National Parks:America’s Treasures Discovering America is Not as Expensive as One Might Think

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Summertime. Kids are out of school, and families take to the road. The Independent Gazette also took to the highway as we begin our documentary on our country’s national parks and treasures. As one shop owner said, a fella in West Yellowstone, a small Montana community and the Western gateway to the granddaddy of all national parks, Yellowstone, “Where else can a family come these days and visit such beauty and experience nature in its natural state for so little?” And we agree.

The Gazette focused our trip on four Western states: North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Our first stop: Teddy Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. The only national park named after a president, the park is located in the western part of the state in the rugged country known as the badlands. Teddy Roosevelt greatly expanded the national park system and often credited his experiences in North Dakota with preparing him for the presidency and pursuit of his subsequent conservation policies.

From there, we left the Interstate and traveled the Montana Hi- Line region, passing through rolling wheat fields as far as the eye can see, cattle herds, sagebrush, and hundreds of miles of remote territory before arriving at the snow-capped mountains of the Rockies and Glacier National Park. Traversing the Hi-Line is a little like traveling back in time — one can still get a feeling of what living in the Wild West was all about, all while getting a full understanding of why Montana’s nickname is the Big Sky State.

Glacier National Park is majestic. Starting at McDonald Lake, the journey leads along the world famous “Road to the Sun Road,” snaking to the top of Logan Pass. Each switchback brings another picturesque moment and breathtaking mountain views, not to mention the waterfalls at every turn, the glaciers, and the rivers coming alive with the summer runoff. A black bear jumps in front of us at one point, crossing our path as we inch up the switched- back road.

Glacier became our nation’s tenth national park in 1910, and in 1932 the United States and Canada joined together to create the world’s first International Peace Park, Waterton-Glacier. Former Secretary of the Interior, Stewart L. Udall, may have summed it up best: “The unheralded line that separates Canada and the United States is the longest unfortified border in the world today, and perhaps in all history. It says to humanity: Let not the cartographers rule; elevate nature and human friendship.”

As we head south past Flathead Lake, through the Tobacco Root, Bridger, and Spanish Creek Ranges, Bozeman, and the Gallatin Canyon, Montana lays out the welcome mat to unheralded beauty as we arrive in Yellowstone.

There is simply no place in the world like Yellowstone National Park. Geysers, boiling mud pots, abundant wildlife, lakes, canyons, falls, rivers, and, of course, Old Faithful . . . Yellowstone has it all. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a sight to be seen, and after a long day of hiking, fly fishing, or traveling the park, one cannot beat the ambiance, the innate beauty of Old Faithful Inn, to finish off a beautiful day.

Heading out of the south entrance to Yellowstone for a day trip,
we visit Grand Teton, National Park. One is greeted to the majesty of the Teton Range, dubbed by many the Alps of the Rockies. The park is a popular destination for fishing, rafting, and mountaineering.

Early morning finds us at the Little Bighorn, Custer Battlefield. We walk the trails and come upon Custer’s Last Stand. As one views the treeless hills and the Little Bighorn River in the distance, history flows through every vein in the body.

Leaving Montana, we continue east into Wyoming. Off the Interstate, seldom is a vehicle seen. Up one hill and down another, then, bam! Devils Tower. What a site out there all alone. As we enter our nation’s first national monument, we are greeted by the ever-friendly prairie dogs, hundreds, maybe thousands, making their home at the base of the impressive geological feature.

Next stop, South Dakota . . . The black hills, Sturgis, Mount Rushmore, and Deadwood. We grabbed a room at the historic Franklin Hotel and enjoyed the history and nightlife of the small casino town, maybe best known for the shooting of
Wild Bill Hickok while holding aces and eights, now known as the “deadman’s hand.”

As we continue to head east, we make the obligatory Wall Drug Store stop and enter Badlands National Park. We continue the east loop through the park, marveling at the barren landscape and unique Badland features, eventually arriving back on the Interstate that will guide us home.

As we begin to head east and back home, we take the side roads of the Montana countryside. Quake Lake, formed by the massive earthquake of 1959, Ennis, and then the sister towns of Virginia City and Nevada City, loaded with Old West history and known for one of the richest gold finds in the Rocky Mountain West.

Our entire trip encompassed 12 days and covered 6,100 miles. Far and away the biggest expense was gasoline. At 30 miles per gallon, we used about 200 gallons of gas, with an estimated average gas price of $2.50 or less, so $500 worth. Tolls through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois: $60. Except for an overnight stay at the Franklin Hotel in Deadwood at $80, the rest of our trip we camped out at night. Many camping areas in Montana are available free of charge if using national forests. Camping in the national parks ranges in cost from $25 per night to $12 per night for seniors. Camping in the national parks is convenient and offers easy access to stores and showers. Our total expense for lodging and camping was $116. Being a senior, 62 years old or older, one qualifies for national parks and federal recreational lands pass, for a one-time, lifetime outlay of $10. Yes, a mere ten dollars. This allows one to access all federal territories, national monuments, and national parks at no additional charge; just present the pass at the entrances. The sole exception was Mount Rushmore, where the parking has been privatized (we are looking into that matter) and cost us $12. If you are not a senior, your pass — good for one year — costs $80. Total expenditures, less food, which one would spend whether on the road or at home, came to under $1,000 at $698. Not bad!

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