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.
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.
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.
All in all, I drove a bit more than I had intended, but it was well worth it.
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.
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.
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.
This afternoon, since it wasn’t raining for a change, I decided to go down to my new neighborhood and explore around. Before I left, I checked the city of Lacey’s website to see if I could find any interesting trails close to my new place. I found what I thought were two, marked them on my map, and headed out.
The first one was something of a bust. I found the park all right, and I found what I thought was the beginning of a purported mile and a half trail that was supposed to lead from this park to views of the Sound, but the trail itself petered out pretty fast, and I couldn’t find anything else that looked like a trailhead.
So I headed on to the other possibility, which was actually only two miles from my new place. Woodland Creek Park has a nice little lake, a senior center, a community center, a disc golf course, and playgrounds and picnic shelters, and is located at one end of a six-mile rails to trails path that leads from Lacey to Olympia. Not only that, but the trailhead was easy to find.
First, I walked over by the lake (the trail doesn’t go all the way around it, alas), where I saw a flock of Canada geese bedded down on the grass. Then I took the paved path leading to the long trail, which T’d into it. I could go either left or right, and I’m not sure why I went left when I knew the main trail went right, but I’m glad I did.
It was peaceful and quiet out there. You always know you’re home when you’re on a first name basis with most of the plants you see. Or at least I am. The pavement gave out soon, and there was a sign saying that this part of the trail was not developed yet. The path was still smooth and lined with the gravel and pebbles leftover from where they’d pulled the railroad tracks out. Eventually I reached a small bridge over a stream, with some rather unfortunate graffiti (edited out of my photo because I found it offensive), and, on the other side of the bridge I could still see the old rusted railroad tracks.
That’s where I turned around. It was probably a bit under a mile one way. I managed to get back just in time not to get rained on, which was a good thing. Next time I come here I’ll have to walk the other way and see what I can discover. All in all a very good day.
I’m glad to have a good trail like that near my new home. And a pretty little park, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
Because I’ve driven it at least a dozen times in the last seventeen years. But it’s really the only logical route from Yellowstone to Missoula, so that’s okay. And it is pretty.
Up along Earthquake Lake, which is the only lake I’m familiar with that was created by natural forces in my lifetime [g]. The Hebgen Lake earthquake, which happened on August 17, 1959, caused a landslide that dammed the Madison River, killed over 25 people, and, incidentally and not at all disrespectfully, was part of what sent Charley McManis back in time to 1877.
Over the natural dam and down the river to the long, wide valley west of the Gallatin Mountains, which weren’t terribly visible today due to the weather – I’d harbored thoughts of going back down to the park and spending a second day, then camping at Baker’s Hole again tonight, but when I saw the rain coming down I changed my mind. I have spent time tromping around the Upper Geyser Basin in the rain, but I have to say the thought wasn’t all that appealing this morning.
So on I went, down the valley through the town of Ennis, which is a fly-fishing hub on the Madison River, where I discovered, much to my delight, that the local Town Pump (Montana’s answer to the usual convenience store/gas station combo) sold unsweetened iced tea. No lemon, but that’s what the juice in my cooler is for [g].
I got back to I-90 about 11:30, and reached Butte about noon. I had my mouth set for another pasty (Butte used to have a lot of Cornish miners the way Michigan’s Upper Peninsula did, and I’ve eaten them here before), but I couldn’t find anywhere to sell me one, so I ended up with a hamburger, alas.
And so on northwestward to Missoula, where I am for the night. In the rain. Which is okay, since I’m indoors.
I had an idea this afternoon, too. I haven’t driven over Lolo Pass (about which more tomorrow) in a long, long time. Not since I was researching Repeating History and went to the Nez Perce National Historic Site in Idaho at least ten years ago. So I’m going to do that again, probably spend tomorrow night somewhere around Walla Walla or the Tri-Cities, and drive on in to Tacoma from there. Why not, right? One more day won’t hurt…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t know what time the rain quit hammering on Merlin’s roof last night, because it was still going strong when I fell asleep. But I woke to bright sunshine and only a few fair-weather clouds, which made me very happy. It was cold, though. Not quite as cold as that night in the Colorado Rockies where it frosted on me at 9600 feet, but I’m pretty sure it got down into the forties last night after the clouds cleared off. Thank goodness for warm sleeping bags.
I got to do something this morning that I didn’t think I’d ever get back here to do. I drove the entire fourteen miles of the scenic drive at the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I think I mentioned that the last (and only, or so I thought at the time – I mean, how often does one go to North Dakota?) time I was here, the road was closed about six miles in due to slumping. Well, this morning it was open, and I drove all the way to the end. Lots of pretty scenery, and the CCC made its presence known again, and bison! A couple of lone bulls, and a small herd of females and half-grown youngsters. So that was fun.
By the time I left the north unit and drove the sixty miles back down to I-94, it was getting on towards lunchtime, so after I strolled along the walk at the Painted Hills overlook, which is the only cross between an Interstate rest area and a national park visitor center that I’m aware of, I stopped in the rather self-consciously Old West town of Medora and ate lunch in the saloon (the second saloon I’ve eaten in on this trip, the first one having been in Virginia City, Nevada, way back in early June).
Then I headed into the south unit of TRNP, and took its scenic drive. The last time I was here, in June, 2012, it was 100dF, and blowing about 70 mph. Which is why I didn’t camp in the park the last time I was here. Today it’s been in the mid-60s, and the breeze has never been higher than pleasant. So I had a much better time than last time. I saw more bison (actually, where I saw more bison was at the Painted Hills rest stop, right along the freeway, which was kind of bizarre). I saw several prairie dog shows [g]. There are three huge prairie dog towns in the park – watching them scuttle around and make their incredibly loud chirps (I can hear them inside Merlin with all the windows closed and the engine running) is great fun. And for the first time in my life, I saw wild horses! Two different groups of them (are they herds if there’s only half a dozen or so individuals?), one of which crossed the road directly in front of me. Such absolutely gorgeous animals. I’ve seen wild burros before, in South Dakota’s Black Hills, but never wild horses. It was amazing.
I’d been sort of debating about whether to camp here or drive on to Glendive or Miles City, Montana (I’m only about 25 miles east of the Montana state line, and Glendive’s about thirty or forty miles on beyond that), for the night, but the Cottonwood campground here in the south unit looked so pleasant that I decided to stay here.
I’ll drive on to Billings (about 300 miles) tomorrow, and then we’ll see what we’ll see. It did occur to me that, coming from the northeast as I am, I could approach Yellowstone over the Beartooth Highway, which I’ve never driven the entire length of. That is if it’s still open for the season. It goes up over 10,000 feet, and is closed most of the year due to snow. It’s supposed to be one of the most spectacular drives in the U.S., though, and if it’s still open I’ll probably do it. I’ll check online tomorrow night in Billings.
It rained a bit during the night, but had cleared up by this morning. The weather prediction was for it to be overcast most of the day, with a few scattered showers, and I believed it. More fool me.
To be fair, it didn’t do much more than spit as I drove north from Bismarck towards Fort Mandan, where Lewis and Clark built their home for the winter of 1804-05. There they stayed from October till April, waiting for the temperatures to warm up from the minus forty it hit several times that winter, and for the ice to melt on the Missouri River before they headed on upriver to the Pacific Coast – eventually.
It was funny how much the reproduction (the original is under the shifted Missouri River somewhere) fort looks like the reproduction Fort Clatsop in Oregon, where the Corps of Discovery spent their second winter. Or maybe not. Anyway, it reminded me of home, in an odd way, hence the subject header of today’s post. Not that I’ve ever lived in a hand-built log fort or anything…
It had started raining again by the time I left Fort Mandan, and was coming down fairly well by the time I got to the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center a few miles back down the road. It’s a very nice museum, dealing with both L&C as well as North Dakota agricultural history, which is more interesting than it sounds, especially as the first farmers in what later became North Dakota were the Mandan Indians. Apparently a fair number of our commercial corn and bean varieties are descended from those the Mandans grew, including my favorite dry bean, the Great Northern. I’ll never look at taco soup the same way again [g].
The rain did not stop. Oh, it slowed down a little, but when I arrived at the Knife River Villages National Historic Site a few miles to the west, it was too wet to go hiking out to see more earth lodges. But there was a fellow in the visitor center who played a wicked Native American flute (I wish I could have recorded him – he was that good), and a very helpful ranger who gave me the phone number of the ranger station at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit.
See, the last time I was in this part of the world, in 2012, the road into the North Unit had been closed because the land underneath it had slumped. Slumping is the primary way the badlands of the western Dakotas are formed, so it’s nothing unusual, but I had been rather disappointed at the time. So I wanted to see if the road was open again before I drove out of my way to go see it. And yes, it is. And the campground is still open this late in the season, too.
So on westward I went, through the rain and about twenty miles of unpaved road construction (dear godlings, was that not fun), and finally made it here to TRNP’s north unit, where I’m ensconced in a campsite, listening to the rain pound down on Merlin’s metal roof (I’m always glad I’m not tent camping, but I’m really glad tonight).
It’s supposed to clear up tomorrow, and it darned well better. I have a drive I want to make [g].