Week 4: North Dakota, Minnesota, & Michigan


The next morning we decided to try to get breakfast in the town of Gardener, right outside the northern entrance. Unfortunately as it was Sunday, all of the breakfast places were packed. We decided to continue on to Livingston Montana and get breakfast there. When we arrived, excited to a try a cool brunch place that we found online, we learned they weren’t taking any new customers and had a two hour wait! It turns out every restaurant had the same issue. We encountered a lot of this type of thing on the trip, due to the labor shortage and the high volume of people in the parks. We had to settle for McDonald’s which even took about 30 minutes!

Finally we made our way to Bozeman, MT, where we were going to visit with friends that evening. It was about 100 degrees in Bozeman so we were not going to do anything outside. We decided to check out the Museum of the Rockies on the Montana State campus. Fortunately, we got in for free with the membership I had purchased for the Field Museum in Chicago! I had a hard time booking the time slotted appointments for the museum without a membership so I purchased a family membership knowing that I would get reciprocal membership at various science museums around the world for the next year. The museum had a great exhibit on the history of Yellowstone and a huge dinosaur fossil collection, including the largest complete T-Rex skeleton in the world and the largest collection of Triceratops specimens. Apparently Montana is ground zero for finding Triceratops fossils, and they showed a lot of pictures and videos of the scientists uncovering them in the field. We also watched a show in their planetarium and then it was finally time to check into our hotel, a Residence Inn that I had secured on points. Unfortunately, because of the labor shortage they were so short staffed that rooms weren’t ready yet and there were several groups of people waiting in the lobby to check in. We finally were able to and we headed into the hotel pool to cool down.

At dinner time we headed over to my good friend’s house where her parents and boyfriend had also gathered and they made us a home cooked meal, which was so delicious and wonderful after several weeks of not having one! We had a fun night visiting with them.

The next morning we started a long drive through Montana to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is just over the border in Medora, North Dakota. I figured we would get in that evening so I booked us a room (on points) at the AmericInn. I realized that in all this time in cattle country I still had not had a steak, so for dinner we went to the next little town over to a steakhouse for dinner. I did get a deliciously cooked T-bone for dinner. We were also eyeing the forecast for the next day because we were going to camp at TRNP, which is first-come, first-serve camping. But the next day it was going to be over a 100 degrees F with 20 mph winds! We were worried about having a repeat of our camping experience at Badlands so I quickly booked a 2nd night at the hotel (on points, of course).

The next morning we got to the park early to try to get a hike in before it got to hot. We wanted to check out the Petrified Forest trail, which can be done as a 10 mile loop or 3 miles out and back into the Petrified Forest. The views of the buttes in the prairie were beautiful as we made our way into the ancient petrified forest. When we arrived there were petrified tree segments everywhere. We spent time walking around exploring them in awe and then headed up the trail a little, only to find a lone bison chillin on the prairie. We made our way back stopping at the forest section again, and everyone was in agreement it was awesome.

Next we headed into the park to drive through and do some short overlook hikes along the way. Almost immediately we came across bison herds right in the road. We also passed through prairie dog towns and beautiful vistas where we saw wild horses that also live in the park. It was definitely hot and incredibly windy, which made us glad we didn’t camp. We did stop at the campground section for a picnic lunch before heading to the visitor center where we got to see some cool exhibits on the park and Theodore Roosevelt, whose Maltese Cross cabin was moved to behind the visitor center. This whole stretch of land was where he had his ranch.

After a cool off swim at the hotel we went to town for dinner at Medora Uncork’d, a wine bar that featured homemade pizzas and flatbreads. Afterward we headed back over to the park to see a sunset at Wind Canyon. At around 9 that evening we went to the campground to listen to a ranger talk on the animals of the park. We all agreed that Theodore Roosevelt National Park was a hidden gem and we wished we could spend more time there!

The next morning we continued east and stopped at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. This is where several Native American Villages once were, and this is where Pocahontas was from. They have a nice Visitor’s Center and a recreated Earth Lodge. We hiked to the river to see the site of the original villages. We got back on the road to drive through the geographic center of North America (did not stop at the marker) and made it to Bismarck, ND where we got a quick oil change at Jiffy Lube. From a Yelp search I found that a Puerto Rican bakery was nearby so we stopped there for some pastries and then discovered a food truck next door in the Home Depot parking lot. We were starving so we decided to give it a try and we found out that the owner was a chef in San Luis Obisbo, CA but his wife was from Bismarck and they moved here over the pandemic to have her family help with their 3 young kids. The food was amazing as were the Puerto Rican pastries. In fact, all of the food we had gotten so far in ND was excellent – who would have thought! We finally made it to Fargo around 6 but we ate lunch so late we decided to cook our own light dinner in the kitchen of our suite at Staybridge Suites; which I had gotten on points. We enjoyed relaxing in the room and the next morning we made our way over to downtown Fargo to get a take away lunch order from BernBaum’s, a Scandinavian/Jewish deli with vegan options. It was so good, we ordered half of the store including bagels with lox, gourmet knish, rugelach, and matzoh granola. Our awesome food in North Dakota streak continued! We also checked out some of the shops in downtown Fargo before heading back in the car for the long drive ahead of us through Minnesota.

We decided to break up the drive by stopping at Itasca State Park, which has the headwaters of the Mississippi! It was a short walk from the visitor center over to the headwaters, and it was really cool to cross the Mississippi on foot! We had our BernBaum’s lunch in the park and then continued our very long drive all the way up to International Falls, which is almost to Canada.

We made it to our next hotel in Rainier, MN, which was called The Cantilever Inn. It is a new boutique hotel and a distillery with a bar and restaurant. They were super busy and had a live band, but fortunately the restaurant across the street had a table open and we had a great dinner there – I got to try my first Walleye! After dinner we got the kids situated in the room and my husband and I went to our hotel’s bar to try some of their cocktails made with their homemade liquor and listen to the band. The crowd thinned out and the bar closed up around 10 and we got to bed.

The next morning we drove over to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center for our first boat tour of the park. As the park is 40% water there are few hiking trails and I figured the best way to see it was from the water, so I booked both boat tours that the park service offered that day. The first one was a tour of Rainy Lake that lasted about 2 hours. During the tour the park ranger spoke about the history of the area, including the French Voyageurs who came from Canada and paddled all through the lakes to trap beaver. There were also several mines and a small mining boom after gold was discovered in the native quartz. Unfortunately it was such a labor intensive process to extract the gold that it never yielded much profit, so the miners headed west and abandoned the mines. We also spotted many bald eagles and the ranger taught us about them and their habitat.

After the boat tour we only had 30 minutes before the next one, so we had to eat quickly in the parking lot. This tour took us by boat over to Little American Island, which was the site of one of the mines. This was not as interesting and we agreed it could have been skipped. It was starting to get really hot so after the tour we hung out in the visitor center and then headed back to the small town of Rainier where we were staying to go for a swim in the town beach. Unfortunately it started thunderstorming right as we got in! We took shelter in our room and waited for the storm to pass and then the kids and my husband took a walk around town while I took a short nap. Finally at 7 we had dinner at the distillery and then watched the sunset from the docks.

The next morning we headed east and made a quick stop in Duluth. I always wanted to check out Duluth trading company and I found some bargains in the store. We took a quick walk on the lakefront of Lake Superior and then got back in the car to drive over to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Along the way we drove through Wisconsin and I wanted to stop at Culver’s, which I had never heard of before this trip but is a local fast food chain with a little higher end burgers and custard! We were lucky to stop at one that was right on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore! The food was awesome and we got to see a little secret beach on Lake Superior behind the Culver’s. We kept driving until we finally reached our destination of Houghton, Michigan. We have friends who live there on Portage Lake and own a boutique hotel downtown in a historic bank. The hotel was full that night so we stayed in a cabin on the lake that was only a few houses down from our friends. We got to go for a swim and then head over to their house to hang out for a bit, and they took us on a boat tour where we could see Houghton from the water. They wrote out a great itinerary for us for sightseeing for the next day.

The next morning my husband and I took a quick kayak trip on the lake before we packed up and headed out for the day. We drove across the bridge in Houghton to the Keneenaw peninsula which is like the upper most peninsula of the upper peninsula, and juts out into Lake Superior. At one point there were several copper mines in the area and you can tour them, but we wanted to explore some of the outdoor scenery. We stopped in the historic mining town of Calumet and got some great coffee and snacks at Keneenaw coffee company. Then we continued on our journey east, stopping at a few waterfalls along the way and seeing the amazing views of Lake Superior. We drove all the way up Brockaway Mountain where we had incredible 270 degree views of the lake and the forests below. We then headed back down through some of the historic harbors and had a great lunch at a little restaurant on the beach, Fitzgerald’s. After lunch the kids went for a swim in the lake and then we started heading back into town.

We checked into our friends’ hotel the Vault which was super cool and beautifully decorated. We relaxed for a while and then my husband and I took a little walk around downtown Houghton. A lot was closed because it was Sunday but we got the kids and decided to have dinner at a seafood restaurant.

The next morning we woke up early to go to a local Finnish restaurant called Suomi. The kids and I tried their Pannukakku which are baked, custardy pancakes with a berry sauce. They were delicious! We stopped at the Isle Royale Visitor Center. Even though we did not take the Ranger III for the 6 hour rough sail up to the park, we poked around a bit and did collect some stamps for our National Park passbooks. Next we drove west and stopped at a little rest stop which had a 10 minute hike out to a waterfall. It was really pretty and reminded us a lot of the landscape where we live which had similar waterfalls. We continued driving to Munising, MI, which is a little beach town that borders Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. For lunch we went to Muldoon’s pasty shop and got to try some Upper Peninsula pasties! They were really good and definitely filled us up for our next adventure.

After lunch we parked at Pictured Rocks Kayaking and checked in for the 2:30 tour. They take you on a large boat that stores about 30 tandem kayaks on top, and take you about 30 minutes out to the most beautiful sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and launch you in small groups of about 6 kayaks and a guide. The guide took us on a 5 mile paddling tour along the Lakeshore, which was truly breathtaking. The water was so clear you could see the rocks perfectly at the bottom. The color was as turquoise as the Caribbean. And jutting up from the water were 50 foot cliffs of orange, yellow and red sandstone. We were able to kayak into little caves and through natural tunnels. It was an amazing experience. Exhausted but feeling accomplished, after the tour we drove out to our campground which was near the national park. It was a small, privately owned campground that only had about 12 wooded sites and was mostly tent campers. Our site was large, wooded, and private. The only problem was there were people in a camper across from us who were running their generator, despite the fact that it was 8pm and you were not allowed to have them on past 6. We kept thinking eventually they would turn it off, but unfortunately they kept it running all night! Otherwise it was a perfectly lovely site. We overheard the owner talking to them the next morning about moving to a place that had hook-ups. There was also a mile thunderstorm that night, which was not bad but after our experience in Badlands it scared my youngest son enough that he came in to sleep with me, so between that and the generator I did not get a great nights sleep.

The next morning we packed up and headed out. We spent some more time at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and then drove down to catch the 3pm ferry to Mackinac Island. When we landed on the island the main drag was so packed with people it was very off-putting, plus we still hadn’t eaten lunch and were starving. We went to a restaurant and ate a basic burger and fries lunch, and then decided to walk into the State Park section to escape the crowds. It was definitely much less crowded in the park and we walked to Skull Cave and then the Arch, which was quite beautiful over Lake Superior. The kids kept asking to swim so we went over to a beach area on a lawn with a bu ch if Adirondack chairs and let them swim in the lake for about 45 minutes. We were nervous to catch the ferry back because we had a 4 hour drive to our hotel, so we had then dry off and headed back into town, stopping at a fudge shop to get some famous Mackinac Island fudge. We made the 7 pm ferry and then drove over the huge Mackinac bridge into the other side of Michigan. We drove straight to the Ann Arbor area where we had a reservation at a holiday inn (on points) and crashed about 11:30 am. The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and started our long 7 hour drive back home!

Week 3: Wyoming


After getting some extra blankets and warm clothes from Wal-Mart in Riverton, we started driving to Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. We drove through the eastern entrance of the park to get to town and right away spotted some Bison grazing! This was super exciting, as was seeing the Teton Mountain range in the distance. The sky was a but hazy from fires in the Pacific Northwest, but we could still see the huge, snow-capped mountains rising right out of the plains.

We drove into town and checked into the SpringHill suites, which I reserved on points. They had a nice outdoor pool and patio area which we were grateful to use to relax a little. I had wanted to eat at a nice restaurant for dinner in Jackson with my husband, but between the crowds and labor shortage, it was almost impossible to get a reservation anywhere. I was able to get 2 seats at the bar at 5:15 at a farm to table restaurant called Trio, so my husband and I left the kids in the hotel and headed over there for a fancy meal. It was pretty delicious (and expensive) and afterwards we walked around the town for a bit and browsed in some of the tourist shops.

We went back and got the kids something to eat and then walked around town a bit more. On our way back to the hotel we heard some music and walked across the street to check it out. We happened to be next to the Jackson Arts Center, and a band was playing, Midnight North. We settled in on the grass and listened to their show and people-watched. They were a great Western, jam-band style band and even did some Grateful Dead covers.

The next morning I had to take my son to the Urgent Care in Jackson as his ear had been hurting him and we were concerned he had an infection. It turns out he did and was prescribed some antibiotics. Luckily the urgent care and pharmacy didn’t take very long so once we were done we headed into the park. Unfortunately by the time we got there all of the popular areas were over-crowded with people. The Jenny Lake parking lots were full and people were parked on the side of the road for miles. We decided to keep heading north to some of the less popular spots and ended up in the Colter Bay Area. We did the short lake view hike around some of the bays with views of the mountains in the distance. As we headed back down south it was later in the afternoon so we were able to easily get a parking spot in the Jenny Lake area. We took the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake over to the trailhead for Cascade Falls and Inspiration Point. The trails were packed even at this time so I can’t imagine how busy they were earlier in the day. Cascade falls was beautiful as was the hike up to Inspiration Point. My husband and I wanted to hike around the canyon a bit more but the kids were nervous about the hike back. Rather than wait for the shuttle we decided to hike back the 2.5 miles around the lake to the visitor center. It was a beautiful hike and away from the crowds. When we got back to Jackson we were excited to try Big Hole BBQ which had some awesome ribs.

The next morning my husband had a meeting and the kids were tired, so I rented a bike and rode out to the bike trail that goes next to the National Elk preserve and along the park. Unfortunately the skies were so hazy from the fires you could barely see the Tetons! But the ride was pretty great anyway. It was cool to watch the planes land right next to the mountains into Jackson Hole airport.

That afternoon we enjoyed the pool. walked around town a bit more and got some tacos and some amazing gourmet ice cream at Moo’s. That evening there was a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Arts center next to our hotel. We spent the evening watching that (it was great!) and then went to bed early as we had an early morning planned.

That morning we left Jackson at 5:30am in order to get to Yellowstone early enough to beat some of the crowds. We drove up John D. Rockefeller highway up through Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone National Park. As we got closer to Old Faithful we could see columns of steam rising through the trees. I couldn’t believe how other-worldly this looked. When we arrived at Old Faithful we learned it had just erupted so we had about 90 minutes to walk around and explore the geysers and hot springs in the area. Of course I knew that these are the most famous features of Yellowstone, but nothing can prepare you for seeing them in person. It’s like walking on top of a beautiful, primeval, volcanic hellscape, with sulphuric springs bubbling up almost everywhere you turn. As it got to be the time for OF to erupt, a huge crowd had gathered and sat on the benches around it to watch the show. It was pretty incredible when it finally went off, but odd with the stadium style seating and everyone clapping.

Afterwards we checked out the Old Faithful Inn, one of the most famous national park lodges and the one that the Wilderness Lodge in Walt Disney World is modeled after. It was pretty cool. Next we drove up to the fairy falls trail to hike up to the lookout for Grand Prismatic Spring. It was amazing to see the whole thing from a distance. We wanted to go to see the spring up close next, but cars were lined up on the side of the road for miles around the parking lot and we decided it was worth the crowds. We spent the rest of the day stopping at various sights along the main road, seeing too many waterfalls, hot springs, and other crazy natural wonders. Towards the end of the day we went over to the Norris Geyser basin. There was a little bit of a line to wait to get a parking spot, but it was so worth it to see this incredible part of the caldera. The pools and geysers in this part of the park are supposed to be the hottest and most sulphuric of anywhere else. It really did seem like you had entered the gates of Hell as you walked around it. We spent a while hiking through both sections of the Norris Geyser basin and then started making our way to our campsite at Mammoth.

When I had first planned this trip I missed the opening date for booking campsites at Yellowstone. Because of the pandemic the NPS had changed some of the reservation windows. I also knew that there were about 6 first-come first-serve campgrounds in the park, although I was nervous about getting to them early enough to secure a site, since the park is so massive and they were expecting record-breaking crowds this summer. At one point I booked us a room in a hotel in West Yellowstone, but at $350 a night it was going to cost us over $1000 for 3 days! I then signed up for an online service called “campnab.” For $30 a month you can enter what campgrounds you want it to search for what dates, and as soon as there is a cancellation you will get a text. I signed up for Yellowstone for our dates and I did receive many tests in the preceding two months before our trip, however you need to respond to the text and book the sites immediately, or they will be booked in under 10 seconds. Fortunately when we were in Chicago I received a text that a site was open in Mammoth campground for our dates, and I was able to book it!

When we arrived in the Mammoth hot springs area, it seemed magical. You could see the hot springs rise up as you drove into the village, and when we arrived into the area with the hotel there was a herd of Elk all over the grounds. We made it to our campsite which did not have much free space but did offer a view of the mountains to the north. There was a tent platform but it was only big enough for one of our tents so we had to set up the other one in a little green space between the parking spot and the road.

After a decent night of sleeping in the tents we decided to head into the Lamar Valley section to see some wildlife and go for a hike. It did not take long before we had to stop to allow a herd of Bison to cross the road. We spent some time taking pictures of them and then hiked for about a mile up the specimen ridge trail where we got some great views of the Yellowstone River. We were all nervous to go further as we did not have bear spray, so we headed back and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Lamar Valley and the wildlife. Back at Mammoth we spent the early evening exploring the upper and lower sections of Mammoth Hot Springs, complete with elk spread out around the springs.

The next day we decided to head back into the Caldera section and make our way down to hike out to Lone Star geyser. It took a while to get down there as we stopped at various spots we hadn’t seen yet. Finally we got to Kepler Cascades where we parked and ate lunch, and then started the two mile hike along a river to the geyser. It was really nice to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds for a bit. When we got to the geyser within about 5 minutes it started erupting. There were about 8 other people there watching the eruption which lasted about 20 minutes. It was awesome to see a geyser in more of it’s natural state, away from the boardwalks and stadium seating of Old Faithful. Rejuvenated, we hiked back and made our way over to the Eastern side of the park, where we visited the West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. It was awesome to see some of the geysers actually in the lake itself. After that we headed over to the Tower/Fall section and went to the lower falls view point to see the massive waterfall up close. Next we stopped in at the campground area in this part to get dinner. They had a huge cafeteria style restaurant. One one side you could order home cooking type food such as pot roast and chicken, and on the other side was an Asian stir-fry theme where you could choose what meat, vegetables, and sauce you wanted stir-fried with rice or noodles. Luckily we still had a few hours of sunlight so after dinner we went over to the upper falls viewpoints and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was the golden hour which made the view even more spectacular! Finally we started the long drive back to Mammoth, made even longer because the road from Tower to Mammoth was closed. It was starting to get dark when we got to camp, but the kids wanted us to do the hike up from the campground into the village and then up another hill to see the view, as they had done by themselves the night before. We made our way up and were able to see the sunset over Mammoth. We learned that we took the old Stage coach road down where the visitors used to come in from the North entrance via stage coach. Finally we slept in Yellowstone for one last night.