The perfect sunset for our last night of the trip!
It is another long day of driving to get from Cody, WY to Wall, SD. The difference now is once we hit Rapid City, SD we are traveling old road. Meaning, we did this almost three weeks ago when our trip started, on our drive from Sioux Falls to Mount Rushmore. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come (over 4K miles) – but we aren’t quite done yet.
For me, finally seeing The Badlands is kind of the culmination of a twenty-five-year journey:In late summer of 1996 I drove from Ohio to Seattle, WA to start graduate school. It was a whirlwind trip and I only had three days to get to the banks of Puget Sound. I had thought I could make a quick stop to the Badlands then, but I learned they are about 30 minutes off of Route 90. So I had to pass on them once already, and with the first leg of our drive I passed them twice. But this time – I’m stopping!
We get into Wall around 7 PM but we already decided to not set up the tent. The weather is predicted to be in the 90s, meaning during the day it will be an oven and chances are it won’t cool off enough for sleeping at night. Without the tent, it is a quick setup and by 8 PM we are in downtown Wall – which is literally all but dead on a Friday night. There’s one restaurant/bar open for us to grab hamburgers and a beer (me) and a glass of wine (Murr). While we eat we make our plan of attack for the next day: In the mid-morning hit the Badlands Visitor’s Center; midday is indoors (shopping and/or chilling in the Tab); and we’ve been told catching the Badlands at sunset is not to be missed. After dinner we wander the drag just so Murray can get a sense of what shops she wants to hit tomorrow and then we’re back in the Tab before 9:45 PM.
We are up around 8:30, and it is a 40-minute drive from our RVsite to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The Badlands are buttes (and canyons) created by half-a-millennia of erosion. What astounds me the most is how they suddenly appear along the flat, grassy plains. As we pass through the entry gate of the Badlands, I realize my quarter century wait was well worth it! It so dramatic – I capture great video as we weave our way along SD 240.
As the temperature starts to creep up, we hit Kadoka, SD for the Badlands Distillery. We do some sample flights, and each pick up two bottles. We beeline back to Wall and go directly to Wall Drug. Murray gets a pair of sweet cowboy boots and a Wall Drug doughnut. Then we’re back to Teapot to rest in the AC. Sunset should occur around 8:30 PM, so at 6 PM we head back to the Visitor’s Center where we will begin our drive along Badlands Loop, heading west with the goal of getting to Pinnacles overlook point before the sky goes dark. We do one quick hike, a couple quick stops at two other lookout points, but the hours are passing and the sun is dropping quickly. We finally hit Pinnacles with about 20 minutes before sunset – and there is a crowd of people and Big Horn Goats!
And none of us are disappointed! Catching the pink and blue sky as it lit up the green plains and the layered reds, browns and oranges of The Badlands . . . Well, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We linger until the sun is gone, and then take the West Exit of the Badlands back to Wall. We pass a huge heard of Bison (probably more than 40 in total), having gathered (I think) to bid us farewell as we close the last night on our 2021 Epic Trip!
Our last night in Glacier is warm – meaning I sleep in only two layers! We have a long drive, so we are up early to strike camp. There is a fine layer of dew on the tent and not wanting to pack it too wet we attack Teapot first and do some repacking of the car.
We backtrack most of the route from Billings for the first four hours, and then hit Montana 191 south. Snow-capped mountains ranges run the horizon to the West for our entire drive. The history of the northern great plains are on display too: In every small town we pull through there are abandon grain elevators nestled right up against the train tracks. I wonder how all the grain is loaded now, and then we pass a GIANT, modern grain processing facility. I guess it’s just cheaper to let the old buildings stand (and eventually fall).
Our RV park for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons is about 15 miles to the west of Cody, meaning the sunset streams in through the windshield making it hard to get good pictures. It’s amazing though, as we drive along a river flowing from the lakes of Yellowstone and through narrow tunnels that open up at Buffalo Bill Cody State Park. After setting up camp we decide to find a restaurant for dinner, and head back into Cody where we find the Millstone Brewery. The beer is decent – but because of what our waitress calls “kitchen problems” they can only serve appetizers, salads and pizzas. As we wait for our food, Murray points out that after being in a car for over eight hours, even when you’re sitting still you still feel like you’re moving. We decided to name the phenomenon Velocitizing.
Highlights of the Drive:
Mountains, mountains and more mountains
Millstone Brewery can only serve salads and pizza
A little backstory here: When Murr and I originally started discussing this trip, it was only one week out to Mt Rushmore and back, with a weekend in Sioux Falls.But every time we looked at the map, we found ourselves saying, “Look how close we are to ….” And then we added Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and Badlands. And with them almost another two weeks! The issue wasn’t the extra time, but given we waited almost a whole week after making our Sioux Falls and Mt Rushmore reservations, we struggled to find three nights near Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, meaning we only have one full day for each park. Not the best scenario, but we make it work.
Highlights of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons
Yellowstone is a packed 13 hours of ohs and ahs
117 miles, broken up by Old Faithful, Prismatic Pools and Mammoth Hot Springs
There’s no rush hour, but there are Bison Jams
Grand Tetons is a 3 hour drive each way – but the vistas are amazing
And making it work means we spend 13 hours in-and-out of the car at Yellowstone to get pictures at West Thumb Springs, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and the Canyon & Falls of Yellowstone. It’s a hot day too – with the temperature over 90 degrees at 4:30 PM when we hit Mammoth Hot Springs. Our final stop in Yellowstone is the Canyon and Falls and at 7 PM we are starting our 90-plus minute drive back to Cody when we hit… a Bison Hour! Traffic comes to a complete halt for a herd of Bison moseying across the road. After about 20 minutes of photos and just waiting for them to clear the road, we realize we won’t be back in Cody before the Millstone Brewery closes. So we find another restaurant just outside Yellowstone, and as we are seated the waitresses says they are out of lettuce and can’t make salads for dinner. Really – what is it with the food supply to Wyoming in early June?
After such a long day in Yellowstone, we get a late start for our trek to the Grand Tetons. The route takes us back through Yellowstone, but this time we don’t have to stop every 10 – 17 minutes for a photo op! Still, it’s a three-plus hour drive to Colter Bay, where we get our NP Passport stamps! We get to Signal Mountain around 2:30 pm, and wind our way up to the top where we get awesome views of the eastern valley and mountain ranges of the Grand Tetons. A storm is brewing in the distance, with rain falling into the valley and wind coming up the mountain. We are back into Cody for dinner around 7 PM, in time to get a quick meal at Millstone (which is still only serving salads and pizza) and Murr and I to buy some really great Navajo-style throws in downtown Cody. We have another long drive to the Badlands tomorrow, so we are back to camp before 9 PM and I’m asleep before my head hits my pillow.
Our first full day in Glacier we lounge a bit until 11:30 AM and then pack the car for Going to the Sun Road. We’ve been talking about this for weeks, and we are not disappointed. Going to the Sun cuts across the Glacier for approximately 44 miles, but we can only go 14 miles before it is closed due to snow and avalanche warnings (in June, I must remind you).
But that is okay, because it literally takes us 4 hours to drive the round trip – as we stop about every 10 minutes for another photo opt. Honestly, it is kind of overwhelming: As we drive to Logan Pass (our turn around point) there are mountain peaks being reflected off of St Mary Lake to our left, and to our right a snow peaked glacier that towers above us. I’m trying to capture video and pictures and just be there and I can’t. So eventually I stop using my phone and decide to be here. I’m in Glacier, damn’t. I want to make sure I have memories of this, not just photos.
At one of our stops, Murr and I wonder why St Mary Lake looks turquoise from afar but so clear once you are standing at the edge. She decides to do her traditional handstand at Goose Island. At Logan Pass we get out to do a little hike, thinking we can find one of the many falls, but the trail is crowded and it is already 3 PM. So we head home to eat a light dinner, have a glass of wine and watch the sunset on our first day.
The next two days are all about hiking: Monday we do a roundtrip of 4 miles from Sunrift Gorge to St Mary Falls, passing Barring Falls en-route. The trail is incredible: At time we are right along the lake, then weaving our way through burnt out forest, then almost back up to the road where we can see Virginia Falls (tomorrow’s destination) in the distance. There is a crowd at St Marys Fall – people enjoying a late lunch in the sun, families with their kids climbing the rock formations, couples grabbing selfies off the bridge. Some guy chats up a group of girls, asking them to video him as he jumps from a short outcropping into the pool at the bottom of the falls.
Tuesday we park at the shuttle stop for St Mary Falls. This trail drops us quickly back to St. Mary Falls, but we blast through as our destination is Virginia Falls. We hike along a river (I assume Virginia?) passing lesser falls along the way. Then we get to the bottom of Virginia Falls – and is totally worth the hike. Water cascades over the falls, filling the entire gorge we are in with mist. We do our requisite selfie, then take the final leg of the trail right to the bottom. It’s cold and so misty I we can’t even see if our pictures come out. But again, I realize the point is to be here.
And we are.
I took a ton of pictures, so here are some random shots of our hike and drive! Enjoy!
I’m awake Friday at 5:30 am. Sunrise is early during the summer months as you head north, but today I’m up because our neighbor in the giant RV next to us is hammering away on his water connection (as we are prepping Teapot for travel Murray notes there is something wrong with our water pressure, too). I’m annoyed and manage to drop in-and-out of sleep until about 6:45 AM. Then I start to clean out the tent because today we need to strike camp AND I need to be online at 8 AM so we can get our pass for Going to the Sun Road. Murr gets up at 7 AM, we do a little more packing and at 7:55 AM I’m online and she’s got the phone number pulled up. She calls, I continually reload the page. I look for Sunday tickets — our first full day in Glacier — and there are 180 available. I click and — they’re gone! I refresh, and look at the dates again. We get to Glacier on Saturday late afternoon on the 29th, and the road closes at 6 PM. But, tickets are good for 7 days, and it says there are still 89 available that day. I click and — Success! We are Going to the Sun!
At 9 AM we are on the road, and the drive to Billings is kind of uneventful. It’s our halfway point to Glacier and we have a hotel reservation there. Both Murr and I fantasize of a shower (well, me a shower, she wants a bath), so we are trying to get there in good time. We are cruising along, making Tiktok videos to pass the time, when I see a sign that says “Devils Tower,” and an arrow pointing to the left.
“Devils Tower is nearby, I think,” I say as I start to pull out my phone.
“How far?” Murray asks. Reception is bad. I get the spinning wheel.
Murray continues. “Wasn’t it in Close Encounter?”
“Better yet,” I say, my phone finally loading a page, “It’s an official National Monument.” Murray gives me a sly, sideway smile. We are both thinking the same thing: Another stamp in our NPS Passports!
“Right here, here!” I point as Murr brakes Teapot hard and we almost miss the turn. Then it’s a scenic twisty, curvy ride through forest for forty minutes. Like a game of hide-and-seek, we see the top of Devils Tower, sometimes off to our right, sometimes ahead to the left. Once we are about three miles away, though, it just fills the sky. Our plan is a quick stop to get pictures and stamps – but we’ve gotten tons from the road that are actually better than being up close. As we pull into the Ranger station, it is packed – so I circle the parking lot with Teapot and Murray jumps out, stamps our passports and I’m downshifting Teapot through the curves back to the main road.
Devils Tower is the first US National Monument, is a butte formed by rock and magma being slowly pushed up from the Earth, and is highly sacred in the indigenous Plains culture of the US. And well worth the extra two-hours added to our trip.
We get into Billings at 6 PM and by 7:30 PM Murr and I are at the Texas Roadhouse, a restaurant behind our hotel. It is packed (Friday night in Billings) and so we squeeze into the bar between two guys: Justin and Chad. Murr chats with Justin, an ex-Army Reservist that now travels around the country installing GPS systems. Chad is clad in leather Harley gear and a bandana, speaks with the high-pitched voice of a boy tenor, and is also on his own Epic Tour going solo on his motorcycle (I imagine a Hog). Both think it is great Murr and I are on this adventure (I know they think we are a married couple) and we get into a debate about politics with Justin (you can guess how the lines are drawn) but its fun. We head back to our hotel and crash hard.
We opt to take MT Route 2 for the first half of our drive to Glacier instead of Route 90 (both Goggle Maps and Waze say we will save 40 minutes) and I’m glad we did. Murr sleeps and I drive so we don’t have photos — but imagine the scenery of the Aiden Quinn/Brad Pitt movie “A River Runs Through It” filling your windshield for almost 4 hours.
We pull into the St Mary KOA and our campsite is literally right up against the mountains. We set up camp and Murr snaps a pitcher saying, “Our View Does Not Suck.”