Saturday, February 27, 2016

Day 28: Victor, Idaho to St. Mary, Montana via Yellowstone National Park

We woke up at 2 in the morning. 

My wife was worried about the fire and wanted a back-up plan.  Part of the town of St. Mary (our next stop) was being evacuated, and we were fairly sure that everything else was smoked out.  Logan Pass (a highlight of the park) was closed.  We were concerned that our reservations couldn’t be cancelled and that we would be stuck being miserable at a high price.  Then we started figuring out alternate plans.  If we could get out of our reservations on the east side of Glacier we could detour over to the Badlands in South Dakota for a few days and then head to Kalispell, Montana on the west side of Glacier where the smoke was less pervasive.  If we could get out of both reservations we could skip Glacier and do a loop of Upper Cascade, Mt. Rainer, and Olympic National Parks.  We looked at drive times, hotel prices, fire conditions, weather updates.  After about 90 minutes we realized that a lot was riding on whether or not we could cancel the reservations and went to sleep.

For about two hours.

We made a quick packing of the car and by dawn we headed over the pass and north through Jackson Hole.  We hit sporadic showers and one bear jam at the northern end of the Tetons as about eight cars watched a large bear (don’t know what kind) wandering around a field before lumbering into the forest.  We decided to take the long way (through Yellowstone) to visit one location; Artist Point.  We had missed it last time through and the location was famous for looking over Yellowstone Falls through the gorge that was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  It’s also historical in that the first major portrait of Yellowstone was drawn from that location, and the picture of Yellowstone Falls was a major part of what eventually became the creation of America’s first National Park.

Like last year Yellowstone National Park was painfully slow to drive in.  Lots of traffic and road work kept our speed around 25-30 mph for most of our time within the park.  The scenery was fabulous and Artist Point was well worth the trip but man the drivers in this park are bad.  After hitting the point we drove through Haydon Valley, up and over Dunraven Pass, and headed out the northern entrance of the park.  We did catch a very substantial bear jam near Mammoth Hot Springs where a grizzly and two cub were sniffing around a log about 150 yards away.  That was a pleasant ten minutes.

We got ahold of our location in St. Mary’s and asked about our reservations.  They basically told us that they were open, most of Glacier was unaffected, and they expected us to meet our obligation for the reservation. 

Ok then.  Guess our decision is made up.

We enjoyed the terrain up to from Yellowstone to Interstate 90 in Montana, and for the first time in a long while we headed west.  Near the headwaters of the Missouri River (which is odd to think about in Montana) we headed north towards Helena.  The weather had cleared up mid-afternoon but the weather to the west was looking iffy.  We arrived at Helena and decided to hit a Super Wal-Mart to stock up for the days at St. Mary’s.  We walked in to partly cloudy skies.  We walked out to thunder and lightening, and a nasty driving rain.  Then it started to hail.  We slowly made our way to Interstate 15 along with the rest of the very cautious traffic.  We were doing about 30 mph on the on-ramp to I-15 when the heavens opened up and it flat out poured.  I don’t know if I have driven in a harder rain than that moment.  People were pulling off the four lane highway and I can’t say that I blame them.  I stayed in the left lane and slowed way down; visibility was poor but the main problem being the loud and driving rain. 

Then it was gone.  That quick.  The rest of the way was completely sunny.  Totally spazzy weather.  It makes you appreciate California’s climate.

There was a gorgeous area of I-15 known as Gates of the Mountain that was a total treat; red rock cliffs and river canyons that spanned mile after mile.  Then we went off the highway and into the rolling flatlands of central Montana towards eastern Glacier National Park.  There was very little to see between Gates of the Mountain and St. Mary.  There are a few small towns that depend on agriculture.  A colony of Amish-style people that are a very closed society.  A couple of wildlife refuges in view of the Rocky Mountains.  And the town of Browning, Montana.  Browning is a reservation town that looked like many reservation towns we visited in the Southwest; an insanely depressing location.  Arguably Browning is an under-developed nation within one of the most developed countries in the world.  It’s sad. 

We could see the smoke from the Reynolds's Fire in Glacier National Park from about 60 miles away, yet the air didn’t seem quite as bad as the news outlets had made it out to be.  As we dropped into St. Mary’s we looked up the canyon towards Logan Pass and could see the fire roaring along the western forested slopes while being attacked from above by three water-carrying helicopters.  It wasn’t pretty but being from California we’ve seen much worse.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have smoke at our cabin but it’s not nearly as bad as it could be. 

Trails hiked:  Artist Point

Miles hiked:   Really doesn’t count

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