Wild West Roadtrip Overview

Introduction 

Part 1 – Characters & Route

Part 2 – The Grand Plan

Midwest 

Chicago, Milwaukee & Madison, WI

Minnesota & Dispersed Camping

Fort Pierre National Grassland & Badlands National Park

West

Bighorn National Forest & Yellowstone National Park, Pt. 1

Yellowstone National Park, Pt. 2 & Shoshone National Forest

Shadow Mountain & Grand Teton National Park Pt. 1  

Grand Teton National Park Pt. 2 & Jackson Hole

Flaming Gorge, Red Canyon & Salt Lake City

Arches National Park & Moab

Canyonlands National Park 

Southwest

Monument Valley, Mexican Hat & Page (Horseshoe Bend)

Bryce Canyon National Park, Dixie National Forest & Zion National Park

Grand Canyon National Park & Kaibab National Forest

South 

Saguaro National Park & Tucson, AZ

Albuquerque, NM & White Sands National Park 

Texas & Oklahoma

Arkansas & Tennessee

East

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Virginia Beach & El Fin


Yellowstone National Park, Pt. 2 & Shoshone National Forest

Panoramic view of Excelsior geyser in Yellowstone

As you drive around Yellowstone, there is a good chance to see a great variety of wildlife directly from your window.

Two Harlequin ducks in the middle of Yellowstone river rapids

Elk resting by the tree

Elk scaling thermal hills

We were fortunate one day to see a grizzly bear couple running around chasing each other. They crossed the road from the side of Hayden Valley, then leaped right into the ice-cold Yellowstone river, swam across fighting the strong current, and continued down into the forest. It was truly an unforgettable sight!

Grizzly successfully crossed ice-cold Yellowstone river

A grizzly bear chasing its partner

The park was open only for daytime visiting and wasn’t issuing any backcountry permits because of COVID-19. We camped in nearby Shoshone National Forest and would spend around 1.5 hrs driving in and out every day. 

Our camping spot was absolutely beautiful, a gem with a fascinating mountain view on top of a hill amid yellow mountain wildflowers. The air in the mornings was incredibly crisp; and one day we were surprised to wake up with a layer of ice on top of our tent – it was the beginning of June! 

Shoshone National Forest

Yellow & yellow

On our first morning in Shoshone we were visited by the majestic Mr. Bison. What an introduction! He was grazing some 150ft from us, slowly coming closer and closer, rubbing his huge head off the small pine trees. We stood still, fascinated. He just kept slowly moving closer. At some point we found ourselves 30ft away from the visitor, but he acted absolutely calm and indifferent to our presence. We took some photos, respectfully keeping our distance, and everyone was left happy and undisturbed. The sole visitor continued along his path, past our camp and car. Below are some photos from this magical encounter.

Majestic Mr. Bison

Bison rubbing against a little pine tree

Bison footprint

Mr. bison near our dispersed campsite

To enforce order and protect fragile nature, the park was swarmed with the police. Rangers were passing by every 5 minutes, seen at every location and every spot. No other National Park has been policed as heavily, as far as we’ve seen. 

Of course, there is reasoning behind it – the geothermal features of the park are very delicate. A mark of someone’s name (Malachi) left on the algae at Grand Prismatic (the world’s largest hot spring) would take hundreds of years to disappear and the park staff would have to clean off all microorganisms surrounding the spot as well. Immense fines are imposed on the offenders, if caught (we heard of $5K for approaching the wildlife, $10K for messing with hot springs and geysers). 

Visitors take a boardwalk to pass through thermal springs

Fragile thermal life

To some the rules do not apply

Do not approach wildlife, but it’s OK if it approaches you

Boardwalk at Grand Prismatic

We had our own unfortunate encounter with a ranger, which ended up with a $260 collective fine for trespassing. Driven by a desire to find a hiking trail that would take us away from the beaten path, we accidentally entered an unmarked restricted area, which turned out to be a wolf sanctuary. Having wondered in search of the trail for some time, we turned back, only to be met by an uncompromising and serious lady, who refused to show any empathy toward us. 

UPD: This $260 fine didn’t seem fair us, so we decided to contest it in court. Thanks to the pandemic (!), we were able to request a teleconference hearing, which was held on August 3rd and resulted in US government dropping all charges. The judge was unaware that the area in question has been restricted at any point. 

Hawk taking off

Jackson in ‘wolf sanctuary’ with a ranger car watching us from the road

This was our experience in Yellowstone… We were a little worried whether the rest of the parks would be as overflown with the police, and offer limited adventure time, but we couldn’t imagine what was waiting for us next. We kept on driving. 

NEXT: SHADOW MOUNTAIN & GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK PT. 1

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Bighorn National Forest & Yellowstone National Park, Pt. 1

Bighorn panorama with our camping site on the right

In order to get to Yellowstone we had to drive through Central Wyoming and cross Bighorn Mountain range. We were looking for a place to camp for that night, and Bighorn National Forest was right on the way. So we set our way there through Buffalo. 

The drive began to change slowly. The flat prairie lands started to get more shape. Little canyons appeared here and there. The landscape was gaining more character… 

Gooseberry Badlands, WY

And then we got hit by a massive storm. I have never seen anything like it in my life. We entered complete darkness. First, there were gusts of wind – they would kick the side of the car, swerving it out of the lane. Then, the rain started – little drops on the windshield turned into a dense wall in some 30 seconds, if not less… I flashed hazard lights and pulled over to the side of the highway. Jackson and I switched seats without even leaving the car! The storm raged for about an hour and a half – we slowly continued our journey. 

Storm clouds in Wyoming

Rainbow after the storm

Bighorn Mountains lay ahead. This was our first mountain pass to cross on a little Ежмобиль. 

I jumped back at the wheel and that was a miscalculation. Steep elevation, curvy turns and a narrow road were quick to put me on edge. 

Leigh Creek Monument, WY

It was also my first time driving a car with manual transmission up the hill and I wasn’t very smooth at downshifting. So, entering our proposed campsite area Jackson and I were arguing. Too bad, because we were greeted by two moose right as we were making the turn to the Forest road. 

There it was, the majestic view of the mountains with the wildflower field in the forefront. The sun was setting and it started to get chilly. We made a fire and dinner and set up tent. Next morning revealed the first glimpse of the West to us.

Bighorn Mountains

We got back on the road and kept on driving. Yellowstone was the second National Park on our route, and the first internationally famous one. At the end of our visit we were left with some mixed feelings. Of course, the nature itself was incredible and very unique. However, the park’s organization seemed to be geared towards a very different type of tourist. 

The park is set up as a giant 142-mile driving loop within the caldera, with entrances from the South, East, North, Northeast and West. The roads are maintained in excellent condition, but the distances are vast. Most “Points of Interest” are located along the route and are accessible by car.

Wild bison in Yellowstone Park

The Old Faithful Geyser

Mammoth Hot Springs area

The Boiling River

Excelsior Geyser in Midway Basin

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Sunset at Yellowstone

Exploring Yellowstone included a tedious amount of driving, some of it at night. We had to always be on the lookout for deer and elk leaping on the road. To see a natural sight, you just had to drive there, pull over at a designated spot and walk for about 5 minutes or less. The park has great views for you to enjoy, all carefully selected and prepared; and you are expected to happily snap a couple of shots and move on. No effort needed; nature is served to you conveniently on a plate. It felt like we could see only a tiny glimpse of what Yellowstone truly had to offer.

That said, those sights nevertheless were fascinating. It all seemed to be a part of a different world. The ground was moving under our feet, bubbles of mud appearing in weird places, layers of smoke erupting from the ground. Incredible color palettes created a vision of an alien planet never seen before. 

NEXT: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK PT.2 & SHOSHONE NATIONAL FOREST

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Fort Pierre National Grassland & Badlands National Park

Panoramic view of Fort Pierre Grassland

We continued towards Badlands National park. However, we couldn’t reach it on the same day – too much driving. So I found a place where we could camp and test the public land hypothesis – Fort Pierre National Grassland in South Dakota. 

Camping over there appeared to be completely legit, all we had to do is just ditch the farms and find a nice parking space on the side of the road. We climbed the barbed wire fence and here it was – the beauty for us to behold!

Jackson & Ёжмобиль

Highway thru the grassland

Pheasant in the grass

Truck transporting livestock

Farm cows raised for beef

The place was dreamlike: endless plains, constant sound of mooing cows, and lots of green grass. The strong wind was blowing constantly, making it harder to hear other sounds. Later a moon rose and we left the tent unzipped on one side, so we could look at the stars during the night. 

Moonrise in the grassland

Preparing for the night

Next morning I woke up to realization that Jackson is suffering from severe allergy symptoms. The wind brought in all the bad stuff and there was nowhere to hide in the plains of the grassland. So we packed the car early and bounced. I drove to Badlands while the poor guy napped. 

As we reached the park, he slowly came back to life. Badlands National Park is mainly laid out as a drive through. The Southern part of the park was closed for visitors at that time. We followed the winding road and stopped at one of the lookout points with a short trail called Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. There you could walk a little bit through the drylands and take in the severe landscape. 

Badland landscapes

Jackson on a walk thru Badlands

Dried mud

Split ground

We were greeted by magpies who jumped from one branch to another, completely unafraid of people. We quickly threw together lunch (a curbside sandwich at the parking lot) and did a 20 minute hiking loop.

Magpies on a branch

Badlands offered stunning views of incredible mud formations. There were layers and layers of rocklike mud containing different chemical elements manifested by a variety of colors within the rising towers. Some of them have been known to occasionally reveal prehistoric fossils. Lots of exciting things to explore! 

Ёжмобиль in Badlands

Badland landscapes

Panoramic view

In this park for the first time in my life I saw wild bison. The herd was pretty far away and I got really excited: “Let’s walk out in the field and get a closer look!”. Jackson pulled me back, saying that there probably would be a better opportunity to see these beasts up close later on the way. He was absolutely right. 

Little prairie dogs were popping here and there and agile mountain goats gracefully scaled immense drops. I was fascinated speechless. 

Mountain goat in a panoramic view

Mountain goat resting

Prairie dog on guard

I would like to go back to Badlands and spend more time there, maybe do a longer backpacking hike into the towering depths of it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford stopping for too long; there was a legendary landmark ahead of us – Yellowstone National Park. 

NEXT: BIGHORN NATIONAL FOREST & YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, PT. 1

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Minnesota & Dispersed Camping

Panoramic view of Mississippi river

On a low start in Wisconsin, we went to a supermarket and got a bunch of food for the trip. Badlands was still ~9 hours away, so the first night we landed in Minnesota on a campground right next to Mississippi river in Great River Bluffs State Park. 

Great River Bluffs State Park, MN

A Robin on a branch

Railroad next to Mississippi river

By mutual conclusion, this campsite was probably the most underwhelming of all our spots. Featuring no majestic views, it offered 31 identical spots for cars and RVs in the middle of the forest, with some amenities located nearby. The thunderstorm kept us awake at night and the ground muddy. I failed dreadfully attempting to start a fire in the light evening rain.

Minnesota was also a place of our first argument: it was a conceptual one. In short, Jackson (to my horrified surprise) was vaguely imagining us using conventional camping spots during the whole trip (aka paid camping). A Wisconsin-born, he didn’t know of any existing alternatives to this in the USA, and nope, we didn’t discuss or research this issue before taking off. Needless to say, this idea was perfectly contrary to my entire image of the world, my values, and everything I thought was right.  

Coming from Russia and having done some camping there, I’m used to just winging it. You get off the road, hike a little bit off to the forest, find a nice stream or a lake and set camp right there; without any need to talk to someone, plan, reserve, and certainly you do not pay for it! The thought that it could be different here in the USA was shocking and infuriating to me. The nature should be free for everyone to enjoy, not compartmentalized into campsites for $25 a night. No way I’m doing that! Poor Jackson witnessing my passionate riot was likely starting to regret ever getting involved with me… 

The answer came with Google and it’s name was dispersed camping. In reality, in the US you can camp for free anywhere you want, as long as it is a part of Public Land. 

Dispersed Camping 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages public land across the country. We downloaded US Public Lands app which shows exact borders of public land around you.

Fort Pierre National Grassland

Shoshone National Forest

Ridge River Dispersed Campground, AR

National Forests, National Grasslands, National Seashores are OK to camp in, as long as you adhere to a simple set of rules: drive away from the main road or highway at least 200 feet, use extreme caution when making fire, research areas where it’s prohibited for the high fire danger (dry season), follow sanitation guidelines and have enough food / water to support yourself. And obviously know where you are and where the hell you’re going. That’s about it.

The only caveat is that East of Mississippi almost all of the land is privately-owned. So, we had to get creative, using friend’s backyards, sneaking in on the sides of the roads in State Parks etc.  

I have to say, that you get used to sleeping in a tent every night pretty quickly. I remember I was a little uneasy (well, actually dreading) about sleeping in a tent after a warm, soft bed. Somehow you just learn to roll with it. Or I did. 

NEXT: FORT PIERRE NATIONAL GRASSLAND & BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK

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