The Black Hills of South Dakota – Custer, Hill City, and Spearfish

We spent the month of June in the Black Hills area of South Dakota: Two weeks at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer; one week at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park; and we split the fourth week between Rafter J Bar Ranch in Hill City and Elkhorn Ridge RV Resort in Spearfish.

This was our second time staying in the Black Hills area with the Airstream. To read about our past trip, as well as other places we’ve visited in South Dakota, check out these blog posts:

Campgrounds/RV Parks

Beaver Lake Campground

12005 W. Hwy 16, Custer, SD 57730

www.beaverlakecampground.net

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Store
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane Fill
  • Dump
  • Rec Hall with Live Music
  • Swimming Pool with Slides
  • Dog Run
  • Horse Shoes
  • Playground
  • Firewood
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Pit

We were originally supposed to stay one week at Beaver Lake and two weeks at Game Lodge Campground, but after spending a few days at Beaver Lake, we decided to change it up. My parents were driving to Custer from Wisconsin during our second week in South Dakota, so we decided that staying in the city of Custer where they would be would be better than us being in Custer State Park, which was a little bit of a drive. Because of the last minute change, we stayed one week in one site at Beaver Lake and had to move to a different site during the second week. The staff was very flexible, giving us a couple of options for both our first and second sites. I think we ended up with the best site in the campground for our first week. Site 60 is a spacious back-in site with full hookups and a view of the small lake. The cell signal was a little wonky here for Travis at times, but fine for me, even though we’re on the same network. If he wasn’t within range of our WeBoost cell booster, his phone calls would cut out.

Our second site wasn’t quite as nice, but still decent. Most of the sites are fairly level side to side, but need some help from front to back. Our second site, site 10, was water and electric only, so we used the campground showers during the second week. The showers and restrooms are nice and are conveniently located near the sites that are sans sewer. The laundry room is nice as well, with a change machine, which we don’t see often. Also, beware of falling of pine cones! They fell from the tall trees with enough force to set off the truck alarm. Luckily, there were no dents to either the truck or the Airstream.

Beaver Lake is a great place to stay while exploring Custer and the surrounding areas and we would definitely stay here again!

Game Lodge Campground

Custer State Park

www.campsd.com

  • Electric Hookups
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Water Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Pit
  • Playground
  • Small Fishing Pond with Swim Beach

After two weeks at Beaver Lake, we spent one week at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. The campgrounds in Custer can be booked up to a year in advance, so if you want to stay for an extended period of time, you need to plan ahead. There are always cancellations, so check often. For instance, we had originally booked two weeks, but changed it to one, so that one week became available less than a week ahead of time. The sites have electric only, so we filled our fresh water tank and 6-gallon water can at Beaver Lake, and that was enough to get us through the week. We used the showers every day, which are nice, and filled and emptied our dish tub in the bathroom in order to wash dishes. The sites in the campground are spaced out nicely and there’s a little distance between you and your neighbors. Some sites are fairly shady while others are almost always in direct sun, so if this is a concern for you, I’d check out the satellite view on Google Maps to determine which site will work best for you. We were in site 48, which didn’t give us a lot of shade, but since it wasn’t very hot during our stay, shade wasn’t necessary. We were pretty close to the bathrooms, which was convenient for our daily showers. The one thing that was strange is that the fire pit for this site is located opposite of the door-side of the trailer, as seen in the second picture below. Within the campground and in the Game Lodge area, we had great cell signal.

The campground is a half mile up the road from the State Game Lodge, which has a restaurant, bar, and gift shop. There are numerous lodges with restaurants, gift shops, and convenience-store type items throughout the park, though the closest decent grocery store is in Custer, which is a 25-minute drive from the Game Lodge Campground, but much closer for the campgrounds on the west side of the park. If we would stay in Custer SP again, we’d try for the Sylvan Lake Campground, as it’s close to all of the good hiking trails and closer to the attractions of the area (Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Jewel Cave, and the cities of Custer and Hill City). Game Lodge is a good location in the park if you want to explore Rapid City, which is about 40 minutes away. In fact, we used one of our days in Custer SP to run errands in Rapid City, which included a doctor’s appointment, getting an oil change, and making stops at CVS, Petco, and Walmart as well as eating lunch.

Rafter J Bar Ranch

12325 Rafter J Road, Hill City, SD 57745

www.rafterj.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool with Hot Tub
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • Pancake Breakfast
  • Playground
  • Store
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Ring

Rafter J Bar Ranch is probably the most centrally-located place to stay in order to visit all of the sites in the area — Crazy Horse Memorial is 12 minutes; Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer SP is 16 minutes; Mount Rushmore is 17 minutes; Jewel Cave National Monument is 30 minutes; and Wind Cave National Park is 38 minutes. The breweries and wineries of Hill City are 10-15 minutes away; the city of Custer is 15 minutes; Rapid City is about 40 minutes; and Deadwood is about an hour. Day trips to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument are possible.

Rafter J is a very large, spread out property that is well maintained. They have shady sites, sunny sites, sites in the trees, and sites out in the open spread amongst the seven various ‘camps’: Ranch Camp, Lower Ranch Camp, The Island, Line Camp, Base Camp, Main Camp and Cabin Camp. You have to call in order to make reservations, and this is so that they can ask you a few questions and assign a site to you that fits your needs best. When I made our reservation, I requested a shady site, thinking it was going to be hot and sunny like it was last year when we visited the area. While it wasn’t very hot, we still appreciated our site in the wooded, shady area of Ranch Camp, which is the most remote section and furthest from the office and activities. Ranch Camp is a mixture of full hookups, electric/water hookups, and tent sites and has a bathhouse with restrooms, showers, and laundry. The back of our site, site 148, sat at the top of a hill with distant views of Black Elk Peak. We had good cell signal with AT&T on this part of the property, but noticed when we were near the office by Base Camp it wasn’t so great. If we were to stay at Rafter J again, we would request to stay in The Island, where there are fewer sites, no bathhouse, and more space between sites. Sites 231, 237, 247, and 248 are ideal.

The only amenities we used while here were the laundry, which was a little pricy, and the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is served Thursday through Monday (they weren’t very good). You’ll find restaurants, shops, and grocery stores in both Custer and Hill City, though Custer has a better grocery store and better dining options. There were two issues we experienced while at Rafter J: 1) For some reason, a lot of people cut through our site or walked between ours and our neighbor’s site. I’m not really sure why this was such an issue here, but this is one reason we would request to be in The Island if we returned to Rafter J. 2) The pollen from the trees was so, so bad. A yellow-green dust covered everything and made for some annoying allergy symptoms.

Elkhorn Ridge RV Resort & Campground

20189 US Highway 89, Spearfish, SD 57783

www.elkhornridgeresort.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Communal Fire Pits
  • Picnic Tables
  • Large, Fenced-In Dog Park
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane Fill
  • Pool with Hot Tubs
  • Store
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • Tennis Court
  • Horse Shoes
  • Event Center
  • Wifi
  • Coffee Bar

Elkhorn Ridge is a large, very nice RV resort situated equidistant between Spearfish and Deadwood. It’s clean, well maintained, and offers a number of amenities, the only of which we used was the pool — and unfortunately, the hot tubs were out of order at the time. Our site (#341) was a spacious back in with full hookups. As you can see from the picture above, we had a view of the highway out our back window. There are a lot of back in sites along this side of the property, but most had a berm behind them that blocked the view of the highway. Seeing as they had a lot of sites open, we found it odd that they’d put us in this site instead of one of the other ones. Our site was fine, though, and the road noise didn’t bother us. The property really is beautiful, with nice views of the surrounding hills. There’s a full-size basketball court and tennis court, both of which are of very high quality. The fenced-in dog park is extremely large and even has separate areas for large dogs and small dogs. The location is fantastic for exploring both Deadwood and Spearfish, including Spearfish Canyon, which is a must!

Places to Eat & Drink

Custer

We were pleasantly surprised with the food options in the city of Custer. Here are our recommendations:

  • Skogen Kitchen – Small, family-run restaurant with a limited, yet delicious menu. This is the fanciest place you’ll find in Custer, with excellent service and it is by reservation only. They are open for brunch on the weekends and dinner most nights, but check their website for exact hours.

  • Black Hills Burger & Bun – Rated by some as the best burger in South Dakota, this place does not disappoint. The menu has more than just burgers, but honestly — just get the burger. The cheese curds were delicious too and they offer a decent selection of both bottled and draft beer. As with many places in Custer, they’re closed on Sunday.

  • Pizza Mill – This is some of the best pizza we’ve ever had! You can eat in, or do as we did, and have them deliver right to the campground. The other pizza options in town — Pizza Works and Pizza Hut — don’t come close to the quality of Pizza Mill.

  • Purple Pie Palace – Hopefully you’ve left room for dessert, because the pie from the Purple Pie Palace is delicious! Whether you get it by the slice, by the pie, or ala mode, you won’t be disappointed. They also have a dining room that serves pot pies, paninis, and such, but we just sampled the pie, so I can’t comment on the food.

Custer State Park

If you’re looking for culinary masterpieces, you won’t find them here. I’d describe the food at CSP as nothing to write home about, but good enough to fill your tummy when you don’t feel like cooking.

  • State Game Lodge – The State Game Lodge has a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a lounge (in the bar) that serves food from noon to 11pm. We ate the lunch buffet twice, which is a good price at $13.75 per person, and had dinner once, which was a little underwhelming.
  • Legion Lake Lodge – We had lunch at Legion Lake once and it was fine — not good, not bad. They do, however, make delicious ice cream sundaes!

And that’s the extent of our dining in CSP. We cooked in the Airstream, mostly, and I’d recommend for those that are able to to do the same.

Hill City

Hill City is a tiny town of less than 1,000 people, but it’s the place to go if you’re looking for beer or wine in the Black Hills, as there are multiple breweries and wineries.

  • Prairie Berry Winery –  They have a great selection of berry wines and a nice little menu with soups, salads, cheese/charcuterie boards, sandwiches and pizza. The wine tasting is free and the food is delicious! They also sell jams, honeys, and compotes that are made in small batches at their winery.

  • Miner Brewing Company – This craft brewery is located right next door to Prairie Berry, as they are run by the same person. The atmosphere reminds me of the breweries you’d find in San Diego, with a small disc golf course and bocce ball court. There’s a lot of seating on the patio, which it makes it very dog friendly. The beer is good and the food menu may look familiar, as they offer a selection of Prairie Berry’s menu.

  • Firehouse Winery & Brewery: Smokejumper Station – If you’ve driven along I-90 in South Dakota, then you’re familiar with Firehouse Brewery — they advertise their Rapid City location for hundreds of miles. The Hill City location seems more winery than brewery, but that’s okay, because their wine is fantastic — we went home with four bottles! They also offer a food menu, but we didn’t partake when we visited; however, a friend said their cheese board is to die for.

Things to Do

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

What’s a trip to the Black Hills without a stop at Mount Rushmore?! Because it’s a memorial, entrance is free; however, parking is not. It costs $10 to park onsite, $5 if a senior citizen, and free for all military. Your pass is good for one year. Make sure to walk the Presidential Trail (.6 miles with 422 total stairs) to find multiple new vantage points from which to view the memorial.

Three Fun Facts:

  • 1) Originally, South Dakotan historian Doane Robinson, the man who came up with the idea of Mount Rushmore, originally wanted the carved statues to be of Wild West figures that would promote tourism to the area. People such as Lewis & Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody were possibilities. The carver of Mount Rushmore felt the presidents would offer a wider appeal.
  • 2) Originally, Jefferson was to be to Washington’s right, but because the rock was unsuitable, he was moved to the left.
  • 3) The statue below shows what the original plan for Mount Rushmore looked like. The four presidents were to be represented from the waist up, but due to budget constraints, just the faces were done.

If you want to skip the craziness of the crowds within the memorial as well as the $10 parking fee, there are two areas that I know of that you can view Mount Rushmore from outside the park. Just a bit up Hwy 244 west of the entrance to Mount Rushmore is a parking area with signage that says something like ‘profile view’. If you pull in here, you’ll get a nice profile shot of George Washington like you see below. The other place to see Mount Rushmore is through the Doane Robinson Tunnel when driving north on Iron Mountain Road, which starts just inside the east entrance of Custer State Park and ends east of Rapid City. It’s a windy road, just like Needles Highway, and also just like Needles Highway, has three vehicle-size-restrictive tunnels.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Sculptor Korcak Ziolkowski was invited to the Black Hills by Henry Standing Bear to carve the image of Crazy Horse into Thunderhead Mountain in order to honor the Lakota people. The project began in 1948 and the second and third generations of Korcak’s family continue it today. If completed as designed, it will become the world’s second largest statue. The third picture below shows the sculpture that is being used as the model, which is 1/34th the scale of the final product. Entrance is $12 per person or $30 per car if there are more than two people in the vehicle. You can pay an extra $4 to take a bus that gets you quite a bit closer. If you want to skip the entrance fee altogether, there’s a parking lot outside the entrance from which you can see Crazy Horse. When driving from Custer to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial is along the route. It’s hard to say if visiting the memorial is ‘worth it’. I think it’s going to be amazingly beautiful when complete, which won’t be for at least another 50 years. The memorial receives no federal or state funding, so they count on visitors to help keep the project going.

Fun Fact: Twice a year, visitors are able to hike all the way to the top and stand eye to eye with Crazy Horse. It’s a 6-mile hike that takes place on the first weekend in June and on the same day as the Custer Buffalo Roundup in September.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave NM is the third longest cave in the world. We took the Scenic Tour, which lasts about an hour and twenty minutes and leads you on a half-mile loop with 723 stairs (some up, some down). At the deepest point, you’ll find yourself almost 40 stories below the surface. Pretty much everyone on the tour that has visited both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave agreed that Jewel Cave was more impressive. The Scenic Tour is the only tour at Jewel Cave that you can make advance reservations for and is $12. All other tours are first come, first served, and they do reserve some day of tickets for the Scenic Tour as well.

Needles Highway – CSP

The impossibly curvy Needles Highway, completed in 1922, is a 14-mile scenic byway that should be experienced at least once. Sharp turns, steep drop-offs, snug tunnels, granite spires, and topnotch views are what’s in store for those that make the trek. When you hop on the highway in the Legion Lake area and drive towards Sylvan Lake, the first two-thirds of the drive may not be that impressive. However, the final third consists of stomach-dropping views, including the Needles Eye.

Wild Life Loop Road – CSP

From afar, we saw bison, pronghorn, coyote, and prairie dogs. We saw the infamous begging burros up close and personal towards the end of the loop. We drove the Wild Life Loop last year and the wildlife was pretty scarce at that time also. If you want to see a lot of animals up close, I’d recommend driving along Sage Creek Rim Road in Badlands NP.

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway winds through the floor of the canyon, alongside Spearfish Creek and the towering canyon walls, with pine, spruce, aspen, and birch overhead. Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls are must-sees along the route, the latter found in the Roughlock Falls Nature Area, which is the perfect mix of natural beauty and man-made walkways that offer a variety of viewpoints of the Falls.

Mount Roosevelt Tower

Upon learning of Theodore Roosevelt’s death in January 1919, his friend, influential South Dakotan Seth Bullock, wanted a suitable memorial built to honor him. On July 4, 1919, the Roosevelt Tower, located just west of Deadwood, was dedicated. There’s a moderately difficult 0.6 mile loop trail that will take you to the tower. You’ll find parking, picnic tables, and pit toilets at the trailhead.

Mount Moriah Cemetery

I’m a sucker for old cemeteries and Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood is a beautiful one. Mount Moriah Cemetery accepted burials from 1878 until 1949. The cemetery has a number of distinct sections including a Civil War veterans section, a Jewish section, a children’s section (for those that succumbed to cholera, smallpox and typhus), a mass grave section, and previously a Chinese section, though only a few of those graves remain today. The most notable graves belong to Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot and killed while playing Poker in Deadwood in 1876; and Calamity Jane, who was buried next to Wild Bill in 1903. There’s a great view of Deadwood near the flagpole, where the flag flies 24 hours a day, due to approval by Congress during World War I, to honor all veterans who have served our country. There’s a $2/person entrance fee that is used to help with ongoing maintenance and beautification of the cemetery.

Deadwood

We weren’t really sure what to expect with Deadwood. It turned out to be a pretty nice little historic town, with cobblestone streets and gorgeous architecture. Of course, there’s a cheese factor in some parts, with actors recreating a Wild West shoot out in the streets, but there are nice casinos, museums, and spas that make Deadwood a Black Hills destination. Our favorite casino was Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort, with three hotel options, super clean casino, and decent food options. Also, we were happy to find that all casinos are smoke free. We wandered into the bar where Wild Bill was shot while playing poker; though, the actual location is behind closed doors and requires a fee to enter. Deadwood is definitely worthy of a visit if you’re in the Black Hills, and we wish we would’ve had more time to explore.

Belle Fourche – Geographic Center of the Nation

Our last stop in the Black Hills was by chance. We noticed as we drove north from Spearfish that the city of Belle Fourche has received the title of Geographic Center of the Nation. Even though we were towing the Airstream, it was an easy pitstop to make to view the 21-foot-diameter compass rose that commemorates the title. While the actual geographic center has been delineated by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey at a point approximately 20 miles away, the specific point will always be imprecise due to changing shorelines.

Hiking

Custer

  • Skywalk Trail to Big Rock Observation Deck – Even with a short length of approximately 1 mile roundtrip, this trail has pretty steady elevation gain (about 400′) and really gets the heart pumping. It’s a nice wide trail that is sometimes dirt, sometimes stairs, and culminates with a climb to the Big Rock Observation Deck that offers views of the city of Custer. It was a nice, close trail when we stayed at Beaver Lake Campground.

Custer State Park

  • Lovers Leap Trail – According to the trail map you get at the visitor center, Lovers Leap Trail is three miles. However, according to the sign at the trailhead, as well as my watch, it’s actually four. The trailhead is located in the Game Lodge area, so it was a very convenient hike during our stay in the campground there. The trail is a loop with a number of stream crossings, all of them over some type of makeshift bridge. There’s about 750′ of elevation gain, and you definitely feel it. Another person we ran into on the trail said she saw mountain goat at the peak, but we had no such luck.

  • Little Devil’s Tower Trail – The hike to Little Devil’s Tower is a fun one! It’s about 2.8 miles roundtrip with 700ish feet of elevation gain. It’s rated as strenuous by the park but moderate on AllTrails. I’d say it falls somewhere in between as the elevation gain isn’t too horrible but it does require a decent amount of scrambling. You have views of Black Elk Peak from the top, but beautiful views throughout the hike, as well.

After our month in the Black Hills this year and our trip last year, we conquered South Dakota’s Great 8: Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, Deadwood, the Missouri River, Custer State Park, and Wind Cave National Park — yet, there is still so much to explore. South Dakota is our adopted home state and we always look forward to visiting the land of Great Faces and Great Places!

 

 

Colter Bay RV Park – Grand Teton National Park

We spent one glorious week at the Colter Bay RV Park in Grand Teton National Park. The RV park books out far in advance, is on the expensive side, has narrow roads and less than level sites, and the cell signal is pitiful — but it’s one of the best places we’ve stayed. Located in Colter Bay Village, you’ll find the RV park is located a short walk from the swim beach on Jackson Lake, a visitor center, a grocery store, a gift shop, a gas station, two restaurants, a bar, the marina, and the laundry room with showers. Our site was a pull-through with full hookups and a picnic table. Restrooms and trash bins with recycling are scattered throughout the campground. Because Colter Bay is an actual little village, there are plenty of roads, sidewalks, and paved pathways where we were able to walk Max, which made it one of the more dog-friendly places we’ve stayed. For the first couple days of our stay, we had a pretty strong cell signal on AT&T (thanks to our WeBoost signal booster) and were able to function as normal. As the week progressed, the signal was still usable in the morning and evenings, but we headed to Jackson Lake Lodge during the day in order use their Wi-Fi so we could work. We didn’t use the restrooms, showers, or laundry, so I can’t comment on those. The best part about our site (O106) was that it was less than a minute walk to the Jackson Lake swim beach where we were able to drop our Kokopelli Packrafts into the water and also where we were able to enjoy some beautiful sunsets. We stayed at Colter Bay May 25th to June 6th, which seemed to be the perfect time: The weather was nice, excepting the first few rainy days; the park didn’t seem to have as many visitors as I’m sure it sees during the peak summer months; there was quite a bit of bear activity during our visit, possibly because they recently came out of hibernation; and the trails were pretty passable, though there was still some snowpack at higher elevations. Our week was incredibly enjoyable and relaxing, with plenty of opportunity to spend time outdoors, as well as eat some good food at Colter Bay Village’s John Colter’s Ranch House Restaurant & Bar and Jackson Lake Lodge’s The Mural Room.

Colter Bay RV Park

Grand Teton National Park

www.gtlc.com

  • Pull-Through Sites
  • Full Hookups
  • Picnic Table
  • Restrooms
  • Dump Station
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Propane Fill
Site O106 – Very unlevel both front to back and side to side, but we were able to get things pretty square with a few lego bricks.
The bear warnings are never ending, but seeing as the only place we saw bear was right outside the entrance to Colter Bay Village, they are necessary.
Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, so we enjoyed the view from a distance.
However, there are plenty of places within and right outside the campground that dogs are allowed. It wasn’t difficult to wake up in the morning to walk Max with those views!
The sunsets are pretty special!

During our stay, we took a scenic boat cruise on Jackson Lake. The Colter Bay Marina offers a few different cruise options and they can be booked right at the marina or at the activities booth located next to the general store and gift shop in Colter Bay. We learned a lot of interesting information about the park’s history as well as local wildlife, and we even saw an avalanche take place on Mount Moran. The tour guide said only 5% of visitors take advantage of the cruises offered, which is a shame, because it was very beautiful, informative, and allowed us to see aspects of the park from a different point of view.

We also did a little bit of our own cruising on the lake in our Kokopelli Packrafts!

We were pleasantly surprised by the food options available at the various restaurants within the park. We ate both breakfast and dinner at Colter Bay Village’s John Colter’s Ranch House Restaurant & Bar and Jackson Lake Lodge’s The Mural Room. The breakfast at both was okay, but dinner was fantastic. We also picked up pizza from the Cafe Court pizzeria in Colter Bay and that was delicious as well.

The Mural Room is the best place for dinner in the whole park, with fantastic views of the Teton Range.

Even if you don’t eat at The Mural Room, Jackson Lake Lodge is worth a visit. The views that are framed by the towering windows are a bit breathtaking. It was a nice place to be able to do some work for a few days when we weren’t getting a strong enough signal at our campsite. Besides The Mural Room, Jackson Lake Lodge also has a 1950s-style diner (The Pioneer Grill), a bar that serves food (The Blue Heron Lounge), and a coffee cart that also serves pastries and sandwiches. Make sure to take in the view from the outdoor terrace and you might be lucky enough to spy some moose! Of note, Jackson Lake Lodge also has a medical clinic that is open 9-5, seven days a week, May-September, no appointment necessary. The city of Jackson is a 40-minute drive, so it’s nice to know there’s help nearby in case something comes up.

There is a lot of great hiking in Grand Teton National Park for all skill levels, with trails ranging from .5 mile to 26 miles. We did the popular Hidden Falls Trails, though we started later in the day, so the trail wasn’t very busy. The trail starts in the Jenny Lake area, and is about 5 miles with 1200′ of elevation gain. The trail is rated moderate, which is a fair assessment, especially since it was quite wet and muddy at higher elevations, with some parts still snow covered. The hike offers great views of Jenny Lake and we saw a couple of moose and a number of marmots along the way.

You can take a shuttle boat across the lake to decrease the length of some of the longer trails by quite a bit.
The water in Jenny Lake is so clear!
We saw three moose along the hike. This guy and his buddy were hanging out right next to a busy part of the trail, unfazed by all the passersby.
The views are pretty great!
There was still some snow cover at higher elevations yet it was plenty warm enough for short sleeves.
Hidden Falls is approximately 100′ tall and was flowing ferociously thanks to all of the snow melt.
This is a great hike with an even better payoff!

We also did the Lakeshore Trail, which follows the Colter Bay shoreline with views of Jackson Lake and the Teton Range. It was flat and easy at 2 miles and wasn’t anything amazing, but it was close to our campsite and any time you can get outside and get some exercise, you should do it.

Any trail with views of the Tetons is a good trail!

A few miscellaneous pics…

We were lucky to see both grizzly and black bear during our visit. These guys hung out in the Pilgrim Creek area on a regular basis, so we saw them almost every day of our stay — sometimes close up, sometimes from a distance.

The view from the first overlook on Signal Mountain is pretty great. Coincidentally, you also get a great cell signal up here, thanks to the massive cell tower on top of the mountain. I believe there are some picnic tables and a pit toilet up top as well, so if you’re in need of an off-the-charts strong cell signal for an extended period of time, this is your place.

Snake River Overlook is technically outside the park, so an entrance pass isn’t required to see the spot where Ansel Adams took his famous photo of the Snake River and Teton Range in 1942 — a photo which helped promote and protect western U.S. landscapes. The trees have grown in a bit since the photo was taken, but as an Ansel fan, it was a neat feeling to stand where he once stood.

The grand lift of the Tetons is…a primal gesture of the Earth beneath a greater sky. -Ansel Adams

We drove down to Jackson one rainy day when we were getting a little stir crazy hanging out in the Airstream. Jackson is a nice little city, but was pretty busy even on this rainy, late spring day. Of course we had to get our picture under one of the infamous antler arches, but we also stopped into the Pendleton store to do a little shopping and stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few essentials.

Our week in Grand Teton was one of our favorite weeks in the 500+ days we had been on the road up to that point. We would definitely stay at Colter Bay RV Park again. It was quite peaceful, even though we arrived the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, it’s absolutely gorgeous, there are a couple of good food options, and even though dogs aren’t allowed on trails, there are so many areas that we could walk Max that I have no problem calling Grand Teton a dog-friendly park.

 

 

Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park and Yellowstone NP

We spent four nights at Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park & Cabins during the latter part of May. It was cold, with temps below freezing most nights, and enough snow to stick. The weather we experienced at Yellowstone Grizzly in West Yellowstone was only heightened at higher elevations within the park. Yellowstone Grizzly is a large RV park just a few minutes from the west gate of Yellowstone National Park. The city of West Yellowstone isn’t large, making any location you stay pretty accessible to the grocery store, post office, visitor center, shops, and restaurants.

Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park & Cabins

210 S. Electric Street, West Yellowstone, MT 59758

www.grizzlyrv.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Heated Water Spiggots
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Playground
  • Cabins
  • Store
  • Dump Station
  • Recycling
  • Large Pet Walk Area
  • Picnic Table

The RV park was at only about 25% capacity, which made it very quiet during our stay, but was also a source of contention for us when we arrived. Check in wasn’t until 1:00, but we arrived at 11:30ish (we were trying to beat some bad weather on the way). They would NOT let us check in early, contending that ‘people were still checking out (even though check out is 11) and all of the sites hadn’t been checked yet.’ We understand rules are rules and we try to adhere to check-in times the best we can, but depending on what time check out was at the last place we stayed or how long of a drive we had, sometimes we arrive early. We’ve NEVER been turned away and we would have no problem being turned away if it was the height of the season or they were close to capacity, but neither of those things were true. Anyway, per their recommendation, we drove over to the visitor center and parked. We walked to get some lunch, which we brought back to the Airstream to eat, and then we sat and waited. And it started to rain. Just before 1:00, we drove back over to Yellowstone Grizzly and checked in. We drove to our site and set up in the rain that soon turned to hail. It was a frustrating situation because it wasn’t necessary, but we put it behind us. Like many RV parks, the sites are fairly close together, but we were without neighbors for three of the four nights, so our site felt spacious. The laundry facilities were acceptable and the showers were decent – not the best I’ve seen, not the worst. We were in a pull-thru site, but I’d recommend to request one of the back-in sites that back up to the Gallatin National Forest so you have more privacy and a nice forest view.

Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center

www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org

The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is located two blocks from Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park. It’s a not-for-profit wildlife park and educational facility that houses grizzlies, wolves, eagles, and raptors that were injured, abandoned, orphaned, or became habituated to humans in the wild. The center also serves as a bear-resistant container testing center where bear boxes, coolers, garbage cans, and dumpsters are tested. It’s a nice place to spend a few hours learning about animals native to the area. It’s $15 per person or $14 with AAA and your pass is good for two days.

Yellowstone National Park

During our stay in West Yellowstone, the weather was not great. It was even worse when we entered the park and drove up to higher elevation. During our time in the park, we visited Mammoth Hot Springs, Steamboat Geyser, Firehole Falls, the Grand Prismatic Spring area, and Old Faithful. Pictures never do anything justice, but that’s even more true with a gray, overcast sky above and the endless threat of rain/snow. It was a little too early in the season to visit Yellowstone as some of the roads were still closed for the season and many trails were closed due to bear coming out of hibernation and on the search for food. We also had to contend with some road construction that caused a decent delay on the drive up to Mammoth Hot Springs. And of course, traffic due to wildlife is always a possibility — bison like to walk down the middle of the road. Due to the traffic delays and the expanse of the park with a lot of miles between points of interest, I think the best way to experience the park would be if you’re staying in it at one of the lodges or campgrounds.

The gloomy, snowy drive to Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs – This part of the park has a lot to explore, including Historic Fort Yellowstone
Firehole Falls
The road to Firehole Falls was closed, so we had to park by the road barrier and walk a little bit in order to get this view.
We had a brief moment of sun and blue sky when we stopped at Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world.
Sapphire Pool
Grand Prismatic Spring – I wish the boardwalk in this area was elevated a bit more so that you can actually get a good view of the springs.
Old Faithful – We visited two years ago on a clear, blue day which makes for a completely different experience.
This guy walked out of the woods and on to the road in front of us where we had to wait a bit until the other lane of traffic was clear and we could pass him.

 

Magical Moab: Arches NP, Canyonlands NP & Dead Horse Point SP

We absolutely loved our time in Moab. We had a tough few weeks before arriving in Moab. We had problems with the Airstream, a large project for work that was wrapping up, and a longer than usual business trip. We needed time to decompress and unwind, and our week in Moab was just that. From the red arches to the deep canyons to strolls along the Colorado River, we spent more time in nature this week than we had in months. Moab was everything we had hoped it would be and so much more!

We visited Moab April 7th-13th, which ended up being the perfect time of year. While the temps got cold at night, it wasn’t cold enough for us to worry about pipes or tanks freezing. Even though it tried hard to snow one morning, our days were mostly sunshine and mild temps perfect for hiking. We left Moab the morning Jeep Week started, which is when 4×4 vehicles are allowed on trails they aren’t otherwise allowed on. According to locals, it gets pretty crazy in town — very busy and trafficky — and should be avoided unless you are participating.

Moab Valley RV Resort & Campground

1773 North Highway 191, Moab, UT 84532

www.sunrvresorts.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Store
  • Pool & Spa
  • Playground
  • Putting Green
  • Life-Size Chess & Checkers
  • Bike Wash & Repair
  • Tetherball
  • Dump Station
  • Wifi

We stayed at Moab Valley RV Resort & Campground during our time in Moab. It’s a little pricy at $420 for the week (that’s with a 10% Good Sam discount), but the location is perfect. We were minutes from the entrance to Arches NP, about 35 minutes from Canyonlands NP and Dead Horse Point SP, across the street from Lions Park which has a nice green space and paved trail along the Colorado River, and a short drive into downtown Moab for restaurants, groceries, and anything else you might need. The sites are a little shorter and narrower than other RV parks we’ve stayed at, but our 28′ trailer and truck fit with no issues. Unlike other RV parks, they have plenty of overflow parking for people whose vehicles can’t fit in their sites. In the full hookups section, the sites are laid out in every other direction, meaning you share your ‘front yard’ with the people next to you, although there is a picnic table for each site. While this layout can be a little awkward, we had very nice neighbors during our stay and the benefit is that you aren’t looking at your neighbor’s sewer hose while sitting outside your trailer. There are a lot of tent sites which were pretty popular during our stay, even though it hovered around freezing during some nights we were there. The pool is small but nice and I’m sure it’s incredibly refreshing when Moab starts to heat up. We will definitely stay here again when we return to Moab.

Shared front yards, though each site has its own picnic table and grill.
Shared front yards mean hookups are side by side in the backyard.
The 2.5 mile paved path that starts in Lions Park was a great place to walk Max in the evenings and enjoy the beauty of the Colorado River and surrounding rocks.

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch Trail: The trailhead for this 3-mile roundtrip, strenuous trail can be found at Wolfe Ranch, which is a 25-minute drive from the Park’s entrance station. The most popular times to visit are sunrise and sunset, but we made the trek at about 10am. There isn’t much shade on this trail, so make sure to be prepared with sun protection. The first half mile is a wide, fairly easy trail. Next, is the slickrock portion of the trail. This is where you’ll feel the elevation gain, which is 480ft overall.

Next, you reach a 200-yard-long ramp that hugs the side of a cliff. It’s here where people that have an extreme fear of heights may have an issue. However, the path is quite wide — wide enough for two people to walk side by side, so just stay close to the inside of the path and you’ll be fine.

Finally, you come around the corner and there it is, all 60 feet of it. It was much larger than I expected, probably because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of Delicate Arch with people in it.

We did the hike on a Thursday, entering the park about 9:30am. When we reached the arch, which took us a little over a half hour, there weren’t that many people. Everyone took a few pics under the arch and then most would sit and enjoy the views for a bit before making the hike back. It was considerably busier on our way back (the picture above of the slickrock portion is from our hike back), so what we’ve experienced in other national parks seems to hold true here — the hours between 10 and 3 are the busiest and are best to be avoided, although Arches is one of the least busy parks we’ve visited. Delicate Arch is a must if you visit Arches!

Double Arch: This is any easy, half-mile trail that should be combined with a visit to North and South Windows and Turret Arch. Double Arch is the highest arch in the park and is very impressive in person.

Windows Trail: The park’s busiest trail leads to North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch. It’s about 1 mile roundtrip and fairly easy.

North Window and South Window
North Window
Turret Arch

Balanced Rock: There’s a short, third-mile, wheelchair-accessible paved trail along the base of balanced rock.

Fiery Furnace: Our only experience of Fiery Furnace was from the viewpoint, but we definitely want to explore this area in the future. The Furnace is a maze of slot canyons, arches, fins, and bridges with no real trail. Because of this, a permit is required; though unless you know the Furnace well, it’s recommended to take a ranger-guided tour.

Three Gossips: The Three Gossips stand in the Courthouse Towers section of the park. Other rock formations nearby include Nefertiti, the Organ, and the Tower of Babel. The Park Avenue Trail is a one-mile, one-way trail from the Park Avenue Viewpoint to the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, passing the Three Gossips along the way.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to explore the Devils Garden portion of the park. Arches is on the smaller side for a national park, but there is a lot to discover!

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is a difficult park to visit. The Colorado and Green Rivers have divided the park into three districts: Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles. Island in the Sky is the closest to Moab, just 35 minutes from Moab Valley RV Resort. Even though the pictures below show blue sky and sunshine, not long after we entered the park, storm clouds rolled in and it began snowing. We drove the main road to the Grand View Point Overlook, but it was a white out. It seems that to thoroughly explore this park, one needs to venture onto the unpaved roads (second picture below), many of which require 4-wheel drive. As we had Max with us, we weren’t able to get any hiking in. We decided instead to head over to Dead Horse Point State Park, a short drive from Canyonlands, where Max was welcome to get out of the truck and enjoy the park with us.

Dead Horse Point State Park

The road to Dead Horse Point State Park is right outside the entrance to Canyonlands, so if you’re visiting one, you should definitely visit the other. The views at Dead Horse definitely rival those of its neighbor. The park is a popular destination for mountain biking, but it also has about seven miles of hiking trails that connect eight fantastic overlooks, with Dead Horse Point Overlook offering up a view of the muddy Colorado River and Canyonlands NP. The best part for us is that the park is completely dog friendly, so Max was able to explore with us. There are great picnic areas throughout the park as well as two campgrounds with some sites offering electricity. The entrance fee is $20, good for three days, or $75 for an annual Utah State Parks pass. Fun Fact: The final scene of Thelma & Louise was filmed here. State parks never cease to amaze us, but Dead Horse Point is one of the better ones we’ve visited!

Corona and Bowtie Arches

There are plenty of great hikes in Moab outside of the parks and the hike to Corona and Bowtie Arch is a good one. The trailhead is about four miles north of Moab and has a large gravel parking lot. We did the hike on a Friday at 10:30 and there was hardly anyone on the trail. Dogs are allowed on this trail; however, there’s a ladder and steep section with a chain handhold, so they either need to be very agile, or you’ll need to be able to carry them. The hike is 2.5 miles roundtrip, fun, and has great views. There aren’t any signs marking the trail along the way, but there are green marks on the ground that will keep you going in the right direction.

There’s a short section that’s pretty steep with chains to help you reach the top.
The ladder is easy to get up, but a little more difficult to get down. Note the green mark in the bottom center of the picture. These marks mark the majority of the trail, so keep an eye out for them.
Bowtie Arch
Corona Arch
A little arch love…
This was a great hike option for avoiding crowds with the added bonus of being free and allowing dogs!

Food

We ate at a few different places while in Moab, but two of our favorites were Moab Garage Co. and Quesadilla Mobilla.

Moab Garage Co.

Open most days from 8am-8pm, Moab Garage serves up delicious food that feels good in your tummy. The menu isn’t large, but everyone should find something they like, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. They also have a great coffee bar and make nitrogen ice cream on the spot.

Quesadilla Mobilla

You’ll find this quesadilla food truck on Main Street, near the entrance to Moab’s Food Truck Park. They serve up delicious cheese and tortilla concoctions from 11am-6pm daily, or until they run out of food.

 

Our week in Moab was one of the best weeks we’ve had since we started Airstreaming full time. We look forward to returning in the future and exploring more of this amazing area!

Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort – Newport Beach, CA

We stayed at Newport Dunes for two weeks — the last week of November, arriving during the long Thanksgiving weekend, and the first week of December. We were originally supposed to stay at Malibu RV Resort during this time, but the Woolsey Fire, a wildfire that devestated large parts of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, burned through Malibu the second week of November and forced the RV park to close due to damage. Newport Dunes had great reviews on Campendium, so, even though it was ridiculously expensive, we thought we’d try it.

We pulled in the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend and the place was packed. Many of the sites are barely large enough to accommodate most RVs, so tow vehicles were parked in the street at the end of each site, making the already somewhat narrow streets even narrower. Luckily, we had reserved one of the larger beachfront sites and the street was clear of trucks and people playing cornhole, which allowed us to back in to our spot without any issues. By Monday, the RV park had really emptied out and was pretty quiet the rest of our stay. We stayed at Newport Dunes during the off season, so some amenities, like the inflatable obstacle course water park and watercraft rentals, were not available. I can only imagine how busy the resort is during the high season (and how much more expensive it is).

Most of the beachfront sites are grass with a fence at the back. On the other side of the fence is a walking path, the beach, and then the bay. However, our beachfront site was sans grass and completely sand. It would have been nice to have the grass so Max didn’t get sandy paws when we let him out before bed, but seeing as we booked our site somewhat last minute, we only had six sites to choose from and the one we chose was the best option.

We didn’t use any of the amenities during our stay except for the fitness center, which wasn’t anything amazing but was better nothing. The pool looked very nice, the laundry room was large, and when we walked through the onsite market, it seemed pretty well stocked. There’s a walking path with pedestrian bridge around the bay that made for a nice 1-mile loop to walk Max every morning and evening. There’s also a security gate that is manned 24 hours, which is definitely a nice perk.

The best thing about Newport Dunes is its location. It’s minutes from the Fashion Island mall, which, besides all of the high end stores, also has great restaurants and a movie theatre. Within 20 minutes you can be at the beach in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, or Laguna Beach. Crystal Cove State Park is a short drive up Coast Highway. John Wayne Airport is less than a 15-minute drive and any store/service you could need is within 20 minutes. Also, Disneyland is a 30-40 minute drive. So, if you want to explore Orange County, Newport Dunes is really the perfect location.

Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina

1131 Back Bay Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92660

www.newportdunes.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Pool & Spa
  • Fitness Center
  • Market
  • Watercraft Rental
  • Waterpark
  • Playground
  • In-Season Activities Like Movies on the Beach
  • Fire Pits on the Beach
  • Marina & Boat Launch
Site 4103 is a Beachfront Back-In Site with Full Hookups
We had a lot of rain during our stay which made for somewhat of a mess due to all of the sand, but we also saw some beautiful rainbows.
The sewer hookup was quite annoying as it was elevated, making dumping the tanks a 2-person job.
We saw some amazing sunsets, including this one by Balboa Pier on the Peninsula.
I mean…
Huntington Beach is a great beach town worth exploring!
Watching surfers from the pier in HB!
Santa has a pretty great house in Huntington Beach.
The beach at Crystal Cove is beautiful!
Crystal Cove Beach is a cute little community that was decked out for Christmas.
Crystal Cove Beach

Our stay at Newport Dunes was nice, but not necessarily because of the resort itself. We loved exploring the various beach towns and were able to spend quite a bit of time with a friend that lives in Laguna Beach. There was so much rain while we stayed there, and the wet sand was kind of a nightmare to deal with, but the biggest issue is the price. Even though we were paying winter rates, our cheapest night there was $99, with the most expensive night being $173 — and sorry Newport Dunes, you’re just not worth that much.

One Year on the Road

Today marks one year since we started living, working and traveling full time in our Airstream. One year ago feels both so incredibly distant, but also like it flew by! We have learned a lot in the last twelve months — about ourselves, about our airstream, and about what we hope to get out of this lifestyle. Here’s a look back at our first year as nomads:

We travelled 7,997 miles across 16 states:

California

Alabama Hills – Lone Pine, CA
Trinidad, CA
Poway, CA
Newport Beach, CA

Nevada

Valley of Fire State Park – Overton, NV
Las Vegas, NV
Zephyr Cove (Lake Tahoe), NV

Utah

Snow Canyon State Park – Ivins, UT
Snow Canyon State Park – Ivins, UT

Arizona

Page, AZ
Antelope Canyon – Page, AZ

New Mexico

Santa Fe, NM (We were in Santa Fe for only one night and checked out Meow Wolf, which we highly recommend!)

Colorado

Pueblo, CO
Lake Pueblo State Park – Pueblo, CO
Lake Pueblo State Park – Pueblo, CO

Kansas

Dodge City, KS (It was VERY cold and windy the couple of nights we were there, so we didn’t get a chance to explore.)

Missouri

National World War I Museum and Memorial – Kansas City, MO
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – Kansas City, MO
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum – Independence, MO

Iowa

(We spent two isolated, quiet nights in Cedar Point, IA and have nothing to show for it. Sorry, Iowa)

Wisconsin

Breezy Hills Campground – Fond du Lac, WI
Van Dyne, WI
Neshonoc Lakeside Camp Resort – West Salem, WI

Minnesota

Minneopa State Park – Mankato, MN
Bunker Hills Campground – Coon Rapids, MN
Bunker Hills Campground – Coon Rapids, MN

South Dakota

Dignity Statue – Chamberlain, SD
Black Elk Peak – Black Hills of SD
Black Elk Peak – Black Hills of SD
Custer State Park – Custer, SD

Wyoming

Devils Tower, WY

Montana

Max was super excited for Montana!
Garryowen, MT
Billings, MT (with cotton from the Cottonwood trees floating in the air)
Along the ‘M’ Trail in Bozeman, MT

Washington

Spokane, WA
Spokane, WA

Oregon

Cannon Beach, OR
Otis, OR
Ona Beach State Park – Newport, OR
Reedsport, OR
Winchester Bay, OR
Coos Bay, OR

 

We visited 24 National Park Service sites:

Joshua Tree National Park

Death Valley National Park

Saguaro National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

Badlands National Park

Wind Cave National Park

Glacier National Park

Redwood National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Yosemite National Park

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Devils Tower National Monument

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument

 

Harry S. Truman National Historic Site

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Manzanar National Historic Site

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area

…and one ghost town (Bodie, CA)…

…the world’s only corn palace (Mitchell, SD)…

…and a cheese factory (Tillamook, OR).

We drank some beer…

Santa Fe, NM
Yachats, OR
Coos Bay, OR

…and some liquor…

Coram, MT

…and some wine!

Pahrump, NV
Temecula, CA

We boondocked for the first time in Wisconsin on a family friend’s farm…

…and stayed at a Harvest Hosts for the first time in Nevada.

Travis ran a half marathon in Death Valley…

…and we learned how to play pickle ball.

We did a lot of hiking…

…and a bit of relaxing.

But most importantly, we were able to spend a lot of time with family and friends!

As you can see, it was a great year! We have a lot of amazing adventures planned for 2019, and we look forward to sharing them with you!

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!

 

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.

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.

Big Sioux Recreation Area – Brandon, SD

Big Sioux Recreation Area in Brandon, South Dakota is part of the State Park system and lies on the banks of the Big Sioux River. South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, is a short drive. The campground is very basic but well kept. The sites are large and as there weren’t a lot of people staying there, it was a pretty quiet five days. The showers in the bathrooms are pretty decent, with good water pressure and hot water, although it takes a bit to warm up. The sites are electric only, but there’s a dump station and water fill as you enter/exit the campground. My only complaint is the amount of ants — they crawled everywhere, including all over the trailer; although they never made it inside as far as we can tell. The nightly rate is $21, but there is also a daily park entrance fee of $6 and a reservation fee for nonresidents of $8. As we had purchased a South Dakota parks pass at the last place we stayed, Hartford Beach State Park, and are South Dakota residents, we only paid the $21/night fee.

Address: 410 West Park Street, Brandon, SD 57005

Phone Number: (605) 582-7243

Amenities:

  • Electric Hookup
  • Dump Station
  • Water Fill
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Firewood
  • Campground Host
  • Tent Sites
  • Playground
Site 13E
The mature, green trees made for a peaceful setting.

The park itself has trails for hiking, biking, horse riding and snowshoeing. There’s also disc golf, two canoe launches, a playground and archery.

We hiked the Valley of the Giants Trail, which is supposed to be 1.5-mile hike, but we took a wrong turn at a fork in the path and had to backtrack a bit. Some of the state’s largest trees reside along this trail.

The suspension bridge seen in the header photo is at the beginning of the Prairie Vista Trail and crosses the Big Sioux River to provide access to the Horse Trail Trailhead and Archery Range.

While in the area, of course we had to visit Falls Park in Sioux Falls. The area surrounding the park is not so great, but the park itself is beautiful. We visited on an overcast, sprinkle-filled day, so the full beauty of the park is hard to determine from the pictures. The park is 123 acres and home to some of the city’s first buildings. The Queen Bee Mill used to operate here along the banks of the Big Sioux River, but all that remains now are ruins from the original 7-story building that was the victim of a fire. The 1908-built hydroelectric plant now functions as the Falls Overlook Cafe, where we had a fantastically delicious lunch. There’s also a visitor center and gift shop with a 50-foot viewing tower that is free to access.

The Falls of Sioux Falls
The Visitor Center, Gift Shop and Viewing Tower
The Falls Overlook Cafe — Great view with equally great food!

We went to downtown Sioux Falls for dinner one rainy, gloomy night. The downtown area is VERY nice — clean and well kept with great shops and restaurants. We ate at Crawfords Bar & Grill, where the food was delicious, the cocktails on point, and the decor a blend of rustic and vintage. Due to the rain, we went for a very short, post-dinner walk and were able to enjoy a few of the more than 50 sculptures that are part of the Sioux Falls SculptureWalk. If the weather had been better while we were in the area (and we were able to work less), we definitely would have spent more time downtown.