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!

Travels with #WoolleyLamb


In August / September we took a US road trip during which I added four new states to my tally – Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. One of those was unexpected. We also gained a new travelling companion – meet Woolley Lamb! Our first night was spent near Denver International Airport in Woolley’s Classic Suites (highly recommended) where we met Woolley. Staff suggest you take him with you, then post photos of where he’s been. While his friends played about pretending they were at the Olympics…

… Woolley came with us to:

The Snowy Range, WY:


The Wind River Range, WY:


Grand Teton National Park, WY, where he needed a bit of help not to blow away:


Mesa Nature Trail, ID:


Yellowstone National Park, WY:

Woolley Lamb

The Montana State Line. This is claimed to be the highest State welcome sign in the US – and it marks the 45th Parallel too, so we were exactly half way between the North Pole and the Equator:

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Rocky Mountain National Park, CO:

Mile High City – Denver, CO, where, on the thirteenth step of the State Capitol, Woolley was exactly one mile above sea-level:

What now? I have been frantically sorting through hundreds of photographs and a huge pile of  information leaflets so that I can blog about our road-trip. Woolley, on the other hand, has been relaxing in a corner of the sofa.

However, he needn’t get too comfortable! We have plans for him – maybe he will meet some of his Scottish cousins on a country walk and we can send the pictures back to the hotel. In the meantime, blogging proper on our trip begins next week.

Hope to see you then!