Day 7/Monday/September 15:
We tried to capture the early morning glow on the gorge walls we witnessed yesterday evening but the sun’s rays didn’t light the walls like the evening did. After trying to capture this lovely gorge cut by the North Fork Owyhee River, we drove up a winding gravel road to the flats where there were more ranches. From the campsite to the end of this scenic backcountry byway is fairly flat open range country. We did see lots of cows and cross over many cattle guards.
We met one rancher who spoke with us about a half hour on ranching out here in one of the least populated areas in the U. S. He is a 5th generation rancher, proud of the hard work it has taken him and his family to continue to ranch in this remote area. He said he never thought he would see the day when his market cattle would fetch $1500 each. I am not sure if he was referring to this year’s calves or yearlings. Based on weight, it would have to be last year’s newborns. Here, they talk about their land in thousands of acres like most of the arid west.
The Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway officially ends in Grandview, ID but decided to take a shortcut: just a few miles after Mud Flat Road became paved, we turned onto the graveled Shoofly Cutoff Road which after less than 10 miles ended at highway 51. The roads of the Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway change twice. From Pleasant Valley Road (paved) the roads we followed were Juniper Mountain Road (wanders in and out of Idaho/Oregon, graveled, southerly direction) and Mud Flat Road (easterly direction, graveled until the very last part).
After crossing the Bruneau River, 51 becomes 51/78. This highway passes the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park which has the highest single-structured sand dune (470 feet) in North America. It has several campgrounds and judging from photos I have seen can be a great place to photograph. However, we only had so much time and, having left a week later than previously planned, we were anxious to explore Wyoming. Idaho will be for another time as this state has a wealth of photogenic gems.
Just before the Snake River, we followed 78 to Glenns Ferry for fuel then drove about 20 miles on I84 to exit 141 and highway 26. 26 runs due east until it tees into highway 75 at Shoshone. We followed 26/93 through Richfield and ranch country. It was harvest season because we saw many long trailer trucks loaded with giant rectangular bales of beautiful green alfalfa.
Since, it was getting darker, we began scouting for our overnight stay. Along this highway runs the Little Woods River with several sportsmen’s access points. We turned down a rutted single track road, crossed a one lane wooden bridge to a nice clearing by the river. No one else was there. It was free, quiet, private and we could hear the river through the pop up’s screened flaps as it came around a corner. We enjoyed a night of great sleep listening to nature at Patari Bridge sportman’s access..
Day 8/Tuesday/September 16:
What a beautiful sunrise over the river bend. We left early to arrive at Craters Of The Moon National Monument before the heat and crowds. We stopped at the Goodall’s Cutoff Historical Marker to read about the narrow trail that the early settlers traveled to avoid crossing the great swaths of volcanic rock. This area is also where one of the last herds of antelope migrate and wildlife officials are trying to prevent its disappearance. We usually stop at historical markers and other points of interest to stretch our legs and allow those with a speedier agenda to pass. History is so much more alive if you can actually visualize it happening where you are standing.
The trails in Craters of the moon are short, easy and interesting with interpretive signs for the curious explaining the swirls in the volcanic rock and information about how this area was created. I walked most of them while Tony stayed in the parking lots with Toller who, as a dog, is not allowed on trails. The Visitor Center has an informative display, is staffed by knowledgeable rangers and has clean rest rooms. The campground was right by the road and the sites didn’t appear to be that private. If you wanted to spend more than a day there, it is one of the few campgrounds around.
We passed through Arco which featured an entire rock wall of “Class ofs” years high above the town. We have seen a few rock walls or hillsides where the locals have written on or arranged rocks displaying its initials but not entire wall of graduation years.
From Arco, we continued on 20/26/93 to the junction with 22/33 which was the most direct way over to Rexburg. We passed by more fields of harvested alfalfa and trailer trucks ready to haul the bales to market, probably south to the Snake River area. Past Howe, we drove by Little Lost River Sinks and Big Lost River Sinks. These are where the river sinks into the ground to appear later. It also feeds the giant Snake River Plain Aquifer upon which the Snake River area dairy farmers depend to feed their many cattle and grow the rich alfalfa. If you eat Chobani yogurt, the Snake River area is where it comes from. I won’t get into politics here, but this is yet another battle over water rights in the West.
In Rexburg, we fueled up then bought a few groceries at the local Albertsons. From Rexburg, our destination was the Mesa Falls area where we hoped to photograph two beautiful waterfalls on the Henry’s Fork River. At Ashton, we left 20, a very nice divided highway to drive on 47 where the falls are located. We meant to camp at Grandview, but I misread my map and we ended up at Warm River. It was a nice campground but it filled up quickly mostly with large RVs and we got one of the few remaining sites. The falls were just up the road a few miles so we settled in and spent the night among the large willows.
Day 9/Wednesday/September 17:
We left camp early to get to the falls before the sunlight (waterfalls photograph beautifully in shade or indirect light-direct sunlight won’t allow detail in the highlights). The Lower Falls is viewed, at least officially, from an overview a short walk away from the parking lot right off highway 47. There are trails below where you can get much closer to the thundering falls. Another trip? I am usually wary around falls due to wet rocks and vegetation can lead to a natural slip and slide. The Upper Falls charged a $5 admission which also entitles you to admission to Harriman State Park which is on the way to Yellowstone’s West Entrance.
Upper Falls is accessed by a path and stairs which leads to a viewing platform. Fall color was abundant on the walls across from the viewing area. The falls were thundering by you at eye level. Out came the tripod and 24-70 mm lens as a wide angle was definitely needed here. The telephoto was perfect to capture the clumps of colorful vegetation attached to the far walls. Breathtaking and worth a visit. The visitors center, housed in the Big Falls Inn, an historic log cabin lodge built in 1915 by the Snake River Electric Light and Power Company, wasn’t open while we visited.
Harriman State Park, a former ranch and private retreat, once belonged to the Harriman and Guggenheim families. W. Averill Harriman, a career politician, was a former governor of New York, diplomat and presidential candidate. The park includes 11,000 acres of wetlands, lakes and the Henrys Fork River running through the middle in addition to the many log cabins of the rustic compound of the Harriman family. We drove by Silver Lake, hoping to see trumpeter swans or sandhill cranes. No luck. We also drove a ways on a graveled backroad hoping to see better views of the park and lake but since we wanted to get to Yellowstone before dark, we backtracked to Highway 20.
Once we arrived at the West Entrance, we discovered several campgrounds were closed as was part of the road to Old Faithful. I knew that arriving in the park without reservations was a crap shoot but the ones we wanted to camp at the first night were either closed or full. Mammoth was full and Indian Creek was closed. We aren’t fans of the larger campgrounds so skipped Norris and Madison and they may have been full as well. We did drive the Firehole Canyon Road then backtracked north to try our luck past the North Entrance in Gardiner, MT at a USFS campground. On the way, we stopped at the Artist Paintpot where I walked the trail to see nature at work (or play).
Mammoth Hot Springs was crowded with both tourists and a large herd of resident elk gathered for an elks convention. We drove north to Gardiner only to find that Eagle Creek campground was crowded with a large group of middle schoolers. Okay, I like kids but not several classfuls all at once. We made our way back down the winding gravel road toward town and set up camp at a pullover. We had a lovely view of the town and no one made us leave. Not ideal, but it was free.
Day 10/Thursday/September 18:
It was a drizzly morning so we left our spot by the side of the road to explore the Mammoth Hot Springs area. I have been to Yellowstone twice before but never this part. I was excited for the photographic possibilities, especially converting to B&W. Grey skies are perfect for moody photos and the Mammoth area’s steam vents look eery.
Just outside of Gardiner is that famous saying etched into the arch’s cornerstone that was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” This is the spirit of our national parks, at the time, unique in the world. We encountered some road work so one way traffic was the norm for a few miles. With such volatile seismic activity underground, parts of Yellowstone’s roads are buckling underneath.
Even though it was early morning, the parking lot at the main terraces was beginning to fill. I grabbed both Nikons with their assigned lenses (D800-70-200mm and D700-24-70mm). Lots of detail shots with the sky excluded yielded some interesting images that appeared to be from an alien world. The dead trees added some drama like some photos I have seen of the desert in Namibia. Not for everyone, but I like them.
I began my ascent up the wooden stairs to view the other geysers and assorted geologic features but big black thunder boomers developed. With my tripod, I was a walking lightning rod. Down I came in a big hurry, the loud booms getting closer. We then drove the one way loop to view the Lower Terraces. Yellowstone has amazing features one after another, wherever you turn. It is an active cauldron area, still evolving, still building. What was there yesterday is either bigger or gone today. Fascinating.
There is a one way dirt road, the Blacktail Plateau Road, that runs one way west to east. We thought we could avoid the bucket-listers that check off their must see items then move along at a fast clip, not really seeing anything. No such luck. They decided to drive this one, too, even in their rental sedans. We poked along, looking for wildlife and enjoying the fall color. At a pullout, we stopped for a leisurely lunch in front of an aspen grove. Just before the exit, we encountered a stubborn bison who stood his ground, not allowing us to pass. Finally, he moved on, slowly, when he was ready and not before.
Our next destination was the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone’s Serengeti, where we hoped to see the famous megafauna. At Tower Junction, we took the Northeast Entrance Road that passes through the Lamar Valley. We spotted several fishers along the Lamar River, a catch and release cutthroat fishery. We mostly saw bison and mule deer herds.
It was raining now and we had yet to decide where we would camp for the night. We passed by Slough Creek and Pebble Creek campgrounds, both full. At the Northeast entrance, we asked the ranger who told us to drive past Cooke City just a few miles where we could disperse camp on the Lulu Pass Road. There were other campgrounds but they were closed due to grizzly activity. We drove a short way up a gravel road, ate dinner inside and slept with the bear spray close by.
Day 11/Friday/September 19:
Relieved that we had no ursine visitors during the night, we left camp early to see if any wild life was about. At a trailhead, we talked with a group of fishers who were not able to fish due to the muddy condition of the river. No fishing nor photos of the river and the golden aspens and cottonwoods today. And, someone had hit a bison, either that morning or last night during the downpour. Later that day, a ranger informed us that bisons were one of a few animals that did not have eye shine at night. If you hit one on the road, and were not using due diligence, you could be liable for a $5,000 fine.
We drove south toward West Thumb Geyser area as I remembered some beautiful colors in the pools along the boardwalk from a previous visit. As I said before, Yellowstone changes. Or, it could be that the Technicolor pools I saw in June, 2010 were a Spring thing. We did talk to the owner of a Man expedition vehicle parked next to us. They were Europeans who had been on the road for 14 years. The interesting part of their vehicle was the display of license plates on the cab from many of the countries they had visited.
We were in luck for camping tonight. Lewis Lake, which does NOT allow generators, was open and not full. We picked out a nice spot then walked to the lake and around the campground. Our neighbors were a young couple from Germany who were traveling our country for 6 months before they returned home to begin looking for work as they had just graduated from graduate school in the science field. They were also investigating the possibility of a work visa. Since they were tent camping, we gave them some firewood, kindling and paper as it is cold at these altitudes.