Day 56 – Lone Star Geyser -> Riverton WY

Let’s talk about sounds. There’s a sound that’s made by a rice kettle when the water has come to a boil, and the heat is turned down to sustain a slow simmer. That gurgling sound of a slow simmer is what we heard coming from the ground below us as we slept last night.

Poking our heads out of the tent early in the morning, we were greeted by the howls and yips of coyotes, and later we heard the calls of cranes. While we were having breakfast on the riverbank, we saw the cranes.

It was a little past noon when we had our packs on our backs and were marching down the trail to re-unite with the Big Red Dog, which was at the trailhead four miles away.

At the halfway point was our third visit to the Lone Star Geyser. Just as with our first two visits, we arrived five minutes after the eruption was finished. When we checked the log book, we found the entry for the eruption we saw yesterday. It turned out we had seen the minor eruption. The major eruption happened a few minutes after we had left. Sigh.

It was another one of those perfect days that the high country provides in the summer… bright and sunny, warm and dry, and great for a leisurely hike down the mountain. We knew we were getting close to the trailhead when we could hear the rumble of Harleys on the highway.

After living for two days on trail mix, we were looking forward to some of the food that was stored in the truck. Our meal plan for the end of the hike settled on bagel and cheese sandwiches. But those plans dramatically changed when we opened the truck to find it filled with mouse turds.

Yellowstone mice are apparently quite adept at squeezing into vehicles, no matter how well sealed and secured they are. Everything that hadn’t been in a solid container (which wasn’t a whole lot, really … it just seems that way) had been invaded and had to be thrown out. This included our bagels and our tortilla chips. The time that we had planned to spend eating got spent emptying the back of the truck and cleaning out the little black pellets that rodents like to leave all over the place.

The mice left some crackers alone and they couldn’t get to the cheese, so that can hold us until we get back to civilization. Due to wildfires near Cody, the East Entrance to Yellowstone – our most direct route home – was closed. To get to Buffalo and I-90, we would have to leave via the South Entrance and swing a couple of hundred miles out of our way via Dubois and Riverton.

It was a longer route, but it wasn’t a bad route. We got to dip our toes in the water and climb on rocks at Lewis Falls. That’s where we noticed we’d been playing road tag with a gay biker couple who had also stopped to romp in the waterfalls. After that, we got a glimpse of the Grand Tetons and found a spectacular under-appreciated drive to Dubois.

The Grand Tetons as seen over Jackson Lake.

Just before dark, we found a roadside eatery in Dubois that displayed the four magic words: All You Can Eat. After three days of hiking in the mountains while living on trail mix, cheese and crackers, we were hungry. We got filled up, but we’re starting to notice that the quality of restaurant food has been declining as we get further from the coast.

We drove another hour into the darkness to the next town, Riverton. The budget motel had a vacancy, so that was where we spent the night.

Day 55 – Lone Star Trail WY

There were rip-roaring thunderstorms during the night. Not a dangerous amount of wind, but lots of thunder and lightning. We woke up to a stunningly blue sky. Our full day in the wilderness promised to be sunny and cloud-free without being oppressively hot or humid.

When we got our permits yesterday, the site where we started the day was already reserved for tonight. So today we need to move to another site about a mile and a half upstream. But before that, we hope to experience an eruption of the Lone Star Geyser. So we packed up the entire camp except for the tent and our camp chairs, and stored our gear in the tent.

While we were lounging on the river bank we got a visit from a ranger. Our conversation produced an explanation for the “no fires” rule for tonight’s campsite. The last time someone had a fire there, they thought they couldn’t put it out. No matter how much water they put on it, it kept smoking.

What they thought was smoke was steam. Underground steam vents in that area are getting close to the surface under the fire ring. That makes the ground warm enough to boil away any water that comes in contact with it. (At this relatively high elevation, the boiling point of water is lower than normal.)

Of all of our backcountry hikes, this was the first time we’d had a ranger come by to check on us. We were assured that the fires near Cody were comfortably far away from us, and we got to learn a bit more about this area of the park and what to expect.

We took a day hike back to the geyser and checked the log book that’s kept in a little box near an observation area. The last eruption was at 11:08am, and we were there at 11:30.

This was when we met the Geezer at the Geyser. He was a tall guy wearing a safari hat, probably in his 70s but with the excitement and enthusiasm of a seven-year-old. Asking when the last eruption was, he said “The major? It was about a half hour ago, and lasted [this many] minutes, and then it let off steam for [that many] minutes.”

We decided to wait around for the next eruption and claimed a little patch of shade under some nearby pine trees. We watched the Geezer at the Geyser bounding around and checking things out. He seemed like a retired geology professor who had been cooped up out of the field for too long. Once he was peeking into one of the holes while his companion was reading from a guide book, “boiling water can squirt out of these holes with no warning.” He stepped back upon hearing those words.

As we lounged under the trees waiting for the geyser to go off, our soundtrack was the distant excited voice of the Geezer at the Geyser, as he raved to his companions about this unique and special place. It was actually kind of adorable.

After an hour or so, the geyser got restless. This flatulent restless stage kept any boredom from setting in while waiting for the next eruption. Over time, the restlessness got more intense. Finally, we saw a continuous stream rise 30 feet for a few minutes before the geyser fell silent. Assuming the eruption was over, we slithered back into the woods.

We stopped at our campsite from this morning and packed up the tent for the hike to tonight’s campsite. A mile beyond that campsite, the trail crosses the Continental Divide. Between our campsite and the pass was what looked like a huge meadow, but in reality it was the marshes that formed the beginning of the Firehole River.

One of Rozie’s goals was to go to the source of the Missouri River. We had followed the biggest of the three branches (the Madison), and then followed the biggest of it’s branches (the Firehole). Our campsite is where marshes end and the Firehole River begins, and we’re drinking water that could have eventually flowed through Kansas City, St. Louis and beyond. We are at one of the sources of the Missouri River.

Day 54 – Beaver Creek Campground MT -> Lone Star Geyser WY

We got a good night’s sleep at this campground, and it was surprisingly quiet, even in the morning. Before heading out toward West Yellowstone we got our packs prepared for our upcoming overnight hike. That will be one less thing we have to do at the trailhead.

Just up the road was a large lake called Earthquake Lake. In 1959 a major earthquake caused a landslide that blocked the Madison River. Earthquake Lake is the large lake that was formed by this event, and a waterfall now cascades over the landslide.

We weren’t sure whether any repair shops would be open later than noon on a Saturday, so we tried hard to cover the remaining 25 miles to West Yellowstone before then. We didn’t get out of the campground until 11:45, so it’s a good thing there was a shop that was open all day.

While the truck was in the shop, we had a few hours to get other stuff done. First thing on the agenda was breakfast at the Running Bear Pancake House. It was kind of average, but it was priced well for a busy tourist town.

Heading back to the repair shop, we passed what seemed like hundreds of tacky storefronts hawking t-shirts and trinkets. It represented everything we hate about major tourist towns like this.

This is a much larger town than we expected, and it mainly exists to serve as a base for exploring the park. So the tacky trinket hawkers are complemented by necessities like motels, cafes, outfitters, and repair garages.

The truck wasn’t ready yet, so we walked to the backcountry office. West Yellowstone is built right up against the border of Yellowstone National Park, so the walk to the backcountry office was just a few blocks. We filled out some forms, watched a fifteen-minute video that included the bear drill and assorted do’s and don’ts, and left with our backcountry camping permits.

Back at the shop, our mechanics had finally finished installing a new gasket and fluid filter on our transmission, and they changed the fluid. Ninety dollars later we were on our way to the park gate, and the Wyoming state line followed quickly.

The main area of Yellowstone National Park is the caldera of a collapsed volcano. They say it erupts once in 800,000 years, and that it last erupted 800,000 years ago. Comforting.

The molten rock is close enough to the surface to boil the ground water, so Yellowstone has more hot springs than the rest of the world combined. (WARNING! Even though they may look inviting, Yellowstone hot springs are deadly dangerous. If you jump in, you will cook like a lobster.)

This park is enormous… it’s bigger than some states, and the entire park is riddled with holes of all sizes that are oozing, spitting, spurting, spraying, spewing, belching and gushing every possible combination of steam and boiling water.

As we drove from West Yellowstone to our trailhead 35 miles into the park, we saw many areas where plumes of steam rose from the ground. The Madison River eventually split into the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. Our destination was on the Firehole. We passed many lines of parked vehicles where people had stopped to photograph herds of elk, or an elusive moose lurking in the trees or tall grass.

A small thunderstorm passed overhead just as we began our hike on the Lone Star Trail. This was the first rain we had encountered since we were in Arizona. But much like the desert storms, this turned out to be a brief but annoying shower.

The first part of Lone Star Trail was once a narrow paved road (making it one of the few trails open to bicyclists). This made for a fairly easy hike. It wasn’t long before we came to a field of hot pots, which until then we had only seen from the highway. Up close and personal, it was amazing how alive the geology of this place is. As incredibly beautiful and active as these hot pots were, they were common and ordinary in this park.

Our next reward was to see a mother moose and calf – this time clearly and in broad daylight. The Firehole River was between us, so neither of us felt threatened by the other.

At the end of the crumbling blacktop trail is the Lone Star Geyser. “As the crow flies,” Lone Star is 5 miles from Old Faithful, but it’s a 2.5-mile hike or bike ride from the highway. It has a very consistent 3-hour cycle, and its eruptions are equally spectacular to those of its more famous cousin. But when Lone Star erupts, there may be a dozen other people watching with you, compared to the thousands that may be at the other place. This geyser was much more our style.

The Lone Star Geyser shoots water 50 feet in the air for 10-20 minutes, then it blows steam for a while after that. We arrived about 5 minutes after the steam phase had ended and the long quiet phase had begun. Such was our luck, but we were so happy to merely be there that we couldn’t be disappointed.

We were running out of daylight when we got to our campsite, so it was time to put our “bear drill” training to good use. Every campsite was equipped with some sort of a horizontal beam about 25 feet in the air, usually lashed to a tree on each end. We started to call this thing the “bear bar,” which conjured up images of Far Side cartoons.

The most important part of dealing with bears is to keep all food, food waste, utensils, empty beer bottles, toothpaste – anything with a scent that might attract a bear – all that stuff goes into a bag. Tie a rope (or stout string) to the bag, and tie a rock or stick to the other end. Fling the weighted end over the bear bar, and hoist the bag of food to the middle of the bear bar until it’s needed.

Another element of the bear drill is to make a lot of noise. They say that as you hike, you should clap and sing. We alternated between “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and “Lions and Tigers and Bears – Oh My!”. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” seemed appropriate, but we avoided the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain,” especially with major wildfires in the park 50 miles from us.

So far, after all these backcountry hikes, we still haven’t seen a bear. We try to be careful what we wish for… we don’t want any bears in our camps. But the ideal bear encounter (from the truck window, across a river while hiking, basically a safe but photo-friendly distance) has never come to pass.

Once we were all set up, we hung out by some hot springs on riverbank until dark. With storms brewing in the area, we kept all of our gear in the tent with us as we slept.

Day 53 – Missoula -> Beaver Creek Campground MT

Missoula has a decent health food coop which was our first stop this morning. First we got some coffee and snacks, and once we were fed and caffeinated we could face restocking. We had a two-night back country hike planned for Yellowstone, and there was nowhere for the rest of the trip where we could count on such a food source, so we had to load up.

Properly resupplied, we set off to cover over 250 miles between us and Yellowstone. There was no way east that didn’t involve the concrete slabs of I-90. Looking for an alternative, we took an exit that led to a series of mountain streams in the Lolo National Forest. We started to feel like we were driving into a pseudo-spiritualistic fishing movie directed by Robert Redford.

Unfortunately, our “alternate route” quickly degenerated into a gravel road which soon became washboard. This wasn’t going to work, especially with the truck in a funky mood, so we turned around.

Back at the exit we found a cowboy bar with banners advertising an upcoming festival. It’s their big annual draw called the Testicle Festival. Out here in cattle country, it’s common to see “Rocky Mountain Oysters” on restaurant menus. But these are not seafood. They’re bull testicles.

Early in their lives, non-breeding bulls get neutered because it’s a Bad Idea to let them hang out together with all of their testosterone intact. The residents of this humble little burg do not hide the products of these neuterings behind culinary euphemisms. On the contrary, they glorify the bull testicle, complete with cartoon drawings of bulls in ver-r-r-ry defensive positions.

Back on the Interstate, we stopped at a rest area and saw a sign for free coffee. A stand had been set up by a group of Christian bikers as a means to connect with other bikers on their way to Sturgis. Half-a-million bikers go to Sturgis, South Dakota each year in early August for one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies. That explains why we were seeing so many more Harleys on the road.

Due to a major traffic jam, it took half an hour to cover the last 5 miles to our exit in Butte. Shortly afterward we crossed the Continental Divide, putting us back into the eastern watersheds for the first time since the beginning of week 2. We came close to a place called Three Forks, which is where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers join together to become the Missouri.

We followed the Madison River upstream to the south, through a series of small towns where the “Old West” look was mostly authentic and only partially contrived. Between the towns we saw country that made us understand why Montana calls itself “Big Sky” country.

We followed an old and partially overgrown set of railroad tracks, and we started to wish we could be riding a train along a refurbished version of those tracks. Rozie remembered that her grandmother had taken a train to Yellowstone for her honeymoon, and we wondered if she could have ridden on those tracks.

In the low sunlight of early evening we could see a plume of grey smoke trailing behind the truck. Pulling over to investigate, we found that leaking transmission fluid was burning as it landed on the exhaust pipe. This was going to need some attention. Slowing down, we continued out of the valley and got to a campground in the mountains.

We were close enough to West Yellowstone to hopefully get the truck looked at early tomorrow.

Day 52 – Glacier National Park -> Missoula MT

During the darker hours of the night, the hissing and droning of traffic noise from the other side of Lake McDonald was less continuous. Occasionally a vehicle would make its way along the lakeshore, and we’d listen as the sound migrated from one end to the other.

Before hiking out in the morning, we spent some time wading into the lake and checking out rocks. It took a few hours to get back to the truck, and we observed some of the advice we got from the bear drill: make noise. Bears don’t like being startled or surprised.

So to alert the bears, harmonicas were played. We would march along humming songs like “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” Since we were in Montana, the lyrics to Frank Zappa’s song “Montana” were recited. Eventually the idea of becoming a dentil floss tycoon gave way to navigating a pock-marked jeep road back to the paved highway.

We decided to use some of our remaining daylight to explore the Road to the Sun. We went north and started climbing toward the face of a mountain range. Then we turned west for a while as we climbed up the face of the mountain to a place called “The Loop”. That’s where the road makes an abrupt and tight turn, then continues up the face of the mountain going east.

We went about a mile past the loop before we found a safe place to turn around and return to West Glacier. If we were to continue, we’d have gone over a high mountain pass and found ourselves on the plains. We weren’t ready for that.

As we started down US 2 out of West Glacier, we noticed that at a certain speed the truck was shifting back and forth between 2nd and 3rd. We checked the transmission fluid while we restocked on gas and ice, and it looked ok. We continued on reassured, but concerned that the Big Red Dog was not the same truck it was when we entered the park.

We turned south toward Missoula, and just as the sun was setting we found a place to eat dinner called Mountain Crossroads. It’s the clubhouse of a golf course, and it was filled with smokers. Fortunately, there were a few tables were outside, where we could enjoy our dinner while watching night fall over the golf course. We were pleased to find a few vegetarian options on the menu. There wasn’t a lot of food but there was enough and it was tasty. It was a nice place considering it’s the only place for miles.

Our route to Missoula would have to go around Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is the largest natural fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi. The well-beaten path follows the western shore, so we went down the eastern shore. The fading twilight gave us a good look at the lake from the north end.

As we drove into the darkness we covered many miles with low speed limits, and passed one cherry farm after another. Montana is not easily identified with being cherry country, but this area had the biggest concentration of cherries that we saw anywhere.

Day 51 – Logan State Park -> Glacier Natl. Park MT

Obbie disappears into the forest along the Lake McDonald trail in Glacier National Park.

We woke up to sounds of heavy machinery doing maintenance work on a neighboring campsite. That’s one way of shaking a couple of night owls out of bed, especially after an unfavorable time change. We had made some coffee last night, so all we had to do was to heat that up and drink it while we packed up the rest of our camp, and we were on our way.

Today we plan to hike in to a backcountry campsite in Glacier National Park. The first obstacle in our path is the town of Kalispel, where we got sucked into a Chinese buffet for lunch. Once we got moving again, the town went on and on. The entire population seemed to be concentrated within three blocks of the highway, so it seemed to take as long to get from one end of Kalispel to the other as it took to get from Kalispel to Glacier.

By the time we got to the backcountry office at the park, it was 3 pm. Allowing time for getting to the trailheads and the hiking distance from there to the campsites, there were very few campsites that we could realistically get to before dark. We sat through another “bear drill”, got our permits, and headed out.

Lake MacDonald is the glacial lake nearest to the west entrance. The park’s main through-fare, The Road to the Sun, runs along one side of the lake, and a hiking trail runs along the other. Our campsite was on that trail, four miles from the backcountry office, or two miles from the trailhead at the far end of the lake.

We didn’t know it then, but the easiest way to the campsite would have been to hike the four miles from where we were. We weren’t told that the last two miles of the 13-mile drive to the other trailhead had holes so big we had to drive through them rather than around them. On the other hand, bad roads keep the mutants out.

Visually, our campsite on the lake was idyllic. The lake water was refreshingly cold and indescribably clear, and the variety of rocks on the bottom displayed a rich rainbow of colors and an endless collage of patterns. Towering trees gave us shade, and rugged peaks reflected off the water.

The audio environment was not so idyllic. Motorboats whizzed up and down the lake pulling water skiers or showing themselves off. We could hear the guides on passing tour boats giving their presentations over loudspeakers. It’s amazing how far that kind of sound can carry.

The highway through the park was a mile across the lake. The traffic noise was not exactly loud, but it was constant. Of course this site did not do justice to this park. The next time we come here we must camp on one of the more remote lakes.

Day 50 – Kettle Falls WA -> Logan State Park MT

We started the day in Kettle Falls, which is where Route 20 crosses the Columbia River in the northeastern corner of Washington. We were in the Washington desert, the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Just before we got to the Idaho state line, the road turned south and met up with US 2.

In Newport, Washington, most of the businesses cater to visitors who are there to catch fish (or at least they try to catch fish).

Route 20 and US 2 link up in Newport, Washington, which is at the Idaho state line. From there, we only had to cross about 80 miles of the Idaho panhandle to get to Montana, which we thought should take an hour and a half. But as soon as we crossed the state line, the road became a perpetual construction zone.

After 3 hours in Idaho, we got to the crossroads town of Sandpoint, and spent a good half hour in traffic jams there. We spotted an alternate route into Montana via State Hwy 200, so we bailed out of US 2. Once we got around some slow people who wouldn’t use turn-outs it was a pleasant ride.

Montana has an interesting wrinkle to their highway signage. Anywhere that someone has been killed on the highway, they put up little crosses. It inspires some extra care on the tight corners when you see the crosses around the bend.

Our detour would bring us back to US 2 near Libby. Along the way we made a side trip to some old-growth cedars at the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area. This was another place where the existence of old growth seemed to protect the land from drought, as we found lots of interesting mosses and mushrooms nourishing the undergrowth.

Just as the sun went down we found a state park campground on a mountain lake just off the highway between Libby and Kalispel. We noticed that many of the other campers came on Harleys. Before sleeping we got to enjoy the company of Canada Geese as we watched the full moon reflecting off the lake.