KLEM Life: Our National Park Summer Road Trip 2018
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit obsessed with trip planning, which is where part of the inspiration for my second business, Wild Klementine, came from. I’ve also become fond of bullet journaling to recap and remember our travels by. I wanted to share some of the road trip highlights (and downfalls) with you to either give you a bit of wanderlust, or to inspire your next Western adventure. This awesome road trip was the product of months of planning, and it had a surprise ending that was life-changing!
Day One: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
After driving through the night (and five hours of crappy sleep at a rest stop), we made is to Bismark, ND for breakfast at Terra Nomad. The coffee was much needed. The Universe sent me a strange sign, reminding me the world works in mysterious ways: we sat near a woman that I deduced was a photographer because she had her laptop open to the same client gallery host that I use (yay, Pixieset!). When we were leaving, I told her that her work was beautiful and simply gave her a business card. This lovely woman, Quinn Oberlander, reached out to me on Instagram because we’re ALREADY FRIENDS ON FACEBOOK and have had virtual conversations, even though we’d never met. Seriously people, what are the odds??
We drove a couple hours to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located on the west side of North Dakota. For those of you looking to visit TRNP, know that there isn’t a true grocery store (that we could find), and there is often construction in summer that can delay travels by up to 30-45 minutes.
Wildlife abounded in TRNP–ellusive wild horses eyeballed us from a distant hilltop, prairie dogs barked and popped up like whack-a-moles almost everywhere you looked, and bison herds would suddenly appear around curves in the road. We witnessed the most impressive buffalo traffic jam at sunset with a herd of giant beasts almost as far as the eye could see.
We watched the sun set behind a bluff as we stood on the banks of the Little Missouri River. The breeze whispered through the sage bushes, and we were rewarded with clouds dyed a brilliant pink hue.
Day Two: Glacier National Park, Montana
We headed for Glacier National Park, stopping in Great Falls, MT for a late lunch at Smoked BBQ. People, this place is a must stop. They dished up some of the best brisket I’ve ever had, served alongside local brews in a charming storefront.
Driving into the east side of Glacier National Park, some of the mountaintops were concealed by rain clouds that magnified the grandeur of the vistas. As we started up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we were greeted by a bear in a meadow and an eagle soaring over a glacier-fed lake. This was Andy’s first experience of being in the mountains, and boy, was he blown away. I wish I could say that I planned to have the bear and eagle waiting at the entrance, it was almost comical how perfectly this American-epic-Disney-movie-scene played out.
We drove the whole length of the incredible Going-to-the-Sun Road (not for the faint of heart, or for vehicles much larger than our truck), craning our necks at every turn to take in the overwhelming beauty before us. Well, Andy was doing a lot of craning. I was doing a bit of white knuckling to make sure our vacation didn’t end right there with us slipping off the edge of a mountain. The drive is EPIC and I highly recommend it...but if you have even a remote fear of heights, stocking up on some Xanax before you leave might not be a bad idea ;)
Our destination for the evening was Fish Creek Campground inside the park’s western boundary. The large campground was nice, although the showers were rather dirty. Then again, we know how rare it can be to have a shower at any of the park campgrounds, so we were grateful to have the hot water.
Day Three: Glacier National Park, Montana
Summer construction and park traffic were CRAZY. If you’re planning on doing anything near Logan Pass (roughly the halfway-point of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and a main hub for a number of hikes and sights), I highly recommend using the small park shuttles.
We drove East along the park road, stopping to hike to St. Mary’s Falls and Virginia Falls. The fall were beautiful, the hike was a moderately strenuous jaunt, and the views were impressive. I waded into Virginia Creek, a glacial creek that feeds Virginia Falls; I stood in the water for ten seconds for the photo below, which left intense pins-and-needles pain in my legs and feet for a few minutes after I got out. Don’t mess with the chilly waters! We watched people dive in another glacial creek upon our descent, those crazy, brave souls.
We spent the next two nights at Johnston’s of St. Mary’s campground, thankful again for the showers on-site, although the bathrooms were somewhat questionable. St. Mary's, the town on the east side of Glacier, has minimal services, and even basic groceries are expensive as a result of the remote location.
We were surprised by the number of random mountain rainstorms that would pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. One of these intense storms rained us out of our campground, which led to us dining at The Rising Sun Pizza in St. Mary’s for dinner (delicious, by the way).
Day Four: Glacier National Park, Montana
Set aside this whole day to do the Highline Trail hike. WOW. The views were incredible, and there were wildflowers almost everywhere we looked, but the 12-mile hike was pretty relentless. We decided to add the Grinnell Glacier Overlook side hike to our journey, roughly seven miles into the Highline hike. I will never be viewing that overlook again. It was the most grueling, steep 800 meters we had ever experienced. It was almost embarrassing the numbers of times we had to stop and rest, especially given how intensely I had worked out for the months leading up to this trip! The view of the glacier from the top was pretty mesmerizing, but it will only be a once-in-a-lifetime stop for us. The descent was brutal. Our knees were destroyed, and we still had over four miles to go to the trailhead. Now let me say that the hike was still incredible and one of the highlights of our trip. But I want to share this personal experience as well to point out some of the things that can happen along the way, even with the most carefully-laid plans and intense workouts. We were unable to do a number of hikes I had planned because our knees didn’t heal quickly. Know your physical limits, especially at altitudes 7,000 feet higher than your homeland!
Day Five: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
We were super surprised by how environmentally-friendly Canada is! They have garbage cans along the highways, and many places have sorted recycling bins as well as public compost bins! #treehuggersparadise However, gas was also really expensive. Like woah.
On our way to Jasper, we got to drive along the world-famous Icefields Parkway. AMAZING doesn’t even come close to describing this remote, jaw-dropping drive. If it’s not on your bucket list yet, add it. Right meow. This is absolute wilderness with a two lane highway running through it. Glaciers so close (like Athabasca Glacier directly below) you almost touch them, and mountains that reach the sky at every turn–we couldn’t stop saying, “This is unreal.”
We were in love with the Wapiti campground as well. Reservable ahead of time, clean showers, free firewood (with the purchase of a fire permit), an extensive recycling program, AND elk that just wander through your campsite?? Yep, we’ll take it!
Day Six: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
We had planned on doing the Sulphur Skyline hike, but we opted for some more leisurely activities to rest our knees.
Pyramid Lake was a lovely day-hike area. We explored the small island on the lake and wandered along the shores, looking at the trout darting under the water. We came back to the Pyramid Lake area the next morning for sunrise photos. Below is Pyramid Mountain reflected in Patricia Lake at sunrise.
We hiked Maligne Canyon, a popular but beautiful hike alongside a blue river between mossy canyon walls. Waterfalls and rapids bubbled around each corner. Visiting in the morning would probably offer a fewer people on the trail.
We drove 45 minutes from our campsite to soak in the Miette Hot Springs which was ah-maaazing. Perched high in the mountains, we relaxed in the warm waters and watched another mountain thunderstorm roll in. Rain sprinkled down on us, a cooling sensation juxtaposed against the 103º waters of the springs. This experience was definitely worth the drive (and could have only been made better if we were allowed to have a beer in hand!).
Talk about a North American jungle up there; on our drive back from the springs, we saw two massive elk bulls bedded down next to the highway (who had no fears about walking four feet away from our truck as we pulled over to watch them), and a momma bear with two cubs frolicking in a meadow at sunset.
Fun fact: in July, Jasper and other parts of Alberta don’t get pitch-black dark until almost midnight. This is a photo I took with my phone inside of our tent at 11:56pm to show that there was still light in the sky. This was so awesome, we were able to explore for hours longer than we normally would have!
Day Seven: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Another glorious drive along the Icefields Parkway
When we arrived in Banff, we headed for the insanely popular Lake Louise. While it’s a beautiful lake, I’m not sure if I would say it’s worth the hassle of spending 30 minutes looking for a parking spot, and then walking along the crowded lake shore packed with tourists.
We drove to the slightly-quieter Moraine Lake and scrambled along the rock piles, scouting the perfect sunrise photo location for the next morning (pictured below). At the bottom, we saw some adventurous souls climbing out onto a fallen tree and diving in the frigid waters. My inner badass piped up and decided we should give it a go. I have never experienced anything as cold as that, but boy, was it a rush! It took the breath right out of me–if you saw the video I posted on Facebook, you can clearly hear me struggling to speak.
If you plan on visiting at sunrise, get there early! The photographers in front of me who were in the prime spot had arrive at 3am to claim their territory!
Johnston Canyon was another lovely, quiet park campground we were happy to call home for two nights. We highly recommend it if you’re in the area.
Day Eight: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
After hiking to Moraine Lake for the sunrise, we explored Johnston Canyon, a popular hike similar to Maligne Canyon with fewer falls and rapids. The rocks at the bottom of the creek were bright and vibrant reds, blues, and purples, and we were able to walk to the trailhead from our campsite.
We played tourists and explored Banff town, a bustling little town with many gift shops, outdoor shops, restaurants, and art galleries. We indulged in drool-worthy ice cream from Cows ice cream shop, a MUST stop if you’re in Banff.
I did extensive research to find the perfect dinner location for this night in Banff. Banff has a pretty awesome food and drink scene, and I wanted to make sure we had an awesome experience. I finally decided on The Bison Restaurant and Terrace, which did not disappoint. The staff was extremely knowledgeable and attentive, and super friendly. The service was timely, even with their semi-full dining room on a weeknight evening. The cocktail were great–I ordered a sour of some sort, and Andy ordered a proper Old Fashioned. Our entrees were amazing. The venison striploin I devoured was the best venison I’ve ever had, served over polenta and root vegetables. I could have eaten that meal every day for the rest of my life.
Day Nine: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Kicked off the day with breakfast to-go from Wildflour Bakery in Banff. These guys went above and beyond with their customer service and hooked us up with goodies for our 11 hour drive. Even better, the food and coffee was awesome. Cheers to these guys for being great.
Did I mention we had a long day of driving? It was great to be back in the States, and once we made it to Yellowstone, we were ready to relax. We camped at the Madison Campground in the E Loop, which I do NOT recommend. The campsites were small and kind of on top of each other. We hit the hay early and had to put in ear plugs because our neighbors were practically in our campsite. I’ve stayed in Madison Campground before, snag the sites closer to the river if you can–they’re much quieter.
Day Ten: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
What trip to Yellowstone would be complete without exploring some of the geysers and thermal features?? Andy was fascinated by Grand Prismatic Spring and the Fountain Paint Pots, and I was fascinated and fangirling over the National Geographic filming crew that was on-site. I wanted to crawl inside their camera bags and just observe for the day, but alas, we had other plans.
Once we arrived in Grand Teton, we set up camp in Colter Bay–nice, quiet sites with laundry and showers nearby, both of which are expensive.
An afternoon shower and hailstorm damped our hiking plans, so we drove into Jackson and popped in and out of shops until the weather let up.
The drive from Jackson to our campsite offered stunning views of the Tetons, prompting photo stops at Schwabacher’s Landing and the Snake River Overlook.
Now, I’m not going to lie, I had been wondering if Andy was going to propose while we were on this vacation. This marked our second-to-last day in the mountains, and he hadn’t asked yet...so I was getting a littleeeee frustrated. However, I told myself that we had one more day in the mountains, so maybe he was going to ask tomorrow…
Day Eleven: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Started our morning at Schwabacher’s Landing for sunrise photos. It’s a gorgeous spot, but it would have been a more impressive photo if there had been some clouds to bounce pink light into the sky.
I had set up a mountain couple’s session with my dear friends Kayla and Mike, who had given me the immense pleasure of photographing their wedding last year. Grand Teton holds a special place in their heart, so they made the trip out there to document this new phase of their love journey. We met with them in the afternoon at the Silver Dollar in Jackson, WY to plan out their sunset mountain photo session.
Given that this was our last night in the mountains, I was watching Andy’s EVERY move, looking for his “tells” that would clue me in if he was nervous (i.e. not sleeping well, fidgeting, etc). To my disappointment, he was perfectly normal. He was even chatty and perky as we drove to the photo session at Schwabacher’s Landing! However, I tried to put that out of my mind as I mentally got myself into “work mode” after being in “vacation mode” for so long.
The sunset could not have been more stunning as Kayla and Mike snuggled and kissed and whispered, “I love you” to one another. I was reminded of their wedding day and how inspiring I found their relationship and connection to be. These two are truly meant to be together, and it’s such a blessing that they found their way to one another. As their session wrapped up, Kayla offered to take a photo of Andy and me because, as she said, “This is just too stunning to pass up.” That was my first clue. When I put my arm around Andy, he was shaking like a leaf–I immediately knew what was happening! He whispered in my ear that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, so he had something to ask me. Of course I said yes!
Turns out, he had reached out to Kayla and Mike weeks before and asked them if they would be a part of his little plan. He knew how important it was to me to have this amazing moment photographed, and boy, did he deliver. Our friends came prepared with mini bottles of champagne for us to celebrate, and we enjoyed a delicious meal at The Bird in Jackson together afterwards. It was absolutely perfect. Below is the gorgeous night sky that enveloped us that night.
Day Twelve: Rapid City, South Dakota
Our day began with a fantastic breakfast in the Mural Room at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, still in awe of the fact that we were now engaged.
Real confession, I looked at my ring more times than I care to admit while we were driving to South Dakota. #sorrynotsorry I also had Andy take an obligatory ring pic while we enjoyed our Neapolitan-style pizza at Racca’s Pizza in Casper, Wyoming.
We stopped at Wind Cave National Park and missed the last tour of the day by 15 minutes (note: check the tour times BEFORE you drive out of your way!), and were equally unimpressed by Mount Rushmore, which was much smaller than we both imagined.
Sturgis was taking place the weekend we were in Rapid City, so it was motorcycle madness as we drove around town. We indulged in a one-night hotel stay (booked months in advance given the event of Sturgis) on our last night of vacation, getting a much needed good-night’s sleep before our 12 hour drive home the next day.
It was a long drive home the next day, but knowing we’d have two happy, wiggly pups waiting for us made the drive completely worth it. So much planning went into this two-week excursion, and it did not disappoint. I’m always awed by what I learn about myself and my traveling companions after a trip like this. I was reminded how patient and loving and amazing Andy is because my hangry levels were fiercely high at times. Which also reminded me that I need to pack more snacks the next time around. Knowing that this wonderful, incredible human being wants to spend the rest of his life with me was humbling and motivating, encouraging me to be my best self and give the best of me to him, and everyone, always.
It’s such an adventure putting together a trip like this, and I can’t wait to execute another road trip this fall. If you’ve visited any of the places above that we stopped at, I’d love for you to share your thoughts! What are some of your favorite places that we should check out next time? What memories did you create along the way? I’d be honored if you reached out to me and shared your stories. Stay wild, my friends.
Until next time,