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.

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.

Jackson to Yellowstone

Mesa Falls, Idaho
Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho

A large berry fire had closed the North Entrance of Grand Teton and the South Entrance of Yellowstone, our obvious route. A detour into Idaho was required to reach Yellowstone’s West Entrance, thus adding an unexpected new state to my tally. The drive wasn’t a huge amount longer, but we had no idea about sights along its route, whereas the road north through Grand Teton had many obvious stopping places. Here, social media came into its own. I’d been keeping an eye on both parks’ Facebook pages for news, and one helpful user commented that anyone taking the western detour should consider visiting Mesa Falls. That was our plan made for us!

Along the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway we stopped first at the overlook for Lower Mesa Falls – we’d be able to hike down to them later in the morning.

A short distance along the road was Upper Mesa Falls where the Big Falls Inn (built around 1915) now serves as a visitor centre. There is also a network of board walks taking you to the Upper Falls and their attendant rainbow.

From the parking lot, the one-mile Mesa Nature Trail takes you to the Lower Falls which we had looked down on earlier. Thank you Facebook commenter, we loved Mesa Falls!

After a lunch stop at the Angler’s Lodge in Island Park, where I had possibly my favourite veggie burger ever, we crossed back into Wyoming and continued on to Yellowstone. Before long, a line of cars stopped at the roadside signalled our first wildlife sighting – elk and a very lazy looking bison.

Our final stop of the day was Norris Geyser Basin. Our eyes popped out on stalks and remained there the entire week we spent in Yellowstone, which is basically the caldera of a giant volcano. We watched the earth’s surface literally boiling at our feet, through geysers, springs, mudpots and fumaroles, and had a constant smell of sulphur in our nostrils. We have so many pictures, I’m not sure how I’m going to whittle them down for the next few posts. In the meantime, here are some highlights from Norris – first, Porcelain Basin. The colours are caused by the different minerals and algae present in the water.

Back Basin is home to Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser. Major eruptions (300 feet) are rare, the last one being two years ago, but we certainly saw it ejecting water for 10-20 feet. We thought this was awesome till we went to Old Faithful a few days later!

After a long day, we arrived at our accommodation, Canyon Lodge, to be brought down to earth with a bump. It had one huge advantage – location: the main road in Yellowstone forms a figure of eight loop and Canyon Lodge is very central. It’s also the largest lodge in the park and the only place we could get in for a full week, but my advice would be “don’t stay there”. Built in the 60s, it has massively expanded since then in terms of accommodation and the services haven’t kept up. Our room was 15 minutes walk from the dining room up a pot-holed unlit road and, although superficially attractive, wasn’t terribly comfortable either (one hard chair). I could go on and on, but John has written a very scathing review on Trip Advisor so if you’re thinking of going to Yellowstone, read that!

If I were doing it again I would stay a few days in the south of the park at Old Faithful and a few days in the north at Mammoth Springs – if we could get in. However, we didn’t let the lodge dampen our enthusiasm for the park and packed as much as we could into the next few days.

Next up – Yellowstone Canyon itself.

Grand Teton National Park

The Tetons from Mormon Row
The Tetons from Mormon Row

In the 1890s, ten early settlers built their homesteads along Mormon Row – today, still no more than a gravel road just inside Grand Teton. We’d read that the view of the mountains from here was superb, and so it proved. On our first morning in the park we drove out there – it’s also a popular cycling route. A small collection of pioneer cabins and barns remains which are much photographed: I love the way the roofline of the oldest and most dilapidated echoes the peaks.

From Mormon Row, we headed to Teton Village, home of Jackson Hole ski resort and thus furnished with various methods of getting up high without actually climbing. We took the aerial tramway up Rendezvous Mountain. The first picture below shows the tram coming back to base – you might have to enlarge it to see the man sitting on top (to the left of the wires). Totally scary! The second photograph is our view back down as we travelled up the mountain. Inside the tram in our case.

Many people got out, checked the viewing platform, and headed back down. Not us! We had three trails to do. The first, Top of the World, was a simple loop of less than a mile round the summit. It was chilly up there – definitely hang-on-to-your-hat weather – but we warmed up afterwards with coffee and waffles in Corbett’s cabin.

From here, we decided to hike down the 2-mile Cirque Trail to Bridger Restaurant where we could take a gondola back to Teton Village. We had an audience!

You might think this was easy because it was heading downhill, but the last picture in the gallery shows quite a large ridge in front of the peak which we had to climb up and over. You might also think that when we saw Bridger Restaurant coming into sight we would head straight down to its terrace for a refreshing drink. Well, we took another uphill path to reach the 1.5 mile Casper Ridge Loop which turned out to be a real highlight. This adorable marmot posed for ages and the two mule deer didn’t seem shy at all. (I think they are mule deer, and I think they are different – it could just have been the same one following us!)

Finally, we descended to the café and had that reviving drink before heading back down to Teton Village via the gondola.

On our second, and final, day in Grand Teton we took another hiking trail to Bradley and Taggart Lakes. This 6 mile loop had, once again, wonderful views of the Tetons.

After our hike, we took a drive through some of the rest of the park to see as much as we could before leaving the next day. We admired the Cathedral Group:

Cathedral Group
Cathedral Group

And stopped at Jackson Lake by Signal Mountain Lodge. That’s not cloud to the right, but smoke from a large berry fire in the north of the park. This was going to cause us problems the next day….

Jackson Lake
Jackson Lake

Finally, we saw our first herd of bison. Even if they were behind a fence (cunningly omitted from the pictures.)

Our constant refrain held good here too – “we want to stay longer!” – but this was tempered by our excitement that we would be in Yellowstone the next day. Would it live up to expectations? What do you think!

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walks.

Rock Springs to Jackson

Wind River Range
Wind River Range

The journey from Rock Springs to Jackson fell into two distinct parts. To begin with we crossed flat plains, before reaching more mountainous areas in the late morning. We stopped in the pretty little town of Pinedale where we enquired about local hikes from the very helpful gentleman in the visitor centre. After a wander up and down the main street, and an early lunch in the Heart and Soul Café, we followed his advice.

We headed up Fremont Lake Road to the top and then took what I think was Pole Creek Trail. It wasn’t that interesting a walk to be honest – gently uphill through forest with no views, or at least none in the time we could afford to spend, so we walked about an hour in one direction, then turned round and came back. However, it broke a long car journey and stretched our legs, and there were lovely views of Fremont Lake and the mountains from the road.

From Pinedale, we headed straight on to Jackson, just outside Grand Teton National Park and our base for the next three nights. We were back to staying in a small inn this time – the comfortable and attractive Alpine House.

Other than that, we didn’t engage much with Jackson which was definitely tourist central. We went out for dinner at night and that was about it – though I really have to mention Pizzeria Caldera where we had the best pizza that either of us could remember eating for a long, long time. Jackson was just a dormitory for exploring the park. More on that next time!