Day Three of our return to Yellowstone meant setting the alarm for 4 in the morning, with plans of hitting the road by 5. Why so early? We had a long drive ahead of us. Head into the park through the east gate, north at Fishing Bridge, up through Hayden Valley toward Canyon Village. From there, it was straight north to Tower Roosevelt, forgoing the views in the predawn hours. Then east from the Tower into Lamar Valley.
We planned to spend a few hours in Lamar Valley along the Lamar River to catch a glimpse of the wolves, then out the northeast gate to Cooke City, Montana. From there, the Bear Tooth Highway was calling our names. Hubby and I had traveled this breathtaking highway years ago, but Kiddo had not. The closest he came was three years ago when a landslide just outside the east gate forced us to head back to Cody through the northeast gate, then down along the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. If you have ever traveled this route, then you know it’s full of twists and turns and views that will take your breath away. This is nothing compared to the Beartooth Highway.
Drive Through Lamar Valley to the Northeast Gate
Lamar Valley is a wide, expansive valley in the far north-east corner of the park. Most visitors are satisfied with a quick glimpse of the valley when heading to Tower Fall, Tower-Roosevelt or taking the long way around to Mammoth Hot Springs in the north. While a glimpse of the valley is possible taking these routes, to fully appreciate the scope of the valley and with a little luck some of its elusive wildlife, turn right at Tower-Roosevelt. If you are truly a serious wildlife viewer, Lamar Valley is well worth the trip. Bison and elk are readily visible. The changes of a coyote or two are good. If you are willing to rise early in the morning to reach the valley before dawn, you will almost always get a glimpse of the valley’s illusive wolf. High powered scopes or binoculars are a must for wolf viewing. Keep an eye out for the trackers – those guys who set up high-powered scopes next to their van with big antennas on the roof. You will know them by their walkie-talkies, a must in wolf tracking. These guys have access to the radio trackers around the necks of many of the adult wolves. You can bet if they are gazing through their scopes, it’s because they have insider information as to the location of a wolf. Thus far, following the trackers through Lamar Valley has not failed. We’ve seen several wolves in the wild from a very safe although not very photogenic distance. Another thing to look for are birds circling the twilight sky or gathered in large groups in a tree. You can bet the scavenger birds have come upon a carcass, usually a bison, and that means the opportunity to see a bear or wolf drawn to the kill is very likely.
Cooke City, Montana
Cooke City, Montana is just beyond the northeast gate to Yellowstone National Park. It can be a jumping off point for two breathtaking drives to the east – the Beartooth Highway and Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. Until 1882, Cooke City, Montana and the surrounding lands were within the Crow Reservation. Although on Indian land, the lure of finding gold in the area brought prospectors hoping to stake a claim. Early in the 1870s, gold was found and news spread as the area became known at the New World Mining District. The town was originally known as Shoo-Fly until 1880, when the name was changed to Cooke City after the mining investor, Jay Cooke Junior. Cooke promised the people of Shoo-fly that he would use his considerable influence to bring the railroad through the top of Yellowstone from Gardiner. This single move would have made mining in the area more profitable. Congress squashed these plans, along with others to allow rail travel into Yellowstone. While rail travel into the area never became a reality, prospectors continued to flock to the small town. Conflicts between miners and the Crow Nation continued to draw the attention in Washington. To protect the miners, who were trespassing on Indian land, the boundaries of the Crow Reservation were pushed further east.
Beartooth Scenic Byway – Cooke City to Red Lodge, Montana
The Beartooth Scenic Byway is a 68-mile byway that winds its way through southwestern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. While that might not seem like a long drive, due to the twists and turns, it will take at least two hours, more if you plan to stop and enjoy the views. The highway links Red Lodge to Cooke City and on into Yellowstone through its northeast gate. Since opening to automobile travel in the 1930s, the Beartooth Highway has welcomed brave visitors from around the world. Heralded as one of the most scenic drives in the United State, it features breathtaking views of the Absaroka and Bearthooth Mountains, with high alpine plateaus and countless glacial lakes. The pass is open to motorists from Mid-May through mid-October, weather permitting. There are patches of snow year round and the possibility of a summer snowstorm is not unheard of. Strong winds and sever thunderstorms are frequent. In August 1872, General Philip Sheridan took advantage of an old hunter names Shuki Greer, who claimed intimate knowledge of the Bearthooth Mountains to guide him on his return from Yellowstone to Billings, Montana. The road today essentially follows Sheridan’s route over the pass.
Red Lodge, Montana and the Smith Mining Disaster
Although the nearby sign gives a brief history of the Smith Mining Disaster as you look down at the ruins, this monument outside Red Lodge Montana isn’t the actual site of the worst coal mining disaster in Montana’s history. If you are traveling east out of the Beartooth Byway, you’ve already missed it without even knowing of the tragic past of the area. On February 27, 1943, at approximately 9:37 a.m., an explosion ripped through Smith Mine No. 3, a coal mine located between the towns of Bearcreek and Washoe. These tiny hamlets would not have existed if it weren’t for the railroad’s need for coal. Since it was a Saturday, the crew working the mine wasn’t a full crew. Of the 77 men working that day, some 30 were killed instantly by the initial explosion. Another 44 died either through injuries or suffocation from the carbon monoxide and methane gas trapped in the mind. The explosion was so deep underground, it was not heard at the mouth of the mine despite having enough force to knock a locomotive off its tracks a quarter of a mile from the blast. Valuable time elapsed before anyone knew of the disaster. Only three miners got out of the mine alive, and one of the rescue workers died soon afterward. The mine was never reopened.
Red Lodge to Cody
The last leg of our drive took us through the high plains country of Montana and Wyoming. We passed through an interesting little town of Belfry and finally arrived in Cody – wet and hungry. For Kiddo’s birthday, we had a family party at Cassie’s Supper Club – a true Western Steakhouse in every sense of the word. They have been serving up steaks and entertaining the locals since 1922. Their largest steak is a 36 ounce Porterhouse. Kiddo’s birthday burger was their famous Hangover Burger – a full pound of fresh ground beef with Swiss, Cheddar, American and Pepper Jack Cheese. If that isn’t enough, the burger is topped with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, bacon and jalapeno peppers.
Hope you enjoyed the views. Tomorrow we’ll hunt for moose near the east gate, lookout over Yellowstone Lake and visit some of the popular basins in the park including West Thumb and Old Faithful.