Quackgrass Sally: On the Trail 7-30-12
It is always such fun to escape the everyday busyness of life and this drive up the Beartooth Scenic byway really fit the ticket for my cowboy and I on this hot summer afternoon. Here, the vistas and breathtaking sights refresh the soul and recharge the inner battery … plus the cooler temps and pine scented air are great!
Looking out across the high glacier tundra, what seems like hundreds of tiny alpine lakes glitter like jewels in the afternoon sunshine. The remaining snowdrifts create a strikingly bright white contrast against the gray granite rocks or peeking out from under dark pine trees as we continue along the twisting two-lane. At the Montana-Wyoming state line on top, a family is stopped along side a snowdrift, the kids digging their hands into the cold icy pile. I can remember when I was little and our family vacations took us to the mountains. My Dad told me that the “pink snow” tasted like watermelon. (There was a hint of pink in many of those snowdrifts and I wondered if it still did.)
Continuing west, we came to the Top of the World store. A dandy, log way-station nestled here on top (elevation 9,400-feet) where travelers can buy fuel, snacks or gifts, including fishing supplies. A huge elk-head-mount graces one wall, causing more than one would-be hunter to pause and dream while I was walking around the little grocery aisle. Open summer and spring, this remote store is a welcome sight along highway 212, with its nearby lodging, pet-friendly camping areas and trail-heads.
Not far up the road is the junction with the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. Named after the historic native American Nez Perce chief who, following the Battle of the Big Hole in Idaho in 1877, fled east through Yellowstone while being chased by the U.S. military. He and 1,000 members of his tribe were trying to flee to Canada (a 1500-mile trek), but surrendered after the six-day Battle of the Bear Paw in northeastern Montana, stopping only 30 miles from the Canadian border. The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is also known also as the Sunlight Basin Road, (Wyoming 296) and is open almost all year long, allowing backcountry skiers and snowmobilers access to the Beartooth Pass areas. It offers breathtaking views of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River as it tumbles and winds its way down the mountain, and to fascinating geological features. This area also boasts the largest herd of mountain goats in Wyoming.
Needing some lunch, we continued west, passing through the small community of Coulter Pass, started in 1896 with only three homestead properties. Industry came to the remote area in 1927 with the Western Smelting Power Co. It even had rodeos in the 1940s, plus a bar and a dance hall. In the 1960s Coulter Pass had a trailer park, laundromat, three cafes, two gas stations, and the V.O Guest Ranch. The town is much smaller now with only three year-round businesses but the guest ranch is still active and run by the grandson of V.O. Jackson. With snow travel only from November to May, because of the 8,200 ft. elevation, they offer horseback riding, hunting and fishing and hiking … along with old-fashioned hospitality and home cookin’.
Driving along the thick pine-lined road, we arrived in the sunshine on main street Cooke City. Home to approximately 100 hardy citizens in the winter and 300 or so in the summer, Cooke City is a historic mining town, named after Jay Cooke, Jr., a Pacific Railroad contractor. Surrounded by three National Forests and within sight of Montana’s highest peak, Granite Peak, at 12,799-feet, it is only four miles west of the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. This afternoon, the street was bustling with cars, boats, travel trailers and people. Our favorite “waterin’ hole,” the Beartooth Cafe (home of the garlic Funk Burger — “enjoy it now and all day long”) was seating people on their umbrella porch but we opted for an inside table to enjoy one of their 100 different “brews” and lunch.
Full and happy, we wandered up the street and passed the historic 1886 Cooke City Store. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this General Merc provided miners and settlers with a wide range of merchandise and groceries, which continues to this day for area residents and tourists. Nearby, is the Cooke City Museum, home to historic displays and information about the surrounding area. The museum offers “Campfire talks ‘n music” every Saturday evening in July. On Aug. 4, 2012, everyone is welcome to the screening of the Silent Movie “Montana Rockies” produced in 1924 by the Northern Pacific Railroad. It will be an evening of hors d’oeuvres, drinks, decadent sweets, music and dancing, characteristic of the roaring 20s!
Knowing the irrigation dams wouldn’t move themselves, we headed back home, retracing our route in reverse, very happy for our Beartooth afternoon … pass the hillside of lazy mountain goats and the now, sunset lit snow drifts. (I’m still sorry I didn’t check to see if the pink tasted like watermelons!) ❖