Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Road to Yellowstone

From Hudson we by-passed St. Paul and Minneapolis and headed for Fargo on the I94, stopping in St.Cloud to try to find a quilt shop we had visited 5 years before....and we did! We also had a scarey moment on the road when we thought we were being chased by a giant chicken (pic stolen from the "Gold 'n Plump" web site). Imagine that sight suddenly turning up in your rear vision mirror!
I had all sorts of expectations for Fargo, mainly due to the movie of the same name. But it turned out to be a fairly typical large mid western city, much industrialised and commercialised. It did redeem itself a little, the following morning, when we sought out the historic area and found the old part of town with its large Victorian houses and tree lined streets. But by far the most impressing structure was the water tower.

Then it was on half way across North Dakota, via Jamestown for lunch, to its capital Bismarck which lies on the mighty Missouri River. Here we caught up with Aleycia, Jim and new baby Miles. I liked Bismarck. Nice shady tree lined streets, some architecturally interesting older houses and an impressive capitol area.
Here they commemorated the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery which over wintered a few miles north at Fort Mandan for 146 days in 1804/05. It was during this time they met Sakakawea the pregnant native American wife of their French guide who turned out to the heroine and possible saviour of the expedition.
We enjoyed a visit to the street fair and market which took up quite a number of blocks of downtown and did not leave there without contributing to their economy.
Next day we were again on the road early (still the I94) with Billings, MT our target. This was a very long drive across some of the most featureless landscape I have ever seen. But from signs on the road the day before we knew we were in for a treat. Just a few hours into our journey lay the town of Medora, "North Dakota's Number 1 Tourist Destination"
It was closed for the winter......in September!
We made a brief stop at the overlook of the North Dakota badlands at Theodore Roosevelt NP but freezing cold temperatures and driving rain encouraged us to go on.

We met up with the Yellowstone River for the first time at Glendive where we had lunch. It's just a little way from there that the river flows into the Missouri so we were still well and truly on the Lewis and Clark Trail. After 10 hours on the road we arrived in Billings and met up with Karyl and Joe and enjoyed a pleasant evening catching up.
Next morning it was on via Red Lodge to the Beartooth Pass. Red Lodge was a good place to stretch the legs and top up the caffiene level in preparation for the road ahead. The Montana Candy Emporium in the town must be the biggest lolly shop I have ever been in. We resisted the urge to buy tempting as it was too see all that genuine old fashioned stuff, not the repulsive Chinese copies so readily available these days.
The Beartooth Highway is an "All American Road" that runs between Red Lodge and Cooke City. It has a series of steep zigzags and switch backs to the Beartooth Pass on the Montana/Wyoming border and reaches a height of 3345m (10,974ft). The road rises 800m in 20km. Due to heavy snowfall at the top, the pass is usually open each year only from late May through to early September. In fact it was closed a few days before we made the trip due to a snow storm. At this high altitude, snowstorms can occur even in the middle of the summer and the pass is also known for strong winds and severe thunderstorms.

We had been a little intimidated by the road's reputation but after checking with the ranger station that morning we decided to bite the bullet. And we are glad we did. This is probably one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It was a perfect day with a high blue sky, sunshine and no wind. The views were spectacular and out little car handled the climb well. Campers, RV's, motor cyclists and even push bikes were doing the climb. Some places were definitely of the "dont look down" variety, especially where there was no safety rail but once above the tree line and heading across the alpine meadow towards the western summit it was plain sailing. Plenty of snow at the top to play in too (for those not used to it) and the view across the Rockies was breathtaking. Also breathtaking was the lack of oxygen at that altitude. I could only manage to throw three snowballs at the photographer.
Needless to say as much care had to be taken going down as coming up so it was good to reach Cooke City for lunch. Americans seem to be very liberal with the word "city" when naming their towns. This one had one main street with a thin sliver of potholed tarmac, a gas station, a few bars, restaurants, cafes and tourist shops plus a couple of motels. Population 140.
From there it was an easy drive into Yellowstone through the north east entrance and onto Gardiner at the north gate where we had booked our accommodation.
One of the most memorable days of the trip.

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