Manifest Destiny – Journey to the Rocky Mountains – Part 1

Manifest Destiny – Journey to the Rocky Mountains – Part 1

Day 1 – Saturday – June 30, 2018 – Waupaca WI to Lincoln, NE

I know, right??  NEBRASKA?  Where in the world is the Durst-Kolinski family going this year?  Well, the plan is to journey to Rocky Mountain National Park, then up to Yellowstone National Park, then back home.  Every year we try to add on something new.  And the votes are in – last year we flew and it just didn’t have the feeling of the out west trip that we wanted.  Also, this year our new car arrived just in time for this journey.  YES, Matt wanted an entire blog entry devoted to his new car.  Too bad, Sarah has creative control.  The other thing…  we’ve gotten better at this.  Less badness, less funny stories, better planning…  So if you come expecting the badness of prior years, you may be a bit bored.  We are growing up!

But Matt has creative control over the pictures. Expect lots of car pictures.

That being said, we did get our new car 2 days before we left – goodbye Honda Pilot with 170k miles on it covered in grime, and hello 2019 Subaru Ascent, soon to be covered in grime!  Here’s the facebook posting that we didn’t know was going to happen (that is a cookie Zoe jammed in her mouth to stop the weeping when she realized the Pilot was being left behind):

Thanks for letting the burglars know when we will be gone, car dealership.

Anyway, Saturday morning we took off at 9:30 – our best yet.  It was a sweltering 89 degrees when we pulled out of Waupaca and journeyed through to LaCrosse.   We stopped at the first rest stop into Minnesota on the Mississippi River and ate our lunch next to the river which was perfect.

Not visible was the girl next to us taking pictures of herself playing her cello. At the rest stop. We don’t judge.

We journeyed on through southeastern MN, which was pretty boring.  Then the storms started.  We learned our new car gets automatic storm warnings for wherever we are driving!  Wow, technology.  Unless you are about to drive through hundreds of miles of severe thunderstorms, which we were.  EVERY FIVE minutes, “Severe thunderstorm warning extended” popped up on the dashboard.  THEN the drenching rains and severe lightning and flood warnings started.  There’s a feature on the car that watches other cars and slows you down if you are too close (Sarah wants that turned off) and tells you if you drift into the other lane (Matt wants that turned off).  Well, good news!  When it is pouring so hard you can’t see, the feature turns off automatically!

In the middle of this, we got to stop at our favorite (only) Iowa rest stop, the barn/Diamond Jo casino rest stop.  We stopped here on the way to the worst half marathon ever a few years ago with our friends.  Today there appeared to be an evangelical revival going on on the second floor of the rest stop.  It is a pretty amazing place, that Iowa.

This pic is taken from the rest stop. The rest stop is a giant 2 story barn. With preaching, apparently. Noah wanted to gamble and we had to explain why he couldn’t. But he knew what gambling was from watching the Simpsons. We have failed as parents for sure.

We stopped for dinner just north of Ames in Story City IA at the worst Dairy Queen we have ever set foot into.  Food was good, but it was pretty…. Unkempt.  The shades on the windows were dirty enough that Zoe started yelling “dirty!  They need to clean!”, while Sarah was mortified.  If one of our kids thinks something is dirty, you KNOW it is filthy.  We won’t discuss the bathrooms and let’s just say the Yelp reviews agreed with us.  Now we know why Yelp reviews exist for chain restaurants.

In Des Moines we picked up I-80, and marveled at the fact that there were some pretty tall buildings in town visible from the freeway.  Can you believe the tallest building has 45 floors?!?  WOW!  In Milwaukee, the tallest building only has 46 floors!  Holy crap.  And Des Moines has a larger metro area than Madison?  We were floored – it’s huge!  And in IOWA!

Then the horrific rains continued.  We saw more lightning on this trip than in the past 5 years all put together.  Even the kids were quiet during this because it was a little…  dicey.  Unfortunately, it meant we couldn’t go 80 mph and had to go 35 mph with our flashers on, which kind of put us a bit behind schedule.

The last city in IA is Council Bluffs, which for unclear reasons seemed really familiar.  WELL, let’s do a history lesson.  Where was the first place the Mormons practiced plural marriage?  Council Bluffs, baby.  It’s the start of the Mormon Trail that heads out west.  AND there is a large ceremonial golden spike because it is the start of the transcontinental railroad (okay, the REAL gold spike which was the last one placed is in Utah, but we will take what we can get), so of course we had to go find the spike and check out some cool bridges in town.

We had to drive through the rail yards to find this treasure of a monument. It was a little shady.
Braden: “This bridge scares me”. Us too, big guy. Are those… rifles? Knives? Let’s get back on the freeway.

We pulled into Omaha Nebraska in the evening hours.  Probably the most regret we’ve had in a while is not getting a room in Omaha when we planned this.  Lincoln is 60 miles PAST Omaha and we thought, hahaha, what’s another hour?  We were EXHAUSTED by this point.  But there was ONE thing Sarah wanted to do in Omaha: drive past Warren Buffet’s house.  There’s all this lore about how he lives in a modest ranch house worth not that much, despite him being a billionaire.  NOW, did you know you can just google his address and drive to his house?  Hell yeah.  So we did.  Now it was raining and he seemed to have erected some kind of fence to keep the peepers away (don’t know who that would be), but we found it.  Modest ranch, our ass.

What’s up with security fence, Buffet? We can’t see in your windows!

Got to Lincoln thoroughly exhausted at 9:30 at night, stayed at Best Western Plus.  Nice hotel actually!  Other bedraggled families were filtering in, and the people down the hall had just gotten in from Colorado but looked way more awake than us.  We went to the pool and yelled at the kids to stop strangling each other until we all collapsed in bed.  (After Matt purchased beer at the local gas station which we ate with Fritos and Kit Kats in the bathroom after the kids went to sleep).

Beer of the day:  Zip Line IPA (from Lincoln, NE)

Miles driven: 600 (holy shit!)


Day 2 – Sunday – July 1, 2018 – Lincoln, NE to Estes Park, CO

 As we write this, our brains are numb.  Little did we think we would break our mileage record from yesterday, but here we are!  We woke up and gathered our stuff and were out the door by 8ish.  Amazing!  As Matt loaded up the car, he was approached by an older couple with an Outback who wanted to see the Ascent and he was of course thrilled.  There were people from everywhere there in the lot!  It was a United Nations of different state license plates in the parking lot…  Or a United States of different states… ummmm….   Anyway, we skipped the continental breakfast and headed out to Hurt’s Donuts in downtown Lincoln for some awesome donuts.  Starbucks for coffee and a visit to the state capitol and we were off!

The pink one was the Homer donut – the kids thought that was fantastic. The cinnamon rolls were the size of our heads!
At the capitol. We hadn’t had coffee yet – can you tell?

We were told I-80 in Nebraska was mind numbing, but honestly, it wasn’t bad!  (Not as bad as northeast Wyoming, which we will never speak of again).  There were huge rest stops every 5-10 miles with amazing picnic tables and exercise areas.  We stopped in York and picked up beer for later.  We motored on, stopping for lunch at one of the aforementioned rest areas.  I-80 hugs the Platte River, which we learned mirrored most of the route of the Oregon Trail.  The river is really shallow and not able to be canoed or kayaked.  Although the brochure Matt picked up for Sarah was of the MORMON TRAIL and appeared to be religious propaganda put out by the Church of LDS through the National Park Service.  Same damn trail, people, for the most part.

As we tooled along, Sarah floated the idea of driving up to Chimney Rock, which is located on some shady state highway running parallel to I-80 a ways north.  Who wouldn’t want to see that and Scottsbluff as well?!?  Major Oregon Trail landmarks??  Detour time!  Thanks to amazing cell service, Matt was regaled with all kinds of Oregon Trail facts as we turned off the interstate.  Did you know that people really did die of cholera on the trail, contracted from the pretty Platte River which was where everyone drink, went to the bathroom, and bathed?  Also only about 10% of people died on the trail, which is amazing, because our combined death rate in the Oregon Trail computer game was like 100%.

We’ve gotten better at selfies. Marginally better.

Chimney Rock was pretty, and had a small little museum as a National Heritage Site that we paid a confiscatory $4 to hang out in and use the bathrooms.   The kids spent the entire time screaming about the rattlesnake signs and purchasing toys in the gift shop.  (B had a Jacob’s ladder toy he got at College for Kids this year, so Noah purchased one at the gift shop here – so all you hear from the back seat are iPads and the click- click of the Jacob’s ladders.  Our toys span centuries…)

Wikipedia said that the Indians used a word meaning “elk penis” to describe chimney rock, but weirdly that fact was not mentioned anywhere in the little museum. The kids LOVED that fact though.

We then continued on to Scottsbluff, NE to see Scott’s Bluff (the town is one word and the monument is two?).  It was a gorgeous rock formation and we could definitely see it in the distance as a landmark on the trail.  However, by following the signs posted in the nearby town, we instead got a tour of the scarier parts of their town, upsetting Matt (he was afraid we wouldn’t make it in time before closing and we wouldn’t get our National Park Service passports stamped (wait, is that the reason we go to all these places?))?  Anyway, by the time we got there, we were pleasantly surprised to see it was actually operated by the NPS, and they had great facilities, a beautiful road up the bluff, lookouts and trails.  It was really pretty and would have been a great way to spend the entire day.  Instead, we spent about an hour there.   Most of it spent telling Zoe to hold our hands and not walk along the edge of the path on the edge of the bluff.  She instead cackled and ran along in a pair of too big secondhand sandals (she has fallen at every rest stop and is covered in bandaids).

Trail near cliff/bluff. Our family’s favorite.
You could see Chimney Rock from Scott’s Bluff? Dang, could have taken care of two monuments at once if we would have know that!
who doesn’t love a tunnel?

Then headed out for McDonalds and broke our 36 hour old rule of no eating in the car.  As you may have noted above, the words “before closing” meant we kind of took too long and were kind of screwed timing wise.  We had to call our motel in Colorado and ask if late check in would be an issue, and they told us they would leave our keys in the ice machine room (um, ok).  Anyway, we ended up driving south to Kimball and rejoining I-80.  This took us to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and then south on I-26 to Colorado!

Well, Colorado.  You start at Fort Collins and work your way to Loveland, or wherever, and turn west to head to the Rocky Mountains.  It is nothing but suburban sprawl from the Wyoming border to when you hit Roosevelt National Forest.  We don’t know what we expected, but it was tracts and tracts of identical houses all next to each other and strip malls.  Wow.  Our kids have never been less amazed.

Then we hit the forest and the road up to Estes Park was gorgeous, weaving through a canyon with a rocky river, nice cliffs, and cute cottages dotting the highway.  Kids were so excited!  Then we hit Estes Park.  Holy shit.  Yes, it was 9 pm and dark, but it was like a combination of WI Dells and Vegas in a National Park border town.  LOADS of hotels, all with “no vacancy” signs.  People streaming everywhere, shops, restaurants, wow.  So different from Gardiner, MT and St. Mary’s MT, our other fave National Park border towns.  We drove just past the town and arrived at the Alpine Ridge Trail Inn and the keys really were in the ice room (along with two other sets of late comer keys).  We have a family suite, which means adjoining rooms.  Ha!  We love it, definitely repurposed older motel.  Off to the park in the morning if we can get up tomorrow!!

Didn’t see the views at all when we got there but pretty the next day.

Today’s beer:  Kros-Strain Fairy Nectar IPA

Miles driven: 630 (NEVER AGAIN)


Day 3 – Monday, July 2, 2018 – Estes Park, CO/Rocky Mountain National Park

 Somehow we all straggled out of bed in the morning at 6:00 am.  After going to bed at like midnight.  Matt had done a masterful job of packing everything the night before, and we blearily piled into car.  We were interested in hiking to Emerald Lake, and this is accessed via the Bear Lake Trailhead.  Everything we heard (in other words, read on random internet sites) told us that this trailhead parking lot filled by 9 am and was in general a clusterf*** of epic proportions.  We wanted in on the s***show, of course.  Most popular?  Sign us up!

We are about a 3 minute drive to the entrance to the park, and embarked on our journey into the park around 6:30.  We saw some kind of creature with antlers right away, and motored up to the trailhead.  We got up there by 6:45 and the parking lot was already half full.  Cars were streaming in.  It was unreal.  We used the bathrooms and were off!   We were hiking a short trail (3.1 miles round trip) that went past Nymph, Dream, and finally Emerald Lakes.  Advertised as one of the prettiest hikes in the park, it is definitely VERY accessible and fairly easy.  STREAMS of people going up the trail, with numbers dropping off toward the end.

Aren’t we cute?

It really was quite pretty, with B examining some scat that he thought was bear poop and Matt couldn’t argue (looked like dog poop to Sarah, but whatever, we took pictures of it to examine later to resolve the dispute).  Zoe flipped out when not allowed to walk along on the rocks between the path and the cliff.  Noah is the consummate hiker, ignoring us and taking pictures with his iPhone, clipping along quickly.

A picture of Dream Lake, as our pictures of Nymph Lake only were composed of lily pads and hoards of people.

Nymph Lake was little and filled with lily pads and surrounded by so many people we thought the lakeshore would collapse.  We hiked along to Dream Lake, which had trout in it!  B was so happy and just wanted to watch the fish and talk about fishing (B, we are so sorry you have an interest in something that we have no clue about, clearly some kind of recessive genetic thing).  There were lots of people but it didn’t feel crowded.   Emerald Lake was very nice and definitely had nice views, lots of birds and chipmunks around.

We swear the friendliest people are out here. Every time we tried to take a family selfie, someone approached us and asked if they could take our picture! We have more pictures of our family from one day here than the rest of our trips combined.
Our maybe we just looked like we needed help with our pictures that much. Either way, more family photos!

After the hike back for the four of us (and the “ride” back for Zoe, clinging alternately to Matt’s neck and Sarah’s hip), we tried to go to Bear Lake.  It was 250 feet away, kids.  WALK TO THE LAKE AND STOP COMPLAINING.  That goes for Sarah, too.  She was only interested in the lake after she read in her “Deaths in Rocky Mountain National Park” book that someone swam out to the middle of the lake and died.  What if we found bones?  (surprise: all we found were leeches)

Anyway, we were exhausted by this point.  Can you tell by reading this how exhausted we are even writing this??  Three nights in a row of very little sleep start to make us a little funny.   This may not even make sense.  We piled into the car, and the parking lot was already full.  We had forgotten our cooler packed with lunch back at the motel (we were REALLY tired when we left) so we drove back home, hatching plans for the afternoon.  And HOLY crap on our way out, things had exploded.  Our trailhead parking lot was closed and cars were being directed to turn around by a ranger long before the road to the trailhead, and at the entrance gates there were streams of cars backed up for at least a mile.  Giant full sized “shuttle buses” packed and filled with people standing were streaming up to the trailhead and dropping people off.

So we went back to the motel, ate lunch, and jumped in the pool!  Our cute little motel has an outdoor pool and hot tub, and it is heated.  WOW.  Sarah sunbathed (burned) while the kids and Matt swam around in the pool; we suspect the pool probably violates a whole bunch of zoning ordinances.  The hot tub appeared to be similar to ours at home but jacked up to a way hotter temp.  They even had the same cover.  The pool went to 8 feet deep (when’s the last time we saw that in a motel?) and was at least 80 degrees.  It was fantastic!  Gorgeous sun beating down on us, pool to ourselves, kids are old enough to amuse themselves (by strangling each other, but they are becoming so independent).

Warmest pool we’ve been in in a while, ahhh….

We then showered up and decided to drive up on a scenic road in the Park, called Old Fall River Road, recommended to Sarah by a friend.  We thought, why bring our hiking boots (esp Sarah with her stress fracture, she’s fine in Birkenstocks!) and warm clothes, we will just be driving on some road and the kids can squash their brains with iPads.  So the road is one lane only and gravel and heads uphill with multiple switchbacks.  It was beautiful, with lots of turnouts and waterfalls that you could see.  We did not know (because we didn’t bother to see where it ended or even read about it until we were there) that it brings you up to the alpine part of the Park.  We threaded through various parts of the drive, with the kids occasionally yelling that they were bored or hungry.  We would halfheartedly tell them there was ice cream at the top (lies).

Chasm Falls. Someone died here when they didn’t park their car correctly and it ran them over. Not today, a while ago, but Sarah told everyone the story repeatedly. Thanks Death book.

More road pics! You can see the switchbacks below.

So we arrive at the top, which is the Alpine visitor’s center!  At like 12000 feet!  Where there is snow everywhere.  So we were cold.  It was windy too.  And there were 10,000 people there.  All in pants and long sleeves.  We were wearing shorts and sandals.  Eh.  So we somehow by all miracles snag a parking space (unlike the Bible thumper family in the giant Christian van from MO who just made their own illegal parking space (God will judge them)) and we head in.  There’s no ice cream.  There’s 10,000 people.  Did we say that already?  We are not exaggerating.  There’s a crowded gift shop, which was EXACTLY the only thing B wanted to do all day.  Kids purchased toys – B a train, Z a wolf (which she tore a small hole in the animal above the paw and was picking the stuffing out (seemed a little weird but she’s only had like 12 hours of sleep in 3 days), and Noah a mood ring. The gal checking us out asked us immediately where we were from – we think she recognized our accents as she is from near Hudson and going to UW right now.  We Wisconsinites can recognize our own people.  😉

Man with baby in carrier on back approached us to take this photo – thanks friendly stranger!

We then drove down Trail Ridge Road.  Starving and looking at the beautiful views.  We will be back tomorrow.  The kids brains melted.  We listened to some song from the Lego movie a billion times.  Matt veered over the line a million times because the car beeped every time he did that and kept us all awake.  Sarah read her Death in the Rockies book.

Stopped at Anthony’s Pizza to pick up dinner and had an amazing sausage/cheese pizza back at the hotel, with everyone falling apart just a little.  Drove through downtown Estes Park and marveled at the sheer amount of people.  They have a system where all traffic lights turn red and pedestrians cross at all intersections at the same time.  Thousands of people everywhere.  We drove past an outside beer garden with an incredible selection of taps – Sarah counted over 70 beers on their draught list.  Matt’s mouth watered.  This place is INSANE.

Played in the pool (even Sarah!) until exhausted, then inside and off to bed.  Matt went to Safeway and was gone 2 hours.  Maybe he’s not coming back.  We are just going to keep thinking it is because it is Fourth of July week, but this is like Fish Creek in Door County on crack (per Matt).  WOW.

ADDENDUM: Matt returned, after going to some place called Rambo’s to purchase beer.  Rambo was disappointed that Matt did not arrive in Colorado with cases of New Glarus beer (really, people?) but did point Matt to some good beers, and informed him he should really check out Rock Cut brewery locally as they are doing some “interesting” things.  Okay, Rambo, thanks for the tip!

Beer of the day: ‘Rado’s Red Ale & Trinity Hyper Forager

Miles drive: negligible compared with the prior (90 for those really keeping track).

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