Northwest Road Trip

December 2017

  1. Seattle
  2. Pullman
  3. Columbia Falls
  4. West Yellowstone
  5. Twin Falls
  6. La Grande

Day 1: Pullman

We made it to Pullman, by way of Palouse Falls. We drove through a beautiful wintery landscape most of the way: first through snow-covered conifer forests as we crossed the Cascades; later through a barren terrain which reminded us of Iceland. The roads were slick — our thoughts are with the people whose cars we saw off the road or overturned. We couldn’t have done the drive today without snow tires, and bringing tire chains gave us peace of mind.

  • Accommodation (4 nights): Airbnb in Pullman (we don’t recommend where we stayed)

Day 2: Pullman

We struggled to get out of bed at 5:30 am, with the goal of watching sunrise from the top of Steptoe Butte. This giant hill (small mountain?) gave us a 360-degree view of the gentle rolling landscape of the surrounding Palouse area. We had the place to ourselves at that early hour, and despite the cold (9 °F, -13 °C), we were giddy with excitement. Seeing the sun rise over the snowy farmland was worth every second away from our warm bed. As we explored the Palouse backroads today, we kept wondering why isn’t this a more popular destination?

On our way to Steptoe Butte for a 360-degree view of surrounding farmland.

Day 3: Pullman

Today was a drone flying day. We had major issues with our drone in Iceland, and as a result DJI sent us a brand new one. We’re happy to report that the new drone is a joy to fly. We also befriended a local farmer, who told us all about the crops they grow (lentils, wheat, garbanzos, canola), the benefits of seed research done by the local university (WSU), and the hordes of tourist buses they get in the summer (which answers our question from yesterday — Palouse is a touristy destination, just not in the winter). While you’re eating a phenomenal home cooked Christmas Eve dinner with your family, we’re getting ready for a cozy dinner for two in our hotel room, featuring the best the local supermarket has to offer.

Day 4: Pullman

There was a big snow storm today. We really couldn’t have wished for a whiter Christmas. The authorities advised against travel, so we had the perfect excuse to cozy up and relax, read and catch up on photo editing. Merry Christmas to all of you!

Day 5: Columbia Falls

The snow storm subsided, and we’re back on the road. We drove from Pullman (Washington state) all the way to Glacier National Park (Montana), over icy mountain passes, through snow-blanketed forests, and across semi-frozen rivers. Trees outnumber people here, and we’re just fine with that. We can’t wait to explore this area.

Daily snow kept our car looking white instead of gray.

Day 6: Columbia Falls

Our inspiration for this entire trip was an idyllic image we had in our minds of being in a warm cabin nestled among a conifer forest in Montana, surrounded by a blanket of fresh snow. Today we woke up in a warm cabin nestled among a conifer forest in Montana, surrounded by a blanket of fresh snow. Surreal. We eagerly grabbed our snowshoes and spent the rest of the day exploring Glacier National Park, making our way through fluffy powder and enjoying the stunning views. What an epic day!

Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Day 7: Columbia Falls

The weather service has issued a winter storm warning for this area for the next few days. We’re expecting up to 30 inches of snow, with wind chills as low as -35 °F (-37 °C)! So in the morning we did like the locals: we went to the supermarket to stock up. Visibility was low, the roads were slippery, and the snow was falling non-stop. We returned to our cozy cabin with a bounty of fresh organic vegetables (impressive, Super 1 Foods!). Now, as the car is getting buried in a fresh layer of snow, we’re enjoying the best home-cooked meal of this trip.

Day 8: Columbia Falls

We’re stranded. But in a good way — in the most perfect cabin, surrounded by the most beautiful winter wonderland. Because of the snow storm, the snow plows didn’t make it here until late this afternoon, so we made the most of our time at the cabin: we made snow angels, had a snowball fight, and read a lot. We’re each about to finish our third book for this trip, and looking to choose a fourth.

What can we do with lots of new snow?
Snow angels!
Or a snowball fight!

Day 9: Columbia Falls

The snow keeps falling, giving us the perfect excuse to drive less and snowshoe more. Today we decided to explore the forest around our cabin on snowshoes. The feather-light snow muffles all sounds, so the forest feels even more peaceful than usual. We could get used to cabin life…

Day 10: West Yellowstone

This morning, we awoke to sunbeams streaming through the trees, illuminating yet another fresh blanket of snow surrounding our cabin. The winter storm has abated after three days, just in time for us to hit the road again. Today, we drove south to West Yellowstone, passing through gorgeous landscapes of mountains, rivers, and lakes. It’s definitely Big Sky Country, here — it took all day to cross the state, and that’s in the short direction. We’re excited to start the new year with an adventure in Yellowstone. Happy New Year to everyone!

Day 11: West Yellowstone

If all of 2018 turns out as well as today, this will be a good year. Today we explored Yellowstone National Park by snow coach. Yellowstone was already one of our favorite US destinations in summertime, but now we know how amazing it can be in winter. The sun shone all day, slowly melting the frost that covered the tree branches in the morning. The bison made their way through the deep snow, looking for any bits of grass to get them through the winter. Trumpeter swans paddled on the frigid waters of the Madison River, while a lone elk waded in for a drink. And around every bend, we saw steam rising from the landscape — far easier in winter to see how geothermally active this area is!

Bison

Bison enjoy an ideal environment in Yellowstone National Park, with a protected habitat and plenty of space to graze. The only downside to living in the park is a result of the same geothermal features that make the area so attractive to wildlife and people alike: the hot springs and steam vents release acids and minerals that get into all the surrounding vegetation. The prevalence of silica is especially problematic to the bison — effectively wearing down their teeth like sandpaper whenever they chew the grasses from geothermally active areas. Once their teeth are gone, bison starve to death. As a result of the silica, bison in Yellowstone have a dramatically reduced expected lifespan compared to elsewhere.

Trumpeter Swans

Yellowstone is a popular destination for Trumpeter Swans, which migrate seasonally to escape frigid winters in the arctic. They’re happy once they get to Yellowstone because the geothermal features keep the rivers from freezing over, so they can continue to feed on aquatic plants. If it gets warm enough to melt the snow, they head back north to the arctic. These beautiful birds are quite large, weighing around 25 pounds (11 kg) and possessing a wingspan up to 10 feet (3 m)!

Day 12: West Yellowstone

Best. Day. Ever. It’s no secret that motorcycling and snowy landscapes are among our favorite things in the world. Back home, we’ve attempted to merge the two by motorcycling on mountain roads in the winter, an activity that can be both technically challenging and somewhat dangerous. It turns out that there’s a much better way. Today we decided to rent a snowmobile and explore the impressive network of “no wheeled vehicles allowed” trails in this area. The landscape is stunning: we rode through dense forest, across creeks and rivers, up to a mountain top where we had an incredible 360-degree view of Yellowstone and the national forests that surround it. We started by following the trails, but soon went off-trail, making our own way through fresh powder, and reaching truly out-of-the-way areas. Our thighs are sore from absorbing the bumps, adrenaline is still running through our veins, and we’re still smiling as we replay the day in our minds. I think we’re going to sleep well tonight!

That’s us on the snowmobile!

Day 13: West Yellowstone

Today we took another snow coach into Yellowstone, and explored a different side of the park. The experience of looking for wildlife from the coach is a bit like being on safari in Africa, but with a snowy landscape and very different animals. Today we spotted a fox, several elk, waterfowl, many bison (of course), and perhaps Schrodinger’s wolf (if you get close enough to see if it’s a wolf, it disappears). Combined with the stunning waterfalls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, it was a fantastic day. We often travel so far in search of adventure, and overlook the amazing opportunities we have close to home.

Lower Yellowstone Falls.

Day 14: West Yellowstone

Today we decided to explore the nearby national forest by snowshoe. We’ve been particularly impressed with this area’s stunning winding creeks and rivers, so we picked a snowshoe route along a creek. It was so beautiful and peaceful!

Day 15: Twin Falls

We’re back on the road today. We left West Yellowstone, explored Idaho backroads, and paid a visit to Shoshone Falls. Between the snow and the mud, we’re certainly pushing our car to the limits of what it can do off-road. We’re now staying by the dramatic Snake River canyon, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, not too far from Twin Falls. It’s downright toasty here at 35 °F (2 °C) — we haven’t experienced above-freezing temperatures in a long time!

Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Day 16: La Grande

We drove across Idaho, and into eastern Oregon, where we’re staying now. The landscape was beautiful: wheat-colored rolling hills, squiggly rivers, and snow-covered farms. We took plenty of detours to capture photos of the varied scenery. Our drone got a lot of flying time today, as the most impressive views today were from above. It’s so hard to balance our impulse to stop every 5 minutes with the need to cover some ground.

Yin-yang highway.

Day 17: Seattle

Today is the last day of our road trip… We’re simultaneously excited to be headed home and sad to be done with our vacation. In our 17 days on the road, we managed to eat quite well without ever going to a restaurant. Maybe we’ll dine out in Seattle to celebrate the conclusion of a fantastic trip.