Wonderful Wyoming, Part I (May 25 – June 8)

After our overnight stay in Buffalo, WY, Jan updated our map and discovered that we have now camped in 26 states since we began our RV adventure 19 months ago. We’ll be knocking off the remaining three states in the western U.S. this summer.


On May 25th, we drove 130 miles to Devils Tower, WY. The first 100 miles were on I-90 but the last 30 miles were along a very winding highway that took us through some beautiful country. Devils Tower National Monument was proclaimed the first national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Also known as Bear’s Lodge, it is a sacred site for over 20 tribes of American Indians. The Tower rises 867 feet from the Visitor Center, which sits at an elevation of 4,245 feet. The top of the Tower is about the size of a football field. There are over 200 established routes for climbing the steep walls of the Tower.

We stayed at the Devils Tower KOA for five nights. The campground was just outside the entrance gate to the national monument. In fact, we were so close to Devils Tower that we were able to sit outside our rig each day and watch climbers ascend and descend the Tower. Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which was filmed on the campground, is played each night between June 1 and September 1, but we missed that by a few days. The café also doesn’t open until June 1 but, fortunately, there was a snack bar at the trading post across the road.

On May 26th, we drove to the Visitors Center and hiked the 1.3 mile Tower Trail that circles the base of the Tower. After spending the winter in Texas, even this short hike at altitude was challenging. We stopped along the trail to catch our breath and to watch several climbers scale the Tower walls. We also were able to spot the wooden ladder that was constructed and used to scale the Tower in 1893. The first rock climbers to scale the walls without using a ladder did so in 1937.

On May 27th, we hiked the 2.8 mile Red Beds Trail. This trail meandered through pine forests and meadows, with beautiful views of the valley floor, distant hills, and the Belle Fourche River. We were able to spot our rig as the trail climbed along the bluffs known as the Red Beds.

On May 28th, we drove up a dirt road north of the Visitor Center and hiked the 1.5 mile Joyner Ridge Trail. This trail traversed the ridge top and descended a fairly steep sandstone cliff into a secluded meadow. The trail then looped back to the parking lot via a long, steady incline through the prairie.  We encountered several whitetail deer along our hike.

On May 29th, we began the day by getting our picture taken by the entrance gate. Next we visited the sculpture, The Circle of Sacred Smoke, which was created by Japanese artist Junkyu Muto in 2008. Legend tells that this is the place where White Buffalo Calf Woman delivered the first sacred pipe to the Lakota people. The Circle of Sacred Smoke represents a puff of smoke from a ceremonial pipe used by Native American people.

Then we hiked the two remaining trails which formed a 1.5 mile loop. The first leg, the South Side Trail, started across Prairie Dog Town and then began a moderately steep ascent up the ridge. This trail connected with a section of the Red Beds Trail which we had hiked two days earlier. The final leg was the Valley View Trail which was very flat and took us along the banks of the Belle Fourche River and through Prairie Dog Town.

We were chided repeatedly by the prairie dogs who warned of our approach with their high-pitched chirping before scurrying into their tunnels. We saw a large number of baby prairie dogs with their mothers.

That evening we took advantage of the first cloudless night to observe the star-filled sky. At 11 pm, we first drove to the sculpture site and then drove up the dirt road to the Joyner Ridge. The view was beautiful.

The following morning we packed up and drove 130 miles back to Indian Campground in Buffalo, WY for two nights. On May 31st, we explored Buffalo. We visited the world’s largest swimming pool which, unfortunately, had not yet been filled. Then we strolled along historic downtown Buffalo.

Later we drove to Sheridan, WY and had lunch at the Cowboy Café on historic Main Street.

View of Main Street, Sheridan, WY

On June 1st we drove 197 miles to Wapiti, WY where we stayed for five nights at the Yellowstone Valley Inn and RV Park. Wapiti is half-way between Cody, WY (founded by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody) and the East entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Although the drive was the preferred trucker route, it was a challenging drive through the mountains. The route included the 47-mile Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway, the southern-most path across the Big Horn Mountains, cresting at 9,666 foot Powder River Pass. There were many switchbacks and lots of steep ascents and descents that put the Ram’s power and exhaust brakes to the test.

One mile before we reached the RV Park, we passed a Bob’s Big Boy statue sitting on top of a concrete block in the middle of ranchland. We later learned that this statue showed up one night in the summer of 2013 and the rancher decided to just leave it in the field. It’s still a mystery to the locals as to where it came from.


The Yellowstone Valley Inn and RV Park was nicer than expected. Although there was virtually no grass and few trees, we had beautiful views out of each of our windows. Our living room windows overlooked the Shoshone River that was raging with the snowmelt.

On June 3rd we drove the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. The highway followed the route taken by Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce chiefs in 1877 as they led their tribe in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the US Cavalry and flee to Canada.

On June 4th we made our first drive to Yellowstone through the East entrance. We attempted to visit the Smith Mansion, only a few miles west of our RV Park, but couldn’t figure out how to reach it. The creator/builder, Francis Lee Smith, had been an Architect/Engineer. He spent nearly three decades building his mansion, his life’s work. His wife left him due to his obsession. Smith died while working on the mansion in April of 1992, at the age of 48. The mansion is built primarily by hand tools, handmade pulley systems, and a lot of hard work. It stands high, over 75 feet tall. The mansion is built in the direct center of the valley. All the timbers used in its construction were hand-picked from Rattlesnake Mountain, in Cody. Five to seven logs were hauled out at a time, using a small half-ton pickup.

With numerous stops at scenic overlooks and to observe wildlife, it took us over two hours just to reach the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center at Yellowstone. After a brief stop at the Visitor Center, we walked the boardwalk around Mud Volcano and observed numerous bubbling pools that are heated by gases in Yellowstone’s underground magna chambers.

Next, we spent time in Canyon Village where we hiked down along the trails that overlook the waterfalls and the canyon dubbed “the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.” We then continued on to Tower Fall where we were able to observe another impressive waterfall. We spotted our first bear during this drive. Our return home was via the Northeast gate of Yellowstone and took us across the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway for a second day. We stopped at Wal-Mart and invested in a canister of bear spray which we hope we never use.

On June 5th we drove back to Yellowstone via the East entrance. After a stop at Fishing Bridge, we took the southern route along the banks of Yellowstone Lake to West Thumb Geyser Basin where we walked the boardwalk around numerous colorful boiling springs that discharge their waters into the chilly Yellowstone Lake.

After stopping for a late lunch at a picnic area on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, we attempted to hike the 2.5 mile Elephant Back Trail. We had previously checked the weather forecast which had called for a 20% chance of isolated thunderstorms at 3 pm, with strong winds and possible hail. The 20% chance turned to 100% as we got about one-half mile up the steep trail. We had already met some folk coming down from the top who warned us that there was an aggressive elk up there who was being very territorial. That hadn’t stopped us but the strong winds finally convinced us to turn back. The trail took us through a thick forest with a lot of dead trees that were still standing. Every time the winds blew hard, we could hear trees cracking and feared that one might fall on us. In fact, as we got back to the trailhead, we did hear a tree near us come crashing down so we were glad we had chosen to abandon our hike. We didn’t quite reach our car before the rain started and we were rather wet when we reached safety. After we had driven a few miles away, we understood the meaning of “isolated thunderstorms” as the sun was out and we didn’t see any more bad weather our whole drive home.

On June 6th we decided to stay closer to home and drove back into Cody for lunch at Bubba’s Bar-B-Que. We stopped at the Buffalo Bill Dam and walked across the top of the dam before exploring the Visitor Center. Local ranchers, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his partner, had proposed the construction of the dam in 1902 as a means to irrigate the local farmland year-round. Teddy Roosevelt provided funding for the project which was completed in 1911. Due to the extreme weather challenges, the project ended up costing twice the original budget and all three contractors went bankrupt. Despite that, the total cost of the project was less than $1 million. The dam was completed with an original height of 325’, making it the largest dam in the world at the time.

Later we strolled the shops of historic downtown Cody.  We visited the Irma Hotel, formerly Buffalo Bill Cody’s hotel.


On June 7th we made our third trip to Yellowstone via the East gate and completed the northern loop. Our first stop was at Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest, oldest and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. We walked along the boardwalk that surrounded Back Basin. Some of the more significant geysers were Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world (shooting 300-400 feet every few years but 10-40 feet more frequently) and Echinus Geyer, the largest acid-water geyser known (almost as acidic as vinegar). It was quite hot so we only did the overlook at Porcelain Basin.

We stopped for lunch at Sheepeater Cliff, named for the only Indian tribe that lived at Yellowstone year-round. The Sheepeaters subsisted on a diet largely consisting of big horn sheep, thus the tribe name. We attempted to hike to a local waterfall but had to turn back when we discovered that the raging river had overtaken the trail. Instead, we climbed a steep cliff and discovered a field with over a dozen large yellow-bellied marmots that were very curious as to why we had invaded their space.

Our last major stop for the day was at Mammoth Hot Springs, with its numerous travertine terraces. Underground thermal water carries high amounts of dissolved limestone (calcium carbonate). At the surface, the calcium carbonate is deposited, forming travertine, a chalky white mineral forming the rock of travertine terraces. The formations resemble a cave turned inside out. Algae living in the warm pools have tinted the travertine various shades.

On our drive back to the campground, we encountered a field of grazing elk.

Waiting for Service in Montana (May 18 – 24, 2017)

After learning that our RV couldn’t be serviced until May 24th, we settled in at the Billings KOA. We were only able to extend our stay to three days. We would have stayed longer but there was no availability on Sunday, May 21st.

We learned that the Billings KOA was the first KOA. It sits on the banks of the Yellowstone River and was well designed and beautifully landscaped. At $62 per night, it was the most expensive campsite, but also the most beautiful KOA we’d stayed at. There are very few campgrounds in the Billings area which also explains their ability to charge such high rates.

We were exhausted after our many days of long drives and took it easy on Friday, May 19th. We walked along the Yellowstone River and admired the scenery. We even spotted a pair of bald eagles on the ridge.

On Saturday, May 20th, we went out exploring the local attractions. Our first stop was at Pictograph Cave State Park where we were able to see pictographs from up to 9,000 years ago. These caves were excavated by WPA workers from 1937-1941.

Next, we drove up on Rim Rock Drive and got a panoramic view of Billings.

Our next stop was at Boothill Cemetery, the burial grounds for the Yellowstone River town of Coulson, the predecessor of Billings.

After lunch at Famous Dave’s, we drove downtown to see the Moss Mansion, home of one of Billings’ most famous family and now a historical house museum.

Moss Mansion

On Sunday, May 21st, we packed up and moved 50 miles east to the Hardin KOA.

We spent three days at the Hardin KOA, which was nowhere near as nice as the Billings KOA but also not nearly as expensive. The campground was largely a wide open field in the middle of the Montana prairie, but it was well maintained and had nice views. The owners live in Wisconsin and displayed Wisconsin Badger signs all over. Phil learned from the owner that his son had gotten his doctorate at UW – Madison in veterinary science. Phil, of course, had to share that our daughter had also gotten her doctorate there.

On May 22nd, we visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which is about 15 miles from Hardin. We began with a stop at the Visitor Center where we watched a video on the history leading up to the conflict and details regarding the battle on June 25, 1876.  We learned that the U. S. government had signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868, establishing the Great Sioux reservation with the Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribes of the Great Plains. The reservation covered western South Dakota, eastern Wyoming and part of Nebraska.  In addition, the Indians were granted the right to travel and hunt in “unceded” territory in much of Wyoming and parts of Nebraska.  However, in 1874, the U.S. economy was struggling and gold was discovered in the Black Hills, leading thousands of gold seekers to swarm into the region in violation of the treaty. In response, the Lakota and Cheyenne left the reservation and resumed raids on the settlers and travelers. When the Indians defied an order to return to the reservation, the U.S. Army was called in.  Lt. Col. George Custer led the 7th Cavalry in one of three expeditions against the Lakota and Cheyenne. The 7th Cavalry, which numbered about 600 men, encountered about 7,000 Indians, including 1,500-2,000 warriors. 40 U.S. soldiers of the companies led by Maj. Marcus Reno were slaughtered when they first attacked the Indian camp.  The companies led by Custer were then completely wiped out, losing 210 men, including 42 on Last Stand Hill. Although the tremendous loss of life was tragic, this battlefield visit left us with the unusual emotion of not really knowing who the “good guys” were.

In 1890, the army erected white headstone markers where each of the soldiers had fallen. In 1999, the National Park Service erected red markers at known Cheyenne and Lakota casualty sites. The visit to the battlefield was enhanced by the use of lengthy audio narratives, using our cell phones, at 30 stops along the 6-mile road that extended the length of the battlefield. We parked and walked along several trails that brought us closer to the battle sites.

We had lunch at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café. We each had a Crow Indian taco, which was made using Indian fried bread. It was very good but also very filling.

On May 24th, we arose early and drove back to the RV dealer in Billings to get the rig inspected. After having waited six days just to get a diagnosis, we were not surprised to learn that the dealer would have to order a replacement leg from the manufacturer. We left without knowing how long it would be before the part was available. Rather than just sit around waiting, we decided to resume our travel itinerary and return to Billings on June 7th, the next open date on our schedule.

The forecast for the afternoon of May 24th called for high winds in Billings, with gusts up to 50 mph, so we left town as soon as we got the news. The first hour of our drive east was very windy but the winds died down after that. We decided to drive 150 miles to Buffalo, WY, where we spent the night at Indian Campground & RV Park.

Our Race to Billings, MT (May 9 – 18, 2017)

After calling the service departments at numerous RV dealers and finding that they were all booked four weeks out, Phil had scheduled a service appointment at a DRV dealer in Billings, MT for June 7th. However, as our problems with our front landing jacks became more constant, we realized we needed to get service sooner than that. We were afraid that, if we unhitched our rig, we might not be able to get the legs extended high enough to hitch up again, so we decided to stay hooked up until we got to Billings. That meant that we were unable to use the automatic leveling system and, instead, had to manually level the legs as well as we could while still hitched. Some nights that meant having to live on a slant.

Our first stop was for two nights, May 9-10, at Holiday Park Campground, a Corp of Engineers park in the outskirts of Fort Worth, TX. The 279-mile drive was mostly on I-35 but took us through a number of traffic jams, especially as we passed through Austin. We had site #72 at Holiday Park, which was a 100 foot long concrete pull-through site. Unfortunately, Phil initially pulled into the site facing the wrong way and it took a little while to get turned around. In hindsight, there was a fairly easy way to get into the site but the gate attendant had not highlighted that route on the map. Our site was very isolated, overlooking the lake, and we only had a neighbor the first night.

We walked along the lakefront and were amazed by the number of very large fish that were just a few feet away from the shore. The water was so shallow that the fish’s dorsal fins were completely out of the water and it seems that we could have waded in a short distance and captured our fish dinner by hand.

Our second stop was for two nights, May 11-12, at Taylor’s RV Park, about 7 miles south of Stillwater, OK. One of the attractions of this campground was that they have storm shelters. When we got within 15 miles of the campground, we got tornado warnings on our radios twice. Not knowing the best course of action under the circumstances, we just kept on driving. The owner of the campground had told Phil to call him when we were within a few miles. When Phil called, he learned that the people at the campground had taken shelter and were just coming out of the storm shelter. There was a lot of standing water when we pulled into the campground and Phil sunk into deep mud when he attempted to drive the trailer up onto the concrete pad. He had to use 4-wheel-drive for the first time. One of rear mud flaps tore off when it got stuck in the mud. It was quite a challenge getting set up as the ground was completely saturated. It also didn’t help when it rained most of our first night.

In addition to being a muddy mess, we discovered after getting set up on our site that we had to share the electrical hookup with our neighbor and he had already laid claim to the 50 amp outlet. We ended up having to use a 30 amp adapter and, after tripping the circuit breaker, discovered that 30 amps is barely enough to run the microwave and induction cooktop at the same time. Fortunately, the temperature was moderate enough that we didn’t need to run our furnace and got by with only one air conditioner.

On May 12th, Phil made a lot of phone calls to realign our travel plans. We cancelled our planned week-long stay in Custer, SD and instead began planning to arrive in Billings, MT on May 18th. Later, we drove around the campus of Oklahoma State University. The campus is very large and the buildings are mammoth and quite modern. However, it really lacks the charm of other college campuses we’ve visited in the past year. Jan took advantage of the campground’s free laundry room, even though it was the smallest we’ve encountered.

Phil made use of the collapsible US Army shovel we had bought before beginning our RV adventure to dig the truck tires out of the mud and scoop the water out of the deep ruts. With no further rain, the ground firmed up enough for Phil to pull our rig out of the muck using the truck’s 4-wheel-drive on May 13th. The owner of the campground had offered to tow us out, if necessary, but we were relieved that we didn’t need that assistance. We were very glad to put Stillwater, OK in our rearview mirrors. We drove 231 miles to Salina, KS where we spent two nights at the Salina KOA. Although our drive was quite rural and not on an interstate, we had a divided highway most of the trip and not much traffic.

May 14th was Mother’s Day and we spent the day visiting Abilene, KS. First, we stopped and took some pictures of one of the Abilene mansions.

Next, we visited the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum for several hours. After watching a 25 minute video detailing Ike’s life, we got a guided tour of the home where he lived from age 8 to 20. It was quite a small house, especially for a family of two adults and six boys. We learned that Ike was a less than stellar cadet while at West Point but that obviously didn’t hold him back. In fact, all six of the Eisenhower boys had extremely prestigious careers, despite having grown up on the poor side of the tracks.

Finally, we toured the museum and explored two extensive exhibits: Chisholm Trail and the Cow Town that Raised a President, and Eisenhower and the Great War. While both exhibits were very interesting, we enjoyed the Chisholm Trail the most and learned a lot about the struggles between the cowboys and the farmers. There was also a lot of info about the struggles between the local lawmen, including Wild Bill Hickok, and the gunfighters.


On May 15th, we began a series of four straight days of driving across the plains. Our first day was only a 189 mile leg to Grand Island, NE where we stayed at the Grand Island KOA. On May 16th, we drove 263 miles on Interstate 80 and spent the night at the Cabela’s campground by their corporate headquarters.

We had made reservations to spend May 17th at the KOA in Casper, WY but the weather forecast changed our minds. Although the drive on May 17th through Wyoming would have just been rainy, the forecast for that evening and May 18th called for significant snow accumulation. Rather than sit in Sidney, NE for two more days, we rerouted our trip due north through Nebraska and South Dakota. We drove 280 miles through some beautiful country to Spearfish, SD where we spent the night at a very nice KOA.

On May 18th, we finished the push to Billings, MT with a 275 mile drive. By getting on the road by 8:30 am, we reached Billings by 2 pm and decided to go ahead and drop in at the RV dealer to see about getting our service scheduled. Although we were glad to have arrived in Billings and to get a firm service appointment, we were disappointed to learn that we would have to wait until May 24th for service. We checked into the Billings KOA and made plans on how to spend the next six days.

View from our site at Billings KOA before the neighbors arrived