We decided to take a road trip to Yellowstone. It wasn't quite as spontaneous as all that. It was a trip in the making for several months. Since I had just graduated pharmacy school this seemed to be the perfect time to go before I started a new job. Rob had very limited time off, so we figured the best approach would be to rent a car, drive to Wyoming, and then catch a flight home. We loosely planned the trip but didn't have any hard goals other than the flight home. We picked up the rental car in Beverly, MA on Friday. Originally we had reserved a compact car in order to get good gas mileage. When we arrived at the rental car company we were informed that they were out of compact cars but we got a free "upgrade" to a Chevy Malibu. We weren't thrilled about the increased fuel cost we would surely incur, but we hoped the extra interior space would be nice. It was Memorial Day weekend so we wanted to get out of the greater Boston area as quickly as possible to avoid traffic.
We got the car packed and set out on the road around noon. Other than a few pee-stops and to stretch our legs, our first lengthy stop was at Niagara Falls, on the U.S. side. Neither of us had been to the falls before but we both had grand expectations. I expected the falls to be much taller. It’s width is pretty impressive, however. The park surrounding the falls was a great area to spend a couple hours wandering on foot. We even got to see some fireworks, which was a nice surprise!
After leaving Niagara Falls in the late evening, we fit in a few more hours of driving. Eventually, we stopped somewhere at a gas station in Pennsylvania to catch some sleep in the car in the parking lot. The Malibu seats were extremely uncomfortable for sleeping, but we got about 4 hours of shut-eye. Unable to feign sleep for one more minute, we decided to push on. We were lucky to catch a fantastic sunrise over Lake Erie near Cleveland.
The journey continued on I-90W through Ohio and Indiana. We were approaching Chicago near lunch time. We were getting hungry. We had heard that Chicago has great pizza, so we thought we would try to find some. Not really knowing where to stop we decided to just get off the highway and wing it. We saw signs for a college and knew there had to be pizza nearby. Success! There were people inside and it was around noon, but when we walked in they told us they didn't open until 2pm. We were so confused and now flirting with hangry. Really, we just wanted to get some food and get back on the road. To our surprise, there were no other pizza joints to be found nearby, so we decided on a sandwich shop that appeared local. We walked in and ordered some sandwiches. This is the moment we realized that Jimmy Johns is a chain restaurant we’d both never heard of. We left Chicago feeling underwhelmed by the food experience. We had higher hopes, but we know it was our own lack of planning that caused it.
As we continued through what was left of Illinois, we passed the Belvidere assembly plant. We felt bad we hadn't anticipated this, but fortunately, it seems they don't offer tours, so we didn't miss out! But at the time, we were intrigued, and it was too late to stop in. So, we made our way through Wisconsin. We got dinner in La Crosse on the Mississippi River. We walked around a bit to stretch the legs and happened upon a neighborhood of floating houses. Boat houses, but not house boats. We were perplexed, because it appeared that some of the houses had bicycles on their decks and cars parked nearby but we couldn't figure out how they got there. Some of the cars were pretty deep in the water and there were no signs of any roads or driveways.
We got back on the route and called ahead to Palisades State Park in Garretson, SD to secure a campsite for the night. We were excited to set up camp and not sleep in the car again. But we still had to make it through all of Minnesota! We were doing our best to make good time as we had to get to the state park before they closed the gate for the night. It was here in Minnesota that we had a run-in with the police. Rob was driving over the speed limit to make time and we got pulled over. Oops. I gave him a quick heads up about the Minnesota accent before the cop approached the vehicle as Rob had never heard it before. It was a hilarious surprise! The cop was very nice; he even apologized because he "had to give me a ticket". Then he told me where I might look out for his colleagues.
We finally made it to the state park and pitched the tent. Immediately after we got the tent set up, it started to rain. The thunder and lightning might have been the most intense either of us had ever witnessed. It was tough to fall asleep but we did end up getting a good night's sleep and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to explore.
We wandered around the state park for a little bit in the morning and grabbed some pictures. We hopped back on I-90W and headed for the badlands of SD. I LOVED the red dirt roads throughout South Dakota. We decided to venture away from I-90 for a bit when we reached the Badlands. We followed US240 through the park and enjoyed the change of scenery from the rest of the drive. We had ample opportunity to get out and explore, snap some pictures, and even play a game of Frisbee. We rejoined I-90W in Wall, SD. We had covered so much distance the day before so we felt like we had plenty of time for adventures in this area. Being so close to Mount Rushmore, we couldn’t just drive through without stopping so we made our way down to Keystone. When we actually got to Mount Rushmore, we realized they wanted to charge us a fee just to park at the monument. But we could see Mount Rushmore from the road, so we called it good enough and didn’t feel like parking would get us significantly better views. I guess we did drive through without stopping! We stopped in Keystone though and that seemed like a pretty neat town.
Our plan for the night was to get a campsite at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. As we made our way there, a rainstorm blew through the area, and as we arrived we could just see it on the horizon, moving away. We got an amazing campsite near the base of the tower. We were so excited to get another good night’s sleep in a dry tent. At some point in the night though, the wind picked up. The tent was caving in. We pushed it back out and it was fine for a few minutes. But then it happened again. There was intense thunder and lightning. I’m not going to lie, I was terrified we were going to blow away with the tent. I’ve never camped with that much wind before! I convinced Rob that we should sleep in the car again. (It didn't take much!) We quickly put our gear in the trunk while we were getting pelted with rain from the torrential downpour. The tent didn’t seem safe to leave set-up but it was also soaking wet so we just took it down and shoved it under the car to “protect” it. In hindsight, this is probably not the best treatment for a tent, but in the end it was fine. So we had another night of restless sleep in the car. The morning was beautiful when we woke up though. And the tower is way cooler than Mount Rushmore, definitely worth a stop if you’re ever in the area.
We were prepared for the "last stretch" of driving. Not actually the end, but the last major leg that we intended to do in one day. We left Devil’s Tower and made our way towards Bozeman to meet my friend Kelly. She was attending grad school at Montana State University. I met her in 2009 while were both doing research projects there because we’re nerdy like that. I was so excited to be in Bozeman again and to experience it with Rob. We got to Bozeman around noon and met Kelly for lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill. The bison burgers there were amazing! It felt great that we had completed the majority of our drive. From here on out we could take a more leisurely pace. We enjoyed the day with Kelly and some of her friends and did a small hike on the outskirts of town. We spent the rest of the day hanging out. We were planning to sleep in the tent on the lawn but decided to crash inside instead. It was nice to sleep in a bed and get a free shower. THANKS KELLY!!
The next morning we headed into Yellowstone through Gardiner, MT. We checked out Mammoth hot springs and wandered around a bit on foot. We stopped at the office and reserved a back country site for the next night. We had to watch a bear safety video first. After reserving our site we explored some more. There was a family of elk that had made their home in Mammoth, on the lawn outside the back country office. It was fun to watch them. I had been to Yellowstone before when it was much more crowded. We were there at the start of the tourist season this time, but the crowds get bigger as the summer goes on.
We grabbed a campsite at Norris for the night. We were planning to make our dinner on the campfire but the wood was wet and we were hungry so we decided to go for a drive. We figured we would feed our hungry bellies at one of the restaurants in the park near Old Faithful. After dinner, we stepped outside and watched Old Faithful erupt. It’s pretty incredible to see in person how high the geyser can shoot. We made our way back to Norris for some sleep before our activities the next day.
We started the morning by visiting the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never been to the “actual” Grand Canyon. I have! I love the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone because of how it shimmers. It’s just so pretty. After taking several pictures we drove to the trailhead for our back country adventure. We started our 5-mile hike in to our campsite on the Hellroaring Creek trail. This was a beautiful hike. I’m not really one for hiking up mountains, so this hike was more my pace than others I have done. It was mostly flat with some minor elevation changes.
I started to get tired throughout the hike, though. Neither of us were used to backpacking and carrying ALL of our gear. The weather held off pretty well but my feet did manage to get wet. We found our site with no problem and set up camp and secured our bags over the bear pole. Of course, as soon as we got everything set up it started to rain. We relaxed in the tent and decided that an early night to bed wouldn’t hurt.
The hike out in the morning was more brutal than on the way in due to it being uphill most of the way. Those minor elevation changes were okay the day before because they were mostly downhill. I was definitely slowing down towards the end of the hike on the way back out. I had to offer some motivational speeches to keep her going. We followed a deer for quite a while on the hike back out; he seemed to be leading us back towards the road. This was such an awesome brush with nature and it really highlighted for us how far we were from home. Overall, we both loved the back country adventure and it was probably our favorite experience in Yellowstone. The hike was beautiful and it gave us an opportunity to explore some of the park without the masses of crowds. Really without any other people at all. It was just us and the wildlife.
We had plans to head out of the park to Gardiner the next day. Kelly was planning to meet us again there along with our friend Harrison who we had also met during our summer doing research. It was nice to catch up with them again and spend more time with them while we were in the area. We met for lunch and played a couple games of pool.
After lunch with Kelly and Harrison it was time to part ways again for the last time on this trip. We headed back into the park and wound up near Yellowstone Lake. We stayed at Bridge Bay campground which was very different than being in the back country. It seemed that they had a lot of campground rules. Do this. Don't do that. But, we FINALLY got dry weather and a clear night sky which made for some excellent stargazing.
We departed the next morning. Our last day in Yellowstone. We enjoyed a leisurely drive through Grand Teton National Park and were mesmerized at the enormous size of the mountains. They truly are majestic. We were also relieved to find amazing weather in this area! It was 80 and sunny. A nice change from the cool, misty weather we had been experiencing. We made it to Jackson for lunch and explored the town center on foot. Obviously, we had to get photos with the antler arches.
The campsite of the night was at Curtis Canyon Campground. This campsite was phenomenal. By far, the best one of the trip. It was up on a hillside overlooking Jackson Hole with the Tetons in the background. We spent some time in a field there watching the sunset behind the Tetons. Some locals paraglided down from higher on the hilltops behind us. A few landed right next to us. Later that night we went out to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar for some drinks and food. This bar was very cool and we had a blast watching the locals dance. I think I would be content to spend some more time in Jackson.
The next morning we packed our things and made our way over to Mormon Row. The views were amazing and we got some great shots of some barns there with the Tetons in the background. We continued on our journey to Riverton, WY. This was a very small town but we got a “family” discount on the rental car and apparently that means you can only rent/return the car at corporate locations. Riverton was the closest we could find to Jackson. We stayed at a hotel here (and showered!) and visited a fair that night before catching a flight out the next morning.
Our flight from Riverton to Denver was tiny. I think there were twenty people on the plane. Unfortunately, one leg of our connections (LaGuardia to Manchester, NH) was cancelled. So we got rerouted to Atlanta and upgraded to first class! We enjoyed the free alcoholic beverages and the comfy seats. We finally made it to New Hampshire around midnight but our bags were nowhere to be found. Apparently they didn’t get rerouted to Atlanta like we did. No big deal. We made it home and climbed into our nice, big, comfy bed and slept like babies. Without the pooping and crying. And our bags finally showed up a few days later.