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 Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho

In my last travel blog post, we traveled to Louisville, through Illinois, across Minnesota and into South Dakota’s Badlands. Today we’ll visit more of South Dakota and three states farther west.

Here’s where our journey started to take a serendipitous turn. Over and over we found ourselves in the midst of something unexpected. And that unexpectedness never failed to wow us. Just the idea of falling into so much amazingness almost entirely by accident was enough to take our breath away.

We’d almost become inured to the massive fields of corn and soybeans when we spotted something a little different. Ever wondered where all the sunflower seed you buy for your songbirds comes from? Well, we found out. They were well past flowering—wouldn’t that have been something to see—but the seeds were still busy preparing for their destiny.


As far as the eye can see and then some

On our way across South Dakota we pulled in at a rest area that turned into a happy surprise. How many rest stops do you know that house a museum? Yeah, that’s what I thought. But just off Interstate 90 near Chamberlain, that’s exactly what we found with the Lewis and Clark Interpretive and Keelboat Center. We were excited to be standing on ground where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery explorers set up camp. They picked quite the spot—a bucolic bluff overlooking the scenic Missouri River. (We’d soon discover that much of our journey passed along the Lewis and Clark Trail—another unexpected treat.)

That was only the beginning of the excitement we felt at this rest area. Just days before our arrival, the fifty-foot tall, stainless steel sculpture named Dignity had been installed. Dignity, with outstretched arms holding a multi-hued blue-star quilt, was designed by South Dakota artist Dale Lamphere to honor the culture of the state’s indigenous Lakota and Dakota peoples. He used several Lakota models from fourteen to fifty-five years of age to give the statue a universal feel.

She was magnificent!

Gives me chills, even now

This was a stop we had not planned, knew nothing about. We certainly didn’t anticipate spending well over an hour there, but it was worth a late arrival in the Black Hills that evening to experience this moment.

Then came the pronghorn antelopes. They appeared from nowhere, then they were everywhere, sometimes outnumbering the cattle whose pastures they shared with apparent impunity—a real peaceable kingdom. I couldn’t get enough of them: their stature, their gracefulness, their markings.

Where the antelope play

DSCF1738 - CopyWe really didn’t know what to expect in the Black Hills, other than that we’d see Mount Rushmore and hopefully a few bison or other wildlife blocking our path somewhere or other. Were we ever in for a treat! Driving the Loop Road in Custer State Park, not only did we get close-up (as close as is safe) views of the bison; we got real up close and personal with some pretty brazen donkeys.

Where the buffalo roam

I thought they looked like a bunch of teenage hoodlums up to no good or maybe a gang of gunslingers itching for a fight.

The Gnome makes a friend. (But this guy would be happier if that hand held an apple!)

It was the many unusual and massive rock formations, though, that captured our imagination. Sort of like finding cloud pictures in the sky. We’re definitely returning for a longer stay, probably right smack in Custer State Park. What do you see in these images?

As we crossed into Montana, we understood the state’s Big Sky moniker (though South Dakota and Minnesota could vie for that title as well, in my book). We couldn’t pass up a day trip to Glacier National Park where we went up, up, up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. How romantic a name is that? And such an astonishing engineering feat, especially given that it was built in the early 20th century.

I really wish we could have spent more time in the park. Like so much else on this whirlwind trip, it only got a lick and a promise, but even that was pretty amazing. Yet, it was again the unexpected that really got to us. Driving to Glacier meant passing Flathead Lake in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation. With over 185 miles of shoreline, it’s huge! On the way up, we oohed and aahed over the lake’s crystal blue surface glistening in the sun. Our return coincided with twilight, giving us an equally dramatic perspective.

Leaving our final “cousin destination” in western Montana, we opted for a more southerly route home so we could see more new-to-us parts of the country—a very good idea, it turned out. One of the many unexpected and spectacular sights we encountered was Mt. Borah. Located in the Challis National Forest in eastern Custer County, Mt. Borah is Idaho’s highest mountain. Though it was only rainy down where we were, way up at 12, 667 feet above sea level, snow was beginning to cover the peaks.We stopped to learn about the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the mountain in 1983, raising the peak about a foot and lowering the valley floor by eight feet. We could even see the quake’s scar on the side of the mountain. (All very intriguing, but absolutely as close as I ever want to get to an earthquake!)

And then we came to Wyoming. Now, there’s a big state! And it graced us with so many unexpected wonders that it deserves an entry of its own.

Until next time . . .

The Grand Road Trip, Part I: Kentucky to South Dakota

The Grand Road Trip, Part I: Kentucky to South Dakota

The Gnome and I have never been big travelers. It’s not that we don’t enjoy seeing more of the world—it’s just that we’re always so busy with can’t-wait projects around here. (Not to mention the many years when money for travel was an extravagance we couldn’t consider.)

The past year has been a rare exception. Not only have we traveled more, but circumstances conspired in such a way that we took two major trips in just six months’ time. As I wrote here and here, we recently returned from visiting long-time friends in California. It was quite the trip. But last fall, we headed out on an even bigger journey, a 24-day road trip of more than 6,000 miles (and 4,000 photos—really!)—another long-promised trip both to ourselves and to close-in-heart but far flung cousins and other family.

That trip, too, took us through previously unexplored territory. On our travels, we wound through fifteen states, seven of them new to us. We got to spend time (oh, so little) in Glacier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Badlands National Parks and too many national forests to count.

Of course, the best parts of the trip were the good times we spent with our relatives—not to mention the gourmet meals they prepared for us! They treated us like royalty. But that was family time, private time, so it won’t get any further mention here. But the incredible scenery and the history we encountered along the way was pretty phenomenal too. That I do want to share with the world. And there was so much of it, I realize this story has to be serialized.

First things first. Our driving on Day One ended in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s where we moved following our wedding and honeymoon, and we stayed for twelve years. Both of our children were born there. Except for the humid summer heat, we loved everything about Louisville and nothing—except wanting a mountain home nearer our families could have driven us away.

It’s been years since we’d been back, and while much is the same, lots of changes have come to River City since we left, too. Sometimes it was hard to get our bearings, but we had to check out a few of our favorite old haunts. Our first home-of-our-own is still there (minus a couple of special dogwoods), but barely. A church parking lot expansion has taken all but a few houses on that block.We sat on the banks of the Ohio munching on Kingfish Restaurant’s onion rings while the Belle of Louisville graced us with her presence.And then there’s Plehn’s Bakery—A Louisville staple for almost a hundred years and one of our favorite weekend destinations back in the day. We couldn’t say goodbye to Louisville without dropping in for our favorite butter kuchen. I wish they shipped!

We didn’t have time to take in any of Louisville’s many tourist and cultural venues, but it’s chock full of them, from Churchill Downs to the Muhammed Ali Center to Actor’s Theatre. I highly recommend Louisville as a vacation destination. You’d never get bored.

Louisville already had a phenomenal park system (eighteen parks and six parkways designed by the father of American landscape design, Frederick Law Olmstead). Now, the city has added 85 acres of waterfront green space and walking paths. A great place for family frolicking. The mighty Ohio itself has become a haven for paddlers. We were delighted to discover that the old Big Four railroad bridge has been transformed into a walking bridge that will take you across the state line into Indiana. It’s clearly a popular walking and cycling spot. Lit up at night, it’s all about romance. We had a terrific view of the bridge from our riverside restaurant terrace. I could have stayed for hours.

Time has been good to Louisville.From Louisville we traveled across Indiana and up to northwestern Illinois. We know this route, but the dramatic change from flat plains to rolling hills always catches us off guard. When we visited the museum in charming Galena, we learned a little more about the landscape and its history. The Driftless, an area encompassing parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, escaped the flattening effect of glacial ice fields way back when. As a result, the region is graced with millions of bluffs and valleys with elevation changes of up to 1100 feet. Right in America’s heartland. Driving through the pastoral Driftless is not only beautiful, it’s calming. Good for what ails you.Something we hadn’t seen before in our travels through this area was the silver glint of massive wind farms. Wind turbines filled nearby fields and faded into the distance. Far too many to count. Farther than the eye could see. Watching the blades turn while listening to a classical piece on the car radio nearly put me into a hypnotic trance.DSCF1271Of course, we drove past miles and miles of corn. It was higher than the proverbial elephant’s eye. I wondered if any of it was being grown for human consumption.

Not a cloud in the sky

After a couple of days in southeastern Minnesota, we traveled across that state on our way to South Dakota and then Montana, passing even more massive wind farms and even more corn. I know people make jokes about how boring the flat landscape of the plains states is, but we found it to be soothing. Three (big) states’ worth of soothing. The thing is that with all that flatness—and fewer and fewer trees along the way—the sky seems to grow ever larger. So much space. So blue. So cloudless. Honestly, we hardly ever saw even the smallest trace of a cloud all the way across those three states.  And the landscape is ever-changing.  I was afraid to blink for fear of missing something. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to South Dakota—-we had only given ourselves a few hours to spend in the Badlands, but every minute was magnificent, and it took no time for us to know for certain that we’ll be coming back here for an extended stay. We could barely stand upright against the strong wind gusts, and the glaringly bright sun made it impossible to catch the nuanced but striking shades of color in the rock.

Looking out across the canyons and the vast expanse of land with buttes rising from the plains, we were transported to the movie and TV westerns of our youth, imagining the black-hatted bad guys firing off shots from behind some unknown rock deep in a canyon. It was hard to believe we were looking at something real.This sign kept us on our toes—especially me with my sandal-exposed tootsies.

Again, no clouds. Not anywhere.

And our trip was just beginning.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The Grand Road Trip, full of unexpected discoveries. Coming soon.)