Northern BLT Days 12-14: Jackson, Wyoming

The view after leaving Yellowstone National Park
Hiking at Grand Teton National Park

After an incredible few days, we were all feeling a bit down as we drove out of the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park but this didn’t last long as we were suddenly met with stunning views of snow-capped mountains ahead of us. Pulling over so we could take photos of the beautiful view, we were told that these were the Grand Tetons and our next stop that day would be at the often over-looked Grand Teton National Park. Most of us had no idea that this was even on the itinerary and were excited at the prospect of visiting another National Park straight after Yellowstone.

Views while hiking at Grand Teton National Park

We arrived at Jenny Lake Visitor Centre mid-afternoon and after looking around, grabbing some souvenirs and trying some of the local huckleberry products, we embarked on a lakeside hike to Hidden Falls. The easy trail provided us with more stunning views of the Grand Tetons and of the lake itself and we even spotted a few deer along the way. Rather than hiking the entire perimeter of the lake, once we reached Hidden Falls, we took the park’s shuttle boat across the lake back to the visitor centre.

Dinner in Jackson, Wyoming

Unfortunately that was all we had time for at the park but I made a mental note to return and explore more at some point in the future. From the park, we drove south to the town of Jackson, Wyoming. As we drove through we were all quite excited to see some well-known branded cafes and stores such as Starbucks as we’d been out in the middle of nowhere a lot since Chicago! We didn’t stop but continued on to our KOA site a few miles out of the town centre to check in, freshen up and have a bit of downtime.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

It was Saturday night and this evening we were going to be dropped back in to the town on Jackson for dinner and a night out at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – something many of us girls were particularly excited about! Once back in Jackson, some of the group decided to eat at a nice steak house just off the main square while the rest of us chose the cheaper option of a small diner further down the high street and we arranged to meet after inside the cowboy bar.

After dinner, we entered the bar to find the bar stools were saddle seats! We all took turns to sit on them for a photo opportunity before ordering our drinks and finding a table. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the live country music band which was playing and watching the two-stepping taking place on the dancefloor while trying (and failing!) to attract the attention of some of the younger local cowboys!

The next morning, most of the group had booked to go white water rafting along the nearby Snake River. This was something I was actually quite nervous about but had no reason to be as it was one of the most fun things I did all trip! With 8 of us in the raft and an experienced guide steering at the back, we navigated our way through the rapids, all managing to stay firmly in the boat – until we reached a still water area and were invited to jump in for a swim in order to earn a wristband!

Rafting along Snake River

Being a water lover, I was first in before the guide had even finished talking. The water was freezing and I was clambering back on board within seconds or at least attempting to, as climbing back onto the raft was a lot easier said than done! Once we were all back on board, we continued to ride the remaining rapids until we reached the exit point where a shuttle met us to take us back to our KOA.

Jackson Square

Soaking wet and exhausted from the effort, we quickly made use of the KOA showers and changed before heading back into Jackson for the afternoon to meet back up with the remaining group members and tell the about all the fun they had missed!

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town, visiting countless souvenir shops and cowboy apparel stores and eating ice cream sat out in Jackson Square before dinner at a local brewery then returning to the KOA for an evening sat around the campfire talking and drinking.

Some of us were up bright and early the next day to go horse riding at the OK Corral Stables just across the road from the KOA site. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was a child but the guided trails are set up for beginners to enjoy and once we had been assigned our horses and climbed on we were lead along the road to a trail leading up into the mountains. This was such a fun activity and once we had made it to the top of the trail, the views over Wyoming were absolutely beautiful making the early start to the day more than worth it. Once back at the stables, we said goodbye and thank-you to our horses and returned across the road to our KOA to meet back with the rest of the group, load our things onto the trailer and jump back on the van to say goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we began our journey to our next destination.

Northern BLT Days 10-12: Yellowstone National Park

After leaving the Wild West behind in Cody, it was on towards Yellowstone National Park, a part of our trip that we were all pretty excited about!

Our first stop in Yellowstone National Park
First of many Bison spottings

We entered Yellowstone at the east entrance and made our first stop for a short hike to see views over Lake Yellowstone and our first of many bison sightings before continuing on the Fishing Bridge Visitor Centre. National Park Passports stamped and souvenirs bought, we then continued our drive through the park. Our cabins for the next 2 nights would be just outside of the town West Yellowstone, Montana, meaning today, we would mainly be spent making our way across the park with a few stops along the way.

Valley views

After lunch at a Canyon Village, we continued east stopping for another short hike to view bison in the valley. We hit traffic soon after – often the sign of a wildlife sighting. It turned out to be a family of black bears crossing and making their way into the woods and we pulled over to watch them go in their way from a distance.

Black bear in the distance

We got caught in a longer queue of traffic soon after but our patience was rewarded with a grizzly bear sighting which was very exciting! Eventually, we made it to Mammoth Hot Springs where we were dropped at the top of the viewing terraces and told to make our way down where we’d be met in the village.

Grizzly bear sighting
Rock formations at Mammoth Hot Springs

The boardwalk through Mammoth Hot Springs took us past a variety of interesting limestone rock formations, mineral deposits and hot springs and was a really interesting place to explore. We slowly made our way down towards the village stopping to take plenty of photos along the way.

Once at the other end, we looked around the visitor centre, got ice cream from the general store and said hello to the elk grazing in the area before hopping back on the bus to continue our drive west.

Cabin by the lake

Once we’d exited the park and made a quick grocery stop, we drove to our cabins for the next 2 nights and were delighted to find that rather than the usual KOA site, we instead were staying at a lovely independent site in a pretty lakeside setting with larger cabins than we’d been used to for the rest of the trip! We spent the evening relaxing, enjoying a barbecue and drinks around the campfire and gazing at the star-filled sky.

Looking out across the lake from our cabin at sunset

We were up early to head back into the park the next day and drove back to the east side where we parked up for a hike. We were not told where we were hiking too which made it even more impressive when we got to our destination.

Hiking through Yellowstone

Our hike took us past more hot springs and thermal activity, past lakes and through forests and along a series of switchbacks taking us higher and higher until we arrived at a huge canyon – the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The view was jaw-dropping and after sitting on the canyon edge for our picnic lunch, we followed the south rim of the canyon until we reached a waterfall.

Lower falls

Most of us chose to follow Uncle Tom’s Trail to view Lower Falls although I slightly regretted that decision when we had to climb back up the hundreds of steps after!! We then made our way back to where we had started that morning to get back on the van.

After a stop to see the Canyon from a few different viewing points and to get snacks from a general store, we made our way back across the park and our to our cabins. That evening, we drove into West Yellowstone for dinner and after eating at a BBQ place, we spent a fun hour wandering around the many shops before returning to our cabins.

Down by the river

Our final morning at Yellowstone and we had a choice for the first activity of the day – a swim in the river or a boardwalk trail to see more thermal activity. Choosing the latter, we followed the trail at Fountain Paint Pots before jumping back on the van to go and pick the swimmers up.

Arriving at Norris Geyser Basin

Next we were all dropped off at Midway Geyser Basin where we followed the trail round to view Grand Prismatic Spring. We’d all seen the pictures on postcards at the gift stores over the last few days but it was much more impressive to see in person.

The stunning Grand Prismatic Spring
Watching Old Faithful erupt

Our final stop in the park was to see Old Faithful Geyser erupt. The geyser is so called because of it’s predictable eruptions and we arrived with plenty of time to spare so got to fit in one last visitor centre and souvenir store before we took our places out on the viewing platform.

After grabbing some lunch at he general store, it was unfortunately time to wave goodbye to Yellowstone but it had been amazing and definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far!

Northern BLT Day 7-8: South Dakota

After a fun morning visiting the Jolly Green Giant in Minnesota state, we crossed the border into South Dakota for lunch in the town of Brandon. This stop was notable mainly for us having a group member with the same name, causing all sorts of hilarity as we dug into our Subway sandwiches followed by some frozen yoghurt!

This afternoon we were heading towards Badlands National Park but delayed for various reasons, we arrived to late to spend any time in the park that day and instead, went straight to our KOA site to check into our cabins and do the first group cook of the trip.

That evening there were early nights all around as we prepared to get up at the crack of dawn to head into the National Park for sunrise. Those plans were abandoned the next day when we awoke to torrential rain and it became apparent that there would be no sun to view rising. Instead, we made multiple attempts to get to and from the shower blocks without getting so drenched we had to change clothes all over again before having a pancake breakfast under a marquee only just about holding up under the weight of the heavy rainfall.

Deciding the weather probably wasn’t improving any time soon, we made the decision to head into the park anyway. Luckily, as we approached, the weather started to clear up and by the time we’d spent some time in the visitor centre looking at the displays, watching a video about the Badlands and buying souvenirs, it had stopped raining completely allowing us to go hiking over the odd moonscape.

With a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t spend too long at Badlands National Park. We made a brief stop at a National Park Service Missile Silo on the way out then continued to our main stop for today, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Mount Rushmore was somewhere I’d wanted to visit for years but unlike many of the other recognisable US site such as the Hollywood sign and the Statue of Liberty, isn’t in one of the major cities and is therefore more difficult to get to.

As we travelled through South Dakota on our way to Mount Rushmore, we kept passing signs advertising the town of Wall Drug. The signs continued for hundreds of miles showing pictures of cowboys, ice cream, coffee and even a dinosaur! We were all intrigued and our guide informed us that Wall Drug would be today’s lunch stop.

Once there, we found a Wild West type town with plenty of places to eat and drink. We settled on a bar where many of the groups tried bison burgers while the rest of us tucked into pizza then spent the next half hour wandering through the themed stores, buying souvenirs and eating ice cream. Unsure why the town had been hyped for so far along our drive, we returned to our Trek van to continue on our journey.

Carved in to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore depicts the faces of four USA presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be but I still took way more photos of it than I needed to and bought loads of useless souvenirs, including a Christmas bauble in the shape of Mount Rushmore, from the visitor centre.

Just up the road from Mount Rushmore, we stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently being carved into the Black Rocks and unlikely to be finished in our lifetime, it was fascinating to see the work going on in the distance and see displays showing the progress so far and how the sculpture will look when it is finally finished.

Our overnight stop tonight was on the South Dakota/Wyoming border at another KOA, our cabins overlooked by the looming Devil’s Tower National Monument. Arriving at dusk, we went straight to the site’s cafe for dinner followed by drinks around the camp fire and a few hours sleep before an early start the next day.

Southern BLT Day 8 – 10: Journeying through New Mexico

My first Trek America experience – Part 3

Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell and Carlsbad Caverns National Park

A dusting of snow as we enter New Mexico State

After the unexpected heavy snowfall of the last few days, we were pleased to see little sign of the white stuff as we crossed into the state of New Mexico. We were heading to the city of Santa Fe but would, as usual, be making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs.

Today’s journey once again took us along part of the famous Route 66 highway and the first stop of the day was at a Route 66 Historic Hotel, the El Rancho, in Gallop, once the temporary home to various film stars in its heyday. The hotel has been restored to its former glory and is now a National Historic site. It was interesting to wander around the lobby with its traditional Wild West decor.

A stop on the outskirts of Albuquerque was next where we visited a fast food restaurant used in the popular TV show, Breaking Bad. As I’d never watched the show, this was a bit over my head but other members of the group who were favs of the series were very excited to sit in the booth where characters from the show are seen sitting!

Unfortunately, our motel for the evening wasn’t in central Santa Fe so after checking in, we had to be driven into the city by our guide. We had an hour of free time to wander around before meeting for a group dinner at a lovely Tex Mex restaurant. Just as we piled out of the van, snow once again started to fall but thankfully, only a light dusting this time. The city, the oldest capital in the US, was exactly as our guide had described it – 50 shades of brown! As it was already early evening, there was little open other than the touristy stores on the main square but as well as some souvenir shopping we did find time to wander into the city’s Cathedral before dinner.

Santa Fe Square

The next morning we returned to the city and were given a bit more time to look around. Unfortunately the ‘oldest house’ in the city was closed to visitors while we were there but it was interesting wandering down the oldest street and seeing the old buildings. We spent the rest of our free time in the city visiting the many churches as well as some of the small art galleries and boutique stores before departing for our next overnight stay in New Mexico State, Carlsbad just as the snow started to fall again.

Even the Walmart window plays on the Roswell UFO link!

Our journey today was broken up with an unexpected stop at the infamous town of Roswell! With traffic and diversions due to the snowy weather, we reached there later than expected and by the time we’d stopped at Walmart to shop for tonight’s camp, it was late afternoon.

Alien themed mural in Roswell

We were given some free time to look around the town and all headed straight to the UFO museum only to be told it would be closing soon. We all wanted to go inside anyway and the staff kindly waived the entrance fee as we’d not be able to see the entire museum in such a short time. The museum was fun in a tacky, tourist-pleasing way and after it had closed we looked around the neighbouring stores all selling UFO themed souvenirs!

From here, it was off to our only cabin stay of the tour at Carlsbad KOA site. The cabins were basic – we had to bring our own sleeping bags & pillows on the trip just for this one night – but comfortable enough and luckily, with the weather as it was, did have some kind of heating system.

It was already dark as we arrived and absolutely freezing cold, so much so that we struggled to cook the evening’s meal on the camping equipment, eventually settling for food somewhere between luke warm and still frozen!! We spent the evening sat around the campfire, wrapped in our blankets and sleeping bags trying desperately to keep warm, our guide attempting to keep up morale by playing guitar and leading sing songs. This was definitely one of the more character building evenings of the trip!

The next day, we awoke to another icy cold morning and a dusting of more snow and after breakfast, set off towards Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As we reached the park, we could see more snow had fallen in the area than we had had at our cabins causing our guide to pull over and check the park’s website – it was currently closed as they tried to clear the snow to allow access. After ringing the park and speaking to a ranger, our guide reported back that the park hoped to have a limited section of the Caverns open to the public within the next couple of hours and decided we should stick around and wait so we drove to a nearby cafe and settled down to hot chocolates and a group game of Cards Against Humanity as we waited for updates.

Luckily, the park did manage to open although as expected, only part of the trail through the Caverns would be accessible. It was bizarre to see frozen cactii lining the road as we drove to the car park and walked across to the cave entrance but at least once inside, we were out of the snow for a while! The caverns were really beautiful and worth sticking around to see. After following the self-guided loop trail, we returned to the gift shop for some souvenir shopping before finding a sheltered picnic bench to sit and have a late lunch on – leftovers from last night’s camp dinner!

Then it was on towards Texas to see what adventures awaited us next!

Going it alone

My first solo travel adventure

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

My first Trek America Experience Part 2

Southern BLT Day 5-7: Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, Utah

My Trek America Experience – Part 2

The highs and lows of a 3 week road trip across the USA.

I was 4 days into a 3 week group tour across America and so far, things were going great. My first experience of hostel life was actually ok, the group were all bonding well, I’d already become firm friends with my roommate and I’d go as far as to say, I was having the time of my life!! But I should have known with this kind of trip to expect the unexpected!

LA, San Diego and Las Vegas already done, next up was 2 nights at the Grand Canyon. So far, we’d enjoyed glorious warm sunshine but as we boarded the bus outside our Vegas hotel the next morning, there was definitely a chill in the air. Time to pull out the hoodie!! As our guide told us much colder weather had been forecast for the next few days, an Australian member of our group admitted he’d only brought shorts with him, assuming that the Southern states were going to be mainly warm!

Our first stop of the day was at Hoover Dam and then at the ‘historic’ Route 66 town of Seligman, Arizona. We’d been told that in the summer months, it was hard to move in this town with all the tourists but on a cool February day, it was more like a ghost town and we were warmly welcomed in every souvenir store we entered as it would seem they get very little business this time of year!

Mural at Seligman AZ, a Route 66 town

The town, dubbed ‘the birthplace of Route 66’, was fun to wander round and was like something stuck in the past with all of its brightly painted buildings and Route 66 memorabilia. We had one more stop, for lunch at a Subway, before continuing the long drive to Grand Canyon National Park.

Arriving later than expected after being rerouted around road closures (we kept ourselves amused in the bus playing ‘Guess the song from the introduction’!), we were given an hour to get settled into our motel accommodation before regrouping for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant. While there, our tour guide outlined the options for the next few days – we could get up early to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon if enough of us were interested, we could hike down into the canyon, book a helicopter flight over the canyon and there were also options to watch a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in the village or do shorter, less strenuous walks at the canyon rim. All the group were up for seeing the sunrise and hiking down into the canyon and lots of us signed up to take a helicopter ride too. With that decided and dinner done, we were let loose for the evening, all deciding to meet for a game of bowling at a nearby hotel after getting our hiking supplies in for the following day.

Heavy snowfall on our Trek America van

Things took an unexpected turn as my roommate and I left the bowling alley to get an earlyish night to discover that snow was falling. And seeing as the ground was covered, it had been falling a while! Assuming that it wouldn’t be much, we set our 4am alarms and went to bed.

Arriving for sunrise at a snowy Grand Canyon National Park

We awoke the next morning to find that the snow had certainly not stopped but continued to fall heavily throughout the night! Despite guessing that seeing the sunrise was now unlikely to be possible, we got ready and met with the group anyway and seeing as we were all up, our guide managed to drive us into the National Park anyway.

As expected, all we could see was cloud and snow but we amused ourselves by building a snowman and throwing snowballs into the Canyon – not something I ever expected to do!! For some of the Australians in the group, this was the first time they’d actually seen real snow so despite our disappointment at the sunrise not being visible, there was still plenty of fun to be had.

After breakfast back in the village, we were advised by our guide that the helicopter tours would not be running today and that the trails down into the Canyon were closed. It was possible there would be an opportunity for both activities the next morning depending on the weather but we’d have to find other ways to spend our full day at the Canyon. Seeing as the rim trail between Mather Point and Angel Point was open, we all wrapped up warm (the Australian with just shorts packed had purchased some long trousers, gloves and a scarf!) and headed out for a walk in the snow!

Looking out at the Grand Canyon

To be honest, I had never even realised the Grand Canyon got snow before. Luckily, unlike many of the group, I had visited this part of the National Park before and seen the Grand Canyon under clear, blue skies and sunshine and there was actually something really special about seeing it under snowfall – not that we could see much of the canyon itself! Cold and wet, we warmed up with lunch at Angel Point Hotel before returning to the village for the rest of the afternoon.

With nothing else to really do, a few of us went to watch the IMAX film, so we could at least see what the Grand Canyon usually looks like, and spent some time souvenir shopping before we met for a group meal at a nearby Steakhouse. A few of us then congregated in our motel room with snacks to watch the evening’s Oscars Ceremony!

Unfortunately, we awoke the next morning to yet more heavy snowfall, dashing any remaining hopes of getting to do the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon or hiking down into the canyon so instead we set off for today’s destination, Monument Valley, stopping first at a watchtower in the Grand Canyon Park. There wasn’t really much of a view from the tower, just more snow, so we didn’t spend long there but as we drove out towards Utah state, conditions did seem to be clearing slightly.

Our first stop in Utah was at a Navajo trading post in Cameron and we were pleased to not have to wade through any snow to get from the van to the store. We weren’t as lucky when we reached our lunch stop, a Burger King, which doubled as a Museum on Navajo Code Talkers, a couple of hours later. Here the snow had really fallen and we wondered if our destination of Monument Valley would be open for our tour to go ahead.

Luckily, despite the heavy snowfall, the site had remained open although we were told that the jeeps used for the tours could only access a smaller part of the area and therefore we would receive a discount.

If anything, the snow only added to this amazing experience. We were told that snow of any kind rarely falls at Monument Valley, nevermind a blanket of it, and even our Navajo guides were stopping to take photographs of the beautiful scenery as they showed us around. We spent most of the tour stood marvelling at the beautiful snow-covered scenery, enjoying the peacefulness that had descended over the area.

Our Burrito dinner

Our visit to Monument Valley ended with a traditional burrito meal before we drove to our motel in the amusingly named town of Mexican Hat. We awoke the next morning to find the snow was starting to melt.

We made one more Monument Valley stop, on the road at the point where Forrest Gump stops running in the Oscar-winning film, before heading off towards the next state on our itinerary – the hopefully less snowy New Mexico!

Going it alone

My first travel adventure

My first small group tour travel experience Part 1