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…