Monthly Archives: June 2014

Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 5: Yellowstone Backcountry

Thursday, June 5: hiking in Lamar River Valley

We packed up our backpacks with the clothes, food, and supplies we would need for the next two days and nights, and then put everything else in the car. It was time for our backcountry excursion, the few days of our trip of which I was the most excited about and also the most nervous. We had picked Lamar River Valley because it was known for being a great spot to see wildlife; luckily, the day before when we picked up our backcountry permit, the ranger had said that they hadn’t had any reports of bear activity in the area recently. Still, I knew that we would have to be extremely careful of wildlife encounters. It turned out that bears weren’t the ones we had to worry about.

ready to begin our hike

ready to begin our hike

We parked our car at the trailhead with our permit number displayed in the windshield, locked it up, put on our heavy packs, and said goodbye to civilization. Our hike up to the campsite wasn’t especially challenging (about 4 miles), but wearing a loaded backpack definitely takes its toll. We kept our water bottles and bear spray in our easy-to-access side pockets. The hike took us through an open meadow then behind a large ridge, where the road disappeared from sight. Almost immediately, we spotted pronghorns and bison grazing in the grass. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny in the high 60’s.

hiking the trail

hiking the trail

When we turned the corner and climbed the trail up through a narrow passage flanked by some trees and creek to the beginning of the ridge, we made a startling discovery: there were bison EVERYWHERE. All over the trail, up the hill, down the valley, and closing in behind us. Though bison appear docile, they are known to be aggressive and will charge and gore humans who come too close. Many of the female bison had young calves at their side, so they were going to be especially protective and wary of intruders on their turf. We knew that we were to keep at least 25 yard away, but there was absolutely nowhere for us to go. This meant that we had to either take a detour around them (which was pretty much impossible as they were as far as the eye could see in all directions), or wait for them to move along off the trail. So we took of our packs, sat, and waited.

bison on the trail

bison on the trail

The herd had noticed us, and an inquisitive bison took a few steps toward us. We looked behind us for an exit, but more bison had moved up the ridge. Two males were engaged in a fight, smashing into each other’s large skulls while brandishing their horns. We were completely surrounded. The narrow entrance we had taken into the meadow was blocked by bison. While some of the animals meandered up or down the hill, you could tell that the herd had no plans to go anywhere anytime soon. Our only choice was to somehow pass through the herd.

bison and nursing calf

bison and nursing calf

My heart was pounding as we very slowly put our packs back on. We moved carefully and quietly, trying not to call any attention to ourselves or appear threatening. We had waited until a moment that the path was clear enough that we could mostly shoot straight through the center of the meadow to meet back up with the trail. When we noticed a bison or calf wander close to our route, we would pause and wait. We kept our eyes lowered, avoiding eye contact, and talked to each other softly in calm voices. The walk through the herd was about 75 yards and felt like it took an infinity. Finally, we reach the edge of the herd and got back onto the trail. A lone bison wandered right behind us, watching and huffing as if to say “and don’t come back now, y’hear?” We heard, loud and clear.

Luckily, the rest of the hike was uneventful. We walked over some gentle rolling hills, but for the most part the trail was pretty level and we had a clear eye line in every direction. The trail reached the end of the ridge, and we descended down into the valley, stepping carefully to maintain balance with our heavy packs on the steep footing. We reached the river and walked alongside it until we found our campsite, designated by a small marker and a fire ring made of large rocks next to a pole for hanging up our food away from bears.

our backcountry campsite

our backcountry campsite

We enjoyed a few minutes of rest without heavy packs, then got to work setting up our campsite. After selecting a good spot to sleep 100 yards away from our cooking area, I set up the tent and laid out the sleeping bags while Kurt gathered fallen twigs and sticks to make a small fire. Our little site was in the middle of heaven, with mountains framing the gorgeous backdrop all around us. As sunset approached, mule deer wandered down the ridge or crossed the river near our site, which appeared to be a popular animal crossing. The bison weren’t done with us yet; a group of four walked up to our site, stopping about 30 yards away and gazing at us curiously. Two of them inspected our tent while one gave us a good lookover. Eventually, they continued on their way. As the sun set, we enjoyed a bota box of wine and scoured the horizon for more animals with our binoculars. When the sky was too dark, we strung up our food and supplies and went back to the tent to enjoy our first night’s sleep out in the true wilderness.

Wildlife sighted: so many bison, elk, pronghorns, mule deer

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Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 5: Exploring Yellowstone

Wednesday, June 4: sights of the Grand Loop

On our first full day in Yellowstone, we had a lot of must-sees on our list. After a quick breakfast at the cafeteria to save us time (noticing a pattern yet?), we started out on the Grand Loop, making our first stop at Tower Falls. From there, we headed towards Lamar River Valley to get an idea of where we’d be doing our backcountry camping the next day. Then, we circled back down to the southwest side of the park to see Old Faithful, the geothermal pools, and Old Faithful Lodge.

diamond doll at Old Faithful

diamond doll at Old Faithful

thar she blows

thar she blows

relaxing at Old Faithful Lodge

relaxing at Old Faithful Lodge

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Grand Prismatic Spring selfie

As we drove around the park, we made numerous stops to view wildlife. It was easy to look for the tell-tale sign of several cars pulled over, with people looking through binoculars or camera lenses and pointing into the wilderness. We got a very close look at an elk chilling out beneath a tree only 25 yards away from gawking tourists (and a park ranger making sure we kept a safe distance).

elk just chillin'

elk just chillin’

As it grew close to sunset, we made our last sightseeing stop at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Not far from our lookout point, an osprey was engaged in an ongoing battle with a raven while its mate sat on their nest, protecting their eggs. A small group of us watched, trading off binoculars and watching some Planet Earth-style action go down. We drove up to Inspiration Point to get a truly breathtaking view of the canyon.

Yellowstone Falls

Yellowstone Falls

Wildlife sightings: badger, swan, elk, pronghorns, ospreys, raven, mule deer, bison
Landmarks visited: Old Faithful, tons of geothermal pools and hot springs, Grand Prismatic Spring, Tower Falls, Firehole Falls, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Falls

 

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Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 4: Yellowstone

Tuesday, June 3: From South Dakota to Wyoming

We got up early and hit the road, opting to pick up breakfast on the way instead of taking time in the morning to cook. We got coffee and tea at the Bank Coffee House in Custer, a really cool little coffee shop that used to be an old bank, complete with vault doors. Though it was out of the way, we had planned to make a stop at Devil’s Tower. While we were driving on a 2-lane highway, we saw a truck come around a turn with a white flag waving out the driver side window. We weren’t sure what it meant, so we slowed down. As soon as we went around the turn, we learned quickly; several cowboys were driving a herd of cattle up the road.

cowboy

cowboy

Since we still had a long drive ahead of us, our stop at Devil’s Tower was pretty quick. We took several pictures, filled up on gas and snacks, and got back on track.

Devil's Tower selfie

Devil’s Tower selfie

close encounters!

close encounters!

Our last stop was in Cody, Wyoming, to pick up groceries, beer, and bear spray, as we were now entering bear country. The woman at the grocery store warned us to not leave the spray in our car because the can could explode in the heat, and that is one car you’ll never get into again.

We finally arrived in Yellowstone around 7:30 pm. Almost immediately, we encountered bighorn sheep hanging out on a ledge near the road.

bighorn sheep

bighorn sheep

As we drove into the park towards our reserved site at Canyon Campground, we quickly learned that when you saw other cars pulled off to the side of the road, there must be wildlife nearby. If there was something close enough to be photographed, a crowd of people would be standing on the shoulder with cameras out like they were TMZ paparazzi. Within our first hour in the park, we saw pronghorns, bison, elk, and two black bears–one from a distance using binoculars, and the second fairly close to the road where several people watched from safely inside their cars. Almost immediately, a ranger pulled up in his truck and stepped out to investigate, brandishing bear spray in case of an emergency, but the bear had come and gone quickly. Kurt got a good look, but I only saw its butt as it retreated into the woods.

elk

elk

Having just seen two bears made it slightly unnerving to set up our tent outside, especially after the ranger who checked us in warned us that bears had been seen near the campgrounds recently, so we should be sure to leave all food and drinks in the car. “The only things that go in your tent are you and your sleeping bags,” she said. The campgrounds were quite nice, with a nearby restroom, bear-proof recycling, and an indoor dishwashing station.

our Yellowstone campsite

our Yellowstone campsite

Since we had rolled in so late, we ate dinner in the lodge and enjoyed a cold beer. Afterward, we made a nice warm fire at our site, as the temperature had dropped to make it the coldest night yet of our trip. We slept warm and cozy in our tent with the bear spray close by our side.

Wildlife sightings: elk, bison, two black beers, pronghorns, bighorn sheep

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Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 3: the Black Hills

Monday, June 2: Mt. Rushmore, Black Hills National Forest

In the morning, we attempted another hike into Badlands backcountry near Prairie Dog Town, but were quickly defeated by the muddy conditions. Bison were plentiful on the road, crossing from one plain to the next. We watched them cross the street from inside our car; one curious bison walked right up to us and gave the hood of the Subaru a good sniff.

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bison surround our car

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more bison on the road

After saying goodbye to the Badlands, we headed to Mt. Rushmore. As expected, there were plenty of crowds out on the perfect sunny day. Unexpectedly, we learned that you can buy a “Red Rally Racer” at the concession stands, which is a cherry slushie with a shot of vodka or tequila. God bless American, indeed.

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Mt. Rushmore

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diamond doll

After leaving Rushmore, we took a scenic drive through Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. On a wildlife viewing loop in Custer, we saw bison galore, pronghorns, elk, and mule deer.

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pronghorns

We set up camp at the Bismarck Lake campground and kicked back with a bottle of wine while reading our guidebooks. Overnight, some loud thunderstorms rolled through, but our little tent held up like a champ. Next stop: Yellowstone!

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our Black Hills campsite

 

Sites visited: Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, Black Hills National Forest
Wildlife sightings: bison and calves, pronghorns, elk, mule deer, wild turkeys

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Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 2: Exploring the Badlands

Sunday, June 1: Our first full day

We woke up and cooked a breakfast of scrambled eggs with sausage and veggies using a pan and Jetboil on our front porch. In the light of day, we saw that ours was the third Subaru Forester in a row on our block of cabins. After breakfast we checked out of our cabin and began to explore the park. There were several short hikes that we completed, including one known for its spectacular view that came with a warning “not for those afraid of heights.”

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Yikes!

I am pretty acrophobic, but I gave it a shot and climbed the ladder that took us to the next part of the trail. The view was indeed fantastic, which I enjoyed a nice and safe full 5 feet away from the edge.

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Kurt is braver than I am when it comes to heights

After we finished hiking, we left the park to check out Wall Drug (where we purchased the mounted jackalope head I’ve always wanted because I am a weirdo) and tried to see the Minuteman Missile Site, which was sadly and inexplicably closed. On the way back, we drove the Badlands Scenic Loop, keeping an eye out for bison. Sure enough, we spotted their distinctive shapes dotting the green meadows. Once we got to the primitive campground at Sage Creek, we saw a few more hanging out about 200 yards away on a hill, grazing calmly. The forecast called for rain, so we quickly set up our tent and cracked open a few local beers we had picked up at the grocery store in Sioux Falls. After a brief rain passed, Kurt and I got in one more quick hike towards the river, coming across yet another bison on the way. It was our closest view of one yet, and their size was impressive. Though they seem pretty chill, they can be aggressive and do serious damage with their horns, so we kept a respectable distance. The wet ground acted like clay, clumping to our boots with each step. It made it difficult to hike very far, so we headed back to camp to clean ourselves up and relax before night fell.

our first campsite of the trip

our first campsite of the trip

As the sun went down, other hikers staying at the campgrounds slowly returned from their explorations. A neighboring camper remarked that he had heard coyotes yipping at him. Sure enough, as we slept in our tents that night we could hear the howls and yips of the pack.

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diamond doll at the Badlands

Sites visited: Wall Drug, Minuteman Missile Site
Wildlife sightings: bison, bighorn sheep, jackalope (heh), coyotes (heard only)

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Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 1: the Badlands

Saturday, May 31, 2014: we hit the road 

photo 1

packing up the Subaru

Kurt and I set the alarm bright and early for 5 am to get a head start on our longest day of driving (12 hours total). After saying goodbye to our dog River and my parents (who cared for her during our 2-week trip), we left their house in the Chicago suburbs and set out for South Dakota. The drive was mostly uneventful, though we did have to make a few stops to refasten one of the kayaks to the roof of our car. The high winds on the road pushed and pulled on the kayaks enough to crack one of the brackets on our roof rack, which we tightened back in place with heavy duty straps. Finally, we got the kayaks secure and were able to finish the drive.

photo 2

we arrive!

We arrived at Badlands National Park a little after 8 pm local time. Almost immediately, we saw several female bighorn sheep cross the road in front of our car and shoot up the side of a craggy ridge. Since we knew we’d be rolling into the park pretty late and didn’t want to deal with setting up a tent after such a long day in the car, we had rented a cabin at Cedar Pass within the park. We grabbed a late dinner of fry bread and bison burgers, checked into our cabin, and relaxed on the adirondack chairs on our porch with cold beers in hand, watching a lightning storm in the distance. It was a near perfect start to our adventure.

photo 3

female bighorn sheep

States passed through: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota
Wildlife sightings: female bighorn sheep, wild horses

 

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Honeymoon Road Trip

Kurt and I just returned from our honeymoon roadtrip to South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Neither of us had been to the Great Plains states before, and it was also the first time for both of us to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.  Here is a photo of our route. Over the next few weeks, I will  post a day-by-day account along with photos, wildlife sightings, and more.

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