Friday, August 28, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

CANADA OR BUST, Chapter 18:  
Day 21:  Helena to West Yellowstone, MT
Watching Project Runway last night cut into my accomplishing as much planning as I wanted to do for Yellowstone.  But today dawned right on schedule anyway—our travel day to Yellowstone National Park.
On our last visit to the park in 2008, we were letterboxing newbies, having found only two boxes ever before the trip.  With almost seven years of experience, we have a list of boxes for today that is longer than our list for that entire two-week trip.
At a rest area near Jeff City, we found a ponderosa pine letterbox hidden at the base of a ponderosa pine.  A bit further south, we turned off I-15 onto MT-69 and stopped at the rather eccentric Boulder Springs Inn, a conglomeration of buildings cobbled together over more than 100 years.  The parking lot looked like a scene out of the 1980s, and the letterbox hidden on site was placed under a pile of stucco debris.
The seen-better-days Boulder Hot Springs Inn
By the smell of it, that little corner trash pile is a popular al fresco restroom, so we declined the letterbox and moved on down MT-69 to I-90.  Taking the exit for US-287, we drove south through farmlands surrounded by views of the buff-colored Tobacco Root Mountains.  Around 11:30, we turned east on MT-84 to check out a letterbox at the Warm Springs Day Use Area along the Madison River.  The letterbox had a great view of the river and a small creek leading to it.
Reception should be great
Then we were back on 287, heading south.  We couldn't resist a stop for a photo op at a giant boom box on a trailer parked in front of a quirky museum in the little burg of Norris.  While there, we talked briefly with a couple from Arizona and helped them with a photo.  Having recently visited Yellowstone, they just cancelled their Glacier plans due to the smoke cover and are headed back south to Grand Teton instead.  Smart choice!
Virginia City
In Ennis, we took a detour on MT-287 to visit Virginia City (pop. 196) sixteen miles west.  We had read a bit about the preservations in this once raucous gold-mining town and territorial capital founded after a couple of prospectors discovered gold near Alder Creek.  Since that kind of news traveled fast, even in the days before the internet, many other gold diggers soon joined them and a mining district was established to formulate rules about individual claims.  Within just a few weeks, the town was established and populated with thousands of fortune seekers.
What had been a remote area of the Idaho Territory with no law enforcement was suddenly a boom town complete with the variety of unscrupulous characters a gold rush was prone to attract.  By the end of 1863, robbery and murder had become rampant along the roads and trails in the area.  Eventually vigilantes organized to fill the law enforcement vacuum and hanged as many as 15 road agents, including their alleged leader, the sheriff of Bannack, Montana.
Once the gold field was mostly mined out and the territorial capital moved to Helena in 1875, Virginia City, like so many gold rush towns, withered and eventually attained the status of a ghost town.
Virginia City
Fast forward to the 1940s and most of the town's neglected structures still looked as they had in the late 1800s when the town was mostly abandoned.  That's when wealthy industrialist Charles Bovey and his wife Sue visited the town.  They discovered that the few remaining residents were gradually tearing down the old buildings for safety reasons and using the remains for firewood.

The Boveys began buying buildings and restoring them to their late 1800s appearance.  In the 1950s, the town was opened for tourism, and today Virginia City and nearby Nevada City are owned and operated by the Montana Historic Commission.  With a half million visitors annually, the towns are the top state-owned tourist attraction in Montana, even though they're open only in the summer.
Based on advice from a local fisherman we met this morning, we stopped in Ennis and filled up with premium gas at $2.99, said to be 20¢ a gallon cheaper than the Yellowstone area.  Back on US-287, we drove, following the course of the Madison River.  Continuing through the Madison River Valley, we reached an area where the Madison Range of the Rocky Mountains, with peaks up to 11,000 feet, were on our left with the lower Snowcrest Range on our right.  Now this was a scenic drive.
Palisades Recreation Area
Near Cameron we stopped at Palisades Recreation Area, a popular launch area for drift boat fishing.  As the name suggests, a long wall of cliffs borders the river at this location.  Surrounded by natural beauty, with a cool breeze blowing and smoke finally clearing, we were finally inspired to plant our Love This Spot #19 letterbox.  In truth, it should have been #16, but we were without cell service and had no way to check Atlas Quest for the next number, leaving us with the only choice of making a guess.

A bit further south we detoured yet again, six miles out on a gravel road and across the Madison River, through large expanses of sagebrush and grazing cattle.  After we passed through a ghost town,  the prairie suddenly transitioned to an evergreen forest.  As we topped a rise, we caught a glimpse of Wade Lake, one of the "hidden chain of lakes" in the Beaverhead National Forest.  The setting was beautiful, and this time we found a letterbox.
In Beaverhead National Forest, definitely a road less traveled
Back through the dust and black Angus, we continued south toward Yellowstone, soon finding ourselves passing the eerie shores of Quake Lake.  Near midnight on August 17, 1959, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook this area, just west of Yellowstone National Park, triggering a massive landslide across Madison Canyon and creating a dam which trapped the Madison River into what became known as Quake Lake.  More than two dozen people camping in the area were killed.
Over the following weeks, water continued to rise until the lake was five miles long and almost 200 feet deep.  To prevent flooding of the entire area, engineers constructed a spillway through the quake-made dam.  Gradually over the years, the river has eroded the spillway, resulting in an infinitesimally slow drainage of the lake.  "Ghost trees," which were once completely submerged, now encircle the lake.  Eventually the lake will drain completely, allowing the river to resume its path.
Ghost trees at Quake Lake
Finally as we neared the town of West Yellowstone, we saw blue skies—our first in six days.  We are hopeful that smoke will not mar our views as we head into America's oldest national park tomorrow.  After we checked in at the Explorer Cabins, we prepared dinner and laid out a few plans.  Tomorrow we'll spend the first of two full days in Yellowstone.

Daily Stats
  • Miles driven:  264
  • Miles walked:  2.8
  • Letterboxes:  9 found, 1 planted
  • Weather:  51° to 79°, hazy to partly cloudy
  • Gas:  $3.00 at Ennis, MT
  • Chain-up areas:  12
  • Square hay bales:  5,026
  • Snow fences:  603