Day 6 -- Yellowstone to Gillette, WY

This morning I am a little bit better, certainly better than yesterday morning. I am moving slowly, but I am moving. I awoke this morning with a need to arise early and visit the local facilities. I struggled into my clothes, trying not to awaken anyone, unzipped the tent door and crawled out. As I stood up, I received a full salute from a nearby group of coyotes, long and loud. Kathy started laughing in the tent behind me. I said hello to the songsters and continued on to my destination.

About an hour later, Kathy and I decided that it was time for us all to get a move on. She managed to get Rebecca and Daniel up and started on breakfast. As usual, the tent was covered with condensation. We got all of the sleeping bags and pads packed up and opened up the tent so air could circulate through. The tent fly was taken off and spread out so that sun light could hit the entire surface and also warm the tent while we ate breakfast. After breakfast we packed up everything we could, but the tent fly was not nearly dry. We knocked off all the water that we could and suspended it between two supports where it could get full sun while we took the tent down. We had already given up on the ground cloth and were just folding it carefully and putting it in a plastic bag to keep it away from everything else. Then we just waited for the fly to dry. The ferret and the prairie dog kept us company until the sun and the breeze had done their jobs. Then we did our final packing and got on our way

For the last time we crossed the stream and left the campground and turned south toward Norris Junction. From there we retraced our steps to Canyon Village. Now we headed into new territory, turning south at Canyon Village, driving past the roads going out to the canyon overlooks and on toward toward Fishing Village. Between Canyon and Fishing Villages lies the Hayden Valley, lush green grass covered meadows with a meandering stream wandering through. And here we found more bison, some again grazing just next to the road and entirely unfazed by cars stopping nearby.


The valley was once filled with an arm of Yellowstone Lake and now contains fine grained lake sediments full of clay and silt. These components prevent water from soaking into the underlying glacial till making the valley very marshy and allowing the stream to follow interesting meanders.

At Fishing Village we turned east toward Sylvan Pass and the east entrance to Yellowstone. We crossed Fishing Bridge, over the Yellowstone River, along the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Fishing is no longer allowed on the bridge itself. The lake fills part of the depression formed by the collapse of the caldera after the last explosion about 600,000 years ago. Glacial gravels are found around the lake area demonstrating that the area was covered by a glacier since the last volcanic era here. But the volcanic era isn't over yet. The frequent earthquakes here are caused by the continuing uplift in this area, at the rate of about an inch a year, caused by pressure from the hot magma beneath the surface layers.

East of Fishing Bridge, near Yellowstone Lake are 2 hydrothermal explosion craters that are now filled with water, Indian Pond and Turbid Lake. In this region we also encounter volcanic rocks from 2 different eras. The rim of the Yellowstone caldera, just east of Yellowstone Lake show rhyolite flows with an age of about 600,000 years. The rocks of the Absaroka range we are about to enter are composed of 50 million year old conglomerates and diorite covered by volcanic ash from the more recent events of the Yellowstone Volcanic Cycle.

Shortly after we left the Lake area we encountered delays due to road work that continued until we left the park. The road surface was entirely gone; even the road bed had been removed. The big earth moving machines were sufficient to intrigue Daniel for a while, but then even these wore a bit thin for a boy to whom movement means almost everything. Suddenly we began to notice a few reconditioned "classic cars" coming from the opposite direction. While we were waiting for our turn to move on, we made a game of trying to read the license plates, on these cars as they went by us, heading in to Yellowstone. We were never really able to read the license plates except to see that they were all "special" plates. All the way up to Sylvan Pass, at 8530´ (2600 m), these cars continued to go by.

Finally we were free of the roadwork. It was a good thing that we had no definite destination for this evening. We had lost a lot of time here. Our next agreed upon destination is Devils Tower, but we may visit it either this evening or tomorrow morning. We have not even decided upon the roads that we will take to get there. For the moment we are happy to be on our way again. Now we descend from the east entrance (6951´, 2119 m) through the volcanic/sedimentary rocks of the Absaroka Volcanic Supergroup, in the Shoshone National Forest, into the valley of the Shoshone River. This valley has a narrow profile, unwidened by glacial erosion.

On the north side of the road, above Blackwater Creek, is found Mummy Cave, so named because the mummified body of a man who had died 1300 years ago was found there. Thirty-eight different periods of occupation of this cave over a period of 9000 years have been identified by archaeologists.

Between this point and Wapiti, tall, narrow pinnacles have been eroded in the soft conglomerate by weathering along verticals cracks in the stone. For some reason, one of them is labeled Chimney Rock which brings on a round of jokes about the large number of features in the west named Chimney Rock. Some of the spires are topped by harder rocks which protect the upper reaches of the the spires from erosion.

Just west of Wapiti the valley broadens, exposing light colored layers of water deposited volcanic ash. This rock is easier to erode, allowing the river to widen here.

Just after Wapiti we enter a narrow canyon where the dam that confines the Buffalo Bill resevoir was constructed. We pulled out at the parking lot here to look at the incredible rocks exposed here, from the Precambrian basement, over 570 million years old! the view is spectacular, in large part because the rock layers are tilted almost 90° from the orientation in which they were deposited. The river cuts through the middle of this rock. Erosion on the sides of this canyon has created structures called flatirons because the weathering widens the cracks between the now vertical rock layers and smooths the upper exposed edge of the rock into a wedge shape, leaving formations shaped like, well, flatirons.

From here we drive east, passing through a series of tunnels through this massive uplifted block from the earth's basement until we emerge at the contact point between the ancient rock and the much more recent sandstone sedimentary layers just east of Cody. There are a few hot springs along the river before we reach the town.

Cody is built on floodplain gravels from the Shoshone River, not far from the old hunting camp of Buffalo Bill Cody. Gravels here came first from the Bull Lake glaciation and most recently from the Pinedale glaciation. We stopped in Cody to fill the Prev with gas. I decided that we should take the northward fork in the road because of my pleasant memories of a previous drive over the Big Horn Mountains by that route. Taking this fork insures that Heart Mountain, north of Cody, will remain in sight for a long time. In fact, it seems that every road to the left that we pass is called Heart Mountain Road. This is a constant reminder to me that I am in the middle of the landscape written about by Gretel Erlich in The Solace of Open Spaces, and which she then showed from another perspective in the novel Heart Mountain, centered on the relocation camp for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent that was located there during World War II.

After we passed through Lovell, we drove across the flood plain of the Big Horn River and began our climb up the steep western slope of the Big Horn Mountains. The views were spectacular.

Spectacular View over the river valley

We pulled out at one of the overlooks provided and took in the expanse of the landscape. The Western landscape is incredible because it is so young, geologically. It has not been smoothed away by the effects of erosion. It is not covered by dense vegetation. You can look at the land and learn from it. John McPhee has written about David Love, who grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, learned to study the land when he was a young boy, and went on to a career in the U.S. Geological Service.

We continued the steep climb up to the top of these mountains. When we reach the higher levels, where water is more abundant, we pulled out at another overview. Here the view was again spectacular, both locally and in the distance. The wildflowers were thick in the grass. The Rocky Mountain Wild Iris and Sego Lilies were in full bloom.

Spectacular View 2 over the river valley

Many years ago Steve and I had taken a side road a few miles ahead to see a very amazing man made feature, the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. We decide to see if it was possible to do that today. We took the dirt road, which I was able to identify from memory. When we had driven a mile or two in, we encountered a gate across the road. There was a trailer there where a ranger from the forest service met us. She explained that they no longer allowed people to drive all the way to the Medicine Wheel after a New Age group decided to hold a meeting up there, drawing thousands of people, and caused significant damage to the local vegetation. They now control access to the site. Visitors must hike up from this point, a mile or more. An added complication, beyond the delays we had suffered due to the road construction, was the fact that it had snowed here at the same time that it had snowed in Yellowstone and the Tetons. Therefore, we would have to make the hike through snow. We decided that it was the better part of valor to continue driving east and save this visit for another day.

The drive across the top of the Big Horns is surprisingly easy. At Burgess Junction we join US 14 (we have been on 14A) for the descent down the east slope of the mountains. The viewpoints on this part of the road allow you to see the massive boulders that have fallen from the mountain peaks. There is a group so large that it is called the Fallen City. After we have descended, we pass through Dayton, near the site of the Battle of Tongue River.. We join the Interstate for the short drive to Sheridan where we have decided to eat dinner. Near here we pass the site of the Fetterman Massacre or the Battle of the Hundred Slain. Had we turned north, we could have visited the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Naturally the streets here are under repair too. We negotiated the detours and find the main drag. We made in instant decision to turn south (we're headed in that direction) and began to look for a place to eat. Naturally we found nothing until we reached the area next to the freeway entrance. The towns have all reorganized about the Interstate! We stopped at a local steak house where Daniel charmed the waitress. Rebecca got her prime rib; Kathy got a rack of barbecued ribs; I got a small steak and Daniel had his chicken bits and french fries again. On the table was a copy of a small, locally published book called Wyoming Walk About. While waiting for our dinner to arrive, I read various short items from the local folklore to my audience. There were also a set of recipes and political commentary. This kept us occupied until we were served. We finished our dinners with dispatch and I picked up a copy of the book, which had a list of recommended Wyoming restaurants at the back, when I paid the bill.

We returned to the Interstate to drive on in the direction of Devils Tower as far as we could before finding a motel for the night. We drove past Buffalo and to Gillette before stopping for the night. As we approached Gillette, we learned from the billboards that it was a coal mining center. At the motel, we took turns going back and forth to the car, cleaning out the trash, reorganizing the interior, and generally taking advantage of the fact that we would sleep in beds tonight. I didn't care if it rained tonight!


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Two photographs taken in the area covered today, taken in 1870-71, are available from the National Archives Photographs of the American West online exhibit:

A noon meal in Ferdinand V. Hayden's camp of the U.S. Geological Survey. Red Buttes, Wyo. Terr., August 24, 1870. Hayden sits at far end of table in dark jacket; W. H. Jackson stands at far right. By Jackson.

The U.S. Geological and Geophysical Survey of the Territories, conducted by Hayden, en route with pack train upon the trail between the Yellowstone and East Fork Rivers "showing the manner in which all parties traverse these wilds." Wyo. Terr. By Jackson, 1871.

See our map and guide reference section for trail maps and other useful information available from has over 3,500 maps.

Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer, DeLorme Publishing.

Roadside Geology of Wyoming, David R. Lageson & Darwin R. Spearing, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, MT

Heart Mountain, Gretel Ehrlich, Penguin.

The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich, Viking

Time Exposure : The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson, William Henry Jackson, Patrice Press.

William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape, Peter B. Hales, Temple Univ. Press.

William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier, Douglas Waitley, Gwen McKenna, William H. Jackson, Mountain Press. (Hardcover)

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom