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Trip Report Report on I-90/94 road trip WA-MI

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First of all let me thank you other road trippers for your great advice. It really helped me plan my trip. I love Fodors! Another little note before I get started on my story. We started our trip in Washington driving through parts of 11 states to Michigan. I was only able to tag 5 of the 11 states in this post so I chose the ones we spent the most time in.

My husband (which I will refer to as "MH" for the rest of this report) and I started planning this trip last winter after plans for another trip fell through. Being a travel junkie I could not imagine 2012 without a trip in it. A large branch of my family lives in MI and while I visited as often as I could it had been over 20 years since we had done the trip by car. MH had never traveled farther East then the Dakotas and being a wild life enthusiast all I had to say was "Yellowstone" and he was in. We were both able to get 16 days off for the trip. Our plan was to leave early AM on 7/6 and return 7/20ish. We kept the 21-22 as buffer days in case we needed more time in one place or needed a couple days vacation at home after vacation on the road. MH and I liked the idea of planning as we went. This didn't mean that I didn't research and plan beforehand to get a rough timeline to follow. We just didn't want to be tied down to a specific plan in case we found something/somewhere along the way we wanted to do/see that wasn't originally factored in. We planned the first two nights around Yellowstone and booked both of those rooms in advance. Our only other plan set in stone was a family get-together in MI on 7/14- 7/15. We liked the feeling of being flexible as far as the rest of the trip was concerned.

Fri 7/6- We planned to hit the road at the crack of dawn and drive hard to Big Sky Montana the first day (about 9 hours). We made reservations in advance at The Lodge at Big Sky through Expedia. We got the news that MH had to work this day just a couple days before we planned to leave. When we set the dates of this trip we didn’t think about the fact that the 4th of July fell on a Wednesday and would move around his regular work week, changing out plans. We were both looking forward to the time we had set aside for Yellowstone and were not thrilled to have this time shortened. Our reservation was not refundable at that short of notice because we didn’t book through the hotel directly. Since I had already planned to take the day off we decided that I would spend the day packing and getting the car loaded up so we could hit the road as soon as MH got home. We figured this way we still had a full day 7/7 in Yellowstone and we wouldn’t lose too much time. MH is a night owl so I was not worried about the late driving. The hotel said they had no problem with our late (early morning) check in.
I packed (like a pro in my opinion) one suitcase for the two of us, a bag for shoes, maps and brochures, cameras and binoculars, and a bag of misc supplies (paper towels, silverware, granola bars, laundry soap, coffee thermos etc) We wanted to save money and calories by eating our own food as much as possible so I packed a large cooler for bottled water and beverages and a small dry cooler for food.
MH got home from work and after a quick shower and a bit of last minute packing we were on the road! 4:15 pm! Not bad at all, better than we had hoped for. I had already filled the gas tank so we made one last stop (not off to a good start in the eating our own food plan) at Burger King on the way out of town to save time. I took the first driving shift since he would be the nighttime driver.
If you’ve never been to WA it is an interesting State. We have rainforest, desert and everything in between. We left the desert area and headed east toward all the green on I-90. I loved when the pine trees started to appear mixing in with the sage brush the closer we got to Spokane and the Idaho border. MH joked about the top of Idaho only being an inch wide like it is on the map as he snapped a picture of the sign welcoming us, telling me to get ready because Montana’s sign was right behind it. We passed Lake Coeur d’Alene. At this time of day it was a beautiful and sparkly blue and silver in a green setting of trees. So pretty! We crossed into Montana and the mountain time zone where we ran into construction which slowed us down quite a bit. We stopped at St Regis Travel Center (http://www.bigskycountrygifts.com/st.-regis-travel-center.html ) for a fuel and bathroom break. It was a neat stop with a great gift shop to stretch your legs in.
MH and I switched seats at this point putting him behind the wheel, which I am so thankful for looking back now. About 20 miles outside of Missoula at 10:13pm three white tail deer apparently thought the grass was greener on the other side of I-90. We were listening to Brooks and Dunn and Reba McIntire “If You See Her” and I was just relaxing into my seat, thinking I might be able to doze off for a bit. I spotted them first crossing from the left. I put my left hand on MH’s arm and said one word “deer!” There was no way not to hit at least one of them. We were breaking to slow down from 75 MPH! SMACK!!! We hit the lead doe! I will spare you all the gory details, but we pulled off at the next pullout to survey the damage. Thankfully neither MH nor I were hurt at all. I am sorry I cannot say the same for the deer. My vehicle only had body damage as far as we could see. The glass headlight cover and blinker bulb were smashed and there were dents running the length of the driver’s side. The driver’s door was stuck shut, but MH was able to bend it enough to make it functional. Thank goodness we were able to continue on with our drive just a little shaken up and wide awake! That’s wide awake with white knuckles. For the next 4.5 hours we both kept our eyes peeled like they have never been peeled before! We weren’t the only drivers to lower the Montana deer population that night. Every few miles we saw evidence of similar situations. And every few miles in between we saw more deer preparing to cross the road! We turned off at HWY 191 to Big Sky. At that point we were so ready to be safe and sound at the hotel. But the final stretch ended up being the worst for deer in the road! They were everywhere! At this point we were driving way below the posted speed limit, which was fine because there wasn’t another car behind us for miles. Our nerves weren’t calmed at all by the number of white crosses that lined this curvy stretch of road. We couldn’t imagine driving that road on a winter night with snow and ice as well as deer. You would have to be a diehard skier! We see a few more deer, a moose (thankfully not in the road) and at some point hit a dead skunk, picking up that wonderful aroma to carry on with us. Finally at 2:40 AM we pulled into The Lodge at Big Sky. The room was very nice and spacious. We were so tired and wound up at the same time we couldn't get to sleep right away but finally we dozed off.

Sat 7/7- We planned to sleep in, but were unable to sleep much past 8:00. We went down to the lobby for breakfast and had bagels and cream cheese, which we found to be pretty standard as far as hotel breakfast goes. From the lobby there was a beautiful view of Lone Peak. I think we would have really liked this hotel and area had our time not been cut so short there. We took some pictures of our car in the light of day and cleaned it up a bit, before hitting the road to Yellowstone’s west entrance.
MH had visited YNP as a child but it was my first time. We paid our $25 for the 7 day pass and were off. It took us a while to get into the heart of the park due to traffic. Someone said something about an accident but we never saw any evidence of that. We drove to Old Faithful stopping along the way here and there to walk some of the paths around the smaller geysers. We arrived at Old Faithful at the perfect time, we had just enough time to find a parking spot and walk to where we needed to be when she blew! It was pretty great! We were able to get some great photos. Up until that point it had been pretty warm, in the upper 80’s, but the clouds rolled in and it started to rain. We were getting hungry for lunch so we made our way back to the car. There were a few places to eat right there by the geyser that were so very tempting but we stuck with the cooler plan and drove to a scenic little pull off to eat. While we ate our sandwiches we watched a little marmot in a nearby tree. Some big not so cute black ravens walked circles around our car hoping we would feed them. We did not, for the record. After lunch we got back in the car and headed North in the park. We saw our first buffalo and a couple of elk all a ways off of the road. We were able to get a few photos from a distance before we drove on. Right around the area the traffic had been jammed up that morning we saw another small herd of buffalo right in and around the road! We pulled over with everyone else and took some more photos. I couldn’t imagine how some people were silly enough to get out of their cars! We saw a few people that were way too close for comfort in my opinion! A large bull walked within a few feet of my passenger side window stopping and looking right at me! He was close enough to make me nervous! He snorted a little and then kept walking past us and crossed the road right behind my car. MH laughed at me for being nervous and said that if a buffalo was going to ram the car there was no better time since it was already damaged. Ha.ha. sure.
We checked into the Best Western Weston in West Yellowstone where we had our last reservation. It was a basic little room for the price but it was all about location, location, location! West Yellowstone is a neat little tourist town with gifts shops like crazy! I popped into a Christmas store and bought an ornament to remember the trip by. We wanted to eat dinner before going back to the park so we checked out Bear Tooth Barbeque. I ordered the pulled braised beef sandwich with salad and a Coors Light. MH had the beef brisket and smoked sausage with a side of cheese grits and one of vinegar coleslaw. The meal was very good.
After dinner we drove back to the park. We saw the same herd of buffalo by the side of the road and lots of people were still stopping to take pictures. The elk we had seen earlier had moved quite a bit closer to the road. We could see three nice bulls! We got a few pictures and headed up to Norris Geyser Basin. I had to burn off the BBQ and beer I had just binged on, so much to MH’s dismay I made him go for a walk with me. We walked the trials in the basin and enjoyed the gorgeous but weird view of the geysers. This rocky area looked like a different planet with strange, bubbling holes that smelled of sulfur.
MH and I were both exhausted so we decided to call it a night. We slept like babies that night. I now know from experience what they mean about falling asleep before your head hits the pillow.

Sun 7/8- 5:00 AM we were back in the park. We sat and watched the lovely sunrise over the river… taking lots of pictures, of course. MH was hoping we would get a better look at those bull elk we had seen the day before so we drove to the spot. We were in luck! They were grazing right off of the main road in the same area. My husband was in picture heaven. It was a little bit misty in the morning light so it was good that the animals were close. No, we didn’t get out of the car. One bull crossed the road (like the buffalo) right behind our car. With their huge antlers it is amazing how big they are! Driving back to the hotel we saw several more buffalo, which was becoming the norm. I had never seen a bear in the wild and was really hoping that I would have my chance (from the car of course) in Yellowstone. But no luck that morning.
After breakfast we checked out, fueled up and picked up a few post cards and another souvenir or two. We entered Yellowstone from the west entrance for the last time this visit. Our first stop was the Artist Paint Pots where we walked to looped path checking out the smelling, bubbling, multi-colored pools. So bizarre. Mammoth Hot Springs was next, and they were mammoth! We spent a little time here in the gift shops, picking out a couple things for MH’s family. The ice cream here was too tempting on a hot day so we indulged. I got a scoop of maple-nut and MH got moose tracks. Delicious! We watched the scenery go by on our way to the East Entrance and then pulled off for a sandwich near some buffalo that were rolling in the dirt. Looking at the small herds of buffalo it was hard to picture a day when millions of the huge animals roamed our country! The next part of the drive was not my favorite. I was glad MH was driving and not me. The road wound around corners and bends some with steep edges along the road. I am not a fan of heights at all and I would have been pretty tense in the driver’s seat.
Before we left the park I got to see my bear! Two of them actually. We drove up on an area congested with traffic and people. A few park rangers were shooing people back to their cars. As we drove through I rolled down my window and asked one of the rangers what was going on. She pointed out the black bear that was just down the hill from the main road. It had its back to us just eating away, not even caring about the commotion it was causing. Just down the road we ran into more stopped cars with people looking at another black bear swimming in a pond! This one was far enough off of the road we were able to step out of the car and get a few photos. We caught it just as it got out of the water on the other side of the pond. Two bears in ten minutes! I was satisfied. Yellowstone delivered! As we passed Yellowstone Lake, I made MH stop the car so I could have a quick wade in the water. It was pretty darn cold, so it didn’t take me long.
After exiting YNP we drove on to Cody, WY. MH had been told about the firearms collection in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (http://www.bbhc.org/ ) and that was our next stop. Just inside Cody I noticed a horse grazing outside the fence near the road. A wild horse maybe? Or a horse that just got out? We will never know I guess, but my vote is wild. We got to the center with 3 hours of museum time left. Our passes were good for two days. Everyone who had been to this museum said that it was one you wanted to allow several hours for, so we planned on staying in Cody and going back in the morning. But three hours of browsing guns, Plains Indian artifacts, and Buffalo Bill history we decided we didn’t need to go back the next morning. While impressive, we just didn’t feel that we needed more time. I would recommend the Buffalo Bill Historical Center but I think it is specific to the person how much time is needed to take in what you want. The gun collection was impressive. MH enjoyed that. They also had a very nice Boone and Crocket Display with a gigantic polar bear mount guarding the door.
We swung into Wal-Mart to do some patch work on my car finally. Taping up the light and replacing the necessary bulb. At this point we were undecided if we would stay in Cody after all of if we would drive on to Sheridan since it was still reasonably early. Either way we had to eat so we waited a few minutes for a table at Adriano’s, an Italian Ristorante with the “boot” of Italy sporting a spur. Inside was decorated with photos from the old Spaghetti Westerns and typical western décor. I had the veal parmigiana and MH had the veal Adriano (mushrooms and a white sauce.) We enjoyed the food very much. Great place.
I wasn’t thrilled about traveling at night since hitting the deer the first night but we decided we would give it a try. We saw our first antelope while leaving Cody and a few more possibly wild horses. One crazy buck antelope tried to dash right in front of our vehicle! At this point I was wishing we were still in Cody enjoying the night rodeo. Most of the highway had sheep fence (as MH called it) along the road to keep the antelope away. I didn’t know this tidbit but MH told me that antelope will only go under not over fences. Strange.
The Big Horn Mountains proved to be full of wild life too. We saw no bighorn but plenty of deer and antelope and another moose! Before the sun went down we got to enjoy the views of the red mountains of Wyoming. We arrived safely in Sheridan and found a simple room for the night without any problems.
***stay tuned, more to come***

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