Saturday, July 22, 2017

Up the Continental Divide and into Wyoming

Like a deep ocean groundswell, the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains gently lifted us up and  on to the Continental Divide. We followed the meanderings of the Snake River from Twin Falls (3,700 feet), to Idaho Falls (4,700 feet), to the Palisades reservoir on the western side of the Teton National Forest (5,600 feet), to Jackson Wyoming (6,200 feet), and up to the Divide (7,988 feet) near Lewis Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The Continental Divide brings to mind the magnificent Rocky Mountains with their imposing peaks: Mt. Robson (12,972 feet) in Jaspers National Park, British Columbia, the Grand Teton (13,775 feet), Gannet Peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Range (13,809 feet), Mt. Elbert in the Sawatch range in Colorado (14,440 feet), the Maroon Bells (14,163 feet) that we see from top of Snowmass ski resort, or any of the other 14,000 footers in Colorado. But the Divide does not straddle these tall peaks. The Divide is gentle and imperceptible on first encounter. Railroads, highways, and rivers find their path through and around the great mountains. It’s only gradually that we realize the rivers are no longer heading towards the Columbia and the Pacific, but towards the Missouri and the Gulf of Mexico.

Yellowstone, our first national park, established by Congress in 1872, lies on a high volcanic plateau, eight thousand feet above sea level. The park is blessed with lakes, rivers, geysers, hot springs, lodgepole pine forests, flower-filled meadows, bison, elk, wolves, coyotes, trout, ducks, and swans.

Pelican Valley Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
We encountered a lounging Bison just beyond the rise.
Unlike the free-wheeling national forests we’ve become used to, the Park Service keeps a tight lid on activities in the park, including where you camp overnight. “Camping and fires” are only allowed in designated camp sites, says the park brochure. It’s in fine print, and we didn’t see it, and if we had we might have said “it depends on what ‘and’ means.” We don’t build fires when we’re out camping, so . . . .

The park rangers didn’t see it that way. All the designated camping sites were full and as we returned from our hike on the Pelican Valley Trail at 7:30 p.m. we decided to stay right there, where our car and trailer were parked. Two other cars remained at nightfall, the owners apparently on an overnight hike. But no sooner had we fallen into a nice slumber in our fine camping spot that the park rangers came along and rousted us out of bed and kicked us out of the park. “Don’t speak when I’m talking to you,” said an officer shining his flashlight. “You can find some spots in the National Forest, just outside the park,” they said. Don’t mess with park rangers.

We awoke in the morning just outside the park entrance above the very young Shoshone river tumbling down a steep canyon towards Cody, Wyoming. It's the landscape you think of when you think "Wyoming." 
North Fork of Shoshone

Cody, a town of 10,000, is on Route 14, which traverses Wyoming from Yellowstone to Spearfish, South Dakota. 
Wyoming, Route 14 and Alt 14
East of Cody, arid, golden hills, are interrupted by picaresque irrigated fields and well kept farms. We stopped in Byron, a community founded by Mormons in 1902. "It was the policy of the (Mormons) to colonize areas where people could establish homes in towns, rather than to settle on ranches so widely separated that it was difficult for them to engage in church and social activities," says the plaque in a small park.  And we noted several such well kept, comfortable looking towns along Route 14: Ralston, Powell, Garland, Byron. . .  

Then, suddenly, we are at the foot of the imposing wooded Bighorn Mountains.  The Bighorns are a northwest-trending spur of the Rocky Mountains, extending approximately 200 miles northward on the Great Plains. They are separated from the Absaroka Range, which lie on the main branch of the Rockies in western Wyoming, by the Bighorn Basin at 4,300 feet.  

The ascent up the Bighorns from the West along Route 14 is steep and hard for our little car-that-could, with an average grade of 8-10%. The road rises with switchbacks like an hors categorie climb on the Tour de France from the Basin up to 9,430 feet near Burgess Junction. 
Up the Bighorn Mountains from the West
Our car lumbered from the altitude and the steep gradient. We became concerned whether she would make it, but make it she did. And we were rewarded with a spectacular scenery at the top. 

Bobbi near Medicine Wheel Mountain, Bighorns

Wyoming Facts

Wyoming was acquired from Mexico in 1848, as part of the settlement of the Mexican American War. It was admitted into the Union as a state on July 10, 1890. Collectively, through the federal government, we own half the land in Wyoming. 

Wyoming is the least populous state in the country: ~590,000. 

Cheyenne is the capital and most populous city: 63,000 in 2015. 

Wyoming has one member of Congress: Liz Cheney (because we Americans love dynasties). 

And Wyoming has two senators:  Mike Enzi and John Barrasso (same as California's 39 million, lest we ever forget).  

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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