Our Grand Road Trip: National Parks (and more)

In my previous blog posts about our big road trip last fall (start here to catch up), I focused mainly on the unexpected things that happened-. They came upon us with such frequency and regularity that they became the grand theme of our grand trip. But—and this is a big but—we’d incorporated a lot of standard vacationey activities into our travels, and they were grand, too.

We visited four national parks and found ourselves in the midst of several national forests and other national landmarks, especially fitting since 2016 was the 150th anniversary of the National Park System. Each one was spectacular and not one of our visits was long enough to properly take in the splendor. Even so, we were fully engulfed in the joy of the experience, and now we know where we want to spend more time in the future.

I’ve already written about—and posted lots of photos of—The  Badlands. Our reluctance at leaving there was matched only by our anticipation of visiting The Black Hills National Forest, just a couple of hours away. The Black Hills are full of tourist opportunities, including Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. Unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out a way to make room in our tight schedule for either of those sites. (But as I’ve written before, we’ll be back!)

Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is clearly the most iconic and recognizable tourist site in the the Black Hills. Its size alone is dramatic. The mountain’s presidential stone-carved faces can be seen from miles away and from many different perspectives, but to really get a sense of the size of the thing, you may want to visit the memorial itself, which also has a number of ranger talks. Entry and ranger talks are free, but there’s a $10 parking fee ($5 for seniors).


From a distance




One of the most striking views of Mt. Rushmore came unexpectedly as we were emerging from one of these wee tunnels, the edges of the tunnel acting as a frame for a magnificent portrait.

The forest shares a border with Custer State Park, a unique experience all its own. It’s a fairly long drive from Keystone, the nearest town, to get to the park. Though the scenery along the way is fantastic, the park proper is where the fun really begins. Next time, we’ll plan on renting a cabin inside the park boundaries—and taking all our food and necessary supplies. That way we won’t waste precious time getting to and from. In the park is the eighteen-mile Wildlife Loop Road you can drive in hopes of close-up encounters with wildlife like bison, donkeys, prairie dogs, and big horned sheep, as well as the the fourteen-mile Needles Highway. I promise, you don’t want to miss either of these spectacular drives.

Between the Badlands and the Black Hills, there’s enough to keep you gobsmacked for a full two-week vacation, even without stopping at the many commercial tourist attractions along the way, though you can certainly check those out, too.

(You can see more Black Hills and Custer pictures here.

Our next National Park visit was to Glacier. We were so busy taking pictures of gorgeous scenery along the way that all we had time for once we were in the park was the two-hour drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan’s Pass (6646 ft.) and back down again. Better go soon if you want to see any glaciers. They’re melting fast. The 150 glaciers that inhabited the park in 1850 have now shrunk to a mere 25, and all of those are slated to disappear in the next few decades. The park will have to be renamed, perhaps to Glacier Memorial National Park in honor of the glaciers that once were.

Our first peek at a Glacier NP peak

What an engineering feat it must have been to build the fifty-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road in the early 1900s.

We traveled through a portion of the Grand Tetons on our way to Yellowstone. It was a cloudy, foggy, misty day so the view was a little different than it would be on sunny days, but still stunning in its own way.

We were welcomed to Wyoming with this billboard and vistas of Grand Teton NP.

We didn’t get to see much of the Grand Teton mountain or her two sister peaks on this cloudy day. Controversy surrounds their naming. By far the most colorful explanation is that early French Canadian explorers from the Northwest Company, upon seeing the three peaks of the range, called them “Les Trois Tetons,” or “The Three Breasts.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t long to visit Yellowstone National Park. Back in the sixth grade, when one of my schoolmates returned from summer vacation bragging about her Yellowstone trip, I was too jealous for words. So no way were we traveling to Montana and Wyoming and miss out on my big dream.

Yellowstone. Yes, we knew it was big. But you cannot begin to comprehend its size until you’re right there in the thick of it. To put things in perspective, a friend told me that after her family had entered the park, it was another fifty miles to their campsite. You could spend weeks in Yellowstone and not begin to see it all. (And we just had an afternoon!)

It took us a while to figure out that all those white wisps we were seeing off in the distance weren’t fog, but geysers. I’d forgotten that Old Faithful wasn’t the only one. There are actually 500 geysers and 10,000 thermal features in all. In other words, they’re everywhere!

A cluster of steamy spots

We arrived at Old Faithful just as its display was ending. That was a good thing—the wait for the next show meant we could stroll the boardwalk and see many more geysers as well as mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs. We might have passed them up otherwise, and that would have been a real shame.

No, this isn’t Old Faithful, but Beehive Geyser, which shoots steam 200 feet into the air, more than 50 feet higher than its more famous sibling’s average. We lucked out—it can be days between eruptions.

One of Yellowstone’s 300 waterfalls

There are nine lakes in the park. At 136 square miles, Yellowstone Lake is the largest.

Our national parks, forests, monuments, memorials, trails, historic sites, and landmarks are indeed treasures. They are our heritage and our future. It takes only a visit to understand beyond measure that we must preserve and protect them for all to enjoy—today and all our tomorrows.



Our Grand Road Trip, Part 4: Colorado to Arkansas

Our Grand Road Trip, Part 4: Colorado to Arkansas

I’m not sure our hearts could have taken much more of Wyoming’s wild wonders, so it’s a good thing our next day’s travel took us to Colorado, where we were greeted with this sign:

I think maybe it’s a double entendre.

We’d spent a little time in Denver before, so this time we only drove through on our way to Pueblo. I’d had my heart set on seeing Pueblo for one reason: the Arkansas River. I knew we’d be crossing that river later in the state where you’d expect it to be—Arkansas—and it seemed so right to see it here in Colorado, too, on the very same trip. (It doesn’t take much to make me happy.) As soon as we checked in to our airbnb, we headed downtown to Pueblo’s Historic Arkansas Riverwalk. I’m glad we did.

The 32-acre waterfront area is sophisticated, yet welcoming. It’s artistic and calming. Just the place for a late afternoon stroll.

The next day we made it to Taos, New Mexico. Along the way, we were stunned by the sight of Blanca Peak. Here we were at a flat-as-could-be 7,000′ elevation, and almost right next to us, soaring out of  the earth like a phoenix, was this mountain that rose to another 7,000+ feet. Just like its name, it was white. We were mesmerized. And we may well have missed it had we not missed our turn. More serendipity.

While we were admiring the majestic mountain, this incredibly beautiful magpie gave us an audience. Magpies had been flirting with us since South Dakota, but were never still long enough for us to get a good look at their striking iridescence. We don’t have magpies at home and we reveled in the opportunity to observe one up close.We stayed just outside of Taos in another airbnb, appropriately enough a casita. It would have been an ideal place to chill out for a few days with a good book and a few glasses of our favorite beverage had we not wanted to see what Taos had to offer.Courtesy of our airbnb host, we were in for another bit of serendipity (by this time, we were almost expecting such moments)—the Rio Grande River and Gorge. We had no idea the Rio Grande was this far north. It was an awesome sight.

A chilling one, too.

Ten of these call boxes were situated strategically along the length of the bridge.

And then this happened: a couple approached us to take their picture. Turns out this is where he’d proposed a year ago, shortly before she was in a serious accident causing a brain injury and memory loss. They were on a mission to relive and record those lost moments. We clicked the camera’s button as he knelt on one knee above that vast canyon. They were deliriously happy. After we’d walked off the bridge to get a view of it from some distance away, we could still hear her laughter. Lots of warm fuzzies that day.

We knew Taos began life as an artists’ colony and remains a haven for artists, but we were surprised to discover how tiny it is. With a population of 5716, it’s even smaller than Douglas, WY, where we’d been just two days before. Naturally, the shops are heavily focused on art, and outdoor sculptures are common. But in my view, Taos’ best feature is its architecture. A big fan of Pueblo/Spanish/Mission architecture, I was excited to see so much of it.  It must be a challenge for local leaders to hold true to the town’s origins and avoid turning it into a garish strip, like some places I know. They even have an ordinance to protect the night sky. Good for them.

The post office is adobe, banks and grocery stores are adobe, the churches are adobe.

Even McDonald’s is adobe.

We left Taos and New Mexico for the panhandle of Texas and a little stretch of Route 66. I’m a child of the ’60s and a fan of that decade’s TV series featuring the iconic highway, so I had to get me some Route 66 kicks!

Old Route 66, what little there remains of it, is filled with all sorts of quirky kitschiness. Our destination was Cadillac Ranch, just outside of Amarillo. What a hoot!

We especially liked this:As we left Cadillac Ranch, we decided to travel a few miles farther on Route 66. For the most part desolated and decaying, it still has a few unexpected treats, one of which is the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, TX. We had a little time; we decided to stop. As we walked up the steps, a woman leaving looked at us and said, “It’s surprisingly interesting.” She was right. The museum (free, by the way) features collections from barbed wire collectors (yes, that’s a thing all across the country, as well as everything related to barbed wire—tools, salesman samples, sculpture, and a library filled with patent information.

In addition, the museum displays Route 66 memorabilia,

Who’s old enough to remember these?

and it contains a poignant Dust Bowl photo exhibit. It’s worth a stop. Really.

In Oklahoma, we stopped in Elk City to visit a superb museum complex: a Blacksmith Museum, the Old Town Museum, the National Route 66 Museum,

and the Farm and Ranch Museum. All for one low price—just $5.00 for adults. Well worth it.

This exhibit put me in mind of my father’s boyhood. His father’s too. (You can read all about it in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.

After twenty-some days on the road  and home getting closer with every mile, it was hard to think of the remainder of our trip as anything more than the fastest way to get home. We still had three days to go, though, and we wanted to make the best of it. We’d planned one last big stop: Little Rock, Arkansas. After all, we had to get another look at the Arkansas River.

And we got to visit our first Presidential Library. The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum kept us fascinated for hours. We decided it would be a good idea to visit as many of these libraries (all privately funded, by the way) as possible. Apparently, lots of people do that; the gift shop sold “passports” with space for stamps from each library one visits.

We zipped through Tennessee. Though there are lots of things we’ve not yet seen and done in our neighboring state, it’s just a border away and easy enough to visit another time. As the landscape grew more familiar, we became even more anxious to get home, to see how our garden had fared during our absence. Surprisingly well, it turned out. We still had crops to harvest.

We learned so much on our big fall adventure. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all was that serendipity is what it’s all about. My advice? Give yourself some extra time and space when you travel. Keep your eyes open. Look for the little things, the unexpected. You never know what surprises will be waiting. Savor it all.

(Want to read about our road trip from the beginning? Start here. And stay tuned for episodes detailing our time in National Parks and more.