Leaving Banff via the Trans-Canada Highway, we made our way toward Calgary. Situated about 120 kilometers east of Banff, Calgary lies at the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Its climate and setting is not dissimilar to Denver as you travel east on I-70 in Colorado. With our plans up in the air at this point, we were essentially knocking down miles as we figured things out.
Bozeman seemed like an excellent second option as Glacier was crossed off the list. It had us reminiscing about our detour to Palm Springs when Yosemite didn’t work out (also due to snowstorm) as we road tripped from PHX to Seattle.
Crossing back into the States at the Sweet Grass, MT port of entry, the windy high plains were put on display. The great flat expanse of the plains gave us an excellent view of the storm moving south and parallel to us, along the Rockies to the west. We were trying to outrun the storm as the winds picked up and clouds collected about a hundred miles to our right.
Eventually passing the danger zone of the storm, the ride became rather boring and the unending plains had us craving some undulation.
Enter: Missouri River Valley.
The valley carved through the plains and laid the track where Lewis and Clark’s expedition team had traveled 200 years ago. The headwaters of the Missouri are cradled by rocky hills and volcanic cliffs from eruptions some 75 million years ago. Owning the title of longest river in the U.S., the Missouri River weaves and meanders over 2,300 miles from Three Forks, MT to its mouth near St. Louis, where it serves as a tributary to the Mississippi.
As we belted out “People Need a Melody” by The Head and the Heart, the Big Sky state offered up a masterpiece of a sunset for us to enjoy, with colors dancing on the horizon above a line of coarse cliffs shouldering Little Prickly Pear creek. Within a couple hours, we had arrived in Bozeman and found adequate lodging for the night. The following night would require some creativity as we couldn’t find any hotels with vacancy for night 2.
The following day was spent exploring Bozeman, doing laundry at the hotel, and drying our tent, still wet from the cold dew of Banff. Before setting out for the day, we made a point to find a place to stay for that night. The lack of vacancy at the hotel proved to be a good thing, as we instead booked a cabin in the foothills outside of Bozeman that had quite a bit of character and “charm.”
To start our day in Bozeman we did the M Trail Hike, a well known blood-pumper about 20 minutes from the hotel. The hike offered an excellent vista of Bozeman from the Bridger ridge area, with the Rockies deep in the distance.
As we looked ahead to our likely next stop in Jackson, WY, we had to address the need for boarding Charley while we checked out the National Parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton). This would require her to get a couple vaccinations she was late on. Fortunately, Jamie is the best dog mom there is, and found us a vet in Bozeman where Charley could get everything taken care of. (Side note: how many dogs out there have 4 vets?? Charley’s got one in Newton, MA, Chandler, AZ, Bozeman, MT, and Vestal, NY).
Downtown Bozeman struck me as a hybrid western-mountain town. Old historical buildings lined the main street, with pops of new business fronts and creative eateries. We enjoyed a sweet crepe while enjoying the world around us from our sidewalk table for a bit. After we’d had our fill, we climbed back in the car and took Charley for her vet appointment. Afterward, a trip to one of the areas many excellent breweries was in order. I still, to this day, consider the best beer I’ve tasted to come from the taps at Mountains Walking Brewery in Bozeman. Maybe it was the setting or the excellent food to pair it with (we enjoyed a hot pretzel, taco pizza, and warm donuts with cinnamon caramel sauce). Or maybe it was just the best beer I’ve ever had!
After drinking and eating our fill, we made our to our airbnb for the night- a hunting cabin nearby Gallatin National Forest, about 20 miles outside of the city and perched low on a Bridger ridge foothill with views back over the ranch land. We met our host and their two lovely dogs, Hazel and Libby. Charley was noticeably jealous of their off leash privileges, just as we were envious of the dogs’ impressive obedience.
That evening, at the recommendation of our host, we drove down the hill and across the highway to the boundary of land owned by Ted Turner. On display was a procession of hundreds of elk beginning their evening mating ritual, with the males bugling their hearts out to win over the females.
Nestling in to our bed in the hunting cabin afterward, we slept surprisingly well, considering the intimidating gaze of dozes of elk and bighorn sheep heads above us.
Early the following morning, Jamie Charley and I saddled up and prepared for the drive to Jackson, Wyoming- our home for the next week or so as we checked out Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. A quick bite and cup of coffee at the Coffee Pot in Bozeman prepped us for the trip. As we ascended the Absaroka Mountains via the highway mountain pass, we were greeted with snow that made travel a bit slow. After passing through the range, we dropped into Paradise Valley and along the Yellowstone River, spotting several anglers trying their luck that morning.
Yellowstone, the country’s first National Park, is a bizarre place. Steam rising all over the vast highland landscape, I was getting a feeling of driving along living, breathing earth. The northern entrance of the park is at Gardiner, a small town propped up by its lodging and tourist services.
The first stop on our auto tour of Yellowstone, as we made our way south to Jackson, was the Boiling River, a small tributary to the Yellowstone River. We grabbed our bathing suits and made the short 15 minute trek to the confluence of the two rivers, a spot where you’re able to wade and sit in the frigid Yellowstone by virtue of the steaming waters rolling in from the Boiling River. It was an incredible experience to sit in 35F degree weather, in the spitting rain, and enjoy the fusion of hot and cold as it rushed by us.
Drying off and walking back to the car was a chilly, not-so-pleasant experience, but it was well-worth it. Driving farther down the Park road, we made it to Mammoth Hot Springs and the travertine deposits. The travertine, pushed up and out of the earth by intense heat and pressure, formed a massive wall of minerals, colored green, blue, and yellow by the thermophilic microbes that call it home. What struck me (and all other visitors to the park, I’m sure), is the ever-changing landscape of Yellowstone, as earth’s plumbing is constantly rerouting to find the easiest way to the surface.
The entire drive from the north entrance of Yellowstone to Jackson took an easygoing 4 hours, as we stopped off several times to see the elk in the meadows and bald eagles flying overhead. When we pulled into town, it was just after dark, and time to catch a decent nights sleep in our Motel 6 micro-room.
We decided the best way to tackle Yellowstone would be to split up our interests. After we dropped off Charley at her boarding place in Jackson, we hit the road northward. Day 1 was spent geyser-watching and checking out the thermal pools littered all over the grand highlands of Yellowstone. We made sure to see Old Faithful, if for no other reason than self-imposed obligation when visiting the park. The other geysers, though less frequent or “faithful” in their eruptions, were more impressive, in our opinion.
We used the afternoon for a hike to Mystic Falls via Biscuit Basin- a nice, relatively short and easy hike, that let us stretch our legs and escape the throngs of people typically collected at the main spots.
Returning to the car afterward, it was time to fire up the Mobile Kitchen again and whip up a mighty tasty lunch: Tuna wraps with crushed barbeque Fritos and mayo.
Day 2 of our exploration sent us searching for wildlife. The drive back north to Yellowstone from Jackson Hole on highway 191 is maybe 60+ miles, but it’s an excellent trip. We caught a female moose at a watering hole about 200 yards away, filling up on what I imagine to be the freshest water around. The sun arrived on the scene and set the yellow trees ablaze at dawn, offering outstanding conditions for snapping photos along our route. Arriving in Yellowstone shortly after, we spent the morning driving to the likely areas for large herds of American Bison, elk, and the occasional moose. Our only view of a grizzly came from several football-fields away, across a flatland at the foot of a forested hill. Still, it was pretty neat to finally see one of these beasts just going about their foraging business.
We also hiked along the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” (pictured below) and checked out some more hot springs and thermal pool areas, which didn’t disappoint. There are boiling, steaming pools of water in all different colors, sizes and shapes. There is so many varieties of landscapes at Yellowstone, it could never get boring.
Pictured below are a few different thermal pools:
Grand Teton National Park, situated far more conveniently to the town of Jackson Hole, boasts an incredible line of high peaks rising prominently from the east-lying flatlands that sit in front of it. Everyone’s seen pictures from highway 191 of the Grand Tetons, and it really doesn’t do it justice. The place is hard to process, with its dramatic craggy peaks and grandeur. We took our new camera and set out to shoot some morning-light photos. Standing alongside folks with camera lenses bigger than my head, we were feeling rather inadequate with our starter lens. But we still tried our darnedest!
Cascade Canyon trail is likely the most well-known path up into the Tetons inside the park. The trail starts at the visitor center, slides around the southern end of Jenny Lake, and skirts the lake as it climbs the western edge. Eventually, it shoots west and up into Cascade Canyon, a U-shaped valley sitting high above the lower Valley where Jackson lies. It can be made into a lengthy day hike loop, but as we were short on time we only trekked about 3-4 miles in and came back down, which was more than enough time and distance to enjoy the area.
We also hiked to a few lakes in the Tetons.
A quick stop to photograph one of the famous barns on Mormon Row at sunrise:
The morning of our departure from Jackson, we scooped up Charley from boarding, and showed her the Tetons from the car, stopping off at spots along the way out of town. One final stop at Oxbow bend, a great spot for morning pictures, and we said goodbye to the national parks area. Our destination for the day was Wall, South Dakota. Wall is at the western edge of Badlands National Park, and our plan the following morning was to do a quick auto tour of the park as we passed through. Also part of the trip that day was a brief touch-and-go stop at Mt. Rushmore, if only for the reason that we may never again be in that area of the country. The park was under construction, but we were able to get a decent look at the mountain, and a view of some pretty influential American figures.
If you were to ask me what I think of South Dakota, I’d have one word: Windy. It could’ve been the weather at the time, but the landscape seems to me to lend itself to sustained high winds. Flat and treeless, wind can roar unobstructed across the lands. The Badlands were exceptionally windy, but it didn’t take away from the experience of seeing the area firsthand. The wrinkled earth appears to be hard rock formations, but step up to or on top of one of these mounds, and you quickly find that it is soft earth, easy to crumble, and highly susceptible to nature’s wind and rain. We pushed through the park, soaking up as much as we could along the way, and continued eastward.
The next day, there were no parks on the list. But we did have a stop planned. Our friends Mike and Julia live in Chicago and were around on Sunday when we planned on passing through. We stopped in, watched the 1pm Patriots game, grabbed a bite at a nearby spot Mike and Julia recommended, and continued on again.
When we hit western NY the following day, we had a lunch date with Grammy Judy in Buffalo and enjoyed sharing our experiences on the road with her. She and Charley were fast friends, as Charley made herself at home on Grammy’s nice white couch.
By nightfall, we had made it to Rochester, NY, and our friend Dave and Cait’s house in the suburb in Pennfield. Joined by our pals Rob and Lesen as well, it was great to catch up (we hadn’t seen them since our wedding over 1 year prior). We had a great dinner and got some rest at their house for the final day (kind of) of our trip to Binghamton.
In the morning, we decided it was best to stretch our legs at Letchworth State Park and digest the big diner breakfast we enjoyed. When we felt the itch to get home and off the road, we loaded into the car and drove the last couple hours. We had made it home-ish.
It was beyond lovely to see my parents and be back on the east coast. But we had another 300 miles left in our trip back to Mansfield and Jed and Maureen, as we were set to start our (kind of) new jobs at Beth Israel the following week.
When we finally arrived home to Mansfield, we were overjoyed to be off the road. The trip was an incredible experience, and one we’ll never forget, but our legs were tired and we’d grown weary of sleeping in a new bed most nights and constantly searching google for traveler services and distances between towns.
We were ready for something familiar and the company of family and friends.