Back home now in Indiana, the end of our trip to the Northwest is now three weeks in the past. Although a lot has come in between, mainly dealing with the unpacking, dirty laundry, even dirtier Airstream and truck, in our moments of reflection those last days of travel come back vividly to mind. In many ways, the end of our trip was as rewarding as all the days spent in Washington. Regrettably, we just didn’t have as much time to really experience those places as we would have liked. As it was, we spent a full two weeks coming home. Without any great detour in our route back to Indiana, we passed through tremendous scenery, two national parks and one national monument. And we did stop long enough to hike a few trails and capture the landscape in photos. Let the pictures tell most of the story; few words are really required (nevertheless, some are thrown in).
Spectacular scenery doesn’t end at Yellowstone’s eastern boundary. Coming down from 8,524-foot Sylvan Pass, the highway drops into the Wapiti Valley and begins following the course of the North Fork of the Shoshone River. This is Buffalo Bill Country, as the road passes by Pahaska Tepee, where he built his hunting lodge, and 27 miles later arrives at the cowboy town of Cody, which he helped to establish. Appropriately named after him, the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway from Yellowstone into the town of Cody passes through incredible scenery, inspiring Teddy Roosevelt to call it “the most scenic 50 miles in the world.” Needless to say, our drive had several interruptions along the way . . .
Hoodoos and spires crown the canyon walls. Pinnacles of dark igneous rock sprout from the valley walls. They are remnants of the area’s violent volcanic past. To the north of the highway, the rugged Absaroka Range reveals its lofty peaks, while hunting lodges and dude ranches branch off from the byway. Enclosed within the Shoshone National Forest, this is home to grizzlies, black bears, deer, moose, bighorn sheep and the Valley’s namesake—a multitude of elk.
After a few hours interlude in Cody (great restaurants and shopping and the renowned Buffalo Bill Center of the West), we continued along the same highway still headed east. But now there was a drastic change of scenery as we drove across the Big Horn River Basin.
Separating the Absarokas to the west from the Bighorn Mountains in the east, the basin is wide open, arid and desolate. At 4,000 feet in elevation, its average rainfall is 10 inches a year. The ground is parched and except for the occasional oil pumpjack, appears unutilized. Through it flows the Bighorn River, entering from the south and leaving through the north, where it carves the magnificent Bighorn Canyon. Our destination lay on the eastern horizon—tonight we would be camping high in the Bighorn Mountains.
One of the largest and most spectacular mountain ranges in Wyoming, only the mountains in the northwestern corner of the state surpass the Bighorns in height. Coming from the west, Highway 16, a.k.a. the Cloud Peak Scenic Byway, climbs steeply up the mountains’ flanks, gaining 3,000 feet of elevation in only a handful of miles. The “top” appears to be rolling grasslands, giving no true appearance of its more than 9,000 feet of elevation. Distant views reveal the higher peaks within the wilderness area. Rocky precipices and snowfields cap the nearly 12,000-foot mountains—Cloud Peak, the highest, surpasses 13,000 feet.
This wasn’t our first visit to the crest of the Bighorns . . . not even our second. We’ve camped nearby as well as further north, up in moose country. Chris likes it for the trout fishing in its many rushing streams and clear water lakes. Spring wildflowers are my attraction, mountain views come in a close second. It would be a short stay of only two nights—just a pleasant interlude, a break from the long-haul driving, and a chance to breathe the cool, clean mountain air.
And was rewarded for his efforts. The Rainbows were biting and he landed more than a few. A couple hours later, he returned a tired but happily satisfied guy.
My reward came early the following morning. Although heavily overcast with low-lying clouds, I left camp in the predawn hours, hoping the rising sun would break through.
Elgin Park is a high, open meadow bordered by thick conifer forests where elk freely roam (I encountered more than a few). It is a great place to have a panoramic view of the high peaks that are the heart of Bighorn Range. I had scouted out my best spot the afternoon before; now it was all up to the skies and what fortune would come my way. I waited for sunrise.
And got my reward—with one brief beam of golden light.
Back on the road once more, dipping slightly south to hook up again with I-90, it was a short hop of a couple of hours over to our next destination.
We had seen the Tower before, but hadn’t stopped to take it in. This time would be different—a night’s stay and plenty of daylight left for exploring.
Having no reserveable sites, you must take potluck when you camp here. Arriving early in the day secured a very good spot for us. We set up and enjoyed our prime view, decompressing from the drive, enjoying a couple of leisurely hours here at a very nice campground.
Devil’s Tower was our country’s first national monument. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the extraordinary formation and afterwards designated it as a monument to ensure the tower was preserved.
Visible for many miles around, Devil’s Tower looms above the Belle Fourche River, where the pine forests of the Black Hills meet the grasslands of the Powder River Basin. Its formation began about 60 million years ago, when molten magma surged near the earth’s surface and cooled underground as igneous rock. Sedimentary rocks eroded away around it, exposing the harder plug. Today, the monolith—the tallest rock formation of its kind in the country—rises 867 feet above its base, 1,267 feet above the river and over 5,000 feet above sea level. It is 1,000 feet around its base and an acre and a half on its sagebrush and grass-topped summit.
Climbing its columned flanks is very popular and we witnessed several groups on their way up. There are many established and documented climbing routes covering every side of the tower, ascending the various vertical cracks and columns of rock. The difficulty of these routes range from relatively easy to some of the hardest in the world. The average time for two climbers to go up is 4-6 hours. It takes about 1-2 hours to rappel down. In the 1980s, Todd Skinner, a Wyoming native, free-soled (climbed alone, without ropes or protection) the Walt Bailey Route in 18 minutes. There have been 5 climbing fatalities since 1937, three of these occurred while descending the Tower.
Taking the 1.5-mile trail around its base gives a different perspective. During our hike we observed 3 different groups making their climbs. We also had great views looking out over the rolling grasslands of the Belle Fourche Valley.
A nondescript color of stone during the day, I was hoping the early light of dawn would warm the Tower and make it glow. Once again it would be a predawn endeavor for me . . . and once again I was given good light.
Later that morning we were off to our final destination.
Long ago a shallow inland sea spread across what is now the Great Plains of North America. Millions of years of deposited sediments, shale, mud, and volcanic ash began slowly eroding away. A long wall of ragged vertical peaks and deeply eroded ridges stretches for a hundred miles across southwestern South Dakota. This “Wall” parallels the White River and was formed when the river cut through the deep Badlands sediments. As erosion continues, the wall has retreated north, away from the river. The town of Wall, South Dakota takes its name from the long line of peaks that dominate the horizon.
The Badlands National Park preserves some of the most interesting landforms in North America. It features a semi-arid setting of prairie and grasslands which is bisected by the long rock Wall featuring spectacular geological formations. The contrast between Badlands buttes and the surrounding prairie grasses make this a very dramatic national park. Chiseled spires, steep canyons, low-slung buttes and jagged ridges were created from millions of years of ruthless ravages by wind and water. Upon sighting of these unusual formations, the Lakota aptly called them Mako Sica or “bad lands.”
The park is very easy to experience by car. The paved Loop Road runs the length of the park largely along the rim of the Wall. It has many overlooks located at pullouts that provide views of the valleys, peaks, and canyons of the Wall, as well as the open grasslands to the east and west. We entered by the western gate, traveling the road to the park’s campground on the eastern side. And made many stops along the way.
The Badlands National Park covers 244,000 acres and contains one of the world’s richest deposits of fossils from the Oligocene Era. The Badlands were once a lush, marshy plain that was home to three-toed horses, giant pigs and saber-tooth tigers. Originally established as a national monument in 1939, the area was redesignated as a national park in 1978.
But, to really get the full effect of this place, to see its textures and colors up close and all around, you should leave your car and take a hike. There are different levels of difficulty to the trails, from an easy paved walkway to climbing up the Saddle Pass Trail, short but steep with a 25% grade. But the expansive views are worth the effort—I’ll attest!
Don’t try it in the heat of the day—wait ‘til the sun drops lower in the sky.
And when that sun drops, it’s the best time to get out your camera. The late afternoon light strikes those colorful formations, emphasizing their multi-hued striations.
With only one night to spend here in the park, it was a take-your-best-shot kind of evening. The skies looked promising as sunset approached and I had my location scoped out. I waited and hoped . . .
. . . and saw the sky put on its show.
Today our trip was ending. The Badlands would be our last destination. Departure day gets Chris up early . . . packing up and ready to pull out at dawn.
But wait just a minute—give me a chance—there’s one last sunrise to catch! I hurried away and found a good spot . . . just in time to catch that ball of fire coming up. Now I was ready to leave.
First ones up, first ones out. We were headed home . . . the last 1,000 miles to go.
From start to finish—a very good trip,
Chris and Melinda
back home again in Indiana.