Heading for home tomorrow.
Heading for home tomorrow.
Leaving the Tetons, we head north to Yellowstone National Park. When you think of Yellowstone, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Old Faithful. Geysers. Eruptions.
No idea what tomorrow will bring.
Vroom. And ka-boom!
How long can Sarah milk this birthday thing? As long as she wants.
So, we’re on Day 3 of birthday party week, and we’re spending it at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.
It’s a 7.4-mile loop around the high alpine lake. Hiking the loop is today’s ”project.”
Heading for Yellowstone tomorrow.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, this is supposed to be a Harley travel blog. Hey, vroomin’ is vroomin’. Get over it.
Seeing the Tetons in a Porsche isnt all bad.
In case you missed it yesterday, this is Sarah’s birthday trip — she gets to travel any way she wants.
And she can point her camera any direction, however unflattering.
If you haven’t been to the Tetons, you should add them to your list of desired destinations.
On the way to Grand Teton National Park, we stopped in Jackson. There’s a town square with an antler arch on each corner.
It’s Sarah’s birthday!
Good time for a road trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Woo-hoo!
In the Boxster🎉🙏🎉
Heading for Flaming Gorge, Utah.
Its about a five-hour drIve from Carbondale. We’re at the Red Canyon Lodge, overlooking Flaming Gorge. In Cabin #24.
It’s just a short walk to the rim trail, overlooking Flaming Gorge.
Tomorrow, we are off to the Grand Tetons.
I’ve been home for almost 24 hours. Am missing the daily ride routine: fuel up, hit the road, make some turns, enjoy the scenery, take hydration break, check into motel, eat dinner, crash, and get ready to it all over again the next day.
Oh, and snap some pics along the way.
Which made me think, why not a final “Photo Postscript” blog post, sharing my favorite pics from this year’s ride.
So, here you go. Enjoy the highlight reel. Vroom!
p.s. It was a great ride, but I’m super glad to be home 🙂
(Blog note: the following post should have been posted Tuesday night. Due to a clerical error [oops, I forgot], it’s being posted on Wednesday morning instead).
Tonight, for the first time in 18 days, I’ll be sleeping in my own bed, in Carbondale. With Sarah.
All that is good reason to fire up the bikes and head south out of Steamboat Springs.
We’re following the Yampa River on Colorado Highway 131. We pass through the towns of Phippsburg, Oak Creek and Yampa, each with populations comfortably in the very low triple digits.
Just a few miles east of Oak Creek is Stagecoach State Park. In the winter, the park offers ice fishing, showshoeing, cross-country skiing and fat biking along seven miles of groomed trails. Fat biking does not refer to the conditioning of the rider; a fat bike has oversized tires, typically four inches or more in diameter – designed for low ground pressure to allow riding on soft, unstable terrain – like snow.
Stagecoach State Park is about 20 miles south of Steamboat Springs, and is the site of a one-time ski area named Stagecoach. The ski area operated in the early 1970s, and closed after two seasons. It was originally intended to be one of the largest ski areas in Colorado. There have been numerous attempts over the past few decades to re-open a ski area where Stagecoach once was. So far, none have succeeded.
Stagecoach Ski area was a mile south of where Stagecoach reservoir is today; the reservoir, not built until the late 1980s, didn’t exist when the ski area was in operation. The name Stagecoach comes from the mode of transportation once used to travel over Yellow Jacket Pass, now (Routt) County Road 14, on the way to Oak Creek or Steamboat Springs.
Forty miles after leaving Steamboat Springs, we arrive in Toponas, whose population is safely in double digits. Here, we turn onto Colorado Highway 134, which will take us over Gore Pass.
Gore Pass is named after Al Gore, winner of the 2000 presidential election. Though he never took office in the White House, the Pass seems like a reasonable consolation prize.
It’s a great road for the next 27 miles, winding its way over Gore Pass, which is at 9,527 feet. Unlike Rabbit Ears Pass, a well-traveled highway we rode yesterday into Steamboat Springs, Gore Pass has an almost total lack of people and cars. Because of that, bicyclists consider it a hidden gem.
As we ride over Gore Pass, and through Arapaho National Forest, we don’t see mountain peaks. Instead, we’re surrounded by aspen and pine trees.
We arrive at the summit and see traces of a sign that identifies an alternate naming of Gore Pass. This “other” naming says Gore Pass is named after Sir St. George Gore, an Irish baronet from Sligo, whose sole purpose was to break records and fill his trophy room.
In 1975, there was a sign on the highway that read: “Here in 1855 crossed Sir St. George Gore, an Irish baronet bent on the slaughter of game and guided by Jim Bridger. For three years he scoured Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, accompanied usually by fort men, many carts, wagons, hounds, and unexampled camp luxuries. More than 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 deer and elk, and 100 bears were massacred for sport.”
Which do you prefer? Al Gore, inventor of the Internet and savior of the planet, or Sir St. George Gore, destroyer of animal life?
Highway 134, named after a Gore, ends as it intersects with US Highway 40, just five miles north of Kremmling, which calls itself “the best little town you’ve never heard of.” We’ve heard of it, because we rolled through it yesterday on our way to Rabbit Ears Pass. And I read about it on my blog last night.
Kremmling, home to about 1,500 hearty souls, sits at the confluence of the Colorado River and adjoining Blue River and Muddy Creek. Elevation here is 7,313 feet.
In Kremmling, we turn south on Colorado Highway 9, which follows the Blue River until it empties into the Green Mountain Reservoir. The Green Mountain Dam, at an elevation of 7,950 feet, was built between 1938 and 1942 by the US Bureau of Reclamation.
The dam and reservoir store water to benefit Colorado’s Western Slope, which is pretty much everything in the state west of the Continental Divide. The reservoir’s lake is popular with fishermen, who catch rainbow trout, lake trout, brown trout, and kokanee.
Thirty-seven miles after leaving Kremmling, we arrive in Silverthorne, which sits at 9,035 feet. Silverthorne was named for Judge Marshall Silverthorne, who served as the judge of the miner’s court in nearby Breckenridge.
Silverthorne was a makeshift camp for workers during the construction of the Dillon Reservoir from 1961 to 1963. In Silverthorne, we’re only a few miles from the Dillon Reservoir, which provides 40 percent of Denver’s fresh water supply.
Silverthorne is a relatively reasonably priced place to stay while skiing nearby winter resorts, including Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge. Silverthorne even has a park-and-ride system that will deliver you to those high-priced Summit County ski areas.
It’s a good place to gas up, grab a soda, and get ready for the ride south toward Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the US.
We jump on Interstate 70 for 10 miles, and exit at the Copper Mountain ski area, which sits at the junction of I-70 and Colorado Highway 91.
Copper Mountain, with 26 lifts and more than 2,500 skiable acres, is known for its naturally divided terrain, allowing skiers and riders to enjoy the mountain at their own pace. Copper is home to the US Ski Team’s downhill training each season.
Copper Mountain is owned by Powdr Resorts, one of the smaller resort conglomerates. Powdr’s other holdings include Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, Killington in Vermont, Lee Canyon outside of Las Vegas, Snowbird in Utah, and Eldora, about 20 miles west of Boulder in Colorado. Oh, you probably knew this – Powdr is not a typo. It’s a clever marketing name.
Highway 91 takes us south toward Fremont Pass. At 11,318 feet, the pass forms the Continental Divide on the border between Lake County and Summit County. It’s named for John C. Frémont, an explorer who discovered the pass while traversing present-day Colorado during the 1840s.
The pass summit is the site of Climax Mine, a molybdenum mine. At its highest output, the Climax mine was the largest molybdenum mine in the world, and for many years it supplied three-fourths of the world’s supply of molybdenum.
Molybdenum, atomic number 42, is a silvery-white metal that is ductile and highly resistant to corrosion. It has one of the highest melting points of all pure elements — only the elements tantalum and tungsten have higher melting points. And that concludes today’s science lecture.
From Fremont Pass, it’s about 11 miles to the historic town of Leadville, which sits at 10,152 feet. It’s a former silver mining town, whose population was nearly 30,000 at the height of the mining boom. Today, the population is closer to 2,700.
Leadville is credited with producing 240 million troy ounces of silver and nearly three million troy ounces of gold. For the curious among you: a troy ounce is a unit of measure used to denote the value of a precious metal; it’s about 10 percent heavier than the “avoirdupois” ounce, which you use for everyday purposes. So, an ounce of gold weighs 2.759537 grams more than an ounce of sugar.
Maybe today’s science lecture wasn’t quite over.
Just before rolling into Leadville, we turn north on US Highway 24, which turns and twists for the next 29 miles, taking us over Tennessee Pass and on to Minturn.
Tennessee Pass, elevation 10,424 feet, sits on the continental divide. It’s named after Tennessee, native state of a group of early mining prospectors in the area near Leadville. Tennessee is also the one-time home of Al Gore, after whom Gore Pass is named. Remember that, from earlier today?
Tennessee Pass serves as the dividing line between the San Isabel National Forest, and the White River National Forest. It’s also the location for Ski Cooper, one of the oldest ski areas in Colorado. Ski Cooper, not to be confused with Copper Mountain, has views of some of Colorado’s highest peaks in the Sawatch Range, including Mount Massive (14,429 feet) and Mount Elbert (14,439 feet), the state’s two highest fourteeners.
Ski Cooper’s origin goes back to World War II. In 1942, the US Army selected a site near the isolated railroad stop of Pando, Colorado, to train the ski troopers of the famed 10th Mountain Division. It was the only US military unit since the Civil War to be recruited by a civilian entity, the National Ski Patrol.
The training site, which became Camp Hale, was chosen for its rail access, rugged mountainous terrain, and 250 inches of average annual snowfall. All that assured a six-month-long ski training season at nearby 11,700-foot Cooper Hill.
After two years of rigorous training, the 10th Mountain Division was ordered to Italy in 1945 and played a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy. Sadly, 992 ski troopers were killed in action and 4,000 wounded, the highest casualty rate of any U.S. division in the Mediterranean.
Following the end of the war, some veterans founded Ski Cooper as a public ski area. To this day, it continues to host a Memorial Day celebration for the World War II veterans of this division. Ski Cooper is a laid-back ski area, with two chairlifts and a family atmosphere. Season passes for the 2021-2022 season went on sale July 1. Listen up, old farts: season passes for those 75 and older are free!
I’ve looked everywhere, unsuccessfully so far, for origins of the Ski Cooper name. Best I can conjure is that it was named after actor Gary Cooper, who was at the top of his game when Ski Cooper was being founded. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in the 1942 film, Sergeant York. That was the same year US Army training for the 10th Mountain Division began at what is now Ski Cooper.
From Tennessee Pass / Ski Cooper, we continue north on the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway, also known as US Highway 24. It’s about 20 miles on this winding road to the charming mountain town of Minturn, population 1,000. It’s named for Robert Minturn, who was vice president of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad that founded the town.
Minturn was originally developed as a railroad town in the late 1800s, attracting railroad workers from around the country who settled in Minturn and helped shape the town’s character.
The whole point of stopping in Minturn is lunch at Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ. Their style of BBQ comes from Asheville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina. Carolina barbecue is usually pork, served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced. It may also be rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid during smoking. Carolina is probably the oldest form of American barbecue.
After 170 miles on the road since leaving Steamboat Springs this morning, it all sounds quite tasty.
We depart Minturn, savoring the taste of the final lunch of our trip. Soon, we join Interstate 70, and head for home.
We’re on I-70 for the next 55 miles. Yes, it’s an interstate. No, it’s not boring. Interstate highways in Colorado break the mold. They are often spectacular, if for no other reason than Colorado is pretty damn spectacular.
We follow the Eagle River, a tributary of the Colorado River. We’ll be tracing the river’s path until Dotsero, where the Eagle dumps into the Colorado.
Soon, we roll past Beaver Creek, a ski area owned and operated by Vail Resorts. Beaver Creek is a regular host of World Cup ski events, usually in early December. The area has 25 lifts, 1,815 skiable acres, and more than 3,300 feet of vertical rise.
We slowly descend out of the mountains, passing the towns of Wolcott and Eagle, until we pass by Gypsum, home to two indispensable businesses: an American Gypsum drywall plant and mine, and the Costco where Sarah and I shop. The town is named for its nearby gypsum deposits. American Gypsum also has wallboard plants in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
The Costco in Gypsum, unlike any I’ve ever been in, is never crowded. Never.
When we lived in La Quinta and shopped regularly at a Costco, five miles from home, it was always crowded. Always. Aisles packed full, long lines at the cash register. Cars circling the parking lot for a rare empty space, like buzzards over buzzkill.
The Coachella Valley, with a winter population estimated at 800,000, has two Costco locations.
What amazes me, is that the smart people who run Costco decided to open a store in little ol’ Gypsum, population 7,300 – seemingly in the middle of Rocky Mountain nowhere.
Generally, when Costco property strategists look for a location for a new warehouse, they want a population center of 200,000 within five miles of the store. If you have a map and do the math, Gypsum’s Costco is a far cry from that standard.
Other than Gypsum, the only town within five miles of the Costco is Eagle (population 7,000). From there, the population centers are quite a ways off in the distance, and probably add up to considerably less than half of the 200,000 threshold.
Vail (population 5,500) is 35 miles away. Glenwood Springs (population 10,000) is 29 miles away. Carbondale (population 7,000) is 43 miles away. And yet …
The huge warehouse chain, with nearly 800 locations worldwide, selected the Gypsum site to open in 2006 because of what it called the “high demographic growth” in the Eagle Valley.
With annual revenues of more than $150 billion, Costco obviously knows what it’s doing. I’m just grateful it’s only a 43-mile drive for my $1.50 hot dog and soda.
It’s about a 50-minute ride from the Gypsum Costco to our home in Carbondale – half of it on the Interstate, half on surface roads.
We continue west on I-70, through spectacular Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs. Glenwood Canyon is about 12 miles long, with walls climbing as high as 1,300 feet from the Colorado River.
Glenwood Canyon is often considered one of the most scenic natural features on the US Interstate Highway System. Building the highway through Glenwood Canyon was no easy feat; to build a four-lane roadway, the Colorado Department of Transportation essentially had to construct two roadways, one nearly on top of the other. Work on the roadway began in 1980, and when completed in 1992, it was the last piece of the interstate highway system to fit into place.
The roadway, built at a cost of $490 million, includes 40 bridges and viaducts, two 4,000-foot tunnels, and four full-service rest areas that provide access to trails and the Colorado River.
The final link of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon has been hailed as an engineering marvel because of the care taken to incorporate the interstate improvements into the fragile canyon environment, while leaving as much of the flora and fauna intact as possible.
Glenwood Canyon ends in Glenwood Springs, where we exit I-70 for the remaining 15-mile ride to Carbondale.
Before you know it, we arrive in Carbondale, and another journey comes to an end.
Oh wait. The description of the last part of our ride can’t possibly be accurate. We had planned to take the route above, through Glenwood Canyon. It’s so beautiful.
But since late July, the interstate highway through the canyon has been closed due to mudslides. So we called an audible and took an alternate route, over Independence Pass, through Aspen and on to home. A great ride, just not what we planned.
Four thousand miles in 18 days. Several of the top motorcycle roads in the country. A bunch of national parks and monuments. Six states. Lots of unhealthy but very tasty food. And of course, Sturgis.
All told, it took about 51,000 words of blogging to describe the trip. That’s enough for a 170-page book, 12-point font, double-spaced with normal margins. Sadly, this year’s effort falls just short of what would be considered an average-length novel.
Still, if by some chance you learned anything over the past few weeks during your consumption of this blog, anything at all, you’re welcome!
Until next year …
Day Eighteen Summary: 244 miles. Gore Pass, Tennessee Pass, Glenwood Canyon.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to Carbondale, Colorado.
Colorado fun fact: The Grand Mesa, east of Grand Junction, is known as the largest flattop mountain in the world. Spanning around 500 square miles and standing more than 10,000 feet above sea level, the Grand Mesa is home to various wildlife, distinct geologic features, Grand Mesa National Forest, and spectacular views.
Colorado favorite food: The Food Network’s list of essential Colorado foods includes the Truffle Fries at Aspen’s Ajax Tavern. Yes, $17 for fries is a bit of a splurge, but as a spud connoisseur, I can attest to their scrumptiousness. In the four years we’ve lived in Colorado, every guest at our Cozy Carbondale Cottage has been treated to Truffle Fries in Aspen. They’re hand cut from Idaho potatoes (not frozen), drizzled with truffle oil and tossed with Parmesan and parsley. C’mon … you have the rest of your life to diet!
Colorado funky place name: Nederland, west of Boulder, got its name when a mine in the area was sold to Mining Company Nederland, from the Netherlands, in 1873. Nederland means “low land” in Dutch. The town of Nederland is located significantly lower than the Caribou Mine that was purchased by the Dutch mining company. Still, low-lying Nederland sits at an elevation of 8,228 feet.
Colorado famous folk: Mikaela Shiffrin, the most decorated female ski racer in US history, was born in Vail, and still lives there when not on the World Cup circuit. She won the first of two Olympic gold medals at the age of 18, making her the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history. The 26-year-old Shiffrin, who lives in Vail when she’s not traveling the world, is expected to shatter all World Cup and Olympic records by the time she hangs up her gear for the last time. Shiffrin may be the greatest ski racer of all time, male or female. She’s that good.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Kickin’ back, nothing to do.
Cheyenne is less than 10 miles from the Colorado state border. I can almost sniff being home.
So, we leave cowboy town, point south on Interstate 25, and begin our final two days on the road. Well, my final two days. Dave and Scott won’t be home quite so quickly.
After 27 miles, we exit the Interstate and head west, eventually arriving at Ted’s Place. Who’s Ted?
In 1922, 29-year-old Ted Herring opened a gas station and store at the intersection of US Highway 287 and Colorado Highway 14. Ted cut the ribbon on the station just in time for fishing season – on May 22, 1922, and it didn’t take long for the name, Ted’s Place, to stick.
Ted turned out to be more than just a gas jockey. In 1938, he was elected to the Colorado state legislature, where he served six terms in the House, followed by one term in the Senate.
Ted’s Place is located near the mouth of the Poudre Canyon, about five miles northwest of Fort Collins.
Ted died in 1963, and today, after a succession of different owners, his property is just another gas station owned by Shell. Whatever it’s called, it’ll always be Ted’s Place.
At Ted’s Place, we continue south, past Bellvue, and along the eastern shore of Horsetooth Reservoir. The reservoir, just west of Fort Collins, takes its name from nearby Horsetooth Mountain.
In 1933, the Poudre Valley had been enduring years of drought and dust storms. Local farmers began realizing the need for more water to satisfy the thirst of the crop-bearing farms around Fort Collins.
Knowing the water from the Poudre River was inconsistent, sometimes providing too much and at other times not enough, Horsetooth Reservoir was developed to solve the problem. The reservoir acquired its name from the unique rock formation that sits above the large body of water.
A few miles past the southern end of Horsetooth Reservoir, we arrive in Masonville, little more than a post office, a Presbyterian Church, and Masonville Mercantile. Buckhorn Road brings us closer to civilization, delivering us to US Highway 34.
In about 20 minutes, we arrive in Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. The town is named after Missouri native Joel Estes, who founded the community in 1859, then moved his family there four years later.
Estes Park sits along the Big Thompson River, and adjoins Lake Estes. The river s named for English fur trapper David Thompson, employed in 1810 by the Northwest Fur Company to explore the Rockies.
The most famous landmark in Estes Park is the historic Stanley Hotel, which served as the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s 1977 bestselling novel, The Shining. The hotel was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley of Stanley Steamer fame. It opened on July 4, 1909, as a resort for upper class easterners and a health retreat for sufferers of pulmonary tuberculosis. The 142-room hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places.
We’ve been on the road a little more than two hours as we roll into Estes Park. It’s a good place to relax before we push on to Rocky Mountain National Park, home to the highest paved mountain pass in North America.
With about 4.5 million visitors each year, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited national parks, right up there with Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone. Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina is by far the most visited park, with more than nine million people enjoying its beauty every year. It was the first national park I visited on a Harley.
Rocky Mountain National Park, established in 1915, is one of four national parks that are in the Rocky Mountain Range. The other three we visited earlier on this trip: Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier.
US Highway 34 takes us into the park’s eastern entrance, and soon becomes Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road runs 48 miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake, at the western entrance to the park. It took the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1929 to 1932 to build the road, because heavy snows kept them from working more than three months a year.
As you might guess, it’s closed during the winter. Trail Ridge Road usually opens in late May, and closes around Columbus Day in October, when the National Park Service gives up fighting the snow and turns the road back to Mother Nature for the winter.
The highest point on Trail Ridge Road is 12,183 feet above sea level. We arrive there about a half-hour after leaving Estes Park. Up here, it’s about 30 degrees cooler than when we entered the park.
From the park’s highest point on Trail Ridge Road, we descend about 400 feet to the Alpine Visitor Center, which is at 11,796 feet. It’s the highest visitor center in the National Park system.
It’s also a good place to rest, grab something to drink and enjoy the sights from the rear deck, before continuing with the 15-mile ride to the park’s west entrance, the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Along the way, we roll past 10,759-foot Milner Pass.
The pass sits on the Continental Divide, with the Never Summer Mountains to the west, and Poudre Lake to the east. The lake, which is the source of the Cache La Poudre river, freezes completely in the winter. As a result, it’s a dead lake, because no fish can survive. Bummer.
Sixteen miles later, after a steep descent, we exit the park, and arrive at Grand Lake, the largest natural body of water in Colorado. Grand Lake sits at 8,369 feet – more than 3,800 feet below the high point on Trail Ridge Road.
Grand Lake is Colorado’s deepest natural lake, and is part of the headwaters of the Colorado River. The lake has what’s believed to be the world’s highest-altitude yacht club.
Highway 34 follows the western shoreline of Grand Lake, then takes us along the western edge of Lake Granby, and to the town of Granby, population around 2,100. The town was founded in 1904 along the route of the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway, and incorporated one year later. It was named after Granby Hillyer, a Denver lawyer who later served as the US Attorney for the area that today includes Granby.
In Granby, we turn west on US Highway 40, and follow the Colorado River for 28 miles, until arriving in the town of Kremmling, population 1,500.
Like so many towns in the area, Kremmling was founded during the Colorado silver boom days. The original post office here was called Kinsey City, named after brothers Aaron and John Kinsey, who had a local ranch. The Kinsey City postmaster was Rudolph Kremmling, who ran the town’s general store. In 1895, the town was officially re-named Kremmling.
US Highway 40 turns sharply north in Kremmling. The road climbs gradually until 30 miles later, we reach Rabbit Ears Pass, at 9,426 feet. The pass supposedly has the shape of rabbit ears, though they’re hard to see when you’re vrooming by at 60 miles an hour. What we do see, is a sign that reminds us Rabbit Ears Pass is on the Continental Divide. On the east side, water flows toward the Atlantic watershed; on the west side, it flows toward the Pacific watershed.
From Rabbit Ears Pass, it’s about 20 miles on Highway 40 to tonight’s destination, – nicknamed “The Boat.” Steamboat Springs, population 12,000, has its own hot springs, which gave the town its name.
Upon first hearing a chugging sound, early trappers believed that a steamboat was coming down the river. When the trappers saw that there was no steamboat, and that the sound was coming from a hot spring, they decided to name the spring Steamboat Springs. Long before that, the Yampa Valley was the summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indians for hundreds of years. The Utes called them “medicine springs.”
The natural mineral springs, by whatever name, are located throughout the town.
Like so many Colorado mountain towns – Aspen, Vail, Telluride, Crested Butte, Breckenridge, and Winter Park among them – Steamboat Springs has an economy built on tourism. In the 1960s, skiing put Steamboat Springs on the map, and with good reason. The Steamboat Ski Resort, located on Mount Werner, has nearly 3,000 skiable acres, a vertical rise of more than 3,600 feet, and 26 lifts.
Steamboat Springs has great skiing, and typically awesome Colorado snow. But is it appreciably better than you’d find elsewhere in the Rockies?
A Steamboat Springs marketing campaign in the 1960s made famous the term “champagne powder.” Other Colorado ski areas began using those words, and nearly 50 years later, Steamboat filed a federal trademark application with the US Patent and Trademark Office to claim the name, “champagne powder,” as their own. As a result, other Colorado resorts may have similar snow, but Steamboat is the only one that can claim to have champagne powder. Whatever that is.
Like other major Colorado ski towns, Steamboat eventually diversified and added a strong summer tourist business. In the summer, you can do everything here from mountain biking to horseback riding, golfing, fishing, and rafting on the Yampa River. There’s even an annual Hot Air Balloon Festival, held every July. Other than your imagination, there’s no limit to what a person can do here on an August afternoon.
Lacking imagination, we pull into our hotel, relax, eat dinner, and think about tomorrow – the final day of our 2021 ride.
Day Seventeen Summary: 220 miles. Who’s Ted? Rocky Mountain National Park, Rabbit Ears Pass.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Wyoming fun fact: In 1869, the Wyoming territory became first in the nation to grant women over the age of 21 the right to vote. Legislators passed the bill for several reasons, including a genuine conviction that women should have the same rights as men, and a desire to attract new settlers to the territory by making it appear more modern.
Colorado fun fact: The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest dunes in North America. Within the park, you can hike the Star Dune, which rises approximately 750 feet above the floor of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. The dunes at the National Park cover an area of about 30 square miles, and are estimated to contain more than 6.5 billion cubic yards of sand.
Wyoming favorite food: Wyoming doesn’t have any official state foods, though jerky of any kind is an iconic staple. Especially popular are buffalo, antelope, venison, elk, and even rattlesnake. They’re all low in fat and cholesterol, high in protein.
Colorado favorite food: More than 300 craft beers are brewed in Colorado. They’re popular enough that we’ll consider them a food for purposes of this blog. My hometown of Carbondale has its own craft beer scene, including Roaring Fork Beer Company and Carbondale Beer Works.
Wyoming funky place name: Laramie, home to the University of Wyoming, is located along the Laramie River in southeastern Wyoming. The city is named for Jacques LaRamie, a French-Canadian trapper who disappeared in the nearby mountains in the 1810s and was never heard from again. More Wyoming landmarks are named for him than for any other trapper, except Jim Bridger.
Colorado funky place name: Coffeepot Pass, elevation 12,726 feet, in Pitkin County, was named by a group of prospectors in the 1870s. They found an abandoned coffeepot while traveling over this route. There’s no record that the exploration relic has ever been found.
Wyoming famous folk: Gerry Spence is a classic country lawyer, born in Laramie and a graduate of the University of Wyoming College of Law. Spence began his career as a defense attorney, then, saying he “saw the light,” became committed to representing people instead of corporations, insurance companies and banks. The semi-retired 92-year-old has a home in Jackson Hole, and is in the Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame.
Colorado famous folk: Singer John Denver, born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., lived in Aspen for much of his adult life after adopting Colorado as his beloved home state. His 1972 song, “Rocky Mountain High,” was inspired by his love for the state. It’s one of Colorado’s official state songs. Denver lived in Aspen for a quarter century until dying in an airplane crash in 1997, when the Rutan Long-EZ experimental aircraft he was flying crashed into Monterey Bay, California. He was 48, flying with a suspended pilot’s license, and a lot of music still to be written and sung.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Home at last!
We say goodbye to Rapid City, our home for the past four days, as we head west on US Highway 16 one last time.
Mount Rushmore Road takes us past Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, through Rockerville, and on to Hill City, known as “Heart of the Hills.” The Hills, of course, are the Black Hills, which we’ll be riding through for another hour or so, as we start our long journey home.
Like so many towns and cities in the Black Hills, Hill City traces its roots to the mining rush of the late 19th century. In 1876, it was the first settlement established in conjunction with the initial discovery of Black Hills gold in French Creek, just 13 miles south of where Hill City sits today.
Tin mining was dominant in the 1880s, but the so-called “Tin Age” was short-lived, and as that industry waned, tourism and timber became increasingly important.
Today, with a population of around 1,000, Hill City comes alive every summer with the rumble of thousands of Harleys coming to town for the Sturgis motorcycle rally. The town even has its own Harley store, Hill City Harley-Davidson, located in an old funeral parlor on — wait for it — Harley Drive.
As we continue south on US Highway 385, we ride by a turnoff to the Crazy Horse Memorial – a monument that’s been under construction since 1948 and is still decades from completion.
The Crazy Horse Memorial will depict Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The sculpture’s final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. If it’s ever completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial could become the world’s largest sculpture, dwarfing nearby Mount Rushmore. For now, the Crazy Horse Memorial is just considered the world’s largest mountain carving in progress.
The carving began more than 70 years ago, the work of Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor and designer of the memorial. “By carving Crazy Horse,” he said, “if I can give back to the Indian some of his price and create a means to keep alive his culture and heritage, my life will have been worthwhile.”
Ziolowski died in 1982, at age 74. His family is carrying on the tradition. Monique Ziolkowski, the ninth child of Korczak and Ruth Ziolowski is now the CEO and Director of Mountain Carving, Construction and Maintenance. Her sister, Jadwiga, the fourth of the nine Ziolowski children, is the CEO of the Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s a family business their dad would have been proud of.
Every year, more than a million people visit the memorial. It’s become a controversial and divisive symbol. Some think it’s become a tribute not to Crazy Horse, but to the Ziolkowski family. If this blog post seems short on detail, here’s a really interesting read.
A few miles south of the Crazy Horse Memorial, we roll through Custer, generally considered to be the oldest town established by European Americans in the Black Hills. Custer claims to have the widest Main Street in the United States. The 100-foot roadways were built in the 19th century to accommodate a team of oxen pulling a wagon to turn completely around.
Custer is named for Major General George Custer, a cavalry commander in the Civil War and American Indian Wars. Custer was admitted to the US Military Academy (West Point), where he graduated last in his class of 1861. He died at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, at the age of 36, fighting a coalition of Lakota and Cheyenne Indians.
The 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” It was the most decisive Native American victory and the worst US Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in that battle would be confined to reservations.
From Custer, we continue south. Next stop is the oddly named ghost town of Sanator. The US Postal Service established a post office here in 1921, and called it Sanator – after the local South Dakota Tuberculosis Sanitorium. For blog readers too young to remember, a sanatorium is a medical facility for long-term illness, most typically associated with treatment of tuberculosis. The Sanator post office has been closed since 1962.
The town of Pringle, population 112, is seven miles ahead.
Pringle is named after the stackable potato chips that have been a snack staple since 1967. Originally developed by Procter & Gamble in 1967, and marketed as “Pringle’s Newfangled Potato Chips,” the name was changed for introduction to the national market. Procter & Gamble chose the Pringles name from a Cincinnati telephone book, selecting Pringle Avenue in Finneytown, Ohio, for its pleasing sound.
The brand was sold to Kellogg’s in 2012. Pringles are now sold in more than 140 countries, and are said to be the fourth most popular snack brand after Lay’s, Doritos and Cheetos.
There’s a lot of internet debate over whether Pringles are actually potato chips. Turns out they are made of about 42% potatoes. Among the other ingredients are wheat starch and flowers, vegetable oils, an emulsifier, salt, and seasoning. This mix is then made into a mushy paste, which is extruded out of a machine in precise quantities – meaning every Pringle is exactly the same size, shape and consistency.
The consistent saddle shape is mathematically known as a hyperbolic paraboloid. This allows them to stack perfectly in the can. Technically, they contain something that was once part of a potato, but it’s probably reasonable to make a distinction between them and ordinary potato chips.
Pringles come in an avalanche of flavors, from basic potato chips, to Mac ‘N Cheese, Honey Mustard, BBQ, Buffalo Ranch, Jalapeno and more. In 2019, the website Delish taste-tested 21 Pringles flavors. Their favorite: the Original.
The website Thrillist did a similar taste test of 35 Pringles flavors. Their testers came to a slightly different conclusion, opting for Cheddar Cheese as the Number One choice. Said one of the tasters: “The flavor of the Original – that potato taste coupled with glorious salt – meshes beautifully with a generous dusting of bright-orange Cheddar dust that melts in your mouth.” Mmmmmmmmmm, good.
Oops. I must have taken my eye off the ball while writing today’s blog post.
Pringle, a semi-ghost town in Custer County, got its start as a stage stop on the Sidney-Custer Trail. Operated by cattleman Henry Pringle, the town was actually named after Anna Carr Pringle, who provided hospitality to the railroad crews when they came through town in the 1890s.
So Pringle really has no connection to Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, or any other 20th century food-processing giant. Still, you now know much more about Pringles chips than you did a few minutes ago.
My error. You’re welcome.
In Pringle, we turn off of US Highway 385 and make our way toward the South Dakota / Wyoming border. The last South Dakota town we pass through on our journey is Edgemont, population a little under 800.
Edgemont is a crew change point for Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains. Railroads have always been a part of Edgemont’s history. The town was established with the arrival of the railroad, three days before South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889.
Since then, its fortunes have been dependent on a industries ranging from a World War II ammunition depot that employed 5,000 people, to uranium mining in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Today, Edgemont is about trains. And Harleys.
We cross into Wyoming, nicknamed the “Equality State” because of its historical role in establishing equal voting rights for women. “Equal Rights” is the state motto.
Wyoming was the first territory to grant “female suffrage” and became the first state in the nation to allow women to vote, serve on juries and hold public office. Pretty progressive place. Sort of. A solidly Republican state, Wyoming has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since it went for Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
To those who live here, Wyoming is more about cowboys than politics. Known as the Cowboy State, the official state symbol is a cowboy on a bucking horse. The cowboy culture is everywhere you look. Except maybe here in Edgemont, railroad town.
There’s little culture in this sparsely populated corner of the state – cowboy or otherwise.
We begin riding south on US Highway 18, part of the CanAm Highway, unaware of horses or anything considered western. The CanAm Highway stretches 1,479 miles from El Paso, Texas, all the way up into Canada. Along the way, it cuts through South Dakota on US Highways 18 and 85. The highway passes through six states: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
The landscape here in the high plains is barren, to put it mildly. This is eastern Wyoming.
In 45 miles, we arrive in Lusk, population 1,600. Lusk is known for being the county seat of the least populated county in the least populated state of the US. That’s quite a claim to fame.
Lusk was founded in 1886 by Frank Lusk, a renowned Wyoming rancher and partner in the Western Live Stock Company. Apparently, little has changed; the primary industry in Lusk is still cattle ranching.
Lusk’s motto: “Little Town with Big Possibilities.”
For us, it’s a good place to fill up with gas, rest, and prepare for our push south toward Cheyenne, 140 miles away.
As we continue south on the CanAm Highway, there’s little to see in the 47 miles between Lusk and Lingle. Well, we do pass through Jay Em, a deserted town that has a post office, and little else.
Jay Em was established in the 1860s around a watering hole claimed by Jim Moore, who had the second-largest cattle ranch in the Wyoming Territory. He used the brand “J Rolling M,” from which the community and “Jay Em Creek” would later take their names.
Jay Em is almost exactly half way between Lusk and Lingle. If you blink, you’ll miss Lingle. We don’t blink, and 10 miles later, arrive in Torrington, population 6,500. Torrington is the last city of any consequence we’ll see on our way to Cheyenne, tonight’s destination.
Torrington was founded in 1900 by W.G. Curtis, and named by him for his hometown of Torrington, Connecticut (which is named after Torrington, in Devon, England). Torrington is situated on the historic Mormon Trail and near the Oregon and California Trails along the banks of the North Platte River. Here, we’re only about five miles west of the Nebraska border.
The Torrington Livestock Commission holds weekly livestock auctions here. They’re among the largest auctions in Wyoming, and in the US. Yearling and calf sales are held every Wednesday, August through March. The auctions draw cattle from a nine-state region. Buyers come from all over the US.
From Torrington, it’s a little more than 80 miles to Cheyenne, the Wyoming state capital. In all my Harley rides, this is the only the second state capital I’ve stayed in (I spent a night in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2014.) What are the odds of that happening? Over the years, I’ve ridden through 21 states. Apparently, I take the roads less traveled.
With a population of around 60,000, Cheyenne is Wyoming’s most populous city – and the 589th-largest in the US. It was named for the Native American Cheyenne nation. Cheyenne is a term meaning “people of different speech” or “red talkers.”
The construction of the Union Pacific Railroad brought hopes of prosperity to the region when it reached Cheyenne on November 13, 1867. The population at the time numbered over 4,000, and grew rapidly. This rapid growth earned the city the nickname “Magic City of the Plains.”
Cheyenne claims to be home of the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days. It’s a 10-day event held every year the last full week of July. Frontier Days includes Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo, concerts, Professional Bull Riders, US Air Force F-16 Thunderbird fly-bys, parades, pancake breakfasts, and a carnival.
The cowboy fest begins annually with a cattle drive, as cowpokes drive 550 head of steer more than four miles from their pasture north of Cheyenne to their stalls at Frontier Park.
There’s even a world-class concert lineup, which often includes the top names in country music. This year’s entertainment included Eric Church, Garth Brooks, Rhett Akins and Blake Shelton.
2021 Frontier Days ended on August 1. We just missed it, by a week. So close!
So, we mosey on down to our hotel, and call it a day. Tomorrow, we return to Colorado.
Day Sixteen Summary: 295 miles. A memorial in progress, Pringles confusion, a little late for Frontier Days.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Rapid City, South Dakota, to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
South Dakota fun fact: The tradition of spreading sawdust on the floors of bars and saloons started in Deadwood, South Dakota, due to the amount of gold dust that would fall on the floor. The sawdust was used to hide the fallen gold dust and was swept up at the end of the night.
Wyoming fun fact: The “Bucking Horse and Rider” is a registered trademark of Wyoming. This logo consists of a silhouette of a cowboy riding on a bucking horse. In 1936, Wyoming made it a trademark for its license plates. It has been used as the state’s popular insignia since 1918. Wyoming is the Cowboy State, after all.
South Dakota favorite food: Kuchen is South Dakota’s official state dessert. This pie-like pastry features rich custard poured over your choice of fruit. Made with sweet dough and a filling of custard, fruit or nuts – was first introduced to the area in the 19th century and has been a favorite among locals ever since. The Cedar Pass Restaurant in Badlands National Park offers a daily selection of kuchen.
Wyoming favorite food: Bison burgers are quite a thing in Wyoming. Recently, the National Bison Association and the Food Channel collaborated to identify the state’s best bison burgers. The result: go to the Senator’s Steakhouse in Cheyenne, which gets its meat locally from the Terry Bison Ranch. At the Senator’s Steakhouse, any burger on the menu can be upgraded to a bison burger – including mushroom Swiss burger, jalapeno burger or peppercorn bleu cheese burger.
South Dakota funky place name: Akaska. You read that right. Akaska, not Alaska. While this looks like a typo of Alaska (which would be very easy to make considering the keyboard layout), the true meaning is “uncertain” in the Sioux language. Only 42 people live there and railway service stopped going to Akaska in 1940.
Wyoming funky place name: Medicine Bow is named after the Medicine Bow River. Native Americans made their bows using material from the river. Anything good was considered medicine to them. Seems reasonable.
South Dakota famous folk: New England Patriots and Baltimore Colts placekicker Adam Vinatieri grew up in Rapid City, and played football at South Dakota State (go Jackrabbits!). He holds more than 25 NFL records, including most consecutive field goals in history: 44! Today, at age 48, Vinatieri is recently retired as the oldest active player in the NFL.
Wyoming famous folk: Like many wealthy Hollywood celebrities, actor Harrison Ford has a home in Jackson Hole. The 79-year-old onetime heartthrob gained worldwide fame for his starring role as Han Solo in the original Star Wars trilogy. The box office grosses of his films total more than $5.1 billion.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Rocky Mountain splendor.
The world-famous Sturgis motorcycle rally, attracts more than a half-million bikers for a week of craziness every year in early August. This year, the rally is expected to draw as many as 700,000.
The route is easy, even scenic. Ride through Nemo, avoid the mess of clownfish all over the highway, then through beautiful Vanocker Canyon on Forest Service Road 26.
From Rapid City, it’s 42 miles to Sturgis. We take the road less traveled to get there, mostly through the Black Hills.
Many of our Harley colleagues, impatient to arrive at the rally, hop on I-90 for a shorter and far less interesting ride to Sturgis. Their journey takes half as long, and is about 10 percent as fun.
Sturgis has a population of 6,267 – until the first full week of August each year – when it swells to a half million or more. The city is named after Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis, who served as a Union general in the Civil War. A sculpture of him mounted on horseback sits at the town’s eastern entrance, on South Dakota Highways 34 and 79, not far from the Full Throttle Saloon.
The 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is why we’re here.
It began in 1938, originally held for stunts and races – and has since evolved into a meeting for motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world. It’s mostly about Harleys, but other bikes are welcome.
The city of Sturgis estimates the Rally brings more than $800 million to South Dakota every year.
We’re spending the entire day in Sturgis, so today’s blog post is intentionally light on words and heavy on photos. If, by chance, you stumble across any non-family-friendly photos, send the kids out of the room, and remind yourself that what happens in Sturgis stays in Sturgis.
Day Fifteen Summary: 74 miles. Sturgis. Nuff said.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Rapid City, South Dakota, to the Sturgis motorcycle rally, and back to Rapid City.
South Dakota fun fact: The Black Hills hold two national caves: Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is presently the fourth-largest cave in the world, with more than 182 miles of surveyed and mapped passages. (Largest cave in the world is central Vietnam’s Son Doong, said to be 1.4 billion cubic feet.)
South Dakota favorite food: Here’s a tasty combo – chili and cinnamon rolls. This unlikely pair is a South Dakota favorite. You can’t go wrong with a delicious warm cinnamon roll dipped in a bowl of chili. Together, they’re a school lunch staple, dating back to the early 1960s. You can eat them in the same bowl, but the most common approach is to enjoy a cinnamon roll for desert after polishing off a hearty serving of chili.
South Dakota funky place name: During the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s, a miner found gold in a narrow canyon that became known as Deadwood Gulch, about 40 miles northwest of Rapid City. The name Deadwood came from the many dead trees that lined the canyon walls at the time. One hundred forty-five years later, the town of Deadwood remains a popular tourist haven that even has its own Harley store, Deadwood Harley-Davidson.
South Dakota famous folk: Game show host Bob Barker spent most of his youth growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Mission, South Dakota. Now 97 years old, Barker hosted CBS’ The Price is Right from 1972 to 2007, making it the longest-running daytime game show in North American TV history.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Heading home.
Today, we’re eastward bound.
As we leave our Rapid City base of operations, we’ll head as far east as this 2021 trip will take us.
If we get on Interstate 90, by the end of the day, we’ll be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s most populous city with more than 180,000 residents. Sioux Falls is about 350 miles from here.
Even closer on I-90, about 10 miles east of here, is Ellsworth Air Force Base, a major employer in the Rapid City area. Ellsworth is home of the US Air Force’s 28th Bomb Wing and the California-built B-1B bomber. Ellsworth is one of only two hosts to the B-1B; the other is Dyess AFB in Texas.
Ellsworth was established in 1941 as Rapid City Army Air Base. It was later named in honor of Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth, who was killed when his RB-36 bomber crashed during a 1953 training flight in Newfoundland, Canada.
Over the years, Ellsworth has hosted various missile systems (Nike, Titan, Minuteman) and the B-52 Bomber. Today, the base’s population of 8,000 includes military members, family members and civilian employees.
We could go to Ellsworth, and probably get turned away at the front gate. Big bad dudes on Harleys? Probably outlaws.
A much better destination east of Rapid City is Badlands National Park. It involves no Interstate highway travel, and it’s a National Park! We should be there in an hour and a half.
So, we leave Rapid City and head southeast on South Dakota Highway 44, quickly rolling past Rapid Valley, Green Valley, and the Rapid City Regional Airport. Seventy-three miles later, we arrive in the tiny town of Interior, population 94.
Interior is less than a mile from the entrance to Badlands National Park. We turn northeast on South Dakota Highway 377 and quickly enter the park.
First thing we see is the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, named for a Lakota Sioux man, born in a log cabin on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, to a Brule Sioux mother and a German-American father. Life on the reservation wasn’t easy. Ben Reifel’s parents told him he couldn’t go to high school, so he ran away from home, traveled 250 miles to enroll in school, and eventually graduated from South Dakota State University with degrees in chemistry and dairy science.
Reifel, also known as Lone Feather, achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army during World War II, earned a PhD from Harvard, and became the first Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He served five terms as a US Congressman, the first Lakota to be elected to the House of Representatives.
While in office, and during his time at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Reifel pushed for better education on reservations and recommended that reservation and county schools be merged so Native Americans and non-Natives could be educated together. His lasting legacy is Ben Reifel Middle School, set to open this fall in Sioux Falls.
Native Americans have been here a long time, long before Badlands became a national park.
Bordering the south side of Badlands National Park is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to about 60,000 Native Americans who are part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation. These people have called the area home for more than 11,000 years.
Badlands National Monument acquired 133,000 acres of Lakota land in 1976, two years before the monument was established as a national park. That’s nearly half of the park’s size.
Oglala Lakota County, which is entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is the poorest county in the US, with a per capita annual income of $8,768. And, it has the lowest life expectancy in the US. Life on the Pine Ridge Reservation is not easy.
Much of what we’ll see today in Badlands National Park was once Native American lands.
We step out of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, saddle up, and head west on South Dakota Highway 240, part of the Badlands National Park Scenic Byway. The road will take us past spectacular buttes, cliffs and multi-colored spires.
The 38-mile byway has numerous passes, 15 overlooks, hiking trails, and untold beauty. The landscape is harsh, rugged, and very photogenic.
As we begin to roll through the park, we wonder about the name, Badlands.
The Lakota people were the first to call the area mako sica, or “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900s, French Canadian fur trappers called it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.”
It’s not so bad to travel through today. We continue on the scenic byway, heading northwest through a labyrinth of sand buttes and spires that appear to come from another planet.
It is a truly desolate place. The land has been ruthlessly ravaged over millions of years by wind and water, giving it a look seldom seen on this planet. You can scour the land for miles and see no sign of civilization.
But the cool thing is, you can see for miles and miles.
The largest feature in the park is known as “The Wall.” It’s a 60-mile stretch of tiered cliffs, a huge natural barrier ridging the landscape, sculpted into pinnacles and gullies by the forces of water. National Geographic compares the Wall to an enormous stage set – colorful, dramatic, and not quite real. Water has been carving away at the cliffs for ages, and even today, it continues to erode the cliffs an inch or more every year.
The Wall is the heart of the Badlands landscape, the heavily eroded escarpment that defines the namesake topography. The Wall stretches roughly from the towns of Scenic in the west to Kadoka in the east. These colorful cliffs are a half-million years old.
About 25 miles after entering the park, the scenic byway turns north, toward the town of Wall – named for the wall of rock formations that’s within Badlands National Park.
You know, The Wall.
We soon arrive in Wall, the town.
Wall is most famous for Wall Drug Store, which opened as a small pharmacy in 1931 and eventually developed into a large roadside tourist attraction.
Anyone who’s ever driven through South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming or other neighboring states, is familiar with the ubiquitous signs and billboards that remind you, “785 Miles to Wall Drug. Free Ice Water.” Most of the hand-painted billboards are on a 650-mile stretch of Interstate 90 from Minnesota to Billings, Montana. At its peak in the 1960s, Wall Drug had more than 3,000 highway signs!
Wall Drug struggled for years until the owner’s wife thought of advertising – and offering – free ice water to parched travelers heading to the newly opened Mount Rushmore monument 60 miles to the west. To this day, tourists like us still drink the free ice water, though it’s no longer the main attraction.
At Wall Drug, there’s also a cowboy-themed shopping mall, western art museum, a chapel and an 80-foot Apatosaurus – a dinosaur that lived in North America during the Late Jurassic period.
More than two million visitors cruise through Wall Drug each year. Less than one million visit Badlands National Park.
Many of those who come to Wall, particularly during Sturgis Rally Week, also visit Badlands Harley-Davidson. This Harley store has no bikes for sale – not that we need any – just a lot of t-shirts, chachkas, and over-priced Harley-branded items. Who needs a $45 t-shirt commemorating their visit to Wall? Scott does.
Also in Wall, is the National Grasslands Visitor Center. It’s where you can learn about the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which includes nearly 600,000 acres – many surrounding Badlands National Park.
The grasslands start at the park’s northern border. They’re the second-largest protected national grassland, dotted with endless miles of prairie, open skies, rolling plains, and chalk-colored geological formations similar to those found in Badlands National Park.
The Buffalo Gap National Grassland is managed by the US Forest Service. It has two tracts: one at the north end of Badlands National Park, and one along South Dakota’s southwest border with Wyoming.
The US has 20 national grasslands, totaling nearly four million acres. The grasslands are similar to other lands managed by the forest service, except the lands consist of prairie vegetation, not trees.
We had a nice break in Wall, but there’s more to see in Badlands National Park.
To return to the park, we could head east on Interstate 90 for 20 miles, and exit by the Minuteman Missile Visitors Center, a historic site designed to give you a first-hand look at a relic of the Cold War. Here, you can see how the end of the world might have begun.
The site was established in 1999 to illustrate the history and significance of the Cold War, the arms race, and missile development.
It’s believed to be the world’s first national park dedicated to commemorating the events of the Cold War. Two 1960s-era Intercontinental Ballistic Missile sites have been preserved for public viewing. Delta-09, an underground missile silo on the edge of Badlands National Park, still holds a Minuteman II missile that, when active, could have sent a nuclear weapon to the Soviet Union in 30 minutes.
Those were the days!
As a postscript, 450 of the newer Minuteman III missiles are still on active duty at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Montana, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Minuteman IIIs, made by Boeing, have a range of more than 8,000 miles, a speed of more than 15,000 miles an hour, and the ability to carry up to three independently targeted nuclear warheads. That would be more than enough to obliterate the world many times over.
Just south of the missile site, is a return to South Dakota Highway 240 where riders re-enter Badlands National Park at the Northeast Entrance Station.
Immediately, riders arrive at the Big Badlands Overlook, the first grand view upon entering the park from the east. From there, it’s about mile to several trailheads that take you to a boardwalk with spectacular views of the Badlands Wall.
After a welcome hike, you can get back on your bikes and complete the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. It takes you past the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and dumps us out of the park at the southern entrance, in Interior.
This is where we began our day in the park, and now it’s time to head back to Rapid City. Seventy-three miles later, we arrive in Rapid City, and prepare for tomorrow – a day in Sturgis!
Day Fourteen Summary: 213 miles. Badlands, Wall Drug, missile town.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Rapid City to Badlands National Park and back.
We’re on our way to Sturgis!
South Dakota fun fact: A South Dakota tradition is the annual Potato Days in the town of Clark, known as the Potato capital of South Dakota. One of the highlights of Potato Days since it began in 1997, is the mashed potato wrestling contest, held in a large pit filled with, of course, mashed spuds. Wouldn’t you think this is more appropriately done in Idaho?
South Dakota favorite food: The state’s official state bird is the ring-necked pheasant, and its official state fish is walleye – a terrific meal combination. Pheasant is typically prepared with herbs and vegetables, while walleye can be grilled, fried, broiled or baked. Few places serve it better than the appropriately named Pheasant Restaurant in Brookings, whose specialty is the Pheasant Salad Sandwich, served on grilled marble rye.
South Dakota funky place name: Gayville, a small town in Yankton County in southeastern South Dakota, was originally settled by Scandinavian farmers. The town got its name in 1873 from Elkanah Gay, an early postmaster. Gayville is the self-proclaimed “Hay Capital of the World.”
South Dakota famous folk: Mary Hart, born Mary Johanna Harum, was a long-time host of the syndicated TV show, Entertainment Tonight. She was born in Madison, South Dakota, and lived in Sioux Falls as a child. As Mary Harum, she was crowned Miss South Dakota 1970. Mary Hart is not a made-for-TV name; she became Mary Hart when she married Terry Hart in 1972. Now 70, Hart splits her time between the ritzy Yellowstone Club in Montana, and a mega-home at the exclusive Bighorn Country Club in Palm Desert, California.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Sturgis!
Half a million riders from all over the country are gathering for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which officially begins tomorrow. Dave, Scott and I are among them.
Two biker babes, Sarah Murr and Gail Bowman, were supposed to be joining the posse for our four days in the Black Hills. You may know them as Mrs. Gary Lesser (which she doesn’t call herself) and Mrs. Dave Bowman. Sadly, Sarah couldn’t make her flight out of Eagle, Colorado, because of the I-70 closure through Glenwood Canyon. Damn!
But Gail successfully flew into Rapid City yesterday from Southern Nevada to ride and party with the Harley glitterati. Welcome, Mrs. Bowman! Glad to have you aboard.
Many Harley enthusiasts come here every August. They couldn’t imagine a year without a trip to the Black Hills. So, of course, they’re particularly restless this year. Some missed the 2020 event, which was wisely cancelled due to Covid-19. Hundreds of thousands showed up, anyway.
We missed the 2020 Sturgis rally, too. Our posse had been planning a 2020 Sturgis trip, ever since we finished the three-week 2019 journey to Canada and back, nearly two years ago.
Having the Sturgis rally last year, as though we were living in normal times, would have been one of the stupidest ideas. Ever. And yet it went on as usual – 460,000 knuckleheads gathering in the Black Hills, despite South Dakota being, like the rest of the world, in the midst of a pandemic.
Because of its freedom-thinking, personal responsibility-loving population, and a governor who largely ignored Covid, South Dakota was harder hit by the pandemic than other states that took it more seriously. Masks? Social distancing? Not here.
Downtown Sturgis during unofficial rally week last year was one gigantic Petri dish – thousands upon thousands of riders, many with underlying health conditions, disdain for public health restrictions, generally dismissive of science, bringing their germs and viruses from every corner of this country.
What could possibly go wrong?
Now back to a semblance of normal, riders at this year’s rally are scattered all over the Black Hills, from Rapid City to Deadwood, from Belle Fourche to Spearfish. More than likely, there will be more than a half-million of us converging on this tiny town.
We’re all here for pretty much the same reasons: Great riding on fabulous roads, biker camaraderie, a chance to show off our beautiful bikes and Harley mamas — and of course, Sturgis.
Tourism is big in South Dakota, accounting for more than 55,000 jobs, and bringing in about $4 billion annually. The state estimates as many as 15 million visitors a year come to South Dakota, generating more than $300 million in tax revenue. Tourism spending supports almost nine percent of all jobs in South Dakota.
Big numbers, for sure. But the really big drivers of the state economy are agriculture, manufacturing and mining.
Agriculture, including livestock and crops, has about a $21 billion impact annually on the state’s economy. The state has an estimated five beef cattle per resident of South Dakota. That’s a lot of T-bones!
Manufacturing accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s workforce. Food processing is a big part of that, including gigantic operations like Smithfield Foods. The Sioux Falls pork producing facility, home to a large-scale Covid outbreak, is one of the largest food processing sites in the US. Its 3,700 employees supply nearly 130 million servings of food per week.
And there’s mining. Even though the gold mine in Lead closed down in 2001, other types of mining continue – including construction sand, gravel and stone. Minerals like gypsum, silver and copper are found in abundance. One of my favorite places of higher learning is South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Best college nickname ever. Go Hardrockers!
This week, more than any other, tourism is king. Hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders are descending on the Black Hills. They’ll spend an estimated $800 million on beer, burgers, hotel rooms and souvenirs, proving they made it to Sturgis. Each August, the rally accounts for about 95 percent of Sturgis’ annual revenue.
We begin our journey through the Black Hills by heading south out of Rapid City on US Highway 16, also called Mount Rushmore Road. It’s an easy, well-marked, 30-minute ride to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial – South Dakota’s biggest lure for all those millions of tourist dollars.
The Mount Rushmore Memorial, of course, is a sculpture carved into the granite face of the mountain, featuring 60-foot-high depictions of four US Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
Mount Rushmore is by far the state’s top tourist attraction. Nearly two and a half million visitors come here each year. The only national monuments or memorials seen by more tourists are in Washington DC or New York City, which have a somewhat larger population base to draw from than the greater metropolitan Rapid City area.
Sturgis rally week is a particularly crazy time at the Mount Rushmore Memorial.
Work on the mountain, carving the presidential faces, took place between 1927 and 1941. It was a Depression-era feel-good project. Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, led a team of more than 400 workers on the gigantic rock carving effort.
More than 90 percent of the memorial was sculpted using dynamite; the blasts removed about 450,000 tons of rock. Details were finished with jackhammers and hand chisels. The initial concept called for each president to be depicted from head to waist, but lack of funding forced construction to end in late October 1941, with faces only.
We leave Mount Rushmore, continuing west on South Dakota Highway 244. The highway takes us around 7,242-foot Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the US east of the Rockies. Atop Black Elk Peak is a stone fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The tower has a panoramic view of the Black Hills.
We continue circling Black Elk Peak, turning south on South Dakota Highway 87, part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway.
When he was a US Senator in the 1920s and ‘30s, Norbeck proposed most of the roads that now make up the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, a route that was proclaimed one of America’s top 10 scenic drives by the Society of American Travel Writers.
The roads were built with hundreds of curves, switchbacks and other architectural features, designed to limit the speed of travelers to 35 miles an hour, so they could best enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills.
Norbeck personally explored Iron Mountain at age 63, looking for views that best showed off the Black Hills landscapes and the emerging faces being carved at Mount Rushmore. He also served two terms as South Dakota’s Governor, and is often remembered as “Mount Rushmore’s great political patron,” for promoting construction of the sculpture and securing federal funding for it.
At the highest point on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, on the summit of Iron Mountain, there is a small memorial recognizing his legacy, and describing him as: “Well driller, Statesman, first native Governor of South Dakota, US Senator, founder of Custer State Park, sponsor of Mount Rushmore Memorial, road builder, art lover, poet of nature, patriot, gentleman.”
Nice way to be remembered. We should all be so well thought of.
Highway 87 next takes us to Sylvan Lake, and Sylvan Lake Lodge, known as the crown jewel of Custer State Park, which we’re now in. Custer is South Dakota’s largest state park, with more than 71,000 acres of hilly terrain. It’s home to many wild animals – which we expect to see later today.
Sylvan Lake is probably the most recognizable of the five Custer State Park lakes. It’s a favorite for photographers and artists, and a popular spot for weddings and other popular occasions, including an occasional bar mitzvah.
There are less than 400 Jews in all of South Dakota, the fewest of any state in the country. That’s less than a tenth of one percent of South Dakota’s population. The state has only one permanent rabbi, 31-year-old Mendel Alperowitz, who moved his family from Brooklyn, New York, in 2016 to lead the congregation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Rabbi Alperowitz is the first Rabbi to live in the state since the late 1970s. He says he misses the kosher sushi available in New York, but feels a calling to serve the tiny Jewish community in South Dakota.
In Rapid City, at the Synagogue of the Hills, a lay leader orchestrates bar mitzvah ceremonies, performs ritual circumcisions and conducts funeral services. The tiny Jewish community worries that too few children are coming along to sustain it.
From Sylvan Lake, we continue east on Highway 87, where the road is now known as the Needles Highway.
The Needles Highway name comes from the needle-like granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. The Needles are eroded granite pillars, towers and spires, popular with rock climbers, tourists, and dudes on Harleys.
A portion of the Needles Highway is designated a National Natural Landmark, recognizing and encouraging the conservation of the natural history in the US. The National Natural Landmarks program recognizes the best examples of biological and geological features in both public and private lands.
The Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area, on the Needles Highway, has been such a National Natural Landmark since 1976. The Cathedral Spires are a unique geological formation that provides untold rock-climbing opportunities.
The Cathedral Spires are one of 13 National Natural Landmarks in South Dakota, and were the original site proposed for the Mount Rushmore carvings. But sculptor Gutzon Borglum rejected the location because of the poor quality of the granite and the fact that the Needles were too thin to support the presidential sculptures.
A series of narrow rock tunnels are a highlight of the Needles Highway. The tunnels can fit only one car or motorcycle at a time.
The 14-mile-long Needles Highway attracts about 300,000 people every year, many during Sturgis Rally Week. Seems like 295,000 of them are here today.
Because of snow, the Needles Highway is closed during the winter, and re-opens for driving and riding (if you’re on a motorcycle, it’s called riding) every year in early April. It would be difficult to imagine a trip to the Black Hills that didn’t include this roadway.
We continue south on Highway 87, and eventually turn east on Wildlife Loop Road, one of the highlights of Custer State Park. Wildlife Loop Road travels through 18 miles of open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife calls home.
On Wildlife Loop Road, you might see bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and a variety of other birds.
Traffic is congested and the pace is slow, rarely over 20 miles an hour.
The free-roaming buffalo herd in the park numbers about 1,300. Most safety guidelines suggest you stay in your vehicle when buffalo are approaching. We’ll see how that works on a Harley.
We slowly follow Wildlife Loop Road through the park until it meets up with US Highway 16A near the State Game Lodge at Custer State Park Resort. The lodge, built in 1920 from native stone and timber, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as the summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, and was visited by President Eisenhower in 1953.
The Wildlife Loop Road is open year-round, subject of course, to the predictably unpredictable weather in the Black Hills. When the snow falls, it’ll be plowed off the road, just as soon as the buffalo get out of the way.
We join Highway 16A and head northwest. The highway is more familiarly known as Iron Mountain Road. It’s a 17-mile stretch of paved paradise featuring 314 curves and 14 switchbacks. Your speed seldom exceeds 20 miles an hour on Iron Mountain, all the better to make the leisurely ride utterly enjoyable.
One of Iron Mountain Road’s unique features is the three “pigtail” bridges which spiral the rider back over the road they just went on in one massive sweeping turn. The result is a corkscrew shape. Most of these so-called pigtail bridges in the US were made of wood, and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The 17-mile-long Iron Mountain Road also has one-lane rock tunnels that offer spectacular views of Mount Rushmore as you exit the tunnels. The tunnels were blasted through sheer granite walls when they were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The first tunnel we come to is Scovel Johnson Tunnel, named for the man who led the construction of the Needles Highway. Johnson also did survey work on Iron Mountain Road, and contributed to the layout of Sylvan Lake. This tunnel with his name on it is 8’9” wide by 9’8” high, making it the narrowest tunnel in South Dakota.
The second tunnel on Iron Mountain Road is the CC Gideon tunnel, named for Cecil C. Gideon, who designed and built many local structures in the Black Hills, Among Gideon’s legacies are the Custer State Park Game Lodge and the famous pigtail bridges on Iron Mountain Road. The CC Gideon Tunnel is a little roomier, giving riders 11’ 6” of width and 10’ 9” of height to work with.
The third tunnel is the Doane Robinson Tunnel. It perfectly frames the faces on Mount Rushmore, as you ride through the tunnel. Robinson was the state historian of South Dakota in the 1920s, and is best known for dreaming up the idea for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Doane Robinson Tunnel is the roomiest of the three. It’s 12 feet wide, and 11’ 4” high.
If you want to enjoy the pigtails and tunnels over and over again, you can do that year-round. The Iron Mountain Road is open throughout the year, barring a big dump of snow in the Black Hills. After the snowfall, the road will be plowed, and you’re free to continue your joyride.
From the time we exit the Iron Mountain Road’s final pigtail, it’s only about a mile until we arrive in the historic town of Keystone – considered the home of Mount Rushmore, only two miles away.
In Keystone, there are two distinct parts to the town – the “New” Keystone, a mile-long retail district along US Highway 16A, and the “Old” Keystone, the original gold mining settlement along east-flowing Battle Creek.
Keystone, which got its name from a local mine, was once a boomtown after the discovery of placer gold two miles east of the town’s current location. Placer gold is still thought to exist here in abundance, but the great depth of the deposits makes it difficult and impractical to reach.
With a population of a little more than 300, Keystone comes to life each summer during tourist season, never more so than during Sturgis Rally week. For such a small town, Keystone has a thriving food scene, with nearly two dozen restaurants.
Leaving Keystone, it’s a 20-mile ride back to Rapid City, where we park the bikes and relax after a day of exploration in the Black Hills.
Day Thirteen Summary: 125 miles. Mount Rushmore, pigtails, wildlife.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Rapid City, South Dakota, to Mount Rushmore, through the Black Hills and back to Rapid City.
South Dakota fun fact: Belle Fourche, about 55 miles northwest of Rapid City, is the geographical center of the United States of America. In 2008, a large granite compass rose was installed in Belle Fourche, and called the “Center of the Nation” monument. The actual geographic center is 20 miles north of Belle Fourche on private farmland, but Belle Fourche is the closest town and a good place for the monument and visitor center.
South Dakota favorite food: Kolache, which originated in Central Europe, is a delicious pastry topped off with candied fruit or cream cheese. Kolaches are similar to tiny pies. One of the best places to get your hands on kolaches is in Tabor – the unofficial Czech capital of South Dakota. Great place for kolache: Czeckers restaurant in Yankton.
South Dakota funky place name: The town of Volin looks like “violin” but clearly isn’t. With a population of 161, it’s one of the smallest towns that has an Interstate exit. It’s 20 miles west of I-29, it was the only town directly off the Interstate near Union Grove State Park, so it got an exit.
South Dakota famous folk: Tom Brokaw, former NBC Nightly News anchorman, grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, and graduated from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. During the heyday of network TV news, Brokaw competed against Peter Jennings (ABC) and Dan Rather (CBS). He’s also written a number of best-selling non-fiction books, including The Greatest Generation and The Fall of Richard Nixon. Today, at age 81, Brokaw is still actively engaged in reporting on the American experience.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Badlands and Wall Drug.
Our day begins with a hundred miles of humdrum transit. Then, we’ll visit a world-famous national monument, and end with Black Hills beauty.
Much of Wyoming is spectacular. Our morning ride east out of Buffalo is anything but.
It’s a boring 70 miles on Interstate 90 to Gillette, which calls itself the Energy Capital of the Nation. With a population of about 32,000, Gillette is Wyoming’s fourth-largest city – after Cheyenne, Casper and Laramie.
Gillette sits in the heart of the Powder River Basin, known for its coal deposits. The Powder River was so named because the sand along a portion of its banks resembles powder or dust.
The Powder River region supplies about 40 percent of coal production in the US. Wyoming has been the top coal-producing state in the United States since 1988, accounting for more than twice as much as West Virginia, and more than the entire Appalachian region. The area has been home to the eight largest US coal mines.
Nearly 14 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions come from burning Powder River Basin coal.
It’s a dirty, filthy place. There is no such thing as clean coal. And there sure as heck isn’t any “beautiful, clean coal.” That’s an energy industry myth, popularized by the coal industry and propagated by a recent occupant of the White House.
“Clean coal” refers to coal plants that capture the carbon dioxide emitted from smokestacks and bury it underground as a way of limiting global warming. It’s also known as carbon capture and storage. If you’ve ever driven by or been to a coal mine, you know how stinkin’ dirty it really is.
For us, for today, it’s clean enough here in Gillette to relax, grab a soda, and anticipate the day ahead. By mid-day, we hope to find something photo-worthy.
But first, we jump back on Interstate 90 and ride 30 miles to Moorcroft, population 1,000. Moorcroft sits on the banks of the Belle Fourche River, which we’ll follow off and on much of the rest of the day.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the Belle Fourche River was known as the North Fork of the Cheyenne River. Belle Fourche is a name derived from French meaning “beautiful fork.”
In Moorcroft, we turn north on US Highway 14, which immediately takes us past Keyhole Reservoir and State Park. The area offers a variety of fishing and water sports, in addition to camping, picnicking, hiking and bird watching. About 225 bird species can be observed in the park; during the summer, the most abundant species include the White Pelican, Osprey, Common Yellowthroat and Savannah Sparrow.
The mountains that surround Keyhole form the western boundary of the Black Hills, where we’ll spend the next four or five days.
The Black Hills are a small, isolated mountain range rising from the Great Plains, whose highest point is 7,244-foot Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak.
Black Hills? The Lakota Indians considered the hills black because of their dark appearance from a distance, as the hills were covered in trees.
Native Americans have a long history in the Black Hills. After conquering the Cheyenne tribe in 1776, the Lakota took over the territory of the Black Hills. In 1868, the US government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, which was designed to bring peace between the whites and the Sioux, who agreed to settle within the Black Hills reservation in the Dakota Territory.
The treaty also exempted the Black Hills from all white settlement. Forever. But when an expedition led by General George Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, thousands of miners swept into the area in a frenzied gold rush.
During the gold rush, the US Government defeated the Lakota and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies, taking control of the region, in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The Lakota never accepted the validity of the US appropriation and to this day, they continue efforts to reclaim the area in the Black Hills that was once theirs.
Today, the Black Hills may be best known for Mount Rushmore and the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally – our ultimate destination on this trip.
We ride along the western edge of the Black Hills for about 30 miles. Ahead of us appears this huge, quite recognizable monolith: Devils Tower National Monument.
Devils Tower is a laccolithic butte rising dramatically 1,267 feet above the tree-lined Belle Fourche River. The tower itself stands 867 feet, from base to summit. Every year, about 400,000 tourists like us visit Devils Tower. About one percent of them climb it.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the two-square mile park surrounding the tower as America’s first National Monument. The stone pillar is about 1,000 feet in diameter at the bottom, and 275 feet at the top, making it the premier rock-climbing challenge in the Black Hills.
The name Devil’s Tower originated in 1875 during an expedition led by Colonel Richard Dodge, when his interpreter speaking to Native Americans mis-interpreted the name to mean “Bad God’s Tower,” which then became Devil’s Tower. Following standard geographic naming conventions, the apostrophe was dropped and, voila, you have Devils Tower.
The monster monolith is most famous for its role in the 1977 Steven Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie’s release caused a huge increase in the number of visitors (and climbers) to the monument. Most years, it sees nearly a half-million visitors, almost as many as the Washington Monument.
I’m compelled to share a brief story about Devils Tower, one with a very local connection.
My across-the-street neighbor in Carbondale, Dave Durrance, lit up when I told him I was making a pilgrimage to Devils Tower. Dave is part of the famous Durrance skiing family; his dad, Dick Durrance, was the most accomplished ski racer of his time, winning 17 national championships in the 1930s and ‘40s. He was the Bode Miller of his time. Dick, who later led the Aspen Skiing Company, and the Alta ski resort in Utah, is in the US Skiing and Snowboarding Hall of Fame.
But this story isn’t about Dick.
Dick’s brother, and Dave’s uncle, Jack Durrance, made one of the first ascents of Devils Tower in 1938, pioneering what has since become known among climbers as the “Durrance Route.” The route, now the most popular way up Devils Tower for modern climbers, is recognized in the historic climbing text, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Three years after inventing the Durrance Route, Jack Durrance made news for a daring rescue mission atop Devils Tower, volunteering to bail out a parachutist stuck on top of the monolith. It’s quite a story.
The Durrance family is a Colorado treasure. I’m fortunate enough to ski several times every season at Snowmass with Dave, a former racer, coach and member of the US National Ski Team. His technique and style are as precise as his artwork. Even at age 75, he is a blur coming down the mountain.
Our Devils Tower experience complete, we now head for the heart of the Black Hills.
US Highway 14 brings us to Sundance, population about 1,200. Sundance is named after the Sun Dance ceremony practiced by several American Indian tribes, which often involves the community gathering together to pray for healing.
The town is perhaps best known for someone who passed through it in the late 19thcentury. After his release from the Sundance jail in 1888, Harry Longabaugh, an outlaw and member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, acquired the moniker, “The Sundance Kid.”
His nickname entered the popular culture with 1969 release of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Robert Redford, who portrayed Longabaugh in the movie, later named his Sundance Ski Resort near Provo, Utah, and the Sundance Film Festival, after this character.
Another surprise in Sundance: even though it’s a small town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it has a Harley dealer, Deluxe Harley-Davidson. As Dave and Scott will tell you, it’s not possible to have too many Harley stores; you should see their t-shirt collections!
In Sundance we reluctantly reboard Interstate 90. Thankfully, we’re on it for less than six miles, before exiting.
We cross Sundance Creek, and leave the Interstate on Moskee Road. Moskee had its beginning in the early 1900s as a lumber and sawmill town. Today it’s a ghost town.
Moskee Road delivers us to Buckley Canyon, which gives way to Grand Canyon Road. In less than 10 miles, we cross into South Dakota, named after the Lakota and Dakota Sioux Native American tribes. Dakota is the Sioux word for “friends” or “allies.”
The Sioux dominated the area in the 1800s. By the late 19thcentury, European-American settlement intensified after a gold rush in the Black Hills and the construction of railroads from the east. Encroaching miners and settlers triggered a number of wars with Indian tribes, ending with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The Battle of Wounded Knee was a massacre of several hundred Lakota Indians, almost half of whom were women and children, by US Army soldiers.
South Dakota’s official website uses the tagline, “Great Faces. Great Places” – also the state’s official slogan. The Great Faces are a reference to the four US Presidents, whose likenesses are carved into Mount Rushmore, which we’ll visit tomorrow.
As we cross into South Dakota, Grand Canyon Road becomes Wagon Canyon Road, then Roughlock Falls Road. Of course, it takes us to Roughlock Falls, which got its name from pioneers who “roughlocked” their wheels when traveling down the canyon, to prevent the wagons from rolling freely.
Just past Roughlock Falls, at the ghost town of Savoy, we turn onto US Highway 14, which brings us to Cheyenne Crossing, at the south entrance to Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway.
Cheyenne Crossing is also home to the Stage Stop Café, known widely for having the best Indian tacos in the Black Hills. For the curious, Indian tacos, also known as Navajo tacos, are made with Indian fry bread instead of tortillas.
After Native Americans were relocated to reservations, beginning in 1851, they were rationed flour, powdered milk, salt, and lard. From these rations, Indian tacos were invented. Since then, they have become a common food in states with large Native American populations.
Hungry for Indian tacos? Here’s a good recipe.
In Cheyenne Crossing, we continue east on US Highway 14, rolling past the Terry Peak Ski Area, which calls itself the “best kept secret” in the Midwest. Terry Peak draws sklers from all of South Dakota and slices of Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota. Midwesterners drive up to eight hours to sample its 1,052-foot vertical feet of skiing.
The area opened in 1936 with one rope tow built by the Bald Mountain Ski Club. Terry Peak got its first chairlift in 1954, and today has four lifts, 30 runs and 450 skiable acres.
The city of Lead, population about 3,000, is just a few miles ahead on our route. Lead (pronounced “leed”) was named for its deposits of valuable ores. It’s the site of the Homestake Mine, the oldest, largest, deepest (8,240 feet) and most productive gold mine in the Western Hemisphere, before it closed in 2002 after 125 years of operation.
The Homestake Mining Company founded the city of Lead as a company town for its employees. At its peak, the mine employed 2,200 workers and supported a vibrant community with virtually no unemployment.
The mine produced more than 40 million troy ounces of gold during its lifetime, before low gold prices, poor ore quality, and high costs caused its demise. During its heyday, Lead was the economic engine of South Dakota, led by the Homestake Mine.
Just east of Lead, we turn south on US Highway 385, riding past Tomahawk Lake Country Club until the road intersects with Nemo Road. Nemo was established in 1877, and of course, was named after the clownfish made famous in the 2003 Pixar movie, Finding Nemo.
For you Nemo fans, there are 28 species of clownfish. The most common clownfish, and the one that looks most like Nemo, is the percula clown fish. It’s bright orange with white stripes. Clownfish live on the ocean floor. And, of course, in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
We roll through Nemo – there’s little to see other than clownfish littering the highway – and continue on our way to Rapid City, tonight’s destination – only 23 miles away.
Nemo Road eventually becomes South Canyon Road, and takes us directly into Rapid City, South Dakota’s second-largest city, after Sioux Falls. The city is named after Rapid Creek, where the settlement began in the 1870s.
The public discovery of gold in 1874 by the Black Hills Expedition, led by George Armstrong Custer, brought a mass influx of European-American miners and eventual settlers into this region of the Dakota Territory.
Rapid City, known as the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” is our home for the next four days.
Time to unpack!
Day Twelve Summary: 249 miles. Black Hills, Devils Tower, finding Nemo.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Buffalo, Wyoming, to Rapid City, South Dakota.
Wyoming fun fact: There is no Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. The 2005 film was set in the mountains of Wyoming, but was actually filmed in Alberta, Canada. According to the state’s director of Tourism, the movie increased Wyoming tourism more than any other movie since Close Encounters of the Third Kind brought visitors to Devils Tower.
South Dakota fun fact: South Dakota is the home of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota tribes, which make up the Sioux Nation. South Dakota has one of the largest Native American populations, with nine official tribes and 60,000 people.
Wyoming: When in Jackson, stop at Café Genevieve, and try their Pig Candy. Yes, Pig Candy. It’s a bacon lover’s dream come true. Thick applewood-smoked bacon is cooked fresh daily and covered in a blend of sugars and spices; it’s baked “low and slow,” which results in the ultimate coating.
South Dakota favorite food: You can’t visit South Dakota without trying Chislic. Made from lamb, beef, deer or venison, these half-inch meat cubes are grilled or deep-fried to perfection. In 2018, the South Dakota Legislature named Chislic as the state’s “Official nosh.” When in Sioux Falls, you’ve gotta go to Urban Chislic, a new restaurant where you select your meat and choose from 18 different dipping sauces or 9 dry rubs. All Chislic, all the time!
Wyoming funky place name: The Mormon Row Historic District is in Grand Teton National Park, near the town of Moose – which we visited last week. In the late 1800s, leaders of Mormon Church sent parties from the Salt Lake Valley to establish new communities and support their expanding population. The homesteading area was known as Mormon Row, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
South Dakota funky place name: The town of Running Water, population 36, sits in the southeast part of the state, near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. That’s where Running Water got its name. The meeting of those two rivers created a current that French trappers and explorers called, L’eau Qui Court (“the waters that run”).
Wyoming famous folk: Country music singer/songwriter and rodeo champion Chris LeDoux grew up in Cheyenne, and lived much of his life in Wyoming. To help pay his expenses while traveling the country on the national rodeo circuit, he began composing and singing songs, describing his lifestyle. LeDoux recorded three dozen albums, was nominated for a Grammy, and honored with the Academy of Country Music Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. He died in 2005 at the age of 56.
South Dakota famous folk: Former US Congressman and Senator George McGovern grew up in Mitchell, South Dakota before embarking on a lifelong career in public service. McGovern was one of the first and best-known politicians to strongly oppose the Vietnam War. He may be best remembered nationally for his 1972 presidential run against Richard Nixon, losing in one of the biggest landslides in US history. McGovern died in 2012 at the age of 90.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Mount Rushmore.
It may not seem like it this morning, as we greet the day with our morning coffee – but there’s a wealth of history here in the Beartooth Mountains.
On September 17, 1851, the United States government signed a treaty with the Crow Nation, ceding the area that now contains Red Lodge, to the Crow Indians. An 1880 treaty between the US government and the Crow allowed the area to be settled, starting April 11, 1882.
For the Crow Indians, Red Lodge was a place of worship and hunting. They painted their council tepee with red clay. Folklore tells us this tradition gave Red Lodge its name.
In 2015, Red Lodge was named one of the top 10 ski towns in America (seven of the 10 are in Colorado!). Red Lodge is a great ski town – not because of the Beartooth Basin Summer Racing Camp, which we visited on our way into town yesterday – but because of Red Lodge Mountain, just six miles from town.
Red Lodge Mountain is well known for its friendly, small-town personality and its no-attitude approach to skiing. Said one online reviewer, about the clientele there: “Just normal folks, you probably won’t see the Kardashians there or Kanye and that suits me just fine.”
Really … the Kardashians ski?
Red Lodge Mountain officially opened in 1960 with one chairlift and three runs. It was then called Grizzly Peak. Today, it has six chairlifts and a vertical rise of about 2,000 feet to the summit of Grizzly Peak. You can get a full-day lift ticket for $69. It’s only $29 if you’re a child, between 6 and 12 years old. An all-day pass for Super Seniors (like me!) is $24.
We leave Red Lodge and head southwest, retracing yesterday’s path over Beartooth Pass.
It’s just as spectacular going the opposite direction, east to west. The second time is twice as nice.
Thirty-nine miles from Red Lodge, we turn off of the Beartooth Highway and on to Montana Highway 296, which soon becomes the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.
The scenic byway runs a total of 46 miles through magical Sunlight Basin, along the Clark’s Fork of Yellowstone River. The road closely follows the path taken by the Nez Perce as they fled the US Cavalry in 1877. Several historical and interpretative signs along the road provide more information about the flight of the Nez Perce.
The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is named after the Native American chief of the Nez Perce Tribe. Following the Battle of the Big Hole in Montana in 1877, Chief Joseph fled east through Yellowstone. He and 1,000 members of his tribe ran from the US Cavalry, who were trying to force the tribe onto a reservation so that white ranchers could have their lands. The tribe was stopped only 30 miles from its destination, the Canadian border.
In his speech of surrender, Chief Joseph expressed dignity and defeat with his famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs; I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Just past a view of 11,300-foot Sugarloaf Mountain, the road makes a series of tight switchbacks and hairpins, culminating at Dead Indian Summit.
Dead Indian Pass, at 8,071 feet, is the highest point on the Chief Joseph Highway. From here, the views of the higher peaks of the North Absaroka Mountains are spectacular. We can also see the deep canyon that the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River flows through.
From Dead Indian Pass, it’s 30 miles to Cody, which sits on the banks of the Shoshone River at the western edge of the Bighorn Basin. The city is named after William Frederick Cody – better known as Buffalo Bill – a scout, bison hunter and showman – and one of the most colorful figures of the American Old West.
At one time a 14-year-old rider for the Pony Express, he got the nickname “Buffalo Bill” when he had a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. He’s purported to have killed 4,282 American bison (commonly known as buffalo) in an 18-month period in the late 1860s. Dude was lethal.
In the 1800s here in the Plains, buffalo were everywhere.
Sixty million buffalo once roamed the Great Plains. Hunting killed millions of them. By 1889, when South Dakota became a state, the buffalo was nearly extinct.
Today, an estimated 500,000 buffalo currently loll their lives away on private lands. About 30,000 more are on public lands – many of them in South Dakota.
For South Dakotans, the buffalo is a symbol of pride. For Native Americans, they’re a sign of spiritual strength.
European explorers gave the American bison the name of buffalo. Whatever you call them, they are huge animals, weighing more than a ton, standing as high as six feet, and as long as eleven feet. We expect to see a boatload of them as we ride the Black Hills over the next week.
You’ll see a lot about bison in the Buffalo Bill Museum, here in Cody. Museum visit or not, it’s a good place to gas up for the remainder of today’s journey.
From Cody, we head east, rolling through the small towns of Burlington and Basin, where we join the flow of the Bighorn River. The river, a tributary of the Yellowstone River, was named in 1805 by fur trader François Larocque for the bighorn sheep he saw along its banks.
Where the Bighorn River meets the Norwood River, we join Wyoming Highway 31 in the town of Manderson, population 114. Manderson was originally called Alamo, but was renamed in 1989 in honor of Charles Manderson, chief counsel for Burlington Railroad.
Now heading southeast, we’re reminded of the desolation of Wyoming, America’s least populous state, with less than 600,000 residents. Wyoming also has the second lowest population density in the country, with six residents per square mile. Only Alaska has a lower population density – a little more than one resident per square mile. For the politically savvy among you, Wyoming has two US Senators, the same as California — with a population of nearly 40 million. Go figure.
Thirty-five miles from Manderson, we roll into the town of Ten Sleep, population 260. Ten Sleep was an American Indian rest stop that got its name because it was ten days travel, or “Ten Sleeps,” from Fort Laramie, Yellowstone National Park, and the Indian Agency on the Stillwater River.
In Ten Sleep, we join US Highway 16, which will take us to tonight’s destination: Buffalo, Wyoming.
The road immediately begins climbing through the Bighorn National Forest and Big Horn Mountains. We’re now on the Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway, the southern-most route across the Bighorn National Forest.
Perceptive blog readers will note the two different spellings of Big Horn (Bighorn?). As a former journalist and PR guy who spent his whole career complying with style guides designed to promote consistent usage, I hate inconsistencies like that.
But in alternately using Bighorn and Big Horn, I’m just following official and very confusing Wyoming state guidance. The Wyoming State Highway Map uses Big Horn (two words) Mountains, while the Wyoming State Geological Survey uses Bighorn (one word) Mountains.
Wyoming official websites, like travelwyoming.com use Big Horn (two words). Lewis and Clark used the name Bighorn (one word) in their July 26, 1806, journal entry.
The final word on this should come from the US Board on Geographic Names, which in 1962 officially named the Bighorn (one word) Mountains. The naming order specifically states not to use Big Horn Mountains, or Big Horn Range. That’s all the convincing I need.
From now on, Bighorn is one word.
The Cloud Peak Skyway crests at the 9,666-foot Powder River Pass, above the timberline. The skyway provides the only view of 13,167-foot Cloud Peak, the highest peak in the Bighorn (one word!) Mountains.
Less than 20 miles after leaving Ten Sleep, we pass past Meadowlark Lake, which sits at 8,199 feet. It’s very close to Meadowlark Ski Lodge, a quaint ski area with two lifts, a vertical rise of 1,000 feet, and 300 acres of terrain. In the summer – now – Meadowlark Lake is home to four wheeling, hiking, camping, and fishing. Meadowlark is a good name for the ski lodge and lake; the Western Meadowlark is Wyoming’s state bird.
Highway 16 takes us around the lake, by the ski lodge, and on toward Buffalo.
It’s a spectacular ride from Meadowlark Lake into Buffalo, about 45 miles away.
Buffalo’s economy revolves around energy. Methane extraction and production lead the way. Cattle and sheep ranching are also a staple of local commerce, as they always have been.
Writer Owen Wister visited Buffalo in 1891. Observations he gleaned there and in many other parts of Wyoming about cowboys and ranch life fill his book, The Virginian. The book, a story of a frontier cowboy honorably battling thieves and outlaws, and winning the heart of an attractive young school teacher, set the precedent for good-guy heroes in future Westerns.
It sold millions of copies and is considered to be the first popular western novel. The Virginian opened the genre to writers like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Hundreds of western movies and TV shows followed. Some of the best television ever included Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Maverick, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.
In Wister’s honor, for inspiring books, movies and TV shows, the Owen Wister Award is given annually by the Western Writers of America. It was originally awarded to the author of each year’s best book about the West. But beginning in 1967, the Owen Wister Award has been given for “Outstanding Contributions to the American West,” and presented to non-writers such as John Wayne, John Ford, and Clint Eastwood.
Owen Wister came to Buffalo in the late 19thcentury, and began a new genre of writing about the American West. But he had nothing to do with naming the city. It was already called Buffalo.
If you guessed that Buffalo is named after the American bison, you’d be wrong. The city takes its name from Buffalo, New York.
Day Eleven Summary: 285 miles. Beartooth revisited, Dead Indian Pass, a Buffalo surprise.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Red Lodge, Montana, to Buffalo, Wyoming.
Montana fun fact: Montana is the fourth-largest state in size, at 145,556 square miles. It’s also the largest landlocked state, meaning its territorial boundaries do not touch an ocean, gulf, or bay.
Wyoming fun fact: Wyoming’s state dinosaur is the triceratops. It’s one of only eight states with an official state dinosaur. The triceratops, one of the largest horned dinosaurs, lived in Wyoming about 67 million years ago.
Montana favorite food: In May, Montana’s riverbanks and foothills become drenched in the sweet scent of chokecherry blossoms. Come August, when the berries ripen to deep red, locals rush out with buckets and coffee cans to pick a few before the birds and bears pluck bushes clean. At Lewistown’s Chokecherry Festival in September, fans sample chokecherry jam, syrup, pie and wine, along with Montana Wild Chokecherry Liqueur.
Wyoming favorite food: Fry Bread is a popular Indian taco dish. It’s a flat dough bread, fried or deep-fried in oil, shortening or lard. The platter is like a taco salad, but it features homemade fry bread instead of a taco shell. The fry bread serves as a palatable landing for cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and ground taco meat.
Montana funky place name: Geraldine, a town in Choteau County, is named for the character on the old Flip Wilson TV show in the early 1970s. Geraldine Jones was a fictional character, a sassy, recurring character who made famous the line: “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not.” Geraldine also created the still-used phrase, “What you see is what you get.” Most of what you just read is true.
Wyoming funky place name: Crowheart, Wyoming derives its origins from conflicts between the Shoshone and Crow tribes. Chief Washakie of the Shoshone and Chief Big Robber of the Crow fought over the rights to the Wind River hunting grounds. The Shoshone won. Chief Washakie, instead of scalping his opponent, cut his heart out and placed it on the end of a lance. Thus, Crowheart. Oof.
Montana famous folk: Actor Gary Cooper grew up in the Helena area. His acting career included starring movie roles in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Sergeant York, The Pride of The Yankees, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and High Noon. The American Film Institute ranked Cooper number 11 on its list of 25 greatest male stars of classic Hollywood cinema. Cooper died in 1961, at the age of 60.
Wyoming famous folk: Remember the TV series, CHIPs? Larry Wilcox, who starred as CHP (California Highway Patrol) officer Jonathan Baker, was raised in Rawlins, Wyoming, and attended the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Early in his career, he made guest appearances in Room 222, The Streets of San Francisco and Lassie. In the late 1970s, Wilcox was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Willcox, who turns 74 this week, lives in southern California.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Next stop, Black Hills.
Day 10 of our trip begins by hanging a U-turn and heading north on US Highway 191 – toward the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
We follow the Snake River for a little more than two miles, then re-enter the park. Good thing we all have unlimited National Park passes. My lifetime National Park pass, acquired for $10 at age 62, may be the best deal in the history of deals. They’re now called “America the Beautiful Senior Passes,” and when you turn 62, you can get one, too. Today, it’ll cost you $80. Age has its privileges.
Here, as we enter Yellowstone National Park, the Snake River heads eastward, but the highway follows the Lewis River, northward. The Lewis, an 18-mile-long tributary of the Snake, is entirely within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. The river, of course, is named for Meriwether Lewis, commander of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The Lewis River takes us past Lewis Lake – you remember it from yesterday – and to West Thumb, an arm of Yellowstone Lake. In West Thumb, we join US Highway 20, part of the park’s Grand Loop. The Grand Loop is a 142-mile-long road that curves around in a figure-eight, taking visitors past the park’s most striking natural features.
The Grand Loop is the main way to get to the major attractions in Yellowstone, including Yellowstone Lake. Today, we take the loop and ride along the northern shoreline of Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation (above 7,000 feet) lake in North America.
The lake has more than 140 miles of shoreline, which we get to experience in this morning’s wake-up ride. Yellowstone Lake completely freezes over every winter in late December or early January, with ice thicknesses varying from a few inches to more than two feet. The lake usually thaws in late May or early June, but the water remains cold year-round, with an average water temperature of 41 degrees.
Yellowstone Lake has the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in North America. The cutthroat, named for an orange mark behind the lower jaw, has been the official Wyoming state fish since 1987.
It’s a species of the family Salmonidae, native to cold-water tributaries of the Pacific Ocean. How a Pacific Ocean fish was trapped in a lake that drains to the Atlantic puzzled experts for years. Scientists now believe that Yellowstone Lake once drained to the Pacific Ocean via Outlet Canyon and the Snake River, and that fish swam across the Continental Divide at Two Ocean Pass.
The lake currently drains north from its only outlet, the Yellowstone River, at Fishing Bridge. The gravelly bottom of the Yellowstone River at the outlet of the lake makes it a major spawning area for the cutthroat trout.
Overfishing from this once popular fishing spot contributed to the decline of the cutthroat trout in the lake, which is home to the largest inland population of cutthroat trout in the world.
Despite its name, there is no fishing from Fishing Bridge. Not any more. Fishing has been prohibited from the bridge since 1973, but it remains a good place to watch trout.
At Fishing Bridge, we follow the Grand Loop north, as it traces the contours of the Yellowstone River. The loop takes us past the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. This may be obvious, but Yellowstone National Park is named after the Yellowstone River, the major river running through the park.
The Lower Falls, at 308 feet, is the tallest waterfall in the park. In terms of height alone, it’s more than twice the size of Niagara Falls. Vista points to observe the falls are among the more popular and crowded spots in the park. The Grand Canyon, one of the most photographed views in the park, runs for more than 20 miles of the Yellowstone River.
Along with Old Faithful, this area is one of the park’s two marquee destinations.
The jumping off spot for activities in the Grand Canyon area is Canyon Village, home to lodging, restaurants campgrounds and a general store.
Today, we are just passing through. We continue north on Grand Loop Road toward Tower Fall, the final waterfall we’ll see.
Tower Fall was first photographed by William Henry Jackson in 1871. When Jackson and artist Thomas Moran returned from a 40-day expedition to the Yellowstone area and shared their photos and paintings with Congress, these visuals created quite a stir.
The beauty of their images led Congress to create Yellowstone National Park.
About two miles north of Tower Fall, we arrive at Tower Junction, where we leave Grand Loop Road and head east on US Highway 212. This roadway, also known as Northeast Entrance Road, follows the Lamar River – a tributary of the Yellowstone River. The 40-mile long Lamar is entirely within Yellowstone National Park’s borders.
The river was named for Lucius Lamar, Secretary of the Interior during the first Grover Cleveland administration, from 1885 to 1889. (Wait. What? Grover Cleveland was elected twice?) Until that time, and for some time after, locals called the river “the East Fork of the Yellowstone River” because it was – you know – the east fork of that river.
Highway 212 turns north, eventually crossing into Montana, where we exit Yellowstone National Park at the Northeast Entrance Station, just a few feet north of the Wyoming/Montana state border.
An interesting note about the Wyoming/Montana state border: it essentially runs along the 45th Parallel of latitude. Wyoming’s State Constitution defines its northern border as the 45th Parallel.
The 45th Parallel is an imaginary line that circles the globe at the point halfway between the equator and the North Pole. The same line passes through Ottawa, Canada; Venice, Italy; and the northern tip of the Japanese islands. The 45th Parallel also forms the northern boundary of New York and Vermont, where they meet the Canadian province of Quebec. And, it splits Kazakhstan and Mongolia in half.
The 45th Parallel is a great, yet invisible, line of demarcation. Keeping this in mind, as we cross into Montana, we’re now just slightly closer to the North Pole than we are to the equator. Woo-hoo!
Just ahead is Cooke City and Silver Gate, two separate villages with a combined population of 140. This is where the world-famous Beartooth Highway begins.
From here, we dip back into Wyoming, crossing the 45th Parallel again. There’s a spectacular view of 11,699-foot Pilot Peak, a Matterhorn-like pinnacle. Its shape was defined when glaciers carved away the rest of it, leaving only a pyramidal spire. It’s the most widely photographed peak in the Beartooth Mountains.
The 68-mile long Beartooth Highway is closed in the winter, and generally reopens Memorial Day weekend. It is an incredibly scenic route that climbs to 10,947 feet as it winds through the Beartooth Mountains.
In August 1872, the pass was crossed by Civil War General Philip Sheridan and 120 men, as they returned from an inspection tour of Yellowstone National Park, which had been established earlier that year.
Rather than take the long detour down the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River to return to Billings, Sheridan took the advice of an old hunter named Shuki Greer, who claimed intimate knowledge of the Beartooth Mountains. When the road was opened in 1936, it essentially followed Sheridan’s route over the pass.
Beartooth Highway, which runs from Yellowstone’s northeast entrance to Red Lodge, Montana is the highest elevation paved highway in the Northern Rocky Mountains open to travelers seasonally from May to October.
Former CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt called it the “most beautiful drive in America.” Over the next few hours, we’ll see how accurate his characterization is.
Beartooth Highway takes us back and forth into Wyoming, and Montana – again and again. It’s at or near the top of just about every “Top Ten Motorcycle Rides in the US” list I’ve ever seen. Many cyclists call it a once-in-a-lifetime ride. Lucky for us – we get to ride the Beartooth today, and tomorrow!
For you thrill seekers, here are a few lists of roads that should be in your future.
OK, one more for the road.
That should give you something to do for the foreseeable future. It’s as close to a motorcycle bucket list as you can get.
The name “Beartooth” comes from a Crow name, Na Piet Say, meaning “the bear’s tooth” and refers to a sharp spire that juts from the Beartooth plateau. The Beartooths are the location of Granite Peak, which at 12,807 feet, is the highest point in the state of Montana.
The Beartooth Highway passes through the Beartooth Corridor, and is surrounded by the Custer, Gallatin and Shoshone National Forests. It sits in a million-plus acre wilderness
Soon, we roll past Beartooth Lake, an 8,900-foot-high beauty. The lake is a popular destination for fishing, boating, camping, hiking and backpacking.
All along the Beartooth Highway, it’s not uncommon for August snowstorms to roll through. In the summer (now!), temperatures can range from the 70s on sunny days to below freezing during sudden snowstorms. We think we’re prepared. Fingers crossed.
Just past Beartooth Lake is the Top of the World Store, one of the few reminders of civilization along the Beartooth Highway. Here, you can get groceries, gas, and most importantly, a Wyoming fishing license (a non-resident daily license will set you back $14.00). Never know when you’re gonna have an insatiable desire to drop a line and catch a trout. Even at 9,400 feet above sea level.
Each year, the Wyoming Game and Fish department stocks the lake with nearly 6,000 trout – half rainbow and half cutthroat.
About eight miles past the Top of the World Store, after carefully negotiating a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns, we arrive at the Beartooth Pass Vista Point. At 10,947 feet, it’s a good place to stop, stretch, and snap some pics.
A few more switchbacks later, we pass by the Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area. It’s in Wyoming, just a few miles south of the Montana border.
Beartooth Basin is the lone ski area in North America that is open only in the summer. It’s generally skiable from late May through early July – a six-week season, if road conditions cooperate. Because the Bearthooth Highway is closed in the winter, you couldn’t access this ski area in winters, even if you wanted to.
Formerly known as Red Lodge International Summer Racing Camp, Beartooth Basin is one of North America’s oldest alpine ski training areas. Historically the Basin was a summer destination for alpine racing athletes, operated as a private camp.
The summer racing camp was established in the mid-1960s by Austrian ski racing legends Pepi Gramshammer, Erich Sailer and Anderl Molterer. For 25 summers here on the Beartooth Highway, the Austrians coached as many as eight thousand youngsters from all over the United States and around the world.
Ownership changed in 2003, when an adventurous group of locals from nearby Red Lodge invested in the race camp and opened the door to a younger generation of skiing enthusiasts.
Today, the ski area is staffed with professional ski patrol and lift attendants, like many other ski areas. Unlike most other ski areas, there is no lodge. No warming hut. No retail. You could call it backcountry skiing with a lift.
The summer-only ski area includes 600 acres of terrain that vary in pitch from 15 degrees to 50 degrees. That’s ridiculously steep! Anything over 45 degrees is considered a controlled free fall. Don’t try this at home.
The locally owned and operated Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area is served by two platter lifts.
Its isolation is both a blessing and a curse. The location keeps things local, obscure, and offers up some incredible views. It also causes access issues and creates increased costs.
Beartooth Basin faces steep economic challenges – aging infrastructure, high equipment costs, costly insurance policies, and major engineering inspections on top of the unique challenge of its remote location. To preserve this unique western skiing experience for future generations, the ski area’s owners in 2019 launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds in an effort to keep the place alive.
Said the resort management in a Facebook post: “We enjoy being owned and operated by local ski enthusiasts, and not some big corporate entity. We would rather measure success in smiles than the bottom line.” The Kickstarter campaign sought contributions to support lift maintenance, insurance costs, fuel, snow surface maintenance, and terrain expansion.
As far as we can tell, they’re still hanging in there.
Two miles north of the ski area, we cross back into Montana, where we’ll spend the remainder of our day. In the middle of four exquisite hairpin turns, we arrive at the Rock Creek Vista Point. Here, we are treated to breathtaking views from an elevation of 9,199 feet. In the distance, you can see Rock Creek Canyon and Hellroaring Plateau. Great name!
There are quite a few places in Montana with the Hellroaring label. Hellroaring Creek. Hellroaring Basin. Hellroaring Lake. Hellroaring River. Hellroaring Peak. Hellroaring Mountain. Hellroaring Plateau. The name Hellroaring apparently comes from a description of the sound of the River given by a prospector in 1867.
From the Rock Creek Vista Point, we continue our 5,000-foot vertical descent toward tonight’s destination, Red Lodge. Thus ends our 68-mile thrill ride on Beartooth Highway.
Turns out Charles Kuralt was right.
Day Ten Summary: 175 miles. Yellowstone Lake, Beartooth Highway, summer skiing.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, to Red Lodge, Montana.
Wyoming fun fact: In the Jackson metro area, which includes Teton County, the wealthiest residents make, on average, 132 times as much as everyone else: The average annual income of the top one percent is more than $16.1 million, and the average income of the bottom 99 percent is $122,447.
Montana fun fact: In Montana, it is illegal for married women to go fishing alone on Sundays, and illegal for unmarried women to fish alone at all. If you don’t like this one, remember: never shoot the messenger. Me.
Wyoming favorite food: According to the Food Channel, a usually reliable culinary source, Wyomatoes are unlike any tomato you’ve ever tasted. Grown at 7,400 feet in Big Piney, Wyoming, they’re highly coveted by chefs all over the state. Fried Green Wyomatoes are said to be a big hit at the Spur Restaurant & Bar in Teton Village.
Montana favorite food: Foraging for morel mushrooms is a Montana rite of spring. Montana’s temperature and elevation apparently makes for optimal morel hunting. Morel cooking tips: wash first, to get the dirt and sand out. Cook with lots of butter and garlic. Saute for up to five minutes.
Wyoming funky place name: Capser is the site of the former Fort Caspar. Fort Caspar was a stop along the Oregon Trail, where travelers could send telegrams, resupply, and use a ferry to cross the North Platte River. So, why is the town spelled Casper and not Caspar? It was a typographical error, and nobody caught it until the town was registered. Yes, a typo!
Montana funky place name: The town of Pray is not named after the Sunday religious activity, but after Congressman Charles Nelson Pray, who represented Montana in the early 1900s. Pray is southeast of Bozeman, located along the Yellowstone River, with picturesque views of the Absaroka Mountain Range.
Wyoming famous folk: Pepi Stiegler was the first ski school director at Jackson Hole, a position he held for 29 years. Stiegler won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and Innsbruck, Austria – his home country. Today, at age 83, Stiegler lives in Jackson Hole, where he’s been since 1965.
Montana famous folk: Basketball player and coach Phil Jackson was born in Deer Lodge, Montana. Jackson played 12 seasons in the NBA, winning championships with the New York Knicks twice, then coaching the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a total of 11 NBA titles, the most in league history. As a coach, he was known as the “Zen Master.” Today, the 75-year-old Jackson spends most of his time at home in Flathead Lake in Montana.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: In search of buffalo.
Savvy followers of this blog noticed there was no post on Sunday. “WTF?” a few you said.
Well, no Wi-Fi, no post.
We stayed in the middle of freakin’ nowhere, without a signal. Very old school. No TV, no phone, no nuthin’. So am now catching you up on Sunday’s happenings. Here goes (and then stand by for today’s real post; you get two on Monday, at no extra charge).
After Saturday’s transit day, we’re in for a treat: Yellowstone National Park.
We head south from Belgrade, following the Gallatin River. The river is one of the best whitewater runs in the Yellowstone-Teton area. In June, when the snowmelt is released from the mountains, the Gallatin has a class IV section called the “Mad Mile,” whose nickname should speak for itself.
For river neophytes, there’s an international scale of river difficulty used to rate the difficulty of navigating a stretch of water, or a whitewater rapid. Class IV includes intense, power, but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling.
The Gallatin is also a popular fly-fishing destination for rainbow trout, brown trout and mountain whitefish. Parts of the movie, A River Runs Through It, were filmed on the Gallatin.
US Highway 191, also known as Gallatin Road, takes us south through the Madison mountain range toward the Big Sky resort, at 5,850 skiable acres, the second-largest ski resort in the United States by acreage. (The largest is Park City, Utah.)
The Big Sky resort was founded by Montana native Chet Huntley, the co-anchorman of The Huntley–Brinkley Report on NBC News. Big Sky opened in December 1973, three years after Huntley retired from NBC.
Big Sky? The State of Montana is known as Big Sky Country. The nickname originated with a 1962 promotion by the Montana State Highway Department. Big Sky is a reference to the unobstructed skyline in the state that seems to overwhelm the landscape at times. “Big Sky Country” appeared on Montana license plates from 1967 to 1975. The moniker was shortened on license plates to simply “Big Sky” from 1976 to 2000.
Today, Montana’s plates simply say “Treasure State,” a reference to Montana’s rich natural reserves. The mountains of Montana have yielded fortunes in minerals, one reason the state motto is “Oro y Plata,” Spanish for gold and silver.
A few miles west of Big Sky is the Yellowstone Club, a 15,000-acre private playground for the rich and famous. Really rich, and really famous. To become a member, you must first own property within the grounds. That’ll cost you anywhere from $2 million to $25 million. Then, initial membership fees are $300,000. On top of that, there’s an annual fee of $37,500.
As the saying goes, if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.
That’s why Yellowstone Club members include the soon-to-be divorced Bill and Melinda Gates, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, and former vice president Dan Quayle, the guy who spells potato with an “e” on the end.
The Yellowstone Club has several lifts and ski runs that tie it directly into Big Sky Resort’s lift system. The Big Sky ski area and the Yellowstone Club share a five-mile border. The ski resorts are surrounded by 250,000 acres of the Gallatin National Forest. The Yellowstone club also has its own private ski area, as well as its own golf course, designed by Tom Weiskopf. During the winter, members and other ski snobs call the area “Private Powder.”
We continue south on US Highway 191, past the community of Big Sky, toward the Montana/Wyoming border. As we approach West Yellowstone, Montana, we slip into Wyoming for a few miles, then return to Montana for the ride past Yellowstone Airport and into West Yellowstone.
Because of the harsh winter climate here, the airport is open only from June through September, with limited commercial passenger service on SkyWest Airlines.
West Yellowstone is the jumping off point for Yellowstone National Park, whose entrance is less than a mile to the east.
We enter the park, and within a mile we cross into Wyoming. Ninety-six percent of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming. The rest is in Montana (three percent) and Idaho (one percent).
Contrary to popular belief, Yellowstone was not named for the abundant rhyolite lavas in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone that have been chemically altered by reactions with steam and hot water to create vivid yellow and pink colors. Instead, the name was attributed as early as 1805 to Native Americans who were referring to yellow sandstones along the banks of the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, several hundred miles downstream and northeast of the park.
We cruse eastward along the banks of the Madison River. The river, which is a fly-fishing mecca, was named in 1805 by Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis-and-Clark fame. He named the river after then-Secretary of State James Madison, who four years later succeeded Thomas Jefferson as President.
The Madison River has great fishing for rainbow and brown trout. Within Yellowstone National Park, the river is fly fishing only. All fishing in the park is catch-and-release. Fishing is a hugely popular activity within Yellowstone. More than 50,000 park fishing permits are issued annually. Yellowstone has hundreds of miles of fishable creeks, streams, rivers and lakes.
Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, established by Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. The park is known for its wildlife and 10,000 geothermal features, especially the Old Faithful Geyser, which we will visit today.
Its establishment as the first national park would lay a foundation for 62 additional national parks to eventually follow. From Yellowstone’s beginnings came 100 nations who would subsequently protect more than 1,200 parks and preserve areas spanning the globe. It was the start of a worldwide movement – and it all began at Yellowstone.
Grizzly bears, wolves and free-ranging herds of bison and elk live in the park. The Yellowstone Park bison herd is the oldest and largest public bison herd in the US. More than 6,000 bison roam freely inside the park’s boundaries.
The bison’s resurgence in the park is a success story for nature lovers. After a mass slaughter of tens of millions of bison on the Great Plains in the late 1800s, conservationists brought about the nation’s first efforts to successfully recover a species teetering on the brink of extinction.
While only 23 bison were left in Yellowstone in 1916, the herd today is thriving. In May 2016, the bison became America’s official national mammal, so named because of its historic, economic, ecological, and cultural value.
Almost every country on earth has a national animal, from Afghanistan’s snow leopard to Zimbawbe’s sable antelope. Some countries share their national animal. England, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Libya, Luxembourg, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Togo all have the lion as their national animal.
The bison is so cool, we have it all to ourselves.
National Park Mountain is just west of Madison Junction, where we turn south and follow the Firehole River. Early trappers named it the Firehole for the steam that makes it appear to be smoking, as if on fire. The steam, of course, is a result of the river flowing through several significant geyser basins in the park.
One of those geyser basins is the Upper Geyser Basin, which contains the world-famous Old Faithful – the first geyser in the park to receive a name. It’s faithful, for sure, erupting every 44 to 125 minutes, 365 days a year. The reliability of Old Faithful can be attributed to the fact that it’s not connected to any other thermal features of the Upper Geyser Basin.
Each eruption shoots up to 8,400 gallons of boiling water to a height of up to 185 feet. The eruptions generally last from a minute and a-half to 15 minutes. It’s a great show.
Old Faithful is one of nearly 500 geysers in Yellowstone – the greatest concentration of geysers in the world. Old Faithful is one of six geysers that park rangers can predict; its eruption pattern is so reliable that early developers built special viewing areas, lodging and concessions for visitors to watch eruptions.
We leave Old Faithful after its most recent eruption, and continue east on Grand Loop Road, which takes us to the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.
West Thumb is an arm of Yellowstone Lake. It’s home to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, formed by a large volcanic explosion about 150,000 years ago.
The resulting collapsed volcano, called a caldera, later filled with water, forming an extension of Yellowstone Lake. That extension is known as the West Thumb, which is about the same size as another famous volcanic caldera, Crater Lake in Oregon.
From West Thumb, we continue south, past Lewis Lake – named after Meriwether Lewis, commander of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ten miles down the road, we leave Yellowstone National Park at the park’s south entrance, and follow the Snake River.
We are again on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway, which takes us the remaining two miles to tonight’s destination: Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch. It’s actually just outside Yellowstone National Park, between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
Tonight’s lodging is only a few miles from where we were a week ago, when we visited Jackson Lake, riding up from Afton, Wyoming – home of the elk antler arch.
We park our bikes outside the lodge, after a 160-mile ride – the shortest of our trip – and call it a day.
Day Nine Summary: 160 miles. Big skies, Old Faithful, a bison resurgence.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Belgrade, Montana, to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Montana fun fact: Montana holds the world record for the greatest temperature change in 24 hours. On January 14-15, 1972, the temperature went from -54°F to 49°F, a whopping 103 degree change. This happened in Loma, a tiny town (population 85) in central Montana, whose only claim to fame is this temperature variation.
Wyoming fun fact: Wyoming may be landlocked, but it’s still home to dozens of islands. There are 32 named islands within the state’s borders, most of which are located in Green River, Yellowstone Lake, and Jackson Lake.
Montana favorite food: Blackspotted cutthroat trout is the official state fish of Montana. Also called westslope cutthroat trout and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the fish are native to Montana. The average size of these fish is 6 to 16 inches, depending on habitat, but they rarely exceed 18 inches in length. Most are catch-and-release; eat at your own risk.
Wyoming favorite food: You can seldom go wrong with an elk burger in Wyoming. Elk is best cooked medium rare. To do that, the internal temperature of the elk burger should be less than 140 degrees F. Before you serve the burger, it should immerse in its juices for 10 to 15 minutes. For a tasty elk burger, try Snake River Brewing in Jackson, or the Mangy Moose Steakhouse in Teton Village.
Montana funky place name: Coffee Creek is an unincorporated community in Fergus County, in north central Montana, about 50 miles east of Great Falls. The town was named after the creek, which got its name because its waters were a dark, coffee-brown color.
Wyoming funky place name: Bar Nunn was named for the town’s founder, Ronnie Nunn, it was built in the 1950s on the runways of Casper’s original airport, Wardwell Field, near Casper, Wyoming. The town’s streets are former runways at the abandoned airfield.
Montana famous folk: Former professional road racing cyclist Levi Leipheimer grew up in Butte. He is a two-time US national champion and a bronze medalist in the time trial at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Leipheimer, like so many other riders, was caught up in the doping scandals of the Lance Armstrong era. Today at age 47, he lives in Santa Rosa, California.
Wyoming famous folk: Former World Cup ski racer Tommy Moe lives in Jackson Hole, though he has a Montana connection as well. He was raised in Missoula, Montana and learned to race at Big Mountain, near Whitefish. Moe won gold and silver medals in the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway. He was a specialist in the speed events of downhill and super G. Now 51 years old, Moe works as a mountain ambassador at the Jackson Hole ski area. He also owns, operates and guides at a heli-ski lodge in Alaska.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Summer skiing.
Every trip has a “transit” day, essentially moving from Point A to Point B with few points of interest in between.
Today, as we begin week two of our trip, is such a day.
Two hundred seventy three miles, few of them as breathtaking as what we experienced yesterday, or as beautiful as what we will see tomorrow.
Transit days are boring, but necessary. So, let’s be on our way.
We leave East Glacier Park Village and head east, riding past the Amtrak station and on to Browning, headquarters for the 1.5-million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Some of you may think the word “Blackfeet” should have been “Blackfoot.” There’s a lot of confusion about that. The Blackfoot in the US are officially known as the Blackfeet Nation. In Canada, they are generally called Blackfoot Confederacy. Whatever you call the tribes, they’re the original residents of the northern Plains, particularly Montana, Idaho, and Alberta, Canada.
Browning, population 1,000, is the only incorporated town in Glacier County. In 1895, it was named after Daniel Browning, then the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington DC.
US Highway 89 takes us southeast from Browning. In 71 miles, we roll through Choteau, named for French fur trapper and explorer, Pierre Choteau. Like most people, you’ve probably never heard of Choteau – the explorer, or the town.
Outside of its 1,700 residents, few had heard of Choteau until 1999. That’s when comedian and late-night host David Letterman made it famous, after buying a 2,700-acre ranch in 1999, and turning it into a vacation home. The Letterman ranch is actually in Saypo, 35 miles west of Choteau.
In March 2009, Letterman married Regina Lasko, his girlfriend of 23 years, at the Teton County Courthouse in Choteau. A justice of the peace performed the ceremony. Letterman announced the marriage on his TV show, explaining to the audience that he almost missed the wedding after his truck got stuck in a mud patch two miles from the ranch in Saypo.
Today, the 74-year-old Letterman and 60-old-old Lasko live primarily in North Salem, New York. They’re raising their son, Harry, in North Salem on a 108-acre estate, about 50 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. Harry, now 17 years old, is named after David Letterman’s father, who died in 1973.
Choteau is just a few miles from Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area. Freezout Lake is Montana’s primary snow goose staging area, a place where as many as 300,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans gather and rest before flying onward.
In spring, the snow geese head for Alberta and central Saskatchewan in Canada. There, they mass with hundreds of thousands of other snow geese from Texas and assorted Gulf Coast States. In a series of shorter flights, the geese then make their way to nesting grounds on the wind swept, extreme northwest Arctic coast of Canada.
The Snow Geese usually reach Freezout Lake in early March, where they rest up from their nearly 1,000-mile flight from California.
We miss the snow geese for two reasons. One, they’ve already headed for Canada, four months ago. And two, we turn south in Choteau on US Highway 287.
This highway takes us through Augusta and to Wolf Creek, where we merge onto I-15 for the 35-mile ride to Helena, Montana’s state capital. We’re not far from the Missouri River, and Helena National Forest.
With a population of less than 30,000, Helena is the fifth least populous state capital. It has a few thousand more folks than Frankfort, Kentucky, and a few thousand less than Juneau, Alaska.
Hollywood legend Gary Cooper, after whom my parents named me, grew up in Helena in the early 1900s. L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, also grew up in Helena, around the same time as Cooper. I’m glad my parents had the good sense not to name me L. Ron. Or even L. Gary.
In Helena, known as the “Queen City of the Rockies,” we ditch Interstate 15, and head east on US Highway 287. Off and on, we follow or cross the Missouri River, at 2,341 miles, the longest in North America. Soon, we approach the Missouri Headwaters State Park.
This park marks the official start of the Missouri River. It includes the Three Forks of the Missouri National Historic Landmark, where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson Rivers come together to form the Missouri River.
Here at the headwaters, the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped in 1805. On July 28, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal: “Both Capt. C. and myself corrisponded in opinion with rispect to the impropriety of calling either of these three streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them after the President of the United States and the Secretaries of the Treasury and State.”
Thus, the three rivers: Jefferson (President Thomas Jefferson), Gallatin (Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin), and Madison (Secretary of State James Madison).
Near the Missouri Headwaters, we join Interstate 90 for the 20-mile ride to tonight’s destination, Belgrade, just outside Bozeman. The city of nearly 50,000 has some great nicknames: The Bozone, and Bozangeles. Seriously, that’s what locals call their hometown.
Belgrade is named after the capital of Serbia, an expression of appreciation to the Serbian investors who helped finance a portion of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) is located in Belgrade. So is Yellowstone Harley-Davidson.
And there you have it. A transit day. Two hundred seventy-three miles, in four and a half hours.
Day Eight Summary: 273 miles. Transit time, Late Night With David Letterman, at home in the Bozone.
Click here to see today’s complete route from East Glacier Park Village, Montana, to Belgrade, Montana.
Montana fun fact: Montana is the only state with a triple divide allowing water to flow into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans. This phenomenon occurs at Triple Divide Peak, near Cut Bank, in Glacier National Park. Triple Divide Peak may be the only place in the world that has water flowing into three of the four great oceans of the world – a Continental Divide on steroids.
Montana favorite food: Hootdogs. What? Yes, Hootdogs. Not a typo. Hootdogs are skewered hot dogs, swaddled it in fry-bread dough, then dunked it in a vat of boiling oil. The Lewiston, Montana, woman who originated the Hootdog, Rita Hofer, serves her creation with a side of ketchup and mustard at the Lewistown Farmers Market on Saturdays from June through early October.
Montana funky place name: Libby is a great name for a town, but it also makes a beautiful name for a human. This town — and Libby Creek — happens to be named after early settler Stephen Allen’s daughter. Her name was Elizabeth, but everyone called her Libby. Libby is in northwest Montana, in the Kootenai National Forest.
Montana famous folk: 82-year-old Ted Turner, best known as the media mogul who founded CNN, and former owner of the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks, has quite a presence in Montana. At his 113,613-acre Flying D Ranch near Bozeman in southwestern Montana, Turner has a herd of more than 5,000 bison. He owns 16 ranches in the US, and three more in Argentina – spanning a total of nearly two million acres. He’s believed to be the fourth-largest private landowner in the US. Fun fact: the world’s largest non-governmental landowner is Queen Elizabeth II, with a whopping 6.6 billion acres.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Yellowstone National Park.
Today, we’re going to the sun.
To the Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, via the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
We head north out of Missoula on Montana Highway 200, through the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, which is a part of the Lolo National Forest.
Many Missoula residents treat the Rattlesnake Wilderness as their backyard playground, because of its close proximity to town. The Wilderness is believed to be the country’s only Wilderness Area with a city bus stop.
Thirty miles from Missoula, we pass through the town of Ravalli, population 120. The community was named for Antonio Ravalli, a missionary to the Indians. At one time, Charlie Allard, the country’s leading expert on breeding bison, owned America’s largest herd of buffalo, and kept it in Ravalli.
That may explain why the nearly 19,000-acre National Bison Range is just northwest of Ravalli. The range was established in 1908 to provide a sanctuary for bison. Today, the herd here is less than 500 bison. The Bison Range serves as the central point for bison research in the US.
In Ravalli, we turn onto US Highway 93 and roll toward Flathead Lake, about 30 miles away. At the southern end of Flathead Lake is Polson, which sits on the Flathead Indian Reservation and is home to the Miracle of America Museum.
The museum has more than 340,000 artifacts, and calls itself the “Smithsonian of the West.” It has more than 3,000 motorcycles, and World War II and Vietnam-era trucks and helicopters. Fittingly, the museum is located on Memory Lane in Polson.
Here, we turn north on Montana Highway 35 and ride along the eastern shore of Flathead Lake. It’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the lower 48 states. Flathead Lake has more than 200 square miles of water and 185 miles of shoreline. The lake is about 370 feet deep in some spots, and is known for its amazingly clear waters.
Past Flathead Lake State Park, we roll through Bear Dance, Woods Bay and Bigfork – with the Flathead National Forest just to our right. We join US Highway 2 near Columbia Falls, and turn east to ride along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River into the town of Hungry Horse, where it’s time for a gas break.
The name Hungry Horse comes from a local legend about two horses, Tex and Jerry. They escaped from their riders and almost starved to death in deep snow along the South Fork of the Flathead River. Today, you can’t go hungry here, whether horse or human. The town of about 900 has a variety of restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and even a liquor store.
No one here wants to go hungry. Or thirsty.
From Hungry Horse, we follow US Highway 2 to West Glacier, which sits at the west entrance to Glacier National Park. We enter the park and head for the visitor center in Apgar, two miles away, on the southern end of Lake McDonald.
Apgar is one of the main villages in the park. In addition to the visitor center, it has a restaurant, gift shops, boat rentals, and the largest campground in Glacier National Park. Apgar also has a reservation center for Red Bus Tours.
Apgar Village is the starting point for almost all Red Bus Tours, better known as Red Jammers. The fleet of 33 buses in Glacier National Park is widely considered to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles anywhere in the world.
When the park opened in 1910, it had just a few miles of rough wagon roads, and the primary mode of transportation was the railway, which took affluent guests to luxurious chalets. Officials convinced local businesses and Congress to support a trans-mountain road through the park.
Construction of the road, now known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road, began in the 1920s and was completed in 1933. While a modern marvel at the time, park officials quickly realized many motorists were terrified of driving on it. They contracted White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio to produce a fleet of buses to be piloted by expert drivers.
The buses, with their roll-back convertible tops, leave Apgar and head for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, as we are about to do. The Red Jammers are the vintage White Motor Company/Bender Body Company Model 706 buses that have transported park visitors since 1936. They’re called “Reds” for their distinctive livery, painted to match the color of ripe mountain ash berries.
The bus drivers are called “jammers” because of the sound the gears made, back in the day, when the driver shifted on the park’s steep roads. The “jamming” sound came from the unsynchronized transmissions, where double clutching was required to shift gears prior to a 1989 fleet retrofit that added automatic transmissions.
For you Millenials and others too young to remember unsynchronized transmissions, double clutching involves manually matching the engine speed with the speed of the driveshaft. It’s harder than it looks and sounds, but unless you’re driving Grandpa’s vintage Model T, this is a skill you probablydon’t need these days.
Double clutching is lost art.
Nearly all transmissions today are automatic, and of those that call for shifting, nearly all have synchronized gearboxes. Amazing that Millennials look puzzlingly at that pedal to the left of the brake. Yes, the clutch.
Beginning in 2019, Legacy Classic Trucks, based in Driggs, Idaho, started restoring and updated each bus with a new Ford chassis and Ford 6.2 liter V-8 engine, including a hybrid electrical system – to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions.
We leave Apgar, and begin our journey east on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
It’s a spectacular ride along the eastern shoreline of Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. The high alpine lake is 10 miles long and nearly 500 feet deep. It was once occupied by massive glaciers that carved this area thousands of years ago.
Just as the Red Jammers take tourists through the park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a fleet of classic wooden boats is available to explore the park’s major lakes. The boats are part of the Glacier Park Boat Company.
A 57-foot boat, DeSmet, has been cruising Lake McDonald since the 1930s. The DeSmet, a carvel-planked vessel with cedar on an oak frame, can carry up to 70 passengers. The boat, named after Father Pierre DeSmet, a prominent Jesuit missionary in the area, has never left Lake McDonald since being launched here almost a century ago.
Similar boats ply the waters of the other major lakes in Glacier National Park: The Sinopah on Two Medicine Lake; Little Chief, and Joy II on Saint Mary Lake; the Morning Eagle on Lake Josephine; and Chief Two Guns on Swiftcurrent Lake.
Each fall, the boats are lifted on a cradle-and-track system, and moved into custom boathouses built specifically for each boat. The vessels are closed up, protected against the brutal Glacier Park winters, and then re-launched every spring for the summer tourist season.
The DeSmet begins its tours of Lake McDonald at historic Lake McDonald Lodge. The lodge, built in 1913, sits on the southeast shore of the lake. It’s a National Historic Landmark. Artist Charles Russell was a frequent at the hotel in the 1920s, and is believed to have etched pictographs in the dining room’s original fireplace hearth.
Six miles past the Lake McDonald Lodge is the Trail of the Cedars, a short, easy trail mostly on boardwalks and flat ground. The trail is named after the towering trees you’ll hike beneath. This cedar forest, resembling the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, is the only one of its kind in in the park.
All national parks are distinguished by their unique natural beauty. How do you even begin to compare Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion and Grand Teton?
Naturalist John Muir, known as the “Father of the National Parks,” summed up his view of Glacier National Park in a simple thought.
“It is the best care-killing scenery on the continent.”
Care-killing scenery. That’s a good one.
Glacier National Park encompasses more than one million acres, and it borders Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. The two parks are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and were designated as the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932.
Glacier is the eighth-most visited of the national parks, with about three million visitors a year. It’s so popular, that you now need a $30 “timed-entry” ticket, an advance reservation, to ride the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Now that we’ve finally made it to Glacier, this posse (or its members) has been to all ten of the most visited national parks. Here they are, in order, starting with the most visited: Smokey Mountain (#1), Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Olympic, Glacier, Joshua Tree, and Bryce Canyon (#10).
In the mid-19thcentury, about 150 glaciers still existed in the area that is now Glacier National Park. By 1910, only 25 active glaciers remained. Scientists studying the glaciers in the park believe all the active glaciers in the park may disappear over the next ten years. Global warming is real.
The first major vista on the 51-mile long Going-to-the-Sun Road is Red Rock Point, a popular pullout on the north side of the road. Eight miles beyond Red Rock Point is The Loop, where the road makes an unbelievable hairpin turn. It’s the lone switchback on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
At first, the road’s surface was crushed gravel. It wasn’t until 1952, 20 years after opening the Going to the Sun Road, that the entire road was paved.
Building the road was a feat of engineering because the many obstacles faced by engineers and laborers during its construction road. Sheer cliffs, short construction seasons, 60-foot snowdrifts and tons of solid rock made road building across the Continental Divide a unique challenge.
The road is narrow and winding. As a result, vehicles going over the highest portions of the roadway are limited to 21 feet in length and 10 feet in height, due to overhanging rocks. For comparison purposes, 12,095-foot Independence Pass, east of Aspen, restricts vehicles to no more than 35 feet in length.
Because of the intense winters and heavy snowfall, the Going-to-the Sun-Road generally opens in late June or early July, and closes the third Monday of October. It’s a short season, but well worth the wait. The Going-to-the-Sun Road has been fittingly recognized.
It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. And, it’s a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark – joining such structures and accomplishments as the Brooklyn Bridge, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Grand Central Terminal and Captain George Vancouver’s Mapping of the West Coast of North America.
A few miles east of The Loop we arrive at Logan Pass. At 6,646 feet, it’s the highest point on Going-to-the-Sun Road. The pass is named after William R. Logan, the first superintendent of the park.
Logan Pass offers breathtaking scenery amid what’s called “the backbone of America,” the Continental Divide. As we work our way toward the east end of the park, we approach 9,647-foot Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. It’s just a mile or so from the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
Our descent from Logan Pass takes us toward Saint Mary Lake, the second-largest in the park, after Lake McDonald. The Going-to-the-Sun Road runs along the lake’s north shore.
The lake is nearly 10 miles long, and when we reach the eastern end of it, we also arrive at the town of Saint Mary, home to the Saint Mary Visitor Center. Saint Mary marks the end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Remember Father DeSmet, from earlier today? He was the Jesuit missionary, and the inspiration for naming the Lake McDonald boat, DeSmet. Well, he also had a hand in providing the name for Saint Mary.
Once upon a time, Father DeSmet was caught in a heavy fog coming off of Divide Mountain. When the fog cleared, the first thing he saw was the face of Saint Mary. He was able to use this as a landmark to help guide himself down to Saint Mary Lake. Divine inspiration? It’s a good story, anyway.
In the town of Saint Mary, we turn south on US Highway 89, and begin the 30-mile journey to tonight’s destination, East Glacier Park Village. At Kiowa, population 4, we turn onto Montana Highway 49 for the remaining 11 miles to our hotel. The name Kiowa comes from the Blackfeet word for bear, Kya-yo.
On the way to tonight’s destination, East Glacier Park Village, we pass Lower Two Medicine Lake. The lake straddles the line between Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
East Glacier Park Village is home to Glacier Park Lodge, which sits just outside the boundaries of the park. The lodge was built in 1913 by the Glacier Park Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. It was the first of a series of hotels built in and near Glacier National Park by the Great Northern to house visitors brought to the park by the railroad.
Today, you can take the Amtrak Empire Builder train to East Glacier Park. If you can’t arrive by Harley, it’s the next-best way to get here. The Amtrak station is a short walk, about 300 yards, to the Glacier Park Lodge, where we’re staying.
Amtrak still markets the park as a tourist destination for its Empire Builder train, which stops in East Glacier on its way from Chicago to Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland. Many visitors to Glacier National Park arrive by train.
Instead, we arrive by motorcycle, park our Harleys in front of the Glacier Park Lodge, and call it a day.
Day Seven Summary: 240 Miles. Going to the Sun, Red Jammers, Amtrak arrival.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Missoula, Montana, to East Glacier Park Village, Montana.
Montana fun fact: In Montana, the word “ditch” can be used when ordering a drink. Ditch means “with water,” as in: “I’d like a Jack Daniel’s ditch, please.” That means you wans a Jack Daniel’s and water. In fact, all you really have to ask for is a “Jack ditch.” Try it out the next time you find yourself in a Montana saloon. Pretty sure Dave and Scott will give it a whirl tonight.
Montana favorite food: Few things taste more like summer for Montanans more than Flathead cherries. Named for the temperate region in which they’re grown surrounding northwestern Montana’s Flathead Lake, Flathead orchards produce naturally sweet and tangy Lapin, Rainier, Van and – most quintessentially – heart-shaped Lambert cherries.
Montana funky place name: The tiny town of Ismay, population 21, unofficially and temporarily renamed itself “Joe” after the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana. It was a publicity stunt in the 1993 season, done at the request of a Kansas City radio station. The town’s name of Ismay was quite a story in itself; it’s an amalgamation of Isabella and May, the daughters of Albert Earling, a railway superintendent in the area.
Montana famous folk: Robert Craig Knievel, known as “Evel,” was a motorcycle stuntman who grew up in Butte, Montana. He was most famous for jumping his motorcycle over rows of cars, even trying unsuccessfully to jump across the Snake River in Idaho, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Over the course of his career, he attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps. Knievel died in 2007 at the age of 69. His entry in the Guiness Book of World Records says he suffered 433 bone fractures; that’s 433 more than I’ve had in my riding career.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Transit time.
The same road that brought us to McCall, Idaho Highway 55, leads us out of town.
We follow Highway 55 west for ten miles, before arriving in New Meadows. New Meadows sits at the junction of the primary north-south highway in the state, US Highway 95, and State Highway 55, which got us here.
More importantly, New Meadows is our first exposure to Adams County (2A license plates).
We turn north on US Highway 95 and head toward Riggins. Like so much of Idaho, we see little for mile after mile, other than the Little Salmon River and pine trees as far as you can see.
When the Little Salmon River meets the Salmon River, we arrive in Riggins (I license plates). Riggins, population about 400, is the northwestern most town in the Mountain Time zone; the Pacific Time begins just north of the city, across the Salmon River. Riggins’ town motto: Come See For Yourself.
For the next hour, we follow the Salmon River, through Lucile and on to White Bird, population 91. This was the site of the 1877 Battle of White Bird Canyon, which was the first fight of the Nez Perce War and a significant defeat of the US Army. Chief White Bird was a leader of the tribe, and the reason the town got its name.
Long before we arrived in the town of White Bird, my early recollections of White Bird were from the song by the band, It’s a Beautiful Day. White Bird, originally recorded in 1968 was their biggest hit, and remains on a playlist I listen to while on Harley rides like this.
Although they were one of the earliest and most important San Francisco bands to emerge from 1967’s social phenomenon, Summer of Love, It’s a Beautiful Day never quite achieved the success of contemporaries such as Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana.
It’s a Beautiful Day was one of the first rock bands to make violin playing cool. They were to the violin what Jethro Tull was to the flute.
That was a welcome waltz down Memory Lane. For me, anyway.
Four miles past White Bird, a historical landmark commemorates the battle of White Bird. It’s the last thing of note we see before arriving in Grangeville, 20 miles up the road. Grangeville is home to the Idaho County Airport, the Idaho County Seat, and Border Days, held every July 4.
Border Days features Idaho’s oldest rodeo, and what’s believed to be the world’s largest egg toss. Roughly 15,000 eggs have been cracked on Grangeville’s Main Street each year since the event began in 2009. The egg toss begins at 9 a.m. sharp.
In Grangeville, we begin our journey east, jumping on State Highway 13, the Harpster Grade Road, which takes us, of course, to Harpster. It’s unclear where the name Harpster comes from. Clearly, it’s unrelated to the musical instrument. One who plays the harp is called a harpist. A really cool dude might be considered a hipster harpster.
We’ve been following the South Fork of the Clearwater River, and we’ll continue along its path to the town of Kooskia, just 13 miles north of here.
Kooskia, population 600, sits at the confluence of the South and Middle forks of the Clearwater. The name Kooskia is believed to come from the Nez Perce word “koos-koos-kia,” which refers to the Clearwater River. A historical stain on Kooskia is its Internment Camp, which housed more than 250 interned Japanese-American men during the final two years of World War II.
Today, Kooskia is within the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, whose tribal lands cover about 1,200 square miles. The Nez Perce are one of five federally recognized tribes in the state of Idaho, and one of more than 300 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the US.
Kooskia marks the beginning of the Lolo Pass Highway, known among motorcyclists as one of the top ten rides in the country. From Kooskia, it’s 104 miles to Lolo Pass, and 28 more to the town of Lolo, Montana.
So, we do what all smart Harley riders do, and turn east on US Highway 12, beginning the journey to Lolo Pass.
We follow Highway 12, and the Clearwater River, east. Fifteen miles later, we arrive in the tiny town of Syringa, named for the shrub that grows in the area. It’s also the Idaho state flower. Syringa is a woody shrub with clusters of white, fragrant flowers. Native Americans found many uses for syringa; the wood was used to make pipe stems, harpoon shafts, bows, arrows, root digging sticks, and snowshoes. The bark and leaves of syringa were used to make soap.
The town of Syringa is in the Nez Perce – Clearwater National Forest, which we’ll be riding through for the next three hours, until we arrive at Lolo. Most of the path of the Lolo Pass Highway runs along the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers.
Our journey is much easier than what the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered. In 1805, they descended the Clearwater in dugout canoes.
In the town of Lowell, population 30, the Middle fork of the Clearwater River becomes the Lochsa River. Lochsa (pronounced LOCK-saw) is a Nez Perce word meaning rough water. Kayakers and whitewater rafters run the Lochsa, generally between April and June.
We’re now following Highway 12 along the Lochsa River’s north bank. This roadway, completed in the early 1960s, was one of the last two-lane US highways built.
We don’t see much for the next two hours, until we arrive at Lochsa Lodge, constructed in 1929 for hunters. Sportsmen traveled by trail from Missoula, Montana, and from Kooskia, Idaho, to stay at the lodge — before Highway 12 was built.
Lochsa Lodge is one of the few places on the Lolo Pass Highway where food and beverage is available. Their signature dish: blackberry cobbler, a la mode.
From Lochsa Lodge, it’s 13 miles to Lolo Summit, elevation 5,233 feet. Lolo Pass sits on the border between Idaho and Montana. It’s the highest point on the historic Lolo Trail, which was used by Nez Perce in the 18thcentury, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, on their westward snowbound journey in September 1805.
The Lolo Trail is a National Historic Landmark, designated for its importance to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and its role in the 1877 Nez Perce War.
There are different stories as to where the name Lolo came from. The name Lolo was not used by Lewis and Clark. Its first known mention is in the 1810 journal of David Thompson, who described three fur trappers, probably of French descent: Michael, Lolo and Gregoire.
To Olympics fans unfamiliar with this part of the country, the best-known Lolo is Lolo Jones, born Lori Susan Jones. She’s a track star who received All-American honors while at Louisiana State University, for her hurdling prowess. Jones was favored to win gold the 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and was pulling away from the field when she tripped on the second-to-last hurdle and finished in seventh place.
Lolo Jones is one of the few athletes who have participated in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. While she’s best known for her work on the track, she represented the US in bobsledding at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Jones is not competing in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which are happening this week, but she’s still pursuing her dream of a winter Olympics medal at the 2022 games in Beijing, China.
She got the nickname Lolo as a child when people called on the phone, asking to speak to Lori – also her mother’s name. To make things less confusing, they decided to call the younger Lori “Lolo.”
Now 38 years old and never married, Jones has attracted quite a bit of attention for her desire, so far apparently successful, to wait until she’s married to have sex. In a highly publicized 2012 interview, she said her virginity was a “gift” she wanted to give to her husband.
Jones says her widely known position on virginity has “killed” her dating life.
To learn more about Lolo — and who doesn’t? — her new memoir, released just last week, is on bookshelves: How to Face Life’s Hurdles With Grit, Hustle, and Grace.
At Lolo Pass, atop the Bitterroot Range, as we cross over into Montana, we begin to see more Montana license plates than Idaho plates.
While Idaho was known for its county identifiers on state license plates, Montana’s thing it its huge variety of available plates. If you move to Montana and go to register your car or truck, you have nearly 300 options to choose from. None of them say “Famous Potatoes.”
Turns out you can look at a Montana plate and figure out where the vehicle is from; it’s just harder than in Idaho. Each of Montana’s 56 counties is assigned a number, 1 through 56, and those numbers follow the word Montana on each plate. All you have to do to keep track of this is memorize which county goes with which number.
To get started, number 1 is Silver Bow County, and number 56 is Lincoln County. Good luck with the other 54.
Montana, with a population of just over one million, is the 43rdmost populous state. But it’s a large state geographically – the fourth largest state by land size, trailing only Alaska, Texas and California.
Its population density is 7.3 people per square mile. The only states with smaller human population density are Wyoming and Alaska. On the bright side, Montana has the largest grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states.
Idaho Highway 12, which we’ve been traveling on for the past 130 miles, is also known as the Lewis and Clark Highway – and for good reason.
From Lolo Pass, we descend about 3,000 feet over the next 32 miles until we arrive in Lolo, Montana. Lolo is home to Travelers’ Rest State Park, where Lewis and Clark camped in 1805 and 1806. The Lewis and Clark expedition party included 27 unmarried soldiers, a French-Indian interpreter, and a contracted boat crew – 45 people in all.
Lewis, Clark, and their fellow expeditioners, found the area that is now Travelers’ Rest State Park a relaxing place to hang out. For them, it was ideal to stop, rest, hunt and repair their gear before tackling the trip over Lolo Pass. Today, the park is distinguished for being the only archaeologically verified campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Travelers’ Rest State Park sits on the West Fork of Lolo Creek, in downtown Lolo – just across the street from the Lolo Creek Steakhouse.
One of Lolo’s most famous residents is Bill Allen, who was born there in 1900, graduated from the University of Montana and Harvard Law School. Allen served as president of Boeing from 1945 to 1968. Boeing, of course, is the big ‘ol airplane company where Sarah and I worked – not during the Bill Allen era, but his fingerprints were all over the company, in a good way. There were no Bill Allen scandals. No jail time, no philandering, no drama, no PR nightmares or embarrassments.
Bill Allen is recognized as being largely responsible for Boeing’s success in the early years of the jet age, having bet the company in 1952 on the development of what would become the 707. He bet the company again in the mid-1960s with the development of the 747. Both of those airplanes changed the course of aviation history and made international airplane travel possible for the masses.
Boeing could desperately use another Bill Allen these days. Maybe the Boeing Board of Directors should start looking in Lolo.
Bill Allen’s birthplace in Lolo is only 10 miles to tonight’s destination, Missoula.
With a population of about 75,000, Missoula is Montana’s second largest city – after Billings. Missoula, which sits on the Clark Fork River, is home to the University of Montana. The name Missoula comes from the Salish name for Clark Fork River, which roughly translates to “place of frozen water.”
Missoula is known for its blue-ribbon trout fishing and its spectacular natural beauty. Author Norman Maclean, who spent his early years in Missoula, made both fishing and nature famous with his 1976 book, A River Runs Through It. The book was later made into a 1993 Hollywood film starring a very young Brad Pitt. The movie won an Oscar for its cinematography showcasing Montana’s beauty.
While the book and movie are set in Missoula and on the Blackfoot River, the actual filming was done elsewhere in Montana – in Livingston and Bozeman – and on the upper Yellowstone, Gallatin and Boulder Rivers. To watch the film, you’d never know it wasn’t shot in Missoula, and on the Clark Fork River. That’s Hollywood.
Missoula seems like a good place to stop for the day, so we park the bikes and begin thinking about tomorrow’s journey on yet another road considered one of America’s top 10 for motorcycles.
Day Six Summary: 258 miles. Lolo Pass, Lolo Jones, all things Lolo.
Click here to see today’s complete route from McCall, Idaho, to Missoula, Montana.
Idaho fun fact: Idaho’s State Capitol building in Boise is the only one in the US heated by geothermal energy. The heat comes from hot springs located 3,000 feet underground. Boise became the capital of the Idaho Territory in 1864, then the state capital when Idaho was admitted to the Union as the 43rdstate on July 3, 1890.
Montana fun fact: The world’s largest steer can be found at the O’Fallon Museum in Baker, Montana. Weighing in at 3,980 pounds, he grew to be 5’9″ tall and 10’4″ long. Born March 23, 1923, just east of Baker, in southeastern Montana, the steer lived for 15 years and 4 months. His owner, Jack Guth, christened him “Steer Montana,” and exhibited the animal at more than 60 state fairs.
Idaho favorite food: Finger steaks! These battered, deep-fried beef strips were invented in the mid-1950s by Milo Bybee at the Torch Lounge in Boise. Though you can order a basket of these crunchy morsels at many dive bars, Lindy’s Steak House in Boise has perfected the recipe. The chefs at Lindy’s use top sirloin, rub it with fresh garlic, then dunk it in seasoned flour and drop the whole thing in a high-pressure deep-fat fryer until it’s crisp outside but still pink on the inside.
Montana favorite food: While not an official state food, chicken fried steak is quite popular in Montana. It’s a signature dish at the Western Café in downtown Bozeman. The breakfast version is coated in homemade breading, grilled and nestled in a bed of sausage gravy. Yum!
Idaho funky place name: The state capital of Boise is named after the Boise River, which got its name from French-Canadian explorers and trappers, who noted the variety of trees growing along its banks. Apparently, after traveling over a long stretch of arid land, they were excited to see the woods: “les bois!” (French for, the woods). To sound like a local, pronounce it BOY-see, not BOY-zee. There is no Z in Boise.
Montana funky place name: Two Dot is a tiny community in Wheatland County. Its name comes from the cattle brand of the late George R. Wilson, who donated the land for the town. “Two Dot Wilson” had a cattle brand that was simply two dots, placed side by side, on the hip of his cattle.
Idaho famous folk: Joe Albertson, founder of the Albertsons chain of grocery stores, grew up in Caldwell, just northwest of Boise. Albertson began his career as a clerk at a Safeway store in Caldwell, before starting his own grocery store at Sixteenth and State Streets in Boise – which eventually grew into the Albertsons chain of more than 600 locations. Albertson died in Boise in 1993 at the age of 86.
Montana famous folk: Newsman Chet Huntley, of NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, was born in Caldwell, Montana, lived in various small Montana towns, and attended Montana State College. At the time of his death in 1974 at age 62, he lived in Big Sky, Montana. When the Huntley-Brinkley Report aired from 1956 to 1970, it ended each night with the words: “Good night, Chet.” “Good night, David.”
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Going to the Sun.
An unexpected treat got my day off to a special start.
What are the chances of bumping into River Valley Ranch neighbors, hundreds of miles from home?
Turns out they’re heading the same direction we are: Stanley, Idaho.
The road north from Ketchum, Idaho Highway 75, will take us to Galena Summit, 30 miles away. We’re on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, which has the distinction of being the 100th National Forest Scenic Byway.
We’re riding through the Boulder Mountains, in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area – three quarters of a million acres of scenic mountain country.
The Sawtooth Scenic Highway delivers us to Galena Summit, on our way to the town of Stanley.
The Sawtooth Range, covering 678 square miles, is part of the Rocky Mountains in central Idaho. There are 57 peaks over 10,000 feet in the Sawtooth Range, about the same number of peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet.
On our way to Galena Summit, 23 miles from Ketchum, we encounter the famous Galena Lodge. It’s a county-owned treasure with cross-country skiing in the winter, and hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding in the summer.
In Galena, we begin riding along the Big Wood River, and follow it to Galena Summit, 8,701 feet above sea level. It’s the highest summit in the Northwest US.
Galena is a mineral, lead sulfide. It’s the most important ore of lead and an important source of silver. The name Galena means “calm,” and it’s become an occasional 21stcentury name for newborn girls. Galena is the female version of the more typically male name, Galen.
Galena Summit is a great place to view the night sky. It’s part of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the first and so far, the only International Dark Sky Reserve in the US. At 1,416 square miles, it’s the third-largest such reserve in the world. Only wilderness areas in Quebec, Canada, and New Zealand’s South Island are larger.
Since its establishment in 2017, tourists flock to the reserve to get views of the stars. Here, the skies are the clearest you’ll find in the continental US. The International Dark Sky Association has given the Idaho reserve a gold-tier designation, meaning the inhabited areas at the periphery of the wilderness have appropriate laws in place to cut down light emissions.
One of those inhabited areas is the Ketchum / Sun Valley metropolis, where the high altitude and low humidity help to make for a brilliant night sky. Ketchum was the first city in Idaho to have a dark sky ordinance, which requires urban lighting fixtures to divert light down rather than up, and limits the time frames for holiday lights. Those who violate this law can be fined up to $300 for a “light trespass,” classified as a misdemeanor. (Carbondale, Colorado, where I live, has similar dark sky restrictions. Our lighting is in compliance!)
We stayed in Ketchum last night, and somehow forgot to gaze into the night sky. Damn! Sunset here at Galena Summit is 9:05 pm tonight, so we can have a do-over by pulling over, waiting about 12 hours, and enjoying the beautiful night sky. We chose to ride on.
Descending from Galena Summit, we continue through the Sawtooth Mountains, named for their jagged peaks, reminiscent of serrated teeth on a saw.
In 32 miles, we’ll be in Stanley, which calls itself the “Trailhead to Idaho Adventure.” Stanley, with a population of less than 100, is in Custer County (7C license plates). It’s said to be the geographical center of Idaho’s population.
Fur trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company discovered the Stanley Basin in the 1820s. The area was named after Captain John Stanley, a Civil War veteran, who led a party of prospectors through the area in the early 1860s.
To call this area wild is an understatement.
Just north of Stanley is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the US, outside of Alaska, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Congress created the 2,366,757-acre wilderness area in 1980. Four years later, it was re-named, in honor of US Senator Frank Church, less than four weeks before his death at age 59. Church represented Idaho in the Senate from 1957 to 1981. His 1974 election was the last time a Democrat won a Senate seat in this flaming red state.
There are more acres of road-less wilderness in this region than anywhere else in the lower 48 states.
Much of the ride toward Stanley is along the Salmon River. The Salmon flows for 425 miles through central Idaho. It’s one of the largest rivers in the continental US without a single dam on its mainstem.
In August 1805, just after crossing the Continental Divide, Lewis and Clark ventured down the Salmon River, but found it too rough to safely navigate. They found its swift current and large rapids more than a little challenging.
Lewis and Clark had trouble with the river, but their difficulties were unrelated to the Salmon’s nickname: “The River of No Return.” In the mid-1800s, when the gold rush flooded Idaho, miners arrived in droves. There was a growing demand for lumber.
Due to the wild nature of the river, simply floating logs from one location to another was out of the question. Men with the familiarity of flatboats and their ability to transport huge loads, created the sweep scow – a large wooden boat with a flat bottom, ranging in length from 26 to 38 feet.
Each boat was hand built out of green lumber, then loaded with logs and driven downstream from Salmon City. Upon arrival in Shoup, Riggins or Lewiston, the load of lumber was sold, the sweep scow was dismantled and then also sold as lumber. And that’s why the Salmon was called “The River of No Return” – because once dismantled and sold, the boats would never return.
We turn west in Stanley on Idaho Highway 21, which will take us to Lowman, about 58 miles away. Lowman is in Boise County (6B license plates), nestled along the South Fork of the Payette River.
To get to Lowman, we ride the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, which winds through the Boise National Forest, taking travelers through wide open spaces. More than two-thirds of the state is public lands, and almost a tenth of its acreage is federally protected wilderness.
In Lowman, we turn off of Highway 21 and head west on Banks Lowman Road. It follows the course of the Payette River, until arriving at the town of Banks, 34 miles later. The North and South forks of the Payette River meet at Banks, which makes it a popular destination for people rafting or kayaking on the Payette River.
The Banks Lowman Road is so named, because it starts in Lowman, and ends in Banks. Here, we turn onto Idaho Highway 55, the Payette River Scenic Byway. We head northward, following the North Fork of the Payette River on its winding course to Lake Cascade, into which it empties.
Here, on Highway 55, I reached 100 miles an hour on a motorcycle for the first and last time — on my 1976 Honda CB550F. C’mon, it was the ’70s; I was young and reckless. Now I’m old and ride like Grandma, which is key to my survival.
The Payette River is named for Francois Payette, a Canadian fur trapper who was one of the first people of European descent to explore the Payette River Basin in the early 1800s. Before Payette and other Europeans began exploring western Idaho, the river’s watershed was originally settled by the Shoshone, Nez Perce, Paiute, and Bannock Indian tribes.
About halfway to Lake Cascade, we pass through Smiths Ferry, population about 75. In 1891, the settlement was named after Jim Smith, who owned a ferry that transported livestock across the Payette River to their summer pasture.
Smith’s Ferry, home to the Cougar Mountain Lodge, is in Valley County (V license plates).
We roll past Lake Cascade, a 47-square mile reservoir that has perch, trout, smallmouth bass, Kokanee salmon and Coho salmon fishing in the summer, and an ice fishing season in the winter.
Donnelly, population 150, is at the far northern end of Lake Cascade. From here, it’s only 14 miles to tonight’s destination: McCall.
McCall, established by Thomas and Louisa McCall in 1889, is an all-season tourist town on the southern shore of Payette Lake. It was originally a logging community whose last sawmill closed in 1977, when I lived in the Boise area, about 100 miles away.
At that time, McCall’s most famous resident was a teacher at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School. Barbara Morgan, a Stanford graduate who taught there for more than 20 years, is a former NASA astronaut. She participated in the Teacher in Space Program, and was a backup to Christa McAuliffe for the 1986 ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger mission.
After McAuliffe’s death, Morgan trained as a Mission Specialist, and eventually flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in August 2007. She was in space on that mission for 12 days, 17 hours and 53 minutes. The mission was an assembly-and-repair trip to the International Space Station.
Morgan operated the shuttle’s and space station’s robotic arms to install hardware on the space station. In addition, schoolchildren enjoyed the lessons she conducted while in space.
Morgan, who will turn 70 in November, left the astronaut corps in 2008 to become a Distinguished Educator in Residence at Boise State University, a position created specifically for her that entailed a dual appointment to the Colleges of Engineering and Education.
Her legacy in McCall: Barbara Morgan Elementary School, which has been enriching kids’ lives there since 2008.
McCall, population around 3,000, is home to an annual winter carnival, inspired by the Payette Lake Winter Games, first held in 1924. It has one of the highest average snowfalls in the state. You can imagine it must be a good place for skiing.
Just two miles from town is Little Ski Hill, opened in 1937 as a diversion for local forest workers. Little Ski Hill was the second ski area in Idaho, after Sun Valley, which opened a year earlier. The appropriately named Little Ski Hill has one T-bar lift, and a vertical drop of 405 feet.
Nine miles from McCall is Brundage Mountain, whose five chairlifts and 1,800-foot vertical rise make it more than a little ski hill.
It’s about 80 degrees as we pull into McCall, not exactly optimal skiing temperatures.
So we park the bikes, explore town, and prepare for dinner.
Day Five Summary: 217 miles. Steaming to Stanley, tracing Lewis and Clark’s steps, a teacher in space.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Ketchum, Idaho, to McCall, Idaho.
Idaho fun fact: The state horse, the Appaloosa, was brought over by the Spaniards in the 1700s and embraced by the Nez Perce tribe. Settlers called the spotted equines “Palouse horses” after the Palouse River, and the name stuck. Gradually a Palouse horse evolved into Apalouse horse, and eventually Appaloosa.
Idaho favorite food: You haven’t lived until you’ve tried Idaho sturgeon caviar. Raised near Hagerman, Idaho, by Fish Breeders of Idaho, these dinosaur-like fish produce the phenomenal Idaho White Sturgeon Caviar known as The American Beluga. These fish eggs don’t come cheap; the retail price often reaches $125 per ounce. If you’re having a party and want to go big, you can get a four-ounce tin for $380 from the Seattle Caviar Company.
Idaho funky place name: The community of Dickshooter is in southwest Idaho, in Owyhee County. Dickshooter is not a typo. The place is named for Dick Shooter, a pioneer settler. It’s on many lists of “unusual place names.” To get there, go to Nampa, about 20 miles west of Boise, drive south for four hours, and there it is, in the middle of the Owyhee Desert. Truly in the middle of nowhere.
Idaho famous folk: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, and attended the University of Idaho in Moscow. Before entering politics, she worked as a sportscaster for KTUU-TV in Anchorage, for my friend John Tracy. Anything you’ve read or heard about Palin is pretty much John’s fault, including Senator John McCain’s selection of her as a 1998 running mate. Today, at age 57, Palin is a divorced mother of five who apparently still lives in Alaska and has thankfully faded into well-deserved obscurity.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Come See For Yourself.
Today, we leave Afton, riding at what would be considered maximum Harley takeoff weight. We are leaving Afton and not coming back, so we’re loading up the bikes to full capacity.
The first 64 miles of today’s ride are a mirror image of yesterday’s final 64 miles, only in the opposite direction.
North on US Highway 89 to Alpine Junction. Northwest on US Highway 26, following the shoreline of Palisades Reservoir, then riding along the Snake River until we reach Swan Valley, 64 miles from Afton.
Swan Valley was at one time a haven for whistling swans.
Today in Swan Valley, we’ll try something new: heading northwest on the Swan Valley Highway, toward Idaho Falls – in the heart of potato country.
Swan Valley is in Bonneville County, home of 8B license plates. While Idaho plates can be differentiated by their county of registration, all plates have one thing in common: Famous Potatoes. Since 1957, all Idaho plates have been issued with the slogan, FAMOUS POTATOES – yes, in all caps!
For many years, Idaho plates were also embossed with the image of a giant spud. The 1948 and 1949 plates had a larger-than-life potato with a dab of butter!
Idaho leads the nation in potato production, accounting for nearly one third of all US potatoes. Idaho growers produce potatoes on more than 300,000 acres of fertile volcanic soils. Volcanic ash has a rich supply of trace minerals and appears to be necessary for successful potato production.
Warm days and cool evenings are ideal for growing taters. It’s the secret sauce for baking potatoes and firm French fries. While the Russet is the most well known of the Famous Idaho Potatoes, farmers in the southeast part of the state grow more than 30 varieties, including Yukon Golds, Reds, and Fingerlings.
No discussion of potatoes would be complete without a spell check.
No “e” on the end. Unless you’re Dan Quayle.
On June 15, 1992, then-vice president Quayle gained notoriety and well-deserved ridicule for spelling potato with an “e” on the end. Quayle, never known as an intellectual heavyweight, altered 12-year-old student William Figueroa’s correct spelling of “potato” to “potatoe” at the Muñoz Rivera Elementary School spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey.
Quayle is probably better remembered for this gaffe than for anything he did while in office. In fact, if you Google “Dan Quayle vice presidential accomplishments,” you’ll find a seriously unimpressive list, topped by his visits to 47 countries, and being appointed chairman of the National Space Council. Wow!
Has anyone ever considered why former US Senators from Indiana make such poor choices for vice presidents? Quayle is generally regarded as one of the weakest VPs ever, just behind the disgraced Spiro Agnew (who was from Maryland).
On the bright side, Quayle is ranked #66 on the list of Famous Politicians You’d Want to Have a Beer With. And, as a single-digit handicap golfer, you might enjoy watching Caddyshack with him.
What is it with Indiana politicians who rise beyond their level of incompetence and become Vice President? Six of ‘em, so far.
We arrive in Idaho Falls, one of the larger cities we’ll visit on this trip. With a population of around 62,000, it’s similar in size to Grand Junction, which I passed through on Day One of our journey.
Idaho Falls, in my memory, will always be “Idiot Flats,” as that’s what one of my college roommates called it. He was from Idaho Falls, and must have known what he was talking about.
Maybe things have changed since then. In 2019, livability.com put Idaho Falls on its list of top 100 affordable places to live, with a “liv” score of 617. The quintessential meal in Idaho Falls, according to livability.com: “A big heaping pile of potato pancakes topped with applesauce from Smitty’s Pancake & Steak House.” That, and other attributes, was enough to push Idaho Falls to number 47 on the list.
Idaho Falls is in Bonneville County (8B license plates), where Mormons make up about 60 percent of the population. Idaho has a greater percentage of Mormons than any other state, except Utah.
Idaho has five Mormon Temples. A sixth one, in Pocatello, is under construction and should be completed later this year. Utah has 17, with another six either under construction or awaiting the start of construction. The first Mormon temple in Idaho is right here in Idaho Falls.
We blow through Idaho Falls, and head west on US Highway 20, known as the West Arco Highway. Arco?
Musically, arco means with the bow, something you might do with a violin, or a cello.
ARCO also signifies Atlantic Richfield Company, a giant oil company with more than 1,300 gas stations in the western US.
In Idaho, Arco is a city in Butte County (10B license plates) with a population of around 1,000.
Arco was the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated solely by nuclear power. This happened for about an hour on July 17, 1955. The town was powered by Argonne National Laboratory’s BORAX-III reactor at the nearby National Reactor Testing Station.
Six years later, the facility gained additional fame when a reactor was destroyed through an operator maintenance error. The ensuing steam explosion killed three people. It was the world’s first fatal nuclear reactor accident, and the only one in the US, so far.
In Arco, we turn southwest and head for the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, so named because early settlers thought the landscape resembled the surface of the moon. How would they have known? When the pioneers arrived here, man hadn’t yet set foot on the moon.
The second group of NASA astronauts to walk on the moon visited Craters of the Moon in 1969 – not to train, but to study the volcanic geology.
Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Joe Engle, and Eugene Cernan explored the lava landscape and learned the basics of volcanic geology in preparation for future trips to the moon.
NASA believed these men might someday be walking on the moon, with the rare opportunity to collect samples of different rocks on the lunar surface. Since only a limited amount of material (850 pounds total in 6 moon landings) could be brought back, it was important that they know enough geology to pick up the most scientifically valuable specimens.
Craters of the Moon has three major lava fields. It is a dormant volcanic area, not extinct – meaning the volcanoes are sleeping, not dead. It’s believed that volcanic activity occurred on the Snake River Plain for millions of years, but Craters of the Moon was formed by eruptions that began about 15,000 years ago. The most recent activity was about 2,100 years ago. Geologists believe the area will become volcanically active again within the next 1,000 years.
US Highway 26 takes us along the northern edge of the monument. The views are otherworldly.
At the western tip of Craters of the Moon, we turn onto US Highway 20, and head toward the tiny community of Picabo, pronounced PEEK-a-boo. The name is said to come from a Native American term translated as silver water.
Picabo was made famous by Picabo Street, an Olympic skler who grew up nearby. Her parents decided to let Picabo choose her own name when she was old enough, so for the first two years of her life she was simply called “baby girl” or “little girl.” At age 3, she was required to have a name in order to get a passport. So she chose Picabo, naming herself after the nearby village of Picabo.
Picabo Street won the gold medal in the Super G at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and a silver medal in the Downhill at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Today, the 50-year-old Street lives in Park City, Utah, where she operates the Picabo Street Academy, an academic center she founded to provide individualized schooling for athletes, artists or anyone who can’t be in a classroom seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year.
Picabo, the town, is in Blaine County (5B license plates), where we’ll spend the remainder of our day.
We’re now only 30 miles from today’s destination: Ketchum.
We roll through Bellevue, a one-time silver, gold and lead mining town. Five miles north of Bellevue, on Idaho Highway 75, is the town of Hailey, home to the airport for the resort areas of Sun Valley and Ketchum. Hailey is named after John Hailey, a two-time congressional delegate from the Idaho Territory – before Idaho became a state in 1890.
From Hailey, it’s only a 12-mile ride to Ketchum.
Ketchum, with a population of about 3,000, is next to Sun Valley. Both sit in the same valley beneath Bald Mountain, home of the Sun Valley ski area. Ketchum is named for David Ketchum, a local trapper and guide in the 1880s.
After the development of Sun Valley by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1930s, Ketchum became popular with A-list celebrities, including Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway loved the area’s fishing and hunting, and in the late 1950s, he bought a home overlooking the Big Wood River. It was there that he committed suicide in 1959.
The base of the Sun Valley ski resort is just west of Ketchum. The world’s first chairlifts were installed there in 1936. The single-seat chairlift design was adapted by a railroad engineer recalling banana loading conveyer equipment used for tropical fruit ships’ cargo.
Today, Sun Valley is a major destination resort, the first real ski resort in the US. Here, the very idea of an American ski vacation was born.
Every year, when ski magazines come out with their list of best ski areas in North America, or best ski resorts in the West, Sun Valley dukes it out with Aspen Snowmass for the title. In 2020, Aspen Snowmass was top dog. Go Snowmass!
In the shadow of Sun Valley’s now quiet ski lifts, we park our bikes and call it a day.
Day Four Summary: 254 miles. Spud mania, Idiot Flats, nuclear meltdowns.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Afton, Wyoming, to Ketchum, Idaho.
Wyoming fun fact: The country’s first female governor was elected in Wyoming. After Nellie Tayloe Ross’s husband, Governor William Bradford Ross, died, she was elected to finish his term. She served as the 14th governor of the state from 1925 to 1927, and was later appointed by FDR to serve as the director of the United States Mint.
Idaho fun fact: Idaho is sometimes referred to as the Gem State, its official state nickname. You can find nearly 72 types of precious stones in the state. The mountains of Idaho contain veins of gold, silver, lead, zinc, cobalt, copper, and many other rare minerals. Among these valuable minerals are gems – star garnets, jasper, opal, jade, topaz, zircon, and tourmaline.
Wyoming favorite food: Rocky Mountain oysters (calf testicles!) are considered a delicacy. The best place to find them is at ranch brandings from late March through June, where they’re cut, cleaned, sliced thin and deep-fried on the spot. Not ready for the full-meal deal? Try them as an appetizer at Cavalryman Steakhouse in Laramie.
Idaho favorite food: This should surprise no one, but Idaho’s official state food is the potato. They’re inexpensive, ubiquitous, and tasty. When I lived in Idaho in the 1970s, a person with a big ass shaped like a sack of potatoes was known as a “spud butt.” A unique potato preparation is the Jim Spud, an Idaho potato loaded with six ounces of teriyaki steak scraps, carmelized onions, butter, sour cream, and a mount of melting cheddar cheese. You can get these at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum.
Wyoming funky place name: Thermopolis, known as the gateway to Yellowstone, claims to have the world’s largest mineral hot springs. The name comes from the Greek for “hot city.” Therm = heat. Polis = city. Thermopolis is home to Hot Springs State Park, the most visited state park in Wyoming. The springs are open to the public for free, as part of an 1896 treaty signed with the Shoshone and Arapaho Indian tribes.
Idaho funky place name: Montpelier, in southeastern Idaho’s Bear Lake Valley, was first known as Clover Creek, then Belmont, and eventually Montpelier – the name it was given by Brigham Young. He named the town after the capital of his home state of Vermont. Today, Montpelier, Vermont, has a population of about 8,000, making it the least populous state capital in the US.
Wyoming famous folk: Impressionist painter Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming. He was known for his highly personalized technique of splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface, a process known as “action painting,” since he used the force of his whole body to paint in an almost frenetic dancing style. It must have worked; his original paintings have sold for up to $200 million. Pollock died in an alcohol-related single-car accident in 1956, at the age of 44.
Idaho famous folk: Actress and supermodel Margaux Hemingway once lived on her famous grandfather Ernest’s farm in Ketchum, Idaho – where we’re staying tonight. (No, we’re not staying at the farm; but we are staying in Ketchum.) In the mid-1970s, Hemingway appeared on the covers of Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. After highly publicized episodes of addiction and depression, she died of a drug overdose in 1996 at the age of 42.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Sawing teeth.
We leave Afton this morning, each of our motorcycles departing with a reduced takeoff weight.
Takeoff weight? Yes, that’s an aviation term describing all that’s on board at takeoff. In addition to the “operating empty weight” of the airplane, takeoff weight includes passengers and baggage, cargo, reserve fuel, trip fuel and taxi-out fuel.
All airplanes have a maximum takeoff weight, the heaviest weight at which it’s been shown to meet all the airworthiness requirements. When I did PR for the Boeing 747, its maximum takeoff weight was 910,000 pounds. When I did PR for the Boeing C-17, its maximum takeoff weight was about 585,000 pounds. Big airplanes, both of them.
Today’s Harley takeoff weight does not have a maximum. If it did, the maximum would be pretty much the weight of my bike (820 pounds, including oil and gas), my travel pack (40 pounds), whatever I can stuff into my saddlebags (30 pounds), plus me (135 pounds), my helmet and whatever I’m wearing. All told, just a hair over 1,000 pounds thundering down the highway.
On this day, our takeoff weight does not include baggage. That’s because we’re returning to Afton tonight, and only have to bring with us whatever we need for the day, not supplies for the 18-day trip to Sturgis and back.
The bikes actually handle better with the reduced weight. They’re more nimble and more responsive.
We leave our posh accommodations and point toward Afton, which takes its name from the River Afton, in Scotland. Afton, like most towns in Wyoming’s Star Valley, was founded by Mormons in 1885.
Afton is home to the world’s largest arch made of elk antlers. The arch is made up of 3,011 elk antlers, spanning 75 feet across Afton’s Main Street. Fifteen tons of antlers, hovering over four lanes of traffic!
The antlers in the arch did not come from killing elk. Boy Scouts picked them up in the surrounding area in 1955, in the spring, when the elk naturally shed their antlers.
With a population of less than 2,000, there are more elk antlers than human residents of this town.
About 35 miles north of Afton, we arrive at Alpine Junction, nearly halfway between Afton and Jackson Hole. Alpine Junction is at the southeast tip of Palisades Dam and Reservoir, which gets its water from the Snake River. The reservoir is a hot spot for trout, especially cutthroat. Ice fishing is a popular pastime in the winter.
We’re just a few miles from Idaho; nearly the entire reservoir is in Idaho’s Bonneville County (8B license plates).
In Alpine Junction, we turn east on US Highway 26 and follow the Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia River. The river will lead us to Jackson, which is often mistakenly called Jackson Hole. They are two separate places, about ten miles apart.
Both Jackson and Jackson Hole get their name from David Edward Jackson, a pioneer, trapper, fur trader and explorer born in what is now West Virginia. He worked for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and was one of the first European Americans to spend an entire winter in the valley of the Teton Mountains.
Jackson, and Jackson Hole are both popular tourist destinations, due to their proximity to ski areas, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort – and because of their closeness to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
Technically, Jackson Hole is a 55-mile-long valley between the Teton Mountain Range and the Gros Ventre Range. The term “hole” was used by early trappers or mountain men, as a term for a large mountain valley.
With an 8,000-foot runway, Jackson Hole Airport is the largest and busiest commercial airport in Wyoming, and the only international airport in the US located inside of a National Park. The airport is large enough to handle Boeing 757s, operated by Delta Air Lines.
If you’ve ever been to Jackson, you probably stopped at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, which has been around for more than 125 years. Over the years, its stage has hosted – among others – Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker and Willie Nelson. The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar’s saddle barstools have been a signature item since 1973, the year I first visited the place. It’s a good place to grab a cold one on a hot day.
The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is one of North America’s largest ski areas. It’s located in Teton Village, which we’ll visit later today.
We continue north on US Highway 191, following the path of the Snake River, until 30 miles later, we arrive in Moran, the entrance to Grand Teton National Park. The community of Moran is named after Thomas Moran, a painter and printmaker whose work often features the Rocky Mountains.
In 1871, Moran accompanied an expedition team into the unknown Yellowstone region. His vision of the western landscape from that expedition was critical to the creation of Yellowstone National Park, which we’ll visit next week.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, we’re visiting Grand Teton National Park.
The park is named for Grand Teton, at 13,770 feet, the tallest mountain among the jagged peaks in the Teton Range.
Grand Teton means large breast in French — leave it to a lonely French trapper to make a Freudian association of those prominent crags — the Three Tetons. French trappers are responsible for naming the three peaks now known as the South, Middle, and Grand Teton. They called the mountains “Les Trois Tetons,” or “The Three Breasts.” The Grand Teton – the tallest and best known of the three – literally means “the big tit.”
Climbing the Grand Teton is a major feat of mountaineering. An aura of mystique surrounds it. If you make it to the top of Grand Teton, you are a serious athlete, and maybe just a bit crazy.
The Grand Tetons are totally badass.
More than a thousand climbers attempt to summit the Grand Teton each year. Mount Everest attracts only half as many. Most who seek the summit of the Grand Teton are led by a guide service.
For those whose thirst for adventure is hard to slake, skiing down the Grand Teton is an option. Bill Briggs made the first ski descent of the mountain on June 15, 1971, including rappelling down a 165-foot cliff face with his skis on. As a result, he’s known as the “father of extreme skiing,” and was inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2008.
Briggs, who still lives in Jackson Hole, will be 90 years old in December.
The Grand Tetons provide as spectacular a backdrop for photography as you’ll find anywhere. Whether you snap pics with your iPhone, or use professional equipment, you simply can’t go wrong trying to frame the perfect shot in Grand Teton National Park.
Photographer Jonathan Irish offers some tips on where to find the most breathtaking landscapes, and how to walk away with the ultimate photo.
Grand Teton National Park connects to nearby Yellowstone National Park by the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, which we’re now riding.
The 24,000-acre Rockefeller Memorial Parkway was originally part of Teton National Forest, but was transferred to the National Park Service in the 1970s to create an unbroken connection between the two national parks.
Rockefeller was a conservationist and fabulously wealthy philanthropist who was instrumental in the creation and enlargement of a number of national parks, including Grand Teton. By the time Rockefeller died in 1937, his assets equaled two percent of America’s total economic output. That would be worth about $400 billion today, the biggest fortune in modern history. Take that, Jeff Bezos!
But Rockefeller wasn’t just another really rich guy. He used his extraordinary wealth to make the world a better place, purchasing and donating thousands of acres of land to the US National Parks system.
In part because of its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park is one of the most visited of the national parks, with around three million visitors each year.
Five miles west of Moran is Jackson Lake Lodge, which sits on beautiful Jackson Lake – with a stunning view of the Teton Mountains. The 15-mile-long glacial lake is primarily fed by the Snake River. At 6,772 feet, Jackson Lake is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the US.
Jackson Lake Lodge is a fabulous place to stop, stretch, even have a cold beer on a warm summer day.
Leaving the lodge, we ride along the shoreline of Jackson Lake, on Teton Park Road – past Signal Mountain Lodge, and to Jenny Lake, home to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. Jenny Lake is named after a Shoshone Indian woman who married an Englishman, Richard Leigh. Jenny and their six children died of smallpox in 1876.
Smallpox was far more deadly than Covid-19; in the 20thcentury alone, an estimated 300 million worldwide people died from smallpox. Of all the diseases ever suffered by humans, smallpox is the only one to be completely eradicated from the face of the Earth.
The campaign to permanently shit-can smallpox ended in 1980 and is one of the greatest triumphs of global public health. In that year, the World Health Organization announced that the disease known medically as variola major had been eliminated in its last pockets of infection – in India, Bangladesh, and Africa.
From Jenny Lake, we continue south on Teton Park Road, eventually landing in the small town of Moose, which sits on the banks of the Snake River. Moose is populated mostly by families that work in Grand Teton National Park. The park’s headquarters are in Moose, named of course for the animals that are the largest of all deer species.
In Moose, we turn onto Moose Wilson Road, an eight-mile scenic drive that connects Moose with Teton Village, home to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The resort includes Apres Vous Mountain, primarily intermediate terrain, and Rendezvous Mountain, which has bowls, glades and chutes – and some pretty extreme skiing.
The Jackson Hole ski area, comparable in size and diversity to Snowmass (where I work in the winter) has about 4,100 vertical feet of skiing. Snowmass has 4,400 vertical feet, the most of any ski area in the US.
Moose Wilson Road ends at its junction with Wyoming Highway 22, the Teton Pass Highway. Here, we turn west, and in a few miles, arrive at the Town of Wilson, which completes our journey on Moose Wilson Road – from Moose to Wilson.
Wilson is named for Elijah Nicholas Wilson, who lived with the Shoshone Indians as a boy in the 1850s. His book, “The White Indian Boy,” describes his experiences, including his time as a rider for the Pony Express.
Six miles from Wilson, we arrive at Teton Pass, with its “Howdy Stranger, Yonder is Jackson Hole” sign. The pass sits at 8,431 feet, and has a maximum grade of 10 percent. Wyoming’s Transportation Department says the pass has some of the steepest grades in the Continental US.
Teton Pass Highway crosses into Idaho, becomes Idaho Highway 33, and enters the town of Victor in Teton County (1T license plates). Victor was named in honor of George Victor Sherwood, the mail carrier between the south end of Teton Valley, and Jackson, near the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. With mail on his back, Sherwood walked, skied or rode his horse over Teton Pass to make his delivery to Jackson Hole.
Our journey from Victor is much less fraught than whatever Sherwood experienced.
We head southwest on Idaho Highway 31, over Pine Creek Pass, and toward the town of Swan Valley. From here, we follow the Snake River southeastward for about 10 miles until we arrive at the Palisades Reservoir.
US Highway 26 takes us along the north shore of the reservoir until, after 15 miles or so, we cross back into Wyoming at Alpine Junction, where Highway 26 and Highway 89 meet.
We head south on Highway 89, toward the elk antlers in Afton. Thirty-three miles later, we arrive back in Afton, where our day began.
Day Three Summary: 250 miles. Elk antler scavenging, the big tit, Howdy Stranger.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Afton, Wyoming, to Jackson Hole and back to Afton.
Wyoming fun fact: Wyoming didn’t raise the legal drinking age from 19 to 21 until 1988 — the last state in the union to do so. In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age act, which required states to raise their ages for purchasing alcohol to 21, or lose 10 percent of their federal highway funds. The Wyoming Legislature reluctantly gave in. A postscript: When I was a teenage student at the University of Utah, we would drive to Evanston, Wyoming to legally buy beer.
Idaho fun fact: Someone once paid $600,000 for a bull from Idaho, the most expensive bull ever sold, at the time. The cost was high because the Hereford bull weighed 1,410 pounds, and its lineage was impeccable.
Wyoming favorite food: Since we rolled through Jackson this morning, it’s fitting that our favorite Wyoming food of the day comes from the Wild Sage restaurant at the Rusty Parrot Lodge. It’s the only restaurant in Jackson to receive the AAA Four Diamond award. The restaurant offers regional cuisine prepared with fresh local meats, sustainable seafood and organic produce. Try the tea-smoked elk chop, dry-aged bison ribeye or hibiscus-braised lamb shank. Sadly, the hotel and restaurant burned down in November 2019 and isn’t expected to re-open until 2022.
Idaho favorite food: There’s no getting around it, potatoes are the bomb in Idaho. Spuds are the official state food. There’s no end to the ways they can be prepared. One potato road less traveled involves potato waffles, a hybrid dish that combines waffle batter with taters. Some potato waffle recipes include leftover mashed potatoes. Try this, or this.
Wyoming funky place name: Chugwater is a historic small town along the old Oregon Trail, about 45 miles north of Cheyenne. Today, only about 200 people call this place home. It got its name from an old buffalo hunt legend, when some bison were accidentally chased off a cliff, they landed in a river, making a water chugging sound.
Idaho funky place name: The town of Dingle, in Bear Lake County, was given its name by Brigham Young, possibly after the sound of trains passing by, or after the sound of cowbells in the fields. Dingle is not the birthplace of dingleberries.
Wyoming famous folk: Sportscaster Curt Gowdy grew up in Cheyenne, where he was an all-state basketball player. Gowdy made famous the nickname, “Granddaddy of Them All,” referring to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Curt Gowdy State Park, halfway between Laramie and Cheyenne, recognizes his accomplishments as a broadcaster and outdoorsman. Gowdy died in 2006 at the age of 86.
Idaho famous folk: Ever had French fries at McDonalds? Then you probably have J.R. Simplot to thank. Born in the small farming community of Declo, Idaho, Simplot went on to create a potato empire, making billions by commercializing frozen French fries, and being the primary supplier of spuds to McDonalds. Simplot died in 2008 at the age of 99. At the time of his death, he was the oldest billionaire on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Spuds!
It’s time to leave dinosaurs behind and head north from Vernal. Wyoming, the Cowboy State, is definitely in our future.
Within minutes, we roll past Steinaker State Park and Reservoir, about seven miles from Vernal along US Highway 191. The park is popular this time of year for swimming, fishing, boating and waterskiing.
Soon, we are in the Ashley National Forest, which covers 1,384,132 acres in the high Uinta Mountains. Elevations range from 6,000 feet to 13,528-foot Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah. Kings Peak was named for Clarence King, a surveyor in the area and the first director of the US Geological Survey.
Whatever you can do at Steinaker State Park, you can really do at Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, about 30 miles north. Same water sports activities, just on a much larger scale. Including the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the recreation area encompasses 207,363 acres of scenic landscape and wilderness.
On a spring day in 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine men boarded small wooden boats at Green River, Wyoming to embark on a daring exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, culminating in the passage of the Grand Canyon.
Powell and his men slowly worked their way downstream, successfully completing their journey in late summer. It was on May 26, 1869 that Major Powell named the Flaming Gorge, after he and his men saw the sun reflecting off of the red rocks. To them, it looked like rocks on fire.
The Flaming Gorge Dam sits on the Green River at just over 6,000 feet elevation. The dam is 502 feet high – 50 feet higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza, and 50 feet shorter than the Washington Monument. Its hydropower generation produces more than 344 million kilowatt hours of power each year.
Flaming Gorge is famous for its trophy lake trout. A good number of 30-pound fish are caught there each year. Fishing is also very good for rainbows, brown trout, kokanee salmon and smallmouth bass.
A final note about Flaming Gorge: Native Utahns, with their distinctive way of speaking, pronounce it Flaming Garge, which rhymes with Large. Same people who pronounce American Fork, American Fark, which rhymes with Mark.
I’ve puzzled over that since first arriving in Utah in 1968. The pronunciation hasn’t changed over the years. That’s just how they talk.
A mile or two south of the Flaming Gorge Dam, we turn west on Utah Highway 44, which takes us past Ute Mountain, elevation 9,984 feet. Followers of this blog know that I am partial to anything with the name “Ute,” as I’m a graduate of the University of Utah (BS Journalism, 1973).
We leave the Ashley National Forest, roll past the southwestern tip of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and arrive at the tiny town of Manila, population 310. The settlement was named in 1898, commemorating the American naval victory at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines.
The town of Manila, un-related to envelopes and folders, is our last Utah point of interest on this trip. In case you’re curious, Manila is actually connected to envelopes and folders, which are buff in color. The Manila name comes from Manila hemp, from which Manila folders were originally made.
Manila brings us to the Utah/Wyoming border, which we cross and head northwest on Wyoming Highway 414. With the exception of three unexplainable minutes (to be explained later), we’ll spend the rest of the day in Wyoming, the Cowboy State.
In less than an hour, we arrive at Mountain View, a gas stop just south of the better-known town of Fort Bridger. In 1843, Jim Bridger established a trading post here for those who were traveling westward on the Oregon Trail. Today, Fort Bridger is a historic site, with a reconstructed trading post and other preserved buildings.
Following a gas and hydration break, we cross Interstate 80 and head northwest on Wyoming Highway 412, which soon merges with US Highway 189 and takes us to Kemmerer, population 2,700.
The town of Kemmerer was named after Pennsylvania coal magnate Mahlon Kemmerer, who provided the financial backing for a late-1800 coal mining operation in the area.
Kemmerer calls itself “The Fossil Fish Capital of the World.” The Green River Formation of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming is one of the world’s best locations for finding fossil fish. These fossils were preserved in Intermountain lake basins while the Rocky Mountains were still growing, about 50 million years ago.
In Kemmerer, we turn west on US Highway 30, which takes us through the Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers more than 26,000 acres of wetlands along the Bear River. It’s considered to be the finest redhead duck habitat in the region, and one of the best migratory bird sanctuaries in Wyoming.
Soon we roll through Cokeville, population 535. It was named for the coal found in the area. By burning bituminous coal in kilns or pits, the residue left behind is called coke, which is simply coal charcoal, and is nearly pure carbon. Coke is kind of a purified coal.
Wyoming is the epitome of coal country. It mines more coal than any other state, more than triple the amount of the number two state, West Virginia.
We’re now going directly north, paralleling and in some cases, straddling the Wyoming/Idaho border.
Near the tiny town of Geneva, Idaho – population 141 – we cross into Idaho for about two miles. The community was named after Geneva, Switzerland, the native land of many of the first settlers.
The few cars we see have Idaho license plates that begin with 2B. This is not a Shakespearian construct (“2B or not 2B”); Idaho license plates have designators identifying which of the state’s 44 counties the vehicle is registered in.
2B represents Bear Lake County, home to Geneva.
Ever since I lived in Idaho, from 1975 to 1979, I’ve had an odd fascination with these license plates. I lived in Eagle, a suburb of Boise. Eagle is in Ada County, which has 1A plates. Over the next few days, as we ride through Idaho, we’ll be sure to note the dominant license plates in each area, in case any of you share my asmusement in these plates.
After two unexplainable miles a few hundred feet into Idaho, we cross back into Wyoming, where we’ll spend the rest of the day.
Two miles south of Afton, Wyoming, we turn off of US Highway 89 at the entrance to the Kodiak Mountain Resort. Who rides Harleys to a resort? We do.
Kodiak Mountain Resort is probably the finest lodging I’ve ever experienced on a Harley trip. It’s so nice, we’re gonna stay here for two nights!
Day Two Summary: 246 miles. A unique Utah dialect, fossil fish, 2B plates.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Vernal, Utah, to Afton, Wyoming.
Utah fun fact: Utah’s official state cooking vessel is the Dutch oven. Like the axe and the rifle, these cast iron cooking pots would have been considered precious necessities by westbound pioneers coming to the area in the 19th century. Chuck wagon cooks used two or three Dutch ovens when preparing chow over a campfire. Utah recognized the Dutch oven as the official state cooking pot in 1997.
Idaho fun fact: Women should be pretty proud of Idaho, as it has the only state seal in the United States that was designed by a woman. The woman was Emma Edwards Green, and her design was chosen in 1891. Idaho Governor Norman Wiley awarded Green $100 for her design, which depicts a miner, a woman, and various natural resources of Idaho.
Utah favorite food: A Utah delicacy is Mormon Funeral Potatoes, so unhealthy that they’ll contribute to your own demise. Funeral Potatoes include a bag of frozen hash brown potatoes, cream of chicken soup, sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese and crumbled potato chips. Funeral Potatoes are actually on the menu at many Utah restaurants, including Hoof & Vine in Salt Lake City. Food & Wine magazine calls the dish “One of the Greatest American Triumphs.” They’re to die for!
Idaho favorite food: Huckleberries are the official state fruit. You can get huckleberry jam, huckleberry pancakes, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry syrup, and more. Huckleberries hold a place in archaic English slang. “I’m your huckleberry” is a way of saying you’re just the right person for the job. During ski school season at Snowmass, a huckleberry is a code word for a missing child.
Utah funky place name: The town of Elmo, in Emery County, was settled in 1908 and named for the first four families that settled there: E for Ericksons, L for Larsens, M for Mortensens, and O for Oviatts. Tickle me, Elmo.
Idaho funky place name: Eden, Idaho is named after the Biblical Garden of Eden, because of the picturesque valley surrounding the town. Besides its Biblical connotations, Eden generally is defined as a place of pristine or abundant natural beauty. The town is in Jerome County, about 15 miles northeast of Twin Falls.
Utah famous folk: Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, was a train robber and bank robber, made famous in the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was born in 1866 in Beaver, then part of the Utah Territory. As seen in the movie, Parker died at age 42 in a shootout in San Vicente, Bolivia. For you geographiles, Bolivia is sandwiched in South America between Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile.
Idaho famous folk: Anyone who lived through the 1960s would remember Paul Revere and the Raiders, a rock group famous for songs like “Kicks,” and “Good Thing.” Their lead singer, Mark Lindsay, was from the Boise, Idaho, area – where the band got its start. Today, at age 79, Lindsay lives in Maine.
A look ahead @ tomorrow: Teton time.
Four Harley riders, stricken by the Covid-19 shitstorm and deprived of a 2020 trip, are set to rumble. It’s been two years since the posse last hit the road. Time to get moving.
This morning, I exit Carbondale. Alone. Destination: Vernal, Utah.
Riding companions Dave and Scott, are on their way to Vernal, too. They’re coming from southern California (La Habra) and southern Nevada (Henderson). With any luck, we’ll meet for dinner tonight in Vernal.
The fourth member of this year’s posse, Randy, is still in Seattle. He’s getting ready to meet us somewhere in Idaho, later this week. Randy will likely show up with a black Kawasaki, chauffeured in the back of an F-150 pickup truck. We love him, anyway. Dude has style.
I leave our Cozy Carbondale Cottage, ride a mile through the River Valley Ranch community Sarah and I call home, and head south on Colorado Highway 133.
We’re on our way to Sturgis!
The Crystal River is on my left. The views are stunning. We are so blessed to live in this Rocky Mountain paradise.
Soon, I pass Avalanche Ranch, a secluded hot springs with 18 cabins and gorgeous views of the valley. While staying at Avalanche Ranch, you can fish, hike, bike, and canoe on the Crystal River. In the winter months, snowshoeing, sledding, skiing, and tubing are popular.
Year-round, it’s an in-demand wedding destination.
About a mile past Avalanche Ranch, a few hundred feet north of mile marker 55, is Penny Hot Springs. It’s a low-key, clothing-optional pool used by locals who aren’t interested in spending money on commercial hot springs in nearby Glenwood Springs. Penny Hot Springs is free. Whether you want to or not, you might see some skin there.
The hot springs are named for Dan Penny, who in the 1960s ran a small hotel and bathhouse on the railroad line upstream of Avalanche Creek. Visitors would stay at his hotel, visit the hot springs bathhouse, remove their clothes, and in the free-spirited manner of the ‘60s, soak up the Rocky Mountain vibes in the nude.
At Penny Hot Springs, white-hot spring water mixes with the frigid Crystal River and creates varied temperature pools, depending on how much river water is allowed into the rock pools. Penny Hot Springs is a bare bones, completely natural experience.
For those who love soaking in hot springs – and paying for it – there’s actually a Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop. The loop takes you on a driving tour of the state’s best hot springs. The springs are all within a day’s ride of here.
Ride. Soak. Relax. Repeat.
Maybe another time.
As I continue south on Highway 133, Mount Sopris is on my left. You can’t miss it. The mountain is named for Richard Sopris, former prospector, mayor of Denver, and part of the first European expedition in the Roaring Fork Valley. He surveyed the area around the mountain in 1860 on a mapping and gold exploration trip.
His group traveled only as far as the base of the mountain. The details they collected while exploring the area were used in creating the first maps of what was then the Colorado Territory.
Sopris is a popular summer hike for locals. It’s a little more than 13 miles to the summit and back, with a vertical rise from the trailhead of about 4,400 feet. The average grade is 12 percent, with a maximum steepness of 34 percent near the top. This is not a leisurely day hike.
A lot of hikers camp overnight at Thomas Lakes – a little more than halfway up – then complete the remaining three miles to the peak the next day. From Thomas Lakes, the first mile or so is along a dirt trail, but from there on, beginning at around 11,800 feet, it’s mostly jagged and loose rocks until you reach the top. If you like scree fields and talus, this is the perfect place for you. The final 1,000 feet is really more of a scramble than a hike.
But getting to the top has a huge payoff. The views are spectacular, including McClure Pass to the south, the Elk Mountains, and classic 14,000-foot peaks like Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, Capitol Peak and Snowmass Peak.
Mount Sopris, part of the Elk Mountain Range, is the dominant feature in almost any photo of the Roaring Fork Valley. At 12,953 feet, Sopris is the view everyone in the valley wants to have. Sarah and I are lucky enough to see it, bigger-than-life, every single day.
Life is good.
From Carbondale, as I continue along the West Elk Scenic Byway, it’s about 16 miles south to the nearest town, Redstone. By the time I roll past Redstone, I’ve already climbed about 1,000 feet.
Known as the “Ruby of the Rockies,” Redstone sits at 7,200 feet, on the banks of the Crystal River. It’s an unimaginably beautiful setting for a Colorado mountain town.
Redstone is a charming little village, home to about 130 residents. Here you’ll find the Redstone Castle, an opulent 42-room Tudor-style mansion that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After years of distress, the castle was recently purchased, restored, and reopened. And now it’s for sale, again. For $16,900,000 — it could be yours! Our friend, Jeff Bier, has the listing. Nice commission on that sale!
About five miles south of Redstone, there’s a turnoff to the town of Marble. If I turn onto Gunnison County Road 3, I’d arrive in Marble about 20 minutes from now, in time for a very early lunch.
Marble is located in a valley of the upper Crystal River, surrounded by the tall peaks of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Raggeds Wilderness Areas.
The Town of Marble got its name from the stone that is quarried there: Yule Marble. It’s the only place on earth where Yule Marble is found. This beautiful white marble from Marble provided the stone for the exterior of the Lincoln Memorial, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
To most of the world, Marble is famous for its marble.
For me, the best part about Marble is Slow Groovin’, the BBQ restaurant that attracts foodies from all over western Colorado. Two years ago, Dave and I took part in the 2018 Rocky Mountain Rib Rally – an opportunity to explore beautiful scenery, then visit restaurants each evening in search of Colorado’s best ribs.
At the end of two weeks on the road, after riding all over Colorado and thoughtfully evaluating Rocky Mountain grill masters, we ranked the state’s tastiest ribs. Turns out we didn’t have to go far to find the best.
Slow Groovin’ topped on our list.
I still have 260 miles to go before parking my bike for the day.
This is no time for early morning ribs. So I roll past the turnoff to Marble and continue south on Colorado Highway 133. Almost immediately, I begin the steep climb toward McClure Pass.
At 8,763 feet, the pass sits on the boundary between Pitkin and Gunnison Counties. The approaches on either side of the pass have an eight percent grade, making McClure Pass among the steepest in Colorado, joining Red Mountain Pass and Hoosier Pass, also at eight percent. The only Colorado pass that’s steeper is Slumgullion Pass, with a 9.4% grade.
Thomas McClure, a local farmer and Irish mining immigrant, is credited with cutting the first road leading from the Crystal River Valley over “McClure’s Pass” to the North Fork of the Gunnison River. He’s also known for developing the “Red McClure” potato in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, the Roaring Fork Valley exported more than 400 rail cars filled with potatoes every year, more than the entire state of Idaho.
Today, Colorado produces less than five percent of all US potatoes. Idaho, whose license plates tout its “Famous Potatoes,” raises more than 30 percent of all spuds grown in the US. In two days, we’ll be deep into potato country when we roll through Idaho. You can expect to learn a lot more about potatoes then.
Once over McClure Pass, I begin the descent toward Paonia. Along the way, I pass Paonia State Park and Paonia Reservoir. I’m now following the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
This is coal country, or at least what used to be coal country. The mines in Somerset and Bowie, producing Uintah coal, aren’t what they used to be. Employment and production have both plummeted precipitously. The future of coal in the west is grim.
Ten minutes past the Bowie coal mine, I roll through the town of Paonia, population 1,500. Paonia is known today for its fruit orchards, which produce peaches, apples, cherries, pears, and plums. There are also wineries galore, including Black Bridge, Stone Cottage Cellars, and Endless Endeavor.
The Paonia area is one of the few regions of Colorado that has successfully cultivated and bottled a pinot noir. Black Bridge Winery offers a Beezley Block Pinot, made entirely from grapes harvested at their peak of flavors. The name “Beezley Block” honors the tough, pioneer farmers who cleared the land where the vineyard prospers today.
If this weren’t a Harley adventure, I’d have some excellent wine tasting in my future.
Nine miles past Paonia, I arrive in Hotchkiss, a town of less than 1,000 residents, named after Enos T. Hotchkiss, a local pioneer who settled here in the 1880s. Hotchkiss calls itself the “Friendliest Town Around.” For me, Hotchkiss is a prime lunch destination for summer Harley rides – 132 miles (round trip) to Zach’s and back.
Today In Hotchkiss, I turn onto Colorado Highway 92 and head toward Delta – about 20 miles to the west. The city of Delta isn’t much to get excited about.
The town’s symbol is an 85-foot cottonwood tree, known as the Ute Council Tree. It was once a gathering point for tribal discussions. Today, the tree symbolizes the growing connections between Colorado Utes and the Western Slope’s other residents. It’s dedicated to Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, who strove to keep peace between the Utes and the white man. Chief Ouray met with white settlers under this very tree, well before there was a city of Delta.
Delta got its name because of its location on the delta where the Uncompahgre River flows into the Gunnison River. Delta has other meanings and uses. It’s also the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Uppercase Delta “Δ” is the symbol for change in any changeable quantity, in both math and science. Just sayin’ …
Delta is right off US Highway 50, which crosses 12 states, connecting Delta with Sacramento, California, to the west – and Ocean City, Maryland, to the east.
Leaving Delta, I head west on Highway 50 toward Grand Junction, about 40 miles away. I’m riding along the edge of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area – 210,172 acres of protected public lands. Dominguez-Escalante, with its red rock canyons and sandstone bluffs, is part of the Uncompahgre Plateau.
As I roll past this conservation area, I’m not far from the Gunnison River. Eventually the Gunnison River empties into the Colorado River. When that happens, I’ll be in Grand Junction, the largest city on Colorado’s Western Slope.
The Grand in Grand Junction refers to the Grand River, renamed the Upper Colorado in 1921. And Junction, of course, refers to the confluence of the two major rivers – the Colorado and Gunnison.
Where the two rivers meet, I turn west on Monument Road, so named because it takes us to Colorado National Monument. The monument’s 32 square miles include red rock canyons and a breathtaking sheer-walled landscape.
The featured attraction is Monument Canyon, which includes rock formations such as 450-foot-high Independence Monument, the canyon’s tallest freestanding formation and its most iconic landmark.
There are several ways to experience this huge monolith: Drive to the Independence Monument View pullout, which is what I do. Or, for the super adventurous, you can climb to the top, after first hiking 12 miles to its base.
Every Fourth of July for the past 110 years, climbers ascend to the top of Independence Monument, and unfurl a large American flag.
Leaving Colorado National Monument, I arrive at the city of Fruita, once known for its fruit production. Today, it’s better known for mountain biking, hiking, rafting, and its proximity to the Colorado National Monument.
Fruita is home to the Western Colorado Dinosaur Museum. I am in the heart of dinosaur country, a paleontologist’s fantasyland.
Here, you could discover that Colorado’s state dinosaur is the Stegosaurus. The Stegosaurus was a large herbivorous dinosaur that lived in the area now called Colorado, 150 million years ago. This was the mid-Jurassic to the late Cretaceous period.
Colorado is one of eight states to have an official state dinosaur.
In Fruita, after 150 miles of riding since leaving Carbondale this morning, I stop for gas, and plan the remainder of today’s ride through dinosaur country.
I leave Fruita and head northwest on US Highway 50, toward the town of Loma, whose name comes from a Spanish word meaning “small hill.” Here, I turn onto Colorado Highway 139, and head north. The highway, also known as Douglas Pass Road, leads to 8,205-foot Douglas Pass, in the Bookcliff Mountains.
Along the way, I have views of Utah’s La Sal Mountains, which have a dozen peaks over 12,000 feet. La Sal means “the salt.”
This area is sparsely populated. There isn’t much to see for about 70 miles until I come to the town of Rangely, population 2,400.
An unexpected treat in Rangely is its Automotive Museum, a collection of 35 classic cars, and even a 1907 Indian motorcycle. It’s ranked #2 on the list of top things to do in Rangely.
Rangely, which has a golf course, gas stations, a community college, and a hospital, is the last civilization of note I’ll see until reaching today’s destination an hour from now.
Leaving Rangely, I head west on Colorado Highway 64, and roll through the town of Dinosaur. With a population of just over 300, there’s not much in Dinosaur, though the town does have three marijuana shops, including – you guessed it – the Dino Dispensary.
Dinosaur was originally known as Baxter Springs, then renamed Artesia for its valued water supply. The name was changed again to Dinosaur in 1966, hoping to capitalize on the town’s proximity to Dinosaur National Monument, which gets about 300,000 visitors a year. The monument’s headquarters, the Canyon Visitor Center, is just east of town on US Highway 40.
In Dinosaur, I turn west on Highway 40, and in a few miles, I’m in Utah, home for many years to the “Greatest Snow on Earth” license plate. It does get cold and snowy in this part of Utah during the winter, but the nearest ski area is Park City, about 100 miles west.
Dinosaur National Monument is just north of here on the southeast flank of the Uinta Mountains. The monument, about an hour’s drive southeast from the city of Price, is in both Utah and Colorado. It boasts one of the densest concentrations of Jurassic dinosaur fossils in the world. The bones are just as nature arranged them, 150 million years ago, deposited by an ancient stream.
Although most of the monument area is in Colorado, the Dinosaur Quarry and its exhibit hall are in Utah. For the adventurous, you can find more than 800 paleontological sites and fossils of dinosaurs, including the Allosaurus, Utah’s official state fossil.
The Allosaurus was the predominant North American predator during the Late Jurassic period. It measured around 16 feet in height, 39 feet in length, and weighed in at about four tons.
The Allosaurus is Utah’s official state fossil, not to be confused with the official state dinosaur. In 2018, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into a law a bill making the Utahraptor the official state dinosaur. The Utahraptor is a cousin of the Velociraptor, made famous by the Hollywood movie, Jurassic Park.
Weighing up to 1,000 pounds and being up to 23 feet long, the Utahraptor was conslderably larger than the Velociraptor. Unlike its Jurassic Park portrayal, the Velociraptor was actually the size of a turkey, weighing only about 30 pounds.
Both had lethal killing claws on each foot. Pick your poison.
Soon, I cross the Green River, roll through the town of Jensen – Utah’s entrance to Dinosaur National Monument – and arrive at today’s destination, Vernal.
Unlike most Utah towns that were settled by Mormon settlers, Vernal was not. It began in 1878 as Ashley Center, named in honor of William H. Ashley, an early fur trader who entered this area in 1825 by floating down the Green River in a bull boat made of willow branches, covered with animal hides.
The town was renamed Vernal in 1893. “Vernal” implies a spring like growth; the vernal equinox marks the beginning of spring.
Despite its non-Mormon origins, the city of about 10,000 today has its own Mormon Temple, the 51st built worldwide (there are now more than 175), and the 10th in the state of Utah. The Vernal Temple, dedicated in 1997, was the first built from a previously existing structure. Before becoming a temple, it was the Uintah Stake Tabernacle for Mormons in eastern Utah. Except for the angel Moroni, which all LDS temples have, the Vernal Temple doesn’t look at all like a Mormon temple.
The Vernal Temple is less than a mile from tonight’s destination: the aptly named Dinosaur Inn.
At the Dinosaur Inn, the posse grows from one to three — as Dave, Scott and I meet for the first time since our 2019 ride to Canada.
Day One Summary: 284 miles. On the road at last, taking a rib hiatus, two state dinosaurs for the price of one.
Click here to see today’s complete route from Carbondale, Colorado, to Vernal, Utah.
Colorado fun fact: The world’s largest natural hot springs pool is located in Glenwood Springs. The two-block long pool is across the street from the historic Hotel Colorado, a favorite stop of former president Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a popular place. You can get an annual pass for $348, or a family pass for $797. Just want to dip your toes in for the day? That’ll be $49.75 during peak season (now).
Utah fun fact: The state symbol is the beehive, symbolizing thrift and industry, which is also the state motto. Utah is known as the Beehive State. So, of course, it’s no surprise that the Utah state insect is the honeybee.
Colorado favorite food: Colorado does not have an official state food, but two favorites are Palisade peaches and Olathe sweet corn. The first peach tree was planted in Palisade in 1882, and today, the area east of Grand Junction produces hundreds of thousand of pounds of perfect peaches, exported throughout the US and around the world. Olathe, which once grew sugar beets and barley, has hot days and cool nights, ideal for growing sweet corn. The crop has a mid-summer harvest, and usually hits store shelves by July.