Montana and Wyoming - Yellowstone Park and Big Sky Country

Big Sky Country, indeed!
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, no I didn’t, don’t be absurd. Wham songs aside, Dom’s parents were visiting so we thought it would be silly not to immediately leave the state (with the in-laws, the plan was never to leave them behind!). Goodbye mild weathered San Francisco, Hello freezing Montana and Wyoming!

We landed in Bozeman Montana, a beautiful quaint college town, all smothered in snow. It put me in mind of a frosty San Luis Obispo (for tales on SLO - read here). I was tickled to learn that the local newspaper was called ‘Bozone’, not to be confused with the Irish boy band ‘Boyzone’!

Bad ass Santa

When in Bozeman go straight at break neck speed (mind the ice!)to the Museum of the Rockies. It is a virtual vibrating encyclopedia on Yellowstone Park (the first ever National Park), alongside dark rooms devoted to dinosaurs, depictions of the history of Montana (including a full size original pioneers house) and lots of fascinating stories about American outpost life throughout the ages. 

Before Barney the Dinosaur, Maisy the Mouse and Peppa the Pig, our beloved childhood characters didn’t feel the need to use the definitive article, we had Top Cat, Mighty Mouse, and the best of all, Yogi Bear. Back in the 50s, cartoonists such as Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera were fans of nature and incorporated wildlife and national parks into their work. Hanna-Barbera created Yogi Bear and his side kick Booboo who lived in ‘Jellystone Park’. Thanks to the cartoon, Jellystone, or Yellowstone (if you can make the leap), was firmly planted in the consciousness of a generation.

Smarter than your avg bear

The reason the Park became so popular in the 1940s/50s was not just down to kids persistently tapping their parents knees with “Can we go see Yogi bear? Can we? Can we? Can we?....<pause for dramatic effect and air>...Can we? Can we? Can we go see Yogi bear?” It was also due to the servicemen returning from the war and wanting to take vacations in America (“the land that we love” and so on) somewhere they could use the outdoor skills they had learnt in the army. Camping in national parks became the norm.

If parks don’t float your boat or rattle your bones, surely dinosaurs do. If you’ve watched Jurassic Park (who hasn’t) you’ll be intrigued to learn that Richard Attenborough’s character is based on the curator of the Rockies Museum! As I oogled the largest tyrannosaurus skull ever discovered I kept expecting ‘Dickie’ (rest in peace) to pop up, cane in one hand,velociraptor in the other. Alas, he didn’t show.

Considering we were practically in the middle of nowhere (if you’ve trouble picturing Montana it was the background for the movie A River Runs Through It) I was delighted to discover a cafe a 2 minute drive from the museum that served up delicious, healthy and hearty comfort food. America has really latched on to the ‘gluten free’ food fashion, you can’t throw a stone without having a vegan biscuit lobbed back at you. It’s a good thing, the food fashion, not the hurling of missiles, vegan or otherwise!

The museum (and my gluten free lunch) had me all revved up, it was time to get my ‘Yogi’ on and see the park. Only a measly one percent of the park is actually in Montana, another one percent is in Idaho and the rest is in Wyoming. To give you some perspective, the park is bigger than Rhode Island and Connecticut put together (for my take on New England - read here).

Montana is known as Big Sky Country, when most people think about the Treasure State they think of horses and cowboys, they're not far wrong. On the way to Yellowstone we motored through a rural town called Livingston. It was home to the famous whip cracking, gun slinging Calamity Jane (made famous on the silver screen by Doris Day). 

Yellowstone Park
We drove across the state line into Wymoing, some gentle manouvering on the icy roads from Dom and his Dad who shared the driving (not helped by my “Can we go see Yogi bear? Can we? Can we? Can we?....<pause to thump the headrest>...Can we? Can we? Can we go see Yogi bear?”) and we found ourselves in the park! We pulled up in Mammoth Hot Springs and scrambled out of the ice and into our hotel.

Everything's bigger in America

The hotel was straight out of the movie The Shining. It was old, it was sparse, there were no mod cons but they kept it hot, hot, hot (always a win, win, win, with my Irish bones). The staff were friendly if a bit discombobulated at times (I’d be more than discombobulated if I lived in the Shining hotel!). 

We all live and die by our phones but it was nice to take a break from the constant stream of information. Mobile phone coverage was almost non existent in the park, but when it was active my screen would show a signal routed through the ‘US Union Exchange’. I have no idea what that is but I loved the sound of it, I kept picturing a 1960s telephonist connecting all the calls “Good afternoon, how can I direct your call?”

Something went bump in the night

The hotel didn’t have an X Factor but it did have an Awe Factor - bison and deer would stroll right up to your bedroom window. If you were lucky you’d hear a soft padded nose mush against your window, whip up the lace curtain and there would be a big ole moosey face gawping at you. Bison and deer weren’t the only animals that would come out to play in winter, bears, foxes and elk are known to roam the expanse too.

Dom pointed out that we hadn’t come to Yellowstone park to sit on our butts in the hotel (Damn, hadn’t we? That’s exactly what I thought we had come to do). It was time to put down the hot chocolates and see what our bison roomies were up to. There is a walking trail you can start, a minute's amble from the hotel that gives you a flavour of the beauty of your surroundings. You get amid the hot springs themselves and let the tangy sulphur air attack your adenoids. It threw me straight back to my visit to Rotorua (aka Sulphur City) in New Zealand many moons ago (for tales from my travel to NZ fourteen years ago - check it out here).

"We're going on a bear hunt"

I was savagely disappointed to learn that heavy snow had closed the road to the famous Old Faithful geyser, but they do say you have to leave something to come back to. Another reason to come back is cross country skiing. If it hadn’t been for my ‘condition’ I would have been out there gliding through the majestic valleys (or slowly descending into the splits a la Bridget Jones, one of those two).

Christmas came, yay, I love Christmas, but if you wrap Christmas up in some snow, it’s value immediately increases, then you have something truly magical. We wiled away the hours eating, drinking, playing copious card games and the highly addictive board game Catan.

On St Stephen’s day (Boxing Day - to the Brits, the day after the holiday day - to the Americans) we explored the park in our car. We drove over the Yellowstone river via Lamar Valley, a local had tipped us off that it was a hot spot for local wildlife in the winter, we weren’t disappointed...

We rounded a corner and almost rear ended a bison traffic jam. Moving at a crawl we were swamped by the bearded buffalos. They were like paparazzi, they were in front, behind, beside, I half expected to look up and see one roof surfing on our SUV.

Every now and then we’d spot an elk in the distance, regally striking a pose on a mountain top. We’d occasionally see a wolf jog by, it’s latest kill hanging limp in it’s mouth, reminding us that we were in their park, not they in ours.

I hope you intend to floss

Waterfalls litter the park and believe it or not there are 'waterfall chasers' people who fly helicopters around the park trying to find new waterfalls, which they do!

If you know your latitude from your longitude, get butterflies everytime someone mentions the equator and have ‘visit the North Pole’ top of your bucket list… then head to the parks 45th parallel (line of latitude) which marks the half way point between the equator and the North Pole.

On another drive we threw caution to the wind, exited the park and dropped back into Montana for a spot of lunch.

Cooke City
Cooke City Montana is a snow mobilers town in the winter. To me snow mobilers were good looking French guys that zoomed around the alps helping unfortunate skiers get out of pickles. These guys were a different kettle of fish, they were big, hairy, Great Plains cowboys. My hunch was that Cooke City became a biker town in the summer when these dudes would ride into the city on a hog (a motorbike, not the animal, although each to their own). The magnificent Beartooth highway sweeps you into the town, it’s corralled by mountains so it would probably make for an incredible motorbike ride.

Rush hour in Cooke City

Outside saloons where you’d expect to see horses in the old wild west days were rows of snow mobiles. I say ‘saloons’ because they weren’t bars or pubs they were the kind of watering holes where Wyatt Earp would be at home downing his liqour. You can walk the length and breadth of the ‘city’ in 5 minutes so it wasn’t hard to choose a place to eat. Inside the cafe, big hairy bikers were wedged into petit seats, their riding leathers replaced with Goretex salopettes.

They eyed us up as the Anglo Irish contingent commandeered the table beside the fire. A round of hot chocolates and a spiffing British, “Awfully nice place here, old chap!” seemed to ease the tension. Post lunch, we took another 5 minute walk to stretch the legs and admire the charming log cabins. I think calling itself a city is a little cheeky, the population is 140, come on. But Wyoming is the least populated state in the US. However, Cooke City is in Montana (you cry) but in the Winter when roads close you can only access it via Wyoming.

It was time to say goodbye to the park and make our way back to the airport. We stopped at the gateway to the park for one last photo and to have a mosey around the little town of Gardiner. It remains entrenched in its pioneer days, and still makes its money through ranching, mining and outfitting, and I'm guessing a bucket load of tourism. 

It’s also interesting to note that the hair fashion for most men of a certain age in Montana and Wyoming is the classic bald spot shadowed on either side by grey hair, braided down the back into a nice long plait. Business in the front, party in the back!

My lasting impression of Yellowstone, apart from the hair do’s (or don’ts as the case may be), is how expansive it is. The quiet stillness arrests your senses and makes you aware that you are a guest of nature, the park truly does belong to the wildlife and it’s a privilege to savour all the wondrous views. In amongst the still plains, the valleys and mountains sizzle and bubble, don’t leave the park until you’ve giggled at a geyser and hugged a hot spring.

To sum up Yellowstone I think I’ll let the Earl of Dunraven (one of the earliest travelers to the park) take it away - “This is the last outpost of civilisation in the west - that is, the last place that a man can get a whiskey.”

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