Road Trip Part 5 – Colorado to Home

Day 11: Frisco, CO to Estes Park, CO

We woke up in Frisco ready to cross the Continental Divide for the third (maybe fourth) time in the trip, but this one would be over Loveland Pass, where you can really tell that you’re in the Rockies.

Since we were in ski country, the family wanted to check out the resort town of Breckenridge which was a short drive away. I had spent a couple of nights in Breck over Spring Break, so it made me wish that Winter would go ahead and arrive a little bit sooner. Our travel plans were complicated by the USA Pro Cycling Challenge race, which started in Breckenridge later in the morning and actually closed the road we were planning to take out of town. The obvious solution was to sit and watch! Chris Froome, this year’s Tour de France champion, was in attendance along with many other stars.

USA Pro Cycling Challenge

I-70 though Colorado was amusing and windy (much prefer driving this when not snowy, thanks), but we detoured to Loveland Pass to take the obligatory Continental Divide photo and stretch our legs.

From the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass (just above Arapahoe Basin ski area)
From Loveland Pass

The rest of the day consisted of driving through old mining towns on the way to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. We headed into RMNP and drove up the Trail Ridge road in the evening. What we saw was another fantastic sunset in one of America’s national parks.

Elk Herd
From Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road leading off into the West
Sunset in RMNP

Day 12: Estes Park, CO to Sidney, NE

Sadly, weather conditions on Long’s Peak had claimed the life of a hiker earlier in the week, and with my ankle recently tweaked after a trail running mishap, I did not feel comfortable heading up there alone into icy conditions. The alternative was great though – a hike to Loch Vale with the brother and my dad. I was very aware that this would be my last western hike of the year before heading back to the midwest, so I wanted to take it all in without taking many photos. Here are a couple of highlights from the Loch.

Loch Vale
Loch Vale pano (click to expand)

And that was the end of my Western summer.

Since I was skipping Long’s Peak, we were done much earlier in the day than anticipated and decided to leave early in order to cut down on the driving over the next couple of days. We ended up staying in Sidney, NE. Not a lot to report on in Sidney; there are cheap hotels and Cabela’s store headquarters are located there.

Days 13-14 – Returning to MI and reflections on the trip

On the way home we followed I-80 almost the entire way, stopping overnight in Avoca, IA to visit family and finally reaching home on Day 14. Since there is nothing to really report on for this section of the trip, I figured I’d leave some thoughts from the trip:

– Seeing 9 national parks and monuments including 2 of the “big three” – Yellowstone and Grand Canyon
– Devil’s Tower was a major surprise in a good way
– Every American needs to visit at least a few of these parks. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in particular are real national treasures with no equal anywhere else in the world. Get out and see them!
– Driving across the country is a way to keep from being too out of touch with “flyover states”. By driving and stopping in little towns you get a sense of the direction of the economy. For instance, seeing the energy sector in Wyoming, and the agricultural economy of south central Utah.
– Spending that much time in a car with the family was a good bonding experience
– I’m very glad that my brother and I were 18 and 22 respectively before we did this. Kids would go absolutely nuts.
– This trip was really a lot of driving. I am not sure that I would visit so many parks on one trip if I were to plan it over again. A northern loop with Glacier and Yellowstone might be good, with a southern loop based out of Vegas hitting the Southwestern parks.
– Doing the trip with the family limited some of the more extreme/strenuous hikes I could accomplish in each park. I need to revisit Yellowstone to head out into the (vast) back country instead of just scratching the surface.
Would like to return to:
– Zion, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton
– Salt Lake City (in winter)
– Jackson, WY
Regret not hitting:
– Long’s Peak (this stings, it was going to be my first 14’er and I was very ready)
– Glacier NP (will get another time, wouldn’t have been practical for us)
– Great Basin
– Grand Canyon rim to rim trail
Could have lived without:
– So much driving
– Nebraska
– Most of South Dakota

Road Trip Part 4 – Grand Canyon to Moab

Day 8: Grand Canyon North Rim to Moab, UT

This day was a much longer drive than expected for some reason, bu it started out great! We had a leisurely morning at the Grand Canyon, visiting the coffee shop and looking around the lodge before hiking around the visitor’s center area in search of views of the side canyons.

Morning view of the Canyon
Happy to be able to visit the Grand Canyon together

From there, we sat in the car for probably 8 hours. Much of the driving from Arizona to Moab is on U.S. Highways, which, while scenic, are anything but fast to drive on. We finally reached I-70 for the last run into Moab, but in order to get there we had to cross the longest stretch of any Interstate with no motorist services – 119 miles from Salina to Green River, UT through the San Rafael Swell, a weird landscape of angular rock pushed up millions of years ago. It is so foreign looking that apparently they shot scenes from the Planet Vulcan here for the most recent Star Trek movie.

Wikipedia photo of I-70 through the Swell

Moab is a super cool town. I had visited once previously, doing some hiking and canyoneering in the area. Since we had some time to kill in the evening, we headed over to Arches to see the rock formations in the dying light (third National Park sunset in 3 days!)

The La Sal mountains from Arches NP

Day 9: Moab Rafting

I actually have no pictures from today, but it’s for good reason, as we headed out on the Westwater Canyon section of the Colorado River for some whitewater rafting. The most memorable rapid is a nasty one called Skull which runs at Class IV, although it wasn’t nearly as tricky as the guides built it up to be earlier in the day. I had a blast, and the sights in the canyon were really unique.

Westwater Canyon

Evidently some of the oldest rock in the world is exposed in Westwater – a formation called the “Vishnu Schist”. Clearly everyone spend the rest of the day making schist jokes.

Day 10: Moab to Dillon, CO

This was a short day by design, so we took some time in the morning to revisit Arches and see some more of the… well, arches.

Near Delicate Arch
The Firey Furnace
Landscape Arch

The rest of the day consisted of driving out of Utah along I-70 to Frisco, located right in the heart of Colorado ski country. We could start to feel the altitude a bit again here!

The rest of the trip took a more relaxed pace than the more structured tour of the national parks in the Southwest, and we all appreciated the chance to spend a little more time outside the car for once.

Road Trip Part 3 – Tetons to Grand Canyon

Day 5: Yellowstone to Salt Lake City, UT

We knew that Day 5 was going to be a long drive, but also that it would pass some of the most spectacular vistas on the trip (as well as 2 new states for much of the family). We left the park fairly early and fought construction from the South exit of the park until the Grand Teton visitor center. We didn’t spend much time in the park, but did enjoy the great views of the range from the road.

The Grand Teton from the north
Panorama of the range
Grand Teton from the south

The hazy conditions due to forest fires in the area reduced visibility somewhat but not enough to conceal America’s most distinctive mountain range. Passing through Jackson, along the Snake River into Idaho, and then into Utah, we got our first taste of how enormous the West is, and how desolate the parts of the Southwest can be. We rolled into Salt Lake City in the early evening, and I showed the family around Temple Square. I talked them into eating at my favorite restaurant in town, Squatter’s Pub, which was a real treat after road food.

Day 6: Salt Lake City, UT to Springdale, UT

I wanted to do an easy hike in the Wasatch to expose my brother and dad to the beauty of the area without making the trip too difficult or hazardous. We ended up hiking Sunset Peak (for my fourth time) from the Alta side. Needless to say, they both really enjoyed it. I’ve posted lots of pictures of the area on the blog before, but here are some of the nicer ones from that morning:

Devils Castle in the morning light
Twin Lakes from the summit ridge of Sunset Peak

The rest of the day consisted of a fairly lengthy drive on the interstate to Springdale, which is right outside Zion National Park. We took a bus tour of Zion Canyon in the evening as the sun set, and the colors were pretty unreal. It’s a very different view of the Canyon than when I had previously seen it in the morning light.

Zion Canyon
Evening colors as the sun sets – near the entrance to the park


Day 7: Zion National Park to Grand Canyon North Rim

The primary goal of the day was for my brother and I to hike Angel’s Landing. I had hiked it in the spring and really enjoyed it, but he was concerned about the exposure. I told him he had nothing to worry about, and he handled it pretty well.

Waking up early

We got on the first bus into the park, which put us on the trail earlier than anybody (always good for the crowded Angel’s Landing trail).

First view of the valley from higher up on Angel’s Landing
Don’t slip here

We handled the chain section with no problem. My brother who isn’t a very experienced hiker said it wasn’t as bad as he was expecting.

The infamous “knife edge” (not actually that narrow)
Topping out

The second trip up Angel’s Landing presented the same view, but it’ll be

Crazy lower trail carved into the canyon wall

This was my second trip to the top of Angel’s Landing, but I imagine it will always be worth the trip due to the unparallelled view of the rest of the valley and the “exciting” trail!

Back in the Canyon Floor

We hiked out and rode the bus back to our hotel in Springdale, where we linked up with the rest of the family and headed to the Grand Canyon via Kanab. This route goes through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, which was carved out of the sandstone by WPA crews in the 1930’s. It is sort of sketchy with regard to lack of guardrails and narrow parts of the tunnel, but worth it for the views (and for getting to the Grand Canyon of course).

Navajo sandstone domes on the drive to Kanab

From there it was several hours of driving to get to the North Rim. Along the way, we stopped in the little town of Kanab for a quick bite to eat before heading through the Kaibab National Forest to the North Rim visitor’s center. Be advised that there are very few services along this road. It definitely feels like a remote corner of the country, despite the number of visitors.

When we finally arrived (in Arizona time, one hour behind) it was pretty rainy and chilly, although it cleared up enough for us to see a canyon. We were gawking at the view until we realized it was only a side canyon. The main canyon is beyond imagination in scale. It’s easily the largest natural feature I’ve ever seen, wider even I believe than the Yellowstone caldera.

Grand Canyon

Due to the long drive and easily accessible views, we didn’t plan to hike much in the park, but we did walk to a small point by the N. Rim Lodge where we were able to get a pretty good view of the main canyon. We stayed around after dinner until the sun set, and that’s when the scenery really came to life. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, it was just awe inspiring.

Luckily we were done driving for the day, as we had a reservation at one of the cabins. I recommend staying in the park if at all possible, because the drive back to Kanab really would have put a damper on the day and would have made it impossible to watch the sun go down over the canyon.

Road Trip Part 2 – Yellowstone

Day 3: Cody, WY to West Yellowstone, MT

This day was spent primarily exploring the east and northeast sections of Yellowstone National Park. The route to the East Entrance travels through some beautiful country west of Cody, including Buffalo Bill State Park. However, the eastern side of the park has been decimated by fire and pine beetle, leaving the landscape barren of live trees. There are some impressive granite peaks in the area, which reminded me of areas further north in the Rockies into Montana or Canada.

Bison herd near Fishing Bridge

Wildlife sightings in the park are frequent and impressive. There are lots of bison roaming around, and it would be impossible to spend a day in the park without seeing multiple herds.  On the drive into the park, we spotted the other distinguishing feature of Yellowstone – geothermal features.

Steamboat Point, on Lake Yellowstone

Next, we turned North towards Canyon Junction, following the Yellowstone River. We stopped at LeHardy’s Rapids for a short walk down by the river.

LeHardy’s Rapids

Along the way we also stopped at the Mud Volcano. At the time, it was a really cool feature with one of the loudest vents we heard at the park. The amount of water in the ground dictates  the character of the vents. In wet times, geysers and hot springs form. In dry seasons, pure steam exits the ground in fumaroles. Unfortunately, the Mud Volcano area was hit hard by wildfire during the August 2013 wildfire season, so I’m not sure how the area is looking right now. When we visited it was really nice.

Mud Volcano area

We went on our way towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The area south of Canyon Village is open tundra where the Yellowstone River winds around.

The great Yellowstone River

We stopped briefly in traffic before Canyon Village due to a huge bull elk in the woods off to the side of the road. We did not mind the “animal jam” because somehow nobody else in the car had seen an elk before.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is where the river cuts deep into the softer volcanic rock, giving the canyon a crumbly yellow appearance and giving the area its name. It is probably my favorite area of the park due to its spectacular scale.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from lower Yellowstone Falls

We took the trail to the brink of the falls which wasn’t as much elevation loss (and gain) as the park would have you believe. It’s a unique way to see the falls and totally worth the trip. I had previously seen the falls in early Spring, and huge ice formations were on either side of the river, calving off chunks into the water. Those were completely gone by the time of our most recent visit in August.

Before leaving the area we stopped at another couple of overlooks, including one where we had a great view of an osprey nest on an exposed stone pillar.

Lower Falls

By this time it was getting a little late in the day and rain was threatening, so we took the long way round to get out of the park before nightfall. We didn’t stop at Tower Fall but did hike around Mammoth Hot Springs for a little while. The colors were muted because of the flat light, but we still enjoyed seeing the unique terraced formations.

Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs

It took us another hour and a half or so to get out of the park to our hotel (the Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone). Food options in town were largely expensive, tourist-oriented places, but we did appreciate the ice cream options available. West Yellowstone got pleasantly chilly at night, which was appreciated knowing that we were about to descend into the Utah desert in another two days.

Day 4: Yellowstone National Park

Day 4 consisted of a full day in the park. We started out the morning taking our time along the road to Old Faithful. We stopped a couple of times to look at cow elk in the various meadows along the way. Old Faithful was not nearly as exciting as I had remembered, possibly because it was very steamy and the cloud hid the actual column of water. A BBC documentary crew for a kids show was filming nearby and I hope they weren’t too disappointed by the footage in the dryer summer season.

Old Faithful

Next, we wanted to check out some of the other features at Midway Geyser Basin. We stopped at a packed parking lot next to some smaller geysers and lots of steam. After hiking around the boardwalk, we happened upon what we found out was the largest hot spring in the US, the Grand Prismatic Spring.

Grand Prismatic Spring

This hot spring greatly exceeded my expectations. I had no idea that that bacterial mats could produce such vivid colors, and the deep blue color of the water was stunning, especially as the light changed as clouds would roll by and block the sun from time to time.

There were also some other smaller hot springs worth looking at on the same boardwalk.

Opal Pool (I think)

After checking out Old Faithful, we were looking for something to do, so my brother and I decided to hike to the observatory at the top of Mt. Washburn. The drive was sort of long to get there (requiring a drive all the way past Canyon Village and over Dunraven Pass but the hike was fairly easy and well worth the trip. There is a graded 4WD road all the way to the top, where a concrete shelter and fire observer’s home are located. There was a smaller sub-peak that we visited for a better, unobstructed view.

Top of Mt. Washburn looking toward the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Mt. Washburn Panorama (click to expand)

After Mount Washburn, we were pretty tired out and decided to head back to West Yellowstone for a more relaxed evening.

Great American Road Trip – Part One

It’s been a while since I last posted, but I figured I would document what I’ve been up to since leaving Utah. I took my family on a massive road trip around the West, planned for two weeks in a generally counter-clockwise fashion, hitting a number of national parks.

An overview of the route
Night 1 – Rapid City, SD
Night 2 – Cody, WY
Nights 3-4 – West Yellowstone, MT
Night 5 – Salt Lake City, UT
Night 6 – Springdale, UT
Night 7 – Grand Canyon North Rim, AZ
Nights 8-9 – Moab, UT
Night 10 – Frisco, CO
Nights 11-12 – Estes Park, CO
Night 13 – Harlan, IA

Day 1: Iowa to Rapid City, SD

This part of the trip involves getting a lot of the East-West travel out of the way. South Dakota is a big place, no doubt about it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to do.

Mitchell, SD – Best food stop between Sioux City and Rapid City. The “World’s Only Corn Palace” is forgettable.

Badlands National Park – Great intro to the geology of the area, since it’s all cut away for you! Decent wildlife spotting opportunities (prairie dogs, birds). We appreciated the chance to get out of the car and climb around on the mud hills for a while. There is a gas station on the turn off to the park where you can see a colony of white prairie dogs.

White prairie dog
Driving in Badlands
Badlands overlook

Wall, SDWall Drug dominates this tiny town. You will see signs for Wall Drug every half mile after you leave Sioux City, and it is worth the few minutes it takes to stop and look around.

This was taken more than 200 miles from the store.

Sturgis, SD – The Sturgis Rally was ongoing while we passed through the area, and it was amazing to see so many Harley motorcycles in one place! Definitely adds character to the region.

Rapid City, SD – A military base absolutely drives the local economy here, which looks like it has seen better days. Good lodging options here (better than Mt. Rushmore at least!)

Day 2: Rapid City, SD to Cody, WY

This was one of our most ambitious days in terms of sightseeing. Wyoming is a BIG state and we had a lot on the list.

Mt. Rushmore – Definitely worth seeing since we were in the area. We saw a mountain goat, which I thought was highly unusual. The park service didn’t seem to think so.

Mountain goat near the visitors center (!)
It’s amazing once you see how they carved it out. Get up close or it doesn’t look that impressive.

Black Hills – Challenging driving because of all the campers. Don’t forget to look for Crazy Horse on your way out of town! We didn’t pay to get close but it will be amazing once completed.

Devil’s Tower – This was a last-minute decision, but we are all so glad we visited. The loop hike around the tower doesn’t take long but exposes you to this surreal natural feature. We saw many climbers on different routes in the afternoon shade.

It’s cool to consider how this formed
Doesn’t get more “Western” that that

Big Horn Mountains / Tensleep Canyon – We made it back to I-90 but I highly suggest turning off at Buffalo, WY and heading over the Big Horn mountains on Highway 16 if weather conditions are good. The highway goes over Powder River Pass at 9,666′ and descends down the gorgeous Tensleep Canyon to Worland. It got a little grey and rainy, but we all still enjoyed the scenery on this part.

Big Horn mountains from near Buffalo, WY (east of the range)
Ten Sleep Canyon

Worland / Greybull – The Central plains of Wyoming are a strange place. Worland is a small town but has a surprising number of acceptable chain restaurants. It is probably your last chance to get food before Cody. Greybull is even smaller. Soon we had arrived in Cody, just outside Yellowstone, for our second night’s accommodations.