Mid June is a good time to visit the northwest. The mountain passes are open, and it’s warm enough to enjoy camping at higher elevations. With only 2 months to go, we had to find a balance between enjoying this beautiful region with making progress east.
We hadn’t been to Montana before, but we’d heard how beautiful it is. We barely scratched the surface, but what we saw was great. Just don’t expect cell coverage!
From Farragut State Park, Idaho, we headed north around Lake Pend O’Reille which brought us to within a few miles of Canada before swinging south and east. Our goal was to see at least a little of Glacier National Park. We also found many other beautiful places. A video follows the descriptions.
Logan State Park
On the way to Glacier we stopped at Logan state park where we had a campsite right on beautiful Thompson lake. There was also a level and well-maintained lakeside trail through the nearby woods and we had an excellent day hike. One problem with Logan though, there is no cell coverage. You’d think we could get by for a few days, but we needed to do some online stuff, and set out in Wanda to find a signal. The park ranger said we’d find something just 5 minutes west. So we tried that. Then 10 minutes, then 20. NOPE. So we turned around, and headed back past the park in the other direction. Finally 1/2 hour later we got barely enough signal to pay a couple bills and do a few texts. That was not worth it. Had we known, we would have stayed put!
Glacier National Park
Being able to visit Glacier at all was in doubt (due to Covid) until pretty late in our planning. There was no camping at Glacier itself. We decided to book stays on either side of Glacier’s West entrance, and then spend a day in the park if it opened.
Luckily, they did open Glacier to tourism with plenty of time to spare, and we headed toward “Going to the Sun” road to follow the river up into the mountains. We almost got shut out however. Shortly after heading up the road, we hit a ranger roadblock. The park rangers told us they weren’t letting any more vehicles go in because it was too crowded. Argh!
We headed back to Apgar, and considered our options as we looked for a non-existing RV sized parking spot. Apgar was mobbed and we couldn’t even stop. After circling a few times, we were ready to give up in defeat.
As we took one more pass by the checkpoint, Mark noticed the rangers getting in their cars and driving away. So we took a quick turn and (with nobody to stop us) and headed in!
It’s an excellent drive, with dozens of scenic pull-over spots to take photos. We drove in about 15 miles – as far as they let “oversize” vehicles like ours go, and came back down the same way. Stopping at places we’d missed on the way up. We almost went on a mile long hike, but Lori saw ominous signs warning us to carry bear spray, which we didn’t have, and she wasn’t feeling comfortable meeting bears in the deep woods of Glacier empty-handed. So we turned back. Good thing, because 10 minutes later it started to pour. Timing! Sometimes you get lucky!
After Glacier, we stayed overnight at Flathead lake. Nothing too interesting really. It’s a pretty lake, with a treasure trove of various colored rocks to gather on the shore. Nice, woodsy campsites, but no water or electric hook-ups.
Mark’s cousin Eric and his wife Janette have a vacation home south of Missoula, and we’d been invited to use it when in the area. The timing worked out great! Mark’s aunt and uncle were there the weekend we arrived, and his cousin was coming on the following weekend. So we decided to take a break and hang out for the whole week so we could overlap our stays if just briefly.
Our only real concern was that because the road to the house is steep and unpaved, Wanda might be challenged to make it there. But we decided to go for it. It started out fine. Just one lane wide, but mostly flat and solid. Eventually though, the road was more suited for off-road vehicles than a hulking motorhome! A couple steep, narrow, switchbacks at the end had us in first gear barely making the turns and barely climbing the hills. But we survived it somehow. Whew! We knew we were there for the duration though. No way was Wanda doing that again!
Once we got there, it was so relaxing! Surrounded by 60 acres, it’s incredibly private. The view includes beautiful snow-capped mountains, lush meadows, lots of cows and mule deer. We enjoyed a hike around the property with Aunt Bev and Uncle Chuck, and another day they took us for a hike around beautiful nearby Lake Como. Downtown Darby was even reachable to us by bike, and so we did a few day trips for fun and to gather a few supplies. Those roads were no problem for our eBikes!
Thanks Eric & Janette, for inviting us to your lovely country home – we enjoyed every minute of our time there!
Here’s our Montana video:
We feel like there’s a lot more to see in Montana, and we’ve just scratched the surface. We especially want to see more of Glacier’s East side. Next time!
Our most notable “miss” in Wyoming was skipping Grand Teton National Park. Mark had been there just a few years earlier, and it would have taken us quite a ways off course, so no Tetons this time. :( Fortunately there’s no shortage of other cool places in Wyoming. Here are a few:
From Montana, we drove to Yellowstone’s north entrance and spent half a day driving through the northwest section of Yellowstone before staying overnight just west of the park.
We planned to spend the next day driving a loop throughout the park – about 50 miles. On the way up to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, we encountered driving rain and hail. Had it continued, the day would have been a bust, but after 10 minutes or so, it stopped as quickly as it began. Whew! After stopping to view the scenic falls and beautiful yellow-colored canyon, we continued to the north rim road of the canyon, stopping many times for pictures. Beautiful. The day continued a strange alternating pattern of dark skies and rain, followed by sunshine. Our luck held out, and the rain occurred mostly while driving, and sun mostly when visiting the park’s features. We hit the standard highlights including Old Faithful, Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic Spring, and much more. What a place! It’s one of America’s greatest natural treasures. We also saw buffalo up close (they were sparring a bit), and several elk. There were no fences separating us from these wild animals, so we kept to what seemed a safe-enough distance. It’s still pretty unnerving to think that if they charged for some reason, you’d be pretty exposed, with nowhere in particular to take refuge.
On our 3rd day, we visited a couple spots we’d skipped for lack of time, and then headed toward the west entrance to leave the park. We were somewhat disappointed that we hadn’t seen a single bear. We still didn’t have any bear spray, but Lori was less concerned since there were a lot of visitors and park rangers around. Yellowstone seemed like the best chance we might have to see a bear in the wild. On the way out, we pulled into one last way-point for a picture of more beautiful scenery. We noticed a group of people gathering around, cameras out. Yep, it was a grizzly bear sighting – finally! We couldn’t get too close (the ranger was keeping people the recommended 100′ away) but it was still pretty exciting, and a little scary, seeing those massive teeth and claws without fence or cage to contain them.
Immediately west of Yellowstone as you exit the park, is Shoshone National Forest. Its stunning canyon views as you descend the steep hills, are a wonderful finale to a Yellowstone visit.
In all, we entered Yellowstone 3 times. Our national parks pass paid for itself at Yellowstone alone!
Buffalo Bill State Park
Nice canyon campground. It was notable for us because Mark wanted us to take our bikes on a dirt/gravel road into the hills for an overlook of a nearby reservoir. We went many miles of mostly rough and hilly roads. Each time we rounded a corner, the goal seemed further away. Finally, Lori had had enough, and we turned back, partially satisfied with a few lesser views.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Kinda sorta on the way to Devil’s Tower, this scenic drive was a 12 mile detour. It turned out to have some great overlooks, so it was arguably “worth it” but in the bargain, it put us on a more northern crossing of the Bighorns. We wouldn’t do it again in Wanda. Maybe in a car.
Crossing the Bighorns (9430 feet elevation) turned out to be by-far the biggest test of Wanda’s engine. It was really pretty horrific. The further we got in, the narrower and steeper it got. And then steeper. Then narrow and steeper. You get the idea. We were crawling in first gear at 25 mph at points, pedal to the metal, and praying that it didn’t overheat or explode, or just run out of steam. And when we were sure we must be nearing the top, we turned the corner to find… we were only halfway there! We stopped at a rare turnout to let Wanda’s engine cool off. After a rest, we continued upward, having invested far too much in the climb to give up now. Finally we were rewarded with truly amazing top-of-the-world views, and our faith in Wanda restored.
Of course we had to stop at iconic Devil’s Tower! You may have seen it sculpted in mashed potatoes by Richard Dreyfus in the sci-fi movie “Close Encounters”. Mark likes to hike around Devil’s Tower every time he passes through the region, as he did most recently with our boys a few years ago. Now, Lori knows what all the fuss is about.
Our Wyoming video is our longest yet, but believe it or not, this is after taking out as much as Lori could bear!
Bye Wyoming. Nice seeing you!
Between Devil’s Tower and Mount Rushmore, lies the western-themed tourist town of Deadwood, SD. Due to Covid, there wasn’t much for us to do there (it’s mostly shops, bars, galleries and restaurants) but the place was positively mobbed. Apparently it’s a big draw for family vacationers. It seemed cute enough for a day’s amusement, but we’re not sure why it’s popular enough to have several giant new resort hotels on both ends of town.
What can you say? It’s classic Americana, and pretty neat to see in person what you’ve seen so many times in pictures. It’s difficult to get an idea of its true size from pictures however. Whether or not you’ll be impressed depends on how big it is in your imagination!
The whole site has been dramatically developed since Mark’s last visit. You used be able to drive right up to the visitor center. Now there are oceans of parking lots (including a 2 story ramp), walkways, grand approach avenue flanked by flags, and a huge amphitheater. It’s good that they can now handle crowds better, but Mark preferred the way it was.
Lori wasn’t super keen on Rushmore:
1) Native Americans were swindled out of the land there
2) Two of the 4 were slaveholders
3) ‘You know who’ had just been there, and we passed giant MAGA concessions.
4) The Covidiots were dense
All legitimate demerits, but Mark was not deterred and wanted Lori to see it anyway. You can just drive by, c’mon!
Just a gigantic complex of stores with a bunch of weird kitsch to keep it amusing. We couldn’t really experience it fully since it would involve unsafe indoor time, but as long as we got the critical jackalope riding picture we were good to go.
Amazing! Such a huge and alien place. Strangely compelling in places. Totally worth checking out if you’re driving through. It was Lori’s first time there and she considers it a highlight of this area.
Really the most interesting part is the building exterior which is a giant mosaic, annually reconstructed, entirely of different colors of corn, husks, stalks, leaves, etc.. Pretty impressive, that they redo it every year (at a cost of $150k). Inside is an auditorium containing the corn palace gift shop, and not much else. Ho hum.
Lori’s Mom told us about a unique statue in Chamberlain, SD, of a Native American woman. The sculpture stands 50 feet tall and is called Dignity. It happened to be right on our path so we stopped to see it, and we were glad we did. In 2014, a couple from Rapid City gifted Dignity to the state in honor of the 125th anniversary of South Dakota’s statehood.
We stopped in Sioux Falls for an afternoon. We found a good spot for Wanda at Falls Park so we could ride the excellent bike paths on either side of the river, and get a good view of the falls, which would be truly beautiful but for one flaw: the water going over them is.. brownish. The water isn’t polluted, just full of sediment. If they could solve that somehow (though we can’t imagine how) they’d have a really stunning spot. We enjoyed a long bike ride, a picnic lunch, and as you’ll see in the video – we had some fun under the bridge!
That’s it! Next up: Minnesota!