Rolling through Montana and Wyoming at the wheel of a Cruise America RV, Peter Ellegard takes in the states’ countless natural sights and makes pit stops to experience their rich history
Fog swirls around the forest in the frigid early morning air when I set off from Madison campground in the heart of Yellowstone national park in my seven-metre home from home.
I’m on my way to see the mighty Old Faithful geyser 16 miles away but pull over and park on the verge to watch a small group of bison that looms out of the murk by the pointed remnants of old trees alongside the road. They slowly amble through the eerie landscape, two males squaring up to each other in a standoff before one gives in and runs off.
A little further on and I’m on a Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk that threads between bubbling pools of mud and clouds of steam mingling with the thinning fog to obscure the orange sun completely. I stand transfixed by vivid bands of orange, yellow and green surrounding the deep-blue core of the nearby Grand Prismatic Spring, iridescent in the now blazing sunshine.
Having caught a spectacular three-minute eruption by Old Faithful after a boardwalk stroll past some of its hot spring pools (it erupts every 75 minutes or so), it’s time for a late-morning cuppa. So I drive to another scenic area, park up and brew myself one.
That’s the beauty of renting a motorhome, known as an RV in the US. Having never visited Yellowstone or taken a motorhome driving tour, I jump at the chance to combine them on the same trip. Especially when it involves a circular tour from Rockies gateway Denver around Wyoming, taking in not only the natural spectacles and wildlife of Yellowstone and other areas but also the Cowboy State’s fascinating Western heritage.
Exploring the great outdoors in what is essentially a motorised caravan is gaining a growing following – and it exceeds my expectations.
It takes a day or two to feel comfortable not only driving such a large vehicle (Cruise America offers a nine-metre beast that sleeps seven besides a smaller six-metre one), but also setting up when I arrive at my pitch.
Thankfully, I get help from other RV’ers on my first couple of nights. It’s like being part of a big family, and even more so when I pass fellow Cruise America drivers who flash and wave as I return the gesture.
The Motorhome Experts, whose owners Linda and Pat Richardson have worked with Cruise America for more than 30 years, offers a free itinerary planning service for clients. Linda tells me that 99% of first-time renters choose a personalised itinerary, as they feel unsure about driving without a plan. I’m thankful for the one they provide, listing driving distances and timings between my chosen campgrounds.
My first overnight is at Wild West-themed Terry Bison Ranch Resort, just over the Wyoming border near Cheyenne. US president Theodore Roosevelt stayed there as a guest of owner and Wyoming’s senator FE Warren in 1903 and 1910.
Today, guests can stay in the same bunkhouse where he slept, although it also has RV pitches. Before leaving, I take a Bison Train tour aboard one of six custom-built trains to see the resort’s bison herd, the driver stopping the train to feed several that come right up to us.
I head north via Fort Laramie, where a massacre of a US Cavalry officer and his 28-strong troop in 1854 led to the Plains Indian Wars that culminated in tribes being resettled in reservations. In Sundance, the town jail where horse thief Harry Longabaugh – aka the Sundance Kid – spent 18 months is now a museum, with a statue of him you can pose by for a selfie.
Nearby, monumental rock monolith Devils Tower broods over the surrounding landscape. It had a starring role in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and is every bit as mysterious and awe-inspiring in reality.
Crossing into Montana, I stay at the first KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campground in Billings that opened in 1962. The KOA franchise now spans almost 500 locations in the US and Canada.
Back in Wyoming I make a pit stop in Cody, the frontier town founded by Wild West showman Buffalo Bill 120 years ago, and lose myself in the history of the town and its colourful founder at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West.
Driving through Yellowstone, I get close-up views of elk, and a park ranger stops traffic for a bear cub to cross the road and rejoin its mother.
I spot a family of bears while driving through Grand Teton national park, another natural wonder just south of Yellowstone, en route for year-round resort town Jackson.
My final night is spent at the KOA campground in Laramie, another town with Western heritage that includes its preserved, historic Wyoming Territorial Prison, where Butch Cassidy – the Sundance Kid’s partner in the infamous Wild Bunch bank and train-robbing gang – was incarcerated.
As I drive out of the campground I stop to throw away my rubbish, accidentally locking myself out when I shut the main door with the keys still in the ignition. Luckily, a campground worker helps me break back in using a hooked piece of wire.
Dropping the vehicle off later in Denver I make a full confession to the Cruise America location manager about breaking into my RV, but she doesn’t shop me and I’m free to go.
I just breathe a sigh of relief I didn’t end up in jail like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Book it: The Motorhome Experts has a 13-night tour in a Cruise America motorhome starting and finishing in Denver and taking in Cheyenne, Devils Tower, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons national parks in Wyoming and Great Falls, Billings and Butte in Montana, from $1,700 for up to six people. Price includes unlimited miles, bedding, kitchen kit, unlimited generator use, insurance and taxes but not flights, campground fees or park entrance fees. themotorhomexperts.com