When we last left our heroes they were exhausted after two days of driving, searching for a place to stay in Mitchell, South Dakota, and full of delicious Chinese food. This is the continuation of their story…
On the morning of the third day of the trip, I rose from my bed and opened the drapes of the motel room window, shocked to find everything covered in heavy droplets of water, the rising sun gloriously reflecting off. While we slept, the land and sky of Mitchell got a nice wash from a passing rainstorm; the air was fresh (thank heavens, that smell was gone) and the car was clean. We spent some time getting prepped for the day, headed over to the motel office for a complimentary continental breakfast of bagels and waffles (that’s #2 if you’re keeping track) and got underway again.
South Dakota continued on much the same way as it started. It was covered in grass and in some spots wildflowers, with light hills on the north side of I-90. The rainstorm from the night before had brought some nice looking clouds to the sky, and their shapes sparsely dotted the sky allowing for plenty of sun to get through. It was around this point in the trip that I realized just what the term “big sky” meant. The flat land gave us a horizon in nearly every direction, sky filling up just about half of our world. Wind energy developments were notably sparser here than Minnesota, though occasionally one would be visible off in the distance.
When we reached the Missouri River, just about halfway across the state, things began to change immediately (déjà vu). The land instantly became more rocky and rugged and shortly after that, so did the time zone. Mountain Standard Time seemed a bit odd considering we were still in the prairies, but it’s not really named for that part of the zone now is it? We stopped for gas at a station just off the highway, near a town with grain elevators and farms. The towns here were becoming smaller and more spread out, and those famous signs for Wall Drug started popping up every ten miles or so. I swore I didn’t want to spend any time at that tourist trap; so far so good. In the distance I spied larger rock formations approaching. This meant some excitement was in order. We were coming to one of the larger detours I planned into the trip; a trek through the Badlands.
The Badlands are certainly an interesting sight. In a nutshell, there’s a prairie to the north covered in grass, and a prairie on the south, also covered in grass but about 250 feet lower. In the middle is some of the gnarliest, most unforgiving terrain I’ve ever seen. There are cliffs, thousands of tiny canyons, buttes, and giant pointy rocks covering the land, at some points with lookout points and trails. Obviously we were on a bit of a schedule so we didn’t spend hours hiking or exploring, but we did stop at a number of those lookouts. The day was wonderfully clear and I could see for miles across the green prairies below the Badlands. The air was dry and the wind was warm as it blew across the grasses. The view to the north was reminiscent of “Bliss,” the Windows XP wallpaper. The rocks to the south there were striped with water marks; red, grey and occasionally yellow rings at varying heights, smoothed by years of erosion. (If you’re lucky, a stylized photo of these is the image at the top of the blog! If not, it’s right here) We spent maybe an hour and a half driving the route through the state park. We stopped briefly at the visitors center to do something (I can’t recall what) before we decided to stop somewhere for lunch.
The nearest town on the road back to I-90 was Wall, South Dakota. I guess that means we’re heading to Wall Drug after all. Damn. It really wasn’t that bad. Wall Drug is more than just a store, it’s basically annexed an entire block on both sides and contains restaurants, stores, and gift shops. The road between and its central parking spots were filled with motorcycles (of course) and there must have been hundreds of people walking around the storefronts. Wall is a very small town, and this seems to be the only place anyone ever goes there. It wasn’t bad though; the buildings are stylized to be old-western, but the insides of the newer ones were charming and rustic with stone and unevenly cut wood architecture. As with any tourist trap there was a lot of kitsch and I wasn’t buying any of it (literally). Still, I found that place interesting in its own way, just not quite as enthralling as the rocks I’d seen an hour earlier. We got lunch at the nearby Dairy Queen along with what must have been twenty or so other non-Wall-natives and once again headed off toward California.
The grasslands came and went, the Badlands and their rocky relatives stayed on the south, motorcycles continued to pass at an ever increasing frequency and the road went ever on. A surprisingly short time later, we came to an exit that we decided we would be foolish to not take advantage of: Mt. Rushmore. It was about 20 miles off of the highway through the Black Hills past Rapid City. The Black Hills were incredibly fun to drive through. I think I was the one powering through this part of the trip, and with my Saturn ION tugging a loaded trailer, we averaged about 20 mph heading up the hills on a 65 mph road. The poor car toughed it out though, and we cruised down the other side of every hill like a runner taking a victory lap after a full sprint. Eventually we passed through the lovely settlement of Keystone and climbed up to our destination at last. Being a somewhat popular attraction, the was a significant queue at the entry gates and we were stuck for some time. After getting in we somehow found a spot appropriate for a car and trailer and made haste wandering up to the memorial.
The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is beautiful. It’s built of granite blocks and has a stone plaza that leads to the monument with flags of every state adorning its flanks. At the end is an amphitheater; it was more or less empty when we got there and what they show there I don’t know. However, above it carved into the mountain was the glorious presidential sculpture. My first impression was “Wow, that’s small.” I’m aware that their eyes are taller than I am, but compared to all of the photographs and illustrations I’d seen in my life, it was just so diminutive. Of course it was still quite far away, and in person it really is very impressive. There was also museum there showing the history and construction effort and I strolled through briefly. Did you know each of the presidents were supposed to have full torsos, 450,000 tons of rock were blasted off the mountain, and John F. Kennedy was supposed to get a head on there too? Two truths and a lie.
No matter how amazing a feat of human engineering and artistry is, I really can’t bring myself to spend more than an hour looking at it. We retreated to the car and headed on our way back toward Rapid City. The hills gave a challenge yet again, up-shifting and down-shifting to find no equilibrium. At least going 20 mph let us enjoy the scenery. The Black Hills are gorgeous with their evergreen forests, steep hills, and exposed rock faces. Rapid City is not, however, some place I’d call gorgeous. It’s just a relatively plebeian city, not really notable in any way, and somewhere I’d probably grow bored in. Once through the city and back on the highway, I-90 took a turn to the northwest toward the small sleepy town of Sturgis. Hey, isn’t that where the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is? Good memory! Yes, that is indeed where all of those motorcycles that had been passing us for days were heading. As expected, most of them got off at the exit for Sturgis, and at this point, we began to see them coming down the west lanes in the other direction. Imagine that.
The very western side of South Dakota was very three-dimensional. I-90 cuts north of the Black Hills, but they remain alongside the highway, forming slight valleys at times. A short clearing later and Wyoming was upon us. I immediately felt like I was in the wild west and I thought I should be seeing cowboys riding horses and shooting buffalo on the side of the road. The Black Hills gave way to rolling brown hills covered in dry grass and shrubs and as usual, this continued on for some time. Occasionally a rocky butte would spring up out of the land, but this was uncommon. Near Gillette, Wyoming we stopped for gas briefly, and I took note of an enormous coal mine, a quarry blacker than anything I’d ever seen before. Later research taught me that Gillette is the “Energy Capital of the Nation” and given the motherlode I saw I’m not surprised. Around this time we were calling hotels to book rooms before we arrived. We settled on staying in Buffalo, Wyoming for the night. (Buffalo!)
As we approached, the Bighorn Mountains appeared on the horizon and my heart was set aflutter. These were the first mountains we’d seen on our trip and I could not wait to conquer them. The sun set over them as we entered the city of Buffalo, looking for food. We decided not get Chinese food that night, instead opting to eat at the apparently renowned Occidental Hotel. The inside was odd, with ugly wallpaper and old wooden stuff. We’re pretty sure that the guy a table over from us was a food critic of some kind. I had a steak and it was okay, nothing special. After dinner we drove to the hotel, a beautiful Hampton Inn. Since the night was cool and the Wyoming air was fresh, I once again elected to camp in my car. I cracked the windows, covered my eyes, and fell asleep to the sound of the sprinklers on the lawn nearby.
I awoke the next morning as rested as one could be after sleeping in a car, ready to face the rugged terrain of Wyoming. One of the places I was most looking forward to seeing, Yellowstone National Park, was on the itinerary for the day and I was excited to say the least. I took a shower in one of the prettiest bathrooms I’d ever been in and we grabbed breakfast downstairs. After consulting with the front desk about routes through the mountains, we elected to go directly west from Buffalo across the Bighorn mountains; we chose scenery over ease of travel, which in retrospect was probably the best choice.
Eastern Wyoming is (ironically, considering the context) nothing to write home about, but central and western Wyoming brought me some of my absolute favorite scenery and sights. The Bighorn Mountains are covered in temperate evergreen forests, and as the road winds up the slopes, the valleys below and in the distance are incredibly scenic. Once again the car was having fun getting itself up the mountains, but this time we were more prepared for what lay ahead. The crest of the mountains was surprisingly disappointing, and there wasn’t much to see. In fact, I’m not even sure where the point was that we started descending. Regardless, the road began to wind down into a rocky valley carved over millennia by a single babbling brook. Not driving this time, I took full advantage of my camera. If only I had an overhead view, I could have taken a picture of the hairpin turn we navigated. Seriously, it actually looks like a hairpin. Gradually the valley blended into flat land, yellow rocks turned red, and we ended up surrounded once again by small towns and farms, albeit with mountains behind us as well. Very green grass popped up as rocky mounds of red rose behind; if I didn’t need to socialize or to work for money, I would probably find my way back there and build a house. So many colours, so much space, so few people.
We drove through this fertile farmland for a little bit before rejoining US-20/US-16 near the town of Basin. It still blows my mind that US-20, a road that runs right through my hometown and one I’d even driven multiple times from there across New York state to RPI, goes all the way through Wyoming. Crazy. And so we took that road through the empty expanses of central Wyoming, passing through the small town of Greybull before heading west across a flat plain surrounded by rough hills and plateaus. Eventually we came across a sign for a town that made the two of us chuckle. The sign was for Emblem, Wyoming, and written below the town name were the words “Population: 10.” Remember how I thought Mendota, Illinois was small? Yeah, not anymore. Emblem consists of about two houses and some kind of post office-like structure. In about 10 seconds we had come and gone. Mountains grew on the horizon yet again, and soon enough we approached what appeared to be a sizable human settlement. It even had an airport! It was the city of Cody, Wyoming, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. There were beautiful new visitor centers there and the large metal supports for traffic signs that crossed over the roads were colored brown to look somewhat like logs. There’s also a Chinese lunch buffet there. Score. We stopped to eat briefly, heading on afterward into the mountains rising over Cody.
The road danced with a rocky creek canyon before entering a tunnel, emerging on the other side along side a lake. Immediately I asked that we pull over, and there just happened to be a convenient parking lot there. Upstream on that creek was a dam, the Buffalo Bill dam, and behind it lay the Buffalo Bill reservoir. Being a fan of hydroelectricity and river-stopping infrastructure, I was thrilled. The mountains split to form a steep canyon just beyond the dam, and they sank down into the choppy green-brown water of the reservoir in the other direction. There was a visitors center for the dam, but we decided not to dawdle since the glorious sights of Yellowstone beckoned. Driving along the Shoshone River, the mountains surrounding the valley grew ever larger until they became jagged walls in the distance. Though it was a several hour drive, it seemed to go by in a flash. Yellowstone was here.
We passed through the entry gate and climbed for what seemed like an eternity into grey-green mountains adorned with evergreen trees (both living and burnt to a crisp) and snow. It was August 7th, but there was snow in the mountains. (Coincidentally, this is to date one of the last times I’ve seen snow.) At the crest of the road, we were treated to a beautiful vista of Yellowstone Lake, snow-capped mountains in the distance, burned forests below, and thick rainclouds looming overhead. Driving down toward the lake, the smell of sulfur grew in the air. Along the lake were jets of steam rising out of the earth, the likes of which I had not seen since a trip to Hawaii in 2001. The water was incredibly choppy as stormy winds manifest over the middle of the lake. We passed several beaches that were devoid of people, covered in flotsam, and being buffeted by cold waves. It terrifies me to think about swimming in that water.
Sometime later we came upon the Fishing Bridge visitors center and stopped in for a quick romp. Just up the road was the Fishing Bridge, a wooden bridge crossing the Yellowstone River at the lake. I don’t recall seeing many fish in the water, but I stubbed my toe something fierce on an unsuspecting rock. There were some boats on the river and the skies were sprinkled with friendly puffy clouds, the prospect of a rainless day making me happy. Driving up the loop road along the Yellowstone River made me nervous. Just off the side of the road I could see rapids as the river flowed onward and I couldn’t help but imagine how screwed I would be if I somehow ended up in it.
The first real scenic stop allayed my worried mind though, and we pulled over for the Mud Volcano and Dragon Mouth Spring. This place was awesome. There were pools of water sitting there just happily boiling while the surrounding dry mud cracked. A short walk up the boardwalk and we come upon the Dragon Mouth Spring, a turbulent pool connected to a steaming cave. The water inside the cave was sloshing madly and the sound was violently loud, no doubt linked to a magma chamber of some kind. I stared in amazement at the sheer energy being knocked around in that tiny little pool. Further up the path and we come to the mud volcano. Similar to the Dragon Mouth it was an energetic little pool, but this one was as the name suggests made of mud. Bubbling, hot mud.
Occasionally it would blast a massive spurt into the air, to the delight of those watching. In the area there were also a number of fumaroles, muddy holes where volcanic gasses escape out of the planet’s crust. They smelled so very sulfurous, and since they were not moving or entertaining in any way really, I decided to return back down to the start of the path and check out the boiling pools once again.
Soon we were back on the loop road heading north along the Yellowstone River, and we pass through a clearing where people are out with cameras, some set up with tripods. I didn’t see anything particularly interesting, but eventually we notice that there are buffalo out across the river! Cool, I’d never seen a buffalo in person before. So up we go on the road until we come across brake lights.
There’s a massive traffic jam and we have no idea why. I attribute it to the upcoming intersection near the waterfalls, but it turns out that idea was completely wrong. We see that traffic is starting to move just up ahead, and there seems to be a similar traffic jam starting in the opposite lane there. As we round a slight bend we become aware of what’s holding up traffic. A massive buffalo is standing just off the road in the woods, minding its own business, perhaps frozen still out of terror. Of course, I roll down the window and snap a few pictures as we pass.
Just after the buffalo was the turn toward the waterfalls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I’d looked at pictures of the Lower Falls while planning the trip and determined it was something I definitely needed to see. In person, the grand canyon is so much more glorious. It’s made of yellow stone (huh, that explains a lot) cut by a pair of waterfalls slowly making their way upstream. From our vantage point, the canyon dropped at least 700 feet to the river and of course I made sure to slowly inch toward the edge to avoid falling. The Lower Falls cascade is absolutely gorgeous. The sheer volume of water flowing over the precipice was impressive (again, not something I’d like to be caught in) and the mist gave the rocks at the base a healthy green color. The Upper Falls was a bit hard to see through the trees, as it lies around a bend in the river upstream from the Lower Falls. Across the grand canyon I spotted a long staircase winding its way down the canyon-side to a vista point on the rock face. The people walking down there were braver folks than I.
As we left the Grand Canyon overlook, we continued along the loop road, curving around to the south. The only things to see along this stretch were evergreen trees, distant mountains, and the occasional creek flowing near the road. It was getting late in the day and there were only a few more places I wanted to visit. The first is probably the most well-known feature of Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful. We arrived there not too long after an eruption so the crowds were relatively thin. It had also just rained there apparently since everything was wet. What a fun way to spend a half-hour. Crowds gathered and the clock counted down to the next estimated eruption. Soon enough hot water started to fizzle out of that hole in the ground, blasting jets tens of feet in the air. The crowd went wild, but I found myself underwhelmed. The geyser itself went on for a few minutes shooting water into the air with a pffffff sound before it suddenly ended. I guess I expected more. And so we left before the crowds got to their cars and we headed back up the road from whence we came.
The last stop on our tour of Yellowstone, and my absolute favorite feature of the park, was the Grand Prismatic Spring, a deep blue pool of hot water surrounded by orange mats of bacteria that blend to yellow and green as they enter the spring. I couldn’t wait to get there. The spring itself lies across the Firehole River from the parking area, and boiling orange streams of water could be seen flowing into the river right next to the bridge. Now this is point where things get interesting. Already late in the day and being threatened with rain since we left the Grand Canyon, drops of water start to fall from the sky. I grabbed my umbrella and headed onward.
The rain starts to pour, and those visitors already at the spring decided it would be a good time to leave. I start to advance up the boardwalk across the river, but my flip-flops lend me no traction on the artificial wood surface. The winds start to pick up and I’m forced to hold my umbrella in front of me, pressing on as tourists walk briskly in the opposite direction. At this point I’m going blindly forward into the wind and rain on shoes that threaten to land me on my ass at any point. Okay, so I make my way around the boardwalk, stopping to take pictures of the Excelsior Geyser Crater, a light blue pool of steaming water deep in a rocky crater, the wind and rain at my back blocked by my umbrella. Another brave soul has decided to stay out there and admire the springs despite the weather. I pass by and continue up the boardwalk where it turns back into the rain. The rain causes the steam off of the Grand Prismatic Spring to become very thick and I’m now blinded by more than just my umbrella. Eventually I work my way slowly over to where the spring should be (I knew because there was a sign there), but as I mentioned, there’s thick steam all around. Fortunately, at this time the rain decided to stop and I was able to disarm my umbrella.
This was not the ideal situation for grabbing a shot of the Grand Prismatic Spring, but I managed to get something. I was ecstatic. The orange wet ground expanded out from the edge of the spring beneath the boardwalk and down toward the river, something I’d never seen anything like before. Now this was the point where my camera battery, exhausted from a long day of shooting, decided to go to sleep. I managed to jolt it awake a few more times but soon I gave up, since my mom was getting pictures as well. (Thanks, mom!) I admired the blue-brown dichotomy of the Opal Pool and the aptly named Turquoise Pool before we headed back down the path to the bridge, green steaming streams following along down into the river. It’s been almost a year since this happened, but I remember it just as vividly as if it were today. Though the rain wasn’t exactly what I wanted, it made for quite an adventure and I’m really glad it happened that way. Someday I’ll return and get some pictures in good weather :).
And so we left the Grand Prismatic Spring and headed out of the park toward the town of West Yellowstone, Montana. Along the way it was stormy, with dark clouds obscuring the sun setting over sharp mountain peaks. The state line of Montana was crossed with little notice in the middle of a dense forest, but fortunately West Yellowstone had a big welcome sign. It got dark as we progressed through Montana and we reached the state line of Idaho and the continental divide before it got too dark. We were now left with the challenge of finding lodging and dinner in the empty unknown of northeastern Idaho. After at least an hour driving down US-20, we limped into the town of Ashton, Idaho and booked a room at the first
hotel motel we saw. We grabbed dinner at what seemed to be the only restaurant in town open at the time, which just happened to be across the street. I had a hamburger and I made sure it was all together (thanks, waitress). We left the car in the parking lot across the street from the motel, next to the restaurant (too far from me for comfort, but alas what could I do?). Opting this time to lodge inside, I hooked up my camera battery to charge, and quickly passed out in my bed.
Stats at the end of Part Two:
- Days: 2
- Total days: 4
- Miles traveled: 953
- Total miles traveled: 2,221
- State count: 4 (SD, WY, MT, ID)
- Total state count: 13 (NY, PA, OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN, IA, SD, WY, MT, ID)
- Time zone count: 2 (CST, MST)
- Total time zone count: 3 (EST, CST, MST)
- Notable license plates in this part: Delaware (seriously)
- Total times eaten Chinese food: 3
- Total continental breakfasts: 3
- Amount of corn seen: basically none!
- Motorcyclist density: peaked, then precessed in the opposite direction
- Notable “cities”: Rapid City, SD; Buffalo, WY; Cody, WY
State Welcome Sign gallery: