Today was a leisurely driving day. It turns out that the only sensible way to get from Grand Teton National Park to Helena, MT (our home away from home for the next little while) is to go through Yellowstone. Perhaps not the best plan for a Saturday, we thought as we approached the Park's South Entrance. Definitely not the best plan, we worried, when the ranger at the gate declined our National Park Pass, telling us in that wholesome, cheery, enthusiastic ranger way that it was a "free weekend."
But our worries were unfounded. We've been to Yellowstone before (and didn't love it), so this time we elected to forgo the usual sights in favor of staying on US 89 and getting through the Park as quickly as possible. Probably because it bypasses the most popular tourist spots, this generally northwesterly route was uncongested even on a free weekend. It twists and turns, mostly at a nice 45mph clip, past some magnificent scenery and wildlife, including the preternaturally serene buffalo in the picture above. (Among the things that did not appear to be troubling this "so ugly he's actually sort of beautiful" creature was his extreme need for lotion and hair conditioner.)
Don't miss the fumaroles in the picture just below. (Click on the picture to see a larger version.) These steam spouts billow out of the ground more or less constantly all over Yellowstone. Like their flashier cousins the geysers, fumaroles are an unexpected and bewitching thrill to the eye; to the mind, they somewhat sinisterly confirm that boiling away not very far underground is the same magmatic heat that powered the violent volcanic eruptions that created, shaped and reshaped Yellowstone's topography.
Most of Yellowstone is a high volcanic plateau. But the northern portion of the Park and the chunk of south-central Montana you find yourself in immediately after you leave the Park through the North Entrance are more geologically complex.
Landslides, more erodible shales and sandstones, and glacial till deposits of a whole host of rock types make for a very different landscape in this area of the northern range. The soils here have a high clay content. Water binds tightly to clay, which results in very little water being available to sustain plants. In case that alone wasn't enough to discourage plant growth, these soils are also poorly aerated, they resist root growth, and they have high levels of sodium and salts. For all these reasons, the landscape stops looking lushly green and looks instead like this:
Sparkling streams, creeks and the impressive Yellowstone River, complete with rafters, kayakers, waders and swimmers, contrast implausibly but gorgeously with this rugged landscape.
We stop for gas in tiny Gardiner, MT, and enjoy both the cowboy boots on the residents, male and female, and the wonderfully named Hellroaring Street we pass on the way out of town. By the time we get to Livingston, it's midafternoon and we're hungry. Relying once again on Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood book, we head for the Sport Restaurant on Main Street. But for all the trucks and SUVs, the street looks to be straight out of a Western.
After hamburgers topped with a veritable salad of incredibly fresh and delicious lettuce, tomatoes and mushrooms (where on earth could they be from, we wonder), a pile of crisp garlicky fries, and an enjoyable chat with our waiter (David, originally from St. Louis), we hop back in the car, realize that it would really be far more appropriate to unhitch horses and hop on them instead, and head for Helena.