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BIG TRIP - Southwest, Yellowstone, Badlands, and MORE

BIG TRIP - Southwest, Yellowstone, Badlands, and MORE

Mar 1st, 2006, 05:50 PM
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BIG TRIP - Southwest, Yellowstone, Badlands, and MORE

We’re heading West! And Southwest! And Mid West!

Newbie to the forum here – stumbled upon it while planning our Big Trip Out West over the last few months, and have consistently come back to “search” for info, recommendations, etc. It seems to be chock-full of great info and even better people, so I had hoped to get some advice and/or recommendations from those with experience in the areas that we’ll soon be visiting.

My wife and I will be heading West from our home in the Philadelphia suburbs from mid-May to early June (3 wks total). We’ll be flying into San Antonio, eventually driving up through El Paso (quick one-night stopover) and Silver City, NM for Gila Cliff Dwellings, to the Winslow area for Homolovi Ruins, Petrified Forest/Painted Desert & Canyon de Chelly. Off to Las Vegas for a few days change of pace, and then up to Grand Canyon. After a few days at GC its all the way up to West Yellowstone for a few days in the park, followed by a travel day/night, day for Devil’s Tower and Mount Rushmore, then a day in the Badlands, then a torrid 2-day ride home. Phew! Whirlwind, right?

Before I move on to the itinerary, some background: Wife and I are early 30’s, fairly in shape and into hiking and other “active” vacation activities (redundant?) Since my wife has only been west of PA once (and only to Nebraska, at that) and I’ve only briefly touched some of these highlights during a frenzied, poverty-stricken 10 day spring break road trip during college, we wanted to take advantage of some time off and get a good variety of activities and locales in. Besides, not sure when we’d be able to make it back out there for all of this, really, so we really wanted to hit a LOT of highlights, but also to focus in a little on some of the areas that we thought would take time to absorb.

Nearly all of the nights are already booked at hotels or B&B’s, but most of the cancellation policies are flexible should I need a tweak here and there. I’ll try to include rationale for questionable decision-making where applicable! I’ll also asterisk (***) specific questions that I have or advice that I’m soliciting:

Day 1 – Fly into San Antonio. First night getting in pretty much in time for dinner, so figured light Riverwalk exploration and food and drink. Staying in King William district, I believe? While it is on the Riverwalk, it does not look like it is in the bar/restaurant section of the ‘Walk, from what I can tell. ***Can anyone confirm or deny?

Day 2 – Figured Alamo and more Riverwalk if necessary. ***This doesn’t feel like a full day, does it? Looking for any San Antonio “must-do’s” to flesh out this day if necessary. Not picking up rental car until the next day, so still hoofing it, so anything we do must be fairly local.

Day 3 – Guessing we’d tour the other missions along the river. ***Not sure if we need to drive to these or not…? Also, will it take a full day to tour all 4 – and are any the same that we wouldn’t need/want visit all of them?

Day 4 – Road day, drive approximately (via Mapquest) 7:45 to overnight in El Paso, on the way to Silver City, NM – OR, having 2nd thoughts here – ***do we drive all the way to Silver City this night and wake up close and ready to go for Gila Cliff Dwellings (adding 2:45 onto the trip for a total of 10:30 – LONG DAY!) Any thoughts on this would be helpful. 7:45 doesn’t feel like long now, but who knows what it will feel like then; guessing that extra 2:45 could be LONG, too, but it’d be great to wake up in Silver City. ***Looking for info on “safety” of El Paso (have heard conflicting reports; we’re staying in the Ramada if it makes a difference), as well as ***opinions of Gila Cliff Dwellings (was feeling bad that I scheduled them into the trip early upon realizing there are ruins all over the Arizona locales that we will be at).

One more thought on Day 4 – *** if we do end up staying overnight in El Paso and get there early enough (guessing by 5:00 o’clock-ish), is White Sands close enough that we could check it out for sunset (and is that even a good time to se it?) Or are there any other El Paso “must-do’s” that we can hit late that afternoon or evening?

Day 5 – Either wake up and head to Silver City or wake up already there, depending on Day 4. Head up to the Cliff Dwellings ***(One hour from town? Two?) in time for ranger program @ 2:00 I believe - ridiculously doable if we’re staying in Silver City, borderline if we’re coming for El Paso, it looks like? Distance from Silver City to cliff dwellings key here, I think…slow mountain roads, I hear?***

Day 6 – Leave Silver City and head to Winslow, AZ. Staying 2 nights at La Posada, which we are really excited about. Figure to be in Winslow by early afternoon, so figured we could check in and then make the short trek to the Homolovi Ruins State Park, looks very close to Winslow. *** Are these worth checking out?

Day 7 – Have reserved a 6 hr. 4x4 trip into Canyon de Chelly with *** Antelope House Tours - anyone ever use them? Canyon looks to be about 2.5 hrs from Winslow *** - does this feel right? Also thought about stopping at the Hubbell Trading Post on the way, if its worth it (though it may be too early, as our tour meets @ CDC visitor center @ 9:00, having us pass by Hubbell 8:00 or earlier…). Figure between the tour into the canyon + maybe a little rim drive exploration, we’ll be MORE than ready to head back to La Posada for a Prickly Pear Cactus margarita – mmmm! Thought it may be nice to catch the sunset from the rim of CDC – *** does drive back for 2.5 hrs to Winslow in the dark seem safe/reasonable?

Day 8 – Checking out of La Posada and heading for Painted Desert/Petrified Forest. I’ve seen a lot of “ho-hum” reviews of this park, but we are VERY excited about it. Feels like a great day of short hikes and exploration, photography, etc – we are fully aware that there is no “forest” there, but coming from PA this scenery looks spectacular and very refreshingly different to us. I don’t think we’ll have a problem spending half to three-quarters of a day (maybe even a full day) there hiking around and exploring. Once done there, checking into Heward House B&B in Holbrook - *** anyone have any experience with this place? I have heard that Holbrook is a dusty, crappy little town, but got the vibe that Heward House is like an oasis there – website pics are limited, though, so I could be dead wrong. Any input?

(*** Regarding days 6-8, are there any recommendations for other sites in the Winslow/Holbrook area that we are missing or could fairly easily squeeze into our schedule? Hopi Mesas look interesting, could they be combined with Painted Desert, perhaps? Anything else we’re missing, other than the Meteor Crater that we ARE NOT interested in?)

Day 9 – Wake up bright and early @ Heward House and head for the glitter of Las Vegas! Mapquest says a little over 5 hours to LV, so figured do a quick scan of the town, check in (*** The Flamingo, any reviews? Unfortunately both nights we are there there is a GIGANTIC grocery store owners convention, which REALLY jacked up room rates…staying on a Sunday and Monday, $129/night), then dinner, then catching “O.” (*** any reviews?)

Day 10 – Expect to hit up some of the Strip attractions. *** Only one day here, so like to get some of the real highlights – anybody? *** Also, should we be driving or walking – distances seem kinda far for walking, but can’t imagine continually hopping in car and driving to next parking garage 1/4 mile away all day?! ***Looking for good-to-gourmet restaurant for that night if anyone has any faves.

Day 11 – Up early and heading to Grand Canyon. Bypassing the South Rim to go through Cameron and then into the park via Desert View Drive, as per many recommendations here and elsewhere. Figured we’d just soak in some of the magic first, then maybe a short rim hike to wherever we’ll be catching the sunset. Staying in Yavapai East, apparently the newer rooms - *** any reviews?

Day 12 – We booked a day with the Grand Canyon Field Institute for a Day program called “Meet the Canyon.” It will just be us and a guide, and we’ll hike partway down Bright Angel and then up for lunch, and then some more park exploration with said guide. Although kinda pricey at $125/ea (because we are only a party of 2), thought this would be a good idea to interactively learn the how/why/when of the park, and then onto…

Day 13 - …our own, unguided day hike, I guess down South Kaibab trail (the only other trail recommended for non-hardcore hikers?!), ALTHOUGH I’d like to hear opinions on the other 2 main South Rim “unmaintained” trails, Hermit Trail and the other’s name escapes me. I’ve read warning on these two, like unmaintained, narrow, treacherous drops, etc – *** anyone have any experience on these?

Day 14 – On the road again! Out of GC early and in for a LONG haul, one of the longest of the trip – 833 miles and just under 13 hrs according to Mapquest – to West Yellowstone. Sadly, we will be passing within a few hundred miles of Monument Valley (maybe less), but I did not stumble upon its existence until I had pretty much routed and booked nearly the whole trip, and therefore did not fit it in. Since then I have read a great deal about it, and it really hurts my heart that we will be missing it while we are all the way out there, but I think it is not to be this time. Even considered skipping over Yellowstone to hit up MV (only going to be @ Yellowstone 2-3 days, anyway, we’d only be scratching the surface – BUT, my wife says, that was the intent, to scratch the surface, to see what we’d like to spend more time on next time.)

Day 15 – Leave from the B&B in WY and hit up the park – we’re considering either a half or full-day horseback tour with an outfit run by a guy named Jett Hitt (LOVE that name!), OR – even more interesting to us – a wolf or bear viewing tour run by guy that calls himself the Yellowstone Bearman. GREAT website, seems like a very knowledgeable and reputable guy – *** anyone have any experience with him? (website is www.yellowstone-bearman.com) *************** Problem is, tours run $475, from 1-5 people, same price! I won’t pay $250 for each of us, so hoping that we can meet another couple that will be there same time period that will want to check this out with us – ANYONE??? We don’t bite! J *******************

Day 16 – Probably just a little loop exploration, maybe some shorter hikes if possible…

Day 17 – same as Day 16, but would like to be in the NE quadrant of the park (somewhere from Canyon Village to Tower-Junction) and heading out of the park by 3:00 or so. Heading out of NE entrance via Beartooth Pass to Red Lodge…*** figured we’ll be hitting this late afternoon and then maybe through sundown, guessing just enough time to see some of the spectacularness of the Pass in the late afternoon light? Continue past Red Lodge and onward through the reservation to spend the night in Sheridan (*** Day’s Inn, anyone ever stay there?) *** Also, does that time frame seem doable, heading out of NE Yellowstone mid-afternoon, through Beartooth Pass, and all the way to Sheridan by 10:00 or 11:00 pm? Mapquest says 5 hrs or so from Tower Junction in the park to Sheridan, via Beartooth Pass and then I-90. *** Also, is I-90 suitable for nighttime high-speed travel through Montana and then that sizeable reservation right before we hit Northern Wyoming?

Day 18 – Up early and then 2.5 hours to Devil’s Tower (from the south, unfortunately). Figuring on 3-4 hrs of exploration here (*** too long???), and then south to some B&B with “coyote blues” in the name, outside Hill City near MT. Rushmore. Figured we’d check in, relax, then hit up Mt. Rushmore for the nighttime lighting. Then hit the hay!

Day 19 – Badlands exploration for the day. Staying in Cedar Pass Lodge cabins for the night.

Day 20 – Up early and begin the LONG trip home, spending this night about halfway in Winnebago, IL (suburb of Chicago?)

Day 21 – Wake up in Winnebago and get home as fast as possible! Both this day and previous map out to about 11 hrs.

Wow, I am sick of typing now. Obviously, this is a huge area that we are trying to cover, and clearly we can do almost none of the bigger attractions in the true depth that they ultimately deserve, but as my wife mentioned, we are only scratching the surface to see what we will explore in greater detail in vacations to come. I’d welcome any recommendations, advice, restaurants, attractions, or anything else that I’ve either missed or interpreted incorrectly.

If you’ve read to this point, WOW, thank you for taking the time, and thanks in advance for any advice. If I think of anything I’ve omitted I will add to this post in the coming days.


Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 03:34 AM
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Bump! Wow the posts pile up quick!
Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 05:06 AM
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I did a road trip to Yellowston from NYC, so you're doing a similar drive home.

If you have any interest, you can see Little Bighorn if you leave through the NE exit of Yellowston en route to Devil's tower - easy drive on small roads through northern Montana. You won;t be at DT too long, a walk around the base is all you need (1 hr). The Black Hills can suck you in with all the touristy stuff. Leave yourself plenty of time for Yellowstone - so much to do and see.

Oh, if you're a fan of the film Field Of Dreams, you can stop at the field on the drive back.

I posted this on another thread, but you may like them as well - pics from my road trip:

john127 is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 05:18 AM
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WOW - all great pics of your trip! Was the coyote taken with flash?

Looks like we will only have 2.5 to 3 days at Yellowstone as of now - do you think we should attempt to navigate both loops just to "see" everything roadside, or should we concentrate and explore a quadrant of the park?

I must admit I have done lot more research on our Southwest sites (Canyon de Chelly, Painted Deset, Grand Canyon) than on Yellowstone, so we're not sure of the must-see's there yet - Loving the Grand Prismatic Spring, though, as well as other thermal features, but, like most, we are very intent on seeing/photo-ing bears + wolves. Any decent wildlife viewing areas near the prismatic spring?
Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 05:36 AM
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Don't get your heart set on photographing bears and wolves. Wolves can only be seen from a great distance, and really the only good spot is Lamar Valley - you'll need good binoculars - and if you're pressed for time, I can't see wasting an evening on this. Bears are hit or miss in the summer. We stayed a week and never saw one.
Do count on seeing plenty of Elk, Bison, and Coyotes (we spotted a few Bald Eagles and a couple of Moose too).

I would advise you don't just do the loop and stop at the "attractions" - you'll feel like you're at a theme park. Instead, get off the road and do some hikes. We loved hiking along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Fairy Falls trail, and Lone Star Geyser. You'll see backcountry thermal features, wildlife, and be away from the crowds.

Oh, great "touristy" thing to do though - the cowboy cookout on horseback - it's a gorgeous 1 hour guided ride to a fabulous barbecue dinner set up in a perfect spot. This was a highlight of our trip - you need advance reservations though.
john127 is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 06:16 AM
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One question about doing the little hikes you recommneded in Yellowstone - Did you (or did you notice others) feeling the need to hike with the Bear Spray I've been reading about? Or is constant singing/talking loud on the trail enough precaution? (Have to admit I find this hard to believe, people hiking around such beautiful wilderness singing or chanting constantly - doesn't it then scare ALL the wildlife away? However, I have consistently read that this is the best defense against meeting up with backcountry bears.)

For what its worth, we'll be there at the very end of May when, I understand, the bears will just be "waking up" and beginning their summer gorge-fest.
Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 06:26 AM
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You will definitely be there at prime bear time. Get a good hiking book, there are tons, and they usually mention if and when specific trails may be frequented by grizzlies (some even are closed as for us, we did a lot of hiking and I did carry bear spray with me. Also, in areas where there was known bear activity, my wife was dilligent (a little paranoid maybe) about giving a few loud claps and whistles when approaching a hill or ridge we couldn't see over - this is what you're taught to do in bear country.
john127 is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 10:30 AM
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Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 01:34 PM
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ttt - one more time... - considerably fewer responses than I assumed!
Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 01:34 PM
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Nothing before day six seems that interesting to me and I wonder that your driving from Winslow past the Grand Canyon to Vegas and then back to the east end of GC just to enter through Desert View. Why?

Painted desert and petrified forest are boring...I'd skip them in favor of a stop in Sedona maybe.

I'd sure be considering lopping off some of the first 6 days so you can see Zion. NP, and Bryce Canyon and Utah's scenic Rt. 12 on the way to Yellowstone.

It seems that you are doing a lot of driving yet skipping by some of the best that the west has to offer.

Just my opinion which, as we know, are as common as belly buttons.

Just curious also why you're driving all the way home. If it is just to see the Badlands, Devil's Tower and Mt. Rushmore then I don't think that it is worth all the driving across the mid-west.

peterboy is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 01:46 PM
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So right about the bellybuttons!

For starters, I have been to San Antonio once for a few days for work (without my wife), and knew that one day I'd have to come back with her. This was not necessarily supposed to be just a "southwest" trip so much as to see as many fantastic things/parks/cities as we reasonably could. We enjoy both the gritty day hikes as well as the gourmet restuarants, thus Vegas and San Antonio in the trip. Lord knows when we'll be out "there" again, especially San Antonio area, as not a ton more there that we "need" to see in that particular area, while I'm SURE we'll be out in the 4 corners area again to do Mon Valley and some of the other biggies that we're missing this time around.

Appreciate your opinion on Pet Forest/Painted Desert, but having been there I can assure you that we will not consider it "boring." Love the idea of several small hikes in surreal terrain that is unlike any that we've (well, my wife) have ever seen. (I take it you are from the SW, Peter?)

Perhaps we may cover this park quicker than we thought, though, and hit up the Hopi Mesas...how far a drive are they from the Painted Desert part of Pet Forest park?

Surprised at the lack of enthusiasm for Gila Cliff Dwellings, too - are they not considered a spectacular set of ruins? Perhaps I've googled the wrong opinions of them...

IMHO, we ARE missing out on these parks that we WILL have to make a return visit to: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Mon Valley. I guess you can say that we're hitting up Vegas and San Antonio in leui of them. We wanted to get some "city" into the trip, as well!

The drive home, actually, is a compromise. I just, in general, DO NOT fly, almost never. We compromised by flying into SA but then driving home...although I would re-consider that decision, perhaps leaving from Rapid City to fly to Philly if flight were cheap enough.

BTW, you are one of the first I've come across that mentioned that the Black Hills area is not worth a visit while in that part of the country!

Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 01:51 PM
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ALSO - forgot to mention - Vegas and Grand Canyon dates were coordinated with 2 things - when we could get tix for a Cirque du Soleil show ("O") and when lodging was available on consecutive nights in GC. We were first going to do them in opposite order, but had to settle for this.

The drive in from the east was as per many recommendations (most here?) that that drive in is far less crowded/jammed up than the drive straight North from Williams, and that the viewpoints would be less crowded (than the initial south rim lookouts coming in from Williams) as we first entered the park and took in the vistas.

Do you think this is a big waste of time and that we should just come in from Williams on the way back from Vegas?
Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 02:03 PM
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I've lived in Arizona and traveled a lotin the west through the years...I'm in Upstate NY near Albany now.

For the record Hopi Mesa is on my list of "to sees" no problem with that at all. If you are in the are then consider Chaco Canyon NP...it it the "Rome" of the southwest.

If you are in the area then, by all means, visit the Badlands...I wouldn't find myself in the area is all...too far from anywhere. The same holds true (for me) about the Devil's Tower and Mt. Rushmore. Of the three, the Devil's Tower was the most interesting.

If it were me (which it is not) I'd fly home from Salt Lake City and take the time in the west and skip the drive cross country but I prefer planes to cars and have had my fill of cross country drives. Having said that, I think that every american SHOULD drive across country once in their life just to realise how large it is and get the "lay of the land".

I cabn tell you this though, after this trip, it will be hard for you not to return for more.

I'm thinking that, with all the driving you'll bedoing. you might want to invest on one of those blow up donut cushions to sit on ;>)

See what happens when you ask for opinions.

peterboy is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 02:08 PM
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Looks like we were posting at the same time...yes I'd just drive to the GC from Vegas...coming in from the east is nice but not worth the long drive around.

Spend that time hiking a couple of miles into the canyon or drive along the rim to the east end and then back.

You will quickly learn that the west is much bigger than it looks on the maps. No matter what, with your enthusiasm to drive you, you are going to have the time of your lives.
peterboy is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 02:25 PM
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Sounds like a great trip. I myself would consider flying some of the legs and not spending full days on the road, if possible.

Part of the problem you may be having in getting replies Senor is that many of us on fodors are rather simple minded folk like myself. You have asked 20, maybe more questions (sort of?) in your itinerary. By the time I read your itinerary (I did read the whole thing), I didn't remember a single specific question you asked.

Sometimes simple posts about one single location, with very specific questions generate much more traffic.

You don't need to overload this forum with 20 separate posts at once (you'd catch grief for that anyway), but a few new posts along the lines of "Yellowstone questions" or "Badlands questions" may get you more specific replies.

J62 is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 02:34 PM
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Ok, here's my .02 -

We've done nine cross-country out west trips, to california and back, all 9 road trips between 3 - 3.5 weeks, no flying involved - we've pretty much done it all. I have to agree with peterboy. While we've done the Badlands/ Mt. Rushmore / Devil's Tower stuff, its because it's on I90, which was our outgoing route several times. Also, i would truly re-think the Painted Desert/ Petrified Forest, possibly Vegas - and get yourself to Bryce, Zion and Scenic SR 12 - a destination in itself.

While i understand adding a city here and there (we too need a dose of commercialism - teen dd insists on that) but not at the expense of some of the most spectacular sites of the west / southwest.

We too, drive from the east/ midwest and i can assure you that you will find the canyons and Utah's SR 12 MUCH more stunning and memorable than ANYTHING you may encounter in the Painted Desert / Petrified Forest.

On historic RT. 66, we stayed overnight in Holbrook, AZ, in a kitchy, concrete teepee (Wigwam Motel), then stopped in Winslow (photo op at "Standing on the Corner"). There's really not much else there, checked out La Posada....any particular reason you're staying two nights? Again, just my .02 but unless you have family there, i'd make it a pitt stop and then move on.

Also, is there any reason why you're going to el paso? If you do San Antonio, the other missions ARE 'worth it' - IF you want to see a true mission. The Alamo is nothing more than the shell of the mission, very disappointing to many (including us). The other missions are much more comprehensive; one was still in operation and we caught part of a sunday service, very moving.

Some of our 9 west trip reports are here, just click on my name. You should also read some of Peterboys reports, who also happens to have some of the most spectacular photography posted.

Regardless where you go however, i'm sure you'll get the out west 'fever' and you too, will be planning your next adventure as you're returning from this one. Have fun planning.

ellen_griswold is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 07:25 PM
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Ellen and everyone else that replied, THANKS SO MUCH for your info. I completely agree with your analysis of the inanae length and # of questions in my original post (and my wife agreed before I even posted! Or is it DW? ;-) )

I'll break some of these out with more specific titles over the next few weeks. BTW, just read your (Ellen) trip report from last summer, all GREAT STUFF! Very entertaining.

Hope to see some of your replies on my next posts....
Mr_Senor is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2006, 08:10 PM
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I'd skip the Gila Cliff dwellings and do Carlsbad Caverns instead.
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