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polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 10:40 AM

16 Days in SD, Yellowstone, MT & Wyoming
<B>Trip Planning/Prep and Stuff You Might Want to Skip</B>
In February, my husband and I decided to make a return visit to Yellowstone and fly into Rapid City instead of Jackson this time so we could see some of the Black Hills area up. This trip was part of our “see America second” plan after a dozen years of spending at least half of our 5-8 annual trips overseas, mostly in Europe. We’re currently “collecting” national parks and this trip would add parks 29 and 30 plus a few monuments.

As a frame of reference, I’m 68 and DH is 70, and neither of us, we’ve noticed, are in quite the same shape as we were when we were trotting around Manchu Picchu in 2006. We’re also not morning people and have concluded we’ll enjoy our vacations more if we don’t push ourselves before 10AM. We have gotten back into photography in an amateur way and spend a lot of time taking pictures, particularly of animals. So we don’t get as much done as when we were younger. Our hikes are also shorter, more in the realm of 1-2 miles instead of the 3-4 we usually did a few years ago.

I booked flights leaving here the day after Memorial Day and returning mid-June. Also reserved a hideously expensive car; DH discovered that he had points for a free week, so using that knocked down the car rental to $460 for the 16 days. Had no problem in SD but hotels in Yellowstone were another matter. I reserved what I could in the park and in W. Yellowstone and then started checking for cancellations. Since my last nat’l park trip I’ve learned that cancellations become more frequent in the month before your stay, probably because the tour companies hold onto rooms till the last minute, hoping for more customers. As I found better rooms, I cancelled and rebooked. Had hoped to get 3 successive nights in the same lodging at Old Faithful but finally gave that up mid-May. I had a night at OF Inn, 2 at the Lodge cabins and 2 nights at Canyon cabins. (We do have a bathroom rule, especially when in cabins – we want our own. When we want to go to the bathroom, we don’t want to wail till a bison or elk – or, heaven forbid, a bear – decides it’s time to wander away from our cabin door and let us out. Or worse, I fear meeting something large in the dark, as occasionally happens at Y’stone.) We also decided to go to Virginia City between OF and Canyon, spend the night in Bozeman, and drive back to the park on 191. As I always do, I checked rental cars again in mid-May and found I could get the same car from the same company for $410 - $50 less than my first reservation – WITHOUT using the free week. Definitely my biggest saving yet from a rebooking.

For once, I was a day ahead with packing and leaving prep. Then I read about United pulling the second free bag for its MileagePlus flyers. Since airlines seem to be “monkey see, monkey do”, I said DH might check the Delta situation. Sure enough, Delta had removed the second free bag provision for Medallion customers in March. So that involved repacking our 3 checked bags into 2 larger ones. Yes, we take a lot of stuff when we head for the hinterlands. An ice chest and some utensils, trail mix, individual condiment packs, etc., if finding food at lunch will be inconvenient and we can fit it in. (If no luggage room, we buy an ice chest there and abandon it in the car. But having wet rental car seats with those cheap foam chests, we take a better one if we can rather than buying and leaving a better one.) There is also way too much photo and electronics gear – and cords and chargers, etc. And since my weather research, including on this forum, indicated we could have anything from 90 degree days to 30 degree nights and I try to avoid doing laundry other than underwear, we end up with more luggage on a national park trip than we take for 2 weeks in Europe or a city in the US.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 10:43 AM

<B>Day 1: We Arrive in South Dakota</B>
We arrived in Rapid City a few minutes before 6PM and I baby-sat the luggage while DH went to the Hertz counter. He came back and said they had offered him a 4-Runner and did I want to take it. A dilemma. How much gas does that thing use? In the olden days, the free upgrades for premium customers were a nice perk, now they’re just trying to get rid of Mustangs that get 10 miles to the gallon that no one else wants. But we had an Outback at Glacier that we really liked and when Vegas couldn’t seem to come up with the compact car we reserved last Sept. on a Colorado Plateau trip and we turned down a full-sized car, we ended up with a Yaris, which was awful, especially on hills. (Four wheel drive – or even higher clearance – would have been useful there; there were places we couldn’t go in the Yaris because of ruts or the recent rain.) Furthermore, I had read a couple of months ago that Wyoming had some of the cheapest gas in the country. (Don’t believe everything you read, but more about that later.) So we took the 4-Runner and headed off to check into our hotel and do our grocery shopping. Since DH got a spotting scope last fall, I thought we might be in for several hours of wolf-watching at Lamar Valley and we should maybe pick up a $6 folding chair at Walgreens (which turned out to be $7 in SD). By the time we finished that, it was after 9PM and we needed to get dinner before the sidewalks rolled up.

I had a list of restaurants for some of the cities obtained from Fodors, TripAdvisor, etc. and one was Minerva’s. Couldn’t find it at first. Turned out it was at a Best Western. Another of our rules is to avoid hotel restaurants, so we almost left. But it was getting late, so we gave it a try and are delighted we did. Turned out to be the best meal (in fact, the only one we’d call good) of the trip. Also excellent service. Better experience than the Fairfield Inn in Rapid City. We’re trying to get enough Marriott stays this year to get lifetime Platinum for DH, so we chose the Fairfield despite mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. Got there too late for an upgrade and ended up in one of the smallest Fairfield rooms I’ve ever seen (except for Florence, SC, our all-time Marriott low), so DH returned to the desk to discuss the issue. Only 2 qns., they said, no other kings. Then they came up with a handicapped king on the first floor, which is normally just a roll-in shower, wet floor problem; but in this case it was on the corridor to an indoor water park shared with the hotel next door and we were concerned about noise, especially since negative reviews had mentioned that. Very quiet kids, I guess, since we weren’t bothered either night. Worse breakfast than usual, not even those Jimmy Dean egg & whatever biscuits. Can’t recommend the hotel, especially rm. 422, but it was clean and adequate. (More complete hotel and restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor.) Did consider nabbing the bench in the shower to get into the SUV, though. Although I am of average size for a woman and have owned/driven full-sized vans and such in the past, this was my first tall vehicle without a running board; an inch higher and I’d have had to take a running start and vault onto the seat.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 10:46 AM

<B>Day 2: Badlands National Park</B>
Woke at 8 and spend our usual 2 hours staring at the wall for a few minutes, getting ready to go, eating, reading the paper, etc. Then we started off for the first big surprise of the trip. I really thought this trip was an excuse to get us back to Yellowstone and South Dakota would be anti-climatic (well, pre-climatic since we were doing SD first). Badlands sounded like one day would be more than enough, so we decided (after a brief stop at the Black Hills VC up the road from our motel) to go via Wall Drugs and take a look, maybe eat a donut. Actually never found the donuts (at least not the fresh ones – they weren’t making them that day) although we could smell them. Did find some forest creature socks for my daughter who likes off-beat socks but otherwise are not big fans of Wall Drugs. The good thing was that it put us in at the north end of the park (Pinnacles Entrance) rather than the south end. Since we were mostly interested in the animals, that was the best part for us.

Oddly, despite numerous trips to the west, we had never seen prairie dogs in the wild. Or maybe we had seen them and not realized it. So we drove out Sage Creek Rim Road to look for the Roberts Prairie Dog Town. But the first animals we encountered (other than distant bison) were big horned sheep – not any with big horns, only females and young males, but we’d only ever seen sheep before from a long distance (except one ram at Glacier just about at dark). So we took photos of the 3 sheep, then drove on to the prairie dog town. Also photographed the landscape despite the very overcast day with sprinkings of rain. We backtracked and about the time we got to the intersection, the sun came out, so we decided to make a pit stop at the Pinnacles Overlook, then drive back again on Sage Creek Rim Rd. for better photos. Just around the corner we saw a herd of sheep pretty close to the road, so we parked, visited the “pit pots”, and walked 100 ft. or so back to where the sheep were. Or had been. How quickly they can just dematerialize over the crest of a hill! We drove back to the prairie dog town, then returned along the same road (2 round trips, which explains why we never get much done) – half our Badlands time gone and we hadn’t even started the “real” part of the park. We spent a couple of hours stopping at all the overlooks, and photographing the views. Went to the VC and discussed our return trip to Rapid City with a ranger. In disagreement with the guy at the Black Hills VC, she suggested we take 44 back instead of the Interstate but drive up little-traveled Conata Rd., where raptors are often spotted, to Sage Creek Rim, then all the way out that road to 44. Guy had said, “Grasslands are pretty boring and Scenic is just the name of the town, you know.” Ranger said, “Scenic is named Scenic for a reason, you know, and the grasslands are lovely.” We took the ranger’s advice but that meant we had to pass up the short Door and Window trails we’d planned to walk. Saw a few miles of the grasslands but not the golden eagle the ranger mentioned; we did see a hawk and other birds and another angle on the park landscape. We also had a 10 min. holdup for some very stupid cattle that couldn’t decide which side of the road they wanted to be on. Soon after rejoining the loop road, we encountered sheep again along the road and took photos of the close ones and watched them pick their ways across the rocks and cliffs to a plateau where a dozen or so had already assembled for the night. In another mile or two we stopped for a nice photo in the late afternoon light and found a flock of turkeys. Since the daylight was fading, we decided we’d seen all the grasslands we really needed and we’d skip the Sage Creek rd. (which would be our 5th trip on the 1st half). It would be dark by the time we got to Scenic and nothing would be all that scenic after dark. Also, we’d never found a picnic table, never gotten around to lunch, and I-90 would get us back to Rapid City in time to supplement our few handfuls of trail mix with actual food. It was so late we stopped at a Famous Dave’s we’d seen from the highway, figuring they’d close later than other restaurants. Not such a great choice.

A number of people have said a day in Badlands is plenty, and it would have been for us if not for the animals. And if we hadn’t done the “by the way, drive down Sage Creek if you have time” first thing, we might have missed our favorite part altogether. I thought Badlands would be pretty boring. Would I go again? In a heartbeat.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 11:05 AM

<B>Day 3: Custer State Park (Wow!) & Mt. Rushmore</B>
If not for this forum, I’d never have added Custer State Park to my list. Nothing else I’d read led me to think it was a must do. But it was probably our favorite thing in SD. We had decided to move to Hill City (Holiday Inn Express) for the next couple of nights to be closer to Wind Cave, Mt. Rushmore, etc., though I’m not sure the move was necessary. Hoping to prevent getting the smallest room in the hotel, we checked in on the way to Custer. They said rooms were already assigned, so we just had to keep our fingers crossed since the room wasn’t clean yet. (It turned out to be fine.)

After not having lunch the previous day, we decided to stop at the Sylvan Lake Lodge on the way into Custer and eat early. Good tomato soup, walleye not nearly up to what I had at Miranda’s. Walked around at the lake for a bit, then spent the rest of the day driving around, mainly looking for animals – drove Needles Hwy. (where we encountered a swarm of habituated chipmunks) and Wildlife Dr., then back north on 16A (Iron Mt. Rd.). Plenty of bison, occasionally crossing and blocking the roads for a few minutes. We also decided to drive the unpaved 4 Mile Draw Rd. (which luckily was not 4 miles long since we had to turn around and go back) to get to the prairie dog town. Now you’d think we’d have figured out how to recognize a prairie dog town after the day before, but we dumbly drove the road to the other side, found the prairie dogs on the far side of 87, and then realized we’d been driving through dog town most of the way. We did see a couple of pronghorns on a wooded hill (from a closer look at our photos, I think they went there to give birth) and a curious and brave marmot that let us drive so near his safe culvert that we were able to get excellent close-up pictures. One reason I chose late May, early June for this trip was to see young animals – and maybe the animals that prey on them. There were certainly plenty of bison calves but I don’t know when they are born – none of them looked too new. But the only pronghorn babies we saw were two in Custer, one probably only a few hours old. Had hoped to see more (and elk calves as well) but think that while the bison seem to form large herds of cows and calves, the others probably hide their young for awhile before gathering with other moms and since the pronghorns and elk were still being born, they weren’t easy to find. Had bought a bag of carrots for the donkeys in Rapid City but should have gotten the 2 lb. bag – or two 2 lb. bags. Or three. Those were persistent donkeys.

We made a brief stop at the main VC before taking 16A, with its tunnel views of the presidents, to Mt. Rushmore for the evening lighting program. Got a quick bowl of mediocre chili and a hot dog at the typical park service concession and watched the program from the area behind the amphitheater rather than trying to find seats. Fine to stand for a while since we’d been riding a lot. Then back to the hotel. Some ominous skies part of the time but no rain, a nice day.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 11:09 AM

<B>Day 4: Wind Cave & Custer & Rushmore Again</B>
Wind Cave was scheduled for the next day, stopping by Mt. Rushmore again before dark. Although we don’t anticipate making it to all 38 national parks (and don’t even want to go to all of them), we did decide to do as many of the caves as we can manage. (We met while caving in the ‘60s, and while we’re not up for the squeezing, rappelling and, worse, prusiking out, anymore, we enjoyed Mammoth a couple of years ago for old time’s sake and did Carlsbad many years ago.) So we added Wind Cave and Jewel Cave to this itinerary. While we saw many prettier formations in wild caves 40 years ago, the boxwork in Wind Cave was very interesting. And I’ve got to admit that as a terrible and slow prusiker, I have a great fondness for caves with elevators. (DH is more impressed with caves that have flush toilets – Mammoth and Carlsbad.) Since they were only offering Garden of Eden and Natural Entrance tours in early June, we did the Natural Entrance tour instead of the shorter Garden of Eden. Not finding picnic tables, we sat on a wall at a pullout and made deviled ham sandwiches against all odds in very brisk winds – the wind there isn’t only in the cave. We decided to drive back through Custer on the Wildlife Loop, then take 16A to Rushmore again, this time in the daylight.

Didn’t see any new animals on the drive back through Custer but enjoyed seeing the bison on the edges of the road, the donkeys, and some male pronghorns. And prairie dogs now that we knew to look for them. We also ventured onto another unpaved road for new views of the park. Drove back to Rushmore through tunnels 1, 2, and 3 and walked the loop at the monument base, spent some time in the museum. FYI, if you want the less strenuous direction, go to the left. We went right to get to the studio before it closed but the other direction would have involved fewer steps going up. (If anyone rents a silver 4Runner from Hertz with Idaho plates before May 30, 2013, check to see if there’s a parking pass to Rushmore in the glove box, since it’s good for a year.) We had dinner in Hill City at Desperados and were a little disappointed since it had received some good reviews on TripAdvisor. Maybe the problem is that we aren’t big beef eaters and we’d have been better off having steak in that part of the country. But while we were talking to the waitress, she told us about the volksmarch at Crazy Horse the following day. Thousands of people were expected and she planned to be there when the gates opened at 7AM since it’s the only time visitors are allowed to go to the top of the monument.

ElendilPickle Jun 27th, 2012 11:20 AM

What a great trip report! I'm looking forward to the rest.

Lee Ann

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 11:26 AM

<B>Day 5: Hill City Shopping, Jewel Cave, and to Wyoming</B>
We were going to Crazy Horse Saturday morning before Jewel Cave and then drive to Casper the cave. We took the trip at what we thought was the end of the shoulder season because we prefer to avoid crowds and we hadn’t planned on a long wait to get into Crazy Horse; nor did we have time for the long trek to the top of the monument. Since we had decided by then that we might like to revisit the Black Hills again sometime, we figured we could see Crazy Horse then. So we spent some time in Hill City shops and galleries instead, where DH found a gallery that also sold reproduction clothing like frock coats, vests and shirts and some fabulous steam-punky leather hats. A few dollars poorer (quite a few, actually, but DH deserves it), we went to Jewel Cave. We had to wait a little longer than we might have liked for a tour since we didn’t book ahead, but that gave us time to put together a sandwich, eat, then look through the exhibits before the tour. Jewel is mostly a “dead” (dry) cave but the tour goes through some of the few wet areas with nice calcite crystals, flowstone, soda straws (one that had formed a column, something we had never seen) and other speleothems. Prettier than Wind Cave, so if someone could only go to one, we’d probably suggest Jewel. Another nice elevator in and out, though plenty of stairs up and down on the tour. Jewel was a “breathing” cave that “inhales” when the barometric pressure is falling; one of the rangers checked the air direction at the door, said a storm was coming and Jewel never lies.

So far the weather had been cooler than predicted but also dryer. On Saturday it started warming up, but it appeared that wasn’t going to be the case when we got to Yellowstone. To our dismay, gas prices in SD were $3.69 everywhere and DH’s investigation revealed that gas was mostly worse in Wyoming. Whoever wrote that WY has cheap gas was totally wrong. Florida doesn’t have the cheapest gas in the country by any means, but we had seen some for $3.37 on the way to the airport. The Gas Buddy app said gas was closer to $3.55 in Casper, so before we left SD, we just got what we needed to get to Casper.

We could see the rain Jewel had promised in the distance as we headed to Casper and we managed to get into it later on, adding another half hour to the drive. Probably the least scenic drive of the trip but we did run across some cowboys (and girls) rounding up some cattle using horses and – who knew? – ATVs. Checked into the Courtyard in Casper about 8 and they recommended nearby Sanford’s Grub Pub, a peculiar kitsch-jammed place with lots of fake cars, a giant Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck outside, more automotive/neon theme inside (repro gas pumps, cars, neon beer and comestibles signs, a couple dozen Betty Boops in various sizes, ad infinitum). Supposedly Cajun but that requires a pretty loose interpretation of “Cajun”. It took time to ponder the huge, 8-page menu with cutesy names for all the dishes that required careful reading. Servings were huge and the food, surprisingly, wasn’t bad.

spirobulldog Jun 27th, 2012 11:31 AM

looking forward to the rest of your trip.

I've done both wild cave tours in Carlsbad and the one they offere in Mammoth. Loved all of them and hope to get to do the one at Jewel at Wind sometime too.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 11:32 AM

<B>Day 6: Casper to Riverton</B>
Slept late the next morning, watched some news and read some newspapers after finishing off leftovers from dinner. Then we went to Safeway, which we thought would be our last supermarket until we left Yellowstone. (We were wrong, there were supermarkets in Riverton.) We also went by a Sportsman’s Wearhouse for bear spray and got a can, with holster, for $32. (Found the same size, sans holster, in the park for about $60.) Picked up some wool socks on sale for DH and I found what looked like a pretty good rainproof nylon jacket I needed on sale for about a third of the prices I’d seen (and refused to buy) at home. Got gas, hoping we could make it to Bozeman before having to buy more since it was $3.99 in W. Yellowstone and $4.09 in the park.

We are trying to avoid long drives (hope the 700 mi. a day drives we used to make are history), so we decided not to go all the way to Yellowstone but to stop in Riverton and maybe see something along the way. We took the more scenic Rt. 220/287 but as we got closer, we saw that our dawdling all morning had precluded spending enough time at Sinks Canyon to make a detour worthwhile, so we took 135 to Riverton and bypassed Lander/the state park. When we checked in, the woman at the Hampton Inn registration desk said all the restaurants with table service were closed since it was Sunday and the only place she knew that wasn’t fast food was El Sol de Mexico, which was not great but okay. After dinner I saw an ad in the hotel in-room info book for the Mexican place on my list that said it was closed on Tues., not Sun., so maybe we could have gotten a better meal. We did get an upgrade to a suite, though; although DH has higher Marriott status, we seem to get more and better upgrades at Hiltons. This was a fairly new hotel and pretty nice.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 11:59 AM

<B>Day 7: We Arrive in Yellowstone</B>
Monday morning we left for Yellowstone. Topped off the gas tank just in case since prices were going up the closer we got to the park. Interestingly enough, every station in every town had the same prices except for the occasional Maverick, 2 cents lower. Surely price-fixing. Rt. 26/287 has scenic dots on my AAA map but until we got pretty close to the Tetons, it wasn’t too scenic – though better than Jewel to Casper. We entered Grand Teton NP at Moran and threw some cold cuts from Safeway onto some bread at tables just inside the entry station. Not a charming location, but we’ve had more trouble finding picnic tables on this trip than usual.

The overcast skies as we drove through GTNP and stopped at Lewis Falls foreshadowed much of the weather on the rest of this trip. (Both of our previous trips to Yellowstone, 8 days in 2003 and 7 days in 2008, were in early Sept.; it was a little clearer and warmer those two trips.) We also stopped at West Thumb, our first time to walk around there since 2003, and it was rainy and foggy, too. Then the sun suddenly emerged. Strangely, West Thumb was eerie and more interesting in the rain than it was in sunlight. (Comparing photos from ’03 and ’12 confirm this.)

Our first park night was spent in a single queen room at the Old Faithful Inn, just to see what the Inn was like. The woman at registration asked if we wanted a first floor or a third floor room; since I’d heard that the elevators were slow and a pain in the neck for moving luggage and we were in the opposite wing from Old Faithful and the curious tourist traffic , I said 1st floor. She said it was only a few steps down to get to the corridor with our room, but it’s actually a few steps down to the 2000 rooms; then there is a full flight of stairs to rooms 1045 through 1074 – and no elevator, slow or otherwise. So don’t fall for that one if you don’t want to schlep luggage up and down. (They apparently do have a bellman somewhere around.) We looked for alternative routes for when we checked out but the only set of steps outside from our floor led to an area behind the hotel with a bison grazing on the sparse grass, so that wasn’t an option. One of my complaints about Xanterra employees is that they often don’t seem to know a lot about the hotels and other things you would think they should know.

I am fully aware that most park hotels have a limited season to make their nut, which influences the quality of the rooms vs. what you have to pay (in addition to the fact that they can charge plenty because of the location). I remind myself of this when I am reserving a fairly expensive room that I know is going to be a bit of a dive and cheerfully (well, only a little cheerfully) agree to the deal. But once I get there, I admit I whine some.

The room was small – no surprise there – but it was a bit bigger than I knew the cabins the next two nights would be. (But at least you can park your car outside the cabin doors.) That it had a hair dryer was a surprise, as was the upscale Keurig coffee maker – but it had an odd selection, 2 decafs, an extra strong, and 3 tea varieties. Small bath and shower, one straight-backed chair. Bedspread looked fairly new, carpets not too worn. We had dinner reservations for 7:15, so we headed that way to enjoy the lobby. Unfortunately, the Inn is undergoing renovations, so the lobby is full of scaffolding and draped with Visqueen and the massive fireplace is hidden from view.

We walked out to see if Old Faithful would erupt before dinner but it was tardy, so we returned to the lobby about 7:10 and discovered that since our last visit, you wait in line 10 to 20 min. even if you have reservations. I think Xanterra food has gone downhill since our ’03 visit. In ’08 we were at both Yellowstone and Grand Canyon (Aramark) and found the food at Grand Canyon had improved while Yellowstone had declined. We also had a much better meal at Bryce in Sept. ’11 (Forever Resorts). My bison pot roast was okay but dry and the veggies weren’t great. DH’s pork osso bucco was a little better. The roasted red pepper and smoked gouda soup was not bad but it was tomato soup, not red pepper. After dinner we tried for the next eruption of Old Faithful and it was right on time – pretty and pink in the setting sun.

On the way to dinner there was a power glitch that shut the fire doors and in the middle of the night another cut off DH’s CPAP machine. Despite being cool outside, our room was pretty warm, but it cooled off enough by bedtime that we could close the bottom portion of the window. I envisioned a bear climbing in since we had some food in the room. (We did have a wildlife guest, we discovered the next day. I heard a scrabbling noise when we woke up in the morning but it got quiet when I spoke to DH. He said he’d heard something when he woke up unable to breathe because of the power outage. We joked maybe a mouse since the noise was too soft to be a bear. No joke, as it turned out. But at least it wasn't a bear. :) )

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 12:12 PM

Spirobulldog, our trip to Carlsbad was in 1965, so it's on our list to return there. Can't recall if it was a live cave - or the tour was more in live parts - and we'd like to see it again. No longer up for the wild cave trips, we suspect, and would hate to be the stragglers on one, so we are confining ourselves to the longer "civilian" tours. But there were a couple of places in Wind and Jewel where we could have used hard hats. With hard hats, we didn't have to worry about ducking so much in our wild cave days. (Of course, with carbide mining lamps, we couldn't see that we <I>needed</I> to duck a lot of the time.) Think there is at least one more national monument cave, one in Oregon. Have you seen that one? We've also done the lava tube tour at Volcanoes NP, which has a few small stalactites, but I'm not sure I really count that as a cave.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 01:19 PM

<B>Day 8 – Yellowstone Lake, Mud Volcano, and Hayden Valley</B>
In the morning we checked out and stopped by the new VC which was completed since our last visit. Very nice. Saw the film and queried rangers about any kills in the park or other animal activity. They said things were pretty quiet. Got eruption times for the predictable 5, even though we planned to do the upper basin and geyser hill the next day. Then we drove back to the Lake Yellowstone area and stopped by Gull Point for lunch. When I started taking things out of the food bag, I discovered all this brown powder that resembled dirt and finally figured out it was hot chocolate powder. Had to take everything out to find the envelope that had 3 raggedy holes on the edges and a squashed brown spot that resembled the shape of mouse poop. Yuck. The calling card of our night visitor? We decided to keep food in the car henceforth. We drove over Fishing Bridge to Pelican Creek to photograph white pelicans, grebes and other birds; when I got back to the SUV, I found it covered with millions of tiny flying insects everywhere except on the passenger side, so I entered that way and crawled over the console to the driver’s seat. A few got in the car but most blew away by the time we got to Mud Volcano. That was the first thermal feature we saw on our first trip. After wandering around there a bit, not doing the whole climb up the hill this time, we headed on to Hayden Valley. Ran into our first real bear jam, ranger controlled, and saw 3 grizzlies in the woods – headed rapidly the other way, so we have bear butt photos. First bears of any kind we’d ever seen at Yellowstone and the first jam with rangers directing traffic. We would see more, but black bears, not grizzlies.

We had hoped for interesting animals in Hayden so DH could use his new spotting scope but there were only bison, way more than we’ve seen in Hayden on previous trips. Mostly cows and calves. We noticed that the animals are more photogenic in September. In early June they were all shedding those huge, unsightly mats of winter fur (even the coyotes we saw later had mats) instead of being dressed in their neat new winter coats. As we took photos of the babies, it began to rain, so we got back into the car to see if we could wait it out. As we sat there, we saw calves romping and a number of yearlings scuffling and practice-fighting, which was interesting entertainment. About the time the shower stopped, we realized some bison were starting to cross the road a few yards south of us. Since we had encountered several delays, a couple as long as 10 minutes, from bison herds at Custer, we decided to leave before the bison in front of us joined the procession. When we got to the next pullout, we could look back and see that the road blockade was well underway and probably not about to end soon.

Since we had yet to check in at OF Lodge, we headed back via the road from Canyon to Norris; we didn’t see many animals except a bison bull here and there. Finally we saw a resting bull elk in velvet with a many-pronged rack. (A replacement for the infamous Number 6?) Despite minimum traffic, it took awhile to get to OF – we always forget how long going anywhere in Yellowstone takes. We didn’t get to the Lodge registration until 8PM. Since it was raining again, I waited in the car. Then it started snowing and sleeting. I waited and waited. Finally when the precipitation abated for a minute, I went inside to see if DH had been abducted by aliens.

The downside of reserving rooms piecemeal is that while you might have two nights in the same hotel, they’re on separate reservations; in Yellowstone that means that you might have to change rooms, thus defeating the purpose of a multiple night stay. In previous years, I had called reservations after booking rooms separately online and gotten them tied. This time when I first tried that, the guy told me it was impossible. A few days later when we decided to make another OF Inn dinner reservation, I called for that and asked to have the reservations tied. The woman on the phone said it was done, so I thought all was okay. Turns out it wasn’t okay, we were booked in two different cabins and the woman at registration couldn’t figure out how to rearrange things so we’d be in the same cabin both nights; she had to call her manager to handle this through their 1990’s computer system. (After complaining to him that the Xanterra website was kludgy and difficult, especially when I forget and use Safari instead of Firefox, he said that they were still using an antique DOS system for the site; although they keep saying they’re going to do something about it, they never do, he said. Some people advise calling instead of trying to reserve online, but I’ve spent 10 min. or more on hold numerous times, so I usually use the website.)

We were worried about all dining options closing but he said the restaurant at the Snow Lodge was open till 10:30. That’s good when it’s light late – think it was open an hour later than when we were there in Sept. ’08. I wanted to locate the cabin before dark, so we did that and then, since it was snowing again, headed to the Snow Lodge (without unpacking) for an acceptable but unremarkable dinner. When we were moving into the (small) cabin, somewhat bereft of furniture as all Yellowstone accommodations we’ve stayed in, I realized that our Walgreens chair would give us a second place to sit besides on the bed. (Although we folded the chair daily and took it with us, the only place we ever used it was in Yellowstone hotel rooms; but it was worth the money just for a second chair in the rooms.) Don’t think we’ve ever had more than one chair or one nightstand. The cabin room was a little smaller than the single queen room at the OF Inn but not a lot. Not fond of the smaller bed in the cabins but spreads looked new, carpet was in good shape and clean-looking, and the toilets were new. All the mattresses seemed comfortable and reasonably new in all the Yellowstone rooms. DH had a bad cold and was in bad humor in ’03; healthier this time, he decided the room wasn’t quite as bad or as small as he remembered. Our only complaint was that the bottom sheet didn’t cover the bed, left about 10” of mattress pad exposed and left me hoping the previous occupants had had clean feet since I doubt they change the mattress pad after each guest. This isn’t the first time we’ve found this at Yellowstone – and we discovered why the next day.

spirobulldog Jun 27th, 2012 01:24 PM

hmm, i'm curious now about the sheet.

polly229 Jun 27th, 2012 09:17 PM

<B>Day 9 – “Thermal Day”. OF & Lower Basin</B>
Since we’re not big breakfast eaters and I need my coffee to get moving even as slowly as I do, we brought a small electric water pot and instant coffee/hot chocolate/tea. Don’t really think heating water falls under the “no cooking in the room” regulation. We also have cereal and milk and yogurt in the cooler. But after the mouse episode, we decided to leave the food in the car overnight. (Think it’s Yosemite where the bears rip open cars to get food.) DH went out to the car for the food and told me to look out the window. Quite a surprising accumulation of snow overnight considering that it’s June; isn’t June summer? Later DH ran into a housekeeper and mentioned the “short-sheeted” beds. She told him the sheets are small, so if they cover the mattress bottom, they come untucked at the top. But she also said only about 2” of mattress pad should be uncovered and she’d make sure ours was done properly. (When we went to bed that night, most of the exposed 10” was covered by sheet. If you ask me, the stupidest thing hotels do is to tuck in the top sheets and blankets so when you go to bed, you pull out the bottom sheet too and have to remake the bed. But that’s another thread I’m mulling – things I wish hotels would stop or start doing.)

We had planned to spend the day leisurely meandering around geyser hill and the upper basin, Biscuit and Black Sands and maybe farther, depending on the geyser schedule. When we were there the first time, we managed to see all of the somewhat predictable big upper basin geysers between 10AM and 5PM on one day and Great Fountain the next morning. Not so lucky the second trip when we took DD – only saw Riverside and Daisy that time. The timing was a little better than ’08 this time but there was no way to see them all in two days. (Nor did we have two days for that.) So we decided to try for Grand at 3 and Castle at 4 and head off for Biscuit in the morning. Last time we walked to Biscuit after a stop at Morning Glory Pool but since it was cold as blazes, there was still some snow on the ground, and the sun had yet to reveal itself, I decided I’d rather drive so as to be near the car to warm up/dry off. We hoped the afternoon would be nicer. After Biscuit, I thought we’d walk back to Morning Glory Pool but turned around when I ran into the first bear warning sign. Bear spray or not, I wasn’t eager to meet a bear unless I was in a vehicle. Did not worry so much about bears on previous trips but that was before the four fatal attacks in the Yellowstone area in ‘10 & ’11, along with some other close encounters. The extremely muddy path contributed to my decision to return to OF and have lunch.

Tried the buffet at the Inn, which wasn’t bad except for a lot of running out of food and no green beans or pork barbecue at all at 1:00. After I scraped out the pot to get 2/3s of a cup of chili, that was never replaced either. (Buffet supposedly till 2:30.) By the time we finished lunch the weather was warmer and sunny, so we walked from the Inn over to Geyser Hill hoping to catch the ~3PM Grand eruption. As we walked by Castle on the way to Grand at 2PM, a ranger was changing the sign to read 2-4PM. We continued on by and just before we got to Grand, Castle began to spout. A bunch of people ran back (and probably had plenty of time to get there since Castle usually goes on for awhile) but we just walked a little way and shot some photos with our zoom lenses. When Castle was done, we headed to Grand with its benches full of waiting people; Grand had started what we seemed to remember as its pre-eruption behavior. Sure enough, it went off in under 5 minutes and gave the usual impressive show. Then we walked around Geyser Hill, stopping for awhile to see if we could see the Lion Group erupt – never have and didn’t this time, either. And I always have to wait for my cute baby Anemone to fill and “flush”. We were closer to the cabin than the car, so we went back to the room, washed out some underwear, and then went back to the far end of the Inn parking lot for the car. I heard some cranes talking on the way but didn’t see them; however, we did see a crane in a field later that day, so it wasn’t my imagination.

DH said he remembered a road where you drove by a number of geysers and after a little thought, I asked if he meant Firehole Drive. He didn’t know. (I fear that DH barely even knows where he is some of the time, let alone where he has been, and certainly has no idea where he is going tomorrow. He traveled extensively on business for over 30 years and while he occasionally provides an opinion about a possible destination, he tells me to decide and plan it all – says he has fun anywhere we’ve been. I am grateful that after all his years on planes [but not trains] and automobiles, he’s still willing to take off on a trip at the drop of a hat. But it falls to me to remember 98% of everything.) I was pretty sure it was Firehole, though, so I drove there and after a couple of stops, he said, yes, this was the place. As we went by Great Fountain, I saw what I thought was a volunteer watcher and asked her if she knew when the next eruption would be. She said most likely 6:45-7:15; there was no prediction in the VC that morning since no one had seen the previous eruption and they depend on the volunteer spotters to come up with the estimated times. The top pool was overflowing so we figured it would probably be in the next hour or so. (Of course, we waited with DD for over 2 hrs. in ’08 with the pool overflowing and finally left without an eruption. White Dome did go off in the distance half a dozen times during the wait, though.)

Rather than wait another 45 min. or so, since it was getting chilly again, we finished up Firehole Lake Dr. Stopped by some features called Hot Lake and Black Warrior Lake that we don’t recall seeing before, then went back to the main road and took a drive on Fountain Flat Dr., which was a waste of time. We went on to Madison, turned around, and I asked DH if he would like to stop by Great Fountain again. He said probably not since we had 7:45 dinner reservations at OF Inn. I thought about all the times I had listened to him and was sorry (“Let’s just stay in Luxor today and not go back to the Valley of the Kings” and other opinions), so I turned back onto Firehole Lake Dr. By then all the parking places were full, so we drove past a little and pulled over on the roadside where we could see the geyser. The top pool was really running by then and shortly afterwards I began to hear a louder grumbling and rumbling, so we walked back to the benches. Within a couple of minutes of sitting down, it erupted. We watched for about 10 min. and the initial highest spurts (it often continues for a couple of hours) and then headed back to OF. Got there in plenty of time to stand in line for our reservation.

The hostess spent some time trying to find us a “good” table, with a window view; this was humorous because the view was a construction office trailer, piles of plywood, 18” dia. pvc pipes, ladders, and a chain link fence. Not so hungry after a larger-than-usual lunch so we got a deluxe wedge, a chicken and cashew with Bibb lettuce wrap, and the wild mushroom stroganoff and split them. Salad good, entrée pretty good, the “wraps” weird and had no cashews. Think they run out of stuff and hope no one will notice or will think a splash of sesame seeds are cashews. Poor service this night - food dropped off and we never saw the waitress again, no tea refills. We finally attracted her attention at nearby table and asked for the check.. We saw a coyote running over to Glacier Hill as we were driving out of the parking lot so decided to drive a bit and look for animals at dusk but only saw an elk cow in the woods.

Noticed in Mrs. Pickle’s review something about missing a parking lot at OF and not wanting to circle back. I spent some time trying to 1) figure out the one-way stuff and get a visual image from the sketchy map provided and 2) outwit the one-way system – getting to the place right beside you without going out to the access road again – by driving through parking lots (sometimes without outlets). Had very little success.

ElendilPickle Jun 28th, 2012 09:47 AM

>>Noticed in Mrs. Pickle’s review something about missing a parking lot at OF and not wanting to circle back. I spent some time trying to 1) figure out the one-way stuff and get a visual image from the sketchy map provided and 2) outwit the one-way system – getting to the place right beside you without going out to the access road again – by driving through parking lots (sometimes without outlets). Had very little success.<<

Oh, good, it wasn't just us, then. :-)

Lee Ann

kureiff Jun 28th, 2012 10:38 AM

Looking forward to the rest of your report! I have a friend working at Wind Cave. We used to work together as tour guides at Lewis & Clark Caverns (between Virginia City and Bozeman).

polly229 Jun 28th, 2012 06:11 PM

Coincidentally, the next segment is about Yellowstone to Virginia City to Bozeman. No time for cavern stops, though. We certainly hope to get back to the area sometime, so how would you compare Lewis & Clark with other caves you might have seen?

<B>Day 10 – To Virginia City via the Madison road with Elk Calves</B>
Slept later than we intended (didn’t get away till after 10 as usual) and headed to Madison to exit the park and go to Virginia City. Made a short stop at Black Sand Basin since we weren’t coming back to the OF area. No animals until we got part of the way down the road between Madison and West Yellowstone, where we saw cars pulled off the road. Just across the Madison River were two elk cows and their calves. One calf was obviously a little older and neither had been born in June, so they must have been earlier than usual if our information about early June births was correct. The older calf didn’t seem too sure which was his mother, but one of the cows was <I>quite sure</I> he wasn’t <I>hers</I> and kept chasing him off, kicking at him with a front hoof. The calves played together and the older calf was doing a lot of running, jumping, and splashing in the river. This was a good video opportunity as well as still photos. Once again, we stayed longer than we intended due to the unexpected entertainment.

We made several stops on Rt. 287 to photograph the views along the way, and after driving through a cute little town called Ennis, we arrived in Virginia City (pop. 150) about 2PM. Had lunch at the Virginia City Café, an adequate Philly cheese steak and a locally made “bratwurst” on a stale bun. We walked around the main street of the 19th C. gold mining town, looking into the restored old buildings and shops with their collections of artifacts. Information about the restoration and the management now by the state of MT, which I read online before leaving home, is very interesting.

I would have liked to support the local merchants by buying some things, especially the nice lady at Vigilante Gift Shop, but most of what we saw was tourist dreck and nothing we wanted. There was a sign for tour times on a vintage fire truck we’d seen pass by while we were having lunch, but when we tried to take the 3:30 tour, there was no truck to be seen. The lady at the aforementioned gift shop came outside, looked around and then down the hill to the guy’s house, and finally said, “I’ll bet he’s knocked off early and gone fishing.” Might have ridden the 1 ½ mi. to Nevada City on the 1910 Baldwin locomotive, but it is not operating this year, apparently, and the little toy-looking train that didn’t look much like a train was not appealing. So we continued our explorations in the car on a residential street, using the map of historic buildings, and then drove to Nevada City. I think that on weekends in Virginia City there are costumed people doing demonstrations and the fire truck driver probably doesn’t go fishing.

When we got to Nevada City, a ghost town, we were getting a little burned out on old buildings, so we walked around outside the fence in front of the restored area where you could see the exteriors of most of the buildings. DH didn’t seem too interested in Nevada City but probably would have been more enthusiastic if there had been blacksmiths and printers and bakers at work. Had I remembered that the Music Hall had a large collection of restored automated music machines – and had I found out you can drop money in a slot and play them – I’d have decided to pay to go into the restored town. I think Nevada City also has craftspeople in costume on weekends and maybe in season. That’s one of the disadvantages of traveling shoulder seasons.

We drove the hour to Bozeman and checked into a really nice, new Residence Inn about 6:30 that was serving complementary food until 7 - pulled pork, buns, baked beans, tossed salad, chips. This was pretty good food – actually, better than most of what we paid for previously and subsequently – and more than sufficient for dinner, so we didn’t go out again. Enjoyed the luxury of a big bed, nice bathroom, etc. This was the best Residence Inn we’ve ever stayed in. (And probably seemed even nicer after 3 nights in NPS accommodations.)

kureiff Jun 28th, 2012 08:25 PM

Lewis and Clarj Caverns has many more formations than both Wind and Jewel Caves. The Caverns are very impressive...many formations and different types than are found in many caves.

I like going to Virginia City to attend the Brewery Follies, which is kind of a risqué vaudeville act. They are wonderfully talented. Otherwise, there is not much to do. If you watched Frontier House on PBS, the cabins of the participants are restored in Nevada City.

polly229 Jun 28th, 2012 09:25 PM

I kind of figured that the night life in VA City was probably the highlight - or at least the Brewery Follies. Probably should have arrived later and stayed later. Maybe next time.

We went to Carlsbad so many years ago that I can't really remember much. But having done Mammoth a couple or so years ago and now Jewel and Wind, I question the criteria for national park caves. (Well, BIG, that seems to be a criterion.) We used to see wild caves (at least a couple of which were commercialized later) much more beautiful in VA, WV, and TN in our youth. But something a ranger/guide said in either Wind or Jewel made me realize part of the reason NP caves may seem less attractive than the commercial and wild ones. The Park Service doesn't do any digging, blasting, other modifications that might make some beautiful formations more accessible - or accessible at all. Who knows what is hidden behind those holes too small for a 3-year-old to squeeze through? In the '60s and '70s, cavers used to open passages into other rooms, dig connections between caves, and otherwise desecrate them according to NPS views. Amateur cavers were always trying to "make a connection" then. And long before - I assume Floyd Collins was trying to make the connection between Flint Ridge and Mammoth during the years he explored Flint Ridge. (A connections that was made in '72 when some cavers crawled through a passage and came into a room with railings, or so the story goes.) Maybe cavers are still doing that, but I assume that people working in NPS caves are not at liberty to enlarge or dig to gain access.

And probably just as well. I remember going through a beautiful cave in WV (no longer recall the name). Cavers were keeping the location, even the existence, of certain caves quiet back then (often this was to keep the locals out since they didn't follow the same conservation rules). That cave was an example of the reason. There was a beautiful grotto about 8 ft. deep and maybe 24" high with a ceiling totally covered with almost flower-like helectites. Some idiot (or idiots) had crawled into it, even though you could see most of it perfectly well without going in, and broken parts of probably 3/4s of the helectites. There are probably many times when, in order to make beautiful sections accessible - especially to tourists not prepared to crawl or straddle or chimney - you'd have to damage some very nice formations. Owners who commercialize caves will do this.

There could be a lot of stunning stuff in NPS caves that tourists just can't get to. I know the Scenic Tour we took in Jewel didn't have all the formations mentioned in their brochure or on their website - cave pearls, which I have seen, and the hydromagnesite balloons, which I had never even heard of, come to mind. Perhaps those are on the wild tour. Or maybe the balloons will burst if you breathe on them and no one much gets to see them.

kureiff Jun 29th, 2012 07:26 AM

Lewis & Clark Caverns was privately owned for quite a while, too, and then the State of MT acquired it in the 20's. Conservation Corps workers helped cut in steps and opened up some of the rooms in the cave during the Depression. The tour includes about half of the cave, but it does include the most decorated rooms. It really has an amazing number of formations especially compared to other Nat'l Park caves: lots of helictites, full columns, stalagmites and stalactites.

I hadn't heard of the balloons, either. Very cool!

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