Prior to taking this trip my wife, Linda, and I had been to 48 of our 50 states, missing only North Dakota and Idaho. My excuse for not visiting those states previously is that neither one of them is on the way to anywhere else that we wanted to visit. That being said, we had to come up with a plan to add those last two states to our checklist of places visited. I considered flying to Minneapolis, renting a car, and then driving through North Dakota and Montana to Idaho and back, but that did not sound very appealing. Then Linda suggested that we do another cross-country drive, similar to the U.S. 50 trip we took in 2013, which was perhaps her favorite of all the trips that we've taken. I considered the possibilities that such a trip would provide for visiting a few of the national parks that were on my bucket list and I bought into the idea. Another trip that I had on my wish list was to fly to Denver, rent a car, and do a circuit through Colorado. Linda suggested that since we were going to be out west anyway, we could just as easily do the Colorado loop on our way home. With that I was sold!
Our U.S. 50 trip had no fixed schedule and no firm itinerary except to stay on U.S. 50 all the way from Ocean City, MD to Sacramento, CA. Our "Northern Tier" trip, as it came to be called, was different. Although we had no fixed schedule, we had a very definite itinerary of national parks and monuments we planned to visit. Instead of taking a leisurely drive along an old U.S. highway, our plan was to follow interstate highways as much as we could in order to get from park to park as quickly as possible. Just as during the U.S. 50 trip, we planned to camp along the way, sleeping in a tent on the ground unless the weather or other conditions were unfavorable, in which case we would find a motel. We ended up staying in campgrounds for 13 nights and in motels (plus a night in my sister's house) for the other 15 nights that we were on the road. Nearly all of the indoor stays were because of nights that we deemed would be too cold for us to sleep comfortably in our tent, even though we had down sleeping bags and several wool blankets. We endured one quite chilly and uncomfortable night in our tent when the temperature dropped to 37 so we had our benchmark. The temperature would have to be above 40 for us to sleep in our tent.
The first stop on our itinerary was Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is midway between Cleveland and Akron. We spent two nights at the Cleveland SE/Streetsboro KOA campground, giving us part of an afternoon and all of the next day to explore the park. Cuyahoga Valley is a linear park that is centered around the Ohio & Erie Canal and its towpath, both of which run roughly parallel to the Cuyahoga River. The park reminded me very much of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park that parallels the Potomac River for 184.5 miles in Maryland. Because of the similarity between the two parks, it made me question Cuyahoga Valley's status as a full-fledged national park. It certainly has some scenery such as Tinker's Creek Gorge and Brandywine Falls, and some history surrounding the canal towpath, Boston Store, and the Canal Exploration Center, but it doesn't have the grandeur of places like Yellowstone, Yosemite or Grand Canyon National Park. Cuyahoga Valley was previously a National Recreation Area and I think is a better designation for the park.
The Cuyahoga River is famously known for being so polluted with industrial waste during the 20th century that it actually caught fire, most notably in 1952 and again in 1969. While the river has been cleaned up significantly, according to the park brochure "water quality often does not meet standards for recreation."
Linda and I spent most of a day enjoying a leisurely drive all around the park, much of it along Riverview Road, which offers views of both the Cuyahoga River and the canal's Towpath Trail. I photographed some of the historical structures as well as Tinker's Creek Gorge where I experimented with shots for an HDR image, and at Brandywine Falls where I used a slow shutter speed to create the silky water effect.
Our next stop was a national park that I had wanted to visit for many years, Voyageurs on the Minnesota-Canada border. I have long been enthralled by the romanticism of the French Canadian fur trappers - the Voyageurs - who plied the waters between Montreal and the Canadian Northwest in their fur and supply laden birch bark canoes that were typically 25 or 36 feet long with eight to ten man crews. Voyageurs National Park is by far a water park with all of its campsites and its one hotel accessible only by boat. Because of that, we stayed nearby at Woodenfrog campground in the Kabetogama State Forest while we visited the national park visitors centers at Kabetogama Lake, Ash River, and Rainy Lake. While at Rainy Lake we also took a two-and-a-half hour national park cruise called The Grand Tour so that we could experience the park from the water. During our cruise we didn't see any of the hoped-for bald eagles, but we did see and hear a loon. While we didn't hear any wolves howling at night, we were lucky enough to see one run across the highway right in front of us as we left the park for our next destination: North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into North and South units. We spent all of our time in the South unit, camping in the Cottonwood campground and sightseeing along the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive. What impressed us first about the Scenic Loop Drive was the first prairie dog town that we came to; it was massive! We had seen a prairie dog town at Badlands National Monument way back in 1977, but it was nothing compared to this one or the others within Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Just by luck we got to the prairie dog town during a period of peak activity. The animals were everywhere providing numerous opportunities for photographs. Linda was driving so I was able to prop my 150-500mm lens on our SUV's window ledge using a homemade beanbag for stability. We were hoping to see a herd of bison in the park, but all we found were a couple of solitary bulls. Other wildlife we saw and photographed were a small herd of feral horses and a herd of mule deer. A large part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park contains the geologic feature known as badlands, so there was plenty of opportunity for scenic landscape photography.
After leaving Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we took a longer scenic route to our next destination - South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park - and drove along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park. I read about the spectacular scenery along this highway years ago, but we didn't take the route when we visited Mount Rushmore in 1977. We had the time on this trip and I didn't want to miss the route again. We entered the highway from the east, and the drive was pleasant, but it got really spectacular as we drove farther west into its namesake granite formations. The route has two small tunnels, the largest of which is just 9 feet wide and 12 feet 3 inches high. There was a moment of drama as we and a number of other tourists waited for the drivers of two rental RV units, with their side mirrors folded in, to slowly and carefully inch their way through one of the tunnels.
Like many parks with caves, Wind Cave National Park is really two parks in one: the subterranean world of the cave and the above ground world of everything else. I took the ranger-guided Natural Entrance Tour to explore the underground world. The geological features of Wind Cave aren't spectacular since there are very few showy stalactites or stalagmites, but there are relatively rare formations called boxworks, perhaps the world's best collection of these irregular calcite honeycombs. Cave "popcorn" was another formation that was quite evident. Above ground we enjoyed viewing and photographing bison and pronghorn. Although we didn't see any coyotes, we were treated to their yipping, and for our first time, we heard the bugling of elk in the midst of their rutting season. The bugling reminded me of a child squeaking away on a clarinet that he was trying to learn how to play. It was quite distinctive.
Next on our itinerary was Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The Tower rises 867 feet from its base and is visible from quite a distance away. We had constant views of it from our campsite at the Devils Tower KOA campground. As a special treat, the KOA campground has a nightly showing of the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with its thrilling climax taking place at the base of Devils Tower. We spent time at the monument's visitors center and viewing and photographing the Tower from several different vantage points and at different times of day to catch the changing light. We also saw two teams of climbers who were high up on the Tower's face.
After leaving Devils Tower, our plan was to drive to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Unfortunately the nighttime temperatures were forecast to drop down into the low 30s. That was too cold for us to sleep in our tent. I tried to reserve a lodge room instead, but all of the rooms in the park were filled. Since we had been to both parks in 1977, we decided to head up into Montana and visit Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument instead. We spent time there at the visitors center, walking in the national cemetery, and driving the scenic drive where I took some photos of the Little Bighorn River and several feral horses.
After staying in motel rooms in Bozeman, Montana, we made our way to the Craters of the Moon KOA campground in Arco, Idaho, where we rented a one room Kamper Kabin. It was quite cozy, and it had heat and electricity! This was our base camp for exploring Craters of the Moon National Monument, a rugged land of lava tubes, spatter cones, cinder cones, pahoehoe lava, aa lava, and lava bombs. The scenic Loop Road is only seven miles long, but there are several trails along the route, some of which are handicapped accessible, allowing one to explore the volcanic features up close. The terrain was once considered to closely resemble the surface of the moon, so NASA astronauts trained here. The land isn't all barren devastation, though. Plant life includes sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and dwarf buckwheat that is so plentiful and regularly spaced that it looks as if it was planted by humans. By the way, the nearby town of Arco was the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear power. That occurred on July 17, 1955.
When we left Craters of the Moon we took a circuitous route that looped us north past the world-famous Sun Valley ski resort and through the Sawtooth National Recreation Area before heading south down to Boise. We drove through some beautiful mountain country where we saw our first aspen trees with their golden fall leaves as well as a small herd of elk.
Our next stop was northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park. The centerpiece of the park is snow-capped Lassen Peak, which is still considered to be an active volcano even though it has been quiet since 1921. The volcanism is quite evident at the Sulphur Works, with steam clouds hissing from its fumaroles and its bubbling mud pots. A 30 mile scenic route traverses the park, but we had to wait until 2:00 p.m. to complete our trip because snow plows had to clear the road at its highest elevations due to an overnight snowfall. It was well worth the wait since I took what might be my favorite photo of the entire trip - the snow-covered shore of Lake Helen with Loomis Peak in the background.
Continuing our journey, we made our way to Redwood National and State Parks, also in northern California. In addition to National Park Service lands, the Redwood complex contains Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek State Parks. Linda and I had been in the redwood forest at John Muir National Monument north of San Francisco in 1999, and the experience in Redwood National Park was identical. The towering trees are so massive and awe inspiring that they leave visitors literally speechless. As if in an outdoor cathedral, everyone whispers when among the trees. I made good use of my 10-20mm wide angle lens to attempt to photograph these giants. The general darkness of the forest, coupled with the high contrast of the sunlight breaking through the forest canopy, made getting good exposures quite challenging in both the Simpson-Reed and Lady Bird Johnson Groves. Outside of the forest we explored the Pacific coast, including the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City and nearby Anchor Way with its many sea lions basking in the sun on floating docks.
Redwood National and State Parks was as far west as we could go on this trip, so now it was time to turn east and head toward home, but we still had a lot to see in our loop through Colorado. First we had to get there, and that was no easy task. The first part of the drive was gorgeous, taking us along California route 299 through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest along the Trinity River through Trinity Valley to Redding, California. After spending a night in a motel in Redding we headed to Nevada, driving around Reno and then toward Elko on I-80. Not far out of Reno we came to a screeching halt as traffic backed up for miles because of a tractor trailer accident. It took us nearly two hours to get to the next exit, where traffic was being redirected. A police officer told us that the highway would re-open within two to three hours, so we headed back toward Reno, where we ate lunch, did some grocery shopping, and spent time relaxing at a county park. After the recommended three hours we arrived back at our original traffic jam location only to find that it had still not cleared! We waited in the same stop and go traffic that we had encountered earlier, but luckily the interstate was finally opened for through traffic. What I had estimated to be a seven hour drive turned into a 13 hour marathon.
The next morning we drove to Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the border between Utah and Colorado. As a child, like many children today, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, and when I first learned about Dinosaur National Monument I yearned to see it. The Fossil Bone Quarry, which was recently rebuilt, is the park's centerpiece, with dozens upon dozens of actual dinosaur bones protected in situ, including some that visitors are allowed to touch. My childhood dream was fulfilled.
The drive from Dinosaur National Monument south to Durango, Colorado along U.S. 550 is perhaps the most spectacular road that I have ever driven along, particularly the section from Ouray over Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains. It is a narrow, twisting, up-and-down mountain road, often without guardrails, along precipitous mountainsides. The golden aspen trees were absolutely gorgeous, especially when contrasted with the dark green pine trees growing among them. It was only after we got home that I learned that this highway is known as Colorado's Million Dollar Highway and that it is part of the San Juan Skyway. We almost had another long delay along this route, though. When we stopped at a visitors center in Ridgway to eat lunch, the woman working there advised us that the road over Red Mountain Pass would only be open for the next hour, from noon until 1:00 p.m. The rest of the time, from 8:30 a.m.-noon and from 1:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m., the road was closed for construction. Since it was already noon, we forgot about eating lunch and continued our drive through the mountains without further delay. We were lucky!
We spent three nights in Durango for two reasons: to visit Mesa Verde National Park and to ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. A highlight of Mesa Verde National Park is Cliff Palace, the cliffside ruins of dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloan Indians. Unfortunately, Cliff Palace was closed for restoration shortly before our arrival in the park. It didn?t really matter, though, because I was still able to get some nice photos of it from an overlook. I was still able to go on a ranger-guided tour of Balcony House. This was somewhat of an ?adventure? tour in that access to the ruins required visitors to descend a 100 foot staircase into the canyon; climb a 32 foot ladder; crawl through a 12 foot, 18 inches wide tunnel; and clamber up an additional 60 feet on ladders and stone steps. It was fun! Later Linda joined me on a self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House, even though it involved a half mile round trip hike down and back up an asphalt trail. I enjoyed the opportunity to be able to climb a ladder down into one of the underground kivas that was used for religious ceremonies.
The next day we rode the steam locomotive powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Durango to Silverton (where else?). The trip was three-and-a-half hours each way, with a two hour stop in Silverton, where we ate lunch at Natalia's 1912 Restaurant and Linda did some souvenir shopping while I took pictures. The train went through some spectacular scenery along the Animas River gorge. You may remember recent news reports of the EPA accidentally polluting a river with mine runoff and turning it orange. That was the Animas. While the water in the river was no longer orange, the residue was easily seen along the river bank and on exposed river rocks. I took far more photos during this trip than of any other location that we visited. My challenge was to photograph the engine and some of the leading passenger cars from the window of my car toward the rear of the train, while at the same time including the mountain scenery. I think that I was reasonably successful doing that since we went around many tight curves in the track and along cliff sides.
As we continued our loop through Colorado, our next stop was Great Sand Dunes National Park. The dunes here make up just 11% of the 330-square-mile sand deposit that lies between the San Juan Mountains to the west (source of most of the sand) and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. The highest dunes rise about 750 feet above the surrounding area. It was here that we spent our final night in our tent, which enabled us to hear a chorus of coyotes barking and howling in the early morning hours. During the late afternoon I hiked out into the dunes near the visitors center to try to capture photos of the dunes being sculpted by the shadows cast by the low angled sun. I was also able to photograph some of the other tourists enjoying the landscape as well as some of their children "sandboarding" down the steep slopes. Later I joined a ranger-guided moonlight walk out into the dunes from our campground. It was just two days before a full "super" moon, so the moonlight was quite bright on the sand. I took several long exposure photos that captured the sand dunes in full moonlight as well as stars in the night sky.
The final park that we visited on this trip was Rocky Mountain National Park. Unbeknownst to us, the weekend when we arrived in Estes Park, the gateway town for the national park, there were two major events in progress: the annual Autumn Gold Festival and the annual Elkfest. There was a five mile backup of cars entering Estes Park and the town was absolutely mobbed with people. Luckily we had made a motel reservation, for even our budget lodging was sold out for the Saturday of our arrival. We were treated to a herd of elk that were browsing and relaxing in a town park right across the road from our motel.
We spent all day Sunday sightseeing, first along Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to the beaver ponds near Timber Creek. We sighted mule deer beside the road early in our drive. Since it was the fall rutting season I wasn't surprised to see two bucks locking their antlers and sparring with each other. I was able to photograph the action with my 18-250mm lens. A little farther along the road we came upon an "elk jam." Several vehicles were stopped at an intersection with a side road so that their occupants could view and photograph a large bull elk with his harem of cows. The high elevation of Trail Ridge Road offered expansive landscape views of peaks that were almost all above the tree line, but also some views down into a few mountain valleys. After finishing our drive along Trail Ridge Road we headed down Bear Lake Road, which was obviously more popular with the tourists. Near the beginning of the road there was a large sign warning that all of the available parking spaces at scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and trailheads were full, and to come back after 4:00 p.m. We were either too dumb or too stubborn to heed the warning so we continued onward. True to the sign's message, we didn't find any parking spaces anywhere, so I didn't have any opportunities to photograph the classic mountain scenery along this beautiful route.
The next morning we had quite a surprise. It was still dark when we left our motel, and moments later we were stuck in another elk jam as a herd of elk was standing in the middle of an intersection of two highways leading into and out of Estes Park, blocking all traffic. We patiently waited until the bull elk moved somewhat out of the way and then drove along the remarkably scenic U.S. 34 heading east toward Loveland and Greely. We had some long driving days ahead of us, making our way to a motel an hour west of Des Moines, Iowa, the first day, and then to another motel south of Toledo, Ohio, the second day. For our final night on the road we stayed with my sister and brother-in-law about an hour south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We were gone for 28 nights, visited nine national parks and four national monuments plus the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and we drove a total of 8989 miles. I wonder what we'll do for an encore! (You can view a slide show of photos from this trip at my Shutterfly web page rogermaki.shutterfly.com. You also can see larger versions of the thumbnails, as well as other photos from our trip, in The Northern Tier here on TPN.