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August 22, 2011 9:12 PM   Subscribe

Road trip questions! A friend and I are taking a road trip between the 17th and 25th of September from Minnesota to Portland, OR. Neither of us have much experience with the first half of the trip and would love some suggestions on hikes and other things not to miss in theBlack Hills, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and Missoula.

We are planning on camping one night in the Black Hills, two nights in Grand Teton National Park, driving through Yellowstone, and two nights in Missoula.

What should we not miss in the Black Hills?

What is your favorite day hike or one night hike in Grand Teton National Park? We are partial to remote lakes and not-very-dangerous scramble peaks, rides and amazing views. We are reasonably strong hikers, have done 20 mile day hikes in the North Cascades to give you an idea of what could be considered a day hike.

I don't really know much about Yellowstone, but I am under the impression you can drive through it. Is there a route that is definitely the most epic?

We are staying with a friend in Missoula so he can show us stuff, but any favorite things to do there? Book stores, cafes, parks, short hikes, thrift stores, etc. Anything awesome outside of Missoula?

Thank you!
posted by Corduroy to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You can drive through Yellowstone, but there's some amazing hiking and places to see in that area, that you'll find nowhere else in the world. If you can possibly swing a day or two extra for Yellowstone, you'd owe it to yourself to check out a guidebook or two, and do Yellowstone justice... quick, before it explodes and kills us all.
posted by The otter lady at 9:37 PM on August 22, 2011

I did this trip four years ago. My trip started in Michigan and was one-way.

I went non-stop with a friend until Billings, 24 hours straight. We did stop by Mount Rushmore and went in, and it's worth it. There really isn't a good view of the monument without actually paying, so go in. I would avoid Keystone, SD as it is an ugly tourist trap, unless that's your thing. We passed on to Billings to crash out for a night. There is all sorts of camping around there, I'd go towards Badlands NP or somewhere in the Black Hills NF. Don't pay to see Crazy Horse, not worth it.

I kind of suggest Billings as a stop, not because it's an awesome hangout, but because it's one of the few cities and a good place to rest up before Yellowstone. Go near the airport (follow the signs) and see the view from the rimrocks. Be careful up there.

The reason I say swing up to Billings is because you want to take the Beartooth Highway to Yellowstone. I repeat, you want to do this. Leave Billings on I-90, take the exit to Red Lodge/Beartooth Highway/Yellowstone/US 212. There's an awesome little drive-in on the left on the way out of Red Lodge. Cheap, awesome burgers. It's in a boxcar.

The Beartooth Highway is still my favorite drive ever. It goes up to nearly 11,000'. A few tips: don't run around, don't smoke up there, let your car idle for 3-5 minutes before turning it off if you stop along the way or especially at the top. Realize that the top of the pass is 300' short of the top of Mount Hood. The way into Yellowstone from there is pretty straightforward. That way in to Yellowstone has you pass a huge bison range, and takes you to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It's a significant drive to the prismatic spring, mudpots and Old Faithful, but it's worth it. I did Yellowstone in one day trying to hit everything, but it is best enjoyed over a few days. Again, be stupidly careful around the geological areas. Don't step off the path lest ye want third degree burns and likely death.

On the way to Missoula, cut through on US 287. See the quake lake. I had no idea it was there and it still sticks in my memory. Get gas in Ennis, MT, because it's wide open country with few gas stops.

Driving tips: In Montana the 2-lane highways have a speed limit of 70, so you don't necessarily save time taking the interstates. WY and SD have 65 speed limits for 2-lane roads IIRC. The deer are usually in very large herds, don't bother slowing down because you've seen one. And don't honk at one, you'll just spook the 60 others. Lights on is advisable. If you break down stay with the car, the distances can be really deceiving. Get gas frequently, don't chance it. Watch the octane levels on the gas they sell. Many gas stations have 85 and 86 octane as "regular" because of the altitude. Check to see what the car should have. Make sure your coolant is good and/or get a radiator flush before leaving.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:55 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with the beartooth highway recommendation by Mr. Fabulous. With some hesitance I would also add to the list of underrecognized places of natural beauty, the Fort Pierre National Grassland. There never was a more tranquil or bucolic a setting. (Not recommended for those who don't appreciate uncluttered landscapes).

I've also noticed that the bastards have begun to overrun this world. It's a state of affairs that makes me, for one, feel less special.
posted by L'oeuvre Child at 1:47 AM on August 23, 2011

You're going at a great time to see the national parks without the hordes of people that swarm them during summer. I'm jealous.

3rding Beartooth. For epic / spectacular views, it's tough to beat anywhere.

In the Black Hills area, I suggest you look at the hiking trails in Wind Cave national park. I haven't actually hiked any of them, but I did drive a seemingly little-used dirt and gravel loop road away from the visitors' center, and it was lovely.
posted by jon1270 at 3:24 AM on August 23, 2011

I did a portion of this same trip, though we turned south at Idaho.

South Dakota is a fantastic state. I always say it was the biggest surprise of my cross-country trip, because our expectations were so low - we thought it was one giant boring prairie, and we were really wrong.

Custer State Park in the Black Hills was our most wonderful experience. It's terrific, plenty of nice camping areas, and is just full of wildlife. THey have a great park program series. I went on a horseback trail ride there which was unforgettable.

The Badlands are great too. There is the dry-sandstone part of the park where most people spend their time, but there is a 'back 40' section that is all grasslands which is heartbreakingly beautiful, and smells really amazing when you wake up in the morning. Plus, prairie dogs.

At one point we stopped in one-horse town Chamberlain, SD to do laundry. While there we stumbled across St. Joseph's Indian School. Despite the complicated history of Indian boarding schools, we walked away with a good impression of what they were up to. They offer a museum of Lakota culture which was actually very informative and well done.

Sioux Falls, SDwas also a good stop-for-lunch kind of town. There's a nice old-school main street/downtown area, with a terrific real soda fountain where I had probably the best-mixed Coke of my life. Good place for a stroll. There's a sort of riverwalk along the falls which is very nice, and at the bottom of the falls you can clamber around the rocks as the falls rush around you.

At Grand Tetons, we took a boat from the campground area across Jenny Lake to climb into the peaks area. and walked up to Lake Solitude, a gorgeous glacial lake surrounded by peaks. It's a 14-mile round trip hike, and we did it in a day. It's about 11,000 feet and we definitely felt the low oxygen level, so even though it doesn't look long in mileage, it takes longer to walk because you need more frequent rest. The hike up is also steep in most places, though really beautiful. Much of it follows an ice-cold pristine stream of glacial meltwater. On the way up we saw a mother and calf moose, and there are also bighorn sheep. It's incredibly beautiful up there. We didn't continue up to the summits, because you would need to stay overnight in order to have time for that. But we did have a long lazy lunch lounging by this beautiful lake and looking at snow sparkling on the peaks, in late July. The one thing to be aware of when doing this as a dayhike is that you have to make it back for the last boat out, which I think was about 6 or 6:30. If you miss it, that adds another four miles to your hike back home, and I can honestly say that after the climb we were not interested in another four miles.

We meant to stop in Bozeman, MT for one night and ended up staying for 3 days. It was a really fun town. We stayed at this hostel which was OK if you like hostels - very backpackery and crunchy, but a nice old house with full kitchen within walking distance to town.
posted by Miko at 6:16 AM on August 23, 2011

4thing Beartooth Highway. Seconding Bozeman (I lived there for 4 years). Seconding the Lakota museum in Chamberlain (I went there 20 years ago and still remember it pretty vividly). Cody, WY is fun and has a nightly? weekly? rodeo. In any case you should definitely catch a rodeo while you're out West if you don't have moral objections.

You simply must drive through Yellowstone. Allow a lot of time - there are frequent traffic jams caused by animals and/or stupid RV drivers. Get out and do some hiking. Watch out for bears. No seriously, get some pepper spray and bear bells.

Screw it, I'm going to second everything in this thread. You will love it and you will probably cry when you have to go back to the relative flatness of Minnesota (I'm in Wisconsin).

Skip Butte.
posted by desjardins at 7:55 AM on August 23, 2011

Watching the sunset over the Grand Tetons is great.

I say skip Mt Rushmore and spend your time in Badlands NP. Badlands is crazy amazing, especially really early in the morning before anyone else is around.

Spend your time exploring Yellowstone, not waiting around in the uber-touristy parts for Ol' Faithful to erupt. The pools and whatnot are certainly interesting, but not worth more than an hour when you have the rest of the amazing park at hand.
posted by svdodge at 8:32 AM on August 23, 2011

I just want to say that Old Faithful was worth it to me - svdodge is right that there is tons of other stuff to explore - Yellowstone is practically the size of your basic East Coast state, so you can spend a ton of time there - but I'm still glad we made time for the geysers. A lot of people said 'don't bother with Old Faithful', but it was impressive. There are other cool geysers as well, though, that are more off the beaten path, and rangers and other keyed-in visitors can update you on which ones are most active at any given time.

Right next to Old Faithful is Old Faithful Inn. We didn't stay there due to the expense, but we hung around in the air-conditioned lobby and wrote letters, which was nice.

We spent 2 nights, 3 days in the park and managed to do a lot. We drove the big ring road and stopped at the main ranger stations and most of the interpretive areas, visited Norris Geyser Basin, Tower Falls, Yellowstone Lake, the "paint pots," and the Lower and Midway Geyser Basins, and we spent a half day hiking in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was a good, all-around 'taste of the Park', but it's huge, and you'll want to go back to do all the other stuff.
posted by Miko at 9:03 AM on August 23, 2011

Another vote for Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, and Old Faithful. Also do the Needles Highway (Highway 87 between Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake) in Custer State Park - it's always fun to see the broken RV mirrors on the sides of the tunnels. Oh, and the views (in particular of Mt. Rushmore) are outstanding.

And yes, skip Butte.
posted by sazanka at 9:38 AM on August 23, 2011

A note about the Beartooth Highway: Make sure you check the road status before you go. It is at a high enough altitude that it could potentially be closed.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by Fleebnork at 2:20 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Whoa, sounds like this Beartooth Highway is the way to go! We'll definitely take it. Thanks for all the input!
posted by Corduroy at 7:46 PM on August 24, 2011

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