Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore and the Tetons

For many years one of my keen wishes was to visit Yellowstone National Park. Then, probably more than 50 years ago. Isaw the movie North by Northwest where some of the most thrilling scenes were filmed in Mt. Rushmore and that also became part of my “bucket list”. (Not then, but later.) So, finally this year I decided I had to make a journey to those places. I did some researching and found that Caravan Tours offered a trip that included the sites I wanted to visit, plus some others that made it more attractive to me.

Thus, on June 28th I took a fight to Rapid City, SD where I arrived around noon. From the shuttle that took me to the Rushmore Hotel, I could see a rolling prairie surrounded by hills (I found out later that they were called the Black Hills) and a deep blue sky. The hotel was located in the downtown historic center, which made it convenient for walking around the City of Presidents (I explained later why the moniker). I was hungry, so I left my bag and walked down a couple of blocks to The Firehouse Brewery where I had a bison blue burger with a local beer. Both were very tasty.

An exhibit in the Journey Museum
An exhibit in the Journey Museum

Later I took the City View Trolley for a tour of the city. A real bargain, just $ 1 for seniors. The tour took about an hour and I stopped at the Journey Museum , an interesting museum dedicated to the culture and history of the Black Hills.

In the evening I joined the group that would take the 8 day trip along some of the most striking scenery I ever seen, for an introductory session. It was led by our tour director, Greg Fender, who told us what the tour would cover in general and gave us the usual instructions and directions for the following week.

Thursday, June 29th

We departed early in the morning in route to the Crazy Horse Memorial in a large and comfortable bus that accommodated the 48 members of the tour (mostly seniors, but also a couple of families with children.) From the windows of the bus one could see, for miles, the crass tourist commercialization of the area: Reptile Gardens, Bear County, Dinosaur Museum, Old McDonald Farm, Mini-golf parks, Native-American jewelry and souvenir stores galore, etc., etc.

Crazy Horse's Memorial
Crazy Horse’s Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a monument being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain. It is a work in progress, as it was started in 1948 and might not be finished until the end of this century. One could also considered it a labor of love, by the hundreds of people dedicated to the project.  Crazy Horse, or Tasumi Witco, was a Lakota leader who fought tirelessly against the encroachment of the Native Americans by the White people. The monument designed and started by Boston-born sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski is funded solely by private donations and has no governmental funding. It’s administered by the family of Ziolkowski, who passed away in 1982, without seeing any part of his dream completed, as the face of Crazy Horse, which now can be seen, was completed in June of 1998. That face is 87 feet high and the entire carving is planned to be 563 feet high and 641 feet long.

A lateral view of Mt. Rushmore
A lateral view of Mt. Rushmore

After admiring the monument from the distance and wandering around the sculptor’s studio and Indian Museum, I returned to the bus for our second stop of the day: the Mount Rushmore National Memorial:  the four monumental heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved in the face of the mountain. This monument was started in 1927, and the principal sculptor was Gutzon Borglum. Funds were provided by private contributions and matching federal funding. The monument was finalized in October 1941, months after Borglum’s death. The faces are about 60 ft high and were carved in the granite face of the mountain using dynamite, power drills and chisels. Certainly the monument is awe-inspiring and a real national treasure.

At our return to Rapid City, which as I said before markets itself as the City of Presidents, I walked around the historic downtown area admiring many of the life-size statues of 43 American presidents displayed in almost every corner (Barack Obama’s hasn’t been erected yet). After dinning in an Italian restaurant, Botticelli, I returned to the hotel to prepare my bag for next day long trip.

Friday, June 30th

Devils Tower
Devils Tower

We departed Rapid City around 8:30 am. Our first destination: the Devils Tower , in Wyoming, made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m transcribing here the description of the National Parks Service:

“An astounding geologic feature that protrudes out of the rolling prairie surrounding the Black Hills, this site is considered sacred to the Northern Plains Indians and other tribes. Hundreds of parallel cracks make it one of the finest traditional crack climbing areas in North America. Devils Tower entices us to explore and define our place in the natural and cultural world.“

I only can add that I was amazed to have a close look at this monolith, almost 1300 feet high, rising in the middle of the prairie, a solitary primeval skyscraper that has inspired many legends and has challenged many men and women to climb to its top.

We continued our travels and stopped in the town of Sheridan, WY, were we ate lunch at the Historic Sheridan Inn, whose historical significance is, that in the late 19th century it was in part owned and lived in by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. A character dressed like the famous frontiersman greeted us as we arrived and told us a brief biography of Buffalo Bill, while we were having our dessert.

Headstones commemorating falling braves
Headstones commemorating falling braves at the Little Bighorn Battlefield

Our next destination: the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, in the Crow Nation Reservation, in Montana. Here, in 1876, a joint force of Sioux and Cheyenne, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated General George A, Custer and his cavalry. In one of the bluffs of the valley, where Custer made his “last stand”, one can see the headstones of many soldiers that died that day, including one that marks where the rests of Custer laid for a while, before they were transferred to West Point Cemetery. There is also a larger military cemetery in the grounds and an Indian Memorial, including several slabs commemorating the death of the Indian braves.

We ended our long journey that day in Billings, MT. I was tired and had a pizza in Chicago One restaurant that was close to the hotel and then went back to rest.

Saturday, July 1st

Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

We headed that morning to Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming. We had a 3 ½ hours’ drive following the Lewis and Clark Trail, with a pit stop in the town of Livingston. There, at an Albertson’s market, at the suggestion of our tour guide, we bought some food for a “picnic lunch”, which we had at the foot of the Mammoth Hot Springs, in Yellowstone proper.

After our stop we continued our trip in the park, trying to spot some wild life. We did see buffalo, elk and bears. One cub came very close to the bus and most of the passengers were delighted to take pictures of him (or her.)

The lobby in the Old Faithful Inn
The lobby in the Old Faithful Inn

We crossed the Continental Divide at an elevation of about 8,300 ft. and stopped at the spectacular Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. We finally arrived at the historic Old Faithful Inn, where would sleep for the next two nights. The Inn was built in 1904 in a style known as “rustic resort” and the primary building materials are pine logs and stone. The lobby is five stories high and it’s flanked by four interior balconies, were guests can sit and relax listening to live piano and violin music. There is also an immense stone fireplace and an exterior porch, where one can sit having a drink or an ice cream, while watching, about 100 yards away, Old Faithful Geyser erupt, every 90 minutes or so. However, this placid rusticity comes with a price to the modern traveler: nowhere in the hotel there is air conditioning, nor will you find TV screens, radios or internet connection in the premises.

After having dinner at the Obsidian Dining Room at the nearby Snow Lodge, I joined a crowd to watch the eruption of Old Faithful Geyser, while the Sun was setting in the West. It was a spectacular scene, with hot water and steam bursts that can reach heights of 180 feet.  Awesome!!!

Sunday, July 2nd

That morning we continued our exploration of Yellowstone Park. We had with us a supposedly knowledgeable guide (not our regular tour guide) that would point out the geological formations and other characteristics of the park. Although he introduced himself as a retired professor of chemistry, sadly his explanations were boring and totally unintelligible (at least for me.) The only bits of information that I remember is that we were traveling on the top of a super volcano’s caldera – that had last erupted about 640,000 years ago – and that all the hydro-thermal features in the Park were due to the subterranean activity under us. (Kind of scary, if you think about it.)

Excelsior Geyser discharge
Excelsior Geyser discharge of hot water into the Firehole River

Anyway, we stopped at the Excelsior Geyser, which dumps its hot stream in the Firehole River, and around which are other hydro-thermal features like: hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.

For lunch we crossed into Montana, to the very touristy town of Yellowstone West, where I got a souvenir t-shirt. We return to the park, where we continued exploring the many natural wonders, among them the Midway Geyser Basin.

At our return to the Inn, I wandered around, stopping at the Visitor Center and watching two more eruptions of Old Faithful. I ended the evening, with dinner at the Inn’s Dining Room, for which I had made a reservation online over a month ago. The steak I had wasn’t too great, but still enjoyed the interesting experience of eating in that grand hotel.

Monday, July 3rd

Back to the bus that would take us to Jackson, WY, with a first stop at the Yellowstone Lake, the largest body of water in the Park. We also stopped at Jenny Lake, a beautiful lake in the Grand Teton National Park, named after a Shoshone Indian woman who married an Englishman, Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, in the 1870s.

Our group
Our group in front of the Tetons (thanks to Greg Fender for this photo)

We continued our way to Colter Bay on Jackson Lake, a favorite photo stop because the snow-capped Tetons can be seen at their most glorious in the background.

Next, we went to Moose Village where we split in 4 groups and were driven to a point on the Snake River where we boarded a rubber raft and floated back 10 miles down the river. A very pleasant trip, without rapids or water falls, just enjoying nature and the scenery.

We boarded our bus again and arrived mid-afternoon at our motel in Jackson. About one hour later our driver and our tour director took a group of us downtown Jackson, where we were left on our own. I wandered around walking some of the wooden boardwalks, flanked with art galleries and western shops; crossed the Main Square with its four Antler Arches and visited the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with its bar stools made from horse saddles. I found it difficult to sit in on them and preferred to sit at a table while I sipped a cold beer.

Afterwards I went to one of the corners of the square where I watched the Jackson Hole Shootout, billed as a “lively reenactment of frontier justice.” It was a fun 15 minutes of theatrics played by an enthusiastic group of young actors.

Afterwards, I was hungry, so I went to Bin 22, a first-rate tapas restaurant, located at the back of a wine store. The dining room was full, but I was seated in a delightful patio. There, I enjoyed some nice tapas and an excellent glass of wine.

I ended my visit to Jackson by taking a free public bus that meandered through the town and left me one block away from my hotel.

Tuesday, July 4th

That morning we found the bus decorated with red, white and blue garlands and a Happy 4th of July banner at the front of the bus to remind us that this was the 241st anniversary of the Independence of the country. We took our seats for the last leg of our trip as we headed south through the Bridger-Teton Forest. A while later we entered Idaho and traveled along the original “Oregon Trail”, the 2,170-mile  historic east–west, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon.

We stopped in Montpelier, Idaho for a visit to the National Oregon Trail Center for an entertaining telling of what the pioneers in the 1830s and 40s had to endure. The town of Montpelier is also famous for a bank robbery executed by Butch Cassidy in 1896.

floral display in Temple Square
A floral display in Temple Square in SLC

We made another stop at picturesque Bear Lake, a lake at the border between Idaho and Utah and made a lunch stop in Logan, UT. We arrived at Salt Lake City about two hours later and made our last stop at the Temple Square. I wandered around the well-appointed gardens and visited the famous and large Mormon Tabernacle, home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

That night we had our farewell dinner at the Hilton Hotel. We enjoyed the food and the company. We said our goodbyes and some exchanged e-mails and phone numbers. The next morning most of us would return to our homes. It had been a good trip and we all seem to have a good time. I know I had.