Saturday, July 14, 2012

America the Beautiful

Since we left Washington, we have spent the last three days driving 1100 miles through some of the prettiest places on the planet.  The Cascades were magnificent.  Eastern Washington was a desolate landscape of boring shrubbery.  Western Montana showcased gorgeous rolling hills, majestic buttes, dazzling creeks, glassy lakes, fields of bright wildflowers, picturesque small towns, and of course, big blue sky.  I loved driving through Western Montana.

At the last minute on Wednesday, we decided to add 500 miles to the trip and drive up to northern Montana to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.  What a fantastic detour.  The winding road climbs the craggy peaks.  Waterfalls, both large and small, cascade down the mountains filled with fresh snow melt.  The Continental Divide at Logan Pass provides a 360 degree view of the gorgeous Rocky Mountains.  

There were not as many "glaciers" as I expected but, admittedly, I did not really know what a glacier was.  Basically, the glacier is the permanent or semi-permanent snow pack on a mountain.  Back in the olden days, these mounds of snow and ice covered most of the Western U.S.  Now, most of the summer snow pack is gone.  The glaciers melt down each summer to almost nothing.  They expect that all of the glaciers will be gone (meaning no snow covered peaks in summer) by 2020.  Definitely glad we took the detour.

The only place more amazing than Glacier National Park is the grand daddy of all national parks - Yellowstone.  This huge park simply astounds with the magnitude and diversity of astounding natural wonders.  Sitting on a still active giant volcano, the relatively close magma provides most of Yellowstone's unique wonders.  Although we did not do the park justice by driving through in a day, we got to see dozens of amazing things.  The highlights include - 
  • Mammoth Hot Springs - bubbling hot water filled with calcium permeates to the Earth's surface.  After it reaches the surface, it cools quickly depositing the calcium as it races downhill.  The leftover calcium quickly forms steps down the hill.  New springs form and old springs close regularly, leaving a patchwork of steps around the area.
  • Waterfalls - The tower falls were pretty cool, but the highlight was undoubtedly the Upper Falls and Lower Falls (Yellowstone is so old, that they can simply name them upper and lower falls) on the Yellowstone River.  Between the two falls, the river drops over 400 feet in less than a half mile.  The NPS has done everything possible to make these falls accessible to guests.
  • Surrounding these waterfalls is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  While no where nearly as majestic as the real Grand Canyon, this river-formed canyon remains spectacular.
  • Animals - While we missed out on seeing Grizzly and Moose, we saw herds of Bison and elk, along with marmots, deer, goats and other wild animals.  We even saw a bald eagle soaring through the Grand Canyon.
  • Bubbling Mud - Several parks of the park feature bubbling mud pits, which stink of sulfur, but are spectacular to watch.  Surprisingly, many of the animals live in the area near the mud pits because the pits provide ground warmth which helps provide both food and warmth during cold winters.
  • Old Faithful - The famous geyser performed a few minutes later than predicted, but the geyser was still spectacular.  Watching the show, I quickly understood why this place was the first national park.
  • The roads - Most people might overlook this, but I lived the last two years in Belize, where spectacular natural wonders are often too difficult to reach.  The NPS has done a fantastic job of building the park with roads, campgrounds, trails, etc.  That the public really has access to these sights is due to the fantastic work of the government.  Additionally, there were rangers at all the major sites happy to answer questions.
After we left Old Faithful, we drove through Grand Teton National Park as the sun began to set.  Although I wish we had gotten to see the Tetons better, the views of the peaks were still amazing.  The best part of Grand Teton were the buffalo.  At one scenic pull-outs, there was a huge herd of bison roaming across the nearby fields.  I asked a ranger about them and he let us know we could drive down a gravel road ran back through the fields toward the herd.  Driving down the road, we stared at the hundreds of bison 200 yards to our left when suddenly I looked right.  On the ridge 20 feet above us stood several Bison silhouetted in the darkening sky.  As we watched him, several of his friends joined them and they began to ramble down the hill only 10 feet in front of the car.  Simply amazing.

Road leading into Montana on the Idaho border

River in Montana

Waterfall in Glacier National Park 
Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs

New forest growth springing up after the old forest died in a fire

Me with the lower falls in the backround

The brink of the upper falls

Bubbling mud

Old Faithful

Bison on the ridge

Bison on the road in front of us