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Editor’s Note:  Due to a broken computer and getting back to life upon the return of the trip blog posts for Leg 4 of our YLA are about 5 – 6 weeks behind reality.

We left Zion National Park and headed east toward Bryce Canyon National Park.  The two hour drive between the parks has some incredible scenery.  We arrived at Bryce Canyon City after dark and were fortunate to find a place to stay without having reservations.  There are only a couple of hotels in town, and our first choice had no vacancies.  Advance reservations would probably be a good idea if you are planning to stay in Bryce Canyon City.  The Best Western Ruby Inn met our needs perfectly.

The next morning, we awoke to 37 degree temperatures and snow flurries – on May 17!  Thankfully Mom thought to pack our cold weather clothes on this leg of our Year Long Adventure.  We got bundled up, gassed up the van, and headed off in search of the mysterious hoodoos.

The NPS website for Bryce Canyon National Park describes it as follows: “Bryce Canyon is, in the strictest sense of the word, UNIQUE – nowhere is anything else even similar!”  This is very accurate.  We did not know much about Bryce Canyon before visiting other than the fact that it was famous for hoodoos.  Hoodoos are rock spire formations that look similar to the stalagmites that are normally found in caves.  What we found was breathtaking, and unfortunately, our pictures cannot do justice to the actual views.  The drives between the canyon lookouts take you through heavily wooded areas that are home to many different species of wildlife.  We saw many deer on our drive through the park.

During our time in the park, we learned how erosion changes the rock to form fins, windows, arches, and hoodoos.  For a simple explanation of the process and the differences between the formations, check here.

Fins

Window

We made stops at many of the canyon lookout areas and were amazed at the incredible landscape.  The park road is an 18 mile one-way trip out to Rainbow Point.  At Rainbow Point, the temperatures had dropped below freezing due to the higher elevation.  Seeing hoodoos dusted with snow was something we did not expect to see in May.

Snow-dusted hoodoos

Our trip to Bryce Canyon was short, but spectacular.  We would highly recommend a visit here, especially in warmer temperatures, as hiking trails and camping sites are available.

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After weather complications prevented us from seeing the Giant Sequoias, we made an unscheduled stop in San Francisco on Leg 4 of our Year Long Adventure.  This was Mom & Dad’s third trip to SF, and we were excited to get the chance to show the kids the city where we spent both our honeymoon and ten year wedding anniversary.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Our first stop was north of the city, where we experienced the beauty of Muir Woods National Monument (read about it here).

The amazing Redwoods of Muir Woods

We contemplated staying our one night outside the city, but we instead decided to stay in the heart of the Fisherman’s Wharf area at the Best Western Tuscan Inn.  The cost to stay here was a little more than outside the city, but the prime location allowed us to walk to most of the places we wanted to see on our visit.

After checking into the hotel, we walked four blocks to Pier 39 to see the Sea Lions who gather on the floating docks.  The kids really enjoyed the antics and call of the sea lions despite the cold and windy evening.

We then walked down the wharf and ate dinner at Boudin Bakery.  Their specialty is sourdough bread, and they bake loaves in some amazing animal shapes.

Turtles, crabs, and bears...oh my!

Bread alligator

After some excellent seafood, we took a taxi up to Nob Hill to show the kids the Renaissance Stanford Court hotel where we spent our honeymoon back in 1997 and our anniversary in 2007.

Nob Hill is only a few blocks away from Chinatown.  From the hotel, we walked down a street so steep that it is hard to believe.  We did a little souvenir shopping and stopped for a  photo op on Clay Street.

At sunset, we caught the closest trolley car for a ride back down to the wharf.  This was another big hit with the kids.

Riding the Trolley

The next morning we walked a few blocks over to Lombard Street.  This is the famous “crookedest street in the world” built with switchbacks to allow cars to traverse the extremely steep slope.

Crooked street in the world

Preparing to walk back down

It was a rough hike up the hill to make it to the top of the street, but the view was worth it.  A quick walk back to the hotel and our 24 hours in San Francisco were done.  The kids really enjoyed the trip, and it was fun for Mom and Dad to share one of our favorite places with them, if only for a short time.

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We decided to leave Yellowstone one night early for two reasons.  One, we had a huge drive to the next town looming before us and two, frankly because it was not fun waking up in a tent when it was 40 degrees.  Dad went to go take a 12 minute shower (the best $4 spent on the trip) and get a cup of coffee from the store.  Mom was up at camp when he got back, so we decided to sit in the car with the heater on to discuss our options.  Did we mention that it was COLD?  A quick call to Hotels.com got us a hotel reservation in Powell, Wyoming, or so we thought.  We chose Powell because at first glance, Cody, Wyoming looked too expensive.  We have learned on this trip that a lot of people stay in the towns closest to the entrances of Yellowstone National Park and travel in for the day.  Because of this, hotels in these towns typically charge much more for rooms of the same or lesser quality.

We spent our last day in Yellowstone driving through the park to experience some of the spots that we had not yet seen.  Yellowstone is very large, and each section of the park is radically different from the others (geysers, canyons, forests, lakes, valleys).  We really loved the Canyon area and its two amazing waterfalls.

We can only imagine what the first explorers who found this place thought when they came upon the 300+ foot waterfall at the Lower Falls.  One last drive through herds of bison in Hayden Valley and past gorgeous Yellowstone Lake, and we were on our way out of the park.  Every day is an Adventure.

Heading East through Wyoming towards Cody was an awesome drive with incredible scenery.

We hit Cody, and turned off for the 30-minute drive to Powell where we understood that we had a reservation at the one chain hotel in town.  Every day is an Adventure.

We pulled up to our hotel after 9:00 with a very tired family.  As Dad walked up to the hotel and saw the No Vacancy sign, he felt very glad that he made his reservation early that morning through Hotels.com.  Those warm, fuzzy feelings quickly disappeared when he found that the hotel had no reservation for our family.   A quick call to our friends at Hotels.com informed us that there was a “system error” processing our reservation, but thankfully “there would not be a charge to our credit card”.  Thanks Hotels.com – now we feel better.

We surveyed our other options in Powell (very scary), and came to the conclusion that our only hope was to head back to Cody.  We decided to call our friends at Hotels.com to see available options in Cody before we backtracked 30 minutes.  Each time that Dad tried to call with our failed reservation number, the call was mysteriously dropped after we explained the situation.  Thanks Hotels.com.  Every day is an adventure.

We found a place in Cody on our own, and everything was great.  Thanks AmericInn.  This hotel had the added bonus of having a lobby full of mounted animals, which the kids loved.  Did we mention we were in Wyoming?

The next morning, we did our usual check-out (15 minutes after check-out time), and hit the road again for a long drive across Wyoming to Devil’s Tower.

Devil’s Tower is famous because it is the unique rock formation that was used in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.  We had reservations to stay at the KOA next to Devil’s Tower in their “Park Model” Cabin.  It is the Penthouse of the KOA lodging options:  a cabin with two rooms, A/C, and its own bathroom.  When planning the Year Long Adventure, we had grand hopes of utilizing KOA for about 30% of the stays on the first leg of this adventure to help with costs.  We had already canceled all but two of our KOA reservations, but had kept this one due to the fact that it was the top of the line (and it was too late to cancel).  How bad could it be? Every day is an adventure.

We checked into the KOA and drove across the property to the lone Park Model.  At first glance it was not too bad, but we did come up with a helpful (although obvious) hint for anyone providing lodging for travelers.  On 100 degree days, it might not be a bad idea to go out in the afternoon and turn on the air conditioner in the units reserved for that evening.  We turned on the A/C in the sweltering cabin (even while noting that due to a bad floor plan, cool air would never reach the master bedroom) and headed into the small town outside Devil’s Tower for dinner.  Mom and Dad decided while this lodging might not be our ideal choice, it was ours for the evening and it would be okay.  Every day is an Adventure.

We returned to the KOA, started three loads of laundry, and began the nightly chore of trying to get all three kids ready for bed.  The kids were finally in bed with the lights out when Dad left to move the laundry to the dryer.  Upon his return, he did not find the happy home that he had left.  Mom had fear in her eyes as she informed him that we had a “small” problem.  An inspection of the mattress in the master bedroom led to the discovery of BUGS in the bed.  Not sure what kind of bugs they were, but they were the kind that meant a drive to a hotel was in order.  Dad drove up to the office to inform them of the situation, got a refund, and headed back to the Park Model for the arduous trip of repacking everything in the van – in the dark – with three tired kids – and a Mom freaked out by bugs in her bed.  Every day is an adventure.

The one saving grace  was the goat Dad found sitting on the porch of the Park Model when he returned from the office.  Yes, a goat.  While Mom and Dad loaded the van, the kids had a ball playing outside with the goat.

We decided not to freak the kids out with the bugs, so we told them we were leaving because it was too hot to sleep in the cabin.  All they cared about was the goat.  We got the van loaded, said goodbye to the goat, retrieved our still slightly damp laundry, and headed to our next destination after 10:00 at night. The goat will probably be one of the lasting memories of the trip for the kids.  There was even a discussion in the car about having a pet goat at home.  Two nights in a row of driving to a different city where we have no hotel because our previous lodging did not work out as planned.  Every day is an adventure.

We pulled into Rapid City, South Dakota, where we had planned to be the following two nights.  We found the Best Western where our reservations were, and let them know that because we were so excited, we were a day early.  They had one room left due to a no-show, so thankfully, they let us have that room.  Everything worked out in the end, and we were all finally in bed by 12:30 A.M.  We are in the same hotel for the next three nights, and this hotel has two BIG waterslides.  Did we mention that every day is an adventure?

P.S.  Thanks Hotels.com for the $150 voucher and for FINALLY doing the right thing.

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We found the answer to be around 11.5 hours.  The day started in Bismarck, North Dakota.  The original plan was to drive around 2.5 hours to Glendive, Montana, for a couple of activities, and then another hour to Miles City, Montana, to spend the evening.  First rule of the Year Long Adventure – plans must remain flexible.

On our way through North Dakota, we made an unplanned stop near Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  This park is part of the North Dakota Badlands, a truly spectacular geologic formation that stretches as far as the eye can see.   We didn’t officially enter the park, but the scenic overlook off of the highway offered an amazing view.

In Glendive, we planned to check out a dinosaur museum and to tour Makoshika State Park.  We stopped for what we thought was going to be a quick lunch at Dairy Queen before heading to the museum.  There were only two lunch options in Glendive, and the Subway had a line out the door.  We headed into the Dairy Queen to find another long line, so Dad decided that the drive through would be faster.  We ordered very quickly, but the DQ was very understaffed, leading to a 20 minute wait at the window.  At least we were able to watch the 4 year old boy sitting on the floor behind the counter while his mother worked her shift.  Who knew that Dairy Queen offered on-site daycare for their employees?

After lunch, we headed to Makoshika Dinosaur Museum in downtown Glendive.  The idea of displaying dinosaur figures in realistic dioramas is great, but the quality and quantity of the exhibits was less than we expected.  The museum is constructed and staffed entirely by volunteers, and many areas were under construction.

Since the museum was a bit underwhelming, we cut our visit short and drove to Makoshika State Park.  The landscape here was incredible.  Pictures cannot really capture the depth and vastness of the area.  We meandered up and down a steep and winding cliff road – good preparation for mountain roads coming later in this journey.

A view like this was one of the main reasons for taking this trip out West.  The kids were in awe of their surroundings.  The visitor center is small but the exhibits explaining the formation of these “Badlands” are very interesting and informative.  This area of the U.S. was actually once under the ocean.

We left Glendive and drove toward our final destination.  When we arrived in Miles City, but it was still early in the evening.  A change in time zones had provided us with an extra hour of daylight.  Dad was loving The Big Sky of Montana and really not looking forward to the KOA in Miles City, so he suggested that we keep driving to the next major city, Billings.  The kids did not want to be in the car anymore, but Dad overruled them.  Driving the extra few hours at night rather than in the morning was going to make the next day much easier.  Dad decided we could make it even further, so we continued on to Bozeman.

We blasted through the next 300 miles of incredible Montana scenery in 4 hours thanks to the 75 MPH speed limits.  The only problem was that we did not have a reservation for the evening.  Dad assured everyone that there is never a town that has absolutely no rooms available.  He was right by exactly ONE room.  During the drive between Billings and Bozeman, we called about twelve hotels, and some of the hotel personnel actually laughed when they were asked if they had any rooms available.  It turns out that Bozeman, Montana, and its suburbs fill up with Yellowstone visitors every night, even though they are over 55 miles away from the entrance to the park.

As we finally pulled into town, the kids tearfully asked if we were going to have to sleep in the van.  They had reached their breaking point.  We drove by The Best Western Yellowstone Inn and decided to check availability even though we had already called twice about vacancies.  We are truly blessed because they had one room available that they were discounting 40% off because the A/C was not working.  Needless to say, we took it.  The joke was on them because when we got to the room, the A/C was working.  We found much needed sanctuary, and promised the kids that we would not keep them in the van that long at one time again.  We will just remind them if  it happens again that you just have to remain flexible on long road trips.

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We made the drive into Mitchell, South Dakota, and learned a valuable lesson in trip planning.  You should probably avoid a place if you have any doubts after looking at its online marketing.  We had made reservations to stay at the Best Western Motor Inn.  The rate was better than most of the hotels in the area, and we only needed a place to sleep before the next day’s excursion.  Since it was only for one night, we figured that we were tough enough to deal with anything.  Alas, we were wrong.

After a frightening first glance at the exterior, we continued past the motel into town and immediately started questioning our decision.  Mom was ready to be a trooper, but Dad was already turning over our options in his head.  We drove by the World Famous Corn Palace – a building with an exterior decorated with designs made out of corncobs.  Interesting.  Then, we crept slowly back towards the impending disaster.

Corn Palace

Corn Palace wall detail

Overriding our instincts, we checked in with the lowest of expectations.  But when we pulled up to the room, we were still shocked and disappointed.  Two doors down from us were a couple of bikers who were cleaning their bikes in the parking lot outside their room.  They had a stereo blaring Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  After a quick inspection of the room, we decided we weren’t gonna take it either.  It smelled awful!  Maybe we’ve seen many police dramas, but the place had “future crime scene” written all over it.  Erring on the side of caution, we left quickly.  Mom was so flustered that she didn’t take a picture.

The second mistake of the evening occurred at dinner.  Allison wanted to go to Perkins (like a Denny’s), since we seemed to pass one in every town in the Midwest.  I am sure that there are a lot of good Perkins Restaurants in the country, but this is not one of them.  As we sat through one of the worst restaurant experiences ever (sticky booth, dripping air vent over table, bug on plate, terrible food & service), all Dad could think about was that one of Tiger’s mistresses worked at a Perkins.  Really, Tiger?  Dad fought through the sketchy wifi to find a better lodging alternative for the night.

Nothing says classy dining more than this. Yes, the mop bucket is directly in front of the hostess stand at the restaurant entrance. And no, the water in it is NOT clean.

We loaded back into the van and headed to the Holiday Inn Express, which was located on the side of town that was developed after 1950.  All of our hotel needs were met including a wonderful breakfast in the morning.  Dad called the Motor Inn that night to inform them that we would not actually be spending the night there (just in case).  We did not want be suspects if a body was found in the room by the maid in the morning.  Dad was willing to lose the room payment for the betterment of the family, but he planned to deal with Best Western Customer Service at a later date.  A trip theme continues to develop – reservations made but never used.  Hmmm…

 

Editor’s Note: Best Western could not refund our money, but they did give us 10,000 Reward Points for the inconvenience.  Thank you Best Western.

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Allison (Age 11) Says:

The Nebraska flag isn’t everywhere like the Texas flag is in Texas. I think that’s weird. Maybe it’s because Texas has a more “colorful” history than Nebraska. I also noticed that there are a ton of non-Nebraskan license plates here.

We went to the Henry Doorly Zoo. We saw Indochinese and Bengal tigers, crocodiles, bats, chimpanzees, orangutans, snakes, fish, pumas, peccaries, and gorillas! A gorilla went right up next to us! It still startled us even though we were behind glass.

Gorilla viewing station

In the evening, we went to Mass at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral. It was one BIG church!

St. Cecilia's Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska

There wasn’t any music or songs, but it was still interesting! The cathedral has pretty statues and a REALLY tall ceiling with a sun and the symbols of the Gospel writers. It was an awesome Mass!

Audrey (Age 8) Says:

We had the best time at the hotel pool today!  It had two waterslides and a spray umbrella.  One waterslide was shaped like a frog and the slide was its tongue.  There was also a big yellow slide that Allison and I enjoyed.  It felt good after getting so hot at the zoo.

At the zoo we saw many different animals including bats, alligators, sea lions, gorillas, and beavers.  There was a huge exhibit about desert animals inside a huge dome.

Tonight we went to St. Cecilia’s Cathedral.  It was really pretty.

Interior of St. Cecilia's

Andrew (Age 4) Says:

We got to ride the Skyfari at the zoo. (It was like a ski lift that went over the entire zoo). It was cool.  I had fun seeing the gorilla.

Riding on the Skyfari

So sleepy.

I also got to eat ice cream after dinner at Jason’s Deli.

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Two days down, twenty-nine more to go.  The morning started in Wichita, Kansas.  After Complimentary Breakfast at The Best Western, we headed back out on the road.  The first leg of our journey for the day led us to Atchison, Kansas.  The drive took us through the Flint Hills of Kansas.  The countryside was gorgeous – lots of rolling hills and everything was green.

Flint Hills of Kansas

There were so many of cows on both sides of the road that a very heated game of “Count the Cows” began.  Anguished cries could be heard from the backseat whenever we passed a cemetery (one on your side of the car causes you to lose all your cows).  Farming dominates this region.  It was mind- blowing how much corn is planted in the Midwest. One sign we passed said, “One Kansas farmer feeds 128 people plus you!”

We rolled into Atchison, the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, in time for lunch on the town square.  After lunch, we “strolled” uphill through the 1860s historic neighborhood where Amelia grew up.   The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum is located inside the house where she was born and faces the Missouri river.

Our girls, ages 8 and 11, had read biographies of Amelia and were eager to see the home.  The tour is self-guided, and many of Amelia’s personal belongings are on display.

View from Amelia Earhart's front porch

Andrew, our 4 year old, was not that impressed with the museum, so he and Dad spent time on the porch looking at bugs and the incredible view of the river.  We noticed that the river had a really cool bridge crossing it, so we decided to explore it.

Turns out that the bridge crossed the Missouri River, and we were now in Missouri.  We were in a bonus state that we had not planned on – awesome.

The next three hours took us through Missouri and the edge of Iowa on our way to Omaha, Nebraska.  We were expecting flat terrain but were mistaken.  There were lots of hills, mountains in the kids’ eyes, throughout Western Missouri and Iowa. When we crossed the Nebraska state line, we pulled into our fourth state in just three hours.  This was a very impressive feat to the kids, especially being from a state the size of Texas.  We are thankful that we will be spending two nights here and have a short break from long car rides.

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