Mammoth Cave, located in southwestern Kentucky, was officially designated as a national park in 1941. The park is approximately 53,000 acres (small by national park standards); its main focus is the cave system which lies under the surface.
Mam Cave, as it is called locally, is the longest cave known to exist in the world at just under 400 miles. The 400 miles of cavern are not linear, but exist on six levels which crisscross and extend out in multiple directions, fitting inside a seven square mile area under the park.
We took a ranger led tour during our visit, venturing down 250 feet below the surface and then through a series of rooms as we gradually climbed back towards the surface to exit the mine.
The park offers a wide range of tours differing in time and the level of physical activity required to complete the tour. We took the Domes and Drips Tour where you are brought through some of the largest domes in the cave system and also to a wetter area where stalactites and stalagmites are still forming.
The lower two levels of the cave are underground rivers – with water draining down from the Green River and the numerous sinkholes in and around the park. In the past visitors could tour the lower cavern by boat but the practice was stopped to protect the environment.
A brief History of mam cave
As we mentioned above, Mam Cave became a national park in 1941. What we did not realize until we visited the park and spent time touring the scenic backways of the park was how the park came into being.
The caves were originally mined for saltpeter which was used in the making of ammunition.The caves in the area were privately held and operated by the owners as tourist attractions from the early 1800s until the park became a national park.
There were many people in government, science and business who, for various reasons, wanted to see Mam Cave designated as a national park and thus be protected. The federal government would not buy land for the creation of a national park but would accept donated land for that purpose. As a result, a private organization was formed for the purpose of buying the privately owned land and donating the land to the federal government.
Over a period of several years the required amount of land was purchased (in some cases through eminent domain). There was also a land donation of 8,000 acres made by a single family.
The photographs above and below show the only remaining structures from three of the communities (Good Springs, Flint Ridge, Joppa Ridge) that ceased to exist as the residents moved to other towns outside of the park boundary. Some of the families and their descendants lived in theses communities for 200 years before they were displaced.
The park service has preserved these churches and the adjacent graveyards, providing a peak into life in early rural America. All other structures from these communities were razed when the National Park was established.
The families of the descendants are still able to use the churches for weddings, funerals and other special occasions. The cemetaries bear witness to this use as we observed newer monuments in each of the graveyards.
We enjoyed our two days at Mam Cave. The cave tour was well organized and interesting. We would have to say that from a persective of the cave only that Carlsbad (New Mexico) and Wind Cave (South Dakota) are more dramatic from a visual perspective.
Having said that, Mam Cave offers a number of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as a paved bike path. Additionally, the Green River which flows through the park provides the opportunity for kayaking and canoeing.
If you are a national park fan and have not yet visited, we recommend that you include Mam Cave in an upcoming park itinerary.
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in North America at approximately 120 miles in length and a depth of between 600 and 800 feet. While not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon or Hells Canyon in our opinion (primarily due to the fairly shallow depth) it is nonetheless a spectacular sight. We were fortunate to be able to camp on the canyon floor and complete several hikes while enjoying fantastic weather.
The canyon is noted in Texas history as the place where the decisive battle of The Red River War occured in the fall of 1874. Commanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne Indians were living on the floor of the canyon in five settlements. They had amassed a herd of 1400 horses and provisions for the upcoming winter.
These tribes were the last of the Southern Plains Indians not imprisoned on Indian reservations. The U.S. cavalry rode down into the canyon and attacked each of the settlements. The people of the tribes fled down the canyon with the cavalry pursuing.
After pursuing tribes far enough to ensure that they could not return, the cavalry destroyed all of the teepees and food in the settlements. And, of course, they killed all of the tribe’s horses-except the 200 that they kept for their own use.
The surviving tribal members, faced with starvation, accepted the same fate as their brethen before them, and relocated to the Indian reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The land was cleared of the tribes, although large herds of bison were still living in the canyon. The land was opened for settlement; in 1876 the JA Ranch was established in the canyon for the purpose of raising cattle.
The cattlemen had no use for the bison. They needed the land and water for their cattle; so they allowed the bison to be hunted. Fortunately, the wife of one of the ranch owners, Mary Ann Goodnight, was able to convince her husband to stop the hunting as she was rightly concerned about the extinction of the species. The herd was eventually relocated to Caprock Canyon where it now resides and is protected as the official Texas State Bison Herd.
Turkey is a short drive east of Quitaque and Palo Duro Canyon. If you prefer hotel accommodations while visiting Palo Duro and this area of the Panhandle, Turkey is the place to stay.
The town’s origins are agricultural – cotton, watermelon, sweet potatoes and peanuts. The town was platted in 1907. The current population is 396.
Despite the small size of Turkey and its rural location it is well known among afficiandos of Western Swing music as the home of Bob Wills. Wills was the town barber and a fiddler and songwriter and is widely acknowledged as the co-creator of Western Swing.
As his music became more popular he formed a band – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. The band toured around Texas and Oklahoma and regularly played on radio shows in Oklahoma City.
The Hotel Turkey (HT) is hands down the place to stay in the area. The hotel has been in continuous operation since 1927. Hopefully, the photos below convey the western charm of this unique hotel.
HT has a full restaurant (Friday is the fried catfish special and Saturday is the steak special), outdoor bar and live musical entertainment several nights a week. Make reservations in advance – the hotel often sells out on weekends.
Caprock Canyon Sate Park is a series of canyons covering about 13,000 acres. It is part of the Caprock Escarpment which runs north to south and seperates the great flat plains of the Texas Panhandle from the rolling plains to the east.
We traveled to Caprock after our stay at Palo Duro Canyon. We camped on the flats above the canyon within walking distance of the rim (photo below). Caprock, like Palo Duro, has many miles of hiking, horseback and mountain biking trails.
We initially had beautiful weather as you can see from the photographs. Unfortunately, a windstorm came roaring up from the south with 30 to 40 mile per hour winds and we spent most of our second day inside the van waiting out the storm.
We recommend both of these state parks if you enjoy hiking, mountain biking or camping. The are dozens of hikes of varying difficulty and length with one common feature – spectacular scenery.
Palo Duro is within 30 minutes of Amarillo if you are not interested in staying in the park. Similarly, Caprock Canyon is a reasonable drive from Lubbock.
The PPHM is located on the campus of West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. The museum is dedicated to preserving all facets of the history of the Texas Panhandle Plains region of Texas. The museum houses exhibits on the petroleum industry, paleontology, archeology, geography, art and history. This museum literally has something for everyone.
We toured the museum but must admit to a keen interest in seeing the exhibit of modernist paintings by Emil Bisttram. We had seen his works previously at other museums featuring the works of Taos, New Mexico artists – most recently at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana.
This exhibit of Bisttram’s work features paintings from the latter part of his career. The paintings are dramatically different from his earlier work in Taos. Below is a photograph of one his landscapes completed in 1931.
“I am always experimenting. As I paint today may not be the way I’ll paint next month. I’m always studying and I hope always growing.” — Emil Bisttram
While we are not usually fans of abstract work, we enjoyed this exhibit. Perhaps because we are familiar with Bisttram’s earlier work, or perhaps because these later paintings, while abstract, contain more recognizable forms. Regardless, we admire his precision and use of color.
We think the PPHM is absolutely worth a visit if you are planning to be in the Amarillo/Canyon area. And, as frosting on the cake, Palace Coffee’s original cafe is less than a ten minute walk from the museum.
Lastly, it is a short drive from Canyon to the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon which you can enjoy by hiking or touring by automobile.
After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.
The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.
Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.
Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.
Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.
EL RITO (pop. 808)
After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!
Abiqui and south
We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.
After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.
The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.
The High Road to Taos is a scenic drive that connects Taos and Santa Fe. We drove a portion of the route while staying in Taos. Leaving from Taos heading south, the first 30 miles take you on a winding route up and over mountains within the Carson National Forest. The scenery as you might imagine is quite spectacular.
While the views are impressive we found the cultural aspects of the trip even more impressive. The villages, architecture, churches and food reflect the Old Spain of the early Spanish settlements.
Each of the small villages has a Spanish style church – many have been continuosly operating for over two hundred years. We traveled through the villages of Penasco, Chamisal, Trampas, Truchas, Cordova and Chimayo. These villages still maintain the wood carving and weaving expertise and traditions that came from Spain with the first settlers.
SANTUARIO DE Chimayo
We followed the byway as far as Chimayo where we stopped to visit El Santuario de Chimayo. The intial construction took place in 1813. Long before the Spanish arrived Pueblo Indians considered this ground as sacred with healing powers.
The Catholic Church carried forward the belief that the earth under what is now the Plaza del Cerro is sacred and has miraculous healing powers. As a result, the Santuario is a major pilgimage site drawing over 300,000 visitors annually.
The Santuario is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the southwest. The evidence of the woodworking skills of the Spanish settlers is on display throughout the plaza – from the carved figures to the beautiful doors. The plaza is the sole remaining Spanish fortified plaza in New Mexico.
Ranchero de chimayo
Any worthwhile pilgramage deserves to be rewarded with an excellent meal. Fortunately, while the total population of the small plazas that constitue Chimayo is only 3200 people, one of the best New Mexican cuisine restaurants is located here.
In fact, the Ranchero has been serving food here for 50 years to locals and travelers alike. Interestingly, for our fellow Nutmeggers, the owner, Florence Jaramillo was born in Hartford, Conneticut. Florence moved to Chimayo after marrying Arturo Jaramillo, who was a native of Chimayo. The site of the restaurant is Arturo’s ancestral home.
We returned home via Espanola and the River Road (runs along the Rio Grande River).
The Espanola Chamber of Commerce and the McCune Foundation are sponsoring youth mural projects and we stopped in town to see some of the murals. We are glad that we did – as you can see from the photographs these are, without exception, excellent murals.
After a brief but exhilarating visit to Moab (see post Moab = Fun and Adventure) we set out for Durango across Utah 46 which becomes Colorado 90 at the border. Colorado 90 is a gem – a beautiful ride up into the Southern Rocky Mountains within the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The pass at the top of route opens up to the panorama of the Paradox Valley. The majority of this route is very remote and we would not advise traveling this road in winter weather.
The Paradox Valley is a remote, thinly settled and beautiful place. The valley is approxiamtely 25 miles long running in a north – south direction. The width of the valley is between three and five miles. The paradox that led to the naming of the valley is the unusual east to west flow of the Dolores River which cuts across the valley, as opposed to running the length of the valley.
A Canadian company proposed building a uranium mill in the valley in 2009. Fortunately, the project was abandoned in 2020. As much as we recognize the need for extractive industries it would have been a shame to alter the beauty and character of this place with a uranium mill and everything that comes with the extraction of radioactive materials.
We were looking forward to taking a break at the Bedrock Store (serving outlaws since 1881). The Bedrock Store was used in the filming of the movie Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, the store was not open.
We made a brief stop in Durango, CO enroute to New Mexico. Durango is a mountain town which sits just below 8000 feet above sea level and is a base for the alpine ski mountains in the areas. The town sits along the Rio de las Animas Perdidas which provides wonderful scenery for the bike path nestled on the bank of the river.
As you might surmise from the photos we were quite taken with Taste Coffee as well as barista and co-owner Mike Clarke. P.S. There is a narrow gauge railroad that runs from Durango to Silverton – which we did not ride because we left town to avoid a predicted snowstorm – but it looks like a lot of fun.
With heavy snow predicted in the Western Rockies we re-routed due south into New Mexico – stopping to visit the puebloan ruins located in the town of Aztec, Colorado.
The Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico. The ruins are 900 years old. We utilized the excellent self-guided audio tour to explore the ruins. This is an impressive site with over 400 rooms and an a restored Pueblo Great House. It is well worth the visit if your travels will be taking you to northern New Mexico. ( https://www.nps.gov/azru/index.htm )
Change of plans
After our overnight in Chama we traveled north and east across Colorado Route 17 to access the Carson National Forest for our planned overland trip from the border to Jemez Springs, NM. When we arrived we found the forest roads still covered in snow with mud underneath. This is a bad recipe for safe travel on narrow mountain roads so we decided to hold off on overlanding (no paved roads) until conditions improved.
We decided to visit Taos while waiting for better conditions on our overland routes. We will report on our stay in Taos in our next post.
Moab was a sleepy trading post and farming community for most of its history. Its settlement dates back to about 1829 when people traveling north on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail would attempt to cross the Colorado River in Moab and the local inhabitants would sell their goods to the travelers.
A little over 100 years later uranium was discovered in Moab. Uranium was in great demand for use in nuclear weapons post World War 2, so the federal government stepped in and passed laws mandating that all uranium mined in the United States could only be sold to the federal government. The economy of Moab shifted to mining overnight and Moab became known as the uranium capital of the world.
Unfortunately, as must, all booms result in some sort of bust. By 1960 the federal government declared it had all the uranium it needed. Since no one else could purchase uranium the mines in Moab began to close; the last of the mines closed in 1980. The population which had reached 6,000 declined to 1,000.
Today, the Moab area draws tourists who come to mountain bike, hike, rock climb, drive off road trails and boat on the Colorado. Additionally, Moab hosts two unique national parks – Arches and Canyonlands
While the town is prospering, there still remains the issue of remediating the uranium sites. When a visitor enters town for the first time driving south on route 191, it is hard to miss the large mound of contaminated pilings near the road.This pile consists of the remaining contaminated tailings. Over 16 million tons of tailings were produced from the uranium mills in Utah. The tailings are being removed and taken by train to a permanent disposal location in Colorado. More than 10 million tons have been removed so far under the auspices of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program paid for by the citizens of the United States.
Final note: many of the miners that worked in the Uranium mills were Navajo. There was little regard for their safety. The Navajo workers suffered significantly from lung cancer and other diseases. While the U.S. Public Health Service was aware of the effects as early as 1951, it was not until 1990 that the health impact was acknowledged. To make matters worse, the Navajo were not eligible for financial compensation until 2017.
Moab is certainly a mountain biking mecca – the good news is that for those of us in need of less demanding terrain, the town has developed a number of bike paths and bike lanes. One of the bike paths runs east along the Colorado River providing magnificent views of the river and red rock cliffs.
Camping with a view…
Moab and the surrounding area offers scores of camping choices. Everything from in town RV resorts to remote primitive camping. We look forward to “boondocking” in Moab. We generally camp in a different location each night to enjoy different settings as well as the fantastic night sky and solitude.
One of the reasons we chose a high clearance 4wd equipped Sprinter was our desire to go places that we would never be able to see and experience without that capability. The Moab area provides a plethora of opportunities to put the Beast to the test. Above and below we have included a sample of several of our 4wd adventures.
Our favorite new Moab mural.
Our trip from Salt Lake City to Moab usually involves a lunch and coffee stop in Helper, Utah. Helper has been undergoing a revitalization over the last several years and has become home to a number of artists. On this stop we discovered some wonderful paintings by Thomas Elmo Williams. Williams was a coal miner for 14 years before a mining accident put an end to that line of work for him. Williams started his new career sketching fellow miners and still focuses much of his art on the labor of working folks. He has a gallery in Helper.
We love Utah and recommend that if you love outdoor recreational activities then a visit to Utah should be on your travel list, with a definite stop in Moab.
The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a spectacular drive. The route follows a paved road from Wise, Montana to its end near Dillon, Montana. The Pioneer Mountains have an eastern and western range. The drive winds through the meadows between the ranges providing incredible views all around. Interestingly, the two ranges are very different in appearance. The eastern range has tall, jagged peaks (think Grand Tetons) while the western range is more rounded. These are big mountains with several peaks above 11,000 feet.
We were not familiar with this range before a gentlemen in Shelby told us about this drive – thank you! This is one of the biggest ranges we had never heard of before. The range is within national forest – largely unspoiled – just mountains, forests, meadows and the the byway bisecting the range.
About 25 miles along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway we came to a five mile dirt road that climbs up to the site of the ghost town of Coolidge and the defunct Elkhorn Mine and Mills. The road is fine for 2wd vehicles if it is dry.
The former mine and town sit at an elevation of 6601 feet. The mine produced zinc, lead and silver from 1875 until it was decommissioned in 1899 when the ore load was considered to be played out. The Elkhorn was the last mine in Montana to produce silver.
Work to reopen the mine under new ownership began in 1918. The tunneling work brought people back to Coolidge and a school and post office were established. The town even had electricity – no small feat at that time in such a remote location. Unforunately, by the time the tunneling was completed and the mine was actually ready to begin producing in 1923, silver prices plummeted and the mine went bust.
Subsequently, a dam collapse wiped out several sections of rail line and the town lost rail service marking the beginning of the end. The school and post office closed soon after.
The remains of the town are mostly collapsed at this point – not much to explore in that regard, but we think it is worth the visit – the scenery from the mine site is gorgeous and you walk away with a real sense of the what conditions must have been like when the mine and town were operating.
After completing our drive on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Highway we continued south through the Grasshopper Valley to visit the ghost town of Bannack. The town sits on the bank of Grasshopper Creek and was founded in 1862 after gold was found in the creek. The town is named after the Bannock Indians that inhabited this area at that time – the spelling with an a instead of an o was the result of a clerical error in Washington.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition first documented the creek in 1805 and named it Willard Creek. When the population swelled in 1862 after the discovery of gold, the miners renamed it Grasshopper Creek due to the abundance of grasshoppers in the area.
In addition to the influx of miners (many from Colorado) prospecting for gold, the town became a haven for Civil War deserters and outlaws (in part due to its remote location). Within a year there were approximately 3000 people inhabiting Bannack. Almost all of the inhabitants were men. The handfull of women in town were mostly “saloon girls” who worked in one of the four saloons.
As the population continued to swell (10,000 people at its height), the outlaws took full advantage of the opportunity to relieve miners of their gold. Miners frequently went back and forth between Bannack and the mining camp at Virginia City. By this point the outlaws had organized into several large gangs and routinely robbed and in some cases murdered the miners.
The town hired a sheriff (Henry Plummer) to stop the violence but he turned out to be the leader of the largest and most violent of the gangs. Dang!
As this fact became well known, folks of Bannack and Montana decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Montana Vigilence Committee. Between December 1863 and February 1864, 24 men suspected of crimes were lynched by the Vigilantes. There were no trials! One of the most notable of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was suspected of being a gang leader. Montana State Police still wear a shoulder patch with the numbers 3-7-77. The numbers supposedly represent the dimensions of the graves of ths suspected outlaws killed by the vigilantes. Three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep…and now you know.
As with many gold rush towns, the bust comes just as quickly as the boom. By 1870, the easy gold was dredged out of the creek and the population began to quickly decline. Bannack’s population dropped from almost 10,000 to just a few hundred by 1870, only eight years after its founding.
The town carried on until the 1940s due to several small gold booms, but they were not enough to sustain the town. The majority of the remaining population moved on during the 1930s and by the 1940s the one room schoolhouse and the post office closed. The town was effectively non-existent, although a small number of residents hung on into the 1970s.
Today Bannack is managed by the state of Monatana as part of Bannack State Park. The state has done an excellent job preserving the remaining structures as they were but is not restoring the buildings
The history of this short lived town is deep and fascinating. The town physically has over 60 structures remaining – the majority are open for exploration.
If you enjoy western history, Bannack is a fun and interesting place to visit. The Grasshopper Valley is beautiful but remote, so give thought with combining a visit to Bannack with other destinations in southwestern Montana and perhaps Idaho.
Friday night rodeo is a weekly event during the summer in many ranching towns in the west. Kids begin competing at age six. Most high schools have rodeo teams and there is a collegiate circuit as well. Towns take great pride in their rodeo stadium.
The video below is of Cole Trexler, age 18, Montana high school all-around rodeo state champion. Cole will be riding at the collegiate level this fall. His brother Cash, 14, is also a budding rodeo star. He is the high school state champion bull rider. We met Cash and his mom. She told us that Cash “sat” his first horse at age three!
The Senior Professional Rodeo Association was in Darby for the weekend while were camping up the road a piece in Victor. On a gorgeous Friday evening we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls compete in bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing (cowgirls only). The senior circuit is for cowboys and cowgirls forty and over.
The local rodeo is a big deal. The whole town turns out to support the riders. It is also deeply imbued with patriotic and christian themes. The opening ceremony includes prayers for the safety of the riders as well as the servicemen and servicewomen who protect our freedom. The prayers are also for our political leadership – that they make the hard decisions necessary to protect our way of life.
The photos below were taken at the Little Smith Creek Ranch where we camped for several nights. We were the only campers at the ranch during our stay. To say that the setting was idylic is an understatement. The ranch is located at the base of the Bitteroot Mountains on the western edge of the valley and our view to the east extended across the valley to the Sapphire Mountains. Plenty of deer wandering by as well. Wow!
Biking and hiking Bitteroot
The Little Smith Creek Ranch, while remote with spectacular scenery, is only minutes from a good number of spectacular hikes into the Bitteroot.
The photos above and below are from our favorite hike. The Kootenai Creek Trail follows a fast flowing creek with waterfalls and pools up to the North Kootenai Lake – a distance of about ten miles to reach the lake, and no – we did not make it all the way to the lake!
Clark fork of the columbia river
The Clark Fork of the Columbia River is a 310 mile long river originating as the Silver Bow Creek in Butte. It carries water from a substantial portion of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Basin, which makes the river an excellent choice for white water rafting.
We ran a number of rapids which were mostly class 3. Early spring produces the biggest rapids -class 5- due to snow melt while by August most of the rapids are class 1 or 2 due to the reduced flow of water.
I am not sure if it was due to our senior citizen status or not but we had three guides on our raft! Regardless, were glad to have the two additional paddlers when we went into the bigger rapids.
Fika and art: Missoula style
After our stay in the beautiful Bitteroot Valley we drove north to Missoula. We had hoped to do some more bicycling in addition to river rafting but the heat was too much for us to manage the cycling side of the equation.
We did stay for a couple of days and spent some time at two local coffee shops and visited the interesting (but small) Missoula Art Museum (MAM).
Southwestern montana…hidden gem
Southwestern Montana did not originally factor into our initial planning but after conversations with several Montanans we decided to vector to the region and we are pleased that we did. The southwest corner of Montana is well known to fishing and hunting aficionados, but it’s not found on the standard tourist itinerary.
We had a piece of the planet to ourselves (well, at least regarding other humans) for stretches of time as we drove through the Pioneer Mountains and the pristine Grasshopper Valley. We will definitely return to the area for a more extended stay in the future – lots of hiking, ghost towns and backroads to be explored and dispersed camping under the dark sky.
After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)
Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.
We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.
This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.
We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.
The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.
american prairie reserve (APR)
The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.
The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).
We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.
We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.
Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.
The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.
“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880
When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.
The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.
In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.
The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Theerefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.
Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.
The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills
We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.
The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.
Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.
The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.
After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.
The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.
We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).
Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.
Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?
About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.
We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.
Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.
Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump
We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.
A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.
Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.
The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.
Thoughts on the Prairie
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.
Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.
From the U.P. we drove west to Duluth where we spent a couple days relaxing before departing on our journey northward toward the Canadian border. As we have posted on Duluth previously (https://wordpress.com/post/ontheroadwithmariastephen.net/1324) we would refer you to our that post for our impressions of Duluth.
We departed Duluth via the North Shore Scenic Drive (MN-61) which closely follows the rugged coastline of Lake Superior to the Canadian border. We stopped to camp along the lake shore in Schroeder, which is about half the distance to Canada.
The Great Lakes coastline is dotted with scores of lighthouse and foghorn stations which were necessary in aiding the navigation of Great Lakes freighters. The freighters have traversed the lakes for almost 200 years carrying the ore which was critical to the industrial revolution in the United States.
Pictured below is the Two Harbors Lighthouse. The light is the oldest continuosly operating light on the north shore of Lake Superior. The Coast Guard fully automated the light in 1981 and is still operational. The lightkeepers house is now operated by the Lake County Historical Society as a B&B.
Iron mining started here in 1884 in earnest and the need for a light to guide the freighters into Agate Bay became critical. The light was authorized by Congress in 1886 and became operational in 1892. As you can see from the photo below iron ore from the Minnesota Iron Range is still being loaded on to bulk ore freighters at Two Harbors for shipment to ports to the east and south.
Of the many light stations we have seen along the various Great Lakes, the Split Rock Light Station is one of the most interesting and historic. The impetus for constructing the light was a fierce storm in November, 1905. During the storm, six ships within twelve miles of the Split River went down to the bottom of Lake Superior.
Construction of the Split River Station was completed in 1909 with the light and foghorn beginning operations in 1910. The original light could be seen from a distance of 22 miles and the foghorn could be heard as far as five miles. The powerful light and horn saved many ships and lives for the next 59 years until it was decommissioned.
The construction of the station was quite arduous as all the materials and equipment had to be hoisted up to the top of the cliffs from boats below – there were no roads that reached the location at the time.
The first lighthouses in America date back to the 1600s and were operated by individual colonies or privately. In 1797, the government took control of the operation of all lighthouses in the United States. Subsequently, the United States Lighthouse Service was created and charged with the staffing and operation of all marine navigation facilities.
The Service remained in existence until 1939 when it was merged into the United States Coast Guard, ending the long standing traditions and way of life that existed for the lighthouse keepers and their families.
The Split Rock Station required three light keepers to keep the light operating 24 hours a day. A hand wound mechanism similar to a watch or clock had to be wound frequently in order to enable the rotation of the light. Because of the remote location, electrical service did not reach Split Rock until 1940! The videos below provide a provide a brief view of the original mechanism which was reinstalled after the light was decommissioned.
Minnesota highway 1
With our north coast and lighthouse segments completed, we set off west and north to northern Minnesota. With Ely as our planned first day’s destination, we had the opportunity to journey the 100 miles from the eastern end of Minnesota Highway 1 (MN-1) at Illgen directly to Ely. MN-1 is a scenic highway that crosses the entire state from the shore of Lake Superior to the Red River on the western border. Not surprisingly, the 346 miles of MN-1 is the longest highway in the state.
The drive to Ely is both scenic and fun if you enjoy driving. The road is a sinuous, undulating affair that runs through the Superior National Forest for the majority of the drive – light traffic, no stoplights, no stop signs, no potholes!
We did encounter one town in the middle of the drive – Isabella. At the time we thought we were passing through a ghost town. We were wrong! Our apologies to the 179 independent souls who call Isabella home.The closest town is 20 miles south. Isabella does have a claim to fame as the highest community in Minnesota as it sits on the Laurentian Divide and is approximately 2000 feet above sea level.
The handful of businesses based in Isabella are guiding and camping services focused on fishing, dogsledding, cross country skiing. Our favorite business based on name is the Great Lakes School of Logbuilding which sadly upon further research closed in 2018 after a 43 year run.
Ely is a lively, bustling town that is the starting place for many canoe trips into the Boundry Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA.) The BWCA extends along 150 miles of border with Canada and comprises almost 1.1 million acres. There are 1100 lakes and 1500 miles of canoe routes within this expansive wilderness. While we were not venturing in the wilderness on this trip we took advantage of the good restaurants and shops that exist due to the many tourist who come here to take guided multi-day trips into the wilderness.
Specialty coffee and tea is, of course, a critical element of any OTR itinerary. Northern Grounds Coffee + Wine Bar (https://www.thenortherngrounds.com/) in Ely provided us with sustenance and a friendly cafe for our pre and post bicyling needs.
Life on the farm
There are a growing number of private camping options for travelers looking to avoid large, crowded and noisy commercial campgrounds when dispersed camping is not an option. We utilized the Hip Camp platform to find a location convenient to Ely but off the beaten path.
We spent an enjoyable four nights at a 100 acre working, family farm down the road a bit from Ely. The farm has chickens, pigs, ducks, sheep, horses and a couple of dogs and cats for good measure. We parked on a grass field by a small barn where we could sit out in the evening by a campfire and enjoy the sparkling, night sky.
This is a working farm with farm animals, farm noises and farm smells. Some folks might not enjoy that aspect but we enjoyed the company of the animals and one of their dogs, Smokey, accompanied us on our nightly walks around the property.
We will definitely keep this option in mind in the future based on this experience.
Ranier and the falls
From Ely and our base at the farm we resumed our journey north to Ranier. Because we are generally looking for the most interesting, scenic and/or the slowest way to get somewhere, we decided to drive the Echo Trail from Ely to its terminus in Orr. The Echo Trail is a 76 mile gravel road which takes you on a hilly, curvey path through dense forest and by half a dozen stunningly beautiful lakes.
After completing the Echo Trail we refueled in Orr and made a straight line north to Ranier. After a number of nights of camping – no matter how enjoyable – we are ready for more spacious quarters than the van and a shower of more than two minutes.
We stayed at the Cantilever Hotel & Distillery in Ranier, a tiny town on the Rainy River which separates the States from Canada. We had not expected to find such a swanky looking place in this tiny border town – but all the reviews were great and we reserved a room for several nights.
We are happy to report that the hotel lived up to the excellent reviews we had read. We enjoyed great dinners and of course, had to sample a few of the cocktails made using their in-house distilled vodka and gin. While we are usually wine drinkers we, quite enjoyed a number of their different concoctions. Cheers!
We do need to mention the train for the benefit of any future visitors.
The train…the train
Ranier, as we mentioned, is quite small with a population of 626 people. However, in one regard it is quite big. The Candian Northern Railroad (CN) operates a north/south freight line which bisects the town befores it crosses the rail bridge over the river into Canada.
Unfortunately for the townspeople, this freight line has become the busiest rail border crossing between the States and Canada. Twenty-two trains per day, every day of the week, go through the town – at any hour of the day or night.
The trains cut off any passage east and west on Main Street. This is exacerbated by the fact that the trains are required to slow to 10 miles an hour because each car is being scanned by U.S. Customs in order to detect illegal cargo. And, each of the trains consists of 100 to 200 cars, so the trains are over a mile long! The town is going to build a pedestrian bridge over the rail line which will help with some of the issues.
We met a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer while in town. We asked him if they actually found enough items to warrant the scanning of every rail car on every train. He indicated that they make a significant number of seizures mostly related to Chinese goods coming into the country which are counterfeit, do not meet pollution or safety standards or were manufactured using stolen intellectual property. The day before we spoke with him CBP had seized a container full of motorcycles which did not meet U.S. emissions standards. How the CBP knows about the items he would not say.
Voyageurs national park
An additional perquisite of staying at the Cantilever was that we were able to bicycle directly from the hotel to Voyageurs National Park (VNP) on the paved path that runs from International Falls to the Rainy Lake Visitors Center.
We spent an afternoon hiking at the park after biking the short (12 miles) bikepath from the hotel to the visitors center. There are a number of hikes which take you along the shoreline at Rainy Lake providing very nice views of the lake and a number of the smaller islands visible from the shore.
We really think that in order to fully enjoy this park, one needs to get out on the water and cruise the lake, possibly visiting or camping on some of the islands. Canoes can be rented from a concessionaire at the small marina adjacent to the visitors center in order to get out on the water and explore. Unforunately, this was not an option for us on this visit due to one member of the team having a torn rotator cuff.
Ranier to north dakota
After our excellent experience in Ranier we got back on the road driving west along the southern bank of the Rainy River on Route 11, known as MOM’s Way (Manitoba – Ottawa – Minnesota). Route 11 is one of a very few roads which carries the same designation across borders.
We finished our day of travel in Lake Bronson – positioning us to cross into North Dakota the next day. Lake Bronson is a tiny town by any standard – a land area of 352 acres and a population of 169. Like many of the tiny agricultural towns that dot the landscape on the western plains of Minnesota the town is physically dominated by the town’s co-op grain elevator.
After setting up our campsite at the lake we decided to take advantage of the beautiful evening and bicycle into town. As we were cycling along a residential street, we noticed a yellow crop duster parked at the end of a dead end street.
We cycled to the end of the road and found ourselves at a grass airstrip with two crop dusters, a private home and attached hanger. The owner and chief pilot of the crop dusting firm happened to out in his yard playing with his kids. He graciously allowed us to check out and photograph the aircraft up close. These planes are purpose built and quite rugged with fortified cockpits to protect the pilot in the event of a crash.
The pilot told us that his job as a crop dusting pilot is the “best job in the world” although a bit dangerous at times. If you have ever seen a crop duster in action you would probably agree that there is danger involved. Crop dusters dive down and fly just above the tops of the crops and then must pull up very steeply to avoid power lines, structures and other obstacles at the edge of the field. There is no room for error.
P.S. Fellow Nutmeggers: please note that the enginess that power these crop dusters were manufacutured by Pratt & Whitney.
Rails to trails
Minnesota has a fantastic network of (mostly paved) rails-to-trails bike trails through out the state. Our experience on this trip and a previous visit to Minnesota is that the majority of trails showcase the beautiful scenery in Minnesota as you ride through forests and along rivers and lakes. The other nice feature is that many of the trails are 50 or more miles long allowing for as much uninterrupted riding as you want to undertake.
We really enjoyed our meandering journey through the northlands of Minnesota. This trip was inspired by the book Northland: A 4000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, written by Porter Fox. The Northland is defined as the area along the border with Canada from Maine to Washington.
Fox found that many areas along the border are just as remote and unspoiled as they were when they were discovered and settled. We would say that in some cases the modern world is more intrusive than when the book wa published in 2018. Having said that, there is absolutely a feeling of remoteness by today’s standards when you are in the Northland. We also would agree that there is still a strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency among the long time residents and descendants of the original Voyageurs and settlers. Lastly, we without exception experienced nothing but friendly and polite people as we crossed northern Minnesota.