After a superb trip to neighouring Arizona and Utah
some years earlier, a return to Colorado to explore the other side of the
Rockies was always on the cards. When we looked at planning the itinerary, it
became obvious that an inverted horseshoe route, taking in a more northerly
area, was suited to our needs. This would then include the Rockies themselves,
the Badlands of South Dakota, and most importantly, Yellowstone National Park.
This meant an arrival at Denver in Colorado, and a departure from Salt Lake
City. As usual in the States, distances are much greater than we are used to in
the UK and even Europe as a whole, with the greatest journey being around 10
hours between Rapid City in South Dakota and Yellowstone. This did mean that we
experienced a variety of impressive National Parks, with scenery and wildlife
in general as the main target, and birds more or less seen as an incidental to
The bases used on our journey were Estes Park,
which is a characterful small town right next to the entrance to the Rocky
Mountain National Park, Rapid City, a functional place plonked in the centre of
the Custer National Park (or Mount Rushmore if you are in the typical tourist
trail!) and the Badlands, and West Yellowstone for the first few days for
Yellowstone National Park (again, better for the Old Faithful brigade and also
Grand Teton National Park), with a finish off in Gardiner for the North
Entrance of Yellowstone (better for access to the wildlife richer North loop).
We hired our car beforehand, and the midsize we wanted was inexpensive and more
than adequate for its task - don't believe the usual upgrade rubbish that
offers a more powerful engine for the mountains. A sat nav unit was
indispensable for driving - we bought an expansion SD card for North America
for our own portable Garmin unit in the UK for around £45, which was a lot
cheaper than hiring at the car firm.
June is probably an ideal time to visit the area.
We noticed that many of the park roads, particularly in Yellowstone, are closed
right up until May, presumably due to Winter snow, which was still evident in
the peaks. We had been keeping a close eye in the weather before we left and
expected it to be quite cool with variable precipitation. The variability in
this became evident. We had almost unbroken sunshine throughout, with
temperatures up to the 90'sC in the Rockies, and 80'sC elsewhere. However, we
arrived at Yellowstone in sleet and the temperature gauge showing only a few
degrees above freezing. A heavy rain shower fell in Rapid City one late
evening. The watch word is to be prepared - the gloves, hat and mac may be
necessary at this time of year on any given visit. We did experience a few
minor bites from insects, but these were generally not a nuisance.
Denver - Embassy Suites. The airport seems to have
been built fairly recently, and with it a clutch of attendant hotels with
complementary shuttle services such as this. The free breakfast was immense,
including freshly cooked omelettes and pancakes. The surroundings are worth a
look prebreakfast, since the hotel is next to some open land.
Estes Park - Discovery Lodge. This is a privately
run hotel, built at the start of a run of chain lodgings, which also means it
is a closer walk to town. They have an emphasis on environmental awareness, and
the rooms are very comfortable. Main downside is that this was the only place
we stayed at which didn't include breakfast in our booking, and had no air
conditioning. On the other hand, there was quite a bit of birdlife in the back
yard to keep up interest. Estes Park is not only handy for Rocky Mountain
National Park, but is not a bad place to stay in itself, offering an
interesting array of restaurants.
Rapid City - Best Western Town & Country. Much
like the rather soulless town itself, the hotel is purely a means to an end,
and no better or worse than any of the other chains along this quite busy
stretch of road. Breakfast was "included" with our booking after a
fight, but is merely a $5 voucher towards breakfast at the adjoining diner.
Yellowstone. We originally booked all 5 nights at
the Yellowstone Lodge in West Yellowstone, since this small town is next to the
more popular West entrance to the park. The room we were given was large, and
the location on the edge of town, only a short walk from the rather limited
choice of restaurants (Bullwinkle's is probably the pick of them). After
deciding on the Wolftracker day in the park, where the favoured entrance is the
North one, we had 2 nights in the Yellowstone Village Inn on the outskirts of
Gardiner. This was again absolutely fine, and I would recommend taking a meal
at The Mine, a family grill just across and down the road.
Salt Lake City - Fairfield Suites and Hotel. Take
your pick for one of the many airport hotels here. Complentary breakfast and
free airport shuttle is probably a standard, and the location and lodging
suited just fine.