photos and videos were taken by me, lisa hale. copyright is implied 2020.
For as many years as I can remember, I have always known I would drive across the United States in vacation mode. I've dreamed about it and even planned it a few times, but could never get it to fruition. Even this time, it took about two years of planning to make it happen. And then, even with all the planning, Coronavirus hit. This trip was cancelled so many times. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders, travel and quarantine restrictions, flights cancelled, rental car cancelled, National Parks closed, campgrounds closed, Corona exposures all around me - all working against making this trip happen. Even at two weeks prior to departure - should I go? All the what-ifs were consuming my energy. I saved all my vacation time for two weeks off together; I had money saved for the trip; I knew that I could safely 'social distance' myself since I had already been doing it for 5 months. So I put my bravest face and set out on my first cross-country trip. Solo, too. Just me, my rented SUV , camping gear, an atlas, and my camera.
Starting from Asheville, I drove to my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio to see family first. From there I headed West on I-80 and made a quick stop at Indiana Dunes National & State Parks before spending the night in LaSalle, Illinois. I continued on I-80 through Iowa, arriving in Nebraska. (Side note: around 2012, my mother gifted me a book from National Geographic called: "Drives of a Lifetime." It was suggested in this book to drive scenic Route 20 across Nebraska, so that's how I chose the route.) I traveled a scenic route on the northern section of this gorgeous state. I spent the night in Valentine, Nebraska. The next day I headed north into South Dakota to Wind Cave, Custer State Park, and then backtracked a bit to catch Badlands National Park. I spent the night in Sturgis, mainly so I could razz my brother that I made it to Sturgis before he did. (Side note: during the late night back and forth texts razzing my brother, my dad yelled at us to stop using the group chat in the middle of the night...lol. Talk about a flash back to childhood.) The next day was a long one due to another scenic route across Montana - it's a huge state - and I stopped over in Missoula. Then northward to the National Bison Range in Polson (and someday hope to get back to that big, beautiful lake!) then on to Glacier National Park for two nights. Then south to Yellowstone National Park for four nights, and Grand Tetons for one night. As some of you know, I encountered a blizzard in Yellowstone which re-routed me back home a day early, skipping Colorado all together. The wildfire smoke + snow made driving a bit difficult at times. On my homeward route, I drove I-80 across Nebraska with an overnight in North Platte, and then dropped into Kansas and Missouri. At St. Louis, I picked up I-65 to Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky. From there, I drove I-75 to Corbin, Kentucky then pick-up Rte. 25/70 through Cumberland Gap, Newport, and then back home.
We were able to keep my visit a secret and I surprised everyone at my great nephew/niece's birthday party. It was great seeing them as it had been over a year since I'd visited. Our time together was very short, but definitely worth the few (hundred) extra miles. I also spent a few minutes with my aunt, cousin and friend Ruthy. Not sure when I'll be back, but will allow more time to see the friends/family next time.
Indiana Dunes National Park (and State Park)
Originally planned to stay overnight here, but didn't have reservations. All campgrounds were full when I arrived. So, I dipped my feet into Lake Michigan and got back on the road.
Sights along the way...
Fort Niobrara national Wildlife Refuge - Nebraska
There were two wildlife refuges in the area of Valentine (Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara) and I made time to visit only one. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is over 19,000 acres along the Niobrara River and is a respite for 230 species of birds, 48 species of mammals, 24 reptile and amphibians, and many species of fish. It used to be a frontier military fort used mainly to keep the peace between settlers and the Sioux Indians and also provide fresh horses to the Calvary. President Roosevelt established the Preserve in 1912. In the photos are my first bison sighting, and also the first time I'd ever seen Prairie Dogs. The remaining pictures were mostly of the scenic grounds.
Wind cave national park and custer state park - south dakota
Wind Cave National Park is a lesser known National Park, but I found it appealing just because it was less crowded. Just about 10 feet into the park, a coyote ran across the road in front of me. Photography failure on my part due to not being "ready" for wildlife. Anyway, it was cool to see it whether or not I could document it. There is a real cave at Wind Cave (hence the name), however, it was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. As soon as the National Park ends, the State Park begins. Between the two, I saw multiple herds of bison and many prairie dog 'towns', and my very first Pronghorn. The roadway is very curvy, winding up through evergreen forests and down along rivers and streams. It's a very scenic drive that I highly recommend.
badlands national park - south dakota
Badlands National Park was quite impressive with its enormity of rock formations and also for varied wildlife sightings. I visited without really having any insight on what to expect. Honestly, I really just did a drive through due to keeping on schedule. It would be amazing to camp here and hike a bit to take in the park in greater detail. I did make time for some photography, naturally. Inside Badlands, I saw my first ever adult big horn sheep and also a herd of younger sheep. I guess that's the difference...age? Not all the sheep had fully curved horns, so I assume they were juvenile sheep. I also saw mule deer in the park.
National bison range - montanna
Holy Smokes - this place was amazing (!) - I think mainly due to the bison being in rut. They sure did put on a show. It was interesting to study them for a bit and it seemed like within the herd, once two males started their headbutting and shoving match, others tried to intervene. It looked like the smaller, younger bison were trying to get the two males to stop 'fighting'. It was awesome to capture the snarls and fur flying and I never saw blood (which was a fine with me.) Also photographed Pronghorn. I love their long eye lashes - makes them look animated. I don't have any knowledge on Pronghorn, so I'm sure of their temperament, but they reminded me of deer.
glacier national park - montana
Next up on the excursion is Glacier National Park in Montana. The park straddles the boarder into Canada; however, the boarder station was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Also closed due to Covid-19 was East Glacier. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation closed their boarder to visitors. That meant the only access to Glacier and the famous Going To The Sun Road was from the West Glacier side. I camped at West Glacier KOA which was about 3 miles from the Park entrance and very close to food, shopping, etc. No one could have prepared me for the 'in your face', 'humongous' jagged mountains and the single-lane-turned-into-two-lane Going to the Sun Road that featured switch-back after switch-back whilst climbing to 6,686 ft elevation at Logan Pass. The mountain tops were 10,000' - 12,000' elevation and mostly snow capped and/or glaciers (hence the name of the Park.) The road was open only to an area called Rising Sun due to the East side being closed. Before starting the ascent there is a gorgeous alpine lake called McDonald. My first day in the Park, Lake McDonald was rough and had whitecaps and waves rolling onto the pebble beaches. The second day was the opposite; and breathtaking! The glacier-fed lake was so pristine with clear water. The area of Lake McDonald proved to be popular with marriage proposals as well. At sunset, there were 2 proposals within a few minutes of each other. Such a romantic location. If you visit Glacier National Park, I recommend staying in the Apgar Villiage no matter the cost. It will be worth it!
Yellowstone national park - Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park - the easiest way to share my experience is to break up the photos into the three days of my visit. It was an 8-hour drive from West Glacier to West Yellowstone and the entire drive was 2-lane mountain roads. I stayed at West Yellowstone KOA for two nights, and it also happened to be Labor Day Weekend. The campground and Yellowstone were packed. Remaining vigilant in my social distancing, I will say that when I approached an attraction with a full parking lot, I skipped it. Most everyone had been wearing masks, but I didn't see the urgency to squeeze into an already packed area. With that, I did miss a few sights that would have been nice to see. But, the wildlife made up for any slight disappointment I may have had.
Yellowstone - Day 1
The layout of Yellowstone is basically a figure eight with an upper loop and a lower loop. There are 5 entrances total with two of those on the upper loop (North and North East Entrances.) Also important to note is the Park had the road closed on the center road that connects the upper loop to the lower loop. So to see anything on the other side of the Park, one would have to drive all the way around the loop and then double back. Which is what I did on Day 1. The North Entrance (at Mammoth Hot Springs) was the original entrance way back in the day and still has the original rock arch. I drove on to the North East Entrance which hosts the famed Lamar Valley. Supposedly, the Serengeti of the West due to wildlife activity. Sadly, I didn't see a whole lot of wildlife action in this area. Mainly, I was there in the afternoon which is not prime for wildlife viewing. Also, I knew I had to drive all the way back around (approximately 4 hours with traffic.) I did get to see some interesting places like thermal pools that are randomly located, beautiful lakes, and gorgeous scenery. There was a forest fire burning inside Yellowstone, but the photo of smoke was on my route before I arrived in Yellowstone. Below are photos from Day 1.
Yellowstone - Day Two
On Day Two, I traveled into the Park and took the lower loop. I planned to stay inside the Park at a Frontier Cabin overlooking Yellowstone Lake. As Fate would have it, my planning to stay at a cabin would be a God-send. Why? Because on Day Two, Mother Nature accentuated my trip with an epic, freak, winter blizzard. Yes, a blizzard! The temperature dropped over 70 degrees, and by 5:00 pm, there were snow flurries beginning. By 7:00 pm, winds were gusting at 60mph and it was a white-out. I stayed out sight-seeing as long as I could, but admit I didn't have ample clothing to withstand the low temps. This night the temperature dropped to 14 degrees.
There were several bison out (enjoying the cooler temps I presume) and the waterfall is Fire Hole Falls, a beautiful area just off the beaten path. I also stopped at several thermal areas, called "paint pots" for their rich colors made possible by various minerals in the ground. This is the day I saw a 12-point bull elk. Initially, he was napping just along the edge of the forest. Once a few onlookers stopped, he had enough. He looked around a few times, he arched his head back and used his rack to scratch his back. He came up on his front legs and stretched. Then came up on all four legs and stretched again. He stretched his neck up towards the sky and stretched some more. It reminded me of an old man getting up after a snooze. He stood and looked at us for a bit, then we heard a female elk whinny. That's when he slowly walked towards the woods. He was a beauty!
Yellowstone - Day Three
Woke up on Day Three to find about 5-6 inches of snow - incredible! I had breakfast and just kind of hung around the cabin until the sun had time enough to shine for a while. I had intended to visit the East Entrance and have lunch in Cody, Wyoming. I wasn't sure how far I could get and what the road conditions were, so it ended up being a wing-it kind of day. The cabin was about 7,500 ft elevation, and I had to drive to about 8,600 ft elevation to make it over to the East Entrance. It was slushy in a few places, but crews had plowed the roads so it wasn't bad at all. At one point, I waited in a line of cars as we had front row seats watching several wreckers attempt to pull a minivan up an embankment. I bet that must have been scary for those folks the night before. Eventually, we were waved through and I reached the East Entrance. I decided to try to go on to Cody, but the roads outside of the park had not been plowed. That was an easy decision to turn around. And I'm glad I did. As I headed back towards Yellowstone Lake, I saw several cars stopped including a Park Ranger. I learned that those are tell-tale signs that some kind of wildlife is present. I started getting exciting telling myself "it must be a bear!" And, YES, it was a bear. A Grizzly momma bear and her cub. I could not have been more excited. It was cold, but just kept taking pictures. The momma and cub were tucked in between two downed tree trunks and difficult to see. A photographer with a super, extra, amazingly-long, much bigger than my lens said the cub was nursing. We all just believed her because we couldn't see. At last, the Grizzly got up and started pulling roots and having a snack. Every once in a while she would check out the crowd, but the Ranger said she lives in that area and is used to people watching her. He encouraged us to hang out and not make real sudden moves and we 'should be fine.' LOL Then he left for another call. The Grizzly would eat, then climb over another tree trunk (closer to the crowd.) After about the fourth tree trunk, the group kind of made a verbal agreement that if she crossed that last log, we would scatter to a safer location. But did we? No! The Grizzly showed no signs of caring we were there. She never changed behavior and the cub stayed very close to her. All in all, it was the most beautiful wildlife sighting I had. Photos below!
Yellowstone - Day 4
Day 4 was my last day in Yellowstone. The Park surprised me overall. Safe to say, the cooler weather sure brought out the wildlife! I'm happy to have experienced some winter aspects that were 'short' lived, and the drive out wasn't any less spectacular. Right on the edge of the road was a 10-point bull elk. Then saw another elk on Yellowstone Lake with the snowy mountains in the background. Both amazing to photograph! Exiting Yellowstone at the South Entrance takes you right into the Grand Teton National Park with no additional fees required.
Grand Teton national park - wyoming
The Grand Teton National Park makes it hard to take a bad photo. The mountains here were covered in snow as well. I only had one day to roam about, so I'm certain I missed some recommended stops and sights. It turned out to be a beautiful day and the Park was crowded. Jenny Lake - oh.my.gosh. So beautiful. I would like to stay at the Lodge at Jenny Lake if I get to visit again. The Lodge was closed due to Covid-19 as well as most of the park buildings. I had my intentions set on seeing a moose, and I left a bit disappointed. I've seen a Moose before in the Rocky Mountains, so I'll just have to relish those memories until next time.
Lodging was at the Snake River KOA just south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My original spot 'on the river' was IN the river on the rocks of the dry part of the river. My rented Infinity was freaking out driving on the rocks. My Dad was worried about me sleeping in my car in the cold, and since the river bed wasn't acceptable for me, I headed back to the office to see about an upgrade to a kamper kabin (as they call it.) They had someone check out early (which should have been a red flag), so I was in luck! I inquired about heat, and they said all I had to do was turn it on. Awesome! Having that figured out, I texted my Dad to let him know I had an upgrade and then headed into Jackson Hole for some supper and a stroll about the town square. Gorgeous little town, several masked people milling about. It was great. I shopped a bit and found some take out food and headed back to my kabin.
Back at the KOA, I parked and carried my little bag of food around to the entrance. I was surprised to find just a micro-fridge (smaller than mini) hooked to an extension cord, a twin-size plastic cushion on a wooden platform, and a space heater. That was it. No sheets, no comforter, no bathroom, no running water, nothing. I could see light coming through the walls. All this for $120. So I went back out and pulled out my bedding from the car, put on two layers of clothes, my toboggan, and my new Yellowstone sweatshirt and called it a day. The space heater ran all night, and I could still see my breath every time I opened my eyes. Ha! So much for an 'upgrade' and I'm sure I would have been warmer in my car in 26 degrees, but...live and learn I suppose. I will ask more relevant questions next time. Needless to say, I was up bright and early and out of there by daylight. Definitely no recomendation from me on that particular KOA.
Headed Home to North Carolina
My Itinerary originally included Utah and Steamboat Springs, Colorado; however, given the amount of snow that fell it was best to stay out of that mess. I took the most direct route to the closest major Interstate (I-70) and headed East. I didn't stop too much for photos, and some of these are from the driver's seat.
Funny Photos - and Outtakes
Funniest Road Sign
Nebraska for the win!
Most Creative Photograph
Sometimes I crack myself up. I didn't do this intentionally, but saw it when I got home. The sign, the horseback rider - how perfect! LOL
"Here's Your Sign!"
Most Entertaining Campers
The KOA at West Yellowstone was packed and the sites are right next to each other. There was a large group of lovely people who brought a Karaoke Machine and disco ball - and apparently, lots of alcohol. They shut it down at Quiet Time, so very respectful group. :)
Most Historical Site
I stopped overnight in North Platte, Nebraska on the way home and just a few miles down the road in Gothenburg was the original Pony Express Station. I had to see it!
The station is still an official postal station, so I mailed out some postcards out to my most adoring fans (think parental units...haha.) Their "mailbox" was an old leather satchel that was used back in the day when mail was delivered on horseback.
Most Awkward Moment
The bison are everywhere and don't care a bit to get in your space. When this bison decided to let loose, I couldn't help be take a photo. The photo is also a great indicator of the size of these wild animals. The other car was about 20 yards from my car (yes, I was in my car during these photos.)
Oddest thing I saw out in the middle of nowhere.
I saw this well before I got to it. It ended up being in front of a fossil museum, which makes sense. But until I knew that, I was like.....what.is.that?
I only trespassed once - and it was an accident. In Nebraska I was passing all these fields of sunflowers. Acres and acres, mile after mile. So beautiful. I found a field that was accessible (meaning it had a dirt road that turned off the main road), so I turned in about 20 yards or so and got out to take photos. My phone rang while I was there, so I stood outside to talk for a few minutes. Then I realized a group of 'farmers' were all watching me, and it dawned on me that this was THEIR CROP, and not just flowers planted for my photographic excitement. I made a fast exit before getting in trouble or hearing gunfire. Oopsie!
During the blizzard, a young family came into the Frontier Cabin next to me. It was midnight or so and I wasn't sleeping much due to the wind blowing. The next morning I saw the man outside re-arranging gear in the back of his truck. He said he, his wife, a 3yo and a 1yo had been in a tent down in a campground during the storm. (I get it, we were all caught off guard.) He told me the story of a tree (think tall, long-leaf pine tree) that FELL on their TENT, right next to his wife while they were sleeping. She had some scratches, but otherwise unhurt. Holy moly - the protection that was with them is incredible, and I get chills every time think of about it. They lost all their camping equipment and the Park Service put them in a cabin for 2 nights. They were going to stay another night and then head back home to Minnesota. They were pretty shaken up. The storm was crazy scary, especially for that little family.