The Road To The West, Part Three
Big Sky & The Yellowstone
The halfway point of any adventure is most bittersweet. On one hand, you know you still have some time left to enjoy, but the quiet cynic in the back of your head keeps reminding you that the glass is now half empty. That irritating voice never quite acknowledges its unwelcome presence. For us, the halfway point meant that we were packing up to head to Montana, where we'd stay just about 30 minutes north of Yellowstone's Gardiner entrance. We had done a similar thing the year before, just closer to Livingston. This year we were intent on spending more time inside Yellowstone, so we decided to be closer, and with Covid in high gear, it meant we had a slim choice of places to stay. But we found a gem.
Back in Wyoming, we strapped the roof rack back on the Jeep, tightened the wire ties holding the front end together, and headed north. Usually we end up leaving pretty late in the morning, but we were determined to get to Montana while the sun was still looking down on us. With the dogs fed and properly exhausted from their early morning romp around the ranch, we set out under the warm rising sun, with absolutely no idea what lie ahead.
The Grandest Teton Of Them All
The route from Pinedale to Jackson is simply one of the great drives in the country. Once you leave Pinedale on Rt. 191, you weave up through the rolling, arid sage fields and into the Bridger-Teton Forest. It's almost like someone flicks a switch as you come over the hill near Rim Station, and the vistas turn green with lodgepole pines and lush forest as you head into Bondurant. The road begins to twist and turn along the banks of the Hoback River, and you pass hills of new growth pines and towering, jagged peaks above you. It's a breathtaking drive, and one where it seems I'm always the driver, which is fine by me, but it denies me the pleasure of being an observant passenger.
Near Bondurant, WY (Monik Geisel)
This area between Bondurant and Hoback Junction has loads of back roads and unmarked paths into the wilderness. We started exploring them last year, and though we didn't have time to do any of that on our way to Montana, we made notes of some of the adventures we want to explore next year. Naturally, this is prime grizzly bear and moose country. We had the good fortune of seeing a moose and her baby cruising for some snacks this year, but haven't yet seen an elusive grizzly up close. For the sake of our dogs, that's probably just fine.
We normally drive straight through Jackson, heading north on Rt. 191 past Jackson Lake and along the east side of the Grand Tetons. This view is probably one of the more iconic American vistas, and no doubt we have all seen photos of the majestic Tetons in some form or another. It is really one of those bucket list things, at least for us. No matter how many times we've seen them now, the pure overwhelming beauty of the place is breathtaking, and we take any opportunity to see them, again and again. This year though, we decided to take the westward route to Montana, through Idaho and along the west side of the Teton range. We had never done this, so we were both quite excited.
The Grand Tetons, in all their mighty glory (Monik Geisel)
Once we hit the south part of Jackson, we split off onto Rt. 22 and onto the Teton Pass. The Pass winds upward around Mt. Glory and Taylor Mountain, ultimately hitting about 8500' above sea level. It's a stunning climb, the sort that you would curse if you're pulling a motorhome or some sort of heavy camper. But as is always the case, the Jeep Grand Cherokee didn't break a sweat, even when traffic slowed to a weekend crawl, idling on a 30 degree incline. After a good slew of miles, we were descending into Idaho, where Wyoming's Rt. 22 turns into Idaho's Rt. 33, and you head straight down into Victor, a cute town that sits at the west base of the Tetons. After Victor, Rt. 33 is razor straight for a good clip, giving you the chance to see the west side of the Teton skyline in all its glory. Amazingly though, early September 2020 brought the westerly winds, and with them came clouds of smoke from the dozens of raging wildfires from California up to Oregon and beyond. It was noticeable even in the air we were breathing. A sobering reminder of the violence that nature can wreak when we humans are reckless.
Idaho Ain't Just Potatoes
Neither of us truly had any idea what to expect of Idaho. I knew there was some deep beauty in the state, but one thing I didn't know is that after potatoes, Idaho is one of the biggest producers of wheat in the country, a fact that became apparent as we rambled from Driggs to Ashton on Rt. 32. The road was an absolute joy to drive, winding gently along the cascading hills of wheat fields and scattered silos. It was a patchwork of late summer colors, as far as the eye could see, where it only met the blue sky above. I would've loved to drive my '74 Alfa through here, top down and hugging the gentle curves of this perfectly rollicking road. And as one would expect, there were plenty of handsome old farm trucks littered throughout this whole stretch, some running loyally, others as sunbleached carcasses exposed to the unrelenting punishment of the elements.
1953 Ford F100, once loved, now left for dead in the Idaho farmland (Monik Geisel)
As we headed north on Rt. 20, just outside of Ashton, the weather was starting to turn. Anyone who has spent any time out west will recite the tired old joke, 'If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes'. Now, I've heard that said about most anywhere I have ever visited, but out there it rings truer than anywhere. From Ashton, it's about 60 miles to West Yellowstone, Montana, where you can enter Yellowstone National Park from its west entrance. That's where we were heading, and it took us through the Caibou-Targhee National Forest, a dense pine forest that rolls into Yellowstone's lower western elevations. It was here the weather started turning, and the western winds were whipping through the road at nearly 40 mph, kicking dust and sage brush into the road at random chance. I started to worry about my surgery on the front end of the Jeep, thinking that the punishing winds would eventually breach my masterful stitch work and set something free. But fortunately, we were holding together well, though the temperature was quickly plummeting, dropping from a comfortable 75 degrees down to a chilling 35 degrees, within just miles of West Yellowstone. It's mindblowing, the changes that can happen in and around Yellowstone, in the blink of an eye. It's part of the magic that has captured our hearts. Even Monik, who desperately hates being cold, will happily bundle up and endure Yellowstone's fury with a huge smile plastered on her face.
Weather starting to turn near Ashton, ID (Monik Geisel)
Snow In September?
As you can probably guess, our day was about to turn very interesting. At this point, it was about 2:00 in the afternoon, and as we entered Yellowstone from the west, we expected to get to our rental house in about 2 hours time, accounting for the usual slow going on Yellowstone's Grand Loop. We enjoyed the new route we were taking, as we had not spent much time in this part of the park before. But just after we took a left at Norris Junction, northbound toward Mammoth Hot Springs, the sky darkened even more, and light rain turned into light snow. Being veterans of Yellowstone's cantankerous micro-climates, neither of us thought much about it, other than it was pretty and unexpected at this lower elevation. But that soon changed as the light flurry turned into a blustery white-out a few miles later. Soon enough, the snow was starting to collect on the road, and traffic slowed to a crawl. We watched as unseasoned drivers swerved to and fro with their unwieldy campers in tow, and small hatchbacks struggled to climb the modest hills around Obsidian Cliff. It was starting to get hairy, so we turned on our seat warmers and clicked the SelecTerrain system over to 'Snow' and ventured forth.
Snow starting to collect on Yellowstone's Grand Loop
Luckily, the snow eventually morphed into a light rain again, somewhere just south of Mammoth Hot Springs. I was dreading the always white-knuckled descent at Golden Gate Canyon, especially in slushy snow, but we were spared the terror as the road cleared in the flats around Swan Lake. We passed dozens of cars pulled off to the side of the road, which is a common Yellowstone sight. Though this time they were likely catching their breath from 30 treacherous miles through a blizzard, rather than spotting wildlife. As the hill wound down toward the cascading formations of Mammoth, the sun gently began to peek out as the clouds slowly separated. This little stretch of road is a magical sight where you look down into the valley to see the grand Yellowstone river carve its way toward the north while the dry, tanned cliffs of Mt. Everts blanket its eastern banks.
We stopped in Mammoth to empty our collective bladders and make sure our Jeep was still holding up. Indeed it had held up very well, and we were soon on our way out of the park and into Gardiner, the northern gateway to Yellowstone. We've never spent any real time here, aside from a quick bite to eat, but if you're in Gardiner, do yourself a favor and check out Cowboy's Lodge and Grille, where there are always a few classic American cars parked outside.
When you leave Gardiner northbound, even having done it several dozens of times, you're always unprepared for the stunningly beautiful Paradise Valley that awaits you. The first time Monik passed through here, she broke down in tears. It has that effect on anyone and everyone and it really is deserving of its name, like no other place. Rt. 89 hugs the banks of the Yellowstone River as it winds northbound toward Livingston. For nearly 60 miles, you are greeted by the ever shifting beauty of the Absaroka Mountains as they tumble into the rolling valley of the great river. We've talked so often of moving out there, if not for the brutal winters. It wouldn't surprise me to see us retire out here in 20 years, into a humble cabin with little but our dogs and our cars to keep us company. Sadly, the prices are rising beyond recognition, due to the influx of west coast expats and summer retreats, but we still take any opportunity we can to daydream.
Paradise Valley, coated with September snow
The wind hadn't let up, but the clouds were breaking to let the sky illuminate the snow frosted pines of the Absarokas as we hurled up Rt. 89 toward Chico. We were all tired and cold, but no less excited to see the land unfold in front of our eyes as we crossed the river into Chico and on toward Pray, where we would call home for the next week. Two hours later than we expected, we turned onto a humble dirt road toward a distant porch light, sitting proudly amongst a low field of wildflowers. If the odometer hadn't told us, the fading light served as a reminder of just how happy we were to be out of the Jeep and into the warmth of a beautiful house, where we could watch the sun turn in for the night and get ready for our week exploring Yellowstone.
Monik & Tickles, watching the Paradise Valley light fade
(select photos by Monik Geisel / www.monikgeisel.com)