The Oregon Coast – Part Two

Our original plan after Winchester Bay was to make our way to Crater Lake for the Crater Lake Rim Run. Because of a wild fire burning in the northeast corner of the park, we had been keeping an eye on the air quality conditions, which got worse everyday. A few days before the race, we decided to pull the plug on the trip. We didn’t want to drive all that way to see beautiful Crater Lake in a smoky haze and we didn’t want to put our health at risk by running the race. We were disappointed about canceling a trip that we had been looking forward to for four months. Months worth of our route had been determined by this trip to Crater Lake and this became a learning experience for us — DO NOT plan things so far in advance. Anyway, with Crater Lake out, we had to figure out where we were going to stay. It was a weekend, in summer, on the Oregon Coast, with three days’ notice — not easy conditions. We called around and checked online for more than two hours for anywhere along the coast from Coos Bay to Florence, and I happened upon one site available at Jessie M. Honeyman State Park for the three nights we needed.

Jessie M. Honeyman State Park

Address: 84505 Highway 101 S, Florence, OR 97439

Phone: (541) 997-3641

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Yurts
  • Tent Sites
  • Hiker/Biker Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Picnic Table & Fire Ring
  • Firewood for Sale
  • Dump Station
  • Water Fill
  • Playground
  • Lake with Boat Rentals and Swim Beach
  • OHV Access to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Check in isn’t until 4pm, which was a little tough for us because we came from Winchester Bay, 35 minutes away, where check out was 11am. We pulled over in a turnout on the way to kill time, but we still got to the campground around noon. Since I pre-registered, they basically checked us in at that time and said we could drive past our site to see if the previous people had left yet (check out is 1). We drove through, scraping our sway bars on every single gigantic speed bump along the way and saw that the people had not left yet. Per the check-in person’s advice, we drove back out and pulled into the day use area to wait. There is a lot of parking in day use, including some RV spots. We ate lunch and explored the area a bit until 1, and then headed back into the campground – after we removed our sway bars. This time the people were gone and we didn’t scrape any speed bumps.

We stayed in site H381, which is one of the shortest sites throughout the huge campground. When we pulled up to it, we weren’t sure we’d be able to back into it, as it was at the opposite angle in regards to the direction of traffic and it was small. Even the camp hosts right across from us were certain we wouldn’t fit. We inched our way back and forth until we got in and once we did, we noticed the site was much longer than the labeled 31 feet, just difficult to access. We had an electric and water hookup, but as this was a short stay, we only hooked up electric and used our full freshwater tank (which we filled at our last place) for the duration. This is a huge campground (over 400 sites) and its main draw is the access to the dunes right next door. Because we were in H Loop, the loop directly next to the dunes, all we heard all day long was the engines of the various OHV vehicles, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Cleawox Lake is located within Honeyman Park. The Lodge offers a swim beach, restrooms, and boat rentals. We rented a kayak for an hour ($10) one morning and paddled around the lake a bit. The lake isn’t huge, so an hour is really all you need.

Honeyman State Park is a few miles south of Florence, one of the nicest little towns you’ll find on the Oregon Coast. There’s a Historic Old Town district home to restaurants, shops, and art galleries. We ate at three different places in Florence, and Bridgewater Ocean Fresh Fish and Zebra Bar was by far the best! We also did some shopping at a great little store in Florence called Artêfacts.

Heceta Head Lighthouse is located 12 miles north of Florence. Of all the Oregon lighthouses we visited, and we saw 6 of 9, this one probably has the most picturesque location. First illuminated in 1894, the 56-foot tower sits 205 feet above the ocean. There’s a half-mile, uphill walk from the parking area, which has a day-use fee of $5, which was free for us with our State Park campground pass. There’s also a network of trails around the lighthouse, including one that connects to the popular Hobbit Trail. The lighthouse is currently closed to tours due to restoration. Also on the property is the old lighthouse keeper’s house, which is currently used as a bed and breakfast.

The beach in this picture is adjacent to the parking area. The bridge is Hwy 101.
You’ll notice a white curtain is drawn inside the top of the lighthouse. When a lighthouse is functioning, the lens around the lightbulb is constantly in motion. When the lens stops turning and sits still, there’s potential for a fire to start by sunlight passing through the lens, which is basically a very strong magnifying glass. The curtain is drawn to prevent this from happening.

While we were grateful to find a place to stay somewhat last minute, we wouldn’t stay at Honeyman State Park again unless we had to. It was too loud and too busy for our liking; although, being in Florence was really nice.

 

Bastendorff Beach County Park

Address: 63379 Bastendorff Beach Road, Coos Bay, OR 97420

Phone: (541) 888-5353

Amenities:

  • Water and Electric Hookups
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Playground
  • Dump Station
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring

While the address for Bastendorff Beach County Park says Coos Bay, a more accurate location is Charleston, a small fishing village eight miles southwest of Coos Bay. Because of this location, the campground is a 20-25 minute drive from what Coos Bay has to offer. The campground shows its age and we wouldn’t stay here again, but it did the job. There is no area to check in, but I always put the information (confirmation number, site number, hookups, balance owed) in my calendar on my phone, so I knew where we were going. Our site was very private, though just barely long enough to park our truck in front of the Airstream. The campground was pretty quiet, except for the distant fog horn that sounded every 20 seconds or so throughout the night. Access to the beach is a half mile down the main road. This was the only beach of all the beaches we visited in Oregon that was gross. Garbage. A man peeing. Excrement that was possibly human. Apparently, up until very recently, people were allowed to sleep on the beach. Sounds dreamy, right? The area was more of a homeless tent city than a nice family getaway, so the city put the kibosh on that. We spent five nights here, and as it was only water and electric hookups, we had to conserve water usage so as not to fill the grey and black tanks. We made it through the week, but did end up dumping a grey tank that was at 100% capacity.

A few miles south of Bastendorff Beach is the Cape Arago Lighthouse. It is currently owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. There is no (legal) public access to the lighthouse, but there is an overlook just south of Sunset Bay State Park. The fog horn that sounds through the night comes from the Cape Arago Lighthouse.

There are three State Parks just south of Bastendorff Beach: Sunset Bay State Park, Shore Acres State Park, and Cape Arago State Park. Oregon has 36 state parks along the coast. The main purpose of these parks seems to be to preserve the land, as opposed to preserving a historic interest, recreational potential, or a natural wonder, as you find in other state parks. These coastal parks are generally trees with some trails that lead to one of the many beaches. Don’t get me wrong — I love that Oregon has set aside all of this land for public access! It’s just that so far, the many state parks we had visited in the previous four weeks on the coast had all been the same without much excitement. Shore Acres State Park was a little something different than the usual.

Shore Acres SP was a delightful and unexpected little park. It was once the grand estate of pioneer timber baron Louis Simpson, and features a beautiful botanic garden. There’s a formal garden, a Japanese-style garden with lily pond, and two rose gardens. Of course, there are also trails, one of which leads to secluded Simpson Beach. There’s also an observation building, which sits where the Simpson mansion once stood, to protect you from the elements as you view the ocean. We were lucky enough to see a lone grey whale just off shore.

This is a nice little park if you’re in the area. FYI: No dogs allowed. They are not allowed outside of vehicles. Also, there’s a $5, cash only, parking pass fee. There’s an onsite gift shop that does accept credit cards.

The Coos Bay and North Bend area is the Coast’s largest urban area and you’ll find more restaurants, shops, and services here than most anywhere else along the Coast. We visited 7 Devil’s Brewing a couple of times while staying at Bastendorff Beach and I’d recommend a visit if you find yourself in the area.

 

Humbug Mountain State Park

Address: 39745 Hwy 101, Port Orford, OR 97465

Phone: (541) 332-6774

Amenities:

  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Water & Electric Hookups
  • Tent Sites
  • Hiker/Biker Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Picnic Table with Fire Ring
  • Dump Station
  • Firewood for Sale
  • Short Trail to Beach

This was a really nice little campground with 90 sites; two-thirds tent, one-third RV.

There is a short trail to the beach from the campground, and seeing as through the campground is the only way to access the beach, it’s very unpopulated.

There are a couple of trails within Humbug Mountain State Park. One is the Humbug Mountain Trail, which is a moderately difficult 5-mile loop. The other trail, the Old Hwy 101 Scenic Trail, is 2.6 miles one way and is part of the 425-mile Oregon Coast Trail. We did a portion of the Old Hwy 101 Trail.

This gate is off to the right as you drive into the main part of the campground.
Some portions of the trail were black top, some gravel.
There are wild berries everywhere!
There are some pretty great views!

Port Orford had some of the prettiest coastal views we had seen up to this point, including the views from Battle Rock City Park right in town.

We visited one last lighthouse while in this area — Cape Blanco Lighthouse. It’s the oldest standing lighthouse on the Coast and is the westernmost point in Oregon. Just up the road from the lighthouse is the Hughes House, a restored home of an early settler (whose son was a lighthouse keeper at Cape Blanco for 37 years). The views from the lighthouse are gorgeous, but the wind, a calm 22 mph while we were there, is something else. This is not somewhere I’d like to experience a winter!

Humbug Mountain in Port Orford was a great place to wrap up our stay on the Oregon Coast. We ate at a couple of restaurants in Port Orford —  we’d recommend The Crazy Norwegians. We also hadn’t been at a place with laundry facilities for a bit, so we hit up Busy Bubbles, which is a (very clean) laundromat AND a self-serve car wash (which has a bay large enough for an RV). There are a few places we wish we would’ve had time to explore, the city of Bandon being one of them, but we’ll definitely be back!

Off to the Redwoods!

 

The Oregon Coast – Part One

A little less than a month ago, we were sitting in Spokane, complaining about the endless heat that we had been experiencing for the previous eight weeks, and we decided enough was enough. We had a route planned from Spokane through central Oregon (Deschutes/Bend areas) to Crater Lake, where we were going to run the Crater Lake Rim Run mid-August. All of these areas were forecasting temps in the 90s (not to mention quite a few wildfires), so we scrapped the plan. We had been seeing Instagram posts from people on the Oregon Coast that were enjoying temps in the 60s and low 70s and we decided we wanted to be those people too. As the Oregon Coast is very popular this time of year due to the rest of the country basically melting, we knew it’d be difficult to find spots, so we wanted to have definitive reservations. We searched and called and called and searched, asking places if they had ANY availability during the date range we were looking for. After piecing together 5 nights at Harborview Inn & RV Park in Garibaldi and 10 nights at Winchester Bay RV Resort in Winchester Bay, we filled in the blanks with one night at the Lincoln City KOA (which is actually in Otis) and three nights at the Waldport/Newport KOA in Waldport.

Before I go any further, I want to explain the wonderfulness that is the Oregon Coast. Thanks to Oregon’s 1962 Beach Bill, the public has free, unrestricted access to all of the state’s beaches. The 36 State Parks (averaging one every 10 miles) found driving down the 101 allow for numerous places to pull off to enjoy the view, picnic, use a restroom, or stroll on the beach. The 362 miles of the Oregon Coast is really the perfect place for a road trip!

 

Harborview Inn & RV Park

Address: 302 S 7th Street, Garibaldi, OR 97118

Phone: (503) 322-3251

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thrus (Kind Of)
  • Hotel
  • Laundry
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Bay Views
  • Crab Pod and Cooker Rentals
  • Cable TV

Harborview is a small RV park and hotel on Tillamook Bay, in the small fishing village of Garibaldi, just north of Tillamook. Most of the sites are drive-in sites, meaning they cater to motorhomes, as the hookups are on the opposite side for a backed-in trailer. We had site 7, which they consider a pull-thru site, though that involves driving down a curb, which we realized when we were leaving our Airstream isn’t able to do. Our site was labeled as being 52 feet, but was much smaller, so we had to park our truck elsewhere, which is fine due to the number of parking spaces they have around the hotel. The site was very level, we had full hookups, and the weather was perfect — so we were literally happy campers. Sites 23 thru 30 are waterfront sites with great views, but honestly, the view from every site is pretty decent.

Site 7
Max LOVED the fresh air and watching the world go by outside the open windows!

The town of Garibaldi is very small, but does have a decent little grocery store and a nice gas station. For those who have never gotten gas in Oregon — it’s state law that they pump it for you. The gas station employee started panicking when Travis tried to pump it himself, not knowing the law, though you can pump it yourself after 6pm. There are also a few restaurants, a few shops, a Coastguard station, and a train that does scenic rides to Rockaway Beach and back. Garibaldi’s location on Tillamook Bay, as opposed to the ocean, seems to allow for more clear, sunny days than other parts of the coast. Rockaway Beach is only a 10-minute drive north, yet any time we drove through there, there were overcast skies with a thick marine layer.

We had delicious fish tacos at Source, a restaurant right in Garibaldi. Their hours are weird, so make sure you check to see if they’re open before you go — but definitely go!

An intact former U.S Coast Guard Lifeboat Station sits at the end of a pier across the bay from the RV park. It became fully operational in 1937 and could accommodate two 36-foot motor lifeboats and one 26-foot oar-powered surfboat. It was decommissioned in the early 1960s when the Coast Guard relocated to a new facility.

The view of the pier from Harborview Inn & RV Park.
The decommissioned Lifeboat Station is open to the public at various times.

It’s a short drive (about 12 minutes) down to the famous Tillamook Creamery. They recently completed a huge expansion with a food hall, retail space, production process viewing area, and of course, cheese samples. The place is chaotic, but the food is terrific (check out their menu here) and there are ice cream flavors found nowhere else. I highly recommend a visit, but pack your patience.

The food hall has three parts: Area to order from the menu, which is full of deliciousness using local ingredients; Ice cream; and Yogurt & Espresso Bar
Oh. My. Word. The cheese curds. The BEST we’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot as were were born and raised in Wisconsin.
The retail area has Tillamook food products and logowear, gifts, and products from local companies such as beer. Lots and lots of beer.
Mmmmmm!
You’re able to watch the full manufacturing process during the self-guided tour.
Of course, you have to finish the day with ice cream! Travis got the special batch Pendleton Whiskey & Maple and I got the Caramel Toffee Crunch.
Cheers!

Cannon Beach is a 45-minute drive north from Garibaldi. We made the drive twice; once to visit the beach and Haystack Rock, and the second time to eat lunch at Pelican Brewing. It’s a beautiful little town, probably the nicest you’ll find on the coast, but during the summer it’s BUSY. Just know going into it that parking might be tough, but the beauty of the beach is worth it!

Haystack Rock – You know it’s going to be big, but when you see it in person, it’s really BIG!
It was such a beautiful day when we visited — windy — but beautiful!
The beach is so big too!
Max loved running around on the beach!
Pelican Brewing has decent food and good beer.

During our stay in Garibaldi, we also made a few other stops while exploring:

Cape Meares Lighthouse – Inactive, Built in 1890, Tillamook Bay

Tip: When driving there, follow the route along 131, not Bayocean Road. Bayocean Road is closed near the end and the lighthouse is not accessible by car this way. It should take about 40 minutes from Garibaldi.

Short Beach – Pretty much every beach on the Oregon coast is beautiful, and there are a lot of them, but Short Beach, just south of the Cape Meares Lighthouse, is above average. The trail from the road through the woods to the beach feels like a secret and opens onto the beach, which also feels like a secret.

 

Lincoln City KOA

Address: 5298 NE Park Lane, Otis, OR 97368

Phone: (541) 994-2961

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Thrus
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Laundry
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Cable TV
  • Playground
  • Horshoes
  • Propane Fill
  • Dumpstation
  • Dog Area (Not Very Good)
  • Breakfast (For a Charge)

We stayed at the Lincoln City KOA for one night. The campground is located on Devils Lake, though you can’t actually see the lake from the campground. If we had been in the area longer, I’m sure we would have explored the opportunities the lake had to offer. Our site was a pull-thru, which is what we always try to get when we’re staying somewhere for just one night. We generally fill our freshwater tank and empty our black and grey tanks before leaving our previous spot so that when we pull in to our new spot for one night, all we have to do is hook up electricity, which makes for an easy set up. The only way I would stay at this campground again is if it were in a pull-thru site like we had. The campgrounds sits on a hill, but the pull-thrus are nicely leveled and easy to pull in to. The back in sites on the opposite side of the street from the pull-thrus would be difficult to get into because you have to back in uphill with a lot of speed bumps in the way. Things level out at the bottom of the hill where there are cabins and more back in sites, but those site are small and very close together. There’s an onsite Mel’s Kitchen, which offers a pretty large breakfast menu.

Site 12 – Fairly Level
Site 12 – Decent Privacy from Neighbors

We were able to get settled in early and quick enough to do the Cascade Head Trail hike, which is about a 10-minute drive from the KOA. Rumor has it this is one of, if not thee, most beautiful hikes on the Oregon Coast. The hike is about five miles roundtrip, but can be extended a tad in order to make it about 6.5 miles. It starts out in a forest which then opens up to a hilly, prairie area. No dogs are allowed on this trail due to ground nesting birds. There are pit toilets at the trailhead parking lot. The last part of the trail between the lower and upper viewpoints has a pretty good incline, which makes this a moderately rated trail.

 

Waldport/Newport KOA

Address: 1330 NW Pacific Coast Hwy, Waldport, OR 97394

Phone: (541) 563-2250

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Fire Pit & Picnic Table
  • Laundry
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Playground
  • Recycling
  • Bay View Sites
  • Cable TV

Guys, we loved this KOA! It was small, well maintained, and had great views of Alsea Bay from many sites. The laundry room was nice (and busy), there’s a community fire pit that’s lit promptly at 5pm every evening, and they have recycling bins, which is so uncommon for pretty much everywhere (sad, but true). Our site was a small back in, but we had no trouble getting into it.

We had a nice view of Alsea Bay out our back window.
Site 18 was small and cozy but also nice and private.

We loved the little town of Yachats (pronounces Yah Hots), about a 15-minute drive, and wish we would’ve discovered it sooner. We ate at Yachats Brewing and it was soooo good! Fantastic farm-to-table food that felt real good in our tummies and Travis really enjoyed their beer too.

We were a little busy with work while we stayed in Waldport, but did explore the area a bit. We took a nice long walk on the beach at Ona Beach State Park. We stopped in at the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center which is located in the Siuslaw National Forest. There’s a campground and a number of trails here and we hope to be able to explore it more thoroughly some day. We also stopped at Seal Rock and Thor’s Well, which is a bowl-shaped chasm along the rocky shore that seems to magically fill and empty in conjunction with the waves.

Ona Beach State Park
Cape Perpetua Scenic Overlook
Seal Rock
Seal Rock
Thor’s Well
Thor’s Well

 

Winchester Bay RV Resort

Address: 120 Marina Way, Winchester Bay, OR 97467

Phone: (541) 271-0287

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Laundry
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Cable TV
  • Playground
  • Bay Views

We were able to score a spot at this beautiful RV resort for 10 nights! We had to move once, but it was well worth it as this was one of the nicest places we’ve stayed. It’s probably the best place we’ve stayed in regards to Max, as there’s a nice, long paved trail along the bay, lots of green grass, and dog waste bag dispensers throughout the park. As with the other places we stayed along the coast up to this point, we didn’t experience any of the wind the Oregon Coast is known for, thanks to being on the bay and not the ocean. We probably had more grey days than sunny here, but it was still much better than the heat we would’ve had if we had stayed on our original route.

Pretty much every site has a view of either Winchester Bay or the Umpqua River, as the resort sits on a peninsula.
We first were on Site 45, then Site 41. Both are one of their small, interior sites. Plenty long, we just needed to park the truck elsewhere.
We spent many nights outside by the fire, enjoying the sunset.

Winchester Bay is just south of Reedsport, where you can find grocery stores, gas stations, fast food, restaurants, a hospital, a post office, and the visitor center for the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. There are a few restaurants and shops in Winchester Bay, but this is another quiet little fishing town like Garibaldi. We ate at Griff’s on the Bay twice, which is located in Winchester Bay. Their fish and chips are so good!

The fish was lightly breaded and so buttery!

We also ate at Harbor Light Restaurant in Reedsport, which had AMAZING pot pies and dessert to satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. We drove down to Coos Bay, about a 30-minute drive, to 7 Devils Brewing for dinner one night. Again, great beer and food.

The Mill Casino in North Bend, just north of Coos Bay, had a Food Truck Off one weekend that featured 20+ food trucks, live music, and beer. Each food truck had a $2 sample available in addition to their regular menu, so we were able to get a taste of what quite a few had to offer.

The Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area is located in Reedsport, and is just a short drive from the RV park. Every evening a large group (about 100) of elk wander into a field to graze. It’s a pretty neat sight, seeing so many large animals altogether.

The Oregon Dunes Recreation Area stretches approximately 40 miles along the Oregon Coast from Florence to North Bend. There are large sections set aside for off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, and you’ll find many campgrounds in that 40-mile stretch that cater to the OHV crowd. Winchester Bay has OHV access points by Umpqua Lighthouse State Park. We did the short hike from the John Dellenback Dunes Trailhead in Lakeside, which is just south of Winchester Bay.

We really enjoyed our time in Winchester Bay, as well as everywhere else along the coast thus far. It’s been great having such nice weather and moving at a little bit slower pace, which is what you find in these small coastal towns. Tomorrow we head up to Florence to continue exploring the coast, so look for a post about The Oregon Coast – Part Two soon!

 

Hood Park – Burbank, WA

As we drove from Spokane to the Oregon coast, we stopped at Hood Park for one night. This is an Army Corps of Engineers campground that is located on Lake Wallula. Our National Parks Interagency Access Pass gave us 50% off the $24 nightly fee, though there is a $10 reservation fee, which means we paid $22 for the one night. All sites have electric hookups and there are water spigots available throughout the campground.  There are restrooms and showers, neither of which we used. There’s also a small amphitheater where they show kids movies on Saturday nights during the summer.

Address: 592 Camp Circle, Burbank, WA 99323

Phone: (509) 547-2048

Amenities:

  • Pull Thrus
  • Electric Hookups
  • Water Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Amphitheater
  • Playground
  • Gate Locked from 10pm-6am
Site 20 – Nice and Level with Shade

North Spokane RV Campground

We stayed at North Spokane RV Campground for six nights. When we booked it, we were unsure of Travis’s work travel schedule and we wanted to be somewhere for a week near an airport in case he needed to visit a customer onsite. That didn’t end up happening, so we spent the week doing some work, doing some exploring (though the heat made it difficult), doing laundry, getting hair cuts, getting the truck’s oil changed, picking up our mail, and various other errand-type things. It was also during this week, after many, many weeks of temps in the high 80s and 90s, that we decided to alter our upcoming route through central Oregon and make our way to the coast instead. So, we also spent a full day canceling old reservations and finding and booking new ones, which was no easy task as coastal Oregon is very busy during the summer.

North Spokane RV Campground opened in 2014 and it shows. The grounds are immaculate: beautifully manicured green grass; large, level concrete pads; smooth blacktopped roads; very nice laundry, showers, and TV room; small, but clean swimming pool. There’s also a decent dog park that was the only place within the park that really had any trees for shade. The lack of shade with temps in the mid-90s was definitely a drawback, but luckily there was virtually no wind so we were able to use our awnings from sun up to sun down.

Address: 10904 N Newport Hwy, Spokane, WA 99218

Phone: (509) 315-5561

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Thrus
  • Cable
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Propane Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Dog Park
  • Playground
  • TV Room
Site C1 – Level, Long and Grassy!
The sites in our row were in opposite direction every other site. This meant we somewhat shared the patio area with one neighbor, but couldn’t see our other neighbor’s hookups, which is always a little gross.

It was also during this week that we made a run to Home Depot to purchase Reflectix Insulation to put in the windows in order to combat the heat. It definitely helped, and we wished we would have done it sooner!

Any service you could need is within a short drive of North Spokane RV Campground and some are even within walking distance. There’s an Anytime Fitness nearby that offers a daily rate of $5. Right across the street is a cute little restaurant called Frank’s Diner. It’s in an old railcar that serves food all day, but their breakfast is their claim to fame.

We were busy with work and errands most of the week, but we did find some time to explore a bit. One evening, we ventured down to Riverfront Park. Much of it seems to be under construction, which makes navigating around a bit difficult. The heat, still 90+ degrees well after dinner, caused us to cut our walk a bit short, though it looks like a nice park with quite a few activities.

Riverfront Park’s Clock Tower

We also checked out the Japanese garden in Manito Park. There are other gardens within the park, but we were under a time crunch, so we only had time to visit this one.

While we didn’t get to thoroughly explore Spokane, we probably won’t return. We weren’t very impressed with what the city had to offer. The layout is just odd, and many of the areas seem to be pretty run down. And the traffic — ugh. It would take 25-30 minutes to drive 5 or 6 miles. While there seemed to be a few breweries worth a visit, we didn’t find one restaurant that screamed “Eat here!” through any of our various search  methods (Google, Yelp, etc.). No worries, though — we have a lot of cities left to explore!

 

Five Days in Glacier NP

We spent five glorious days at North American RV Park & Yurt Village in Coram, MT about 5 miles outside the West Glacier entrance of Glacier National Park. The RV park itself is nothing fancy. Site F8 was a pull-thru with full hookups and a decent-sized patch of grass to make Max happy. If we had had any other site in our row (F1-F8), we would’ve had some nice shade trees, which would have come in handy during the hot, high temps of mid-July. The restrooms and showers were very nice and clean, but we didn’t check out the laundry or lounge. The best part about this park was the location. The immediate area had a handful of restaurants/bars, a distillery, a highline course, rafting companies, and a number of lodging options. A grocery store and post office can be found down the highway in Hungry Horse. Within a short drive is the entrance to the National Park in the cute little community of West Glacier.

Address: 10649 Highway 2 East, Coram, MT 59913

Phone: (406) 387-5800

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Guest Lounge
  • Ice and Firewood
  • Picnic Table
  • Cabins
  • Yurts
  • Tent Sites
  • Playground
Site F8 (Notice the peek view of an Airstream next door!)

We would have loved to stay within Glacier, but there are very few sites that can accommodate a 28′ trailer and truck, there are even fewer sites that can be reserved that will accommodate us, and there are no sites with hookups, which isn’t an option when you have a dog that you need to be able to run the A/C for. Also, after driving through the park, out the east St. Mary entrance, and around the south end of the park back to Coram, we decided we would never attempt to stay on the east side of the park with our Airstream in the future as it is quite a rough journey. In addition, there’s not much available outside the east side of the park for services, so you’d be pretty dependent on whatever services are available in Many Glacier and Two Medicine.

We definitely plan to return to Glacier National Park in the future, so we scoped out a few other options in the area. We found that the West Glacier KOA is the most beautiful, well-appointed RV park we had ever seen. It’s at the ‘KOA Resort’ level, which means it has extra special amenities, and apparently it’s the 2017 KOA Campground of the Year. I know, I know — a KOA? Sometimes we stay in places for $10 with nothing more than an electric hookup and sometimes we stay in what is essentially a resort for $75. When choosing a place to stay, we always need to consider our length of stay, comfort, safety, what hookups are available, cell coverage, and what services we require nearby. We plan to stay considerably longer on our next trip to Glacier, so full hookups with nice amenities would turn it into more of a vacation as opposed to just our normal everyday life.

These are a few of the places in the area we enjoyed during our stay:

  • Glacier Distilling: Distillery and tasting room in Coram that specializes in small-batch whiskeys, but also offers brandy, vodka, gin and rum. Travis enjoyed the Wheatfish Whiskey and bought a bottle for home.

  • Wandering Gringo Cafe: If you’re looking for a good burrito the size of your head, you’ve found the right place. Also in Coram, this stay-in-place food truck offers shareable-sized portions with an onsite picnic area.

  • Belton Grill Dining Room at Belton Chalet: This 1910 railroad chalet is located in West Glacier. They offer delicious farm-to-table options with as many grown/raised-in-Montana ingredients as possible. While a little pricy, it’s not the kind of meal you’d expect from a restaurant that’s on the proverbial front steps of a national park.
Pan Seared Wild King Salmon with Morel Mushrooms, Peas, Fiddlehead Ferns and Béarnase

Now, for the Park itself…

Our first introduction to Glacier National Park was a stop at Lake McDonald in Apgar Village. Apgar is home to a visitor center, campground, picnic area, watercraft rentals, a hotel or two, a store and some places to eat. We returned to Lake McDonald a couple of days later to kayak, but it was so windy that there were whitecaps on the lake, which would not have made for an enjoyable experience.

On our second day visiting the park, we drove the infamous Going-to-the-Sun Road to the St. Mary Falls Trailhead. From www.visitmt.com:

The Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932 and is a spectacular 50 mile, paved two-lane highway that bisects the park east and west. It spans the width of Glacier National Park, crossing the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. It passes through almost every type of terrain in the park, from large glacial lakes and cedar forests in the lower valleys to windswept alpine tundra atop the pass. Scenic viewpoints and pullouts line the road, so motorists can stop for extended views and photo opportunities. The road is well worth traveling in either direction, as the view from one side of the road is much different than from the other. In 1983 Going-To-The-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1985 was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

There is a 24-mile stretch of the upper portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road that has vehicle restrictions (which is why you have to drive around the outside of the park to get to the east side with a travel trailer) — nothing longer than 21 feet bumper to bumper, wider than 8 feet including mirrors, and taller than 10 feet ground to highest point of vehicle. FYI, this is the ONLY road within the park that connects the east and west sides.

The St. Mary Falls Trailhead was about an hour and fifteen minute drive from our RV park in Coram. As it’s a popular trail, we left the Airstream at 7am to get to the trailhead before the crowds. When we reached the small parking area at 8:15, it was less than half full. However, when we returned to the parking area after the hike at about 9:45, it was full and people were jockeying for a spot. Glacier offers a free hop on, hop off shuttle system that provides two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center. There’s a shuttle stop at the St. Mary Trailhead, as well as pretty much anywhere else you’d want to go along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Another extremely busy spot is Logan Pass. There’s a visitor center and trailheads for popular hikes. When we passed it a little before 8am, the parking lot was already pretty full. When we passed it on our way back, it was pure chaos. The rule of thumb in Glacier seems to be to: Get. There. Early.

From the trailhead, the St. Mary Falls Trail is 1.1 miles one way, but it you continue on to Virginia Falls like we did, it’s 1.8. The trail is easy and can be traversed by any able-bodied person. The most difficult part of the trail is actually at the end where you have to walk up a steep incline to get back to the parking lot. Signs warn to take precautions against bear: Hike in groups, carry bear spray, make noise, and be aware of your surroundings. When we set out on the trail, we encountered only four other parties before we reached Virginia Falls. While it’s nice to have the trail to ourselves with peace and quiet, the multiple groups of people on the trail on the return trip was a little comforting.

The trail is very well marked at the trailhead, as well as along the entire route.
The first part of the trail is an area that was heavily impacted by the Reynolds Fire in 2015.

There are a couple smaller, unnamed falls along the trail, like this one.
You’ll know you’ve reached St. Mary falls when you see this bridge. The color of the water was so beautiful — and is completely unedited!
St. Mary Falls
And when you reach this bridge, you’ll know you’ve arrived at Virginia Falls!
Virginia Falls is 50′ high.
Just an FYI — It’s super wet and windy right by the falls!

A few more pics from stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road:

Jackson Glacier as seen from the Jackson Glacier Overlook

McDonald Creek

The weather in Glacier can vary greatly from day to day. One day we were at Lake McDonald, the wind was calm and the water was like glass. A couple days later, it was windy with white caps. The first time we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was clear sky, sunny, and about 65 degrees (though the temp varies depending on what elevation you’re at). The next time we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road (when the wind at Lake McDonald thwarted our plan to kayak), it was cold and incredibly foggy, especially at the highest point, Logan Pass, where it was in the mid 40s. Be prepared and dress in layers. The following are a few pics from our second drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road, demonstrating how different the weather was:

At times, visibility was pretty nonexistent, as the fog (clouds?) cloaked the road.

The fog made for a moody vibe at Wild Goose Island Overlook
Wild Goose Island Overlook

We loved our time in the Glacier National Park area and look forward to returning in the future. Besides the park, there is so much to explore in this area that we didn’t get a chance to get to: Kalispell, Whitefish, Flathead Lake.

Square Dance Center & Campground – Lolo, MT

We only spent one night in the Missoula area as we drove from Bozeman to Coram. We stayed at the Square Dance Center & Campground in Lolo, which is about a 25-minute drive into Missoula. The Square Dance Center is exactly what it sounds like – a place for square dancers, but they welcome non-square dancers at the onsite RV park as well. We didn’t use any of the amenities during our brief stay, so I can’t comment on those. The RV park is spread out through tall pines and sits far enough off the highway that you don’t hear traffic. The park claims to be dog friendly, and I suppose it is as dogs are allowed; however, when walking Max, the gentleman that checked us in was riding past on his bike and told us not to allow Max to pee on any trees or other sites – we were supposed to take him to the pet relief areas marked on the map. There were two problems with this: 1) Male dogs pee on everything and 2) All of the pet relief areas had sprinklers running. Essentially, we weren’t able to take Max on a proper walk. It’s for this reason that as long as we have Max, we would never stay here again. I also would not recommend staying here to anyone who has a dog.

Address: 9955 Lolo Creek Road, Lolo, MT 59847

Amenities:

  • Water and Electric Hookups
  • Dump Station and Pump Service
  • Pull Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Shower
  • Cable TV

We went into downtown Missoula for dinner at the Red Bird Restaurant in the historic Florence Hotel, which is now a mixed-use building. The food was decent, but it was the Art Deco décor that we really enjoyed.

Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park

We stayed at Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park in Bozeman, Montana for three nights. The RV park is a 15-minute drive from Bozeman’s super cute and clean downtown. The park is right next door to Bozeman Hot Springs Spa and Fitness, and staying at the park gives you free access to the hot springs. (Access to the fitness center is $5 per day for those staying at the RV park.) The sites here are a mixed bag of pull throughs and back ins, some concrete, some gravel, some with nice grass adjacent, some with a patch of weeds adjacent. Our site, J6, was a pull-through gravel site with patchy, weedy grass. Besides being a pull through, the one thing the pull-through sites have going for them is that there is shrubbery between sites, which gives some privacy and separation from the neighboring sites. At $75 a night (the most we’ve ever spent), we weren’t overly impressed by the property, but the facilities (restrooms, laundry, office) seemed fairly new and were very clean. The draw here is the hot springs, but we ultimately chose this place because there aren’t a lot of options in the Bozeman area.

Address: 81123 Gallatin Road, Bozeman, MT 59718

Phone: (888) 651-5802

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Cable TV
  • Picnic Table & Fire Pit
  • Free Breakfast
  • Free Access to the Hot Springs
Our site was fairly long and private, but the grass needs some love.
This fat little robin hung out by us for a bit.

The Bozeman Hot Springs are the best hot springs we’ve experienced! There are 12 pools that range in temperature from 57 to 106 degrees. The entire facility is clean and inviting. They get very busy in the evenings and especially on hot, summer weekends. Live music takes place on a stage at the outdoor pools a couple of days a weeks and a food truck is available at certain times. There’s also a sauna and a steam room, as well as a well-appointed fitness center. If staying at the RV park, access to the pools is free and the fitness center is $5. Otherwise, one-time access is $8.50 for the pools and $15 to use the entire facility.

This indoor pool ranges in temp from 100 – 106 degrees.
There are four outdoor pools with different temps that range from 80 to 104 degrees.
The naturally heated mineral water felt great after a workout or hike.

Downtown Bozeman is full of great shops, restaurants, and breweries. The area is very well maintained, making it look as though it’s brand new! We ate dinner one night at Montana Ale Works — great vibe, fantastic food, huge selection of regional craft beer, and a full bar with delicious signature cocktails. The bison-stuffed morel mushrooms were delish and Travis really enjoyed his Laughing Dog Brewing Huckleberry Cream Ale.

While in Bozeman, we also hiked the ‘M Trail’. The M Trail is so named because of the M landmark created by Montana State University students in 1915 on a hillside (mountainside?) in the Gallatin National Forest, just outside Bozeman. We conquered the 850 feet of elevation gain on the half-mile “most difficult” trail up and took the mile and a half “easiest” way down. It definitely gets the heart pumping! The difficult route up is mostly loose rock, so I would recommend wearing a good pair of hiking boots. The easiest trail is mostly dirt and tennis shoes would do just fine. There’s a parking lot and a pit toilet at the trailhead.

The ‘M’ from a distance
This sign lets you know you’re in the right place!
The elevation gain on the “most difficult way” ain’t no joke!

We really enjoyed Bozeman and look forward to visiting again to explore the area more. While the hot springs were nice, we would definitely explore other options for places to stay. We’d also probably visit a different time of year as it was pretty hot during the second week of July.

Route Planning and the Billings KOA

The most difficult part of route planning for us is when Travis has to fly somewhere for work. The business trips aren’t usually last-minute trips, so that helps, but sometimes we find ourselves in places that we wouldn’t otherwise be in. However, Billings is not one of those places (a place we wouldn’t otherwise be in, that is). When we started planning our route back west from our extended stay in Wisconsin in May, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Montana. We also knew that Travis would need to fly to Minneapolis during this time and that the trip would be during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Before settling on Billings, we first made a list of all the commercial airports in the approximate area we’d be in — Wyoming and Montana. We then searched to see which ones have direct flights to Minneapolis, because who wants a layover when you’re not flying very far? Then, we had to find a safe place to stay with availability for the holiday week, not too far from the airport. I say a safe place because Travis never wants to leave me (and Max) in a questionable location, obviously. Taking all of that into consideration, we landed on the Billings KOA.

This has been our method of operation since we hit the road full time back in January. Travis has had to make a business trip once a month, so these trips have somewhat determined our route. With each booked business trip, we’ll have a specific date and location we need to be. We also throw some personal date/location combos in there too to make it even more interesting — Crater Lake Rim Run in August, our friends’ October wedding in San Diego, and the Joshua Tree half marathon in November. It forces us to plan ahead, which suits our personalities just fine. We just aren’t go-with-the-flow type of people when it comes to trip planning. Twice we’ve had gaps of a night or two in our route where we were just going to wing it and see where we end up and both times we caved and booked something last minute.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t like long travel days and not knowing your destination may make your day longer. Two hours is great, three hours is fine, but when we get into four to five hours, we get crabby. We can’t comprehend how some people travel eight to ten hours a day — that just sounds miserable to us and like a waste of a day. If you don’t NEED to be somewhere fast, what’s the hurry? Secondly, this has been a hot, hot summer. After boondocking Memorial Day weekend, we learned that we want and need an electric hookup. We have a 13.5-year-old dog that we want to keep comfortable and we’ve had to work some very long days, so having electricity is essential. Yes, we have a generator, but many places have limitations on generator use and when it’s really hot, we burn through gas like crazy. Also, we would never leave our generator running unattended, so we’d become prisoners to the Airstream — and that’s not fun!

Before we hit the road, we had these romantic ideas, like so many tend to, that we’d boondock nonstop and wake up next to the ocean one day, and in the mountains the next, and so on, without another human in sight. And while there are plenty of Airstreamers and RVers that do just that, we’ve determined we’re not those people. We like electricity and showering every day and doing laundry once a week (or at least every two weeks) and strong cell signals and eating great food at restaurants and exploring cities along with our country’s natural wonders. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that we’ve learned what type of full timers we are over these last six months. On the full-timer spectrum with off-the-grid boondockers on one end and snowbirds that only move twice a year on the other, I think we fall right in the middle.

Back to Billings.

We settled on Billings and I’m glad we did. We stayed from a Saturday to a Saturday (I’m actually writing this the day before we leave). KOAs are notoriously expensive and this one is no different. I don’t know if they jacked their prices because of the holiday, but our water and electric site (no sewer hookup) was $75 a night, $67.50 with our KOA membership. Thus far, the most expensive place we’ve stayed. That being said, this is such a nice KOA. It’s the first in the country and the current owners have owned it since the 70s. There’s a huge staff that meticulously maintains it and the amenities are great. There’s a decent-sized, albeit cold, swimming pool. There’s a nice little mini golf course that Travis destroyed me on. The bathrooms and showers are so, so nice — probably the nicest we’ve ever seen. We’ve used the showers a few times because we don’t have a sewer hookup and don’t want to be so concerned with the grey tank level. The onsite store is well equipped. Breakfast and dinner are offered every morning and evening (for a price). Our site is super long, allowing us to park our truck at either end of the trailer. We have a nice patio with a picnic table, porch swing, and fire pit. Now, amenities like this are definitely NOT a requirement for us, but if we’re going to pay this much, they’re nice to have.

Site 37

There’s more to this KOA than just the amenities, however. The location is fantastic! It’s not far off I-90 making it extremely accessible for those that are just passing through. Downtown Billings is literally 5 minutes away. We have had some great meals here; we’d recommend Walkers and The Fieldhouse specifically. And one of the best parts — the airport is 13 minutes away! We usually have to drive 45 minutes to get to an airport, so the short drive is really a nice change.

All in all, our stay in Billings has been great. It was a little loud the night of the Fourth (I hate you, fireworks), but other than that, no issues. With the next business trip tentatively scheduled for October, we’re looking forward to moving on to Bozeman, Missoula and Coram to explore more of Montana.

7th Ranch RV Camp – Garryowen, MT

We stayed at 7th Ranch RV Camp for two nights. There’s not much in the area, but it was a good location in regards to how far we needed to travel on a certain day but still be able to get a half day of work in. The property is very nice, with all the sites being pull throughs, some having water and electric only and some having full hookups. Check in and check out are both at noon, and we got there a little early as our drive didn’t take as long as we thought it would. They gave us a little bit of a hard time, which we’ve never experienced before, but still allowed us to check in as the person who had been in site A16 before us had left. The bathrooms and laundry are clean, and if we ever found ourselves in the area again, we would stay here again.

Address: 662 Reno Creek Road, Garryowen, MT 59031

Phone: (406) 638-2438

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Playground
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located less than 15 minutes from 7th Ranch. I would highly recommend a visit to this historic site, even if you’re just passing through the area. From their brochure: “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their ancestral way of life. Here in the valley of the Little Bighorn River on two hot June days in 1876, more than 260 soldiers and attached personnel of the U.S. Army met defeat and death at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Among the dead were Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and every member of his immediate command. Although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war against the military’s efforts to end their independent, nomadic way of life.”

There’s a 20-minute orientation film that plays at regular intervals in the visitor center that is definitely worth watching to learn the history that led up to the battle, what happened during battle, and what was the result of the battle. I recommend getting to the monument right as it opens, if possible, at 8am, so that you beat the crowds and are able to explore and take in the site, which is somewhat haunting, without distractions from others.

Atop Last Stand Hill is a memorial dedicated to the 7th Cavalry. From this vantage point, you can see where ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ took place as there is a headstone marking the spot where he perished.

Adjacent to Last Stand Hill is the fantastic Indian Memorial.

After visiting Last Stand Hill and the Indian Memorial, walk along the quarter-mile Deep Ravine Trail to really get a sense of what took place on this site. Throughout the battlefield, there are white headstones marking where U.S. Army personnel died and there are red headstones marking where Indian warriors died.

After the trail, visit Custer National Cemetery, which is an onsite veterans cemetery.

If you still have time or interest at this point, drive the 4.5-mile road to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, which was the first stage of the Battle of Bighorn. There are cell phone audio stops along the way that provide information as to what occurred at each location.

The Badlands and the Black Hills

I usually do a separate post for each destination we’ve traveled to, but I felt that Badlands National Park area, Custer State Park area, and Devils Tower area could all be combined into one post about the places to stay and things to see in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

First up…

The Badlands

We spent two nights at the Badlands Interior Campground, which is 1 mile south of the Badlands Interior Entrance. There are a handful of RV parks outside the various entrances of the park and they all looked to be about the same quality. Our campground was nothing amazing, but it was a pull through site with full hookups. I popped my head in the restroom at one point to see what it was like and it was old but seemed clean; otherwise, we didn’t use any of the amenities. The one thing we really did not like about this place was that it flooded easily. I know they can’t control the weather, and the weather in June in this part of South Dakota can be pretty crazy, but they seemed to have a real drainage issue. When we moved on to our next city two days later, even though there was still a lot of rain, there was no where near the same amount of standing water. It was so bad that one motorhome needed to be towed while trying to park in their site. There are also two campgrounds within the national park — both first come, first served, though one is undeveloped. I usually take pictures of everywhere we stay, but forgot to here. I’d say this campground, and any of them in the area, really, are decent for a 1-2 night stay.

Address: 900 SD Hwy 377, Interior, SD 57750

Phone: (605) 433-5335

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Hotel on Site
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Dump Station

The very first thing we did after getting set up at the campground was drive to Wall, SD so we could get something to eat. We ate at Wall Drug, because there’s not a lot to choose from, but we also wanted to check out the place we had been seeing signs for for the last 300 miles. (Seriously, they advertise from one end of South Dakota to the other). We grabbed some burgers that were surprisingly decent and meandered through building after building of souvenirs. Satisfied that we’d seen enough, we headed over to the grocery store to pick up a few things, as the only place to get food in Interior looks like a meth lab fronting as a grocery store.

On our way back to the campground, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center. The park consists of three sites along I-90 between Badlands and Wall: the Visitor Center, the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, and the Delta-09 Missile Silo. The launch facility and missile silo are deactivated remnants of the cold war that are representative of the nuclear arms race. Tours are available of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, but they book days in advance and we hadn’t planned accordingly. The Delta-09 Missile Silo is open from  8am-3pm. It consists of a Minutemann II (unarmed) missile positioned in the underground silo with a glass window covering it, allowing you to view inside.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
Delta 09 Missile Silo – We showed up at 3:30, not realizing it closed at 3, so this is as close as we got.

The major draw of the area is, of course, Badlands National Park. Whenever we visit a national park, we like to visit the visitor center and take a drive through the park with our dog Max. We’ll stop at overlooks and take some pics, but the main reasons for doing this are so Max gets some fresh air and we’re able to see what we want to focus on in the park. This isn’t always possible due to size and time constraints, but the size of Badlands allows for it. The best overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road are probably Conata Basin Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook. Also during our first day of exploring, we drove the Sage Creek Rim Road, which is an often overlooked road due to it being gravel and long — it took about 45 minutes to drive it and then another 45 minutes to get back to our campground. However, if you want to see wildlife, this is the place to do it! We were lucky enough to see oodles of bison, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, turkeys, and a snapping turtle.

Most national parks aren’t very pet friendly, and Badlands is no different. However, we always like to include Max as much as we can, so we’ll bring him along for a ride through the park.

Yellow Mounds Overlook

Bison along the Sage Creek Rim Road
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep along the Sage Creek Rim Road

During our second day, we hiked the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, which the trail guide rated as moderate to strenuous. We’d personally rate it somewhere between easy and moderate, with the log ladder being the most difficult part. It was a nice trail with some great views. After the Notch Trail, we did the Cliff Shelf Trail, rated moderate, which I would agree with due to the number of stairs you need to climb to get to the viewing platform. It’s a nice little half-mile, paved loop trail through junipers in which we saw a beautiful white-tailed doe kicked back and relaxing, chomping on some leaves.

Notch Trail – The ladder was the only difficult part of the trail and it’s more difficult going down than it is going up.
Notch Trail

 

The Cliff Shelf Trail involves a lot of stairs.
White-tailed doe along the Cliff Shelf Trail

It’s important to note that June is the rainiest month in the Badlands. And we’re not just talking rain, but thunder, lightning, and hail as well. Always keep an eye on the weather as there was a flash flood warning the entire time we were there.

Custer State Park

We originally had planned to be in the Badlands for five nights instead of the two we ended up spending. About a week prior, we decided to change our plans and spend the other three nights in the Custer State Park area — and we’re so glad we did! While we weren’t able to get a spot at a campground within Custer, we found a nice place right outside. Southern Hills RV Park & Campground in Hermosa is a good home base to explore the area. It’s a very well kept park and our site was a nice, level pull through with full hookups. Bonus: When it poured rain, it seemed to drain well and dry up fairly quickly. If we had our choice of campgrounds within the park (which can be reserved up to a year in advance), we would choose Game Lodge Campground due to its great location and layout. I guess we’ll have to plan ahead next time!

Address: 24549 Highway 79, Hermosa, SD 57744

Phone: (605) 939-7609

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Level Sites
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
Site 2 at Southern Hills was very spacious and level!
These three giant presidential busts sit at the entrance to Southern Hills. I don’t know why they’re there, but I do know they make finding the driveway to the RV park easier.

After we got settled in to Southern Hills, we drove into Custer SP to Legion Lake Lodge for a late lunch. While the service was a bit slow, the food was good and the view from the outdoor seating is phenomenal. After lunch, we walked the trail around Legion Lake, which has a swimming beach and canoes and kayaks for rent. After the walk, we had to get back to the Airstream to do some work, but returned to the park after dinner with Max in tow to drive the Wildlife Loop Road. Custer SP is home to all sorts of wildlife, including elk, coyotes, burros, mountain goats, and even a few mountain lions, as well as the animals we saw on our drive which were bison, white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, and pronghorns (antelope).

Legion Lake
A white-tailed deer and her babe along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A bison (with a tiny hitchhiker on its back) along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A male pronghorn along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
Even without the wildlife, the views along Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park are pretty nice

On our second day near Custer State Park, as it was a rainy morning, we chose to visit Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave lies at the southern border of Custer SP in Hot Springs. It is the third longest cave system in the United States behind Mammoth Cave and nearby Jewel Cave. There are various cave tours available, but they are all first come, first served, so arrive early to beat the crowds. We took the Natural Entrance Cave Tour, which lasted about 1.25 hours. I’m not sure if any of the other tours are more exciting, as this one was just okay. As I mentioned, it was raining, so we didn’t explore anything above ground in the park. Instead, we headed into Hot Springs to get some lunch (nothing to write home about) and then headed over to The Mammoth Site, which is also in Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological excavation site with the greatest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. We waited in a line that was out the door and seemed to be making no progress until we decided to opt out and return home. Some days you’re feelin’ it, and some days you’re not — and we just weren’t feeling it that day. One thing to note about The Mammoth Site is that dogs are allowed inside as long as they are being held or in carriers. We returned to Custer SP before dinner so that Travis could get a run in on one of the trails. I explored the Visitor Center and the State Game Lodge and then meandered along one of the trails until meeting up with Travis to return home for the evening.

A Map of the Wind Cave Cave System
The ranger is standing next to the cave’s only known natural opening. In order to equalize the atmospheric pressure inside the cave, sometimes air blows out of this opening and sometimes it’s sucked in. Either way, it can reach speeds of up to 70mph, which is how the cave got its name.
Interior of the Cave
It’s very difficult to get good pictures inside a cave, but this photo is of the boxwork formations that are found throughout Wind Cave. Wind Cave is home to about 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork formations.
The Visitor Center is beautiful and informative, though no gift shop. Gift shops can be found in each of the lodges.
The State Game Lodge was the ‘Summer White House’ of President Calvin Cooldige
Grace Coolidge Creek

On our third and last full day in the area, we once more headed into Custer SP to the Sylvan Lake area in order to do the hike up to Black Elk Peak, which is South Dakota’s highest point at 7242 feet. We hiked trail #9, which is a 6.6-mile roundtrip trail that’s rated moderate to strenuous. We both felt it was the hardest trail we had ever hiked and thought it leaned more towards the strenuous end of the spectrum. There’s a gain of 1470 feet and you can definitely feel it. Black Elk Peak is actually located in the Black Hills National Forest, and there’s a sign on the trail that indicates when you cross into the forest. A stone fire tower at the peak provides excellent views of the surrounding landscape. When reading reviews of the trail, some people noted it took up to six hours to complete the roundtrip hike, but we needed to get back to work as soon as possible, so we booked it to the top and back in just under three. Before leaving the park, we stopped at Sylvan Lake Lodge for lunch. We ended up getting our food to go, as we really needed to get back to the trailer for work. I had an excellent burger and Travis had an equally excellent chicken sandwich. Once back at the trailer, Travis got to work while I drove into Box Elder to Americas Mailbox (our mail forwarding service) where I picked up our mail and packages that had been collecting for a few weeks. On my back to Southern Hills, I gassed up the truck and drove it through a car wash in preparation for our morning departure to Devils Tower.

If the 6.6-mile roundtrip hike isn’t your thing, there are views like this along Trail 9 that aren’t too far from the trailhead in Sylvan Lake.
There’s a good mix of sun and shade along the hike, but be prepared with sunscreen and water as the most difficult part of the hike (towards the peak) is out of the woods and in direct sun.
Black Elk Peak is actually in the Black Hills National Forest, not Custer State Park, and there’s a sign marking where you cross into the Forest. You also must register, so they know who’s out there and where you went.
Views!
More views!
There’s the fire tower signifying we made it to the top!
But you have to climb a lot of uneven stone stairs to get there — my calves were definitely burning!
Handkerchiefs from Previous Hikers

There are more sites to see that we didn’t get around to this trip. We didn’t drive the infamous Needles Highway in Custer SP, which I’m bummed about, but we just never found the time. If we had known what Wind Cave NP was going to be like, we probably would have used that time to do the drive instead. Of course, there’s also Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial. We visited Mount Rushmore last September when we were in Rapid City/Box Elder getting our drivers licenses and things set up with Americas Mailbox. Crazy Horse, along with Jewel Cave National Monument, will have to wait until our next trip. And we never made it into Rapid City (except to get groceries at Safeway), which was another small disappointment as we had really enjoyed downtown Rapid City on our previous visit. We will definitely return to Custer State Park!

Devils Tower

Devils Tower was declared the first National Monument in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s 867 feet tall from summit to base. If you want to stay at Devils Tower for a night or two, there are basically two options. The Belle Fourche Campground is a first come, first served campground within the boundaries of the park. There are no hookups, but water is available as well as bathrooms. The second option is the Devils Tower KOA, which sits right outside the entrance to the monument. We chose the latter, because everywhere we’ve been so far this summer has been super hot and we didn’t want to have to worry about generator restrictions in order to use our A/C — we wanted hookups! As far as KOAs go, this one is pretty nice. We didn’t use their restrooms or laundry, but did take a dip in the pool (it was freezing) and got some ice cream from the onsite store. There’s also another store across the street that sells similar items, and both stores have prepared food available for purchase. The Devils Tower post office is basically right in the KOA’s parking lot and every night at 8pm, the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is played at the campground.

Address: 60 Highway 110, Devils Tower, WY 82714

Phone: (307) 467-5395

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Playground
  • Community Fire Ring
  • Propane Fill
  • Cafe/Gift Shop/Store
While most sites at the Devils Tower KOA have tower views, our site (51) didn’t because of a tree — a tree that we were very thankful for later as it was extremely hot and the shade if provided was helpful.

The Visitor Center is open from 8am-7pm, but Devils Tower itself is accessible 24 hours a day. Being right at the entrance afforded me the opportunity to get up to the monument at 7:45am before crowds started rolling in. I walked the 1.3-mile paved Tower Trail and only saw three other parties. This trail, which circles the base of the tower, is the most popular trail and gets quite busy for most of the day. Travis ran it at about 5:45pm and it was still pretty populated. Climbing the tower is allowed; though climbers must register with a ranger before and after their climb.

Dog aren’t allow anywhere except the parking lot and one gravel road, which is where we took this picture.

Besides Devils Tower, there is nothing else in this area. Most visitors seem to make it a day trip, but if you want to or need to spend the night, one night is plenty. There is a gas station about a 10-minute drive up the road in Hulett.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time in the Badlands and Black Hills. We will definitely return Custer State Park, but one visit to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument is enough.