Forum Index > Trip Reports > Devils Tower, Badlands NP, Custer State Park, Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP - 9/7/20-9/23/20
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Jonny V
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PostTue Sep 29, 2020 3:30 pm 
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I hope I am not straying from the intent of this site by including some pics that are not from actual hikes. The main topic of this report is indeed about several hikes during this five state excursion but I had to throw in a few related pics along the way.

In the early morning on Labor Day, September 7th, we left Lake Stevens and headed east on Highway 2. This would be the more scenic and less crowded route than I-90 over Stevens Pass, across the mighty Columbia at Wenatchee, up onto the high mesas and across through Coulee City to Spokane. There we would connect to I-90 for the drive through the Idaho panhandle to St. Regis, Montana where we would spend our first night. We knew it would probably be a gusty day near Coulee City with possible blowing dust. There was an active fire much further up near Omak so a little smoke wouldn’t surprise us. All was well until we left Orondo to climb up out of the Columbia and onto the mesas. We could see some blowing dust up there as we climbed. Once on the top of the mesas it became increasingly dusty and the winds began to howl. Visibility got worse. About halfway across the mesas we were forced to turn around due to a new fire up ahead. We didn’t want to try to go around it to the north because of the fires up there so our only alternative was to drive back the way we came to the Columbia and then head south to I-90 via Quincy before continuing east. As we drove back towards the river conditions continued to get worse. Smoke was really making driving a challenge and the winds were up to forty miles an hour with even stronger gusts.

We finally made it to I-90 at George but conditions down there weren’t much better than where we had just been. Driving east, speeds would vary on the interstate due to going in and out of dense storms of smoke, ash and dust. The Navibahn was just caked with grime and I didn't dare try the wipers or it would have smeared beyond the ability to see anything at all. Sometimes visibility would drop to zero and you would just have to crawl along and hope for a break. Just east of Ritzville as huge wind gusts blew tumbleweeds and dirt across the highway in front of me traffic had come to a dead halt. Luckily I was was going slow enough to stop with no problem but I was terrified someone could plow into us from behind. Things got pretty scary here. We were completely boxed in with fires exploding all around the area (we heard later that fifty-eight new fires started that day in a matter of hours) at a dead standstill in a hurricane dust bowl storm. We had no idea if fires were right over the next hill or what was going on. After about fifteen minutes somehow the far left lane slowly began to crawl forward so I muscled my way in there and we soon popped out and were able to move again, although only extremely slowly. In a clearing we saw that the westbound lanes with all the Labor Day returnees had suffered a huge pileup right in the teeth of the storm. Traffic going westbound stretched for miles and then suddenly no cars at all. They had closed the interstate westbound. When we passed the exit that forced them to funnel off, another traffic backup went for even a longer stretch of miles. I felt really bad for all those Labor Day weekenders trying to get home. By the time we hit Spokane things began to clear up enough to drive normally. Extremely frazzled but happy to be alive, we made it to St. Regis with no further issues.

Day two was just a driving day to Sheridan, WY. From Sheridan it is just a couple of hours to get to Devils Tower National Monument. Bridgit and I got all excited when we got our first glimpse of the tower off in the distance. She even downloaded Close Encounters of the Third Kind to watch (which we did later in the trip). The first two days were really just getting from home to here. From here on out though it would be non-stop excitement and things to see and do.

We camped at a little spot outside the monument called Devils Tower View Campground and it did indeed have a great killer view of the tower and just three miles from the entrance. We hiked the Tower Trail which is just over a one mile loop around the base of the tower. The columns were amazing and it was fun to watch the climbers stemming high on the walls above. I wanted to shoot sunset photos from a little further back so I went back to the monument after dinner and found a perfect open ridge top on the west side just before the road climbs up to the visitor center. There was no trail but it was easy to move in the open timber and I had the entire ridge to myself for a really nice sunset on Devils Tower.

Bison and Devils Tower
Bison and Devils Tower
Sunset on Devils Tower
Sunset on Devils Tower

Our next stop was Badlands National Park for two nights. We had never been here (or any of these other places) before and I was totally blown away by the Badlands. It had a similar feel to what I felt in Canyonlands NP but a very different geology and tons of wildlife. Wanting to take advantage of every minute there, the afternoon that we arrived we drove along the Badlands Loop Road to Yellow Mounds Overlook which is known as a good spot for late afternoon light. I would have to agree with that. Along the way we also stopped at the White River Overlook and that may be one of the best views in the park.

White River Overlook
White River Overlook
White River Overlook
White River Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook

Early the next morning we drove up to the parking area for four different trails, The Window Trail, The Door Trail, The Notch Trail and the Castle Trail. Badlands is centered around a huge sixty mile long wall of rock pinnacles and odd formations. Since our trailhead was on the east side of the Wall it was in shade early in the morning but at the end of the very short trail you come to a "window" in the Wall and the early morning sun had lit up the view on the other side.

View from end of Window Trail
View from end of Window Trail

By walking to the other end of the parking lot we then started on the Door Trail. Same deal however on this trail once you hike through a gap in the Wall the boardwalk ends and you have a gigantic jumble of crazy rock in front of you. Blue poles will keep you on track for another mile or so until it just drops off into a deep canyon but you really don't even need to follow the poles and can wander anywhere you are able. The morning sun was lighting this entire side of the Wall and dark rain clouds added a very dramatic touch to the light. This was a really cool trail.

The Wall, Door Trail
The Wall, Door Trail
Door Trail
Door Trail
Door Trail
Door Trail

Next was a drive around the entire Badlands Loop Road where we saw many incredible sights. The second half of the loop is a maintained dirt road but far fewer people even bother with this part of the loop. It's a shame because the grasslands there are very beautiful and there is lots of wildlife to see.

Toadstool Rock
Toadstool Rock
Bighorn
Bighorn
Bighorn
Bighorn
Beyond Yellow Mounds
Beyond Yellow Mounds
Bison
Bison

Years ago in an issue of Backpacker I had read about another hike in Badlands called the Castle/Medicine Root Loop Trail. I was sold as soon as I saw the accompanying full page photo. On our departure day I opted to take a sunrise hike along this 7.2 mile lollipop loop before leaving the area. I arrived at the same parking lot as the Door/Window Trails but the Castle Trail starts on the opposite side of the road and heads west. This meant that all the amazing Badland formations that just jutted up out of the prairie grasslands would get the first rays of the day. There were only three other cars in this huge parking lot at 6:15AM and I was lucky enough not to see another person on this entire hike until I was almost back to the car.

The trail was mostly flat other than a few dips in and out of very picturesque dry washes. I saw lots of deer waking up and rising out of the grasses. Just before the dawn broke the reddish brown rock on the formations began to glow. It truly appeared that way more so than having actual light shining on them. The first part of the trail was through grasslands already tinted with autumn reds and yellows. Isolated pinnacles stuck up out of the grasses. My timing was perfect. Just before dawn broke I came to a portal in the rock that led from the grasses into the heart of the rock formations. At exactly the time I walked through the rock portal, the interior walls of rock just lit up a brilliant reddish pink color as the sun broke the horizon.

Pre-dawn light on Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Pre-dawn light on Castle/Medicine Root Loop
First rays on Castle/Medicine Root Loop
First rays on Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Sunrise over Badlands National Park
Sunrise over Badlands National Park

The magic light didn't last long because as the sun rose it almost immediately went behind a cloud. Light changed with each passing moment. Soon it began to lightly mist and then gently sprinkle for about a half hour. This was the kind of rain that came down even as the sun shone through it. I was blessed with some incredible light including a full rainbow across the grasslands in front of the Wall.

Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Great light on the Badlands formations
Great light on the Badlands formations
Full rainbow on Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Full rainbow on Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Rainbow over Saddle Pass
Rainbow over Saddle Pass
Castle/Medicine Root Loop
Castle/Medicine Root Loop

The Castle Trail comes to a junction after 1.5 miles or so and I opted for the full loop by taking the Medicine Root Trail to the right. This led away from the formations but gave me not only great views from further back but a wonderful sense of isolation and solitude. It was during this hike that I really fell head over heels for Badlands National Park. I could spend a lot more time here. Backpacking would be a phenomenal experience but you would most likely need to pack any water you would need. Eventually the Medicine Root Trail curves back to the Castle Trail right near another pass called Saddle Pass. This pass can also be accessed from the other side of the Wall down on the Badlands Loop Road by a steep half mile trail, but I liked coming to it from above on the grasslands and looking down beyond the road towards the White River.

Backtracking to the junction of the Medicine Root and Castle Trails, I then took the Castle Trail that led me back to the stem of the lollipop and the parking lot. I was so jazzed from the amazing hike I turned the wrong way out of the parking lot. It must have been fate because when I turned around at the Big Badlands Overlook I came upon a bunch of bighorn sheep lying in the grasses. By maneuvering around them just a bit I was able to capture them with the Badland formations as a background. I love this shot.

Bighorn rams
Bighorn rams

Next up was Custer State Park where we hunkered down for several days. We wanted to hit Mt. Rushmore early to avoid the big crowds so we got up before the sun and started by driving the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park. There was so much wildlife in the early dawn hour that it felt like we were on safari!

Bison
Bison
White-tailed deer
White-tailed deer
Elk
Elk
Pronghorn
Pronghorn
Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey
Mule Deer
Mule Deer

We took the Iron Mountain Road to Rushmore which was beautifully engineered with a needle eye tunnel that is designed so that your first view of Mt. Rushmore is framed by the walls of the tunnel. Very cool.

Mt. Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore
Honest Abe
Honest Abe

Another very scenic road is called The Needles Highway. Bridgit and I drove up that until about three miles before it reaches Sylvan Lake. There she dropped me off at the Cathedral Spires Trailhead. I had seen photos of lots of rock pinnacles in the Black Hills and had really wanted to get to a perch to see them. I started out by hiking up into the heart of the Cathedral Spires which is a short, dead end trail. Backtracking to a trail junction I then hopped on the Black Elk Peak Trail. One direction would have led to the summit of South Dakota's highest peak, 7,242' Black Elk Peak but that direction of the trail was closed for some maintenance. I chose the other direction which led to a side trail to the summit of Little Devils Tower. It doesn't look at all to me like Devils Tower but it did have a fun little rock scramble before getting to the summit. Since I had left so early, I was the first up the trail and had the summit to myself for the first twenty minutes or so before the next hikers arrived. The views of the Black Hills, Black Elk Peak and Cathedral Spires was really expansive.

Cathedral Spires
Cathedral Spires
Black Hills
Black Hills
Black Elk Peak
Black Elk Peak
View from Little Devils Tower summit
View from Little Devils Tower summit

Another interesting thing on this hike was that it seemed that the aspens had practically changed overnight. Though not ready to peak, there was lots of yellow and golden leaves and even a lot of reds on the hike.

Leaving the summit I dropped back down to the Black Elk Peak Trail and continued until I arrived at Sylvan Lake. What a beautiful lake this is! A lot of the places I am mentioning can get really crowded at times but we found that before 10AM it was pretty chill most everywhere we went.

Black Elk Peak Trail
Black Elk Peak Trail
Black Elk Peak Trail
Black Elk Peak Trail
Cathedral Spires Trail
Cathedral Spires Trail
Cathedral Spires Trail
Cathedral Spires Trail

I think my hike from Cathedral Spires Trailhead to Sylvan Lake was maybe four miles and it was all easy hiking. Sylvan Lake also had a trail around the lake which we took before heading back to camp.

Sylvan Lake Reflection
Sylvan Lake Reflection
Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake

Leaving Custer State Park we drove across northern Wyoming to Cody. During this drive the smoke finally caught up to us and we battled less than stellar conditions for the next several days. We took a drive over the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and then the Beartooth Highway towards Red Lodge to the Montana state line and back but that was a really smoky day so we need to go back there. Despite the smoke it was easy to tell that the area between Beartooth Lake and the state line was a mecca of gorgeous scenery and tons of hiking options (bring your griz spray).

Sunset at Buffalo Bill State Park
Sunset at Buffalo Bill State Park
Sunrise over Cody, WY
Sunrise over Cody, WY
Beartooth Lake
Beartooth Lake

Then it was off to Grand Teton National Park but we got to drive through part of Yellowstone to get there. Again, we had never been and knowing we didn't have enough time to really explore Yellowstone, the plan was to just drive through and come back another time for a longer visit to our first national park. But how can you drive through Yellowstone and not stop for anything? So we stopped at West Thumb Geyser basin and drove up to the Grand Prismatic Spring, catching Old Faithful on the way back to West Thumb. Still smoky too.

West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring

I have dreamed of seeing the Tetons my whole life and can't even explain why it took me so long to get there. We arrived to thick smoke (could barely see the Tetons), then rain that night and clouds the whole next day but we managed to get a lot of sightseeing in and even a beautiful clear sunrise on the day we had to leave. One other cool thing was that we stopped by the famous Moulton Barns on Mormon Row and met a woman in her eighties who was one of the five kids that were born and raised on that farm. She told us stories about how her grandfather built the barns and other stories about living in those times in that place. It was pretty cool to get that connection to what must have been an amazing time to live in that area.

Moulton Family
Moulton Family
Moose
Moose
Oxbow Bend
Oxbow Bend
Cormorant at Oxbow Bend
Cormorant at Oxbow Bend
Oxbow Bend
Oxbow Bend
Pre-dawn light on Tetons
Pre-dawn light on Tetons
First light on Tetons
First light on Tetons
Teton pano
Teton pano
Teton reflection
Teton reflection
Teton morning
Teton morning

Coming home we took a scenic route through the Pioneer Mountains of southwestern Montana along the Wise River. Highly recommend that area if you've never been. And finally, we came home via Highway 2 and drove right through the burned out areas that had caused us to reroute back on our first day. A lot of the upper mesas were burned and it was a frightening thing to see.

Now that we've sampled all these amazing spots I can hardly wait to go back and plan some longer hikes and some backpacking. What a trip!
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fourteen410
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PostTue Sep 29, 2020 5:18 pm 
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Great shots. I was out there around the same time as you. How lucky of you to meet the Moultons!
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rocknclimb
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PostTue Sep 29, 2020 5:54 pm 
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Some of my favorite areas.  Thanks for sharing up.gif

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Dick B
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PostWed Sep 30, 2020 11:21 am 
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Thanks for the narrative and pictures of your trip. We made this trip to the Black Hills several years ago from Central Oregon. We hit a lot of the same spots, but not the Bad Lands. Our base in the HIlls was at Custer. We made an interesting trip to Hot Springs, a town south of Custer. It is the site of a large find of mammoth remains. If your are inclined to go to that area I would recommend that trip. We also did Devils Tower and were temped to do the local "Close Encounters" nightly showing but opted out. It so happened it was shown on some movie channel just a few days after our return.
We made a rather reflective stop at Custer's battlefield. Another recommendation is to read about this battle before your visit. There are several well documented books on the subject.
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olderthanIusedtobe
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PostWed Sep 30, 2020 11:31 am 
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up.gif  Lots of interesting terrain and critters, thanks for sharing.  Too bad about the smoke around Beartooth Pass area.  I've made several trips there, love it.
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ree
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ree
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PostSat Oct 10, 2020 7:27 pm 
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We did a similar trip several years ago. Loved the Custer State Park area. Did you see Crazy Horse?

We headed south out of the Badlands to see Wounded Knee on the Oglala Sioux Res. Pretty sobering drive.

Love Wyoming! So much interesting geology and history!
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Bootpathguy
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PostSun Oct 11, 2020 6:10 am 
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Jonny V wrote:
Bighorn rams
Bighorn rams

up.gif  up.gif  up.gif

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Forum Index > Trip Reports > Devils Tower, Badlands NP, Custer State Park, Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP - 9/7/20-9/23/20
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