This category highlights the beginning of the West for a traveler from the East. Some of these states are not actually in the Rockies, but they foretell what is to come further westward and begin the sense of vastness and grandeur which characterizes the American West. The states that I have included here are South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. There are numerous National Parks in this group and the scenery is absolutely incredible. Check out my photo album which will follow tomorrow.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is not only America’s first national park, but is probably the premier national park in the US. It combines dramatic scenery, exemplified by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with incredible thermal areas, e.g. Old Faithful, and a great variety of wildlife which is extremely accessible to visitors. The park consists of two circular routes (a northern, 112 km or 70 mile loop, and a southern, 150 km or 96 mile loop) which meet and share a common east-west road across the middle of the park. Each of the loop roads requires at least a day, so a minimum stay in the area should last two full days (keep in mind that it is better to stay longer to allow more time at the various sights). Yellowstone requires a considerable amount of walking in order to fully appreciate the thermal and scenic areas since many of the sights are along trails or elevated boardwalks above the thermal areas and are some distance from the roads.
There are numerous must sees in the park. The following is a list of the major sights.
Old Faithful geyser (in the Upper Geyser Basin, the largest concentration of geysers in the world) is the unofficial symbol of the park. It is called Old Faithful because it reliably erupts every 78 minutes on average and its eruptions spray heated water over 100 feet in the air.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (at Canyon Village) offers views of yellow, orange, red and white canyon walls above the blue-green Yellowstone River, 330 meters (1000 feet) below. Yellowstone Falls, at one end of the canyon, adds more beauty to the scene. Stop at the various overlooks, such as Artist Point and Inspiration Point, to get different perspectives.
Mammoth Hot Springs (in the northernmost region of the park) features colorful terraces of superheated water flowing over a kind of limestone called travertine. The end result is a colorful (shades of white, yellow, cocoa, and pink), steaming staircase.
Norris Geyser Basin includes Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest, among others as well as colorful (shades of blue, yellow, orange and green) pools and other thermal features.
Wildlife, such as, Bison, Elk, Bears, Wolves, etc, are common throughout the park (although wolves are seldom seen near the populated areas) so be prepared to stop at traffic jams which begin as soon as significant wildlife is spotted, because people just stop their cars in the middle of the road to take pictures and to watch. Instead of getting upset, just relax and enjoy the experience.
Fountain Paint Pot (in the Lower Geyser Basin area) is extremely different from the other thermal features and is interesting and entertaining. Here multi-colored mud boils and spouts.
Many other attractions are spread throughout the huge park. There are numerous walking trails which lead to waterfalls, other thermal areas, etc.
Cody, Wyoming, is a town which recalls the days of cowboys and shoot-outs. It was founded by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, hence the name, in 1896. Memorabilia of the founder and the period are found at various sites in the town. Check them out especially if intrigued or interested in the Old West. Cody is also the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
West Yellowstone, Montana is the western gateway and is another quaint, little town with a western flair.
An interesting and memorable experience is to take a swim in the Firehole River, a cold, mountain stream which is warmed considerably as it travels through the thermal areas, becoming comfortably warm. Access is just off Lower Loop Road, just south of Madison (check with a Ranger at any of the Visitor Centers to get more specific directions and to make sure swimming is still permitted).
2. Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is truly impressive and inspirational, especially for Americans. It consists of four (4) American presidents sculpted out of a massive granite cliff. The heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are all 20 meters (60 feet) tall and can be viewed from across a valley. The sculpture is floodlit at night so is particularly beautiful after dark. The Visitor Center offers a film about the carving of the sculptures, and Gutzon Borghum’s workshop, accessible via a trail from the viewing area, displays some of the tools used and models of the construction. It took Borghum and his crew 14 years to complete the project.
A nearby attraction which will surely impress visitors is Badlands National Park which lies just south of Interstate 90, east of Mount Rushmore, in the western part of South Dakota. It preserves acres and acres of colorful stratified clay deposits. The area is accessible via the Badlands Loop Road which offers numerous viewpoints to observe the unusual landscape.
The Crazy Horse Memorial on US Route 16/385, just north of Custer, South Dakota, will eventually be the world’s largest sculpture, with a height of 190 meters (562 feet) and a length of 215 meters (641 feet), when it is completed. Work was begun in 1948. As of today, the face of the Indian Chief is completed while work on his horse continues.
Custer State Park with its dramatic Needles Highway (State Route 87) is one of the premier state parks in the United States. It offers access to the Black Hills area of South Dakota and its abundant wildlife, including a large herd of bison.
The Needles Highway, a dramatic and interesting scenic drive, is a 22 km (14-mile) trip through unusual granite spires of rock. There are several narrow tunnels, and hairpin turns so large vehicles must use extreme caution. Vistas of the Black Hills are available at pullouts along the drive.
Deadwood, South Dakota, west of Mount Rushmore, is a former gold rush boom town and cowboy town turned gambling Mecca. Deadwood is the last resting place of Wild Bill Hickok, one of the West’s most colorful gunfighters, who was killed during a poker game in Deadwood, in the year 1876. There are several museums and other venues which celebrate and vilify his notorious past.
Wind Cave National Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, preserves a natural, underground, limestone cavern whose name derives from the strong winds which blow into and out of the cave at various times, due to atmospheric pressure differences. Visitors may choose between a number of Ranger-led cave tours, based on how strenuous they are and their length. The Garden of Eden Tour is probably the least exerting and lasts approximately 1 hour.
3. Grand Teton National Park & Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming combine to create an area of great scenic beauty, just south of Yellowstone National Park (see #1 above). Follow Routes 89 and 191 which wind parallel to the Teton range and afford excellent views of these majestic mountains, among the youngest on the continent, south from Yellowstone or north from the town of Jackson. They are probably the most photographed mountains in the US because they seem to jut skyward abruptly from the valley (Jackson Hole) below.
Be sure to check out the views of the Teton range from the John D Rockefeller Memorial Drive (Routes 89 & 191) and/or from Teton Park Road, which runs parallel to the highways. There are great photo opportunities at the Snake River Overlook, on Routes 26,89,191 and also at Oxbow Bend which lies between Jackson Lake Junction and Moran Junction.
The town of Jackson has become a destination in itself, due to its scenic location as well the ambiance of an upscale cowboy town, complete with hundreds of discarded elk antlers. There are numerous activities in the vicinity, including horse-back riding, skiing in winter, white-water rafting, and float trips along the Snake River, which flows through the park. Numerous Dude Ranches compete for the tourist’s attention.
Walk the wooden sidewalks the town of Jackson and check out the cowboy and other finery in the shops along the street. The village recalls the quintessential old west.
4. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park is located in Northern Montana and is associated with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, the two together comprising Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, an interesting concept involving cooperation of two separate countries to preserve an area of exceptional beauty. The area is, of course, known for its glaciers (which, by the way, are receding significantly), but there are other attractions, such as, wildlife, lakes, hiking trails, etc.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, a spectacular 50 mile (80 kilometer) scenic drive, bisects the park and offers breath-taking vistas throughout. Stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, roughly halfway across, at the Continental Divide, for information and access to several trails. Nearby, the road hugs the cliffs of deep, steep valleys allowing unobstructed views of mountains and glaciers. Be on the lookout for Rocky Mountain Goats which are quite common at the high altitudes. There are many other hiking trails but few other roads.
The two major lakes of the park, Saint Mary Lake, on the eastern side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Lake McDonald, on the western side, offer aquatic activities.
5. Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Devil’s Tower is a huge monolith rising above the landscape of Eastern Wyoming. It has long been a sacred place to Native American tribes (as a matter of fact, their legend about how Devil’s Tower was formed is much more interesting than the scientific explanation). The location was featured in the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Devil’s Tower was also the United States’ first national monument.
The sight of the monument is extremely dramatic, since there is no other relief in the vicinity. It rises precipitously 870 feet (almost 300 meters) above the plain. Take the short hike from the Visitor Center to get close to the ancient volcanic remains for a different perspective or take the Tower Trail which circles the monolith.
The monument is obviously also popular with mountain-climbers. They can be seen frequently, dangling from the sheer rock.
Stop on the road leading to the Monument to observe an active Prairie Dog village. The kids will love it!
6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located in the badlands of North Dakota, is basically a tribute to its namesake, the United States’ most conservation-minded president. The parklands were sculpted primarily by the Little Missouri River, which scoured the sandstone, leaving colorful layers of soil. The wildlife of the park consists of American Bison, Pronghorn Antelope, and many other grazers, as well as predators such as the coyote and bobcat. The park consists of two separate areas, a South Unit, near Medora, ND, and a North Unit, south of Watford City. They are about 1 hour apart by car.
7. Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
Craters of the Moon is a large, basaltic lava field which contains cinder cones, and other features reminiscent of volcanic activity. It is the largest lava field in the United States. There is a Visitor Center and a paved 7-mile loop road, besides the many trails and vistas.