Go West, young man
August 14, 2017 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I have a loose itinerary for a road trip from Milwaukee to Wyoming and Colorado. I want to run it by y'all to see if it's realistic or too ambitious, since I'll be solo (car) camping. Priorities for places to stay: quiet, DARK, scenic. Not interested in cities/town, food, or lodging.

My main concern is whether I'll be able to see enough while also having to set up/take down camp and driving. I don't know which areas would be more worthwhile to stay at the same site for 2 days. I don't want to extend the trip past 2 weeks.

All mileage is from Google maps.
Milwaukee to Sioux Falls................500
to Interior (Badlands).................283
Spearfish, SD............................122
Wapiti, WY (Yellowstone).................367
Hoback, WY (Tetons).....................169
Red Canyon UT (Flaming Gorge)............233
Steamboat Springs (Medicine Bow).........220
Granby,CO (Arapaho NRA)..................96
Estes Park (Rocky Mtn NP)................54
near Boulder (stay w/friend).............39
Lake McConaughy NE (State Park).........218
Des Moines, IA...........................463
Milwaukee............................. 371
I've been to the Badlands and Yellowstone before so I'd prioritize the other areas in Wyoming and Colorado. There is nothing worth stopping for between Milwaukee and Sioux Falls or Des Moines to Milwaukee (sorry, corn field lovers).
posted by AFABulous to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Seems like you might want to take the extra 20 minutes to swing through Madison instead of Rockford, no?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:47 AM on August 14, 2017

Response by poster: Also looking for advice on cold-weather camping, which I've never done. I already have: a 4 season tent with footprint, high quality sleeping bag, silk liner, self-inflatable thermarest, and appropriate clothing.
posted by AFABulous at 7:48 AM on August 14, 2017

(I meant on the way back -- seems like you can't really avoid it on the way from MKE to Sioux Falls.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:49 AM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know anything about cold-weather camping. But I do know that some times of year are colder than others. When are you planning on doing this? Seems like it would help the people who do know about cold-weather camping advise.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:58 AM on August 14, 2017

Response by poster: Oh, sorry. The first two weeks of September - leaving the day after Labor Day, because Labor Day weekend at campgrounds sucks. Yellowstone first because that's the coldest and some stuff shuts down after the 10th.
posted by AFABulous at 8:10 AM on August 14, 2017

A couple years ago, I went on a trip from Chicago to the west coast, down, around Death Valley, into Denver, then back to Chicago. I did it in about three weeks, and it was a LOT of driving. I wouldn't trade that experience, necessarily, but were I to do a similar trip, I would try to cut down on driving and ramp up the number of nights I stayed in the same place.

I have not been to Grand Teton NP or to Rocky Mountain NP, but I would recommend you stay there for two to three days each, and maybe remove some of the less thrilling (to you!) locations.
posted by papayaninja at 8:12 AM on August 14, 2017

Another note - I had the route planned, but not necessarily the schedule. This made it so I often wound up at a busy area on a Friday or Saturday, which stressed me out a little. You're going at a better time of the year, so may not have to worry about it as much, but keep in mind the days of the week when hitting, say, a big national park.
posted by papayaninja at 8:13 AM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding cold weather car camping:
- Bring an extra blanket.
- Keep a fleece hat, neck gaiter, and gloves in your sleeping bag so you have easy access to them if you wake up cold.
- Have dedicated sleeping socks that are thick and soft, and which you only wear inside your sleeping bag.
- Eat before bed so that your metabolism has something to work with overnight. Everyone is their own snowflake, but personally my metabolism drops to nothing when I'm asleep and that can cause me to wake up cold and shivering. If the bear situation allows I like to keep a granola bar or other small snack nearby.
- You can also boil water and pour it in a nalgene, close the lid very tightly, then wrap that up in a shirt and put it in the bottom of your sleeping bag.
- Be prepared for moisture to build up inside your tent walls overnight. Dry cold is better than wet cold, so have a towel on hand to wipe away that condensation and any moisture that threatens your sleeping bag.
- Bring duct tape or a kit to patch any holes in your sleeping pad.
- Remember that it's easier to stay warm than to get warm.

Regarding road-tripping:
- Try to keep your vehicle insanely organized.
- Get rid of all garbage and recycling every time you stop somewhere.
- Get gas at highway stations with easy on/off ramps, not in the cities.
- Stay hydrated.

Sounds like a great trip! Have fun!
posted by scrubjay at 8:52 AM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

You don't mention food prep, but (again, taking the bear situation into account), a good cooler for your car will make the trip better and cheaper, as will a small gas stove and some decent camp food recipes. Don't live on gorp and other camping classics for weeks; it's depressing and you'll get run down. There are AskMe's aplenty about camping cuisine and you can try recipes out ahead of time at home so you can bring the right cookware, little spice packets, etc. along too.
posted by carmicha at 9:34 AM on August 14, 2017

Don't miss the drive from Meeker, CO to Yampa, CO, including a short side leg to Trapper Lake. It's an incredible fall color drive (you'll likely be too early for that), but a great drive any time of year.

If you find that your Wyoming leg is too smoky (it's happened to me on trips this time of year), consider running farther south to Crested Butte (I have lots of advice for the area) or even down to the San Juans in the southwest corner of CO. US550 down the spine of the San Juans is pants-shitting awesome.
posted by notsnot at 9:49 AM on August 14, 2017

My cold weather camping tips
  • Get a good hat that stays on when you sleep. For me, that's one with a chin strap.
  • Those reflective emergency blankets can be life saving. Some nights, having one under you is the best thing ever.
  • A good fleece vest is a great additional layer.
  • Staying hydrated is great, waking up to pee in the cold is not.
  • If you make open fires, do like Smokey says and douse them and stir is to make sure it's all the way out. Few things have scared me more than the night lighting up with an instant six foot fire.
  • If you do have an open fire, keeping a few large rocks near the fire can soak up some heat and come into the tent.
  • The car is almost always warmer than a tent.
Regular camping tip that never goes unsaid, headlamps are the best.
posted by advicepig at 10:08 AM on August 14, 2017

Cold weather camping: buy a cheap foam sleeping pad like this one. You can find something like it in most outdoor stores. Use it under your thermarest while you sleep. You lose a lot of heat to the ground. The extra insulation under you makes a huge difference, even more than putting an extra blanket over you will. And if you get cold sitting around in the evenings, drag out the foam pad and sit on it while you cook and eat.

If you're used to city driving and haven't driven long-distances in the West before: make sure you don't let the gas tank get too empty before you fill up. Sometimes it's a really long way between gas stations on the small Western highways.
posted by colfax at 11:15 AM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Regarding cold-weather sleeping bags, keep in mind the temperature rating isn't meant to make you comfortable at X degrees. It just means you won't be dead from hypothermia. The sleeping pad in addition to Thermarest advice is good.

Wyoming is extremely windy. You'll have to watch the wind the whole time. That being said, I drove through a valley in the west side of the state that was just magical. And the Wyoming rest stops in the middle of bare, windswept plains... like nothing else.

One thing I didn't anticipate when I took the long drive from California to Illinois by myself was, for some reason I couldn't figure out, I was running behind schedule at every stop. So every leg was taking longer. I felt more tired than I thought I would (I was plenty used to the 5+ hour drive between LA and SF, and the 4-ish between LA and Las Vegas). And my arms ended up feeling like mush. They felt atrophied and exhausted at the same time. I was pretty tired at the end, stayed tired for about a week. Other friends who'd made the drive before warned me that it would take a week to recover.

As colfax said, be careful how much gas you have. Pay attention to the "Next Gas" signs. Keep lots of water with you, like a two gallon jug. Have a road map with you so you don't have to depend on GPS. Stick to interstate highways and tell GPS to F off if it's suggesting some obscure alternate route. Keep emergency granola bars or something similar with you in case you run out of gas/break down/get stuck behind an accident for a long time.

Baby wipes! They're great for wiping dirty hands! Bring soap/hand sanitizer because sometimes those rest stops are out of supplies. Hell bring TP too.
posted by halonine at 5:39 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I assume if you're coming from Spearfish you're going across the Bighorns on 16 or 14 (if you've not driven in the mountains a lot don't take 14A.) 16 is gorgeous but it can be a long (and sulfur-rich) trek across the Basin from there. 14A from Burgess Junction means a lot more towns across the Basin if that's your thing. Personally I prefer 14 itself but I love that particular view and drive across the Basin - it can be desolate to some but I see it as wild and beautiful. If you come across 14 to Greybull- Cody, start watching for wild horses after a tiny little fart of a town called Emblem. If you are used to mountain driving, 14A is quite steep but you can stop at the Medicine Wheel. If you would like to camp in the Bighorns I can give you some decent suggestions; if you want something a little different I have some great recs for camping in the Bighorn Basin, which could be unlike anything you've ever done.

There's a campsite called Wapiti (near Wapiti) in the Shoshone Nat'l Forest but it will not be dark nor quiet. On the other hand, it will have bear boxes. There's a few other campsites between the East Entrance to the Park and the Forest boundary like Rex Hale, Newton Creek. . . but there's been a few no-tent closures due to grizzly activity and I don't know which ones they are. It might be best to stop by the Nat'l Forest office in Cody (it's the Shoshone Nat'l Forest) when you get there - they'll be happy to give you the info if there isn't a big sign right there in the office. There's been a small forest fire in the are they've been watching but it doesn't seem like a big deal - the entire area is pretty hazy from fires north and west, though, so it may still be that way when you get there.

Post Labor Day weekend is one of the absolute best times to snag a campsite at Jenny Lake in the Tetons. It is a tent only campsite so it's pretty quiet. And dark! I see though you're going all the way to Hoback Junction - if that's really your goal (as opposed to somewhere in the Hole itself) there is plenty of Nat'l Forest land in the area but the camping can be tightly controlled. South to Alpine you've got the Snake River on one side; on 191 to Pinedale there's lots of weird private land mixed with public land, so either way you will need a good WY atlas with the public lands marked if you're interested in pulling off and "free" camping in the Nat'l Forest. Same with outside of Cody, and of course in the Park itself you'll need a permit or in a campground. (Such an atlas is also really great for BLM land, which you can also camp on - there's an entire area from Hoback to Kemmerer/La Barge/Farson that is full of BLM land. Be warned it can be dry.) If you are interested in camping the Teton area on Nat'l Forest land instead of campgrounds and want some campsite recs MeMail me - I can steer you towards some good places.

If you're unsure of which routes to take anywhere on your journey I've been on all of the paved highways on your entire trip multiple times (a good portion of your journey is through my home and professional stomping grounds), as well as a lot, if not most, of the maintained gravel back roads and can give you some serious pros and cons for all of them depending on what you like, your vehicle, and your comfort level driving. I.e if you take Hwy 14 I would suggest a different route south from Hoback Jct. than I would if you took 16. But it's also fun to explore! So MeMail if you'd like or at any time on your trip!

There's 2 highways around Flaming Gorge - which one were you considering taking? I hope you can stop by Dinosaur National Monument! If you like that kind of thing Fossil Buttes outside of Kemmerer is also worth a stop.

At least two of your campsite areas will require you to be *seriously* bear aware. A decent rule of thumb is that grizzlies are pretty rare south of Mt. Moran but are a possibility near Wapiti; black bears are always a consideration. (If you want some good potential bear viewing sites MeMail me too - it's that time of year when they're out feeding and I've got some favorite spots.) Because they are out feeding, you may even encounter "bear jams". Or bison jams. Or moose jams. As always, though, statistically you will face considerably more "danger" from drivers acting foolishly than you will from wildlife.

I love the Yampa valley/area too! The Flat Tops are one of my favorite mountain ranges in CO. If you like car camping and hiking there's a few spots in the area worth staying a day or two, and they're not nearly as busy as the other ranges in CO. But I think from your route you might be coming through Craig, and if you decide to go to the Flat Tops skip Steamboat and take 134 to Kremmling.

Dark and quiet may not be not Arapaho NRA near Granby, but there is dispersed camping on the north and eastern shore of the lake - you'll need a permit (and vehicle fee) and to hike to it; there are campgrounds for the rest.

Estes is the Park, so if you want to camp you'll need a backpacking permit or a campground - although there is national forest outside of town as well.

I think everyone has the car camping covered. At that time of year I would be prepared for any kind of weather - hot and dry, rainy (it can be quite rainy then in WY, and it's been a rainy Aug.), snowy, and cold. Extra socks, and extra shoes or shoes you can slip into when yours get wet; change into your sleeping clothes after you get into the tent for the night - your clothes can get quite moist if you wear them outside for awhile and then get into your sleeping bag. If you're cold and have to pee, go ahead and get up and pee even if you think it'll be worse. (Or piss into a piss bottle - I use an orange Nalgene with a skull and crossbones on it.) My biggest thing is just to carry lots of blankets since I can, and even put a few on the ground between my pad and the tent. I like a neck gaiter to keep my neck and shoulders warm since they tend to pop out sometimes if I turn over.

Also: one of those small blue tarps and an umbrella are just the handiest things. You can bungee the tarp to trees/trekking poles/car to make a cooking area if it's wet out, or as a "landing strip" to put wet shoes on outside the tent (in the tent foyer if you have one/in the car), or as a poor person's reflector for a fire (handy for drying wet clothes!). You can even make a "porch" for your tent. An umbrella is also just the best thing to throw in a pack - it's good for rain as well as pounding sun. I also like a small brush and dustpan for the car and my shoes as well as a small nailbrush to get under my fingernails when I'm doing a lot of car camping.

Also! Also! Wyoming has a big campaign going on right now to combat pine beetle and other insects, so if you buy firewood to burn, don't take it with you to other places. The speed limit on many WY interstates is 80. Don't go that fast if it's windy.
posted by barchan at 9:15 PM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

How was your trip?
posted by scrubjay at 7:51 PM on October 1, 2017

Response by poster: It was so great I'm making plans to move out west! Here was my actual itinerary:

Day 1 - drive to Sioux Falls, stay in AirBnB
Day 2. - drove through Badlands and Black Hills, camped in Sundance, Wyoming
Day 3 - drove to Shell Creek campground, Bighorn National Forest (highly recommended)
Days 4 and 5 - spent in Yellowstone National Park, stayed at Bridge Bay campground
Days 6 and 7 - spent in Grand Teton National Park, Signal Mountain campground
Day 8 - extremely monotonous drive to campground at Pearl Lake State Park, Colorado
Day 9 - spent mostly in Steamboat Springs. Camped at Stagecoach State Park, Colorado
Day 10 - drove through Rocky Mtn National Park, stayed at Olive Ridge Campground, Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado
Day 11 - spent in Estes Park and Boulder, camped at Olive Ridge again
Day 12. stayed with friend near Boulder (in a house! with a shower!)
Day 13. drove to Omaha and stayed at AirBnB
Day 14. A very sad drive home

Grand Teton NP had, hands down, the best scenery. Pearl Lake was the best campground, unfortunately the combination of altitude and smoke from nearby fires made it hard to breathe.

The worst days of driving were day 8 through southwestern Wyoming (so boring I had to pull over and take a nap) and the last day, because it rained almost the entire time and I didn't want to leave. Mileage really wasn't much of a factor.

My itinerary worked out perfectly. I felt like I had enough time in each place to see what I wanted to see. I needn't have worried about the cold; turns out my sleeping bag is real down and I actually had to unzip it most nights because I was too warm.

scrubjay, you weren't kidding about keeping things organized. I started out shipshape, but after two weeks I was having to dig through multiple bags to find things. The one thing I would have done differently is packed better. For example, keeping shirts in one bag and pants in another was a dumb idea because I had to go through two bags to put together an outfit.

The entire trip cost about $1000 including gas, food, lodging and incidentals. Does not include the gear I bought.
posted by AFABulous at 9:55 PM on October 1, 2017

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