16 May – What a delight this morning to be entertained by marmots on the river bank as we were having breakfast. Cute little critters about the size of a rabbit with small ears and a bushy tail. Set off from Shoup Bridge and continued following the Salmon River for about an hour as it wound through the valley. Driving beside the river when the vehicle is on the bank side needs a good deal of concentration as there are no railings or run off and it becomes quite hypnotic with the river running beside you. The valley through here was very lush, lots of farming going on and the towns look very prosperous. Stopped off in Challis to have a look around their local museum – another very well presented one focusing mainly on the early mining history. Watched their short video and then admired all the collections.
From Challis we started to climb on the easiest mountain pass yet – the road just went straight up, no bends and no drops, for about 30 miles climbing firstly on to a high plateau which was full of cattle ranches and huge irrigated paddocks growing stock food. On either side of this huge plateau snow capped mountains ranged above us. The pass at 7200ft didn’t have any snow but was a bit blustery. Came down slightly in elevation to another plateau which started off with more cattle ranches and then the landscape changed into sage brush (the land cover before it is broken in for cultivation or ranching) with rolling hills; the deep folds looked liked Shar Pei wrinkles and then changed again into rocky outcrops. At one stage the road ahead disappeared from sight but as we got closer it went into a huge natural gulch between two rocky ranges and came out the other side into more plateau like country.
From here on the features were more desert like and the towns very much more frontier looking. Over both mountain ranges there looked to be quite significant thunder storms going on and fortunately they both stayed put. Listening to the weather forecast a few hours earlier we heard that somewhere in the region we were travelling to a storm was predicted with hailstones expected of 1½ inches diameter and 50mph winds! The radio weather band that we listen to is all automated and sometimes it is hard to follow what they are saying as the automaton speaks really fast and sentences are often disjointed. Anyway we didn’t run into it. I am not sure what hailstones that size would do to our solar panel, but probably would not be good for it.
Went through many small settlements and at Arco we turned westwards to head for the Craters of the Moon National Park. Coming into this area is incredible – it is an immense lava field formed during eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2000 years ago. The vegetation is in various stages of regeneration and the rock formations just amazing. The campground on the site is right in amongst all this lava and has about 50 sites. This would have to be the most people we have seen for some time. Being a Friday people obviously flock down here to spend a weekend camping. Took a short walk on one of the tracks through the lava fields, but will leave the rest for the next day.
17 May – Started the day with a drive around the loop road within the park and stopping off at the different features to do the little associated walks. With names like Devil’s Garden and Spatter Cone they were worth a visit. Interesting to note that in the park are Lumber Pines which when left to grow naturally pick up a parasite like mistletoe which has the tendency to contort the limbs – early on in the park’s formation the rangers decided that they didn’t “look right” so set about felling and poisoning 6,000 of these trees only to learn later on that the contortions were part of the life cycle. There are such a great variety of formations in this lava area.
With that ticked off our list, we continued on the Parks to Craters Scenic Byway – quite a lot of very long straight roads weaving through the lava beds which early settlers in their wagons had to cross to avoid crossing paths with hostile Indians – they go for 53 miles in the direction we were travelling (and 618 square miles in total). As we progressed down the valley the lava beds were replaced by fertile valleys and with much irrigation this area was full of green fields, growing hay and wheat and quite a few dairy feed lots. One more stop along the way was the Ice Cave at Shoshone. It was a bit amateurish but still interesting to see. The Ice Cave was formed in the bottom of a lava tube – big pools up to 20ft deep all solid ice. The temperature inside the cave remained a constant 25°F even when it gets up to 115°F outside. This was another example of National Park ignorance – when the caves were discovered in the 1880’s the ice was cut up and transported down to the town of Shoshone, so instead the National Park people thought it should be included in the park as an attraction but the entrance into the cave was not easy – they just blasted a big opening at the cave mouth only to find that the airflow balance had been disrupted and the ice all melted! They agreed finally to lease the land to a private enterprise that set about getting the balance readjusted and now the ice is there all the time but still not at the levels when it was first discovered.
Continued down the road to Bliss and then joined up with yet another scenic byway – this time the Thousand Springs which follows the Snake River Valley. We took a side road up to the Hagerman Fossil Beds lookout (where scientists have found 200 pre-historic zebra like skeleton fossils) and decided to stay put as it doesn’t get used that much and the road is reasonably quiet. In saying that we just got dinner over and a car loaded with a family came and parked up to go for a walk on the trail! The wagon wheel ruts of the Oregon Trail (the wagon train route of thousands of people travelling to Oregon and California) are visible from here. The view out over the Snake River and to the vast plains in all directions is breathtaking. Just up the road is a windmill farm, so it also gets pretty windy up here.
18 May – The wind all night was a forerunner for non-stop wind all day today. Retraced our steps back to Highway 30 and followed this through to Heyburn where we joined up with Interstates for a direct route towards Idaho Falls and Rexburg. A long day mileage-wise for us: 230 miles and for the whole of that we have been travelling through irrigated arable farm land for as far as the eye can see on both sides of the road inside an Indian Reservation. The amount of irrigation is phenomenal – huge paddocks with mobile irrigators on – each one can be up to 500 metres long and we must have passed many hundreds of them in this stretch of road. The dairy farms still don’t use the paddocks for grazing – economics must mean around here that it is far more profitable to grow the feed and keep the cows in the feed lots. For the first 100 miles or so it looked like alfalfa, hay and some sort of beans were being grown then potatoes were thrown into the mix. Idaho is famous for its spuds.
Destination of Rexburg was chosen so that we could get another 4k mile service on Wanda, so found a cute little county park just 10 minutes or so away from the Ford agent with a spot almost entirely out of the howling wind.
19 May – Very impressed by the Ford Agents in this country. Our 4k service was again only $41 (inc. 6 quarts of oil, new filter and all vitals checked or topped up) and the service guy was so polite and obliging. With a stop at Walmart to pick up bear spray (all the locals insist that we need it!) and the store next to it for lovely fresh veges and fresh baked bread, we left Rexburg and followed the Snake River Valley through yet more farmland although not on such a grand scale as that yesterday. Also came in to the world’s largest potato growing area.
Crossed over a pass where the river narrowed into a gorge and then out onto another farming valley at Driggs. Bob spotted a Warbirds Cafe and Museum sign so we had to check that out. The display was just four really well presented US Navy aircraft of different models in a large hangar. There were masses of large hangars at this small airport and it would have been interesting to have a peek in them as I am sure there would have been many more treasures. It was a pretty exclusive sort of outfit – in the cafe there were some very interesting magazines available to take away – one was of aircraft for sale and if you had a cool $30million you could pick up quite a nice jet plane! The other magazine was of real estate in the area and this really is a rich man’s playground – $60million will buy you 1,000 acres with a really nice house. This is a scenic road to travel on, the snow capped mountains of the Grand Tetons formed almost a horseshoe from our left round to our right.
From Driggs we carried on to Victor then into the Swan Valley in search of our campsite supposedly at Palisades. The first sign we saw was for Palisades Creek campground and it was 2 miles up a gravel road – we went part way up that but it got too rough so back down to the main road and then a little further on came to another camp on the side of the Snake River with a boat launch and about 9 sites in the trees. Perfect spot, free until 24 May so we just squeaked in. The Snake River was running really fast and there was a lot of birdlife in the area. Spotted a bald eagle with prey in its claws and sighted its nest over the river. Strange contraption – almost like a stork’s nest but built of twigs and branches and can supposedly weigh over 500 pounds. Little hummingbirds were also buzzing around – almost impossible to see as they are so fast but the noise as they whizz past is quite distinctive.
20 May – Left our camp in search of an RV dump, only to find the campground where we had intended to stay was just a few miles down the road! It was at the foot of the Palisades Dam in a beautifully laid out site. We were able to do our RV dump and get water there for a small fee and had a good chat with the camp host. We could see the reason for the Snake River running so well – the dam was spilling a huge amount of water and all generators were running. Once on top of the dam the road ran alongside the reservoir for ages – they must expect a huge amount of water to come off the mountains in the spring melt as it was probably down to about a third capacity. Highway 26 took us into Alpine where we branched off onto Highway 89 and up to Jackson to now be in Wyoming on the Eastern side of the Tetons and the start of the Grand Teton National Park.
Stopped at Jackson, a very popular stopping off point for the Tetons and the centre of the town was full of very exclusive art galleries – I counted at least 12 and we went into a couple to be completely blown away with the huge artworks available with equally huge price tags. The bronze sculptures depicting western scenes, Indians and wildlife ranged in size from about 12 inches to life size and were stunning in their detail and intricacy. The paintings were equally large and imposing but my favourite was a beautiful full face portrait of a donkey!!
Left Jackson before we were tempted to spend all our trip money and headed up the valley in brilliant sunshine with the mountains towering above us and the sage brush plains spreading out before us. There are massive herds of elk which winter here (around 7,500) but they had all moved on to higher ground and the fresh spring grasses that the thawing snow reveals. The plains soon gave way to stands of trees and quite a lot of standing snow on the ground. At Moose, stopped at the massive visitor centre to get some info on the area so that we can plan the next few days and then continued up along the foothills to Signal Mountain Camp and were fortunate to find a site – of the 86 sites, probably only about a third are suitable for RV’s and many of these still were covered in snow. Managed to get into one spot and get sorted before it started to rain. Beside my dining room window is a tree which has been visited by a bear – the bark has been scraped off and you can see the marks from it’s claws. A few little mammals are hopping around as well – a pika, a tiny squirrel and signs of deer prints in the snow. Not very cold yet, but no doubt we will be in for a cold one later.
21 May – After a bit of rain overnight and a drop in temperature, the morning dawned clear and bright. First up this morning, a walk down and around the shores of Jackson Lake below our campground. There was just a bit too much breeze on the lake to get a perfect mirror image of the mountains in the lake, but it was pretty just the same. We set off in Wanda to do the 50 mile loop around the whole of the Teton Park with the aim of doing some of the smaller walks on offer here. First stop Leigh Lake, but couldn’t even find the start of the trail as the trailhead was all covered in quite deep snow. Then on to Spring Lake and again couldn’t venture very far on that trail as it soon became covered in snow. On to Jenny Lake and we managed to do a bit more around that trail towards Isolation Point. Jenny Lake has a boat trip that crosses over the lake to another trail – but the lake is still partly frozen so no boats running yet.
The road down the west side of the loop is breathtaking as it goes along the bottom of the ranges and all you can see towering above you is these dramatic mountains. Finally after lunch we came to the Taggart Lake trail which we were able to complete. The track went up for about 20 minutes following the mountain stream and then out onto a small plateau. At the end of the clearing we had to traipse through snow about 4ft deep in places – but with a track of packed snow over much of the trail. You just had to be careful of your footing so that you didn’t sink into soft stuff or go for a slide on the slippery bits. Our reward at the end was a still partly frozen lake, so picturesque with mountains above it. No wildlife to be seen apart from the tiniest of chipmunks and quite a bit of evidence of deer. Watched the park rangers getting their mule train ready (palamino mules must be quite a rarity) for a trip into the mountain wilderness – no motors allowed here.
We continued down the west side of the loop road to Moose and then on to the eastern side of the loop with a small detour to see some bison. A herd of about 30 were making their way to a water source (I think they also get fed as there were several tour buses there and how else would they know what time to arrive?) Still great to see these mighty beasts close up and how amazing it would have been to see them when they roamed in herds of tens of thousands. Continued around the east loop with storm clouds brewing in several directions – we got a little drenching from one but then it cleared again. There are mountain ranges on the left, right and in front of you on this road with the Snake River flowing alongside. I can see why so many Americans are happy never to travel abroad when there is so much variety to see in their own home country.
22 May – Lucky again with the weather – lovely clear day although a little colder this morning. Left the Teton National Park after a quick visit to Colter Bay and then it was ‘hey ho Yellowstone’. Entered via the South Gate and because we knew we needed to secure a campsite at Norris we didn’t bother to stop at anything en route and just motored on up and were surprised how high we got.
The first part of the journey was high mountain motoring – deep snow everywhere and frozen lakes – even the west arm of Yellowstone looked frozen. We crossed the Continental Divide three times and then finally came into the basin containing the Old Faithful Geyser, through upper, middle and lower geyser basins to Madison and a short hop from there around to Norris and the campground. We made it by about 1pm which was good timing as there were not too many sites left. The campground is on a ‘first come – first served’ basis so we secured our site for 3 nights; it is not terribly level but the pick of what was left. Had our lunch before setting off on the first of the roads that need conquering in this park which meant back to Madison and out to the West Gate. This area is so different from the South Gate – no snow to speak of for starters, quite a lot of marshy meadows and a lot more forest as well. Got our first taste of the wild animals in the park – a herd of bison wandering on the road – and yes, it is like you see in the movies, all cars come to a halt and despite all the warnings to keep your distance from these and all wild animals, people are out of their cars trying to get as close as possible. Quite a few of the cows had wee ones and they are cute little ginger things. Passed by several more herds and then followed the Madison River out to the West Gate and the village of West Yellowstone. Picked up the info on the area that wasn’t available coming in the South Gate, so now we know how to plan our next few days.
Entered back in the West Gate and this time took our time admiring the scenery along the way, back over the meadows and past the bison again although they had moved a bit from when we last saw them. Also some herds of elk on the meadows in places. Stopped at the Gibbon Falls – quite a lot of water passing through this canyon with plenty of force. Went to our first geothermal area – The Artists Paintpot – interesting little area, which from above the various pools look like an artist’s palette. Made it back to our camp after 6pm and got Wanda levelled up as much as possible.
23 May – Today’s little outing didn’t cover as much ground as we hoped. The road up to Mammoth Springs was a bit slow with road works on part of the road reducing travel to one lane. That road was not one of the best – no seal beyond the white line and in places the edges were just breaking away. The scenery made up for the road – out of Norris we went through a small wooded valley with a bit of snow and then it opened out a bit into a marshy area with small willows – these are pretty at the moment because even though they haven’t come in to leaf – the new stalks are yellow and they make a nice contrast with the older brown stalks. Dotted through here were various thermal hot spots. A bit more forest and then onto grassy meadows and a few bison grazing and then we climbed up over a small pass which was a complete contrast – rocky cliffs and a rapidly running river coming over some small falls. Onward towards Mammoth we reached the Golden Gate Upper Geyser Basin. Stopped and had a walk on the boardwalks. One area was like a mini Tarawera with orange and white terraces, these cascaded down over quite a steep cliff which could also be viewed from the road at the bottom.
At Mammoth we decided that we would take the hiking trail to the Beaver Ponds – ‘mildly strenuous’ at 2-3 hours in length so the brochure said. Nearly 4 hours later we got back to Wanda. It was a bit more than mildly strenuous in places so the ice-cream store back at Mammoth was very welcome. We hiked through forest areas, open meadows and did see the Beaver Ponds with a couple of ‘lodges’. We had great views up the valley towards the North Gate and to mountains the other way. A lot of evidence of bear, bison and elk but no sightings. We joined up at one stage with another couple when the bear signs were looking a bit fresh and walked with them for an hour or so. Nice couple from the East; he had spent time in NZ and I think was trying to persuade his better half that they should spend their next vacation there, or even shift down.
It was too late to continue with Plan A, so settled on Plan B which was just to drive out to the North Gate and back and then go home to Norris. Good plan – got to see the Roosevelt Arch commemorating the inception of the Park in 1872. On the way back in those grassy meadows we came across a traffic jam and lo and behold saw our first bear – it was some way off grazing in the meadow – just a smallish black bear, but a bear nonetheless.
24 May – Got to do Plan A from yesterday – first eastwards to Canyon Village then up and over the Dunraven Pass which had only been open a day and what a perfect day for it – can’t believe how lucky we have been with the weather. I think we did the pass the right way around – it was a short steep grade up and although we were on the outside of the mountain – there was a comforting 3-4ft of snow banked up beside the road instead of a steep visible drop off and down the other side of the pass we were on the inside and it was a much more gradual decline. Stopped off at Tower Falls – twice as high as Niagara and with the spring melt were impressive as they thundered down the canyon.
From there it was down into the Lamar Valley and supposedly the best area for wildlife viewing. We saw a lot of bison – some groups with at least a couple of hundred in them. Stopped for lunch in the valley overlooking the Lamar River, with many herds of bison as well as a few pronghorn deer dotted around the place. Carried on a bit further on the road out towards the Northeast entrance and were reward with a special sight of a group of about 40 bison crossing the river. The river was quite swift and it seemed that they had to swim for a short bit of it. Did a U-turn and then headed back towards Mammoth to complete the loop we didn’t do yesterday. The only other excitement was coming across some big-horned sheep on the hill beside the road (their presence indicated by the usual traffic jam). Parked up in Mammoth village to check emails as we don’t have a signal in our campsite, then back down the road towards Norris. Stopped off at a nice rest area to have dinner with the eternal hope that we might see more wildlife as it got nearer to dusk. Not to be. Had a short thunderstorm and a bit of rain instead. Every corner of this park has such different scenery and it is a treat to go over a pass or around a hill and find that you are looking at a new landscape.
25 May – We left our run to Old Faithful too late!! It is Memorial Weekend and the traffic has built up considerably since we came into the park on Thursday. We had so much trouble trying to park the RV at some of the different geyser basins on the way down to Old Faithful that we had to flag some, and when we got to the Village the queues of cars trying to get in was more than a bit long so we opted to park on the side of the road outside of the village and walk in on the cycle trail. Managed to join the hordes with a front row seat to watch Old Faithful erupt on cue, and then did a loop track of the area before heading into the Inn for some lunch. What a mighty place it is – when you go into the lobby and look up it is like a gigantic tree house – four floors high with balconies on each floor. This would have been some place to stay in its heyday and would still be quite unique.
Headed back up the road to Norris – one more treat in store on the way – a coyote hunting in the marshy meadows right beside the road (traffic jam again!). It didn’t seem to be in the least perturbed by all the vehicles and was quite intent on finding a feed. Stopped at another lovely overlook for a lazy afternoon to let the crowds diminish before tackling the Norris Geyser basin. A good move, as there were only a handful of people on the track and it was much more enjoyable. I don’t much go for the bus loads of tourists that descend en masse in these places for a brief experience. The only wildlife we encountered on the tracks around the Norris Geysers were two cute hares with white feet and white tips on their ears – possibly snowshoe hares undergoing the winter to summer moult. We did try to get into one of the other basins on the way back but were prevented entry by the rangers as there had been an accident and the area had been closed for a few hours. Only hope it wasn’t serious, but the way that some people flagrantly disregard the danger and warning signs around these geysers, it possibly was.
26 May – Checked out of Norris and redid the road to Canyon Village. Nice bit of road this – the forest through here was devastated in 1988 by a huge wildfire, but in the ensuing years it has regenerated miraculously. The lodgepole pine needs the fire to regenerate and its new seedlings really take off – they germinate really closely together so all you see is a mass of new green pines. The rate of growth though is fairly slow – these trees would not have been more than about 4 metres tall. As they mature they seem to loose all their lower limbs and all you see is a forest of bare trunks with just a tiny bit of foliage at the top.
We didn’t realize when we passed through a couple of days ago that there was actually a magnificent canyon at Canyon Village. It is known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and what a sight. The lookout over the canyon was something else. Sheer drops down into a narrow gorge with a large waterfall at one end. The colours, although not quite as spectacular as the real Grand Canyon were a mix of buffs and orange. It was a bit spooky standing right on the precipice – especially when the sign tells you that several years ago a large earthquake sheered off some of the cliff right in front of you.
Continued in a southerly direction this time, following the Yellowstone River through a picturesque valley with quite a lot more bison. Stopped off at a Mud Volcano area for a walk around the various different types of mud pools before we finally hit Yellowstone Lake at Fishing Bridge and then followed the lake side for 20 0dd miles all the way down to West Thumb. This huge lake was still mostly frozen, with just a small amount of thawed water around the edges. Framed by snow capped mountains it is certainly a pretty sight.
Visited the last of the Geyser Basins at West Thumb before retracing our steps back to Fishing Bridge Village for the exciting diversion of doing the laundry and back to our campsite for the night at Bridge Bay. This campground had over 400 sites and was probably the busiest campground we have been to.
27 May – Farewell to Yellowstone. Headed out of the park via the East entrance after going over the Sylvan Pass at 8,500ft. The forest along the road from Fishing Bridge nearly all the way out to the entrance had been decimated by yet another forest fire – this must have been reasonably recent as the bare pines were still all standing like sentries and there was hardly any sign of regrowth.
Once over the pass we followed yet another green valley – spring again!! We followed the north branch of the Shoshone River – flowing swiftly with spring melt until it ran into a large reservoir. The green hills changed into orange rocky bluffs and at the end of the lake we came to an impressive dam – Buffalo Bill Dam. In 1910 when this dam was built it was the tallest concrete arch-gravity dam in the world at 325ft high and what a feat of engineering to build it. The visitor centre ran a short movie on the building of the dam which showed how difficult the conditions were that they had to contend with, but with perseverance it was completed in just 6 years. The dam holds water to irrigate the southwest of Wyoming – turning desert into arable land.
Followed the gorge out to Cody, Buffalo Bill’s home town which we will explore tomorrow after settling for another night with our friends at Walmart.