Hardly a high plains drifter . . .

Definitely not! ‘Drifter’ implies someone wandering aimlessly about. That was not us. We knew where we were going. We just didn’t know what to expect while we were getting there.

So why is that? After our tour of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, we had planned to return westwards from Cody on the last day of our roadtrip and travel to Billings, MT for our last night before flying back to Minnesota. But since there were major roadworks via the north entrance to Yellowstone, we opted to turn east – and explore a part of Wyoming that we had not planned from the outset.

US14 was our route, taking us through Greybull, WY and up into the Bighorn Mountains. We’d been on the eastern side of those in Sheridan. And what a revelation the Bighorns were. We crossed the Bighorn Basin – which you can really only appreciate from high up on the mountains looking westwards, wound our way up through the canyon near Shell, over the Granite Pass (at 9033 ft), and on to a broad plateau, snow-covered in parts.

USA 823

USA 830

On the high plain east of Cody we came across a couple of interesting signs, one marking the Bridger Trail, a route to the goldfields of Montana during the 19th century – and surely a source of conflict with the Native Americans of the region – and the other explaining about the wild horses in the area.

What is so impressive about the Bighorn Mountains are the gradients to climb and which you have to descend. On our descent there was a 10% gradient for 10 miles! At the bottom we passed a cyclist – fully laden – who was just beginning the climb. I wonder if he ever made it?

So although we never originally intended to make this detour, it proved to be an excellent way of spending our last full day in Wyoming and Montana. The sky stretched from horizon to horizon – Big Skies! And, for the most part, we had the roads to ourselves, such is the joy of motoring in the USA (something I really quite detest here in the UK because of the congestion that we encounter).

If you ever find yourselves in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, and you’re not sure whether to head east or west, you can’t go far wrong by taking a tour of the Bighorn Mountains. You won’t be disappointed.

Earth, wind, fire and water . . . Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming were the planned destinations of our road trip last June across the Great Plains, although it didn’t quite work out that way. Including travel time through the parks, we originally planned to have three days exploring the various corners. In the end we stayed for just two. But this change to our itinerary was well worth it, as I explain in another post.

We entered Yellowstone through the northeast entrance, and had planned to depart through the north gate.

Northeast entrance to Yellowstone

Northeast entrance to Yellowstone

We also stayed at hotels well outside the parks – in Red Lodge (Montana), and Jackson and Cody (in Wyoming). Our scheduled third day in Yellowstone would have meant a long drive back west from Cody (about 70 miles) and then we faced a long journey north to get to our overnight stop in Billings from where we would fly back to St Paul. But there were major roadworks on this north exit road from Yellowstone and considerable traffic delays forecast. So we decided that rather than return to Yellowstone from Cody, we would head east and see what that landscape had to offer. But more of that another time.

As I have blogged elsewhere, Yellowstone was a little bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong – the landscapes are truly magnificent, and the geothermal attractions all that I expected them to be. But there are quite long stretches of road that are almost completely closed in by forest on either side, and there’s not a lot to see. Fortunately we visited in early June so the tourist load was not that significant. I hate to think what Yellowstone must be like at the height of the summer. Nose-to-nose car bumpers I expect. And even in June we encountered several traffic jams as visitors hurriedly pulled off the road, whatever the prevailing condition, to catch a glimpse of a lonely elk or bison.

And the wildlife – or should I say the lack of it – was the other disappointment. I suppose my expectations had been raised through the many TV programs about Yellowstone that I watched over the years. Wall-wall wildlife? It was never going to happen. We did see a few small concentrations of bison (herds would be too strong a description) and a few elk dotted along the horizon. But that was it. although we frequently saw evidence that the wildlife was about and they visited the various geyser sites.

Nevertheless, we did enjoy our visit, and you can’t help yourself if the panoramas do sometimes take your breath away.

On our first day, we traveled through Yellowstone and Grand Teton from Red Lodge, MT to Jackson, WY following (for the first sector before we entered Yellowstone) the spectacular Beartooth Highway. We were fortunate that the road between Tower Falls and Canyon Village, just 19 miles, was already been open for the season, instead of a 51 mile journey via Mammoth and Norris. Click on the map below for an interactive version on the National Parks Service website.

And then we skirted west shore of Yellowstone Lake on our way south into Grand Teton National Park, and on to our accommodation in Jackson, WY.

The following day, we headed north along the west bank of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park and the base of the Teton Range, heading back into Yellowstone, where we took the west loop road from West Thumb to explore the Geyser Basin including the mandatory stop to watch Old Faithful put on ‘her’ display. On the way to Old Faithful we crossed the Continental Divide at least a couple of times, then headed north through Madison, on to Norris, back to Canyon Village and the east entrance skirting the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. What’s special about the Tetons is that they just rise out of the plain to more than 6,000 feet above (12,000 feet above sea level). It’s just like a wall of mountains aligned north-south. No wonder the Rockies were such an obstacle to cross for the early pioneers.

There’s so much out there on the Internet to read about both national parks that I’m not going to attempt to emulate or surpass those sources. Let me however, provide a small pictorial guide to our visit below.

Scenes in the north of Yellowstone from the northeast entrance

 Sulphur Caldron

Yellowstone Lake

Old Faithful

 Colors of the Geyser Basin

 Landscapes of the northwest

Grand Teton National Park

And finally, we left Yellowstone heading for Cody by crossing the Absaroka Range once again.

We also don’t regret our decision to find hotels outside Yellowstone. Within there park there is limited – and expensive – accommodation. Taking hotels in Red Lodge, Jackson and Cody ensured that we really did see as much of both parks in a limited time.