Day 11: Welcome to Idaho

We’ll have a more complete rundown of Day 11, also known as the 4th of July, next week. For now, here’s a look at our very brief visit to Idaho. We were in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana for their 4th of July parade and fireworks. In looking at the town map, we realized we were 10 miles (16 km) away from the Montana/Idaho state line. Pick up another state for our life list? Why yes, certainly:



There was a howling thunderstorm overhead when we made this stop, and we were alongside a busy highway to boot. So our visit to Idaho was very short. But how often do you get to set foot in the land of the mighty potatoes?

During the trip, we spent some time figuring out which states we had visited. Anna, who has been around the shortest time, has amassed a pretty impressive list so far. States marked with an asterisk are ones she picked up on this trip:

New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
South Carolina
West Virginia
South Dakota*

That’s 25 states at age 7. Not bad!

Your intrepid correspondent, who has traveled so much over the years for work, has of course picked up a few more:

New Hampshire

But I’ve had a couple decades of head start, and I’ve only reached 35 states compared to the kids’ 25+. (Nick and Maria have been to California.)

Happy weekend!

Day 10: Pancakes, Lamar, and the Soda Fountain

After another long sleep, we fixed a big breakfast before setting out to hike in the Lamar Valley, a remote area full of wildlife in the northeast corner of the park. We decided on this trip not to have pancakes every morning, since having a big dose of sugar at the start of each day would makes the kids fidgety and ill-tempered. Once in a while, though, pancakes on the campground are absolutely necessary:




Chelsea jumped in on the pancake party and started fixing some more for herself, after the chef had hung up his white coat and started taking pictures.


When we hit the road for Lamar, we enjoyed yet another bison traffic jam:


We also enjoyed more ridiculously beautiful scenery:


Rivers and creeks continued to run fearfully high throughout the park. I felt some butterflies in my stomach when crossing this bridge, and when watching the family cross:



On the far side of the bridge, which was directly below the trailhead, we entered a breathtakingly pretty valley.


The kids found some discarded elk antlers and started pretending they were animals:




Alas, they couldn’t persuade us to wear the antlers:


Because of the high water, our original trail soon disappeared in a wash of mud and flood waters. So we simply followed some bison trails across the valley floor.


We were hoping to see wolves – there are several wolf packs that live in the Lamar Valley. Chelsea loves wolves, and would have dearly loved to see some. Near the end of our hike, we thought we heard some wolf pups playing in the trees. However, we didn’t want to go tromping into the forest to look closer.


We never saw the pups, though we could hear their cries. (That, or it might have been some trees rubbing together in the stiff wind.)

On returning to the van, we fixed some lunch for ourselves. I felt there had not been enough ‘real’ tailgating on this trip, so I made sure we had beer in the cooler and propane for the camp stove. Maria and I feasted on hot dogs for lunch.


From Lamar, we headed back down to the Canyon area for another round of showers and laundry. Along the way we stopped at Tower Falls. Only the upper observation deck was open, because of high water and bear activity, which was the same hangup at Firehole Canyon. Even so, we got a great view of the falls:



Then it was time for a real treat. At the Canyon General Store, they have an old-timey soda fountain. The fountain itself is quite new – probably built within the last 5-10 years – but it’s tricked out in a 1950s doo-wop era design. The kids loved the place and the menu. We would end up eating dinner here at least twice more while we were in Yellowstone.



Then it was time to get clean and pretty. Nick and I horsed around in the laundry area while the girls took their showers:


Driving back to the campsite, we were treated to one of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life.



All in a day’s work at Yellowstone. My goodness, we had fun.

Day 9: Hayden Valley and Lake Yellowstone

We got a late start on the day after our Old Faithful adventure – I think everyone slept late, and we had a leisurely breakfast to boot. We had a bit of a drive to reach our hiking destination for the day, which was the Hayden Valley, in the southeast quadrant of Yellowstone. Despite all the crowds on the main road, this was another place we had essentially to ourselves:



This was also another place in which we found snow still on the ground, despite daytime temperatures above 70F / 21C.


There were abundant signs of bison in the area. We think this was a femur bone from a bison:


There was a great herd of bison lounging in the valley, a few miles off the main road. We don’t seem to have any great pictures of the herd – we were keeping a safe distance – but you can see that they have excellent taste in scenic locations:


Along the hike, the kids also caught some tiny frogs along the small creeks that dotted the valley.


When we had finished with our hike, we headed over to Lake Yellowstone and rented a motorboat so we could go cruising. There was a strong standing wind from the southwest, making the lake somewhat choppy, but the scenery was fantastic.




The kids took turns driving, and all enjoyed it greatly:




Chelsea liked piloting, too:


Nick took up position in the bow. He seems to be a natural sailor:


The late afternoon light was beautiful, and once again we had the place nearly to ourselves.


After our boat ride, it was back to the campsite for a nice fire and some marshmallows.


Tomorrow: Lamar Valley.

Day 8: Old Faithful area

After our humbling experience with the bison traffic jam the previous morning, on Day 8 we vowed to get up even earlier and make tracks for Old Faithful. We got on the road nice and early, and got to see one of the old yellow 1930s-era Yellowstone buses that have been restored and are still used for park tours today:


We arrived at Old Faithful by around 8:00 in the morning, which not only meant that we had the place to ourselves, but also meant that a bit of the nighttime chill was still with us in the morning.


Old Faithful was out there smoking lazily between eruptions when we arrived. We would learn that while it’s not the most spectacular geyser in the park – there are other candidates for sure – it has earned its name over the years. The rangers correctly predicted at least four eruptions while we were there, and all of those eruptions were within about two minutes of the rangers’ prediction.


When Old Faithful erupts, it sends a marvelous plume of water and steam into the sky.


We found our ranger talk right after we arrived, and set out on the boardwalks that meander out into the thermal area. Like Norris, this is another place where even a brief wander off the boards could be life-threatening. Fortunately, our kids are all old enough to stick with the walkways without us worrying about them.




There was a lot of excitement on the boardwalks that morning because the Beehive Geyser, which erupts about every 12-14 hours, was due to erupt again while we were there. When I say there are other geysers that might be more spectacular than Old Faithful, Beehive is at the top of my list.



The morning wind carried the steam and spray over us. Anna and Maria put on their rain gear and played in the geyser’s rain.


From there we went uphill to Grand Geyser, which puts on a much longer show than the other two – about ten minutes of erupting from a fairly wide base, compared with 2-4 minutes for Old Faithful and Beehive. That gave us enough time for a family picture.



Next we wandered over to the Old Faithful Inn, the crown jewel of the National Park lodges, and inspiration for countless imitators from Disney to Great Wolf Lodge. It was beautiful inside.


We went back to the van for a picnic lunch, where we decided that all the natural splendor had also left us hungry for – you guessed it – ice cream:


Heading back to the north, we took a side drive through Firehole Canyon, one of the few places where the Park Service explicitly allows swimming within Yellowstone. Regrettably, the Firehole River was still far too high and strong from snow melt for us to swim safely. There was also grizzly bear activity along the river’s edge, making a swim even more of a bad idea. Still, the canyon was beautiful and felt very remote, though we were only a couple miles off the main loop road.



We went back to the campsite to enjoy a relatively quiet late afternoon and evening in our temporary home. Lots of people took naps – myself included – and we went for a hike around the perimeter of the campground after dinner.


It goes without saying that the scenery was beautiful. Yellowstone is absurdly beautiful. You get completely overwhelmed. Animals! Snow-capped mountains! Geysers! All of us were sleeping long nights and stealing naps during the day. I felt like a baby or toddler who gets overstimulated and then crashes to sleep in self defense. (In a good way!)


Tomorrow: Hanging out with bison in the Hayden Valley.

Day 7 continued: Norris Geyser Basin

Dear readers, apologies for the sudden disappearance late last week. Other obligations do intrude sometimes on my blogging.

Anyway: Yellowstone. Geysers!


After our morning and lunchtime in the Canyon area, we headed back to the western side of the park to visit the Norris Geyser Basin. Norris is the hottest thermal area in the park, owing to its location at the junction of three fault lines that were formed by the Yellowstone caldera eruption 640,000 years ago. There are a great number of hot springs, geysers, and bubbling pools to be seen.


With a quick stop at the visitor center, we were oriented and ready to rumble.



There are signs all over the place warning visitors – in many languages – not to step off the boardwalk. Tragically, a young child was killed about 40 years ago on a visit to the park after stepping off the walkway and into a thermal feature. While the safety concerns are deadly serious, we found this artistic rendering goofy:


My people were good about watching the geysers from a safe place.




We saw a couple of mud pots in the Norris area. They smell terrible.



In fact, pretty much all of the thermal features smell bad. You’ll be walking along, minding your own business, when suddenly you are enveloped in a hot cloud of sulfur. Strange, and not very pleasant.



Like our hiking day at Mammoth, we saw some ominous clouds and a smattering of rain, which chased away many of the other visitors. With our rain gear in hand, we had no worries. And it turned out not to rain very much at all, so once again we nearly had the place to ourselves.






Tomorrow: More geysers at Old Faithful.

Day 7: The virtues of being flexible

On our second full day in Yellowstone, we had intentions to head down to the southern end of the park, to catch the 8:30 a.m. ranger talk at Old Faithful. Our friend Ginger had told us that the talk was well worth an early morning, and furthermore, we’d have the famous geysers nearly to ourselves at that hour. So we woke up around 6:30, rustled together our day packs, and headed out of the campground.

Where we ran into a traffic jam.


Turned out there was a herd of bison trooping down the road, verrry slooowly. We sat at a virtual standstill for 30 minutes, and by the time we were on our way again, there was no chance we would catch the ranger talk.

It was time for Plan B. We decided then to make a day of visiting the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, as well as the Norris geyser basin. Both areas are on the north end of the park, so they would be relatively close, just in case we hit more wildlife traffic jams.

With a quick stop at the Canyon visitor center, we discovered that we could catch a kids’ ranger talk near the Lower Falls. The falls themselves are magnificent:



The girls seemed to enjoy the ranger talk:



Thus informed about the Canyon, we were free to hike around looking at it.



There was a big elk on the lawn near one of the trailheads. We had learned by this point that whenever we saw a group of people milling around on a roadside with cameras, we should stop and have a look:



We stopped back at the car to fix some lunch, and the kids took an opportunity to decorate our poor minivan, which was becoming seriously dusty and dirty from the trip:


Next up was Uncle Tom’s Trail, which descends 528 steps to a lower observation area next to the falls. The steps are made out of this material:


And they have been battered and abused over the years by both tourists and falling rocks. So that was fun for your intrepid correspondent and his fear of heights.

Blessedly, the view was worth the effort:



While in the Canyon area, we took advantage of the showers and laundry service at the campground there.




They still had snow on the ground all over the place – the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet (2,650 m), and was reliably 10F/5C cooler during the day than our campground.


Tomorrow: Day 7 continues with the Norris geysers.

Day 6: Mammoth Hot Springs area

Our campground, Indian Creek, was only a few miles down the road from Mammoth Hot Springs, which is in the northwest quadrant of Yellowstone National Park. Mammoth is at a relatively low altitude – 6,200 feet (2067 m) – and serves as the headquarters for the Park Service at Yellowstone. After our adventure finding a site the previous day, we had started to appreciate just how big the park is. So for our first full day of adventuring we figured we’d start in our own backyard.


There are tons of elk around Mammoth, and they like to hang out on the lawns of the buildings there:



Our first order of business that day was to tromp around the hot springs themselves. They were a bit of a disappointment, truth be told – the mineral formations are interesting but not showstoppers.


Plus they came with a lot of hoofing up and down stairs, and we flatlanders were not yet acclimated to the altitude. So it was a slow process of going up some stairs, sitting down, going a few more. We’re not the first ones to have this problem – the Park Service has thoughtfully put in benches about every ten steps or so.


We decided to go hiking up in the hills around Mammoth. It was around this time that Nick started feeling sick to his stomach, but he agreed to stay back at the van and take a nap while the rest of us went hiking. We climbed up a long ravine to reach a hillside that took us meandering along the Beaver Ponds Loop Trail.


There was some threatening weather as we reached the trail, and lots of people were heading for the trailhead to escape the rain. Our intrepid group has rain gear, so we kept on marching.


The clouds soon cleared, leaving us with a beautiful and nearly deserted trail.


We had our second exciting moment with nature on this hike. As we tromped along the hillside trail, we noticed two young black bears about 100 feet (33 m) below us on the hill. We slowed down, got our bear repellent spray ready, and walked slowly along until we were well clear of them. For their part, the bears paid us no mind whatsoever.

The hike was long – longer than we expected – and at length we reached the far side of the loop. At that point our next move was obvious. We got ice cream.




By evening, young Nicholas was feeling better, and we were back at the campsite, cooking dinner and building a fire. This was the start of a beautiful vacation.



Tomorrow: The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Day 5: Cody to Yellowstone



We woke up, got some breakfast, picked up a few last provisions, and started out for the big park. Along the way we stopped for a couple of pictures outside the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum. We probably could have spent another day or two in Cody checking out the museum and other attractions, but we were all itching to get to the park at last.




We had to drive about 50 miles (80 km) in the East Entrance of the park in order to reach Yellowstone proper. The drive along the way was beautiful, and took us through a snow-filled mountain pass at 9,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level.


What followed from there was a bit of a misadventure. We needed to find a place to set up camp. Most of the campgrounds in Yellowstone are first-come, first-served. And it looked like most of them were full. Our first choice, Slough Creek, was completely full to bursting. The few campgrounds that take reservations were generally full. We put in a reservation with one of them, just in case we couldn’t find anything. And on the way to that campground, we stopped in one of the first-come places, Indian Creek, just to see if something was available.

There was an empty site waiting for us!

With great relief we unhitched the trailer and set up camp:



The smell of the lodgepole pines in the sun was like heaven. We had found our home for the next eight nights, and we were very happy.

Tomorrow: Let’s get out and see something.

Day 4: Take me to the rodeo

[Side note: Yesterday’s post about the Badlands was our 500th post on the site. The number 500 has special significance in the Sperger family, so I wanted to be sure to mark the occasion. My thanks to everyone – all three of you – who read the blog faithfully.]

Badlands to Cody

Monday morning dawned in South Dakota, and it was time for us to keep heading west. We woke up in the campground, broke camp, and started making our way to Interstate 90. I’m sad to say that while we were driving down the main road through Badlands National Park, our dear Maria got sick to her stomach.

Stomach bugs are always a tense experience for us. When one of us gets sick, we naturally expect the rest of the family to follow, and soon. So here we were en route to Yellowstone, with one kid sick and unsure about the others, or ourselves.

Luckily, the bug seemed to be pretty short-lived, though it wasn’t a fun day for Maria. She started feeling better about six hours after she first got sick. In the meantime, though, we forced our sick kid to ride in the car all day, with the trailer bouncing us around. We also made her stop and look at Mount Rushmore. You can see her best attempt at smiling through sickness in this family picture:


I’ll say this about Mount Rushmore – I think we were there for about 20 minutes, and I felt like we’d spent plenty of time. When we visited the Grand Canyon earlier this year, I realized right away that pictures don’t do it justice. The majesty of the Canyon is something you can’t grasp unless you go there yourself.

Mount Rushmore is a little different. For one thing, as you can see in our family picture, you simply can’t get very close to the thing, so you’re experiencing it from a distance. For another thing, the visitor center is run by some kind of private foundation, so you have a weird hybrid between a National Park facility and a generic tourist trap.


In any case, we were pleased to check Mount Rushmore off the list. Some folks at Rushmore told us we should also make time for the Crazy Horse monument, just down the road from Rushmore, but we wanted to get to Cody in time for the rodeo.


There’s a rodeo in New Jersey, and I’ve been wanting to go for ages. Going to a rodeo in Wyoming seemed 100 times cooler. Plus, we’d learned that the girls could take part in a calf-catching game in the rodeo arena. Anna was excited to lace up her running shoes and go at it.

In order to get to Cody, though, we had to go over the Bighorn Mountains. Our directions took us through on US-14, but when we got near we learned that US-14 was closed through the mountains because of a rock slide. So we ended up on US-14A, which turns out to be the most challenging mountain pass to cross if you’re towing.

Wahoo fun.

The mountain pass on 14A was fantastic because it was full of snow. This was the first time we’d seen summer snow, and it wouldn’t be the last.



Getting back down the mountain was an adventure. The descending road had a 10% downslope grade for 10 miles (16 km). Once we’d finished a very slow descent, the route leveled out into a broad plain. We dashed across the interior plain toward Cody and the Nite Rodeo as quickly as the law would allow.

Before we even found our seats, we already had the kids riding a bull:



That bull was much more mellow than this bronco:


The Cody Nite Rodeo is a local institution, running every evening in the summertime. We loved climbing up in the bleachers and taking in the show, which was both strange and familiar.



The girls did indeed get their chance to chase calves around the arena. Three calves are released into the arena, each one with a red ribbon tied to its tail. The kids who snagged a ribbon each received a small prize. Anna got a couple of good chances, but she came up empty-handed in the end.



We stayed the night in Cody so we could hit Yellowstone bright and shiny the next morning.


Happy weekend!

Badlands, Part 2

After lunch and siesta, we traveled a few more miles down the east entrance road to reach another set of trails. The rock formations in this area were eerily beautiful, and looked like the backdrop of a million Western films:


We opted for the Notch Trail, a short but intense hike up through a small canyon to a viewpoint looking out on badlands and prairie. The highlight of this hike was a log ladder – a ladder made of logs suspended between thick wires running up the side of a cliff. At first you could walk up the ladder like a flight of stairs:


Soon, however, the ladder turned steep enough that it required real climbing:


The ladder takes you 30 feet (9 meters) up into the canyon, where you can then follow a series of cliffside paths along the canyon wall.


Anna discovered to her delight that the rocks in the canyon were soft enough to break in her hands:


With a bit more hiking and scrambling, we reached the Notch itself, which is the southern end of the canyon looking out onto the prairie. The view was amazing:




The hike back through the valley/canyon was equally impressive:


And soon we found ourselves heading back down the ladder:


Maria seems to have decided to raise the degree of difficulty by descending with her eyes closed… though in truth I think I just caught her blinking:


Back at the trailhead, Anna took a few minutes to break some more rocks:


Our timing in coming back was fortunate, though we didn’t know it at the time. Soon after returning to the campground to get ready for dinner, another line of storms approached:


Maria and Anna went over to the bathroom building. Nick and I were heading there as the girls started back. Suddenly, hailstones the size of golf balls were crashing down on us. Anna and Maria, unable to reach the camper, took refuge under the picnic table shelter, while Nick and I were pinned under the awning of the bathroom building. You can get a bit of a sense for the hailstorm’s intensity in this video:

It only lasted about 15 minutes, but in that time the storm did terrible damage. We were very lucky – no serious damage to our van or our camper. The campground looked like there had somehow been a snowball fight without snow on the ground:


Anna and I were both hit on the head by hailstones, which left us both tender for days afterward, but the rest of the gang was unscathed. Chelsea was in the camper the whole time, waiting for a hailstone to come through the canvas. But the old camper turned out to be plenty tough.

Others were not so lucky. We saw cars with smashed windshields and RVs with damaged roofs and awnings. We had been planning to have dinner in the Cedar Pass Lodge restaurant, but the kitchen at the restaurant had suffered a shattered skylight, and they were not able to cook. The nearby town of Interior has no restaurants – though it has at least two honky-tonk bars – and so with a little reluctance we set out for the tourist trap of Wall, about 30 miles (48 km) to the northwest.

I forgot to bring my camera with me, which is a real shame, because Wall Drug is a national landmark of sorts. In the 1930s, Ted Hustead was running a rather ordinary drug store in the small town of Wall, South Dakota. His wife, Dorothy, suggested advertising free ice water for visitors to Mount Rushmore, 60 miles (96 km) away. That idea eventually transformed Wall Drug into a block-long retail juggernaut, with a chapel, multiple restaurants, and every claptrap souvenir item you can imagine.

Naturally, we loved it.

The kids bought some souvenirs, and we got a Wall Drug bumper sticker for the camper. We ate dinner at a restaurant down the street. The Weather Channel was on a TV in the restaurant, and we got some more information about why we were seeing so many storms. Turns out that warm, moist air was being pumped from the Gulf of Mexico into the Plains states, where it was running into unusually strong west-to-east winds coming from the West Coast. The result: warm, strong, violent thunderstorms barreling across the Midwest after forming up in South Dakota.

Tomorrow: Destination Wyoming.