The Road To The West, Part Four
Yellowstone, For Lovers
In my time as a touring musician and as a road tripping adult, I've been to many a beautiful place. Paris is romantic, Oslo is exhilarating, New Orleans is full of character. The English countryside is lush and beautiful, the Swiss alps haunting and overwhelming. Our little planet has no shortage of beauty and enchantment. Out of all the places I've been though, one always seems to have my heart just a bit more than the others. That place is Yellowstone. Yellowstone is the granddaddy of all national parks, and perhaps the grandaddy of all conservation. It's a symbol of nature's wildly unpredictable moods, and a place of unforgiving but unparalleled beauty.
This year, we made commitment to spending lots of time in Yellowstone itself, rather than a few quick targeted trips to specific sights. Usually, the dogs come with us, but in Yellowstone, it's hard to do much exploration without fear of bears and wolves in the backcountry. So we decided to mostly leave the dogs at the house in Pray, while we ventured into the park. That was fine by them. While in Wyoming, they had more adventures than most dogs do in a decade, so I think they were done with the car for a few days and very content to just lay around a cozy house, with Beethoven's Piano Sonatas playing all day.
Livingston, the Sleeper Town
Livingston is an interesting town. Sitting about 60 miles north of Yellowstone, it's the sort of place that may feel like a stopover at first, until you actually spend some time there. Especially downtown, there are many good restaurants and excellent little shops. It's not a typical tourist town, surprisingly. It doesn't wreak of coastal money, nor does it have the pretense of Jackson. It's just an honest working class town, with good, honest working class people, with anything you'd need to make you feel at home. Also, the architecture and the signs. Good god, the signs are fantastic. Even if you just get off I90 for gas, take 10 minutes to drive downtown just to see the signs.
Livingston's Signs In Full Glory (Monik Geisel)
We started our first day in Montana heading into Livingston for our requisite grocery store trip, and to do a little lazy morning shopping at our favorite junk & antique stores. We found a few cool road signs and we bought about 20 sets of salt and pepper shakers to sell at our own Mid Century store back home. After shopping a bit, we grabbed lunch and headed out on I90 Eastbound, toward Columbus, where we'd get off and head down to Red Lodge and onto the Beartooth Pass.
The Beartooth Highway
I've come close to using the phrase 'my favorite road' a number of times in this series of articles. But I always knew I had to reserve it for just one, and that one singular road would have to be the Beartooth Highway. It is quite possibly the greatest stretch of road I've ever traveled, and it certainly is my favorite. For 70 miles between Red Lodge and Cooke City, the Beartooth Pass rises to just under 11, 000 feet, as you travel switchback after switchback through glacial rivers, lakes, high country plateaus and rocky pine forests. It is consistently atop most any list of great American roads, and deservedly so. No matter which direction you go, your eyes are met with some of the most stunning vistas you'll ever witness.
Heading toward Red Lodge, Beartooth Mountains ahead (Monik Geisel)
Once you leave Red Lodge, the valley starts to narrow ahead, as the tall pines hug the road. It's easy not to realize what will soon welcome you, as the road sort of lulls you into its steep curves, gently and casually. Just as soon as you think you might be climbing, the road just takes you, and you start really hitting the inclines after every dramatic switchback. Before you know it, you're a couple thousand feet higher, looking down at a canyon of trees behind you and a rising landscape ahead of you. The trees start to get shorter and the space between them more dramatic, as the rock faces of the Beartooths become more imposing. You're still climbing. 8000 feet, 9000 feet, 9500 feet. The pure white of the deepening snow tells you that you're approaching airspace.
The 11, 000 foot climax of the trip allows you an incredible 360 degree view of the northern Montana lowlands, the snow capped Beartooth Mountains and the Absarokas as it all tumbles into the Yellowstone caldera, just south. Almost anywhere you stop, at the myriad scenic pulloffs, you feel as though you've been transported to the set of 'Lord Of The Rings'. And we were lucky enough this year to be on the road just after reopening, post-snowfall the day prior. It was pure magic at every mile.
We took our time at the top, soaking it all in. We were in heaven, and damn near the right altitude for it, too. Monik ventured into the glacier to take some of her most incredible photos, and I snacked on some jerky before we hopped back into the Jeep to start the long descent toward Cooke City.
Descending into Cooke City, toward the mighty Absarokas
This is where the landscape morphs yet again, this time into lush greens and dense forest, just before Yellowstone's northeast entrance. The trees start to get taller and closer together, the many rivers winding through the forest like snakes. Wildlife starts to get more active again, and before you realize it, you're back down to 7500 feet, and just about to enter Yellowstone at its northeast entrance, just beyond Cooke City, a small mountain town with tons of charm and a minimum of 'city'. Rather than go back up the Beartooth in the opposite direction, we figured it best to just take a casual drive through Yellowstone's north country, as the day was getting on, and we wanted to have a relaxing evening with the dogs before our real explorations started.
Boiling River, post-soak.
We made a quick sunset pitstop at Boiling River, just north of the Mammoth Campground. This is a spot where visitors can take a dip in the river, just where the hot springs meet the rushing cold waters of the grand Yellowstone River. It's an incredible stop, and worth doing. We relaxed our aching bones in the steaming springs, and then set off back home for an early night.
A Proper Yellowstone Morning
We never wake before dawn. In fact, we're often going to sleep just before the sun rises, so our decision to get into the park for the sunrise was an interesting one. I think both of us knew that it would be tough, but we prepped everything we could to make it easy on ourselves and the dogs. And when the next morning came, lo and behold, we were ready. It was pitch black and just below freezing in Paradise Valley when we packed our little mobile cooler and all of our camera gear into the Jeep. Gas tank full and without a concrete plan of action, we said goodbye to our confused canine companions, and we started off down Rt. 89. A herd of morning Elk rushed across the road at one point, thankfully with enough distance between them and us to give no concern. But man, it was dark.
The sky began to lighten as we reached Gardiner, a reminder that we would have to wake earlier tomorrow, if we really wanted to be in the park for sunrise. But it was fine today. We had no plan, and just wanted to explore, take photos and enjoy each other's company with no obligations. This was a small victory for us, both being small business owners with more obligations than free time to get to them. Winging it with nothing in our way was like winning the lottery. So we scurried into Yellowstone and took the Grand Loop south out of Mammoth, stopping at random points to take photos or to just observe the rising sun and shifting colors of dusk. The fog was heavy, and the steam from all of the thousands of geothermal hot spots gathered above the trees. Complete magic, like an otherworldly film set.
After cruising around for hours, from various spots to other various spots, we decided to call it an early day and head back to the cabin t hang out with the dogs and let them stretch their legs. Though they were happy not to be in the Jeep, we were certain they missed us, and missed running around the wide open Paradise Valley.
All About The Wildlife
The next day, we did actually wake up mega early, and we hit the road well before 5am. We wanted no chance of arriving too late. Our plan today was wildlife, wildlife, and more wildlife. We were headed to the famous Lamar Valley, to see if we could spot some morning wolf action. Or grizzlies. It didn't much matter. We just wanted to enjoy the sun rise over the land, while the animals greeted the day. We were well prepared with a thermos of french roast, breakfast sandwiches and winter clothes, and since we arrived early, we beat a lot of the traffic that was heading to do the same thing. As it turns out, dawn wildlife spotting in Lamar Valley is a popular pastime for brave Yellowstone visitors.
We got into the heart of Lamar Valley right as the first hints of sunrise began to color the sky. We found a great spot, just after a small group of cars, and decamped to a ridge just above the Lamar River, with a perfect view of the whole valley. Every year we tell ourselves to buy a really nice set of wildlife spotting binoculars, but we've yet to do it. And here I am again, putting it on our to-get list. They would have come in super handy that morning, but gear woes notwithstanding, Monik was able to snap off a ton of incredible photos of the massive bison herd under the glow of sunrise. It wasn't until later that she realized she had also gotten photos of a couple of grizzly bears and wolves, just behind the bison.
herding bison and a grizzly onlooker just beyond (Monik Geisel)
After a fruitful stretch of time, and as the number of cars and spectators started to balloon, we parted ways with that bison herd and headed south into Hayden Valley, where we did what little off-roading we could. Off-roading is generally not allowed in the Yellowstone back country, but there are some spots where one can depart from the well beaten path. So we hopped around as the day wore on, spending time at the mindbending, multi colored walls of the Yellowstone canyon, and then exploring some of the eastern mudpots and sulphur springs. Monik continued to capture amazing photographs of Yellowstone's enterprising wildlife at each stop, and once again, we decided to head back to the cabin in the late afternoon, to be greeted by the best wildlife of all, Tickles and Trotsky.
The Final Stretch
The last two days of any vacation are the worst, really. At that point, you have no choice but to start thinking about being back home, working, dealing with the daily stress of normal life. It's basically all downhill from there. Our stress was made just a bit worse when I realized that the rear tires of the Jeep were almost completely worn out on the middle treads. After about 4000 miles of highway and backcountry adventure, they were nearly toast, and the last thing I wanted was to hydroplane off the highway at 85mph with my family in tow, on the way back home. So I made some calls and luckily found a place in Bozeman that just so happened to have a pair of Michelins that matched the fronts. Having made the decision to spend the day replacing tires, rather than exploring more of Yellowstone, we rambled into Bozeman and dropped the Jeep off at the tire joint, and set out on foot to do some shopping and general bumming around for the day. A couple of hours and 600 misadvertised dollars later, we picked up the Jeep and headed back to the cabin. Content to keep it low key, we drove around Paradise Valley with the kids and looked at some land for sale, and the dogs galloped around the banks of the Yellowstone River for a while. A perfectly splendid day, I must admit.
After being lazy the day prior, we were itching to get back into Yellowstone for our last full day. We didn't manage a pre-dawn arrival, but we did get there very early again, intent on getting into some other parts of the park that we hadn't explored much. We were able to get down into the lower west part of the park, near the lake and near the iconic Old Faithful, which we'd already seen a number of times. We passed through the last gasps of a hillside wildfire, which is a common occurrence in late summer and early fall. They had it well under control, but it's always stunning to see the fallout of these things. Nature's way of cleaning up sure stops you in your tracks.
the incredible Grand Prismsatic Spring (Monik Geisel)
After wrapping around the gargantuan Yellowstone Lake, we came back up the other side of the park and wound our way through the dense pines of the east side, stopping for the occasional photo of something striking, or simply to gasp in the beauty of the place. The reality is that in our many times here, we still haven't seen so much of the park. It's quite easy to spend several hours in one spot, losing track of time in the vast expanse and overhwhelming-ness of the place. Even a quick drive through easily proves why it became the grandaddy of all national parks, and the true benchmark of wilderness conservation. What this place would look like had we not decided to protect and preserve it, is inconceivable.
Up past Tower Junction, we happened upon the good fortune of getting stuck in the middle of a moving bison herd. And that my friends, is not hyperbole. We were literally in the middle of it, on a bridge just north of Tower, spanning the width of the Yellowstone River, on one of its wider points. Monik propped herself through the sunroof and was able to grab some amazing photos, and as for me, well I was stuck smelling them right up close as they surrounded the car, snorting and farting the whole way.
Yellowstone social distancing
After the magic of smelling bison snot just feet from our faces, we took one last lap into the north part of the Grand Loop, and enjoyed our last evening of Yellowstone. This trip had proven to be our most magical yet, and we already started talking about the things we want to do in 2021, when we return. it's incredible to think of the hold this place has on us. It is truly the place we feel most at ease and at one with the cosmos.
Packing It Up
We returned to the cabin that night, hearts heavy with our now imminent goodbyes at hand. Feeling entirely exhausted, yet refreshed and restored, we started the grueling task of packing our bags, prepping our snacks, and gathering all of our clutter near the front door for the next morning. Fresh tires and roofrack back on the Jeep, and the scars of the pronghorn accident still holding up well, we all settled in to watch the first few episodes of Cobra Kai, then drifted off to dreams.
Monik toughing it out at the gates of Yellowstone