Category Archives: travel

Where We Begin Our Summer Adventures

Summer! It’s so hard to believe that summer is almost over and the school year will begin soon. We have been traveling all over the country in our minivan, with lots of road trips adding miles to the odometer. Our first trip was out west, to visit my family in Des Moines, Iowa during Memorial Day weekend.

We have visited my family so often in Iowa that I thought we had done nearly everything near the Des Moines area. We’ve looked for bison at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Preserve, biked the High Trestle Trail, and walked along the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines. Lily has fed the giraffes at Blank Park Zoo and we even took a paddle boat onto Gray’s Lake. And yet, when my dad mentioned visiting Ledges State Park, this was the first time I had even heard about it!

Our plan had been to go on Saturday, but unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with our plans and it rained almost all day. Sunday was a beautiful day and perfect hiking weather; unfortunately my dad had to preach that Sunday and my stepmom had to play the organ at church. (Let’s just say I’m looking forward to my 75 year old dad retiring soon!)  Since Ed, the girls and I had attended church Saturday evening, we headed up to Ledges on Sunday morning.

Part of the road leading to the park had been washed away by a storm, so along with other visitors to the park, we needed to park in the parking lot at the entrance and then hike down the road into the canyon. There is also a parking lot on the other side of the park for visitors who would rather not hike down into the canyon. The road down, however, was a short and easy hike, and while the road wasn’t safe for cars, it was very safe for walkers. When we reached the bottom of the canyon and saw the water from Pea’s Creek flowing intentionally over the path, the girls were ecstatic! They love wading in the water!

The creek curved around throughout the park, crossing the path several times. There were also a couple of nice bridges going over the creek and steps going up to trails on the top of the bluffs. With only 4 miles of hiking trails, the park is relatively small and easy to explore, especially with kids. I’ve been looking at the trail map while writing this post, however, and I see we missed a trail down to the Lost Lake. The trail head is is a different spot from the main trails, so perhaps that’s why it’s called “Lost Lake.” We certainly didn’t find it!

This arched stone bridge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.

After we hiked up and down the bluffs, we saw people wading up the creek and decided to do the same! We weren’t prepared for this part, however, and took off our shoes and socks. The creek had some sandy spots but was also rocky, so next time we’ll bring our water sandals! Hiking in the creek was really fun and showed us more of the bluffs from down below. Since this park is often flooded by the Des Moines River, however, it may not always be possible. The water was only up to our ankles when we were there in May.

Hiking up and down the bluffs was great practice for our next road trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. And it also made us hungry! We knew of a barbecue place in Ames that my stepmom had taken us to, but here was the challenge. We didn’t remember the name of the restaurant, and we didn’t know what street it was on. (And we don’t use our smart phones when we’re roaming!) But we figured, what’s the worst that could happen? So we drove to Ames and wandered around for a little while…and just as we were heading back to the highway, we found it! Hickory Park has great barbecue, and even more exciting to the girl, a candy counter! The candy ranges in price from a nickel to a quarter, so the girls had fun picking and choosing some candy for the road trip home.

Just a few weeks later, we got in our minivan again and headed East…to Maine!

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The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The first time I saw the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was the summer before Ed and I got married. I had never seen the Grand Canyon in Arizona before, and while the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was smaller than the Grand Canyon everyone knows about, it was still very impressive. Now that I have seen the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which is so massive and amazing that it defies description, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is still so impressive and so amazing that it, too, defies description! But I will try to describe it for you the best that I can.

sign-grand-canyon-yellowstone

The Yellowstone River flows through the canyon. The canyon has two waterfalls; the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls.

Upper Falls
Upper Falls

The Lower Falls, the highest in the park, gets a lot of attention and is photographed often. There are a lot of trails to view both of the falls. One of the most strenuous trail and yet rewarding is Uncle Tom’s Trail. It’s actually a long staircase that goes down the side of a cliff to view the falls. Just like all of Yellowstone’s trails, going down is easy; climbing back up is hard!

lower-falls-rainbow
Lower Falls

To access Uncle Tom’s Trail, we were walking on the South Rim of the canyon. The next day, we hiked along the North Rim, and we could see Uncle Tom’s Trail on the side of the cliff.

Uncle Tom's Trail; look carefully, and you'll see steps going down the cliff with a platform at the bottom left.
Uncle Tom’s Trail; look carefully, and you’ll see steps going down the cliff with a platform at the bottom left.

When looking at the canyon from the North Rim at Grand View, the cliffs are so yellow, you are positive that is how Yellowstone National Park got its name. But you would be wrong! A ranger told us that Yellowstone is named after the Yellowstone River, which is named after yellow cliffs in Billings, Montana, a couple hundred miles away. Hmm.

grand-canyon-yellowstone

While on the North Rim, we also spotted an osprey’s nest, perched on top of a rock pinnacle. We watched the osprey for a long time through our binoculars. We don’t own a camera with a good enough lens to capture the osprey, so I’ll show you this picture instead:

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We stayed in a cabin in Canyon Lodge for two nights, and each night we were so happy to get to our cabin so we could fall into bed! The cabins are very basic; no TV, no phone, and no wifi. But they are very clean and very comfortable, so staying in the park suits us just fine!

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Keep up with our road trip:

The Great American Road Trip: Badlands National Park
Leaving the Badlands and Entering Wind Cave National Park
Not National Parks: Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower
Driving Through Wyoming
Struggling Upward: Climbing Mount Washburn
Downs and Ups: Tower Fall

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Downs and Ups

We had finished our hike up Mount Washburn and back, ate our picnic lunch, and it was time to explore more of Yellowstone National Park.

There is one thing that all the amazing photos of national parks don’t show you; they are very, very crowded, especially during the summer months! We stopped at Tower Fall, and due to the amount of people there, I couldn’t get a good view or a picture of the falls. I saw some steps going down, and I thought they would lead to the bottom of the falls. So I started walking down. Ed and the girls are always up for exploring, so they followed me down. We kept going down and there were a lot of switchbacks going back and forth and back and forth. You know what that means, right? When you go down, you must come back up. Eventually.

At the bottom of the trail was the Yellowstone River. A big, beautiful river. But no waterfall to be seen. The river curved in such a way that the steep bluffs hid the water falls from us.

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After looking at the river, it was time to go back up the trail. Ed and the girls bounded ahead of me. I always keep in mind that Aesop’s tale about the tortoise and the hare; slow and steady wins the race. Well, I never win any races, but slow and steady will get me to the top of a mountain, or a bluff, or whatever I’m climbing. The day had gotten quite warm, and remember, we had already walked 3 miles up to the top of Mount Washburn and back down again that morning. By the time I reached the top of this trail, I was hot, tired, red-faced (literally) and a little cranky. I had to go search for my family in the gift shop, and I was not happy about going into a crowded and hot gift shop feeling the way I felt!

All I can say is thank goodness for my mini-van with air-conditioning! I was soon back to my pleasant self after cooling off.

But the day was not over yet! Why yes, that seems like enough exploring for just one day, doesn’t it?

On our way back to our cabin, we spotted our first bison in Yellowstone! We had been wondering where the bison were hiding, since it’s not easy for them to hide.

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For this section of our trip, we stayed in Canyon Village and we explored the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which I will share more about tomorrow. Yes, more hiking was involved! I was a very tired mother….

Keep up with our road trip:

The Great American Road Trip: Badlands National Park
Leaving the Badlands and Entering Wind Cave National Park
Not National Parks: Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower
Driving Through Wyoming
Struggling Upward: Climbing Mount Washburn

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Struggling Upwards

After seeing bear scat on the trail to the natural bridge in Yellowstone, we decided to rent some bear spray for our morning hike up Mount Washburn. Bears scare me, and for good reason. We looked into buying bear spray at the park, but it was $50, and renting it was much more reasonable. All four of us watched a video about how to use bear spray, and Ed and I practiced pulling the trigger with an empty can of bear spray.

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Not a bear, but a chipmunk

And we were off to climb Mount Washburn! It is one of the more popular trails in Yellowstone, but since we got an early start, there weren’t that many people on the trail yet. We were basically going to climb three miles up at about a 10 percent incline, and then come back down. Ed and the girls, of course, were faster than I was. Even with all my training for the 2 day breast cancer walk, and working out at the gym, I still felt woefully out of shape. However, I think because I had been exercising, when we rested after a steep climb I recovered faster, and walking on the treadmill at an incline strengthened my ankles, so I felt strong as I was climbing.

halfway-up

We ran into another group stopped at a logical resting place, and started chatting with them. One of the fun things about being a tourist is meeting new people from different places, although if I remember correctly, they were also from Illinois! The daughter was working at Yellowstone for the summer, so her family came to visit her and she was showing them around. She took the picture up above.

At the top of Mount Washburn is a fire lookout tower. We got warm while we were climbing, but then at the top the wind was blowing and it was really cold!

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Before we headed back down the mountain we warmed up inside the lookout tower and used the bathroom. (I was so happy there was one up there!) We saw some bighorn sheep in the distance, and also a little yellow-bellied marmot. We spent some time looking at them through our binoculars.

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I love how you can see part of the trail in this picture!

On the way down the mountain, we ran into a number of people walking up the mountain. The day was getting warmer, the path was getting busier, and I was glad that we had started so early that morning! Unfortunately for me, however, we still had a lot of time to explore Yellowstone. I’ll tell you what we did next tomorrow.

Keep up with our road trip:

The Great American Road Trip: Badlands National Park
Leaving the Badlands and Entering Wind Cave National Park
Not National Parks: Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower
Driving Through Wyoming

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Driving Through Wyoming

Ed and I made a conscious decision not to bring our laptop on our road trip. It wasn’t that we were intending to go “off the grid.” Instead, we knew wifi access would be limited. We both had our phones, after all.  And since we were moving from hotel to hotel, we wanted to travel as light as we could. Our goal was to move from car to hotel room with only one trip, and most of the time, with the girls carrying their own backpacks and rolling their suitcases, we were able to do just that.

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Emmy and Lily standing on the border of South Dakota and Wyoming

I checked my email a couple of times, but when I really wanted to send someone a reply about some volunteer work I’m doing at my church, I was in the middle of Wyoming, I didn’t have cell or data service, and couldn’t get a signal for a long time. I was so frustrated, and I decided that yes, I was going to go off the grid. When I finally did get a signal, I replied that I was on vacation. And then I really did disconnect. And you know what? I didn’t miss the internet at all! (I was surprised!)

I even decided to write a journal the old fashioned way. I brought one of my favorite notebooks, and started writing in it the first night. My journal writing skills were a little rusty. Typing blog posts is so much easier and faster for me. My first entry was just bullet points of what we did that first day, which was mostly driving. My journal entries became longer as the days went by, however, and, as cheesy as it sounds, I remembered the joy of putting pen to paper.

Cody Cowboy Village in Cody, Wyoming
Cody Cowboy Village in Cody, Wyoming

Even though I get car sick easily, I have also become pretty good at looking at maps and navigating. I helped navigate us through Death Valley a couple of years ago and on this trip I navigated us through the Badlands. Now we were going through Wyoming to Yellowstone, with a pit stop in Cody. Even though a major highway doesn’t go to Cody, it was still easier than driving my girls by myself through rural Michigan in the middle of the night!

Just outside of Cody is the Buffalo Bill dam. We stopped to take a look and visit the Visitor’s Center. It is a little bit of a walk from the Visitor’s Center to the parking lot, but there were a couple of guys taking tourists back and forth in golf carts. We didn’t really need a ride, but we took one just for fun!

Ed at dam

reservoir

In about an hour, driving through gorgeous scenery, we finally made it to the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park!

Yellowstone sign

There’s just something special about entering those gates to a national park. We couldn’t wait to see everything, so we stopped at every view point. Time seems to slow down, and driving to your destination doesn’t seem as important as just looking at what’s around you. And you don’t even want to go inside for a second! We ate our first picnic in Yellowstone at Gull Point, overlooking Yellowstone Lake.

Lake Butte overlook
Lake Butte overlook

We walked our first trail, the Natural Bridge Trail, and saw bear scat on our way. Grizzlies freak me out, so Ed and I were keeping a watchful eye the entire time, and making lots of noise! I had made the girls bear bells when we went to Alaska, and Emmy was especially faithful about wearing hers during our hikes. Those bears (and other hikers!) knew we were coming!

Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge

We also stopped at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, and the girls soon had their first taste of what soon became their favorite part of Yellowstone; thermal features! Steamy, smelly, and a little scary, (Just this spring, a tourist walked off the boardwalk, fell into a hot spring, and died a horrible death–I don’t even want to think about it!) thermal features are scattered all over Yellowstone. They are easy to spot since the heat kills the trees and plants, but the thermal features and hot springs are also always changing places and moving around. Yellowstone has hundreds of small earthquakes happening every month. We saw spots in parking lots that were blocked off because a hole had collapsed and now steam was coming out of the ground. Geysers that were once active will lay dormant, while a hot spring will suddenly become a geyser. All sorts of interesting things happen in Yellowstone! We were never tempted to step off those boardwalks.

Lakeshore Geyser

West Thumb Geyser Basin

That night, we slept in a little yellow cabin by the historic Lake Hotel. We had a whole week to explore!

Lake Hotel cabin

Keep up with our road trip:

The Great American Road Trip: Badlands National Park
Leaving the Badlands and Entering Wind Cave National Park
Not National Parks: Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower

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