Road trip on the scenic back roads of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado
August 22, 2017
Planning a road trip
As our home commitments finished and summer was drawing to a close, it was time to head out on the road for another adventure. Our ultimate destination was the White Rim road in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, USA. We booked our campsites ahead since there are not many available. That gave us 5 days of travel time to explore.
We opened Google Maps and discussed the route we should take to get there. We wanted to visit some new places and were okay with a little backtracking if necessary. I hadn’t been to Aspen and Vail in Colorado so we chose to travel through Montana, via Helena, then through Wyoming to Denver. From there we would travel west to Vail and end up at Moab and Canyonlands in Utah. It sort of worked out that way.
We left home Monday, August 14 and drove to the very southern part of the province. It was quite smoky from the forest fires to the west. We couldn’t see the Sweetgrass Hills that usually signal that Montana is coming up soon.
Montana is a very large state. We have been to many parts of it, but not all. The geography is so varied. With Glacier National Park in the far NW, the high plains of Little Bighorn in the NE, reservoirs and fly fishing rivers as well as cliffs and bluffs in the SE and Beartooth Mountains in the SW, you don’t have to look at the same view for very long. Another good thing about travelling through this state is that the backroads are excellent and have 70 mph limits. The freeway is 80 mph!
We followed the Missouri River for much of the way. Water really brings life to the valley. There were many big farms with outbuildings and fields with an abundance of baled hay. Along the water were fishing lodges and summer homes. The section of road where the glaciers had cut through the volcanic rock was quite spectacular. It was first described by Lewis and Clark in 1805.
Holter Lake State Park
We chose the road though Helena because it has lots of variety, such as rugged cliffs, shimmering water and the golden grasses of late summer. Holter Lake State Park is just before it at exit 266. We’ve stayed there before and it was our stop for the night. The lake is actually a reservoir and there were many boats filled with fisherfolk. The campground had grassy sites, pit toilets (that are now called vault toilets), drinkable water, and only cost $15/night. We got a spot in the second row from the lake. I got some nice sunset pictures that had extra color because of the smoke slipping into the state.
Once the sun went down, the stars appeared. The Milky Way was brilliant and filled the sky overhead from south to north. The crickets, yipping coyotes and video game shooting sounds from a nearby trailer were all that could be heard.
I met a couple from Oregon who are travelling full-time in their C Class motor home. They have done it for almost 4 years and are looking for different options like house sitting or long stay somewhere. They liked hearing about our time in Thailand and I had a tour of their unit to see what I would have to leave behind. It is a great research opportunity when you travel and find others at a similar point in their lives. They also recommended we travel through Beartooth Pass.
Canyon Campground-Gallatin National Forest
We drove from Helena towards Gardiner on roads that were mostly new to us. About 5 pm we passed a campground that looked to have empty spots. We drove along a little further then decided the closer we got to the park, the less sites were likely to be available. We turned around and claimed a site at Canyon campground in the National forest There was no water supply but we had brought our own water jugs and the pit toilet was fine. This site had the Yellowstone River just across the highway, and huge boulders scattered everywhere. It cost $7.
At Canyon Campground,as we were finishing supper, we noticed lots of vehicles driving in and looking for sites. We decided to offer to share our site with another tenter as there was lots of room. We know that feeling of being in a new place and waiting too late to find a spot. Nick and Katie were travelling from Ohio to Portland, Oregon for an internship. They had a ripped tent that we tried to repair with duct tape. We had a lovely evening sitting by the fire ring sharing stories of travel adventures. They were very appreciative of a place to sleep.. Travel is about the places you see, but also about the people you get to meet.
It is an “All-American Road” and passes from the NE exit of Yellowstone up over the Beartooth Pass at 10972 ft., then winds its way back down the other side. It is about 69 km but with all the hairpin corners it took some time. The views were so spectacular though, I wouldn’t have wanted to go any faster.
We were well above tree line for some time and there was quite a bit of snow still at the top. At one point I commented, “There can only be marmots and pikas live up this high,” just as a marmot scampered across to the other side. The road was first used by some soldiers in the 1880’s on the advice of a hunter in the area. The road itself was built in 1936. What engineering! My pictures barely do it justice.
Yellowstone to Beartooth
To get to this road, we had to change our plans and head south to Yellowstone, where we have visited a couple of times before, then drive across the loop at the top to get to Cooke City where the Beartooth road begins. We purchased the $80 yearly park pass at Yellowstone, as we can use it in Utah as well.
The road from Mammoth Falls to Cooke City, inside the park was pretty quiet. The landscape was high plains to begin, then more forested mountains on the east side. We saw many bison in herds, mostly in the valley bottoms. A couple crossed the road in front of us. Several cars just stopped in the middle of the road to look at them in the distance. That gets to be dangerous.
We travelled along the Lamar Valley where many of the wolves from Alberta were released. It was mostly open land with water in the valleys and trees on the hilltops. We looked, but couldn’t see any wolves today.
Our trip through Wyoming was different because of our detour to travel the scenic byway. We discovered there were roads that travelled mostly north and south from Cody, WY to Vail, CO. We didn’t have to go all the way to Denver and then backtrack to the west. It was good that we hadn’t booked all of our accommodations. It is not as busy later in the summer as many Americans are back in school already so it gave us the opportunity to take advantage of visiting places we didn’t know about.
The roads in Wyoming are also very good. We spent almost no time on the interstates. Wind River travels many km through a beautiful canyon. It was such an unexpected feature in western Wyoming. The cliffs are tall and steep. The water was clear and the shade was nice. We had another drive up to 2250 m where the horizon on the other side stretched forever.
Lots of the state is empty of people and although it is all fenced we saw many more antelope than cattle. Sage and scrubby grass cover the land. The southern part has lots of oil and gas activity. We stopped at a Wal-Mart to use the washroom and I saw a mom and her 3 young boys walking out. Those kids looked like they never took off their hats. They were genuine cowboys.
Rawlins Super 8
It was early evening by the time we finished our epic drive over the pass, then drove through much of Wyoming. We knew there were some campgrounds in Rawlins, but when we arrived, they were the parking lot kind that cost $30 and you listen to your neighbors snore, or they have to listen to mine. Those in big RV’s don’t mind, but we are tent campers. There was a Super 8 across the street for $64 with wi-fi, our own bathroom, shower and included breakfast. We had salad and sandwiches from our cooler and made sure everything was chilled in the fridge overnight. After our cheap, but rustic camping, it was worth it for the night.
We had been climbing in elevation all day yesterday and continued today. Rawlins was over 6000 ft., twice as high as Rocky Mountain House. Colorado took us over another 10 000 foot pass and our campsite SE of Aspen is over 8000. The 14 000 ft mountains don’t look as big as I expected as the trees grow so much higher up the sides.
Northern Colorado was more green than Wyoming. Water must be more plentiful. We stayed on the scenic byways and passed through little towns that seemed like towns you only see in movies. There were a couple of huge power plants with mountains of coal that had been stripped from the hills where cattle now enjoy the reclaimed lands grasses. We wondered why these roads to nowhere were so good until we saw all the workers at the plant.
When we travelled down the valley south of Vail, the views were so impressive. Even though the mountains are huge, the valley is wide and green. There were hay fields and horses in the pastures. Rivers and wetlands were common. We saw more homes in the country in an hour than we did in all of Wyoming. Our GPS sent us around the wrong side of Leadville which is a “don’t miss” old mining town but maybe another time. We did drive past the old mining town of Granite, which looks like a museum along the road.
White Star Campground
When we stopped for lunch I looked ahead for camping on the way to Aspen. White Star near Twin Lakes seemed the right distance away. It is a state park along a reservoir just before the road to Independence Pass. When we arrived it looked like every site was booked, but as we looked more carefully, there were different dates on the cards listing when they were reserved. As it was Thursday, most were booked for the weekend, or next week during the eclipse. Tonight was not in high demand. This place has lots of space between the sites, pit toilets and drinking water. It was $20 for the night and an extra $6 for a bundle of firewood, which we enjoyed very much.
The skies cleared here after supper and it was a chilly evening. The sun went behind the mountain at 7:15 and by 8:30 it was pitch black. I enjoyed learning to take Milky Way photos, although I needed my parka and toque to stay outside. It was down to 6 degrees Celcius for the night and I slept with almost all my clothes on inside my sleeping bag. The elevation is 9200 ft which explains some of the cold in August.
We managed to find one more scenic by way up over a pass. It surprised me to find this road in Trip Advisor. It was steep with switchbacks and few shoulders, but it was paved and rose quickly to 12 095 ft. We walked a little trail to view the continental divide where the land it tundra here. This area of the mountains was popular for mining in the 1880’s. It was a toll road at this time. The views were fantastic. The warning signs for vehicles over 35 ft were quite entertaining. They started with 35 ft vehicles not allowed. The last signs stated
- turn around here
- you will get stuck
- you will be fined
- you will block traffic and make everyone else furious
I may have ad libbed the last one, but it gives you an idea of what they meant.
The road down to Aspen took longer and had some very narrow sections. We were still at 8900 feet. We passed lots of campgrounds, creeks, areas of rock slides and many cyclists on their way up. Wow!
Aspen, Colorado is a busy place, like a bigger Banff. There were lots of huge homes, old brick and homes, condos and vacation rentals. It has an airport and 3 golf courses. It was too busy to stop there. Gas in Colorado was about $2.50 a gallon. It was $3.59 in Aspen. We can say we’ve been there and the road to get to it was so worth it.
We arrived in Canyonlands, Utah about 5:30 where our next adventure begins.