Monday, July 17, 2017

Epic National Park Adventure: Planning Stages

The Whomptons alternate their summer vacations:  beach and then something else.  Last summer was a beach vacation in Litchfield, SC, which meant that THIS summer was something else.  I began planning this vacation two years ago, right after our Rocky Mountain National Park trip, and I devoted hours to figuring out where we should stay and what we would need when we were there.  I spent no time figuring out where to go, because it was obvious:  we were going to Glacier National Park.  Yes, we'd stop and see other things along the way, but Glacier NP was the goal. 

The five Whomptons were in -- some more excited than others -- and Eric's sister Stephanie became the sixth.  Stephanie loves and lives the outdoors far more than we do AND this was her first opportunity for a summer vacation in years.  We were thrilled that she said yes to coming.  The van would be packed to bursting, we figured, but it would be an epic adventure.

I doubled down on figuring things out; I determined the timing of the trip, how long we'd spend at each place, which campsites were best, which campsites allowed in-advance registrations, how far in advance could the registrations be made, etc.  I set up my google calendar reminders so that I could book the Yellowstone and Glacier campsites as soon as they went available and rejoiced when I got exactly what I wanted and scowled when things didn't go quite as planned.  For instance, I planned for us to stay two nights in western Glacier.  I booked the first night exactly six months in advance and, when I logged on the next day to book the second night, I discovered that someone had already claimed our campsite for that night!  Literally, reservations had been available for 30 seconds total and my campsite was already taken!  I was furious over that one, but problem solved by booking the campsite NEXT to the first night's spot and planned that we'd just pick up the tents and plop them down again for the second night.  I looked forward to sharing this story with those folks when they arrived on the second night but they NEVER SHOWED.  We had moved our campsite for nothing.

In case you're planning your own epic adventure, here's a quick snapshot of what I learned:
1. You cannot advance reserve in the Grand Tetons and folks are lined up at 7 AM to claim campsites.  Folks drive around and through campsites, hoping to watch someone leave so that they can claim the available spot.  That sounds miserable and folks looked miserable doing it too.  If you want to try that, Jenny Lake is apparently the most beautiful place to go.

2. The Tetons and Yellowstone are very close to one another.  If you're lucky, only about an hour's drive separates the two parks.  If you're unlucky, well, there's no telling how much time it might take to go from one to the next.  The Whomptons were lucky and I think lots had to do with timing.  We were leaving the Tetons and headed to Yellowstone on a Sunday night, where most folks would have been headed home.

3. You have lots of Yellowstone camping options.  We went with Grant Village and Canyon Campground.  I'm really glad that we switched campsites/campgrounds during the trip because they provided ease-of-access to different parts of the park.  So much of Yellowstone is driving and hoping for a parking spot, so the closer you are to your destination the better chance you have of actually getting a parking spot.  (The showers at Grant Village were amazing and were the best of all the national park shower options for the whole two week trip.  I'm sure you wanted to know.)

4. Supposedly the most amazing thing to do in Glacier National Park is drive the Going-to-the-Sun road.  Now that I've done it I wholeheartedly disagree, but we planned part of the trip around doing it.  Check the Glacier National Park site to get an idea of when the road will be fully plowed.  It had opened the day before we arrived (30 June) but other summers it opens up in July.  We camped on the west side at Fish Creek and then east at St. Mary's, hoping that it would give enough time for the road to clear fully.  

5.  The views from St. Mary's are absolutely stunning and it was Eric's favorite campsite overall.  I purposefully chose a site that was on the outskirts so all we saw were mountains and wildflowers and we got a great breeze.  The amenities were the worst of all the campsites we visited, though, so there's that notable trade-off.  (The women's restroom had three stalls and one of them contained a urinal.  Yes, I learned how to pee on the women's urinal.)  

6. All the websites said that the Badlands campgrounds don't fill up, so I didn't stress about advance booking.  I reserved our campsite online the week we left, so two weeks before we were scheduled to be there, and it was absolutely fine.  Additionally, the Badlands campground is managed by NPS so I got a discount for having a National Parks Annual Pass.  Nice!

7. The Whomptons planned super-long driving days with the understanding that we'd stop eventually and stay at a hotel in whatever city we ended up.  As it turns out, this was a somewhat risky plan because Wyoming and Montana don't have lots of cities, per se, and many hotels were full.  With that said, I'm glad we took this approach because it allowed us to be flexible and drive for the length of time that felt reasonable to us rather than stopping when we felt we could have gone farther or having to drive late at night to reach our hotel.  In some cases we took the last available room, which seemed just right at 9:30 PM.

8. I booked one hotel in advance and I cannot rave about it enough.  All hail the Western Inn at Glacier Park!  The hotel (technically a motel) is about 20 minutes from the western entrance at Glacier and, for $150, we had three queen beds, two bedrooms, a fully functional kitchen, access to an onsite laundromat, free onsite mini-golf and playground, and a HUGE front yard.  The hotel staff was gracious and let us pitch our tents, run a massive clothesline, and hang up our tarps and sleeping bags everywhere so that we could dry everything.  We had packed everything up wet from Yellowstone rains and we were so emotionally overwhelmed by the mecca that was the Western Inn that allowed us to just reset and prepare for camping in Glacier.  Eric tried to convince me that we should stay there the whole week and, I admit, I was tempted.  The place was a steal at $150 a night and I HIGHLY recommend it.

9. For months leading into the trip I had nightmares about not fitting everything into the minivan.  We looked at installing a rooftop carrier (which would have cost around $2000 overall) and decided that was way too much money to pay just so we could carry more gear.  Everyone was allowed to bring three outfits, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, something to read, water bottle, mess kit, passport, and backpack.  We brought a clothesline and pins, which in retrospect wasn't great because you cannot keep a clothesline up in bear country, and we consciously decided not to bring camp chairs.  In the end, all my "what if we cannot fit it into the van?!" fears were unfounded because we had plenty of space, I easily could see out the back window with nothing impeding the view, and folks only had to store their shoes and packs at their feet during the big drives.  Additionally, if you're willing to pay money, you can always buy items elsewhere rather than bring them with you.  

10. Safeway Grocery is amazing and you should shop there if you can.  

11. We had bear bells and bear spray and lots of songs to sing.  As it turns out, some bears were not deterred by our bear bells, songs, or loud claps .... but we never had to use the bear spray.  It's expensive, around $50, and you can rent it for about $20 in the parks.  However, you can also ask nicely at the Ranger Stations or hotels and see if they have bear spray to give to you.  Since folks cannot take bear spray on planes, many individuals donate / leave their already purchased spray behind.  We were offered free bear spray twice, which I thought was very generous.  

12. National Park Rangers are awesome human beings and you should always, ALWAYS, touch base at a Ranger Station and get the lay of the land.  We learned about road closings, trail closings, mosquito prevalence, which hikes were good, when should we get there, etc.  We did many of the rangers' favorite hikes and were never disappointed; additionally, we attended an evening ranger program about 3/4 of the nights in the parks and enjoyed each session.  We had great sympathy for the rangers -- I'm sure I would tire quickly of having the same conversation 3000 times a day for an entire season -- but they were always gracious, honest, and helpful.  

13. Lastly, here's the path we took:  
STL to Rawlins, WY  (~15 hours)
Rawlins to the Tetons (~5 hours) to Yellowstone (~1 hour)
Yellowstone to Columbia Falls / West Glacier (~7 hours plus Safeway shopping)
Columbia Falls / West Glacier to St. Mary / East Glacier (~1.5 hours)
St. Mary / East Glacier to Sturgis, SD (~11 hours plus Safeway shopping)
Sturgis to Badlands (~1.5 hours)
Badlands to Lincoln, NE (~7 hours)
Lincoln to STL (~7 hours)
then Stephanie loaded up and drove the 9.5 hours home, for a total of ~17 hours in the car, whew!

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