Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Devil's Tower and Onwards

Both Poulami and I keep referring to this trip as "the Yellowstone trip." But the truth is, while our earlier trips may have been called "the Colorado trip" or "The California trip" or even "the Southwest trip", this one was spread over so many states and so many destinations that it is unfair to focus only on Yellowstone National Park. So when I sit down to write about this trip, I think I'm going to write about Yellowstone, but then realize that there are so many other places and things to write about. In particular, when we are on a road trip, the journeys are almost as important as the destinations. This post is about one such journey.

After Badlands, our next destination was Yellowstone. But we decided to take a slight detour. Badlands to Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone National Park is about a ten-hour drive. We decided to visit Devil's Tower National Monument on the way, at the cost of adding an hour to this already long journey. Our choices were Mount Rushmore and Devil's Tower. Both were close to Badlands and kind of on the way to Yellowstone, but we finally chose the latter because we felt the former deserved more than a drive-through. As we drove along the Interstate 90, we realized we must have passed quite close to Mount Rushmore because signs told us so. Here, we also passed places where both sides of the highway were crowded with huge advertising billboards, more than any place that we had ever seen before.
Billboards on the highway near Mount Rushmore
Devil's Tower in Wyoming will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg. Or, if like me, you haven't actually seen the movie, you may have seen posters of the movie that show the tower. Either way, the tower provides a visual that you are unlikely to forget. It also happens to be the first site in the US designated as a national monument.

Scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

We could see Devil's Tower from a great distance away. We left the Interstate about 30 miles away from the tower, and soon, we could see a familiar shape on the horizon. The tower is actually a geological feature, technically a laccolithic butte, that rises 1267 feet (386 metres) above the surrounding plains and the Belle Fourche river. That description (copied from Wikipedia), however, doesn't really explain what it looks like. That is done in a far better manner by the nut-jobs who call themselves the Flat-Earthers.

Yes, there are still people in the US who believe the Earth is flat and the government and NASA are deliberately guarding this secret, but we're not here to discuss them. One of the crazy theories that stem from their flat worldview is that there were gigantic (miles tall) trees on this planet a long time ago and Devil's Tower is the petrified stump of such a gigantic tree. And this is the best way to describe this strange mountain. With its roughly cylindrical shape, flat top, nearly vertical sides marked by parallel ridges all around, and the root-like spread at the base, it could very well have been a petrified tree stump, had it not been so big. Other descriptions that came to my mind were that it looked like an enormous kulfi (a frozen dessert from India), or an upside-down planting-pot.

We were soon at the entrance of the monument where there was a queue of cars buying tickets. Then, when we were at the base of the tower looking for a parking space, we realized that this little detour would cost us way more than the one hour that Google had promised. We also realized why, the people who had stopped by the side of the road outside the monument and were taking photos from several miles away, were doing so. But since we were here already, we decided to take a much-needed break, visit the restrooms, check out the souvenir store and take a few pictures of the tower up close. The souvenir store seemed to primarily bank on the movie and most of the stuff was alien-themed.

Devil's Tower up close (shot by me on B&W film)
The long vertical ridges that run all around Devil's tower are probably the result of some crystalline structure of the igneous rock that formed it, but they make the tower a very popular destination for climbers. On scanning the tower with our binoculars and telephoto lens, we discovered a couple on the tower about halfway up. Here's a photo to give you a sense of the scale. We realized a little later that they were actually climbing down from the tower.

climbers on Devil's Tower

We, however, had no such inclinations. We were back in our car soon after taking those photos and were on our way again.

Both in South Dakota and Wyoming, we had encountered bikers by the hordes. The ranger at Badlands had told us jokingly that the population of South Dakota was now probably double of what it usually is because of all the bikers visiting from outside the state. We saw the same thing in Wyoming. Devil's Tower seemed to be quite popular with bikers and the nearby gas station had long queues of motorbikes at every pump. Our car's tank was about 70% full, so I decided to skip the queues and fill it at the next stop. This proved to be a mistake. Our GPS decided to take us through rural Wyoming and Montana and we didn't find another gas pump until the town of Broadus about 100 miles away. Coupled with the fact that we were often stuck on long jams and dirt roads due to road work, our fuel was almost down to quarter of the tank and we were panicking by the time we found that pump. We also had lunch around this time.

Our next stop was the town of Livingston nearly 300 miles away, still in Montana. The number of bikers had decreased for some time now and we were beginning to get the feel of Yellowstone at this point, but the sun was getting low in the sky and we were a little worried that the park was still over 50 miles away. However, we stopped long enough to get fuel, coffee and a few emergency grocery supplies to act as breakfast or snacks in times of need. Then, driving by the Yellowstone river on one side and hill slopes with bison and elk farms on the other, we finally reached the town of Gardiner, Montana. Here we made a brief stop to take photos with the huge "Yellowstone National Park" sign and the old stone arch (Roosevelt Arch) that forms the northern entrance of Yellowstone.

Before entering Yellowstone
Then we entered the park.

Our first night's stay was at the Roosevelt Lodge. To be more precise, we were staying at the "Rough-rider Cabins" of Roosevelt Lodge which were individual cabins with stove heating and a common bathroom a hundred yards away. When we were making the hotel reservations five months ago, we were lucky enough to get accommodation inside Yellowstone, but were not so lucky that we would find space in the same hotel for four consecutive nights. So after spending this first night at the Roosevelt Lodge, we would spend the next two nights at the Grant Village Lodge and the final night at the Canyon Lodge. As we were about to realize, the lodges within Yellowstone are very far away from each other and it takes hours to travel from one to another.

The Roosevelt Lodge is 24 miles from the Roosevelt Arch. The sun had gone down, but there was still light around as we started our drive towards the lodge, hoping to see animals at every turn. About six miles down the road, we passed through the Mammoth Hot Springs area which holds the administrative headquarters of the park. We saw our first animals here. A herd of elk - mostly does and fawns - were lazily walking around on the village green, surrounded by cars with photographing tourists on all sides. We stopped briefly, but we had little interest in elk after our close encounter in the Rockies last year. So we drove straight to our lodge.

Elk on the village green at Mammoth Hot Springs
We were very tired by this time, and I had been driving for over twelve hours. So we decided to call it a day. We had enough packed food to have dinner in our room, and soon after dinner we went to sleep. We didn't think lighting the stove would be necessary, but the night was cold and we had to light a few logs early in the morning to make the room comfortable again.

We would start our exploration of Yellowstone National Park the next day.

Our cabin at the Roosevelt Lodge

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