Road tripping, an American pastime for nearly 100 years, and one that I have been to far apart from for too long. This Summer it was time to rectify that. Mike had plans to go canoe the boundary waters and hike Isle Royale. When that fell through, I told him he should join me for a trip to Yellowstone. We quickly settled on mid-July for the start of the trip. While we both cleared up 3 weeks, we planned the experience to last about 2 1/2. I researched 4 stops on the way and 4 more for the way back, our plans looked like this:
I’ve been back and forth across I-80 through Nebraska probably 100 times. Anyone who has ever made the trip know that it is boring, devoid of scenery and lacking in culture. But I had heard that NW Nebraska had some amazing stuff, so we decided to start there. We took off out of Columbia on a Tuesday and spent that night in a hotel alongside I-80 in central Nebraska.
The following day we drove the short distance to Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Chimney Rock is of more historical significance than it is of geological import. The Westward wagon trains would all head here, shortly thereafter the California Trail and the Oregon Trail would diverge. The settlers would have to decide, seek gold in California or rich bottom land in Oregon.
After leaving Chimney Rock we headed North to Scotts Bluff National Monument. Scotts Bluff marked the easiest passage to Oregon. Rising 500 feet out of the Western edge of the Great Plains it was a destination first for fur traders then trappers, these were followed by emigrants and mail and freight, and finally the army gathered here for the mass exterminations that followed the Civil War.
We hiked the top of Scotts Bluff, and took in the vast scenery and the Western “big sky”. We ended the day in a municipal campground in the town of Scottsbluff.
The Next morning it was but a short drive up to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. We hiked a couple of interpretive trails and visited the museum/visitor center. We learned that around 20 million years ago there were beaver in this area living like prairie dogs do today and that at the time a type of pig was the apex predator. A couple of hours was all that this site required. Of note was the Cook Collection of native American artifacts at the visitors center. There was also a nice diorama of molded skeleton animals based on fossils found nearby.
From here we headed up to Toadstool Geologic Park, a badlands area named for its rock formations. This site is administered by the Forest Service and includes a 30 million year old “trackway” of footprints left by mammals along a drying up stream bed. For the remainder of the first day we lounged around camp, just processing all that we had taken in over the last 2 days and planning the rest of our adventure. There is dry camping on site and we paid to spend 2 nights there.
The next day we drove to the Hudson Meng Bison Boneyard. This is an interesting excavation containing the 10000 year old remains of 600+ American Buffalo (bison). How the bones got there is open to interpretation but early Native Americans played a role based on arrowheads and other artifacts found at the site. Running them off a cliff has been ruled out, but other theories have not been proven or disproven. The partially excavated site is enclosed in a pole barn. An interesting place to visit.
Later that day we hiked the Toadstool badlands trail. There were lots of early mammal tracks in the stone but they just looked like depressions to me. However, the area stands out for its stark and rugged beauty.
Then, on to Wyoming. We headed out early, destination Thermopolis, site of Hot Springs State Park. Along our route we went through Wind River Canyon, an amazingly beautiful canyon and numerous pull offs to enjoy it with. When we got to Thermopolis, I discovered that I had made the hotel reservation for the wrong night. Since there was some sort of bicycle event in town, there was not a room to be had. We ended up driving 30 miles north to get a room.
The next morning we headed down to Thermopolis and the Hot Springs. The Native Americans who donated the spring to the state set the condition that the spring must be made available to the public for free in perpetuity. So we spent Saturday morning soaking in a public bath house. A nice experience that certainly relaxed us for our afternoon drive up to Yellowstone.
We stopped in Cody WY for lunch, then headed West to the park. We were hoping to find some National Forest camping near the park, but none presented, so we headed through the park and found some camping North of the park in Montana. We payed for two nights then spent the evening in the park gaping at the Elk and Buffalo and enjoyed visiting a couple of waterfalls.
We spent the next two days driving around the park, hanging out with the buffalo, and walking every trail that was shorter than 2 miles (there are a lot of them). Highlights were Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, Black Sand Basin, and too many others to name. We also moved our camp to the Western entrance to the park, outside of West Yellowstone MT. We went down to see Old Faithful and got to witness her eruption. Later we found out that a 9 year old girl had been tossed by a buffalo about 2 hours before we were there.
After watching Old Faithful do her thing, we hiked a few more Geyser trails then went back to camp. The next day we visited Yellowstone canyon, and did a rim hike along this magnificent rent in the ground. Then it was back to West Yellowstone where we got an overpriced hotel and prepared for the next phase of our travels.
Got up the next day and commuted through the park to the South entrance and headed down to Grand Teton National Park. We found a nice campsite in the National Forest and spent the next few days taking in the sites. One morning we got up early to be at an overlook for a sunrise photo op with the eponymous mountain range just to our West. Twice we staked out moose habitat hoping for an encounter with one but without success.
We visited some historic settlements, an old ferry station, all of course with the classic Western back drop.
After this it was South along Wyoming’s Western edge with a brief dip into Idaho and on to Fossil Butte National Monument. Like Agate, Fossil Butte contains fossils from the Cenozoic era, early mammals. We did a hike and watched a paleontologist excavating little fish fossils. The visitors center has a nice collection of fossilized turtles. Overloaded from all the sights we had seen so far, we only spent a few hours here and then we were on our way.
Dinosaur National Monument is a big sprawling park straddling the Utah Colorado border. We visited the smaller section in Utah, this is where the dinosaur bones are concentrated. The highlight of the visit was Quarry Exhibit Hall, a vast building with one wall made up of a hill side with exposed dinosaur bones partially excavated. We also did some short hikes to view petroglyphs made by the Fremont people 1000 years or more ago.
Then we headed East across Colorado. I had wanted to visit a camp spot that I remembered from 10 years ago. It was off of CR-8 near the crest of Ripple Creek Pass. We found it all right but the spot had been degraded in the 10 years since my last visit, a trailhead had been established right next door, and after the desert it was cold camping at nearly 2 miles of elevation. It rained all evening, and since our tent had suffered a gash in the rain fly, we pulled out around 9PM and headed for town. We stopped at every hotel for 100 miles but there was not a room to be had. So I ended up driving half the night, dodging deer and rabbits and even the occasional cow, and we slept in the car at the border to Rocky Mountain National Park.
We basically did a drive through of Rocky Mountain. We spent a little time taking in the grand views and learning about the tundra. Hiked to a prohibition era lodge and saw the elk, larger here than they are up in Wyoming.
The road through the park is the highest paved road in the world and we topped out above 12000 feet. It was cold and windy, exposed and stark, and beautiful and awe inspiring.
Then it was East and down out of the mountains, through a beautiful canyon, and onto the plains. We spent the night in a hotel near the Kansas border. We got up the next morning, picked up a hitchhiker and drove across Kansas and Missouri to get home in time for dinner.
A pretty epic trip, it spanned 2 weeks, we covered 4000 miles, and we visited 8 states. As always, it is good to be home.