I woke up hot and uncomfortable soon after the sun came up. Rays of sunlight were already streaming through the windows and I threw the covers off to get a little relief. I wanted to go back to sleep but there was no chance of that. The dog-days of summer were here and my black van was sucking up the heat like a sponge.
Hot summer weather hadn’t been a problem on the Pacific coast. A cool ocean breeze was never far away and some days out there had even required a sweatshirt. But the climate had changed dramatically after 400 miles of eastbound driving to Spokane, WA.
Most people have no choice but to stick it out when heat when it arrives, but in a van there are other options. Sarah and I didn’t have too much planned for our drive east so we just decided on taking the coolest route we could find. That meant heading for the mountains.
Glacier National Park, MT
If you have ever watched the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, then you know what Glacier National Park looks like. It’s rugged, mountainous, and home to some of the most precarious cliff side roads anywhere in America. Sarah and I arrived late in the day after leaving Spokane. The park was crowded so we didn’t plan to stay for long, but I did want to do some canoeing on a mountain lake.
The next morning we rented a rented 2-person canoe and pushed off into Glacier’s Lake McDonald. Mountains above formed a bowl around the lake and I marveled how much there was to see underwater. Cold, mountain waters have low algae content and visibility can extend dozens of feet below the surface. Only in the center of the lake was the water too deep to see to the bottom.
That afternoon we hopped on the ‘Going to the Sun Road’ up into the mountains and over to the continental divide. This particular route is visually stunning but laced with hairpin turns and steep drop offs just feet from the roadside. It’s enough to provoke a sense of wonder or deep anxiety, depending on your comfort level around heights. At the top of the Going to the Sun Road is the continental divide, and beyond that we were on our way down the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Yellowstone is perhaps the most famous national park in the world, so we couldn’t justify passing by without a stop. Yellowstone National Park contains a huge swath of mountain wilderness along with some of the rarest geothermal features in the world.
The Norris Geyser Basin near Yellowstone’s West Entrance is the most geologically active part orf the park. Two miles of wooden boardwalk snake through this area beside geysers, hot pools, and churning mud pits. A sign at the trailhead warned of a torturous end for anyone who strayed from the boardwalk.
Beyond was an alien landscape. Scalding pools bubbled and threw out sulfer-smelling clouds of steam. Geysers erupted angrily into the air, and then quieted for no apparent reason. The geothermal features of Yellowstone rank among the most bizarre quirks of nature and for the duration of our walk I was completely captivated by my surroundings.
Unfortunately Yellowstone is a zoo in the summer, and we arrived on a weekend. That meant that there was no chance to find a campsite and we couldn’t spend the night.
Sarah and I still had a few hours of daylight available to drive around the park and exit before dark. Yellowstone is a great driving park and one of the easiest places to spot wildlife. Bison, deer, and moose are common sights along the roadside and traffic jams frequently occur whenever these animals need to cross the road.
Black Hills, SD
When we crossed the boarder into South Dakota a few day later it was over 90 degrees. Although we had left the Rocky Mountains behind us, there was still one more place to escape the heat.
These hills rise 2000 feet above the surrounding Prarie and extensive pine forest give them a dark appearance from a distance. Less crowded than either Yellowstone or Glacier, Sarah and I made our way into the Black Hills and found a place to camp almost immediately. It was a quiet campground on a warm lake, perfect for some rest and relaxation. The previous week had included nearly 1,000 miles on the road and non-stop travel had finally caught up to us.
We hiked a little, tanned by the lake, and pretty much ignored all aspects of trip-planning and destination seeking. There were no alarms in the morning and no urge to get moving again. Some days are filled with adventure and excitement and others are filled with naps. The couple of days spent relaxing high above the sweltering plains of South Dakota were among the most memorable so far.