Hello from Jasper National Park! Shane and I have officially been on the road for five weeks, and we've been lucky to experience some truly incredible moments. Some were planned, while others just sort of happened to us - and we are so glad they did! Here is my retrospective bucket list for a road trip through Canada and the United States.
1. Enjoy the Wildlife
Okay, this was one of my intentions going into the trip (we even considered calling our blog "Moose Quest" for a while), but I couldn't have anticipated all of the opportunities that would arise. There are plenty of animals to keep an eye out for on a trip like this: bears, moose, bison, elk, deer, coyotes, and wolves, to name a few!
My favorite encounter was the result of a little bit of effort and a whole lot of luck. As soon as we entered Grand Teton National Park, Shane and I stopped at a convenience store and asked the friendly cashier if he had any suggestions for where to view wildlife. "Yes!" he replied, "just three miles down the road - there's a mama grizzly and her two cubs. You can't miss it!" Shane and I darted to the car and drove off, trying to keep our excitement in check; we had come close to viewing bears before, but they had eluded us each time.
However, as luck would have it, we soon came across the crowd of people that had gathered along side the road, and there, in an open field not far from the road, were the mother grizzly bear and her two young cubs! The park rangers kept order and made sure that everyone stayed a safe distance away from the bears (you'd be surprised at the risks people will take for a good photo!), and they set up traffic cones to keep pedestrians at a certain distance, while allowing cars continue to drive slowly past.
Shane and I took turns hopping out of the car to get photographs (in the pedestrian area) and driving the car. At one point, Shane and I switched so that he could get a chance to see the bears; I took over the driving, and he hopped out of the car with our best camera and both our phones. We ended up getting separated, since I had to keep moving, and Shane had to remain with the pedestrians behind the traffic cones.
I found a spot to pull over on the side of the road, and my car ended up being the closest to the bears! It was incredible to watch them at such a close vantage point, and my heart broke a little when I realized I didn't have a way to photograph them. But not having my camera ended up being a blessing: for about twenty minutes, I watched the mother bear show her cubs how to dig into the ground in search of squirrels and their winter stashes of food, without the pressure of capturing the images. I simply enjoyed the moment.
Eventually, when it was safe to do so, a park ranger escorted Shane back to the car so we could enjoy the bears together. We watched the bears for another 45 minutes, taking as many photos as our hearts desired. The three bears in the field, with the forest and snow-covered mountains behind them, made for a sight that I'll never forget.
2. Prioritize the Prairie
Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada had such a unique terrain. We especially loved the prairie dog towns (prairie dogs everywhere!) and the sound of coyotes howling at night. The starry night sky wasn't too shabby either!
3. Drive Through the Lake Audy Bison Enclosure
The Lake Audy Bison Enclosure at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, Canada was the perfect way to get up close and personal with some bison! We followed the guidelines for viewing the animals safely (basically, stay in the car, and don't honk or do anything to cause the animals to change their behavior), and we moved slowly along with the herd.
4. Talk to Strangers
Another highlight has been meeting so many interesting, friendly, and helpful people. We've received a lot of encouragement, photography advice, and travel recommendations (this is largely how we've planned our trip!), and we've enjoyed connecting with people from all over the world!
We spent two nights camping next to the nicest couple named Adam and Kim, who were traveling in their RV with their pet dogs. Adam and Kim were so friendly and fun to talk to, and they graciously invited us over for a delicious breakfast one morning! We really enjoyed their company and felt lucky to have such nice neighbors. Kim has two daughters of her own, but she adopted us that weekend and became our "camping mom" :)
We also met Flo and Nick, a couple our age who are also doing some similar long-term traveling (they came all the way from New Zealand!). We spotted them from across a comfortable lounge and recognized something familiar in their situation (maybe it was the amount of time they too were spending in the lodge, uploading photos and enjoying the warmth?), and so I said hello and found out they were on an indefinite road trip as well. It was really nice to have some girl-time with Flo and to hear about their trip (they've been at it for longer than we have), and the four of us ended up hanging out for hours later that night. Hoping to meet up again somewhere on the road!
Last night, we became friends with four people at the top of a mountain in the middle of the night, while witnessing the northern lights. If that experience doesn't bond you, I don't know what will.
We also met Shalee, a travel blogger and photographer (check out shaleewanders.com), and Michael, who does the coolest things with rocks (gravityglue.com) - you need to see for yourself.
5. Visit the Upper Peninsula
I honestly had no idea that this part of the country was so beautiful. It must be a well-kept secret from east-coasters like myself. Well, secret's out! Take a trip and experience the beautiful beaches, lighthouses, forests, cliffs, and caves for yourself, and you'll be glad you did.
6. Chase the Northern Lights
... or embrace unexpected opportunities to witness the phenomenon. Apparently, under the right conditions, you can view the northern lights from parts of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and Wisconsin. We didn't see the lights in this area, but we DID catch them in Jasper National Park from Marmot Meadows at the top of a mountain. Our arrival into Jasper was perfectly (but not intentionally) timed, with the Jasper Dark Sky Festival taking place this week. Even though my feet were cold (despite warm socks and toe warmers), and it was 2:00 in the morning, the spectacle was so beautiful that we stayed for a few hours to appreciate it.
Photo credit: Shane
7. Soak in the Goldbug Hot Springs
This bucket-list component is a bit specific, but we really enjoyed the Goldbug Hot Springs in Idaho that the friendly owner of Exitus Escape Room in Jackson, Wyoming recommended to us (thanks, Brandy!). We hiked about two miles up into the mountains (the hike itself was very pretty), and then we came across some waterfalls and hot springs that were the perfect reward for our steep climb!
8. Explore Cute Little Towns Along the Way
One of my favorites was Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior. The town itself is very pretty, a combination of beach and mountains, and I could definitely have spent more time exploring the area. There were a few of outdoor stores that I LOVED but dragged myself out of fairly quickly for budget reasons, as well as some hipster-looking coffee shops and restaurants.
This picture doesn't do the town justice, but I was slacking that day with the photo-taking.
Speaking of stores and prices, thrift stores are the way to go, especially in towns that are somewhat isolated and draw a large tourist population. Apparently, some people buy expensive winter gear just to use during their trip and then donate their clothes to local thrift stores for people like me to enjoy ;) One of my best purchases was a $15 Columbia coat; to say that this coat has come in handy would be an understatement.
9. Hike the Johnston Canyon
One of my favorite hikes was the Johnston Canyon Hike in Banff National Park. It had snowed the day before, rendering the trail even more beautiful! We hiked the trails for both the lower and upper falls, and at the suggestion of another hiker, stepped off the main path and followed a short trail that led to a spectacular view of the canyon.
10. Stop and (Don't) Smell the Geysers
Well, you can smell them if you'd like, but you might not enjoy their sulfurous rotting-eggs kind of smell. However, you WILL enjoy the beautiful colors, as well as the gurgling and occasional eruptions. The geysers and hot springs were definitely one of the highlights of Yellowstone, especially the Grand Prismatic Spring (pro-tip: view it from above by parking at Fairy Falls and following the trail from there), Old Faithful, and a tiny but cute one named Vixon.
11. Appreciate the Views
The views on our trip have been breathtaking, and we pulled over many times recently on the way from Banff to Jasper to take photos. We also feel lucky to have visited Banff on a snowy day - it looked like a winter wonderland!
12. Mix It Up
Even though we enjoy hiking and spending time in nature, it's refreshing to do something different every once in a while. We had a movie night in Manitoba (saw Wind River - liked it!), participated in a few Escape Rooms in different cities (one of our favorite activities), and visited a few museums in Winnipeg. We especially enjoyed The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, with its interesting architecture and exhibits.
14. Crawl through Caves at Craters of the Moon
I've never been to Mars, but I imagine it would closely resemble the landscape at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho. The land is desolate but beautiful, consisting of rock that was once the lava of past volcanic eruptions. There are also caves to explore for those seeking a bit of adventure; our favorite was the Boy Scout Cave, and not just because Shane is an Eagle Scout - the path through the cave, which had us crawling on our bellies at one point, was intense but rewarding. We were relieved when we saw the light at the end of the tunnel!
And here's one more random one from recent times:
Cliche? Yes. But we couldn't resist.
Thanks for following our journey!