Day 8 Yellowstone Falls and Hayden Valley

We tried a full breakfast at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room since we had a little more free time.   We then shuttled vans to each end of the South Rim Trail so we could hike it in just one direction. We followed the trail down river past the Upper and Lower falls and also climbed down the famous Uncle Tom’s Trail to the base of the Lower Falls. Of course going down was easy. Climbing back up the 328 steps was a good workout.   We pushed on from there to Artist Point for a nice family photo and were then glad we had a van waiting for us in the lot.

We drove back to Canyon Lodge for promised ice creams and then checked out the excellent Visitor’s Center. It has a great profile map of the entire park with explanations of the roll of the shifting tectonic plates on its formation. David and cousin Daniel started work becoming Junior Park Rangers, which became one of the trip highlights, and an obsession.

After a little down time back in the cabins, we tried dinner at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room.   I tried my first Bison Burger and loved it.

We drove south into the Hayden Valley for sunset and caught a singular bison swimming across the Yellowstone and then a mother and cub Grizzly bear playing in a meadow a few hundred yards away. They were easy to spot because traffic on the Grand Loop Road had come to a near stop. We then moved on to explore the Mud Volcano Area before the sun finally went down for the night.

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Day 7 Lamar Valley

My parents and my brother Eric, and his wife and two young sons made the trip from San Francisco and meeting at Yellowstone was the basis for our entire trip.   They had all flown to Salt Lake City and rented a van to make the 7 hour drive north to Yellowstone. The “van” turned into a bit of great luck when the rental company couldn’t provide them with a normal sized minivan and instead gave them a Ford transit van that sat 13. That meant instead of us driving around the park in two vans, we could all ride together with Uncle Eric. It also meant I could take a break from driving.

Now we all grabbed a quick breakfast at the Canyon Lodge Deli as well as sandwiches for a picnic lunch later in the day. We set out north on the Grand Loop Road to the Lamar Valley along the North Entrance Road.

We had one of the great experiences of our lives on the Specimen Ridge Trail in Lamar.   We had walked about a mile up the trail and were close to turning around when cousin Vincent first noticed Bison ahead. We pressed on and came across a herd travelling across the valley. A herd of hundreds of them, young and old, all running north, eventually to cross the roadway and cause another Bison Jam. We came within 25 yards of the passing herd, but never felt threatened by them. Only a few of them ever slowed to take a look at us.

We moved on from there and headed a little further east to picnic along the Soda Butte Creek. My only complaint about Yellowstone Park was the inefficient signage for trailheads, bathrooms and turnouts. We wound up buying a extra trail book later this day after several misguided stops. After lunch we attempted another trail but inadvertently took a stock trailhead, which did not provide a bridge over the Soda Butte Creek. So we didn’t get far. When you have a group of 11 including little kids, it’s easy to cruise on by the signage for “Stock Trailhead” and not realize that really means “Horse Trailhead.”

Our next stop was Roosevelt Lodge at Tower Junction, where we had reservations for an organized two-hour trail ride to an Old West Cookout. This was obviously not cheap, but something our girls were really looking forward to. The boys, including David, were too young to ride, so my parents arranged to take them on a covered wagon ride to dinner.

I wish the trail ride had been a total success but it was not.   The rules: you cannot carry anything with you, including camera, phones and jackets. I opted to leave my coat behind, only to have a cold rain start 15 minutes into the ride. Somehow we didn’t get completely soaked before it blew over, but we were freezing the rest of the ride. More frustrating was not being able to take photographs, and even worse, our group of 6 was split up amongst the group of about 20 riders, so we couldn’t chat with our daughters as we rode. I could have lived with the no camera rule if they had made some provision to allow us to get a group photo somewhere along the ride but they did not. When we asked about this later, we were told the camera’s are just too dangerous. Ok, but two years earlier, we did a similar ride on the steep trails of Bryce Canyon NP and was allowed to bring my own camera, AND the wrangler arranged a nice shot of my daughters and I proudly up on our horses (ok – mine was a mule) that he took himself. Lastly, for middle aged city folk, a two-hour ride is about 1 hour too long. We were very sore by the end.

We all agreed, the cookout was delicious and a lot of fun. We just felt for what we paid for the riding experience, it could have been a little better.

On the ride back to Canyon Lodge, we saw this unfortunate RV off the side of the roadway. I believe it was a rental.

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Day 6 Devil’s Tower, the road to Yellowstone

We hit the road early, after another delicious warm breakfast at the K-bar, and headed for Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The monument was made famous in the Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind and we had the kids watch it during the two-hour drive. They didn’t seem to be that impressed. We chose to drive US-385 through Deadwood instead of going back through Rapid City to I-90.

We arrived and enjoyed the 1-mile hike around the base. We could see tiny specs climbing the walls and our Katie vowed that one day she would return with her friends to make the climb to the top.

We pushed on from there, back on I-90 across Wyoming, exiting to cross over Big Horn National Forrest just as a small thunderstorm met us from the west.   The steep windy roads definitely made us nervous.

We crossed the eastern border of Yellowstone NP around 6 pm and made our first stop at the Lake Butte Overlook for photos. We ate dinner at the Lake Lodge Cafeteria and than continued north on the Loop Road to our cabin in Canyon Village where we would stay for 3 nights. Along the way, we saw our first elk and got happily stuck in our first “Bison Jam.”

We finally arrived at Canyon Village to and meet my parents and brother Eric and his family. This ended the first phase of our trip: The Road Out.

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Day 5 Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park

We were up early the following morning, enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the hotel and then headed back to Rushmore to really experience it. We lucked out with a postcard quality blue sky and thoroughly enjoyed checking out the park. The trail to the base of the carvings was an excellent walk with lots of informative stops along the way. The visitor center was also excellent.

We headed from there over to Custer State Park where we spent the rest of the day. The park is really 2 separate entities: the wildlife loop road where you can drive right up to bison, prong-horn sheep and prairie dogs – and the Needles section where beautiful rock formations and small lakes make up the landscape. Both are more than worth a visit and it made for a relaxing afternoon. We had a pretty good buffet lunch at the State Game Lodge inside the park.

Sadly, we had a bad meal at the Circle B Stage Show in nearby Hill City. We had pre-booked it although that probably wasn’t necessary. The stage show of western music and comedy was good, but not good enough to over come the really bad food.

We finished the day back in the room watching movies, doing laundry and repacking the car for the early departure the next morning.

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Day 4 Badlands, NP

We continued west on I-90 and of course began seeing the funny signs for Wall Drug, which friends insisted we stop at.   First though, we visited Badlands, NP where we went spent about 5 hours, including a nice lunch at the Cedar Pass Lodge near the park entrance.   We bought a 1 year National Park Pass for $70 that would get us into all of the remaining national parks on the trip and then followed the 30 miles park road stopping at many of the overlooks along the way. Each was spectacular in its own way and several offered short easy hikes and climbs that the younger kids loved.

Around 3 pm, we headed north to get back to I-90 and experience Wall Drug. Another tourist trap, but this one is worth the hype. It’s sort of a clean, mid-western, version of the famous South of the Border on I-95. This one is much better.

Another hour to Rapid City and we stopped at Target to restock the van. We then headed south to Keystone, South Dakota and our great hotel, the K Bar S Lodge. It is a beautiful place. Our room’s front door faced straight out to Washington’s profile. We spent two nights here, so we unpacked the car completely for the first time.

We had a pretty bad dinner at the Powder House Lodge around the corner and then headed over to Mount Rushmore National Monument to see the evening lighting ceremony. We enjoyed it very much, but I have to admit that in my head, there was going to be fireworks and I kept waiting for them to go off. I realized afterwards that fireworks would probably burn the forest down and that I have been to Disney World too many times.

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Day 3 Cruising West

We woke early as we knew we had a long day of driving ahead. Our destination was Mitchell, South Dakota (about 9 ½ hours of driving away) which would put us within an easy drive of the Badlands the following day.   Traffic out of the city was a nightmare, and the light steady rain didn’t help any.

I knew we needed something to “do” on the way and researched a few options. The one option that made the most sense was the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a quick, 45 minute, free stop that let us get out of the car, stroll the grounds, take a few photographs and get on our way. It really was perfect, and both our girls considered it one of the highlights of the trip.

We pressed on from there, eating our leftover pizza in the van, until we arrived in Mitchell, stopping only for dinner at the Bean Town Grill in Fairmont, Minnesota. We found it using our various phone aps. Not bad, but nothing to write home about either.

The last event of the day was a quirky visit to the Corn Palace in Mitchell before heading to our Holiday Inn Express.   The Palace, apparently a building decorated completely with dried ears of corn, was not my cup of tea. It really seems to just be a tourist trap and souvenir shop.   Ten minutes was plenty.

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Day 2 The Field Museum, Wrigley Field

We were on our way by 8 am and headed for downtown Chicago. The miles were uneventful until we hit traffic in Chicago – which was by far the worst on our trip. We probably lost a half hour in the last 2 miles or so. I dropped the family off at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria and I drove around the corner to The Chicago Hilton and checked us in while they ordered. We had great deep dish there with enough leftover for lunch in the car the following day. (A cooler in the car was very helpful on this trip).

We walked back to the hotel and lugged our stuff up to a beautiful room overlooking Lake Michigan. We could even look down on our next destination – The Field Museum. The Hotel itself is its own destination, with a storied history we googled in the car the next day. Among many other movies, it is featured in the final scenes of Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive.

We chose the Field Museum based on reading about Chicago’s many museums and checking reviews on Trip Advisor. It was a 15 minute walk from the hotel through Millennium Park. I had learned just a few days earlier that the Grateful Dead were performing their final 3 concerts – ever – in the park over July 4th weekend. Meaning, the final concert was the night before were visited. The park clearly looked like it had been overrun by deadheads with just their garbage and junk remaining. A few of them were still congregated in small groups. The funny sight was the “rich” deadheads we saw checking out of the posh Chicago Hilton.

Once inside the museum, we toured the Egyptian and evolution exhibits, posed with T-Rex and Yoda dressed as a Native American. We skipped the Imax films and paid exhibits, keeping our visit to about 2 ½ hours. We then strolled back the hotel to rest and freshen up for our journey on the “L” out to Wrigley Field.

We had purchased our tickets online in March when they became available. Now were onboard the train on our way, surrounded by 2/3 Cubs fans and 1/3 Cardinals fans, and they all seemed to get along just fine.

We got the obligatory photo in front of the marquee where it was packed and then filed into our seats to enjoy a nice game. Cub’s pitcher Jon Lester recorded his first career hit after 10 years and 67 lifetime ABs. The score was 0-0 into the 7th but the Cardinals pushed 2 across and then finished them off with 4 more in the 9th. We left after the 7th inning-stretch as heavy rain was imminent.   The kids had had enough, and we didn’t want to be left standing in the rain waiting for the train

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Day 1 Niagara Falls

We left the Albany area promptly at 8:00 am, heading west on I-90 across New York State. I had carefully packed the van the night before – including 7 suitcases, electronics for everyone and even my son’s Nintendo Wii, hooked into the Honda’s rear seat entertainment system.

A quick stop for lunch at Panera (ordered in the car 30 minutes out from Kim’s iphone (a first for us)), and them across the border at the Rainbow Bridge. We already had passports for the family from a previous trip to the Dominican Republic, and had heard from many friends that the Canadian side of the falls was better. Additionally, our ultimate goal was Chicago, and crossing Canada on 401 to Detroit is the most direct route.

We parked the car at the Table Rock Welcome Center and were walking alongside the falls and taking pictures by 1:45 PM. We had no interest in the wax museums, casinos and other tourist traps associate with Niagara. Instead, we wanted to see the falls up close and then get out of town. I had pre-booked tickets on the Hornblower Boat Cruise and we walked the half mile along the river to the boat dock, admiring the American Falls as we went. It was a beautiful summer day and the place was mobbed.

We donned our red poncho freebies and I put a special plastic cover over the Canon to get the shots in the incredible mist. Emily, our oldest, manned a cheap underwater camera I bought for the pool.

The 20-minute boat ride was a lot of fun and definitely worth doing once. I doubt we would go again though.   The boat basically leaves the dock, motors upstream to Horseshoe Falls and floats there for a about 5 minutes while everyone gets their photos and soaked. The warm July day made that perfect.

The boat then floats back down to the American Falls and finally back to the dock.   If we had more time, we would have happily experienced the behind the falls tour. Like I said, we had no interest in the wax museum or casinos nearby.

We grabbed ice-creams and strolled back toward the van, admiring the falls one last time. And then we on our way across Ontario. The country was beautiful, even with the hundreds of windmills we passed. The first crop of the 1,000’s we would see on the trip. We stopped for dinner at a great place – Earls – in London, ON. After dark, we crossed the border again into Detroit and made our way to a Holiday Inn Express in Ann Arbor for our first night on the road.

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Sidebar: Hornblower vs. Maid of the Mist. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the difference. Its as simple as Hornblower is now exclusively on the Canadian side (red boats) and the Maid of the Mist are on the American side (blue). The boats seem to do exactly the same thing.

Planning it out…. Albany, NY to Yellowstone N.P.

It was wheels up at 8:00 am. We set out for Yellowstone NP where we would meet my parents and my younger brother and his family. My wife Kim and I, chaperoning our two daughters Emily (14) and Kate (12) and our son David (7) all loaded into our Honda minivan Along the way we planned to visit Niagara Falls for the first time (despite living just 4 hours away for the last 30 years), knock Wrigley Field off the bucket list, visit the Badlands and see Mount Rushmore. Every route and virtually every stop was preplanned. I enjoyed the planning almost as much as the trip itself.

The road home took us south through the Tetons, across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado with stops to see family in Kansas, barbecue in Kansas City, the Arch in St. Louis. Finally the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And then home.

15 States, 4 National Parks, 3 National Monuments and 1 state park. 5,300 miles over 19 days. It really was the trip of a lifetime for us.


Plans started almost two years before when we agreed with family that we would meet in Yellowstone NP in the summer of 2015. We had done many trips with my parents and my brother’s family, including the Grand Canyon in 2013, and several trips to northern California in the preceding years.   We had flown out each time.

Kim and I had become experts at all things Disney World and had driven down from Albany 3 times. We usually made that 22-hour drive in 1 long run on the way down, with 1 night’s stop-over on the way home. We knew on this trip that we wanted to keep the driving down to 8 hours maximum per day with no overnight driving. Instead we would make each day an adventure.

We spent months researching possible itineraries, hotels, routes, sights and National Parks. We talked to friends, read a lot of websites and studied several guidebooks.

Using Google Maps, I planned out a northern route along I-90 to take out to Wyoming on the way out, and a more southern route to come home. I then found destinations that would be fun, but wouldn’t take us too far off the route, and reasonable hotels for every overnight. We relied heavily on Trip Advisor for this.

Aside from the proper clothes, sneakers, hikers and outwear, (and lots of snacks and activities for the car ride), a new Canon D60 SLR was the best piece of gear we bought for the trip. I have always been into photography, but now it was time to get serious. My brother and father and I all love “getting the shot”, and my wife Kim loves using those shots for her Shutterfly photo books and Facebook posts.

I am a very detail oriented person. I love having a plan and knowing that I have already picked out the quickest route, the best restaurant, the coolest sights and the cleanest hotel. I don’t like getting into town, spending an hour debating what to do and where to eat, only to then realize the best meal and the nicest sunset was 30 miles back. I completely understand that many people do not like to plan every detail. Like I wrote earlier – I enjoyed the planning almost as much as the trip – and the trip was a once in a lifetime.

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