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Visiting National Parks – educational and inspirational

U.S National Parks - educational, inspirational and perfect for Skoolie road-trips

Vast swathes of preserved land, incredible natural wonders, wildlife in abundance, amazing hikes and educational activities – if you are on a road-trip in America, you do not want to miss the National Parks.

 

This aspect of our trip taught us that our own UK Skoolie had to have the most beautiful surroundings to achieve true glamping heaven.

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

Skoolie Camping in the great outdoors

Each state runs its own beautiful parks, but there are 62 National Parks run by the U.S. National Park Service, founded in 1916, that are considered to be the crown jewels of America’s diverse landscape. They host millions of people each year and are beautifully curated and preserved so that people can have the best possible access to the natural world. 


To see all 62, you’d need to visit 29 states and two U.S. territories. That wasn’t possible for us, but we bought ourselves an America the Beautiful National Parks yearly pass for $80.00 (entrance to Yellowstone is $50 alone, so it makes sense) and crammed in as many as we possibly could.

Read our top 5 parks below: 

Yellowstone

Bison crossing in Yellowstone National Park
Bison crossing in Yellowstone National Park

If National Parks are the pinnacle of America’s outdoor experiences, Yellowstone National Park is at the very tippidy top of the pile. It covers 3,472 square miles of land and has the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and the largest number of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states. The Grand Loop Road that circles around inside, close to most of the major attractions, is 142 miles long and it gives you the chance to see bison, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, elk and the relatively recently reintroduced, grey wolves. 

 

We watched geysers shooting high into the sky, stared at bottomless turquoise pools and following winding canyons that rivalled Grand Canyon in drama. Our absolute favourite part was the Lamar Valley though. We went at dawn, winding through the herds of bison as they crossed the road in front of us and spotting grizzlies. We parked up alongside the road for a coffee and, as we climbed onto the roof-deck, we could hear the wolves howling. From our incredible vantage point we were actually able to spot two wolves hunting the bison – the surrounding cars had no idea what we were looking at. 

 

All that in mind, it does not take a genius to work out why people recommend booking Yellowstone in advance.  We arrived in the heart of the summer though and managed to snag two nights at one of the National Park campgrounds. We also free-camped in the Bridger-Teton Forest (to the east of neighbouring park, Grand Teton) and off the John D Rockerfeller Jr Highway (close to the south entrance). We also found a beautiful spot in the Shoshone Forest (just outside the gates to the north-east and perfect for early morning wolf-watching in the Lamar valley.  

 

Where we stayed

Yellowstone is incredibly popular – it had 4,020,288 visitors in 2019 – so it is worth planning ahead. If you haven’t, it is possible to do it last-minute We arrived in the heart of the summer and managed to snag two nights at Bridge Bay Campgroundone of the National Park campgrounds. We also free-camped in the Bridger-Teton Forest (to the east of neighbouring park, Grand Teton), off the John D Rockerfeller Jr Highway (close to the south entrance) and in forest land near West Yellowstone gate. Our top spot was a beautiful spot pull-in by the river in the Shoshone Forest (just outside the gates to the north-east and perfect for early morning wolf-watching in the Lamar valley.  We spent a week enjoying the park and only paid for two nights – a bargain at $26pn!

Yosemite

Yosemite National Park from the roof of our skoolie
Yosemite Valley from the roof-deck of our Skoolie

Yosemite is one of America’s most popular parks and we were expecting it to be busy and impersonal. It is absolutely stunning though – you spend most of the time in a fairly small portion – the Yosemite Valley – and everywhere you look the views are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. 

 

We hiked up to the top of Yosemite Falls and though there was no waterfall, it was the end of a very dry summer, the views were spectacular. Our favourite part of the park though was El Capitan. As a treat for climbing the Falls, we watched Alex Honnold’s Free Solo on the laptop and the boys became obsessed with bouldering. We spent hours watching the climbers on the rock face, tracking their slow progress with binoculars. Is that him? Maybe, just maybe…

Where we stayed

Yosemite is even more popular than Yellowstone. In 2019 it had 4,442,861 visitors. It’s much smaller – or at least Yosemite Valley is – so you need to get your campsite booked asap. There are some free / cheap options if you are in a small vehicle / tent, but in a Skoolie the closest we could get to free was a Boondockers Welcome home about an hour away.

Glacier

Top of Going to the Sun Road
Glacier was an unspoilt, pristine wilderness

Back in the UK we had never heard of Glacier. When you get to America, and specifically Montana, it’s a different story. Despite the state being three times the size of England and full of wilderness, wildlife and stunning mountain passes (check out our video of Skalkaho Pass!), every local spoke wistfully of Glacier National Park and the incredible hiking opportunities. We primed the boys and packed the treats! 

 

We hiked some incredible trails , taking the Trail of the Cedars through huge old Red Cedars full of deep, dark crevices, then branching (no pun intended!) off to Avalanche Lake. This gradual two-mile incline took us up through the forest past chipmunks and ground squirrels, fallen trees, moss-strewn boulders and streams – remnants of an old glacier that forged a path here. Eventually it all opened out to a circle of mountains complete with waterfalls – all of which were cascading into the stunning, turquoise Avalanche Lake. It was unbelievably picturesque and serene, despite the number of people on the same walk. 

 

We also took on part of the Highline Trail and Hidden Lake Overlook Trail at the top of the passThe views were spectacular, a deep blue lake flanked by steep crevices and Sperry Glacier. Further down on the other side of the park, we enjoyed St Mary Falls, then on to the slightly higher Virginia Falls. It was a beautiful, relatively quiet seven-mile return walk alongside the glacial St Mary Lake, past Baring Falls and underneath the scarred Rockies. 

Our favourite part of the week was our mega-trek. We had built the boys up to an 10-miler, and chosen Iceberg Lake as our chosen walk. We’d been learning a lot about trees through the Junior Ranger packs, and we were able to identify Lodgepole Pine through the cones and could see signs of how the forest was rejuvenating itself through its growth patterns. The view down the valley, thick with trees and with no development or people in sight, felt like one of the wildest places we had been and when we arrived at the glacial lake in the mountains, we heard the crunch and creak of cracking ice and watched a huge chunk break free from the face. Incredible.

 

Where we stayed

 

You cannot drive anything over 21ft over the Going to the Sun road, the only route through the park, so the most obvious thing to do is camp at Apgar or St Mary’s Visitor Centres in West Glacier or St Mary’s respectively.  From here, Glacier National Park offer a free shuttle – it’s a killer of a queue waiting for it, but it does mean you can explore the park. We also stayed at Many Glacier campsite, which was much busier. Get there early and be prepared to queue for vacating spots. 

Big Bend

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend is a wondrous place. It’s difficult to get to – well it takes a long time (everywhere in Texas takes a long time!), but it was well worth the trip. It is the only National Park that contains an entire Mountain Range – the Chisos. Unfortunately you can’t drive big vehicles into the campsites at the base of the Chisos so we had to rethink our week of big views and tired hiking legs. Instead we headed to the Rio Grande

 

It was magnificent. We had glorious sunshine and and the Sierra del Carmen literally glowed at sunset. We had some gorgeous walks from the campsite to the Hot Springs, where you can soak in the water before walking back along the river to camp. There was also a nature walk that jutted out onto a pinnacle. Surrounded by the curve of the river, Mexico just a stones throw away, it was a wonderful place to watch some of the hundreds of variety of birds, including the bobbing heads of road-runners as they pelted ahead of us; listen to the bells around the necks of the Mexican donkeys as the grazed on the river bank and laugh at the turtles as they plopped off branches into the river. 

 

Our favourite part? As I was lying in bed one morning drinking my tea, a coyote wandered past. A coyote! I called the boys, partly so they could also see this elusive creature but a little bit because I had no idea where they were and wasn’t entirely sure that small boys weren’t coyote fodder!

Where we stayed

We stayed in the Rio Grande campsite in the south of the park. Originally disappointed because we had wanted to be in the heart of the Chisos (and you can’t take large vehicles down the road leading to the base), it actually turned out to be an incredible spot. There was lots to do there and the scenery was stunning – all the beauty of the riverside with the Chisos as a backdrop. 

Banff National Park

Emerald Lake in Fall
Caption

The Canadian Rockies had long been on my list of places to visit. Right at the top was the Icefields Parkway, part of Banff and Jasper National Parks, which runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. The Icefields Parkway is one of the ‘must-do’ things in Canada in a Skoolie (according to every list ever written!) and we were not disappointed. We were on the cusp of Autumn and as we drove the Icefields Parkway the leaves were changing to a beautiful array of reds and golds. The road is beautiful but it is long – it takes a good few hours to drive it – so we broke it up with a hike above the Athabasca glacier, stopped for two nights so that we could visit Maligne Canyon, then, on our return, stopped at Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls. 

 

The highlight of the Canadian parks was Lake Louise in Banff National Park. Of all the places we visited, this spot was the most touristy but it really is spectacular. We lucked out with a glorious, sunny day and the impossibly turquoise-blue water was shimmering, the mountains surrounding them were golden with autumnal larch trees and the snow capped peaks were a stark white against the blue skies. We escaped the crowds by heading past the beach at the far end of the Lake and following the valley up to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. From there it was a steep-ish trail to view the Plain of Six Glaciers themselves, then on to the Highline trail and the Little Beehive trail. We had phenomenal views over Lake Louise’s cloudy, glacial, turquoise water on one side and Emerald Lake on the other,  a sharp contrast with it’s clear green water. We hiked down the switchbacks and had tea in Lake Agnes tea house before climbing down to Lake Louise, sun-kissed, wind-swept and ready for a Canadian beer!

Where we stayed

We stayed in Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff, which was fab. We actually hired a car to do the Parkway because we had guests with us and wanted to make sure we could park, so we left the Skoolie there for a couple of days. Back at Lake Louise, reunited with the bus (oh how we missed it!), we stayed cheaply at the overflow parking site – it worked perfectly as there was a shuttle that took us straight past the car park queues, right to the lake itself.

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How to go to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on a budget

If you are on a roadtrip around America, chances are you are going to take in as many National Parks as you can. These huge areas of land showcase some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes the country has to offer. They are packed full of geographical wonders, wildlife in abundance, amazing hikes, historical information, educational activities for children and, for those living on wheels, some darn excellent camping spots.

The problem is they don’t come cheap and they don’t conform to a last-minute schedule. Not if you are in a large R.V anyway. If you don’t mind living under canvas, you can back-country camp with a permit, or turn up at smaller campsites that don’t take bookings, but neither of these are an option in a 38ft yellow school bus. You can’t just pull over wherever you feel like it either, there is no hiding in Yellowstone; our home only works for ‘stealth camping’ if we park up outside a school and small American children are not the kind of animals we plan on spotting! Campsites are booked months in advance and, with a captive audience, no doubt expensive.

We are neither rich nor organised, but we really wanted to do Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so we decided to go anyway and see if it was possible to do it cheaply and without pre-planning.

Why go to Yellowstone National Park? Is it worth it?

Beautiful scenery at yellowstone
Beautiful scenery at every turn: Yellowstone is a top destination for outdoors lovers

If National Parks are the pinnacle of America’s outdoor experiences, Yellowstone National Park is at the very tippidy top of the pile. It is the first American National Park and has the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and the largest number of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states. You can spot bison, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, elk and the relatively recently reintroduced, grey wolves from the road, whilst watching geysers shoot high into the sky or staring into bottomless turquoise pools or following winding canyons that rival Grand Canyon in drama.

All that in mind, it does not take a genius to work out why people recommend booking Yellowstone in advance. It is supposed to be a year-round park but winter conditions close many of the routes and presumably limit the amount of camping options. Spring and summer are a different story; all 3,472 square miles of land can be explored and it is absolutely massive; the Grand Loop Road that circles around inside, close to most of the major attractions, is 142 miles long alone!

Why didn’t we book?

Grand Teton view
Free spirits – we want to pull over wherever and whenever we want!

We always knew we wanted to go to Yellowstone, it was marked on our planning map as one of the key first places to visit. So, given the American penchant for road trips and camping, coupled with the potential ‘wilderness experience’ of the National Park and the summer holidays, why didn’t we plan ourselves better?

When we arrived in Salt Lake City we had no idea which direction we would travel (or even if we would travel at all!). All we knew is that we wanted to go where we felt like going; follow recommendations when they came and stop and start at will. It sounds a bit airy fairy, but that is surely the joy of living on the road? It also has to be the reality – if you get a bus issue, who knows how long you might get stuck in some random town waiting for parts.

Research into Yellowstone was starting to make us think we would have to abandon our free-spiritedness. The excellently helpful ‘Traveling family’ @thewebbproject, who we met at the Grand Teton Distillery, felt that this wasn’t the case though. We just need to work in a bit of balance. They told us that they get together a rough route and then book the hot spots in plenty of time. They then use these dates as a guide to get them there – meandering a little if they are moving too fast, speeding up with a couple of long drives if they are lagging behind. It sounds like good advice.

What about Grand Teton National Park?

Cascade Canyon Grand Teton National Park
Contemplating Moose at Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

We started our National Park adventure in Jackson Hole, which is actually at the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park, which sits below Yellowstone. The two parks join together but somehow Grand Teton seems to be ignored in the National obsession to visit Yellowstone. It’s very different – far more mountainous. We had never even heard of it. Well almost. We were both reading Bill Bryson when we arrived and he mentions the Tetons. Our top fact was that they were discovered by the Canadian French who had named them because their snowy peaks looked a little like breasts (those French!). Teton is actually an old word for cow’s teats, which makes you wonder what the explorers lady-friends boobs looked like.

Breasts aside, Grand Teton National Park has some beautiful lakes, the Snake River, bears a-plenty and the Teton range of mountains, which sit along an active fault line and many of which rise over 11,000 feet.

Back to the issue: How do you visit both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park without booking in advance?

Old Faithful, Yellowstone
Old Faithful geyser, erupting faithfully!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also a useless thing if you are just a few miles south of the park with nowhere to stay that night. We stopped in Jackson Hole, a few miles from the south entrance to Grand Teton, to get some WiFi and plan what to do.

Entering the park is not the problem, you can sort this out at the gate or at the tourist information centres. No planning required! The entrance fee at the gate is $25.00 per vehicle. The pass can be used for seven days and will get you in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. You can buy a one-year pass for $50.00 if you live close to Yellowstone / go a lot, but if you are touring, like us, it makes sense to get a National Parks pass – America the Beautiful – for $80.00. This gets you in to all national parks in the country. It seems camping is the sticky point.

What to do if you haven’t booked a campsite?

Beautiful and free campsites in Grand Teton national park
Beautiful and free campsites are available just outside the National Parks

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are surrounded by National Forest, which we know provide cheap or free camping sites that you do not have to book in advance. Yellowstone is so massive that it takes ages to drive to the edges of the park, seriously compromising any opportunities for early or late wildlife spotting, but Grand Teton is not nearly as popular as Yellowstone and is not as big. A quick search on Wikicamps identified a few potential spots in the Bridger-Teton Forest that were only 20 minutes from the park gate. We decided to risk it.

Yellowstone has 5 bookable, what I would consider budget, campsites in the heart of the park, which you can book via Xanterra. 1 of them – Fishing Bridge – is closed until next year. There are some more expensive private RV sites, but as I pointed out in the last post, these are not for us. I tried to find space online but the Xanterra website was not working well for us – it showed everything as booked, was difficult to navigate and I wasn’t sure if things were  actually booked or the screen had just not refreshed properly. I was about to give up but then I read on a forum that it pays to call them as there are often last minute bookings. We did this and wwwwaaaahhhey… they had space for us at Bridge Bay Campground, next to Yellowstone Lake, for for two nights at $26 per night. Booked – Yahay! It was neither impossible nor expensive!

As a note for anyone else planning a trip to Yellowstone, as well as the bookable sites, there are several ‘turn up on the day’ sites. Most of these last-minute ones are not suitable for larger vehicles and fill up by about 9am. You have to be lucky and probably have a plan B, but if you have a tent or a small camper then I’m sure you could chance it. All the visitor centres list the campsites and show what time they filled up the day before, so you can get a good idea of where to head if that is your plan.

How long do you need to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park?

Morning Glory pool
Morning Glory pool – turquoise forever!

This really depends on what kind of person or family you are. We spent 8 days in the environs of Grand Teton and Yellowstone but it was a very leisurely 8 days. We didn’t spend all day, every day exploring because it very quickly becomes too much. It was very busy at the tourist hotspots and the Grand Loop Road often has lengthy traffic jams because a bear or a bison has wandered onto the road. With all this traffic it felt far more like a safari park than a great natural wilderness. The tourist hot spots, full of activities and museums etc, were also a bit too reminiscent of Centerparcs for my liking, with signage everywhere and happy rangers on hand to give you a jolly welcome. The kids loved the educational activites, all of which contribute to them earning a junior ranger badge. They learnt about conservation, how geysers work and the science behind predicting an eruption…. there’s some good home-schooling right there!

The best bits of both parks are the views you get when the people thin out and disappear. We got up super early on two mornings to drive the Lamar Valley – the Serengeti of North America – and saw bison galore, grizzly bear, black bear, elk and even 2 wolves (which might have been coyotes… we certainly heard wolves just before we saw them though). From the deck of our bus we had the best view of all the action. Ha ha cars!

Where did we stay, was it good and what did it cost?

Bison crossing Lamar Valley
Bison crossing Lamar Valley

To go back to costs and planning, only two of those eight nights were inside the park at Bridge Bay Campsite. We spent 4 nights in free forest land bordering the parks and 4 nights in paid-for campsites in neighbouring towns. All of them I would recommend.

Upper Teton View campsite – FREE

We stayed at this lovely spot – Upper Teton View – just east of the main highway through Grand Teton. It provides easy access to Grand Teton Park – you can backtrack 20 minutes to the south gate for Jenny Lake or continue for 30 minutes to the north gate, where you can visit Jackson Lake or Colter Canyon.

The site was up an unpaved, bumpy road and we were nervous about the bus, but we’d read that it was worth the drive. For the feint of heart, there is a lower Teton View that you reach first. Several bigger RV’s were pulled in here and there was even a mobile ranger station if you wanted to get some tips. If you want to continue to Upper Teton, carry on up the bumpy path. It gets pretty steep and at one point, you reach a fork. DO NOT TAKE THE RIGHT. We did, it was difficult to drive and when we ended up at the top we found just two campsite spaces that were full. We had to go all the way down to Lower Teton View, turn around and do the while hill again. Eventually we got back up to the top (and breathe!), to find several camping spots.

The view was breathtakingly gorgeous and the folk camping were lovely. Night one we were closer to the trees and got bitten by mosquitoes, but night two we parked in a more open space and it was perfect. As the mountains turned orange at sunset, we had that ‘this is why we are travelling’ moment!

Jenny Lake

Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers
Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers

From Upper Teton it is easy to get into the south of Teton National Park. First thing in the morning we went to Jenny Lake and did a gorgeous walk around the bright blue water to the hidden waterfall (you can get a boat if the 2 miles are too much). We continued up to the hidden waterfall (where most of the boat people turn around) and then continued into Cascade Canyon – as delightful as it sounds. It reminded Guy and I of happy days trekking in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, except it was moose on the path instead of alpaca and our pockets were full of incentivising sweets instead of trail mix. We also had two extra, slightly less motivated trekkers in our team! We caught the boat back instead of taking the 2 mile trek – ouch, a big queue and a big ticket; one way was $38. A return was $50.

Colter Canyon

We spent the next day around Colter Canyon Village, which I don’t think had any particular merit. The best bit was the chaos that ensued when a grizzly bear appeared close to the lakeside beach. We watched it being fielded off by rangers carrying pepper spray. Our first real grizzly!

Grassy Lake Road Campsite – FREE

Magical sunsets
Magical sunsets

We wanted to stop as close to Yellowstone as possible the night before entering our second of the parks – the best way to beat the queues. There are 20 dispersed sites just off the Rockerfeller Highway, the link road between Grand Teton and the South Entrance of Yellowstone.

We got there quite late and followed the turning onto Grassy Lake Road. It’s tarmac at first but then it hits fairly smooth gravel for a few miles. When I had read 20 dispersed sites, I assumed 20 campgrounds. This was wrong – it was actually 20 camping sites across several areas. Areas 1 – 4 are down by the river. They all had between 2 and 4 spaces and all of those were full. After site 4, the road turns inland a bit. Site 5, which has 1 space available, comes next and then there is several miles to reach the next camping spot near the reservoir. There are more spots there, and we met several campers heading that way, but we were worried about the windy gravel road getting steeper. The parking spot in 5 is set back from the road but we figured there would be space to turn and so we decided to stop there and assess our options – perhaps we should go back to Upper Teton? As we rumbled along to the end of site 5, lady luck was on our side…. the spot was free. Everyone passing it must have assumed it was full. We had our own campspot, complete with a serviced long-drop toilet and bear box, for the night!

This one is Guy’s favourite spot so far. It felt like we were deep in the wilderness, tall grasses and trees all around us. We had the sounds of nature clicking and swishing and calling all night. We didn’t see any bears, but it felt more like bear country than anywhere else we had been. Fabulous!

Top tip – if you are in a big rig like ours, it’s worth running down to check if the spaces are full in 1 -4 as it can be hard to see from the road. We got stuck turning back out of one after a failed investigation and it took a 10-point-turn to get ourselves back on the road again!

Old Faithful and the geyser basin

We got into Yellowstone early and headed in the opposite direction to our campsite so that we could visit Old Faithful. This geyser erupts about every 90 minutes and sits in a geyser basin full of other wonderous sites. Parking the big bus was a concern, but there is plenty of space if you get there before 9.30am.

The geysers were fun – perhaps a bit overhyped – but the hot springs and pools were fascinating. Clear blue ringed with orange and red – all with names that seemed to come with a story: Abyss; Beauty; Dragon’s Breath; Black Growler. One dad that I was walking behind was joking to his complaining daughter that each one was named after the person who fell into it: Beryl; Daisy; Pearl… it was going well until they reached one called ‘Infant’ and then it got a bit dark. The stories stopped!

It was busy at Old Faithful but not so much that you couldn’t move. It was unforgivingly hot though (and smelt of eggs, according to Soren…. alot!)

Bridge Bay Campground, Yellowstone National Park – $26 per night

We entered proper campsite territory. Bridge Bay is the biggest of the sites and there were lots of campers. That said, it is well-managed, clean and tidy. There is a big outdoor amphitheatre where they show films and give talks every night – the boys were super keen to attend (it was at 9.30pm and it was about coyotes and wolves so they imagined a late night and wild animals!) but after about 15 minutes of unengaging waffle (and a very dull slide show) of the tale of ‘Old Man Coyote and his bargain with the wolf’, they were keen to go home to bed!

Bridge Bay is on the central loop of the park, so it is an easy one to work into your plans. We had to double back on ourselves a couple of times, so a more organised person than us should really book camps at different spots.

There were lots of elk wandering around the campsite. It’s lovely until you want to go to the toilet and a horse-sized creature with massive antlers is in the way of the ladies loo. Brilliant.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Bison jam!
Bison jam! Add some time to your journey as they will not get out of your way!

On the east side of Grand Loop Road is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I guess Grand Canyon has the copyright on the first two words and so you have to include the last two! The Yellowstone River plunges 1200 feet and the thermal waters have cut a fascinating channel through the rock, tinging everything with a golden-yellow hue. It’s very beautiful and also very busy. We followed the main route to Artist’s Point accompanied by bus loads of visitors, which detracted slightly from the incredible views. We decided to lose the noise and headed inland on a quieter trail. This is definitely the way to do Yellowstone; we saw a handful of people for the rest of the walk and had meadows filled with wildflowers, mud pools, hot springs and elk all to ourselves.

Cooke City – Clarks Fork, Shoshone National Forest – FREE

This was a dreamboat of a spot, not far from the east entrance. This is one end of the Lamar Valley and if you stay here, you can drive the Lamar first thing in the morning. We had already driven it once to reach the exit / entrance, but it was too late in the day and too busy.

The bend in the river, where we parked up, was a designated dispersed site. One other R.V was there but we didn’t see any people – perhaps they had left it whilst exploring the park. The water was clear and gurgling, the backdrop of the Beartooth mountains was impressive, the forest was thick and green and the sunset glorious. If it wasn’t already colonised by a gazillion mosquitoes it would have been perfect. Windows closed and a killing spree solved the problem more or less. It was worth the few bites though to watch the sun come up over the mountains.

The Lamar Valley

Wolf watching over breakfast
Wolf watching over breakfast in the Lamar Valley

When the tourist info lady marked out the Lamar valley as a ‘must-see’, we figured that we weren’t being let into a little secret. Everyone was going to be doing the Lamar to see the wildlife. We decided to do it early and set off from Bridge Bay at 6.30am. By the time we got there, it was well after 9am. It’s not that far, but this is the land of the bison and they like to stand in the way of the traffic. We didn’t see much so drove out and stayed in the spot mentioned above.

The next day was a different story – we left at 6.30 and were on the main road through the Lamar by 7am. We saw bear, bison and even a couple of wolves. Totally worth the early start and the different start point. If you want to see wildlife, definitely do it early.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Sorry Yellowstone but why is Mammoth a highlight? If you go in to the park from the north, perhaps it is a bit more exciting. If you leave from the north though, having seen everything else, Mammoth is…. a mammoth disappointment!

Eagle Creek – Gardiner – $7 per night

We stopped a night outside of Gardiner in a managed campsite in the Gallatin National Forest. It was up a very steep hill – scary bus territory – but we made it. All the spots were taken but we passed the ranger on the way in and, as the sites are massive, we just shared a space with someone else. It rained so we didn’t do a great deal other than sleep.

Gardiner was nice – after a week in the wilderness it was good to have proper food and coffees again. It was less good to find that all of Kit’s presents, which I had ordered from Amazon to be delivered to the Gardiner Post Office by General Delivery, had been returned to sender. It turns out that you can send post to be held at U.S post offices for a month (like poste restante) but they don’t accept UPS deliveries. Amazon, of course, use UPS. Arrrggghhhh!

Rainbow Point – West Yellowstone – $20 per night

Kayaking on earthquake lake
Kayaking on Earthquake Lake – created when an earthquake triggered a landslide that blocked the Missouri River as it flowed into Hebgen Lake, close to where we stayed. 

West Yellowstone is a major entry point to Yellowstone and so every other shop is a tourist trap selling t-shirts and huckleberry products. It has an IMAX, supermarket, ice cream stand and hardware store – everything a civilisation-deprived family might need. It also has the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Centre. It’s a non-profit place which has lots of info on animals, which frankly we’d had plenty of at the visitor centres in Yellowstone, but also has rescued animals. We got to see wolves and bears a little closer, with a lot more protection. I’d say it is a tad overpriced – it cost us $45 for 4. Your ticket gets you in for two days, but you really are done within an hour or so. You can pay more to hide food for the bears to find – $5 more – but I dissuaded the boys from doing that.

We stayed at Rainbow Point on the Hebgen Reservoir. It was a nice wooded site about 20 minutes outside of West Yellowstone. Completely booked up on the weekend, so as it was Thursday evening we just made a flying visit. This was one of the areas affected by the 1959 earthquake and landslide, which created Earthquake Lake which we went on to visit. Guy spotted a grizzly yards from our camp. Yikes!

So how much did it cost

We did it last minute, so what did we spend? Overall we spent less than $150 for the week (not including park entrance as we have the pass for the year). We spent less than $80 on accommodation for 8 nights, and the educational activities were just $3 per child. The boat at Jenny Lake added on a chunk, that we probably should have avoided,  and we did a pricey shop in Colter Canyon to buy bread and eggs and milk ($25!).  If we had been more organised we could have saved cash there as well.

The long and short of it is that yes, it is do-able on a budget and do-able last minute. Go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton – they are fabulous.

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Skoolie Stays

Camping in a Skoolie in America​

Camping in a Skoolie in America

How easy is it to get around in a 37ft school bus and where do you sleep? We have all the answers!

 

This is where it began – the change of scene that we all need now and again. 

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The beautiful part about living in a Skoolie is that your home comes with you, whatever the destination. We left Utah, snaking our way up past Bear Lake and into Idaho, before crossing the border into Wyoming for our first National Parks: Yellowstone and the lesser-known, Grand Teton. Throughout this first month of our travels, we learnt about the wide range of options for those living in a home on wheels and what worked for us and our bus. 

Life on the road

We may have been sleeping in campgrounds but we were sleeping in relative luxury. Living in a Skoolie is not like traditional camping – we didn’t have to store our food in a coolbox full of melted ice or sleep on slowly deflating airbeds for a start! Our bus-home had everything we might need for a comfortable life: a hot shower, toilet, fridge freezer, cooker, comfortable beds. Of course all that takes up space. We measured in at 37ft plus few extra feet for our bike rack. So how easy was it to get around?

 

Americans truly love the road. In the UK, if a drive is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend – we need to ‘recover from the journey’. It is completely different in America – there is nothing they like more than a road-trip.  In Yellowstone, we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck, with two kids under 10, to camp for the weekend.  

They may like the road but they also like their space and comfort. As we drove through Utah, Idaho and Wyoming we passed numerous 40ft motorhomes, often towing a car or a boat, as well as a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. Many of them had slide-outs too (weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth) to make the living space bigger. Our 37ft skoolie looked small in comparison and size was never an issue as we navigated our way north.

Campsite camping in a Skoolie

Skoolie at a state campsite
In National Parks, there are less options. If you want to stay in the park, you have to stay in a National Park campsite. These are usually the most basic - just a toilet, with a waste and water station. Unfortunately those that perfer amenities tend to resort to generators, which can make the sites a bit noisy.

We budgeted our trip based on staying at proper campsites with all the amenities but campsites in America really varied in cost and facilities. You could be looking at anything from $7 to $100+ a night depending on where you are and what type of campsite you choose.

 

As a rule, campsites run by the state, national parks, US Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) are much cheaper and in more rural locations but often come with more basic facilities – They may not have power or they might not have a shower block.  they invariably have terrible mobile phone coverage. The privately owned campsites are more like holiday homes and have big sites with plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops etc – but they often felt a bit big and impersonal. Lots of people live in RVs in America and it felt like many were just holed up in their front rooms watching cable television. 

 

Because we could live off-grid and wanted to explore the outdoors, we quickly realised that we preferred more basic camping, but that’s not a choice for everyone. If you do prefer to have all your amenities close at hand, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, breaks America up into different zones and you can pay for individual or multiple zones. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like more than you can afford, you can just join a membership scheme like KOA (campsites of America) or The Good Sam Club– you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay. 

Basic camping in a Skoolie

Beautiful camp spots
This stunning site cost us all of $7 in an honesty box

State camping options vary according to each State. In Montana, as well as other more remote places on the west coast and in the desert, we had no facilities other than a long drop toilet, but they rarely cost us more than $10- $15 a night. On the west coast in Oregon, Washington and California, the state sites were on the beach and had lovely shower blocks etc. They were often closer to $50 a night. 


The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People were incredibly friendly and accommodating – they were all thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. They loved the Skoolie and usually went bananas when we told them we were English!

Free Skoolie camping: Dispersed sites

Wilderness camping spots for free
Sites like these are completely free

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp (although sometimes you get a long-drop), so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.


You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We loved the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they were always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Would we be able to turn around? Were we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (a celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Free Skoolie camping: Boondocking

Harvest host at distillery
Our quest to sample local produce saw us drinking potato vodka in Idaho, eating cheese in Oregon, trying lavender oil in Washington, eating sourdough and pickles in South Carolina, drinking wine in California and whisky in Tennessee.

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Americans are much more open to the idea of people camping than the Brits are. There are various truck stops and Walmarts that let you sleep in their parking lot, as well as official schemes that help to hook you up with people willing to offer you space on their land. We had several great experiences using Boondockers Welcome, staying with a lady in Montana who showed us how to bake bread, a Texan who let us pick fresh fruit and veg from his veg patch and gave us some of the deer shot last year (well, we were in America!) and many more. 

 

We also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gave us details of wineries, breweries etc that were happy to put up RVs. It’s proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. For a family with kids, this was often the best way for us to sample the local wares – parking in a city to go to a restaurant was not an option, our bus was to big and our budget too small. It turned into a real highlight of our trip. America does have foodies after all!

camping with goats
We had some friendly neighbours at the Goat farm in Tallahasee

We also used Hipcamp, which often meant paying a little to stay on someone’s land, but that was a good option too. We found ourselves volunteering on a goat farm in Florida and a pig farm in Georgia that gave us and the kids the kind of opportunity you just wouldn’t find at the regular campsites. 

 

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Happy Campers

Everyone (mostly!) agrees that camping is fun. Roughing it with your family and your pals, sunkissed and merry on whatever tipple is being passed around, cursory barbecued dinners and endless bags of the kind of bad-for-you snacks you’d never normally purchase at home. Somehow, the bonfire’s dancing light makes everything magical and you no longer care about the rules – who gives a crap if the kids turn feral and don’t go to bed until midnight? Nobody cares if you can’t sing in tune – there is a guitar and someone said singalong!

At some point, usually part way through day 2 of your camping weekend, the slightly grimy feeling suddenly gets unbearable. The bonfire-smoked outfit starts to feel itchy and the idea of another marshmallow makes your teeth hurt. It’s not long until all you can think of is heading home for a a soak in the tub and a cup of tea (from a kettle that boils in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes), putting the kids to bed (on time) and going into another room several shut doors away from them.

Messy skoolie
It’s hard to keep a small space tidy when you live with 3 boys!

We are 3 weeks in now – has the day 2 feeling hit?

RV Camping in Style

I’m doing my best to make sure that since arriving in America, living outdoors stays enjoyable. We’re not in some poky little tent with a coolbox full of melted ice and soggy packets of bacon. We have a 37ft long bus with a hot shower, toilet and a fridge freezer. We are hardly roughing it; as I type this the kids are watching a movie in the bedroom (powered by solar), Guy is cooking in the kitchen on a 4-burner propane gas oven and I’m in the living area on my sofa drinking a cold wine from our full-size fridge freezer!

Watching movies
Anyone for Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets (for the tenth time??!!)

Our 37ft skoolie sounds huge but it isn’t. Well not in comparison to everybody else’s vehicles. In the two weeks we have been here, we have seen more than one 40ft motorhome, often towing a car, and a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. And it doesn’t stop there – they roll up to their site for the night and crank open the slide-outs; weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth. I assume they are making space for their gigantic beds, everything is of course bigger over here, or perhaps even a dog walking area. Americans seem to have dogs but we haven’t really seen anyone walking with one.

So the inside of our camping experience is cushty, but what about the outside?

Home-from-home; camping in America

On the road camping in a skoolie
On the road – hitting Grand Teton National Park, part of an endless caravan of massive rv’s.

We chose a destination that is set up for and relishes road-trips. America is a nation of campers and the roads seem built to accommodate their need to roam. In the UK, if the journey is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend so there is time to ‘recover from the journey’. In Yellowstone we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck to camp for the weekend – and they even brought kids. I’m yet to discover what the American version of calpol is but I’m guessing they look at it in the same way as sugar and salt for kids over here: bigger portions = happier families. Either that or their weekends are longer.

Once you have tugged your weighty rig into its new resting place, you can continue the home-from-home experience. Campsites have everything a travelling family might need – plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops… just plug in and unleash the marshmallows.

Of course you pay for the pleasure of a temporary piece of land to call your own – we’ve seen sites ranging from $30 to $80 per night. If you are on the road for a long time though, as many people appear to be, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, costs $585 for 5 zones. Add additional zones for just $54 and this allows you to stay in their sites for free for a year. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like a lot (yep!), you can sell your membership to someone else when you leave, which helps recoup some of the outlay. Alternatively, other skoolies have recommended KOA (campsites of America) as a budget option – you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay.

The hills are alive with the sound of … generators

Roof top view from camping in Tetons
Room with a view. A magical backdrop courtesy of the National Forest land surrounding the Tetons – a beauty when the sun went down.

We budgeted for campsites with all the amenities but within days we realised that the kind of camping was not the kind of camping we liked. The sites are big and a bit impersonal – they look at bit too much like car parks with a bit of nice landscaping. Even if the site does not have power – in some of the parks you have to make do with what the State provides – it seems to be the norm to park up and whack on a massive great generator. It’s so noisy and anti-social!

We’ve actually got a generator – Oquirrh believed that we could not live without aircon and that we would have to have a generator to power it if we were intent on camping off-grid, so we took their advice and used all of our contigency funds on something that weighs 16 stone, sounds like a massive lawnmower parked right outside our door and takes up a huge chunk of our storage space. Needless to say we haven’t used it once. To solve the need for cooler air we just left Utah and travelled north up the Rockies where the mountain air provides the evening chill! I guess we need to get on and sell that generator… anyone interested (after I’ve sold it so well!!)

RV budget camping in America

If you don’t mind missing out on the serviced shower blocks and restaurants, National Forests and BLM land are full of great sites that do not require booking and are usually close to all the places that you want to go. Some of these sites have rangers or on-site managers, invariably retirees called Buck or Bud or Wade, who live in their own RV and just occassionally come out to drive around in a golf buggy to ‘check y’all are ok?’. They cost about $15 to $25 and they have long-drop toilets and water.

The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People are incredibly friendly and accommodating – thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. Most of them love the bus. All of them love the fact we are English as it gives them licence to tell us about their great, great, great whatever who came from Lancashire or their undisputed link to the Saxons.

Dispersed camping

Dispersed camping in Wyoming
Oh hello, I am completely free and totally gorgeous – come and camp in your skoolie Chimps…ok!

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp, so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.

You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We love the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they are always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Will we be able to turn around? Are we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Boondocking

Slightly blurry… too much potato vodka with other travellers at the Grand Teton Distillery

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Before we came out, we’d heard that boondocking was an option – free camping, not on campsites. From what we could gather, there were various truck stops and Walmarts that let you crash in their parking lot. All that is good, and we have made use of them, but we’ve also signed up with a couple of boondocking sites. Boondockers Welcome costs about $30 and puts you in touch with locals that are happy for you to park up on their land. This may be farms or even larger properties. We are yet to try it out but we have heard good things.

We’ve also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gives you details of wineries, breweries etc that are happy for you to visits and stay. Its proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. We had a lovely stay at Grand Teton Distillery and were very happy with our potato vodka! You can also pay to upgrade and stay at golf clubs – some of which require you to actually play a round but many of which are just in lovely locations. It was on offer the day we signed up so we took the plunge. It looks as if Montana has several, so we’ll do our best to get around as many as we can!

This blog has some good explanations on boondocking that include dispersed camping options.

Camping with real Americans

Soren has a lesson in the mighty moose from Ron Swanson counterpart from Eagleton – Ron Dunn (look him up if you are not a Parks and Rec fan!)

We’ve also met some fascinating people in the free sites. There was a great volunteer ranger at one of our first free sites – Dan Harris (American’s always introduce themselves with both first and surname). He told us in his thick Utah accent , grey ponytail swinging, that we had met ourselves ‘a real hillbilly but not a redneck ’cause I don’t agree with Trump’.

Unlike the UK, the land belongs to the people and is just managed by the Government on their behalf. Trump wants to privatise this and Dan Harris felt it would be a loss to the people. He’s a hunter, but much of our chat was about the positive benefits of hunting to the eco-system – apparently hunting has increased the amount of wildlife in the area and, because of the cost of permits, funded improvements to the land. If the land is privatised, what will happen to it?

We showed good British interest in his stories and so he invited us to see the mounted head of the moose he’d shot in his living room. Apparently, it was quite a small moose but stuck up on the wall of a tiny living room, scattered with hunting magazines, it looked absurdly massive. On the opposite wall was an elk head, attached to a plank of wood wedged in a doorway so you couldn’t actually get through, and a deer head. There were pictures of cougars he had hunted (but deliberately not killed) and more elk. He said “elk was just about the best meat ever” and that he would have offered us some, but what he had left in his freezer was 2 years old and not as good as when it was first killed. I was pretty thankful for that. Guy was probably not! As we were leaving I spotted a gravestone on the floor – apparently it was his great-great-great grandmother’s headstone which he had salvaged from the churchyard. Yep, a true hillbilly!

RV camping with American creatures

Arrrgghhhh chipmunks…. far too much like squirrels (my nemesis)

We Brits don’t really have to worry about wildlife when we go camping. What’s the worst that could happen… a daddy-long-legs gets into your tent and casts weird leggy shadows everywhere? A dog escapes the confines of it’s leash and eats someone else’s picnic? Over here it is a bit more serious. We were merrily running around at our first camp in Utah, wading in the stream and building rafts from tall reeds, when a friendly camper came and told us she’d seen a couple of rattlesnakes in the grass so we should be careful with the kids. Oh, and we should also watch out for tics and poison ivy. Gulp!

Now we are up north in Yellowstone area, it’s less rattlesnake and more bear. I am very glad we have an indoors toilet and I don’t need to try and find the campsite one in the dead of night! Our biggest problem though is mosquitoes. We don’t have bug screens on the bus and if we camp in the woods we get them bombarding us. Tonight we are staying in the most beautiful spot in the Shoshone National Forest, a hop and skip away from the North East Yellowstone. We are near a rushing river backed by two huge, snow-capped mountains – again staying for free – but I can’t open the doors for fear of attack. I have literally been around the bus twice to wipe the blood marks from squashed mozzies off the walls. Oh the glamour of it all!