This blog is a bit longer. Our autumn road trip turned out to be over four thousand miles and traversed the length and breadth of six states, not counting California. It was an invigorating and, at times, exhausting month long excursion with stops at nine separate accommodations along the way. Since the blog is long, let me say at the beginning rather than the end, that the images from this trip are located in the “2016 Road Trip” gallery.
To avoid some of the heavier commuter traffic in Los Angeles County, Jane and I left San Diego at 4:30 in the morning bound for our first destination, Great Basin National Park in Nevada. After the, now routine, six boring hour drive to Las Vegas, we left Interstate 15 and headed north on U.S. Highway 93, the Great Basin Highway. Approximate 18 miles north of Caliente, we stopped at Cathedral Gorge State Park. On previous trips, we always bypassed this small Nevada state park due to time constraints. But on this road trip, we had time to investigate this off-the-beaten-path attraction. Just a short mile or two off Highway 93, and hidden from view, was a spectacular geologic display of erosion carved cliffs and spires. We did not spend a lot of time at Cathedral Gorge, but enjoyed very much marveling at the intricate features eroded into the soft rock.
We arrived in Baker, Nevada, gateway to Great Basin National Park by mid-afternoon. We stayed with Magaret Pence at her “bunkhouse”, a rustic but charming and cozy accommodation (www.greatbasinbunkhouse.com). Staying at the “bunkhouse” turned out to be far more than just a nice place to sleep. It was like an affable family affair as we enjoyed Margaret’s hospitality.
Great Basin National Park is situated in the southern portion of the Snake Mountain Range and contains Nevada’s second highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, at just over 13,000 feet. Jane and I were hoping for our first glance at fall colors here. We were not disappointed as we hiked park trails through great groves of golden, quaking aspen trees. The Wheeler Peak Scenic Highway was ablaze with color as the sun backlit the aspen leaves into a luminous glow.
After a couple of days hiking and exploring Great Basin National Park, we packed the 4Runner, hugged Margaret farewell, and started the drive to our cabin at West Glacier. Our selected route through Idaho took us past Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Again, we had passed this landmark on previous trips and not stopped. So, with time on our hands, we made a short detour to enjoy this unique landscape. This area of small craters and black fields of lava started forming only about 15,000 years ago when lava issued from a series of deep fissures, the last eruption occurring about 2,000 years ago. That is pretty recent in geologic time.
From the lava fields we continued to West Glacier where we spent the next six days at our familiar, secluded haunt in the woods (www.glacierwildernessresort.com). We used the cabin, with its homey feel and hot Jacuzzi on its deck, as home base, and day-tripped into Glacier National Park. Weather was an issue that limited our hiking to just a couple of days. We did hike to Avalanche Lake, a roundtrip of six miles and lots of elevation gain. And, yes I’m bragging a bit. Of course, we could not really complain about the rain, since we had not seen much of it in San Diego.
We are always sad to leave our cabin but we had to move one since we were not even at the midway point of our road trip. Our next objective was the Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area at the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge, along the Missouri River. On the way, we stopped in Great Falls to visit the Charles M. Russel Museum, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and the great falls that Lewis and Clark had to portage around during their expedition of discovery. The Charles M. Russel Museum was excellent with its informative exhibits illustrating the life of “Charlie” Russel and life on the western frontier in general. The gift shop had an extraordinary selection of artistic items created by local artisans. Jane found an item to bring home that would enhance our collection of southwest artifacts.
Lewistown, smack in the middle of Montana, was our next destination. There Jane had found a wonderful B&B for us to stay. The Symmes/Wicks House was a totally restored Craftsman house located in a quiet neighborhood with huge, colorful maple trees bordering the streets (www.symmeswickshouse.com). Carol Wicks, who had overseen the restoration and performed much of the grunt work herself, was our hostess and provided great conversation and scrumptious breakfasts.
The Slippery Ann Elk Viewing Area lived up to its reputation to not disappoint. During the annual rut, scores of elk congregate in the cottonwood trees along the Missouri River and emerge onto the meadows to feed in late afternoon. Elk viewing is a popular activity with dozens of cars lined up along the dirt track adjacent the meadow area where elk forage in plain sight, paying no heed to the myriad of sightseers of all ages. Numerous six and seven point, testosterone driven, bulls were competing for cows. However, the iconic image of bulls with locked antlers escaped me. It was not for the lack of trying, but the desired action of big bulls jousting was always too far away or hidden by shrubbery for a decent "shot".
After our action packed visit to Slippery Ann (you have to wonder where that name came from, don’t you) and delightful stay at the Symmes/Wicks House, we continued on across Montana and into Wyoming to explore Devil’s Tower National Monument. We made the hamlet of Hulett our home base for this part of our journey. Exploring this National Monument was almost relaxing. We toured the scenic route in the 4Runner and hiked the Tower Trail from where we watched several groups of climbers ascend the near vertical tower. I tried my hand at night sky photography once more with very little success. The sky was filled with brilliant stars and the Milky Way was overhead, but I was not able to create an image to my liking.
Custer State Park in South Dakota is just across the border from Devil’s Tower and that was our next destination. The objective at Custer State Park was to photograph the annual bison roundup, an event that draws visitors from across the U.S. and world. It certainly was an event to remember, but relatively short for the time expended to experience it and less dramatic than expected. The roundup is conducted to gather the bison into corrals to test for disease, inoculate, brand calves and cull the herd by auctioning off sufficient animals to keep the size of the heard balanced to the available food supply on the Park’s range.
Based on our inquiries from locals, we learned that to secure a decent spot in the viewing area in the Park we had to leave Custer at around 4:30 in the morning. And, that is what we did. At that ghastly hour of the morning, we joined the long queue of vehicles meandering slowly through the Park to the viewing area. After more than an hour, we eventually reached the parking area where we joined hundreds of others to search for a spot to place our folding chairs during the dim, morning’s first light. By around six we were snuggly settled with a blanket around Jane to keep out the chill. The roundup, however, did not start until nearly ten and the most exciting part, bison stampeding across the prairie, lasted only about 45 minutes. Although a tiny bit disappointing, it was exhilarating to be part of the throng participating in this uniquely American event.
We were in Custer nearly a week staying at a new and very comfortable vacation rental home on the outskirts of town where white tailed deer and wild turkeys roamed the yards. While in Custer we assumed the role of typical tourists going on day trips to explore the scenic areas of the Black Hills, including Spearfish Canyon with its outstanding fall colors and waterfalls, the Cathedral Spires area where we encountered a lone mountain goat, Chief Crazy Horse monument, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial where we had lunch in the cafeteria where Gary Grant got shot in the movie North by Northwest. While in Custer we also spent a pleasant evening with Bill Howard, an old acquaintance from years gone by, and his friend Shirley.
After a touristy stay in Custer, South Dakota, we set out for home, the long way. On our 22nd day on the trip we drove across Wyoming’s barren and desolate prairie to Rock Springs, and the next day across the eastern edge of the Uintah Mountains of Utah, past the Flaming Gorge reservoir and dam to Vernal. While in Vernal, we made a short trip to Dinosaur National Monument. We were pleased to learn that the Quarry Exhibit Hall, with its thousand dinosaur bone fossils still imbedded in a natural sedimentary rock wall, was again open after extensive structural repairs. Fossils excavated from these Jurassic period beds now grace many natural history museums.
From Vernal we set our sights on Richmond, Utah, where my sister Neli and husband Fred, reside. To get to Richmond, we crossed over some high mountain passes where we encountered our first snow of the year. The scene played out beautifully as we ascended higher up the mountain. Patches of yellow from brightly colored quaking aspen trees, the symbol of Utah, were interspersed among the dark green conifers with white snow covering the branches and ground. It was awesome. All too soon we were back to lower elevations with green alfalfa fields, grazing cattle, and opulent ranch houses.
A visit with Neli and Fred is always entertaining as they recount memories that I was too young to remember. We had a great visit with lots of cheerfulness, goodwill and laughter. I will certainly remember one profound observation by Neli. She confided that “you know you are getting old when your daughter becomes a grandmother”. Neli and Fred are great-grandparents many times over. After bidding goodbye to Neli and Fred we made a serious dash for home. We stopped only in Mesquite for a night before droning on down Interstate 15, arriving back to San Diego, pretty much wiped out, after 26 days on the road.