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 windy 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 windy, 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!
We again found ourselves in Billings over the July 4th holiday, and Travis again had to make a trip to the Midwest for work. We arrived on a Sunday to check in for our two-week stay, and the woman behind the desk told me they didn’t have us checking in until the next day. I’ve never made that mistake before (reserving a site for the wrong day(s)), but luckily they had a site for the night that would accommodate the Airstream. They put us in a spacious water and electric site that backed up to the fishing pond. The next day, we moved to our new site, but stopped at the dump station first to empty our tanks. The site we had reserved was also only water and electric, which meant we were going to have to rely on the public restrooms and showers in order to make it through the two weeks without a sewer hookup.
We were assigned site 121, which is a narrow pull thru with water, electric, a picnic table, and a good amount of shade. The site was plenty long for our 28 foot trailer and truck, but the surrounding fifth wheels barely fit in the neighboring sites, with some of them having to park their tow vehicles perpendicular to their trailers or on the grass in their sites. When we first hooked up our electric, our surge protector had an ‘open ground’ error. Thinking it was a fluke, we flipped the power off, unplugged the surge protector, plugged it back in, and then flipped the power back on, this time with no error. Everything worked fine until that night, when at 2am-ish, I woke up and realized we didn’t have power. I went outside and performed the same process I had done earlier in the day, and power was restored; however, we now knew there was something up with the power at this site. An open ground means that the safety path is open, or incomplete, which can result in fire, shock, or electrocution. This is why a surge protector is so important, as it alerts you to any unsafe conditions and will cut the power to the trailer if an unsafe condition should arise. The next day I reported the power issues to the office and an employee came over right away to check things out. He opened the electric box and tightened all of the connections after finding one a little loose. We had no more issues for the next nine days.
On day nine, which was a very hot Wednesday that found Travis in Wisconsin, I started having issues with the power kicking off and the surge protector reading ‘open ground’ again. I spent about 15 minutes flipping the power on and off and unplugging and re-plugging the power cord back in, but nothing was working — I kept getting the error. I went to the office again with my issue and they sent someone over again. He opened the box, checked all the connections, and couldn’t find an issue. I went back into the office to see if we could move to a new site. The guy behind the counter, who seemed to be some type of manager, said the power issue was probably because of our surge protector and that, most likely, there was nothing wrong with the power being supplied to the box. I respectfully disagreed and returned to the Airstream. He came over to the site and along with two other employees, tested the electric box with a volt meter, which read normal. I explained that just because the right amount of power is coming through the box doesn’t mean that the power is grounded properly. I also explained that in our almost 550 consecutive nights in our trailer, we have never had an issue anywhere else. He said there’s no way of knowing if there was an issue with the power cord or with our trailer as opposed to the electric box. I explained that the site we stayed at there our first night gave us no issues and the site we stayed at there the year prior gave us no issues. He again tried to blame the use of a surge protector as the culprit, saying they only have issues with power with people who use them. I said of course that’s the case, a person without a surge protector won’t know if there’s an issue with the power unless something serious happens. I told him I’d plug in without my surge protector if he would sign something saying that they would be responsible for any damage caused by faulty power — he didn’t go for that. I showed him how both of our surge protectors (we had recently bought a new one) were giving the ‘open ground’ error even before we plugged the power cord from the trailer in, meaning the issue had to be with the electric box and not the trailer or power cord. They plugged both of our surge protectors into electric boxes at other sites and did not get the ‘open ground’ error. Finally, without admitting something was wrong with the power, the guy said he could move us to a different site, two sites down from where we currently were.
This was both great and terrifying at the same time. Obviously, I wanted to be at a site where I didn’t have to worry about the power kicking off on a 90°+ day, but I have NEVER hitched the trailer up and moved it by myself — neither of us have. Travis and I each have our own tasks that we do during arrivals and departures, and hitching up is always his thing. Also, I’ve only towed the trailer once, and that was on a wide-open highway, not within a campground with narrow streets, tight turns, narrow sites, and kids running around everywhere. I didn’t really have any other option, so I had to bury my apprehension deep down inside of me and just get it done. My neighbor put the very heavy hitch on the truck while I got everything else ready and then he directed me while I backed up the truck to hitch up. I very slowly pulled out of our site, drove through the campground, and pulled into the new site where, again, the neighbor let me know when I was positioned properly. All in all, it was an uneventful, quick move that gave me the confidence of knowing that if the occasion were to ever arise again where I needed to bug out solo, I’ll be able to do it.
I’m happy to report that we had no issues at our new site for the rest of the stay. I’m dismayed to report that the KOA put someone else in our old site immediately, though I did notice an electrician van at the site the morning after we moved.
After our second stay here, these are our takeaways:
Close to downtown, which has good restaurants, a grocery store, and gas stations.
Close to the airport, which is super easy to get in and out of.
There’s a lot of turnover. Most people seemed to stay only one night as they were making their way to somewhere else. The positive of this is that for a large chunk of the day, many sites are empty and the place is fairly quiet. The negatives are that people are up and leaving early, making some noise as they do so. Also, a lot of people arrive fairly late, again making noise as they do so.
We never ate the dinner that is offered, but we did eat breakfast a few times, and it’s pretty decent.
The family-style bathrooms are pretty nice. They’re very busy in the morning when people are trying to get showers in before they leave. The bathrooms are cleaned about 11am, so if you wait until about noon, you can shower in a freshly cleaned bathroom.
The maintenance wasn’t as pristine as it was during our visit a year ago. During our two-week stay, the water at one of the dump stations had an out of order sign the entire time. There was always as least one restroom with an out of order sign, but usually at least two. About half of both the washers and dryers had out of order signs. During our first day, the grass was mowed at most of the sites, but not ours. We kept waiting for them to come back and finish the job, but they never did. After more than a week of waiting and when our grass had gotten pretty long (which is annoying when you have a dog and it rains a lot, which it did), I went into the office to request that they mow the grass. They did mow it, fairly quickly, and then mowed all of the other sites in our row that had been missed as well.
The staff is pretty great and accommodating, minus the one guy who seemed to think I was overreacting when we kept losing power.
There’s another RV park right down the road. We drove through it out of curiosity and found that the sites are even tighter than the KOA and after looking it up online, it’s more expensive than the KOA. It looks really nice from the road, though.
Cottonwood trees. While we were super thankful for the shade the cottonwoods provided us, they were losing their ‘cotton’ during this time and it’s quite a mess. It attaches to everything — window screens, awnings, chairs, clothes, dog, etc. and it’s difficult not to track it into the trailer or truck. We haven’t cleaned it up yet, but a serious vacuuming of the awnings and screens is needed, as well as checking to make sure it didn’t clog up any vents or the air conditioner.
While in Billings, we visited Pompeys Pillar National Monument, which is a half hour drive from the KOA. The only remaining evidence of the Lewis & Clark Expedition can be found at Pompeys Pillar, located on the Yellowstone River 25 miles northeast of Billings. Amongst an abundance of Native American petroglyphs and early pioneers’s initials, William Clark carved his name and the date into sandstone. He documented the deed in the expedition journals and named the rock formation Pompy’s Pillar (the E was added later) after the son of expedition member Sacagawea, whom he had nicknamed Pompy. Unlike any other national monument we’ve been to, dogs are allowed here. However, no dogs are allowed in the Interpretive Center (which is pretty great) or on the stairs leading to the signature and top of the pillar.
Would we stay here again? Last year I would have said yes. This year my answer would be only for a night if we were on our way to somewhere else. This isn’t necessarily because of the KOA, but more so about the city itself. We noticed a drastic increase in the number of sketchy people, most likely drug abusers, around the downtown area. Apparently, violent crimes related to meth have increased dramatically in recent years in Billings and with a few interactions we had with some residents, it’s very obvious there’s a drug problem. While there is definitely more to Billings than downtown and safer areas elsewhere, it’s the part of the city that’s closest to the KOA. Because of this, I didn’t feel comfortable venturing out on my own very often while Travis was gone, and that’s a sign to us that we should just keep on driving.
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
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.
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.
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:
(We spent two isolated, quiet nights in Cedar Point, IA and have nothing to show for it. Sorry, Iowa)
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…
…and some liquor…
…and some wine!
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!
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
Restrooms with Showers
Ice and Firewood
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.
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.
A few more pics from stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road:
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:
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.
We only spent one night in the Missoula area as we drove from Bozeman to Coram. We stayed at the Square Dance Center & Campground in Lolo, which is about a 25-minute drive into Missoula. The Square Dance Center is exactly what it sounds like – a place for square dancers, but they welcome non-square dancers at the onsite RV park as well. We didn’t use any of the amenities during our brief stay, so I can’t comment on those. The RV park is spread out through tall pines and sits far enough off the highway that you don’t hear traffic. The park claims to be dog friendly, and I suppose it is as dogs are allowed; however, when walking Max, the gentleman that checked us in was riding past on his bike and told us not to allow Max to pee on any trees or other sites – we were supposed to take him to the pet relief areas marked on the map. There were two problems with this: 1) Male dogs pee on everything and 2) All of the pet relief areas had sprinklers running. Essentially, we weren’t able to take Max on a proper walk. It’s for this reason that as long as we have Max, we would never stay here again. I also would not recommend staying here to anyone who has a dog.
Address: 9955 Lolo Creek Road, Lolo, MT 59847
Water and Electric Hookups
Dump Station and Pump Service
Pull Thru Sites
Restrooms with Shower
We went into downtown Missoula for dinner at the Red Bird Restaurant in the historic Florence Hotel, which is now a mixed-use building. The food was decent, but it was the Art Deco décor that we really enjoyed.
We stayed at Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park in Bozeman, Montana for three nights. The RV park is a 15-minute drive from Bozeman’s super cute and clean downtown. The park is right next door to Bozeman Hot Springs Spa and Fitness, and staying at the park gives you free access to the hot springs. (Access to the fitness center is $5 per day for those staying at the RV park.) The sites here are a mixed bag of pull throughs and back ins, some concrete, some gravel, some with nice grass adjacent, some with a patch of weeds adjacent. Our site, J6, was a pull-through gravel site with patchy, weedy grass. Besides being a pull through, the one thing the pull-through sites have going for them is that there is shrubbery between sites, which gives some privacy and separation from the neighboring sites. At $75 a night (the most we’ve ever spent), we weren’t overly impressed by the property, but the facilities (restrooms, laundry, office) seemed fairly new and were very clean. The draw here is the hot springs, but we ultimately chose this place because there aren’t a lot of options in the Bozeman area.
Address: 81123 Gallatin Road, Bozeman, MT 59718
Phone: (888) 651-5802
Restrooms with Showers
Picnic Table & Fire Pit
Free Access to the Hot Springs
The Bozeman Hot Springs are the best hot springs we’ve experienced! There are 12 pools that range in temperature from 57 to 106 degrees. The entire facility is clean and inviting. They get very busy in the evenings and especially on hot, summer weekends. Live music takes place on a stage at the outdoor pools a couple of days a weeks and a food truck is available at certain times. There’s also a sauna and a steam room, as well as a well-appointed fitness center. If staying at the RV park, access to the pools is free and the fitness center is $5. Otherwise, one-time access is $8.50 for the pools and $15 to use the entire facility.
Downtown Bozeman is full of great shops, restaurants, and breweries. The area is very well maintained, making it look as though it’s brand new! We ate dinner one night at Montana Ale Works — great vibe, fantastic food, huge selection of regional craft beer, and a full bar with delicious signature cocktails. The bison-stuffed morel mushrooms were delish and Travis really enjoyed his Laughing Dog Brewing Huckleberry Cream Ale.
While in Bozeman, we also hiked the ‘M Trail’. The M Trail is so named because of the M landmark created by Montana State University students in 1915 on a hillside (mountainside?) in the Gallatin National Forest, just outside Bozeman. We conquered the 850 feet of elevation gain on the half-mile “most difficult” trail up and took the mile and a half “easiest” way down. It definitely gets the heart pumping! The difficult route up is mostly loose rock, so I would recommend wearing a good pair of hiking boots. The easiest trail is mostly dirt and tennis shoes would do just fine. There’s a parking lot and a pit toilet at the trailhead.
We really enjoyed Bozeman and look forward to visiting again to explore the area more. While the hot springs were nice, we would definitely explore other options for places to stay. We’d also probably visit a different time of year as it was pretty hot during the second week of July.