlook to watch a thunderstorm across Yellowstone Lake. Lastly, we got stuck in bear/bison traffic near the Sulphur Caldron and Hayden Valley on our way to camp at Canyon Campground. This taught us that carpe tempore is the rule when passing restrooms…or trees……

Calm Night in Cody

Today we go from roughly 5,000 feet in elevation at the Ponderosa Campground in Cody, to 7,900 feet at Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park. Altitude tends to catch up with flatlanders like us above 7,000 feet—also the days and especially the nights are much cooler…eek!

The sun was up around 6am at the Ponderosa Campground, and so was I. We were both fairly well-rested thanks to the calmness of the night. Not only was the weather perfect, but our 60 young neighbors from Teens Westward Bound were awesome too. It was clear that this was a great group of kids! At 6:30 they received their wakeup call from the trip captain: “It’s time to get up, little darlin’s!” she repeated kindly in her North Carolina accent, walking about the camp. I got a chance to talk to her later and ask a few questions. I was especially interested in how they handled inclement weather, as De Smet a few days before was still fresh in mind. They all camped out in the open on tarps and sleeping bags, which meant even less shelter than we had in our tent.

She explained that they had about a week left on a 23-day road trip. They were headed back home to Charlotte, North Carolina through the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, after already touring the Southwest and California. Young people are not selected willy nilly for this program—these were responsible, academically successful youths. The group from the looks was about 70% girls and 30% boys. Everyone was taught to tarp up properly so that nobody got wet or blew away. The whole purpose of the trip, besides seeing the Western United States, was teaching each and every one of them, from high school sophomore to entering college freshman, that they could do pretty much anything they set out to do!

From what I could see, that thought had sunk in. The group was two weeks from leaving home, and they each awoke without a complaint, in spite of possible homesickness, and even if some of them looked like they could have used a couple more hours asleep.

It was time for Becky and I to get started too. We got in rather late and very tired from the big day’s drive from Rapid City and the rodeo the night before. I was so tired I didn’t even get a chance to take advantage of the electricity available here to dump my camera’s memory cards and charge a few batteries. So I took care of that while we packed up the tent. We got ourselves to breakfast at around 7:30 or 8am.

A Few Hours In Cody

Clouds rolled over Rattlesnake Mountain toward the historic buildings of Downtown Cody early in the afternoon. Peter’s Cafe is on the right about halfway to the first traffic light at 12th Street.

Becky picked out this place in Downtown Cody called Peter’s Cafe & Bakery. All of Downtown Cody is very well put together, with plenty of historic architecture along its spacious main street, Sheridan Avenue. Peter’s was in one of the old buildings here, with a standard American breakfast menu at reasonable prices. The bacon strips were huge and everything on our plate was cooked perfectly. They had a couple of book racks with great titles for customers to read while they eat, like How to Stay Humble When You’re Smarter Than Everybody Else, The Joy of Being Broke, and the one that first caught my eye, How to Share a Bad Attitude, all by Ben Goode. Hilarious stuff! I’m gonna have to check this out more when I get home.

Before we left downtown after breakfast, I shot a couple of panoramas and Becky perused some shops. We have plenty of charming old business districts like this back in Ohio, but few are this large and vibrant—and of course none have the Western flair of Cody. I particularly liked 12th & Sheridan because of the Irma—the hotel opened by Buffalo Bill Cody himself back in 1902.

360-degree panoramas of the central business district of Cody, Wyoming. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The humble South Entrance understates the magnificence and expansiveness of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Before we left town, we followed a tip to check out the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. We went into the small South Entrance to pay admission, and found out that this museum is so extensive that each ticket is actually a two-day pass! We explained to the lady at the front desk, Rosalee, that not only would we not be here for two days, but we really only had two hours at most before we drove to our campground in Yellowstone National Park. She was very kind and offered for us to take a few minutes to look around without charge, in order to get a feel for all they had there so we could plan to visit on our next trip.

Let me tell you, this museum is first class, and it is huge! It is actually five museums in one. The Draper Natural History Museum explains the geology, animals, and everything else on the prairies and in the mountains of Wyoming. The Plains Indians Museum shares the history of the native tribes who inhabited the West and the effect of United States settlement. There is of course a museum about the life and legacy of the town’s namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody. They also have the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Cody Firearms Museum as well as special exhibitions. The current exhibition was a firearms loan from the Smithsonian, way back East in Washington—which felt a world away after spending a week in the West.

I’d heard the Buffalo Bill Center was a great museum, but that was an understatement! I had no idea it was on par with museums in big cities like New York or Chicago. Everything I saw here was impressive, and certainly a bargain for the price. Next time we pass through Cody, we’re certainly spending quality time here.

Before we left, I shot a couple of 360-degree panoramas outside, including the Main Entrance where the statue of Buffalo Bill stands. Afterward we re-iced the cooler and refueled to head into Yellowstone.

360-degree panoramas outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Heading Up To Yellowstone

It was just after 1pm when we left Cody, and the weather was transitioning from morning blue skies to early afternoon storms. US-14/16/20 is designated as the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Almost the entire route follows the Shoshone River through the Absaroka Mountains, passing by Buffalo Bill Dam, its giant reservoir, Buffalo Bill State Park, and eventually through the Shoshone National Forest.

Just outside Cody, the US highway enters Shoshone Canyon, snakes its way along the river, passes through three tunnels, and finally emerges just past the dam next to the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. The reservoir provides irrigation for agriculture throughout the area. It’s really gorgeous here, even on a rainy day! There are tall mountains all around with gentle brown and sagebrush prairie sloping gently upward from the lake. There were beautiful houses perched partway up the mountainsides with what I’m sure were spectacular views of the river and reservoir amid the mountains. Most land around the north side of the reservoir was part of Buffalo Bill State Park.

Beyond the reservoir, we passed into Wapiti Valley. There are plenty of guest ranches and campgrounds along the highway here that no doubt take advantage of their proximity to both Yellowstone and Cody. After a relatively straight shot from the reservoir, the valley narrows into a canyon and the road begins to wind as we enter Shoshone National Forest and the heart of the Absaroka Range. The road hugs and criss-crosses the North Fork of the Shoshone River for several miles…

Shoshone Canyon, just downstream from Buffalo Bill Dam

We got excited as we approached these two tunnels…but before we knew it, we’d already passed through more than one tunnel. When we realized another tunnel was hidden in between…we got really excited!

US-14/16/20 along the north shore of Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Driving toward the western end of Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Wapiti Valley

Just inside the Shoshone National Forest near Wapiti Wayside

And finally we saw the sign for Yellowstone National Park! At long last I had been able to achieve a nearly life-long dream to tour one of the largest, finest, most renowned parks in the world! It had taken me almost exactly 38 years to finally make the trip. Almost exactly 7 years ago I made it to my first big western national park, Yosemite, and it was positively magical! I’d hoped that Yellowstone would prove to be in its own way just as majestic, profound, and inspiring.

Entering Yellowstone National Park

The East Entrance gate at Yellowstone National Park. The entrance fee here gets you into both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Alternatively, you can get an Annual Pass like the one we bought back at Badlands National Park that gets you into all of the parks for an entire year.

The first thing I thought about when we reached the East Entrance was that it was very quiet! I expected a lot more traffic, especially in the middle of July. Maybe everyone entered through the North Entrance from Montana or flew into Jackson and entered from the south? I was pleasantly surprised to see that the park was mostly uncongested…and I was happy to know that there was a nice little campsite waiting for us in Canyon Village.

Stone guardrails like this one on the East Entrance Road line the steep edges of most roads in Yellowstone, rather than the metal ones typically used. A park should look prettier anyway, right?

Along the way in, you pass deep into virgin mountains, with the only evidence of the hand of man being the road you’re traveling. Rather than standard metal guardrails, most roads here have stone guardrails that remind you that you’re in a national park! After emerging from the giant mountains of the Absaroka Range, the view opens up and you catch your first sight of Yellowstone Lake. The lake was much much larger than I expected it to be, and the terrain around more mountainous. I don’t know why I expected something smaller…maybe it’s because any video I’ve seen just can’t do this place justice.

The entire landscape is covered mostly with sloping grasslands and forests, with occasional rock outcroppings. This was unlike what I saw frequently in the Sierra Nevada, where bald domes and half domes of sheer granite accompanied by spires decorated the landscape like a castle or cathedral.

Just 16 miles to our campground at Canyon Village! No problem, right!?

We stopped along the way at the Lake Butte Overlook, several hundred feet above the shores of Lake Yellowstone. We got an awesome view of an afternoon thunderstorm making its way down mountains on the opposite side of the lake. The area all around has obviously been burned out by a forest fire in the last few years. It felt like a worthy place to first set foot in Yellowstone National Park. After a few moments to look out and around and shoot some panoramas, we headed back down to the East Entrance Road. The road runs right below the overlook and along beaches on the lake’s north shore before coming into Fishing Bridge. We had some rain down along the beaches just before we caught the Grand Loop Road north to Canyon Village.

360-degree panoramas of the Lake Butte Overlook in Yellowstone National Park. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Traffic Was a Real Bear

Who knew a few animals could cause such a stir?

I was able to fill the frame with this bison, it was so close to the road.

Along the road to Canyon Village, bison and elk grazed peacefully in the meadows. Motorists also sat peacefully with their cars, as we ran into our first traffic jam. So much for the park being uncongested! I knew going in that girdlock was fairly common in Yellowstone, and that it usually had nothing to do with bad driving. More often than not, traffic snarls because animals are close to the road, so massive amounts of people stop to take a look and get pictures. Sometimes the animals are on the road—and there’s no coercing a 2,000-pound wild bison to keep moving—so you just have to wait for them to cross. This traffic jam was stop and go for what seemed like miles though…so something big must have been happening!

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 6 – The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore & Wind Cave

The weather held up really well, with just a little rain falling on us south of Rapid City as we drove from Badlands National Park to lunch in Keystone. We visited Mount Rushmore and got down to Wind Cave National Park just in time to catch the Natural Entrance Tour. Then we drove north into magnificent Custer State Park—WOW!—and finally made our way to our motel in Rapid City via the spectacular Iron Mountain Road.

Dreaming of the Old West

After a positively uneventful and peaceful night in Cedar Pass Campground at Badlands National Park, Becky and I woke up refreshed, and packed up our tent bound for the Black Hills. Becky cooked eggs in a tiny little portable stove she bought that resembles more of what a caterer uses to keep food warm than an actual stove. This was what we had to use to cook at Badlands, since there were no campfires allowed due to the risk of prairie fires. It took a while to cook a single egg, but it was effective.

After seeing I-90 and the Badlands Loop Road, I thought it would be best to drive to Rapid City via SD-44 so we could see the other side of the Badlands. Few likely see this area, since it is a much less popular part of the park. This was a great drive, which starts by going through the tiny little town of Interior, then passing through the town of Scenic, and finally to South Dakota’s second-largest city, Rapid City.

SD-44 straggles the border between Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland as it stretches West toward Scenic and Rapid City.

Black-footed ferrets, once extinct in South Dakota, prey almost exclusively on prairie dogs for food. They were reintroduced to the wild here in the 1990s, and as a result prairie dogs are protected in Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Most of the way was either within Badlands National Park or Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The road runs alongside an abandoned railroad line where small wooden trestles still cross creeks, just without the rails. There were also plenty of pulloffs where you could drive into the grassland on dirt roads. Signs said that this was a management area for the black-footed ferret, which was thought extinct in the late 1970s. A few years later they were spotted again in Wyoming, and eventually reintroduced in areas such as this one. For the majority of the route we could see badlands going on for miles and miles and miles.

The railroad line crossing all of the creeks just a few feet above was odd to me. The fact that the creeks had grass all the way down to the water along their entire banks was strange to me too. Back East, the railroads are built far above floodplains, and there are trees and underbrush all around creeks and rivers, and pretty much just mud on the dropoff into the creek. The rolling hills and twisting and turning railroad bed conjured up all sorts of westerns and cartoons I’d seen all my life with scenery like this. When we entered into Black Hills country, it especially felt like I was living in an old western movie, except that technology and the 20th Century had happened and it was a little different now. It was strikingly beautiful country, and a lot of the things I’d seen in stuff set in the Old West started to make sense. I could imagine riding a galloping horse through this valley and on up into Rapid City with the rolling prairie on either side of me, and with the first pines appearing in the Black Hills.

Writing the Itinerary As We Go…

Now today had me a bit nervous…up to this point, we had all of our accommodations planned and/or reserved well before we left, except for the motel in Wisconsin. I had also managed to score three nights worth of campsites in Yellowstone online the day we left, and after that nothing was reservable anyway. The one and only night I hadn’t planned out was tonight…I figured on getting a campground as close as possible to Mount Rushmore. I thought it would be good to be able to capture it at sunrise in case sunset didn’t work out, plus it would eliminate any extra driving at the end of the night and hopefully we’d be able to relax. Unfortunately, there were zillions of campgrounds in the area and I had no opportunity to research many of them. The ones I did check were all super-expensive, as in might-as-well-get-a-motel expensive.

When we got cell service back again and I could check the forecast, the potential rain and the possibility of having another repeat of DeSmet weather settled it! I Googled around and found a motel—the M Star Rapid City. It was the cheapest thing I could get, and it was close to I-90, so I jumped on it. That was settled!

Now it was time to decide which destination to hit first…there were two on our itinerary. I’d originally planned on going to Wind Cave National Park first thing, then heading to Mount Rushmore by way of the Iron Mountain Road and seeing Rushmore closer to sunset. This would give me the opportunity to photograph the sculpture both in the Golden Hour and after dark when it’s all lit up. It was still partly to mostly cloudy, but the forecast called for overcast and possibly rain in the evening. This significantly reduced the probability of getting any interesting shadows or blue sky—and it shouldn’t matter what the weather outside is to tour inside a cave—so we elected to hit Rushmore first after we grabbed lunch.

We got a bit of rain between Rapid City and Keystone. I’d never seen a freeway interchange with wood-framed overpasses like this one at the junction of US-16 and US-16A!

The drive out of Rapid City and deep into the Black Hills was peppered with many and varied tourist traps. Several were totally designed to grab an eight-year-old’s attention so that they would pressure their parents to visit. I still have to admit, a few were tempting to check out.

Right before Mount Rushmore, you go through the town of Keystone, which seemed to have more hotels than residents. Again, there were many and varied tourist attractions, several of which were themed around the presidents and their history. We stopped at the Grizzly Creek Restaurant to try their burgers. I went for the bourbon burger and Becky had the buffalo burger. They were tasty and hearty, but not remarkable for the price. They have ten beers on tap, two or three of which were the standard Miller and Budweiser choices, while the rest were all local microbrews. We still had a lot ahead of us for the day, so I decided not to have anything after I tasted a sample of the only beer that really sounded good to me—which was a wheat beer that tasted too hoppy for my liking.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The clouds were just beginning to subside as we caught our first sight of Mount Rushmore from SD-244.

Mount Rushmore was a busy place, probably the busiest we’d seen so far on this trip. It was nowhere near congested though, especially compared with just about any of the major tourist attractions in California. As you drive up on SD-244 to the monument, you actually catch your first site of it, which is pretty striking. At the entrance are ticket gates where you have to pay to park in the massive deck they built back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Annual Pass we just bought at Badlands doesn’t apply here, as a separate organization operates the parking deck. Finding parking was not too difficult, and neither was making our way up to the monument.

Mount Rushmore towers over the grand entrance to the memorial from the parking decks.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 6 – The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore & Wind Cave

RealImaginaryWest Day 5 – The Good & Badlands of South Dakota

We drove through drizzly conditions from De Smet to Mitchell in Eastern South Dakota, and then traversed most of the state on I-90 to Badlands National Park and Wall.

Last Stop with Laura

So, after another violent Great Plains storm (albeit in much more secure conditions) and our car already packed, we emerged from our covered wagon to much cooler but drizzly weather. The misty haze was not looking good for my photographic aspirations today! The forecast showed the rain holding on for just a little longer in De Smet, and that there would be a general clearing trend where the sun might come out and burn off the fog.  Becky and I each got showers this morning, since it would have more long-lasting effects than if we’d showered the night before with the 85-90 degree heat and humidity. The humidity in South Dakota was nowhere near as high as what we had experienced before we left Ohio, but it was enough to make you move a lot slower so you didn’t overexert yourself in the heat.  Now that the temperature had dropped to 65-70 degrees, everything except the haze was peachy.

We got a fairly early start, getting out of the Ingalls Homestead around 8am. We headed into De Smet and to the local coffee shop, Ward’s Store.  Interestingly enough, this was the site of Charles Ingalls’ store, and in the original building that rose in its place after he sold it and moved out to his homestead.  Becky was really glad to have gotten coffee here, since now she’s been to every place where Laura lived in De Smet.

We then continued south on SD-25, making our way down to Mitchell, which is only about an hour away. We planned to see the famous Corn Palace, and I hoped to score a quick breakfast.  Ever since we’d left De Smet, it had been horribly foggy, drizzly, and hazy.  The rain had let up completely by the time we’d reached Mitchell, but the fog lingered.

The World’s Only Corn Palace

A look south down Main Street in Downtown Mitchell

We got breakfast at a hip restaurant called Cafe Teresa. The place seemed to be loaded with college students, who I’m assuming were from Dakota Wesleyan University. It was easy to overhear bits of conversations about finals, classes, and professors. Becky and I both ordered eggs and toast, which hit the spot..and so off we went to see the Corn Palace.

The Corn Palace wasn’t quite itself on the day we visited… This made us sad. 🙁

It was still way cool to see the corn murals though! 😀

The Corn Palace is the main tourist draw in Mitchell, which has about 15,000 residents and a rather quaint and decidedly Western downtown. The building is decorated on its exterior by thousands or maybe millions of ears of corn, color coordinated to depict western scenes of cowboys, buffalo, stagecoaches, and Indians on the front and sides of the building. Unfortunately, it took us a bit to make sure we had actually found it because it looked much less flamboyant than the pictures we’d seen. Apparently they were in the process of replacing the domes on top and had run into a delay because the new domes weren’t strong enough to hold up to South Dakota’s wind (which Becky and I have noticed is quite substantial).  Also, it appeared that they were updating parts of the building’s exterior, which they do every year anyway because it’s probably a good idea to slap a fresh coat of corn on the building to keep it from peeling.

So it’s that kind of palace!

Becky and I proceeded inside “The World’s Only Corn Palace”, hoping for a more satiating indoor experience. There were lots of exhibits inside about corn, the history of the Corn Palace (reaching way back into the 1890s), and then there were doors…turns out through the doors you could see that the Corn Palace had a lot in common with San Francisco’s Cow Palace and the Detroit Area’s Palace of Auburn Hills—for it was a small basketball arena where a giant souvenir and gift shop had been set up.  I didn’t figure it for an opera house, but I have to admit that without having done any research that in the back of my mind when I saw the general shape and size of the building, I wondered if in fact this was a basketball arena.

It seemed like a very nice place to see a game. It was likely that it hosted games for either the Dakota Wesleyan University or the local high schools.  But either way, the clock was ticking and we had to move on to Badlands National Park, which was about 3 hours away on I-90.

You GOTTA SEE South Dakota!



A VERY small sample of the gimmicky advertising…I regret that I did not capture more of these sorts of things!

I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize South Dakota for a couple of things. First, Mitchell was my first indication that South Dakota really was a great place to analyze advertising gimmicks, because between what we saw here and what we saw later that day in Wall, it was readily apparent that South Dakota took the art of a tourist trap to a refined art form!  There were signs and buildings and old trucks and cars and dinosaurs in front of billboards all along the interstate that really were sights in their own right and really made it tempting to stop a lot along the freeway and check this stuff out.

No, your eyes do not deceive—the speed limit really is 80mph!

Second, the speed limits in South Dakota often seemed to actually make sense!  In Minnesota and most other states, you drove 55mph, maybe 60 if you were lucky in remote two-lane state highways—we hit the SD state line, and voila—65mph!  When we first got on I-90 in Mitchell, we had to check our eyes at first—”Speed Limit 80″—AWESOME! So thank you, South Dakota, for admitting that you might as well be able to drive fast on the roads here because there are so very few cars, the visibility is great, and it takes so very long to reach someplace.

Another reflection I have to make about South Dakota is that I didn’t expect it to have so many trees—in fact, I didn’t expect it to have any at all without at least a creek nearby, since it is in the Great Plains—and the Great Plains is a great big huge prairie that just doesn’t have the rainfall to really grow trees.  Apparently the main reason why there are so many trees is because of the Homestead Act, which allowed you to earn your 160 acres of land through growing enough trees on your claim…and probably because people who aren’t used to vast open grasslands prefer to have lots of trees to break up the scenery (and did we mention wind?). Personally, I’m all about diversity and history, so I was excited at the prospect of seeing a land that was just covered with prairie and all the things that come with it!  I also think a giant prairie sounds awesome for just grazing cattle, which we saw a lot of actually. Black Angus cows were everywhere, and lots of pieces of property up in the northern part of the state had lakes and sloughs where the cows often congregated to play in the water and drink as well as graze.  As we pushed farther west from Mitchell, we started to see a lot more of the open prairie I expected and we got to see fewer trees if any at all.

The Great Plains Are Not Flat

One big misnomer about the Great Plains is that it is all flat. That may be true in places like Illinois or Kansas, but it is most definitely not the case in Minnesota or South Dakota where rolling hills are pretty much the rule.

There are even deep valleys, especially along I-90, with the biggest valley being the Missouri River, which runs right through the state. It was unfortunately extremely foggy when we crossed it, but it was still a site to behold!  It seriously was more like crossing an expansive lake than crossing a river, and was actually much much bigger in person!  If they had called it part of the Mississippi instead of naming it a whole other river, the Missouri-Mississippi River would be among the longest in the world, and from what we saw, it had enough water to prove it!

Crossing the Missouri River on I-90. Sorry for how hard it is to see anything, but it was actually so foggy that we could see even less in person! I cranked the Dehaze on Adobe Lightroom up to +75 for this one (no joke)!

Crossing the Missouri was significant for another reason too—prairie dogs—of which we had seen none so far along the entire prairie we had crossed. I asked someone about that in De Smet, and was told that all the prairie dogs were located on the other side of the Missouri River.  The locals here hate them, because as this gentleman said, prairie dogs with their burrowing “just destroy the land”.  We were still looking forward to seeing some though, as they are an animal unique to the American West.

Another feature I noticed were steep escarpments to the south along the freeway, and sometimes there would be giant protruding chunks of land in the middle of the prairie. We were pushing closer to the Badlands, and so it seemed there were small little badlands appearing more frequently in the distance to our south along the freeway.

When we got on I-90, I told Becky to let me know if she wanted me to drive, since we’re about to get on a long stretch of mostly straight freeway where highway hypnosis can set in. About an hour or so away from Badlands, Becky said she was starting to have trouble, so I had her pull off a few exits down the road so I could finish my last blog entry.  It was my first taste of legally zipping along at 80mph, on a freeway in the middle of the open prairie.

Who knew crap like this would be in such demand?

We were just a few miles away from our exit for Badlands National Park on I-90 where we pulled off the freeway at a scenic overlook. As we headed up the hill to take in the view of the expansive prairie all around us and the Badlands in the distance to the Southwest, two people seemed engrossed in some sort of spectacle taking place on the ground.  When we got close enough, you could see two little pieces of poop rolling up the hill being pushed by little dung beetles who were happy to have scored dinner!

Overlooking I-90 from the scenic overlook at Buffalo Gap National Grassland, just a few miles east of the exit for Badlands National Park

Entering Badlands National Park

So many peaks…each unique…

Unlike many national parks, you can go off-trail and climb on the rocks…so your photo-op creativity is really only limited by your command of gravity!

We pressed on into Badlands National Park, a place where neither of us had ever been, and our first national park of the trip.  On the map it looked as if you got off the freeway and BOOM there’s the Badlands. Reality however, was that it was still nearly ten miles until we reached the park entrance.  Since we planned on visiting four national parks with entrance fees on this trip alone, we ended up purchasing an annual pass for $80. The total for entering each of these with just an individual park pass would be $105, so I recommend the annual pass if you plan a trip like this, at it saves you a substantial amount of money!

Entering the Badlands was like entering another world!  You’re on the prairie and then there are sharp layered outcroppings of rock that look like teeth made of mud sticking straight out of the ground.  Some were as tall as a person, and some were hundreds of feet high, while plenty of others were in between. Cedar Pass was positively awesome, where the road descends at least a couple hundred feet down an escarpment that revealed how big these Badlands really were when you could see them from the south.  It was almost like going down a great big step over a monster’s bottom teeth and into its mouth.

Overlooking the lodge and visitor center from Cedar Pass

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 5 – The Good & Badlands of South Dakota