Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Road Trip: Bozeman, MT and Idaho Panhandle National Forest

Following two days of driving throughout Yellowstone (and the fainting episode), we decided to treat ourselves to a relatively short day on the road and traveled only as far as Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman is teeming with locally sourced foods and beers, welcoming residents, and loads of dog-friendly establishments. We rolled into town hungry and found our way to the outdoor seating area of Montana Ale Works.  The dining space was full when we arrived, but two locals noticed our longing gaze and welcomed us to their table, Parker included.  He was one of four dogs happily enjoying the Ale Works that afternoon.  The bison potstickers and local, grass-fed Montana beef burger were delicious, and the $3 Drifter Pale Ales went down easily.

Feeling refreshed, we stopped at a climbing and mountaineering store on Main Street to inquire about nearby hiking opportunities for the next morning.  The proprietor suggested the classic "M" trail up Mount Baldy in the Gallatin National Forest just a few miles outside of town.  With that information in hand, we located the nearest dog park and Parker wore himself out with some friendly Bozeman mutts.

We spent the night at "Camp Walmart," always free and welcoming of overnight guests.  We were one of two dozen  RVs that evening, and with the stunning back drop of the mountainous National Forest, it was easy to forget where we were parked.

The morning hike was relatively short but very steep on the ascent. It followed winding switchbacks down. This outing was a perfect way to start the day before returning to the Vanagon for a long journey across Montana and into the Idaho Panhandle. 

We reached Coeur d' Alene Lake and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest early in the evening, camping at Beauty Creek. To our surprise and delight, of the 17 sites, there were two other VW campers, tops popped.  

Over the 4,000 miles we have covered so far, only a half dozen or so Vanagons and Buses of various vintages had crossed our path, so to find the three of us in this small campground was shocking.  We shared some road trip stories and wished each other smooth travels. 

From Coeur d' Alene, it's Seattle or bust!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Road Trip: Yellowstone National Park

The Golden Gate of Yellowstone
We entered Yellowstone National Park through the East Entrance, taking the scenic byway amidst the spectacular hillsides of the Shoshone National Forest. Just a few miles into the lake district, we had our first thrilling run-in with a bison as they slowly walked across the street, seemingly oblivious to the long line of cars stopped on either side of the road. This would be the first of many close-up encounters with these lumbering beasts. The frequent intimate sightings of Yellowstone bison more than made up for the evasive herds in South Dakota. Yellowstone itself is massive, and we had no idea which direction of the figure-eight loop to take in our exploration of the park. After speaking with a park ranger, he suggested the first thing we do is secure a campsite, as they were filling up fast.

One of many roadside bison sightings.
Months ago, Jeff had originally picked a small campground, Pebble Creek, off of the Northeast entrance to the park. It turns out entering the park on that road would have been impossible, as it was closed due to snow and rock slides. The problem with picking another small campground was that they all operated on a first come, first serve basis and were located in distant areas of the park. We knew that finding an open campground with hours of driving ahead was a gamble, so we decided not to risk it and reserved the very last site at the Grant Village Campground. On the way to there, we pulled off the road to see our first grizzly bear, who we later learned was a regular visitor named Preacher. Like the bison, he seemed oblivious to the crowds and snapping cameras. The elk, marmots, and fox that we saw were similarly photogenic.

New friends, Faye and Jason
With our snowy (six inches all around!) sleeping quarters secured, we set off to explore the Upper Geyser Basin around Old Faithful. As we were warned, the best way to take in the beauty of these natural wonders is with blinders to the hordes of tourists all around. As we were waiting for Old Faithful to live up to its name, we ran into a young, free-spirited couple for the second time in as many days after first crossing paths in the Bighorn mountains. They had no sleeping plans and the campgrounds by this time were all full, so we invited them stay at our site for the night.  Over the course of the afternoon and evening, we learned about the final destination of their cross-country road trip, the Rainbow Gathering in Washington state. They thanked us with a delicious jar of raw honey from Amish country in their native Pennsylvania.

Morning Glory Pool
After a frigid (temps in the high 30s!) and fitful night's rest, we set off to explore more of the park, ending up at the Mammoth Hot Springs. Unfortunately, the water was mostly dried up, so there were no bubbling springs to behold, only a very hot walk up the meandering boardwalks. When we returned to the Mammoth Springs village from our short hike, I was eager to seek relief from the heat in the comforts of an ice cream. Standing in line, a strange feeling came over me, one that I had experienced once before on this trip at the street festival in Montreal. Seeing yellow spots, I leaned against on a nearby post and closed my eyes until the feeling passed. Just as we finally reached the ice cream counter, the feeling came back, only much stronger, and I blacked out on my feet. Jeff somehow managed to get me to an open space on the floor, and I shortly regained my senses. It turns out, fainting in line is the best way to get a free ice cream! Fully recovered, it never tasted so good.

We caught Grotto Geyser at the right moment.
After that scary experience, we decided it wasn't the right time to stop at the Chico Hot Springs for a quick dip on our way to the next destination. I guess pregnancy and extreme heat are not a good combination for me. This only confirms that in our un-air conditioned Vanagon, we'll be avoiding the sweltering heat of the Arches and Canyonlands parks on this trip.

Parker enjoyed the views too.

A delicious Vanagon lunch!

Road Trip: Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming

Months ago we penciled Bald Mountain Campground into our trip agenda, situated at nearly 10,000 feet in the upper reaches of the Bighorn National Forest of northern Wyoming. I called the National Forest Service a couple days before our arrival to check on conditions and learned that the camp was still entirely buried with snow (over 10 feet) and was told that hopefully the sites at 8,000 feet would be accessible. All campgrounds were scheduled to open over three weeks ago, but a very late snowpack delayed the launch of the new camping season.
Fortunately the North Tongue Campground was open. We chose a site with no neighbors in eye- or earshot along a branch of the North Tongue River, which was running high with icy melt waters. We had found yet another stunning campsite backyard to enjoy.

After securing the site we ventured out for some playtime in the snow. We spied a large snowfield while driving in, only a short hike from camp. This excursion may have been the highlight of Parker's life. As soon as he reached the snowfield he took to rolling, diving, and sliding down the steep slope. He was dog sledding in the most literal sense. I enjoyed it nearly as much, dreaming of summertime tele-turns. 

From the snowfields we returned for a second hike along the river. An elk crossed our path, putting Parker into a frenzied state of alert and bewilderment. Later that evening when we left camp for a few beers at a nearby mountain lodge, we came upon three young moose grazing in an alpine meadow. A forest ranger told us that a grizzly bear visited the area the day before, but we weren't graced with an appearance during our stay.

That night we enjoyed a fire at our secluded site and slept soundly until 4:30am, when another fierce lightning and hail storm ripped across the Bighorn Range. After a couple more hours of fitful sleep, we packed up and headed off to Yellowstone National Park. 

As we crossed the highest mountain pass, the full extent of the late snowpack was evident, with snow walls still towering on both sides of Route 14a.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Road Trip: Black Hills National Forest, SD

A last glimpse of Washington as we enter the Black Hills.
Jeff did the majority of the driving once we arrived in the Black Hills National Forest. The roads were steep and windy and we spent much of our time on unpaved county ways. We did a quick swing through Mt. Rushmore, and were well enough satisfied with the views from the road that a stop and hefty parking fee didn't seem necessary. The Black Hills get their name from the towering Ponderosa Pines that darken the steep hillsides.

Jeff had picked out our campsite months before and had no recollection of exactly why he chose Dutchman Campground, one of the most remote in the forest. Our GPS led us to what we thought was Dutchman, but upon arrival there was only a locked gate and a sign for hike-in camping. Confused and just a little worried, we turned around and backtracked with the hopes of finding an open campground. With only one wrong detour to a youth camp down a two-mile, rutted dirt road, we finally found the real Dutchman campground. 
As soon as we pulled in, it became clear why Jeff picked this one; it was secluded, wide open, and on a lake so Parker could get his daily swim. Our campsite "backyard" was a slope of ponderosas leading down to the lake shore. 
After a hike through the woods and around part of the lake, Jeff went fishing. He caught two tiny bass. While they weren't big enough to eat, they justified carrying the fishing gear all this way.

Because we arrived to the campsite with so much sunlight left in the day, we still had time to enjoy a nice game of scrabble around the campfire after our hike. 

As dark clouds started to roll in, we ate a quick dinner of cheese and salsa quesadillas, just before the hail storm hit. The three of us retreated back to the van and Parker was again traumatized by the booming thunder, but less so than last time. I think he's making progress. Perhaps by the end of this trip he'll be a changed dog. The Fourth of July explosions will be the major test.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Road Trip: Badlands National Park, SD

Badlands National Park is often described as otherworldly. The wild, geologically unique landscape of spires, buttes, and rolling grasslands suddenly emerges after hundreds of miles of homogeneous grazing land and an endless bombardment of Wall Drug billboards. We rolled through the park gates and headed to the Cedar Pass Campground to secure a site before heading out to explore our bizarre, breathtaking surroundings.

Dogs aren't allowed on hiking trails in National Parks, so we were limited to a driving tour of the Badlands on the classic Loop Road. After setting out, we didn't feel limited at all. The winding, 35-mile road weaves through soaring spires, over steep passes, and atop high plateaus. Stunning vistas await at every turn. The bison eluded us again, only offering a distant glimpse as they grazed deep in green grasses below.

As the sun was setting, we returned to Cedar Pass to grill some burgers and enjoy the cool, dry weather and stunning views that surrounded us in every direction.

I can't recall ever seeing so many stars in the night sky.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Road Trip: Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne, MN

We enjoyed the long drive through the lush, green fields of Minnesota, dotted with massive wind turbines and farm land as far at the eye could see. When we rolled through the gates of Blue Mounds State Park in the southwestern most corner of the state, the weather was windy and cool. Though a bit ominous at times, it felt wonderful compared to our scorching journey through Indiana the day before. It was already 8:30 pm by the time we popped the Westy top and established ourselves at the campsite, so there wasn't much time for exploring. Jeff made a lovely pasta dinner before we turned in for the night.

We woke early, eager to explore the rolling grasslands and cliffs of the park. Unfortunately the Bison herd was grazing out of sight, deep in the prairie land. Under cool gray skies, we enjoyed a hike along the “mound” at the top of the cliffs leading to a historic Sioux quartzite quarry. We then dropped down to the lower trail to explore the cliffs from below. To Parker's frustration, we had to keep him on leash the whole time to avoid any surprise encounters with an 1800-pound bison.

Jeff was very excited to see the cliffs, but a bit sad that he didn't have his climbing shoes. However, that didn't stop him from enjoying the rock face.

The rain held off as we wrapped up the few miles of prairie land hiking and headed back to the van. We couldn't visiting downtown Luverne, a stretch of town reminiscent of another era. We found the coffee house and treated ourselves to some hot beverages before hitting the road to the Badlands of South Dakota. Parker was passed out on the backseat within five minutes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Road Trip: Indiana Dunes and Breakfast in Madison

We did a quick grocery shop before leaving Cleveland, stocking the cooler with a couple days' worth of food in preparation the long drives ahead. There would be no dining out on this stretch of the journey. We enjoyed two meals of hummus, avocado, and cheese on french bread during our eight hours of driving between Cleveland and Madison. 

By the time we hit Indiana, the weather was an oppressively humid 92 degrees. Parker was panting heavily in the back while we sweated through our clothes in the front. We, especially Parker, were desperate for some relief, so I pulled out the map and located a small lake a few miles off Interstate 90. I navigated as Amanda took us down one county road after another in search of this oasis. We finally located Lakeside Drive, only to be told by a local resident (in no uncertain terms) that there was no public access to the cool, glistening water. Defeated, we retreated to the steaming highway. 

I was back in the driver's seat when Amanda found something that sounded very promising: Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan's southern shore. We headed straight there. Parker was the first to go bounding into the cool waters, his second Great Lake in three days time. We joined him for an incredibly refreshing soak as he swam circles around us. 

Feeling rejuvenated, we boarded the Vanagon and again headed west through Chicago and finally into Madison, Wisconsin. During the last hour of the trip we encountered severe lightning, thunder, and rain. Parker was briefly traumatized in the back, huddled into a corner and trembling. Given the weather and Parker's fragile mental state, we decided to stay in the local Motel 6 (see the reviews!), one of the few cheap, dog-friendly options in the area. 

When you stay in the cheapest hotel in town you can expect to encounter some interesting guests. As soon as we walked in, a resident, startled to see a dog, informed us that he was armed and would not hesitate to shoot Parker if bitten. That sounded fair, so we nodded and moved along. When we exited the elevator on the third floor, we were greeted by a toddler wearing only diapers wandering the dingy hallway with no adults in site. It was 9:30pm. We waited around, trying to pry from the child any information that might help us return her when the mother finally showed up, unconcerned that her child was wandering naked through the halls of a seedy hotel. No words were exchanged. We entered our room and dead-bolted the door. Things only improved the next day. 

We rose early with van maintenance on the agenda. These Vanagons require special oil filters and a grade of oil that's never stocked at the local garages or speedy oil change facilities. I was already carrying the filter and necessary tools, so we swung into the local Auto Zone where I purchased five quarts of oil and did the change in the parking lot. By 9am we were ready to role. We were carrying around the waste oil when I looked to my left at a stop light and miraculously saw a sign that read “Public Waste Oil Disposal Site.” I can only hope to be so fortunate 3,000 miles from now. Plan B is to find a nice mechanic willing to let me ditch the used oil in his waste drum. 

We grabbed a great breakfast at Lazy Jane's Cafe and then headed to downtown Madison to stretch our legs before the seven-hour drive to Blue Mounds State Park in Minnesota.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Road Trip: Cleveland via Buffalo

We left Niagara Falls still damp from the cool mist and crossed the Rainbow Bridge back into the USA. The final destination was Cleveland, but we couldn't pass up a chance to swing through Buffalo to sample some of the famous wings that bear its name.  Local intelligence (thanks, Case!) suggested not The Anchor Bar, which claims to have invented the Buffalo Wing, but Duff's. This no-frills establishment served us a mountain of wings in short time, all dripping with their very spicy Buffalo sauce. 

Lunch consisted of 20 wings, a bowl of chili, a pile of fries, and a couple small salads  to make it healthy. I also enjoyed a tall pint of Duff's Microbrew.

From Duff's we left Buffalo and headed to beautiful Shaker Heights, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. The wonderful parents of our good friend Amelia welcomed us--Parker included--into their lovely home for the night.  After dropping our belongings in their guest room, Judy took us on an amazing, truly professional driving tour of Cleveland on our way to the Tremont neighborhood of the city.  We met Doug at Parralax, a restuarant whose menu was as exciting and eclectic as it was delicious. Amanda went for the local great lakes Walleye and I chose a Black Sea Bass special, served with bacon and smoked gouda mac and cheese. Amanda couldn't resist the ginger creme brule for dessert.  With the fantastic meal in our bellies, we slept very well and it's a good thing, considering the long drive that would come the next day.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Road Trip: Niagara Falls, Ontario via Toronto

We left our friends, the delicious food, and night life of Montreal behind and set out for a long day on the road en route to Niagara Falls. We traveled through Quebec and into Ontario, hugging the shores of the Saint Lawrence and Lake Ontario for much of the drive. Our first stop was Kingston, an historic military town where the St. Lawrence flows into Lake Ontario. We gassed up and enjoyed a picnic lunch on the waterfront.

After a few more hours of driving, we took a slight detour from the highway and headed to The Beach district along Queen St. in Toronto. We were extremely fortunate that the beach we randomly pulled into--Silverbirch Park--was dog-friendly.  After more than six hours in the Vanagon, Parker was desperate for some exercise.  He quickly made friends and enjoyed a good swim in Lake Ontario. 

With our wet and tired dog, we finished off the drive in the gauntlet of strip malls and touristy sprawl of the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario.We stayed the night at the local KOA, taking full advantage of the camp's indoor heated pool (they also had two outdoor pools, a hot tub and sauna!). That's some serious camping.

The next morning we joined the international throng of onlookers on the Canadian side of falls. This was a first-time visit for both of us, and the falls were as impressive and powerful as we had imagined. Parker longed for another swim, but the water seemed a little rough, even for him.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Road Trip: Montreal

After four days of lakeside comfort in rural Newport, VT, we headed north to enjoy the city life of Montreal. Our friend Michelle continued on this leg of the trip with a great list of her favorite Montreal spots. Our friend Phil and his girlfriend joined us near the McGill campus, and we continued to Schwartz's, a Jewish deli famous for its Montreal smoked meat on rye.

Following that delicious lunch, we enjoyed the street art and murals around town and found some relief from the hot sun with afternoon gelato in a nearby park. We prepped the van for urban camping near Michelle's hostel, drawing the drapes and setting up the lower bed before enjoying a BYOB Vietnamese restaurant for dinner.

After walking Parker, we found ourselves sitting on the patio of Le Divan Orange, enjoying a pitcher of beer (well, everyone except me) and the cool night air. With punk rock blaring through the windows, it was a prime late night people-viewing experience.

The next morning we treated ourselves to hot-out-of-the-oven bagels from La Maison du Bagel on St. Viateur in the Mile End district before heading to the famous Jean-Talon Farmer's Market. If only we had time to stay another night, I would have bought more than just berries.
The apples, apricots, strawberries, fiddleheads, and countless other varieties of fruits and vegetables were presented beautifully at every farmer's stand. 

We said our goodbyes to Michelle and hit the road again, with a seven-hour drive to Niagara Falls, Ontario ahead.