The Lodge at Lolo Hot Springs

Inside the Lolo National Forest, in the Lolo Pass once traversed by Lewis and Clark with the help of their faithful guide, Sacajawea, just seven miles from the Idaho border, sits The Lodge at Lolo Hot Springs. Upon arrival, it looked like many of the quaint lodges sprinkled throughout the mountains.

It sits next to a bar/restaurant, a place where one can ride horses in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter, and a fee-for-use hut with an indoor and an outdoor hot-spring-fed pool.

The lodge, however, has its very own spring-fed hot spring pools, both of them indoors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After all the driving we’d done and all the big hotel chains we’d stayed with, and after the previous night in the My Name is Earl special in East Glacier, it was like a breath of fresh air walking into the western-themed lobby. The lodge is co-managed by a young couple, who inherited the role after her father semi-retired. They were so helpful, providing the personal touch that you can’t get in a big hotel. She gave us a tour of the place when we checked in, and during our stay we witnessed her doing the same thing for every single guest when they arrived. He was full of useful information, including tips on things to do and see in the immediate area. They were both so friendly and personable and made us feel so welcome that within minutes of putting our things in our room,

which was also sort of rustic and neat, we went straight back to the front desk and reserved the room for a second night. This gave us time to relax and enjoy the hot pools (the first one was 102.8 degrees Fahrenheit, while the other was 104.1) and just chill before setting out for adventure the next day, without having to drive hundreds of miles in between.

I also finally spotted a moose and a bear.

The handmade furniture in the bedrooms was a nice touch.

One thing I loved about the lodge, which might be a turnoff for some, was that there is no cell reception. There is free WiFi, but only in the lobby. They do have a phone booth where you can make calls for free, and my youngest thought it was the neatest thing ever.

So what is there to do in the area? Besides soaking in the hot spring water, there are miles and miles of hiking trails. If that’s not your thing, I was directed to three nearby treats.

First, about nine miles to the east, there is a side road that takes you through a pass and into a nice valley with lots of rocky outcropping, which is allegedly home to lots of deer, elk, and even some bighorn sheep. I was excited to see some bighorns, as I’ve only ever seen small mountain goats in Hawaii, but we saw nothing but deer. It was a very pretty drive, however.

So we went back the other way. As I said, it’s only seven miles to the Idaho border. At the welcome center, there is a little county road to the left of the parking lot. About a mile down that road (which turns to dirt right past the entry, so drive slow) is a massive field of wildflowers. Lewis and Clark estimated it at 50 acres. I will defer to their expertise.

From there it was a few more miles to the Lochsa Lodge, where we stopped for lunch. This is a beautiful mountainside setting, with the river in the background.

My oldest and I split the absolutely huge Bigfoot Stuffed Burger, which featured two patties stuffed with onions, bacon, and gouda cheese, topped with a huckleberry BBQ sauce.

Fueled and ready to go, we set out for our final adventure of the day. With a beautiful one-mile riverside into the woods,

we reached an area known for its hot springs pools. Unlike the hot springs at Yellowstone, which will boil the skin right off your bones, these are perfect little outdoor hot tubs. Luckily, our waiter at Lochsa Lodge warned us that the pools are considered clothing optional. And some nice folks already in the lower pool warned us as we walked in that upper pool was considered the “more adult” of the two. But as it is also the hotter of the two, I walked ahead to check it out. Rather than the pool, I first saw some naked dude, so we stopped at the lower pool.

After the upper pool cleared out, we ventured up there too, and enjoyed it for a few minutes before hiking back out. Turns out soaking in a real natural hot spring was sort of a bucket list item for my wife, so it was well worth the effort.

Back at the lodge, there were still no moose in the pond.

They told us the first day that starting in mid-June every year, the moose would come down from the mountain, where the mother would wade into the pond where her calves wouldn’t follow in order to wean them. More propaganda, as it turns out. The down-to-earth proprietors aren’t the kind of people I would take to be in the pocket of Big Moose, but this just shows how insidious this conspiracy can be.

I can’t really recommend the food at the Bear Cave restaurant next door, but it will do in a pinch.

One last thing: while much of the included breakfast is standard continental fare, they have a large tub of yogurt with a squirt pump, and one of the turning cereal thingy’s compartments is filled with granola. It’s a tasty option, and I wish more of the big chains would catch on to this, rather than one of the crappy off-brand cereals they usually stuff those with.

Okay, one more last thing: there is a cooler full of iced spring water in the lobby at all times. It’s the most delicious water I’ve ever tasted. If we are ever back in the area, we will definitely be back at The Lodge at Lolo Hot Springs. I miss it already.

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Glacier and Missoula, MT

I didn’t find out until the day before we visited Glacier National Park that Going to the Sun Road, the main drive through the heart of the park, was still closed in the middle due to snow, and would be until at least June 22, a concept foreign to this South Mississippi boy. So we took an alternate route through the western edge of the park. We saw still more beautiful sights, but no bears.

We headed south from there to Missoula. We passed by Flathead Lake along the way. The drive down the eastern shore of the lake on Highway 35 was one of the more picturesque parts of the trip.

Somewhere along the way we passed this impressive glacier. Who needs Glacier National Park?

We had lunch at the Tamarack Brewery in Missoula, where I had a really good burger with bleu cheese and Brie on it. Delicious, and the Stop’n’Go Naked beer was also excellent. All the beers were good, but that one stood out.

After lunch we strolled around downtown Missoula. The girls got the best açaí bowl they’ve had since Hawaii (açaí is a Polynesian word for “expensive-ass berry”), and we got to watch some locals surfing in the river.

Also, I checked the website and I’m still not sure if this guy is serious, but I’m afraid he is.

From Missoula we headed south and west into the Lolo National Forest, where we found a little piece of heaven on earth at the Lodge at Lolo Hot Springs.

Yellowstone to Glacier

The sun set as we drove north from Yellowstone and into the girls’ 37th state, Montana. It was the first time on the trip we’d been on the road after dark, mainly because it gets dark so frickin’ late up here. However, we were unable to see the famous Montana night sky due to heavy clouds. We spent the night in Bozeman, then set off in the morning to get as close to Glacier National Park as we could.

We stopped in Helena at a place called Cafe Zydeco. Yes, there’s a Cajun restaurant in the heart of Montana. They explained that the original owner was a Louisiana native whose friends encouraged him to open the place. Unfortunately, we’d all had a decent sized breakfast, so it was kind of early for us to try a large sampling. My wife and youngest wanted a muffuletta, which they spilt, while the oldest and I tried the red beans and rice. The muffuletta was served on a hoagie roll, which is obviously a mistake. They enjoyed it, but said it definitely wasn’t authentic. The red beans and rice had the right flavor, and they even added a little spice to it, which was a pleasant surprise so far north. The only thing they didn’t do right, which I notice in most places north of, say, Hattiesburg, is they didn’t mash any of the beans against the side of the pot. This is what gives good red beans and rice that creamy consistency.

From there we headed north and west toward Glacier. While all this driving may sound boring, we were surrounded by mountains. The drive was beautiful. Every hill and valley revealed new wonders. Of course, there were ample moose crossing signs, which we all know to be lies and propaganda. My wife and the youngest still believe, but my teenager is old enough to see through the lies of the Big Moose marketing machine.

East Glacier Park Village is inside the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and is just a few miles from both the east and south entrances to Glacier National Park. Our choices for accommodations were a $400+/night lodge or a number of cheap but still overpriced motels. The lodge was not in the budget. We chose based on online pictures, and we wound up with one that looked like a set piece from Breaking Bad on the outside

but was cute on the inside.

If you decide to stop in East Glacier, don’t rely on TripAdvisor for restaurant recommendations. Half the places they listed didn’t appear to exist, and the other half weren’t where they said they were. We had dinner at a place just west of the town, the Firebrand, where I had the pork chops with a huckleberry glaze. Huckleberry products are everywhere in the mountains, and I’m planning a post for later about all the huckleberry goods we tried throughout the trip, because after dinner we went back up the road to a place called Brownies for a slice of huckleberry pie.

I imagine there is great fun to be had if you can afford to stay in the lodge, but we settled in and introduced the girls to Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, and Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

I was tired, but determined to see the fabled western night sky. The night was mostly cloudless. However, when I went outside at 11:00, there was still a glow in the west from the setting sun. It stays light really, really ridiculously late out there. The stars didn’t look any more spectacular than they do from my back deck, so I gave up and went to bed.

Yellowstone in a Day

One could easily spend three or four days, or even weeks, exploring Yellowstone National Park. But seeing as we all have an aversion to being eaten by a bear, we weren’t doing any backcountry hiking. We stuck with some of the more popular attractions, most of which don’t require more than a mile hike to see the sights.

We entered Yellowstone by the east gate, which only required me to present my annual pass and ID. The road climbed quickly to over 8,000 feet and we were in the snow, which was pretty exciting for the kids and myself, as none of us had ever been higher than the places we’d been in the Smokies without the use of an airplane.

We descended to Lake Yellowstone, where we all dipped our feet in the icy water.

Shortly thereafter, we spotted our first steam vents, reminding us that the entire park is an active volcano. The strong smell of sulfur made me joke that my entire post on Yellowstone would consist of the words “surprisingly stinky.”

Just a short distance past the lake, we got our first up-close view of the mighty and noble bison.

From there we drove to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, keeping our eye out for bear and the mythical moose. I know grizzly bears are real because I’m scared of them. But moose? Nah. But on the way, from a high ridge we did see our first large herd of bison, along with a breathtaking view of the Yellowstone River.

Does a bear poop in the woods? I don’t know, because we can’t find one. But do bison poop on the plains? Yes. Yes they do.

At the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, there are parking areas for the upper falls

and the lower falls.

The lower falls are the more impressive of the two.

We next drove to the Artist’s Paint Pots. There is a mile-long loop that took us to a highly active area that featured a small geyser, named Blood Geyser for the red mineral deposits it leaves on the surrounding rock,

hot springs,

and paint pots, which are like hot mud springs. The whole place reeked of sulfur, and looked like the surface of a strange planet. I could easily imagine some alien creature emerging from the muck. Or a moose.

Next we set out for Old Faithful. We lucked out and got there just ten minutes before the next eruption. The 130-foot high spray of the geyser was impressive, but more than that, witnessing this powerful act of nature felt like a vacation rite of passage. Like okay, now I’ve been to Yellowstone. Now I’ve been out west.

Then we backtracked a little and headed for the north entrance. On the way we stopped at the Fountain Paint Pots and walked the short loop trail there. We saw a beautiful hot spring,

the largest paint pot we found, which would shoot up a glob of mud every few seconds,

and a couple more geysers.

There was a lot of bison poop scattered around, too, which was disappointing, because a bison in front of this alien scenery would have made for a great picture. But they were gone.

The only thing on my Yellowstone wish list that we skipped was the Grand Prismatic Spring. The line of cars waiting to get in was just too long, and we were all too tired and cold to park and walk in after spending about nine hours in the park.

On the way north, we spotted a herd of elk in the distance, but they were to far away for me to get a good picture.

Our final stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, which lives up to its name.

Not seeing a moose was not surprising, as they clearly do not exist. Not seeing a single bear was a disappointment, but I’m guessing the best place to see a bear is where I don’t want to see one – away from my car.

As if to make up for it, Yellowstone offered up a final gift on the way out. Four elk just grazing away in the median as we headed for the exit. Thank you, Yellowstone.

Mt. Rushmore to Cody, Wyoming

We got up early the day after our exciting night at Mt. Rushmore to head for the big mountains. The drive through the Black Hills National Forest was beautiful. But I wanted to drive through Deadwood, South Dakota. As a fan of the HBO show, I wanted to see how much was true and how much fiction. Also, someone had told me once that it was almost like a true, old school cowboy town.

The visitor’s center provided some history and I learned that while there was much exaggeration on the show, it was rooted heavily in fact. Wild Bill Hickok was indeed murdered there, and Seth Bullock helped clean up the town. Many of the names are the same, though the details are highly sketchy.

The bar where Wild Bill was killed now bears his name.

From the visitor’s center, we went to the historic Main Street. This is where the illusion fell apart. It seems that Deadwood legalized gambling to stave off bankruptcy some years ago. So in the sense that it is basically filled with nothing but bars and gambling, Deadwood is a cowboy town. Beyond that, it felt more like a cross between Bourbon Street and Las Vegas. But not in a good way, if that makes sense.

From Deadwood, we drove West across the high plains, which is still mostly flat, but our excitement grew as snow-capped mountains began to appear in the distance. We stopped at the Wyoming welcome center to welcome the girls to their 36th state.

Yes, the interstate is red through here.

We left the interstate at Buffalo, Wyoming to cut through Big Horn National Forest. At the time, this was the most amazing drive of my life. The drive through Tensleep Canyon was especially gorgeous as we got a 360 degree view of the canyon with all the switchbacks as Highway 16 led down to the bottom of the canyon and along the river.

After that scenic drive we arrived in Cody, named after Buffalo Bill Cody, who was an important figure in the old west. But the day we arrived, we treated the girls to a butterbeer ice cream soda at the old-timey soda fountain just down the street from our motel, then had ourselves a nice meal at the Millstone Pizza and Brew Company. The seasonal Orange Creamsicle beer is unique and refreshing. Hipster microbreweries notwithstanding, Cody is much closer to being a real cowboy town than Deadwood. In fact, I saw some actual cowboys the next morning at breakfast while we were fueling up for the day ahead in Yellowstone National Park.

Mt. Rushmore

The drive from Badlands National Park to Mt. Rushmore went by far more quickly than the rest of the trip. Probably being able to see mountains helped. Once you leave the interstate and really start climbing, the views are great. You will pass by signs that warn you about bear and moose and elk, but we didn’t see any bears, and as I’ve stated before, the moose is a lie. My wife did spot a very majestic elk, but it was behind a fence in a roadside attraction called Bear Country USA where, in retrospect, I wish we had stopped, what with the lack of bears on the rest of the trip.I like driving in the mountains, though it makes my wife nervous. And the drive into Mt. Rushmore is beautiful. Just before you get there, you pass through the little town of Keystone, where we would wind up spending the night.Now, I’d heard from several people how unimpressed they were with Mt. Rushmore, that it was small, etc. I did not get that feeling at all.

I was impressed with the size, height, detail, all of it. I also did not know that the sculpture was done mostly with dynamite and jackhammers. I guess I had always pictured some poor bastard hanging there with a hammer and chisel, like Michelangelo doing the Sistine Chapel. I also did not know that the work is unfinished, as the original man behind the project, Gutzon Borglum, died before it was completed. His son, Lincoln, tried to take over, but without his father’s influence, and with World War II looming, he could not secure congressional funding to finish. The final scale model is on display at the site, so you can see what it would have looked like. I supposed they eventually decided that enough people were coming to see it anyway that they didn’t need to finish it.While there, I recommend you take the walking trail. It will lead you closer to the mountain and provide additional views of the sculpture.

Now, as with our time at Mitchell, SD, I again suggest not taking advice from people who don’t necessarily vacation like you do. Another nameless in-law strongly suggested we stick around for the lighting of the sculpture, which happens at around 9:00 every night during the summer. So we got a room down in Keystone and went down for dinner, as your $10 parking fee (your National Park Annual Pass does not apply here) is good for a year, so we didn’t have to worry about getting charged twice to park.We had dinner on the patio at a place called The Front Porch, where I had the Mountain Man Burger with a patty made from ground wild boar, bison, elk, antelope and deer. It was good, but I have to warn you, I immediately went out, climbed the mountain, wrestled a bear, and made a bald eagle quiche for dessert. Seriously, though, while it was a fine burger, the truth is that all of these are lean meats. So while this burger might be healthier than most, the fat in plain old beef is what gives it flavor.After dinner we went back up the mountain for the lighting. Apparently, a ranger usually says something, then they play The Star Spangled Banner as the flag is lowered and the lights are turned on. However, the PA system was broken, and we all sang the national anthem a cappella together while they turned the spotlights on the faces of some of our greatest presidents. It was uplifting to hear that many people singing without some sort of musical accompaniment. Would I stay in that town again just so I could stay late enough to witness this? Probably not. I am glad I got to see the mountain lit up at night. But if I had it to do again, I would probably drive on into Park City where the rates were a little lower, and I would be eight miles closer to the Rocky Mountains.

We know all about these four presidents, but what’s the story with Sad Emo Guy?

The Badlands and Wall Drug

The drive from Mitchell to the Badlands was much better than the previous day. The land slowly starting becoming more hilly, with the promise of some sightseeing ahead. We even spotted some pronghorn antelope on the way, but I couldn’t get any pictures because the speed limit on the interstates in those parts is 80. Way to treat drivers like adults!

We reached Badlands National Park just before lunchtime. We went ahead and bought the $80 National Park annual pass, which lets you and anyone in your car into any of the national parks for a full year. This was a huge benefit as we planned on adding Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks to our list on this trip, plus hopefully see Yosemite next year before the pass expires.

If you take the eastern entrance into the Badlands, you are at once greeted by a massive canyon filled with rocky ridges. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I once had a friend tell me before going to Kona, HI, that landing there was like landing on the moon. Well, the Badlands must be like taking a tour of Mars.

Everywhere we went, huge rock outcroppings rose up before us, or the road climbed and offered grand views of the landscape below. It was breathtaking.

I’d seen a single prairie dog on the way into the park, and the kids were jealous. But on the way out, we passed fields that were full of hundreds of prairie dogs. We loved it, and I recommend stopping and rolling down the windows to hear their squeaking voices as they talk to each other. Unfortunately, they’re so tiny that without a good lens, good pics are hard to come by. Which is why I don’t have any.

As a bonus, we saw our first wild bison as we were leaving the park.

From there we stopped in at Wall Drug, which is mandatory under South Dakota state law. Failure to do so is punishable by up to six months driving through the eastern part of the state.

Wall Drug is sort of every other roadside attraction rolled into one building. Okay, two buildings. They do still technically have a working drug store there, but it’s easy to miss among all the other shops and novelties.

I will say, their ice cream was inexpensive, and the homemade donut we had was delicious. And there was a dinosaur.

I won’t tell you that you need to stop here. YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.

From Wall, it’s a short drive across the last stretch of flat land until the hills start turning into mountains to take you to Mt. Rushmore, the quintessential American attraction.