Road Trip Days 3/4: Glacier NP area

We had a leisurely mid-morning departure from the St Regis Campground, emptying the black and gray water tanks (much easier than on a boat) and topping off the propane. The drive towards Glacier took us along the beautiful Flathead river, across huge expanses of prairie land and then along the West side of Flathead lake before arriving at Emery Bay campground , down 5 miles of washboard forest road to the Hungry Horse reservoir.

The site was just fine, and we noticed that there was a big brown box between our site and the next one. The sign on it said it was a bear box for food storage – more on this later.

The campsite at Emery Bay. Not the big brown box in the middle.

The smoke has made it into Montana, and we were in it all day. I went down to the campground’s boat launch to look at the reservoir and it looked like a foggy day on the water. I only saw one boat, and that one was getting hauled out at the ramp.

The reservoir by the campground, socked in with smoke.

We had a nice dinner of hot dogs and corn cooked over the fire pit, and finished it off with s’mores (again). We cleaned up, closed everything up, and crawled into bed for the night. I thought about moving our snack box (a sealed plastic bin containing snacks in sealed containers) to the the bear box, but decided not to, instead locking it in the outside storage compartment of the camper. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the feeling of the camper getting pushed from side to side, heard some scraping sounds and realized that a bear was trying to get to our box of snacks. Oops. I guess that’s why the sites had bear boxes. After a few minutes, it stopped, so I thought “that wasn’t such a big deal”, and went back to sleep. Sleep did not last long, as the bear returned several times over the course of the night. I worried that it would rip the cover off the storage compartment, but it eventually gave up. When I got up in the morning, the cover was still in place, and unlike me, none the worse for the wear.

We drove up to Glacier National Park early this morning, but it was completely socked in with smoke. We stopped at the Lake McDonald lodge and make a pancake breakfast in the parking lot.

Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier NP.

After breakfast we walked down to the lake, but it was clear that it was not safe to hike (AQI > 180), and there was so much smoke that there was no sightseeing to be done. We called an audible and decided to head South a day early, hoping to get out of the worst of the smoke and take a chunk out of the long drive to Yellowstone NP. We were able to find a spot at a KOA in Butte Montana, which is in a less bucolic setting, but has no bear boxes. The smoke is still visible down here, but the air quality readings are in the moderate range (AQI mid 70s), much lower than up North.

The tour boat on the dock at the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier Bay NP. It has not been running this year, and there certainly would not have been anything to see today.

Tomorrow we head on toward Yellowstone, an easy 180 mile drive from here. Our fuel economy over the last two fill ups has gone down a bit to 8.5-9.5 mpg. Climbing mountain passes on state highways and forest roads accounts for the decline, and it is good to know that we have about 450-500 miles of range between fill ups. We’ve spotted a few more license plates in campgrounds and the Glacier parking lots, and need to update our map. We won’t have any connectivity in Yellowstone (or Grand Teton??), so it will likely be a few days before the next update.

Road Trip Day 1: Anacortes to Camp Cour d’Alene

We got underway from Anacortes this morning, battling smoke and later, Spokane traffic, while crossing Washington to our first stop on Lake Cour d’Alene in Idaho.

Ready to depart Anacortes this morning.

We covered 397 miles in about nine hours, including a last minute supply stop at Camping World, refueling a couple of times, a lunch stop at a rest area along the way, and a bit of Spokane rush hour traffic. I was surprised at our gas mileage, which was better than I expected at 10.8 mpg. I kept the average speed around 60 mph, creeping up to 65 on the downhills and flats and trying to hold 55 uphill. The RV handled much like a boat in small swells, wallowing back and forth quite a bit. It was loud but not unbearable, with most of the noise sounding like it was coming from the rear differential. Our RV has 116,000 miles on it, and I am wondering if they allowed us to take this particular one on a one way trip because it is time to go to the RV retirement home (or some unwitting buyer).

Gwen insisted that we play the license plate game, and given that we had thousands of cars blowing by us, it was a fun way to pass the time. We were astounded to see plates from 27 states before even getting out of Washington. There were at least two or three unique plates that we couldn’t identify because the cars passed too quickly!

Miranda’s tally of license plates from Day 1.

We were originally planning to take Highway 20 from Anacortes through North Cascades National Park, but unfortunately, that route ran right into the area consumed by the two largest fires in the state, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires. We instead went South and took I-90 across. The smoke was pretty steady, cleared a bit climbing over Snoqualmie Pass, but then socked in pretty heavily in the middle of the sate past Moses Lake.

Pretty Smoky on I-90.

By the time we got through Spokane, things had cleared up considerably. We had some really nice views of Lake Cour d’Alene as we were heading into the campground for the first night.

The late afternoon sun over Lake Cour d’Alene. Photo courtesy of Miranda’s fancy new iPhone.

We’re now settled in for the night at Camp Cour d’Alene. We have electrical and water hookups, and are running the air conditioning to minimize smoke exposure overnight. Our goal tomorrow is to ride a rail trail called the Route of the Hiawatha along the Idaho/Montana border. We’ll see if conditions permit.

Pulling into camp.

Road Trip Day 2: Route of the Hiawatha

This summer, I heard about a Rail Trail called the “Route of the Hiawatha“, located in the Bitteroot mountains along the Idaho-Monatana Border. It is reported to be a “Hall of Fame” rail trail, featuring 10 tunnels and 7 trestles running along it’s 15 mile length on the former Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway. We considered doing a road trip to ride the trail, and when the idea of the cross country RV trip came up, I knew this was a stop we’d have to make.

The Hiawatha Route. We are renting bikes at the lower trailhead at Pearson and are thinking about riding up as far as Moss Creek, covering most of the trestles and tunnels.

The trail is operated by Lookout Pass ski area, which rents bikes and runs a shuttle from the bottom of the trail back up to the top. The typical way to ride the trail is starting at the East Portal, riding through the 1.6 mile Taft tunnel and then taking the shuttle back from the lower, Pearson trailhead. We don’t want to be on a crowded shuttle with no mask requirements, so we arranged to have bikes delivered to Pearson.

We read on the website that there was a good (20 mile) forest road that led from the town of Wallace to the Pearson trailhead. It started out great, with new blacktop pavement. And then the pavement ended, but there was a wide, well-graded dirt road. Which got narrower. And bumpier. And steeper, with lots of switchbacks. And we were on the outside of the road noticing the long dropoffs. The road goes up and over Moon Pass (I later learned that the top elevation was 4931 feet) and then descends down along the river to the trailhead. There were definitely some sketchy sections, more suited to the many off road vehicles around here than to our RV. Very exciting. The smoke, by the way, got pretty thick as we climbed out of Wallace, but the thinned out quite a bit on the other side.

We arrived around 10 AM, when the bikes were supposed to be delivered, but no one was around. Soon we saw the first riders from the top finishing their ride. Eventually the bikes arrived, but without the powerful headlights that were supposed to be necessary for the 10 tunnels. The guy working at the bottom managed to come up with a dinky one for Miranda, but nothing for my bike. Fortunately we had some headlights with us. The bikes were in pretty rough condition and the shifting was badly out of adjustment. If you plan to rent bikes for the ride, we’d recommend upgrading from the basic bike.

The start of the trail from the bottom at Pearson.

The ride was fantastic, along a well maintained gravel/dirt trail with lots of informational signs (which we mostly rode right by) and plenty of rest stops (same). It was a steady false flat grade of about 100 ft per mile, following the valley along one side of loop creek and then around to the other side. The trestles were absolutely spectacular, standing several hundred feet over the valley floor. In many places you could see the trestles on the other side of the valley.

Standing on one of the trestles with another across the valley in the background. It was 10 miles and 2 hours up, 1 hour down.
One of the trestles.
The big one across the way.

The tunnels were a fun and cool relief from the warm, sunny day. The ones that we passed through ranged from 200 to 1500+ feet in length – we did not go all the way to the 1.6 mile Taft tunnel at the top.

Entrance to the 1516 ft long Tunnel 22.

There were literally hundreds of people out on the trails riding every kind of bike you could imagine. A fair number of them were a bit clueless. Miranda suggested a mandatory lesson on trail safety and etiquette before allowing anyone to ride.

The crowds lined up for the shuttle back to the top. Lots of people, no masks.

It was only as we were riding along the trail that I realized that this was the area of the Great Fire of 1910, which eventually burned 3 million acres across Idaho and Western Montana. I read an interesting book about this fire and the beginnings of the US Forest Service called The Big Burn. As it turned out, the fire burned along the North Fork of the St Joe River, and we saw many, many burnt, dead trees that must have been remnants from that fire. As we returned to the town of Wallace after the ride, the fire smoke was eerily thick (a good bit of Wallace was destroyed in the 1910 fire).

Negotiating a switchback on the Forest Service road.

We were going to stay at an RV park in Wallace, but they were first-come first serve only and full, so we headed East on I-90. After passing a couple of sketchy RV parks including one behind a roadside “Casino” we arrived at the very nice Campground St Regis in Montana, where we cooked hobo dinners on the coals of a fire and roasted marshmallows for S’mores. All in all, a great adventure day! Next we are on towards Glacier National Park.

Road Trip!

A new question for these pandemic times… how can we go and visit my mother and the rest of our Georgia-based family, safely, and without having to spend two weeks beforehand in quarantine? Miranda came up with a kinda crazy, kinda cool solution – renting an RV and doing a road trip, so that we “quarantine” while traveling across the country. She pitched the idea to me, suggesting that we visit some of our National Parks along the way and turning it into a big vacation/adventure. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical at first. But, considering that I am retired, the season is ramping down with Freedom Boat Club, and I am being being offered the gift of spending a couple of weeks with my daughter…. how could I possibly say no?

Both Gwen and I have fond memories and many stories of cross-country road trips when we were younger. We did a small road trip with Miranda on our way out to Seattle 12 years ago, driving from Milwaukee on the Northern Route across country and visiting (well, really driving through) sites such as the Badlands of South Dakota, Devil’s Tower, Mt Rushmore, and a tiny bit of Yellowstone. We drove my dearly departed BMW M3 and stayed at hotels, taking about 4-5 days to make the drive. We had a great time, and we were glad to have Miranda experience at least a little bit of road tripping. Now Miranda and I will have a chance to do a real road trip and along the way experience some of our most famous national parks for the first time. Unfortunately, Gwen will not be able to join us because of her commitment to her 6 months locums gig out on the Olympic Peninsula.

We did some internet searching to find a route that included some of our bucket list national parks, which looks something like this:

The plan is to spend about three weeks and about 4100 miles meandering across the country.

Our route will cover nearly 4200 miles over 21 days, visiting the following places:

  • North Cascades (OK, maybe this shouldn’t count, since we are just driving through this on the first day)
  • Ride the Hiawatha Rail Trail in Idaho
  • Glacier NP in Montana, camping in Flathead National Forest
  • Yellowstone NP, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
  • Grand Teton NP, Wyoming
  • Rockport State Park, Utah
  • Zion Canyon NP, Utah
  • Arches NP , Utah
  • Canyonlands NP, Utah
  • Mesa Verde NP, Colorado
  • Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico
  • Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico
  • Cedar Hill State Park, Texas
  • Lake Ouachita State Park, Arkansas
  • Seven Points Campground, TN
  • Ending in/around Atlanta, GA

I’m pretty excited about the number of National Parks that we’ll be able to visit, albeit briefly. Of those on the list, I’ve only been to Carlsbad Caverns and Yellowstone (a short stop at Mammoth Hot Springs on the way out to Seattle). We do have three long (400+ mile) days, but also have several multi-day stops. Our median day is about 219 miles.

We are doing a one-way rental of a “Standard” size RV from Cruise America. Miranda has done an outstanding job of organizing the trip, reserving the RV and campsites along the entire route, and is now busily working on our meal and provisioning plans. The RV, as you might guess, is set up much like a boat. It has fresh and waste water systems, range, refrigerator and microwave oven, air conditioning and both a generator and external power hookups (and of course, a waste water pump out system). It is not cheap to rent, nor is it particularly cheap to travel by RV, particularly if you stay in places with full hookups. We are paying a steep per-mile rate, and I am told that the expected fuel economy is single digit miles per gallon. We could probably fly first class and quarantine in a 4 star hotel for less, but what fun would that be?

Kinda like a boat, but with wheels.

We leave next Friday, September 11th and expect to arrive in Georgia sometime around the first of October. We’ll try to post regular updates as we go. If you’ve been to any of the places we plan to visit, we’d love to hear your recommendations… feel free to leave a comment below.