I love road trips – especially in the US. I think its all that space – driving for days and days without falling into the sea! Well, here is a trip that is nowhere near the sea but will tick a lot of amazing iconic sites (and sights!) off your wish list….
I’m so guilty of trying to pack in too much – (reminds me of those awful whirlwind European tours where you ‘see’ the continent in 10 days!). But I just spot something on the map and think we can’t miss that although it might put an extra day onto an already illogical route (I’m just building my defence here for all you US readers who might think this was a bit mad!).
Before we set off:
This is not a detailed recount of all the fabulous national parks we visited – each of which is worthy of a post in itself – this is just an overview of what one can experience and enjoy in this part of the world….
Note: I have lost almost every photo from about 2009 to 2015. So the following are all stock photos….but everything else is me!
A Road Trip Diary
Its summer 2014 and we are heading to the US West / Midwest with a ridiculous 11 night itinerary. If you are prepared for a lot of driving, then this trip will take in so many US landmarks … its great.
Start / Finish: Denver, Colorado
Fly to Denver (via NYC). Arrive late evening (local time) .
Downtown Hotel (The Curtis). Short orientation walk.
Our first American breakfast – off to Corner Bakery for eggs, bacon, home fries, smoothie….
There’s a free shuttle up to the Capitol where we join the 10.00am free guided tour. You can stand on the steps of the Capitol for your selfie – exactly one mile above sea level. Back through the 1.2 mile 16th Street Mall towards the river. There’s no time to enjoy the city’s great museums and galleries or even the River North Art District. We’ve a bit of lunch before collecting the car from Budget (downtown) and we’re off at about 2.00pm…..
Denver to Grand Junction (4 hours)
We could have spent another few hours in Denver – there will be nothing for us in Grand Junction except a motel. But we’re jet lagged and decide to get there early, maybe grab something to eat in a diner (has to be a diner!), have an early night and get on the road promptly the following morning…
Ah…. the best laid plans……
Well what do we spot a mere 15 miles out of the city – signs for the Coors Brewery! Here we are – at its home in the Rockies! We have to drop in there… except- you can’t really ‘drop in’ – there’s a queue, and a shuttle, and a tour, and tasting…..
I LOVE DETOURS!!!!
We get the usual brewery tour and tastings…. 4 samples each as I recall. There are non alcohol options but to be fair, Tom only takes 2 soft drinks so I do very well….
The town of Golden profits greatly, I suspect, from Brewery traffic. There is a selection of restaurants close to the car park so we eat there before heading off.
Several hours after first seeing the brewery sign we’re back on the road!
Arrive Grand Junction (El palomino Motel) 10.00pm
Grand Junction – Salt Lake City (4.5hrs)
Up early and on the road. A long drive but the motorway is actually quite nice in parts.
Arrive SLC lunchtime (Hampton Inn)
Downtown is easily walkable and all roads lead to Temple Square. Here is the headquarters of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) encompassing Visitors’ Centres, Temple, Tabernacle, Libraries and Museums. You can visit the the house where Brigham Young lived and wander through the park which was once part of his farm. Most areas are open to visitors, except for the Temple which is only accessible to Church members.
Its very easy to spend a few hours here. We find it all very interesting as we know very little about the Church and its people. We meet several members of the congregation in the complex who are more than willing to chat.
We spend longer than intended at Temple Square so don’t get to see a whole lot more of the city. We wander through the nearby City Creek Centre and down to see the Capitol.
PM… make our way out to Red Iguana Mexican Restaurant, about a mile from the city centre. Have to queue for a while but worth the walk…
SLC – Jackson Hole (4hrs)
We leave the city and look forward to great views of the lake but its not to be – apart from the odd glimpse, its a disappointing stretch of highway. Our route does bring us into Idaho for a bit though – for anyone interested in clocking up US States! Its another long drive but we arrive into Jackson Hole in early afternoon. The town is compact enough so easy to wander about. Its what you’d expect from a tourist hub but it still has lots of character and is nice for a couple of days.
We enjoy the Shootout at 6.00 at the town square and dinner in Bubba’s. We’re spending 2 nights at the Antler Inn – yes – 2!- what a treat! – we can actually unpack the bags!
Grand Teton National Park
I’d never even heard of the Teton Mountains until I started reading up on this trip. We allow one full day in the park – yes – I know – far too little.
En route we HAVE to stop off at Dornan’s Chuckwagon for breakfast – pancakes, French toast and a wonderful setting!
Once at the park, a quick call into a Visitor’s Centre sorts us out (where the staff are always so wonderful and tolerant of persons like us who arrive with zero plan). A great 42 mile loop would pull in many of the park’s main sights and wonderful photo opportunities. At Jenny Lake we decide to shun the shuttle boat and walk around the lake for a bit – we’re turn back after about 20 minutes as there is ‘bear activity’ up ahead (huge excitement!!) so we end up on the boat after all. The place names alone are brilliant – Snake River, Moose-Wilson Road, Elk Island, Deadman’s Bar Road – great stuff!!
Our day’s excitement doesn’t stop at the Park … No – we’ve another treat in store – Back in Jackson Hole after dinner, we head for the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar! I don’t know what its like during the week but this is Saturday night. We’re rather early so get a brilliant table overlooking the dance floor. I’ve NEVER seen anything like it – but imagine Dirty Dancing with country music. This isn’t a cabaret floor show – this is the locals out for their weekend fling. What a night!
Day 6 – 8
We allow 2.5 days in Yellowstone National Park. It being high season, and of course no possibility of accommodation in the park, we’d a bit of planning done beforehand. We spend the first night in West Yellowstone (Branding Iron Inn) just west of the park and the following night in Gardiner (Best Western) to the north (both are actually in Montana so there’s another state for you!!). Neither are up there on my list of ‘to die for destinations’ but they do the job – somewhere to eat and sleep. We lunch each day in the park lodges.
Needless to say the park is incredible. We see our first bear almost straight away so that ticks that box! We love the geysers, the bison, the lakes and the walks. We catch a few Ranger talks which always adds so much to the experience.
We spend the morning in the park and leave by the East entrance and on to Cody (we won’t mention being stopped for speeding – luckily getting away with just a warning!).
Founded in 1896 by one Colonel William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, we have 3 things on our ‘to do list’ here:
-Buffet at the famous Irma Hotel
-The Buffalo Bill Centre
The Irma Hotel was built by the man himself and named after his daughter. Queen Victoria donated a cherrywood bar. Its still a charming place with moose and elk adorning the walls although, needless to say, somewhat overrun by tourists.
An amateur rodeo takes place weekly throughout the Summer at the specially built stadium in town. All good fun – especially if you’ve never had the experience elsewhere.
The Buffalo Bill Centre is huge and takes a few hours to even get an overview. Founded in 1917, it documents Cody’s life through exhibits, stories and film.
Cody to Devils Tower (5 hours)
The very, very long drive doesn’t dampen my excitement (much!). As a huge ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ fan, I’m so looking forward to this!
Long a sacred place, the Kiowa and Lakota tribes have the story that a group of girls climbed on a rock to escape a sleuth of bears. Their prayers to the Great Spirit for rescue were answered – the Great Spirit made the rock rise to the heavens, putting the girls out of reach of the bears. The bears tried to climb the rock, leaving long claw marks on the rock.
Opinions on the Tower’s origin vary but most theories centre around some sort of volcanic activity. The Visitor Centre offers the usual exhibits and activities. There is a selection of trails in the park. We opt for the most popular – a 1.3 mile loop around the Tower. You can’t miss ‘Prairie Dog Town’ close to the park entrance – stop for a few minutes and watch the little creatures at play.
On we go and reach Keystone, South Dakota (Brookside Lodge) at about 8.30pm. This town serves as a useful hub for several major attractions and offers the usual assortment of accommodation and eateries. We spend 2 nights here.
Keystone to Mount Rushmore (8 minutes)
Well this has to be one of the country’s most famous landmarks. I’ll whittle the millions of ‘interesting facts’ associated with its creation down to the bare bones:
The idea of the sculpture dates back to just 1923 – local historian Doane Robinson had no deep ideological or spiritual motive – no – he just wanted to attract tourists to the area!
The presidents were chosen for their contribution to the country:
George Washington (1789 – 1797) was the country’s first president,
Thomas Jefferson (1801 -1809) was author of the Declaration of Independence,
Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865) led the US through civil war and ended slavery,
Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1901) represented the industrial growth of the country.
Over 400 men worked on the construction. They were mostly miners who had come to the Black Hills looking for gold. Incredibly, no one died during construction.
The granite erodes roughly 1 inch every 10,000 years!
Keytsone to Badlands National Park (90 minutes)
Hostile living conditions led the Lakota Indians to call the area ‘mako sica’ meaning ‘land bad’. Later, French-Canadian fur trappers wholeheartedly agreed, naming it ‘les mauvais terres pour traverse’ – ‘bad lands to travel through’
Needless to say, a half day whirlwind runaround does not do justice. We follow our visit to the Visitor Centre with the 31 mile Scenic Drive loop which winds its way through the park, leading to various trails and overlooks. The terrain is stunning and the colour is spectacular. Some trails are short enough to enjoy even on a short visit such as ours.
There are ads for Wall Drug Store all along the highway. At just about 15 minutes drive from the park, you have to drop in really – even if only for your souvenirs or a snack!
Mount Rushmore Lighting Ceremony
Every night in season, Mount Rushmore is illuminated for a few hours. Its worth a return visit if you overnight in the area.
Keystone to Crazy Horse Memorial (11 miles)
Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a memorial to Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, who fought against settlers and government in the 19th century to preserve Indian territory. The first blast was on June 3rd, 1948, (seven years after the completion of Mount Rushmore). The scale of the project is mind blowing – the finished work will be nearly 10 times larger than Mount Rushmore.
From the beginning, Ziolkowski was adamant that it be built by the people rather than the government. For more than 35 years, he volunteered his time while turning down government funding. He relied on admission fees and donations to keep the project going. When he began on the memorial, he was almost 40 years old. He married a young volunteer, Ruth Ross, and they had 10 children – several of whom, along with grandchildren, continue with his work.
The Black Hills
The hills are covered in evergreen trees which give them a dark appearance from the distance – hence the name. The region’s economy once depended on its natural resources – mining and timber – but the tourism industry is now huge in the area. Needless to say, you could dedicate a full vacation to its trails, waterfalls and streams but you get a flavour of the locality even just driving around. We manage to get to Spearfish Canyon Scenic Drive and enjoy a few shorter trails.
For most of our trip, especially throughout Wyoming, we come across droves and droves of motorcyclists. They are everywhere – every motel, restaurant, petrol station, park….. We assume its just a summer thing – enjoying the great outdoors or whatever. We do wonder however, why so many businesses display ‘BIKERS WELCOME HERE’ signs. We discover – luckily last minute before we leave Keystone – that we are less than an hour from the town of Sturgis. We’ve never heard of it of course but its home to a massive annual motorcycle rally – and our timing is spot on! We head north instead of south and join the convoy of bikers into the town. We miraculously get parking and, even more miraculously, find the perfect first floor balcony perch in one of the bars on Main Street. And there we sit for ages, watching the scene unfold below as literally thousands of bikers roll into town. It is fantastic – and we’re not even bikers- for enthusiasts it must be paradise itself. The energy and atmosphere is a joy. We have to drag ourselves away…
Now that we’ve deviated a bit off route anyway, we head towards the town of Deadwood which will bring us back to the main road home…
OK – touristy – but GREAT! Most buildings in town were built before 1900 and the whole place is a designated National Historic Landmark. On top of that, it has legalized gambling establishments.
You can have a wander around and maybe catch some of the staged shootouts and buy a few souvenirs but WE HIT THE JACKPOT… no not literally (although we do try our luck with a few dollars)…. No… Casinos mean buffets but, better still, this is Friday evening and Friday is Crabclaw and Prime Rib Buffet at the Silverado Casino.
So what’s the big deal you ask – well you see – we wouldn’t have those massive claws at home – unless we pay a small fortune for one in a fancy restaurant. Here we are with a many as we can eat – plus everything else of course – for $25 each! It is an eyeopener to say the least! Picture the scene…. dozens of bikers and us filling the dining room. The chefs cannot produce crabclaws fast enough – they come out by the trough. Everyone piles their plates about a foot high with crab… very little else. Then they head for the garlic butter tap and then off to their seats. We watch and learn as piles of discarded shell form mountains in the middle of each table. We stack our own plates high and pick a selection of tools that look like they belong in an arts and craft basket. We find a booth – that’s very important because we need privacy! And we get down to it, practicing with the tools – cracking and poking – until we’re pros! Bliss! Back up for more….and more….. We leave just enough space to sample a few other dishes, go play a few slots and check our watches.
What a finale! How can we top that!
Time to go home!
Deadwood to Lusk (2 hours)
Lusk to Airport (3.5hrs)
Back to airport for 3.00pm flight.
We’re always wise after the fact aren’t we! But here are a few reflections on the trip:
Depending on price of flights, it would have made more sense to fly into Salt Lake City and out of Denver. It would have saved on a lot of driving and would have allowed for a full day in SLC and a full day in Denver.
Timing is everything – I try not to overplan but when you’re on a whirlwind trip, its worth checking what’s on…. the best craic we had all came from being in the right place at the right time – Saturday night in Jackson Hole, Friday crab claws in Deadwood – not to mention the rally in Sturgis….
Everything was a bit of a rush, although, as you know, you do what you have to do…. There was a lot of driving, and a lot of National Parks that were just barely explored. I’d have loved more leisure days to enjoy some walks etc.
Dornan’s for breakfast.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar
Those crab claws!
If I ever go back:
I’ve no great desire to see the major landmarks like Mount Rushmore, etc. again so I’d concentrate on the National Parks – Grand Teton and Badlands in particular.
There’s a lot of driving – don’t skimp on the car rental or on insurance. Remember that if you don’t fly in and out of the same airport, you may be charged excess for a different drop off point .
Have a rough idea where you’re going each day and prebook accommodation as soon as you book your flights – especially if traveling in high season.
Plan wisely (says she!!) so that you don’t spend the whole trip in the car. Remember that the best bits will probably happen by accident – allow time for detours, spontaneity etc.
Work out in advance how many National Parks you’ll be visiting – it’ll probably work out cheaper to buy an annual pass.
Buy a cheap cool box straight away so that you can have a ready supply of cold drinks. You’ll pick up ice everywhere…