On a crisp autumn morning I drove toward Yellowstone National Park through patchy clouds below snow capped peaks. My first visit to Yellowstone had been just one month ago, but I was already yearning for more. I had driven through the southern part of the park during my last trip, stopping to see geysers and hot springs. This time I was taking the northern route, in search of big game. As soon as I reached the park I got stuck in a traffic jam, but it wasn’t cars. A herd of elk was meandering across the pavement, taking their time, grunting to the passing cars. Big game. Check.
I stopped to explore Mammoth Hot Springs, a vast complex of travertine terraces that exhaled steam into the cool brisk air as the hot springs hissed beneath the snow covered hills. The landscape is ever changing and some of the hot springs were new, while others were old and stagnant. As the hot springs evolve, the surrounding trees and plants fall pray to the changing streams, leaving bare silhouettes where life once sprouted.
From Mammoth Hot Springs I drove east through the park and saw my first buffalo, it was standing in the road, staring at the line of cars attempting to pass. This was incredible! I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing a real life wild bison! I snapped some quick out of focus photos, smiled at my good fortune, then drove another half mile and saw them…herd after herd after herd of the giant beasts. Wow.
I stopped several times throughout the day to admire buffalo. I sat in my van with the side door swung open to watch them from my couch and eventually sat on my roof to get a better view. They meandered, grazed, and laid down in the sun to rest, oblivious to the hundreds of cameras snapping photos all day.
I passed through the beautiful Lamar River Valley and left the park to drive the Beartooth Highway in Montana. The rainstorm that rolled through Bozeman the previous night had carried on east and dumped lots of snow on Bearthooth Pass. That morning the pass had been closed, with no indication of when it would be plowed and reopened. Luckily, by the time I arrived, it had been cleared and was open to the public.
Tantor chugged up the steep grade to Beartooth Pass at 10,947 feet above sea level. On the way I took a side road to a dead end and ran up a dirt road to the closed Clay Butte Lookout Tower. When I reached the tower I was trekking through drifting snow.
The road near Beartooth Pass becomes a series of hairpin turns, doubling back on itself as it climbs the winding staircase to the top. Each level higher opened a wider panoramic view of the rocky mountainsides painted white with a dusting of snow. I have driven many incredible highways on this trip, but this was definitely one of the highlights.
At the summit I was back in the snow. The blustering cold and howling wind made photo taking a short excursion, to be replaced with sitting in the van with the heater full blast, trying to teach Tantor how to do donuts in the snow filled parking lot.
The northern side of the pass was equally as majestic, though the white frosted mountains gave way to lush green trees. I could see the road winding away several thousand feet below me. I put Tantor into low gear and tried to focus on the road while watching the magnificent scenery passing by.
In Red Lodge I stopped beside Rock Creek to make dinner. My destination for the night was Cody, Wyoming and I had gone a little out of the way, but the diversion was well worth it. A few hours later I pulled into Cody, passed the Buffalo Bill Museum and found a place to urban stealth camp. I stayed in Cody a few nights, working in the local coffee shop, showering in the back of the Walmart parking lot, and enjoying the Boot Scoot ‘N Boogie Festival, including a fashion show and a live concert with western line dancing.
Cody was a lot of fun, but I needed to keep moving. I sputtered east, on my way to see more of Wyoming, South Dakota, and then across the Great Plains and home to the Midwest.