Normally when I say we’re heading back out on the road, we spend very little time on roads. We fly to our main destinations, take trains and metros to get around, and use our feet for most of our daily travel. But this time, our revised Leg 6, so different from the Leg 6 I’d meticulously planned out before the pandemic, we’re literally on the road. For hours and hours and miles and miles. Because the new Leg 6 is a 12-week road trip in our 20-year-old Honda Accord.
Home Wrap Up
We had a really great six weeks at home, though it again felt like a whirlwind, even though we were limited in what we could do and who we could see. We spent the first month in an Airbnb, a darling little apartment in the center of town that worked out great for us. We chose to do this in an abundance of caution, knowing we’d want to isolate our first two weeks back just in case, and also limiting the time we were exposing Chad’s folks by living with them. After our Airbnb month, we took a quick trip out to Bloomington, IN, to visit my friend, Sara. It was a lot of fun, though didn’t quite make up for her not being able to visit us in Costa Rica. Next time! We also were able to see our closest friends and spend time with our families, so all-in-all, our time in Missouri was satisfying. But we were REALLY ready to start traveling again.
Heading Out – Omaha and Sioux Falls
Day 1 was an 8-hour drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We took off bright and early at 7 a.m. because we wanted to make it to Omaha for our lunchtime stop. Being right on I-29, Omaha was a great choice for a stop, though the riverside park we hoped to picnic in was closed for construction. Luckily, we could cross right back over the border to Iowa and eat in the River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs. It was a lovely day and we really enjoyed walking across the Bob Kerrey Bridge into Omaha and back. A perfect stretching of the legs.
We arrived in Sioux Falls a little after 5 p.m. (we’ve found that an 8-hour drive easily becomes 10 hours with stops, etc.) and immediately unloaded the car at our highway-side hotel (review below) and headed downtown to check out the falls. They were more impressive than I expected and we had a nice long walk along the river there too. Afterward, it was time for our first motel meal. To avoid the expense and unhealthiness (both in terms of COVID and calorie counts) of restaurants, we brought along groceries, a hot plate, and basic cooking supplies. For night 1, I made an easy tortellini dish that used to be a staple for us – packaged tortellini, carrots, zucchini, and a jar of marinara sauce. It came together just as easily in the hotel as at home and I have to say, our hotel cooking on this leg was a success.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
On Day 2, we drove another 7+ hours to get to Bismark, about two hours from our first real destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This time I had premade a stir fry to just heat up in the microwave, but it again worked out well and lowered the riskiness of being on the road. At the gas stations and hotels where we did stop, we found varying degrees of COVID precautions, especially in the Dakotas. We got a super-early start the next morning to spend the day at our first national park of the trip (we plan to visit 10 or more during our 12 weeks on the road).
Since we didn’t get breakfast at the hotel (see review below), we indulged in Egg McMuffins, which were hearty enough to see us through our morning hike. The park is divided into two units. The north unit, where we started our day about 8 a.m., is a little more rustic and less visited. When we pulled through the ranger stand and showed our “America the Beautiful” annual park pass, the ranger warned us about mountain lion tracks on the trail we’d chosen. “And we have rattlesnakes. So mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and the bison are the three things to watch out for.” One of those things we saw, right away. Not far from the entrance, a lone bison was walking down the middle of the road. I snapped a photo as we passed.
When we arrived at the Caprock Coulee trailhead, there were no other cars in the lot, though another arrived as we were gearing up with sunscreen and our hiking sticks. We took the Buckhorn Trail to the prairie dog towns, which were even cooler than I expected. We walked right up into them on the trail, and there were hundreds, maybe thousands, over prairie dogs all around us. They didn’t seem the least bit concerned about humans and we had a lot of fun taking their pictures. By the time we returned to the car a little over an hour later, the parking lot was filling up and there were several couples either setting out on the trail or returning from shorter walks. We snacked on granola bars as we drove the hour and a half from the north unit to the south unit.
In the south unit, we found a spot with shaded picnic tables near the Cottonwood Campground, and chose the most isolated one on the far end. Afterwards, we drove to our trailhead, first coming upon a whole herd of bison at the road closure of the scenic loop drive. After plenty of photos, we headed on to our trailhead for the Lower Paddock Creek Trail. We again hiked in about 1.5 miles, crossing many other prairie dog towns (there are also prairie dog downs along the roadside in the south unit for people who don’t want to walk to them). The sun was blaring but it wasn’t too warm and it was a very pleasant hike. We really enjoyed our day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
By mid-afternoon, we were ready to make the two-hour drive to our next overnight stop in Miles City, MT. We also needed a trip to the Walmart Supercenter to restock groceries and get our motel meal for the night – a rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes, and snap peas that we could steam in the microwave. We saved over half the chicken to make soup with later on, but this was probably our tastiest meal of the trip.
Glacier National Park
It was a full day drive from Miles City to Whitefish, MT, which would be our base for visiting Glacier National Park. We made a long stop in Butte to have a little hike in Thompson Park. Butte was our second choice home base location and spending a little time there, we felt we would have enjoyed it. The park had dozens of trails and there were signs for many other nature areas all around. We finally arrived in Whitefish a little after 6 p.m. and after dropping off our stuff headed downtown in hopes of having our first dining out experience. Unfortunately, Whitefish was quite busy and almost none of the restaurants had outdoor seating. So, we moved on to Plan B – picking up a pizza from the local Jersey Boys Pizzeria and a six-pack. Luckily our hotel (review below) had some outdoor chairs, which someone had thoughtfully set up on a view overlooking the river. It was a lovely dining location and the artichokes on the veggie pizza made it better than average.
We knew we’d need an early start for Glacier, so we left at 6:30 a.m. the next day to reach the park by 7. While many of the popular trailheads had parking available still as we passed, unfortunately the one we wanted, Logan Pass, was full already. We decided we’d come back two hours earlier the next day and went to a backup trail, the trail to Siyeh Pass from the Gunsight Trailhead. It was a four-mile hike to Siyeh Pass that we then had to reverse back out, but there were nice things about it. For one, when we got started it was fairly isolated, though toward the end we started coming across more people. Still, it was nice to achieve that level of solitude in such a busy park. The view from inside the pass was gorgeous and we took lots of photos of glaciers. We also had a magical experience with a young deer who led us along the trail for a bit. After our 8-mile hike, we drove down by Lake McDonald for a picnic and then went back to our hotel for recovery and I had some work to do (grading; I managed a fair bit in the car, but grading discussion boards takes a higher degree of concentration). Chad made the chicken noodle soup out of our leftover chicken and we made it an early night.
The next day, we left for Glacier before 4:30 a.m., determined to get a Logan Pass parking spot. We brought our breakfast with us and by the time we arrived in the Logan Pass parking lot just before 6, there were already three dozen other cars there. But we got our spot, ate our breakfast, and geared up for the Hidden Lake Trail just as dawn was breaking. When we left on the trail a little before 6:30, the parking lot was pretty much full. But, it was a gorgeous time of day and since we were among the first on the trail, we didn’t have to contend with two-way trail traffic. We turned back at the Hidden Lake Overlook 1.5 miles in, both because that was our original plan, but also the rest of the trail had been closed due to “dangerous bear activity.”
We returned to the parking lot to leave behind our jackets and then went on to the High Line Trail, another very popular one. It was barely 7:30 when we headed out – earlier than we’d even arrived the day before. There were other people on the trail with us, but at least at that point we were all going in the same direction and there were several periods of time when we got some separation from others. And the views were breathtaking. We walked the 3.75 miles to Haystack Pass and enjoyed a well-deserved break (since it is a bit of a climb up the switchbacks at the pass). Then we made our way back. This time, there was quite a bit of two-way traffic, and it is a narrow trail on the side of a cliff. So we wore our masks often whenever we passed people. It was still a great experience, even with the crowds, and that will be a trail we always remember.
We gave up our sweet parking spot and drove down to the Sun Point picnic area to eat our lunch, and then it was time to head for our new month-long home in Libby. Leaving the park shortly after 1 p.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, there were well over 100 cars in line to get into the park (they were doing one-out, one-in at that point). It was a bit shocking to see the park so crowded. According to the travel forums, traditionally Labor Day weekend is not busy at Glacier, but during the pandemic, nothing is normal. And it is easy to see why Glacier is such a popular park. Since Libby is only a little over two hours from the park entrance (though close to four hours from the trails we did; it is a really big park), we hope to come back for an overnight trip sometime in the next month.
While this is a very different Leg 6 than the one I planned (which would have begun in July, with a week in England), a northwest road trip has been on our radar for a while and I think we’re going to have a great time. More than anything, I’m grateful we’re still finding a way to travel.
Microtel Sioux Falls, SD – Decent price but terrible wifi. Comfortable room with a really good layout and clean enough, easy grab-and-go breakfast options. The wifi was absolutely terrible and the hotel was very loud, both traffic noise from the highway and barking and whining from the dog next door in the morning. Also, very limited COVID protocols – no masks, letting people gather in the breakfast area
Americas Best Value Inn Bismark, ND – Good room but left with the unpleasant taste of no breakfast. Quiet hotel and very clean room, friendly front-desk person at check-in. We weren’t able to take any breakfast because the healthy options were refrigerated and another staff member had taken the refrigerator key home. Although they surely had additional items in the back to restock the refrigerator, and it was well past the time the breakfast was supposed to open at 6, and we were in a rush to get on the road, the employee just said it was against policy to give us anything. This seemed like a very bad attitude toward customer service when it would have been easy to give us a couple of yogurts from the back.
Super 8 Miles City, MT – Good place to stay. Though this hotel is showing its age, the room was clean. The room was a good size – we got a room with 1 queen bed and it was nice having the extra space without the second bed. Breakfast was adequate and the staff was nice and helpful.Stumptown Inn Whitefish, MT – Definitely recommended. Great location in Whitefish, very clean room that was a good size and comfortable, friendly front desk folks. The best part is they had some outdoor furniture and a small view of the river where there are stairs down to the trail. Since we weren’t able to find a restaurant with available outdoor seating, we brought back a pizza and sitting out and watching the river and it was very pleasant.