We flew into Jackson Hole airport in Wyoming the day after my 46th birthday and left 10 days later, via Rapid City in South Dakota, so that we could bring the children’s U.S. National Parks total to 33 and mine to 38–our first extended (i.e., more than a long weekend) trip since July 2020 when we went to Utah’s national parks.
Our landing spot was a stone’s toss from Grand Teton NP, so we started there for a couple days, sleeping inside the park and having one of the best views I’ve ever enjoyed from a hotel room.
We hiked trails through the hills and mountains, by waterfalls and above lakes, and then took a ferry back across Jenny Lake to where we’d begun. Dinner was at Liberty Burger in Jackson, WY; it was awesome.
When it was time to head north to Yellowstone, we had to head south and west (around the Tetons) before going north, sleeping in Island Park, Idaho just outside the West Yellowstone park entrance, since the park cancelled our reservations inside the park about 2 weeks before the trip (thanks, Covid!). That said, our log cabin in the woods was wonderful, as was having our own bedroom away from the children.
As soon as we left the cabin for the morning, we saw a moose with her baby. Later, we’d see a coyote, a bear and her cub, elk, and bison.
West Yellowstone was packed when we tried to find dinner options, but after about 45 minutes of waiting, we got to enter the Slippery Otter for beers and burgers that hit the spot. I even bought and kept my beer glass, because who doesn’t want a “slippery otter” beer glass?
During our days at Yellowstone, we rented bikes to tour the geysers like Castle, Riverside, and Old Faithful. We drove and hiked around the various paintpots and mudpots, and we followed the longer “north rim” hiking trail to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its waterfalls before moving our lodging to Gardiner, MT–just above the north entrance to the park–so we’d be closer to our guided fly fishing trip with Flying Pig Adventure Company the next day.
The day I was most looking forward to on this trip was our fly fishing day in the northeastern part of the national park, and it was all I’d hoped it would be. We started in a pond, where we all caught small brook trout, and then we graduated to the more difficult Gardiner River (where no one had any luck) before moving to the Yellowstone River, where my son and I both caught trout! His was like 18” long –a cutthroat; mine was a hybrid rainbow/cutthroat. Other than having a ranger holler down at us from an overhead bridge that a bear was approaching (which wasn’t too scary, just alarming), it was an awesome day of fishing.
That evening, we stayed at the Dreamcatcher Tipi Hotel, which I loved. We enjoyed local beers around a bonfire as all the children made s’mores and chased each other throughout the campsite against a backdrop of elk-covered mountains.
The next morning, we drove six hours across Montana, stopping at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument on our way to Medora, ND at the Rough Riders Hotel next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Roosevelt NP was our first stop I hadn’t seen before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we enjoyed hiking in its badlands area, seeing scores of prairie dogs, and enjoying its painted canyon while learning about our 26th President’s time there.
When we headed south toward Rapid City, we drove several hours with nowhere to stop, and I really needed a toilet, so I pulled in at a place I can only describe as “like the biker bar in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” It was called the Stoneville Saloon, and it frightened the children. I amused my bride by trying to order her a sour and seeing an expression of confused disgust on the face of the leather-clad lady working the empty bar before I chugged my Coors (payment for use of the urinal, I figured) and aiming our minivan for Devil’s Tower National Monument, where we hiked around the tower, pausing to let a giant bull snake cross our path, and watched several seemingly malnourished deer walk about the surrounding woods while discussing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
I decided we should stop in Deadwood for dinner and that I also needed to stop in Saloon No. 10, where I befriended a man who’d ridden his Harley for 12 hours to get there and regularly comes to Sturgis.
We finally arrived at our final lodging spot on this trip, the State Game Lodge at Custer State Park, SD. It’s 100+ years old and housed a couple of Presidents (Coolidge and Eisenhower); it’s inside the country’s 2nd biggest state park and was a great place for getting to all the national park properties near Rapid City. It’s also the nicest state park I’ve ever seen, as it even had a visitors center and park film (narrated by Kevin Costner) that rivaled many I’ve seen at national parks.
We began our tourist time in South Dakota by vising Wind Cave National Park. Since it was nearly 100 degrees outside, I figured underground would be a great place to be, but so did hundreds of other folks, and we had a nearly hour-long line to endure (outside) just to get timed entry tickets to the cave. Once we got our tickets, we hiked a short trail through some woods and learned about the prairie lands around and above the cave, its importance to the Native Americans, and how it came to be protected land (and eventually a national park). That afternoon, we visited the nearby (and possibly connected) Jewel Cave National Monument, and though we were too late to tour the inside of the cave, we liked its visitor center much better (and it was much less crowded).
We began our second day in South Dakota by visiting Wall Drug, where I got a photo exactly like the one my brother took of me 30 years ago, and we bought snacks for hiking the Badlands, our next national park to visit.
We hiked the “door” trail and “saddle pass” trail, explored the national grassland, and let the children collect more junior ranger patches. It was windy and hot (mid-90s); it felt like exploring another planet. Or like exploring Hell. But, we loved it.
We went back to Wall Drug for hot beef sandwiches after visiting the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and seeing a silo at the Delta-09 spot west of Badlands, where the ranger had served as an Air Force Missileer many decades prior, so his tour was fascinating to attend.
On day 10 our our trip, we went to Mount Rushmore, hiked around the four Presidential faces, and learned about the sculpture’s history (I had no idea Gutzon Borglum had started Stone Mountain near Atlanta before Mount Rushmore but was fired for taking too long and going over budget!) before returning our rented minivan at the adorable Rapid City airport from which we’d fly home.
Now that it’s been nearly a year and a half since the world shut down, I (along with my family) have had 37 flights cancelled, so getting to take this trip to five national parks plus national forests, grasslands, monuments, and a battlefield was a great salve for the disappointment having so many trips cancelled has given me. And for that, I thank President “Teddy” Roosevelt and Delta Airlines (in that order).