Gateway to Yellowstone

It sure didn’t feel like a Monday! The show was on the road early and we headed southbound to the North entrance of Yellowstone Park. There had been some discussion and lots of opinion from the locals on the best route to take.  The Beartooth Mountains were considered a must see. We were thinking, ok, yes, but how up close?  For the most part, if we drove the 89 we’d have more time to explore the park, as well as get to the hotel in Cody before midnight. We opted for the 89, and did not regret it one bit. If there ever was a fisher’s paradise, we saw most of it along the way.  The 89 cuts right through Gallatin National Forest.  Yes, many many trees here.  The Absaroka (Beartooth Wilderness area) has some beautiful stopping points were you can enjoy the view before reaching the town of Gardiner at Yellowstone’s North Entrance.

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The line getting into the park was about a half hour.  This would be the litmus test for most of the trip.  It seems in Yellowstone the weekdays are busy, and the weekends I would not even want to think about. Our first target was the Albright Visitor Center.  Really cool building and exhibits, and very entertaining in that Elk had taken over almost the entire front lawn – some lounging, others munching.  It was hard to get a picture of them without people in the viewfinder.  Most don’t pay attention to the signs that instruct the public to stay at least 100 yards away from the animals.

How does one maximize one’s time at Yellowstone?  There is SO much to see, and it all takes time.  Thank goodness Denny was such a trooper about driving and I could get in a few good (and lots of lousy) snapshots.  The 212 extension road was so pretty. And the air smelled so good!  Not all parking pits were equal – sometimes there was a nice little hike to the view point, other times you could see right from the road.  Undine Falls, Wraith Falls, and the Tower Falls were all worth the stops.  I particularly enjoyed the mountain wildflowers along the trail to Wraith Falls.  Especially since there were comparatively less people, and you could enjoy quiet and the scenery.

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Our daily goal of keeping up with our hourly walks urged us to hike the Lost Lake Trail, which we picked up from the Roosevelt Lodge.  It was a little backtracking because the road for the top of the trailhead (Petrified Tree) was closed for repair. We got to see the Petrified tree, anyway!  In some ways I suppose that urban trails have spoiled us, because we were not prepared for the landscaping of most of the trails.  Lost Lake was almost like an animal path.  At one point the grasses were shoulder high, and I was announcing myself as I walked along just in case anything was hanging around in the grass.  If you know what I mean. (This was bear country, after all.) Reaching the top of the ridge was like being in the opening sequence of the Sound of Music. On the final approach, as the grasses were shoulder high and I could catch sight of the back of the Ranger Station, I lost track of Denny and kept my eye on the prize – the end of the trail.  Later Denny explained his delay – he saw a black bear rummaging at the back of the Ranger Station and had held back, debating on whether to go ahead.  Seems I had waltzed right by without noticing a thing.  Live and let live!

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Back on the road, tracking our progress to the Northeast Entrance, there were deer, elk, eagles and other raptors, and a ton of buffalo roaming around the fields. You learn after a bit that if there is a car stopped along the road, starting checking for wildlife in the area.  We were privileged to see this bigger-than-car-size bison munching roadside. I got a really great closeup.  From inside the car, I might add.

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Ah, the day was beginning to feel long, and the threat of rain was calling out over the hills. Time to reach Scenic Chief Joseph Drive, which would lead us through to Cody. What a treat. Phenomenal views, especially on the section closer to Route 120. Mind you, there is not much of a population on this stretch – almost deserted. Nervous Nellie over here was checking her cell phone for service along most of the drive, which I was tracking on my Maps app.  Ha ha, for most of the drive we were going with God and no service zones.  Ah, just like the good old days.

IMG_2050Arriving at the 120 didn’t end the spectacular scenery.  Storms in the distance created a bit of a dramatic ambiance. We seemed to teeter the edge of driving into a storm to avoid another.  Cell phone service, at this point, was quite the luxury, and I learned to only check for it when we saw signs for hotels, ranches and camps. We were embraced by big, splashy drops by the time the Cody signs announced themselves.  It was short work to find the main drag, locate our hotel, and tank up on the grub.

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Don’t let anyone fool you. By city standards, Cody is a pretty small town.  You could call it an oasis in the middle of nowhere. Yes, Cody can be the biggest tourist trap.  But Cody is cool.  Cody is all about all things Buffalo Bill Cody – or at least his legacy.  One of the must-see stops is The Buffalo Bill Hotel, home to the Irma Restaurant Grill. (Irma was Buffalo Bill’s daughter.)  The ambiance was very turn of the century Old West. (The food was the same.) Freshly grilled buffalo burger and Rocky Mountain rainbow trout (with head and all) were surprisingly good, although the side dishes had that day-after-buffet air about them.  Denny enjoyed the Buffalo Bill Beer and a Great Teton Amber Ale- how could anyone pass on the local offerings? We had planned on walking off our dinner, but a downpour and being well past sunset changed our mind.  Well, fourteen hours on the road – time to call it a day.  A day.

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The next day dawned clear enough, so it was Yellowstone once again, as we embarked for the lower loop drive. Knowing we were in for another long one, breakfast was a must and our hotel (The Cody) had a great spread.  I mean, how can you say no to cinnamon sugar on your whole wheat toast?  Real fresh fruit cocktail? Didn’t have to worry about soybean oil here.

Our hotel was fortunately on the Yellowstone side of town. But it was still a long and lonely drive back to the park. (Have I already mentioned miles and miles of no cell phone service?) Incredible scenery reminded me a lot of what we have in Arizona – the wind sculpts the rock into some really intricate and sometimes unbelievable shapes.  Not to mention a quirky blend of green, red, gray and brown rock. There’s no question that you are a visitor in Native American haunts. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that you are being watched – even when modern buildings are planted as a reminder of which century is unfolding.

Yellowstone’s Northeastern Entrance has a long and wind-ey path to the lower loop. There was an incredible amount of bare/burnt tree areas.  A ranger later told us that most of this was leftover from the 1988 fires.  Areas where bare trees where knocked to the ground is called ‘blow down’  – and there was a lot of it along the road.

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There are a lot of “other worldly” aspects to this park, which is probably one of its staying power attractions.  Boil, boil and trouble (with a lot of stink thrown in, too) is a real imagination-catcher throughout the park.  We could have spent forever tracking side trails to check out all the misty thermals in the park.

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There was no lack of color either – too many times I had to remind myself that this was real, and not manufactured.  Mother nature is quite the creative one, and we are darn lucky to be able to enjoy a lot of this strange and wacky playground.

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Of course, if nothing else, we had to go to see Old Faithful do her thing.  Again, timing was in our favor and we arrived at the theme park sized parking area with enough time to walk the main loop and camp out on the benches for the next eruption.  They have it timed to within a half hour of occurrence.  There are many more thermals in the area, and some are still active, others look like leftovers from the moon.  Some really interesting stuff.  After a day chasing them, you are guaranteed to have clear sinuses.


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Amazingly, after Mother Nature’s show was over, the crowd dispersed like the mist from the wind. This time we had clear skies on our way back to Cody. We started to recognize our landmarks.

IMG_2180One thing about being outdoors all day – you sure work up an appetite!  Some of that comes with not snacking all day, I am sure.  There is so much to see and do that food is not needed as a distraction to pass the time.  It was nice to have a wider selection at an earlier hour – although it was still past 7PM by the time we made it into town.  We happened on a a real east coast-style throwback  – dinner at Adrianos. Not too bad on the red sauce, and the sausages were pretty good, too.

I was constantly on the alert for Indian Fry Bread.  But either we were not hitting the right towns or not looking in the right spots in town.  After a while of driving throughout the Midwest, I did have it figured out.  Most of the “dining rows” are really geared to the “drive-through” tourist.  You’ll find some localized places.  But for the most part, the real popular joints have the homogenized American standard fare menu.  Two kinds of salad, creamy soup of the day, hamburgers, a chicken sandwich, some type of pizza, and a sugary dessert.  All pre-packaged and ready to warm up or fry to meet the hungry masses. So it really takes an effort sometimes to find that diamond in the rough joint that has real food and a local flair.  I know they’re out there!

So far we had been pretty lucky on the weather.  Our last day in Cody really tested that.  One attraction that we had driven past several times while going back and forth to Yellowstone was the Buffalo Bill Dam. It is quite an impressive accomplishment. Its existence was politicked into being by Buffalo Bill himself, and his ranching partner, when they discovered that in order to be able to ranch in the area they needed to harness the water.  Nice center to visit, if you get the chance.

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Right on the outskirts of Cody is an interesting collection of original cabins (it’s next to the rodeo).  Not a bad self-tour set-up.  Each cabin has its own history – not all are from Cody or Wyoming, but you will find Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid’s cabin used as a hideout during their Hole in the Wall Gang days.  There is even a saloon where a bank robbery was planned.  Seems life wasn’t too different back then than it is now!

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The Museum of the West is the real anchor for Cody.  And there is a LOT of territory to cover here – five wings of all things west, and then some.  The Gun gallery has enough firearms to make your eyes go cross-eyed after a while.  I have never seen so much firepower in one place.  A glass-walled atrium had bird feathers strung diagonally across the glass to keep the birds from flying into the glass.  Now there’s a great idea that’s practical for home.

I really enjoyed being able to examine the clothing and textiles on display.  Some of the handwork is incredibly intricate, and I am always amazed at how the Native American women crafted their hand-woven clothing without a lot of scissors and needles.  The cutwork on the deerskin was incredible as well.  Not an inch of waste.

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Almost anywhere you can find rugs and things. The modern Native art was really moving. Something I could examine all day long and always find something new in the telling.

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By the time you leave The Museum of the West, you almost feel as though you have been life-long friends with Bill, his entourage, and all the tribes from the area.  But there are more places to check out in town, if your brain can handle the overstimulation.  We visited The Sheep Foundation, which is right across the street.  It’s a one room special since the Foundation is more about supporting maintaining the sheep versus gallery displays. They have some impressive full animal taxidermy in their office.  Then, of course, there is the tourist craze to do all things shopping.  High end to cheesy is all on display in the storefronts.  Lots of outdoor sporting goods.  A few trade post-type shops.  After the requisite walk down and around the block (and yes, there are deer wandering in the neighborhoods a street or two over from the major traffic hub – it gets quiet pretty quickly) we located one of the neighborhood pubs – Pat O’Hara’s. Brew their own beer, mostly younger crowd. Shepard’s Pie?? I’m in!

We had planned on going to the rodeo that night – we had missed the past two nights due to long days and not getting fed until after 8 (rodeo starts at 7:30PM, and it’s outdoors). Mother Nature will have her fits of humor. Right at 7PM the heavens opened like a broke dam.  We even had marble-sized hail to go along with that.  No go on the outdoor rodeo that night.  It will have to wait till the next trip….

Deep in the Heart of Wyoming (next)

Little Big Horn and Other Things Montana (back)

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