We continue our western loop when we leave Deadwood, SD and choose to drive the Spearfish Scenic Road rather than taking the quicker route straight back to I-90 and what a great decision it turns out to be. We pass through the tiny town of Lead and then wind up into the mountains where the road is bordered on all sides by aspens in their splendid fall attire, ranging from bright green to pinkish-gold to flat out highlighter-yellow. Against the green pines, they seem to glow and we feel so lucky to be in this part of the country at this time of year, another couple of weeks later and we would have missed this altogether.
The road, as many do in mountainous regions, follows a creek bed and winds between up-thrust rocky cliffs, some soft and weathered and others as stark and sharp against the sky as they day they were thrust into being. We are still in the Black Hills National Forest and some of the rocks that make up the cliffs are actually black stone.
We have noticed an unusually large number of dead pines in the forests of South Dakota. More research shows that this is the result of the rice-sized Mountain Pine Beetle which has infested about 430,000 acres since the epidemic started in 1996, about a quarter of the 1.5 million forested acres in the Black Hills.
Two ways that humans have combatted this infestation are; spraying the affected areas and/or “cut and chunking” which entails felling the afflicted trees and cutting them into <24” sections so that the drying wood kills the larvae of the beetle. Seeing so many dead trees leaving much of the upper mountains bare is a sad sight.
The beetles actually do serve a positive purpose by thinning out too densely populated forests and allowing the remaining ones to become healthier. The dead trees leave air space, allowing more light into the understory. This encourages growth of different types of trees, which use different nutrients than the pines did, thus keeping the soil healthier. It is hard to watch the devastation but we can see 2-3’ aspens taking the place of lots of the dead pines so it is also a hopeful sight to see.
We drive back on I-90 at the town of Spearfish and continue to head west where the landscape immediately changes from a rocky, scenic road through the mountains into a 4 lane highway bordered by endless plains of softly rolling hills. We see mule deer and pronghorn antelopes in large familial groups, camouflaged against the buff colored prairie grass. We pass some long horn cattle playing Ferdinand, sans the cork trees and boom, we are in Wyoming!
Exiting the highway, we drive north and coming over a hill, we see Devil’s Tower Monument in the distance. It was the first US National Monument designated by Teddy Roosevelt. You might remember it for the role that it played in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
We are glad to visit it this time of year because, while it is a bit crowded, it must be ten times more so during the summer months. Walking around the megalith, we can see some crazy people climbing the face of the rock towers and we suppose that getting up must be hard but coming down must be even worse!
The pines at the foot of the tower have prayer bundles tied to their branches by members of some of the First Nations people who still consider this to be sacred ground. This experience is definitely amazing.
We stop for lunch at an amazing place I find online, called Pokey’s in Gillette, WY. We walk in and there is a wolf hide, lots of mounted heads and a framed knife collection on the wall along with some taxidermied predators! We are definitely in the right place!
We split a Buffalo burger and it is delicious but the Mountain Man Mushrooms are to die for (I saw them on their menu online and it was what sold me on visiting this spot). They are large mushroom caps filled with a combination of ground venison, boar, elk and buffalo and then topped with melted cheese. WOW!!! What a lunch!
Our waitress is a hoot when we compliment the wild game-stuffed mushrooms. She asks if we eat carp and when we respond in the negative, she replies, “Whew, lots of people I ask actually eat those awful fish. So if you don’t eat carp, NEVER eat an antelope!” she says. “They are tough and really sagey tasting! I call them “prairie carp” because they are so nasty!” We laugh about this over the next few days as we go past giant prairies full of sage and pronghorn antelope.
We spend a quiet night in Buffalo, WY and drive toward Cody the next morning. The temperatures drop as we climb and the pines and prairie grass here are limned with frost.
There is snow on the ground as we enter Big Horn National Forest and it is just stunning. The rest of the drive is never dull, especially when we are slowed by a group of cowboys and girls moving a large herd of Red Angus Cattle from their pasture land down to the lower lands along our road. We laugh at all the moo-ing and mothers trying to keep their babies on the proper path. This phenomenon slows us down a lot but we don’t care, it’s very entertaining!
Eventually, we pull into Cody in time to take in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Museum which is definitely a great find (thanks, Mom), especially since we are in time to see the last day of the Bierstadt painting exhibit.
He has been one of my favorites since my kids and I studied this area during a unitstudy on Cowboys, Indians and the Wild West. Bierstadt was one of the first conservationists and used a lot of metaphor, illustrating the demise of the buffalo, First Peoples and western world of that era.
The museum has a fine collection of western art and a separate collection of all kinds of firearms that have been used here. We are happy to have visited here. We retire early and rise early for our trip into Yellowstone.
We are again taking a scenic route and we wind through foggy mountain gaps where sunlight is just beginning to peak through. The fog clears as we climb into the mountains and an hour later we are in Yellowstone. Almost immediately we catch sight of a coyote loping along the meadow beside our road and we snag a pretty good shot!
We had planned to do the north route but as weather for the next day is iffy, we decide to do the southern route first.
We are lucky to walk up just as Old Faithful is erupting and walk a loop in time to see it go again! It is pretty amazing how this one geyser is so predictable when most of the others can erupt anywhere from a few hours to a few months apart.
For those of you who have been to Yellowstone, you know that there is no way that words do justice to the sights and for those of you who haven’t been, my advice is to make this a plan in your near future, it is that amazing. We spend 2 ½ days and cover almost all of the roads within the park, glimpsing lots of wildlife and amazing sights but we know we could spend much more time in this magical place and never run out of things to see and do.
The terrain is amazingly varied and diverse in a relatively small geographical area and around every corner is a sight that amazes us. The wildlife is also very cool and we catch great shots of bison, elk and some curious smaller critters too.
I will post a few photos of the sights here because trying to describe it all is crazy!
Our last day in Yellowstone, we rise early to try to catch the sunrise over Grand Prismatic and unfortunately weather is not our friend. As fast as the sun is rising, the clouds are scudding in on a cold front to stand between the sun and us.
The temperature is 42 degrees, the wind is blowing straight at us at about 25 mph and we are freezing! While it is a little warmer due to the hot spring, we are absolutely soaked from the mist and shivering before we finally give up with the few photos we have.
When my mom visited, the conditions were such that the sun shot rainbows all through the mist from this amazingly colorful spring, we’ll have to take her word for it!
We drop down out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton National Park. The first glimpse of the mountains across Jackson Lake is breathtaking and it only gets better from there. We drive with lots of oooohs and aaaaahs because the aspens are on fire and the mountains are majestically imposing.
We stop at Jackson Lake Lodge, on Leland’s recommendation, and we are not disappointed by the view or the food. The Mural Room looks out on the mountains and is elegant, quiet and a place to rest the senses until the food arrives and then it is sensory overload! We enjoy the elk chili, a smoked trout Caesar salad and a vege grilled cheese that are all wonderful!
We drive the park loop twice, taking the back loops, stopping to take photos along the way and waiting behind a truck where a man is inserting snow poles along the roadways in anticipation of the snow that is expected to fly hard and fast this weekend and we are thankful that the timing of this spontaneous trip worked out so well. The parks have no crowds (unless an elk or buffalo are spotted) and many of the services are closed or are closing so if we had come even just a week later our experience would have been drastically impacted.
For days now we have been looking for a moose and have yet to spy one even though we have been up and out early in the mornings. We do see family groups of elk and it is always fun to hear them bugling to one another across the roads. They definitely stop traffic!
The aspens are much more lush and plentiful in Grand Teton National Park than in Yellowstone and they are flaming slashes of gold and pink against the green pines. We comment to each other that we have never used the word “WOW” as often as we have during the last couple of days!
Leaving the park, we travel south to Jackson Hole. After I graduated from college, my dad spent a couple of years driving the United States and I remember him saying that Jackson Hole was his favorite spot on his trip and we can see why. It is a fun town in a gorgeous setting. We spy a spot called the Million Dollar Cowboy and with a name like that we cannot not go in. I love it, the barstools are saddles!
I think Jerry is less enthralled than I am but he humors me and we saddle up, enjoy a local beer and then walk the town, noting that the town square has arches at each of its four corner that are made of elk antlers, which are shed and collected at the nearby elk sanctuary.
We wander into a store and the sales girl mentions that there was a moose in her back yard that morning and proceeds to show us a photo of a HUGE bull moose on her phone. We cruise the neighborhoods searching for our own moose near the forest at dusk but to no avail.
The next morning dawns cloudy, cold and rainy but there is no time to wait for fair skies. We have a great time at the Jackson Hole Rotary Club and move on! We come down through the Bridger-Teton National Forest where evidence of the recent fires is obvious. We pass huge tent cities, set up to house the firefighters who have come from all over to contain the flames and we can see where planes have dropped red fire retardant material all along the verges of the highway. We spend the night in Green River, WY with an amazing view from our windows.
The plan for the next day is to drive Flaming Gorge which will take us from Wyoming into Utah and then into Colorado. Off we go and the views are impeded by the weather but it is still a lovely drive. We find a turn out called Sheep Creek Loop and decide to take it. It is off the beaten track and is a secluded and quiet dirt road that winds between geologically rich cliffs. We see rabbits and wild turkeys (much smaller than their Florida cousins) and stop to enjoy the music of a stream as it falls over the multi-hued rocks along its path.
Further up the road I see something moving and signal to Jerry to stop. It is a bull moose and his cow, together in a small clearing. Jerry stops the car and I leap out to snag photos which turn out not as clear as I would have liked but we have our MOOSE!!! We are so happy watching them watch us until an idiot in a pickup, towing a camper, lumbers around the bend spooking our moose into the forest. It is all we can do to be civil to him as he passes us but we are.
We exit out of Sheep Creek Loop, winding ever higher into the hills and the rain becomes snow again as we climb. It is lovely and we carefully drive through it until we watch it transform back into rain as we descend into the Flaming Gorge Dam area. We decide we can do Dinosaur National Park today and then spend the night half way back to Denver. The museum here is amazing. It is an actual excavation site that has been enclosed into a museum and it is fascinating to see all of the bones of huge dinosaurs that were caught and preserved in the strata. This area would be fascinating to hike when the weather is good and hopefully we will be back.
We are so blessed to have been able to do this western Loop inside our Great Loop adventure. We close the week looking forward to seeing family in Denver, scooping up daughter, Annelise and taking her back to the boat with us for a couple of weeks of river travel before she needs to return to her new home in the mile high city!