Wonderful Wyoming, Part I (May 25 – June 8)

After our overnight stay in Buffalo, WY, Jan updated our map and discovered that we have now camped in 26 states since we began our RV adventure 19 months ago. We’ll be knocking off the remaining three states in the western U.S. this summer.

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On May 25th, we drove 130 miles to Devils Tower, WY. The first 100 miles were on I-90 but the last 30 miles were along a very winding highway that took us through some beautiful country. Devils Tower National Monument was proclaimed the first national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Also known as Bear’s Lodge, it is a sacred site for over 20 tribes of American Indians. The Tower rises 867 feet from the Visitor Center, which sits at an elevation of 4,245 feet. The top of the Tower is about the size of a football field. There are over 200 established routes for climbing the steep walls of the Tower.

We stayed at the Devils Tower KOA for five nights. The campground was just outside the entrance gate to the national monument. In fact, we were so close to Devils Tower that we were able to sit outside our rig each day and watch climbers ascend and descend the Tower. Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which was filmed on the campground, is played each night between June 1 and September 1, but we missed that by a few days. The café also doesn’t open until June 1 but, fortunately, there was a snack bar at the trading post across the road.

On May 26th, we drove to the Visitors Center and hiked the 1.3 mile Tower Trail that circles the base of the Tower. After spending the winter in Texas, even this short hike at altitude was challenging. We stopped along the trail to catch our breath and to watch several climbers scale the Tower walls. We also were able to spot the wooden ladder that was constructed and used to scale the Tower in 1893. The first rock climbers to scale the walls without using a ladder did so in 1937.

On May 27th, we hiked the 2.8 mile Red Beds Trail. This trail meandered through pine forests and meadows, with beautiful views of the valley floor, distant hills, and the Belle Fourche River. We were able to spot our rig as the trail climbed along the bluffs known as the Red Beds.

On May 28th, we drove up a dirt road north of the Visitor Center and hiked the 1.5 mile Joyner Ridge Trail. This trail traversed the ridge top and descended a fairly steep sandstone cliff into a secluded meadow. The trail then looped back to the parking lot via a long, steady incline through the prairie.  We encountered several whitetail deer along our hike.

On May 29th, we began the day by getting our picture taken by the entrance gate. Next we visited the sculpture, The Circle of Sacred Smoke, which was created by Japanese artist Junkyu Muto in 2008. Legend tells that this is the place where White Buffalo Calf Woman delivered the first sacred pipe to the Lakota people. The Circle of Sacred Smoke represents a puff of smoke from a ceremonial pipe used by Native American people.

Then we hiked the two remaining trails which formed a 1.5 mile loop. The first leg, the South Side Trail, started across Prairie Dog Town and then began a moderately steep ascent up the ridge. This trail connected with a section of the Red Beds Trail which we had hiked two days earlier. The final leg was the Valley View Trail which was very flat and took us along the banks of the Belle Fourche River and through Prairie Dog Town.

We were chided repeatedly by the prairie dogs who warned of our approach with their high-pitched chirping before scurrying into their tunnels. We saw a large number of baby prairie dogs with their mothers.

That evening we took advantage of the first cloudless night to observe the star-filled sky. At 11 pm, we first drove to the sculpture site and then drove up the dirt road to the Joyner Ridge. The view was beautiful.

The following morning we packed up and drove 130 miles back to Indian Campground in Buffalo, WY for two nights. On May 31st, we explored Buffalo. We visited the world’s largest swimming pool which, unfortunately, had not yet been filled. Then we strolled along historic downtown Buffalo.

Later we drove to Sheridan, WY and had lunch at the Cowboy Café on historic Main Street.

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View of Main Street, Sheridan, WY

On June 1st we drove 197 miles to Wapiti, WY where we stayed for five nights at the Yellowstone Valley Inn and RV Park. Wapiti is half-way between Cody, WY (founded by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody) and the East entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Although the drive was the preferred trucker route, it was a challenging drive through the mountains. The route included the 47-mile Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway, the southern-most path across the Big Horn Mountains, cresting at 9,666 foot Powder River Pass. There were many switchbacks and lots of steep ascents and descents that put the Ram’s power and exhaust brakes to the test.

One mile before we reached the RV Park, we passed a Bob’s Big Boy statue sitting on top of a concrete block in the middle of ranchland. We later learned that this statue showed up one night in the summer of 2013 and the rancher decided to just leave it in the field. It’s still a mystery to the locals as to where it came from.

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The Yellowstone Valley Inn and RV Park was nicer than expected. Although there was virtually no grass and few trees, we had beautiful views out of each of our windows. Our living room windows overlooked the Shoshone River that was raging with the snowmelt.

On June 3rd we drove the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. The highway followed the route taken by Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce chiefs in 1877 as they led their tribe in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the US Cavalry and flee to Canada.

On June 4th we made our first drive to Yellowstone through the East entrance. We attempted to visit the Smith Mansion, only a few miles west of our RV Park, but couldn’t figure out how to reach it. The creator/builder, Francis Lee Smith, had been an Architect/Engineer. He spent nearly three decades building his mansion, his life’s work. His wife left him due to his obsession. Smith died while working on the mansion in April of 1992, at the age of 48. The mansion is built primarily by hand tools, handmade pulley systems, and a lot of hard work. It stands high, over 75 feet tall. The mansion is built in the direct center of the valley. All the timbers used in its construction were hand-picked from Rattlesnake Mountain, in Cody. Five to seven logs were hauled out at a time, using a small half-ton pickup.

With numerous stops at scenic overlooks and to observe wildlife, it took us over two hours just to reach the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center at Yellowstone. After a brief stop at the Visitor Center, we walked the boardwalk around Mud Volcano and observed numerous bubbling pools that are heated by gases in Yellowstone’s underground magna chambers.

Next, we spent time in Canyon Village where we hiked down along the trails that overlook the waterfalls and the canyon dubbed “the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.” We then continued on to Tower Fall where we were able to observe another impressive waterfall. We spotted our first bear during this drive. Our return home was via the Northeast gate of Yellowstone and took us across the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway for a second day. We stopped at Wal-Mart and invested in a canister of bear spray which we hope we never use.

On June 5th we drove back to Yellowstone via the East entrance. After a stop at Fishing Bridge, we took the southern route along the banks of Yellowstone Lake to West Thumb Geyser Basin where we walked the boardwalk around numerous colorful boiling springs that discharge their waters into the chilly Yellowstone Lake.

After stopping for a late lunch at a picnic area on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, we attempted to hike the 2.5 mile Elephant Back Trail. We had previously checked the weather forecast which had called for a 20% chance of isolated thunderstorms at 3 pm, with strong winds and possible hail. The 20% chance turned to 100% as we got about one-half mile up the steep trail. We had already met some folk coming down from the top who warned us that there was an aggressive elk up there who was being very territorial. That hadn’t stopped us but the strong winds finally convinced us to turn back. The trail took us through a thick forest with a lot of dead trees that were still standing. Every time the winds blew hard, we could hear trees cracking and feared that one might fall on us. In fact, as we got back to the trailhead, we did hear a tree near us come crashing down so we were glad we had chosen to abandon our hike. We didn’t quite reach our car before the rain started and we were rather wet when we reached safety. After we had driven a few miles away, we understood the meaning of “isolated thunderstorms” as the sun was out and we didn’t see any more bad weather our whole drive home.

On June 6th we decided to stay closer to home and drove back into Cody for lunch at Bubba’s Bar-B-Que. We stopped at the Buffalo Bill Dam and walked across the top of the dam before exploring the Visitor Center. Local ranchers, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his partner, had proposed the construction of the dam in 1902 as a means to irrigate the local farmland year-round. Teddy Roosevelt provided funding for the project which was completed in 1911. Due to the extreme weather challenges, the project ended up costing twice the original budget and all three contractors went bankrupt. Despite that, the total cost of the project was less than $1 million. The dam was completed with an original height of 325’, making it the largest dam in the world at the time.

Later we strolled the shops of historic downtown Cody.  We visited the Irma Hotel, formerly Buffalo Bill Cody’s hotel.

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On June 7th we made our third trip to Yellowstone via the East gate and completed the northern loop. Our first stop was at Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest, oldest and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. We walked along the boardwalk that surrounded Back Basin. Some of the more significant geysers were Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world (shooting 300-400 feet every few years but 10-40 feet more frequently) and Echinus Geyer, the largest acid-water geyser known (almost as acidic as vinegar). It was quite hot so we only did the overlook at Porcelain Basin.

We stopped for lunch at Sheepeater Cliff, named for the only Indian tribe that lived at Yellowstone year-round. The Sheepeaters subsisted on a diet largely consisting of big horn sheep, thus the tribe name. We attempted to hike to a local waterfall but had to turn back when we discovered that the raging river had overtaken the trail. Instead, we climbed a steep cliff and discovered a field with over a dozen large yellow-bellied marmots that were very curious as to why we had invaded their space.

Our last major stop for the day was at Mammoth Hot Springs, with its numerous travertine terraces. Underground thermal water carries high amounts of dissolved limestone (calcium carbonate). At the surface, the calcium carbonate is deposited, forming travertine, a chalky white mineral forming the rock of travertine terraces. The formations resemble a cave turned inside out. Algae living in the warm pools have tinted the travertine various shades.

On our drive back to the campground, we encountered a field of grazing elk.

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