“Oh my god, is that a cow?” I asked.
My mom slowed down eyes peeled. We were on our way from Central Alberta back to Ontario. However, we wanted – okay I wanted – to take a detour down south of the border and visit the American Old West.
We planned it to be a four-day, three-night road trip through Southern Alberta, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan until finally hitting home in Ontario. But plans change, and cows appear.
The 4,788 km American Old West road trip took us up and down mountains, through UNESCO World Heritage sites and National Forests. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.
The first stretch of road took us to UNESCO World Heritage site at Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump. The site, located just west of Fort MacLeod, Alberta, is an archaeological site where Plains People First Nations hunted bison for 6,000 years.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest, most extensive, and best-preserved sites that show this hunting technique. Funny enough, it wasn’t until the introduction of Europeans to the area that led to the decline of the bison.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is the world’s first international park. We entered the park on the Canadian side and crossed the border into Montana, but still within the park boundaries.
Unlike the Rocky Mountains of Jasper and Banff National Parks, the mountains are smaller here, rising like a cone to a sharp point in the distance. The park offered views of the sparkling blue water and orange fall colours.
American Old West: Helena, Montana
I was worried about crossing the border, I admit. My car was stuffed to the brim with everything I owned as I was moving back to my home province of Ontario. Instead, the border guard was more concerned about where I was headed.
“We’re heading to Helena to stay overnight,” my mother told the young man.
“Helena’s not that big,” he replied. “Maybe about 2,000 people.”
Mom and I looked at each other, not knowing enough about the town to dispute his claim. We drove on worried about the amenities that would be available.
We spotted our first clue that things were amiss as soon as we crossed the border. Signs dotted the roadside, not with jumping deer or even moose, but cows. Caution cows. Laughing it off, we cringed as the road narrowed and shoulders disappeared.
Sure enough, cows started appearing on the side of the road.
“But there’s a fence,” my mother exclaimed.
“Why are they on this side of the fence?”
The cows stayed put, but we cautiously made our way through the minefield of cows.
Helena was, thankfully, not a town of 2,000 people but a growing Montana capital city of 29,000. We chuckled at the ignorance of both the officer and the two Canadian ladies unprepared for our road trip.
American Old West: Yellowstone National Park
Day two took us to Yellowstone National Park, a world-famous park with a world famous geyser. I’ve been to Yellowstone before when I was ten years old. However, this trip I had a mission: see Old Faithful erupt. It is an insane tourist attraction, so the crowds turned us off from waiting around to see it last time. This time, however, stopping for a couple of hours was welcomed.
We arrived at Old Faithful just as it finished erupting, so we waited around for an hour and a half just enjoying the sunshine and some ice cream, staking out good seats right in front for the natural show.
“So that was it,” said my mother, less than impressed by the anti-climactic eruption.
That was it, I smiled, mentally checking off “see Old Faithful” off my bucket list.
Around the lake that makes up the enormous national park, we spied ragged bison grazing at the side of the road. You can’t miss the chance to see an animal due to the insane line-up of cars that appears when an animal was spotted.
Spooky Greybull, Wyoming
While the West Entrance was rather flat, we were shocked to find, wait for it, MORE MOUNTAINS on the East Entrance. Every day seemed like alternating mountains and plains.
By the time we pulled out of the mountain range, the sun was low on the horizon. With another three hours ahead of us, we would have to brave another mountain range to get to Sheridan. My mother and I got antsy with each mile we clocked. Dusk had passed us, and deer and pronghorns were very real threats to our safety. We rolled into Greybull, a small town in the foothills, like two skeptics. There wasn’t a lot here, but we settled for the Greybull Hotel.
A probation-era gem that smuggled alcohol from Canada to its speakeasy basement, the hotel boasts about its haunted rooms and historic charm. I made the mistake of reading the ghost story on the menu of the basement restaurant (which was delicious by the way).
Our room was a “ground floor” room, an old shop that was converted to add rooms to the hotel. They had tall 20-foot tin ceilings, burgundy painted wood floors, and a terrifying rocking chair in the corner. The spooky ghost story, rocking chair and static TV gave the room a very “you’re going to die” feeling.
The Black Hills
We left Greybull rather quickly the next morning. The decision to stay, even a little uncomfortable, was the right one. A white-knuckled two-hour trip through switchback twists and turns solidified that.
The landscape changed little after leaving the mountain range; only black sand at the side of the road gave clues to the upcoming Black Hills
We passed the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial in favour of Mount Rushmore, a must-see stop on our American Old West road trip.
The heads on the side of the mountain looked small from a distance, but in reality, the heads are large and impressive.
Even as a Canadian, the amazing feat of this monument is a story in itself. It’s quite sad that the artist died before it was completed. Each of the president’s faces symbolizes (in a grandiose way) an innovative jump in American history.
After leaving the Black Hills, we jumped on the interstate leaving the American Old West behind and headed toward the future.
Q: Do you like wide open road to switchback mountain drives? Pin your answer: