TABLE OF CONTENTS
t was the beginning of July 2020, and we were still debating as to whether or not we would be taking our trip to Iceland that August. We spent hours talking about our options; listing out the pros and cons of traveling during a pandemic.
PRO: less tourists...
CON: higher risk of COVID-19 exposure...
PRO: not having to postpone our trip by a year...
CON: paying for a mandatory test, risking quarantine if our tests were positive, and ultimately losing all the money we spent...
Losing. All. Our. Money.
The last con was what got us. We weren't about to spend our vacation in a Reykjavik hotel quarantining after dropping money on our camper van, flight, and everything else that went into our initial planning, so we made the tough call to push our trip back a year. But this did not stop our wanderlust. No. If anything the need to travel grew significantly within us, causing us to quickly throw together a 10-day (detailed) road trip from Minneapolis to Montana and back.
Although we were taking a road trip in-country instead of a flight overseas, we could not forget that COVID-19 was still a very real thing. Hotels would not be an option for us. Restaurants would not be an option for us. Public restrooms... an option that was available... was not something we wanted to deal with on a regular basis. We decided that camping was the only way to go.
But wait. Bugs and no plumbing? Not really my idea of a good time. Ash may be a master camper, but I am not. So to conquer my fear of sleeping outdoors, my wonderful wife purchased a couple of things to help me out: a Kelty Blockhouse Privacy Shelter, a Luggable Loo Toilet, and an Ivation Portable Shower. Let me tell you, these were game changers.
So, on July 24th, 6:30am, we packed up our car and took off towards our first destination: The Black Hills.
Before continuing on with the details of our road trip, I want to preface the bulk of this article (and all the blogs that go with it) by stating that the U.S. has a very ugly past. I mean, we are talking about a country that was built on, and profited from racism, discrimination, slavery, and genocide. Though Ash and I have the ability to travel all over the country taking awe-inspiring beauty, we are ultimately having these experiences on stolen land. So along with the tips we usually embed in our vacation recaps, you will also be getting some of the real American history- the history that is often pushed under the rug.
My research just scratches the surface. I am no expert. Therefore I really encourage anyone reading this to use this as a starting point towards deeper exploration into the history of these geographical areas.
THE BLACK HILLS
After eight hours of driving through the corn and soybean fields of southern Minnesota and most of South Dakota, we witnessed a change in landscape. The green farmlands dissipated, and in their place stood miles of eroded, sandy piles of rock. If we hadn't been worried about getting a campsite on a Friday night (first come first serve!) we would have been tempted to stop and take in the badlands of South Dakota. But instead we pushed through Rapid City, towards the large, black hills that began to rise up from the earth's horizon.
Upon entering the Black Hills National Forest we were immediately surrounded by dark pines and towering, sandy walls. We drove the winding road through Custer State Park towards our campsite at Bismarck Lake Campground, and with incredible luck we grabbed the last available campsite. After quickly setting up our space, we ventured out to explore some of the park before the sun set. We tried to hike Lover's Leap trail located in the middle of Custer State Park, but were unable to finish due to a herd of long horned sheep who made it apparent that they did not want us passing them. So we cut ties with that trail and drove the iconic Wildlife Loop road instead which ended up being a highlight of our trip. Halfway through a herd of bison surrounded the cars on the road, forcing us to stop and wait while they passed by us. We held our breath and watched them walk by us at arms length. Thankfully we visited the park just before mating season really got underway, because aggression between males (and to cars!) was not evident.
The next day we packed our car and drove north on Needles Highway past the famous Cathedral Spires towards the Black Elk Peak trail head. Black Elk Peak, named after Lakota medicine man Black Elk, is the highest peak in South Dakota at 7,242 feet. There are two trail options that take you to the summit. We chose to hike trail number 4 because it was less crowded than the more popular number 9. Our hike was 6.5 miles round trip with an elevation change of just over 1,000 feet.
Sweaty and happy, we jumped back into the car after our hike and took off west, watching the Black Hills gradually disappear in our rearview mirror.
For more detailed information about where we stayed, our hikes, and the drives we did in Custer State Park and The Black Hills, click #1 on the on the interactive map at the top of the page [photo provided by d-maps.com].
Driving west from the Black Hills we found ourselves in a desolate, alien landscape. The waves of heat coming off the ground laid over the landscape like a thick blanket. Ash and I didn't need to read the car thermometer to know that is was a blazing 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Other than a couple of small towns popping up here and there, the area around I-90 was barren. It was also not a place we wanted our car to break down, as it proved to be quite conservative... plenty of trump signs to go around. It took us a total of 7.5 hours before we arrived in Bozeman.
We stayed with our two amazing friends, Brad and Erika, who offered us their camper for the two nights we were in Bozeman (social distance traveling accommodations at their finest!). Only 15 minutes from downtown, they live in an incredible valley fit for adventure, hiking, and wildlife sightings. You can't really beat waking up each morning with coffee in hand, watching the sun slowly spill rays of light over the hills as it rises.
I should mention that we got spoiled. Really spoiled. During our first full day there Brad, Erika, and their daughter took us an hour north to the Bridger Mountains. The original plan was to show us around Fairy Lake, an alpine lake that sits at the base of a divide connecting Sacagawea (9,839 feet) and Hardscrabble Peak (9,575 feet). It was absolutely stunning, but as we walked around the clear blue water admiring the mountain peaks that surrounded us, we couldn't help but wonder what it would be to climb them. So we did.
Ok we didn't really climb the peaks but we did take the Fairy Lake Trailhead, a winding narrow road with pretty steep drop-offs, 1.5 miles up with an elevation change of over 1,300 feet to the top of the divide (8,950 feet). The hike made our hearts race at times, but with careful footing and minimal rock scrambling we made it. The views were fantastic from all directions. To the north was Hardscrabble, south Sacagawea, west a grassy slope with views of various mountain ranges in the distance, and to the east the winding trail that led back down towards Fairy Lake. I would do this hike again in a heartbeat, and would definitely add on the remaining portion leading to both Sacagawea and Hardscrabble.
Bozeman's beauty is mind blowing. Between the outdoor activities and quaint downtown area, we pretty much fell in love with it, and plan to go back... often. To get more details on visiting Fairy Lake and venturing on this hike, click #2 on the on the interactive map at the top of the page [photo provided by d-maps.com].
History of The Bridger Mountains
Leaving Brad and Erika's home in Bozeman, we traveled south on U.S. Highway 191 following the Gallatin River towards Yellowstone National Park. Ash had been to Yellowstone before, but this was my first time, and I was shocked to learn how large the park was. Spanning three states - Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho - the park is a total of 28,000 square miles. Much of the center of the park falls within the boundaries of the 30x45-mile-wide Yellowstone Caldera, created by an enormous volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago.
Our first day in Yellowstone was spent seeing the hydrothermal activity within the park. We started at the Grand Prismatic Spring within the Midway Geyser Basin where microscopic organisms called thermophiles produce the extreme oranges, yellows, and aquas which cover the landscape. We also stopped at the Artists Paintpots, a small thermal area near the Noris Geyser Basin filled with mud pots and hot springs.
The next day we returned, driving through north entrance, beginning our adventures at Mammoth Hot Springs. We hiked the boardwalks that overlooked the incredible, natural terraces of travertine. We decided to break from the hydrothermal sites and traveled southeast to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which formed 160,000-140,000 years ago. Between the weakened rocks and the Yellowstone River, the canyon eroded into what we see today: 20 miles long and over 1,000 feet deep. The Red Rocks Point trail led us down canyon cliffside and offered a beautiful view of the Lower Falls, a 308 foot waterfall at the head of the canyon. The remainder of our time was spent driving the northwest portion of Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in the U.S. at 7,733 feet, before heading back north towards our cattle ranch campsite located outside of the park in Mc Leod, Montana.
Would we recommend Yellowstone National Park? Absolutely. But we would encourage anyone going to do their homework before heading there. Research whether or not certain roads or features may be closed during your trip, understand the policies put in place to keep you and the park's animals safe, and make an effort to learn the cultural history of the tribes that lived on this land for thousands of years before it was unlawfully taken from them and turned into the park we know today.
For more tips on planning your Yellowstone vacation including what to see and where to stay, click #3 on the on the interactive map at the top of the page [photo provided by d-maps.com].
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
It was a relatively quick six hour drive to from our remote cattle ranch campsite in McLeod to the town of Columbia Falls right outside of Glacier National Park. Numerous billboards confirmed that Columbia Falls was a very...very... conservative place. We held our breath as we drove the last few miles to our campsite, hoping we'd be safe staying there as a queer couple, but when we arrived at Robinson's Roost the worries we had melted away immediately. Our host was welcoming, friendly, and had a fantastic disposition. With a sigh of relief, we unpacked our car and laid out our home for the next two nights.
We were able to set up quickly, so we left the campsite for a drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park. With COVID-19 still going strong, the eastern half of the park was closed from the Rising Sun check point to the St. Mary check point in order to keep the members of the Blackfeet Nation safe from droves of tourists passing through their home. It was already early evening, so we didn't drive far, but ended our mini tour at Lake McDonald, a crystal clear glacial lake at the base of a mountain range. It was the perfect spot to pour ourselves a glass of wine and enjoy the gorgeous scenery. We spent the remainder of the night planning out what we would accomplish in the park the following day.
We set our alarms early... somewhere around 5am. Because of the pandemic the park stated it would be limiting attendees, so we wanted to get into it and on the trail before the majority of people arrived. As we drove through the west entrance we noticed few cars on the road and deduced were some of the first people there. We celebrated our success, patting ourselves on the back for waking up early. This lasted until we entered an open valley that allowed us to see into the distance where a long line of cars was slowly making their way up the mountainside. Our gloating dimmed, but at least we were inside the park. Our plan was to get to the Logan Pass check point where we would eat breakfast and begin our journey on the Highline Trail.
Glacier National Park describes the Highline trail as jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. We would completely agree. The 16.4 mile hike led us along the continental divide through jagged peaks, past numerous waterfalls, over snow covered patches, and offered sightings of mountain goats, big horn sheep, marmots, and various other animals. We hiked 7.6 miles to Granite Park Chalet where we set up our stove and made lunch. From the Chalet, we took a 0.6 mile hike up (and when we say up we mean the steepest grade we’ve ever climbed) to the Grinnell Glacier overlook where we had the opportunity to view the glacial lakes on the eastern side of the park from above. The view was an unbelievable. A must-see and worth the climb.
With cramped muscles, torn feet, and less water than we had going out, we successfully made it back to the car park. We hurt, but we felt good, and I personally would do a hike like that again in a heartbeat. We ended our adventure back at Lake McDonald for a swim, dinner, and a drink to celebrate our experience in Glacier National Park. For more details on our campsite and hike, click #4 on the on the interactive map at the top of the page [photo provided by d-maps.com].
This mountain range located in Gallatin County is named after Jim Bridger, a white mountain man of the 19th century. But don't let the naming fool you. These mountains peaks should really recognize the native tribes who inhabited them for thousands of years.
The Bridger Range contains native sites dating from 11,500-7,000 years ago. The area was used as hunting ground for bison, deer, and elk, and was mostly utilized in the spring, summer, and fall. Early on, tribes including Blackfeet, Crow, Bannock, Nez Perce, Flathead, and Snake shared this land, but the Blackfeet later claimed it.
1855 the Stevens Treaty was enacted, naming the Gallatin County property of the Blackfeet tribes. They called this area Ahkoto Waktai Sakum. Yet, without their knowledge or consent, President Grant took back the land south of the Missouri, and President Hayes later took the Plains.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK
Our time in Glacier was incredible and definitely a place we want to return - especially when the Canadian boarder opens again and we can venture north into Waterton Lakes National Park. But for this trip we bid farewell to the area and drove nine hours east to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We didn't really know what to expect from this area of North Dakota, but we were pleasantly surprised as to what we stumbled upon. In terms of landscape, the badlands that began to surface vaguely reminded us of our drive through South Dakota. However, unlike our drive on highway 90 we didn't just witness them from afar, but instead drove right through them. From all angles the rocky hills filled the land, stretching out to the horizon. And the hills weren't just a beige, sandy color. They included hints of pink, burnt orange, and were spotted with dry, green foliage (most likely sage brush) as well as handfuls of trees.
This was also the area that we found to be most difficult when booking a campsite. Hipcamp did not offer options near the park, and many of the smaller campsites were closed due to the pandemic. We ended up settling on Medora campground which was right next to the entrance of the National Park, but definitely the most touristy. RV's and motorhomes filled the site, leaving little privacy and unpleasant views compared to the other nature-filled sites we had stayed at during our trip.
Though the camping was a slight disappointment, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not. The day following our first night there we drove through both the South and North Unit of the park, and still had time to hit the Painted Canyons overlook in between. The park was filled with wildlife and gorgeous natural formations, and the scenic drives through each unit provided us landscape views we had never seen before.
We spent the last night of our vacation reflecting on our experiences and toasting to an amazing trip. We were lucky to see so many incredible places. We were grateful for the opportunity to camp and safely social distance from others. And we found a new drive within us to commit to learning the history behind areas we visit. In fact, it almost made us forget that we were in a tourist-filled campsite filled with RV's and motorhomes... almost.
For more details on our time within each unit of the park, click #5 on the on the interactive map at the top of the page [photo provided by d-maps.com].
For anyone planning to camp out west (especially during a pandemic!) I would offer three major take-aways.
First, plan. Take time to figure out where you are camping and what may or may not be closed down within the areas you are visiting. Many people are taking advantage of this time to get away, so campsites are filling quickly. COVID-19 is also having an effect on what attractions/trails/places are open, so if you are looking forward to seeing something specific, check first to make sure you can visit it!
Second, do a car check up before and after. The last thing
we wanted as a queer couple was to break down in the middle of nowhere where we may not be safe. Also, having to get a car fixed on the road in general sounded like a real downer. Make sure everything on your vehicle is looking good before taking on 4,000 miles.
And third, take time to research the history. I really can't stress this enough. There is so much that happened in this area before white settlers invaded. Make an effort to understand the significance this land has to native tribes, as well as the negative impact it has on people to be forcibly separated from their homes and areas of cultural practice. We (white individuals) may roam and explore these places today, but we are doing it on land that rightfully belongs to native tribes.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about our vacation out west- please check out our other adventures and continue to visit our site as we add more each year!