Monarch Watch

A butterfly in front of the University of Kansas’ Monarch Waystation

We had a chance to head over to the University of Kansas and attend their open house concerning the annual Monarch butterfly migration. They have been tracking the huge decline in the Monarch butterfly population and are trying to raise awareness to how we can help restore the population.

Sarah and Emily examine some caterpillars in the garden behind Foley Hall.

Toyota Transition

This blog started in conjunction with my return to the United States in 2005 and purchase of a Toyota Tundra. After being away from the US for four years, I celebrated my return by the purchase of the new truck and a (mostly) circumnavigation of the lower 48. My first encounter with Toyota was through my friend Robb and a 1980s Toyota 4×4 he had. Robb was going to school at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Robb was fond of taking his truck to Pismo Beach and enjoying the beach and dune experience. Robb loved his truck.

After spending a year in Monterrey, CA learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute and a few months honing my listening abilities at Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, TX, I got my follow on orders to Fairbanks, Alaska (Fort Wainwright). I didn’t have a car. I was an enlisted Army soldier making not a whole lot of money. Heading way, way up north. I figured I needed a 4-wheel drive vehicle to make my life a bit more comfortable. My first thought was a Ford Ranger. But it ended up being too expensive. The most reasonable costing 4-wheel drive vehicle was a Toyota 4×4. It was 1993 and the Tacoma had not come along yet. 1993 Toyota 4×4. Manual locking hubs. Manual windows. AM/FM radio. Bench seat. No A/C. 4 cylinders. That truck was to go on to perform flawlessly in Alaska, transported me from Alaska to Georgia and several cross-country trips. Arizona. Washington State. Texas. And California. For seven years, that truck never let me down. I was heading off to Korea for a year to be followed by three in Germany. I sold the truck.

1993 Toyota 4×4, driving across western Arizona with my pet iguana
1993 Toyota 4×4, California – just before I had to sell the truck, ~December 2000
1993 Toyota 4×4, exploring south eastern Arizona near Fort Huachuca

When I was planning my return to the US, I knew I wanted to get another Toyota. I settled on the Tundra. But instead of the minimum package, I was able to swing a 2005 Toyota Tundra Limited Double Cab 4×4. This truck offered to support a newly forming family. I broke the truck in with a trip around the US. I continually upgraded my ham radio installation in the truck, further enhancing my mobile enjoyment. The Tundra performed flawlessly. Never an issue.

2005 Toyota Tundra, Fort Story, Virginia
2005 Toyota Tundra, Leavenworth, Kansas – the snowy winter of 2010

The Tundra proved to be the hero of the 2015 Summer trip. Five national parks. From Kansas to Montana, Wyoming, out to California and back. Pulling a travel trailer. No issues, no problems. Over 120,000 miles.

2005 Toyota Tundra, Lansing, Kansas – January, 2013

It was time to think about the future. A future of summer travel. Exploration of national parks in the west. Colorado. Arizona. Utah. Maybe an upgrade to the travel trailer. The 2005 Tundra had an older drive train and a towing capacity topping out at 4,200 lbs. Comparing the aging 2005 Tundra to the current available 4x4s… the 2005 had a hard time measuring up.

I wanted to find something that was as reliable and dependable. Offered increase towing capability. But maybe smaller? Truth be told, I often had difficulty parking the Tundra. The turning radius was… challenging. Was there something available in a smaller package, yet offering increased performance and towing capabilities? Oh… did I mention that it has to be a Toyota?

Tuesday, June 16th – East Glacier, Montana [Day 13]

One of Glacier National Park’s Red Buses.

Our day started back at St. Mary’s Lodge where we were to meet the Red Bus. These “Buses” are something else. A rag top convertible that seats…. 15? What a way to travel and see the sights. We got to see some wild life. A moose…. way off in the distance. Black bears…. far down in a valley, but in was a mom and her cubs out enjoying the day. We made our way south from St. Mary’s down to East Glacier. East Glacier is home to the Glacier Park Lodge – one of the old time railroad built national park lodges.
Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, Montana. The active train station is in the distance.

The main building was beautiful and you could see the path from the (still active) train station up to the lodges entrance.
Inside Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier, Montana

We enjoyed lunch and then made our way back north to Two Medicine.

Two Medicine Lake was inside Glacier National Park, had a great general store and campground. Surrounded by mountains, the snow melt and glacial runoff streamed downwards into the lake.

From the mountains above Two Medicine Lake

Monday, June 15th – Many Glacier, Glacier National Park [Day 12]

After breakfast, we stopped at the St. Mary Lodge (located just outside the St. Mary entrance into Glacier National Park) in an attempt to make reservations for the Red Bus tours that take place in and around Glacier National Park. The staff at the lodge were very helpful and although reservations our not made through the lodge, they allowed us to use their phone and we were able to make reservations for the following day (Tuesday) for a tour between St. Mary and East Glacier that included Two Medicine. The lodge was very nice and a comfortable place to relax. Although not as fancy as some of the other national park lodges, St. Mary Lodge had a great dinning room and lounge. We also made reservations for Thursday to pick up a Red Bus tour in West Glacier (actually the Apgar Visitors Center) that would take us up to Logan Pass – the summit of the Going To The Sun Road.

Swiftcurrent Lake at Many Glacier – in the far background you can see the boat that travels between the Many Glacier Lodge and a trailhead that leads to St. Josephine Lake.

We left the lodge and headed north to Many Glacier. The distance from St. Mary to Many Glacier is fairly short – the drive takes about 20 minutes. First we drove by the Many Glacier Lodge. We decided to try a short hike from a trailhead near Swiftcurrent Lake to St. Josephine Lake.

St. Josephine Lake – standing on the boat dock near the trailhead back to Swiftcurrent Lake.

After the hike we headed over to the Many Glacier Lodge. The lodge was beautiful and had a wonderful, rustic alpine look. We went to their lounge and enjoyed an excellent lunch. The service was great. The wait staff were young college folk from all over the country (and world).

Many Glacier Lodge

We then went down stairs and outside to buy boat tickets. Glacier National Park has several major lakes (Swift Current, St. Josephine, Two Medicine, MacDonald) which are all serviced by these really cool, old fashioned pleasure/sight-seeing boats. For some lakes they take you across for point to point. At other lakes the boat takes you around the lake for a tour.

Sunday, June 14th – Great Falls, MT to Saint Mary’s Campground, Glacier National Park [Day 11]

We woke up early, got on the road, and continued north up I-15 to US-2. The drive was nice, flat, and easy drive. We took MT 464 which was hilly, but not too bad. I saw a Google car for the first time. In the middle of nowhere Montana… there was a Google car. The weather had fairly low, dark clouds rolling from the west. I anticipated a picturesque drive west towards the Rockies but with the low clouds, I couldn’t even really see the Rockies. Space was available and we were able to check into Saint Mary’s Campground a day early.

My plan was to spend the night at the St. Mary KOA campground and then move to the Glacier National Park’s St. Mary campground the following day. Learning my lesson in Yellowstone I came to the realization that instead of campsite hopping, it was best to get set and maximize time exploring rather than setting up and tearing down a campsite.

We arrived at Glacier’s St. Mary campground. A difference from Badlands and Yellowstone National Parks is that at Glacier, rangers run the campground check-in kiosk. I explained that I had reservations starting the following day and was wondering if that campsite was available for tonight? Yes it was – good news.

The campground was nice, although our site did not have much of a view.

After getting the trailer set, we drove to the St. Mary Visitors Center and finally broke out our National Park Passports. I was not really sure where I had packed them and had not used them during my previous visits to Badlands and Yellowstone. What we were to discover was that (generally speaking) every national park visitors center has a passport stamping station. The purpose of the passport is to kind of “collect” national parks. Some visitors centers have only a date cancellation stamp and others have both the date cancellation stamp and another special stamp. It is also possible to purchase “stamps” that can be affixed the passport book above the cancellation stamps. To be honest, I still don’t fully understand how these picture “stamps” are supposed to be used.

At the visitors center we were able to get Junior Ranger Books for the girls. It seems like every national park does their Junior Ranger Program a bit differently. At Yellowstone you had to purchase the Junior Ranger activity book. At Glacier, they were free. In Yosemite, books can be purchased or you can use a copy from the activity newspaper that you get when you enter the park.

We had lunch in the town of St. Mary and tried Huckleberries for the first time (Huckleberry pie).

On our return to the campground we learned that Going-To-The-Sun Road was closed and was not going to open until Friday. There was road work taking place in between the entrance to the park and the campground which was the reason given for the road closure. I was not anticipating this. My lesson learned here is to be better connected with park news. All the parks do a good job of posting information concerning the status of roads, campgrounds, and anything else – but if I don’t look at it I wouldn’t know.

My plan for exploring Glacier was based on having access to the Going-To-The-Sun Road. I hadn’t planned on going up to Many Glacier, thinking that it was too far away and maybe wasn’t really worth visiting.

Saturday, June 13th – West Yellowstone, MT to Great Falls, MT [Day 10]

Drove from West Yellowstone up the Gattlin River valley, through Bozman, then northwest until we hit I-15. Continued to Great Falls. Not too difficult of a drive but a few significant passes north of I-90. KOA at Great Falls was pretty nice.

Departure from Grizzly RV Park was smoothe. Packing up and getting ready to get on the road was becoming second nature at this point. We took US 191 north through the Gattlin River valley. The route slighlty dips into Yellowstone National Park for a bit, but there are no roads that connect back to the heart of Yellowstone from here. Lots of ranches and plenty of white water rafting in this area. Traffic was fairly light and the road was wasy driving.

We stopped at the Walmart in Bozman, near the on ramp to I-90 and had lunch. This was a good example where we used the resources we already had to eat instead of eating out. Plus, it was pretty quick turn around, eating lunch and getting back on the road.

After a short piece of I-90 to the west, we head north on US 287. Lots of construction along this road which slowed us down. We were also back on the track of following Lewis & Clark as we approached the headwaters of the Missouri River. It was interesting to think that the water that we saw heading down river would soon pass by our house back in Kansas.

Through Helena and then onto I-15 north. A few passes on this part of I-15, although nothing too bad. Traffic was not too heavy. We finally made our way to our turn off at Great Falls and drove through the entirety of Great Falls to get to the KOA campground on the other side of town.

The Great Falls KOA is located near Malmstrom Air Force Base. We headed over there to take advantage of their Commissary and I got a haircut. The Great Falls KOA was pretty nice. The sites, although close together, where set in fairly dense vegatation which gave each site a great deal of privacy. And there was wifi! We opted not to have a campfire but instead to try and get an early start the next morning to see if we could get a spot a Saint Mary’s Campground at Glacier National Park rather than spend one night at the KOA outside of Glacier. I had misjudged the distances when I planned the trip, not realizing that the KOA and the Glacier National Park campsites where only a few minutes away. If I could avoid having to pack up and move, then I wanted to give it a try.

Friday, June 12th – Bridge Bay Campground to West Yellowstone, MT [Day 9]

Pack up was pretty smooth. My oldest, Sarah, was very helpful. I had become adept at backing up my truck (a bit at a time) and hooking up to the trailer by myself. In the past, my wife would back me up which made the hitching up process go much quicker. Bridge Bay has a dump station, which made made use of. Then we were on our way to West Yellowstone to pick up Christa. We drove north, back through the Hayden Valley (buffalos all over the place) and then headed west at the Canyon Area. A turn south and we headed towards Madison Campground where we would again turn west and head out of the park and into West Yellowstone, MT.

We were to pick up Christa, who was linking up with us. We would all spend the night at Grizzly RV Park to refit from our last few days away for civilization. Grizzly RV Park was nice – a big, modern affair with large sites, super-clean bathrooms, and nice laundry facilities. We checked in and were greeted by a staff of what appeared to be semi-retired, semi-nomatic senior citizens. I quickly found my pull-through site, dropped the trailer, hooked up the electricity, and headed to pick up Christa.

West Yellowstone is a tourist town. Let there be no doubt. Lots of shops to sell you stuff you really don’t need. We zipped through the small town, heading a short distance north to the airport. Christa had already landed! We linked up at the airport restaurant and enjoyed a great meal.

Back at the Grizzly RV Park we were able to shower and do laundry. We also continued our trend of eating out for dinner. We were ready to start our trip north to Glacier National Park.

Thursday, June 11th – Yellowstone National Park – Lower Falls [Day 8]

I continued to enjoy my morning routine. The campground where we were staying (Bridge Bay) was quiet. All the campers were respectful and kept excess noise to a minimum. The bathrooms were nice and clean. No showers. The closest showers where either at Fishing Bridge (not too far away) or back up in the Canyon area. Each campsite had a metal grate and circular area for fires. The individual sites were pretty close together and compact. Tight quarters but comfortable.

My ham radio equipment was able to monitor the park ranger’s radio communications. Most of it was traffic stops (and most of the traffic stops were foreigners – they would call in their driver’s license info). The girls had a FRS radio that we used for communication as they explored the fringes of the campground. There were not a lot of other children around. I guess it is still early and they might still be in school.

Today we headed back to the Yellowstone River to view the Lower Falls. The hike I wanted to take didn’t happen because a bridge for the trail was being rebuilt. The ranger we talked to advised us to duck under the roped off area to view a nearby waterfall, which we did. Then we drove to another nearby parking lot and I decided that we’d hike down to the top of the Lower Falls. The hike was short but the decent was steep. The hike back up was a serious work out which Emily (the soon to be 1st grader) did not enjoy. But she made it. And I made it too. My performance on this hike did speak to my lake of physical preparation for the trip. Lesson learned is that I need to establish a pre-trip walking/exercise program to “get in shape”.

As a celebration of our surviving the harrowing accent of the trail back to the parking lot, we went to the Lake area’s general store for ice cream. Emily enjoyed that. I also began to notice a reoccurring theme of the easy access to ice cream in the national parks. This would continue.

The initial plan was to leave Bridge Bay Campground on Thursday and head to Madison Campground (near the western entrance and West Yellowstone). I learned quickly that there is much to be said for staying one place compared to jumping camp sites every day or two. I was able to extend our stay at Bridge Bay for an additional night and was glad to be able to do it.

Wednesday, June 10th – Yellowstone National Park – Upper Falls [Day 7]

I had a few books I was using to help me select activities to pursue at Yellowstone. One book mentioned a short and level hike that would take us to the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River. Getting there is a direct route out of the Yellowstone Lake area, through the Hayden Valley, and with a trailhead just south of the Canyon Area.

Hayden Valley is beautiful and contains lots of wildlife. It is easy to see buffalo here, as well as an elk or mule deer. The Yellowstone River flows out of Yellowstone Lake north through the Hayden Valley.

Following the instructions we looked to park near the trailhead but the parking lot was roped off to be repaved. We ended up parking on the road but was able to pull well off. The trail we took north towards the Upper Falls was actually an old road, the original road that used to take visitors via stagecoach to see the sights. We made it quickly to the Upper Falls and enjoyed the view.

Further expanding our dinner possibilities, we headed to the Lake Lodge’s dining room which is pretty much a cafeteria. The Lake Lodge is a beautiful building with a large front porch allowing for guests to sit and ponder the spectacular Yellowstone Lake. The food was good. I was beginning to feel guilty about not preparing dinner myself back at camp. It is hard to look yourself in the mirror and attempt to convince yourself you are “camping” when your dinner meal isn’t coming off a campfire or Coleman stove.