Day 2 started later than we anticipated but the car was loaded by 8am. Chris was batting 1000 with his restaurant picks; breakfast at The Catalyst Cafe was outstanding. The guys ordered egg and potato extravaganzas while I enjoyed the Montana 7-grain hot cereal. Great way to start the day! Oh Montana. I've traveled through the state 6 different times by train, but it never impacted me the way this trip did. I now understand why it is called Big Sky country, but I didn't expect the feeling of soothing comfort that came with the juxtaposition of open big sky with intimate hills and valleys. The whole day felt like I could breathe free, exhale fully, sink in, and relax.
Mid-day, we turned off I-90 to head south on US 89 to Yellowstone National Park and pulled into the McDonalds for a quick bathroom break and snack. Along the drive we were tempted to pull in to the tourist attractions featuring grizzly bears and camels (?), but pushed on. Once we hit Yellowstone there was no need to go far to see wildlife. There were elk hanging out around town and we spied an antelope just after we paid the $25 fee (good for 7 days) and entered the park. On the drive to Mammoth Hot Springs we mainly saw elk and antelope, and as we pulled into the hot springs area there were elk lounging outside the hotel and various outbuildings. It was quite busy with tourists, but we lucked out with parking. After a quick change into trail shoes, we hiked the 5-mile Beaver Ponds Loop.
There were no major elevation gains, so it was an easy hike with a couple of beautiful vistas, and yet we all realized how spoiled we have become living in Oregon. We agreed that the hike was pretty but it's Yellowstone! We should be blown away by the beauty and magnificence! Everything is relative, and Oregon is hard to beat when compared to hikes in the Columbia Gorge, Coast Range, Mt. Hood, McKenzie River, .... Of course the hike had highlights, and we were happy to spy a coyote and keep pace with him for a mile or so. Alas no bear sightings, and we could have used bug spray as the mosquitos were out in force near the pond.
We finished up with a quick walk along the boardwalk and stairs built up and around Mammoth Hot Springs. Yellowstone's geothermal activity is remarkable and the rock formations created by the water flow looked otherworldy. It was certainly worth the trip to see the springs, but given all of the tourists to contend with, none of us wanted to spend a lot of time. Yes I know we were tourists too, but due to all of the backpacking through the years, we're used to having a bit more solitude and elbow room when seeing natural wonders.
The rest of the drive through Yellowstone was gorgeous featuring wide flat valleys studded with wildlife. We were so excited to spy our first lone bison not realizing that we'd eventually see hundreds along the way. My favorites of course were the babies. We lucked out and saw a few scampering, chasing each other, and even head-butting just like the big guys.
US 212 was an easy drive until we entered the Abasaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges. This road routinely closes in the winter and even in early June, we saw areas with 6-foot walls of snow on either side. We had to moderate speed due to the seriously winding switchbacks, but what a drive! Craggy mountain ranges, icy lakes, and Danger Dogs everywhere! Ok we found out later they were Yellow-Bellied Marmots, but they'll always be Danger Dogs to me. These furry guys look like a big chubbby prairie dog cousins. We saw them by the side of the road and at every turnout munching on I don't know what. At one point, one darted across the road in front of our speeding car - hence Danger Dog! They were cute and I loved them, but sadly I never got close enough to take a photo.
We arrived in Red Lodge about 7pm and immediately decided on The Yodeler for our night's accommodation. It was a quaint, moderately priced motel with a Bavarian ski theme. The furnishings were older and a bit tired but I'd stay there again. It was unique, had a mini-fridge, microwave and steam bath in the room (you don't see that every day), a hot tub down the hall, and the staff was warm and welcoming.
We asked for dining recommendations at checkin and the dinner and breakfast suggestions were spot-on. Bridge Creek Backcountry was an easy 1/2-mile walk up the road. We were worried service would be slow given the state of the restaurant upon entering, but our fears were unfounded. The restaurant had a quiet, relaxing ambiance with subdued lighting. Chris and I shared a spinach salad and pesto flatbread while Matthew opted for a burger; all were excellent. The guys hit the hot tub briefly when we got back to The Yodeler, then off to bed. I'll start the next post with our delightful breakfast at Cafe Regis.
Miles traveled: 399
Hotel discount: None
This post is part of the trip summary 6 Days Across the USA