5 October 2017

A road trip through the US of A - Part X: Heading out west - Des Moines, IA - Reno, NV

Prairie dogs
We left Des Moines with less than a month of travelling in the US left. And so much ground to cover! But luckily, there wasn't much to see on the next 600 miles. So we drove quite quickly across the remaining part of Iowa, up along the border with Nebraska and across large parts of South Dakota. Fields upon fields and prairie as far as the eye can see. By noon the next day we reached the first attraction: the Badlands National Park. The colors of the many layers of earth and rock were nice to see, but we particularly liked the quite close encounter with the prairie dogs. But beware of touching them, they can spread diseases!


Mount Rushmore
After a quick stop in Rapid City, we drove up into the Black Hills. Our first destination was of course Mount Rushmore. But as we get easily turned off by large crowds of tourists, we didn't even use their parking lot, just drove by and made a stop further down the road. The rest of our drive through the hills was scenic, but we were growing more and more tired.

Late in the afternoon, we crossed into Wyoming. Already Iowa had been sparsely populated for our feeling. With roughly six times the surface of Switzerland, not even half the people living there. But Wyoming beats this without blinking an eye. Also roughly six times the surface of Switzerland, there's only about 580'000 people living there. Or one fifteenth of the population of Switzerland. It's so empty that
Devils Tower
seeing wildlife is incredibly easy. And not just in the national parks. During our drive from the border with South Dakota to the Devils Tower, about a one hour drive, we saw about 20 deer and a few foxes.

We arrived at Devils Tower National Monument just before dark, right on time to experience it with a magnificient sunset. Lucky us, the public camping just beneath the Devils Tower still had space. We enjoyed a quiet and relaxed night in this beautiful environment. In the morning, we walked up to the parking lot at the foot of the monument and back. My ankle still didn't allow for more. But one day, we'll be back, climbing that thing. Hopefully.

A hunters home
The next two nights we got hosted by a lovely couple in Dayton, WY, a small community at the foot of the bighorn mountains. He was a hunter and had an impressive collection of animal heads in his living room. We talked a lot about hunting and in the end I had to agree that hunting is today necessary for population control, as long as there aren't enough large predators around. We ate some delicious elk steaks they had in the freezer from the last hunt. The next day, she took us to a friends farm to see the cute baby pigs and goats.

Then it was wilderness time again! Through thick fog we drove up the bighorn mountains and down again to the arid plain on the other side. A short detour brought us into the beautiful Bighorn Canyon. Our daily drive ended in Cody, WY, the last town of any size before Yellowstone where we stocked up on fuel and groceries, as this would be much more expensive for the next 500
At Bighorn Canyon
miles. We slept on the local Walmart parking lot, as usual. We were also used to see a few RVs staying there for the night with us. But in Cody, about half of the parking lot was packed with RVs and campers of all sizes.

We left early morning in order to secure ourselves a camping spot at one of the government run campsites inside Yellowstone. The one at Canyon Village was already full when we got there at 8am, but we found a beautiful spot on Norris Campground a few miles further where immediately decided to stay for three nights. On the way, we had our first very close encounter with buffaloes. They got pretty much extinct in most of the US, but there's a couple of populations left and the one in Yellowstone is probably the healthiest one. As it was before noon when we arrived and got our camping spot, we had an early lunch and then set out to explore a first part of the park.

Buffalo in Yellowstone
The smell of sulfur from the many active volcanic sites is a constant companion while in Yellowstone. But the sights are worth bearing the smell for a few days. The first afternoon we drove to Mammoth hot springs, over to Tower Junction and back to our campsite. We saw plenty of sulfur deposits, mud pools and smoking holes, but also plenty of wildlife. Deer, elk, buffaloes and even coyotes seem pretty used to human activity in the park and so don't bother hiding in the woods. The next day we drove all the way to the Northeast entrance in Montana in order to see the large herds of buffaloes. They're pretty easy to spot from the road. The mountains surrounding the valley are very scenic as well. Next time I'd love to go hiking a couple of days in the backcountry, once my ankle is well again. On the way back, we even spotted a mountain goat and her young high up on a mountain. Unfortunately they were too far away for a good picture. On the way back to camp, we went to see the waterfalls in Yellowstone Canyon, one of the highlights of the park. During our lazy day, the only thing we did was going to Norris Geyser Basin which was less than 30 minutes walking from our camp. But still a very nice experience.

Old Faithful
We saved some of the most iconic sights in Yellowstone for our last day. As we wanted to drive quite far that day, we set off very early in the morning. We reached the Grand Prismatic Spring and surrounding geysers soon. A little too soon, as the fog had not yet lifted, so our pictures are not that colorful. By 8am, we already reached Old Faithful. While the amount of tourists at the location must be horrible during the peak summer months, it's still worth going to if you've already made all the way to Yellowstone. We watched it erupt twice while having coffee and warming up in the early morning sun. We left Yellowstone towards Grand Teton National Park, where we spent all day enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery. In the evening, we finally left the mountains and drove to Rexburg, ID, where our next host was already waiting for us.

Grand Teton National Park
As we got two positive replies for our open request almost the same time, we decided to stay one night in Rexburg and one night in nearby Idaho Falls. In Rexburg, we stayed with a mormon family of six. They are only married for five years, and the fifth kid is already on the way. Crazy! But they were happy and we enjoyed playing with the kids. In Idaho Falls, we stayed with an elderly couple. They were so excited to host people from Switzerland, as they had this awesome game from Switzerland to play. We had to smile when we saw the game: Brändi Dog! Of course we were happy to play, as we didn't have another chance during our trip.

Craters of the Moon
We knew the next drive would be long. It's 600 miles from Idaho Falls to Reno, NV, on the border with California. And we decided to take a detour to see the lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument. Apart from these lava fields, which are really scenic and well worth the one hour detour, the whole drive was quite tiresome. But the altitude desert of northern Nevada has it's charm. We slept on a Walmart parking lot once more, before completing the journey.

Back in 2010, Lisa had been to California and stayed with some friends of a friend, called the llamas, because they actually do have some llamas in their back yard. As we were on the way to California, we contacted them a few days before to see if it would be possible to pay them a visit. Unfortunately, they were planning to move to their summer home up in Montana during that time. But we were, once again, very lucky. They were taking the same highway like us and so we could meet them 50 miles outside Reno at a petrol station for drinks and a chat. What perfect timing.

Lake Tahoe
As it was still quite early in the day when we arrived at our destination for today, Minden, NV, we drove up the mountains to Lake Tahoe. The lake is beautiful, especially it's blue and turquoise waters, but the landscape shows clear signs of the four year drought California is going through. On our way back to Minden, we saw a huge wildfire to the south of the city. According to our host, this was a minor one which had been going on for two days already. No one seemed concerned. We ate at the local casino, as they serve huge meals for a bargain price. We didn't stay in Minden for long, as our itch for nature was not yet satisfied. So we left the next morning towards Yosemite.

More pictures from our road trip leaving Des Moines, IA to Minden, NV

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