I've written several articles recently about summer trips our family has taken in recent years. As previously noted, Melissa and I are committed to showing our boys (now 16 and 11) the United States so they understand and appreciate their country. We've traveled all over the country, but our favorite area remains the Great West.
We just completed this year's trip, and what a trip it was. We flew to Denver, rented a car, and drove through a good part of Wyoming, a bit of Montana, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
I've driven through Wyoming many times, and each time it was along Interstate 80, traveling east to west just as fast as I could go. That part of Wyoming is pretty boring, but if I had ever known how beautiful this state is, I would have taken a detour north of the interstate years ago.
The first day, we traveled to Cody, Wyoming, a healthy jaunt from Denver, but well worth the effort. Cody is a major gateway to Yellowstone National Park, but it has several great attributes of its own. First, the Buffalo Bill Museum which has been called the Smithsonian of the West. It is truly a wonderful place, and deserves a 2-3 hour visit, which even those on the fast track to Yellowstone can afford to take. Of course, you could take much longer if you wanted, and the visit would be even better. From a great natural history museum, which is interactive for the kids and very informative for all re: the wildlife in the area, to the best Indian museum anywhere, to the life and times of Buffalo Bill, and finally, the tremendous art gallery, full of Remingtons: this is truly a worthwhile visit for even those who don't like museums.
The other great thing about Cody is the nightly summer rodeo, which is as good as any you'll see.
We stayed at the Irma Hotel, which was built by Buffalo Bill himself and named after his daughter. It was great, and comes highly recommended, provided you stay in the older part of the hotel.
The next day, we drove to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, which requires a jaunt through some beautiful country, a short shot through Montana, and then into the least used of the five entrances to Yellowstone. Why would you do this? Because the best viewing of wildlife in the park is in the Lamar Valley, which can only be seen from this area, and which contains elk, buffalo, moose, grizzly bear, and even wolves. We took a great 3-mile hike into the valley, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Understand that the wolves are rarely seen, usually only in the early morning or late evening.
We stayed at the Yellowstone Lake Lodge cabins, which were just off the Lake itself, and were perfect for our crew. I highly recommend trying to stay inside the park itself, but you need to do some research to find the best spots, and you need to make those reservations early. Yellowstone has two great old lodges; Yellowstone Lake and the Old Faithful Inn. People make reservations over a year in advance to stay in these locations, though you can find a great cabin like we did by calling 4-5 months in advance. I recommend Yellowstone Lake because it is less crowded and more convenient, but either area is a treat.
Yellowstone has several areas that are "must sees". First, the Upper and Lower Falls areas are beautiful, and if you come down from the northeast entrance, you also get to enjoy the incredible views of the Yellowstone canyon. Each of these areas are very scenic, and have some great short hikes that provide some breathtaking views.
Most people head for Old Faithful and the geyser basin, and this is the other must see area. Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes, and is worth the wait. But it is surrounded by an amazing world of less regular geysers, mud holes, boiling springs and spectacular pools of water covering the spectrum of colors. You can hike on boardwalks and trails for about five easy miles around the Old
Faithful area, and its worth the effort.
Yellowstone is basically one huge volcanic area that hasn't erupted for a thousand years, but certainly could again one day. The heat for each of these amazing thermal wonders is provided by water traveling downward about a mile to a point where it is heated by molten magma. Because of the fractures in the rocks, the superheated water is shot back up toward the earth's surface, and escapes through geyser basin like the one surrounding Old Faithful. There's nothing like this place anywhere on earth.
Our family's favorite part of the Yellowstone experience was swimming in the Firehole River. While all other rivers in the Park are typically cold mountain streams, this one is heated to about 85 degrees by the surrounding geyser basins. This is the one place you are allowed to swim in the park, about 10-15 miles or so north of Old Faithful. It was a terrific experience, shared with about 200 other people, but well worth it. You should bring water shoes, though. We didn't, and wished we had.
Our trip took us to other great locations as well, including the Grand Tetons, Buffalo, Wyoming (quite unexpectedly our favorite part of the trip), the Little Big Horn battlefield in Montana where Custer made his last stand, Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming, and to South Dakota, where we visited Mount Rushmore as well as the Badlands. But these are for another article.
Just believe me when I say that Wyoming, if visited thoroughly, is a great trip, and has become one of my favorite places in the US. We'll be back.