Thirty years old, single and two weeks before the school year begins. With a rented car and road atlas, I packed a tent, some clothes, a couple cameras and as many cassette tapes as I could find and departed from Chicago for a trip out west to visit a geographical region of America that I had only seen in pictures.
Badlands National Park
After spending the night in Minnesota, I entered the High Pains and eventually arrived at my first primary destination, the Badlands. When the Lakota first encountered the striking, moon-like landscape, they aptly called the area “Mako Sica” or “bad land.” Early French trappers also described the area as “bad land” after difficult travels over the rugged terrain. If you were a traveler heading west back then, not only was this a difficult place to pass through (some called it “The Wall”), but it was also a difficult place to survive if you needed to stay. The dry dirt is as hard as concrete and deep ravines penetrate the landscape. Yet for the vacationer, the beauty of the colored layers and and the shapes of the sculptured formations are a sight to behold.
I had a fantastic time at the Badlands. I was able to visit the remote “Stronghold Unit” to the south – an area only accessible via off-road driving, witness a gorgeous sunset, enjoy some short hikes, view a lot of wildlife (especially buffalo and prairie dogs) and take in an entertaining evening ranger program (when they spoke about the old arsenal range nearby). The picture above shows the park campground with my tent in the forefront of the photograph.
Crazy Horse Monument
After a stop a Wind Cave National Park, I paid a visit to one of the newer monuments still under construction in the Black Hills. Crazy Horse Memorial is still a work in progress. It was sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief, Henry Standing Bear that officially started the Crazy Horse Memorial on June 3, 1948 in an effort to honor the Native American Indians. When completed, it will be the world’s largest mountain sculpture.
The picture on the left represents the intended and final product. The picture on the right shows the progress as of my trip in the summer of 1995. The price of admission no doubts helps to complete this project, but there was not a whole lot to see and do at this monument. The view from just outside the ticket booth will suffice if I ever choose to make a return visit.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Story has it that local historian, Doane Robinson, conceived this idea to promote tourism in the area. His original plan was to carve into the mountain western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. Yet the opinion of sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, prevailed. Four of our nation’s greatest presidents would be sculpted into the hard granite stone (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln). When Gutzon Borglum died, the monument was still incomplete. His son, Lincoln, assumed construction to finish the massive endeavor. The work was deemed finished in October 1941, although it fell short from the ultimate mission to carve the presidents from head to waist. The entire memorial covers over 1,278 acres and is visited by over 2 million people each year.
I happened to be in the Black Hills the same week as the “Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.” Talk about a lot of loud Harley’s and leather vests! When I was at Mount Rushmore I witnessed a wedding between a couple bikers. There was no fanfare – just a few spectators and a “point and shoot” camera to capture the moment. After the ceremony concluded, I enjoyed a nice conversation with the minister. In the video below, the man explains his life and divine calling. This was really cool!
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is one of a kind; probably the reason it was declared our country’s first national park in 1872. The preserve is immense, but diversity is the key…and there really is a lot of it to see! While most famous for the geysers (the world’s greatest are preserved here), the park also hosts geothermic hot springs, beautiful rivers and waterfalls, stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and a variety of wildlife that can be seen by even the most casual observer.
The three minute video below captures some of my key stops while at Yellowstone.
I had two days to spend in Yellowstone. I was able to visit most of the popular sites in that time, but I was really flying. Yes, at some points I was running in the high elevation from one site to another. It would have been nice to be less rushed and see more of the park. I’d recommend at least 5 days if you wish to “take in” most of what Yellowstone has to offer.
One memorable experience at Yellowstone was the evening I needed to sleep there. Well, actually I didn’t sleep “in” Yellowstone because I didn’t have reservations and the campsites fill up months in advance. Not knowing what to do, I drove out of the northern exit and entered southern Montana on a road fondly known as the “Bear Tooth Highway.” The highway was once described by the late CBS corespondent, Charles Kuralt, as “the most beautiful drive in America.” It takes roughly 2 hours to travel the 69 miles to get to Red Lodge, Montana. When I arrived in Red Lodge I stopped off at a restaurant built in an old boxcar. The girls working there kindly recharged by video camera battery. I spoke with them for a while, ate dinner and then departed in search of a campground. Just as the sun was setting I found a campground, but after taking a drive through the loop all the sites were already occupied. My only hope was the site that had a cardboard sign out front advertising a church service in the morning. These 4 Christian Montana men were all from the same church and were enjoying a “men’s night out.” When I told them I was a believer in need of a place to pitch my tent, they gladly permitted me to do so behind their camper. We had a great conversation around the campfire into the wee hours of the night and I had a great spot for my tent on the banks of a gorgeous creek.
The short video below shows me sliding down a patch of snow just off the Bear Tooth Highway, the boxcar restaurant, and my tent site the following morning.
Grand Teton National Park
The Grand Teton is picturesque mountains in a national park just south of Yellowstone. In a sense I was just passing through on my way into Utah. I stopped off, took a quick look around and then kept going. I hope to return in the future as I hear the reviews from those who really know this place (a place often overshadowed because of its proximity to Yellowstone) are incredible.
The greatest highlight while at Grand Teton was captured in this video below.
The Great Salt Lake
I have always had a deep desire to witness this portion of the country. So when it came time to to draw up some rough plans to head out west, I made sure my route went through Salt Lake City. There were three things that I especially wanted to experience. First is the Great Salt Lake. Second, the salt flats of Utah and third, the Bonneville Speedway. Let’s take them one at a time.
The Great Salt Lake is so salty because there is no outlet for all the tributary steams that feed into it. The water evaporates and thus the salt is left behind. The salt content has ranged from 5 percent (which is just above sea water) to nearly 28 percent (beyond which water cannot hold more salt). It is estimated that the the amount of salt dissolved in the lake is 4.5 to 4.9 billion tons. Because of its high salinity, fish cannot live in this environment. Yet when I was there the lake was teaming with brine shrimp.
I drove my car right up on on the sand and as far to the water’s edge as I could reach without getting stuck. The video below shows some shots of the lake and then my own plunge to witness this salty swimming experience. Notice the buoyancy! Also notice that (beyond a couple tourists) not too many people found entering this water very desirable.
After I left the lake, I drove directly west through the salt plains. It was a neat sight, a white desert of salt creating a flat hardened surface for as far as the eye could see. This is also where the Bonneville Speedway is located. Just on the border of Utah and Nevada, this race track has been used throughout the ages for a variety of purposes. Most notably, the Bonneville Speedway is where the land speed records are set due to the vast plains in every direction and a prepared track that exceeds 10 miles. Currently, the fastest time recorded is 622.4 mph by Gary Gabelich in 1970 in his rocket car called the “Blue Flame” (pictured below).
By the time I left the Speedway the sun had completely set. I drove across the border to Nevada (so I could say I visited the state!) and bought a pack of Twizzlers at a gas station. I turned around and retuned east heading toward Salt Lake City looking for a place to spend the night. I was exhausted on this drive and ended up sleeping in the car. The video below shows my day’s summary speech with Salt Lake City in the background and my morning greeting from the improvised bed in my car.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is located just outside of Moab, Utah. That vast and rugged national park is wide open, filled with many rocks to climb and trails to explore. I did some hiking, but it was very limited due to the heat. I spent the night there at the park campground.
I met a man about my age from Buffalo New York on a trip just like me. We talked for a while and then decided to rent an inflatable kayak and take it down the Colorado River ourselves. The man was an Olympic athlete, only it was the Paralympics because he was partially paralyzed from the hip on down. I would have needed to rescue both of us in the event we capsized. Thankfully we had a safe and enjoyable journey. The video below shows me goofing around with the boat at the conclusion of the trip.
Arches National Park
Very close to Canyonlands is Arches National Park. The park service claims to have identified over 2,000 arches on the 76,518 acre site. My time was limited so I mainly just drove around to some of the primary tourist stops. I did walk over to the “Windows” (pictured above) and then went for a hike to “Landscape Arch.” By the time I returned to the car it was completely dark. I left the park and found a free campsite on the Colorado River just a few miles down the road (pictured below).
The video below (filmed at this campsite) captures my typical breakfast routine.
The final leg of the trip called for a brief stop in Vail where I rode a chairlift to the top of the mountain. From there I drove though Denver and pulled over at Mile High Stadium, the home of the Denver Broncos. The video below shows my personal self-guided tour through the facility.
From Denver I drove directly north to Fort Collins and spent the final couple days with good friends, the Harcus family. Tom was a pastor at my church before he was called to his present location to plant a new church in Colorado. Providentially, Tom and several men from his church had planned an overnight camping trip up in the mountains. We had a wonderful time catching up and fly fishing all day. Below you can see a nice rainbow trout that Tom pulled in.
From Colorado it was a straight shot back to Chicago, but not after a very long (and somewhat boring) drive through the states of Nebraska and Iowa in their entirety. The video below records the final minutes of the trip as I pulled into the driveway to wrap things up.
Miles – 4,822
States – 11 ( Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Nebraska)
National Parks – 6 (Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Canyonlands, Arches)
The brief video below is a compilation revealing some highlights of this epic adventure!
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed this post!