A Couple Big Loops Out West – 20 – 31 July 2012

Summary: 3,600+ miles in a couple big loops, two new states for Raegan and Ian, and one new state for me. Huge views of mountains, wildlife, science nerd stuff. A city we would like to retire to. Amazing trip.

We absolutely love the American West. The endless mountains, vast plains, and huge skies appeal to Raegan and I greatly. We have been able to travel to the western United States almost every year for the past 10 or so. Last year we were not able to due to summer school and my work commitments.

This year, Erin was selected to attend the Wyoming Wildlife Wonders program put on by the Girl Scouts and the Teton Science School, and as luck would have it, the dates of the WWW program was the week after Ian and I completed our backpacking trip during our Boy Scout summer camp.

Photos from the trip are on Google+/Picasa.

The trip out west started when Raegan and Erin drove from Oklahoma City to Tres Ritos, NM to pick us up. We took an easy drive into Taos for dinner, and then drove (mostly in the dark) to Alamosa, CO for the night. While we really enjoyed the backpacking trip, the long shower at the hotel was much appreciated!

We got up the next morning and headed to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Alamosa is in the Rio Grande drainage, and a tremendous amount of sand washed down from the mountains gets deposited in the large plain between the San Juan and Front Range mountains. A persistent wind from the SW blows the sand up against the back of the Front Range, and a lot of it piles up into huge sand dunes. They get up to 700+ feet, and you can hike up to the top. Erin and I walked out to the base of the dunes (it’s about a half mile from the Visitor Center) and up one of the short ones. It was interesting how the lower parts had a lot of rocks mixed in with the sand, but the dunes had none (I’d imagine this is because the winds easily blows the sand around, but the rocks are too heavy).

We headed north from Great Sand Dunes. We took County Road 6 to the west to pick up CO 17 (there was heck of a lot of sand long CR 6, I would imagine headed towards the National Park over time), headed north through the San Luis Valley along the alluvial fans from the mountains on both sides of us. We passed a couple largish arrays of solar panels; these are the 8.2MW SunEdison Photovoltaic (PV) power plant, one of (or maybe the) largest in the world. Here is a Google Earth image of the facility.

We continued on to Salida, CO, passing the Boy Scouts Rocky Mountain High Adventure Base just north of Poncha Springs. We were really impressed by the number of people recreating in the area orf Salida. Most of the recreation was in the Arkansas River. After lunch, we headed north towards Leadville. We drove through light rain and curvy roads through Buena Vista, with a series of 14ers in the Collegiate Range to our west.

We stopped for gas in Leadville, and it was chilly! A great relief for Raegan and Erin from the 100F+ temps of Oklahoma City. We had to take a slight detour off US 24 since is was closed due to a rockslide, but the detour lead us past the Climax Molybdenum mine at the Continental Divide. This huge facility seems to have a slurry pipe system that runs to the NE towards I-70.

We dove down towards I-70, drove past the huge ski area of Copper Mountain (which I had no idea was right on I-70), and blasted west in the rain through Vail. There were a number of what I started calling “wildlife diodes”, which are intended to keep deer and elk and such off the Interstate. We saw more of these in Wyoming. We continued off at CO 131, rarely seeing anyone until we crossed the Colorado River and a campsite that was chock full of tents and people rafting and canoeing. We continued to Oak Creek, and then took a side road, County Road 27. We did this to save about 50 miles from going on up to Steamboat Springs, then backtracking west; CR 27 “cut the corner”. I was not filled with confidence at this road, it was getting towards dark and based on the Country Road we left Great Sand Dunes on, I had vision of dragons in the wilderness. The road was excellent, though, and we drove past both the huge Peabody Energy coal mine and a coal fired power plant nearer Haydn.

We had an excellent dinner in Craig, then blasted north out of there watching a beautiful lightning show to the west and northwest. We found I-80, then headed due west to Rock Springs, WY, getting in around 2200 local. Our first days drive was a long roughly 475 miles.

The next day we needed to deliver Erin to Teton Science School between 1400 and 1600. We headed out along US 191 for the almost 200 mile trip. While we had nice mountains off to both sides (especially to the east), the terrain was really flat and desert like. We got into Jackson around noon, but had a heck of a time getting a lunch. A number of places were closed (I know it was Sunday, but still…), and several others were packed. We ended up in a sandwich shop that I wasn’t too impressed with. While we were trying to get out, it started pouring rain and it got much cooler. We drove out of Jackson and got Erin delivered to Teton Science School, in a light rain.

Raegan and Ian and I drove to the Teton National Park visitor center and checked it out, and drank in the Tetons. Just spectacular!

A note on lodging. I had made the Alamosa, Rock Creek, and Vernal reservations several weeks ago, but trying to get lodging in the Jackson/Teton/Yellowstone area was very difficult. There were rooms available at couple high-end places (like, $300+/night). I finally ended up getting a room for a couple nights in Idaho Falls, ID.

And so we headed to Idaho Falls after dinner in Jackson. We drove over Teton Pass, and then through some amazing wide valleys. We got to Idaho Falls around 1900.

From Idaho Falls, we went kind of nerdy. The next day we started by visiting the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls. The Museum had an excellent exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts from the time of Tutankhamun. Since both Raegan and Ian are fans of ancient Egypt, this was a nice way to start the day. After lunch, we drove out to the Idaho National Laboratory and toured the building where the first Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) was built and tested. We drove around the north side of the Lab property and back down to Idaho Falls. On the way out to EBR-1, we passed three volcanos that were south of the road; one was a cinder cone, the other two were shield volcanos. There was also a tremendous amount of lava rock along the road, and in one place a huge field of the stuff. This is what it looks like from Google Earth:

We noted that a line from the Craters Of The Moon National Monument through this area, it points to Yellowstone. Hmmm…

That evening, we walked along the Idaho Falls Falls. These are on the Snake River, and were originally built to provide hydropower for the city. One thing we realized later is that the Snake River originates in Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone River originates just south of Yellowstone. The Snake flows south from Yellowstone and ends up in the Pacific eventually, and the Yellowstone flows north into Yellowstone, and eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. The two rivers are only about 18 miles apart yet they are on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.

For our second day in Idaho Falls, we headed out to Craters of the Moon National Monument. On the way there, we stopped for lunch in Arcos, ID, which is the first city to get electrical power from atomic energy, thanks to the nuclear reactors in the INL. Craters of the Moon is the site of a tremendous amount of volcanic activity in the past. There are hills of pumice there 100ft+ high, giant rocks of pumice, and large fields of pumice. On Google Earth, the lava fields extend far to the south to the Twin Falls area, where pumice can be seen below the bridge over the Snake River. We know that because we headed that way via Shoshone. At Twin Falls, we hit a Barnes and Noble to get some reading material for Raegan and Ian, and then we headed to Pocatello for dinner, and finally back to Idaho Falls.

The next morning we headed north out of Idaho Falls for Bozeman, MT. This was largely due to the fact that Bozeman was the nearest town of size to Yellowstone that had rooms available. If I had thought about it a second more, I might have looked in the vicinity of the Big Sky area; I’m glad now I didn’t think of that.

We first went to Rexburg and had lunch. To the east, the back side of the Tetons were clear and beautiful. Rexburg was a fine town, with a university, clean, and very nice. We went to the Legacy Flight Museum at the airport there. They have no less than three P-51 Mustangs and a number of other aircraft. Ian was just lusting to sit in those cockpits.

It was a stunning drive up to Bozeman. There were a series of mountains, open valleys, lakes, canyons, and rivers. We had cell coverage for a lot of the time. There were huge numbers of people recreating in all this. We got to Bozeman around 1600 and found dinner. Dinner was some of the best pizza I have had, ever. Great stuff.

The next day we went shopping. We hit some outdoors stores, a couple markets, and then we hit the American Computer Museum (AKA the Museum of Modern Human Progress) at the local university campus. It was a great museum! Exhibits ranged from the earliest forms of communication, through an excellent display of early computers (PETs, TRS-80s, and the like), to mainframes and smart phones. The staff there was extremely knowledgable and enthusiastic.

After the museum we hiked up to a waterfall in the mountains above town. We got back into town in time to visit the Museum of the Rockies, which claims to have largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world. And a darn impressive collection it is. Most of the museum is fossils of one kind of another (and I’m really good with that). They also had an exhibition of Napoleonic artifacts, and one on early life in Montana. Great museum, and open until 2000!

A couple thoughts about Bozeman. Raegan and I could live there. The town is about 37K population, with about 80K in the area. They support an amazing array of food, recreation stores and outlets. There isn’t a preponderance of big box places, but they are there. That small town has at least two big outdoors outfitters (REI and what used to be a Sportsmans Warehouse). I christened Bozeman the City of Great Legs. There were runners and bikers everywhere, all the time. There is a new, large library that is open late. The downtown area was jumping each time we drove through it. The temps there in late July were wonderful. It took a 20-min drive to get into an area so full of trails that it would take years to walk them all. There is big-time skiing an hour away. Yellowstone and Teton are two hours south. Every restaurant we ate at was at least very good, and we were only there two days. I checked the climate stats, and while summers are outstanding, it doesn’t get that cold in the winters (highs Dec – Feb in the 30s, snowfall ranges from 11″ – 16″ each month). The town is cool! I’ve always wanted to live at least a winter season somewhere like Pagosa Springs, but Bozeman… a distinct possibility. I want to back there again in the summer, and in the winter.

The next day we headed out to Yellowstone. We went by Big Sky; it’s a Big Ski Area! Once into Yellowstone, we took the north loop over to Roosevelt, then down to the Falls, and the Lake, and finally over to Old Faithful. We saw lots of elk and bison (got caught in a bison jam at two points!), saw a sow bear and her two cubs, and saw a bald eagle from a distance. That place is beautiful!

We stayed overnight in Jackson in the Hampton Inn, got Erin from Teton Science School the next morning, and stayed in the National Park for a while, particularly Jenny Lake.

We had a long drive down to Vernal, UT. We had dinner in Rock Springs, and got into Vernal around 2100. The next day we visited Dinosaur National Monument, and drove Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. After dinner in Estes Park, we overnighted in Boulder, and then drove home over two days through Kansas.

The total cost of the trip was about $1,800. Total lodging cost for the trip of 11 nights was $117. I used points for nine of the nights, using both Priority Club and Hilton HHonors. I needed to buy 5,000 points with Priority Club for $40 for night 10, and the last night all the Hilton brand hotels in Salina, KS were booked, so I paid $77 for a night in the Staybridge Suites. We bought souvenirs all over the place. The major cost was restaurant food. Overall, it was a fairly inexpensive trip, and well worth it for the eye-opening views of the mountains, the wide open spaces of the west, and the cool temperatures. One note: I buy a full National Parks Pass every year (they are $80); I got it paid for and more just on this trip, not to mention the times I used it since I bought it at Yosemite last August.

We traveled like we usually do, casually. We don’t generally get up and leave at the crack of dawn. If we struggle out of the room by 1000, I’m pretty happy. We saw pretty much everything that we cared to see on this trip. There were some museums that Ian wanted to see in the Denver and Colorado Springs area, but we decided that a long weekend or over the holidays would be a good time to take a trip there (and maybe get a couple days skiing in as well!). Some places like Rocky Mountain NP; the best you can do is the Trail Ridge Road; anything more detailed and you are talking extended hiking.

This is a map of the trip courtesy of Google Maps.

So we made the trip with little fuss or issue. If we had flown Erin to her WWW activity, it would have set us back about $1,000, so a little extra got us an outstanding vacation for all four of us.

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One Response to “A Couple Big Loops Out West – 20 – 31 July 2012”

  1. Raegan Says:

    I could so go back to Bozeman. There were a lot of places in that town we didn’t have a chance to explore, and clearly that needs to be done. Museums, shops, that library, those trails, restaurants…. Also, I need more pizza.

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