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September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

Sturgis, Michigan...
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September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

My wife and I are planning our first road trip vacation this coming September. A little bit of background info by way of introduction: My wife and I are both 26 and have been married for four years as of this September. We usually try to plan our vacations in September, due to our anniversary and the fact that we both love the fall season. This September will be our third major vacation, with our forays in past years consisting of a week in Mackinaw City and the U.P., and a week in the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Last year we opted to stay local, touring many orchards, cider mills, vineyards, and wineries here in SW MI.

We decided on a road trip this year due to the fact that this will probably be our last vacation prior to having kids. Since kids are probably in our somewhat near-term future, our travels may be somewhat restricted for the next several years and we may not have the opportunity (or the budget) to get far from home. This trip will consist of just us, our Pontiac Vibe, and whatever we deem necessary in terms of luggage. We'll be leaving Sturgis, MI early on Wednesday, 9/10, and will be returning Sunday, 9/21. We have a pretty aggressive itinerary, but we've stretched our available vacation days as far as possible by incorporating two different weekends into the trip.

Day 1 - Wednesday, 9/10

Depart Sturgis at 6 a.m. for Sioux Falls. Google Maps recommends taking I-90 through Chicago, a trip of 712 miles and 11 hours. However, in order to avoid rush hour Chicago traffic as well as the tolls through Chicago (we don't have an I-Zoom and cash tolls are nearly double the I-Zoom rates) I'm planning on bypassing Chicago entirely via I-80 west to I-39, then I-39 north to pick I-90 back up in Rockford. From what I understand, this route will result in only $1 or so in tolls. The higher gas cost due to the greater distance of 766 miles is more or less off-set by the toll savings, and even if it didn't, I'd rather not start off our vacation by combating rush-hour Chicago traffic. We'll be gaining an hour in the shift from EST to CST once we cross from IN to IL. Allowing an hour for stops, this should put us in Sioux Falls around 5 p.m. local time. I already have a hotel booked, so the plan would be to check in then go out to eat for our anniversary dinner. Afterwards, we plan to relax by touring Falls Park around dusk, enjoying the illuminated falls.

Day 2 - Thursday, 9/11

Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sioux Falls at 7 a.m. for the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Should arrive about 8:30, planning about an hour to tour the Corn Palace and to gas up for the next leg of the trip. Depart Mitchell around 9:30 for the Minuteman Missile Historical Site on I-90. Arrive in at MMHS around 11:30 a.m. local time, having gained an hour in the transition from CST to MST on the 3-hour drive. Allow two hours for tour. Depart MMHS and back-track slightly to Badlands National Park. Possibly grab lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge, then tour Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Scope out campsite at Cedar Pass Campground. Tour Badlands in mid-afternoon, hiking any trails that catch our eye. Towards evening, take the Wildlife Loop Rd and visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town.

Day 3 - Friday, 9/12

Pack up camp and hit the road by 7:00 a.m. for Custer. Take Wildlife Loop Rd. again, enjoying morning views of the Badlands. Travel to Custer via I-90 to Rapid City (possibly stop for breakfast and gas), then south on 79 to 36 west, 36 west to Alt 16 west. Should arrive in Custer by 10:30 a.m. Explore Custer local attractions, then head north to tour the Crazy Horse Memorial. After Crazy Horse, head north to Hill City, exploring local attractions and stopping at Prairie Berry Winery for tour and lunch. Head south, travelling Needles Hwy to Custer State Park. Take the Wildlife Loop Rd all the way around the park to Iron Mountain Rd., exploring whatever we have time for and whatever catches our eye. Traverse Iron Mountain Rd. to Mt. Rushmore, timing Mt. Rushmore tour to coincide with lighting ceremony. Depart Mt. Rushmore for lodging in Keystone or in Rapid City (I currently have cancellable reservations in both locations, pending our final decision on this point).

Day 4 - Saturday, 9/13

Breakfast at hotel. Depart Keystone/Rapid City at 7 a.m. for Lead, via 385 through the Black Hills National Forest. Arrive in Lead 8 a.m. Explore local attractions, notably the Broken Boot Gold Mine Tour and gold panning. Leave Lead approximately 10 a.m. and depart for Belle Fourche. Stop in Deadwood if anything catches our eye. Arrive in Belle Fourche 11 a.m. and tour the Geographical Center of the Nation monument, along with the visitor center. Head north out of Belle Fourche approximately 8-10 miles to view the true center of the nation. Depart this location approximately 12:30 p.m. for Vore Buffalo Jump on I-90, trip time 30 minutes. Tour the Buffalo Jump for approximately 1 hour. Depart for Devil's Tower National Monument approximately 2 p.m., arrive 3 p.m. Explore DTNM for approximately two hours. Depart DTNM for Sheridan approximately 5 p.m. Arrive in Sheridan approximately 7:45 p.m. and check in to hotel.

Day 5 - Sunday, 9/14

Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sheridan by 7 a.m. This is where things get a bit convoluted and where I'm seeking the most advice: At some point on this trip, we would like to traverse the following:

-Bighorn Mountain Scenic Byway from Sheridan to Greybull.

-Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge to Silver Gate.

-Paradise Valley from Gardiner to Livingston.

I'm not sure in what order accomplishing all of the above is the most efficient or would best suit our trip. I've considered continuing up I-90 from Sheridan to Livingston, then taking the Paradise Valley drive down to Gardiner and the North entrance into Yellowstone. This would be a trip time of about 4.5-5 hours and would put us at the park entrance around noon. This approach appeals to me inasmuch that I'm a history buff and arriving via the North entrance with it's stone arch seems like the only "right" way to do things for one's first ever entrance to Yellowstone. This approach has the added benefit that we would immediately be in position to tour Mammoth Hot Springs and soak in the Boiling River, two items on our first-day Yellowstone agenda anyway. At this point I hit another cross-roads - Based on the YNP website, 89 south of Mammoth will be closed for the season as of 11 p.m. on 9/14. If there are any highlights along this route that can rival the other top 10-20 attractions of Yellowstone, then we'll probably elect to head south from Mammoth and tour them. If not, we'll probably head east and drive the Lamar Valley in early evening, probably camping in Pebble Creek overnight.

Day 6 - Monday, 9/15

Pack up camp at Pebble Creek and drive the Lamar Valley again early in the morning, looking for wildlife. Explore Tower Falls, Grand Canyon, Lower Falls, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone Lake area. Return to Hayden Valley in early evening for wildlife viewing. Camp in either Fishing Bridge or Grant Village.

Day 7 - Tuesday, 9/16

Pack up camp at Fishing Bridge / Grant Village and head north, back through the Hayden Valley for morning wildlife viewing. Tour geysers in Norris, Lower Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, West Thumb. Exit park south and traverse Grand Teton National Park to Jackson. Check in at resort in Jackson and explore the area.

Day 8 - Wednesday, 9/17

Sleep in day, if so inclined. Also - showers! Breakfast at resort. Tour GTNP, including moderate hikes, horseback rides into mountains or kayaking. Good day for a picnic lunch with the mountains as a backdrop. Try to spot moose in the flats. Relax at resort in the evening.

Day 9 - Thursday, 9/18

Breakfast at resort. Check out and depart Jackson 7 a.m., driving through GTNP in the early morning and hopefully getting some sweet pictures of the mountains. Exit the park via one of the below avenues:

-Exit Yellowstone via the North entrance, taking 89 to I-90 and I-90 to Billings. This is a 7 hour drive and would put us in Billings at 2 p.m. with no stops. We would only consider this route if we had not entered the park this way.

-Exit Yellowstone via the East entrance, passing through Cody and taking 72/310 NE to Billings. This is 5h 30min drive and would put us in Billings at 12:30 p.m.

-Exit Yellowstone via the NE entrance and Beartooth Hwy. This is a 6.5 hour drive which puts us in Billings at 1:30 p.m.

The next item on our agenda is a stop at Pictograph State Park, open from 10-6. Plan one hour here. We may cut this stop if we feel that it doesn't give us enough time to also visit the Little Bighorn National Monument yet in the afternoon, which is open 8-6. The history buff in me wants to allow as much time at Little Bighorn as possible, which makes exiting the East entrance of Yellowstone the most attractive option, as it puts us in Billings the earliest. However, that would mean we are skipping out on one of the three main drives into Yellowstone that I referenced earlier in the post. Either way, we'll be staying the night in Billings, as I have already made reservations.

Day 10 - Friday, 9/19

Breakfast at hotel. Check out at 7 a.m. and depart for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit. Should arrive around 11 a.m. Hike, drive, and explore the area. If we have time, drive north and tour the North Unit as well. Possible stop at Fort Union Trading Post, though this is somewhat out of the way. If we do head north, we will probably return on Killdeer Mountains Four Bears Scenic Byway. Camp overnight in TRNP.

Day 11 - Saturday, 9/20

Break camp at TRNP 7 a.m. and depart for Mandan, trip time 2 hours. Arrive Mandan around 11 a.m. (lose an hour converting from MST to CST). Tour Fort Abraham Lincoln, Custer's House, and On-A-Slant Indian Village. Optional tour of ND State Railroad Museum. Depart Mandan 2 p.m. for Jamestown, trip time 1h 33min. Arrive 3:30 p.m. Tour Frontier Village and National Buffalo Museum prior to closing at 5 p.m. Depart at closing and travel to Fargo, trip time 1h 30min. Arrive in Fargo at 6:30, check in to hotel and grab something to eat.

Day 12 - Sunday, 9/21

Breakfast at hotel. Depart hotel 7 a.m. en route for Sturgis, MI, again avoiding Chicago via I-39 to I-80. Trip time 12h 30min, will probably take closer to 14 hours with stops for gas, food, and stretching. Arrive home around 9 p.m. (lose another hour traveling CST to EST).

Most of my questions regarding this itinerary involve the Yellowstone portion of the trip. We'd love to travel all three stretches of highway on the approaches to Yellowstone that I referenced, but if we simply can't do it all then we'll have to accept it. At this point we have no plans to hike the back country, and will mostly be sticking to the front country and main attractions due to our limited time in the park. I should also mention that while we may be bringing a small tent, it is more than likely that my wife and I will be camping in the car the two nights in Yellowstone and one night in TRNP. The Vibe has seats that fold completely flat to allow this, and while we haven't done it before, I'll be testing it shortly for feasibility.

Please comment with feedback on any and all portions of the above itinerary, any and all help is welcomed. I'm looking for the most efficient vacation possible in order to maximize time at scheduled stops and to provide the most scenic route and photo opps possible.

Edited: 07 April 2014, 23:14
Atlanta, Georgia
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1. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

A couple of comments from someone who has visited the area multiple times and I too am a history nut.

We only stayed at the Battle of Little Bighorn about 1 1/2 hours. Great museum and walk around a bit and that was more than enough time.

You can only stay in your car for camping in designated camping areas. We do not camp so others can help you with that.

A suggestion might be to come in the north entrance and leave out the NE entrance and go down to Cody and then take the Big Horn mountains back across or come across the Big Horn mountains from Sheridan and go to Cody then come up Chief Joseph Hwy and connect to Beartooth Hwy and enter park thru NE entrance and leave thru north entrance.

That late in the year always check the weather on the Beartooth Hwy. We were there on Sept. 1 a few years ago and encountered snow, ice and freezing temps while driving the Beartooth. They even closed the road the next day.

We were in the park last year the third week of September and had beautiful weather but it was cool/cold in the morning in Yellowstone. We even had snow one morning near Old Faithful.

There is another road closure you need to be aware of that will impact travel between Old Faithful and West Thumb. The road will be closed beginning September 2.

Instead of Sheridan might look at Buffalo, WY.

Eat at the State Game Lodge in Custer SP for great buffet with homemade pies and bison stew.

Also visit Old Faithful inn. To me it is part of the Yellowstone experience and if there at lunch eat in the dining room.

Enjoy your trip planning!! Yellowstone is my favorite national park.

Let us know if you have other questions!!

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2. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

I would drive in Beartooth Hwy first, better chance of it being open with good weather mid-Sept. That will also get you right to Pebble campground side of the park.

Have a back-up plan in case Pebble campground is full. That time of year a number of the most popular campgrounds (Canyon & Bridge Bay) are closed, so it can be harder to get a spot at a first-come/first-serve.

Plus, since you are driving from Sheridan that day you will be coming into the park later & it often takes early morning finesse to get first come sites.

What I would probably do, since you have such a very short time in the park, rather than waste time trying to find a first come campsite, I might just get a reservation for Madison CG for all the nights.

In fact I might get reservations for Madison CG for 3 nights, since that only gives you 2 full days to tour Yellowstone which is HUGE.

Then I would get up at first light, tour Tetons & spend only 1 night in Jackson.

You can't tent camp at Fishing Bridge RV. I would not recommend that expensive RV park for sleeping in the car as there are so many huge RVs, no picnic tables of fire rings, & no privacy as they are RV to RV in there.

I suggest a reservation for that night at Madison campground on the south west side to be near the geyser basins.

A suggestion for car camping. Go to Walmart & get a couple of single memory foam pads that can be rolled up in the back seat when not in use.

Edited: 08 April 2014, 01:44
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3. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

Sheridan or Buffalo, Wy into Yellowstone is a long drive. Be aware that you don't want to drive the Beartooth Hwy or in the park after dusk due to all the huge, dark animals on the roads.

Can you give yourselves another day & spend the night at one of the camping spots between Red Lodge, Mt & the Beartooth Hwy gate? The Beartooth deserves time for lots of stops along the way.

Then drive into the park in the morning to snag Pebble CG. If Pebble is full, then you have Slough campground or Tower Fall campground at either end of Lamar valley to try. As a last resort, there is always Mammoth campground. All are first-come/first-serve.

Have fun with your plans!

Edited: 08 April 2014, 12:59
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4. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

Thanks for the tips, particularly the restaurant recommendations and the info on the road closing between Old Faithful and West Thumb. That road closing really puts a kink in our plans, as I was counting on being able to head south or east after visiting the geysers, either to camp at Grant Village or to continue south through GTNP to Jackson.

I think I'd like to plan around 4 hours at Battle of the Little Bighorn. Their website gives estimated times for the various activities, with 4 being the max. We're planning on doing the hikes, the drive tour, and the audio tour. Additionally, I wouldn't mind just sitting and soaking up the scenery, reliving past events in my mind.

It sounds like even in early-mid September Beartooth Hwy is susceptible to wintry weather. Since that is the case, we'll definitely plan to monitor the weather over the pass once we arrive in Sheridan the night before. If the weather sounds at all questionable, we'll plan to take I-90 from Sheridan all the way to Livingston, then head south through Paradise Valley and through the North entrance to the park. If we did this we would likely exit the park from the East entrance, taking the Bighorn Mountains Scenic Bypass over to I-90 and then heading north to Crow Agency. This would leave the Beartooth Hwy for another trip, as I'm sure we'll be back at some point with the future kids in tow.

Other than the remaining uncertainty regarding our entrance / exit points, I do still have a few questions:

-Is traveling the Beartooth Hwy "better" in one direction as opposed to the other? By better I mean in terms of scenic views and in terms of navigating the road. My wife harbors some fear of heights and if we do make the trip over this stretch I'd like it to be as easy on her as possible. I've read some articles which mention traveling south over the Hwy is easier in this regard, as one is traveling up most of the switchbacks instead of down them. Is this true?

-Is there anything of note within the park located on the stretch of 89 between Mammoth and Norris? If so, we'll be forced to cover this on our first day in the park, which is really only a half-day due to the drive in. The road closes the following day.

-Are there any good estimates on how much time to plan for the various major attractions within the Park? Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls, Upper & Lower Falls, Old Faithful, etc. I know the Park could probably entertain us for days on end, but I'm looking for reasonable estimates on how much time we would need to reasonably tour each attraction while sticking to our schedule of 2 - 2.5 days in Yellowstone and 1 - 1.5 days in GTNP.

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5. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

Based on the tips above, I've edited the Yellowstone portion of our itinerary to read as follows:

Day 5 - Sunday, 9/14

Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sheridan by 7 a.m. Take Alt 14 through the Bighorn Mountain Scenic Byway to 310 and take 310 back north to I-90, descending through the Paradise Valley and into the North entrance.

This would be a trip time of about 6 hours and would put us at the park entrance around 1 p.m. Tour Mammoth Hot Springs and soak in the Boiling River. At this point I hit another cross-roads - Based on the YNP website, 89 south of Mammoth will be closed for the season as of 11 p.m. on 9/14. If there are any highlights along this route that can rival the other top 10-20 attractions of Yellowstone, then we'll probably elect to head south from Mammoth and tour them. If not, we'll probably head east and drive the Lamar Valley in early evening, probably camping in Pebble Creek overnight.

Day 6 - Monday, 9/15

Pack up camp at Pebble Creek and drive the Lamar Valley again early in the morning, looking for wildlife. Head west to Norris, claim a campsite, and then spend the rest of the day south in geyser country, camping overnight in Norris.

Day 7 - Tuesday, 9/16

Pack up camp at Norris and head west, touring the Hayden Valley for morning wildlife viewing. Tour Grand Canyon, Lower Falls, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone Lake area and West Thumb. Exit park south and traverse Grand Teton National Park in late afternoon or early evening to Jackson. Check in at resort in Jackson and explore the area.

Day 8 - Wednesday, 9/17

Sleep in day, if so inclined. Also - showers! Breakfast at resort. Tour GTNP, including moderate hikes, horseback rides into mountains or kayaking. Good day for a picnic lunch with the mountains as a backdrop. Try to spot moose in the flats. Relax at resort in the evening.

Day 9 - Thursday, 9/18

Breakfast at resort. Check out and depart Jackson 7 a.m., driving through GTNP in the early morning and hopefully getting some sweet pictures of the mountains. Exit the park via the East entrance, then head north to Billings.

I'm a little bummed about some of the itinerary changes, notably caused by the road closings and Fishing Bridge being an RV only campground. This makes it a lot more difficult for us to tour the Hayden Valley in early morning / evening for photo ops and wildlife viewing than did our original plans, and makes for a pretty packed Day 7, fuller than I would like, with more time spent on the geysers in Day 6 than we probably need.

How difficult is it in mid-September to find room in one of the campgrounds that don't accept reservations? Also, how does one go about "claiming" a campsite, particularly if one will be driving around all day after "claiming" a site in say, the morning?

We're pretty settled on our two nights in Jackson. We'll be staying at a resort and using those two nights to relax and recharge on our trip. Note that even though we're spending two nights in Jackson we're really only planning one full day in the area, as we'll be arriving in the evening on Day 7. That gives us 2 - 2.5 days in Yellowstone and 1 -1.5 days in Jackson / GTNP.

Edited: 08 April 2014, 17:15
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6. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

Not a camping expert- we do not camp but stay in the park in the lodges so others like Denalicat can help with that. I will say that based on last year's experiences, we were shocked to see so many people in the park the third week of September. Not huge crowds but a lot of people.

We had previously been twice in late May/early June and one year in late August/early September.

This trip was one of our favorites- we enjoyed the weather, the wildlife sightings, etc.

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7. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

A few obsewrvations.....

If you could push this a little later to the end of September you could see fall colors.....but there is that chance of snow fall that can happen overnight and it be colder.

Also at the end of September is when fall colors are blooming around the colorado central ski towns.

the trade off by going in september is that it can be colder for overnight lows where temps fall below freezing.

If you want to do this as a camping trip I would highly suggest you look moving the trip into august.

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8. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

"How difficult is it in mid-September to find room in one of the campgrounds that don't accept reservations? Also, how does one go about "claiming" a campsite, particularly if one will be driving around all day after "claiming" a site in say, the morning?"

Canyon CG & Bridge Bay CG , 2 of the most popular reservation campgrounds in the park, will be closed, so about 700 less campsites. So the camping shifts to the 1st come-1 serve campgrounds.

Pebble only has about 25 campsites, so it can possibly fill up in the morning.

Norris CG, loop A particularly, is my favorite in the park on the meandering Gibbon River.

To get a campsite at the first-come campgrounds, some have boards (Pebble has started doing this) showing what date folks are checking out. Pick up a payment envelope, put the paid stub on the post outside the campsite, drop your $ in envelope with required info & put it in the payment box back at the entrance.

At Norris the hosts have been putting the check-out date in black marker on the paid stub on the post.

To claim the site, the paid stub goes on the post of your campsite AND leave something (not a food item, not a water jug, not a cookstove) in the campsite. Some folks leave a lawn chair to mark the site as claimed. Some folks have a plastic milk crate they put on the picnic table or plastic table cloth, both weighed down with rocks.

I will always say that it takes early morning finesse to snag a 1st come campsite. Some days folks are circling the campground like piranhas. By afternoon the campground could be full. When I get back for dinner at my campsite, lots of campers getting turned away.

If you stop at the board at the park entrances, they have listed the status of the campgrounds as to which ones are FULL.

I stayed at Slough CG last week of September when the campground filled around 9 am each day.

It's best to have a plan B & C in line when using the first come-first serve campgrounds! You cannot, however, sleep in parking lots in the park, as they are patrolled. Only in a designated campsite.

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9. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

Another option that seems very logical to me is to simply come in the park Sheridan- Cody- east entrance, with a reserved campsite at Grant campground for the first night, reserved campsite Madison campground for the second night.

Then you have secure reservations without having to waste your very limited time in the park looking for a first come-first serve & can be walking geyser basins instead.

Here's one of my trip reports from late Sept to give you idea of potential weathe/tempsr:

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g60999-i481-k58008…

Edited: 10 April 2014, 00:10
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10. Re: September Road Trip: MI to Black Hills/Yellowstone/GTNP/TRNP

That Trip Report was a fantastic read. Also, thanks for the tips on the camping process. After reviewing the details for all of the campgrounds which will be open during our stay, I think our preferences are Pebble Creek/Slough Creek/Mammoth for night one and Norris for night two. We'll be coming in the northern approaches for our first day, whether that's through Gardiner and the North entrance or through Beartooth and the NE entrance. We'll be rolling through between 12:00 and 2:00 p.m. and will be checking for campsites first thing. Since it will be a Sunday night during the school season, hopefully some campsites will remain. We figure our odds of finding SOMETHING at either Mammoth, Pebble, Slough, or Tower Falls should be okay.

Day 2 will consist of traveling from the northern edge of the park through Dunraven Pass and down to Norris, we should be arriving by 9 a.m. and attempting to secure a campsite from which to day trip from.

A few more questions:

-Are the tent sites on Loop A at Norris (situated on the river and meadow, from what I understand) walk-in only, or are they accessible by car? We'll be planning on car-camping but will have a small two-man tent with us in case we decide otherwise. Loop A sounds right up our alley for Norris, provided we can park the car at the site.

-Same question for the stream-side tent sites at Pebble and Slough Creek. Are these walk-in sites, or is there vehicle parking at each site?

-Assuming average traffic for mid-September, what is the average trip time by vehicle from say, Mammoth to Pebble Creek and from Pebble Creek to Norris? No stops, straight drive.

-Is the stretch of 89 between Mammoth and Norris very scenic, or are there any attractions specifically worth targeting along this route? This road will be closed after our first day in the park, and if we plan on traveling it this will change our campground plans.