The Canadian Rockies – Jewels of the Continent

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Taking a little walk around Johnson Lake

The Canadian Rockies have been on our shortlist for a few years now, and making it to Banff was the main priority of this trip. If you’ve spent any time browsing travel ‘grams on Instagram, you’ve probably seen those incredible photos of neon blue lakes nestled in snow capped peaks. Every time I saw one prior to the trip (and there were a lot – it seemed as if everyone was at Banff!) I would assure myself that there was no way a scene on this earth could be that picturesque. But it’s true, people! It does exist, just a few thousand miles away in Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian province of Alberta.

We crossed into Canada just north of Glacier National Park. We were nervous about crossing into the country with Scout in tow, but everything was a breeze. If you happen to travel to Canada with a pet, be ready to show his or her rabies vaccination papers at the border. I have heard that there are limits on the amount of pet food that you can take in, but we were not questioned about this. The border patrol folks were super friendly and welcoming – much more so than their American counterparts!

We called a few days ahead to reserve a campsite at the expansive Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff.  The campground has over 600 sites (!) but it set up in a way that most of the sites have decent privacy. Banff is interesting as the town is located within the park boundaries. You purchase a parks pass (daily fee per person or two year pass) on the main road like you would pay a toll at a toll booth. The town operates as a separate entity, much unlike American National Parks, which only allow concessionaires to operate the hotels, shops, and restaurants.

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View from the campground

There are lots of tiny lakes and hidden spots within a few minutes’ drive of the Banff town center. We took a walk around Johnson Lake one afternoon after lunch in town. The town itself was as picturesque as they come. Crowded, but to be expected!

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Banff town center

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Banff town center

Lake Louise is probably one of the most photographed spots around Banff and Jasper. Some people opt to stay at the ever-so-fancy Fairmont Chateau, which looked incredible! The hotel is right on the lakeshore and boasts amazing views. Alas, we were booked at eh Chateau Caravan for the night, so we missed out on the Fairmont 😉 Even though it was drizzly and overcast, the lake was still beautiful!

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Lake Louise at the Fairmont Chateau

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After our stop at Lake Louise, we started to make our way up the famed Icefields Parkway for an epic road trip! The road winds in and out of the mountains with lots of stops for those show-stopping turquoise lakes along the way.

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Icefields Parkway

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Always the navigator

Peyto Lake was the highlight of the drive. I couldn’t believe that the water was actually that vibrant!

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Peyto Lake

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A whole lot of puppy dog eyes!

Our last major stop was at the Columbia Icefield Centre. The views of the glacier were wonderful, but the crowds make this spot a bit of a disappointment for us.

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Columbia Icefield (glacier)

We ended up spending the night in the Jasper National Park overflow campground (read: field) with lots of other campers. For only $10, this ended up being a pretty sweet place to stay!

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Yellowstone- America’s (First) Best Idea

The National Parks are nicknamed “America’s Best Idea” and I tend to agree. We were so lucky to visit Yellowstone again this year, as America celebrates the National Parks’ centennial. If you haven’t made the trek out to Wyoming to see it, find a way! The magic of Yellowstone never gets old!

We entered through the South entrance and the place was crawling with visitors, as it usually is in the summer. We didn’t stop to visit any of the thermal features this trip, as our furry companion is not allowed outside of the parking lots. We met up with my sister, Beth, and her boyfriend for dinner and drinks. They are working in the park for a second season this year. We stealthily crept back into our van once it got dark to sleep in the employee parking lot. Every single camp site was claimed that night and “boondocking” is prohibited anywhere in the park. Apparently, rangers are known to knock on car windows and issue tickets for violating this rule!

We set a 5:30 wake up call and get down to the Hayden Valley for some wildlife watching. Clint brewed some coffee on the hood of the van while we waited. It was a chilly 31 degrees! We were able to spot elk, lots of bison, two black bears and a coyote. All in all, a successful trip!

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A lone coyote out and about 

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Scout keeping an eye out for wildlife!

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Two black bears ambling around a meadow (the 2nd one is further back)

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Early morning bison watching

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Lamar Valley 

Shadow Mountain- Teton Wilderness Dream

After a few days of driving and a night at the (free) Lander City Park, we were ready to make our way into the woods. Our first destination was Grand Teton National Park, specifically Shadow Mountain in the Teton National Forest area.

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Before making camp for the night, we drove up to Jenny Lake for a walk around the shore. The water was gorgeously clear and I only wish that we had trained Scout to ride along in a canoe! She did make a nice splash into the lake, though. I wan’t able to stand the freezing waters for more than a minute or so!

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This area is a road that meanders through the National Forest and up to the top of Shadow Mountain, overlooking the Antelope Flats and the whole Teton range. Every turn offered up some killer views of the mountains! The dispersed sites are FREE for campers. We staked out a site about halfway up and waited for sunset. The road was dirt and gravel, with steep grades and sharp turns. We saw several truck and camper rigs, but I couldn’t imagine towing anything up there! Our van did just fine, albeit a bit on the bumpy side. For the exact coordinates and directions to our “boondocking” site, click over to Campendium. 

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Next up- Yellowstone! Our third time there in as many years and it never gets old.

Magic in the Rain Forest

Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington is truly a magical place. It’s pretty remote and boasts some pretty unique ecosystems – the coast, dense rain forests, and several 7,000 foot glacial peaks. It is also huge – encompassing nearly one million acres! During our visit, our priority was visiting the Hoh Rain Forest for a hike. There are several trails, including one that weaves 18 miles into the forest to the base of Mount Olympus. We chose to take a more leisurely route 😉

The rain forest was like no other- moss and ferns covered nearly every surface. We couldn’t believe how green and lush everything was. Here’s my personal photo tour of the trail: 

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
 
Next up- Seattle!

Oregon: Lucky State Number 11!

We pretty much rolled into Oregon on two wheels – ready to explore a brand new state! The Pacific Northwest has been on my go-to list since I was a teenager, but this is the first time we got around to visiting. It looks like my sister will be migrating this way in the fall, so I’m sure this won’t be our last rodeo in the PNW.

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After crossing into the state near Mount Shasta (in a lovely town called “Weed”), we headed straight for Crater Lake National Park. It was July 4th AND a Saturday afternoon, so the crowds were pretty intense. Crater Lake is a smaller park and it is pretty remote, but that didn’t stop tons of folks from filling up the campground. We were lucky enough to snag a prime spot to set up the tent. The campground was very dog friendly, and we met several furry friends that just made us miss our babies at home!

site a2 at Mazama Campground

site a2 at Mazama Campground

Just because we are camping, that doesn’t mean my beloed meal plan has gone by the wayside. Y’all know that I am fully committed to the meal plan. We’ve been planning a few real meals and lots of sandwiches and snacks. This night, I made a one-pot pasta. Totally convenient since I only have one burner on my camp stove 😉

outdoor cooking

outdoor cooking

After relaxing at the campground for a while, we headed to the Rim Village to explore the lakeside. There is a trail that meanders around the rim of the huge lake. It was a little crowded for our taste, but we still had some time for photo ops.

I didn’t grasp the magnitude of the lake until I saw a boat puttering along out in the middle – a tiny white speck on that deep blue water! The lake’s surface elevation is around 6,000 feet, and it has spots that are almost 2,000 feet deep! And as my mom asked, it really is that blue.

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We had an awesome campfire and some hard cider with music to top of a great day! Much more from Oregon to come!

Enchanted by New Mexico

Even though our stay in New Mexico was short lived, it was enough to leave an impression. The “Land of Enchantment” is just that – enchanting and surprising in the best way. We drove from Marfa early one morning and headed straight for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I’ve seen some caves in my day, including Mammoth in Kentucky, so I wasn’t prepared to be so overwhelmed by the magnitude or beauty of Carlsbad!

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We chose to hike down into the caverns instead of riding the elevator. The 800 foot descent offered over a mile of twists and turns as you drop into the cave. Once you reach the bottom, there are several options for “trails” that tour the Big Room. We chose the longer route, which weaves around the Big Room floor. A photographer I’m not, but I did try to get a couple of pictures as we walked.

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We opted to take the elevator back up ,in the interest of time, of course! Coming out of the 56 degree cavern and back into the 100 degree New Mexico desert heat was shocking!

We hopped into the car and started for White Sands National Monument, which was about 3 hours away on the scenic route. Our route took us across some surprising mountains, at 8,000 feet elevation! We arrived at White Sands around sunset – just as I’d planned. White Sands has been described as “other-worldly” and I would agree. Driving in, you can’t see the dunes, so it is a complete surprise as they rise dramatically around you. We were positively giddy when we stepped out and kicked off our shoes to start climbing.

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Funny story: Once it started getting dark (the park closes at 9:00) we decided to head back to the car. It turns out that sand dunes all look the same. We walked and walked, thinking that the car had to be just over the next dune. Finally, we gave into panic and remembered that I had left my phone in the car. We were able to GPS the phone and find our way back just before thunder and lightning started in the distance. Did I mention we had no shoes on? Ahh… adventure.

Big Bend

I thought we were “deep in the heart of Texas” until we got to Big Bend National Park – a place that is as far south as you can go in the American west. The park borders Mexico for over 100 miles on the Rio Grande.

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This park is one of the larger National Parks, but receives far fewer visitors than other parks (it ranks 147th!) due to its remote location. There are no airports or even interstate highways nearby. Most of the visitors who venture to BBNP do so during the late fall and early spring, when the weather is most pleasant. Summer temperatures can be brutal, so several of the visitors centers and campground are closed during the summer.

We stayed in the Chisos Basin, which is right in the middle of the park at about 5000 feet elevation. The campground was a bargain at only $14 per night. The elevation allowed for cool temperatures (mid 80s during the day and 60s at night), but some CRAZY winds and pop-up storms. Our tent really took a beating, as it tends to catch the wind pretty easily. The wind and threat of wildlife kept me up at night – either we would blow away or be eaten by a bear!

We camped next to a retired teacher and her husband and son, who stayed up playing guitar into the night. Camping (and travel, really) can be about the relationships you form along the way. Albeit brief, Christy and her crew made for a memorable meeting and some interesting conversation. The struggles of teaching are universal!

site #16 in the chisos basin

site #16 in the chisos basin

fear induced insomnia for me...

fear induced insomnia for me…

casa grande 7,326 feet

casa grande 7,326 feet

the window - the rio grande lies beyond and far below the chisos basin

the window – the rio grande lies beyond and far below the chisos basin

We spent an evening exploring the backroads of the park. There seemed to be tons of gravel roads that led into the far reaches of the park. I was hoping to spot a javelina or two, but all we spotted was lots of roadrunners, jackrabbits, and an impressively huge spider.

the open and empty road

the open and empty road

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desert landscape

desert landscape

backroads of the park

backroads of the park

windmill on a backroad

windmill on a backroad

prickly wildlife!

prickly wildlife!

After we left Big Bend, we headed due north to the hip, weird town of Marfa – more on that later!