Saturday, May 7, 2016 – Moraine Park Campground, RMNP – 7:20 am, 41 degrees
We woke to small clicking and crunching noises outside of our tent. Having heard these sounds before in the Rocky Mountains, we had a pretty good idea what it was: foraging elk. We sat quietly in our tent, listening. Hooves casually click-clacked on the rocky ground. Large jaws especially designed for masticating vegetation kept a steady chomp chomp chomp rhythm as the elk grazed on the dew-covered grass around our campsite. The coyotes yipped and howled in the distance. The Rocky Mountain residents had woken long before we began stirring.
We slowly eased the zipper on our tent open to try and catch a glimpse of our visitors and were surprised to find not one, not two, but at least five elk happily munching grass around us.
Elated by the elky start to our day, we began packing up the inside of the tent so we could get a head start on our travel. The elk had moved on by the time we exited our tent and we were soon on the road. Today’s goal was to make it 600+ miles from RMNP to Yellowstone N.P. where we hoped to stay for at least four days before heading back across the length of Wyoming to South Dakota and the Black Hills. We had to be at Mount Rushmore to check in to our apartment and start training in exactly one week.
We picked up some coffee on our way through Estes Park and headed toward Fort Collins, where we planned to stop for a few travel essentials. We wanted to make sure that our chariot was in tip top shape before making the haul to Yellowstone, so an oil change and quick diagnostic check was in order.
Fort Collins is also home to our several of our favorite breweries. We decided on brunch at Fort Collins Brewer and a quick stop to see the changes at New Belgium. The last time we had been there, the entire place was under construction. Once again, Fort Collins Brewery did not disappoint for brunch. Their culinary offerings continue to be appealing, creative, and delicious.
Our quick stop at New Belgium allowed us to enjoy their new facilities, admire their creative decorate and of course, sample some tasty brews.
Out of Fort Collins before noon, we pointed our nose north and headed toward the southeast corner of Wyoming. From there we would follow WY Hwy 25 through Cheyenne and on to Casper. We peeled off onto Hwy 26 and began heading west toward Shoshoni.
5:04 pm, 51 degrees, somewhere in Wyoming – After 5 hours of driving, Derrick took over the wheel. We were almost to Shoshoni and the landscape had changed from long stretches of road that went on forever to more narrow, curving roads that wove in and out of small towns and seemingly uninhabited land.
Derrick looked at the road, looked at me, then back at the road.
“What?” I asked.
“After you drive on roads that seem endless, I get roads that seem to go nowhere,” he said with a smile.
As if a cued response to Derrick’s observation of our surroundings, we proceeded to unexpectedly drive through a series of three cave-like tunnels.
Signs warned us as we rounded each mystery corner: Caution, Falling Rock Ahead, Slow Down. And of course there were a variety of animal warnings.
We followed the Wind River through Bosen State Park and into the Wind River Indian Reservation. In the distance, lightening flashed beyond the mountains as we turned north on Hwy 20.
The Wind River flowed emerald green, cutting a canyon through ancient Cambrian and Posporia rock. The river was paralleled by a railroad track that hugged the opposite curve of the canyon. Emerging from the canyon on our approach to Thermopolis, we passed the wedding of the waters where the Wind River meets the Big Horn River.
Thermopolis, Wyoming claims to be home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs. As Derrick observed, Thermopolis is “where the elevation is greater than the population.”
Soon the landscape changed again and we were surrounded by red dirt patched with green grass and sage; Wyoming badlands. Rugged, ruthless trees clutched the rocky outcroppings emerging from an endless sea of hills. We were 75 miles from Cody Wyoming, the closest city to the east entrance of Yellowstone.
As we finally entered Cody, we were met with an informational park sign informing us that the east entrance was closed. We had heard rumblings while we were still at RMNP that some of the entrances to Yellowstone were not open yet, but from all the checking we had done, it seemed like we were in good shape. Apparently a wire has been crossed somewhere along the line though because the sign very clearly stated that the road was closed.
We had no choice now but to drive back from whence we came, then head up into Montana and go around to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It was another 60 or so miles from Cody Wyoming up to Red Lodge Montana where we would then pick up Hwy 212 and follow it through Beartooth Pass to Yellowstone. We followed Wyoming Hwy 120 until it became Montana Hwy 72, then made tracks up to Red Lodge.
Luckily the weather still seemed to be holding and we had the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful sunset.
At last, we entered the small town of Red Lodge and began watching for signs to take us to 212 and the Beartooth Pass on Beartooth Highway.
As we followed the directional arrows indicating our path, we encountered another sign that worried us slightly.
Then, another sign that literally stopped us in our tracks.
Beartooth Pass was closed!
Can’t go this way.
Which means we, once again, must go back from whence we came. Then we had to follow 212 North toward Billings until we got to Hwy 90. Then we needed to follow 90 West to Livingston, then 89 South through Emigrant, down to Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner is the small town within view of historic northwest entrance to Yellowstone, where the beloved stone arch bearing the words of Theodore Roosevelt stands. All in all, it was at least another 4 hours of driving. We were beginning to wonder, how close would we get to Yellowstone tonight?
It was 8:42 pm, as we backtracked east on 212 out of Red Lodge. The road had gotten rougher the closer we came to the mountains and we had done a fair amount of bumping and jarring down the road. We tried keep a decent yet safe pace on these rough roads and attempted to talk about something other than how long our drive had become. Each bump and rumble we crossed made me wince as I imagined what else could possibly go wrong. Suddenly, we heard a loud clamor and clatter beneath the car, then the sound of something dragging.
Derrick pulled over and I got out of the car to look underneath. We were dragging what looked like a cover for something under the car. As I a wedged my arm underneath, I found that a bolt holding the cover to the frame had shook loose from its spot and was stuck out of place. I was able to reattached the cover and firm up all of the other attachment pinnings I could see. I climbed back into the car with my fingers and toes crossed and nodded to Derrick to start driving again. Hopefully, it was just that stretch of bad road and we had taken care of the problem…
Eventually, the roads got smoother and we started to see signs for Billings Montana and Hwy 90. We had been following the signs for Billings because we knew it would lead us to Hwy 90, but we did NOT want to turn toward Billings, since that would be east, the opposite direction from where we were trying to go. This was a key juncture in our journey that we had to make sure we got right. We were tried. We were loopy. We were on high alert for something else to change our plans. After deciphering a few banks of signs covered with arrows pointing us about and twisted splays of on-ramps, we made in on to Hwy 90, heading west toward Livingston. Our long day on the road to get to Yellowstone had become much longer than we had anticipated. But we were still determined to get as close to the park as possible.
We made it through Livingston. Then Emigrant. We knew we were on the final stretch. What we did NOT know was how busy the campground were inside the park. Would there be a site for us? If so, would we be those people pulling into the campground in the middle of the night, shining our headlights and headlamps in our neighbors’ tents? We didn’t want to be those people.
We knew that we were driving through the Gallatine National Forest and saw a few campground marked on our map, so we hoped to find spot to camp soon. After driving past a handful of closed campgrounds, we finally arrived at Canyon Campground, 10 miles outside of Yellowstone.
An approximation of our route.
It was 11:38 pm and we were exhausted. Our determination to make tracks and get as close to our destination as possible would hopefully allow us to drive straight into the park the next morning. But at that moment, the thought of driving for 10 more seconds, let alone 10 more miles was incomprehensible. We pitched our tent and climbed into bed. Weary but within reach of Yellowstone, sleep found us quickly.