Wind River, Grand Tetons, and Canada Trip
June 25 to July 17, 2013
The first objectives for this trip were Arches National Park and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. As it turned out, I didn't get any panoramas of either of them.
I did better with my second objective, Grand Teton National Park, but failed completely with Yellowstone due to bad timing. Next I headed for Little Bighorn, then Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. I had been there once before, for an hour or two, before abruptly starting home because of a family emergency.
From Montana I made a loop across the border to look at three interesting parks in Canada. On the long drive home (always done more hastily than when out-bound) I picked up an elusive national park site, Grant-Kohrs Ranch.
A relatively long trip, 22 days on the road, 283 panoramas.
(Click any picture to open a larger version.)
A short pano stop in western Nevada at the Grimes Point petroglyphs, then a bit further to Sand Mountain, an isolated dune, arriving well before dark. It looked serene and peaceful from a distance.
This was the noisiest camping night I have ever spent. Loud music, constant yelling, generators, revving of engines, fireworks, and vehicles roaring up and down the dunes until after midnight. I can't imagine the bedlam here on weekends when there are a lot more people.
After investigating the ruins of the Pony Express Station at Sand Spring, I crossed Nevada rapidly on Highway 50, the "Loneliest Road in America". I was tempted to spend the night at Spence Hot Spring, near Austin, but had a brief soak and pushed on all the way into Utah.
My trajectory towards Moab took me through west-central Utah, where I made a side trip to see the Mormon Temple at Manti. Unfortunately it was during their annual pageant, and nothing was open for casual visitors like me.
I got to the Canyonlands area in time to get some panoramas at Dead Horse Point late in the afternoon. There was a spectacular sunset, which turned out to be caused by smoke from a wildfire to the east - a bad omen.
The day dawned with oppressive heat and thick smoke, hopeless conditions for both photography and camping. The forecast was for more of the same. So I moved on, a long and rather tedious drive on two lane roads, much of it through dreary landscapes with coal mines and fracking oil development, the sky and light tinged orange by smoke, all the way to Vernal.
I got in at sunset and grabbed the last campsite at Dinosaur National Monument, very welcome even though it wasn't number 50.
To get around the reservoir and cliffs at Flaming Gorge, the main road climbs high up above the south canyon wall, into pine forest above the red rock desert. The relief from heat and smoke was wonderful, and I was tired from the previous day's irksome drive. Plus I couldn't face up to the hot country ahead, so I made camp early.
From Flaming Gorge I paralleled the Green River, sometimes closely, all the way to its headwaters in the Wind River Range. Lots of "mountain man" and Oregon Trail history along the way. The weather improved, as did my spirits, especially when I reached the spectacular Wind River Range.
In the morning I explored around Fremont Lake for a while.Then I went west and turned north to follow up the Green River to the end of the road at Green River Lakes. A beautiful spot, very little developed, worth braving the mosquitoes for.
I explored around the outlet of Green River Lake a bit, then drove on west towards the Tetons. The intensive development and traffic of Jackson was a shock after so many days of small towns and wide-open spaces. I checked in at the Grand Teton National Park visitor center and established that there were no campsites available (as expected).
I headed east into the Gros Ventre Range. The campground I have used before was full, but I found an even better one, smaller and emptier, a few miles further up the road.
Grand Teton National Park, one of my favorites! I was up early and out on the Antelope Flats, immediately encountering a group of bison at a warm spring. A few miles later a group of pronghorn antelope were springing down the road.
Next to Moose, a group of historic buildings (also a modern supply center for park visitors). From there I followed the park road north along the base of the mountains to Jenny Lake and Signal Mountain. By afternoon I was at Jackson Lake and the Snake River Overlook. Just before leaving the park I had an encounter with a large herd of bison on the road. It had been a superlative day of panography.Then the trouble began. Rockefeller Parkway (a national park property) connects Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and I knew there was lodging and a campground there. To my amazement, way out there with all the room in the world, the campsites were all jammed together, dusty, noisy - and expensive. So I decided I would camp along the Grassy Lake Road, where there is a wonderful string of campsites, spaced well apart. But, because the Republican Congress had ordered a government shutdown, they were all closed! I had to keep driving until I was outside the parkway area into the national forest.
This was probably the greatest blunder of my long and varied traveling/camping life. I drove into world-famous Yellowstone National Park on the 4th of July, in perfect weather, with no reservations. Not only was there no place to stay, but I couldn't park in any of the viewpoint parking lots, or even pull to the side of the road. I drove straight through, in the south entrance and out the west entrance, with no choice. I decided to wait it out somewhere, and was very lucky to find not only a reasonable place to camp, but an excellent one.
This must have been a last-minute cancellation, it was the very best campsite, right on the Henry's Fork River. I sat in the sun, then retreated to the camper and enjoyed a fierce thunderstorm until the sky cleared at sunset.
I didn't even consider going back into Yellowstone park, it was still the holiday weekend. Instead I put in a long driving day, from my camp in Idaho right across Montana to Little Bighorn National Battlefield. Then I went north to the Yellowstone River and followed it east with a stop at Pompey's Pillar. Just when I needed it I found a very nice campsite in a town park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park commemorates the great conservationist president by preserving two areas of badlands along the Little Missouri River in western North Dakota. This is where the sickly city boy toughened up into a genuine cowboy. I had visited the south unit the year before, but had to cut my visit short. The weather was perfect, the grass green and spangled with wildflowers. I took a few short hikes, it was a great day all around.
The national park campground was full, but I found a site nearby in the Dakota Prairie National Grassland that was almost empty because the water was temporarily turned off. No problem, my camper carries 31 gallons, I even took a shower.
I moved on to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, down roads crowded with trucks carrying oil field equipment and supplies, the edge of the Bakken Shale fracking oil boom area. There were drill rigs visible on all sides of the park, visually disturbing. The landscape outside the park units was a maze of new roads and drill pads, especially conspicuous as they were all built with red clinker. This landscape is being scarred beyond repair and will remain so long after the oil is gone.
The park itself was wonderful, especially the herd of bison I encountered on the rolling plateau top. But notice the drill rig just outside the park boundary.
Another day, another national park, and so it goes. In this case Fort Union Trading Post National Monument (not to be confused with Fort Union National Monument, in New Mexico). This was my easternmost point and I turned west back into Montana.
I stopped to have a look at Bainville, curious to see if it was perhaps founded by some member of my Scottish family (Charles Bain, could be). In 1918 it had a population of 400, by 2000 was down to 153, but since then it has tripled and new condos and subdivisions are awaiting approval, all for workers in the Bakken Shale boom.
Next was Fort Peck Dam, one of the largest construction projects of the Depression era. The new visitor center is impressive, covering both the history of the project, and the ancient life revealed by local fossils.
On my way north towards Canada I passed a town that just didn't look right, so I made a u-turn and went back to investigate. It turns out that the town of St Marie used to be Glasgow Air Force Base, a Cold War site for Strategic Air Command long-range bombers. When the base closed down the housing was sold off really cheaply. Parts of the "town" look fairly good, single family homes and town houses for officers, but others stand empty with broken windows, reeking of mildew.
Once across the border into Saskatchewan I drove through the eastern unit of Grasslands National Park, then zig-zagged country roads to the western unit. Lovely country, probably the largest blocks of never-plowed prairie on either side of the border. The park is slated to gradually grow until the two units coalesce into a huge natural preserve. Bison have been reintroduced, prairie dogs are doing well, and the black-footed ferret may have finally found a place to recover from near extinction. Kudos to Parks Canada!
Bison love to scratch themselves on things. In addition to some glacial erratic boulders polished by centuries of buffalo-rubbing, every road sign and interpretive board showed signs of their attentions, and some were knocked flat.
The campground in the west unit of Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan. Surrounded by a bison fence, and with (in the other direction) teepees for rent. Nice feeling of the wide open prairies, but the mosquitoes were terrible.
From Grasslands I moved west to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park straddling the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta. It consists of a plateau that rises abruptly from the low rolling hills of the prairie into an alpine environment of spruce forest and meadows. I arrived too late to tour historic Fort Walsh but enjoyed the far-reaching views.
In the morning I enjoyed the flowery grasslands crowning the Cypress Hills and the views north from the Conglomerate Cliffs, then crossed west into the Alberta half of the park. After a few miles of forests and meadows the plateau ends abruptly, and at the bottom is Lake Elkwater with a visitor center, vacation homes, and a sandy beach.
Another long drive brought me to the third of this series of borderline parks, Writing on Stone.
Writing on Stone has long been a goal of mine. I had assumed it would be something like Cypress Hills, a plateau or range of hills, but it is actually a small canyon on the Milk River. Its fame is based on the pictographs found there, hence the name, including an epic one depicting an Indian battle in great detail. But it is also a beautiful natural area, an island of native vegetation in a sea of wheat and canola fields. I enjoyed a leisurely morning walk along the rocky escarpment.
That afternoon, back in Montana, I had a look at what remains of the falls on the Missouri River that stymied Lewis and Clark, and a brief view of the small city of Great Falls. That night I camped at MacDonald Pass, west of Helena.
Having already visited all the major national parks in the western US and Canada I have been working on the smaller units, such as Grant-Kohrs Ranch, near Deer Lodge, Montana. I enjoyed an excellent tour of the elegant ranch house, the interesting artifacts of ranch life, and the costumed interpreters.
My route next took me through the historic Montana copper mining area, where I stopped to re-photograph the smelter town of Anaconda.
On to Big Hole National Battlefield, a beautiful landscape with a tragic history. It commemorates and interprets the 1877 ambush and massacre of Nez Perce Indians fleeing the US Cavalry. I shot panoramas here before, in 1998. But that was on film with very limited vertical field of view, so I needed to replace them.
In the afternoon I drove west over Chief Joseph Pass to the Salmon River in Idaho.
A beautiful morning at Redfish Lake and skirting the eastern edge of the Sawtooth Range, wishing I had time to explore on foot. But I needed to get home to prepare for the big Alaska trip with my wife - only two weeks away. So I blasted south through Twin Falls and on to Interstate 80 in Nevada.All panoramas taken this day (11)
The next day it was a straight shot, 550 miles from Wells to El Cerrito on Interstate 80, leaving at dawn and arriving in time for dinner.