After grabbing dinner at the Old Town Café in West Yellowstone, we gassed up the “Escape Mobile” and headed north to connect with U.S. 287 — a highway we had traveled countless times across north Texas, but never across Montana.
Hands down, the Montana portion is more interesting and beautifulwhile traversing the east bank of the Madison River, between canyon walls, and along the shorelines of several lakes.
Positioned in the lower western sky, the sun provided great photo opportunities of the lakes. (Photo above is Hebgen Lake.)
A particularly long stretch of a lake prompted our curiosity and called for us to stop at its overlook point. Quake Lake had been formed exactly fifty-five years prior when the combination of an earthquake, massive landslide, and subsequent rushing, rising water flooded the valley.
Just minutes after the quake and slide, the new lake began forming. In the following weeks, it grew to encompass an area five miles long and 190 feet deep.
The formation of the lake came at a great cost – twenty-eight people died the evening of the earthquake, either by drowning or being crushed in the landslide.
For Trey and I to be the only individuals standing above the former campground on the 55th anniversary date of its tragic demise, was surreal and humbling.
Before continuing the drive to Butte, where we would spend the night, we said a short prayer in honor of the lost souls.
The 316 mile trip from Butte to Spokane…included a seventy-four mile trek across the top of Idaho.
As we approached Idaho, the trees grew dense, steep ravines began crossing under Interstate 90, and fall colors dotted the hillsides.
We were in Idaho just long enough to realize we should have planned a stay there. Next time.
After settling into a hotel on the outskirts of Spokane, we headed downtown for dinner and a walking tour of the city. Spokane was a pleasant surprise because we had no expectations. No thoughts whatsoever, other than a place to sleep for the night. I think perhaps its location in eastern Washington, and its lack-luster name, conjures up images of dust and doldrums.
Spokane is the opposite — lively and lovely. The Spokane River runs through the city’s center. A river walking path was being extended as a part of a larger Riverfront Park renovation plan.
On to Mt. Rainier…
We stopped at a lookout point outside of Vantage, Washington to bask in our first sight of the immense Columbia River. Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park lay just beyond the opposite bank and was once home to the Wanapums, an indigenous, peaceful tribe of fishermen who are near extinction.
Old Stagecoach/Mail Route
A few hours after crossing the Columbia, and after refueling both the car and our bodies in Ellensburg, we soon caught our first glimpse of the mammoth Mount Rainier. The sighting renewed our energy and enthusiasm for the remaining two hour drive to our campsite.
Upon entering Yellowstone National Park’s northeast entrance (located on the Montana-Wyoming border) we were greeted by Buffalo, and more buffalo escorted us throughout the 85 mile drive to the Grant Village Campground.
First stop along the trek was an overlook view of Tower Fall, the famous 132 foot waterfall of the Yellowstone River.
The overlook sits at the junction of the Yellowstone River and Tower Creek which also permitted us to experience the strength of the water forcing its way through the canyon.
There is no shortage of wonders along Grand Loop Road which wends through the heart of Yellowstone and around the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. For this reason, the two-and-a-half hour drive took us about four hours, getting us to our campground with just enough daylight to set up camp and grab dinner at Lake View Cafe.
Grant Village Campground
Grant Village is located in the southern end of the park on the “west thumb” of Yellowstone Lake, and within the volcano’s caldera. Our third experience camping, and our third experience pitching our tent in the rain.
What a great camping experience! Our site, 391 on Loop K, was spacious and sits near the ledge of a shallow ravine.
Yellowstone is wild, and camping provides a great opportunity to experience that wild. On several nights we were awakened to the howls and barks of wolves running through the ravine below.
The third morning we woke with the sun and to a strange snorting noise outside our tent. A quick look out the window eased our minds – the noises were from two elk cows and four calves grazing just outside.
The calves decided to nestle down in the grass around our tent and keep us company through breakfast.
With everything one would need from restaurants, showers, a post office, and general store, Grant Village is truly a village. We particularly enjoyed exploring the campground by bicycle and the Ranger’s educational presentations at the visitors’ center.
Yellowstone’s supervolcano incurred three major eruptions over the past 2.1 million years, and it’s doubtful another one will take place within the next 10,000 years.
Grizzlies’ forage after dark in the summer months and during the day in the spring and fall.
The native lodgepole pine tree has a second type of cone that opens only under the extreme heat of fire assuring the species’ survival
There are more than 10,000 thermal geysers in Yellowstone, and Trey attempted to see them all! Kidding, but at times it seemed as if that was his goal.
Of course Old Faithful was a must-see, and due to its southern location, it was our first stop.
Most of the geyser touring areas line Highway 191 on the park’s west side. Raised boardwalks varying in distances from a quarter mile to two miles cut between geysers and keep visitors safe from the unstable, scalding hot ground.
While visiting each geyser area was impossible over a five-day period, we exhausted ourselves checking out Old Faithful Basin, Biscuit Basin, Fire Hole Loop, and Norris Geyser Basin.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton’s north entrance is located 54 miles south of Yellowstone’s Grant Village which made it ideal for a day trip. After checking out Lewis Falls, we headed out of Yellowstone via the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.
Lewis Falls, Yellowstone
Snake River, Wyoming
The Parkway follows the Snake River and then Jackson Lake, with the Tetons laid out along the other (west) side of the lake.
The day was spent mostly touring the park in the “Escape Mobile.” There is much to see by car including Signal Mountain, which offers great vantage points for both the Tetons and the Snake River Valley to the east.
The initial plan was to hike around Lake Jenny, but we decided to explore more of the park rather than spend the day on a 7-mile hike.
As an alternative, we chose the shorter Taggart Lake-Beaver Creek Trail, a 3.8 mile loop. Instead of looping, we hiked about a mile-and-a-half in and backtracked. The trail offered gorgeous shots of the Tetons.
Tetons from Taggart Lake-Beaver Creek Trail
A lovely day that we ended with a fabulous dinner at the Jackson Lake Lodge, donated to the park by JD Rockefeller, Jr. Despite being under-dressed in our hiking clothes, we were seated at window table with a prime view of the Tetons.
Great food! Afterwards, we stepped outside and onto the Lunch Tree Hill trail for a short hike up a ridge overlooking the valley and Grand Tetons. Trey was hoping to see moose, but the sun set while we waited.
Having depleted most of our energy, we opted to pull up stakes in Yellowstone a day early, breaking up the 500+ drive to Spokane. We toured another geyser basin on our way to the west exit, where we were escorted out by more buffalo.
Note, though visiting Yellowstone in mid-August, we kept our jackets handy at all times. The evening temperatures fell into the 30’s, and some afternoons brought sudden, but short-lived, storms and hail.
We experienced two firsts during our stay in Red Lodge – we saw our first bald eagle in the wild, and we saw our first sign of the coming autumn. Both of these firsts took place while rafting (without a camera) on the Stillwater and Yellowstone Rivers. We had been hoping to spot a bald eagle as they’re pretty common in the area; the changing leaf colors on Aspens and Cottonwoods was a surprise though. It was early August and autumn was arriving. We would follow its arrival from that point across the remaining west and into the northwestern states and Canada. Much like we had followed the hydrangea bloom up the eastern states and into Vermont.
Red Lodge is a former mining town and retains the rugged charm of its past in the late 19th century brick buildings that line its main street, Broadway Avenue. We stayed in one such building, The Pollard, which claims to have hosted legends such as Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid, who ended up robbing the bank housed on the building’s first floor.
There’s not a whole lot to do in Red Lodge other than strolling Broadway’s sidewalks to browse gift shops and scout restaurants, of which there were many. Nightly dinner options were difficult decisions due to the many amazingly good options. We particularly enjoyed Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen & Wine Bar and the Carbon County Steak House, where we dined on fresh Alaskan Halibut.
For as much as Red Lodge appears to be the standard western outpost trying to attract visitors with a taste of the past, in actuality, we found it to possess a progressive sophistication. This was evident in the food, the local market and the people making a living there. There was also a yoga studio that offered destination hiking and yoga trips in the mountains that I sadly had to miss. We will have to get back there.
The adventure starts at the city’s perimeter where the Montana wilderness begins. We had received a warm welcome, loads of helpful advice and maps at the visitor’s center on our first full day in Red Lodge and then immediately headed out of town via West Fork Road to a trail labeled as a good “conditioning hike.”
The Basin Creek Lakes Trail ascends steeply for two and half miles following Basin Creek to a lower lake and then continues for another mile and a half to an upper lake.
We opted to turn around at the lower lake for a total roundtrip hike of five miles. We had started to turn around after about two miles because I was growing more apprehensive as we headed further into the wilderness. We were in the middle of grizzly country and seemingly alone on the trail…bear bait. Just as I had talked Trey into turning around a group of twenty-somethings caught up to us and then quickly passed out of sight. I decided I could make it the rest of the way and the reward for my bravery was the gorgeous scene and the serenity of the mountain lake.
Our other outing was the aforementioned rafting trip. Adventure Whitewater is located 35 miles outside of Red Lodge near the community of Absarokee. In addition to bald eagles and fall colors, our three-hour/half-day ride included rapids on both the Stillwater and Yellowstone rivers, swimming among the currents and jumping off a giant boulder. Trey enjoyed the jump so much he hiked back up onto the rock and back-flipped off.
The drive to/from Absarokee wends through the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains and was gorgeous as the sun and an approaching storm highlighted the golden rolling hills.
Our last evening in Red Lodge was spent doing laundry (there’s a nice laundromat on south end of town) and filling our coolers in preparation for five nights of camping in Yellowstone National Park.
We headed to Yellowstone’s north entrance via the Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212) which the late Charles Kuralt proclaimed to be the “most beautiful drive in America.”
We have to agree with Mr. Kuralt. We experienced many wondrous pathways during our U.S. tour, and Beartooth tops our list and provided us with the unique sense of driving on top of the world.
We departed Black Hills National Forest with the sunrise and via the infamous community of Deadwood, South Dakota.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
After breakfast wraps and coffee at Wild West Espresso in the also infamous ranching community of Sundance, Wyoming, we detoured 27 miles from Interstate 90 to Devil’s Tower, our nation’s first national monument under the Antiquities Act.
We were greeted by grazing buffalo and longhorns – sights we had not seen since leaving Texas.
We were officially in “The West” and it was exhilarating! That feeling was amplified at our first glance of the massive igneous rock protruding from the horizon – Devil’s Tower, or Bear Lodge, one of its many native names.
The tribes of the northern plains consider Devil’s Tower sacred and regularly conduct ceremonies or leave prayer clothes and offerings at its base. Visitors are reminded to respect and honor these traditions. As we strolled around the tower’s base on the Tower Trail, we sensed a hallowedness among the rocks and colorful cloths tied around tree limbs and branches. The feeling was no less, and perhaps greater, than the feelings we experienced within the great ornate basilicas we had visited.
This church however was formed from and by the earth, rises 867 feet above it, and hosts a diverse group of plant and animal species. Its great columns cling tightly together in their battle against the elements and gravity. That’s what it looked like to me anyway. Kiowa legend states that the rock had been sculpted by the claws of a great bear – it’s easy to see that, too.
We had heard from a ranger that golden eagles were in the area and we spotted one fly over and around the tower’s top a couple of times, but the eagle was too quick for us to snap a photo.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana
We arrived at the Little Bighorn battlefield as a park ranger began recounting the story of the U.S. Army’s 1876 effort to end the centuries old independence, cultures and customs of the northern plains’ native people.
Thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had joined forces in a valley east of the Little Bighorn River where they outnumbered and overwhelmed General George Custer’s regiment of 262 men. It was one of the northern plains Indians last successful battles in preserving their identity. We had been starkly reminded of their eventual defeat while driving through the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations on our way to the battlefield.
The young ranger confidently relayed the battle scene while pointing out specific hills and slopes that laid out before him and the crowd that had gathered. He was Crow and a U.S. government employee.
Lacking the time for a guided tour, we walked along Battlefield Road and walking paths surrounded by tombstones that had been placed where bodies had been found.
Last Stand Hill and the Indian Memorial are easy walks from the visitor’s center.
We left the monument feeling somber and wishing we had been able to spend more time there.
As it was, we had two more hours left of the seven and half hour drive to Red Lodge, Montana.
We actually took three days to drive the 1,000 miles across the remaining mid-west to its western edge in the Black Hills National Forest. Neither Trey nor I recall the exact reason, but agree that the difficulty booking accommodations in the Black Hills may have influenced that decision.
As it was, we spent the first evening after departing Chicago in Des Moines, Iowa. Not a completely unremarkable city in that we could see for miles from the unobstructed view of our third floor hotel room where we had arrived just in time to see a somewhat remarkable sunset.
We had not traveled far down Interstate 80 the next morning when I saw a sign for the turn off to Madison County and its famed bridges. We did not turn and I felt a tinge of disappointment at the time which has since turned into regret — I will have to get back there.
We were to cut up Interstate 29 just east of the Missouri River which serves as the border between Iowa and Nebraska. Instead, we detoured across the Missouri and looped through the city of Omaha just so we could say we’d been to Nebraska – a first for both of us.
The reasons behind our Black Hills booking difficulty began appearing more numerously as we headed further west – Motorcycles. As in Chicago, our visit to the Black Hills had unknowingly coincided with a major tourist event – this time it was the 74th Annual Sturgis Black Hills Motor Classic.
After crossing the Missouri a third time and into the town of Oacoma, South Dakota, ours was one of only a few automobiles spattered among the Harley Davidsons parked outside of the Howard Johnson’s for the evening.
Soon after departing Oacoma, the landscape changed to rolling mounds of a golden color that I had never seen in nature. I failed to capture a photo so the image lies solely in my memory.
THE BLACK HILLS
We had felt lucky to have snagged the last available room at the Coyote Blues Village Bed and Breakfast when we had called the owner from a payphone in Ottawa. We hadn’t know just how lucky we were until we had arrived at the secluded, yet conveniently located inn outside of Hill City, in the heart of Black Hills National Forest.
The owners are from Switzerland and were just as charming and welcoming as the surrounding environment. It was full of European charm from the Swiss chalet feel of the inn to the traditional breakfasts of cured meats, cheeses, eggs and fruit. Each guest room is decorated in a different theme. We stayed in the Turkish room and had a private patio and sauna overlooking the valley below the inn. We took advantage of the views, patio and sauna each of the three nights of our stay.
We also enjoyed breakfast each morning on an outdoor deck with friendly bikers and travelers, and loved the comradery and sharing stories of the road.
Once we had settled into our room, we headed to nearby Mt. Rushmore with the excitement of children. It was raining and the wet winding roads were challenging for the bikers, but provided us with a unique photo opportunity.
The park service has done a nice job in tastefully accommodating thousands of daily visitors while preserving, best as possible, the mountain’s and surrounding area’s natural states. The walk way up to view the monument, along with the amphitheater at its base are a bit over the top, yet successfully achieve the goal of provoking patriotism.
We highly recommend an evening visit for the film on the monument’s history and stories of each of its presidents.
The evening program ended with a touching tribute to our country’s armed services’ veterans.
Hiking in Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park provides access to over a dozen trails including South Dakota’s 111-mile Centennial Trail that wends through the Black Hills from Butte Bear in the north to Wind Cave National Park in the south.
We chose, at the recommendation of a fellow traveler, to tackle the less lengthy trek to Little Devil’s Tower. The trailhead is located a mile east of Sylvan Lake’s parking lot and the trail is an easy walk through a grassy birch forest for about the first half mile…
at which point it becomes increasingly more difficult.
It is the last section that earns this hike the label of “strenuous” as the trail sharply ascends through and over rocky passages to the apex.
The surrounding views from the top of Little Devil’s Tower are well worth the trip — being surrounded by the Black Hills with Black Elk Peak (Harney’s Peak at the time) and its stone tower to the north…
and Cathedral Spires to the southeast.
We then drove east on Highway 87 from Sylvan Lake and through a section called “Needles Highway” for the towering spires that the road twists around.
Several narrow tunnels on the route limit traffic to automobiles and motorcycles, so no RV’s or trucks.
Crazy Horse Monument
This massive sculpture has been a work in progress since 1948 and has received no federal funding, per the wishes of Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear who had envisioned such a memorial to honor all Native Americans. Chief Standing Bear had been inspired, so to speak, by the carving of nearby Mt. Rushmore.
The design is based on a pointing gesture and response that Crazy Horse is said to have given a snarky U.S. Calvary man who had asked him, “Where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse’s response was, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
The carving efforts have been in the hands of a single family, the Ziolkowskis, who rely on admission fees, gift shop and concession sales, and private donations to continue their work.
To provide some idea as to how tedious the hand carving process is, Crazy Horse’s face was unveiled in 1998. To provide a sense of the size the finished sculpture is to be at some point in the future, that will mostly likely be beyond my lifetime, Crazy Horse’s pointing arm is 263 feet long and his horse’s nostrils are to be 26 feet in diameter.
The Black Hills were a fitting first step into the wild and beautiful west and provided us with a taste of the wonder that laid before us.
Up Next, Devils Tower and the Battle of Little Bighorn National Monuments…
Meanwhile, here’s some more of our favorite pics!
View of Cathedral Spires from Little Devil’s Tower
Waiting our turn to pass through a tunnel
Rock Tunnel between Hill City and Mt. Rushmore
This is a record of Trey & Martha's 2014 U.S. travel adventures