Summer Vacation 2016…Day 9

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On the last day of our vacation we mentally (and physically) prepared to drive the 13 hours home from Jackson, WY.  Thankfully the hotel where we stayed provided a large variety of food and we tasked the kids with eating as much as possible to fill them up for the day as Brian had NO plans of stopping for lunch!

Initially when I was planning the vacation I thought we would stay in Cheyenne, WY to break up the drive but Brian was on “team drive all the way home” so “team can’t make it that far” lost!

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The kids really do travel well which makes our yearly road trips possible.  Normally (when we are not driving 13 hours), they only have 1 hour of technology allowed but on the last day of driving, we slackened the rule.  The other thing that we allow on the super long driving days is the choice of a “fun food” from the gas station just to make the drive more bearable (for all of us)!  Most of the time the kids do better on the long drives than I do (I am totally not used to sitting still for that long)!

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We had another great vacation this year.  I always am so very thankful that we are able to travel so many miles without incident.  The United States has so much diversity and beauty from the sandhills of Nebraska to the glorious Teton mountain range to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Next up…New England!

Summer Vacation 2016…Day 8

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On this day we drove into Yellowstone from Gardiner, MT and headed south.  We soaked up the gorgeous scenery one more time before exiting the park in West Yellowstone.  We didn’t see any bear or moose in person during our exploration of Yellowstone but that was not a bad thing as the Spicka family was not interested in getting too close to those two massive and dangerous animals!

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A short drive west after exiting Yellowstone and we were in a new state…Idaho!

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We traveled through Idaho, admiring the miles and miles of seed potato farms and ultimately ended up back in Wyoming with our destination being Jackson.  It was too early to check into our hotel for the night so we headed into Grand Teton National Park.

Our first destination involved driving a few miles on a narrow gravel road to the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve which is in Grand Teton National Park.  This is a fabulous and extremely well maintained part of Grand Teton National Park and has trails that lead to Phelps Lake.  I found out about the Rockefeller Preserve from a patient who is well-traveled.  The patient has hiked extensively in the Grand Teton area and she said the hike and view of Phelps Lake was on the top of her list!  I know I would have never found this gem if it had not been for this great advice my from patient!

The Rockefeller Preserve only allows so many cars/visitors per day which makes this such a serene area of the park.  We were super lucky to get one of the last few parking spots. If the parking lot is full, the park rangers will not allow any additional visitors until someone leaves. We ate a picnic lunch before starting the 3 mile round trip hike to the sparkling clear Phelps Lake.

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There is a visitors center on the grounds at the Rockefeller Preserve that could double as an art gallery!

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Phelps Lake…

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The 3 mile hike to and from Phelps lake was easy and took us along a river for most of the walk.  The kids enjoyed wading in the lake until their feet turned blue and their toes went numb from the cold mountain water.  We were all happy to, again, not have met any bear or moose in real life along the trail!

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After leaving the Rockefeller Preserve, we continued on in Grand Teton National Park and stopped at the (fairly new) visitors center.  We explored all the exhibits and also watched a movie about the park and the history behind the Rockefeller involvement in Jackson and the Grand Tetons.  By this time the kids were ready to relax in the hotel and swim…

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We had another day of hiking and exploring.  Everyone was tired in the evening so we went to bed early as we had one more big day ahead of us….driving for 13 hours home…

Summer Vacation 2016…Day 7

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This day of vacation we started out by heading back into Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs (which is quite close to Gardiner, MT where we were staying).  This is an active hot springs that actually used to be near dormant not that long ago.  The hot springs “came alive” in the past 20 years and now puts out 2 tons (yes, 2 tons) of mineral sediment a day.  This thing is HUGE!

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There are over 1 mile of trails around the hot springs with many steps (to get to the top of the hot springs)…great early morning exercise for the Spicka family!

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After exploring the hot springs at Mammoth, we headed back to Gardiner for the next adventure of the day…white water rafting!

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We spent the majority of our late morning/early afternoon on the Yellowstone River.  We used Flying Pig Adventure Company and had such a great guide for white water rafting!  We were paired up with another family of 4 from Texas in which the Dad was also a teacher and coach and the kids were 9 and 11.  We had so much fun!  Even though the water was chilly, the sun warmer the air.  The kids took turns “riding the bull” which is when they sit on the raft at the front and hang on for dear life as the rapids drench them in the face!  It was a good workout rowing for the 8 miles we were on the river!

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After we dried off from our rafting adventure, we went down the road to a great local burger place for a late lunch. We ate at The Corral in Gardiner which has handmade burgers and handcut french fries.  The restaurant had great reviews and we completely agree as our meal was delicious.

When we travel, we actually rarely eat out.  I always look for hotels that provide a breakfast in the morning and we eat a picnic lunch (and sometimes dinner) every day.  When we stayed in Gardiner, MT, we rented a house which made cooking a hot meal every evening easy.  There was a great little (locally owned) grocery store in Gardiner that had (amazingly) reasonable prices so I did the majority of our food shopping there.  Anymore, with as much as my kids eat, one meal out to eat is the same as 2-3 days of groceries!

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Later in the afternoon we went back into north Yellowstone to let the kids hang out in the Boiling River.  The Boiling River is created where a large hot spring enters the Gardner River, allowing the hot and cool waters to mix into a temperature comfortable enough to swim/sit in.  This is a super popular area that actually just opened up for the season the week before we were there.  In my packing for everyone else in the family, I forgot to include my own swim suit so I stayed on the bank and enjoyed chatting with several other Moms from all over America!  The kids loved the natural hot tub effect of the Boiling River!

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The kids were exhausted by the end of the day with all the physical activity!

Summer Vacation 2016…Day 6

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This morning we woke up and got an early start to the day.  We drove the (almost) 2 hours south from Gardiner, through Yellowstone National Park, to Old Faithful.  The one thing I did not plan for on this trip is ALL the driving we would do when visiting Yellowstone.  Somehow I completely underestimated the land area encompassing Yellowstone!

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We arrived at Old Faithful within about 10 minutes of the predicted eruption time.  In this age of technology, you can look on Twitter (@GeyserNPS) to see when Old Faithful will erupt.  Many of the other geysers are not as “faithful” so the predictions are within hours, days or even years!

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After watching the “Old Faithful Show”, we started down the extensive boardwalk all around the Upper Geyser Basin that contains Old Faithful and many small geyers, hot springs and fumeroles (holes that emit only gas and mostly smelly gas).

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We ultimately hiked about 3 miles in our tour of the thermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin.  The weather was sunny but still only in the 70s so we were quite comfortable during our excursion walking.

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There were signs warning about “Dangerous Ground” all over Yellowstone, particularly in the thermal areas where the ground could be very thin and there was danger of falling into a hot spring or geyser.  The signs shows a boy (who was dressed just like Sam with a hat and binoculars also) so Sam decided to recreate the sign (with Molly in the background)!

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As we were hiking back towards Old Faithful, we caught it erupting in the distance.  Since we wanted to watch the eruption one more time before we left, we headed to our car and had a picnic lunch.  The kids also browsed around the gift shop and we went to the visitor’s center.

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(Waiting to watch Old Faithful erupt)

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After we left the Upper Geyser Basin, we headed down the road to Firehole Canyon Drive (a one-way scenic drive) and saw Firehole Falls which was gorgeous.  Again, pictures just do not do justice to the amazing scenery in Yellowstone!

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We also stopped at Grand Prismatic Spring which is the largest hot spring in all of Yellowstone (and definitely my favorite with the breathtaking colors)!

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(And at this point we hit the wall with regards to the kids’ willingness to take pictures!)

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After Grand Prismatic, we headed north and stopped at the famous paintpots (mud pots) in Yellowstone.

IMG_8277rIMG_8278rSam was fascinated with the splutting and splurting scalding hot mud!

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The the time we finished the (almost) mile hike back to our car, we were all tired and ready to head back to Gardiner.  It took about an hour to get back and both kids fell asleep in the car which is always a sign of a good day!

Summer Vacation 2016…Day 5

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On Day 5 we met with up Brian’s cousin Kevin and his wife Amy, along with their 2 boys.  Kevin and Amy live in Bozeman, MT and were our super special tour guides for the day. They camped in Gardiner, MT so we could get an early start on the day!  Kevin and Amy have lived in Montana for many years and are very seasoned veterans when it comes to touring Yellowstone.  The main theme for the day would be waterfalls and thermals; both which are beautiful an fascinating!

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We were able to see this waterfall from a distance (above) and then also hiked down 100s (literally) of stairs to see the same waterfall up close!

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I am not going to lie, hiking up close to 400 stairs at a high altitude is a difficult task no matter how much I work out!

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No matter where we went, if there were rocks that the kids could scale, they were drawn to them like bugs to light!

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This waterfall is completely off the main road on a one-way scenic drive.  We quickly figured out that in Yellowstone, some of the coolest structures are off the main road.  If there was a “scenic byway” we would try to take it as it always led to great views!

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We went to the Norris basin to see all the different thermals.  By this time it was almost 90 degrees and being around the hot thermals added to the heat.  We hiked two different trails to see hot springs, fumeroles and gysers!  Prior to heading to the Norris basin, we stopped by a large (and fairly new) visitor’s center in Yellowstone at Canyon Village that explained all the different thermal features.  The kids were fascinated by the fact that Yellowstone is actually a volcano!  I highly recommend going to the Visitor Education Center at Canyon Village if you are traveling in Yellowstone as Sam and Molly learned a lot when we were there.  There is also food and a (very) large gift shop.

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So some of the hot springs had a super strong sulfuric smell which the kids were not a fan of (as Sam’s face above will attest)!

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It was a great day of hiking and touring around Yellowstone and it was wonderful to see Kevin, Amy and their boys!  We definitely saw several things we wouldn’t have discovered on our own and are so very thankful for their help as tour guides in Yellowstone.  We still didn’t see any moose or bears but the thermals and waterfalls completely made up for it!

Summer Vacation 2016…Day 4

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On Day 4 we headed west from Rapid City, SD.  We quickly crossed the border into Wyoming…

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And then just a few more miles later, we crossed into Montana!

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We continued driving west through Montana for several hours.  Around lunchtime we opted to stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield when we realized that we would drive right past the National Monument.

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There is a National Cemetery also at the National Monument.

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There is so much history on this hill.  We were able to watch a 30 minute video detailing the Battle of Little Bighorn (and the events leading up to the battle and Custer’s Last Stand) and we also toured the museum on site.  The markers on the hill (in the fenced off area) denote where each American solider fell during the battle.  There are also monuments and markers for the horses lost during the battle.

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The was also a tribute to the American Indians who fought in the battle with amazing artwork.  We had good discussions with the kids about the actual battle itself and the events leading up to the fight so that they can understand more of the history.

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After we left the National Monument, we turned south to head down Highway 212 which is also known as the Beartooth Highway south of Red Lodge, MT.

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The Beartooth Highway is a 68 mile National Scene Byway and is absolutely gorgeous.  The road was not heavily traveled and we stopped many times to enjoy the crisp, cool mountain air and to take a break from the super twisting roads.  The Beartooth Highway goes through southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming and leads into Yellowstone National Park at its Northeast Entrance and the highest elevation on the road is almost 11,000 feet!

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Taking the Beartooth Highway is definitely not the fastest way to Yellowstone (or to Gardiner, MT where we were staying next) but ABSOLUTELY worth the drive if you ever have the chance to travel this way.  The highway is not open year round due to the high elevation and the road is not maintained in the winter.

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On one of our stops, the kids (along with Brian) followed a trail to the top of one of the mountain peaks that also had snow on the very top.

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I have to admit that I feel the Beartooth pass was more breathtaking than any of the mountain ranges I have seen previously…obviously, my pictures do not do justice to the gorgeous landscape.

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The Beartooth Highway ends at the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park!  We went through a large valley in northeast Yellowstone and quickly spotted large herds of bison, coyotes, elk, a fox, bighorn sheep and even a bald eagle!

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By the time we reached our destination in Gardiner, MT, we had been traveling for 12 hours (although not continuously driving and including many, many breaks) from the time we left Rapid City, SD.  We were very excited to settle into the house that would be our temporary home for the next 5 days!

Summer Vacation 2016…Day 3

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On Day 3 of our road trip we woke up early and headed south from Rapid City to Wind Cave National Park. The kids have never been through a real cave so this National Park was the perfect first stop of the day.  I really feel that the 1 1/2 tour we received, with a very knowledgeable guide was totally worth the quite reasonable fee.

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After our tour of Wind Cave, we turned the car north to enter Custer State Park.  Almost immediately we were greeted by many bison just causally walking along side of the road (an on the road).

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There was a huge herd that started in a large open field and lined the road for a long distance!

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The kids kept the recommended 100 yards away from the bison, didn’t pick up a baby bison and put it in our car and they didn’t take selfies with the bison!  The bison are such majestic animals that I couldn’t even imagine invading their territory.

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Once we were in the boundaries of Custer State Park itself, we were met by an even larger bison who decided to slow down traffic.  We sat for quite awhile in a traffic jam created by this immense animal!

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Molly’s favorite part of Custer State Park were the feral donkeys.  They, obviously, get fed a lot from cars so they had no problem walking right up to our vehicle and begging for food.  We didn’t have any approved donkey food with us so they quickly moved onto the next vehicle.  I know that I was very young when my family went to Custer State Park but I TOTALLY remember the donkeys coming right up and sticking their head in the vehicle 30 years ago!

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After leaving the “wildlife loop” of Custer State Park, we took a very winding road that ultimately ended at Mount Rushmore.  We did have to stop several times due to the kids (mostly Sam) feeling a little car sick from all the twisting and turning in the car.  The cool Black Hills air was always welcome when we stopped to get out of the car and take a break.  The cool air didn’t last long because the air temperature quickly climbed to almost 90 degrees when we toured Mount Rushmore itself.

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We went through 2 tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore!

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We hiked the Presidential Trail around Mount Rushmore and also spent time inside learning about the history of the mountain carving, watching a few videos and asking park rangers questions along the way.

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By the time we finished exploring around Mount Rushmore, it was close to dinner time and we headed back to Rapid City.  The kids swam at the hotel pool again, having the whole pool to themselves this time.  We went to bed earlier as we had a long drive ahead of us the next day.