A Travellerspoint blog

September 2009

Devil's Tower and Black Hills

Outside of Yellowstone the landscape continues to show the strange forces at work underground. And nowhere is it more evident than at Devil’s Tower. On my way to my campsite for the night I first catch a glimpse of it looming in the distance like an ominous brown gumdrop on the horizon. In the morning the sky is grey and it’s overwhelmingly windy, but somehow the Tower is the only thing lit up by the sun. It couldn’t be any weirder, but in many ways it is oddly beautiful.


I arrive just in time for a docent-led hike, but either the art student guide doesn’t know what he’s talking about or their isn’t much to say. Scientists don’t exactly agree on why the Tower is shaped the way it is, but the most convincing theory is that it formed in a lava flow pipe underground and stopped up the pipe so that the tower shaped rock and lava was pushed up to the surface as a mound of earth. The less resilient forms of rock around the original “stopper” have eroded away (and are still eroding) leaving behind the extreme form of Devil‘s Tower.

Along my route I also stop at a site where dinosaur footprints have been preserved in what once was a muddy riverbed and now is extremely resilient rock. When you see a sign for “Dinosaur Footprint Site” an image of one giant and very detailed footprint comes to mind. In reality what I find are hundreds of small footprints in tracks across the ground. The biggest prints are about five inches. Most are kind of hard to distinguish, but some are remarkably well-preserved. It’s a pretty cool place, if only because it was only discovered about ten years ago and they still let you walk on the ground where the tracks are and get as close to them as you want.

There appears to be a theme around the area or I just happen to be a geological/paleontological kick because one of the next things I do is visit the Mammoth Site in South Dakota. I have an image of a single Mammoth fossil-like thing highly preserved and maybe encased in glass. It turns out to be a huge piling of fossilized bones of dozens and dozens of mammoths. The site used to be a deep hot spring where the warmth of the water allowed foliage to grow during the ice age attracting animals to eat. Many of them fell into the pit and couldn’t climb back out and died. Overtime the sediment from the spring fossilized their poor unfortunate bones leaving them awesomely preserved for tourists.


The Black Hills are beautiful. Something about the scenery reminds me of a city park with manmade babbling brooks and gently sloping hills. Maybe it’s the way the forestry service selectively removes trees for fire prevention purposes. But the beauty is somewhat overshadowed by the touristy attractions. There are many caves in the area. I toured Wind Cave National Park, but was not impressed. I assumed the cave chosen for National Park status would be the best in the area, but maybe I just went on a tour of the dullest part of the cave, I’ll never know.

On my way out I pass by Mt. Rushmore. I think I planned to stop, but somehow when I pass the $10 parking entrance and see the monument from the road, I get a sinking feeling. It seems smaller in person. I don’t know if I have anything against it, I think rather, I like the image of it more than the actual thing. Seeing it in person, in context, with the beauty of the nature around it interrupted by something so striking, it becomes almost tacky. I want it to stay the powerful image that I’ve known before, so I pass by it as quickly as I can and its only after I do so that I realize why.

Posted by Velora 08:18 Comments (1)

Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, Part II


On our second day we decided to take the detour down to Grand Teton National Park. While Yellowstone is an incredibly unique park, it is somewhat lacking in the traditional National Park beauty that I’ve become accustomed to. Grand Teton makes up for that with huge craggy peaks and deep lakes. This time of year the aspens are glittering with golden leaves. By the end of the day the once clear sky was filled with a singular huge puffy cloud that glowed from the setting sun.


In the Tetons we saw antelope grazing in the plains and we caught a glimpse of a moose in a valley, although we joked later that the park might have just stuck a taxidermied head behind the bush and we wouldn’t have known the difference. We hiked up to Hidden Falls on a nice trail around Lake Jenny. It’s always more fulfilling to have something to strive for at the end of the path and the falls are lovely and cool and well worth the effort.

For the remainder of the week we explore Yellowstone. We went on two ranger-led hikes and learned quite a lot on the history of the park and the behavior of the animals. I think everything I‘ve related we learned on those hikes, plus lots of facts about bears. We saw a Great Grey Owl on the first ranger-led hike which we started early on a chilly morning. Another day we climbed to the top of Mt. Washburn for panoramic views of the entire park with the Tetons visible in the distance. Before heading back down a ranger casually asks us if we saw a bear coming up the path. He tells us in an almost bored tone that “apparently a Grizzly is headed up this way.” Oh, thanks for letting us know. So the hike down is punctuated by me singing and sometimes screeching Imperial March from Star Wars. It makes for good hiking music.

In my opinion the most gorgeous area of the park is the Canyon area, also called the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The canyon itself is light sandy rock spires with deep rose colored bands bleeding into warm yellows below. And the only thing that could possibly make it better are the powerful and majestic Lower Falls visible from most vantage points. Especially Artist’s Point where both tripod wielding wanna-be professionals and point-and-click digital photographers jockey for position to get the best shot.


My mom and I hike down Uncle Tom’s Trail which takes you to a lower vantage point more than half-way down the canyon to get a closer view of the falls. The more than 300 rusty stairs take you down the side of the canyon and are scary enough without thinking that they used to have a rope system that took early twentieth century tourists to the very bottom of the canyon.


Posted by Velora 08:02 Comments (0)


Part One

I was exceedingly lucky to spend a full week in Yellowstone with my mother, who flew in from Pennsylvania to join me. I can’t say I knew what to expect of the park, I just knew that it was extremely popular and had a very famous geyser. And I feel kind of ignorant for not knowing how much more there is to do and see in Yellowstone.


The park is a huge 2.2 million acres roughly encompassing all the major hydrothermal features possible. A great portion of the park is actually the caldera of a volcano, which is what we associate as the crater area at the top of the peak of a volcano. In this case, the caldera is huge and relatively flat, spanning something like an eighth of the acreage of Yellowstone. It last irrupted 640,000 years ago but is still classified as active, although the rim has eroded and is hard to distinguish. The greatest clear evidence that you are standing inside of the rim of a volcano are the numerous and varying hydrothermal features.

I had no idea that geysers were only the beginning. There are four major types of features: geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles and a single location can shift into all four during different times of the year. Geysers I think are well known, but the great variance in the amount of water expelled and the time between irruptions really makes each one unique. Old Faithful irrupts about every hour, but wasn’t the most spectacular. Some can shoot hundreds of feet in the air, but haven’t gone off for years. The hot springs were my favorite. Each one was a unique colorful steaming pool of water with calcium textures lining the edges.


Some bubbled. Most had bright orange or green overflows trickling down over the hillsides. My favorite was the largest in the park: the Grand Prismatic Spring. I had a picture of the spring as a screensaver and never thought something so exotic could be from Wyoming. The mud pots were bubbling thick pools of white or grey mud that made a neat simmering pasta sauce sound. And the fumaroles were holes in the ground with hollow rumbling sounds and steam emitting from the depths below.


The wildlife is the other main draw to Yellowstone. While my mom was disappointed that bears weren’t lining the roads begging for food like they used to and I was disappointed that if I wanted to see a wolf my best option would be waiting in line for a telescope so I could maybe see one stick its head out of the woods about 500 yards away, we did see a lot of wildlife. We agreed the best encounters were ones where we got to see wildlife behaviors. We saw a bald eagle snatch a fish from the river. We saw two huge bison face off: one came trudging up a hill making low grumbling noises before kicking up dirt and rolling on the ground until the older male paced off. We saw a herd of female and yearling elk being herded across a hill by a huge male elk with a giant rack of antlers. The sound male elk make is something of a shrieking bugle. It’s hard to describe, but strange and beautiful at the same time.

Posted by Velora 09:50 Comments (1)


Idaho has some lovely small towns settled along the inland lakes and extremely small farm towns hidden around the rest of the state. I first spent some time in Sandpoint which seems like a great place to take a family lake vacation. I had an excellent campsite right on the shores of the lake at Springy State Park. The downtown area was small but seemed to have a nice gathering of eclectic shops and restaurants. Unfortunately everything except a couple restaurants were closed Saturday night and the shops I was interested in were closed Sunday morning. So I didn't get to experience the town like I would have liked to.

A similar town further south, Coeur d’ Alene, has a larger downtown corresponding with a larger lake. The city has a bike path and trails along the lake and has an immaculate park on the lake’s edge. The population is largely retirement aged and the numerous huge high rise condos cater to that demographic. It seemed like a great place to live, but for me it was too manicured and the high rises were eyesores.


Another high-light of the trip was Craters of the Moon National Monument. It’s a large section of the desert covered completely with lava flow from fissure releases that occurred about 2,000 years ago. The lava rocks are still large and solid. It was really neat to have a campsite bordered by nothing but huge black lava rock. The landscape was otherworldly, especially at night when the sky glowed purple and the stars came out in a sky so clear I could see the milky way for the first time in years. I imagined getting an Airstream trailer and raising lamas in the middle of the desert … but then I realized there’d be nothing for the lamas to eat.

In the morning I took to some of the trails in the park. The best are the caves created when the upper layers of lava cooled and solidified before the lower depths cooled. The thing I regret the most so far on this trip is that I didn’t read the brochures before and didn’t bring a flashlight to explore the caves. I just expected that they wouldn’t allow people to explore alone. I went down as far as I could before things got pitch black. It was so cold that there was still some snow left in the caves despite it being 90 degrees above. I love the way that everywhere the lava is textured and is frozen in its flowing patterns and is sometimes ribboned like pulled taffy.


Posted by Velora 09:28 Comments (0)

East Glacier and Kalispell

I have a good Hostel experience at Brownie’s in East Glacier. It’s a small bakery that has a hostel above it. Private rooms are the same price as camping in the park, but they're out of private rooms by the time I check in. I have a bit of trouble sleeping with the squeaky floors announcing every time one of the guests is making a stop at the bathrooms since they are right outside the women’s dorms, but I still love the place if for no other reason than the convenience and deliciousness of its baked goods. Before leaving I grab a brownie to go and the namesake brownie is probably the best I’ve ever had. It is chewy and fudgey with a thin layer of slightly crisp chocolate icing and much too big to eat in one day.

From East Glacier I travel into Kalispell and visit the Conrad Mansion. It’s a lovely 26 room home from the 1890’s kept in its original state complete with furnishings by the daughter of the wealthy merchant who had the home constructed for his family. Throughout her life, the daughter made every effort to keep the home in exactly the state it was in when her Father died and eventually gave the home to the city in the 1970’s when she was near death even though she herself had been struggling financially for some time and ended up living in a trailer beside the mansion because she couldn't afford the utilities.

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The tour is excellent in part due to the daughter’s involvement, as she passed down all her knowledge of the history behind the home and furnishings before she died. The guides are able to tell you how much certain pieces of furniture cost, how the family would have a two story Christmas tree in the entryway, that certain pieces of china came from a trip to Japan. Everything has a story and a history.

On my way through some of Montana’s scenic byways to my next stop, I pick up a good country music station on the radio. I’m not a fan but something about the countryside of rolling hills and big open skies makes the music seem fitting and I can’t help myself.

Posted by Velora 13:55 Comments (1)

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