Where the Buffalo Roam
By Jeff Maisey
Recently my schedule has allowed for a two-week adventure during the summer, either in late June or July. This has lured me to join friends for a tasty beer tour of Belgium, bicycle in The Netherlands, and embark upon a tedious navigation of the narrow winding country roads of Ireland’s west coast from behind the wheel. All fabulous destinations.
For 2013 I was yearning for something a bit different – a Great American Road Trip through personally uncharted territory. The wilds of the ol’ West were calling; where the buffalo roam and antelope do, in fact, play; to see what’s left of Glacier National Park’s snowy peaks; to breathe the thin oxygen at 12,200 feet atop Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road; to encounter antlered elk crossing the roadway; to see if the Tetons are really so grand in-person; to imagine dinosaurs traipsing through the prehistoric looking bubbling hot pools of Yellowstone; and to feel as though I’ve gotten away from it all while in the continental borders of America.
I am lucky to have friends who value travel as I do. For this trip, Jack Armistead, who publishes The Downtowner magazine, agreed to co-pilot the journey.
Whenever traveling with friends, in order to still “remain friends” by the end of the two-weeks, I’ve found it best to set the parameters and expectations in advance.
Armistead wanted to make sure we stuck with the road trip theme and that we wouldn’t turn it into a hiking expedition unexpectedly. Agreed. We also were keen to build-in a great degree of flexibility by booking few accommodations in advance. For the most part, we’d blow into town from some dusty off-road, find the local bar by 6:00 PM, and break-out the map to chart the next day’s course.
Perhaps the best piece of advice Jack lobbied successfully for was to fly in and out of Denver rather than drive from Norfolk, thus saving valuable days for the scenic wonders we really ranked high on our semi to-do list.
Even so, we still managed to put just over 4,000 miles on our rent-a-car.
Many of the roadways we traveled in this part of the country are often closed in parts during winter months and sometimes shut as early as mid-October through late June. Glacier’s dramatic 50-mile west to east Going-to-the-Sun Road, which hangs, harrowingly in sections, on the cliffs with only a seven-inch-high rectangular granite stone serving as a guard rail, isn’t accessible at Logan Pass until June 21. Trust me, you won’t want to hit a patch of ice on this lane.
Note: If you’re a procrastinator and not decided where to vacation this summer all of these points of interest and roads are options through early October.
For our trip, Jack and I selected an early flight, landing in Denver at 9:50 AM, and within 30 minutes we were on the road, bypassing Denver, motoring through Golden and on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway. We stopped in Nederland for lunch. It’s a quaint mountain village at 8,236 feet and has a few restaurants, coffee shops, a brew pub and retail shops selling “Got Oxygen” merchandise. Coming from Boulder, it’s an easy 20-mile shot straight up the mountain.
We jumped back on the road headed for Estes Park, a virtual metropolis compared to Nederland. I should say that every mile we covered on this journey was “scenic” and therefore I’ll refrain from using that word in the coming paragraphs. Every corner turned provided wondrous vistas; old abandoned gold mines are visible; a historic stone church is serenely positioned with lofty peaks in the background.
Estes Park made for an enjoyable first night stay with all the modern comforts at the entryway to Rocky Mountain National Park. We found the Wheel Bar particularly refreshing as primarily a locals-only type of space with multiple taps of Colorado’s finest craft beers.
Jack and I were up early the next day to motor Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile road with peak-level panoramic views. Eleven miles are above treeline and vast cross tundra feasted upon herds of elk. The air is breezy, noticeably colder and thinner. While Jack was snapping a few photographs and taking-in the view, I headed a little ways up a rocky trail sign-marked the Ute Trail, named for the Native Americans that used it in the past. Ascending just a short way turned out to be a small workout in itself.
Depending on your schedule it is possible to spend as much time as you like in this region, whether camping, hiking, rock climbing, white water rafting or fly-fishing in mountain streams. Since our mission was to see as much as possible and cover a certain amount of territory each day, we spent roughly four hours in the park and thundered down the mountain and on to Wyoming, leaving behind the lush, evergreen forested mountains and traversed vast, open high plains and canyons along dusty roadways. At one rest stop we spotted countless prairie dogs popping up out of their holes to see what we were doing.
The next couple of nights we spent in Jackson Hole. Sure, it’s a tourist town, but makes for a fun home base for explore the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.
Jackson Hole has a number of high-end art galleries and worthwhile restaurants. Local (yep, that’s what it is called) offers is a contemporary dining experience and the best dinner option we found. Next door is the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a must-visit even for one beer. The car seats are horse saddles. We preferred the Virginian Saloon, a place with swinging doors and local country and classic rock entertainment. Though it is attached to a motor lodge, we found it was frequented by local ranchers with cowboy hats and boots, and a place tourists seemed to stay clear of.
Fast forwarding a bit, the Grand Tetons and Jenny Lake didn’t disappoint. A circular route allows drivers numerous vantage points for photo opportunities of the jagged Tetons. These are not mountains you drive up; stunning for their vertical granite faces. This area is also populated with free roaming bison. The creatures cross the roadways in their own sweet time. A true highlight.
As for Yellowstone, a full day is needed to drive through and view the highlights. Some folks spend a full week within the park. We were able to see everything we wanted in one day, including the Mud Volcano, Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone Canyon, bison strolling the side of the roads and foraging near the Sulphur Caldron. We ventured over the wooden walkways through the Great Fountain Geyser and Steamboat Geyser areas. Bubbling pools of smelly water and steam does wear thin on a hot afternoon. We capped Yellowstone off with a visit to Old Faithful. For the most part we did not encounter heavy traffic or large crowds, but a Old Faithful a massive parking lot was nearly filled, and bleachers half-circled the geyser as people cheered the timely moment, erupting every 90 minutes.
For me Yellowstone met expectations but didn’t exceed them. Everything was as seen in photographs.
More impressive in my view was Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana.
From Jackson Hole, we drove to Missoula for an overnight. This is a college town, so, unlike most “cities” in Montana, it had a somewhat lively restaurant and bar scene, with brewpubs and plenty of excellent Montana craft beers on tap everywhere. One thing I noticed out west: bars tend to feature their local and statewide beers only on draft.
On the way to Glacier National Park’s western entrance along the eastern banks of Flathead Lake is a region known for its cherries. Everyone appeared to have small fruit stands along the roadside selling baskets of plump fruit freshly picked from the visible orchards spilling towards the lake.
There is one road that stretches across Glacier and it is the like-no-other Going-to-the-Sun Road. As mentioned above, if you’ve never pooped in your pants on a drive this road may change that. Above all, the experience of driving slowly as you wind around tight curves along cliffs and oncoming traffic is surely breathtaking. The high point is Logan’s Pass, where a visitor’s center is perched and a 360-degree view dazzles.
Glacier has numerous hiking trails. This is also grizzly bear country and we noticed several trails closed with signage posted “warning bear activity.”
After Glacier, we stopped in places such as the old mining towns of Virginia City and Nevada City, stayed at the haunted Fairweather Inn, wandered Billings’ downtown brewery trail, saw where Custer fell at Little Big Horn, conversed with local cattle ranchers on bluegrass night at Buffalo, Wyoming’s historic Occidental Hotel Saloon a place where taxidermy is apparently big business. Two days each in Boulder and Denver allowed for plenty of craft brewery exploration. Much more on these vibrant cities in another travel article.
If it seems like a whirlwind trip, it was. But then again, sometimes the “road trip” is the destination.