Rocky Mountain to Denver

Lily Lake

On our way out of Rocky Mountain National Park we stopped for a walk round the delightful Lily Lake. Our stay had been all too short.

From here we drove to Nederland where we had a coffee on the balcony of Happy Trails and people-watched for a while.

Our guidebook described Nederland as a lively, ramshackle mountain-town magnet for hippies – and we had to agree, even though we were there at the wrong time of year for either Nedfest or Frozen Dead Guy Days. Yes, really. The term Ned has other connotations for us anyway – in Scotland it’s a derogatory term meaning a non-educated delinquent!

After a stroll round town and down the creek to the reservoir, we returned to our car which was parked opposite the library. That looked the best building in the place to me – how wonderful to have a reading area on a balcony over a stream! Unfortunately, it was closed or I’d have dragged John in for a visit.

Our final stop was Boulder, somewhere which would repay a much longer visit. We had a picnic lunch in Chautauqua Park near the Flatirons before stopping off in town where we particularly admired the Court House.

After that it was straight on to Denver and the beautiful Capitol Hill Mansion B&B. The Bluebell Room was gorgeous ….

…. we even had a sun-porch which gave us our own private entrance to the house ….

…. the exterior of which was equally spectacular ….

…. and to cap it all, there was a delightful garden in which to have breakfast.

So this was our luxury home for the next four nights! Only three more posts and then I will finally have finished blogging about our Summer 2016 road trip.

Deer Mountain

View from Deer Mountain
View from Deer Mountain

Rocky Mountain is a very busy park! By the time we got ourselves out in the morning, and that wasn’t very late, the signs for the car parks at the popular Bear Lake Trailhead were already indicating full. We headed for the Deer Mountain Trailhead instead.

Climbing Deer Mountain is a 6 mile round trip and you end up at over 10,000 feet. Before you get too impressed, I’ll confess that you actually start around 8,900 – but some of it is very steep, especially at the end. My knees didn’t like that section one little bit.

Here are some views from the way up.

Just before the summit we stopped to get our (well, my) breath back and I made the acquaintance of this little guy. I think he was begging, but I didn’t give him anything. Too many titbits is probably what made him so bold, and animals should not be encouraged to become dependent on humans for food. But he was cute.

On Deer Mountain On Deer Mountain On Deer Mountain On Deer Mountain

Pressing on to the summit, we could see right back down to our hotel on the edge of Estes Park.

Then it was time to retrace our steps, stopping for a quick picnic on the way.

In the afternoon, we took the one-way gravel Old Fall River Road which winds uphill for 11 miles and 3000 feet to Fall River Pass. The short trail at Chasm Falls made a pleasant stop on the way.

At the pass, we had a very welcome hot coffee at the Alpine Visitor Centre – it was cold up there and still had pockets of snow. Information boards told us more about the road which opened in 1920, and until 1932 was the only motor route across the park. Then it was replaced by Trail Ridge Road, our route back down.

The views from Trail Ridge were stunning.

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road

We were really sorry to have only one full day in Rocky Mountain, but the next day we were off to Denver  – and we were really excited about that.

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walks where this week she takes us on a stroll around Lucca.

Red Lodge to Estes Park

Smith Mine Disaster, Montana

Smith Mine
Smith Mine
Not long after leaving Red Lodge, we spotted a ghost mine on a hillside. The Smith Mine is the site of the worst underground coal mine disaster in Montana where 74 men were lost in February 1943. Some died as a result of a violent explosion, but most fell victim to the methane released by the blast. It’s a very poignant site. The information board quotes a note left by Walter and Johnny as they waited for the gas to catch up with them: “Good-bye wives and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.” The mine finally closed in 1953 and has been left as a memorial.

Cody, Wyoming

Our next stop was back over the border in Wyoming: Cody, founded in 1895 by William F “Buffalo Bill” Cody. I must admit to being rather disappointed – it didn’t look that different to many of the other western towns we passed through, just more touristy. We admired the Irma Hotel (opened and named after Bill’s daughter in 1902), had a quick coffee and left.

Thermopolis, Wyoming

After coffee, we pressed on to Thermopolis. The statue is From this soil come the riches of the world by Carl Jensen (1999) and depicts a cowboy sifting dirt through his hands in 1897 when Thermopolis was founded. The Black Bear Café provided a good lunch, then it was back on the road again.

Hell’s Half Acre, Wyoming

Hell's Half Acre
Hell’s Half Acre
Our last stop of the day was Hell’s Half Acre, a sort of mini Bryce Canyon which, despite the name, covered about 320 acres. It was fenced off, so you couldn’t get down amongst the hoodoos, but there was a good view from above.

This was close to Casper, our overnight stop. It looked an interesting place to stay with lots of pioneer history to explore. I wish I could tell you about it – but we’d been on the road for two weeks and still had another week to go. Reader, rather than sight-see I’m afraid we took advantage of a hotel with a laundry to wash out our smalls.

Estes Park, Colorado

Alpine Trail Ridge Inn
Alpine Trail Ridge Inn
The next day was all about reaching Rocky Mountain National Park. We only made one stop, in Laramie, the very first destination on our road trip which I’ve already written about (here) way back in October. Estes Park is the main town on the edge of Rocky Mountain and we agreed with our Lonely Planet Guide that “there’s no small irony in the fact that the proximity to one of the most pristine outdoor escapes in the USA has made Estes Park the kind of place you’ll need to escape from”. As we crawled through it bumper-to-bumper our hearts sank. Fortunately, however, my planning had been good. Our hotel, the excellent Alpine Trail Ridge Inn, was on the far side of town near the park entrance and had its own restaurant next door.  When we left in two days time we could take a different road which meant we would never need to go back into Estes Park. Not only that, we had something of a room with a view (see above). Result!

Next time: we climb Deer Mountain.

Destination Red Lodge

Red Lodge, MT
Red Lodge, Montana

At the Montana end of the Beartooth Highway is the charming historic mining town of Red Lodge. We stayed two nights at the Red Lodge Inn, a simple but comfortable motel, and enjoyed wandering the main street, Broadway, with its many attractive buildings.

The first night, we popped into the Red Lodge Pizza Co. I can’t remember now if the building used to be a post office, but I do remember all the pizzas had names like First Class or Parcel Post, so I suspect it must have been. Mind you, who cares what they were called? They were delicious! That’s it on the left below. To the right is Ox Pasture, just a few doors down. As we inspected the menu, a friendly staff member came out to encourage us in. Sorry, too full of pizza – but she was so enthusiastic that we booked for the next evening. This was a real find – a gourmet restaurant, using local produce, that would not be out of place in the grandest of cities. Easily the most spectacular meal in the whole of our three-week vacation.

Well, we had to work all that food off somehow so we took the Basin Lake Trail, a pretty walk although some of it was still scarred from wildfires in 2008.

On the way back, we stopped at the Red Box Car, a century old railroad car which allegedly serves the best fast food in the whole of the Yellowstone Region. This was just before our gourmet dinner, so we made do with coffee. The location doesn’t look much below, but it was right next to the creek which runs through town so it was relaxing to sit on the deck and listen to the water flowing.

The next day it was Goodbye Montana – our visit was short but sweet – as we set off to recross Wyoming on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway panorama
Beartooth Highway panorama

A candidate for the most scenic highway in America? I think so. When planning our 2016 Yellowstone vacation we hadn’t originally intended to continue north into Montana, but when I read this claim in Lonely Planet I knew we had to travel the Beartooth Highway. 64 miles of mountain pass from Cooke City to Red Lodge – what’s not to love?

Cooke City

Northeast Yellowstone
Northeast Yellowstone

We still had a large and beautiful chunk of Yellowstone to drive through before reaching the Northeast Entrance Gate, so by the time we got to Cooke City we were ready for an early lunch and a wander. It’s not exactly what I would call a city, but just look at those vistas!

We discovered that the town had a lovely little museum dedicated to the early miners in the area, Cooke City being the major camp for prospectors from 1869, so we looked at that too before heading back onto the highway to continue the adventure.

Clay Butte

Pilot and Index Peaks
Pilot and Index Peaks

After Cooke City, the road dipped back into Wyoming. These two peaks beguiled us all the way and we paused in several places to photograph them. Our next major stop was Clay Butte Tower which involved a three-mile drive on a gravel road. The tower used to be a fire lookout but now functions as a visitor centre.

Top of the World

Back on the main highway, we made slow progress because there were just so many beautiful places to stop, for example Beartooth Lake followed by a welcome visit to Top of the World Store for coffee.

After this, the road began a serious climb, until we reached Beartooth Pass, the highest point on the road at 10947 feet. It was blowy!

Summit to Red Lodge

Then it was all downhill with another couple of stops at Gardner Lake and our second Montana State Line of the day. This one claims to be the highest state welcome sign in the US.

At the end of the day we arrived in Red Lodge, another charming old town, which was to be our base for the next couple of nights. More about it next time!

Yellowstone’s Geyser Country Day 2 – Grand Prismatic Spring

Traffic jam Yellowstone style
Traffic jam Yellowstone style

On the last day of our week in Yellowstone, we headed back to Geyser Country. The two guys above (there’s a second bison just going out of sight behind the trees) held us up for a short while. Most people were back in their cars by the time John risked this snap – some of them had been standing way too close.

The best thing we saw in our whole week in Yellowstone came right at the end of the day, but there was plenty to do before that. Just south of Madison we turned off onto Firehole Canyon Drive, a short detour leading to some pretty falls.

A few miles further on we reached Lower Geyser Basin. On one side of the road is Firehole Lake Drive. The main attraction here is Great Fountain Geyser (second picture below) but it wasn’t due to erupt till the afternoon and we didn’t have time to hang about. Plenty other things to appreciate, though.

Across the road is the Fountain Paint Pot trail. The Pot is full of thick, bubbling mud.

Red Spouter, below, has existed since an earthquake in 1959 which altered much of this landscape. It’s unusual in that it behaves like all four thermal features at different times of year. In spring and early summer it’s a muddy hot spring that might seem like a geyser at times as it splashes water several feet high. By summer and autumn, as the water table lowers, it becomes first a mudpot then a fumarole venting steam, as here.

Below Red Spouter is an area with several geysers. This is Fountain Geyser.

The colours in the basin are beautiful. We’d seen many trees such as the ones below on our travels, but learnt something new about them from the trail guide here. They are lodgepole pine trees which drowned in the super-hot water of shifting thermal activity. Silica penetrated and hardened the bases of the trunks leaving a white appearance, so they are nicknamed “Bobby Socks” trees.

Finally, we arrived at Midway Geyser Basin.

There are two major features here. Excelsior Geyser Crater was formed when a huge geyser blew itself out of existence in the 1880s. The last eruption was a hundred years later in 1985, but it still discharges 4000 gallons of hot water per minute into the Firehole River. It may not look as spectacular, but it expels more in a day than Old Faithful does in two months.

And now for the pièce de résistance – Grand Prismatic Spring. At 370ft wide and 121ft deep, it’s Yellowstone’s largest, deepest hot spring and probably its most beautiful. I’ve never seen anything to rival it anyway. The water at 70C / 160F ensures it is usually cloaked in steam and the brilliant colours around it are caused by the microorganisms which live there.

Could we top that? Not really. We made a quick stop at Gibbon Falls which we’d passed several times already without viewing, then it was back to Canyon Lodge for our last night.

We left Yellowstone the next morning with over a week of vacation still left. However, this seems like a good time to take a break and blog about something else for a while. I’ll come back to our US road trip after the New Year.

Yellowstone’s Geyser Country Day 1 – Old Faithful and friends

Approaching Geyser Country
Approaching Geyser Country
Our last two days in Yellowstone were spent exploring Geyser Country, the area south of Madison Junction to Old Faithful. If you thought the sights I have already shown you were spectacular – well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

On the first day, we drove to the southern end – Upper Geyser Basin, home to Old Faithful and about 180 other geysers, plus a variety of hot springs. The first port of call should always be the Visitor Centre where you can pick up predicted times of eruption. Although not the biggest (up to 180 feet) or the most predictable geyser in the park, Old Faithful is the most frequent – every 90 minutes or so. We observed it twice – the first time, just after we arrived, from the boardwalk.

The second time, we climbed Observation Hill behind the geyser to look down on it and I think this was better. The first picture below shows the crowds patiently waiting, and how nondescript Old Faithful looks before spouting.

However, Upper Geyser Basin has so much more to it than Old Faithful. We watched our first eruption at 1030 and didn’t leave till 1600. There’s the park architecture to start with – lots of modern stuff which you can see above, but also Old Faithful Inn (1903) and Old Faithful Lodge (1928) which are still in service.

Most of the geysers and springs, such as this one, the name of which I can’t remember, line the Firehole River:

Firehole River at Upper Geyser Basin
Firehole River at Upper Geyser Basin
And there were so many! Once again, I’m struggling to cut down to a reasonable number of pictures.

Giant Geyser
Giant Geyser

Blue Star Spring
Blue Star Spring

Anemone Geyser
Anemone Geyser

Crested Pool
Crested Pool

Belgian Pool
Belgian Pool

Chromatic Pool
Chromatic Pool

Morning Glory Pool
Morning Glory Pool

Daisy Geyser
Daisy Geyser
Daisy Geyser (above) wasn’t as big as Old Faithful but it was a bit off the main path and very few other people were there when it erupted so we probably enjoyed it more. The gallery below shows Grotto Geyser, another favourite, in various stages of agitation. It teased by spouting water from different orifices in turn followed by a finale of spurting everywhere! We thought that was more entertaining than Old Faithful shooting straight up in the air.

Do we look exhausted?

Maybe not yet, but after 5 and a half hours we were certainly footsore. However, we stopped off at two smaller basins on the way back. First, Black Sand Basin.

Then Biscuit Basin.

By this time, we really were exhausted. However, the next day we were back to complete our tour of Geyser Country – and saw what I think was the most beautiful sight of our whole trip.

Elephant Back and West Thumb

Hayden Valley
Hayden Valley

Heading south of Yellowstone Canyon took us through the Hayden Valley where the river was a placid contrast to the torrents pouring over Upper and Lower Falls. However, despite this calm appearance, we were on the verge of one of Yellowstone’s most geologically volatile regions at Mud Volcano.

Its first manifestation is Sulphur Cauldron, a spring with waters about ten times as acidic as lemon juice. Sulphur-rich gasses rise furiously.

Across the road is the Mud Volcano area itself. Features include Cooking Hillside – I’ve included the information board not just for the explanation of how it got its name, but also to show how the treeline had retreated even further since it was erected.

After a picnic by the river, we decided to tackle Elephant Back Mountain, a 3.5 mile loop trail which sounds more impressive than it is – only 800 feet elevation change. Not really a mountain then! A heavily wooded trail leads to good views from the top over Yellowstone Lake.

We then drove along the shores of the lake to West Thumb Geyser Basin, a small volcanic caldera formed inside the main Yellowstone caldera about 150,000 years ago. Some wildlife encounters en route!

If Mud Volcano was all about – well – mud, here we were back to glorious colour. There was something magical about wandering along in the late afternoon sunshine with the lake on one side and these jewel-bright springs on the other.

We returned to the Lodge tired but happy. In the next instalment we see the Park’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful – but prefer some of its neighbours.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs

The terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are a sight to behold – living sculptures shaped by a large volume of water flowing across sloping land, and coloured by thermophiles (heat loving microorganisms). A series of board walks takes you round the lower terraces and a short drive loops round the upper terraces. Here are far too many pictures. I just don’t know how to choose.

Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs Mammoth Springs

But that’s not all! Mammoth used to be Fort Yellowstone. In the early years of the National Park (established 1872) the Springs were threatened by poachers and souvenir hunters. In 1886, the army moved in and stayed for 32 years: many of the buildings erected then are now used as park headquarters. Cute squirrels too!

On the way to Mammoth, we admired Tower Fall and the Narrows – the far end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which I wrote about in an earlier post.

Finally, we came across more wildlife on, or by, the road.

Yellowstone just gets better and better! In my next post, we head for Elephant Back and West Thumb.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon runs for about 20 miles, but the best part is around Upper and Lower Falls (109 and 308 feet respectively), very close to Canyon Lodge where we were staying. We spent two full days hiking the various trails around the rim.

Day 1

We started with two short, steep trails which each dropped 5-600 feet from the North Rim to overlook Lower Falls. We managed to climb back up the first one without stopping, and were complimented by a young man as follows: “Wow! I don’t want to make any judgements about age, but my kids’ grandparents couldn’t have done that!” I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered, or to be insulted that he obviously thought we looked too ancient to manage such a feat. I think I’ll stick with flattered…

Brink of Lower falls
Red Rock Point
Artist Point and Point Sublime Trail

From Red Rock Point, we drove round to Artist Point on the South Rim. The trail from here to Point Sublime displayed the multi-hued rocks of the canyon to perfection.

Ribbon Lake Trail

We then followed the Ribbon Lake Trail – lots of bird life here.

My Fitbit measured over 30,000 steps that day – the first and only time this has happened!

Day 2

On our second day in the Canyon, we returned to Artist Point and hiked a loop, taking in the South Rim and Clear Lake Trails, which provided an amazing variety of scenery.

South Rim Trail

From Artist Point we set off on the South Rim Trail. As we walked along the canyon edge, we could see the North Rim viewpoints we had visited a few days before – Red Rock Point and Brink of Lower Falls.

 

Just before we reached the falls, we came to a diversion at Uncle Tom’s Trail.

Uncle Tom's Trail
Uncle Tom’s Trail

Now rope ladders would have been beyond me, but steps I can manage. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t completely out of breath by the time I got back to the top though!

We continued along the South Rim past Upper Falls before re-joining the road at the Wapiti Lake Trailhead where we had our picnic.

Clear Lake Trail

From the other end of the trailhead, Clear Lake Trail led off and the scenery changed completely. First, there was an open meadow to cross.

Eventually, the smell of sulphur assaulted our nostrils and we emerged from a small patch of forest to find the hydrothermal area of Clear Lake with acid-bleached driftwood and boiling mudpots – a complete contrast in its desolation.

Eventually, we met Ribbon Lake Trail again and had the same walk back to Artist Point as on Day 1. It seems no-one can resist photographing the canyon walls.

Yellowstone surprises round every corner. In this small area we encountered painted cliffs, waterfalls, meadows, sulphurous lakes and boiling mudpots. Could it get any more amazing? Well, maybe it could – next up, Mammoth Springs! In the meantime, this post is linked to Jo’s Monday Walks. Hop over there for blue Portuguese skies and a selection of other cyber-rambling.