The Trail Home

We plotted a route home and left the Grand Tetons on August 12, stopping for lunch at the Heart & Soul Bakery in Pinedale WY. Pinedale is a place I’d like to spend some time in the future. They offer an abundance of recreational activities in the winter and summer months, from swooshing down hills on skis and riding snowmobiles to hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and hunting. You can even hop on the free wagon shuttle to get around town.

The Rock Springs/Green River KOA in Rock Springs WY,  just north of Flaming Gorge National Recreational Area provided a nice spot for the night. After setting up camp and eating dinner, we took Highway 530 on the west side of the gorge to an overlook and then a marina. In the distance, beyond sagebrush-covered hills, stood tops of buttes banded with red, orange, yellow, and white. A few miles later, a small herd of pronghorn antelope was feeding a few yards off the road.

The Flaming Gorge Reservoir area is a great place if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and/or a boat. Having neither we couldn’t get close enough to see the canyon walls and the water below. The next morning we packed up and took the east road, Highway 191, crossed over the reservoir bridge and made our way to Dinosaur National Monument.

We arrived early enough to snag a spot along the river in the Green River Campground and take the tram up to the dinosaur bones and see other sights in the area.

When I read they displayed dinosaur bones, I imagined boredom setting in while we wandered around a building housing glass-covered tables filled with bones. Instead, the two-story building protects a preserved dig site from weather and erosion. The bones are still encased in the sandstone mountain.

 

Next, we took the driving tour around the park. First stop, Swelter Shelter where a short walk later we viewed petroglyphs. I can see why some people would believe in ETs after seeing the carved designs in the sandstone. The images do look otherworldly.

Hills across from Split Mountain Campground show how the earth has lifted revealing the different layers of sediment.

Erosion from wind and rain on the sandstone created Turtle Rock and Elephant Toes Butte. The tour pamphlet did not mention the three mounds in front of Turtle Rock, so I named them The Three Crabs.

Our final stop on the tour was the Josie Morris Cabin. Josie arrived in the area in 1914 and built several cabins on her homestead. The cabin shown in the pictures was built in 1935. She tried married life five times but eventually chose to live alone and work her land by raising and butchering cattle, pigs, chickens, and geese. Until her death in 1965, she lived without electricity and burned wood for heat inside her cabin. The box canyon in the photos is where she corralled her livestock. I admire Josie for her bravery and toughness to eke out a living on her own terms in such a hostile environment.

The next morning we took US Route 40 out of Vernal UT, the gateway to Dinosaur National Monument. In Vernal, they decorate their streets by lining them with baskets and planters brimming with purple and white petunias. The petunias distract from the billboards and signs advertising the businesses.

We then turned southwest on US Route 91, west on US Route 6 and south on Interstate 15 to the Big Mountain Campground just a few miles east of Nephi and south of Provo. This campground was my favorite of all the places we stayed. The huge trees provided shade, and the green grass and sprinklers cooled the air. They rent cabins and offer tent spots in addition to the full hookup sites for RVs. It looked like a perfect place for a writing retreat, family reunion, or just a respite from traveling. I would have liked to stay there more than one night, but we had to get back on the road.

US Route 6 took us through Utah and Nevada, connecting with US Route 395 in California after an overnight stay in Tonopah NV. Jon and I did a double take when we saw a Tesla charging station in the middle of this old mining town. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop to get a picture.

We decided to stay a few days in June Lake, one of our old stomping grounds from when we took our kids on vacation. Jon finally got an opportunity to wet a line after renting a boat at Gull Lake Marina. Although both of our mouths watered for fresh trout, Jon wasn’t able to catch our dinner. We opted for dinner out that night at the Sierra Inn Restaurant.

On August 19, we pulled up in front of our house with visions of a luxuriously long hot shower and a good night’s sleep in our king size bed.

In case you are interested, here are the stats from our Yellowstone Summer 2016 trip:

  • Nights – 44
  • Total miles driven – 4,780
  • Miles pulling fifth wheel – 2,525
  • Diesel Fuel – 379 gallons
  • RV Parks/Campgrounds – 12
  • States – 6
  • National Parks – 3
  • National Monuments – 2
  • National Forests – 8
  • National Historic Trails – 3

 

Grand Tetons National Park

Wanting to avoid the wildlife-sighting traffic jams in Yellowstone Park, we left early in the morning on August 9 heading west on Highway 14 through Yellowstone Park and then south on Highway 191 into Grand Teton National Park. Few drivers were on the road, and it reminded me of how calm and peaceful most of our trip had been so far. Jon and I often commented on the friendly and polite people we had met so far on this trip, even the drivers. Navigating the traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area can be a challenge with millions of people rushing to work or school or to shop. We were able to relax more since we weren’t on constant alert to avoid pushy or inattentive drivers.

I enjoyed the scenery of trees, sagebrush, and mountain peaks as we rolled along the road until a car passed our rig and barely made it back in the lane before causing a head-on collision. I gripped the door’s grab handle and scanned the traffic for possible danger. Then we approached a four-way intersection crowded with cars stopped and waiting to make their moves. No stop sign, we had the right of way. A car pulled out from the right side and turned left in front of us. A Mercedes jetted out from the same direction, turned right, then reduced speed. We were not slowing or stopping. “Watch out.” Red lights illuminated the rear of the Mercedes. “Stop!” Brakes slammed, tires squealed, a horn blared, burnt rubber lingered in the air, my heart pounded, and hands shook. The Mercedes finally got the message and took off. Whew! We survived without any damage. With caution, we continued on our route to the Gros Ventre campground.

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I finally calmed down from the near miss when we arrived at our campsite and took in the view from the back of our trailer and camp spot. Washing dishes will be a pleasure with that scene in my picture window.

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View from Gros Ventre Campground Spot

We set up camp and drove into town for a leisurely walk along the streets of Jackson, wandering in and out of stores and finding one-of-a-kind souvenirs. What we found was the hustle and bustle the likes you’d see in New York City. People crowded the sidewalks, drivers ignored speed limits and honked their horns and not a parking spot in sight. A car zoomed past us almost sideswiping our truck. My knuckles turned white. The grocery store was no different. The impatience we saw on the road spilled over into the grocery aisles with shoppers using their carts as battering rams. I thought for sure I’d be run over while deciding which product to buy. Somehow, we managed to make it back to our peaceful campsite surrounded by trees and grass and sage with lots of elbow room and space.

We braved the chaos the next day to take in the majestic towers of granite that are The Grand Tetons. The peaks rise out of the Snake River Basin reaching heights of 13,775 feet. What is unique about these mountains is the lack of foothills surrounding their base. Throughout our stay, it seemed like they were always there, whether front and center or in the background, rising up from the earth in all their splendor.

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Grand Tetons

We first explored the Bridger-Teton Gros Ventre Slide Geological Area where a slide occurred on the 9,000 foot Sheep Mountain and deposited debris in the valley. It is remarkable that evidence of the destruction is still evident 90 years later.

I love the contrast of the red iron oxide hillsides with the green trees and blue sky.

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Our next stop was Mormon Row, which was a community of homesteads settled by the LDS church during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Several buildings and a barn have been preserved and improved. It took hearty folk to settle in this valley where the growing season lasts only two months out of the year.

At the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, we learned of a ranger talk at Menor’s Ferry Historic District. The ranger told the story about William Menor who operated the general store on the west side of the river and Holiday Menor, William’s brother, who operated a lime pit on the east side of the river. William rigged a system to transport local residents and travelers across the Snake River. The replica ferry is large enough to hold a wagon and a four-horse team.

William sold out to Maude Noble who added a cabin and barn to the Menor homestead. The cabin was the meeting site in July 1923, where Horace Albright, Yellowstone National Park superintendent, met with local ranchers and businessmen to discuss the process of creating Grand Teton National Park.

The red Robert Miller wagon is one of three that entered Jackson Hole in 1885. The yellow wagon is from the JY Dude Ranch opened in 1906 by Louis Joy. John D. Rockefeller purchased the ranch as part of a 35,000-acre acquisition. The Rockefellers used the ranch as their private summer retreat for nearly 70 years then donated the property to the park service. He also donated the funds to return the ranch to its natural habitat, and convert it into the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center.

Nearby was the Chapel of Transfiguration where visitors enter to pray and meditate under the watchful eye of the Tetons. Even children who entered the chapel quieted their voices and walked softly on the wood floors.

The next morning as we left to sightsee, we came across a group of female moose (cows) eating their breakfast in the campground.

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We took a tour of the Miller House, which was the first property purchased to create the National Elk Refuge established in 1912. The elk (7,500 on average) return to the refuge each winter and leave for the high country in April and May.

Parking was limited at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, but the 15-minute wait was worth it to hike to Phelps Lake. As I walked along the 2 ½ mile loop trail, through the towering trees, over hills, beside creeks, across a road, and on to Phelps Lake, I thanked LSR for conserving this paradise so all that visit can experience the power that nature can exert on one’s soul.

The architecture of the ranger station and restrooms at the preserve was so different from what I’ve seen in any of the national parks. Instead of the typical log buildings or forest-green siding, the modern mid-century look with clean lines, angles, and reflective surfaces welcome the observer.

We could have stayed for another three or four days and seen the whole park, but we decided to explore the northern part on a future trip. Before leaving the area we ventured into town early in the morning for a hot breakfast and friendly service at The Bunnery. Then as we packed up to leave for our next destination, a mother deer and its fawn grazed on the grass a few yards from our campsite, a memory of our stay at Grand Teton National Park for us to tuck away.

Cody Wyoming

Like the chicken that crossed the road, we traveled on August 5 through Yellowstone, fifth-wheel in tow, to see what was on the eastern side of the park. The steep road heading out the East Gate and beyond for miles was a sharp contrast to the West Gate, which stood mere yards from the town of West Yellowstone.

We had seen signs along the roads the past three days in Yellowstone warning of forest fires, but the only smoke we saw or smelled was from campfires in the evening. As we moved further east, the blue sky turned gray and when we arrived at Yellowstone Valley Inn & RV, smoke boiled up mixing with puffy white clouds above the hills behind the campground.

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Fires Burning in Hills Behind Yellowstone Valley Inn and RV Park

The lady who checked us in assured us the fire was worse a couple of days before and was now concentrated behind the hills with the wind blowing in that direction so neither the smoke or fire should be a concern.

We set up our trailer and tried to relax while vigilantly watching helicopters and planes fly in to pick up water from nearby Shoshone River and Buffalo Bill Reservoir then fly out through the smoke over the hills to douse the flames we could not see. Later in the day hot spots flared up on our side of the hills that the helicopters and planes ignored until just before dark.

The next morning, the clouds and smoke made for magnificent photo opportunities for a short time before the sun hid behind the clouds.

Our first stop the next day was the Buffalo Bill Dam. The dam is puny compared to Hoover Dam but the depth of the canyon still amazed. Jon’s panoramic photo gives a sense of height from the top. It looked like no one had bothered to clear the tree debris from the reservoir side of the dam for some time. Logs and limbs piled up against the back wall of the dam.

Our next stop was Cody WY, named after William Buffalo Bill Cody who, with his Wild West show partner and other men, was instrumental in founding and developing the city in 1895. The town still has the old Western flavor with mostly 19th and early 20th century buildings and a smattering of newer construction. The Irma Hotel and Restaurant, a centerpiece of the city, was named after one of Cody’s daughters and bills itself as Cody’s Finest Restaurant. A local person warned us that what is advertised is not always what you get. We didn’t get a chance to confirm or dispute her claim.

The Old Trail Town at the west end of town was an interesting place to visit. I usually expect something cheesy at these kinds of stops.

Instead, we saw actual buildings that Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and other historical figures occupied at one point in their lives. The owner researches all the buildings to ensure their historical value before he moves them to the museum for restoration.

The Lincoln log-type construction peaked my fascination and I wondered how airtight the walls might have been against the frigid winters. Imagine sitting at one of the desks in the school wearing a thin shift of a dress or tattered pants and shirt while snow piled up outside. These little shacks made me appreciate indoor plumbing, heating, and air conditioning, not to mention my phone and computer.

Piles of antlers popped up around West Yellowstone and Cody. At first, I was horrified to think of all the slain animals to accumulate such stacks of antlers. Alas, no animals were harmed in the creation of the antler arches, mounds, or pyramids. Elk shed their antlers each spring and they regrow during the summer.

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On to Yellowstone Regional Airport on the east side of Cody for an open house and free lunch. The main attraction was a C130 brought in by the Air National Guard of Wyoming. We also saw the planes (red and white) that scooped up the water to drop on the fires. The dump doors are shown in the close-up photo.

This little blue plane took off while we were there. It had trouble starting and sputtered as it taxied down the runway, but managed to take off with no problems. I hope he made it to his destination.

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Always skeptical of free offerings I was pleasantly surprised to bite down on a freshly grilled burger and bun. We had a nice talk with the manager of the local REACH Medical unit and one of the paramedics. I never want to have to use their services but it gives me comfort to know they are around just in case.

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Our last stop for the day was the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a massive building of 91,480 square feet housing not one museum but five. For the price of admission, you get two consecutive days to explore the Buffalo Bill MuseumCody Firearms MuseumDraper Natural History MuseumPlains Indian Museum, and the Whitney Western Art Museum plus several special exhibits. I enjoyed wandering around the place, getting lost and finding new and exciting things to look at and learn about but a few hours each day was not enough to see everything. We’ll have to go back some day, or perhaps a week, to see the rest.

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The Bob’s Big Boy statue stands in the middle of a rancher’s field. What the heck was it doing out there?

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We took a very long drive on our last day in Cody. We stopped at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, one of ten concentration camps used for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The prejudice and treatment of the internees were appalling. May our country never resort to such tactics in the future.

How could the government take away the rights of its citizens and then have the gall to draft them into the military? From Heart Mountain, eight hundred volunteers and draftees served in the military while 92 young men were imprisoned for selective service act violations due to their protests.

We continued our journey through PowellByron, and Lovell, cute little idyllic farm towns. Then we crossed Big Horn River into the Big Horn Forest Mountains that offered an overlook of the Big Horn Basin. The photos cannot display the awesome feeling one experiences from the sight of the vast valley below (although shrouded in smoke) and the massive peaks showing off the colors of their geological history. They are something one must see in person to benefit from their magnificence.

A stop at Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark and a short hike was in order after such a long drive. Contrasted with the ancient medicine wheel was a FAA radar dome on top of a hill. Native Americans still use the medicine wheel for ceremonies and leave offerings tied to the ropes.

We continued our journey to Shell Falls about half way down Shell Canyon. From the valley floor, up the mountains and down again, every twist and turn of the road gave us something new to admire from colorful cliffs to thick forests, ranches, and farmlands. Wildlife came out late in the day. We saw pikas (so cute with their little circle ears and round bodies), a marmot, deer and bunnies, and even a coyote. Unfortunately, the critters scurried so fast we weren’t able to capture their images.

We entered Greybull as the sun was setting and we still had more than an hour before we arrived at the campground. We found Lisa’s Western Cuisine a fine place to stop for dinner. We were surprised how good a cob salad could taste in such a remote location. The menu stated the salad was topped with a shoestring potato nest. What came to mind were the ones that come in a can. No sir, these freshly made, piping hot, potato nests were quite tasty along with the lettuce and other vegetables.

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Lisa’s Western Cuisine

Then it was decision time. Should we continue on to South Dakota to see Mt. Rushmore, or work our way home? The two-week delay in Elko caused our planned trip to South Dakota to bump up against Sturgis, a weeklong event that brings up to 500,000 motorcycle-loving people to the area. We decided not to fight the crowds and headed down to the Grand Tetons instead. We will have to include Mt. Rushmore on another trip.

Yellowstone

Yellowstone Day 1

We arrived at Yellowstone KOA Mountainside on August 2, quickly sped through our set-up procedures, and headed to Old Faithful. Our first wild animal encounter was a chipmunk eating a potato chip. He, or she, served as the entertainment for those of us waiting on benches for Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park to erupt at its predictable time.

After a number of teases that excited the crowd for over twenty minutes, water and steam finally bubbled up and towered in the air.

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Old Faithful

When the show concluded, we followed the crowd on a loop trail back to the parking lot then hit the road to explore more of this unique geological wonder. Next stop, Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in America and third largest in the world. We had seen pictures taken from a distance that were more spectacular than the ones we were able to create.

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Prismatic Spring

I did manage to capture images of several ball caps that had blown off the heads of spectators. It’s not a good idea to step off the wooden ramp to retrieve the wind-blown caps unless death by boiling is the aim.

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Ball Caps in Prismatic Spring

It’s amazing how trees can grow in such a hostile environment.

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Prismatic Spring Boardwalk

We ended our first day at Great Fountain Geyser and surrounding springs during a stunning sunset.

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Great Fountain Geyser At Sunset

Yellowstone Day 2

Back at the Visitor Education Center near Old Faithful, we watched a movie that told the history of Yellowstone and explained the geological events that create all the gurgling, bubbling, and spouting from deep within Earth. To see all of this in action, we walked a longer loop trail from Old Faithful and viewed more holes in the ground. The wind tugged on my hat and a geyser sprayed sulfur water on me while I snapped pictures of each of the holes and mounds.

I thought once I saw one geyser or spring, I’d seen them all. What I found instead were their unique personalities. Some mud pools bubbled at a slow boil, geysers spewed their white mud and built up mounds, while certain springs displayed colorful arrays of orange and yellow reflective of the bacteria that grew around the edges of the blue algae-laden pool.

I recognized the telltale death by geothermal activity in the ghost trees with white bark. I’d seen it before in Mammoth Lakes when Horseshoe Lake was closed for swimming because of the dangerous levels of volcanic activity.

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Ghost Trees

My treat, after one of the geysers sprayed me with sulfur water, was a butterfly that posed for a picture and then followed me a few feet along the path.

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Monarch on Fading Thistle

The forest continues its recovery from the 1988 Yellowstone fire, but there are still reminders of the devastation. On the West end of the park, a spattering of lodgepole pines tower over newly grown forest. The East and parts of the South ends of the park still have plenty of dead pines standing, but new growth in the form of tiny trees cluster around their base.

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Forest Recovering Slowly

Yellowstone Lake was a big surprise. I had never heard that Yellowstone had a lake so when we came around a bend in the road and saw the expanse of clear blue water peek through the tree branches I knew there was no way I could capture its breadth in one photo. Like Lake Tahoe, the water is clear and a vivid blue. We’ll have to rent a boat and take a spin around the lake if we venture this way again.

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Clear Blue Water of Yellowstone Lake

Our next stop was the rapids where cutthroat trout migrate to their spawning grounds. Had we not been detained in Elko NV for two weeks, we may have been able to see the fish struggle up the rapids.

Our next encounter with wildlife was bison. We pulled in to see Dragon’s Mouth Geyser and soon a herd of bison came toward the boardwalk to distract us from the geology. When a large bull powered down the hill toward where we stood, I headed for the parking lot not wanting a close encounter with the wooly kind. Other hardy souls stood their ground to snap pictures and endanger their lives.

Artists Paint Pots, Lower and Upper Falls, and the Grand Canyon along the way followed by a sighting of mule deer in the distance and our day ended.

Buckaroo Bills was a great place for dinner after a long day in the park. Youngsters as well as oldsters like the covered wagon tables in the back room.

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Buckaroo Bill’s in West Yellowstone

Yellowstone Day 3

Having spent the previous days bouncing from one stop-off site after another like Tasmanian devils, we took it a little slower visiting only the Mammoth Hot Springs area and catching Gibbon Falls on our way out of the park.

One thing to know about visiting Yellowstone is the traffic jams caused by wildlife sightings. People in their cars, motorhomes, and trucks park where ever on and off the road, grab their favorite picture taking device, and forgetting there is traffic trying to get through, walk out in front of vehicles all for the sake of that one great photo. We spent about forty-five minutes our last morning creeping along the road because of an Elk sighting. There was no room for us to stop but we did manage to catch a glimpse of Elk crossing the river a short distance from the road as we drove by. Fortunately, no tourists ended up on the grill of our truck.

We would have loved to stay at least another night, if not all month, but our reservation was up and it was time to move on to explore the east side of the park.