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Home on the Range

There are 2,000 miles between Lexington, Kentucky and Boise, Idaho, and quite a few excellent national parks and tourist sites along the way. So it made sense for me as I kicked off a new summer of travel to take my time getting out west. I already posted about some stops I made in Missouri and I took quick driving breaks some other places too, like the Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail & Visitor Center in Nebraska. 

But really, I wanted to revisit some national parks that I haven't been to in a very, very long time. I enjoyed my time in Fayetteville and Lexington a lot, but I equally love being out in the vast nothing of the American west. I also love staying in small towns, where the only two restaurants are walking distance from my hotel and there's a pleasant sense of general nothingness and isolation.


The first park on my list was Badlands. I was last here in thirty-three years ago, in 1990 when I was just 11 years old. And I remember telling my dad how much I wanted to get off the tourist walkways and go run around through the formations. Well, that's what I did this time. I stayed in Wall for four days and did two trail runs through the backcountry. It was beautiful and I only wish there were more long trails in Badlands.

But even better was all the wildlife. I saw lots of pronghorn, rabbits, mountain goats, big horn sheep, and, my absolute favorite animal in the world, the American bison. There were so many of them around the Pinnacles entrance to the park. They rolled in the dust, scratched themselves on park sign posts, ate grass, and started at me as much as I stared at them. They are just magnificent and watching them out on the prairie where they've always belonged, even though humans almost rendered them extinct, was the true sign for me that I'm back in the west. 

Wind Cave

I planned this stop (also a revisit from 1990) because I wanted to take the Wild Cave tour, like I had at Mammoth. Unfortunately, when I called to reserve, they said they wouldn't be staffed up and ready by Memorial Day weekend. I was surprised since that weekend is generally regarded as the start of summer and most places are ready to go by then, but oh well. A few other places I tried to stop at in Missouri and South Dakota weren't on their summer hours yet either until June, so I guess that's just a thing in these parts.

As with Badlands, there are bison all over Wind Cave. It's incredible. I especially loved the huge herd right outside the campground gates. There's a lot to do in the area in general - the touristy cave experience, Rushmore, Crazy Horse, some museums, and you can go up to Deadwood if you want. I've done all that stuff before, so I just hiked. 

The big hike I took was the back trail (Willow Creek) to Black Elk Peak (the highest point in South Dakota) and I'm very glad I went the long way. At the end, the trails merge and there are a ton of people who come up the easier way. I encountered only seven groups of hikers (and one group of horseback riders) the way I took. There is plenty of space to enjoy a picnic at the summit, but there were just as nice cliffs to sit on about two-thirds up the way that I went...and no one else there. Highly recommended.

Grand Teton

My last Grand Teton visit was not from my childhood but from 2009, which was still 14 years ago and when I was not so outdoorsy. I remember renting a little row boat before but I don't think my ex and I hiked at all. So this park really deserved a re-visit. 

Going on Memorial Day was not as crowded as I anticipated, except for parking at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and the number of people taking the boat and walking to Inspiration Point. Instead of dealing with all that, I opted to park way out at Moose Pond Trail and do the full Jenny Lake loop from there - close to nine miles. Most of the hike was beautiful and not crowded at all. And despite the ominous clouds, I only got lightly rained on for a brief period of time. 

At the end of my hike, a number of cars were parked along the road where Moose Pond Trail is, and I assume they were waiting for dusk for the moose to come out. I waited a while, but I really needed to be on my way over Teton Pass and into Idaho. I did see a gorgeous fox come running out of the meadow, but no moose or bears.