U.S. MOUNTAIN WEST
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].
Native Americans lived on the land of the Black Hills for 12,000 years. Known as Paha Sapa by the Lakota, this area was a sacred territory for Western Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Crow, and the and was used for ceremonies, vision quests, and burials.
The Lakota have a strong relationship with land and nature. The Grandfather Spirit, or Wakan Tanka, is believed to be the creator of it all. Communication is extremely important as it is used as a way to preserve culture and pass down historical knowledge through generations.
In 1851, the first Treaty of Fort Laramie was enacted which gave the Lakota rights to 60 million acres of land in the Black Hills area (even though all this land originally belonged to the native tribes). During this time, new settlers were adhering to the treaty and leaving the Lakota land alone... yet the respect of treaty policies was short lived. With rumors that gold was in the hills, settlers flocked to the area ignoring all boundaries put in place. Military even built posts within Lakota land to "protect" the new white settlers.
A second Treaty of Fort Laramie was enacted in 1868 which reduced Lakota land to 20 million acres. During a military expedition in 1874, George A. Custer explored the Lakota land (a direct violation of the second treaty) and determined that there was, in fact, gold in the Black Hills. Settlers continued to arrive, disrespecting legal boundaries and threatening the homes of the Lakota. These events led to the Black Hills war of 1876 which included the Battle of Little Bighorn. Although the Lakota won the battle, the U.S. government wrote up a third treaty in 1877 that ultimately took the remaining land away from the Lakota.
The Black Hills
Rollover to Read
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 Pomp and 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 18-mile portion leading south to Bozeman.
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].
14,000-14,500 years ago Yellowstone plateau became ice free. Though there is some disagreement on the official date first human groups entered North and South America, there is undisputed evidence that Yellowstone was a homeland for native people in 9000BC.
Linguistic and archeological evidence shows the first ethnic group in Yellowstone to be the Numic or Uto-Aztecan speakers who originated in the Valley of Mexico.
26 tribes have ancestral connections to the land of Yellowstone. The park was a permanent home to the Moutnain Shoshone, but other tribes including the Crow, Blackfeet, Bannock, and Nez Perce used this sacred land seasonally. In the mountains vision quests were held. The geysers and hot springs were home to spirits. And land was used to hunt, gather, and trade.
The Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868 promised this land to multiple native groups, but as the area's popularity grew, the federal government violated these treaties by limiting, and eventually eliminating land access to the tribes.
In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill, naming Yellowstone as the United State's first national park. During the 1870's and 1880's, Superintendent Norris discouraged tribes from their land, stating that it deterred tourists from visiting. He spread rumors, claiming tribes didn't visit the area because they feared the dangerous geysers, even though they had 1,600 tribal culture sites within the park's boundaries. By 1886, the U.S. Army controlled the park and would even use violent force to tribes trying to enter.
Today the 26 tribes with ancestral connection to Yellowstone's land periodically meet with park managers to discuss park projects, and have requested to be part of decision-making processes. Unfortunately it is still required that approval be granted from the park system in order for these tribes to use the sacred land that was once theirs for ceremonial purposes and plant collection.
Homeland by Larry Lahren
History of Yellowstone
Rollover to Read
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].
History of Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park covers 1 million acres and includes two sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Every year tourists flock to this area to experience the sublime, but how many of these visitors know the history of these lands and the tribes that were part of of them?
From the Saskatchewan River in the north, to the Missouri River in the south, the Blackfeet (part of the larger Nitsitapii tribe), occupied an estimated 28 million acres. Current tribal leaders explain the cultural importance that the mountains still have to their members. The peaks are a fundamental part of their identity, offering safety and historical knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation.
The Lame Bull Treaty of 1855 set the first boundaries of Blackfeet territory. By the 1800's, white game hunters almost killed off bison to extinction. With their food source gone and false promises of food rations by the U.S. government, the Blackfeet suffered from starvation over numerous winters, ultimately killing over a quarter of their members. In an effort to survive, they began to sell off parts of their land to the federal government.
It was 1895, when the U.S. government suspected gold and copper in the mountains. They pressured the Blackfeet tribe, offering to buy the land for $1 million. Initially Chief White Calf did not agree to this, but with the lack of food he worried members of his tribe would continue dying, so he instead requested $3 million, but ended up settling on $1.5 million as long as the Blackfeet could continue to hunt, fish, and gather on the land.
Through discussion, the Blackfeet understood this agreement to be temporary; they would lease out their land to the U.S government, and though they weren't to occupy it, they could still use it. But because the U.S. government wrote the treaty they did not document this, and instead described it as a sale. In 1910 the tribe's rights to hunt and gather in the area were retracted with the establishment of Glacier National Park, and as early as 1912 park rangers were arresting Blackfeet members for using the park's land. The U.S. District Court tried to justify their actions in 1932, arguing that the area was now a National Park making the land private. Along with this, the government claimed that the Blackfeet had failed to state what they would be using the land for in the original agreement, therefore the tribe's rights would not hold up.
It was the National Park's understanding that in order to properly conserve the land, humans could not co-exist with it. The Wilderness Act of 1964 further perpetuated this notion by declaring that wilderness was defined as land that one did not live on, only visited, which completely disregarding the history of the tribes that had not only lived on this land, but successfully conserved it for thousands of years.
Although the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 allows Native Americans to request management changes and access to sacred sites on federal land, they are still not meaningfully involved in decisions made about the land.
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].
When folks think of 'Theodore Roosevelt National Park' what comes to the minds of many is the history of a former President, ahead of his time in conservation practices, who came to the badlands in 1883 to hunt bison.
In reality, Roosevelt was a racist assimilationist who was openly prejudice to native tribes and excluded them in his definition of the public. This side of Roosevelt is rarely acknowledged, but even just as discouraging is the notion that many white Americans are unaware of the rich native history that fills the North Dakota badlands.
Before it was a National Park, this area was the home to the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish. The Mandan and Hidatsa were said to have arrived to this area first, followed by the Sahnish. Theories state that the Mandan came from southern Minnesota and northern Iowa to the plains of South Dakota in 900 AD, then by 1000 AD they migrated north along the Missouri River to North Dakota. The Hidatsa then moved from central Minnesota to eastern North Dakota, joining with the Mandan around 1600 AD. The Sahnish lived in an area of the Gulf of Mexico which extended across Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. These various migration dates have been determined by archeologists studying excavated sites, but oral tradition from the tribes has also preserved this history through strict and sacred processes.
The Belief in the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes is that they were created in this area and have always lived here. The Mandan specifically originated by coming out of the earth. In the late 1700s, the Mandan were both powerful and prosperous. Disease and war had not affected their tribe, and they had numerous stationary villages, each holding 130 or more houses.
The Hidatsa were originally three independent, but related, villages that included the Hidatsa Proper, Awatixa, and Awaxawi. Each spoke a distinct dialect, with the Awaxawi being most different in culture and language (but most closely associated with the Mandan) and living furthest south on the Knife River. A final union of the three Hidatsa tribes dates to the late 1700s.
The Sahnish history tells a story of the Chief Above, who brought their vilalges together in eastern Nebraska to protect them against waiting tribes. In 1723 the Sahnish migrated to South Dakota, and by the mid-1700s they were living a day's journey from the Mandan villages.
With smallpox eliminating so many, the tribes came together around 1837 for the sake of their survival, but each tribe maintained their separate systems and ceremonies unique to their respective cultures. They lived in earth lodges, farmed, hunted, and traded.
By the 1900s the Federal Government began pressuring tribes to sell off their land. The Three Affiliated Tribes are now located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, northeast of the park.
History of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Rollover to Read
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!