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.
*Day 1/Tuesday/September 9:
Because I5 from Marysville to Olympia is such a traffic-choked exercise in frustration, we usually take Highway 20 east over the North Cascades Highway to the dry side of the state or head west on the same highway gaining access to the Olympic Peninsula via the Washington State Marine Highway ferries. This time, the North Cascades Highway was our choice as we were headed east toward Wyoming. It can be a leisurely drive with overlooks and trailheads along the way to Winthrop, an over 150 mile drive from Bellingham.
We usually stop at the Diablo Lake overlook to use the vault toilets and enjoy the vistas of the mountains and the blue green lake. We also stop at the Gorge Creek falls overlook to enjoy 2 waterfalls. Often, when you live in a beautiful area, you almost take your environment for granted. I never tire of the mountains, waterfalls, lakes, and rivers. Well, maybe the grey skies and drizzle but then we wouldn’t be the Evergreen State.
Since we left later than usual and weren’t sure about road closures due to the extensive summer forest fires near Twisp, we opted to camp at Klipchuck, a USFS campground (elevation 2940′) in the pine trees off Highway 20 which muffle the road noise. Early Winters Creek is nice to listen to also if you get a creekside site. Mid-week, after Labor Day, is a great time to camp in a popular area in peak season. Our Senior Pass discounted the camping fee to $4.
We wandered around the pine forested campground. Our neighbor had a truck camper trailering a motorcycle. His small dog fit into a pack behind the windshield on his bike which he would take on short jaunts. After our dinner of homemade soup and sandwiches, we fell asleep.
*This journey and subsequent ones will be in honor of my sister’s son who lost his 9 month battle with melanoma yesterday. A former Marine and father of three, he fought a valiant battle with this insidious disease. He loved to travel so we will wander the west in his memory.
Day 2/Wednesday/September 10:
After returning to Highway 20, we passed through Winthrop (tourist trap) where we fueled up. At Twisp, we were directed to the Twisp-Carlton Road, a detour around the destructive Carlton Complex fire near highway 153 where that same area subsequently suffered mudslides. 153 connects with Pateros and 97. We were glad to see that our favorite fruit stand/bakery/orchard just before the junction with 97 escaped the fire damage. We bought organic peaches and pears for me and an apple fritter for Tony.
Turning east from 97 onto 17, we passed through Bridgeport and the Chief Joseph Dam (potty break) until we turned south on Bridgeport Hill Road NE. We spotted an interesting fluted rock formation so drove up a dirt road almost getting stuck in some deep sand. Formerly a ranch, all that remains are piles of fencing and collapsed structures, poplar trees (to shield the winds), and a wooden water tower. Now, it is the West Foster Creek Wildlife Area set aside for the sharp tailed grouse, among others.
Zig-zagging down 172, we arrived at Highway 2 (if we wanted to return west to Everett, we would travel this road). Just a short while later, we turned south on Coulee Meadows Road/Rimrock Road/Sagebrush Flat Road which brought us just north of Ephrata. It was a paved road that wandered through wheat fields and abandoned farm houses and outbuildings.
From Ephrata, we went south on 28/283 to its junction with I90 just before George (the Gorge Amphitheater is close by). We crossed the bridge over the Columbia River/Wanapum Lake to Vantage. Our plan was to camp at Wanapum State Park but it was closed because of breaches in the Wanapum Dam down river. Because we had planned this small detour to visit Gingko State Park, we were stuck with staying at the Vantage Riverstone Resort nearby. $11 paid for a grassy strip near residents who lived in permanent trailers.
Gingko Petrified Forest State Park has a trail that winds up a hillside featuring caged specimens of petrified maple, walnut, fir and, of course, gingko. A sign warned of the presence of rattlesnakes but the trail had little vegetation for them to hide in and a local hiker said he rarely saw any. The coolest part was the rustic home for the resident ranger built by the CCC. It is a multilevel Craftsman bungalow.
When we returned to the RV park, we met a couple who knew the parents of the groom whose wedding we shot last August. In a twist of fate, we had met the bride’s parents while we were exploring the Olympic Peninsula near Port Angeles last Spring who asked us to be the wedding photographers. We played with the small dog that belonged to one of the kids who lived nearby, had dinner, then went to bed.
Day 3/Thursday/September 11:
Back on I90, we made a quick exit after recrossing the Vantage Bridge onto Highway 243. This highway follows the Columbia River passing through vineyards and now we were on the opposite side of the Wanapum Dam where we saw work in progress to repair the damage.We cross the Columbia River once again at the Vernita Bridge. Nearing the end of this trip, we will be camping here in several weeks amongst the many people who launch their boats.
On 240 we pass through the Hanford Reservation (DOE) and the Hanford Reach National Monument. Just move along folks, nothing to see here, just gated roads leading towards compounds. Just after turning onto 225, we stop at Horn County Park to bathe Toller at one of the campsites. Most sites are in the open in a grassy area but several are amongst some shade trees along the periphery.
Highway 225 leads us to Benton City and an on ramp to I82. We follow this quiet freeway east and south to again cross over the Columbia River into Oregon. Just for a change of pace, we exit onto a road that will bring us to Oregon Highway 207 or the Hermiston/Lexington-Echo Highway. We could have taken the exit for Highway 395, our eventual main road through the northern part of Oregon. But, we decided to take a more scenic route that would lead us to 395 further south. We would bypass Hermiston and the outskirts of Pendleton.
Somehow, we became lost on a road that ended in a cantaloupe field. Since, it appeared the harvest had finished, we took several that remained and eventually found our way to 207. We were in Oregon Trail territory according to a highway sign. From 207, we turn left onto Butter Creek Road, winding our way through ranch lands along Butter Creek. At Vinson, we turn onto 74 then begin our southbound journey down 395.
In the distance, we could see smoke to the west and south. We stopped at the Ukiah-Dale Forest State Scenic Corridor along Camus Creek for a picnic lunch. There was camping there also, but it was too close to the highway. 395 goes all the way into southern California passing through some beautiful country such as along the Eastern Sierras. Here, in Oregon, there is little traffic except for the occasional logging truck.
We began to scout for a place to camp for the night but wanted to avoid any fires. Toll Bridge campground was an option but it looked like a scene out of a spooky movie (our truck barely made it through the brushy entrance). We explored several roads on either side of 395 along the Middle Fork John Day River but only found several folks fishing and no roads for dispersed camping. Just after we explored those two roads, we drove further down 395 and found an ODOT clearing for disposal of rock slide debris. We had a view of some livestock on the next hillside over, a scenic rocky ridge and the valley below. The highway quieted down and we slept well.
Day 4/Friday/September 12:
395 continues south until a junction with highway 26 at Mt. Vernon where we fueled up. No self-serve in Oregon; there is an attendant who fills your tank. 395 and 26 are the same road east until you again turn south onto 395 at John Day heading towards Burns. Last April, we took a county/USFS road south from Dayville which would have led us to just outside of Hines near Burns. Somehow, we missed a turn and exited onto 395 way north of Burns.
This time, we found 63 aka the Izee Road, and retraced our route to follow the Burns-Izee Road to Hines. 63 is across 395 by the Zwick Old Growth Interpretive Trail. 63 ends at 68/47 which is the Burns-Izee Road. In a funny way, USFS roads, well, other roads too, take on another number and name: 68/47 or the Izee Road becomes 127 or the Hines Logging Road. We just continued to drive south, eventually ending in Hines where we fueled up at the Shell station and picked up a few groceries at the Thriftway across the highway. At a store nearby, we saw several llamas being loaded with item their owner just purchased. Just part of the rural west.
From Hines, we traveled south on 205 until we turned onto the Center Patrol Road, a graveled road that traverses the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It was early afternoon and we saw a few pelicans, hawks and songbirds. We returned to 205 toward Frenchglen and our favorite campground, Page Springs, a BLM facility that features nice vault toilets, garbage/recycling, water and a resident deer family. The sites are located near the scenic springs and in the spare pine and aspen woods. Our Senior pass entitles us to half off the $8 fee. After a walk and dinner, we went to bed.
Day 5/Saturday/September 13:
We awoke early to explore the 59 mile Steens Mountain Loop. It is not open year round and was closed when we were there last spring. We were hoping to photograph golden aspens and the scenic gorges: Kiger, Little Blitzen and Big Indian. The road is graveled and graded and there was surprisingly little washboards. Unfortunately, a controlled burn was happening east of Burns so the Alvord Desert was hazy. There were a few educational signs about the Basque shepherds who once kept their flocks in this area. We did see a large flock below when we were checking out an aspen grove.
Steens Mountain is one large fault block mountain, over 50 miles long, steeply plunging from a summit elevation of 9730 feet down to the Alvord Desert, elevation 4200 feet. In 2000, President Clinton approved the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protective Act which was a collaboration of local landowners and government representatives responding to a movement for national monument status. This area now protects 425,000 acres for recreation and limited ranching.
We met a group of people on SxS UTVs that could carry their dogs. An aha moment for us as we were not previously aware of such machines. They looked sturdy and could allow us to access areas where our F-250 would be too wide or heavy. They can be easily accessorized with extra fuel cans, crates, doors, under carriage plates, etc.
We continued on the loop which ended on 205 further south from Frenchglen. The main overlooks are in the more scenic area and you could backtrack to Frenchglen. The road deteriorates somewhat and there is a narrow section with step dropoffs that is scenic. We passed a crossing where people were fishing the Donner Und Blitzen River. There is also a campground on this stretch, South Steens, that had a few horse trailers.
Once back on 205 which becomes 202 in the Catlow Valley, we stopped at Fields for fuel. The son of the owners said it was for sale due to their wanting to retire. It is one of the few fuel stops here so hopefully there will be new owners who will keep it open in this sparsely populated corner of Oregon. When in areas where services are few it is a best practice to get fuel as you never know where the next service station is. Some that have been around for years are suddenly gone. Or, you might that that urge to explore further than your original plans.
Our planned camping spot was on the Whitehorse Ranch which is bisected by a road which is open to the public. The Willow Creek Hot Springs campground is operated by the BLM. The ranch has 63,222 acres of deeded land and has grazing rights to an additional 287,205 acres of public range land administered by the BLM. It has operated continuously since 1869. Along the road, which is a well-graded gravel road, there are signs of some former buildings, either homes or outbuildings.
The campsite is not well-signed but the GPS on my iPhone worked well enough to find the access road before we saw any signs. Unfortunately, the campground was filled with a group that was partying. We backtracked a few miles and found a clearing in the sparse sagebrush. There was an amazing sunset that blazed across the western sky in red and golden streaks. The night sky was so pockmarked with bright stars that we had trouble finding the Big Dipper. It was so quiet that we had no trouble falling to sleep.
Day 6/Sunday/September 14:
It was a bright sunny day so we began to search for interesting rocks. We found a few agates and jasper. Eventually, the group at the campsite left so we decided to check it out. It was divided into two parts by a cement barrier: warm and warmer. It felt so good to wash out the desert dust and even Toller took a plunge. I could just imagine how nice it would have been last night. Maybe another time, not on a weekend.
Continuing on the ranch road, we eventually came to Highway 95 (aka the Idaho, Oregon, Nevada Highway). There wasn’t much traffic but what traffic there was were in a big hurry. Even a truck with a multi-horse trailer passed us. It seems that folks from Idaho bring their faster speed limits with them as those who passed us had Idaho plates. Oregon has more sensible speed limits than most western states, imho.
In Jordan Valley, we fueled up and saw the horse trailer folks parked along the road. What was their hurry? Pleasant Valley Road in Jordan Valley will take you to the start of the 90+ mile Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway. We saw a TV program on it once so decided to check it out for ourselves. Pleasant Valley Road winds through small ranches and there was a small local school. We also saw a turnoff for Silver City, a living ghost town in Idaho that we visited last Spring accessing it from the Idaho side.
We drove through cattle country passing the Lone Tree Ranch and the Dougal Ranch which was sited on a lake or reservoir. It was getting dark and we just missed the evening light on a gorge carved by the North Fork Owyhee River. The road twisted down to the North Fork campground, a free BLM campground in the North Fork Owyhee Wilderness. This campground was new and featured a vault toilet, fire rings, and picnic tables. We were the only guests that night. It was quiet and peaceful.