Northern Rockies Road Trip
Ten days. So many things we want to see and do. Never been to Yellowstone or the Tetons. Must plan...must plan...
After extremely early planning to allow for mid-summer lodging in Yellowstone National Park, Lillian and I boarded our flight to Salt Lake City on August 10th. As East Coasters, we often forget the formidable distances between points out west. After picking up our rental car, we zoomed up the 220 miles of I-15 to Idaho Falls and visited our college friends Alan and Carol. They live in a delightful home just beyond the edge of town, with 100-mile views of distant mountain ranges. We enjoyed a good walk around the falls of the Snake River, sampled some fine northwest ale at the Frosty Gator, and returned to their home for a excellent late dinner.
Borah Peak And The Lost River Valley
After a great night's sleep, we said our temporary goodbyes and headed two hours northeast to the Lost River Valley. We drove through the high plain of the Snake River and the vast emptiness of the Idaho Engineering Laboratory. If you've never experienced this, just think of "Area 51".
We arrived at the small town of Mackay, Idaho. Our friends Steve and Debbie were not due in from Spokane via Missoula for a few hours. We found our lodging at the Mackay Homestay B&B. Our host Lara was wonderful and the accommodations were amazing. The spacious backyard patio faced the Lost River Range to the west. We would highly recommend this respite to anyone except that Lara and family are packing up and moving back to New Zealand. She wasn't sure if the new owners were going to maintain the apartment as a B&B or not.
Having some time, we took a local recommendation to explore Lower Cedar Creek Canyon. The road up to the canyon mouth was rough but passable in our Chevy Malibu. That is, until we rounded a turn and saw that a giant irrigator had jumped the fence from the field running next to the road. The last wheel of the giant machine was right in the middle of the single lane road and slowly heading towards us. Retreat!
We were wondering why water was running down a high desert road on a beautiful sunny day!
We finally heard from Steve. They had been delayed a few hours by road construction and would meet us 20 miles north of town at the Borah trailhead for some recon. and perhaps a short hike. The trailhead was surprisingly busy. The small campground was pretty full. We enjoyed a short hike in the area and then drove over to the nearby earthquake fault exhibit. The views of Chicken Out Ridge on Borah from the exhibit were great and got us excited about tomorrow. Back to town.
The early evening views from the B&B were so stunning that we opted for takeout pizza and beer on the patio for dinner. As dusk descended a few mule deer wandered through the backyard. It was time for bed.
Steve and I arose early and were on the road by 5:30 AM. Later in the day the girls would tour Craters of the Moon National Monument to the south. As we arrived at the trailhead we were somewhat shocked to find it even busier than the day before. A group of 15 scouts were headed up the trail just ahead of us. Borah Peak is regionally famous as the highest point in Idaho, at 12,662 feet. The trailhead is at 7,400 feet. This is a climb that is definitely more than a "hike". It's only 3.5 miles each way but you gain a vertical mile. The crux of the climb is the aptly-named "Chicken Out Ridge". More on that later.
We left the base at 6:20 AM. The first hour plus of trail is well defined and climbs steadily but not steeply through the woods on the western flank of the mountain. Eventually you reach the tree line and climb somewhat more sharply up to the ridge. The temperature was in the upper 30s F. I wore light gloves until we finally got some morning sun high up on the ridge. I was grateful to Steve, who brought and shared trekking poles. I had never hiked with one before, but it definitely helped in the steep, loose scree. Even more so on the way down. Somewhere on the ridge we started hiking roughly with Emma and her humans Tara, Blake, and Tom. I looked straight up at the climb ahead and thought "There's no way that dog is going to make it up COR." Wrong. Emma is part blue heeler, part yellow lab, and part mountain goat. She climbed the mountain two or three times that day and put the rest of us to shame.
The climb now got quite steep and the scree gave way to solid rock. Handholds became essential and the trekking poles got packed away. The actual knife edge of COR is probably only 400-500 yards long but it took a long time to traverse because of the difficulty. This was fun but serious scrambling. There's been a lot of debate about Class 3 versus Class 4 ratings in various guides. The handholds were good but in my book there were several places, at least on the route we took, that had a lot of exposure. We eventually reached the famous down climb to the snow bridge at the top of the couloir. For all that's written about it the down climb was much easier than some of the moves further back on the ridge.
Now came the surprise. I figured by previous accounts that most of the work was done and all that remained was an easy traverse across more scree to the summit. Wrong! After a short, nearly level section it got very steep again. As we used to say in the Forest Service, "steep as a cow's face". The scree was once again very loose. After about 45 minutes of additional hard effort we reached the summit 4 1/2 hours after our start. Views were spectacular. We could see the Lemhis to the east and the White Clouds and Sawtooths to our west. The Lost River Valley was beautiful, desolate, and huge stretching out below us. The summit temp. was in the low 50s with hardly any wind. The sky was cloudless. Thoughtful folks had left Borah, Idaho, and US flags on the summit for photo opps.
After about an hour on the summit we started down. The going was slow due to the loose scree. I was grateful for the trekking pole. Man, a LOT of people were still heading up. I bet we saw 100 people on the trail. Eventually we got down to thicker air. We almost got to the bottom of the steepest part and Steve slipped on loose stuff, twisting his ankle rather severely. It wound up just being a sprain but certainly didn't make the end of his day easy or pleasant. We arrived at the base about 4 1/4 hours after leaving the summit. Tara and her party had beat us down and kindly offered chilled micro-brews in celebration. We gratefully accepted. After a short respite, we returned to Mackay to hook up with the girls.
After a clean-up we enjoyed some very good prime rib at Ken's Place in Mackay. They had a very friendly, down home, Western feel with good food too! We again watched the rays of the setting sun on Mt. McCaleb from the patio.
Yellowstone National Park
After Lara's incredible breakfast, we bade goodbye to our hostess, Steve, and Debbie. Lillian and I headed south to Arco and then east along ID 33 through Mud Lake and eventually to Rexburg. The visibility was incredible. We had views of the Tetons from 100 miles away. Their sheer steepness rising in the distance over the flat Snake River Plain almost appeared as a mirage. Here we turned northeast through Island Park, crossed Targhee Pass into Montana, and after 3 1/2 hours travel time arrived in West Yellowstone. After some brief shopping we entered the park.
The drive in along the Madison and Gibbon Rivers was very nice and surprisingly light on traffic for a Saturday afternoon. We enjoyed Gibbon Falls and seeing all the fly fisherman along the rivers. Throughout our trip the rivers and creeks appeared to still be in spring flow due to the huge snow year and very late summer. After an hour we reached our destination of Canyon Village. This is a large facility adjacent but not right on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. We were able to check in and find our cabin. Spartan accommodations to be sure, but we expected it to be rustic. The cabins are arranged in 4-plexes with two adjoining units facing two others sharing a common porch. The advertising from Xanterra was accurate in that they hadn't been updated since the 1960's. At least they were clean!
Alan and Carol were coming up from Idaho Falls to spend the night and hike the next day. Cell phone service is nearly non-existent in the park so we called them from a pay phone to divulge our location. Hadn't used a pay phone in years! We spent the rest of the afternoon touring and doing short walks along the canyon's North Rim Drive. It was here that the population pressure started to exert itself. Tour buses, filled parking lots, pushy tourists....ack. Suddenly we were craving the quiet expanses back in Mackay, Idaho. The scenery was none the less spectacular.
We made our way back to our cabin, enjoyed a cold brew, and waited for our visitors. They arrived about 6 PM. We had happy hour on the porch and walked up to the Canyon Lodge Dining Room for dinner. After a modest wait we enjoyed a pleasant meal.
We expected Alan and Carol to squeeze onto the cabin floor in sleeping bags. Alan surprised us and returned with a campsite reservation. It was cold at night in the park. Temperatures dropped into the 30s all three nights. The last morning we awoke to a heavy frost outside. Our big disappointments with the cabin were the noisy large families next door, all three nights, and the paper thin walls. Not a great lodging choice.
Everyone joined back up at 8 AM for a light breakfast. We then shuttled cars for our backcountry hike. We hiked in to Cascade Lake, then to Grebe Lake, and back out to the park road at a different trail head. The total distance was eight miles. The early hike was extremely pleasant through largely open meadows filled with wild flowers. Cascade Lake was small but scenic. The next stretch to Grebe Lake took us through areas burned by the historic fires of 1988. The forest is returning but the amount of dead wood still present is staggering. I think in the East it would have all rotted away by now. Grebe Lake was much larger. We sat on the gravel beach and enjoyed the peace and quiet. It was quiet. What contrast to the roadside turnouts. We only saw a handful of people during our four-plus hour hike.
The hike back to the road was through more burned areas. We saw no large predators, to Lillian's satisfaction, but did observe some fresh bear and we believe wolf scat along the trail. We enjoyed a mid-afternoon beverage at the Canyon Lounge and it was time to say goodbye to Alan and Carol. They both had to work on Monday and it was a four-hour drive back to the Falls.
Lillian and I decided to drive south to view some wildlife. The Hayden Valley is one of the two areas in the park best known for lots of wild critters. It's directly south of the canyon along the Yellowstone River. We shortly experienced our first bison jam. Lots of folks out photographing the bison. When a 2000-pound bison stands in the middle of the road, you just wait for him to get out of the way! There were hundreds of bison. We saw a few elk and a grizzly bear way off in the distance. There were at least as many tourists as bison. The valley and quiet river meandering through it were beautiful.
We stopped at the Sulphur Caldron and Mud Volcano thermal features and then continued to Yellowstone Lake. You can't get an appreciation for the size of the park until you go there. The lake is probably 30 miles north to south and 20 east to west and only occupies a small portion of the preserved land. The mountain ranges above the distant south shore had drifts of snow near their summits. We decided to dine at the Lake Lodge. Unfortunately the dining option consisted of a cafeteria and dried out trout almandine; not recommended. At least our early seating allowed a window table with a spectacular lake view. After dinner we slowly returned to Canyon, perusing the horizon for distant wildlife.
Monday morning dawned with the potential of a stormy day. This was our only day with significant cloud cover. I took an early hike down to the rim of the canyon for photos minus the tourists. It was wonderful to hike along the rim trail with no one else there. We never got soaked but there were numerous passing showers and a bit of hail. This was our day to do "the tourist loop". We passed through the Hayden Valley again and reached the lake. Turning west, we reached the West Thumb Geyser Basin. A hike here revealed a pleasant and up close and personal encounter with a group of momma elk and their calves. They were very photogenic. We hadn't previously realized that young elk calves have spots just like young whitetail fawns.
On to Old Faithful. Oh my god, the size of the parking lot made me feel like I was at a NFL game. The complex was immense. We dutifully watched the Old Faithful show, applauded, and then proceeded on a couple of mile boardwalk hike around the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin. The trails were crowded but manageable. Upon completion of our circuit we were hungry. The dining room at the Old Faithful Inn provided one of the best meals of our trip. The smoked salmon appetizer and entree salads were delicious and filling!
After wandering around the parking lot for 10 minutes we eventually located our rental car and proceeded north. Next stop was the Midway Geyser Basin and the Grand Prismatic Spring. This was even more impressive than the Old Faithful area. Another short hike yielded some incredible photo opps. We loved the cascade of nearly boiling water into the aptly named Firehole River. Next stop was the Firehole Canyon Drive and Falls. Again, very scenic and much less crowded than the previous tourist venues.
We continued north, stopping at Roaring Mountain before eventually reaching Mammoth Hot Springs. At this point the wind was gusting 30 plus mph and we were sure it was going to storm. Lillian opted to stay in the car. Frank hiked up the boardwalks and enjoyed the mineral formations of the springs. Amazingly, the sun came out! We now headed west and diverged from the main loop road to explore the Blacktail Plateau, hoping to see some wildlife. It was quiet and pleasant but no exotic creatures were to be found.
The Malibu turned south at Roosevelt and we stopped for a spectacular view of Tower Falls. We started climbing the road to Dunraven Pass. We had read that the Antelope Creek Valley below was prime grizzly habitat. Several stops at turnouts and searching with binoculars revealed some bear-shaped rocks but no wildlife. We crested the pass and were back at Canyon, 150 miles and 9 1/2 hours after we started.
We wound up back at the Canyon Dining Room for dinner. Some major discord was going on in the kitchen, and it took 45 minutes for our food order to come out. At least the manager was apologetic and comped our meals!
We were up early after our last noisy night in the cabin. There was a long day of driving ahead of us. We'd start out back over Dunraven Pass, looking for bears. We'd then traverse the Lamar Valley to the northeastern edge and less-visited portion of the park. This was another prime wildlife viewing area. We saw perhaps thousands of bison and experienced a couple of jams. There were many fewer people than in the rest of the park.
Eventually we exited the northeast entrance into Montana.
The Beartooth Highway
I had dreamed of driving the Beartooth Highway since reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" back in college. This is a 68-mile, seldom traveled section of paved road from Cooke City to Red Lodge, Montana. It is only open from some time in June to October and traverses the alpine tundra of the Beartooth Plateau and 10,940-foot Beartooth Pass. Those heights are pretty formidable for a paved road this far north! We stopped briefly at the small visitor center in Cooke City. Talk about a remote town. One way in for eight months of the year and that is a long, arduous drive through Yellowstone! We were off and up the highway. The sharp pinnacle of Pilot Peak accented the skyline behind us.
We gradually started climbing out of the valley. As we approached the alpine zone....the Rockies summer curse appeared before us....ROAD CONSTRUCTION. We patiently sat through a 30-minute construction delay as heavy machinery cleared the roadway. We then proceeded to the "Top of the World Store". Fun-looking place with a few cabins and lots of character. Leaving the store we skirted in and out of tree line. The plateau was beautiful and snowdrifts were still at road level but luckily well off to the sides. We stopped frequently for photos. It rolls enough at the top that we weren't 100% sure when we crossed the actual pass.
The Malibu started downhill in low-low gear. The traffic remained light. We stopped at 9,100 feet for the Rock Creek Overlook. The view was stupendous! The road now switchbacked steeply down the mountain for several miles until we reached the valley. We followed the swollen creek into Red Lodge. The town was bustling and lunch at the Red Lodge Cafe was good.
Time to get in gear to head to the Tetons. We drove south to Cody. After such a long time on park roads and in the mountains, the miles on the open plains just flew by! Then we turned back east up the Shoshone River. The only way to reach the Tetons from here without a several hundred mile detour is back through Yellowstone! The Shoshone Canyon held endless fascinating rock formations. After a lot of driving we now arrived back at the park, but at the East Entrance, probably 50 miles south of where we left. We climbed over 8,530-foot Sylvan Pass and had great glimpses of the enormity of Yellowstone Lake below us. Another bit of driving brought us to the lakeshore and eventually to territory we had traversed the day before.
Grand Teton National Park
We turned south at West Thumb and eventually paralleled the upper Snake River. Now exiting the park to the south, we could see the Tetons looming ahead. The view of the range from the northwest end of Jackson Lake took our breathe away. There are no foothills. The mountains just rise up abruptly 6,000-7,000 feet from the plain. And I do mean abruptly. I don't believe there are any "hiking" trails to any of the major summits. This is one part of the country where mountain-climbing becomes technical by necessity. There were still numerous snowfields and glaciers at the higher elevations.
A bit more travel brought us to Colter Bay Village on Jackson Lake. The day was 300 miles but with all of our sightseeing and mountain roads it was a 10+ hour journey. Jackson Lake is not as large as Yellowstone Lake but is still immense. We checked in to our cabin and found it to be infinitely better than the accommodations in Canyon. The attendant warned us to take precautions, as momma grizzly and her cubs had been frequenting the immediate area. The cabin was part of a three-plex with thick log walls, a solid foundation, and plenty of space. We never heard our neighbors the three nights we stayed here. The Grand Teton Lodge Company seems to take service and guest experience more seriously than the folks up at Yellowstone.
It was a short walk to the lakeshore, providing more incredible views of the mountains in early evening light. We had a delightful dinner with great food and service in the dining room. After our long day it was early to bed.
The next morning we were up early. Our first stop was Signal Mountain. This is a small hump set away from the main range that provided awesome views. The morning light provided sharp definition of the peaks to the west. The most amazing thing (after Yellowstone) is that we had a key viewpoint completely to ourselves!
We made our way to Jenny Lake. This is a smaller lake directly at the base of the major peaks. The original plan to was to take the ferry across the lake and hike Cascade Canyon. After seeing the queue of noisy kids waiting for ferry, Frank opted to hike the extra two miles around the lake and Lillian went to the town of Jackson for the day.
The hike was delightful. The trail was easy and at first quiet. Then the mile between the western ferry dock and Inspiration Point was a zoo with people. I quickly got beyond that and understood why Cascade Canyon is listed among the "Top 10 Day Hikes in the US". The creek in the canyon bottom was full. The rock walls went up several thousand feet and had a number of spectacular waterfalls. After the short but relatively steep climb to Inspiration Point the hike up the canyon seemed flat for 3 1/2 miles.
I quickly reached the forks of the canyon. I had plenty of time and it was only 2.7 miles to Lake Solitude. What the heck! I followed the north fork trail and now climbed a bit. The scenery gradually became alpine and the wildflowers were incredible. Snowmelt from above was filling the creeks that tumbled down. Lake Solitude at 9,035 feet still had drifts of snow that extended to the shore line in places. All of this trail was well-traveled but was by no means what I would call crowded.
After a short rest and of course more photos I re-traced my steps downhill. After an 18.4-mile, 6 1/2-hour day-hike I arrived back at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. Lillian was waiting for me after enjoying the Snake River Brewery and other attractions in Jackson.
We drove the Jenny Lake Loop Road and then returned to Colter Bay. After showers we enjoyed bison steaks for dinner in the dining room. Yes, another full day.
Thursday morning I awoke before Lillian and hiked the few miles around the peninsula extending from the village out into the lake. There was no one on the trail and the lake was eerily quiet. It was a special gift to be in such a beautiful place without throngs of other tourists.
We then drove the hour back into Jackson. We looked up David Park to thank him for providing advice on our trip. After a bit of shopping and admiration of the town square and elk antler arches, we left town and proceeded the Teton Village ski area. The schnitzel sandwiches on the deck at the Alpenhof Bistro were very good, and we were very hungry.
Our next activity was the admittedly overpriced and touristy tram ride up to 10,450-foot Rendesvous Peak. The weather was again clear and the views were fine. We took a limited hike from the top of the mountain, enjoyed a snow-filled cirque, and after a bit of gazing at the sites returned to the base.
We drove the Moose-Wilson connector road back up into the park. It was surprisingly busy for such a small road. The Laurence Rockefeller Preserve spiked curiosity so we stopped to see what all the fancy signs were about. This was a very recent donation to the park. The visitor center exhibit was interesting and the trail up the creek was quiet and relaxing.
Eventually we headed north. I had heard about the Blue Heron Lounge at Jackson Lake Lodge. Considering it was now happy hour we had to stop. We were lucky to get prime seating on the deck. The view of the willow flats below allowed us to peer for wildlife as we were awed by the mountain-scape in the distance. Our appetizer and beer dinner was probably the best meal of the trip. The appetizer menu was way more than "bar food" and reasonably priced. Highly recommended! Just before sunset we headed back to Colter Bay.
Friday morning left us a long drive back to Salt Lake City. We wanted a different route than returning through Idaho Falls and down I-15. We proceeded through Hoback Canyon and for a while paralleled the Green River. This part of Wyoming is just immense. It goes on forever. People, towns, and cars are few between. It seemed like we saw the Wind River Range to our west for at least a couple of hours. We spied a few antelope. Eventually we found our way to I-80 and turned west towards Salt Lake. The weather threatened to storm but never dumped on us.
We got good value out of the rental car with 1900 miles in a 9-day window. The six-hour drive back to the airport left us plenty of time to have a good meal at the airport prior to boarding our flight home. Weather delays in Philly pushed us back a bit and we finally arrived back in Wilmington at 2 AM Saturday. What a fun adventure and great memories! We both feel fortunate to have visited Yellowstone but due to the crowds feel "been there, done that". On the other hand, we'd go back to the Lost River Valley or the Tetons in a heartbeat!