“Everyone wants to see the sights from the summit's peek, but often the
best views are from gazing up from the valley beneath”
State 16: Wyoming - September 21, 2017
We woke up in the wee hours of the morning at a Walmart in Casper, WY with a long day ahead of us. We had 2 exciting stops today, and a lot of driving! First item on today’s agenda was a 244-mile drive Northeast to Devil's Tower National Monument. When most people say Wyoming and National Park in the same sentence, Yellowstone; our countries first national park, is what typically comes to mind. However, many are unaware Devil’s Tower is our countries first national monument. Thus, Wyoming has the unique distinction of being home to our countries first national park, and our countries first national monument. Truth be told, Wyoming actually features 6 national parks, all of which are worthy of visiting.
Rising up 1267 feet above the Wyoming plains, humanity has been drawn to the geological phenomena, we currently know as Devils Tower, for over 10,000 years! How did Devils Tower form? It depends on who you ask. Some geologists say, Devil's Tower is a volcanic plug, or the remnants of an ancient extinct volcano. However, The Native Americans have a different explanation. According to folklore, a group of girls went out to play one day, and were chased by several giant bears. In an effort to escape, the girls climbed on a rock, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens, so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears tried to climb the rock, but the rock was too steep to climb. Their attempts to climb the rocks left deep claw marks, which still appear today on the sides of Devils Tower. When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the stars of the Pleiades.
Devil's Tower means different things to different people. For some, the tower is a unique and fascinating geological formation. To the Native Americans, the tower is a sacred place. For others, it is a place offering recreational climbing opportunities. What happens when the view of these visitors collide? The tower is sacred to several Native American tribes, and they view climbing on the tower to be a desecration. The climbers argued they had a right to climb the tower, since it is on federal land. After a lengthy lawsuit between the Native Americans and the National Park Service, a compromise was eventually reached. There would be a voluntary climbing ban every June so the tribes may conduct ceremonies at the monument. Approximately 85% of climbers honor the voluntary June climbing ban, and the other 15% are just disrespectful assholes! The most famous person to summit the tower actually never climbed it! In October of 1941, George Hopkins made national headlines when he jumped out of an airplane and parachuted onto the top Devil’s Tower. The plane Hopkins jumped from was supposed to drop a 1000-foot rope down to him so he could climb down from the tower. Although Hopkins successfully hit his target, his rope did not, and he spent 6 days stranded until his rescue.
The origins of the naming of Devil's Tower, stem from an 1875 expedition by US Colonel Richard Dodge. Dodge’s Indian interpreter misinterpreted the native name to be “Bad Gods Tower”, and on September 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devil's Tower America's first national monument. The Native Americans have long opposed the name Devil's Tower, due to its negative connotation, and have petitioned to change the name to Bear's Lodge National Historic Landmark. Lawmakers have denied the request on the grounds a name change will harm the tourist trade, and bring economic hardship to area communities.
After 3 ½ hours through the wondrous Wyoming plains, Devil's Tower revealed herself from 15 miles away. The closer we got the more magnificent the tower became until we were literally standing speechless at its base. Please see the pictures below.
As usual, we first stopped at the visitor center to get our passbook stamped, and spoke with the ranger about how to best explore the park. We settled on a paved 1.3-mile tower trail hike, which encircles the base of Devil's Tower. The visitor center also had a picture of what the apex of the tower looks like. As we made our way to the trail head, there were posted signs reminding visitors: we were on sacred Indian grounds, to stay on the marked trails, and to act appropriately, which was very nice to see. Please see the pictures below.
The trail was not that strenuous, and was uniquely beautiful. The pictures below speak for themselves.
According to the park ranger, an average of 40 climbers scale Devil's Tower per day. Pictured below are a few of the climbers we spotted while enroute to the top. Can you see them? Look closely! I’ll zoom in as much as I can to help!
Along the tower trail there was a lookout point which provided a spectacular view of the Wyoming plains. The landscape that lay before us literally looked like a masterpiece painting. Please see the pictures below.
After departing Devil's Tower, we drove 254 miles Southwest to Hot Springs State Park in the appropriately and comically named town of Thermopolis, WY. However, the drive from Devil's Tower to Thermopolis would prove to be an adventure in itself. 10 miles outside of Gillette, WY the sky became dark and ominous, and the gusts of wind ferociously howled. I had a feeling it was going to be a long 3-hour drive. My legs were already cramped from hours of driving, and my hands were sore from tightly gripping the steering wheel. I fought mother nature for another hour against 60 mph wind gusts, to keep my Rosie on the road. All of the sudden up in the near distance, I saw the most beautiful full arch rainbow going directly over the road we were traveling on. I have never seen such a rainbow in my entire life, and to drive directly under it was a forever memorable moment. Although mother nature still runs wild on the plains of Wyoming, she punishes us just enough to show she is in charge, and then bestows upon us her most magnificent beauty.
When we reached the town of Buffalo, WY the sky had further darkened, and a thick gray fog had settled over the horizon. We were on the Cloud Peak Scenic Byway enroute to cross the Big Horn Mountains, and our environment was devolving by the second! As we began our ascent, the wind intensified, the fog decreased visibility to mere feet, and the temperature slowly dropped to below freezing. We watched our elevation climb on the GPS to 6000ft, 6500ft, and 7000ft. At 7500ft. Breathing became difficult, and our mouths were dry as the elevation slowly sucked the very life from our bodies. We continued our ascent over the Big Horn Mountains to 8000ft, 8500ft, and 9000ft. At 9500 ft, I could only see 10 feet ahead of me. As I continuously scanned the road for oncoming lights, Lori intently peered at edge of the highway for approaching wild life. Out of the blue, a black pickup truck traveling in the oncoming direction crossed the yellow line, and barreled directly at me! There was nowhere to veer on this narrow 2 lane mountain road, which teetered of edge of oblivion. With mere seconds to spare, I leaned heavily on the horn “HHHHOOOONNNNKKKK!, and the truck returned to it's lane a mere inches before catastrophe. My heart was racing, my wife was petrified, and my fists tightly clenched the steering wheel in a fit of rage.
After reaching an elevation of 9600ft, we began our gradual descent to 8500ft, and 8000ft. As we approached 8000ft, we passed a massive plow heading in the opposing direction. Although we saw no snow, we took the plows presence as an ominous sign of what’s to come. We continued or descent to 7500 ft, 7000 ft, 6500ft, and 6000 ft. Wyoming was once again testing us to see how much we could handle. We had survived all she had thrown at us, and we now demanded our reward! Soon thereafter, at 5500ft we were blessed with the breathtaking views pictured below.
Upon completing our descent of the Big Horn Mountains, we drove for another hour before reaching the town of Thermopolis, WY. Located within Thermopolis, Hot Spring State Parks features the world’s largest mineral hot springs. Since the dawn of civilization, the healing waters of the area’s mineral springs attracted dinosaurs, prehistoric migratory people, Native American tribes, Western settlers, and now travelers visiting Wyoming. In 1896, the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes gave the state of Wyoming the hot springs, with the provision it remains accessible to the general public free of charge.
At the center of all the activities in Hot Springs State Park is the Big Spring. Sadly, Big Spring may eventually run dry. In 1896, the spring sprung 13.6 million gallons of water per day, and for reason still unknown, today it only spews 3.6 million gallons of water per day. There are three ways to experience hot springs state park: swinging bridge, rainbow terraces, and the parks hot bath house.
We began our visit with the swinging bridge. The swinging bridge is a suspension bridge, which crosses over the Big Horn River, and offers unprecedented views of the spring's rainbow terraces. The bridge was built in 1916 to provides a unique vantage point for viewing the river and terraces. It was condemned in the 1980’s, and restored in the 1990’s. This bridge was bouncy and fun to cross, and offered unbelievable beauty which is pictured below.
Next, we headed to the rainbow terrace. The rainbow terrace consists of a multitude of colors resulting from mineral deposits formed on the rocks. A walkway takes you directly into the heart of the terraces vibrant natural colors. Over millions of years, the rainbow terraces were created by the algae, plankton, and the minerals of the hot springs water. Please see the pictures below.
Our last stop in Thermopolis was the park's free bath house. The healing mineral water is piped from the spring, cooled to a comfortable 104 degrees, and pumped into a large outdoor swimming pool. Lori and I really wanted to go for a soak, but in at the last moment decided against it. It was 42 degrees outside during our visit, and we would have been freezing when we got out. The biggest reason we didn’t take the plunge is because it was extremely crowded in the pool.
On the way out of the Hot Springs State Park, we drove past the most unusual geological formation we had ever seen called the Tepee Fountain. In 1909, a vertical stone pyramid was built around a pipe to vent steam from the pool. Over the years, the steam and condensation flowed over the stone pyramid leaving mineral and algae deposits forming beautiful travertine terraces. What was once a structure man created for a utilitarian purpose, mother nature has since transformed into a unique work of art. Please see the pictures below.
I have found it hard to find the words to capture my experience at Thermopolis. It felt as if a spaceship had dropped us off on another planet. I watched in amazement as the water in the Big Horn River simultaneously flowed in opposing directions. Centuries of mineral deposits coated the landscape with every color of the rainbow. Thermopolis can only be described as a unique and remarkable corner of the world possessing a powerful sense of place created by nature. Here are some additional pictures for you to enjoy.
We exited Thermopolis, via the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway on US 20 through the Wind River Indian Reservation. For 24 miles the canyons towered hundreds of feet above us on either side. Below us, the Big Horn Rivers rapids eroded the sedimentary rock, adding to the canyon’s depths. Across the river, a railroad track mirrored our opposing path, as we winded through the canyon in tandem. In a matters of hours, we experienced the mountains top, and the canyons depth. Everyone wants to see the sights from the summits peek, but often the best views are from gazing up from the valley beneath. This is true in travel, and in life. Please see the pictures below.
Today we logged over 7 hours of driving, up to a tower, beneath a rainbow, through the clouds, over a mountain, through a hot spring, and between a canyon. This was the most terrifying and beautiful day of our cross country journey. We were both absolutely exhausted! Upon arriving in Riverton, WY we found a nearby Walmart where we had a much needed night’s sleep.