Custer State Park

This is the sixth and final guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous posts for an Introduction to our tripJasper National Park, Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise, Banff and Waterton National Parks, and Glacier National Park..

That’s Why It’s Called “Big Sky Country”!

We spent most of Thursday in our 12+ hour and 792 mile drive from Glacier National Park through Montana and a corner of Wyoming to our next destination at Custer State Park in South Dakota. As you drive back East and see the miles of acreage and big blue sky ahead, you realize why they call Montana “Big Sky Country.”


We encountered some construction along the way in South Dakota, which lead us down some dusty roads and the thinking we were lost. We finally arrived at Custer S.P. at approximately 10:30pm. Thankfully the folks at our campground, Rafter J Bar Ranch in Hill City, SD, gave us a close-in site that was easy to find.  It helps to call ahead!

Happy Birthday Adam! 

During this part of the trip, we actually got to spend Adam’s birthday with him for the first time in several years. Last year, he was in La Paz, Bolivia on his birthday. In many of the previous years he was in Mexico on mission trips with our church.

The Largest State Park in the U.S. 

Custer State Park is in the Black Elk Wilderness area of the Black Hills National Forest of southwestern South Dakota. This park is just south of Rapid City and near other attractions like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park (about an hour away). The park covers over 71,000 acres and is home to many wild animals like it’s herd of 1,300 free-roaming bison, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and wild burros. It is famous for its scenic drives, stone cathedral spires and unique rock structures.



The park is named after U.S. Calvary commander, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), who died during the Battle of the Little Big Horn fighting against a coalition of Native American tribes in a battle that has come to be popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.”  

Harney Peak Look-Out

We started our day with a hike to Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. The peak was named in the late 1850s in honor of General William S. Harney, a Black Hills Military commander. The 7,242 ft. summit of Harney Peak Look-Out is where a Lakota Indian medicine man, Black Elk, had his powerful vision of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee.


The Black Elk Wilderness is a 13,426 acre region considered sacred to Native Americans, especially the Sioux Indians.  Mount Rushmore National Memorial is immediately to the north and much of the rest of the wilderness is bordered by other protected land under jurisdiction of state and federal agencies.

We took Harney Peak Trail #9 up to Haney Peak Look-Out Tower, which is 3.3 miles one way and considered moderately difficult.


We returned taking Trail #4, which seemed much easier and shorter….maybe because we were heading down most of the way! After a trunk-lunch, Adam & Anna hiked another 1-mile loop around Sylvan Lake while Cyndi & I recuperated by the concession area.

The Wildlife Drive

When everyone was relaxed, we traveled the scenic 18-mile wildlife roadway that winds through pine covered hills and rolling prairies. On this road, you should see many types of wildlife like deer, pronghorn antelope, and wild burros. The highlight of the drive though is encountering the 1,300 head herd of bison.


We became part of the “bison-jam” since many cars pulled over to take pictures (from the car of course!).


The funniest part of that the bison come right over to your vehicle and lick the bugs from the grill of your car and scratch themselves on the car mirrors and bumpers.  We could actually feel the SUV rocking as 2 bison worked over the back bumper. The noisy snorting of the massive bull-bisons was intimidating, but fun while the windows were down to take pictures.

After the drive, we went back to camp to begin the process of packing for a very early departure to head home.

The Long-Drive Home

We left Custer State Park, SD bright and early at 6:30am for our 16-hour drive through South Dakota, southern Minnesota, and southwestern Wisconsin to get home.  We finally arrived home about 10:30pm that night and lamented the end of our vacation.

That said, a trip to see the the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list.  In total, we traveled 4,586 miles over the 15 days; had no vehicle breakdowns and had a really great time. We were thrilled to see the glaciers before they melt, gained a better understanding of the differences between a glacier and summer snow-pack, and learned how the Canadian Rockies are different than the U.S. Rockies.


Most importantly, we were honored to be part of another of Adam and Anna’s great adventures around the world.

Glacier National Park

This is the fifth guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous introductoryJasper National Park, Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise, and Banff and Waterton National Parks posts as well as one final post about our stops at Custer State Park in South Dakota. 

Back in the USA

After visiting Banff National Park and Waterton International Peace Park in Canada, it was back across the U.S. border and through customs toward East Glacier, Montana and Glacier National Park.  It only took us 5 minutes to get through customs since we were the only car there at the time. This was fantastic since we would be arriving at the campground after dark.

Along the way south, we encountered roaming cattle blocking the road, which seemed to look up at us as if to say, “Hey, what are you doing on our road?” as they continued to chew on vegetation.


As the sun set, we came into East Glacier and had this wonderful view of Chief Mountain and another of Two Medicine Lake in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Glacier NP.



An Unexpected Change in Plans

The most disappointing part of our trip was the evening stop at Johnson’s of St. Mary’s Campground. We arrived after dark and were assigned a spot that felt like we were in the off-season RV storage area with RVs lined up very close to each other, right alongside the road. Also, the bathrooms were full of dead bugs and you also had to use tokens to use the showers in order to keep showers shorter than 6 minutes. Although we originally planned to make this our home-base for the next few days while visiting Glacier National, we cancelled after that first night and headed out early the next morning to West Glacier not knowing where we would camp, but knew it would be better than Johnson’s in East Glacier.

West Glacier

We left the campground in East Glacier and drove down to West Glacier.  Given we had the camper, we could not take the most direct route, which would be on Going-To-The Sun Road due to the vehicle length restriction of 21 ft. So we head an hour out of our way down Route 2 and stopped in at Glacier Campground (just south past the West Glacier entrance) to see if they could accommodate us. Fortunately, they could and it ended up being a great place to stay.

After setting up camp, we ate lunch at a roadside food wagon called The Wandering Gringo Café just outside the campground.  Even though Adam worked at Chipolte, this place lived up to his expectations with their monster-sized burrito.


After lunch, we went to the Glacier Visitor Center—or what we thought was the Glacier Visitor Center just inside the park area off Route 2. It was actually the Alberta Visitor Center (great placement by the Canadian tourism folks). After getting our bearings, we took the obligatory picture at the national park sign and drove to the entrance to buy a 7-day park entrance ($35 USD), then headed to the real Glacier National Visitor Center, which was essentially the hub for all our routes the next few days.


Lake McDonald Lodge

After the Visitor Center, we drove to Lake McDonald Lodge which is nestled on Lake McDonald’s picturesque shore.  It’s a historic lodge, built like a Swiss chalet of stone with a wood-frame structure. The lobby has a massive fireplace and numerous stuffed game heads. The rustic lodge was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.


According to Wikipedia, Lake McDonald Lodge was initially built in 1895 and was only accessed by a steamboat that ran the 9 miles from the Apgar area to the hotel. The hotel was built during a period when the Great Northern Railway was building other hotels and backcountry chalets in the area as part of a trend by railroads to build destination resorts in areas of exceptional scenic value to attract tourists. The hotel’s name was changed to Lake McDonald Lodge in 1957, but was damaged in a Snyder Creek flash flood in 1964. It was sold in 1981 and extensively renovated in 1988-89 to restore details that had been obscured over time or damaged by the flood.

The Trail of the CedarsIMG_5436

After a short walk around and some pictures both inside & out, we drove part-way up the Going-To-The Sun Road to a hike along The Trail of the Cedars, about 5.5 miles east of the McDonald Lodge. This hike is a 1.0 mile loop hike that is an extremely popular hike so parking can be a problem during the peak season. However, there are about 3 or 4 areas in which to park within a short walk of the trailhead. This hike travels along a raised boardwalk through a forest of ancient western hemlocks and red cedars… very impressive with some cedars to grow to heights over 100 feet with and diameters of 4 to 7 feet.




Some of the trees in this area are more than 500 years old. There are a lot of lush green ferns and mosses growing along the forest floor, which makes for some great pictures with the streams and waterfalls.

At roughly the half-way point, you can divert onto the more strenuous Avalanche Lake Trail, which we opted to do the next day.

Since Adam & Anna were looking for more hiking, Cyndi & I agreed to drop them off at the Logan Pass Visitor Center where they did an 11.9 mile hike while we went back to town for grocery shopping. The plan was to meet 4-5 hours later back at the Apgar area center since they could take the free shuttle bus back after their hike.

The Glacier Distillery

Cyndi & I headed to the town of Columbia Falls, about 25 miles south of West Glacier to restock our coolers with food and ice. On our way back, we made an impromptu stop at the Glacier Distilling Company, a mile or two south of our campground. Glacier Distilling is a craft distillery that specializes in small-batch whiskeys using local grains and pure glacial water from the Northern Rockies. We enjoyed a flight of 4 whiskeys and 4 liquors (don’t worry, it was only .5 ounces per glass) and purchased a bottle of Bad Rock Rye Whiskey.

We ended up waiting an extra hour for Adam & Anna to return to the Apgar Center since the bus they wanted to take back was full, but they did catch the very last one of the day…phew!

Avalanche Lake Trail

The next day, we returned to The Trail of the Cedars for the more strenuous Avalanche Lake Trail. It’s a short, steep climb to the banks of Avalanche Creek, and some amazing glacially melted waterfalls that rushes down the gorge. The trail continues on for another 1.6 miles to Avalanche Lake and some more amazing views. In total, this hike is 4.5 miles with a 730 foot elevation gain to 4,031 ft. Once there, the lake sits at the base of 8694-foot Bearhat Mountain, which rises to dominate the view that includes several long waterfalls cascading down the submersed timbers in the crystal-clear water of the lake; a great picture. After that hike, it was back to the Apgar Center to catch our tour bus for the highlight of the day.

IMG_5487a IMG_5369a IMG_5414aRed Bus Tours

At the Apgar Center, we boarded one of the Red Buses or what is more famously known as a “Jammer”.  These vintage 1930’s buses are an ideal way to see Glacier National Park since much of the scenery is vertically-oriented, the roll-back tops are perfect for providing full views of the stunning mountains and area.


Jammers are driven by seasoned park veterans who enjoy sharing the park with visitors. The name “Jammers” carries over from the days when the buses had double-clutch transmissions and drivers could be heard “jamming” the gears as they drove up and down the rugged mountain highway.


Other facts about the iconic Red Buses:

  • The Red Buses Model 706 were made by White Motor Company and originally cost $5,000 each back in 1936.
  • Of the 33 buses used in Glacier National park today, 17 are from 1936, 11 are from 1937, 4 are from 1938 and 1 is from 1939.
  • Ford Motor Company donated over $6 Million to restore 33 buses to keep them in operation.
  • 2011 marked the 75th anniversary of the 1936 buses giving tours in Glacier National Park.
  • The Model 706 White Buses are the third generation of touring buses in Glacier National Park.
  • The Red Buses now run on gasoline and propane, which is 93% cleaner.
  • The fleet of 33 buses in Glacier are widely considered to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles anywhere in the world.
  • The Red Buses, on average, transport 60,000 tourist each summer through Glacier N.P.
  • Each red bus is estimated to now be worth $250,000.

We suggest picking your day and one of the numerous routes then pre-purchasing your tickets for a Jammer since the one we tried was sold out. We ended up getting the 4-hour trip from Apgar to Logan’s Pass (about 2/3 of the way) rather the 6 hour one that ran all the way back to East Glacier along Going-To-The-Sun Road.

Going-To-The Sun Road

Our stops included Lake McDonald, Trails of the Cedars, some road-side waterfalls, and finally up to The Continental Divide at Logan Pass.





On the way up, you get a great view of Heaven’s Peak, an 8,987 ft. mountain that is still very snow covered into July. At certain points, we could see the shimmering glacier with the sun’s reflection that made the view extra spectacular.


You can also see the regenerating of the forest from the 1936 fire in the McDonald Valley and how the U-shaped valley between the mountains distinguish a glacial movement area from a tectonic plate uprising and water erosion of the Rocky Mountains that is more V-shaped.


You also see West Tunnel, a 192 foot tunnel through the mountain that was built in 1926; Bird Woman Falls (aptly named waterfalls that cascades down 492 feet), the Weeping Wall, many collapsing snow packs (yes, snow even at the end of July), and the spectacular vistas of Mt. Oberlin, Mt.. Canon, and Heaven’s Peak.



We arrived at the Logan’s Pass Center at the Continental Divide with only 15 minutes to spare so there was not much time to explore. When time was up, we drove back down the mountain side to the Visitor Center where we started. We had a great guide/driver so all-in-all, the Red Bus Tour was money well-spent.



After a few days of great hikes and scenic drives in Glacier NP, it was yet another early start the next morning to drive across the “Big Sky Country” of Montana all the way to our final stop, Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Canadian Rockies & Glacier National Park: Introduction

This is a guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam and his girlfriend, Anna Sutphen joined me and Adam’s mom, Cyndi on a 2-week summer camping vacation to the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park shortly after their year-long adventure in South America. I get to write for this section since we were thrilled to share this Traverse adventure with Adam and Anna.


Anna, Cyndi, Rich and Adam’s Glacier adventure

The Planning is Done and Away We Go!

After months of research and planning (mostly by Cyndi), we started the trip by hitching our pop-up camper to the rented Toyota Sequoia SUV the night before an early Saturday morning departure. We had 2 long days of driving from our Chicago suburb to Alberta, Canada.

Camper + Sequoia

Our plans included visiting Jasper National Park, the beautiful town of Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefields, Yoho National Park & its amazing Emerald Lake, the town of Banff, and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, before returning to the U.S. parks of Glacier National in Montana and Custer State Park in South Dakota.


We knew that we would cover a lot of miles but felt it was worth the effort given the predicted loss of all glaciers in North America sometime in the next 20 to 30 years.

This is the first of several posts that will follow during this next week about the various stages of our trip.