In a past issue, I wrote about the first part of this year’s family vacation, which took us through Cody, Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park. The following recounts the second half of our trip.
From Yellowstone, we drove south a few miles to another great National Park, the Grand Tetons. The Tetons rise straight up out of the lowlands, and are probably the most picturesque mountains in the United States. Our family had a debate over how the mountains received their name. I thought they were named after a local Indian tribe. Melissa thought French trappers in the early 1800’s named them after two particular facets of the female anatomy. Melissa was right.
The best way to explore the Tetons is to take the scenic drive from the Signal Mountain Lodge area south to Jenny Lake. This drive is beautiful, and takes you right up against the mountains for some unforgettable views.
The Jenny Lake area had our favorite hike of the vacation. At the south end of the Lake, by the Jenny Lake Visitors Center, you take an inexpensive five minute boat ride to the other side of the Lake. Here, a short mile hike takes you up to Inspiration Point and a great, small waterfall. From here, you can hike back down to the boat area, but instead of taking the return ride, hike south around the lake and back to the Jenny Lake visitors center. The hike is an easy, 3.3 mile walk amongst the pine trees, and right below the Teton mountains. The lake is beautiful, the views very special, and the area teems with wildlife. If you can only take one great hike in the Tetons, this is the best.
The Tetons also proved to be every bit as full of deer, elk and buffalo as Yellowstone. Two memorable moments; seeing a huge bull moose from a fairly close distance from the road, which is rare. Moose are huge and ornery, not at all like Bullwinkle. The other great wildlife moment was seeing about twenty or so large male bucks, with full antlers, romping together at dusk in the meadows along the highway between Jackson and Signal Mountain. You never see a sight like this, and we watched the show along with about thirty other people along the road for quite awhile.
Jackson is a big, sophisticated resort town, just south of the national park, and was full of people. The shops were great, however, as were the restaurants, so Melissa was able to do two of her favorite things in the world. I recommend visiting Jackson, but not staying there, because of the crowded nature of the place. We stayed at a motel about five miles outside the Tetons called the Hatchet Resort. It was quiet, quaint, had nice large rooms, a fine family restaurant, and called itself a resort because…well, because it could. They had a volleyball court, badminton, and a hot tub. That qualifies as a resort in this part of the world.
The Hatchet was a lot less expensive than staying in Jackson, and better located. The owners also set us up with a half-day horseback ride, which was wonderful. We rode up into the mountains, saw some terrific scenery, and best of all, saw a grizzly bear from very close range. The bear stared at us for a long time, decided there were more of us that he wanted to deal with, and finally crashed off through the brush. I’m not sure what would have happened if there were just one horseman up there, and I don’t want to know, but seeing the bear was the highlight of my 11 year old’s trip, and one of mine as well!
From the Grand Tetons, we drove east through the beautiful Wind River Mountains to a place called Thermopolis, which is in the middle of nowhere. However, Thermopolis has the greatest assortment of hot springs in the U.S., and one of the best water parks anywhere. The water temperature is naturally around 100 degrees or so, but is cooled for certain pools. The park had a slide that had to be ridden to be believed. My kids couldn’t ride it enough, and Melissa and I took it three times each. I was going so fast around the turns that I thought I might just rocket right off the slide and into orbit. Centrifugal force keeps you from doing that, but it was an eye-popping experience. One of the many things I love about Wyoming is that nobody is making you sign a bunch of liability waivers in places like Thermopolis. The place is a throwback, but we loved it. We met a wealthy guy from Houston who comes there every year to fly fish and flop in the hot springs, while his wife goes dinosaur digging ( lots of T-Rex bones around there ).
We moved on that same day, and drove across to the Big Horn Mountains, a little explored but wonderful part of Wyoming. By taking Wyoming 16, you can drive through the Ten Sleep Canyon area and over the mountains to the town of Buffalo. This is another of many spectacular but little traveled drives in Wyoming, and takes you to our favorite off-beat place on the trip: Buffalo, Wyoming.
Here is a hidden little jewel of a town, full of quaint shops and antiques whose prices are absolute bargains compared to places like Jackson. But the best part of Buffalo is the Occidental Hotel, which has been completely renovated over the past 6 years by a California couple who have sunk a healthy $1 million into this history rich locale. The Occidental was a regular haunt of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and Tom Horn. It was, at one time, the grandest hotel in the entire state. Now renovated with seven beautiful suites, with seven more on the way, it is truly a walk back in time. The entire hotel is a national historic building, and the hotel boasts original furniture from the late 1890’s throughout its many nooks and crannies. It also has an incredible bar area, and a four star restaurant that will knock your socks off. The restaurant is called The Virginian, named after the book by Owen Wister that was written at the Occidental. Indeed, the climactic show-down gunfight in the book that was imitated in so many Westerns thereafter was allegedly copied from a real-life gunfight in front of the Occidental.
The Occidental and Buffalo are not yet on the radar screens of Americans traveling along the Black Hills to Yellowstone route, but they will be soon.
We took a side trip from Buffalo up to the Little Big Horn National Battlefield, which is very much worth the effort. The size of the battlefield is staggering, and it is an easy and worthwhile couple of hours spent understanding how this most famous of the Indian War battles came about, and then exploring the battlefield itself. We found that by going to the end of the battlefield ( an easy five mile drive) and then coming back to the site of Custer’s Last Stand and the new Indian Memorial, we were better able to follow how Custer and his 600 soldiers got into such a mess against an Indian force ten times their size. Custer’s biggest mistake was underestimating both the number of Indians camped in the valley below, as well as the military battle skills of Sitting Bull and his chiefs. Of course, he also thought their own presence had been discovered, and that the best defense was a quick offensive strike against the Indian campground. That proved to be a fatal idea, since Custer ended up splitting his Cavalry into three separate units, and by the time he discovered he had made a mistake, his troops were impossibly divided and cut off, leaving Custer’s own party of 200 to be picked apart along several miles of gully-riddled landscape, until the last desperate stand where Custer and 40 other troops were ultimately killed. It was the worst military defeat ever for the United States Army in its twenty year fight with the plains Indians, and stunned the entire country, but for Sitting Bull and his fellow Sioux warriors, the victory was short-lived, and their dream of driving out the white man once and for all and reclaiming their role as the dominant force in this part of the world was over forever within two years.
Two other parts of our vacation worth mentioning: Devils Tower, famous as the focal point of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, is located in the northeast corner of Wyoming, and is spectacular. We hiked around the circumference of this volcanic anomaly that rises straight out of the low hills like the freakish force of nature that it is. It is an easy drive from the Big Horn Mountains area, and right on the way to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
And in the Black Hills, we visited Mount Rushmore, and stayed in Custer State Park at one of the state-owned lodges, which was great. However, our favorite part of South Dakota was driving out to the Badlands National Park, about an hour and a half east of Rapid City. This is truly a bizarre spot, easily traversed by vehicle, with a few great short hikes located along the route. We took Highway 44 from Rapid City, which takes you below the Park and to its eastern entrance. You can then drive along the road that traverses the park, enjoy the weird lunar-like terrain, and end up at Wall Drug, in Wall, South Dakota, for a truly fun, tacky finish to the trip. Wall Drug is a massive tourist trap that has every kind of knick-knack you might possibly want to stick in your suitcase, along with a high class art gallery where the prices should shock you into making a quick U-turn and heading back to the cheap T-shirt section. Somewhere in this huge complex is the original pharmacy, but if you find it, you probably took a wrong turn. Both the Badlands and Wall Drug are great fun, and I highly recommend this side trip from the Black Hills.
We much preferred Wyoming to the Black Hills, though once you get to the south half of the Hills, where Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, and Wind Cave National Park are located, the area is beautiful and not nearly as commercial.
From the Badlands, we drove back along Interstate 90 to Rapid City, then south and west to Wyoming, and back to Denver. A long final day, but well worth it.
I hope these two articles have been enjoyable reading, because like every trip our family has taken to the Great West, this was a wonderful experience. Our kids now understand that the United States is one beautiful country, and I hope that one day, they’ll take their grandkids on trips like this, just as Melissa’s and my parents did for us. More importantly, it creates a memory, and family time together, that are truly priceless. Too soon, the boys will be working, or involved in other things in their lives that will put an end to these jaunts, but we’re hoping for one more big one before that happens. Next year: eastern Canada and New England. I’ll tell you how that trip turns out!
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