Monday, September 03, 2018

Making the most of three days in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park — which covers 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — became the first national park in the United States when it opened in 1872.

It attracted more than four million visitors last year, and I added my name to its guest list for three days in June as part of a Cosmos bus tour. We arrived through the east entrance in Wyoming and crossed through the 8,530-foot Sylvan Pass and along the small Sylvan Lake before stopping at Lake Village on the shore of the much larger Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone Lake has 110 miles of shoreline and is approximately 400 feet deep. Its depth, altitude and northern latitude ensure that the water temperature doesn’t exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit. While others ate lunch at the restaurant, I walked through a meadow to the shore, dipped my hand in and instantly realized it was too chilly to go in any further. However, it did offer a good view of the lake and mountains in the distance. A few bison even cooperated by grazing nearby.

Yellowstone Lake at Lake Village
Back on the bus, we followed the course of the Yellowstone River and passed more bison as well as Mud Volcano, Sulphur Caldron and Hayden Valley before stopping at the Upper Falls 35 minutes later.

Upper Falls
We got up close for a good look at rapids and the brink of the falls before continuing on to Artist Point, which provided lovely perspective of the higher Lower Falls in the distance. It also gave us access to look at what’s known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its multiple-coloured rock face. After taking in all of the beauty, we were dropped off at Grant Village’s Antelope Lodge in the heart of the park near the shore of the West Thumb section of Yellowstone Lake.

Lower Falls
I walked to the nearby general store and purchased seven different pale ales, two sandwiches for dinner and a muffin for tomorrow’s breakfast. A trail along the lake was closed due to bear activity, so I returned to my room to eat and have a beer before meeting two new friends at Grant Village’s small bar for another pint.

Continental Divide
An elk was crossing through the parking lot when our bus set out the next morning. We passed the Continental Divide of the Americas, where some of the water heads toward the Pacific Ocean and the rest heads toward the Atlantic, for the first of five times during our time in Yellowstone.

Gibbon Falls

We walked around Fountain Paint Pot — a collection of red, yellow and brown mud pots boiling and bubbling up from underground — in the Lower Geyser Basin. We then took some time around the Madison River, where a few people were fly-fishing, before moving on to Gibbon Falls, which weren’t as breathtaking as those from yesterday but were still impressive.

The next stop was the Upper Geyser Basin, which includes the majority of the world’s active geysers — the most famous of which is Old Faithful. A friend and I climbed a trail up to Observation Point to see Beehive Geyser erupt to a height of more than 150 feet for five minutes. Old Faithful went off a few minutes later for about the same amount of time, but it didn’t go as high.

Upper Geyser Basin

We walked back down and traversed a variety of paths and boardwalks, covering several miles and seeing dozens of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots over three hours. The most impressive was Grand Geyser, the tallest predictable geyser in the world, reaching about 200 feet during the 10-minute eruption we witnessed.

Grand Geyser

I had a quick walk around the charming and historic Old Faithful Inn before boarding the bus back to Antelope Lodge. I walked down to the lake again and had an enjoyable conversation with a local family that lives and works in Yellowstone, before having an OK $17 dinner of lemon and pepper trout, mashed potatoes and carrots at the nearby Lake House Restaurant.

Old Faithful Inn interior
Our final morning in Yellowstone started with a short drive to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, on Yellowstone Lake, and a walk around more small geysers and hot springs for 40 minutes.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

We watched a video on the bus about Yellowstone’s massive 1988 wildfires, which affected more than 40 per cent of the park and became the greatest firefighting effort in the history of the U.S. to that point. We passed Lewis Lake, the third largest lake in Yellowstone, and Lewis Falls, along with deep ravines and forest before leaving through the park’s south entrance.

Yellowstone's south entrance

Yellowstone is massive, and there were large swaths of it that we didn’t have time to visit, but I credit our Cosmos tour director Bruce Fritzges and our bus driver for coming up with an itinerary that covered quite a bit of ground and enabled us to see a good cross-section of the natural beauty and wildlife that the park is known for.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Gaining an appreciation of small South Dakota and Wyoming towns

Smalltown South Dakota and Wyoming have never been on my list of must-see places. But when the opportunity to spend a few days in them during a Cosmos tour of American national parks and canyons arose, I was happy to do it.

Unfortunately I didn’t make it as far east as South Dakota’s badlands, but travelled through its Black Hills en route from Denver, Colo. to Keystone. Large hills covered in pine trees look black from a distance, which is where the mountain range derived its name. Large, interestingly shaped granite outcroppings occasionally broke up the green and serene surroundings, and it was this granite that formed the backdrops for the region’s two major tourist draws, which I’ll get to soon.

South Dakota's Black Hills region

But first, I spent an evening in the town of Keystone, which was a mining town when it was formed in 1883 and is now home to less than 500 people. Its main street features a covered wooden boardwalk, which came in handy during a torrential rain storm, and most of its shops are aimed at tourists. One of them prominently featured very jingoistic Donald Trump T-shirts hung out front, which i found disturbing, and I spotted a few of them being worn while in the area.

Bad Trump T-shirts
But I quickly learned that, if you don’t talk politics (I was travelling through areas that for the most part don’t share my liberal views), you’ll meet lots of friendly people. I had dinner at Boss’ Pizza and Chicken, which featured an all-you-can-eat salad, pizza, pasta and chicken buffet for $13.99. The food was decent, if unexceptional, but it was the staff and patrons sitting near me at the bar that made my visit memorable when the storm caused the power to go out for 30 minutes.

Cheerful banter and joking ensued, and I was given a free pint of Lost Cabin Hefeweizen before power was restored, the rain had calmed and I ventured down the street to the Red Garter Saloon to have another beer and listen to country singer Jerry Allan in a classic western saloon adorned with vintage memorabilia which is open from April through October. Allan talked and shook hands with every member of the small Saturday night audience between sets, while local legend and 7’4” cowboy “Big Dave” Murra posed for photos with visitors he towered over.

"Big Dave" Murra
It was overcast and rainy when we left at 8 a.m. the next morning to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, so the views of the massive and still-under-construction carving of the Lakota leader from the visitor complex were somewhat disappointing — and the bus that takes you closer wasn’t running because of the inclement weather. Viewing the exhibits of The Indian Museum of North America therefore occupied most of the two hours I spent at the site before driving for 20 minutes to Mount Rushmore.

Crazy Horse Memorial
I’m not American and didn’t feel any pangs of patriotism from viewing the giant carved faces of former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But I was impressed with the work put in to create them by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and a crew of more than 400 workers from 1927 to 1941. The complex also featured an informative visitor centre, where I watched a 14-minute film about Mount Rushmore’s creation.

Mount Rushmore
The rain had subsided enough that I was able to walk a trail and get closer views, though part of the trail was closed and blocked a loop route, to fill out two hours.

The beautiful Black Hills scenery continued to surround our bus as we headed west. We stopped just outside of Deadwood to visit Tatanka: Story of the Bison, where displays and two Lakota men told us about what the bison meant to their ancestors and their experiences growing up and adapting to both their native and white cultures. The visit ended outside at a recreation of a buffalo jump hunt featuring breathtaking bronze sculptures portraying 14 bison being pursued by three Native Americans on horseback.

Tatanka: Story of the Bison

Actor/director Kevin Costner paid millions of dollars to fund Tatanka, and his admirable work is appreciated for telling the story of how up to 30 million bison that once roamed North America’s great plains were reduced to about 1,000 by the end of the 19th century due to hunting and senseless killing by white settlers and visitors.

A school bus driven by a Kevin Costner Original Deadwood Tour guide picked some of us there and drove us around Deadwood for an hour, telling us entertaining tales of the town’s wild west history, which involved such characters as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

After dropping my bags off at Deadwood Gulch Gaming Resort, I walked 20 minutes to do my own exploring of this town with a population of less than 1,500. Every second or third storefront featured casino gaming (primarily slot machines, but with a few card tables), which I wasn’t interested in, but a satellite operation of Sick-N-Twisted Brewing Co. drew me in for a flight of five what turned out to be disappointing beers.

I paid $12.99 for an excellent meal of a 12-ounce bison salisbury steak, garlic mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables and garlic bread — washed down with a pint of Deschutes Fresh Squeeze IPA — at Gem Steakhouse and Saloon. I next visited the Celebrity Hotel and Casino’s collection of celebrity memorabilia and then sampled apple pie, coffee and margarita moonshine (the apple pie was my favourite) at Deadwood Distilling Co.

Jack Lord's Steve McGarrett jumpsuit from Hawaii Five-O at Deadwood's Celebrity Hotel and Casino.
I ended my tour of town with a flight of two beers and two ciders at Deadwood Winery that were much tastier than I had earlier in the evening — particularly Ace Pineapple Hard Cider — before walking back to the hotel.

The next morning saw us depart at 8 a.m. and drive through part of South Dakota before re-entering Wyoming and passing through the town of Sundance, which got its name after outlaw Butch Cassidy’s partner in crime “The Sundance Kid” spent 18 months in jail there in the 19th century. The highlight of a rather long day on the bus was driving through the Bighorn Mountains, which are part of the Rockies, and along the route of Shell Creek before arriving at Buffalo Bill Village Resort in Cody, Wyo.

My accommodation was a small log cabin outfitted like a modern hotel room, wifi included. From there it was a short walk into the heart of the downtown at Irma Hotel, where I got a pint of Snake River Brewing Pako’s IPA and a vantage point on its large deck for the 6 p.m. gunfight staging that’s been taking place on the street nightly since 1979 featuring locals playing tthe likes of Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, Belle Starr, Wyatt Earp and others. It was hokey and the acting was poor, but it’s true to Cody and most people seemed to enjoy the 20-minute show.

The Cody gunfight
Cody has about 10,000 people, so it didn’t take long to walk around. I ventured to the Shoshonee River to go on a 1.3-mile nature trail that ended up being flooded and forced me to turn back and return the way I came. I stopped for a six-beer flight at Millstone Pizza Co. & Brewery and wasn’t impressed by any of them. I was much more pleased with the salad, mashed potatoes and 10-ounce chicken fried chicken I ordered for $15.95 at Rib & Chop House along with an Elysian Space Dust IPA.

A backyard visitor in Cody
My last stop in Cody took place the next morning at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which includes the Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, Whitney Western Art Museum, Plains Indian Museum and a special exhibition area. The admission fee was $19.50 and was well worth it, as I didn’t get a chance to fully take in everything during the two-and-a-half hours I had to spend there.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West