There were two options to drive from Billings Montana to Yellowstone National Park….we opted for the scenic route over the Beartooth Mountains which are located in south central Montana and north west Wyoming. History books tell us the mountains are part of more than 382,023 hectares of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness situated in 3 state forests. On our trek we’ll probably pass through all three, Custer, Shoshone and Gallatin at some stage of our journey.
Travelling over the mountains we drive through a number of, perhaps, outposts, is the right word…towns they weren’t, villages possibly. One such place was Busby which is located in Big Horn County Montana. Not a lot to see in Busby by way of shops, food outlets….the population is around 700. We came across Custer’s last camp and stand at Little Big Horn Battlefield. We thought we’d pop in and have a look at the memorial plaque, the park was due to close shortly so we would only be quick….however the fee to enter the park was $25 and we thought that was a bit much for a look at the monument. I understand the funds go to the upkeep of the memorials but preferred not to enter the park. We knew the story of Little Big Horn and the outcome….the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota Indian tribes killed Custer, other members of his family and a large number of his soldiers.
We ventured over to cafe and gift shop instead and spent our money there instead.
Time to continue on up and over Beartooth Highway….. has been called the most beautiful drive in America. We joined Beartooth Highway at Red Lodge Montana…not far from Billings and we’d travel this road until we reached the entrance to Yellowstone National Park Silver Gate Montana.
This mountain range grew in front of us and seemingly reached the sky…snow covered peaks at its highest looked like icing dripping down a cake. The scenery was pine trees and a few towns or houses dotted here and then but as we climbed the road became very windy, lots of sharp turns and very dramatic drops below us. A little on the scary side when the drop was on the passenger side of the car. As usual I kept taking photos as the scenery changed from trees to sheer rock faces. The higher we climbed the closer those rock faces became. Ok, I need a break, getting a little nervous so time for a wee break. Luckily the next viewing point was just around the need lot of tight bends! Time to give my knuckles a break……
Even though we had climbed a long way and could see the snow not too far above us it wasn’t too cold up here. There were chipmunks scooting around, zipping in and out of the stone work, checking out the travellers to see who had food. We didn’t have food and when I tried to photograph one it came right up to my camera lens to see if it might contain food, sadly, he scooted off when it didn’t. Then I remembered the M&Ms my husband had in the car….they were peanuts but choc coated so I asked him to bite of the hard toffee shell and some chocolate and we’ll give the peanut to the chipmunk. I know, sounds gross to feed a used and mangled peanut to the poor thing but he wouldn’t mind and I didn’t have anything else to entice him to me for a better photo.
We put the slightly chewed, still covered in some chocolate, peanut down on the stone and waited. Sure enough a chipmunk scooted over to check it out but didn’t pick it up and continued on to other people. Disappointed I went to the restrooms because we didn’t have more time to waste on the chipmunk. The peanut was still there but as I stepped up into the car and closed the door I looked over where the peanut was and a group of men were laughing and taking photos up close of this chipmunk EATING OUR PEANUT!! How rude……
On the road again climbing higher as we twist and turn on this mountain. Suddenly we’re level with the top of the snow covered peaks……an incredible sight. There is a sign with the feet above sea level…..10,947 feet (3336.65metres). However, as we all know, what goes up must come down !
The downward journey was a little less dramatic – in scenery and in white knuckles.
Beartooth Highway is only open between May and October so if you want to do this magnificent drive don’t plan it in the winter months!
We arrived at the North eastern entrance outside Yellowstone National park at town of Silver Gate….GPS said we were 3 minutes from the park! Then we stopped, not because we wanted to, because of a long line of traffic. The hold up? An animal or slow traffic, no, a line marking truck repainting lines on the side of the road. Delayed our journey by 20 minutes. These guys could learn something from our road workers…..who complete line marking on NSW roads overnight when there is considerable less traffic.
Eventually we all drove on and we decided to drive to Mammoth Springs. Not too far along traffic on both sides of the road slowed again. Not more line marking, I said , as we crawled slowly along the mountain road. No road workers this time…a black bear was casually walking down the road seemingly oblivious to the traffic jam he was causing. What a beautiful sight and surprise….I suppose he was used to these mechanical monsters with humans hanging out the windows taking photos, invading his territory.
Our accommodation for 2 nights was in Island Park on the western fringe of Yellowstone and we had to check in before 7pm. So we chose our sightseeing to ensure we spent most of the day seeing sights heading towards the western edge. Yellowstone sits on top of a volcanic hotspot across 3 states….Idaho, Montana and Wyoming…most of the park is in Wyoming.
Old Faithful was our first stop….the most famous geyser in the park. For my English readers amongst you that’s not a geyser (man) as in some English TV shows but a “hot spring in which water intermittently boils sending a tall column of water and steam into the air” *. Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the world and so named in 1870. It is very predictable and erupts every 90 minutes or so. Day to day the park lists the approximate times the geyser will erupt so they have long timber seats in sets of 3 behind each other in an arc. The seating area is situated a few hundred metres away to ensure no one gets burned by the boiling steam or water. Not like the early days when people would walk up very close the Old Faithful.
We found a seat and sat down, waited and watched the Old Faithful crater, waited and watched, more people filed in and found places to sit, we all waited and watched that mound and crater intently. Eventually a small pall of white steam made it’s way to the top…all quiet again, ‘no, wait, it’s going to blow’ someone in the crowd said. Another puff of steam then quiet again. This went on several times, the geysers over the back of Old Faithful were having a grand old time erupting continually, perhaps not as high as we expect Old Faithful to spew into the air but they were still impressive. Eventually a few smaller puffs of steam escaped from Old Faithful then what everyone was waiting for, the main eruption. It started off slowly then the steam and water reached higher, subsided, then up she came again a little higher and much more force this time. Hundreds of cameras were clicking in unison all hoping/trying to take that perfect photo of the old geyser. We were amongst them, of course.
Old Faithful spews between 3,700 gallons in a one and a half minute eruption to 8,400 gallons for 4.5 minutes and the water temperature is said to be around 95 degrees C (204 degrees F)**. The steam temperature has been measured at 177 degrees Celsius (350 degrees F). How crazy were those early pioneers to step up close to these geysers in ground that was more crust then solid earth. I’m sure there would have been many deaths when the geyser erupted.
After crossing this off the bucket list it was time for lunch and as we were inside the park – a very expensive lunch of 1 roll with ham, cheese and egg and a croissant with a bottle of water was almost $20 before tax was added. Exactly the reason we chose to stay outside the park, accommodation and food is quiet expensive. As this cafeteria was the only food place open it was crowded so we went to the car and ate our lunch.
Moving on to Mammoth Springs we totally underestimated the driving time to each section. Yellowstone is a massive park and the sights are not contained in one area….the roads are also mountain roads with many twists and turns. Of course with each turn there is another incredible view and slow traffic.
Arriving at Mammoth Springs there were cars going every which way trying to find a parking spot in the little village area, we decide to drive on over the hill and found a parking spot without too much waiting. The smell of sulphur was quite strongest we stepped out of the car. We were certainly getting our exercise today – a very long boardwalk wove it’s way around the hot springs. The colours of the Springs were quite incredible. These hot springs are different to the other thermal springs. This is due to these springs being of limestone rock making the dramatic formations. It has been said these formations resemble an inside out cave. We are constantly reminded to stay on the boardwalk and designated pathways due to the heat on the unstable ground….which looks like chalk. There are upper terraces and lower terraces and the boardwalk enables the visitor to move between the two easily. The hot springs are trailing down over the steps….like travertine steps leading to a spa. A beautiful and surprising sight.
As we walked back to the car a deer was on the hot, chalky ground foraging for food unperturbed by the heat under it’s feet. We assumed it had adapted to this harsh environment.
Next stop was the Prismatic Spring and surrounding geysers and springs. These springs had the brightest blue boiling water….so much steam though it made it hard to see the spring in it’s full glory. Each spring has a brown edge around it….this is a form of bacteria that lives within the hot spring. Once we knew this was bacteria and algae we looked more closely and you could make out the bacteria. Fascinating stuff!!
After viewing the Prismatic Spring and surrounds we wandered along another walkway to the paint pots and past scorched pine trees…..the walk is a loop and the landscapes are dramatic and different. The paint pots are so called because because the mud bubbles and plops due to gas rising to the surface, the pastel colours are made by iron oxide. Luckily when we were viewing them the paint pots were well behaved and didn’t blow their tops…when they do they can shoot as much as 4 metres in the air. Don’t think I’d like to be too close when that happens.
We continued our walk around the loop and found the strangest landscape I think I’ve ever seen. Small geysers spraying out steam and water very regularly surrounded by a background of stark, white, hot, chalky ground with dead trees that looked like they’d been turned to ash but, defiantly, still holding their shape.
Great Prismatic Geyser
It was hard to move on – the sight had me mesmerised….only Ty telling me we have to make our way back to the car forced me away. I could’ve pulled up a chair (if there had been room) and sat there surveying the scenery for hours.
It was time to move on to Drifter Joes fishing lodge, Island Park, Idaho where we will spend the next 2 nights in a cabin. Our very little cabin as it turns out!
As it was getting close to our check in time and we were caught in roadworks and heavy traffic I thought it best to call the lodge to let them know we’ll be late. I tried a few times then realised we had no service on these mountains so had to keep checking for service. Finally contacted the lodge reception and told them ‘we have a booking however the trip out of Jellystone’ pause as I realise what I said..’ oh (laughing) ‘sorry Yellowstone, the traffic is very slow so we may be a little late’. He laughed and said ‘that’s what we call it too!’ How embarrassing….we hadn’t even seen Yogi and Boo Boo but we’d seen a few rangers!
If we’re out bush we may as well go the whole hog and stay in a bush cabin. The bedroom, wardrobe and kitchenette were in the one small room. I could reach the kitchen bench from the bed and the bathroom was ‘compact’. When I stepped into the shower and closed the curtain a good memory was helpful as the shower curtain shut out any possible light. I think we knew this was going to be an interesting place to stay…..it didn’t disappoint..lol. It was also on the main road and as luck would have it….we had a cabin close to the road….the trucks roared past in the early hours so we were up early on the 3rd morning for our drive back to Denver.
Decided to travel over the Tetons on the return journey….may as well travel as many winding mountain roads as possible this trip!! The Grand Teton Mountains are a desolate place, not many towns, petrol stations on this route. We thought we’d stop for breakfast on the way out of Island Park however we were on back roads and there were no off ramps with food and fuel. Continued on over the Tetons, travelling through several ski resorts, still nothing open. Then we arrived on the outskirts of Jackson. ‘This is a big town, we should find food options and fuel along this road” Ty said. So we didn’t go into Jackson itself but continued in the Highway. Not a good idea…still no food options and we would need fuel soon.
Finally, we came across a place on this pine tree laden mountain, a service station with a cafe. ‘We’ll pull in here and see what there is for breakfast, I’m starving’. Ty is always starving but it had been a long while since dinner the night before.
As we walked towards the door of the cafe I noticed a sing on the door NO RESTROOMS AVAILABLE. Great… Oh well at least we can get food and coffee. Yes, we could get coffee and not much else. So we settled on coffee and a slice of lemon cake and. Slice of chocolate cake…..a very healthy breakfast. Obviously truckies do not come this way very often. As we were leaving Ty said we should go to loo because we don’t know how long it will be before we come across another service station. I told him about the sign. He asked the woman who served us ‘Do you are restrooms here?’ ‘No, you’ll find restrooms about 20 mile further on’ she replied. I had noticed the door leading to the restrooms was roped off. Perhaps she didn’t want the trouble of cleaning them. Who knows!
As we were approaching our car with our nutritious breakfast a biker couple pulled in and she jumped off her bike and rushed to the door, stopped when she read the sign and came back to her partner, who, by now was chatting to Ty. She told him about the sign…we said it’s true…no toilets for travellers to use here they’re 10 miles down the road.
We ate our cake as we drove on……finally reaching a small town called Pinedale with restrooms available! I was washing my hands when a lady also at the basin asked if I was from around here. ‘No’ I replied. She continued to tell me she was from Oregon and was travelling back from Denver where she lived as a child. Then asked where I was from. ‘Australia’ I answered. ‘That’s a long ways’ was her reply.
We arrived back in Denver late in the evening. Met up with our friend, Stuart, the next day for lunch at Nick & Jim’s bbq. Both Ty and Stuart were amused when I ordered the potato with bacon and sour cream for my lunch, as usual I thought it would be small, but Idaho potatoes are giants and my lunch ended up a lot bigger then their bbq feast!! In the evening we had dinner with CA and Jerry. Great to spend time with good friends now it’s time to move on from Denver.
* Wikipedia dictionary
** Article by E Kwak- Heffernan July 19