National Parks (Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Teton) Breathtaking Journey into US History
Daniel R. Schwarz
“National Parks (Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons): Breathtaking Journey in to US History,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson Ithaca Journal, Elmira Star-Gazette and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Dec. 6,2014, 1D-2D,
All photos by Marcia Jacobson
Travel is not only movement from place to place but from time to time, and this summer we explored the landscape history of the American West. Under the tutelage of my Californian wife, Marcia Jacobson, one of my current travel goals is getting to know more about the West with a focus on the National Parks.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
We decided to take a tour that included Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Teton National Park, as well as several other sites. Our 1300 mile trip began in Rapid City, South Dakota and ended in Salt Lake City, although we continued on our own to Sun Valley, Idaho where I gave a few talks while enjoying that venue.
Because I was reluctant to drive and miss the scenery--my wife usually leaves highway driving to me—we bought a tour from Caravan with whom we have travelled on two prior occasions, once to Costa Rica and one on a previous park trip last summer to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion about which I wrote in these pages In the past we found Caravan tours were low priced good values, and this trip was no exception, but there we more bumps than on our prior trips, in part because we didn’t mesh well with the tour director.
Rapid City and Mount Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
We spent over eight hours flying three short flights to Rapid City, South Dakota: Ithaca-Detroit, Detroit-Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minneapolis/St. Paul -Rapid City.
The second largest city in South Dakota after Sioux Falls, Rapid City is a pleasant tourist town, deservedly celebrated for its street corner statues of every president in a characteristic pose. We especially enjoyed being there on a Thursday night when they celebrated their summer festival with bands, food stands, and family amusements.
On our first full day, we visited Mount Rushmore with its huge impressive depictions of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln (in that order. As we learned from the helpful fourteen-minute introductory film, much of the sculptural work derives from precision dynamiting of the mountain, although of course polishing is necessary in the final phases. Marcia and I did some walking to get various views and then found and enjoyed an unmarked nature trail.
Crazy Horse Monument
Our next stop that day was the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Following the method of using dynamite to shape rocks into images that was developed in the Mt, Rushmore project, the Crazy Horse monument has been fifty years in the making. Privately funded, it claims to be largest sculpture of one face in world and may take sixty years more to complete, although the depiction of the face part of the sculpture is finished. Longer than the Rushmore film, the Crazy Horse film offers a great deal of information about not only the sculpture but also about both Korczak Ziolkowski, who originally conceived the project, and his family which is still carrying on the project. On also on the Crazy Horse site are the Indian Museum of North America, and the Native American Cultural Center.
Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield
The highlight of the second full day when we drove from Rapid City to Billings was our visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the site of Custer’s Last Stand. As we walked around the well-marked site, we learned a good deal of history about both the motives of Indians and Custer’s troops. Our visit was preceded by a film shown on the tour bus about General Custer that was narrated by historian David McCullough. At the Monument, we heard a flamboyant but effective talk abut the battle and its historical context by a ranger.
Yellowstone National Park
On our third full day we drove from Billings to Yellowstone, the nation’s first National Park; the Park is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Almost 3500 square miles in size, most of Yellowstone Park is in Wyoming, with parts in Idaho and Montana. Driving along the Yellowstone River through the mountains, we saw gorgeous scenery. Before moving to higher areas, we passed ranches of 20,000 acres and more where Black Angus cattle are raised.
After arriving at Gardiner, the North entrance to Yellowstone, we went to Mammouth, in part to visit the hot springs. This is one of the Park’s highlights, and the climb to the area’s overlook is a great walk. Another wonderful highlight is the Old Faithful Geyser which erupts every 80 minutes or so and is not only spectacular but also different each time. Staying two nights at the Old Faithful Inn within proximity of the Old Faithful Geyser enabled us to see Old Faithful several times and to walk on a path that took us to the smaller geysers and hot spots in the area of Old Faithful. A bear’s taking refuge is a tree adjacent to Old Faithful brought out the park rangers and created excitement for those staying at the Inn.
We visited many of the major sites within the Park--the second day with a guide. Because Yellowstone is over 7500 feet high, it is necessary to be aware of dehydration and other health problems associated with heights.
Driving around the park as we did on our tour bus, we saw one magnificent natural view after another and marveled at the sudden changes in topography. Interspersed with lakes, rivers, and geysers, much of Yellowstone Park is mountainous with a great deal of pine forest. Perhaps the most stunning Yellowstone sight is its majestic Grand Canyon, featuring an incredible viewing spot called Artist Point where you can see the waterfalls of two rivers simultaneously.
The Lower Geyser Basin has another must- see venue called Fountain Paint. Pot that has various kinds of hydrothermal features—hot springs, mudpots (acidic hot springs), geysers, and fumaroles-- caused by volcanism.
Animal watching was not the major activity of the trip until we reached Yellowstone National Park. There we not only saw bears, buffalo, elk, and pronghorns as well as many other animals and birds, but also wolves—which have been reintroduced into the park in 1995-- chasing baby bears.
Conclusion: The Grand Tetons, Snake River, and Salt Lake City
Grand Teton Park
With sharply pointed peaks and hardly any foothills, the magnificent Grand Tetons, a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains, rise abruptly at their highest points to be topped off by small glaciers. Within Grand Teton National Park we enjoyed a memorable ten mile two hour boat ride on the Snake River; we were on a ten passenger rubber raft with oars manned by a professional and had splendid sightings of eagles and a river otter.
On our sixth and last full day during a long drive from Jackson to Salt Lake City we stopped at Montpelier, Utah, to enjoy a little theatrical presentation about the Oregon Trail at the National Oregon Trail Center. Leaving behind the Tetons, we drove by the almost as impressive Wasatch Mountains in Utah. The trip ended with a brief tour of Salt Lake City and the major Mormon sites before a final night in Salt Lake.
If You Go:
A family owned tour business dating to the 1950s, Caravan does inexpensive and efficient weeklong trips, and is a major purveyor of trips to the National Parks. To keep the price down, the company has eliminated almost all previously included meals besides breakfast, and its choice of hotels is basically budget ones with rather grim included breakfasts, except for the final night in Salt Lake City. That Caravan gets rooms for two nights within Yellowstone is a major plus because at high season rooms need be reserved many months in advance.
Caravan provides family-friendly bargain tours that people of relatively modest means can afford. This is a destination that people of all age will enjoy. If you wish, you could come yourself and camp, as many people do. Or you can drive on your own. I simply didn’t want to drive and miss the scenery, although the scenery on the first days prior to Yellowstone is not spectacular. Yet the large vistas on the plains are impressive, and I learned what the Great Plains really are.
The trip stretched my patience because of the amount of bus time, and that was exacerbated by a tour director who treated us as if were in the second grade. Her incessant chatter was for my wife and me a major detriment. We would, and so would many of our fellow travellers, have enjoyed this trip more with a different tour director, one who understood the need for quiet time and for digesting and enjoying what we were seeing.
Caravan might offer a version of their trips that take more than six travel days—we did nothing on the first and last days but arrive and leave--and allow more free time and less travel per day. Because of the need to cover 1300 miles and because of the length of bathroom breaks (which often were shopping breaks)—30 to 40 minutes—the trip too often felt like a bus drive. Our zealous guide had us on the bus everyday before the time listed on the tour itinerary and sometimes included unnecessary stops at marginal sites such as tiny museum at 5:30 pm in Billings.
In its pricing Caravan needs to include tipping of the bus driver and tour director; if this means raising the price, so be it. Caravan’s tipping recommendations are outrageous ($5 to $10 per person for the tour director, $4 to $7 per person for the bus driver).
In any other country, tour members would laugh out loud when reading the aforementioned numbers; if followed, these tips would have the guests paying most of the salary of the tour director and bus driver, alleviating the company of that responsibility. On this tour, tipping became a fixation for our tour director who reminded us many times of our monetary obligation to her.
When my wife and I have our own guide and driver, tipping standards are, of course, different. But experienced travellers resent the way gratuities have become stipulations, particularly when you are with 44 people and have no personal relationship with the tour director. I know several people who give less than they would have or nothing in the face of such unreasonable and exorbitant requests. Caravan is far from alone in sustaining this tipping foolishness, but it is past time to stop it.
Rapid City, SD: Adoba Eco is a remodeled former Radisson; it is noisy and the rooms had neither enough lighting for reading nor decent internet service. It provided a basic breakfast without amenities for Caravan customers who were consigned to their own section of the breakfast room.
Billings, MT: Hilton Garden Inn, 2465 Grant Rd, located in a mall on the outskirts of Billings. With a decent breakfast and working internet, it is s nicely appointed hotel at the lower end of the Hilton chain; the only drawback is its location where restaurant choices were mostly fast food. Probably downtown would have been better for the one Billings night.
Hot spots near Yellowstone Inn
Yellowstone Park: The Old Faithful Inn. It is nice to stay in an historic inn the within the park and close to the Old Faithful geyser, although there are fancier hotels in the park. Be advised that the Inn there has no internet, no TV, no air conditioning and very basic rooms.
Jackson, WY The Virginian is a lackluster old motel with an especially meager breakfast.
Salt Lake City, UT: Living up to International hotel standards. the Hilton is a fine property. It served the only decent breakfast on the trip and presented a polished final dinner.
Yellowstone Inn with Old Faithful
Rapid City: Talley’s serves interesting, eclectic cuisine. Because of the large portions, we split one entree and one desert. Two nights in a row the bathrooms needed servicing and that is a major negative.
Billings: Tau is an unexciting Asian mall restaurant trying to do the nearly impossible, that is, serving in one venue all of the following: Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indonesian cuisines. Our Thai green curry shrimp dish was gelatinous and not comparable to a really good Thai restaurant, and the vegetables in the sauce could have been more varied.
Yellowstone: For dinner at the Old Faithful Inn’s Main Dining Room, we found decent food at reasonable prices. But beware of erratic and even rude service, in particular at breakfast, which was a disappointing experience.
The Snow Lodge (another hotel within the park). In its dining room we had an adequate and nicely served meal at a moderate price.
Jackson: Unless you are a vegetarian do not miss The Gun Barrel Steak and Game House, specializing in beef and game and quite good.
Author of numerous travel articles and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, recently released in a new paperback edition) and fifteen other books,, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes