Category Archives: geography

Paradise!

Yesterday, my quilting friend Kathy came over the mountains and took me to Paradise on Mt. Rainier.  We ate lunch (divine mac and cheese) at the National Park Inn at Longmire, then headed on up.  It was absolutely beautiful, and here is the proof:

My Mountain, aka Mt. Rainier.
Fall foliage on the alpine tundra at Paradise.
Another view of the Mountain, with more foliage.

A couple of plant close-ups.

Scarlet mountain ash berries.
The only wildflowers I saw — these are pearly everlastings, which is a more than appropriate name.

And some little critters.

A gray jay. Otherwise known as a camp robber :-).
M’sieur chipmunk.
Getting ready for winter with a big mouthful.

A view headed down the Mountain.

The brilliant autumn tapestry from the Paradise Valley Road.

And the absolutely lovely quilt I was given by my fellow members of the Washington State Internet Quilters (WASIQ).  Thank you so much to all of you!

A beautiful quilt.

It was a long but glorious day.  I darned near slept the clock around last night, I was so tired, but it was so, so, so worth it…

Those mysterious Mima Mounds, with bonus wildflowers

The odd landscape of the Mima Mounds.

Mima mounds are one of those quasi-mysterious landforms that no one really has an explanation for. They occur in various places in North America and elsewhere, but the landform itself is named after the mounds on the Mima Prairie, which happens to be just down the road from where I live (I’m northeast of Olympia, Washington, and the mounds are about 10 miles south of Oly). This area is also one of the few examples of native prairie left in western Washington, as well as a prime example of the mounds.  It’s now preserved as a Natural Area Preserve by the state of Washington, and as a Natural National Landmark by the federal government.

Some of the theories of Mima mound formation, as posted on the visitor kiosk.

I’d been there once before not long after I moved to Washington, then I completely forgot about it. Which is really too bad, actually.

But the real draw for me, especially this time of year, is the flowers. Of course. I saw at least a dozen different kinds. Here are some of them.

Siberian miners lettuce. A ubiquitous woodland flower, found this time in the woods near the parking lot.
Desert parsley.
A serviceberry shrub. A similar species back east is known as shadblow.
Western serviceberry blossoms.
Salal. Another common woodland plant, related to both blueberries and rhododendrons. I found it at the edge of the prairie this time.
Camas plants are scattered like this all over the mounds.  The yellow blossoms are western buttercups.
A close up of a camas bloom stalk.
The violets grew in patches, not scattered all over like the camas.
Death camas, so-called because the bulb is poisonous. The bulb is almost indistinguishable from the regular blue camas, so the Indians used to dig these up and get rid of them when they were in bloom, which was the only time it was easy to tell them apart.

And two other non-flower photos.

Not a flower, but this unfurling fiddlehead was just cool.
It’s not often you find a sky as open as this in western Washington.

Oh, and by the way, it’s pronounced like lima bean, not like Lima, Peru.

Wow, it’s so lovely and warm

I always wake up at the crack of dawn when I’m camping. Especially this time of year when it gets light before six in the morning. But that’s okay.

I’m not sure why (am I ever sure why?) I decided to drive up to Lake Chelan this morning, but I never really have before. I stopped in the touristy town of Chelan, at the foot of the lake, to buy batteries for my camera and to stick my head in a quilt shop on the main drag. Whoever their fabric buyer is, her taste does not agree with mine. I’m not a big fan of what I think of as sixties neon, and that was about all that little shop held.

There is no road clear around Lake Chelan. It’s a landlocked fjord, and the upper end of the lake reaches deep into the North Cascades. There are two roads on either side. The one on the north shore of the lake is only about twenty miles long. The one on the south side is about twice that length, so that’s the one I took.

Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in North America at over 1500 feet deep (the bottom is lower than sea level), according to a sign I read at the ferry landing. It’s roughly 55 miles long, and varies from one to two miles wide. It’s also pretty darned gorgeous. I stopped at the Fields Point Landing, a few miles up the lake, to poke around the visitor center and ask about the ferry that runs daily to Stehekin, the tiny settlement at the head of the lake. One of these days I want to take that trip, but the boat had left an hour or so earlier. Next time.

But I saw beautiful views, anyway, and more flowers.

The view across Lake Chelan from Field’s Landing. I don’t know if that’s a permanent snowcap or if it’s just because it’s only May.
A view of the ferry landing and down the lake.
Along the path looking northward along the lake. The yellow flowers are more balsamroot.
Prairie Star Flower. I saw these for the first time down in Oregon on my Long Trip last summer. This was the only shot I got of them this trip where the blossoms weren’t blurred by the breeze.

I’d thought about camping at 25 Mile Creek State Park at the end of the road that night, but it wasn’t even noon yet, and I decided I wanted to actually go on up to the Okanogan. So, stopping along the way to make a picnic lunch, I headed up to the town of Omak, where one of my favorite quilt shops (Needlyn Time) is. And, yes, this time I bought fabric, which I needed like a hole in the head, but tough.

After that, I headed up to Conconully, the little town that inspired the ghost town of the same name in my Unearthly Northwest books.

The view from the highway going up to Conconully from Omak. Please excuse the bug blurs — I had to take this through the windshield because there really wasn’t a good place where I could get out of the van.
This is what I meant by more balsamroot than I’ve ever seen on one trip before. Whole *hillsides* of the stuff.

Conconully is one of the few towns I know of with a state park right at the edge of town. But it’s a nice state park, and the campsite I wound up at was right on the lake and pretty secluded. I spent what was left of the afternoon just enjoying the day and reading, and listening to the red-winged blackbirds sawing their courtship cries. Oh, and watching the geese and ducks use the lake as a landing and launch pad. And the deer eating the campground’s mowed grass.

One of the red-winged blackbirds who sawed his mating call all afternoon at Lake Conconully.
One of the deer who wandered through the campground in the afternoon.
The view from my campsite at Conconully State Park.
My campsite at Conconully State Park.
Sunset from my campsite.

All in all, I drove a bit more than I had intended, but it was well worth it.

Over the mountains to sunshine

It’s no secret that this has been the wettest winter on record in western Washington (almost 45 inches of rain between October 1st and April 30th – our average, for well over a hundred years of record-keeping, is closer to 35 inches for the entire year), and one of the coldest. There’s no argument that it’s been incredibly depressing as well (and personal reasons have made it even more so for me).

So, when the weather forecasters for this past week noted (with great cheer) that it was supposed to get to and over 70dF on the west side of the mountains for the first time this year on Wednesday and Thursday, and even warmer, with lots of sunshine, on the east side, I thought, you know what? Screw it, I’m going camping.

Of course, when I thought about the east side of the mountains, my first idea was to go back to the Okanogan, which almost feels like home after the time I spent there researching my first two Tales of the Unearthly Northwest. I was also hoping it would nudge me back into writing the third Tale, which has sat there a few chapters in whining at me for longer than I want to think about it, due to those personal reasons I mentioned above. That didn’t really happen, but at least I got to spend some time in the sun, in nature, and to see lots of spring wildflowers.

The first place I went for flowers wasn’t on the way to the Okanogan, not in the region proper. At some point in the past I had picked up a flyer titled Wildflower Areas in the Columbia Basin, and one of them was about ten miles southeast of Wenatchee.

That turned out to be something of an adventure, as the photo of the Rock Island Grade Road will show. At my first sight of it, I thought, oh my gosh, I hope that little dirt road climbing up the side of a canyon isn’t the one they’re talking about, but yes, it was.

The Rock Island Grade “Road”, looking back towards the Columbia River from where I saw so many wildflowers.

It wasn’t the steepest, narrowest road I’ve ever driven, but I think it’s the steepest, narrowest dirt road I’ve ever driven. The recommended place to stop was about two and a half miles up, and the flyer hinted that there was a parking area. Ha. And what it turned out to be was a place for locals to go up and shoot cans, with all of the attendant garbage. That said, it was also literally carpeted with wildflowers. I managed to park Merlin as close to the edge of the road (not, at that point, hanging over the cliff) as I could, in case someone else came by (no one did, thank goodness), got out, and this is what I saw.

Spreading phlox spreading everywhere along the Rock Island Grade Road.
A phlox close-up.
And another. One of the things that makes phlox one of my favorite wildflowers (and garden flowers) is the infinite variation of a simple five-petaled flower in such a limited color palette.
The yellow flowers are wild radish. The purple ones are blue mustard. Both are tiny, but were profuse.
Yakima milkvetch, which was a new one to me.
And the first of more balsamroot I’ve ever seen in one trip before, which is saying a fair amount.

After I made my way cautiously back down to the highway, I headed back to Wenatchee, then north along Hwy. 97, which borders the Columbia River. It was getting fairly late in the afternoon by then, so I stopped at Lincoln Rock State Park, the first of three parks with campgrounds north of Wenatchee. I’d never camped there before. All of the sites are within sight of the river, and it was a peaceful, warm evening. I sat out in my lawn chair and just absorbed it all. Unfortunately, the batteries in my camera chose just then to give up the ghost, and apparently I’d forgotten to bring the spares, so I have no photos of that.

And that was my first day east of the mountains this year.  More tomorrow.

September 23: Home again, home again, jiggety jog.

One seven-hour drive later, and I’m home. Well, staying with my friend Loralee until I find a place to move into, but you know what I mean.

Across southern Washington, through more brown hills to the Tri-Cities, where I picked up I-82 to Yakima, where I turned west on U.S. 12, over White Pass to the little town of Morton, where I turned north on U.S. 7, which eventually turns into the Mountain Highway, which leads to Tacoma.

The sleek hills of southeastern Washington, and the Snake River.
The sleek hills of southeastern Washington, and the Snake River.
Hayfield in southeastern Washington.
Hayfields in southeastern Washington.
I *think* this courthouse is in Pomeroy, Washington, but I wouldn't swear to it.
I *think* this adorable little courthouse is in Pomeroy, Washington, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Orchards near Yakima.
Orchards near Yakima.
Heading west from Yakima on U.S. 12 -- I drove this road in the other direction on my second day on the road.
Heading west from Yakima on U.S. 12 — I drove this road in the other direction on my second day on the road.

The west side of the mountains -- can you tell from the weather? [wry g]
The west side of the mountains — can you tell from the weather? [wry g]
15,500 miles in almost four months (it would have been four months exactly next Tuesday). Which I’d have thought have been farther, given that in 1999, I was only gone two and a half months, and racked up 14,000 miles before I rolled my car in California. But that’s what Merlin’s odometer says, and I believe it [g].

Part of me is glad to be here, I think. Part of me wishes I just could have kept going, but well…

Thanks to everyone who stuck with me through all this! It’s been fun writing the posts, and I’m looking forward to the next time I get to hit the road.

September 22: Swoop, swoop, swoop.

I love Lolo Pass. I’ve only driven over it once before, but I just love the lazy, sweeping curves along the river on the Idaho side. Hence the swooping [g].

I headed west then south into what passes for Missoula, Montana’s morning rush hour, then west again up the thirty or so miles to the top of Lolo Pass. This is where Lewis and Clark finally made it over the Rockies back in 1804. It’s also where the Nez Perce fled across the mountains in the other direction on their way to Yellowstone to encounter the tourists before they (the Nez Perce) almost made it to Canada. So, a lot of history here, and a nice visitor center staffed by a fellow who apparently didn’t have enough tourists to talk to, because he all but followed me into the exhibit room and kept talking when all I really wanted to do was look at the exhibits. Oh, well. I know I’ve done more than my share of talking the ears off of people when I’ve been on my own for too long, too.

On the way up to Lolo Pass.
On the way up to Lolo Pass.
The foliage over the pass was really gorgeous, in spite of the gray, spitting skies.
The foliage over the pass was really gorgeous, in spite of the gray, spitting skies.
More foliage, along Lolo Creek.
More foliage, along Lolo Creek.
See?  Snowberries are *white*!
See? Snowberries are *white*!
Lolo Pass, elevation 5555 feet.
Lolo Pass, elevation 5225 feet.

The road down the west side of the pass into Idaho (the border between Idaho and Montana runs along the ridge line, and so does the line between Mountain and Pacific time) swoops down next to the Clearwater River through a deep canyon, curving gently back and forth and back and forth, for almost a hundred miles. It’s just so much fun to drive, almost like some sort of carnival ride or something. I’m not doing it justice at all, but that’s life.

The Clearwater River on the Idaho side of the pass.
The Clearwater River on the Idaho side of the pass.
Coming down the Idaho side.
Coming down the Idaho side.

About seventy miles on from the pass, I stopped in the tiny hamlet of Lowell, Idaho, for lunch in a cute little café. Those were the first buildings I saw after the border, so this is seriously wild country.

When the canyon finally opens out, it’s into a lot of warm brown hills (at least they’re brown this time of year) and then out into what I thought would be the southeastern edge of the Palouse, but the road cuts show basalt, not deep soil, so no, not Palouse.

Brown hills on the Nez Perce Reservation.
Brown hills on the Nez Perce Reservation.
The Snake River, which originates in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
The Snake River, which originates in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

I crossed a big chunk of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation to get to the Washington state line, then stopped for the night in the town of Clarkston, which is directly across the Snake River from the Idaho town of Lewiston. Gee, I wonder where those names came from [g].

Tomorrow night I’ll be back in Tacoma. Sigh.

Home again.  Sort of.  Still have most of the state to cross.
Home again. Sort of. Still have most of the state to cross.

September 20: All the exploding water I could squeeze into one day

I need to quit showing up at Yellowstone for a couple of days at the end of trips, and devote a whole trip there again one of these days. With adequate advance planning so that where I’ll stay isn’t an issue. Because if I could have found a place to stay for less than $100 a night in West tonight I probably would have stayed there before camping some more, but oh, well. I was thinking about it on my way out of the park this afternoon, and the last time I spent more than three days here at a time by myself was in 2005. I’ve spent a whole week at a time here several times since then, but always with a friend. I want to spend more time wandering around geyser basins waiting for things to erupt.

Anyway. At least I got to do that today. I got up at the crack of dawn this morning (it wasn’t even good light when I pulled out of my campsite) and drove into the park. One advantage of doing that is that there is no line at the entrance station, very little traffic, and I get my choice of spots in the ginormous parking lot at Old Faithful. Yes, it’s still pretty crowded here, even in late September.

Early, early in the morning on my way to West Yellowstone.
Early, early in the morning on my way to West Yellowstone.
Steam! Lots and lots of steam! That's Fountain Paint Pots, and the brown dots are bison.
Steam! Lots and lots of steam! That’s Fountain Paint Pots, and the brown dots are bison.

I packed up my day pack with all the stuff I might need for the day – water, lunch, camera, Kindle (for the inevitable waits), etc., etc., etc. – doused myself in sunscreen, and went to the visitor center to check on predicted eruption times.

Two strokes of luck later – Riverside was due around 11:30 and Grand somewhere between 11:45 and 3:45 so not too late in the afternoon – I headed over to the lodge to get some hot tea, then watched an eruption of Old Faithful before I headed out. And an eruption of Lion, off in the distance. A good start to the morning.

Lion Geyser as seen while waiting for Old Faithful, taken with lots of zoom.
Lion Geyser as seen while waiting for Old Faithful, taken with lots of zoom.
The classic view of Old Faithful.
The classic view of Old Faithful.
Yes, this was taken with plenty of zoom. These two and about half a dozen of their friends were prowling the parking lot in front of the Lower Hamilton store.
Yes, this was taken with plenty of zoom. These two and about half a dozen of their friends were prowling the parking lot in front of the Lower Hamilton store.

I strolled slowly down to Morning Glory Pool (about a mile and a half), stopping to see several more geysers along the way. Castle wasn’t due till about suppertime, alas, so I didn’t get to see it erupt, but I saw Sawmill, which is one of my favorite little (as in about 25 feet high max) geysers, as well as Tardy, which is sort of Sawmill’s little brother.

Sawmill Geyser from across the river.
Sawmill Geyser from across the river, with Tardy Geyser off to its right.

On down a piece, I saw that Grotto, aka the phallic geyser (look at the photo and tell me I’m wrong) was erupting, as was its neighbor Grotto Fountain, the latter of which, to the best of my knowledge, I’d never seen erupt before. Any day is a great day when I see a geyser I’ve never seen before. Trust me.

Grotto Geyser.
Grotto Geyser.
Grotto Fountain geyser, which I'm pretty sure I hadn't ever seen before, so that was cool.
Grotto Fountain geyser.

Then it was on to Riverside Geyser, which is pretty much the most regular geyser in the park (yes, more regular than Old Faithful), and by far one of the most graceful. I took video of it – the first time I’ve ever taken video of a geyser (I didn’t know how to do video until last year, and I haven’t been to the park since year before last). By the time Riverside’s half hour eruption was over, it was time to head over to Grand.

Riverside Geyser.
Riverside Geyser.
Oblong Geyser, as seen from Grand Geyser while waiting for it.
Oblong Geyser, as seen from Grand Geyser while waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  ETA:  Oops.  That’s Daisy, thank you, Lynn Stephens, for the correction.

Oh, Grand. It has a four hour eruption window (that is, 90% of the eruptions happen within that window), and today was one of the 10% of times it was late. While I was waiting, out there in the sun (thank goodness it was only in the low 70s today and breezy), I read, and chatted with my fellow geyser gazers (yes, that’s what we’re called – go check out the Geyser Observation and Study Association – gosa.org – website, if you don’t believe me) and helped explain the Grand’s logic puzzle of a prediction cycle to the newbies (more in a bit), and ate my lunch, and was patient along with everybody else [g].

The Grand finally went off just before 4 pm, two lovely, fantastic, beautiful bursts, and it was, as always, worth every minute of the wait, and every bit of the, okay, the pool’s overflowing, are there waves yet? there goes Turban (Grand only goes off just before or after Turban starts), oh, ptui, there goes West Triplet again (if West Triplet goes off while Turban’s doing one of its every twenty minute eruptions, then Grand won’t go off until at least the next Turban cycle), etc., etc., etc.

It always reminds me of those kinds of puzzles where Mr. Smith lives in the blue house and Mr. Gray is the plumber, but the green house is next to Mr. Jones, so who lives in the yellow house sort of thing.

The Grand!!!
The Grand!!!

Oh, and I got video footage of Grand, which makes me very happy (my comments on the audio portion of the thing are kind of embarrassing, I was so excited, but that’s okay).

After that I needed to hit the road, because the only relatively reasonably priced place I could find to stay tonight (I needed a place with a shower) was 25 miles outside of West Yellowstone, which in turn is 30 miles from Old Faithful, through animal jams and so forth.

I’m in a cute little cabin (with no wifi and no TV, alas, but that’s okay) up by Hebgen Lake, which is rather nice, and it’s on my way home (I still can’t believe I’ll probably be home the day after tomorrow), so that’s worked out for the best. But I do need to plan a whole vacation around the park again soon. I will. Maybe next year.

Aspens in the early evening along Hebgen Lake.
Aspens in the early evening along Hebgen Lake.

September 19: Some seriously white knuckles, and back to my park

Back to Red Lodge’s information center this morning, where I was informed that the pass was open today! According to the lady at the desk, there wasn’t even any ice up there. So off I went.

Dear godlings. I will never drive over Beartooth Pass again. Ever. It wasn’t bad at first, and the scenery was lovely, but that didn’t last long. Oh, the scenery did, what I saw of it while I was hanging onto the steering wheel for dear life, but I am not fond of narrow roads climbing up the sides of 11,000 foot mountains with 1000+ feet straight up on one side and 2000+ feet straight down on the other, with a multitude of hairpin switchbacks and no guard rails! Well above tree line for miles, so there was nothing to stop the howling wind that caught Merlin like a sail, to the point where I was scared to pull over in the turnouts hanging over the edges of the cliffs to take photos for fear he’d get blown down the mountain. Or that I would if I opened the car door.

At least it wasn’t snowing since it was in the forties at the top (10,979 feet), not counting windchill. But criminy. That was terrifying. And I don’t scare easily when it comes to that sort of thing.

But that’s the main reason I don’t have a lot of photos. There was just no way.

Once I got down on the other side of the pass, back below the tree line, I did manage some good photos, but I’ll be honest. Yes, the Beartooth Highway is beautiful, but give me U.S. 12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef in Utah any day. It was much prettier, and a lot less scary.

At the beginning of the Beartooth Highway.
At the beginning of the Beartooth Highway.
The view from about 10,000 feet.
The view from about 10,000 feet.
You can see two layers of the road in this photo.  Yeah, there was a guard rail here, but that was an exception.
You can see two layers of the road in this photo. Yeah, there was a guard rail here, but that was an exception.
Coming down the southern side of Beartooth Pass.
Coming down the southern side of Beartooth Pass.
And another view.
And another view.
And another.  This was from a little gravel side road leading up to a closed-on-Mondays fire tower.  It would have been nice if they'd actually had that on the sign at the turnoff instead of making me drive a couple of miles to find out.
And another. This was from a little gravel side road leading up to a closed-on-Mondays fire tower. It would have been nice if they’d actually had that on the sign at the turnoff instead of making me drive a couple of miles to find out.
From the same road.
From the same road.  The gold is aspens.
Back down on the highway.  The aspens along the lower part of the road were absolutely dropdead gorgeous.  They reminded me of the time my parents and I drove up to see the aspens in the Colorado Rockies when we were living in Denver.
Back down on the highway. The aspens along the lower part of the road were absolutely dropdead gorgeous. They reminded me of the time my parents and I drove up to see the aspens in the Colorado Rockies when we were living in Denver.
I did know the name of this mountain, but it escapes me now.  That's one prime example of a glacial arete, though.
I did know the name of this mountain, but it escapes me now. That’s one prime example of a glacial  horn and arete, though.
A valley full of aspens.
A valley full of aspens.

I entered Yellowstone National Park at the northeast entrance, to discover that this was actually a really good thing because the road between Mammoth and Norris is closed early for the season for construction, so I would have had to go way out of my way to get to West Yellowstone. Which was really my only choice at this point. The first thing I saw after I entered the park was a sign listing all the campgrounds and their status for the day. Half of them are already closed for the season, and the rest were already full for the night.

Soda Butte, a very old, defunct thermal feature in the far northeastern section of Yellowstone National Park.
Soda Butte, a very old, defunct thermal feature in the far northeastern section of Yellowstone National Park.
Bighorn sheep!  Near Tower Falls.
Bighorn sheep! Near Tower Falls.
Tower Falls.  It's about an 80 foot drop.
Tower Falls. It’s about an 80 foot drop.

It’s always difficult to do Yellowstone as a last-minute thing, and I knew that going in. The lodging in the park gets reserved well over a year in advance (the reservations for each year open on May 1st of the previous year, and they’re usually all taken by June, although I have been lucky to get a cancellation with a couple of weeks’ notice in the past). I didn’t think the campgrounds would be such an issue, though – I’ve arrived in the park and gotten a campsite on the spot before. But not this time.

So it was on the 90 miles (Yellowstone is a big park – over 3000 square miles) to the town of West Yellowstone. I didn’t stop much along the way because I figured the earlier I got to West, as the locals call it, the more likely I was to find a place for the night. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to West until about three, and when I stopped at the tourist office, I was told it would be almost impossible to find a motel (also that the average room in West goes for $250 a night – eep! – that’s gone way up in the last few years). So I said what about campgrounds? And she said, there’s a nice forest service campground about three miles north of town, and they have some sites left. So I drove up, and here I am.

Harebells at Baker's Hole campground just north of West Yellowstone.
Harebells at Baker’s Hole campground just north of West Yellowstone.
The Madison River (famous from the movie A River Runs Through It) at Baker's Hole Campground.
The Madison River (famous from the movie A River Runs Through It) at Baker’s Hole Campground.

Tomorrow I will get up early and go wander around the geyser basins and hopefully catch an eruption of Grand Geyser, then drive on out of the park late in the afternoon. I have a reservation for tomorrow night for a cabin at Hebgen Lake, about 25 miles northwest of West, in the direction I’d have been heading, anyway. I wish I could spend more time here, but logistically it’s just not going to work. It’s time to head home. I’ve probably got two more nights on the road after this one, if all goes according to plan. The cabin at Hebgen Lake, and probably the campground about ten miles west of Missoula where I’ve stayed before. That’s a day’s drive from home.

I can’t believe the trip’s almost over. I’ve got some seriously ambivalent feelings about it. Part of me wants to keep on going, even though it’s getting late in the season and if I did I’d have to head south again, and part of me knows I really do need to settle back down again. At least for now.

Sigh. I guess there’s always next year…

September 18: “Mountains, Gandalf!”

Er, Merlin. I’m sure he’ll forgive me the LotR quotation. Anyway. Today I saw Real Mountains [tm] for the first time since June 12th, back in Colorado. I knew I’d missed them, but I hadn’t realized quite how much.

I drove west from Billings a few more miles before I turned southwest on U.S. 212, aka the Beartooth Highway. Well, not quite yet. It’s a bit over forty miles to the town of Red Lodge where the highway actually starts. But I started seeing mountains almost immediately, which made me so happy.

You can just see the mountains in the distance.  Honest.
You can just see the mountains in the distance on the left. Honest.
See, and here's more.  These were taken on the road between Billings and Red Lodge.
See, and here’s more. These were taken on the road between Billings and Red Lodge.

That whole drive was lovely, actually. I’d gotten a really late start, knowing I wasn’t going to go all that far today (I’d figured on camping in one of the half dozen or so forest service campgrounds between Red Lodge and the pass), and I got to Red Lodge just about lunchtime. I stopped at the tourist information center looking for a restroom, only to hear the lady at the desk tell someone else that the pass was closed! Apparently, even though it was in the sixties in Red Lodge, it was snowing up there!

Statue in front of the tourist information center in Red Lodge.
Statue in front of the tourist information center in Red Lodge.

So that threw a serious monkey wrench in my machinery. It was either wait till tomorrow to see if things would get better, or turn around and go back to I-90 and across to Livingston, where I could drive down to Gardiner and the northern entrance to the park. I really didn’t want to do that. And Red Lodge has a laundromat, so I decided to do laundry and wait. If worse came to worst, I’d drive back to I-90 tomorrow.

My clothes all clean, I went looking for a campground. Fortunately, there’s a very nice one just four miles up the road from Red Lodge, so I had a pleasant, quiet rest of my afternoon. It is getting cold out there, though, and it’s been spitting rain a bit. This does not bode well for tomorrow, alas.

The view from the highway close to where I camped tonight.
The view from the highway close to where I camped tonight.

September 17: Across into Big Sky Country

I got a fairly early start this morning, mostly because the sun came over the horizon and hit Merlin square in the windshield [g]. Today was an Interstate day, mostly because there’s really no alternative to I-94 in southeastern Montana without going way out of the way.

This is actually in North Dakota, just before the Montana state line.  Anyway, I find it amusing.
This is actually in North Dakota, just before the Montana state line. Anyway, I find it amusing.
And on into Montana.  I've lost track of how many states/provinces I've been through at this point.
And on into Montana. I’ve lost track of how many states/provinces I’ve been through at this point.
Sunflowers!
Sunflowers!
Classic southeastern Montana scenery.
Classic southeastern Montana scenery.

I’ve driven this stretch before, and there’s not a whole lot to say about it. I stopped for lunch in Miles City (named after one of the generals who finally caught up with Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce back in 1877), and didn’t stop again until I arrived at Pompey’s Pillar. I know I’ve posted about Pompey’s Pillar here before, in 2012, which was the last time I was in this neck of the woods, but I do find it fascinating, and it was interesting to see it this time of year (the last time I was here it was June, and all the early summer flowers were in bloom). The other thing I didn’t realize from when I was here before is that modern-day travelers approach the pillar from the opposite side that Clark and company did (this was during the part where he and Lewis split up on the way back to Missouri so as to explore more territory). It hadn’t even occurred to me where the river was [wry g]. So that was interesting to me.

Pompey's Pillar itself as seen from the highway.  It was named after Sacajawea's baby son, nicknamed Little Pomp by William Clark.
Pompey’s Pillar itself as seen from the highway. It was named after Sacajawea’s baby son, nicknamed Little Pomp by William Clark.
Seeing Clark's graffiti will never get old.  Well, it is old, but you know what I mean.
Seeing Clark’s graffiti will never get old. Well, it is old, but you know what I mean.
Looking back from the signature towards the Yellowstone River.
Looking back from the signature towards the Yellowstone River.
A better view of the river.
A better view of the river.
I've never seen pink snowberries before, but that's what they said they were at the Pompey's Pillar visitor center.
I’ve never seen pink snowberries before, but that’s what they said they were at the Pompey’s Pillar visitor center.
Pearly everlastings at Pompey's Pillar.
Pearly everlastings at Pompey’s Pillar.

From there on it was just plowing on to Billings, the largest city in Montana, where I planned to get a motel room, get Merlin’s oil changed (for the third time), and go to the grocery store. Also to do laundry, but due to the fact that the motel’s laundry facilities weren’t available, that didn’t happen. I got to Billings about three in the afternoon, spent the rest of the afternoon getting stuff done, and that was my day, I’m afraid.

I did check when I went online this evening to see if the Beartooth Highway, which among other things was Charles Kuralt’s choice for the most beautiful highway in America, is still open for the season (it goes over an almost 11,000 foot pass, so it’s only open in the summer). The Montana DOT website said it is, and since I’d planned to drop down into Yellowstone for a day or two (pass that close to the park and not go? Inconceivable! [g]) and it’s actually the most direct route coming from this direction, I thought, why not? I’ve never driven it before.