Trip report

July 26th - August 17th 2003

This is a text-only trip report. The pictures are on another page.

Overview: This year we did a northern version of last year's trip around the southwest US. Both trips were three weeks. In broad strokes San Francisco to Vancouver to Bamff to Yellowstone to home. The reasoning was that we didn't want to go overseas due to the political situation, and since we had to go in July-August we wanted to avoid going someplace terribly hot. Since we had a lot of fun on our trip last year, we started putting together a northern version in both the US and Canada.

I wouldn't recommend trying anything like this if you don't like driving, and it was at a somewhat hectic but manageable pace. In our case we've done enough similar traveling to have some idea of how much driving per day we can do and still be having fun.

As always these are long and most people will want to just scan for the parts they're interested in. But I've had enough positive feedback from folks using these for trip planning that I'll continue to keep them long and hope the casual reader will forgive me.

The Drive to Lassen: We left the east San Francisco Bay Area on a Saturday morning and dove up the I-5. Basically this is a very dull but fast road for a good part of its length. Hang a right at Redding, drive down a more scenic road for a bit, and you're in Lassen. Elapsed time something like 6 hours (you can do it in less if you rush). Note that this takes you to the northern entrance - if you hang a right at Red Bluff you'll enter the southern entrance. Most of the popular sights are in the southern end but most people camp at Manzanita Lake near the northern end and we wanted to make sure we got a campsite.

Lassen National Park: We camped at Manzanita Lake at the northern end. The theory was that they had the most services (water, flush toilets, showers, etc) but in practice they were all being remodeled and there were port-a-potties, and a couple of 50-cent for three minute showers down near the store. The good news is that they lowered the price. We stayed in loop D which is tent-only so we didn't have to deal with the RV crowd (who are generally very nice but having a running RV next to your tent is no fun). We've backpacked together but this is the first time we've car camped and it was a mixed bag. The good news is that there were some services, and the bad news is that the second night some bozos pulled in at around 9:30pm and spent the next few hours trying very loudly to get their enormous tent set up. In the morning they built the largest campfire I've ever seen - basically a bonfire and smoked us out. Still, all in all not a bad campsite and since there's not really any kind of lodge in the park since it burnt down some years ago there aren't a lot of options.

The park itself is nice. Mt. Lassen is very pretty, there are well done interpretive trails through areas blasted by volcanoes (until Mt. Saint Helens blew Lassen was the most recent eruption in the US). Unfortunately they had a huge snowfall in April and the Bumpass Hell trail was closed which contains the most geothermal areas but some other areas were open and we still got in some nice short hikes (the Misty Falls Trail had wonderful wildflowers).

The Drive to Crater Lake: Rather than go back to the I-5 we headed up the smaller roads, working our way up to Crater Lakes via Lava Beds National Monument (more on this later). We then went through Klamath Falls, OR to Crater Lake. We arrived at the lodge (on the rim) around sunset which clearly surprised the reservations guy since people usually check in early and enjoy the view from the deck or whatever. That's OK, Lava Beds was worth it.

Lava Beds National Monument: We had a vague idea that this was supposed to be interesting, a description in the AAA book that there was one lighted lava tube and another you could hike to, and it was vaguely on the way. We figured we'd spend maybe a half an hour there. It ended up being more like five hours, and might have been longer if we didn't have to get to Crater Lake. It turns out that there are dozens of caves that you can explore on your own. They'll lend you flashlights if you don't have some, and then you go check out the caves. You just head on in and go for it. If it narrows, you get to decide if you want to crawl or go back. There's an absolute minimum amount of information so we headed back after just a bit in one cave and found out later that after a short crawl it opened up and went another couple of thousand feet. Some of the caves were absolutely beautiful - the golden dome cave has a ton of what I assume is pyrite (Update: It turns out it's a bacteria that concentrates sulfur on the surface). Imagine a cave done in black and gold misted with water. And there are just the two of you exploring, which no clue where to go but down and maybe one other group of people far ahead or behind you in the cave system. Just amazing. They've put a few bars over places where there are potentially nasty falls, and in some areas moved rocks to keep twisted ankles down but basically you're on your own. It's the kind of experience that if we'd seen it in Europe we'd say it could never happen in the US due to liability issues. I guess we were wrong, although if the park ever gets a decent number of visitors I can't believe it can continue as it is.

Crater Lake: Since we were staying the first night on the rim I was able to get up and see the sunrise and then go back to bed, which was really nice. After checking out we drove around the main loop road a few times. We spent the evening at the motor inn - still in the park but not on the rim. We did this because we couldn't get two consecutive nights in the lodge reserving only three months in advance. I don't have a ton to say about Crater Lake - it's gorgeous, and everybody should visit it, but we'd been there before and the only real surprise was a little nature trail (look for a sign saying something about a "Castle Crest wildflower garden") through a swampy area that had simply amazing wildflowers.

The Drive to Portland: We'd heard of construction on the "red line" route so we used the "gray line" route. (We were using AAA maps if you hadn't gathered). This brought us back to the I-5 and onward to Portland. Just in terms of minimizing driving we should have stopped, but to lighten up the next day we drove along the Columbia River to Bonneville Dam and then back to Portland.

Bonneville Dam: I like Dams. This one isn't so impressive in terms of the size of the dam, but there's a very interesting fish ladder and you can view it from underwater. Also my wife's grandfather did some of the design work, which adds a certain something. We got through security and to the visitor's center at about 4:00 (it closed at 5:00) and while we were in the fish ladder area a ranger gathered people up for a visit to one of the powerhouses. I think you used to just be able to go in but with the new security a ranger lets you in and hangs out until everybody's done. The generators and so forth are very similar to the ones at Hoover Dam that I'm told you can't see at all with the current security.

There's also an associated fish hatchery which we visited. Basically the appeal is that you get to see ponds with zillions of trout and salmon - just babies that time of year. They also have some adult trout and sturgeon which were pretty cool. I had zero idea that this was there, but there were signs in the dam area, and I knew that fish hatcheries are often interesting so we checked it out. I always try to keep the schedule flexible enough to allow for that kind of thing, but also to have enough things to do in the area that if something turns out to be dull we can bail and do something else.

The drive to Seattle: More I-5, with detours for Mt. Saint Helens (see below). We ended up arriving in the city for dinner with some friends (and their two lovely children who we hadn't met before) about an hour late because traffic jammed up south of Tacoma for no obvious reason and stayed that way. I'd heard Seattle traffic was getting very bad but I had no idea. It was just a total disaster driving anywhere near the city. It wasn't this way on prior trips but I guess they've been growing the city without growing the infrastructure. If there had been a BART or Metro style system I'd gladly used it but there didn't seem to be anything like that.

Mt. Saint Helens: This is a 57 mile each way detour off the I-5. There are a number of visitor centers with different themes. The park service ones cost a couple of bucks each ($6 for adults for a multipass good for all of them) and there are private ones as well including one run by the local lumber company. We only had time for the park service ones. It's a very nice drive - very scenic - and the visitor centers are very well done. They do a great job of telling the story in terms of the history, the geology, the effects on and recovery of flora and fauna, the personal tragedies and the cafeteria isn't bad either (lava dog, yum). There's also a certain amount of hiking in the area but we just didn't have time.

Seattle: We didn't spend a whole lot of tourist-time in the city itself (we actually stayed quite a bit to the south - exit 142ish) although we did a quick pass through the aquarium (solid but not to Monterey's level) and the waterfront-Pike Market region. The most interesting thing was going to the Ballard Locks and watching the whole process of watching lots and lots of boats going through the process. We also saw a ton of salmon using the locks, a seal, and a bald eagle overhead. Nice!

Before heading to Olympic National Park we wanted to get in one last local thing - the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. Well, we'd been totally oblivious but the Blue Angels had been in town rehearsing and this was the day of the show and they take off from Boeing Field. From behind a fence but very close we got to see the whole process of them prepping the planes, the pilots coming out and entering the planes, the pre-flight checks, them taxing the planes to the runway (almost touching the fence we were standing behind) and then takeoff. Watching four F/A-18 Hornets take off already in formation, followed by two more is very exciting. Then we watched the show - it was kind of a backstage version because the main show was to the north but they'd regroup into formation overhead - and then landing, the pilots getting applause, and the pilots coming out for autographs and to talk to the audience. Just amazing. The museum also turns out to be very cool. For an aviation nut this was just a totally cool day and to not even know they were in town, it was just a real stunner. Again, schedule flexibility is key. We lost time in Olympic National Park but it will still be there and I'm sure I'll never have an experience like that again.

Olympic National Park: The downside of course is that we got to Seqium rather late - too late to hike. So we got a nice dinner, did some errands (bought gas, some milk) read the two local papers and got caught up a bit on news, and planned the next day. Since we'd only have one full day to enjoy the park that at least let us make sure we prioritized it.

What we ended up doing was driving to the Hoh rainforest (a long drive but very scenic) and doing some hiking there, then on the way back driving up to Hurricane Ridge and just doing the short paved loops there. The Hoh rainforest is a temperate rainforest which is fairly unusual (as opposed to a tropical rainforest) and is very cool. Everything's covered with moss. The Hurricane Ridge area is pretty and there are super-tame deer wandering around.

So all in all the conclusion was that we had fun, but I can see that you could easily spend a week or two staying in different little towns in the area, hiking in different regions, checking out the beaches, etc. I knew going into this that this would just skim the surface of the area but that's fine. The important thing is that we had fun and I have ideas for another trip. We always plan with the idea that if we like an area we'll go back - it's not critical to try to be exhaustive on a first visit.

Getting to Victoria: Victoria is on an island. There aren't bridges or anything. This means you take a ferry or an airplane. Since we wanted to end up in Vancouver, the thing that made sense on paper was to take an auto ferry to Victoria and then another auto ferry to Vancouver. The problem is that while most ferries in the area are run by the very efficient BC Ferries, the route from Port Angeles to Victoria is run by Black Ball and it's a mini-disaster. No reservations, not enough sailings per day, huge lines, and an uncaring attitude. However, they will get you there sooner or later.

We arrived at 7:00 for the 8:20 ferry, which was full. We were the last car on the waiting list, with no real chance of getting on. (There's a waiting list because apparently they are never sure how many cars will get on until they try.) We knew there was a good chance that would happen, but it meant we were guaranteed a spot on the 12:45 ferry, which was good because it filled at 10:00. So at 10:01 people were showing up and being told they could get in line for the 5:15 ferry. I'm told it's much worse on a Saturday - this was a Monday. Additional complications include them not having any real idea how many people will get on a ship depending on how they all happen to fit that particular day so there's a lot of uncertainty about when you'll sail.

The good news is that you're in walking distance of downtown Port Angeles which isn't half bad, and a block away on Front Street across from the Washington Mutual the Harbor Café served us an excellent breakfast - along with a number of other groups in a similar situation. The bad news is every sailing you miss is four hours spent in Port Angeles instead of Victoria and some of the groups in the café had no idea about the ferry situation so they were pretty upset. Consider yourself warned!

Note that if you are coming back to Port Angeles anyway, take the passenger ferry. You don't need your car in Victoria and there's a $5/day parking lot down the street from the passenger ferry. If I had to do it again I might have considered switching the order to do Olympic Park before Seattle, then Seattle, Vancouver, then Victoria on a passenger ferry out of Vancouver.

Victoria: It's a nice city. Very attractive, nice people, the Butchart gardens are beautiful although expensive ($20 each for a garden?), top notch museums (the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Maritime Museum were well worth it - the place with "home made ice cream" next to the Maritime Museum has what we'd call gelato and quite good too). Nice walking-around downtown, nice scenic drive along the coastline. We had a nice dinner at Millos downtown (Greek) which is in kind of an amusing building. It's a little blue and white building with a windmill attached - surrounded by big modern hotel skyscrapers. I'm sure the next time I'm in Seattle or Vancouver I'll consider a day trip but if I don't have the time I won't be crushed either.

Many shops take US dollars (presumably at a bad exchange rate) but it's easy enough to find an ATM. Use it just like the one at home except, whoo-whoo, Canadian money comes out and on your statement instead of showing $300 it will show some oddball amount like $241.23 depending on the exchange rate that day. People in the shops are also used to you being a little slow figuring out the money and generally seemed very patient.

Getting to Vancouver: Drive north until you run out of land. The freeway starts having lanes that have regular freeway signs saying "to Vancouver" and so forth although you can't drive there. Soon enough you hit a booth with a lady who takes your money, tells you which lane to get into, and you park. Eventually a ferry shows up and you drive on. Ferries are every hour on the hour a dozen or so times a day, with massive modern ships taking up to 487 cars per shot. Very nice operation.

Vancouver: The aquarium is quite nice (Beluga whales! Tropical area with butterflies!), it's in Stanley Park which is pleasant, and the university has a tremendous museum of anthropology (a lot of the space is filled with "visual storage" which means rows and rows of stuff in glass cases which is a nice addition to the more usual galleries) as well as a nice botantical garden. We had some great food. Big chunks are blocks and blocks of markets, restaurants, and shops, all of different ethnicities. I had a great time but it reminded me that I need to drive across the bay more often because there are lots of districts in San Francisco that are exactly the same. Actually, to a certain extent with both Seattle and Vancouver there is a certain resemblance to a scaled-up Berkeley. We spent a day and a half in Vancouver and that was fine although we could easily have found things to do for much longer if it had proved necessary. But I really just wanted to get a taste of what the city was like - this trip wasn't really about cities.

Newspapers: I should note that we try to get local newspapers now and again but otherwise ignore the world as much as possible while on vacation. In this case we got a few more than usual because it had been a hot dry year and wildfires were all over the place (causing closures of places we were going to be shortly!) and we were trying to keep an eye on things as much as possible. But we've always found that small-town newspapers are a tremendous way to learn about a place - what are the issues of importance, what's important to the residents, how is the town changing and what people think of that. Read the opinion section and the letters to the editor even if you never read them at home. It's a real eye-opener to the actual life of people in the area as opposed to the tourist version. It's pretty much the same in a big city except people will be more focused on external things (federal/international politics) or internally all big cities will complain about crime, traffic, and dirt even if it's the cleanest safest place you've ever seen.

The drive to Bamff: The first thing to say is that it's not a one day trip from Vancouver to Bamff unless you're really stubborn. With that in mind, we broke it into two pieces and spent the night in Kamloops. Kamloops is a largish city and apparently something of a ski area because it has a ton of hotels which were all pretty cheap. Clearly summer is something of an off-season. Rather than just drive we did some tourist stuff to break things up, and I'll talk a bit about those before getting to Bamff.

Small town lunches: Both days we got "real" lunches in small towns - not on the tourist strip, but driving back into the actual town. Suddenly real food appears, and we were pretty tired of burgers and avoiding beef as much as convenient since the Canadian beef industry follows some procedures that make me uncomfortable (at the time of the trip it was illegal to import it into the US, so it's not just me). One day we ate at a Japanese-Korean place called Kimchee in a town called Hope (which was excellent), the other at an Italian place. We ordered pizza, which was on the menu, but the waitress seemed amused and kept asking us if we wanted something in addition. It was plenty of food but apparently most people there would order something we were missing. It was a lot like in France where we got asked about five times wouldn't we like some potatoes cooked in some fashion with our meal.

Movies: We saw Johnny English at the Kamloops Cine 8. We often see a movie while outside of the US as it provides interesting cultural data. As an example: our one data point shows us that all Canadians talk constantly during movies - and I do mean constantly - but very softly. So you can't really pick out any one conversation but the whole place has a low buzz to it.

Newspapers revisited: Forest Fires, and Beef: Forest fires were not really an activity we chose, it kind of choose us. Since it was such a dry year there were fires all over and some of the bad ones were about 50km north of Kamloops. Towns had been evacuated and so forth. It was constantly in the papers - fires and how dare the US ban Canadian beef were the main topics. I'd expected some anti-Americanism but hadn't expected it to be over beef - a long rant by a waiter in Bamff led to the third time in my life I didn't leave a tip (the service was also world-class slow to the extent that we overheard a waitress ask our waiter why in the world we were still there). Anyway, the wind shifted while we were in Kamloops and we woke up to almost no visibility, a burnt smell, and sore eyes and throats. What fun!

Yoho National Park: This is one of the four parks that are together in the same grouping as Bamff. It's pretty, and there are a few interesting things to do a little way off the main highway. But if you leave the main highway - even the 2km to see the first item (a natural bridge which was very interesting because it was water-carved and the water was still shooting through with tremendous force) you need a parks pass at $14 for the day. It's an expensive detour!

Bamff National Park: We kept telling ourselves things like "I bet that's really attractive when it's not so hazy". Fires to the south led to bad views, many trails being closed just because if there was a fire they didn't want to evacuate anybody more than a km or two from a road, and extra people who had fled there from fires in neighboring parks. The net effect was that a ton of people were crammed into a few activities and it was impossible to avoid them by the usual techniques. Usually if you hike away from the road a bit the people vanish, but when your escapes are closed that doesn't work. I also kept telling myself that Yosemite, which I love but wouldn't visit in the summer would be just as bad or worse if you were stuck in the valley - but of course if I had to visit in the summer I'd stay out of the valley.

But I think it's worth keeping in mind that Bamff was originally famous because the railroad went through there, the rail company built some lodges near some hot springs, and it got a lot of attention. It's still famous because the skiing is apparently wonderful (the low treeline makes it a lot like the Alps), the main highway which happens to follow the old railroad line goes right through it, and because of momentum. But if you're driving through BC from Vancouver as we did, it pretty much looks like a lot of what you've been driving through for days. I imagine if you're coming from the Alberta plains or arriving by air it's more impressive. But all in all it didn't compare to many of the other parks we've been to.

Customer service story: Ok, so we go into this bakery in Lake Louise Village and there are two women behind the counter - Tongs and Cashier. A guy is in line in front of us paying for a coffee he's already served. Cashier has told him it will be $1.50. We start to tell our order to Tongs. Tongs says something to the effect that it's not our turn yet. The guy pays, gets his change, and leaves. Tongs, who this whole time hasn't moved, turns to us and asks for our order. Tongs gets the order from the case two feet over. Cashier is just standing there. Eventually Tongs finishes, and Cashier rings it up. Tongs holds the food in a bag, and just stands there. Once we've paid Tongs hands us the bag, and then the next person can order from Tongs while Cashier stands there. So they've got two people, and a system where no more than one of them ever moves at any one time. This is at a time when the whole area is swamped with people. And it's not like one was training the other or anything, the only time they communicated was when Tongs told Cashier what we'd ordered, even though Cashier was standing there the entire time with nothing else to do other than listen to the order.

Customer service story 2: Earlier that day, we went to a McDonalds drive-thru for breakfast. I like egg McMuffins, so sue me. Somehow somebody skipped out of line, or skipped into line, or what I don't know but the car order got one off of the order list. When we hit the pay window they rattled off our order, which wasn't ours. The guy didn't look surprised, and said they had a computer problem, and could we tell him what we ordered. And then he asked what price we were quoted. The price for the order on his screen was lower, so he asked us to pay that price instead of the actual price, because the car in front of us had already paid for our order, and it was out of the system. This of course didn't solve anything because now we'd paid for the car behind us, and he was going to have the same conversation all over again.

Customer service story 3: The exact same day as the prior two stories, our waiter (the one with the anti-American rant re: Candian beef imports I mentioned earlier) tried to serve us Caribou. Which apparently somebody else had ordered.

Customer service story 4: A prior day, in Vancouver, the guy in front of us in line at a Kabob place went to get his call-in order and they said "the Pizza?" and he said no, it was such-and-such. Well, they'd already given such-and-such to somebody else so they had to make him another order. They seemed genuinely confused by the whole thing. Apparently somebody else had walked in (Maybe the one who ordered the Pizza), said they were there to get the take-out, they said "the such-and-such?" and apparently she thought that sounded good so she paid - hey, no waiting.

Between stories 2 and 4 I'm convinced this is a Canadian thing - you get other people's food orders to save time. I think I'll take it up myself as hobby.

Customer service story 5: Not really a story, I thought I'd better mention that the customer service in stores, museums, ticket booths, gas stations, and about half the restaurants was excellent. But the other half of the restaurants were just plain wacky - not just slow, I've spent enough time in Europe and small towns that I can deal with slow - but weird things just kept happening.

Getting to Glacier National Park: Basically this involves driving across Alberta, crossing the border, and you're done. The Alberta part involved driving across the plains and therefore through about a billion grasshoppers (I'm told Coke will get the residue off - I'm not quite that desperate but I haven't gotten rid of all the goo yet either) and the crossing was pretty painless.

Glacier National Park: The park's gorgeous, has wonderful wildlife, and wasn't crowded at all. Then again, maybe that's because a 70,000 acre fire had closed most of the park - in fact the night we were supposed to be at the Johnson lodge they had to evacuate it. Luckily the bozos had lost our reservations. In fact this was double wonderful, because we stayed at a great place (see the next section). In particular we spent a lot of time in the Many Glacier region, which is a bit north of the main Going-To-The-Sun-Road.

The Johnsons: We stayed in the Red Eagle Motel, which is in Saint Mary's just outside the park. It's owned by the same folks who own a campground, a café, and who knows what else all off the same side-road on the top of a hill. They've been there since the dawn of town and for years this was the only place to stay on the eastern end of the park. The motel was fine, but the café was excellent. We were there three nights and ate dinner there twice and breakfast three times. Service was excellent even though they were having groups of 40 firefighters taking over most of the place, and the food was wonderful. The prices were so low we wildly over tipped as a percentage because it seemed unfair that the waiters would be punished by the low prices. If you're in Saint Mary's, seriously, eat there no matter what. You can't miss it - the town isn't that big and they have big signs for their side-road.

Getting to Yellowstone: This was a really long drive.

Yellowstone: I've written about Yellowstone before so I won't add a great deal. Some points of interest include that we ran into a gal we knew in college (and she hasn't aged a day), and it turns out some family members were staying there at the same time but unfortunately we didn't realize it until later.

Getting Home: Basically on the last day we did a few odds and ends, and drove to Salt Lake City. Then in a single day we drove from Salt Lake City back to the San Francisco Bay Area. It's about 12 hours, and a bazillion miles but Nevada goes by pretty fast!

Conclusion: It was a great trip but I wouldn't try anything longer, and I think for most people it would have been too much driving.

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Copyright © 2001 - 2007 Doug Wade including all photographs except where otherwise noted.