Grand Tour of Yellowstone

Jul 30, 2008
Today was another long day in the saddle as they say in bike racing, longer than it should have been as we were expecting to do about 320 miles and ended up around 400. This was not the fault of Google Maps or myself, as I’ll get to in a minute.

After travelling so much yesterday, we were still able to get up and going reasonably early this morning, and had our complimentary breakfast (featuring the welcome return of the waffle maker) and were on the road by 9 am. Gassing up the minivan indicated that we were doing a little over 20 mpg, and cheap Casper gas was $3.79 a gallon (for 85 octane, which I don’t even think you can get in Mass). Once through Casper, we were off the highway for the next several days and on the long slow climb to Yellowstone.

The first stretch takes you up US-20 to Shoshoni, a stretch of about 80 miles with absolutely nothing remarkable to distinguish it. Then it’s a right turn to make the second leg up to Thermopolis, which we reached around 11. Since it was too early for lunch and would take too long to get to the next (and last) point of civilization in Cody, we stopped for a while at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, mostly to kill time till noon, but it turned out to be a good sized museum, built to contain a 106-foot long Supersaurus that was excavated right in Wyoming, and including quite a few complete skeletons of several other types of dinosaurs as well, mostly from the local surroundings. They also had a decent sized gift shop with a wide variety of different fossils and polished stones for sale. If we wanted to hang around even longer there was a tour of an excavation site you could also take for an additional fee, but we didn’t want to hang around that long.

Thermopolis, which should really just be a wide space in the road, has some claim to fame for being near the Hot Springs State Park, which is something of a minor resort area, with a water park and everything. The downtown is not huge, but we managed to find a decent restaurant that served a variety of different things, we mostly opted for sandwiches and salads but they also had crepes and homemade desserts. After lunch we took a few extra minutes to walk around the block to the post office and pick up some stamps, then hopped back in the car and took a short unplanned detour heading out of town into the state park, just to get some pictures and a look up close at the Tepee fountain, where the locals have created an enormous travertine dome by having the mineral water from the springs burble up out of a pipe and gradually create its own sedimentary formation. Started in 1903, its now probably 12 or 15 feet high (there’s another smaller one outside the park entrance that doesn’t look like its still operating, we speculated that it was there as a backup).

From Thermopolis you head northwest up state route 120 to Cody, another 80 miles with not much going on. After driving through the spectacular scenery of Wind River Gorge coming up from the south towards Thermopolis, anything less would have been a letdown, and while the rt 120 section was not as desolate as the road coming west out of Casper, it didn’t live up to its indication on the map as a scenic route. We made a pitstop about half way along in Meeteetse, another wide space in the road, and were in Cody by 3pm or so. We took some time there to stop at Dairy Queen, then walked through their main street area taking pictures of some painted fiberglass bears that are decorating the downtown area, much like the painted buffalos we saw in Custer, South Dakota back in ’05. A few people had recommended the Buffalo Bill museums, but it is actually several different museums in one, and priced as an all-day event, so we gave it a pass.

So now there were no more diversions, we were heading towards Yellowstone by 4pm or so and hoping to get to Canyon Village by 6:30. As soon as you leave Cody heading west you’re into the Absaroka mountains and winding along the valley parallel to the Buffalo Bill reservoir. The kids were watching movies in the backseat while Beth was trying to identify hoodoos, these distinctive rock formations that jut up out of the sides of the mountains, and I was trying to stay on the road while taking it all in. We found the goose hoodoo and the elephant hoodoo, never did see the laughing pig hoodoo. There were some odd colored yellowish clouds off to the north that were looming low against the mountains, but when we pulled over to take a picture we could smell smoke, and sure enough those clouds were coming from a fire somewhere northwest of where we were. At our last hoodoo stop at Chimney Rock there were a couple of official looking guys there in a pickup truck, so Beth asked what was going on, they said there was a fire nearby that had been burning since Saturday, and another one inside Yellowstone itself.

A few miles later we were at the eastern entrance of Yellowstone, where we paid the admission fee and the ranger told us not only was there a fire, but that the road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village was closed as a result. Come to find out a tree had fallen onto a power line and that started the fire. This meant that last stretch of 16 miles once we got a ways into the park would now require us to go all the way around the south loop of the Great Loop Road, which was more like 80 miles. If we’d known this ahead of time, we could’ve taken an alternate route from Cody that takes you out of your way to the north and in through the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, but the fire had only started earlier this afternoon. The ranger said, “they won’t finish putting it out anytime soon”, so there was nothing to be done but keep going and do the loop within the park.

We stopped at several scenic spots along the road to Fishing Bridge, since this was one stretch of the park we aren’t planning on retracing. We could see smoke from the fire off to the northwest again, but it wasn’t blowing near us and didn’t affect the views, mostly to the south. There were a few overlooks that we stopped for as we went up over Sylvan Pass and down towards Yellowstone Lake. One area had a few cars parked along the side, but everyone was sitting in their cars talking on their cell phones. This close to the entrance apparently you could still get some coverage, there must be some system by which people know where to go within the park to make those all-important calls.

By the time we were at Fishing Bridge and saw the closed road, it was already 6 o’clock, so we decided to stop the Lake Hotel just a mile or so down the road and try to eat there. Both the restaurant and the hotel are considered the best in the park, and normally to eat there you have to make reservations in advance, but the fire was screwing up everyone’s itinerary, and the place was more than half empty, so they took us right in. We skipped the pricier dishes like antelope, or prime rib of bison, and had a nice dinner with nice views of the lake out the window. We spent a few minutes in the gift shop afterwards and took some pictures, and were back in the car by 7:30. It took another two hours to drive around from there to West Thumb to Old Faithful to Norris junction and finally Canyon Village. It still wasn’t completely dark by the time we got to our room, but it was pretty close. Even at 8:40 Beth was still taking pictures of the sun setting over the Midway Basin. Saw a bad accident too where a little car had skidded off the road into the woods, recent enough that there were still police lights flashing. Traffic around the loop wasn’t too bad this time of day, there were still plenty of people out and about, fishing or checking out the geyser basins even as the sun was going down. The kids were trashed by the time we checked in and we weren’t far behind. I was half thinking that just my luck they opened the road five minutes after we turned south, but it was still closed when we got here, hopefully everything is under control, though. We’re staying in cabin P21, just one of zillions of little buildings containing four units each. Tomorrow I may let Beth drive some, since we’ll need to retrace our steps back to Old Faithful and see if we can catch ourselves a geyser.
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