Great Alpine Lakes of the West: Lake Marie off Hwy 130 in the Snowy Mountains of WY

Beyond the one stop travel marts and manicured rest stops is a parallel world of state parks, lonely drives, exciting vistas, and opportunities hard to find when going 70 MPH.  To us the best planning involves endless staring at our Rand McNally Road Atlas in search of the possible.  Such planning got us first to Curt Gowdy State Park (in time to catch a blue grass festival) and then on top the snowy mountain range to camp at beautiful Lake Marie (elevation high enough for year round snow, maybe +9.000’).  We spied moose, hiked around the alpine wonderland, and wondered at night if the light rain would turn to snow before morning.  A real bummer was Henna repeatedly becoming sick through the night. Corey and I tried our best to comfort her and knew that there was nowhere to go until daylight.  My friend Louie (who also first told us of this Swiss Alps like place) thinks it was altitude sickness.  Corey suspects stomach flu (she was sick two nights later at Angel Lake State Park in Nevada).  Me, I try not to choose sides.  Either way we slinked off the mountain the next morning and regrouped in Evanston, Wyoming.  The next day Henna was her usual, cheerful self.

Inching Closer to Home

The plan today was big.  We would take I90 to 16, cross into South Dakota and see wild donkeys and bison in Custer State Park and then the granite presidents.  We didn’t do none of that.  We got off I90 and were on 16S for less than a minute before coming across the West Texas Trail museum in Moorecroft, Wy.  A sign said it was free and we were out of the car not thirty minutes after leaving Gillette.  By the way, Corey said I was to hard on that town so on the way out we detoured through their downtown.  It was clean, had several stores, no resteraunts, coffee shops or book stores though.  Still not my favorite place, but not the worse place either.  Anyways, many attics made up this museum.  There were coffins, pianos, WWI uniforms, various mounted cow heads, and short histories of the families making up Kirk County.  There also was a very articulate and knowledgeable man with nothing else to do but answer my questions concerning ranching, the west Texas Trail, the history of Moorecroft, and dinosaur bones.  It turned out he was friends with the family who once owned the land where the dino tracks were found.  He talked about being a kid on his grandparents ranch and finding twelve or more arrow heads a summer.  He also said that ranchers are suppose to tell people when they find stuff, but that means strangers coming on to their land.  People in WY do not like that, but then again I am not a big fan of the meter man coming into my backyard.  One sentence on the West Texas Trail:  Cows were brought north from Texas to populate ranches in MT and Canada from the mid to late 19th century.

We then stopped for gas, made lunch at a rest stop, and traveled a few more miles on 16 into South Dakota.  Corey hates caves but I made her pull into the Jewel Cave National Monument visitor center.  Cave tours were sold out for the day but there was an enticing hike into “Hell Canyon” past the historic cave opening.  Three and a half miles long and flat, this seemed easy to us mountain people.  There was a big fire ten years ago which caused lots of stumps, no shade from sun, and a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies, wild flowers, and interesting birds.  Henna tripped twice and skinned one knee.  She also was stung by a bee.  The sun and humidity (which us mountain people are no longer used to) was brutal.  The hike, although gorgeous, became monotonous after the first mile or so.  We saw one family at the onset of the hike, but then no one else and Corey was convinced we had made a wrong turn.  But after climbing out of the canyon (it was a pretty small indentation by the way) we came across that historic opening and it was awesome.  Cold air came out of one hole and there were small openings that a stupid man could venture into and then die a lonely death.  The rocks here have a crystal sheen that rubs off and we felt this sense of discovery that often eludes us in more crowded places.  The trail then took a bend around the corner and we found ourselves in a parking lot with maybe twenty people waiting for a cave tour.  A few more steps and we met a ranger dressed in 1940s garb (that is when the rangers first gave tours) who showed us the origional cabin.  Again, there was no one else around to compete for our attention and I asked him about the area, the canyon, and the CCC corps (who built the cabin and highway 16 that takes you to the cave).  The trail from that point to the visitor center ventured on high ground and offered shade and cool breezes.  Along the way Henna gave me the “prettiest acorn in the forest.”  At the gift shop we bought a sticker and the ranger wannabe said “tell me you did not get that from the forest.”  You can grab fossils from WY but do not take acorns from S. Dakota.  A few more miles down the road was the Custer KOA where I write you these words.  Total distance for the day:  maybe a hundred twenty miles.  Tomorrow we hope to see Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, and Wall Drug.  But who knows, maybe a county fair will intercept us a mile east of here.

A billion years or so in less than 300 miles

Woke up today in the 21st century and was able to travel back a billion years or so before getting a hotel in Gillette, WY.  First a word about Gillette.  There may be some nice neighborhoods hidden in this town, but if so they are well hidden.  Our hotel is nice and so were the turkey hotdogs and mashed potatoes we microwaved for dinner.  Add some chicken salad and it was heaven.  But Gillette is a rough and tumble looking place in a dusty corner of I90.  Gillette supposedly is doing well (it is known as the energy capital due to their coal, oil, and natural gas resources).  But the dough is not being spent on coffee houses and art galleries.  The drive here though was amazing.

It started with a pancake breakfast and buffalo patty for breakfast followed by a quick swim in the KOA pool.  We hit the road around 10:30 feeling refreshed and ready for adventure.  After a pit stop at a grocery store in Grey Bull we came across a small brown sign at a gravel road intersection.  The sign listed several points of interest including “dinosaur tracks 5 miles.”  After a quick deliberation we were off driving on a gravel road through BLM land.  BLM lands is shorthand for “whatever the heck you want to do here is fine.”  You can camp anywhere you want.  You can also graze a herd of cattle, dig for fossils, or ride a horse/ ATV/ elephant whatever and wherever you want.  The three of us ventured deep into this unregulated WY landscape on a very narrow and winding road.  We saw several antelope and one truck parked in the sage brush.  After 5 miles we came across a pavilion and parking lot that held one truck with a large family spilling out.  More surprising was an outhouse and several plaques describing the find. 

In 1997 a group of elderly explorers came across what was later confirmed as dinosaur tracks.  The smiling faces of this group looked back at me at the sign which also described their finding as turning local archaeological history on its ear.  Prior to their discovery, it was assumed that this part of WY was underneath a great sea.  Now they believe that it made up a type of beach when WY, some 169 million years ago, was much closer to the equator.  A short trail led to the tracks which were fossilized and there was no barrier preventing us from us touching their foot (?) prints.  Another sign even said we were free to look for and collect fossils.  Henna found a 168 million year shrimp fossil (which was later confirmed).  Henna also caught several grasshoppers and this is what she talked about most on our drive back to the paved road.

Our next stop on our makeshift archaelogical tour was the Big Horn Valley.  Geological forces I only vaguely understand resulted in a lot of very old rock being thrown up.  Luckily the WY highway department puts wonderful signs up telling how old these rocks are.  They ranged from being 70 million to 1.2 billion years old.  The road is steep and incredibly beautiful and, just to add a higher degree of difficulty, cuts through ranches with sheep and cows hanging out by the side of the road.  Maybe they were hitch hiking away from the ranch (I think you would agree that that would be a good choice for them).  We left the car often to take several short hikes into this wonderland of striking rocks, buttes, and endless prarie grass.  This road eventually led us to I90 and the hotel room I write this from.  Tomorrow we hope to camp in Custer State Park, SD.