After grabbing dinner at the Old Town Café in West Yellowstone, we gassed up the “Escape Mobile” and headed north to connect with U.S. 287 — a highway we had traveled countless times across north Texas, but never across Montana.
Hands down, the Montana portion is more interesting and beautifulwhile traversing the east bank of the Madison River, between canyon walls, and along the shorelines of several lakes.
Positioned in the lower western sky, the sun provided great photo opportunities of the lakes. (Photo above is Hebgen Lake.)
A particularly long stretch of a lake prompted our curiosity and called for us to stop at its overlook point. Quake Lake had been formed exactly fifty-five years prior when the combination of an earthquake, massive landslide, and subsequent rushing, rising water flooded the valley.
Just minutes after the quake and slide, the new lake began forming. In the following weeks, it grew to encompass an area five miles long and 190 feet deep.
The formation of the lake came at a great cost – twenty-eight people died the evening of the earthquake, either by drowning or being crushed in the landslide.
For Trey and I to be the only individuals standing above the former campground on the 55th anniversary date of its tragic demise, was surreal and humbling.
Before continuing the drive to Butte, where we would spend the night, we said a short prayer in honor of the lost souls.
The 316 mile trip from Butte to Spokane…included a seventy-four mile trek across the top of Idaho.
As we approached Idaho, the trees grew dense, steep ravines began crossing under Interstate 90, and fall colors dotted the hillsides.
We were in Idaho just long enough to realize we should have planned a stay there. Next time.
After settling into a hotel on the outskirts of Spokane, we headed downtown for dinner and a walking tour of the city. Spokane was a pleasant surprise because we had no expectations. No thoughts whatsoever, other than a place to sleep for the night. I think perhaps its location in eastern Washington, and its lack-luster name, conjures up images of dust and doldrums.
Spokane is the opposite — lively and lovely. The Spokane River runs through the city’s center. A river walking path was being extended as a part of a larger Riverfront Park renovation plan.
On to Mt. Rainier…
We stopped at a lookout point outside of Vantage, Washington to bask in our first sight of the immense Columbia River. Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park lay just beyond the opposite bank and was once home to the Wanapums, an indigenous, peaceful tribe of fishermen who are near extinction.
Old Stagecoach/Mail Route
A few hours after crossing the Columbia, and after refueling both the car and our bodies in Ellensburg, we soon caught our first glimpse of the mammoth Mount Rainier. The sighting renewed our energy and enthusiasm for the remaining two hour drive to our campsite.
We actually took three days to drive the 1,000 miles across the remaining mid-west to its western edge in the Black Hills National Forest. Neither Trey nor I recall the exact reason, but agree that the difficulty booking accommodations in the Black Hills may have influenced that decision.
As it was, we spent the first evening after departing Chicago in Des Moines, Iowa. Not a completely unremarkable city in that we could see for miles from the unobstructed view of our third floor hotel room where we had arrived just in time to see a somewhat remarkable sunset.
We had not traveled far down Interstate 80 the next morning when I saw a sign for the turn off to Madison County and its famed bridges. We did not turn and I felt a tinge of disappointment at the time which has since turned into regret — I will have to get back there.
We were to cut up Interstate 29 just east of the Missouri River which serves as the border between Iowa and Nebraska. Instead, we detoured across the Missouri and looped through the city of Omaha just so we could say we’d been to Nebraska – a first for both of us.
The reasons behind our Black Hills booking difficulty began appearing more numerously as we headed further west – Motorcycles. As in Chicago, our visit to the Black Hills had unknowingly coincided with a major tourist event – this time it was the 74th Annual Sturgis Black Hills Motor Classic.
After crossing the Missouri a third time and into the town of Oacoma, South Dakota, ours was one of only a few automobiles spattered among the Harley Davidsons parked outside of the Howard Johnson’s for the evening.
Soon after departing Oacoma, the landscape changed to rolling mounds of a golden color that I had never seen in nature. I failed to capture a photo so the image lies solely in my memory.
THE BLACK HILLS
We had felt lucky to have snagged the last available room at the Coyote Blues Village Bed and Breakfast when we had called the owner from a payphone in Ottawa. We hadn’t know just how lucky we were until we had arrived at the secluded, yet conveniently located inn outside of Hill City, in the heart of Black Hills National Forest.
The owners are from Switzerland and were just as charming and welcoming as the surrounding environment. It was full of European charm from the Swiss chalet feel of the inn to the traditional breakfasts of cured meats, cheeses, eggs and fruit. Each guest room is decorated in a different theme. We stayed in the Turkish room and had a private patio and sauna overlooking the valley below the inn. We took advantage of the views, patio and sauna each of the three nights of our stay.
We also enjoyed breakfast each morning on an outdoor deck with friendly bikers and travelers, and loved the comradery and sharing stories of the road.
Once we had settled into our room, we headed to nearby Mt. Rushmore with the excitement of children. It was raining and the wet winding roads were challenging for the bikers, but provided us with a unique photo opportunity.
The park service has done a nice job in tastefully accommodating thousands of daily visitors while preserving, best as possible, the mountain’s and surrounding area’s natural states. The walk way up to view the monument, along with the amphitheater at its base are a bit over the top, yet successfully achieve the goal of provoking patriotism.
We highly recommend an evening visit for the film on the monument’s history and stories of each of its presidents.
The evening program ended with a touching tribute to our country’s armed services’ veterans.
Hiking in Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park provides access to over a dozen trails including South Dakota’s 111-mile Centennial Trail that wends through the Black Hills from Butte Bear in the north to Wind Cave National Park in the south.
We chose, at the recommendation of a fellow traveler, to tackle the less lengthy trek to Little Devil’s Tower. The trailhead is located a mile east of Sylvan Lake’s parking lot and the trail is an easy walk through a grassy birch forest for about the first half mile…
at which point it becomes increasingly more difficult.
It is the last section that earns this hike the label of “strenuous” as the trail sharply ascends through and over rocky passages to the apex.
The surrounding views from the top of Little Devil’s Tower are well worth the trip — being surrounded by the Black Hills with Black Elk Peak (Harney’s Peak at the time) and its stone tower to the north…
and Cathedral Spires to the southeast.
We then drove east on Highway 87 from Sylvan Lake and through a section called “Needles Highway” for the towering spires that the road twists around.
Several narrow tunnels on the route limit traffic to automobiles and motorcycles, so no RV’s or trucks.
Crazy Horse Monument
This massive sculpture has been a work in progress since 1948 and has received no federal funding, per the wishes of Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear who had envisioned such a memorial to honor all Native Americans. Chief Standing Bear had been inspired, so to speak, by the carving of nearby Mt. Rushmore.
The design is based on a pointing gesture and response that Crazy Horse is said to have given a snarky U.S. Calvary man who had asked him, “Where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse’s response was, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
The carving efforts have been in the hands of a single family, the Ziolkowskis, who rely on admission fees, gift shop and concession sales, and private donations to continue their work.
To provide some idea as to how tedious the hand carving process is, Crazy Horse’s face was unveiled in 1998. To provide a sense of the size the finished sculpture is to be at some point in the future, that will mostly likely be beyond my lifetime, Crazy Horse’s pointing arm is 263 feet long and his horse’s nostrils are to be 26 feet in diameter.
The Black Hills were a fitting first step into the wild and beautiful west and provided us with a taste of the wonder that laid before us.
Up Next, Devils Tower and the Battle of Little Bighorn National Monuments…
Meanwhile, here’s some more of our favorite pics!
View of Cathedral Spires from Little Devil’s Tower
Adirondacks Park is large — 6 million acres, in fact, and although it is a designated protected area by the State of New York, it is not a state administered park. Instead, the hundreds of campgrounds scattered across the park are individually run either privately or by various public entities. The park’s lack of having a central authority and website made researching where we wanted to camp within the 6 million acres challenging. Not that there’s a lack of information on the internet; there is tons of information across numerous websites that we found a bit overwhelming.
We knew we wanted a semi-secluded lakeside campsite close to hiking trails. After many hours of research spread over several weeks, we settled on Little Sand Point located in the south-central part of the park. Its website included a couple of picturesque lake photos and one of a campsite. The description of the campground included the words “serenity”, “nestled” and “secluded.”
To get there, we chose a 150 mile driving route from Plattsburgh, New York that entered the park from the north and took us directly through the middle of the park, along several lakes and through numerous small towns — we were surprised at how rustic and isolated some of the communities seemed. Although the road was a bit rough for having bicycles on the back, it was a lovely drive. It is easy to imagine the area as a giant beautiful bouquet of color in the fall.
We arrived at the Little Sand Point campground about 5 p.m. to find that campsites were about 100 feet off of the main highway and that our site was located directly below where the campground’s dirt road turned around. There were car tracks where someone had missed turning that led directly to where we were to pitch our tent! Although our site was directly on beautiful Lake Piseco, it was also located next to a house with a barking dog and an upset baby. The campground was mostly vacant so we walked through other sites looking for a better option. We found no site with a level tent area, decent fire pit, nor any that were “serene” or “nestled.”
After about 45 minutes of weighing our best options and trying to be positive about this campground, we climbed back into the Escape Mobile and headed north. Our plan was to stay in Lake Placid unless we found a lodge or cottages along the route where we felt we’d be comfortable.
Lake Placid, New York
We arrived in Lake Placid about 9:00 p.m. with no place to stay. Trey cruised Main Street a couple of times looking for vacancy signs while I searched from my phone. Out of frustration, we pulled off of Main into a parking lot and connected a laptop to our mobile Wi-Fi. Initial results for the few name brand hotels were well over budget, and, I suspect due to the late hour, calls we made to locally owned lodges were not answered.
Just as I began to worry about our situation, I was startled by a sudden knocking and the appearance of a disheveled man at my passenger side window. A better look at his face revealed that there was no need to worry and I rolled down the window. In a British accent he asked us if we needed help. I explained that we were just looking for a place to stay. Turns out, the parking lot was for a lodge, Wildwood on the Lake, and was owned by the family of the gentleman’s wife – he handled maintenance and supervised the cleaning staff. He had just stepped outside to make sure something was locked when he spotted us.
He stated that he had a couple of rooms available, that he would ask his wife to reopen the office, and that they’d give us good deal. This is just one example of several on our North America travels where the solution found us – when and wherever we had a significant need, the universe quickly responded.
We were most grateful, and ended up spending three restful nights on the bank of beautiful Lake Placid. The inn was rustic, quiet and clean, and its stretch of shoreline more than provided the peaceful lakeside experience we had sought.
Lake Placid’s Main Street is the city’s business and tourist center and runs along the west bank of Mirror Lake – not Lake Placid.
Although Lake Placid is nearby, it is the much smaller Mirror Lake that is the hub for water related recreation, lakeside dining and accommodations.
We enjoyed strolling and window shopping along Main Street. This charming city is a mix of early 20th century buildings at its center, bookended by expansions resulting from the 1980’s Winter Olympics economic boost.
Both the 1936 and 1980 Olympic Centers sit at the south end of Main along with the outdoor skating area where Eric Heiden won five gold medals for the U.S.
The original 1936 center is now a museum commemorating both the games.
The village now hosts an annual Iron Man competition. This was the cause for our difficulty in finding accommodations. Athletes were beginning to arrive to acclimate and train for the July 27th race.
One afternoon we rented a canoe and slowly paddled around the perimeter of the Mirror Lake — two swim lanes had been set up in the middle of the lake for the Iron Man competition and several swimmers were using them.
When we completed our circle the sun was low in the sky and the other watercraft and swimmers were heading to shore. We instead headed to the middle point of the lake to get check out the swim lanes. Soon after, we found that we were alone on the lake – it was entirely ours. A gift.
As stated in the “About” page of this blog, Trey and I both were responsible for the care of our ailing parents. Over a period of 10 years from April of 2001 to August of 2011, we did our best to ensure they were safe, well cared for, and maintained the best quality of life possible despite their various diseases. The latter part of this period was particularly stressful. A frequent fantasy of mine was to row a canoe out to the middle of a calm, empty lake and simply lie down in the canoe, look at the sky, and in that moment be responsible for nothing.
I have learned when one receives a gift, it should be embraced and appreciated fully. So, I laid down in the canoe, and simply admired the sky, feeling so very grateful for the peace that I now enjoy.
As for Lake Placid, we also experienced it via the Peninsula Nature Trails that wind through a landmass on the southern part of the lake. The trails provide a wonderful natural retreat within walking distance of the city.
The trails’ access point is not well marked – it is simply an unmarked road that appears to be a driveway and is located between the Comfort Inn and Howard Johnson’s restaurant.
The Village of Lake Placid is a bit off the beaten path, particularly for us Texans, but it was a wonderful refuge and allowed us to experience the beauty of the Adirondacks.
My favorite Lake Placid meal was enjoyed at Milano North. It was well out of our budget but at least we were satisfied that we received what we paid for. Milano North provided a comfortable, but upscale setting and, for me, the best formal fish dish experienced on our trip.
Trey preferred the spaghetti and meatballs at Jimmy’s 21, which offers an affordable and quality dining experience on Mirror Lake.
The Breakfast Club is a popular breakfast spot and we found that the food was well worth the wait we encountered on both of our visits — yes, it was good and reasonable enough to merit a return trip.
This is a record of Trey & Martha's 2014 U.S. travel adventures