Having arrived from Little Rock the night before, I was eager to hit the road and explore the area around Bozeman. It was a beautiful, sunny morning with gorgeous views of the Bridger Range to the north of town.
I stopped in Livingston to pick up a breakfast sandwich at Hardee’s, and written on their menu board was the following, “California Raisins Murdered! Cereal Killer Suspected – Heard it on the Grapevine!” Downtown was the historic old Northern Pacific Railroad depot, which used to be the main departure station for passengers going to Yellowstone National Park. Heading north from Livingston I cruised along US highway 89 at 75 mph, the legal speed limit in Montana, toward White Sulphur Springs, passing vast expanses of golden grassland.
At times, the landscape remained unchanged for so many miles, that it almost felt like I was standing still! Amid the grasslands were some huge irrigation systems that turned parts of the dry brown landscape into lush green fields of clover and wheat. Beyond White Sulphur Springs and the Little Belt Mountains, was the small ranching community of Townsend, dominated by tall, massive grain elevators beside the Burlington Northern Railroad mainline. Turning southwest, I came to the historic town of Three Forks, so named for being located at the confluence of three rivers (Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Madison) that gather together to form the mighty Missouri River.
In the center of town was a monument honoring Sacajawea, the Indian guide who lead Lewis and Clark to eventually discover the headwaters of the Missouri. Across the street from the monument was the grand old “Sacajawea Inn”, a hotel built by the Milwaukee Road Railway (Chicago, Milwaukee & Pacific Railroad) in the late 1800’s. The railroad abandoned Three Forks decades before, but the old hotel lived on. Just outside of town, I spotted a lot of people floating down the Madison and Jefferson rivers on everything from large rafts to inner tubes, basking in the warm late summer sunshine.
Not far from Three Forks, I discovered a small state park that had preserved the “Parker Homestead”, a lovely old log cabin that had been settled in the mid-1800’s and occupied until the early 1920’s. The old cabin was surrounded by huge Cottonwood trees and golden grassland – a stunning landscape!
Eventually, when evening approached, I headed back to Bozeman. As I sat in the lounge at the Holiday Inn, drinking a cold pint of local “Bayern Trout Slayer Ale”, I watched a fascinating PBS TV program about King Henry VIII – anywhere else I’m sure we would have been watching some sports channel. (the beer was promoted as “a bigger tale with every ale”) Later, I had a delicious dinner of Asian grilled chicken and steamed broccoli alfredo pasta in the hotel restaurant.
I awoke the next morning to another beautiful clear, warm, sunny day. After a hearty breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and headed southwest to the historic mining town of Virginia City, which at one time was the Territorial Capitol of Montana. A great many of the old original buildings from the 1800’s had been beautifully restored. I walked down the old wooden boardwalk that followed Alder Gulch, to “Boot Hill Cemetery”, the final resting place of many “road agents” (aka bandits)! At least now, they had a spectacular view of the entire valley below.
From Virginia City, I continued up Alder Gulch to the old mining town of Nevada City, where there was an extensive collection of turn of the century locomotives and railroad cars from many historic railroads. They included The Great Northern, Montana Southern, Milwaukee Road, and the Florence & Cripple Creek, better known as “The Gold Beltline”. Many of the old passenger cars were open and still in their original condition – fascinating, like a walk through time. Nearby was a large display of old mining equipment, including a huge gold dredge that had mined gold from the local streams until well into the 1920’s. According to a historical monument, more than $80 million in gold was dredged in southwest Montana by 16 dredges, among them the largest in the world!
Leaving the fascinating mining history of Virginia City and Nevada City, I headed south to the small ranching town of Ennis to pay a visit to the Madison Ranger Station where I had spent the summer of 1968 working on the Beaverhead National Forest. As I walked down Front Street, the scene looked very much the same as I remembered from 1968,especially the “Longbranch Saloon”. On the night of July 4th, 1968, I partied with my Forest Service colleagues and the local cowboys until the wee hours of the morning. And as I was leaving the saloon to head back to the bunkhouse, I happened to find a full set of false teeth lying on the bright red carpet in the men’s room. Later I discovered that they belonged to a summer employee named Lonnie from Yazoo City, Mississippi, who had no idea they were missing until he woke up with a hangover the next morning. It’s a story never to be forgotten! From Ennis, I drove south, following the beautiful Madison River, spectacular mountains rising thousands of feet on either side of the valley. I made a short stop at the Madison River Workstation , where I had spent the summer of 1968 working on a timber survey in the Gravelly Mountains, before being drafted into the Army at the end of the summer.
From there, I drove over Targhee Pass to Henry’s Lake, Idaho, and then on to a rough gravel road up to the summit of the Centennial Mountains at Red Rock Pass, and back into Montana. The 70 mile long unpaved road took me through the heart of the spectacular Centennial Valley to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge was established in 1935, covering 76,000 acres of wetlands in the Centennial Valley to provide a breeding ground for wild birds and animals, in particular the endangered Trumpeter Swan. In 1932 there were fewer than 200 of the birds known to exist in North America. But due to the sustained efforts to save them from extinction, an estimated 3,000 swan were nesting on the refuge by 2002. It is the most remote of any refuge outside of Alaska, and has often been called the most beautiful in the country.
Historically, the Monida – Yellowstone stagecoach line passed through the Centennial Valley in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, transporting over 10,000 passengers between the Union Pacific Railroad station in Monida and West Yellowstone. The grand era of stagecoach travel to Yellowstone National Park ended in 1917 when motor cars replaced the stagecoaches. These days, the old unpaved road still exists, but it sees very little traffic, as new and faster routes of travel to Yellowstone were developed.
In the middle of the beautiful warm day, I was suddenly aware of a problem with the new Ford Excursion – a flat tire! And here I was, 30 miles from the nearest town and I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the road the entire time. So as the swans watched me, I began the task of changing the tire, in the middle of the road. (note: there was absolutely no danger from oncoming traffic!) Back on the road again, I drove to Dillon, the next town, and the county seat of Beaverhead County. (On a side note, Beaverhead County is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, yet there are less than 9,000 people in the county – that’s less than 2 people per square mile!) The town was also home to the University of Montana Western, founded in 1893 as Montana State Normal College. I checked in to the new Guesthouse Suites Hotel on the edge of town and then dropped off my flat tire for repair at the nearby tire shop. By now it was time for dinner, so I walked downtown to the “Longhorn Saloon”, still very much an old cowboy bar where the steaks were legendary – as was the clientele! Later that evening, I sat on my balcony, as the fresh fragrance of sagebrush was carried on the cool evening breeze. The soft sound of crickets filled the air, as well as the distant howling of the Coyotes – a most pleasant night.
The next morning, I was up early, and the hotel’s breakfast of hot biscuits and sausage gravy prepared me well for the day. I picked up my tire at “Marv’s OK Tire Shop”, bought some provisions at the local Safeway, and then fueled up at the Exxon station. Before leaving Dillon, I took a look at the university campus, where many of the old Victorian era red brick buildings had been beautifully restored.
Then I headed northwest on state highway 278, up a long steep grade into the heart of the rugged Pioneer Mountains – a gorgeous landscape of lush green valleys, Ponderosa Pine forest, and old ranches, in the shadow of towering peaks. Along the way, I came to the historic “Elkhorn Hot Springs” at an elevation of 7500 feet, with a huge swimming pool fed by the hot springs.
Several miles north of the hot springs, I spotted a small sign pointing the way to the old ghost town of Coolidge, so I decided to investigate. After a long five mile drive on a rough, narrow, winding unpaved road, and another mile and a half on foot, I finally reached the old mining town. At one time, as late as the 1930’s, it had a population of several thousand, but these days, nothing remained except for a couple dozen old wooden buildings and log cabins, slowly crumbling under the weight of many winters’ snow.
In 1917, one of the world’s last narrow gauge railroads, the Montana Southern, was built from Coolidge, 40 miles down to the town of Divide, where it joined with a railhead of the Union Pacific Railroad. A post office was established in 1922, and later that year, construction of a new mill was completed at a cost of over $1 million, including a huge 65,000 volt power line from the town of Divide. The mill became the largest in Montana and had the capacity to process 750 tons of ore per day! However, by that time, silver prices plummeted as the nations’ economy took a downturn. As a result, mining operations were being shutdown, and the mill never approached its full capacity. Then in 1927, twelve miles of the railroad, including several bridges, were washed out by the failure of the Wise River Dam. The disaster spelled the doom of the mill, as well as the town. Since then, the old mill had collapsed, though the Forest Service apparently had plans to reconstruct is as a historical exhibit. There were several displays of historical information, and I was able to follow the old railroad roadbed for almost a half mile before it disappeared into the forest. Back on the main highway again, I drove down to the small town of Wise River, where there were several rafts of fly fishermen floating lazily down the Big Hole River, in their quest for legendary Golden Trout.
From Wise River, I drove up the Big Hole Valley to the town of Wisdom, which just happened to have had the nation’s lowest temperature the night before (36 degrees), but now, in the mid-afternoon, it was a comfortable 85 degrees! As I continued south up the Big Hole Valley, in the shadow of the rugged Bitterroot Range, I saw massive amounts of hay being harvested, much of it still being stored in traditional tall haystacks. Historically, the Big Hole Valley has been known as “The Valley of 10,000 Haystacks”! Further south, I came to the tiny community of Jackson, best known for the beautiful Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, and a popular center for winter sports. Then I turned southeast to Bannack State Historic Park, the location of Montana’s first Territorial Capitol. I spent some time exploring the old ghost town that had remained virtually unchanged since I first visited it the summer of 1966. Bannack was founded in 1862 and named for the local Bannock tribe. It was the site of a major gold discovery that same year, and served as the Territorial Capitol briefly in 1864, until the capitol was moved to Virginia City.
At the height of the mining activity, it had a population of nearly 10,000. Though it was very remote, connected to the rest of the world only by the primitive Montana Trail, there were three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, restaurant, billiards hall, brewery, and of most importance to the locals, four saloons! The majority of the buildings were log structures, but a few of the more important buildings were built of red brick. As I walked down the unpaved main street, many of the old buildings were open, including the Masonic Hall and the schoolhouse, which was strangely eerie, as if the students had just left for summer vacation!
Another fascinating building that I hadn’t seen inside before was the elegant Hotel Meade, which had served as the State House when Bannack was the Territorial Capitol. As I entered the old hotel lobby, with its grand wooden staircase and magnificent wall safe, I experienced a very eerie feeling, as if the walls had many ghost stories to tell, if only I had the time to spend with them. I climbed the old staircase and looked into some of the hotel rooms, all of which had ceilings at least 18 – 20 feet high, but I failed to find a room that could be called a bathroom or toilet – perhaps that was another building out back!
All in all, Bannack was truly the most “authentic” ghost town I’ve ever encountered – the epitome of the “Old West”. Some of the most infamous Bannack history involved Henry Plummer, the town’s Sheriff in the early 1860’s. He was accused of secretly leading a ruthless gang of “road agents” (aka bandits), that people claimed was responsible for over a hundred robberies and murders throughout southwestern Montana. (Modern historians have called into question this account of Plummer’s gang) In January of 1864, Sheriff Plummer and his compatriots, both deputies, were hanged without a trial – typical of vigilante justice in the old west! Leaving Bannack, I drove south through the vast expanse of the “Cross Ranch”, passing beautiful golden wheat fields and deep green fields of hay. Then I came to the little town of Grant and the junction with the road from Clark Canyon Dam. As I passed through the little town, there were a few more buildings that I remembered from 1966, but it was still a sleepy “one horse” town, despite the one and only motel having been renamed the “Horse Prairie Hilton”! I head west from Grant 20 miles to the junction with the Forest Service road to Reservoir Lake Campground, a narrow, very rough, twisting dirt road. It was a very long 18 miles of rough road at 15 – 20 mph before I reached the campground, and as soon as it came into view, the surrounding landscape began to jog my memory of the summer of 1966.
The sight of the old split rail fence on the edge of the campground was an especially poignant memory of the long days I had spent “debarking” the Lodgepole Pine rails. As evening approached, I began looking for a nice spot to camp for the night. But before doing so, I decided to pay a visit to “Bloody Dick Guard Station” across the creek from the campground. As I approached the old cabin, deep in the forest, memories of my time living there came flooding back.
The old cabin looked very much the same as in 1966, except for a new roof over the small porch. I peeked in the windows and things looked just as if I had left them 37 years before, even the old army style bunkbeds, the old propane gas cookstove, and the kerosene lantern on the kitchen table. Even after almost four decades, electricity had still not found its way to the cabin! Just a few yards away was the spring where I used to fill my water bucket by dipping from the open wooden trough – carefully avoiding the frogs! After a sufficiently long period of reminiscing and some photos, I left the guard station and found a lovely grassy spot under the pine trees beside Bloody Dick Creek to camp for the night.
As evening descended on southwestern Montana, I sat on a log, sipped a cold “Old Faithful Ale” and enjoyed the quiet solitude of a cool summer night, not far from where Lewis and Clark probably camped the day before they crossed the Continental Divide over Lemhi Pass. From there they first discovered the “waters of the Pacific”. Slowly, the daylight faded, the air cooled, and the frogs and crickets began their nightly serenade. Then suddenly, a young mule deer buck jumped out from the brush and dashed into the forest, just a few yards from me. Later, I woke up around 2am and was amazed to see an absolutely spectacular black night sky, filled with billions upon billions of stars and the most beautiful view of the Milky Way Galaxy I had ever seen! (note: there was definitely no light pollution anywhere within a hundred miles) It was a night never to forget!
The next morning, I was up early in the chilly air (39 degrees), dressed quickly, and had a cinnamon oatmeal bar for breakfast. Then I headed back to the campground to find the trail leading to the summit of Selway Mountain and the old fire lookout tower where I had lived for eight weeks in the summer of 1966. After searching around the shore of the lake for a while, I finally found the trail, now just a faint “track” through the sagebrush. It wasn’t long before it turned into a very steep, unmaintained trail through the dense Lodgepole Pine forest – a lot steeper than I remembered, but I was surely in better shape 37 years ago! It was a long five and half miles, 3000 feet up the side of the mountain, and as I climbed along the ridge, the trees became shorter, until the landscape eventually became very rocky and pretty much just alpine tundra.
When I reached the 9,000 foot summit, many fond memories of my life on the old lookout tower flooded my mind. As I looked around, everything seemed just as I remembered it 37 years ago, except for one thing – my beloved old wooden tower was no longer there! It was in 1942 that the Forest Service built the 50 foot-high wooden tower on the 9,000 foot summit of Selway Mountain. It was staffed intermittently for 29 years, as needed during seasons of high fire danger. Finally, in 1976, it was demolished and burned, having been abandoned, along with a majority of the lookout towers , when the Forest Service began relying on aircraft for spotting fires.
Views from the summit extended 360 degrees, from the Pioneer Mountains 50 miles to the northeast, across the Big Hole Valley to the Anaconda-Pintler Range 70 miles to the north, the Bitteroot Range on the Montana-Idaho border, and 100 miles west to the jagged Lemhi Range in Idaho. Standing on the summit, it was easy to see why the Forest Service chose it for the site of a fire lookout tower – with wide vistas of southwest Montana.
All that remained of the tower were some charred pieces, and I scavenged a few “memoirs” – bits of glass, a small piece of the wooden door frame, and a steel latch bolt from the door. As I surveyed the scene, views of the distant mountains were once again familiar to me, but now, all that remained of the tower were memories that I will cherish forever. Living alone for eight weeks on top of the highest mountain around, in a 12 ft by 12 ft room, surrounded by large windows, with no electricity or running water, and only a wood cookstove, was one the best experiences of my life. Despite the basic facilities, I remembered the daily activities of chopping wood for the stove, hiking half a mile down the mountain to get water from a spring, listening to scores of radio stations throughout the country late in the evening, and reading a collection of old Life Magazines from the 1940’s that someone long before me had left in the tower. I had six visitors all summer, five of them on one day, but I was far from lonely. Another fond memory was the discovery of a copy of the “Lookout Cookbook” from 1954.
The recipes in the book were compiled by Forest Service wives and were designed to use primarily canned and dried foods, since few, if any Montana lookout towers in 1954 had any electricity or means of refrigeration. The variety of recipes was quite extensive and occupied over 60 pages. There were recipes for everything from breads, pies, and cakes to various meat dishes, soups, and sauces, as well as recipes for using leftovers. Included in the 75 page book were explanations of cooking terms, definitions of weights and measurements, guidelines for meal planning, and “helpful hints”. One of the most useful hints involved a technique for determining the oven temperature of a wood burning cook stove, without a thermometer. Instructions: set a flat pan sprinkled with flour in the oven for five minutes. If it becomes a delicate brown, the oven is “slow” [250 – 300]. If the flour turns a golden brown, the oven is “moderate” [350 – 400]. And a deep, dark brown means the oven is “hot” [400-450]. Of course, the next step was to try and “adjust” the temperature of the oven by adding or removing wood – easier said than done! Another helpful hint was “don’t put macaroni in cold water and allow to start cooking, because it will stick”. Then there was “tough meat may be made tender by pounding, slow cooking, or laying it in vinegar water”. And finally, this one was pretty important at times – “to get rid of ants, place lumps of camphor in their runways and near sweets infested with them”. Among the most unique and unusual dishes in the book was something known as “shipwreck”, a hearty stew of onions, potatoes, celery, canned meat, canned tomatoes, canned beans, and whatever spices and seasonings were on hand! Another popular dish was “scrapple”, a fried mixture of bacon, corn meal, onions, salt and pepper. The vast majority of recipes were for simple, traditional comfort food, and tailored to meals for one or two people. Since food supplies were delivered to the tower only every six weeks, one couldn’t just run down to the local grocery store if an ingredient was needed at the last minute!
After an appropriate time of remembrance on the summit, I began the long descent down the trail to the lake, and more adventures following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. From Reservoir Lake campground, I drove back down the rough gravel road and then west up to the summit of Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide, where I found a beautiful, historic site that commemorated the discovery by Lewis and Clark of the “headwaters” of the Missouri River in the summer of 1805. But in reality, it was a small spring just a hundred yards below the pass, and barely wide enough to step across!
While it’s not the most distant source of the Missouri, it is certainly the westernmost. (The most distant source is a spring in the Centennial Valley below Red Rock Pass far to the east.) Upon reaching the summit of Lemhi Pass, I encountered a “living history” member of the National Park Service, dressed in clothing of the early 1800’s. He told me about the life and times of the Lewis and Clark expedition as they looked out to the west and discovered the waters that flowed to the Pacific Ocean – fascinating stories!
The 7,400 foot-high pass in the Beaverhead Mountains, part of the Bitterroot Range, gained importance in the 18th century when the local Shoshone tribe acquired horses and used the route to travel between the two main regions of their homeland, the present day states of Montana and Idaho. From the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, until the Oregon Treaty with England in 1846, the pass marked the western boundary of the United States. When Lewis and Clark crossed the pass in August of 1805, they were the first white men to see present day Idaho. For many years it was known as “North Pass”, to distinguish it from “South Pass” in Wyoming. Its present name was derived from nearby Fort Lemhi, established by Mormon missionaries in 1855. During the mining era of the late 1800’s, the pass was used by stagecoaches, but the route was later abandoned in 1910 when the “Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad” laid track through nearby Bannock Pass to the south. However, the single-track dirt road across the pass still exists today, in much the same condition as in the past.
Meanwhile, modern heavy equipment worked nearby, maintaining the old road. Later, I descended the very steep mountain road to the tiny Native American village of Agency Creek, on the banks of the Lemhi River. Then I joined Idaho state highway 28 north to the small one store town of Tendoy, Idaho, near the historic site where Sacajawea was reunited with her brother, a chief of the local Shoshone tribe. (She had been captured by the Blackfeet nation several years earlier while on a buffalo hunt in Montana) As I continued north toward Salmon, Idaho, I stopped frequently to view the numerous historic exhibits recalling the experiences of Lewis and Clark, as well as the sad tale of the Nezperce tribe as they were forced from their homeland by the US Army in the late 1800’s. (Although they avoided capture for several years, they finally ended up being herded on to a reservation in Northeastern Washington state, far from their ancestral home.) All along the highway, I passed many large ranches harvesting immense fields of hay, in much the same manner as the ranchers in the Big Hole Valley on the other side of the rugged Bitterroot Mountains.
As I entered the town of Salmon, I discovered a really nice, new brewpub called “Bertrams”, which surprised me, being in such a small town, a hundred miles from the next largest town. I ordered a cold pint of their Pale Ale and a Monte Cristo sandwich (turkey, ham, and cheese on grilled egg battered bread) It was huge and came with a large garden salad of fresh greens and Huckleberry vinaigrette dressing – absolutely superb! As I pulled out of town and continued north, the temperature sign on the Idaho State Bank read a blistering 106 degrees – and yes, it felt hot! Further on, as I approached Lost Trail Pass, I encountered a Forest Service roadblock, due to several forest fires burning in the Bitterroot National Forest. It meant that all traffic had to follow a pilot car for more than 14 miles to the Idaho/Montana border. Once over the pass, the Bitterroot Valley was pretty much filled with smoke from the fires, and at times it blocked out the sun, almost turning day into night. At the small town of Granitesville, Montana I turned east on Forest Service road #38, up to Skahalko Pass, on my way to the copper capitol of Anaconda. Along the way, through lush pine forest of the Deerlodge National Forest, I suddenly came upon a couple of old bikers who were obviously in need of help. Their huge Harley and its trailer had slid off the road, most likely a result of the rough gravel. It was sitting at an awkward angle on the steep slope, and almost into the trees. The old grey bearded biker and his “mama” were unable to push the heavy bike up the slope and get it upright on the road again. So, I stopped to lend a hand, easier said than done – that bike was very heavy! (There was no way the two of them could have gotten it back on the road) Looking back on the situation, I was one of the very few vehicles on the road, so who knows how long they would have had to wait for help! Later in the afternoon, as I approached the old mining town of Anaconda, the landscape suddenly became treeless, a result of decades of disastrous effects from huge copper smelting operations. And strangely enough, several miles before entering the old town, the speed limit suddenly dropped from 75mph to 35mph, for no apparent reason, especially since I was almost alone on the highway! Once I got into the old town, I found it to be almost a “living” ghost town, with scores of empty, deserted buildings and houses. Yet evidence was everywhere that pointed to the importance of the town many decades earlier. Now it was only a lonely memory clinging to life – so sad to see. As I headed east out of town, I saw a gorgeous sunset behind me and the dark silhouette of the world’s tallest smokestack, clearly outlined against the deep orange glow of the sun! A short time later, I pulled into Butte and found a nice Red Lion Inn for the night.
The following morning, I visited the historic “Uptown District” of the city, where some of the beautiful old stone and red brick buildings were being faithfully restored. Basically, the whole town sat on a high hill, barren of any trees, and studded with the rusting remains of old, abandoned “headrigs” marking the site of dozens of old copper mine shafts. The city was also surrounded by massive open pit mines – needless to say, not a very scenic location. And yet, beautiful old Victorian houses from the 1800’s were scattered among crumbling old mining shacks – what a contrast! It had the appearance of an overgrown mining camp.
Among the most significant historic sites in Butte were three old railway stations that had been beautifully preserved from the era of elegant passenger rail travel. (Great Northern RR, Northern Pacific RR, Milwaukee Road RR) Another fascinating site of historical importance was the “World Museum of Mining”, an authentic re-creation of an old mining camp from the turn of the century, with lots of old mining equipment. It was located on the site of the recently closed “Orphan Girl Mine” – a real “gem” in Butte and well worth a visit.
Later, as I headed south out of town, I saw a huge roadside billboard promoting “Evil Knieval Daze”, a local festival honoring their hometown son. Then, I drove down to Dillon and made a short stop at the Dillon Ranger Station to enquire about the story behind the demolition of Selway Mountain Lookout. But there was no one now working at the station who was around at that time, so they had no information to share, sad to say. Several miles south of Dillon, I turned on to a narrow, winding gravel road leading up Medicine Lodge Creek and down Big Sheep Creek. It was a beautiful, but lonely drive, with spectacular views of the rugged Centennial Mountains.
Eventually the road lead me over Bannock Pass and the Continental Divide once again, to the small town of Dubois, Idaho – home of the National Sheep Research Station. East of Dubois was the lovely resort town of Island Park, on the shore of Henry’s Lake, in the shadow of the magnificent Teton Mountains. After a short stop for photos, I headed north over Targhee Pass (and the Continental Divide once more) toward West Yellowstone, Montana. The highway followed the shoreline of Hebgen Lake, which was formed over 50 years earlier as a result of an enormous earthquake that dammed the Madison River. A few miles from West Yellowstone, I saw a sign for cabins at the Bar N Ranch, so I decided to investigate lodging for the night. What I discovered was a huge, gorgeous log ranch house, along with a half dozen rustic log cabins along the shore of a small lake. An old cowboy showed me one of the cabins, beautifully furnished with Southwest Indian artwork – perfect for the night.
However, the ranch did not accept payment by credit card, so I had to drive 6 miles into West Yellowstone to get cash from an ATM. (But it was definitely worth it) The next day I went into Yellowstone National Park and hiked part of the North Rim Trail above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The views of Upper Yellowstone Falls were nothing less than spectacular!
Then, as I drove north to Mammoth Hot Springs, I saw an abundance of wildlife – Elk, Bison, Osprey, Eagle, Whooping Crane, Black Bear, and Marmot. The days were very warm (85 – 90 degrees), but nights were quite cool (38 – 40 degrees).
The sight of Mammoth Hot Springs was absolutely incredible, with the waters being every color of the rainbow! (“spectacular” hardly did them justice!) The site is actually a large complex of many hot springs that were created over thousands of years as the hot water cooled and deposited calcium carbonate, at a rate of two tons per day! The source of the hot water, several thousand feet below the surface, travels to the surface via a major fault line that runs through a massive layer of limestone. The superheated water emerges at a temperature of around 170 degrees. Along the edges of the hot pools, various species of algae flourish, tinting the water brilliant colors of brown, orange, red, blue, and green. Over millennia, as the thermal source of the springs slowly migrated north, the deposits of calcium carbonate formed travertine terraces, one of the most striking features of Mammoth Hot Springs! As evening approached, I headed back to my cabin at the Bar N Ranch, and sat outside on the patio overlooking the lake, with a cold glass of local Yellowstone Pale Ale. The night sky was filled with billions of stars and the Milky Way, as a beautiful “Harvest Moon” slowly rose above the Madison Mountains to the north.
As I sat quietly, the distant sound of Whooping Cranes reached my ear, and at the same time, I suddenly became aware of something “swooping” past me in the night. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was being surrounded by bats as they were feeding on flying insects around the lake! Later, I saw hundreds of swallows nesting in the eaves of the lodge – they also helped control the mosquito population around the lake. The next morning, I had a huge “cowboy breakfast” in the lodge before heading back to Bozeman airport for my return flight home. It was a lovely drive following the Gallatin River under bright, sunny skies and surrounded by rugged peaks of the Absaroka Mountains. There were lots of fly fishermen trying their luck to land a large Golden Trout, for which the rivers of Southwest Montana are justly famous. I had time to pay a short visit to the Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana. In July of 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped at the site on their historic journey to find the source of the Missouri River. They were very likely the first white men to enter the region.
Faced with the junction of three different rivers, they were uncertain as to which of the “forks” to follow. But after some discussion, they decided to explore the southwestern most branch, known to the Shoshone tribe as the “Beaverhead River”. Eventually it would lead them to a small spring near Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide. Later, their decision not to name the Beaverhead River the Missouri, raised debate about which was the longest river in North America. Although the Missouri and Mississippi were almost identical in length, the Mississippi was a few miles longer. Had the Beaverhead River been named the Missouri, it would have won the debate! Ironically, Lewis and Clark thought they had discovered the ultimate source of the Missouri below Lemhi Pass, but they had only discovered the western most point. The most distant source was actually much further east at the headwaters of the Red Rock River, around 8,000 feet elevation in the Centennial Mountains of southwestern Montana.
From the state park, I drove to the Bozeman airport and checked in for the Delta flight to Salt Lake City and onward to Ontario airport. As I reclined in my First Class seat and sipped a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I looked back on two weeks of fun and adventure in two very different and unique regions of America. I returned home with a wealth of fascinating travel stories and amazing photos to share with family and friends. Such is the lure and pleasure of travel that I enjoy so much! And I hope you have enjoyed the trip with me.