Monday, June 2, 2008

back from Yellowstone and the Upper Midwest

"Oh my god, that oil refinery is on fire!" -- Mom

Summer has been great so far as my family went to Yellowstone National Park and the Upper Midwest right after the semester ended. We left on the 24th and just got back at midnight. It was an epic adventure!

The trip was really exciting as I had looked forward to it for a long time. Though I was sick the first few days, the rest of the vacation was wonderful. I hope you enjoy reading my trip report as much as I did writing it.

Day 1

The first leg of the trip was a short flight to Sacramento. The early departure meant we had to get up no later than 4 a.m. The plane was so small that it felt like a private jet. Other than that, the connecting flight to Denver and the final one to Rapid City were mostly uneventful.

It was only 4 p.m. when we arrived at Rapid City Regional Airport, even after losing an hour due to the time change. A nice thing about starting out early is that it allows us to do more. However, the rest of the day sucked as my cold got worse again. The coughing actually got so bad that I couldn't sleep until my parents went out in the middle of the night to buy some medicine. Being sick while traveling is no fun. :-(

Day 2

I felt much better after a good night's rest. All right!

Dad wanted to see what Nebraska was like and took us to Chadron. The town had few attractions and didn't impress us too much. On the other hand, the quesadillas at Taco John's were delicious.

Back in South Dakota, the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs awaited us next. The tour was a little expensive but very informative. Speaking of which, the guide had a green laser pointer like my 5 mW one. Green lasers seem to be becoming increasingly popular these days.

The nearby Wind Cave National Park also sounded cool. Just then, our GPS gave us wrong directions and took us almost 30 miles out of the way before we realized what was going on. How convenient. We decided to skip Wind Cave as turning back at this point would have been too much trouble. If I were Chuck Norris, the GPS would get a swift roundhouse kick to the face.

In the meantime, my mother suggested going to the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City instead. The museum was inexplicably closed despite what the sign and our brochure said. This was certainly one of those WTF moments. Mom thinks the staff are slacking off due to the lack of visitors. I wouldn't be surprised.

Dad also wanted to check out North Dakota after a short rest. We arrived in Bowman three hours later and had dinner there. It was still almost 11 p.m. when we got back to the hotel.

Day 3

One place I had looked forward to visiting was Mt. Rushmore. The faces were smaller than I imagined but still photogenic. The fog made the view even better. Of note is that everything here was extremely expensive; Dad ended up paying $16 for a poster that he liked. Yikes!

About 16 miles to the west was Crazy Horse Memorial. The monument is still under construction but will be about 10 times larger than Mt. Rushmore when it's complete. The prices here were much more reasonable. For example, the same box of popcorn sold for $6 at Mt. Rushmore was only $3.50 at Crazy Horse. I couldn't resist the temptation and bought some snacks before leaving.

Jewel Cave National Monument was another attraction that caught our interest. However, the two-hour wait for the next tour changed our minds. Mom then suggested heading back to Wind Cave. The GPS actually took us to the right place this time!

Seeing that the wait at Wind Cave was much shorter, my parents bought tickets for the Natural Entrance tour. The 75-minute tour was one of the best parts of the trip. The tickets were $9 per person but worth every cent.

Our hotel for the night was in Belle Fourche. The city is said to be the geographical center of the nation, but there wasn't anything special about the place. I'm guessing it's a marketing gimmick to attract tourists.

Day 4

The highlight of the morning was Devils Tower National Monument. The cool weather made for a perfect hike on the Tower Trail that goes around the formation. The fresh alpine air made the walk especially enjoyable. The rock wasn't that large but was nonetheless a memorable sight.

The rest of the day was spent on the road. The 300-mile drive to Cody was fairly uneventful - except when we ran over a jackrabbit. Poor thing. There wasn't much we could do as the animal suddenly darted in front of our car. I hope it didn't suffer too much. :-(

Other than that, the scenery in Wyoming was peaceful. That alone made the drive worthwhile.

Day 5

We headed to Yellowstone National Park after a brief stop at Buffalo Bill Dam for pictures. Our first trip to Yellowstone was so much fun that I had always wanted to go there again. This part of the trip was something I had looked forward to for years.

I was eager to test our new digital camcorder after checking into Grant Village. The nearby West Thumb Geyser Basin was the perfect place to do so. But it soon began to rain; not wanting to get the camcorder wet, my parents and I decided to come back later. It seems sudden showers aren't uncommon here, especially considering that we were soaked in an unexpected rain at Mammoth Hot Springs 10 years ago!

The rain went away later in the afternoon, during which we went to visit more thermal areas. The timing couldn't have been better; my family arrived at the Upper Geyser Basin just in time to catch an eruption of Old Faithful. The Midway and Lower Geyser Basins also had countless thermal features.

We had some rest before having dinner at the Grant Village Dining Room. The food was rather expensive - the total cost of the meal was around $70 - but everything was delicious. That said, eating a bison meatloaf in Yellowstone did feel a little odd...

Dad suggested returning to the West Thumb Geyser Basin for an evening walk after dinner. This was quite relaxing, although it was hard to see anything in the dark besides the steam from hot springs. I'm not going to lie - the pools of boiling water made the place a little scary at night.

A downside of staying inside the park is that Internet access isn't readily available. The only way to get a connection was through dial-up - which nobody uses anymore. However, that wasn't a problem as Super Metroid and Super Demo World: The Legend Continues kept me occupied. I also saw an episode of MythBusters before going to bed. :-)

Our original itinerary included Grand Teton National Park as well, but we decided not to go there as the overhead was too high. On the other hand, that left plenty of time to explore Yellowstone.

Day 6

The three of us went to more thermal areas before heading to Gardiner for lunch. The next stop was a gift shop and Internet café called High Country Trading. The owners were extremely friendly and down-to-earth. I checked my Facebook and looked around the store while my parents enjoyed their coffee. The atmosphere was absolutely wonderful. This was my first time at an Internet café and a neat experience.

Just a few miles south of Gardiner was Mammoth Hot Springs. The cool thing is that we saw a black bear along the way. I got a video of the animal as it foraged for food. Lots of people had gathered in the area and caused a traffic jam. The rangers actually had to usher them along.

Upon arriving at Mammoth, I noticed many of the terraces were completely dry - which was unusual but not surprising as Yellowstone is constantly changing. Our visit to Mammoth Hot Springs was otherwise all right as the terraces were still a sight to behold. It was also nice to not get soaked in the rain. :-)

The historic Old Faithful Inn awaited us in the evening. There was an old guy in the lounge who was damn good at the piano; no doubt it was the perfect place to relax after dinner. From what I've heard, the inn used to have nightly dances. Though they're not a regular thing anymore, the live music was great.

Day 7

There were a few thermal areas that we hadn't seen yet. I only saw a small part of Norris Geyser Basin in 1998 because my parents were tired and wanted to stay in the car. That wouldn't have been a problem, except 12-year-old me was too scared to go in by myself. It was nice to see most of Norris this time around. Although we skipped a few thermal features as it was hot outside, I don't think we missed much.

Geysers are just one of the things that make Yellowstone so unique. Case in point, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was another one of our favorite stops. The view from the vista point was breathtaking. Pictures don't do the canyon justice.

Our final destination of the day was the Lake Hotel. Like at the Old Faithful Inn, there was a piano player in the lounge. While she wasn't as good as the guy from the day before, my parents and I still enjoyed her music. Several couples even got up to dance. If only I wasn't single. ^_^

Day 8

This was our last day in Yellowstone. I was kind of sad to leave this paradise, but four days here was certainly more than enough.

An awkward thing happened in the morning: my father asked me to find a good route to Buffalo while he went to take a shower. Having recently taken some IEOR classes, I decided to put my skills to the test and calculate the shortest path using Dijkstra's algorithm. That turned out to be overkill and took me much longer than expected. Dad still won't let me live it down. :\

The plan was to head directly to Buffalo. However, my father wanted to stop in West Yellowstone first and took a route that added 150 miles to the trip. The extra drive was worth it because West Yellowstone was quite nice. I loved browsing the shops even though nothing was cheap.

The buffet at Golden Corral in Billings was filling. I saw a sign for a place called Pictograph Cave State Park not long after we left. It sounded interesting but had closed for the day when we arrived. On the bright side - pardon the pun - we witnessed a beautiful sunset during a break from driving. This was one of those special moments. Mom didn't realize it was a sunset at first and actually thought the nearby oil refinery was on fire. Oh dear!

It was almost midnight when we got to our hotel. All of us were exhausted and soon went to bed.

Days 9 and 10

Sunday began with a stop at the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery in Spearfish. Unlike most fish hatcheries, this one had a natural feel. I liked it a lot and would have stayed longer if it wasn't raining. Dad even bought a refrigerator magnet at the gift shop before leaving.

Our journey brought us back to Rapid City in the afternoon. There was lots of free time as our flights home were in the evening. The good news is that the Museum of Geology was open this time. The museum was small but had countless exhibits, not to mention free admission. This was a worthwhile visit as geology has always fascinated me. I could easily spend the entire day here.

It was finally time to head to the airport to catch a plane to Denver. This was followed by a flight back to San Francisco. Despite regaining an hour due to the time change, the three of us didn't get home until just past midnight. So that technically makes the trip 10 days long. :P


To say we had fun is an understatement. While my favorite part of the trip was seeing the hot springs, the Wind Cave tour comes a close second. Aside from being sick the first few days, I can't think of anything that was bad. The trip was planned for last year, but we had trouble booking flights and ended up going to Taiwan and China instead. It was well worth the wait!

One thing Dad had always wanted to do was take my grandfather Bien-Chuan on a road trip to the Rockies. That was supposed to happen during his 1996 visit, but the trip was canceled for financial reasons. Bien-Chuan sadly passed away in 2004 after a battle with cancer. I guess some dreams don't come true. On a happier note, I'm sure Grandpa was with us in spirit. :-)

Our 1998 trip was so awesome that I had always wanted to go back to Yellowstone. Although the novelty is gone, I felt this trip was even better. Our next visit to Yellowstone may not happen for years, but the memories from this one will last a long time. Last but not least, be sure to check out the photos and videos from our adventure. I spent hours uploading them!

Update: The photos and videos are now online.

Currently listening to: "Down on the Corner" by Creedence Clearwater Revival

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