"Oh my god, that oil refinery is on fire!" -- Mom
Summer has been great so far as we 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. The trip was really exciting because I had looked forward to it for a long time. Though I was sick the first few days, everything else was perfect. I hope you enjoy reading my trip report as much as I did writing it.
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 small and felt like a private jet. Other than that, the connecting flight to Denver and the 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. However, the rest of the day sucked because 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 medicine. Being sick while traveling is the worst. :-(
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 city was small and didn't impress us too much. On the other hand, Taco John's had delicious quesadillas.
Back in South Dakota, the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs was our next stop. The tour was a little expensive but very informative. Of note is that the guide had a green laser pointer like mine. Green lasers seem to be becoming increasingly popular these days.
The plan was to go to Wind Cave National Park after the tour. 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. It was decided to skip Wind Cave because turning back at this point would have been too much trouble.
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 lack of visitors. I wouldn't be surprised.
Dad also wanted to check out North Dakota and took us to Bowman in the evening. Like Chadron, Bowman was a small city with few attractions. Because it was late, the three of us had dinner there. It was almost 11 p.m. when we got back to the hotel.
One place I looked forward to visiting was Mt. Rushmore. The faces were photogenic, albeit smaller than I imagined. The fog made the view even better. On the downside, everything here was expensive. Dad paid $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.
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 going 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 was located 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 gimmick to attract tourists.
The highlight of the morning was Devils Tower National Monument. To be honest, the rock wasn't that impressive. On the other hand, the cool weather made for a perfect hike on the Tower Trail that goes around the formation. The fresh alpine air was especially refreshing.
The rest of the day was spent driving. The 300-mile trip to Cody was 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.
We headed to Yellowstone National Park after a brief stop for pictures at Buffalo Bill Dam. 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. However, Dad suggested coming back later when it started to rain. 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 stopped later in the afternoon, during which we went to explore the park some more. The timing couldn't have been better - we arrived at the Upper Geyser Basin just in time to catch an eruption of Old Faithful. I enjoyed visiting the Midway and Lower Geyser Basins as well.
For dinner, my father had a reservation 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 afterwards. 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 because Super Metroid and Super Demo World: The Legend Continues kept me occupied. I also saw an episode of MythBusters before going to bed.
The three of us went to see more hot springs 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. Lots of people had gathered in the area to see the bear and caused a traffic jam. The rangers had to usher them along.
Upon arriving at Mammoth, I noticed many of the springs were dry - which was unusual but not surprising as Yellowstone is constantly changing. Having said that, 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.
There were a few places 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 areas due to the hot weather, 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. Several couples even got up to dance. If only I wasn't single. ^_^
This was our last day in Yellowstone. I was kind of sad to leave this paradise, but four days here is certainly more than enough. On the subject of which, Dad 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. A sign for a place called Pictograph Cave State Park caught my eye as we left town. 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
Our first stop on Sunday was the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery in Spearfish. Unlike most hatcheries, this one had a natural feel. I liked it a lot and wouldn't have minded staying longer. Dad even bought a refrigerator magnet at the gift shop before leaving.
The journey brought us back to Rapid City in the afternoon. Speaking of which, 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 return the airport to catch a plane to Denver. This was followed by another 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. Of the places we visited, Yellowstone National Park was my favorite. That said, the Wind Cave tour was really fun too. Aside from being sick the first few days, I can't think of anything bad about this trip.
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 enjoyed this trip even more. Our next visit to Yellowstone may not happen for years, but the memories from this trip will last a lifetime. 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