The Oregon Coast (With a Dash of California)

When I put together my bucket list of road trips, there are many that come to mind. But if I had to put my finger on one that I would put at the top of the list, driving the 101 from one end of Oregon to the other would be at the top. I decided that Memorial Day week would be a good time to go since the weather would be pleasant and the crowds would not be out in full summer force. Now when I say that I would be driving the Oregon Coast, I actually started in Northern California since Redwoods National Park is just a few miles over the state line. I’m not going to pass up such a spot for a simple logistics technicality.

So I begin my journey in Redwood National Park, just south of Crescent City, CA. The first thing that comes to mind about the area is how surprisingly devoid of human impact exists. The area remains fairly untouched with the exception of the highway that winds its way through the trees and over the rolling hills along the coastline. The next thing I notice is the obvious, the size of these giants have to be seen to be believed. These behemoths go so far into the sky, you have a hard time seeing the tops some times. When you get into a thick grove of them, it’s like driving in a tunnel.  At the base, they are bigger around than my car. As I came out of the trees I came back to the coastline where I stopped to take in the craggy views and noticed something strange, red sand. I’m not talking fire engine red, but very similar to the color of the trees. I’m not sure if the two are related, but it’s quite the coincidence. So my feeling about the park is that it is something worth seeing, but you don’t need to allocate more than a day for it.

Putting California in the rear view mirror it is on to Oregon, the reason that I am here. The first thing that I will say is that I felt like there were three different areas along the way, southern, central, and northern coasts. Each of the three brought different things to the table and each had their own distinctive charms.

Since I was driving north, I came into Southern Oregon and immediately I found the connection to nature I wanted. The southern coast is dominated by the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. There are not many towns along the corridor and the coast is very jagged with many capes and overlooks that give the opportunity to see out for miles from high perchs. Harris Beach is just north of Brookings and is the primary place for the residents to get some sand between their toes and enjoy the summer sun. Cape Ferrelo is just further to the north and gives a much different perspective from hundreds of feet above the beach line below. There are numerous other pullouts and trails to hike along the corridor, any of which are worth the time to get out and stretch the legs a little. The biggest take away is that this part of the coast is for the person trying to find some solitude. The crowds are non-existent and trails are plentiful.


Next, I made my way further north to the town of Bandon. The town has a quaint downtown that sits at the mouth of the Coquille River. There was a farmer’s market with some fresh local seafood and many small shops and restaurants. I really wasn’t expecting the amount of activity that was present, and I came away fairly impressed with the town. However, I really only had one reason for wanting to stop here and that reason was golf. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is one of the most impressive golf destinations I have seen and really gives the player the feeling that they are golfing in Scotland. Golf carts are not allowed and they offer caddie services to make the experience more authentic. The experience does come with a steep price, but I figured that it’s something that I probably won’t be doing again, so why not splurge a little. There are multiple courses, but I chose the one that ran along the shoreline because, why not! I have to say that some of the cliffs that you hit along/over got a little intimidating, and the wind blew so hard that it made the round less than optimal. But I guess that is the way the course is supposed to be played.


As I moved into the central coast the coastline started to have this nice mix of jagged cliffs and rolling sand dunes. The Oregon Dunes National Rec Area between the towns of Reedsport and Florence was littered with people taking out their dune buggies and ATVs. There are many places to rent both if it is something you’re interested in. After driving along the wind-swept beaches for a while, you climb back up into cliffs of the Cape Perpetua Area. After a while of stopping and going, I started to train myself on where to stop based on the amount of other cars parked along the highway. The downside is obvious, there are going to be more crowds, but usually there was reason for that. Cooks Chasm is a perfect example of that. As I got off the highway, the roadside pullout looks no different than any other but the pullout was filled with cars which was not common along the way. Instead of a sandy beach, there were rock formations jetting out into the ocean. The different shapes of rock formations created some unique features. Sprouting Horn is a slot between the rocks that the waves would funnel into and hit with force sending ocean water dozens of feet into the air. My personal favorite was Thor’s Well, which looked like a simple hole in the rocks. But, at certain points of the tide cycle, the waves would come under the face of the well and explode up and out the top. The foamy seawater would make a beautiful contrast with the black rocks.


So after spending the morning climbing around in the rocks of Cooks Chasm, I took the winding road up to the lookout high above. Out of all the high lookouts along the coast this one was easily the highest. At a touch over 800 feet above the ocean below, you get the same feeling as you would looking out from the top of a skyscraper.


After spending the day climbing and hiking, I stopped for the evening in the town of Yachats (pronounced ya-HOTS). The town is on the smaller side, but was probably my most enjoyable stop. There is a small, but vibrant downtown with a small yet tasty brewery and numerous restaurants of all levels of fancy. That being said, I got my dinner from a food truck. Best fish tacos I’ve every had! After dinner I walked over to Yachats State Park and just lounged on the rocks watching the tide come in. There is just something soothing about the sounds of waves crashing on the rocks and the seagulls overhead.

So after my wonderful stay at the Drift Inn I started my journey back up again. I made a pit stop in Newport to check out the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Considering that it was not very big, it was very nice. They had some large tanks that went up and over your head in the hallways and the outside areas were simple but gave some close interactions with otters, sea lions, and native birds. It’s not the type of place to spend an entire day, but if you have an hour or two to spend, it’s not a bad option.

The next town I came to was Tillamook. Now, if you were looking for the red-headed stepchild of the Oregon Coast this is it, and I use that term with nothing but affection. If you didn’t know where you were and just got dropped into town, you would think you were somewhere in Wisconsin or another Midwestern state. There are dairy farms everywhere, a huge cheese factory, and other cheese oriented stores that are just fantastic. The town is along the 101 but sits off the coast by a good dozen miles. It was a nice change-up in the middle of all these coastal towns. I was able to find a couple parks nearby to get some like hiking in (Munson Creek and Tillamook Forest Center). Another really interesting point of interest is the Tillamook Air Museum. There are many different historic planes and helicopters, but the majority of the museum focuses on World War II, but the aircraft are from many other time periods.

After leaving Tillamook and joining back with the coast, I came into what I consider the Northern Coast. One of the overriding things I noticed on the trip was that the further north I went, the more crowded and touristy it felt. The state parks started charging fees, the traffic thickened up, and the trinket shops became more common. That does not mean that the area was a loss. Cannon Beach is a very affluent town with some great dining options and a great beach, highlighted by Haystock Rock.


The town of Seaside has a weekend resort town kind of feel with many big hotels lining the beach. At the northwest tip of the state is the old Fort Stevens. The fort was built back in the 1800s as a base of operations for protecting the fur trade after Lewis and Clark made their trip to the west coast. The base was active through World War II as a training base and was decommissioned shortly after. What remains is something that could almost be considered ruins.

Finally, the last town the Oregon Coast has to offer is Astoria. Astoria is the oldest permanent settlement on the Pacific Coast, dating back to 1811. The city sits on the mouth of the Columbia River as it empties into the Pacific. There are numerous old Victorian homes that sit up on the hills overlooking the downtown which I’m not sure if it is in the process of fading or reinventing itself. There are a few closed storefronts that look quite a bit dated, but there are some new businesses going in along the boardwalk. It seems as though the town is transitioning from a blue-collar fishing community to more of a tourism based economy. Most of the new businesses seem to be breweries, coffee shops, restaurants, and cannabis stores, which are much more common than I would expect. I ended up at Buoy Brewing and had a great experience. I sat in the taproom that looked out over the river and just unwound from the long trip.

So that’s as far as I can go before moving into a new jurisdiction to the north. I guess I can find out what is on the other side of this huge bridge.


Only one way to find, off we go!



Gloomy Crater Lake

I’m sure everyone at some point has seen, or at least heard of, Crater Lake. Crater Lake is an ancient volcano, in the state of Oregon, that collapsed in on itself, creating a huge caldera that has filled with water over the millennia. Because of the cleanness of the water and the depth of the lake (nearly 2000 feet, making it the deepest lake in the United States), it is said to be the bluest water you can find. How is someone like me to resist such a beauty? The concern is that I know that late May in the Pacific Northwest can be hit or miss when it comes to rainy and cloudy conditions. But, I figured I would take a chance because it’s not as though I’m going to be passing through again anytime soon.

Coming from the north I turned off US 97 onto SR 138 then SR 230, not to far away from the headwaters of the Rouge River. The river winds it’s way along the route cascading over numerous falls and beginning it’s trek to the Pacific Ocean. With the rainfall and the still ongoing snow melt, the river was vibrant and rushing along. With all the moisture in the area, the place almost glowed with life. Every shade of green that you could possible imagine just popped along the river. The tall fir trees that lined the road were deep green in color that just framed the road perfectly with a small sliver of sky between them. The undergrowth was bright and thick making it almost impossible to focus on staying in your lane.


Eventually, you turn onto SR 62 which leads you up into the park. While the majority of the day was hit or miss when it came to weather, about halfway up the mountain, I started to realize that my visions of seeing the blue waters against the backdrop of the ancient volcano first hand would have to wait for another day. As I climbed higher, the clouds started to thicken, eventually getting to almost complete whiteout conditions. It was so thick that I could barely see much past the hood of my car. So while I knew I wasn’t going to have the clear conditions I was hoping for, I started to experience something quite a bit different, which was just as memorable.

Some may know that when forest fires break out in national parks, a lot of the time, they are allowed to burn as a natural renewal of the park. What is usually left are the charred remains of the old trees burned down to not much more than the trunk and few stubby branches sticking out. Under normal circumstances, those are things that you don’t really take notice of and just keep moving along, but with the white out conditions, these dead trees would appear out of the mist like some scene from Sleepy Hollow. It created just the eeriest feeling as you crept your way up the mountain along the switchbacks. Finally, I made it to the top, where there was still quite a bit of snow lingering around and as I expected, the lake was barely visible. You could barely see far enough out to get a glimpse of Wizard Island. It was cold, drizzly, and worth every second!


As I headed back down the mountain, the clouds finally lifted and I was left with a short, but very enjoyable drive toward the town of Medford. The road follows the path of the Rogue River making it quite the sporty drive. There are lots of turns, some small elevation changes, and some great views along the way. It was getting late in the day so I wasn’t able to take my time and really see it all, but the drive was enough to get the adrenaline flowing a bit.

So there is no doubt in my mind that one day I will return and make it a point to see this blue beauty the way it is meant to be seen. But, what I take from this is the story of Crater Lake that most people don’t tell. There is a gloomy side to this gem.


Texas Hill Country

Deep in the heart of Texas there is a region known for rolling hills, world class wineries, classic barbecue, and two iconic cities that are so welcoming, yet so different. Texas Hill Country has a little something for everyone, no matter how discerning a taste you might have. San Antonio is a growing metropolis this is rich with history dating back to the Mexican War and the Battle of Alamo with legendary names as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Austin is a modern up-and-coming city that has become a favorite destination for young professionals in the tech industry. In between the two is a vast collection of winding roads that cut through the rugged, hilly terrain, joining all the small towns that have their own individual personality.

My journey begins on the River Walk in San Antonio. In the middle of the downtown area of the city, below the street level, dozens of bars, restaurants, and shops have set up their businesses along the San Antonio River, which winds through the middle of the city. After checking into my hotel, I ventured down to the riverfront to enjoy the warm weather and take in some of the local fare. There were people on both sides of the river, filing up most of the outdoor tables enjoying happy hour. After meandering a while, I found a table outside of one of the bars and ordered myself a margarita. One thing I will warn you up front is you better come ready to spend some money, because the food and drink is not cheap! Realizing that my one drink was going to cost me $12, I thought it be best to move along. Unfortunately, almost all of the other establishments on the river price their menus at about the same price point. I finally surrendered and went back to the hotel for some dinner and called it a night. For such a great setting, it ends up a little disappointing due to the fleecing of your wallet.

After leaving San Antonio, I head northwest toward the town of Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg is a town that sits on the western edge of Hill Country and is the largest town other than San Antonio and Austin. The nerve center of the town is Main Street, which has a six block stretch lined with clothing stores, candy shops, art galleries, restaurants, and wine tasting rooms. There are two things that really stand out for me when I think of the town. The first thing is the strong German influence the town has. Many of the breweries, restaurants, and stores tap into the roots of the initial settlers that were of German heritage. The other thing that is a must see in town is the museum/memorial dedicated to the veterans of the World War II Pacific Theater.

Immediately, you are drawn to the large courtyard that is surrounded by hundreds of plaques honoring the different units, ships, and individual sailors that served and in some cases, perished during the war. After spending some time going through and reading the stories of these heroes, I went into the museum dedicated to Admiral Chester A. Nimitz. Nimitz was the Supreme Commander of the Pacific Theater during the war and was born and raised in Fredericksburg. The museum tells a great story of a great man. Anyone who is a history buff, like myself, will really enjoy learning more about one of the most important leaders of World War II.

Leaving Fredericksburg, I start to wind through the country side and come across more small towns, each with something different to offer. Luckenbach (yes, that same Luckenbach Waylon Jennings made famous) is more of a music venue than it is a town. The old “post office” gives a nostalgic feel taking back to a simpler time.


I stopped in Blanco for a flight of beers at Real Ale Brewery and later for lunch at Old 300 BBQ. I have to admit that Old 300 had the best barbecue during my trip and the peach cobbler is an absolute must. Trust me! I finally make my way to Austin and start to prepare myself for the experience that is 6th Street.

If there is one thing that Austin does better than anything else, it is live music. I know there are places like Nashville that have live music in almost every bar every night, but most of the time, those bars are playing country music. In Austin, not only does every bar have live music every night, there is almost every kind of music you could want. In the course of three blocks, I went from a hard rock bar, to a blues bar, to a jazz bar, and finally a bar with a young man that if you closed your eyes, you would swear that Eric Church was on stage. It wasn’t even a weekend and the streets were packed with people bar hopping, singing, and dancing. Quite possibly, the best night life scene I have been a part of. For a simple dinner, check out Eureka. Their sweet spot is burger and beer and they do both things very well.

My final day in Hill Country was similar to day before. I spent the daylight hours cruising through the hills. I went off the beaten a little bit driving through Balcones Canyonlands National Refuge.


After miles of switchbacks and single-lane bridges I came out the other side and started working my way back through the small towns of Bertram, Burnett, Llano, and Marble Falls. I ended up back in Fredericksburg and started  to head back to Austin when I was surprised with the stretch of road heading toward Johnson City. The road between these two towns is littered with wineries and peach stands. Most people think of Georgia when they think of peaches, and rightly so. However, Hill Country Peaches are some of the most flavorful in the world, and if you time your trip right, you will be in for a treat. Unfortunately, it’s the middle of winter so, there are not many peaches to be had. I guess I will have to settle for some peach wine. Not a bad consolation prize!  The amount of different wineries that you can pop into for a tasting or to purchase a bottle is almost overwhelming. I don’t have the most sensitive pallet when it comes to wine so I did not venture to far down that path, but I do think it’s a great thing that the many options are there.

As I head back to Austin and finish off my trip, I feel as though that I need to visit Hill Country during the other seasons. Something tells me that the character of this place changes with the season. There are many huge public swimming holes and outdoor concert venues that are quiet now, but I’m sure are full of life with the coming of warm weather.

Another Bend In The Road

West Texas is one of those places that stirs up strong images in the American consciousness. We think of big open spaces, old western movies, and tumbleweeds blowing in the wind. On this trip, I at least got one of the three. For the first week in January, the weather could not have been more cooperative. With daily highs around 70 and plenty of sunshine, I had a great opportunity to spend some time with my new surroundings.

My primary destination was Big Bend National Park, a park that is about as isolated from the rest of civilization as a destination can be. It is along the southern border along the Rio Grande River. As I drove in on interstate 20 from Abilene, I made a quick pit stop at Monahans Sand Dunes State Park. It was very easy to get to, with it being directly off the interstate. Monahans is simple park that is one road in and one road out and doesn’t require much more than an hour to experience. For my non-solo travelers, that have kids, it is great option to stop and let the kids get out and burn some energy. The most popular activity is sledding down the huge sand dunes. With the entrance fee of a measly four dollars, it is a nice spot to have a quick picnic lunch.

After my short pit stop I made my way to the town of Alpine, which was going to be my base of operation for three days. With the last two days obligated to going down and exploring the national park, I thought I would venture out into the town and see what was there. Naturally, I located the one microbrewery on the west side of town. Big Bend Brewing Company is a regional brewery that distributes throughout the state of Texas. On site, there is a small taproom that is in the same building as their brewing operation. You immediately notice the staff behind the counter talking beer and giving tours. A young lady named Alison poured me a flight and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the only thing better than the atmosphere was the beer itself. I made sure to grab a couple six packs to bring back home.

With my first day heading to the park, I decided that I would take a longer, more scenic route to get there. I’m sure anyone that knows me is not shocked at all to hear that. After going through the towns of Marfa and Presidio, I made my way onto Farm Route 170 and came into the park from the west. This route is more rollercoaster than road with dozens of severe dips and steep grades as it winds along the Rio Grande. Once you come away from the canyons along the river, you go through the resort towns of Lajitas and Terlinga before entering the park at the Old Maverick Road junction. After following Old Maverick Road for the dozen or so miles you come to one of the highlights of the park, Santa Elena Canyon.

There is a great overlook area that gives a great wide shot view of the canyon. If you want to venture into the canyon, there is a short trail that goes back into the canyon which gives you an idea at how step and narrow this canyon really is. I spent the rest of the day on the west side of the park taking it easy with some simple hikes like Tuff Canyon. I headed back to Alpine knowing that my last day in the park was going to be a little more grueling than the first.

So as I headed back to the park on my second day, I headed up to what I thought was the best part of the park, Chisos Basin. Chisos Basin is an oasis of sorts in the middle of the park. You drive into the mountains and after you navigate a couple switchbacks, you come to an area with a visitor’s center, a small convenience store, and a pretty substantial resort. However, the thing that really jumps out are all the different trails available for all challenges. The Window View Trail is a short, handicap accessible trail that is short, but gives a great view of what the call the “Window”, but there is also a 12.5 mile trail that goes all the way to the top of the mountain and runs along the entire South Rim. Now I’m not the most serious of hikers, but I like to think of myself as an enthusiast. The trail that I decided to take on was the Lost Mine Trail. Lost Mine Trail is a 4.8 mile trail that goes up to ridge and gives views of the park floor thousands of feet below.

The trail is a little rough, so I would suggest having a pair of boots that goes up over the ankle because I know the pair I had, saved a rolled ankle or two. After I worked my way back down the mountain, I decided to head over to the east side of the park.

The first thing I will say about the east side of the park is only bother going if you have run out of other options elsewhere (not likely) or if you feel the need to see everything (like me). It is just not all that inspiring compared to the other parts of the park. If you do head that way, the hikes into Boquillas Canyon and to the Historic Hot Springs are enjoyable.

So after two days of hiking and exploring Big Bend National Park, I departed feeling that I got a great idea of what the park has to offer, but also knowing that there is a lot more to find the next time I come.

Hiking the Canyons of Illinois

When most people think of Illinois there are one of two images that come to mind. They either envision the grand skyline of Chicago looking out over Lake Michigan, or they fancy the flat plains of corn fields are far as the eye can see. What if I were to say that in the middle of the state there were canyons of sandstone that were cut from the receding glaciers of the last ice age?  Along the Illinois River, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago, Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks are exactly that. During the summer months, the Lasalle-Peru-Ottawa region becomes full of activity as tens of thousands of people from around the area make their way to hit the trails.

Starved Rock State Park is actually the most visited park in the entire state, so if you are wanting to avoid the large crowds, I know I try to when possible, it is worth to do a little fore-planning. Obviously, the summer months and the weekends are prime times for people to visit, but I found that even though I visited over the Labor Day weekend, I was able to skip the crowds by getting to the park early. I arrived at 7am and there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot of the visitor center. By the time I left later in the day, the cars were starting to circle due to the lot being full. Now, the beauty of the trail system at Starved Rock is that you can make your hike as easy or difficult as you like. For a simple easy hike, the River Trail hugs the river the length of the park and does not have very much elevation change. You still have the opportunity to see many of the canyons such as LaSalle and Wildcat canyon with a couple short side treks that once again are fairly easy. However, if you are someone looking for a stiffer challenge, the Bluff Trail is a nice test with a lot of stairs. The Bluff Trail goes away from the river and climbs the ridges giving you some views looking down into a couple of the canyons, such as Wildcat and French. Finally, if you are wanting a sweeping view of the river and landscape below, you will want to make sure to make it up to Eagle Cliff Overlook. You almost feel as though you are hovering above the water at a couple hundred feet.20170903_075727The next day I made my way over to Matthiessen State Park which has a lot of the same feel as Starved Rock, but has it’s own charm. The first thing I will recommend to anyone that is going to Matthiessen is to plan on getting your feet wet. A friend of mine gave me the heads up on this and I am glad he did. There are a number streams and waterfalls in the park that weave in and through the canyons and the best way to get back to all of it is by walking through the canyon floors. There are few times that you need to cross a stream via stepping stones or fallen log so be ready to get a little dirty. The trails themselves are not the most strenuous I have trekked, but they are challenging enough that by the end of the day, I felt like I earned a beer or two.20170902_101203Speaking of beer…….since obviously I was in the area for a couple of days, I was surely going to find out what kind of local beer scene was available. In downtown Ottawa, Tangled Roots Brewing is a great place to stop. If you are serious about the beer and want to focus on just that, they have a no frills taproom that allows you to just sit, drink, and talk beer. However, right next door, they run the Lone Buffalo, which is a brewpub that serves the same beers, but gives you more of a restaurant feel. Both the beer and the food were fantastic, so you won’t go wrong either way. If you only have one beer there, Vulture Dragon from Radium City is a Pale Ale that is just a glass of citrusy goodness.

So while, Central Illinois is not going to start rivaling some of the huge landscapes in the Western U.S., it does give some of us flat landers some variety from the normal landscape. Plus, the local towns offer enough in the way of food and entertainment that you feel like you can make a long weekend out of it without running out of things to do.


Going Back In Time In the Black Hills

For the longest time, I have had an interest in the Black Hills region. The history buff in me thinks about the early nineteenth century when Deadwood was one of the last towns of outlaws and gold rushes. The lover of natural beauty in me is drawn to the tree covered rolling hills and large granite formations popping out from the earth. This is a part of the country that has something that almost anyone can embrace. So, when I decided to take a trip to the Black Hills, I decided that I would spend three full days taking in as much of the history, beauty, and nature that I could. Now I think that I might need another day or two.

Day 1: I arrived in the Black Hills from the west, leaving Wyoming on Highway 85. As you start to go up, down, and around the tree covered hills, you come into Spearfish Canyon. The canyon is a narrow, deep canyon of limestone and shale that was cut by Spearfish Creek the flows at the bottom. The speed limit is only 35 through the canyon due to the tight turns and foot traffic that is present. The one thing I kept seeing was the amount of people that were fly-fishing in the creek. Apparently, it is one of the best spots for wild run brown and rainbow trout. As you wind through the canyon along the banks of the creek, there are plenty of places to pull off and do some light hiking and sightseeing. About halfway through you come to Bridal Veil Falls which tumbles off the cliff wall into the creek below. So, after I made my way through the canyon and got to the town of Spearfish, I stopped by Crow Peak Brewing Company for an evening nightcap. They had a great selection and the beer was fresh and available to purchase to take home. After a couple rounds I made it back to the hotel and turned in since I knew that tomorrow would be an active day.

Day 2: I headed out from Spearfish into the hills, and the first destination I came to is Deadwood. It is the same Deadwood that was made famous on HBO, but now obviously has a very different feel that the town that was at the center of the gold rush in the late 19th century. Main Street is still lined with casinos, bars, and hotels, but there is much more of a tourist feel now. Images of Wild Bill Hickok are plastered everywhere and there are signs telling you where he was killed, where he had his last meal, and a number of other places. The town’s next-door neighbor, Lead, is very similar with the tourist’s attractions, but does have an interesting sight. The Homestake Mine was the largest, deepest mine in the country until it closed 15 years ago. Once I left Lead, I headed south toward Mount Rushmore when along the way, I stopped at Pactola Lake. The lake is the primary water supply for the area, but also offers some great hiking and photo ops. The only movement on the calm lake was a couple kayakers going out for an early paddle.KIMG0310Now while I would recommend everyone to make the trip to see Mount Rushmore, you will need to prepare yourself to weave in and out of the huge crowds that are there as well. They have done a great job in presenting the monument, but the commercialization of the location is obvious.KIMG0302After dealing with the crowds of Mount Rushmore, I decided that I needed to get out into some wide-open spaces and headed east to Badlands National Park. The two major entrances to the park are on the north side of the park, but there is another entrance from the south. Sage Creek Road is a long dirt road that rides along the rim of a ridge into the back door of the park. While it is a little nerve racking driving the winding turns on loose gravel with no guardrails, the views are just amazing.KIMG0329So, after a day of going and seeing, I made my way back to Rapid City and checked into my hotel. Now this evening looked like it was going to be the same as a lot of others, I soon realized that I would be presented something rather unique. I walked over to a quiet bar and sat down, ordered a drink, and started conversating with the bartender. After about 45 minutes of talking bars, drinks, and whatever, the bartender stopped and pulled out his wallet and handed me a card. The only thing on the card was a phone number and stated to text before 5pm. He didn’t go into too much detail, but said that I should send a message. So, I headed to my room not sure what it was all about, but I was pretty sure I was going to find out.

Day 3: My final day in the region started with a round of golf at the Club at Red Rocks. The course was just named as the best public course in the state and I understand why. The course is in great condition, and is challenging, but reasonable. They paired me up with three gentlemen that were members and had a great experience. As I finished my round, my thoughts switched back to the night before and the card the bartender gave me. I decided that I would go ahead and message the number. A few minutes later, I received a series of texts giving me instructions to go to a certain bar, go to the back door, down the stairs, enter a safe code, wait by the light, and give the passcode to the barkeep. I realized that I was just invited to a private speakeasy! Harkening back to the days of Prohibition, I knew that I was going to have to go check this out. I spent the rest of the day wandering around downtown, checking out some of the local shops and just taking it easy. So, later that evening I made my way to the bar and went through the steps and found myself walking into a time from long ago. There were lights with stained glass on the bar. The walls showed the old exposed stone, and there was Louis Armstrong playing on the speakers. The only thing that I told the bartender was that I preferred bourbon and for him to surprise me. They started serving me drinks such as the Bee’s Knees, The Riverman, and Kate’s Bustier. All the ingredients were fresh and the drinks were fantastic. The other great thing that was a standing rule was that there were no cell phones allowed. No pictures, no selfies, none of that. The only thing you had was good food, good drinks, and good conversation. It was one of the most unique bar experiences that I have ever had and one that I will not forget.

So, as I leave Rapid City and the Black Hills, I think about how this is a place with such history, scenery, and adventure. I look forward to when I can come back and experience everything once again, and hopefully, maybe something new as well.

The Most Scenic Drive In America

That might be a bold statement, and there will be a lot of people that say otherwise. But of all of drives that I have every taken, none really compare with a drive through Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The crown jewel of the area is Grand Teton National Park, a park that offers breathtaking views seemingly around every corner. The area also is home to the National Elk Refuge, which is almost 25,000 acres of land set aside to protect a very large heard of elk and other native wildlife. Jackson, the town which the area gets its name is located just to the south of the parks and provides a great starting (or ending) point for your trip.

My trip starts at the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, as the two parks are so close that it is used as an entrance for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton. As you come down off the Continental Divide, the Snake River rises and runs parallel with the road allowing many places to pull over and get some photo ops. After a relatively short drive, Jackson Lake comes into view, and along with it, your first glimpse of the mountain range that the park is named after. Jackson Lake is a rather large lake that was cut out by glaciers during the last ice age and provides the perfect reflection pool for the towering spires of granite. Follow the road until you come to Oxbow Bend Turnout where you can get a great reflection shot of Mount Moran. The Snake River bends around just at the right spot to frame the huge mountain at the right place. The hill sides are full of aspen trees, so if you happen to come through the area in the autumn season, that is a wonderful bonus to take advantage of. Once you leave Oxbow Bend, you will need to double back a mile or so to get on Teton Park Road, which is the major artery of the park.KIMG0207Once you go over Jackson Lake Dam, the first major side trip is to the top of Signal Mountain. At a short drive to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire valley and the Tetons themselves. Depending on the time of day can really change the look of the valley. In the morning sun, the mountains have an orange tint to them, but in the early evening, the sun has gone past the mountains and their faces are in the shadows. You almost have to see the park twice to really appreciate the changes. Once you come down off of Signal Mountain, the next area I went through was the Jenny Lake area. Jenny Lake is what you think of when you picture a peaceful mountain lake. It sets very close to the mountain range and is completely surrounded be mature pine trees. Also, the viewing areas tend to center the lake on Grand Teton itself. I was there in the late afternoon so there wasn’t an opportunity for any reflections of the mountain, but the sun really made the lake sparkle and shine.KIMG0188If you are feeling ambitious, the lake also has a wonderful trail the circles the lake. There is little elevation change on the trail, but it is a little over seven miles long, so you will want to plan accordingly. Another very popular activity in the park is biking. The National Park Service did a wonderful job of putting in dozens of bike tracks for people to enjoy. Teton Park Road connects back to the highway at the Moose intersection which also where the park headquarters are located. You will usually see rafting groups meeting up here for float trips (more on that in a little bit).

There are other stops that should be made, but are back on the main highway which is more to the east. Snake River Overlook gives the most complete view of everything the park has going. With the mountain lurking in the distance, the Snake River winds its way below among the pine trees. Just a few miles done the highway, another place that should be seen is the historic Cunningham Cabin, which was built in the late nineteenth century as a homestead for John Cunningham.KIMG0213Now just when I thought I had my fill of how to take in the sights, I discovered another way, by boat. There are many companies that offer float trips through the park on the Snake River. The great thing about this is that the pace is a lot slower, there are no crowds or traffic to deal with, and someone else is doing the driving for you. While on the river, the elk, moose, and deer just come right to the bank and are easy to spot. Also, if you are a bird watcher, there are many different kinds of birds that nest in and around the river. The company I went with charged $70 for a two-hour trip down the river, and I feel like I got my money’s worth.

So, with all of this activity going on, I was glad to have such a convenient location for a base of operations. Jackson, is just a couple miles to the south from the edge of the park and provides a nice selection of services and activities. Since it is a hotspot for tourists, you are going to see the normal stores that cater to the out-of-towners. There is no shortage of t-shirt shops, jewelry stores, and art galleries. I’m sure they are all very nice, but I have to admit, I did not see firsthand. I instead looked for a place to kick back and unwind, and I found just that at Snake River Brewery. Everyone from my rafting guide, to the girl at the front desk of the hotel, and even the man working at the gas station said that it was the place for a cold beer and some good food. And they were right! The beer was fresh and the food was excellent. If you go there, get “The Roper”. Your cardiologist will thank me later! Afterward, there was nothing left to do, but go back to the hotel and settle in for the evening.

The Many Faces Of Yellowstone

One of the things that I always loved about Yellowstone National Park is the variety that the park has to offer. Whatever you outdoor passion is, Yellowstone will probably have what it is that you are looking for. If you enjoy hiking, there is no place better. If you like fishing, it is some of the best trout fishing in the world. Camping? I think that goes without saying. If grand views are your thing, there are many to be seen. Wildlife enthusiasts will get closer to nature than ever before. So you might be thinking, how am going to be able to see all of this? Luckily, the park does make it simple with the Grand Loop Road which follows the outside edges of the park and gives access to all of its wonders. With that in mind, I do want to emphasize that one of the keys to a great experience in Yellowstone is knowing when to come. It just so happened to work out that the day I came to the park was Memorial Day. Needless the say, the crowds and traffic are overwhelming sometimes at certain locations. With all of the wildlife being so active, people just stop their car in the middle of the road to get out and photograph. One silver lining to that is that usually you have nice view of something while you wait for people to get going again. So if you are someone that is crowd averse, it might be wise to do a little research to find out when the park might not be as busy.

But as for me, my journey to Yellowstone starts in Cody, WY, which is about 90 miles to the east of the park. The drive in is scenic and low stress as it goes through Buffalo Bill State Park and into a deep valley along the banks of the Shoshone River. KIMG0124Wildlife is everywhere since it is late in the spring. Bears and mountain goats can be seen along the highway as you climb up to Sylvan Pass before descending into Yellowstone. The first thing that catches your eye is the massive Yellowstone Lake. Luckily, one of the first side trips you can go on is a short trip up to the top of Lake Butte Overlook. Once at the top, you get a panoramic view of the park and more specifically the lake, as the Continental Divide rises in the background. The deep blue water is calm and a thin layer of fog rolls onto the shore as the lake seems to go on for ever. KIMG0136Once you get back on the main road, it hugs the eastern shore with plenty of picnic areas and rocky beaches to walk along. Eventually the road crosses the Yellowstone River which at that point is just a couple hundred feet into its journey. It leaves the lake and will eventually empty into the Missouri River in Eastern Montana. However, in the park, it is a much more modest river with some of the cleanest water you will ever find. I stopped at one point where no one else was parked just so I could sit on the shore and enjoy the sound of it going by. However, the river takes on a little different personality just a few miles further downstream.

After it’s calm start, the Yellowstone River comes into the canyon village and goes over two enormous falls before going through the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This is one of the places in the park that if you come on a busy day, you will need your patient hat for sure. This is one of the most popular sites in the park, and rightfully so. KIMG0160The river has carved out this very deep, very steep canyon over time and the different colors in the canyon walls are very noticeable. But on the other side of the park, Yellowstone has another very different face that it likes to show off.

Probably the thing that comes to people’s minds when you mention Yellowstone, are the geysers. Since the park sits on top of a huge super-volcano, the amount of geothermic energy that can found is hard to imagine. One the western side of the park, you are constantly driving by highlights such as Old Faithful, Norris Basin, and Mammoth Springs. There are mud volcanoes and there are sulfur cauldrons. Which leads me to my last point. Yellowstone stinks!! Literally. All of the geothermic activity aids in the burning of sulfur, which creates one of most repugnant odors that you can come across. It kind of reminds of you of old boiled eggs. After a while, you become nose-blind to it and you only notice it in high concentrations. But it is a small price to pay for such an experience.

There is a part of me that feels guilty about only spending one day in such a diverse, spectacular place when it is so worthy of a multiple night stay, but it is all the time had to give. So, I leave out the south entrance and over the Continental Divide looking forward to my next adventure. Maybe something close by…….?

Billings Montana: Adventures in Beer and Other Good Things

OK, real quick! Name the first city that comes to mind when I say destination city. What city do you think of? New York? New Orleans? Austin? San Diego? Anyway, how far down the list do you go before you get to Billings Montana? I know it never crossed my mind. However, now that I have seen what this city in Eastern Montana has to offer, the only thing I ask myself is: how did I missed this for so long? This town has everything I could ask for. Restaurants, breweries, great outdoor activities, and scenic views are all at one’s fingertips. Plus, the city is very easy to get around and you don’t feel like there are just crowds of people at every turn. Even though, it’s the largest city in the state, it just doesn’t feel that way, but it does have a lot to offer.

Naturally, I wanted to stay in the downtown area, and I was fortunate to book a great room right downtown. One of the first things I noticed was the number of craft breweries and craft distilleries close by. As someone that enjoys craft beer and the charm of the small brewer, this was just the perfect opportunity for me. Within a half-mile radius, there are six craft brewers and two craft distillers. I have never seen a city that has such a concentration like that in the downtown area. It really gives you the chance to sample a lot of different selections without having to adventure all over town to find them.

The next thing that I saw when I walked around was the great variety of restaurants, some of which were toward the higher end. Which I think is great! I’m not always going to be eating a $50 steak, but it is nice to have the option, the one or two times a year I will. So obviously, I didn’t get the chance to experience all of them, but one that I did try was Ciao Mambo, and it was just amazing. Ciao Mambo, is a small, Italian restaurant that has an open kitchen. When you walk in, immediately, you here the cooks calling out orders and the clang of pots and pans. It gives you the feel that you could be in your own home being served. And the food itself is just as good as it gets. Now, I do have to give a tip of the cap to the young lady working at Trailhead Spirits that recommended the place, because it was spot on. I never would have even known about the place if she didn’t say anything. I’m really glad I did. If there is one thing that I can stress to everyone, when you go to a new place, ask the locals where to go for dinner or drinks. Yelp is fine, but I’ll trust a bartender or hotel valet working downtown to give me the scoop on where to go. Most of the time, they have lived there all of their lives, so they know.

Finally, the last thing that Billings has that is worth the trip is just the natural beauty. The Yellowstone River flows through the city and snow capped Rocky Mountains lay in the distance. If you feel like venturing a little out of town, the Bighorn National Recreation Area is just a couple hours away. So the opportunities for hiking, biking, and sightseeing are plentiful.

So while I have been to many cities that have been great experiences, I cannot think of any that has been such a pleasant surprise as this one. If you want to venture off the beaten path a little bit and try something a little different, Billings Montana might just be thing you are looking for.

A Stroll Through The Dakotas

When most people think of the Dakotas, the first thing that comes to mind is Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills region. Now, I’m not going to tell you that the Black Hills are not worth checking out, because they absolutely are! What I will say is that there are other hidden gems to be found, both North and South. So, I set out on a little trek across the two states and I found a few things that are worth a mention.

After staying the night in Sioux Falls, I headed north on I-29 and decided that I would head west on US 12. I always thought that the Dakotas were this dry waste land, but what I found was a little different. I was expecting an uninspiring drive all the way to Mobridge and the Missouri River, but I was pleasantly surprised that there were dozens of lakes that shined like mirrors in the morning still. Bald eagles circled above and the early fisherman started to gather on the shores.

Once I got to Mobridge what stood out to me was Lake Oahe, which is the large reservoir created when Oahe Dam was built across the Missouri River. In the morning sun, the deep blue color of the lake painted a perfect contrast to the greens and browns that surrounded it. Once you cross the river, there is a short side trip along the shore to the resting place of Sitting Bull within the Standing Rock Reservation. Unfortunately, the site is showing some signs of neglect, but the view of Lake Oahe is all you really notice.

Once I finished my journey across South Dakota and made my way into North Dakota, I was curious to see what was referred to as the Enchanted Highway. The Enchanted Highway is a county road that connects Regent and Gladstone. What makes the road enchanted is the numerous scrap metal sculptures that are placed along the way. Don’t worry about finding all of them, because there is very little to hide these humongous works of art.

There is everything from a family of farmers, to grasshoppers, to birds, and even a school of fish. Not exactly what you expect for road side scenery in the Western Dakotas, but you have to admire the creativity.

Finally, my last stop isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but it is certainly a gem none the less. The southern unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park sits right off of I-94, just north of Medora. Roosevelt NP is very similar in make-up of Badlands National Park and have many of the same features. Also, it is a great park for someone that might only have a day, or even just a few hours. The park has a scenic loop that almost everyone follows and there are many different points were you can pull off and get out of the car and take in the views.

One could get around the park in a couple of hours without any trouble, and they wouldn’t feel like they cheated themselves out of the experience. However, someone could spend days with all of the backpacking opportunities to be had. It truly is a park that has something to offer almost anyone.

Now I know, that I have left some places out. There is only so much you can do in a day. I guess I will just have to take a different route next time to find some more gems.