Family Trip: Olympic National Park

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If otters were my must-see, Olympic National Park was Justtwomorethings’s.

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Roadtrip: Morristown and Surrounding Areas

Justtwomorethings arrived around mid-day on Thursday–and I felt bad about it since I was still at work and she had to spend 5+ hours wandering around doing god-knows what. So I let her pick the dinner place – the somewhat non-sensically named The Office Tavern Grill – and made it my treat.

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Roadtrip: Badlands National Park and Wall Drug

South Dakota continues to be a little difficult.  Had to break the under $100 a night rule again for a hotel room, since it was hard just finding one (admittedly, it’s a weekend night during the summer).  And then I had the most annoying fellow tourists when I went to the Badlands National Park: one actually honked me for stopping briefly to take a photo (as others in the park were doing; also, we were the only two cars on the road within view and they could’ve just passed me), while the other, still parked on the side of the road, made “pay attention to your driving” gestures at me as I pulled out from behind them after taking my photo (which, again, was a matter of seconds).  For the record, I didn’t hit their car, come anywhere near to doing so, and didn’t put anyone behind me at risk (because there was no one).  Very annoying considering there weren’t too many people going around, and comparing it to Yellowstone, which might have been constantly jammed but where everyone was really quite surprisingly tolerant of each other’s sightseeing when driving.  Seriously, road rage in a national park?  Maybe you should take a deep breath and look at the park instead?

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Anyway.  South Dakota badlands are both less and more extreme than Montana badlands.  The hills aren’t as high, and the rocks aren’t so brilliantly colored.  But the canyons are much deeper, and they’re kind of inversions in that sense; in Montana, the rocks twist up from the plains, while in South Dakota, the canyons take deep, tearing dives into the thin green carpet of grass.  And the grass is a lot greener and more lush, so the contrast against the washed out pastel of the rocks is more startling.  Maybe that’s why it was here that I finally saw some bighorn sheep, one of which had a very impressive pair of horns.  The prairie dogs were cute, too, if not as fearless as the their North Dakota cousins; they have a funny way of hopping as they chirp-bark, starting out on all fours and then flipping their top half up and coming down on all fours again.

On the way out, I had lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge just within park borders.  Buffalo chili didn’t taste much different than regular beef.  The fry bread with wojabi (a Sioux-style berry sauce) was good, albeit misplaced in the appetizer instead of the dessert section.  The chocolate chip kuchen was really very delicious, being of the pie with custard filling variety, not cloyingly sweet and fun with the chips.

At the rec of a colleague, I also stopped at Wall Drug, in Wall, SD.  It started out as a drugstore and now it’s basically one giant, sprawling, Old West gimmick emporium, which is a bit odd considering it began in the Great Depression.  Overall, it’s a bit terrifying, although the bookstore inside is a hidden gem; I have never seen such variety of Western books (fiction and nonfiction) before.

Overnighting just outside of Sioux Falls.  Again, no Airbnb fitting my needs, so as mentioned above, had to scrounge for a hotel.

Animals not photographed: More pronghorn.

Roadtrip: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

Since they’re both huge, I devoted an entire day to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park(s).  Grand Teton curves around Jackson, a bit like Pac-Man, if you imagine Jackson as the pellet being eaten, and you can drive a fair way into the park before you hit the fee booths.  Not that that mattered to me, with my annual pass, but it’s really a very lovely drive for free.  The road parallels the Grand Tetons and the Snake River, with plenty of overlooks along the way, before it finally curves into the body of the park.

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I knew that I’d be pushing alongside other tourists all day, so I did my best to get up early to try and beat the crowd.  I was in the park by 7 am, although out here, it’s practically full daylight by then; I think the sun rises around 3 am or so.  Still, it was early enough so that I caught quite a few animals roaming around.  Pelicans and an elk hiding in the tall grass (no photo, even at that time other cars took up all the space on the nearest overlook) at Oxbow Bend, chipper little ground squirrels running in and out of grass tufts, and even the classic bison road crossing.

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Grand Teton had so many nice animal shots, I was a little later than planned getting into Yellowstone.  The two parks are only a handful of miles apart, and US 89 runs right from one park to the other, so that at least was easy.  But after that, it was a bit of a madhouse.  Driving around was fine but finding parking at nearly every attraction was a nightmare.  I circled the Old Faithful lot for nearly ten minutes–at least I did end up getting there in time for it to go off.  But even something like the Fountain Paint Pot site was jammed. And you did run into “critter jams,” where cars would block off the two-lane road by stopping to photograph some animal by the side of the road (usually a bison, they seemed to love posing, and I even saw one roll onto its back and kick up its heels).  The worst blockage was when someone spotted a bear.  After waiting for a half-hour to crawl by, I got up close enough to pull over and did, since at that point I wanted to see if it was worth it.  We were at the bottom of a steep hill, a couple semi-skeptical rangers supervising the traffic, and way up near the top was a brown speck that the people with binoculars swore was the bear.  I’m still not sure myself.  Whatever it was, it held me up long enough so that I had to cut out about a third of my planned drive, or else I’d have been arriving at my nightly booking after dark (as it was, I cut it pretty close).

Supposed bear, Yellowstone National Park

Supposed bear, Yellowstone National Park

The geyser and related sites were beautiful, at least.  They come in such extreme colors: the crusts around Old Faithful were so white that in the sunlight, they made my eyes water, the paint pots are soft Southwestern pastels, and the sulfur is a lurid yellow against the deep turquoise waters of the hot springs.  And then you juxtapose that against the cartoonish  blurping and popping sounds, and you’re trying not to snicker without quite knowing why.

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After leaving Yellowstone, I stopped off in Cody, WY for dinner.  There was a country western concert somewhere, spilling into the air, and the main drag featured the Irma Hotel, built by founder Buffalo Bill Cody himself.  It had costumed servers, the original wooden bar, and most importantly to me at that moment, a delicious prime rib dinner, with a crisp seasoned skin that crackled off the meat, which was tender enough without coming in a (much-welcomed) pool of juices.  Roasted red-skin potatoes with cracked black pepper and mashed potatoes rounded out the meal.  I was starving, and you can tell because I actually ate two-thirds of the prime rib all by myself; normally, I barely make it to a half.

Prime rib with mashed and roasted potatoes, Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

Prime rib with mashed and roasted potatoes, Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

Airbnb is a “bunkhouse” on a ranch outside of Basin, WY.  Not a lot of choice in WY, but this is a pretty luxury bunkhouse as they go, with a private shower, a desk, portable heaters and an A/C unit.  I can occasionally hear cows lowing in the distance.  It’s just plain fun.  And while the drive out was a bit long, I finally was able to snap a photo of pronghorn!  Benefits of having the highway basically to yourself for ten miles in either direction.

Pronghorn outside of Basin, WY

Pronghorn outside of Basin, WY

Animals seen and not photographed: That elk, a deer, various waterfowl.

Roadtrip: Colorado National Monument and Jackson, WY

A coda to my last post: my Grand Junction Airbnb host threw in a free hot, homemade breakfast, which was delicious: an omelet-type thing with ham and veggies, local peaches and peach juice, hot tea, and a buttered bagel with strawberry jam.

Omelet with veggies and pork, local peaches and peach juice, buttered bagel and strawberry jam

Omelet with veggies and pork, local peaches and peach juice, buttered bagel and strawberry jam

And it was a good thing, too, since I ended up driving nearly seven hours before I ate lunch.  Not intentionally–the day started out well, with a slight detour through Colorado National Monument.  It’s right outside of Grand Junction and the scenic drive was heading north, the way I wanted to go anyway.  I liked it quite a bit, as it has a lot of variation in rock formations packed into a small space, and it’s a less traveled spot than, say, the Grand Canyon, so you don’t have to shove in between other tourists to get a look.

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But after leaving Colorado National Monument, it got a bit tricky.  Yellowstone National Park was my next stop, and it’s in the western corner of Wyoming, but the major north-south interstates run towards Denver, which is very much east of the park.  My GPS ended up stitching together a zigzag across the Colorado-Utah border (fun fact: Grand Junction’s streets are numbered according to how far they are from the Utah border, so 29 1/4 Street is 29.25 miles from Utah), until I could pick up US 191, which runs up and nearly through Jackson, WY, the nearest decent-sized town to the bottom edge of the park.  Utah was dusty and going hot again, and I opted not to stop at Dinosaur, UT, despite my love of dinos, so I could try and get into the mountains to get cooler air.  However, US 191, while a beautiful, scenic drive–and also mostly lacking guardrails, but way less crazy to drive than US 550–doesn’t have any convenient combo picnicking areas/scenic viewpoints.  I ended up driving out of the Uintas Mountains and up onto a gigantic plateau.  Which was interesting, cruising across a flat grassland but seeing hints of steep canyons to either side, every now and then, but which did mean I got well into Wyoming before I could even settle for scarfing leftovers at a turnout.

Outside of Dinosaur, UT

Outside of Dinosaur, UT

I finally rolled into Jackson, only to discover the crazy, crazy hotel prices.  North of $300 for Hampton Inn, for example (no Airbnbs either, unless you want to rent out an entire ski lodge).  Luckily, I stumbled on the Virginian Lodge, which is really an entire complex consisting of the motel, a “convention center,” a saloon, a liquor store and a restaurant.  It’s enormous, the decor is stereotypical Western, and while I broke my rule about staying under $100 a night for the second time this trip (the first being Seattle), I think it’s worth it just for the lobby.  And then the restaurant turned out quite good, too.  Chicken-fried steak with deeply crunchy, non-greasy, black-pepper-spiked breading, genuinely tender and juicy beef inside–slightly pink, even!–and a sausage gravy that looks like white cement but which actually was creamy and soothing when paired with the black pepper bite.  And the mashed potato gravy was yummy, too.  And the strawberry rhubarb pie, nice and tart.  Made up for the crap lunch.

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Animals seen and not photographed: Western whiptail lizards (sunning themselves at Colorado National Monument and too quick, brown mottled bodies with bright blue tail tips) and pronghorns all along US 191.

Roadtrip: Albuquerque, NM

It’s very flat, and very spread out.  I thought Los Angeles was “sprawling,” but really, it’s still a downtown with skyscrapers and a lot of suburbs.  Albuquerque genuinely just rolls out along the Rio Grande; if you stand atop one of the mesas outside of town and try to pick out the center, it’s not easy:

View of Albuquerque from Boca Negra Canyon

View of Albuquerque from Boca Negra Canyon

As I sit here, I can hear roosters crowing.  I’ve got an Airbnb spot along the old Route 66, a bit away from the central areas, and the regular, everyday houses are weathered (though by and large spotlessly plastered) adobe, and the chickens in the backyard seem normal, rather than a hipster affectation.  A lot of the lots actually are like mini compounds, with a couple buildings clustered together to make up the “home,” rather like old-style Chinese hutongs; my Airbnb is like that, with a main house and what is essentially an entire little guest house attached to the garage, with bedroom, bathroom and full kitchen (if subscribing to the IKEA method of maximizing tiny spaces), and then a miniscule patio with lawn chairs and table.  It’s adorable and ridiculously grandiose for someone just stopping in for the night, and I love it.

I had to start out nearly at lunchtime because I’d signed up for an online seminar that took up most of the morning, so I didn’t arrive in Albuquerque till mid-afternoon.  First stop was the Petroglyph National Monument, right on the western outskirts of the city.  The heat was back on and hitting the low nineties, and I was dripping sweat, but I managed three of the–admittedly, all were under a half-mile–trails, scrambling up and down the steep, rocky sides of opposite ends of the Boca Negra Canyon.  It was so hot that you had to trust to your feet, because if you put a hand down on the basalt boulders for balance, you’d get burned.  But the petroglyphs were amazing, with some startlingly fresh-looking.  It floors me that these carvings have survived hundreds of years, and you can still walk right up to them and see them.

Then I headed over to Old Town for dinner and some quickie souvenir shopping.  Old Town is a square centered around an old church, and it used to be the government center of the city, as well as a residential area.  Pretty much all the buildings have been converted to shops and art galleries, many of which double up as each other; I got a horchata milkshake at a candy shop attached to a gallery that was exactly like thickened horchata.  The building where I ate, Church Street Cafe, is supposedly the oldest residence in Albuquerque.

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It was a little uneven, but then, the two locals I’d asked had recommended it to me for Albuquerque specialties and not Mexican food.  The menudo (not ABQ) had tender tripe, but was otherwise one-dimensional and boring, even with the addition of red chiles.  I’ve had much more complex versions in L.A.  But the chile rellenos with green chiles (ABQ) were delicious, heart-attack cheesy goodness, and the salsa they start you off with was bright and genuinely spicy (judging by the chunks of green pepper and onion in it, I think they grind it in-house).  And the weirdly-named ABQ trolley bell, a Coke with grenadine syrup, was quite nice, with the grenadine smoothing out the Coke sweetness with a nice tart note.

Roadtrip: Sequoia National Park, CA

Short post today.  Driving across the (drought-stricken, yellowed, baking, kinda like interior Washington) California interior involves a lot of dust, which of course kicked off my allergies.  Benadryl cleared it up, but had me waking up groggy and sluggish, so I decided I’d cut down on the driving and just devote the day to wandering around Sequoia National Park.  Might as well get all the huge tree species in America while I’m at it (there’s a third species of giganta-tree, the dawn redwood, but it’s in China).

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Sequoia forests aren’t quite as majestic and quieting as redwoods are.  Redwoods tend to crowd close together, for whatever reason, and they’re huge, so they really don’t leave much space in between the enormous trunk columns, but sequoias are much more spread out (more forest fires thinning the herd?), with skinnier pines interspersed between.  That lets in more light, and also seems to let the birdsongs carry–tons of birds today, and lots of little chipmunks and ground squirrels that were too quick for a photo.  The shaggy bark of the pines tends to lift off the trunks, allowing the chipmunks to hide under them and just poke their heads out every so often to look at you.  However, a lone mule deer (?) was randomly grazing by the road right next to a park highlight, the General Sherman tree (largest tree in the world), so I’m back up on large land mammals.

Roadtrip: More PCH and Redwoods National Park

The second half of the Oregon section of the Pacific Coast Highway seems to have a lot of sand dunes (and sawdust dunes from active logging), which aren’t my thing.  I’ve been to the biggest one in the U.S. out in Colorado, and killed a pair of old sneakers there, since the sand just wasn’t coming out.  So I just looked at these from afar.

Sand dunes off US 101, OR

Sand dunes off US 101, OR

As you drive into California, the difference in the landscape is gradual but noticeable.

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The mountains turn into hills, the trees get slightly taller and then you start to notice that they’re getting huge around the middle.  And then the redwood signs start popping up, and you realize that US 101 helpfully goes straight through nearly every redwood-containing national and state park in Oregon and California.  However, the better stuff requires going off the highway, which I did at the Redwood National Park.  You have to get out of the car and stand between these giant spires to really appreciate the effect; light and sound both seem muted, like the very sight of the trees won’t allow any competitors, even other senses.

Also, I think I spotted a herd of elk off the highway on my way out of the park.  They were, I think, the wrong color and shape for cows, but I was driving 50 mph and the shoulder wasn’t wide enough for me to pull over to check, so I can’t be sure.  Stopping point for the night was Bayside, CA, where I had some excellent costillitas (Cuban-style, braised baby back ribs in chipotle sauce) at Adriana’s.  The meat was the proverbial falling off the bone, in a smoky sauce that was pleasantly warm (spicy, not just hot to touch) and savory.  With a cool glass of horchata, it was a nice way to refuel after a day of hiking and hopping in and out of the car.

Edit: Forgot to mention the Airbnb spot!  Interesting set-up with a loft-style place, and a free $5 gift certificate to the local bakery/coffeeshop to boot.

Costillitas and horchata, Adriana's, Bayside, CA

Costillitas and horchata, Adriana’s, Bayside, CA

Roadtrip: Glacier National Park, Montana

Growing up in the Midwest, you learn all about glaciers and how they carved out the land, and were responsible for all the weird bumps (as well as the Great Lakes).  But it’s kind of hard to picture a “river” of ice–I always ended up imagining something like a giant line of toothpaste squeezing out.  So when I hit Montana, I put Glacier National Park on my to-see list, so I could clear things up.

Unfortunately, my timing was off.  The Going to the Sun road (excellent name) isn’t fully plowed of snow until mid-June, and the part that was clear when I showed up didn’t stretch that far.  I did, however, get to drive by the very beautiful, very cerulean Flathead Lake, and also to stop at a ridiculously pristine alpine lake in the park.  I’ve had Swarovski jewelry that was less clear.  Flip side, however, is that the lake is also kind of sterile, with very little aquatic life in it.  Bears weren’t around either, so no significant animals to report.

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Next stop was Coeur D’Alene and my GPS, unprompted, took me through the wonderfully-named Lolo National Forest, which looked just like the movie A River Runs Through It.  Wish I could post photos, but I did not get a good photo op since the turn-offs and scenic overlooks were all unpaved gravel, and my car was having a hard enough time with the inclines (spent much of the day driving in second gear).  I decided to save the tires; proof that the roads here are rough on them was that the car right, right in front of me blew out its back tire as I was driving into Coeur D’Alene.  I saw it go, and strips of the tire went flying right over my windshield.  Luckily, I was well back and the other driver steered the car smoothly onto the shoulder, so my car’s automatic brake alert–which kicks in if I get closer than a certain distance to another car–didn’t even go off.

Roadtrip: Montana from ND border to Laurel

The Montana side of the badlands isn’t quite so eerie as North Dakota.  The spires and buttes are a bit more sedate, and the Yellowstone river (which I-94 and I-90 follow for several hours) flattens out a long stretch between the hills into a beautiful grasslands.  And again, dinosaurs!  Prehistoric stuff!

I started out in Glendive (no Airbnb but the Astoria hotel is quite nice and has a substantial AAA discount), which is right next to the Makoshika State Park.

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Tons of dinosaur fossils have been dug up here, some of which can be found in the nearby Frontier Gateway Museum–free, not to be confused with the creationist museum next door, and with a very chatty docent–which also has a whole mini town of Old West stores in the backyard.  You can apparently still stumble across some; however, my sports car, which getting awesome mileage as a hybrid, was not built for the mostly dirt- and pebble, steep, scenic road.  I ended up parking it about a third of the way in, then hiking another mile in before running out of time.  Need to convince someone with a 4W/AWD vehicle to come back for me, since I believe I missed out on some of the best views.

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I will also say that Montana state parks have a pretty good deal.  You pay the day pass fee at one park ($6 for nonresident car) and get a permit, and it’s good for as many state parks as you can visit that day.  So I also managed to squeeze in the Pictograph Cave State Park.  Sadly, the main cave with most of the pictographs was closed due to a rockfall, but the whole area has a really lovely peaceful feel to it.  A ranger I ran into said that the ancient Native Americans considered it akin to a cathedral, and it does have that meditative feel to it.

It also has a lot of wildlife.  I spotted rabbits and birds, and the aforementioned ranger showed me a rattlesnake he had just removed from the trail (much smaller than it looks in the photo, maybe a couple feet long).  It was a good day for animal-spotting; I also saw some pronghorn next to the interstate.

And just before Pictograph State Park was the Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, where the Lewis & Clark expedition stopped and William Clark etched his name into a stone pillar (along with hundreds of others, including Native American predecessors).  The Pillar had a great view of the Yellowstone river.  It also seemed to be populated entirely by loud, chittering marmots, which are sort of furry sausages with a face.  Note: The federal government’s interagency annual pass ($80 covers all entrance fees to any federal area) is an awesome deal, too.

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Stopping point for the night was an Airbnb place in Laurel, an early 1900s Romantic house that has been restored with period fixtures by the owner (some being essentially “early whorehouse” in their words)  Host is amazingly knowledgeable about local history.  Also offered to take me fossil-hunting, but sadly, no time for that on this trip (all the cool spots in Montana seem to be hours and hours off the interstate, which I didn’t build in time for).  Next time.

P.S. What I dislike about roadtripping: having to constantly clean bug splats off the windshield.