Posts Tagged With: Elk

Truly Wild in Yellowstone National Park

Smoky sunset at Townsend

Magpies at dusk

Two nights in Townsend at the Canyon Ferry Lake area along the Missouri River was a needed break to take care of some housekeeping in the motorhome and just a break from our hike-a-minute schedule. But we were anxious for Yellowstone National Park and trekked out of town easily and through Bozeman (too early to stop at the breweries, darnit) toward Livingstone and through really thick smoke from wildfires. You could see the shrouded mountains of the Gallatin Range as we passed through to Gardiner at the entrance to Yellowstone.


Town of Gardiner

Victorian Inn

Time for a beer and elk tacos

Very cute town and a perfect stop for lunch on a patio overlooking the Yellowstone River. We noshed on elk tacos washed down with some local brews (remember, that is one of our trip objectives… sampling the local beer). Stopped at the Yellowstone Forever shop for some advice and Jackie was convinced that we needed to have bear spray while in the park. We found out where to rent canisters and holsters, so we were now prepared to enter the park.

Roosevelt Arch – northern entrance

Trying to recreate the picture from 1969

And what a huge park it is. A pretty big change even from Glacier. Driving distances between key sights are in the 30 – 50 mile range and the landscape is quite varied, going from the soft rolling hills of the north that are mostly dry sagebrush scrub and alpine grasslands interspersed with bands of spruce (and the remains of previous wildfires) to the vast stretches of lodgepole pine in the middle of the park. The Van did its best winding upward to Mt. Washburn (10,243 ft.) and back down toward Yellowstone Lake and our campground at Fishing Bridge. Everything starts at about 7,500 ft elevation here, so the altitude still takes getting used to. Campground is pretty darn big, with campsites staged tail-to-tail to maximize the number of units in the space, but it works for us just fine. Complete hookups means we can run the heater if it gets cold or the AC if it gets hot (both of which it does).

Campsite at Yellowstone

So what is there to do in this vast, strange land? Over the course of six days we did the typical tourist things with a few surprises. We find you just can’t be too quick to judge an area until you stay a few days while things change and evolve, both from a weather perspective and the appearance of wildlife.

Living on a Volcano
You learn quickly that the central part of Yellowstone is a collapsed and covered volcano’s caldera. The hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, steam vents and mud pots all come from the hot magma below. Air and water are heated and vent to the surface with all sorts of minerals. Some of the water is so clear and beautiful you want to take a dip. Not a good idea: it’s 180o to 190o. Other pools have rings of color surrounding them. Cyanobacteria and algae living in the water help give them their colors. We tried to see all the hot spots, from the steam and plop, plop of Mud Volcano to the roar of Dragon’s Mouth to the colorful hot springs like Grand Prism and the geysers like Old Faithful, Steamboat and Castle. Lots of stinky, sulfurous steam around. There are even steam vents and pools of boiling water along the shores of Lake Yellowstone. In the early morning you see steam rising from all sorts of places in the landscape – very eerie.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

Some of the first driving we did across and around the park we were disappointed not to see anything. The lodgepole pine forests were pretty much one-note, many areas that had burned over in the past had a lot of downed logs and new green trees coming in, but no wildlife that we could see. However, once we crossed into the Hayden Valley along the Yellowstone River, things changed. There were several herds of bison along the river and trumpeter swans floating in the water. We later spotted one elk cow in the woods just off the road, lots of other single bison, and a lone bald eagle perched near Lake Yellowstone.


Gray Jay

Bald eagle

Trumpeter swan

Elk with a keeping careful watch

But we wanted wolves and bears! We spoke to some of the park rangers and were told of three areas to check out: one was in the spruce/fir area near Mt. Washburn where black bear were spotted getting cones from the trees, one was the Lamar River valley in the far northeast and the other was a bison carcass in the Hayden Valley that was attracting bears.

The traffic jam

The crowd on the hill, early

The “carcass”

The main attaction – the grizzly

We had planned all along to go to the Lamar Valley to spot wolves, so that was our main destination one evening. On the way we passed through the Hayden Valley and soon saw a massive traffic jam on the road. Cars were lined up on both shoulders of the road and there was quite a crowd on the hillside – that had to mean something good. We quickly grabbed our camera, binoculars and spotting scope and rushed to join everyone. Sure enough, there was a very large, dark grizzly moving away from the dead bison. I would guess he was 300 yards off. Ravens and even a bald eagle were swarmed over the carcass and the grizzly moved ever closer to our hillside spot, perhaps as close as 150 yards downhill. We snapped some pictures and marveled at the sight. He soon drifted to an area out of sight and where everyone was banned from following.

Folks with good spotting scopes were noticing some grey wolves across the river popping their heads up every so often. One of the rangers explained there was a pack here with two gray females, three black males and a gray/brown male. The older gray female had given birth to five pups this year, so they were pretty excited for the pack. We watched for a while then decided to head on up to the Lamar Valley as planned.

Bighorn sheep

Scoping the Lamar Valley for wolves

Once in the valley we tried to spot some action or some clusters of cars that might be watching something, but it was pretty empty except for some fisherman and a couple of bighorn sheep. Doug suggested a bluff that overlooked the river so we set up the scope and scanned around for about a half hour. All we found were some herds of bison and figured we ought to go back to where we knew there were wolves near the “carcass” (as it is now known) and go with a sure thing. Back we went.

Watching for wolves

Bald eagle leaving the scene

It was even more crowded than before, with easily over a hundred folks on the hillside: scopes, chairs, stools, kids … crazy scene. We found a spot to plant the scope, watched both the carcass and the other side of the river for some action. No bear, but the bald eagle suddenly took wing, a white pelican flew down to the river, sandhill cranes flew over and into the valley and we began to spot the wolves popping up from the grass again.

Best I could do with 300mm lens at dusk

Then we were treated to a spectacular event. As it became darker the six wolves became more active and moved toward the riverbank. The alpha female led the way as they moved in and out of the grasses and along the river. They would stop, group up, jump around and wrestle, lick snouts and then stop to survey the scene. Not sure how deep the river was at that spot, but it was pretty wide. Down the bank they moved as we watched through our new scope (great close-ups), binoculars and long lens of the camera. Doug tried to get some shots, but the combination of low light and distance made it tough to get crisp pictures, as you can see. Naturally, the attachment for the scope that connects the phone camera to the lens was… back in the car. No time to run back.

The wolves, maybe a half mile off

Lead female separated from the pack by a wide margin and we almost lost her. Then someone spotted movement farther off and we thought we had three sandy colored coyotes moving in. We had a good look at them as they headed toward the wolves when we realized they were the young wolf pups coming to join mom. We watched a very playful reunion, tails flipping, pups wrestling … clearly she had given them some signal to join in.
The pack never did cross the river as it got darker and harder to see them. We packed up and considered ourselves very lucky to have seen this pack behavior.

Two mornings later we got up early to check the “carcass” on our way to a hike on Mt. Washburn and found another crowd lined along the bluff. Set up the scope, WITH the phone attachment this time, and got some shots of the grizzly sleeping and then moving along the riverbank. Over the hill and across the river folks said there was a pack of wolves that we could not see; but we did hear the pack howl and yelp for a good few minutes. Awesome. Things went quiet and we headed further on to the Mt. Washburn trailhead at Dunraven Pass.

The bear spray

This was going to be a challenging hike, uphill as much as 1,400 feet, and we really didn’t intend to go the full 3.5 miles. But the trail was wide and the day was sunny and warm, so we decided to go 1.5 miles, catch the amazing view, and then head back. On our way back a lone woman came huffing up the trail toward us, flushed and holding her can of bear spray. “A black bear just crossed the trail back there, you better have your spray ready.” Well, we had one can with us (Jackie’s was back in the car, Doug wouldn’t go back for it earlier, tsk, tsk). Ok, the can is almost out of the hip holster as we approach the area.

Black bear in the brush

Well, the picture was taken in a hurry …

Cautiously down the trail we went, scanning the woods for movement. Yes! There… not 50 feet from us was a dark brown lump moving in the brush. We got a good look at him as he dug and scrounged around, not really noticing us. Tough to get a good photo, what with all the trees in the way, but we had a good look at him and quietly pointed him out to another pair of hikers walking by. He ambled further down the hillside and out of sight and we continued on down the trail, totally satisfied with our decision to try this hike today. Of course everyone we passed hiking up the trail asked “did you see the bear?” and we relayed what we knew. Not sure how word of the encounter got downhill so fast.

Sometimes it is good planning that puts you where the action is and sometimes it’s just luck and a good sense of your surroundings. We had seen plenty of fresh scat on the trail, heard a ruckus of squirrels in the trees in about the same area and pretty much knew there was a chance of finding one of these bears. Maybe our training as wildlife biologists helped.

The “carcass” was a bonus for everyone who got to enjoy the bears that came and the wolves and scavengers who tried to join the action. We did hear that two bears got into a fight at the spot and one wolf had managed to sneak a bite while the bear was feeding, so if you stayed around long enough, it would have been a good sight.

Oh, and on the last night in camp, Doug was sitting out and saw a fox dash along the woodline along the campground, maybe only 50 feet away. How cool.

Our impression of Yellowstone is that it is much more of a driving park than a hiking park, compared to Glacier or Badlands or Zion. Each of the different natural attractions is separated by quite a distance of boreal forest, alpine meadows or sagebrush scrub. There are plenty of spots to hike, they just tend to be long hikes of several miles, not something we were prepared to do on a daily basis. We hiked part of the aforementioned Mt. Washburn trail for 1.5 miles in and about 1,000 ft. up in elevation (to 9,700 ft., huff, huff) and got to see our black bear, plus plenty of Clark’s nuthatches, ravens and hawks.

Clark’s nuthatch is jay sized

Ravens are big.

Other hikes were on the boardwalks around the thermal areas, such as Norris geyser basin, Old Faithful and the Upper geyser basin and mud volcano area. Just because it is boardwalk, don’t think it doesn’t have some climbing – it does.

Natural bridge

We hiked in to see Natural Bridge and thought the surrounding woods were perfect for elk, but nothing was seen. A really nice morning hike through Pelican Valley only turned up a single bison, but we were darned sure there were bears around. It was probably our off-key singing that kept them away (and noisy hiking is so not what we do).

Yellowstone Lake is the huge center of the caldera, feeding the magnificent Yellowstone River as it meanders through the Hayden Valley. Soon it carves through the rock, creating a beautiful waterfall and what is known as Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. There are several good vistas to see the falls and canyon and it all appears different from each view. One of the “must see” stops in the park, even if you have to wait a while for a parking spot.


Lodges and facilities

Old Faithful Inn

Yellowstone is another one of our great national parks that has this combination of CCC buildings of massive stone and timber, ‘60’s era “Jetsons” modernism and new environmentally sensitive lodgings and visitors centers. We lunched in the dining room of the Yellowstone Inn, marveling at the timber construction and real-wood touches.

Visitor’s Center was fantastic

We also had delicious flatbreads at the Canyon Lodge – part of their ‘60’s era modernization. The campground, however, needs some attention. Our loop was a pot-hole filled roadway of gravel and mud and the sites were tail-to-tail tight packed, but not as well-maintained as a KOA (but priced that way). And vault toilets throughout the park are few and far between, usually well used.

So our trip to Yellowstone National Park definitely was all we expected and more.  It is far larger than you imagine and it really remains very wild. It faces many challenges, from wildfires (which are really essential), from overuse in the more popular areas, from a public that doesn’t understand that wild animals need their space and from inadequate funding (all National Parks suffer lack of funding). But there are also lots of successes for the park, such as grey wolf re-introduction and grizzly management.
We didn’t feel a single earthquake and the volcano didn’t erupt, so I call that a success.

We next head on to Grand Tetons National Park in our quest to see all the wonders and wildlife we can, this time in search of more moose and elk. Thanks for following along on our adventures – we hope you enjoy the stories and the pictures.

Note: we just read that the fires in Glacier NP have spread, forcing some campgrounds and lodges to close and causing the loss of one of the chalets. Fires continue to burn in Missoula and surrounding areas, causing smoky skies even around us in Yellowstone. Lucky we had some clear days in both parks.


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Black Hills, Bison, Breweries and BAM!

Week two of our current westward adventure began as we drove across the prairie to Rapid City.  We got to town before noon, so of course we needed to check out the brewery we saw advertised along the route with some two dozen fire engines: Firehouse Brewing.  

Parked the motorhome near their Civic Center and walked through a beautiful city park about two blocks from downtown.  Very cute downtown, with baskets of flowers and lots of trendy shops and eateries.  Found the Firehouse (literally their old firehouse) and ordered lunch.

A flight to tempt

Doug was thirsty, so he had a flight of their nine beers.  We both agreed their red ale was the best, even though Jackie was hoping for a robust porter.  

Firehouse Brewing

Back to the motorhome and then southwest to Custer State Park.  The approach into the park is vast rolling hills of light green grasslands sprinkled with dark pines. We meandered into the park on serpentine roads searching for bison.  Nothing yet.  We made camp in record time, since the site at Grace Coolidge Campground was very level and an easy back-in.  Yes, the car and hitch came off, but it was super easy.  Electric only, but we had dumped and filled our fresh water at Badlands, so we were all good.

Grace Coolidge Campground

Over the next three days we stayed on the move.  We drove the Wildlife Loop Trail twice, drove the Needles Highway twice, drove Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore, visited Custer and Hill City and Crazy Horse Mountain.  Best way to describe them all is that nothing is straight, everything seems to be about a 20 mile loop and you better keep your eyes open for wildlife, cause it is there.


First trip around the Wildlife Loop Trail we were thinking about the first part of Jurassic Park when they kept asking where the dinosaurs were.  Nice scenery, but where are the bison?  Oh, those cars are stopped, maybe that’s … no, just pronghorn.  Wait, there are more stopped ahead … no, just the local “begging burros.”  

Begging Burros

Plenty of prairie dog villages, but no bison.  Hmmm, cars stopped ahead, woah …. look at the shoulder of the road there is a bison and calf and … yikes! Suddenly we were in the middle of the herd.  

A little close maybe?


All the cars were stopped and for good reason, as the herd was moving from right to left across and down the road.  We had the windows down and were snapping pictures as these big ol’ guys climbed out of the ditches and ambled alongside the car, their hooves softly clip-clopping down the road.  It was amazing and a bit unnerving – I spotted two large males ambling up behind the car in the rearview mirror and they just stopped right behind, as if they were waiting in line.  We probably stayed in the middle of this herd for 30 to 40 minutes.  You really had no choice since they blocked both lanes of the road.  Wow.  We went back to that area on a different day and had another great “midst of the herd” encounter.

Bison herd


Later in the week we would see one or two in other sections of the park, just grazing or sitting off the road.  On one of our trips around the park we pulled off behind another stopped car and asked what they were watching.  Elk.  We watched a small group of females munching their way up a hillside.  


Black Hills

We also saw plenty of white-tailed deer grazing off the road, watched as about six turkeys crossed the road and caught a mule deer drinking at a stream.  The wildlife moving through the park seems to be everywhere.  By now we are both on a hunt for mountain goats, said to frequent the higher elevations along Needles Highway.


One excursion took us into Custer around noon, so we stopped to eat at Burger and Bun, a very popular spot recommended to us at Firehouse Brewing.  Indeed, the burgers were delicious and the place had a cool vibe.  Washed down with local beer, of course.  Custer is another great town for tourists, with plenty or rock shops, western wear and local art.  Their public art is painted bison placed around town.  


We drove the Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore one morning and really enjoyed it.  This roadway has tons of switchbacks, a few narrow tunnels and a couple of corkscrew turns where you curve under the roadway itself.  One of the last tunnels you travel was designed to point directly at the mountain carving for a perfect framed view.  

Presidential Profiles?


Once at the Monument, it became even more impressive.  We walked the boardwalk and stairway trail that circled pretty close and got great views of each of the presidential profiles.  All of the public areas have been updated beautifully and the restaurant/gift shop is impressive.


Needles Highway is another treat to drive.  We first drove it downhill, then returned another day to go uphill.  Each time was a crazy drive of U-turn curves, switchbacks, single lane tunnels and overlooks.  When you approach the narrowest tunnel, Needles Eye (at 8’ 4”) it is a minor parking lot with people walking around snapping pictures, cars waiting their turn to pass … all surrounded by towers of smooth granite.  The roadways are a favorite of motorcyclists, although we are lucky that the huge (500,000 or more) motorcycle rally in Sturgis just ended as we arrived here.  Plenty still remain, however.

New peeps

Ever notice how small a world it is?  We met a very nice family in Badlands who were quite taken with Kodi.  Shared our experiences and wished them well.  As we were hiking around Sylvan Lake, a gorgeous but remote spot at the end of Needles Highway, who do we spot but our friends from the Badlands.  We shared more stories and then snapped a pic of our new peeps from the Badlands/Black Hills.  We learned that they don’t head back to school until after Labor Day, unlike our school, which began July 31.  Kinda explains all the kids we see everywhere.

Sylvan Lake


Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

We had one more stop to make, at Crazy Horse Memorial.  This is an impressive tribute to all Native Americans and it is going to be many more years in the making.  We toured the museum collections and gazed at the profile of Crazy Horse that was in progress.  They said that the heads of Mt. Rushmore would fit inside Crazy Horse’s sculpted head.

Crazy Horse sculpture

The artist’s model and actual mountain


Funny how we ended up in town around lunchtime each day.  In Custer we stopped in at Naked Winery/Sick ‘n Twisted Brewery for a flight.  Quiet spot now that cycle week was over.

Flight at Sick ‘n Twisted

We were told their main location in Hill City was much better stocked, so on another day we were headed to sample more of their beer and also visit the main location of Prairie Berry Winery/Miner Brewing in town.  Hill City looked like fun as we slowly drove through on our way to the breweries when …


… all of a sudden a deer ran across in front of the car, I hit the brakes, but we slammed into it.  Rolled to a stop, deer continued on and we looked at the damage.  Bumper and front grill not looking good and when I finally got the hood up, the radiator was pushed back.  

Mangled Rav4

So these things happened next:

  • Pulled in to the visitors center just yards ahead of us and asked about auto repair shop
  • Auto repair shop south of town said they couldn’t repair, but looked like AC was out, no leaks otherwise
  • Told we must report the accident to State Patrol immediately, and did
  • Headed up the road again to get something to eat at… Sick ‘n Twisted
  • Spoke to State Patrol, who would meet us to look at car and file report (and where would that be exactly?  Brewery)
  • Officer filed his report, we called insurance, went in to have a flight and pizza
  • Brewery had wifi and cell service, so we located nearest Toyota dealer in Rapid City
  • Just yards ahead was Miner Brewing, but I only was able to run in and get a sticker (sad)
  • Drove to Rapid City where they looked at radiator (we were expecting repair) and said it was not leaking and should be ok for rest of trip
  • Drove back to camp and tried to shake it off

Well, at least we can drive the car, minus the AC.  Since it has been in ‘70’s here and should be no hotter in Glacier, Yellowstone, Tetons, we can make it.  The right headlight looks like Mad-eye Moody, all wonky and pointed in strange directions.  Body work will just have to wait until we are back home.  Well, at least it wasn’t a bison.

On our last night in camp we drove toward the Wildlife Loop Road, expecting to see the herd again, but no herd was around.  We did scare up the turkeys again and spotted about a half dozen solo male bison on the shoulder of the road.  The evening’s highlight was watching a large herd of elk moving along a hillside and down to the fields below – probably about 30 or more, a mixture of females, youngsters and young males.  They were bugling and making all sorts of noises as they moved along.  Very cool.


So our stay in Custer State Park has been amazing.  Animals all around, except the elusive mountain goats, and nice fall-like weather.  Just one big thunderstorm at night.

So, what’s next?  Off to Bighorn National Forest for two days, with a stop at Devil’s Tower on the way.  Then a couple of KOA nights in Billings and Great Falls (the time of the eclipse) so we can take care of laundry, stock up on supplies and ready ourselves for Glacier National Park.  

Thanks for following along (click to follow) as the adventure continues . . .

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Downshifting into Week 2

Rocky Mountain Day 2 (2)

Today we wound our way down out of Rocky Mountain National Park, through Estes Park and Boulder and then across Colorado on I-70 to Grand Junction area – James Robb State Park, to be exact, alongside the Colorado River. The river was a clear ribbon we followed out of and across the Rocky Mountains. If you have ever done this trek, you know there is a lot of downshifting going on, both down the serpentine roads and then as you wind your way back up again. But I skipped ahead and need to let you know how it was in Rocky Mountain National Park. AMAZING.

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I might overuse that word just a bit, but it really was an awesome experience. We arrived in camp knowing it was a first-come basis for campsites, but we didn’t expect to find the LAST campsite available. A bit of panic set in just before we claimed it for our own, but it worked out just fine, even though it was across from the restrooms and the bear-proof garbage bins.

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Bull elk

The park was very busy, which surprised us, but we were told that September is their second busiest month due to elk viewing. This is also the park’s Centennial, so I think there has been a greater push to visit the park. It was evident, as we wove our way through the many cars parked alongside the road every place there were elk. But they were spectacular beasts. The bull elk were in rut, so they were rounding up and stealing from each other’s harem of hinds (females). The younger males tried their best, but they seemed to always be on the fringes. The bugling calls of the males were heard day and night, a very eerie sound that reminds you that you are in their mountains. The aspen are all golden and orange, sprinkled among the spruce. It makes for very colorful mountainsides. Unfortunately, the spruce beetle has really taken a toll on the trees, with at least a third of the trees dead or dying.

First hike we did was around the Morraine Park meadow, the place where most of the elk hung out (although they and the mule deer wandered through the campground). At one point in the 5-6 mile hike we were on the far side of the meadow away from all the cars and spectators and we had fairly close view of about 12 = 15 males challenging each other. When we heard calls up the mountain behind us, we picked up the pace so as not to stay between them. These guys move quick.

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The long trail down

We were proud of our hikes, since our walking routine these past months has helped get us in shape. But folks from Colorado out-do you every time. I think it must be a requirement to live in the state that you bicycle or hike miles and miles each day. It is definitely a very bike friendly state. “We just did a little 10 mile hike to the five lakes …” was heard on the shuttle bus. Sheesh.

I spent time trying to get pictures of the local wildlife, which consisted of several kinds of squirrels and chipmunks, large grey and white Clark’s nuthatches and the elusive Steller’s Jay. The one I caught on camera in Cheyenne Mountain was actually a Scrub Jay. As you can see by the pictures, I think I did pretty well with the wildlife. I have to say that the money shot for the elk was the bull I caught in the stream. Was kinda ho-hum after spotting that guy.

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Mountain bluebird

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Steller’s jay

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Abert squirrel

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Clark’s nuthatch

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Mule deer buck

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We decided to only drive the car up Trail Ridge Road, rather than leave the park that way with the motorhome. Good decision. The day we went up to the Alpine Visitor’s Center it was clear and sunny and an awe-inspiring drive. But it went to 12,700 feet from our camp elevation of 7,500 feet, not something I really wanted to do in the motorhome. We hiked across the tundra on a few trails, but the cold wind and the altitude do a number on you, no matter how much in shape you are. The majesty of the mountains and the vistas just took your breath away anyhow.

A thunderstorm rolled through the night before we left. In the morning the temperature was 32 degrees and snow had fallen in the higher altitudes. They are shutting off the water in the restrooms Oct. 5, so I guess freezing temperatures are to be expected soon.

The Morraine Park Campground has some great campsites, a lot of them are for tents. There is no water at campsites and no electric, so you have to be prepared. We were down to the last of our onboard water, but the propane was fine for cooking and the fridge; we ran the generator just long enough to heat up in the morning or just before bed at night.

Back to today’s trip. We did spot a group of Bighorn sheep as we drove west, all females and it was too quick to get a picture. But no moose in the Rockies just yet. Maybe the most exciting part of the drive was through Glenwood Canyon, where the road divides into an upper and lower level to make it through the pass. However, construction had everyone on the same 2-lane roadway, one lane each way. But it was fun, and the canyon walls were just gorgeous.

The state park site tonight has full hookups, so we are charging everything we can, doing a load of laundry and filling the water tank in preparation for Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park. We should be there tomorrow night.


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