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wyoming

A Priceline Cautionary Tale (Day 16)

Today was mostly uneventful — a 9 hour driving day from our campground in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Couer d’Alene, Idaho. (The stop was chosen to give us a pleasant 6 hour drive the following day to our final destination in Port Townsend, Washington.)

We planned to stay in a hotel, as we’d been camping several days in a row and were a) in the mood to be in a real bed and b) not in the mood to set up and break down camp again.

We’d only stayed in a couple of hotels, but so far had had great luck with Name-Your-Own-Price and Express Deals on Priceline. (If you’ve never used them before, Name-Your-Own-Price lets you offer a bid on a hotel room in a chosen area. Express Deals is a little different, you’re offered a “mystery hotel” for a set price, typically lower than the area average, but you don’t know what hotel you’re purchasing — just the star rating of the hotel and the area it’s in.)

Throughout the trip we’d had an ongoing debate: 2 Stars vs. 2.5 Stars. Ryan thought the savings (usually $15-$30/night) offered by a 2-star hotel warranted at least a test run. I felt the prices were so low, it was a little concerning.

As we were looking at hotels in the Couer d’Alene/Post Falls, Idaho area, the debate raged on. There was a 2-star Express Deal hotel available for $45/night. We had spent more on the first part of the trip than we had planned, so finally I gave in; we just planned to roll in to town, go to bed, and head out early the next morning. How bad could it be?

When we arrived at “Hotel X,” tired and hungry, the exterior was immediately off-putting. But I tried to put on a positive attitude. Maybe the outside was dated, but the interior would be fine. We waited for about 10 minutes as the receptionist first checked a guest into the wrong room (he returned immediately reporting that “there’s someone sleeping in that room”), then checked in four young men who were paying in cash, which I found shady.

We went into our room and it was … grim. The bedspreads looked like they had been there since the 80s. The furniture looked like it came from a garage sale. And to top it all off, when Ryan checked the window (on our ground floor room) he discovered it neither closed nor latched properly.

As I repeated to myself, “We’re only sleeping here,” Ryan announced matter-of-factly, “Nah, we’re not staying here.”

We took our things and never looked back. While eating dinner at Panera, we changed our Priceline search to the nearby city of Spokane, Washington, and scored a positively luxurious room at the Holiday Inn Spokane Airport for about $20/night more than the first room. We had a fantastic night’s sleep … but most importantly, I think, we learned a valuable lesson: That 1/2 star is more important than you might think. (And if you can’t find the deal you want, and there’s another city 20 minutes away, you might try checking there too.) Live and learn!

Old Faithful & the Grand Tetons (Day 15)

The next day dawned rainy and dismal. We’d had a better night’s sleep than the night before, but our moods were dampened by the cold rain. We had planned another day exploring Yellowstone, but wouldn’t be returning to that campground, so we were forced to pack up our tent and other gear while it was still soaking wet. For the first time in our trip, it felt like our enthusiasm was flagging; Ryan was fighting a head cold after our chilly night, and the gloomy day was definitely affecting both our moods.

We had just two stops planned for the day: Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful. Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world, but I was mostly interested in it because of the beautiful rainbow of colors it displays.

Well, I was in for a disappointment; it was about 45 degrees out and the warm water (160 degrees) meeting the cool air left the springs clouded in steam.

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Next stop: Old Faithful — and our timing couldn’t have been better. It erupts every 35 to 125 minutes, and we weren’t excited about the possibility of waiting in the rain, but it went off just 2 or 3 minutes after we arrived. Maybe it was the dreary day affecting our mood, but we just weren’t that impressed.

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Directly south of Yellowstone National Park is Grand Teton National Park — directly between us and our next stopping point in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. By the time we arrived at the border of Grand Teton, the unpleasant weather was beginning to evaporate and we were treated to some tremendous views of the incredible Teton mountain range.

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You might be able to tell that by this point we were kind of ready for a break from camping. Hotels in Jackson Hole were, as we expected, pretty pricey. So instead we reserved a “kamping kabin” at the Jackson Hole / Snake River KOA. This one-room cabin had a double bed and a pair of bunk beds — and Ryan even scored us a cabin with an amazing riverfront view!

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After cooking dinner at our campground, we headed into town to check out Jackson Hole — a charming, upscale town nestled in the base of the mountains. We enjoyed homemade ice cream at Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream, spent some time browsing the local bookstore, and wandered in and out of the shops. I can only imagine how cozy the town would be in the winter when the resort ski season begins!

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Exploring Yellowstone (Day 14)

We woke up the next morning undeterred by a terrible night’s sleep. The KOA encouraged late check-ins, and we had neighbors in the tent village arrive at around midnight and make all kinds of racket setting up their site. In addition, the temperatures plummeted in the night, dropping to around 24 degrees — definitely at the low end of what our gear was rated for.

But we were excited to see Yellowstone and fortified ourselves with a big breakfast. (Another plus of the tent village: the counter area, which allowed me to easily set up and plug in my griddle to make bacon and eggs! Truly luxurious camping!)

Our main destination for the day was Mammoth Hot Springs, but with the whole day ahead of us we were ready to see as many sights as possible. We knew from our previous day’s drive that it would be a real challenge not to stop every five minutes to take pictures of the beautiful views!

Our first stop was at Gibbon Falls, a beautiful waterfall with a drop of about 84 feet.

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Next detour: the Artist Paint Pots. We primarily stopped because we were intrigued by the name, and learned it was a short hike through a small geothermal basin. The hot water bubbled up through multicolored clay, making it look for all the world like an artist’s palette!

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We saw more buffalo, elk, and pronghorns as we drove through the park, but a new exciting wildlife moment was when we spotted a black bear and her roly-poly cub! The bear herself was so small, we thought she might be a baby until we saw the cub tucked in the underbrush beside a log. Sadly, my hopes of seeing a grizzly bear (a very far away grizzly bear) never materialized.

The elk were very pretty though.
The elk were very pretty though.

Next we made a stop at Mammoth Hot Springs, a large complex of hot springs on a hill of travertine. Thermal activity here has created a series of terraces that the warm bubbling water flows over. The hot springs were interesting to look at, but they smelled terrible! They reminded me of a very dirty version of the lovely hot springs in Pamukkale, Turkey.

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Our final stop — the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone — proved to be one of the most beautiful wonders we’d see that day.  We hiked from out to a point overlooking the canyon from up high, then hiked down to an overlook just above the lower falls. (Our glutes were feeling that burn for days!)

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Our day of exploring Yellowstone had worn us both out, so we returned to the campground ready for a quiet evening relaxing and reading by the fire.  We had seen much of the northern part of the park; we planned to see the park’s southern sights the next day.

A Long Drive to Yellowstone (Day 13)

Today was another big driving day and our first sight of Yellowstone National Park!

Good old Google Maps estimated our drive from Buffalo, Wyoming to the Yellowstone Park / West Entrance KOA at about 6.5 hours, but it ended up taking us much longer. Our first detour was a longer-than-planned stop at the very nice Walmart in Cody, Wyoming, not far from the eastern edge of the park. Knowing we’d be far from civilization for a while (and that shopping opportunities we’d have would reflect tourist prices), we took the opportunity to restock our coolers for the next few days.

Just a few miles up the road, the awe-inspiring views at the Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir necessitated another stop.

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Our next stop was for a quick splash in the chilly rivers of the North Fork Shoshone River.

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Well, Ryan splashed. I did not.

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It was a pretty exciting moment when we entered Yellowstone National Park for the first time. We’d altered our route so that instead of going the fastest way (up into Montana, skirting the park) we would be traveling straight through the park to our campground at the west entrance. Because of all the stops we made, we were getting a little worried we wouldn’t get to our campground in time to set up the tent before dark, but the breathtaking views in Yellowstone soon distracted us.

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It’s a little over 80 miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance to the West Entrance, and we quickly learned that traffic through the park moves slowwwwwwly. The maximum speed limit is 45 mph, and there are so many campers and RVs, it often moves even more slowly. And whenever an animal is spotted, traffic quickly slows to a crawl. At one point, it came to a complete stop because there was a herd of buffalo in the road! That was so cool, we didn’t even care.

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We made it to the campground with about 30 minutes to set up our tent before dark, and were pleased with our decision to reserve a spot in the “tent village.” This was a hexagonal arrangement, with the “spokes” offering each of six camp sites fencing on the sides, and a small covered patio with counter top and storage. It was cool and windy and we were grateful for the site’s electric light and buffer from the wind.

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Exploring Longmire Country (Day 12)

A few years ago we discovered the TV show Longmire (now streaming on Netflix!). The show, based on a book series by Craig Johnson, is crime drama about a Wyoming county sheriff. When we learned that the fictional town of Durant that Longmire lives in is loosely based off the real-life town of Buffalo, Wyoming — located at the foot of the Bighorn Mountain Range — we knew we had to check it out.

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We had only planned to stay one night in Buffalo but when we woke up that morning we decided we didn’t want to be rushed, so we  extended our hotel stay another night. Then we were free to make our first stop: breakfast at the Busy Bee Cafe. Ryan has read all the Longmire books, and we were excited to visit the Busy Bee knowing it made regular appearances in the books.

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The cafe was located on Main Street, with big windows overlooking Clear Creek, which runs through the center of town. The owners were clearly happy to be part of the Longmire experience: the menu featured items like the “Longmire Breakfast,” two eggs and a country fried steak (and items like Longmire bumper stickers and books were also available for sale). We arrived just a few minutes too late to order breakfast, but enjoyed our lunch immensely.

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After lunch we walked the length of Main Street, checking out the shops and restaurants. Buffalo is a small town but it has a surprising amount to offer, from bookstores and art galleries to cute home decor shops and outdoor outfitters.

Our last stop was the Hitching Post Gallery, an art and cigar shop. We got to chatting with the owner, who had lived in Buffalo his whole life and was happy to tell us more about the town (including some stories about Longmire author Craig Johnson). He also recommended we take a drive through Crazy Woman Canyon, which ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

The beautiful drive to the canyon.
The beautiful drive to the canyon.

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Simultaneous picture taking!
Differing perspectives.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Buffalo, Wyoming and would recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of the Longmire books — or who just wants to enjoy a relaxing day in a small Western town. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to check out the historic Occidental Hotel, which once hosted visitors like Calamity Jane and Theodore Roosevelt, and visit more of the downtown restaurants (and the local brewery and distillery). Maybe next time!