Badlands, Yellow Stone and Glacier National Park
So since our last blog our camping situation has improved drastically. We have replaced car parks with national parks and instead of views of interstate 90 before bed we get views of snowy valleys or still lakes. What’s more, all but three of these great camp spots have been free- yay! The weather has been pretty variable, one day we were trekking in jeans and a tee and the next day we were eating breakie in the snow in -3’c, but it’s definitely on the up.
We are also still doing pretty well on the freebie front. Best of all an employee at the Holiday Inn gave us free unlimited coffee and use of their wifi even though we told them we weren’t staying there. And, instead of a $2 refund when a vending machine ate our change the guy in the store gave us a free bottle of bear spray which we needed on our next trek and was going to cost us around $40- winning.
Badlands National Park
Our first NP was Badlands and what a great two days we chose to visit. The sun was shining, lightening up the strange rock formations that define the park. On our first day we drove the Badlands loop (an amazing 1-2 hour drive and the best way to see the park quickly) looking for their free campground only to find the road to it was closed due to snow. However the snowy views and prairie dog spottings made the trip worthwhile.
We made our way back to the park’s main campground where we were greeted by a group of dear no more than 10 meters away and a beautiful sunset which transformed the parks peaks bright orange. Even better we even got to stay in the campground for free as there was no one around to pay. We had the whole camp to ourselves, it was incredibly peaceful.
We wanted to explore this moon-like landscape more so the next day we headed out on the signed trails along the loop road. The snow that covered the higher areas of the park had melted overnight treating us to a different, but equally as beautiful, perspective.
Getting to the less visited areas on foot meant we saw the park in all its glory. All we could here was the tweeting of birds and when we trod quietly enough we encountered rabbits, chipmunks, more dear and big horn sheep. Walking the area also made us appreciate why the first Europeans to set foot here (French Trappers) gave such an impressive area such a negative name. It came from their difficulties passing the land as it was hard to traverse as well as lacking in any food and water supplies.
On the way out we stumbled across a road that led to the free campsite- winning. On route we were treated to gorgeous views of the prairie grasslands, coyotes prowling for poor oblivious prairie dogs and roaming bison (or buffalo as the yanks would say).
Our campsite was brilliant. We were in the middle of nowhere with 360′ views of the Great Plains and only a couple of other people to share them with. While we were making dinner we could here coyotes howling and a herd of buffalo came for a visit- mad. These animals are truly massive and injure more people than grizzly bears each year but there is something majestic about them. They must have liked us too as they came for another visit in the morning.
After our breakie with the Buffalos we headed to possibly the weirdest pharmacy in the world. Wall drug, located in Wall just outside of the NP, was once a tiny pharmacy with no customers until the owners wife had a great idea. One day she decided to put a sign up for free ice water to encourage thirsty customers and by the end of the day they were out of ice. By the end of the year they had to employee more staff and now, 80 or so years on, the store is the size of a Walmart or Tescos extra. It sells everything from guns to kid’s clothes and even has a mock western street and huge dinosaur in the play area. Like thousands of other tourists we went for a wander and to grab a 5 cent coffee in their restaurant that can seat 500+ people.
That night we found another hamazing free campground, this time in the black hills national forest. The area was so deserted that you could easily scare yourself if you let your mind wander for just a second. However, we had a great time exploring the frozen lake while the sunset, checking out beaver dens and mulling over the big animals footprints on the ice.
On the way to Mount Rushmore, still in South Dakota, we spotted a cute little marmot just out of hibernation and when we got to the park we also saw an adorable, extremely fluffy mountain sheep. Of course, most impressive of all, we also saw the big four, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln (in order of appearance, left to right), etched into the side of the black hills. Borglum (the sculpture responsible for this master piece) has done an amazing job, he has actually managed to make 60ft stone heads look real, their eyes even seem to follow you as you move.
The museum in the park was a little too patriotic for our liking, but still it was very informative. Most interestingly it explains why Borglum chose the four presidents he did, something we had been wondering before our visit.
Devils Tower National Monument
Crossing into Wyoming, we visited Devils Tower simply because it was a good stop in between Mt Rushmore and Yellow Stone NP but it was a surprisingly enjoyable visit. Devils Tower is a giant volcanic feature that protrudes out of the otherwise fairly flat landscape leading visitors, geologist or otherwise, wondering how it got there. We arrived late and on our walk around the area caught sunset, which, like in Badlands, painted the rock such a bright orange it didn’t look real.
That night we camped just outside the parks closed campsite with views of the main attraction- lush. However, in the morning, while I was having a morning wee, a park ranger came driving up the road- opps. I ran as fast as my little legs could carry me and hid in the van while Mike was left to deal with the ranger. Luckily all we got was a friendly warning not to camp in non-designated areas, well that and the embarrassment of being caught with my bum out.
We headed out pretty quickly after that, driving through Buffalo and over the Big Horn mountain range during a mini snowstorm (getting to 3000 meters in elevation and -5’c). We cooked dinner with views of the Rockies just outside of Cody (named after the famous Buffalo Bill, or William Cody, a showman, and as his name suggests buffalo hunter). We set up for the night in Walmart for convenience sake.
Yellowstone National Park
Excited to get to Yellowstone, the USAs most popular and first ever National Park, we headed out early in the morning. Driving alongside the Rockies with amazing views the ride went pretty quickly. And the park started entertaining us even before we had officially entered. On the way in we saw a group of bighorn sheep, a herd of bison and a coyote prowling for unattended geese’s nests.
Our first point of call was the extremely helpful visitors centre. They informed us, as we knew already, that unfortunately the majority of the park was closed due to the time of year (it would be another two weeks before roads started to be fully ploughed and ready to open). They also informed of us of a silver lining- this was the best time of year to spot wildlife in the park- happy days.
So, on their recommendation we headed out on the Northern Loop road (the only one open in the park) or to the American Serengeti as they put it and kept our eyes peeled. The scenery itself was enough to justify the drive, with a thick blanket of snow covering as far as the eye could reach it was beautiful. We were also treated to more bison, coyotes and some new animals on the checklist. We saw mule deer, some of which still had their antlers (unusual for this time of year we are told), perhaps more impressively we saw moose munching on some long grass and definitely more impressively still we saw a black bear. He was soooo cool. A park ranger who was there checking him out thought he was probably just out of hibernation as he had been lazing around for a while only popping his head up every once in a while.
Our drive finished in Cooke city, which at this time of year can only be accessed via the hour long drive through the park (the other road in is shut more than half the year due to snow). This tiny village was crazily snowy. Some of the shops and holiday homes were completely snowed in, with snow to above the windows.
Our drive back to camp for the night was also beautiful. We caught the most amazing sunset; in fact we spent so much time admiring it we had to cook dinner in the dark.
With the alarm set for 5:45am we woke ridiculously early to join the ‘wolfers’. As the name suggests, wolfers are people who are borderline obsessional with these furry critters. They spend all of their free time looking through the eyepiece of spotting scopes and binoculars in the hope of a sighting. We joined the friendly gang and were soon chasing whispers and radio calls with our fingers crossed. A couple of hours later and still no wolves, however we were lucky again in the bear department. The chatter on the radio grew louder and we were soon zooming off to a potential grizzly sighting, sure enough, through the scope we could see 2 fluffy grizzly bears scrounging around a carcass…Incredible… just like on TV we even saw it scratching his back against a tree…
We decided to call it a day after this and headed back to camp for breakie, not before saying a good morning to yesterday’s black bear. He was a bit more active today, running and tripping through the thick snow. It was great to see.
Next on the agenda was a visit to ‘Mammoth Springs’, one of the main thermal features of the park. These interesting and colourful rock formations are caused by the bubbling thermal springs and their relationship with many different bacteria. There was a great boardwalk trail which took you around most of the site, giving brief explanations of its formation etc. Mike bloody loved it!!
After catching a glimpse of some magnificent elk, we set out for a walk which turned out to be quite the adventure. Just 30 minutes into this ‘open’ trail we ended up thigh high in snow, wallowing in shitty meltwater trying to find where the path had disappeared to. As you may have expected we turned around and squelched our way back to the van.
On the brightside this left us a lot of time to make the most of our PAID campsite. We started up a campfire, flame grilled some chorizo to add to our pasta dish and had s’mores for afters. To all those not in the know s’mores are a delicious combination of toasted marshmallow and Hershey’s chocolate sandwiched between two crackers, yum!!
Just as we were packing up for the night the resident buffalo and mule deer wondered on by, chomping their way through the campsite.
The next day started in much the same way as the last – an early morning with the wolfers – but today we had more luck. We were flagged down enthusiastically by Bill who was super eager to get us a glimpse of his latest sighting, and it was a good one at that! Missing it by seconds, Bill and the Gang had found themselves a pack of wolves with a fresh kill – poor little elk. We jumped straight on a couple of scopes and saw the blood stained snow along with 7 wolves. Some playing in the snow while the others were chasing birds away from their breakfast. With the sun rising over the mountains and the wolves moving out of sight we said our goodbyes and went back for breakie. Our time with the wolfers was both an incredible and enlightening experience. They were all so friendly and eager to share their knowledge; it was great to be part of the gang for 2 days.
Hoping our luck would carry on through out the day we made another attempt at a hike. This time we were slightly more successful but still had to turn around after about half an hour. The path we were following disappeared under a river of snowmelt and not wanting a repeat of our last walk we decided to turn around and call it a day. Before we gave up we got great views of the valley below and saw bouncy prong horned sheep and a mummy bison with a tiny calf- cutie- so all was not lost.
Our final stop at the park was the natural hot pools. These pools are formed where thermal water from The Boiling River mixes with water from The Gardner River to create the perfect temperature to bathe in. In need of a good old soak and a warm up we got kitted out in our swimmers and jumped in the pools. It was lush! We had panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and even had temperature control by either moving closer to the Gardner River for cold or to the Boiling River for hot- bloody brilliant.
The Gardner River also made the perfect lunch spot – we cracked out a can of good old Campbell’s Tomato soup and ate near the water, bringing our time in Yellowstone NP to a close. We left that afternoon, heading North through Montana towards the Canadian border, next stop Glacier NP.
We only made it about an hour outside of Yellowstone before the early mornings started catching up with us. We were exhausted so decided to just crash for the night at a Walmart in a small town called Boozeman. We pulled up to what we initially thought was a quiet corner of the carpark. However, just as we were setting up for the night a crazy homeless guy started running and dancing through the car park, banging on every car insight. Too tired to move we locked the doors and crossed our fingers that he hadn’t seen us. He hadn’t, but we did have a brief exchange with him the next morning. It turns out that boozy Jo from Boozeman is a rather nice fella.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park starts in Montana and goes all the way up to the border of Canada. It is home to one of the best scenic drives in the USA, as well as lots of wildlife. However once again we would be restricted to only a tiny area of this NP. Only a ten mile section is open to visitors this time of year, in fact, it is so cold in the area that the rest is open only 2-3 months of the year. With all the trekking paths shut as well we drove what was open of the park. It was beautiful. The drive took us along McDonald Lake, with its amazing mountain reflections- gorg. We also went for a little wander on the beach, skimming rocks in the super still water before camping just 15 meters from the lakes edge.
In the morning we woke to a completely different view. A blanket of snow about 3 inches thick had been left overnight, turning our woody campground into Narnia. It was a bit cold on the bum during an early morning wee though, with the snow still coming in thick and fast.
We headed out ASAP, driving through the snow storm, in the hopes we wouldn’t get snowed in. Luckily we managed to get away in one peace. To chilly to cook ourselves, on route we stopped at a cute diner in Wallace and had lunch. The owners had converted an old car workshop that once serviced their cars into this quirky local eatery, keeping lots of the original features like a car lift as a bar top. They had also collected lots of odd bits and bobs over the years including customer donated number plates from all over the world. The food was wonderfully American and we made friends with the owner and his son. All in all a fab unplanned pit stop.
That night we camped in a meadow near the national forest. Although this was not an official campsite it may as well have been with fire rings laid out sporadically and people reserving there campsites with ribbon or paper plates. It was very friendly. We took a walk down the river to check out our new surroundings and meet the neighbours.
The start to the next day was a bit if a disaster. As usual I woke up busting for a wee and tried to creep out of the van really quietly so as not to wake Mike. There was just one problem. We were frozen in. I woke Mike up and we both pushed and pulled, wiggled and jiggled the doors but to no avail. With no other choice I had to squeeze into the front in the hope that the front doors were ok- in the nick of time I got out- phew! Joys of a camper.
Our first stop that day was Denny’s Diner for a mammoth uploading session using their free Wi-Fi. Once again we were treated to epic American food including amazing french toast with cream cheese icing, pecans and cinnamon- umum.
Full to the brim we headed four hours closer to Seattle, off the i90 and onto a beautiful scenic road with snowy mountains in all directions. We ended up in a cute but rather dilapidated campground with trees taller than we had ever seen before. This was another spot where best not to let the mind wander. We cooked some of our speciality fajitas, made a campfire and settled in for the night.
Next stop Seattle……….