Listing the stats of our full-time travel as above reminds us of how much we’ve experienced and how far we’ve traveled, though our last few months on the road have felt anything but adventurous.
When the seriousness of COVID was realized in March, we had just left Southern California where we had spent the winter. We were at a state park in Southern Nevada and had an amazing itinerary ahead of us: Some fantastic state parks in Southeastern Nevada; the Mighty 5 in Utah; Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes National Parks in Colorado; a brief stay in the Rapid City area for a doctor’s appointment; and then on to Minnesota and Wisconsin to spend time with family and celebrate holidays, a high school graduation, sporting events, and birthdays. We were then going to explore more of Wisconsin, the state we grew up in. We also had a large part of our winter mapped out, and we were finally going to hit the Southeast and East Coast: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, etc. We researched and planned and mapped and reserved sites the day they become available, anywhere from 6 to 13 months in advance. We woke up a handful of mornings before 5am in California to book sites that became available at 8am in Florida. We. Had. A. Plan.
And then it got blown up.
State parks started to close. Then national parks. Then counties and states started imposing non-resident travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine requirements. When a lot of our full-timing cohorts got off the road to shelter in place with family, we stayed out there. We didn’t really have anywhere to go, so we stayed as socially distant as possible and crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t receive a knock on the door, email, or phone call saying we needed to move on because our current location was closing. After three reservations in a row were cancelled, we finally found a private RV park in Torrey, Utah to settle in for a month while we regrouped and figured out our next move. The uncertainty was uncomfortable. We felt in our gut that COVID was sticking around for a while and questioned whether we wanted to continue traveling during a time when the best thing to do is stay home as much as possible.
And we decided we didn’t.
We didn’t want to keep traveling at this time for a handful of reasons, some of which became more apparent as the weeks and months went by:
Above all, we wanted to stay healthy. And we wanted those around us to stay healthy.
It just wasn’t that fun to be on the road during a pandemic. People always asked us how long we were going to live this lifestyle, and our reply was always we’d stop when we didn’t enjoy it anymore. We weren’t enjoying it much, mainly for the reasons listed below.
It’s too damn busy out there now. A number of people around the country have turned to RVing as their preferred way to travel this summer. It’s wonderful that families are finding new ways to vacation and spend time together, but the huge uptick in RV sales and rentals means there are a lot fewer places to stay. And crowds. Campgrounds that are usually nowhere near capacity are now booked with a line out the gate waiting to get a site. A lot of people are visiting national parks during their travels, many for their first time – and they’re trashing them. Vandalism, trash, avoidable run-ins with wildlife, and human excrement have now become common place.
In our experience, many people aren’t being as cautious as they should be. This makes us incredibly uncomfortable and reinforces the importance of finding a safe place where we can live comfortably and keep ourselves healthy. Wear a mask and distance yourself from others whenever possible!
We knew when we decided to live in an Airstream we were giving up space. However, we were perfectly fine with that knowing that in return, we’d be visiting beautiful places and having some pretty great experiences. Well, when there’s a pandemic and it’s best to stay home, that once quaint and cozy small space feels smaller.
So, friends, we bought a condo in Bozeman, Montana. We had spent time in Bozeman the last two summers and really enjoyed our visits. We’ve been fond of our travels through Montana in general, and in fact, Montana is the state we’ve spent the most time in outside of California (where we would spend the winter months).
We love its location. Three national parks – Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier – are all within a 5-6 hour drive. Bozeman is a very outdoors-oriented town, catering to hiking, fishing, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, and various other outdoor activities. Montana’s busiest airport is in Bozeman, which is important for when business trips become a thing again. While the cost of living is higher here than in other parts of the country, we find it affordable after living in San Diego County for seven years. When considering a place to settle down, we always wanted to make sure it was somewhere where we wouldn’t have to sell the Airstream due to budget constraints. Bozeman also has some great restaurants and breweries, and is incredibly dog friendly, if we ever decide to get another pupper. Also, Bozeman residents seem to be very active and welcoming. Have I mentioned that Bozeman is beautiful? From the cute downtown to the endless trails and green spaces to the mountains in all directions, the landscape really sold us.
What does this mean?
Well, it means we will no longer be living in an Airstream full time. Instead, we’ll be spending part of the year in our spacious-to-us 1100ft2 two bed, two bath condo with doors that offer privacy, a large fridge, a washer & dryer, and a king-size bed. We will definitely still travel in the Airstream as much as we can. In spite of the reasons we chose to stop full timing, we still love it and can’t imagine not traveling. There are so many places we want to visit and revisit, we’ll just do it more sporadically. In fact, we have plans for a 3-week trip to northern Washington soon, but are waiting out the heat and crowds before we embark. I think we’ll really enjoy having the luxury to decide when we travel and when we don’t.
We returned to the campground at Bozeman Hot Springs (aka Bozeman Campground) for the third summer in a row this June. As stated in my previous post ‘Limited Options in Bozeman, Montana‘, there are only a few options in the Bozeman area for RVs and none are that great. Bozeman Campground is definitely the nicest of the options, but it’s also the most expensive. (I guess when you don’t have a lot of competition, you can charge whatever you want.) I’ve highlighted the campground amenities and local attractions in our previous posts regarding Bozeman (July 2018 and July 2019), so in this post I’m going to compare the different site options at Bozeman Campground.
A Row: These are tent sites and cost $42.95/night. Seeing as that’s usually an average price for an RV site, you can see already how expensive this campground is. The tent sites are a decent size, all grass, and have a fire pit & picnic table. No electricity.
B Row: We stayed in B6 for seven nights in June 2020. These are water and electric (30amp) only sites that are pull thru. They are labeled to range in length from 25-28 feet, though our Airstream (28′ from hitch to bumper) and truck fit fine with room to spare. There is an area available to park your tow vehicle if it doesn’t fit in your site. The sites are gravel, level-ish, and have a fire pit and picnic table. At $64.95/night, these are the least expensive sites for traditional RVs. We enjoyed our stay in this site and would book a site in this row for any future stays. There is a dump station available if you need to empty your tanks before, during, or after your stay.
C Row: I have never seen a site in C Row available via the campground’s reservation system, so I’m not sure if you have to call in order to reserve a site here. These sites are gravel, back-in, full-hookup, 30-amp sites. They have a lot of trees overhead for shade and a large grassy area behind each site which is where the fire pits are located. They sit at a 90° angle to the road, so backing in is a little more challenging than other sites. Also, these are the closest sites to the hot springs, so there may be some noise from the pools.
G Row: We stayed in G0 for five nights and G4 for two nights, both in July 2019. When we stayed in it, G0 was a pull-thru site with lots of sun that they used as an emergency site. We we were supposed to stay in H row, but had an electrical issue there, so we spent our time in G0 instead. It appears that this year G0 is now a back in site, but I’m not sure if it’s still used as an emergency site or if it can be reserved. We also stayed in G4 for two nights and really enjoyed our stay here. The G row sites are super long pull throughs and actually have hookups at both ends, so you can decide what works best for where to park your rig. There is decent shade in this area as well, and the sites are very spacious with large green lawns between them. These sites are $74.95/night.
H Row: We were supposed to spend five nights in H4 in July 2019, but had a hot skin issue after hooking up electricity. We don’t know if there was a ground issue with the electrical pedestal or if the fact that we were sitting in a huge puddle of water was the issue. Regardless, they moved us to G0. These sites are back-in, full-hookup sites, and seem pretty decent. These sites are also $74.95/night.
I Row: We have not stayed in I row, but these sites seem pretty comparable to H row. They are also back-in, full-hookup sites that are available for $74.95/night.
J Row: We stayed in site J6 for three nights in July 2018 and J7 for one night in July 2019. In our opinion, the J row sites are the worst sites the campground has to offer, which is disappointing, seeing as they are also $74.95/night. They are pull-thru, gravel sites with very snug ‘grassy’ areas that have a fire pit and picnic table. I say ‘grassy’ because weedy might be a better description. These sites don’t seem to get as much attention as other sites and really should be priced less. The B row water and electric sites are much nicer. There are hedges between the sites which offers some privacy from your neighbor, so there’s that, I guess.
K Row: K row and the two L row sites are the only sites that have cement pads. We stayed in K2 for two nights in June 2020. These sites are very large and very long back ins and nice to be in during the rainy season (which ends early to mid-July) so you don’t have to deal with the mud the gravel sites might have. We had nice, green hedges behind us, so this site felt fairly private. These sites are the most expensive in the campground at $89.95/night.
L Row: There are actually only two L sites mixed amongst the sites in K row. They are water and electric only back-in sites that are quite small and best suited for vans or a small Class C. They are $49.95/night, which seems like a steal considering the tent sites aren’t much cheaper.
Bozeman Campground accepts Good Sam, so if you are a member, you will get 10% off your stay.
This year’s stay at Bozeman Campground in sites K2 and B6 was so much more enjoyable than the two previous years when we had a crappy site in 2018 and an electrical issue in 2019. We wish there was a more affordable option in the area, but the price does include entrance to the hot spring pools next door as well as breakfast every morning, which came in the form of a carryout brown bag this year due to COVID.
After spending a week at one of the worst places we’ve ever stayed (see previous post), we were over the moon when we pulled into Yellowstone’s Edge RV Park and saw how beautiful and well cared for it is. Yellowstone’s Edge is about 15 miles south of Livingston, Montana (where you’ll find a grocery store) and about 35 miles north of Gardiner, Montana (where you’ll find the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park). It’s nestled between the Yellowstone River — with a number of sites backing right up to the river — and Highway 89, though the traffic noise is pretty minimal. We had originally reserved only a week long stay, but as soon as we pulled in, we decided to extend. We had no idea where we were headed next, and Yellowstone’s Edge seemed like a great place to hang out while we figured out our next destination. We actually extended our stay three times, and ultimately stayed 5.5 weeks from May 9th to June 16th. The owners of the park (fellow Airstreamers!) were super accommodating and did their best to not make us move sites multiple times. We did end up staying in three different sites, but they were all within a few sites of each other, making moving very easy.
While there’s no enclosed off-leash dog area, there is a lot of grass throughout the park and plenty of room to walk your four-legged friends, with a number of dog waste bag stations throughout. There’s no pool and no playground, so Yellowstone’s Edge doesn’t necessarily cater to kids, but I think they would still enjoy staying here.
When you make a reservation at Yellowstone’s Edge online, you actually are submitting a request for a reservation. There’s a spot on the request form where you can ask to be in a specific site or site type. After referring to their park map and looking at Google Satellite, I requested to be in one of their back-in south sites (S1-S12), as I thought they would have the best views. (I was right.) Someone from the park called to confirm our reservation and site type, and we were all set! This park is VERY popular during the summer, and we talked to more than one person that was spending at least three months there. We were very lucky to get in with only a week’s notice and be able to continue extending our stay.
We stayed in sites S3, S5, and S6 and site S6 is pictured above and below. They all had a little different view and were sized a little differently, but basically all the same quality.
Sometimes we stay at a park or campground for an entire month and never get our chairs out; other times we pull them out on the first day. This is a put-the-chairs-out-on-the-first-day-and-take-a-seat kind of place. We loved sitting by the river with a view of the mountains, watching all of the fly fishers floating down the river.
But don’t let those sunny pictures above fool you, it can definitely still snow in this area when it’s crazy hot in other parts of the country already. Yellowstone’s Edge’s season doesn’t start until May 1, and there’s good reason for that. Over Memorial Day Weekend, we woke up to snow!
The only other time our Airstream has seen snow was a year prior, in nearly the same area. We were in West Yellowstone towards the end of May and woke up to snow there one day as well — so be prepared!
It was calming to watch the snow fall and the birds feed at our neighbor’s bird feeders.
As quickly as the snow came, it was gone, and the lilacs and budding trees replaced it.
It was pretty great to be able to watch the sunset over the Yellowstone River and the mountains every night from our window!
Of course, the main draw for staying in this area is visiting Yellowstone National Park. When we arrived at Yellowstone’s Edge on May 9, the park was still completely shut down due to COVID-19. The south and east entrances (located in Wyoming) reopened on May 18. Due to Montana having a 14-day mandatory quarantine for anyone that traveled from outside the state (both residents and nonresidents), the west, north, and northeast entrances (which are all located in Montana) didn’t reopen until the 14-day quarantine was lifted. On June 1, all entrances of the park were finally open and we were lucky to be able to start exploring the park via the north entrance (in Gardiner, MT) less than a half hour after it opened.
We went into the park three times during the remainder of our stay at Yellowstone’s Edge, and were overjoyed at how few visitors there were. We have previously visited Yellowstone NP twice in the past two years, both during summer, and it’s usually crazy town — hard to park, selfie sticks everywhere, and large crowds at the most popular attractions. While we did see an increase in traffic throughout our visits, it was still incredibly enjoyable and easy to get around.
We made sure to visit some areas of the park we had never visited before, like Lamar Valley and the Lower Falls, and we returned to some we had previously seen, like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. The last two times we visited, the Fairy Falls Trail that leads to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook was closed, so we made sure to take advantage of its accessibility this time.
Here are some pics from the park:
This park is such an interesting place and definitely worth a visit, but prepared for a lot of driving — like, a lot. The various sections of the park are very spread out and will require multiple hours in the car in order to explore. Probably the best way to visit Yellowstone is to stay near each entrance — or at least near the south, west, and north entrances — for a couple of days each.
There is still so much of Yellowstone that we have left to explore, but it will have to wait until our next visit!
Prior to Yellowstone opening, we did some nice hikes in the area that weren’t too far from Yellowstone’s Edge RV Park:
Pine Creek Falls – Pine Creek/Livingston Area
This is a 2.6-mile moderately difficult trail that starts just beyond the Pine Creek Campground in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in the Gallatin National Forest. There’s a decent size parking lot with pit toilets at the trailhead, but this is a very popular trail and other trails leave from the same area, so the earlier you start, the better. It’s a beautiful little hike with about 486′ of elevation gain that culminates at Pine Creek Falls. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say the trail culminates at the falls, as you can continue on beyond the falls to Pine Creek Lake, which is about 12 miles roundtrip.
In order to get to the trailhead, you have to drive through private land where cattle graze, so heed the signs that say, “Slow – Cows On Road.”
The Hogback (aka Hogback Ridge) – Pine Creek/Livingston Area
My Apple Watch logged 865′ of elevation gain and a little over 2.5 miles of distance, but there are varying accounts of how long this trail is, probably because it’s hard to know where the trail ends. That being said, this was such a fun hike — mainly because of these two:
This is Daizy and Boaz and this is their property. The Hogback Trail is on private property that the owners graciously open to public enjoyment. Note the signs below:
The trail is steep with loose rocks, and apparently rattlesnakes are a common sight, though we saw none. There are some pretty great views throughout.
Daizy and Boaz stuck with us for the entire hike. While Boaz’s job seemed to be to terrorize Daizy, Daizy seemed to take her job of leading hikers very seriously. We got off trail a couple of times (it’s not very well defined) and she waited patiently while we found it again. We wish every trail came with canine trail guides!
Joe Brown Trailhead – Gardiner
You’ll find the Joe Brown Trailhead along Hwy 89, north of Gardiner, Montana. The trail access is across the road from the Yankee Jim Picnic Area (where there’s a pit toilet) and a boat launch. I have no idea how long this trail is, as it’s not listed in AllTrails, and a Google search doesn’t yield any results. However, I can tell you that it meets up with both the Cedar Creek Trail and the Slip & Slide Trail. We stopped to check this trail out as we were returning to Yellowstone’s Edge from Gardiner one day, so weren’t super prepared in regards to water and snacks and only hiked 1.63 miles out and back. In that short distance, there was almost 500′ of elevation gain, which mostly came at the beginning. Besides the steep beginning, I’d say this trail is fairly easy (at least what we hiked) as it winds around the side of a grassy hill/mountain. We ran into a trio of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep along the way who were incredibly disinterested in us.
While at Yellowstone’s Edge, we picked food up from Follow Yer’ Nose BBQ in Emigrant a few times. Follow Yer’ Nose is often named the best BBQ in the state, and I can assure you, the brisket was the best we’ve ever had. We also had the pulled pork and a turkey sandwich as well, and all were delicious. Wildflour Bakery is also onsite and serves breakfast and baked goods. We made sure to pick up some local beer as well!
There are a couple of hot springs in the area that we weren’t able to patronize because they were closed due to COVID. Hanging out at Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa looks like a great way to spend a day and it’s only a 10-minute drive from Yellowstone’s Edge.
Also during our stay at Yellowstone’s Edge, we were able to meet up with four other full-timing couples at Eagle Creek Campground in Gardiner. This is a National Forest campground with good Verizon signal, pit toilets, campfire rings, bear boxes, and large, somewhat unlevel sites, for $7/night. From these dry camping sites, it’s about a 10-minute drive to Yellowstone’s north entrance.
We really enjoyed our time at Yellowstone’s Edge and will definitely stay here again if we’re in the area. And while Yellowstone is not one of our favorite parks, mainly due to how much driving is involved, it’s definitely an interesting, worthy place to visit that we will return to again so we can continue to explore its expansiveness.
There’s just something about Bozeman, Montana that has drawn us back for the third year in a row. That something is definitely not an array of options for RVers, however. There are three RV parks/campgrounds within the city, and none of them are anything to write home about. We stayed at Bozeman Hot Springs Campground and RV Park the last two years, and you can read about those visits here and here. The other two options are Bozeman Trail Campground (formerly Sunrise Campground, which is how it’s still listed on Campendium) and Bear Canyon Campground. Another option is the Gallatin County Fairgrounds as well as a handful of national forest campgrounds.
When we were in Bozeman last year, we drove through Bozeman Trail Campground and Bear Canyon Campground to see what the other options offered. At the time, they both seemed average-ish, with smaller sites that were close together. Even though it’s pricy and some of the sites are not nearly as nice as others, in our opinion, the hot springs campground is the nicest place to stay in Bozeman.
Bozeman Trail is the closest to what the city has to offer, being literally a 1-minute drive from Bozeman’s historic downtown. Bozeman Trail was also the only place open for us to stay when we made our way to Bozeman this year. We arrived May 2nd, and the hot springs didn’t open until May 15th and Bear Canyon didn’t open until June 1st. I don’t know if those are the opening dates every year or if they delayed opening due to COVID-19. Speaking of which, the fairgrounds and area national forest campgrounds were all closed due to COVID when we arrived. So, Bozeman Trail was literally our only option.
I had tried to glean from a number of reviews as well as Google Map satellite images what the best sites were — and I think we actually did end up with the best site. We made our reservation online, I selected site 37, and a message popped up stating that they can’t guarantee the specific site I chose unless I pay a $25 site lock fee. Seriously? Even though I definitely wanted site 37, as it was a pull-through at the end of a row, I did not pay the fee and hoped for the best. The day before we arrived, I called Bozeman Trail to request a non-contact check in and get our site number. We had done this at the last three places we stayed — actually, the last three places we stayed had contacted us. When I hadn’t heard from Bozeman Trail, I called to get our site number and they said they wouldn’t definitively know our site until the next day when we arrived. I then asked if I was able to call as we were pulling in to find out our site number so that we could have a non-contact check in and she said no, she needed me to come in to sign something. Again, seriously? During this pandemic, we kept our traveling to a minimum and our contact with others to none except for grocery stores, and that’s all we were trying to do here. But we weren’t allowed to and it pissed me off.
The next day, we arrived, I went in the office and found that zero precautions were being taken to protect staff or guests. I was wearing a mask, but the employee was not. There was no partition in place. She stood behind a podium and expected me to stand a foot away from her while signing a paper that didn’t need to be signed and writing down our license plate numbers that could have been collected during the reservation process. I grabbed the paper, walked over to a table, and signed it with my own pen. I returned to the truck and we followed a guy in a golf cart to our site. Between the site lock fee and the lack of COVID-19 precautions, we already didn’t feel great about this place.
Site 37 is on the end of a row of pull-thru sites that face every other way so that you share a front yard with your neighbor. However, seeing as 37 is on the end, we did not share a front yard, but had a decent sized grassy area. The parking pad was gravel, narrow, and a bit unlevel. It seemed as though they had just put in a new sewer hookup, because the area around the hookups was dirt, though this time of year it’s actually mud. The hookups were pretty spread out, but we didn’t have an issue hooking the electric up at the back of the site and hooking the water up towards the front of the site. Our site was large enough to park the truck, but I’m not sure that would be possible in all sites.
The campground itself is decent. The layout of some sites is a little wonky, and at first glance, it seems really run down, but that’s only because there were a number of rigs that looked as though they could never hit the road again. There are a number of RVers that get frustrated with places that have an age limit on RVs, but this campground is an example of why some places choose to have an age limit. Could it use some sprucing up? Yes; however, if you can look past some of the dilapidated vehicles, this place is okay. Ish.
But, the noise. Oh my goodness, the noise! The noise is unlike anything else we have ever experienced. The campground is nestled between a frontage road that has an active train track running parallel and I-90. This is the absolute loudest place we have ever stayed. We are not normally disturbed by highway noise or a distant train, but here, the noise was endless. And even with the door and windows closed, we could still hear the traffic. The train ran a number of times through the night, whistle and all. Some reviews for Bozeman Trail say the noise isn’t that bad, so I don’t know if it was the location of our site, or we have overly sensitive hearing, or those reviewers have diminished hearing, but it was bad. The noise is our main complaint and the reason we hope we’d never have to stay here again.
We didn’t use any of the amenities, so I can’t comment on those. They claim to have a playground, but it consists of one swing and one of those little boxy, plastic Little Tykes-type play sets. There are plenty of places to dispose of trash throughout and as I said earlier, the location can’t be beat for visiting downtown Bozeman.
Our second year as full-time Airstream dwellers/digital nomads/travelers has come and gone. We added a few new states to our travel map (North Dakota, Nebraska, and Idaho), crossed the northern border for the first time (it won’t be the last time), and traveled 7,607 miles (just 61 miles less than last year). Our longest drive day was 377 miles and our shortest was 6.5 miles. We averaged $46.63/night in lodging costs, thanks to spending 45 days in a condo/hotels at various times throughout the year while our converter was fixed, solar panels were installed, and modifications were done to the interior.
We continued to learn more about ourselves, our Airstream, our country, and the nomadic lifestyle. Here’s a look back at our second year on the road:
We visited 13 National Park Service sites, with 8 of them being new to us:
We also revisited Death Valley, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Mount Rushmore.
With our return visit to South Dakota, we were able to conquer the remaining 3 sites of South Dakota’s Great 8, the other 5 of which we saw last summer:
The other 5 are Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and the Missouri River.
We hiked, and hiked, and hiked…
and paddled, and paddled, and paddled…
and soaked, and soaked, and soaked.
We chased waterfalls…
but we also stuck to the rivers…
and the lakes that we’re (not) used to.
We drank beer…
We rode a gondola in Palm Springs…
and one in Banff.
(Have I mentioned I don’t like gondolas?)
We saw where Forrest Gump ended his run…
and where Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff.
We saw lots of wildlife…
and visited the geographic center of the country.
We added four new tires,
two new batteries,
four new solar panels,
and a couch and a desk.
We had visitors in Las Vegas; Hurricane, UT; Custer, SD; and Glacier National Park:
Our second year on the road was fantastically fun and memorable, even with the issues we encountered. (I’m looking at you flat tire and junk converter.) All of the inconveniences we deal with are by far worth the amazing places we get to experience. Thanks for following along and we hope you stick around for 2020, our third year on the road — although we’re not really sure what’s in store yet!
We visited Glacier National Park in July of last year, but were only able to spend five days — which was not nearly enough. We knew then that we would return for a longer stay in the near future, which turned out to be August 9-23 of this year. We spent two amazing weeks in West Glacier at the West Glacier KOA, which is one of only 19 KOA Resorts amongst the 480+ KOA properties throughout North America. We had friends fly in from D.C. and Tampa to help us celebrate my 40th birthday. They stayed in one of the Deluxe Cabins, which is a great way for friends and family to join RVers on the road in great destinations like Glacier. During their 4-day visit, we explored trails and lakes and waterfalls and hiked/walked almost 88,000 steps, or more than 37 miles. We drank whiskey and beer and ate burritos and churros and trout. The guys went whitewater rafting and we all enjoyed campfires in the evening. Their visit flew by, as did our 2-week stay, and we’re pretty sure that Glacier National Park will be a place we return to again and again.
Nightly Entertainment (Wildlife Expert, Magic Show, Music, etc.)
2.5 Miles to West Entrance of Glacier National Park
Our site, #166, was a back-in Super Site with full hookups and a tent pad. It’s on the end of a row and backs up to a tree line. It’s next to a bathroom, which was very convenient for when our friends were hanging out at our site. We LOVED our site. It was huge and quiet and pretty private for a KOA.
There are a number of things that we enjoyed about this KOA:
For such a large property, it’s pretty quiet. Because we were in an end site that backs up to trees, our stay may have been quieter than if we were in a different site, but overall, the place was pretty low key even though it was at max capacity most nights
The sites are well spaced apart. Again, this might have something to do with our particular site. We didn’t walk the entirety of the campground, but every site we saw looked nice.
Breakfast and dinner are available every day, which is very convenient for those days you don’t feel like making a meal or going out. They have a pretty substantial breakfast menu each morning, along with pastries for purchase. There’s also a coffee bar to get your day started right. Each evening, Gene mans the grill, where you have a choice of trout, ribs, flat iron steak, or ribeye steak. The ribs were pretty good but the trout was our favorite (we didn’t try either of the steaks).
The. Adult. Pool. Is. Everything. Due to most people staying at KOAs with kids, the family pool was always pretty busy. However, the adults only pool never had more than a half dozen other people at it and was incredibly peaceful. There are also two small hot tubs at the adult pool — again, very nice to enjoy without kids.
The location to the national park entrance gets two thumbs up. It’s only a couple of minutes drive into West Glacier Village, where you’ll find the west entrance of the park, a post office, an urgent care clinic, the newly opened West Glacier RV Park & Cabins, a motel, a food market, retail/gift shops, coffee cart, ice cream, a bar, and a cafe.
Mobile dog grooming? Yes, please. Every Saturday, a woman brings her RV that’s converted into a mobile dog grooming salon to the West Glacier KOA. There’s a sign-up sheet in the office. This was super convenient for us, as Max hadn’t been groomed in a very long time due to having a back injury. Also, it’s really hard to get a dog in for grooming on short notice in most places and we’re usually not somewhere long enough for it not to be short notice. She did a great job and Max was done in less than an hour, unlike the three hours that are normally required at other groomers.
Things to Do
The hike to Avalanche Lake can be anywhere from 4.6 to 6 miles roundtrip, depending on how far you continue along the lakeshore once you reach the lake. This trail can be busy, as there is a shuttle stop at the trailhead (which is actually the Trail of the Cedars Trailhead), and is accessible during the off-season months when the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed. There’s ample parking, but as with most trails in any national park, the earlier you get there the better. However, we didn’t arrive at the trailhead until 9am on a Saturday during mid-August and we were able to find a parking spot. The trail is rated as moderate and seemed to be popular with families. We did this hike on an overcast day, but the views from the lake were still gorgeous. We hiked the extra distance to the opposite side of the lake, as most people stop on the near side. Only a few parties continued to the far side which made it a quiet and peaceful place to drop in with our Kokopelli Packrafts and paddle around for a bit. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~32 minutes
Saint Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
We did this hike last year when we visited and both Travis and I remembered it as being easier than it was this year. We accessed the trail from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead, but you can also start at the Saint Mary Falls Shuttle Stop or from the boat dock on Saint Mary Lake. The first mile of the hike is pretty flat and fairly easy, and brings you to the three-tiered Saint Mary Falls. This a good place to turn around for those who aren’t very steady on their feet. If you continue an additional three-quarters mile up the trail, which starts to gain and lose elevation regularly just past Saint Mary Falls, you’ll reach Virginia Falls, which is approximately 50 feet tall. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~1 hr, 15 min
A few tips:
Throughout the hike, there are a handful of smaller unnamed falls, and some people may mistake these for Virginia Falls and turn around before reaching the actual Virginia Falls.
The earlier in the season you visit, the more impressive the falls will be. That’s true for any of the 200+ waterfalls located throughout Glacier. We visited Glacier in mid-July last year and mid-August this year and noticed a big difference.
There is a third waterfall that can be reached from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead, though the Sunrift Gorge Trailhead is a closer option. When starting the hike to Saint Mary and Virginia Falls, you’ll see a sign that says Baring Falls to the left, while the other two are to the right. We’ve never hiked it, so I can’t comment on the difficulty of the trail or the brilliance of the falls. I believe it’s about a mile to the falls from where the trail splits in two directions.
There’s a pit toilet near Virginia Falls if needed, though don’t expect it to be as nice as the pit toilets you find at trailheads. And pack your own toilet paper.
The trailhead to Iceberg Lake is found behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier area of the park. There are a number of hikes that leave from this area, so everything I read about the Iceberg Lake hike said that arriving early is important, even though there’s a very large parking lot. We did this hike on a drizzly Monday morning and when we arrived at the parking lot around 7:30am, there was quite a bit of parking still available. Maybe it was because of the weather, maybe it was because it was Monday, but whatever the reason, we probably could have shown up at 8 or 8:15 and still been fine. The park’s hiking guide rates this hike as very challenging, though AllTrails says moderate. Even though it’s about 10 miles roundtrip and has approximately 1800′ of elevation gain, I’d have to agree with moderate. About halfway along the trail is Ptarmigan Falls, which is a nice place to stop for a snack. There’s also a pit toilet here, but as with the one by Virginia Falls, it’s more of an outhouse and requires you to bring your own toilet paper. Once we reached the brilliant turquoise lake, which was sans icebergs (we missed them by a few weeks), the wind really picked up and it was freezing. We spent a short time at the lake before heading back and being treated to some moose sightings along the trail. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~2 hr, 10 min
Hidden Lake Overlook
This is another very popular hike in Glacier, but with good reason. It’s rated as challenging, or moderate, but is less challenging than other moderate hikes we’ve done. It’s fairly accessible, as the trailhead is right behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center. At 2.6 miles roundtrip, the payoff is pretty great without having to put a lot of miles in. The hike can be extended an additional 1.2 miles each way if you choose to hike down to the lake itself. We saw what seemed like every rodent that calls the park home as well as a momma mountain goat with her babe. It’s a busy trail, but one that I would say should be on your must-do list. We arrived at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon and were lucky enough to score a parking spot without having to circle the parking lot for too long. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~1 hr, 3 min
While I stayed back at the Airstream with Max, the guys went whitewater rafting with Glacier Raft Company. They enjoyed it, but it was a little tame for their liking. As with the waterfalls in the park, the water level and flow of the Flathead River peak in early June and slowly recede throughout the summer.
Food & Drink
Wandering Gringo Cafe
Delicious tacos, quesadillas, and burritos the size of your head. Cash only.
Glacier Distilling Company
They specialize in small-batch whiskey but also offer brandy, vodka, gin, rum and liqueurs. Do some tastings, order a cocktail, or buy a bottle to take home — or all three.
The rafting guide swore by their chimichangas, so we partook after our hike to Iceberg Lake. We also sampled the margaritas and churros. ‘Twas a delicious trifecta!
West Glacier Restaurant
Located right in West Glacier Village, a good place to stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner either on your way in or out of the park. The food was good, the service was fast, and the prices were reasonable.
Boat Club Restaurant – Lodge at Whitefish Lake
The Lodge is a 40-minute drive from the West Glacier KOA. We visited on a busy Sunday afternoon, so the service was a tad bit slow, but the views made up for it. Whitefish is a fantastic town and deserves to be explored, but we only had time for a quick lunch at the lake.
North Fork Pizza
Located in Columbia Falls, North Fork Pizza is about a 20-minute drive from the KOA. The pizza is fantastic and worthy of the drive.
The Glacier National Park area does not disappoint. It’s not the easiest to get to, but everyone should try their best to get there. When the park was established in 1910, there were 150 active glaciers. Today, only 26 remain. By 2030, that number may be zero. The park itself is mind-blowing, but there is so much in the area that we haven’t yet gotten a chance to explore — Kalispell, Whitefish, Flathead Lake, etc. We spent 45 glorious days in the great state of Montana this summer, but it looks like we’ll need to spend more.
When planning our trip to Canada, the border crossing was the biggest question mark for us. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about and took less than five minutes.
We crossed at the Sweetgrass, Montana crossing, which is listed as Montana’s busiest border crossing and the only one that’s open 24 hours for commercial vehicles. There are six lanes, with one reserved for people holding a NEXUS card and two reserved for commercial purposes. There were two cars ahead of us when we pulled up, but they moved through very quickly.
When we pulled up to the window, the agent asked for our passports immediately and then asked the following questions:
Where are you headed?
How long will you be in Canada?
What’s the purpose of your visit?
Do you have any alcohol? How much?
Do you have any tobacco products?
Do you have any cannabis products?
Do you have any weapons?
Do you have a taser or pepper spray?
Do you have more than $10,000 cash with you?
Will you be selling any goods while you’re in Canada?
Americans crossing into Canada are each allowed to have 1.5 liters of wine -or- 1.14 liters (40 ounces) of liquor -or- 24 cans of beer, as well as 1 carton (200) of cigarettes, up to 50 cigars, and 200g of loose tobacco. For more information about the items you can and can’t cross with and the possible duties imposed, visit www.ezbordercrossing.com. There were also signs posted that stated “All cannabis items must be declared,” but we have no idea what the rules are for that.
He then asked to see Max’s rabies vaccination record. After that, he handed everything back to us, and we were on our way!
The city on the Canadian side of the border is Coutts, which is where we spent the night before driving up to Cochrane, just west of Calgary, the next day. There is a duty free shop in both Sweetgrass and Coutts, so you can buy all the alcohol and tobacco your heart desires without having to pay a duty fee. If we were to cross the border via this route again, we would keep driving past Coutts to Lethbridge, about 100km (60mi) north. Coutts is a tiny, dusty, agricultural city without many amenities while Lethbridge is the third largest city in Alberta, offering food and recreation options.
We crossed back into the U.S. at the Roosville, BC border crossing. It was much busier than when we crossed in Sweetgrass — maybe because it was a Friday instead of a Thursday, and there were only two lanes as opposed to three. The border agent gave us a hard-to-explain uneasy feeling, but again we had no issues crossing once answering his questions:
How long were you in Canada?
Do you have any fresh produce or plants?
Did you buy any items to declare?
From there, it was less than a 2-hour drive to our destination of West Glacier. Be prepared and be honest when crossing the border, and you should have no issues. We recently read of a fellow Airstreamer forgetting to declare a couple pieces of produce at the same border crossing and were fined $300 and had their passports held until they paid it.
The idea of a visit to Banff National Park in Alberta can be a bit daunting — almost as daunting as trying to put all of the info about actually visiting Banff into a blog post can be. But, it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been and completely worth the hassle it takes to get there!
So, I’ll start at the beginning:
Getting to Banff National Park
Obviously, we drove to Banff, which involved crossing the international border. We drove from Helena, MT to Milk River, AB (crossing at the Sweetgrass/Coutts border crossing) to Cochrane, AB to Banff National Park to Cranbrook, BC to West Glacier, MT (crossing at the Roosville crossing). To find out more information about crossing the border with an Airstream and a dog, read this. If you aren’t making a road trip out of your visit, then you’ll most likely be flying into Calgary. Calgary is a very large, great city that deserves a few days of exploration itself. From there, it’s a 90-minute drive to the town of Banff and an additional 45 minutes to Lake Louise. This drive can be accomplished by renting a car, taking an airport shuttle, or buying tickets for the On-It Regional Transit bus (make sure to check the schedule). Another option that many people choose is to rent an RV. We saw a lot of RVs from CanaDream, so check out their website if this interests you.
Camping in Banff
Reservations for Canada’s national parks open in January. I’m not sure if it’s the same date every year or if it changes, so keep an eye on the Parks Canada site for information. I booked our sites on January 10th this year, which I believe was the day after reservations opened. We stayed in the Lake Louise Hard-Sided Campground for three nights and the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground in Banff for three nights. Lake Louise Hard-Sided is open year round and has a period of about three months during the summer when reservations are available. Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court is open from the beginning of May to the beginning of October and accepts reservations during the whole season. Two dates that you should avoid during the summer are July 1st, which is Canada Day, and the first Monday of August, which is a civic holiday. We did not know this and were in Lake Louise over the long holiday weekend at the beginning of August. According to employees in the park and at restaurants, the area was MUCH busier than normal during this weekend. There is an $11.00 CAD nonrefundable reservation fee for each reservation made and a daily park entrance fee of $9.80 CAD per adult or $19.60 per family/group. A Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which gives you unlimited admission for 12 months from date of purchase at over 80 locations, is $67.70 CAD per adult or $136.40 per family/group. It was most cost effective for us to purchase the family annual pass, which is approximately $103.50 USD, and is valid through August of next year.
Lake Louise Hard-Sided Campground
Price: ~$24.50 USD ($32.30 CAD)
Amenities at Site: Pull-Through, 30amp Electric Hookup, Picnic Table
Amenities in Campground: Restrooms with Flush Toilets, Showers, Phone, Dump Station, Recycling
The sites are designed that two RVs park in each pull-through. They’re separate sites with separate hookups, but you’re close enough to each other that you can’t drive a vehicle between, especially if you have slides. We were lucky and barely had neighbors during our stay. The electric box is on the wrong side of the trailer. Most people just ran their electric cord under their trailer, but seeing as we have a second 30amp connection on the front end of the Airstream, we used that. There are restrooms with flush toilets, sinks, soap, and hand driers throughout the campground. There’s one larger restroom that has free showers. All sites have a picnic table, but not all sites have a fire ring. When you make a reservation online, it tells you if a site is with or without a fire ring. There is a dump station near the entrance/exit of the campground. We didn’t see any water fill stations (and none are listed on the map), but the map does state “all water in this facility is potable unless otherwise posted.” The campground is in a great location for exploring the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake areas, but not really walking distance to anything. I believe there’s a shuttle pickup at the front of the campground that takes you to the main park and ride where you can catch a shuttle to wherever you’re looking to go. We never saw it, but according to the public transportation map, it’s there.
Note: You HAVE to be in a hard-sided trailer to stay in this part of the campground. There’s a separate tent section that is surrounded by an electric fence and equipped with bear boxes.
Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground
Price: ~$29.06 USD ($38.20 CAD)
Amenities at Site: Pull-Through, Full Hookups with 30amp, Picnic Table
Amenities in Campground: Restrooms with Flush Toilets and Showers, Recycling
Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court is a 322-site campground with full hookups at each site. Most sites are single pull-throughs, but there are a few buddy sites referred to as ‘shared sites’. The Trailer Court Campground is right next to the Tunnel Mountain Village II Campground, which has a dump station, potable water, a phone, and bus stops, which according to the Camping in the Banff Area pamphlet, “Public transit is available to many top destinations and is free from most campgrounds.” Tunnel Mountain II also has oTENTiks available, which are exclusive to Parks Canada and are a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent mounted on a raised wooden floor. The sites in the Trailer Court are pretty unlevel side to side, but also fairly shady. Unlike Lake Louise Campground, the roads throughout Tunnel Mountain Campground are paved and in good condition. A short drive (or long walk) from the campground is the town of Banff, a beautiful and clean quintessential mountain town full of restaurants, shops, and other services. Yes, there is a town of about 10,000 residents in the middle of a national park, and yes, it’s gorgeous.
If camping isn’t your thing, there are PLENTY of hotels, motels, hostels, resorts and short-term rentals in both Lake Louise and Banff.
Note: We had a good cell signal with AT&T in both campgrounds and most areas of Lake Louise and Banff.
Out and About in Lake Louise
The best place to start is with a quick hike to the Fairview Lookout. It’s a steep, 1.5-mile out and back with pretty great views of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Lake Agnes Tea House
When researching hikes in the Lake Louise area, the hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House kept coming up. It’s 2.2 miles one way with over 1300′ of elevation gain. We hit the trailhead at 7:25am in order to avoid the crowds and be able to get a parking spot — arriving any later than 7:30 on a Saturday of a holiday weekend is not a good idea. It took us 50-55 minutes to get to the top. The tea house has sat at 7005′ of elevation on the shores of Lake Agnes (and on top of a waterfall) since 1905. Known primarily for their selection of loose leaf teas, they offer other beverages as well as baked goods, soups, and sandwiches to warm you up — it was 44° when we started the hike and only 60° when we got back to the truck. We each got a piece of apple blueberry crumble and split a small pot of Madagascar Almond Spice tea. We wrapped up the remaining complimentary biscuits and jam to enjoy after the hike back down.
Start early. Parking is limited around Lake Louise as it’s a VERY popular area. The Tea House opens at 8:00am. We got there at about 8:20 and had to wait 15 minutes.
Cash only. Preferably Canadian, but it seems they do accept US dollars as well.
Moraine Lake Rock Pile Trail
This is a short, half-mile trail with stairs that leads you to the top of an actual rock pile where you’ll have the best views of Moraine Lake.
We didn’t do any other hikes in the Moraine Lake area, but there are definitely some great ones available. On the easy end of the spectrum is the Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail, which is exactly what it sounds like — a nice, flat trail that follows the shoreline of the lake with both lake and forest views. There’s also the hike to Consolation Lakes, which starts from the rock pile trail and recommends groups of four due to bear activity. This trail is rated as easy. Eiffel Lake Trail is rated as moderate and the Larch Valley Trail is rated as hard. Both trails start at the Moraine Lake lakeshore.
Food & Drink
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offers a range of dining options, from grab-and-go to fancy schmancy. We tried to get reservations at the Fairview Bar and Restaurant, but didn’t book far enough in advance. Priority seating is given to hotel guests, which is understandable, as they’re paying upwards of $700/night to stay there. The Fairview also offers daily afternoon tea service. The Lakeview Lounge is probably the most sophisticated hotel lobby lounge you’ll come across. We had a drink at the beautiful bar in the lounge before eating dinner at the fondue restaurant, Walliser Stube. Lago Italian Kitchen, Poppy Brassiere, Alpine Social and Chateau Deli round out the dining options at the Fairmont.
Note: If you have a reservation at one of the Fairmont restaurants, you’re able to park on their property for free (after getting the parking ticket validated).
There are plenty of other places to eat in Lake Louise, from fast casual to fancy-ish, but the only other place we ate was the Mt. Fairview Dining Room at Deer Lodge. The decor is a little worn but the food was absolutely delicious. The Samson Mall is located in the main part of the village and here you’ll find a small grocery store, a liquor store, souvenir shops, a book store, a bakery/deli, a cafe, and services including banking, postal, and car rental — everything you need to survive for a few days if eating out isn’t really your thing. Of course, the Lake Agnes Tea House and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House are also alternative dining options — you just have to work a bit to reach them.
Access to Moraine Lake is limited during the day (more about that later), so dining options at Moraine Lake are also limited. The Moraine Lake Lodge offers the only accommodations and food options in the area. The Snowshoe Cafe is open during the day and offers a number of grab-and-go selections. The Walter Wilcox Dining Room is open for breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner, with reservations being required for dinner. The lodge also has a fantastic gift/souvenir shop.
Things to Do
People are drawn to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake for the beautiful views, great hikes, chance to see wildlife, and delicious food — but also, of course, the lakes! Both lakes have canoe rentals available, but at $125/hour (bananas!) it’s a little steep. Of course, people will stay pay that crazy price so they can paddle around the milky waters of Lake Louise and bright turquoise waters of Moraine Lake. We prefer to bring our own, however. Our Kokopelli Packcrafts are super convenient and give us access to areas we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We’ve used them on a number of alpine lakes, including Jackson Lake in Grand Teton NP and Avalanche Lake in Glacier NP.
As I mentioned earlier, access to Moraine Lake is limited. During the busy season, the parking lot at Moraine Lake is full most of the time, especially on the weekends. When the parking lot is full, the 11km road that leads to the Moraine Lake area is closed. The road is curvy and takes a bit to drive, so they avoid an obscene amount of traffic and people sitting in their cars waiting for a parking spot by just not allowing anyone to drive it. As space becomes available, they sporadically allow people through the blockade. To avoid getting shut out, there are a few options: 1) Take the shuttle. 2) Get there early. Like, really early. 3) Ride a bike. Seeing as there’s little traffic on the road during the day, this road, though curvy, is actually pretty safe to bike.
Before we move on to our stay in Banff, here are a few more pics from our time in and around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake:
Out and About in Banff
As an unfortunate side effect of working full time, we were only able to do one hike while staying at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court in Banff. Johnston Canyon is one of the more popular day hikes due to its family-friendly nature. The trail starts behind the Johnston Canyon Lodge. There are a couple of parking lots, but they fill pretty quickly unless you arrive early in the morning or later in the evening. The only time we could make the hike was smack dab in the middle of the day, which was not very ideal. We ended up parking along the side of the road almost a half mile from the trailhead. Again, this is a VERY popular hike and some parts of the trail are only wide enough for single file (sometimes very slow single file), so to avoid crowds, get there early.
The first part of the hike to the Lower Falls is flat, easy, and fairly short at 1.1km (.68mi). The entire hike is gorgeous as it winds through the canyon on catwalks along the creek. At the lower falls, there is a bridge across the creek that gives a better vantage point of the falls and at the other side of the bridge is a small cave. Walking through the small cave allows for a second vantage point of the falls, but beware that you may get a little wet. People wait in line in order to walk through the cave to see the falls up close, but honestly, it’s not worth the time unless this is your last stop on the trail.
If continuing on to the Upper Falls, the trail will become a little more difficult, as this part of the trail is rated moderate due to the incline. It’s not dramatic, but substantial enough that some people may have difficulty. From Lower Falls to Upper Falls is another 1.6km (~1mi) or 2.7km overall. The same beautiful views continue and again, if you go during a busy time, you’ll find yourself in a line. Unfortunately, this line is unavoidable if you want to catch a glimpse of the Upper Falls. The way the falls are situated, you can’t see them until you are pretty much right in front of them. There’s a small platform that extends from a narrow boardwalk from which you can see the falls. Only a few people can fit on this platform at a time, so a line forms. Obviously, you don’t have to wait in line, but then there’s no point in doing the hike unless you’re just looking for some exercise.
If we had had more time and if we didn’t waste time waiting in line at the Lower Falls, we would have continued on the trail to the Ink Pots, which are seven cold water spring pools in varying shades of blue and green. The Ink Pots are an additional 3.1km (1.93mi).
Food & Drink
Our one major dining out experience in Banff can also fall under the ‘Things To Do’ category. We purchased the Sky Experience Package, which included a round-trip gondola ride and dinner at the Sky Bistro. The Banff gondola takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, where you can find boardwalks to take in the views, an interpretive center, a theatre, a rooftop deck, a gift shop, a cafe, and two restaurants. We made the trip on an overcast day, but the views were still beautiful.
I was really looking forward to this meal as a food and travel writer occasionally featured by Travel & Leisure said this was his best meal while in Banff. We were a bit disappointed with the quality of the food — it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great like we were expecting it to be. Unfortunately, none of the food was that flavorful.
Make sure to get outside and walk the boardwalks in order to take in the 360° views. You might also be lucky enough to see mountain goats!
Just an FYI, there’s also a Starbucks and a second gift shop at the base of the gondola.
Things To Do
The town of Banff is full of great restaurants, great shops, and a number of things to do, including the Banff Hot Springs, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and Cascade Gardens. It’s cute and clean and offers a pretty great public transportation system. I wish we would have had more time to explore the town and the surrounding areas of the park, but we’re treating this trip as an introduction to the area and now know what to expect when we return.
A week is not nearly enough time to spend between Lake Louise and Banff. I would say at least two weeks, if not longer, are needed to get a better feel for the area. We were so limited with our time that we couldn’t even think about driving the Icefield Parkway, which is said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world (and runs between Lake Louise and Jasper in Jasper National Park). Banff National Park really charmed us and we hope to return in the future in order to enjoy more of its beauty.
We stayed in Helena for a week along our route up to Canada. We had never really heard anything about the city, so didn’t know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised by a beautiful, clean, quaint city that has a lot to offer and seems like a great place to live. We were able to explore quite a bit during the week and were happy that a city that was initially added to the itinerary as a place to kill time before going into Canada for reservations at Banff turned out to be a great place to spend the week.
The Helena KOA became a KOA at the beginning of this season and is still in the midst of transitioning. As a matter of fact, it seems to currently be a KOA in name only, as even their maps still say Lincoln Road RV Park. It’s missing the things KOAs are known for: Cabins, tent sites, dog park, playground, and family-style shower rooms. However, none of those things matter to us, and we found the property to be very clean, well maintained, and sufficient for our needs. The sites are level, long, and gravel with a concrete patio, picnic table, and really nice grass. The employees are all very nice and helpful. The wifi generally worked pretty well, which is a bonus seeing as we had terrible cell reception, even with a booster — good enough to make calls and texts, but was intermittently dependable for anything more than that. The location is great — very close to I-15 and you can get anywhere in Helena in about 15 minutes.
Things to Do in Helena
Montana State Capitol – A self-guided tour is available, though not necessary to appreciate the beautiful facility.
Cathedral of St. Helena – The cathedral rivals most cathedrals/churches we’ve seen around the world. Built in 1908, the cathedral was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour – The tour on the Missouri River lasts about two hours. The guide provides historical and environmental information about the area, which was so named by Lewis and Clark and recorded by Meriwether Lewis in their travel journal on July 19, 1805: “this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. … the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles … I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”
Hike Mt. Helena – There are a number of routes up Mt. Helena from the trailhead, where there’s a parking lot and a pit toilet. We chose to take the 1906 trail up, which is 1.5 miles one way with over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. We took the Powerline Trail down, which is 1 mile one way with the same 1,000+ feet of elevation, making it pretty steep and hard on the knees. The 1906 trail is definitely the better route and has nicer views than the Powerline Trail. At the top, there’s a 360-degree view of Helena.
Food & Drink – From what we saw, Helena isn’t really a culinary hub. We ate at home for most meals, but we did visit Blackfoot River Brewing Co. and Big Dipper Ice Cream, both located near the historic, walkable Last Chance Gulch area of town. We give two thumbs up for both establishments!
We really enjoyed our week in Helena and would definitely return!
As we did last year, we again went from the Billings KOA to Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park. Please read about our previous stay here, as I’m not going to repeat all of the info from that post.
We originally had booked five nights in Bozeman, but after our first night, decided to extend our stay another three nights. Because there are very few options for RVs in the area, the Hot Springs Campground is pretty much at capacity most of summer, which resulted in us staying in one site for our first five nights, a second site for one night, and a third site for our last two nights — not the most convenient, but we were able to experience different sites and realized some of the negatives we experienced during our stay last year can easily be remedied by staying in the right site.
When we got off I-90 to make our way to the campground, we found ourselves in the middle of a pretty intense rain/hail storm. We waited out the worst of it in the parking lot at the campground and then checked in and made our way to our site. Our site was completely under water. Attributing it to the recent storm and figuring there wasn’t anything we could do, we backed in and began getting set up. After hooking up the electricity, I noticed that any time I touched anything metal on the trailer I could feel an electric current. We had never experienced this before and had no clue as to whether this was a result of all the water or if there was something wrong with the electrical. I know, I know — two places in a row where we had issues with electrical. It was a bit defeating and very frustrating. We told the employees in the office what we were experiencing and they moved us to their emergency site. It was a super long pull-thru without much shade, but at least it was dry. To compensate for the trouble of moving, they gave us a night free, which was greatly appreciated.
Our second site, which was actually the third, was a pull-thru right next to the site we stayed in last year. We hated this site as much as we hated our site the previous year. The quality of the various sites is so disproportionate to the price you pay. We realized how important it is to reserve a site here a decent amount of time in advance in order to have a good selection.
Our third (fourth) site was a super long pull-thru in the same row (G) as the emergency site we first stayed in. These sites are so long that there are actually two options for hookups depending on where in the site you want to park your trailer. The G row sites are also pretty shady which comes in handy when it’s hot and sunny.
As you can see, not all sites are created equal even though you pay the same price for many of them. We paid the same for all three sites: H4 (our original site), J7, and G4. If we were to stay here again, I would try to get a G row site. They’re huge and shady and the grass is so well maintained. C row, H row, and I row are also nice. The K row sites have concrete pads as opposed to gravel like the rest of the sites, but no shade.
The campground has a large, fenced-in dog area that I don’t recall from last year. It was nice to let Max wander around off leash for a bit.
We made sure to really take advantage of the hot springs during our stay, visiting them pretty much daily. We also used the fitness center twice, which is a great bonus option seeing as it can be hard to get a good work out in while traveling full time.
We’ll most likely return to Bozeman again, so we decided to check out the other RV options. If you need hookups, there are basically four options: Hot Springs Campground, Sunrise Campground, Bear Canyon Campground, and the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. We drove through both Sunrise and Bear Canyon and found neither to be very impressive. However, Sunrise is VERY close (about a 3-minute drive) to downtown Bozeman, so if downtown is what you’re looking for, this might be the place for you. Bear Canyon sits a little further out and some of the back-in sites have nice canyon views, but just like Sunrise, most of the sites seem to be fairly narrow and lacking privacy from your neighbor. We did not get a chance to drive through the fairgrounds. We determined that for us, even though it’s the most expensive and a bit further from downtown Bozeman than we’d like, Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park is probably the best place to stay.
The Museum of the Rockies is a must-see destination for anyone remotely interested in dinosaurs, as they have the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the United States. In addition to the multiple Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops remains, there is a nearly complete Allosaurus. You’ll also find other prehistoric mammals including mammoths and rhinos. In addition to the paleontological exhibits, historical artifacts, photo murals, and textiles help to tell the story of Montana’s past including Yellowstone, Native Americans, fur traders, gold miners, and white settlers. There’s also an extensive temporary Genghis Khan exhibit that’s fascinating — did you know he’s responsible for passports, paper money, pants, and forks, among other things? To compliment the exhibit, there’s a twice daily live performance with Mongolian artists in the auditorium. We also timed it right to catch the Capcom-Go film in the planetarium, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. If you find yourself in Bozeman, definitely visit the Museum of the Rockies. Bonus: Your ticket is good for two days.
Food & Drink
We tried three new places for food and drink during the week that are worth sharing:
The Coffee Pot Bakery Cafe is less than a half mile from the campground. They, of course, have coffee and pastries, but also sandwiches, salads, hot breakfast items, and the best chicken pot pie we’ve ever had. We picked up food to go from here a couple of times because of how close and convenient it was and were never disappointed.
Nordic Brew Works is located about halfway between the campground and downtown Bozeman. It was under construction when we visited last year, so it’s super new and clean. We had a delicious dinner and Travis enjoyed a flight of beer. We also picked up burgers to go for dinner one night, which were also fantastic.
Blackbird Kitchen is located in downtown Bozeman. It’s a small, organic Italian restaurant with a limited menu, but every bite we had was delicious.
Minus the electrical issues, we enjoyed our time in Bozeman. There’s still so much to explore, so we hope to make a return trip soon!