Autumn travel – home and away

Recently, I returned home after from spending the better part of two weeks in Wyoming and Colorado.  I had been planning this trip for several months. I also had a pass to visit Yosemite National Park, but with so many wildfires in northern California, I changed my plans.  

Earlier in the fall I had followed the Oregon trail through Nebraska and into Wyoming.  I picked up the trail at Fort Laramie and then stopped at the National Trails Interpretive Center in Casper.  I also visited some other trail landmarks between Casper and South Pass where the Oregon and Mormon trails cross the continental divide.  West of the divide the Mormon Trail turns south-west toward the Great Salt Lake and the Oregon Trail heads north-west to Oregon and the Columbia River. 

Aspen trees amid pine trees in the Green Mountains in central Wyoming.

Leaving the Oregon Trail I found a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground in the Green Mountains.  BLM campgrounds are popular in autumn with hunters and people like me who are looking for relatively remote settings and simple amenities such as a picnic table, a fire ring and clean vault toilets.  The fall colors were gorgeous and night sky spectacular.

A bull moose on the loose in the Gros Ventre Campground in Grand Teton National Park.

I spent the next five nights at Gros Ventre campground at the edge of Grand Teton National Park near Jackson,Wyoming. It is a large first come, first serve campground.  When I arrived in the afternoon the campground was full, but the attendants allowed me and other camping units to park in the amphitheater parking lot at no charge so we could be first in line the following day.  The staff at the campground was very pleasant, and many staffers appear to be retired seniors like me.  The tent and RV pads are comfortably spaced apart and surrounded by Narrow Leaf Cottonwood trees and sagebrush. During my visit a variety of wildlife including moose, deer and moseyed through the campground. 

Perhaps in part because of the Covid pandemic, the modern restrooms ( i.e. running water and toilets) were kept spotless. While there are no showers on site, hot showers and laundry facilities are available at another campground about 30 miles away. 

If I haven’t mentioned it before, my National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass is just about the best purchase I have ever made.  The pass allows access to all National Parks  and Federal recreation areas and reduced campground and other fees. I paid as little as $3 at BLM sites, and not more than $15 at National Park campgrounds.  There is no charge at some BLM disbursed camping sites. 

A smokey haze covers mountain peaks in Grand Teton National Park.

While there are many breathtakingly beautiful sites in the Rockies, I find the Tetons to be particularly grand. The mountain range is surrounded by lakes and the peaks tower sharply and dramatically above the arid plateau.  I love to photograph layers of color-on-color, and such layers can be found in abundance in the Tetons.  Hiking along trails I photographed compositions of sunlit aspen groves against multi-colored leaves and foliage a granite mountain backdrop.  For several days a smoke haze hung low over the mountains.  On those days I mostly hiked the trails and didn’t worry much about taking photos.      

I also spent a day at neighboring Yellowstone National Park. The majority of the campgrounds at Yellowstone were closed for the season and the remaining campgrounds were full. Yellowstone is a huge park which eats up a lot of driving time. I have visited the park several times before, so I stopped at just a few of my favorite sites. One of these is Grand Prismatic spring. I absolutely love the vantage point from a trail that overlooks the spring, and I can’t imagine visiting the park without making a stop there. 

Visitors walk along boardwalks viewing the Grand Prismatic spring in Yellowstone National Park.

I visited the park on a Saturday, but the parking lots and the road traffic was not bad  compared to previous visits. Due to pandemic restrictions, there were few if any tour busses running and many of the popular amenities were closed for the season. 

Wyoming travel 1

Leaving Jackson and the Gros Ventre campground I again spent a night at my BLM hideaway in the Green Mountains and then on to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  The only advanced reservation I made ahead of time on my trip was for a campsite in RMNP.  All but a couple of the campgrounds in the park are closed. Due to dry conditions no open fires are allowed. My campsite entitled me to the day of my reservation and the day following my reservation in the park. I also spent one night in a campground just outside the west entrance to the park. 

Smoke from Cameron Peak forest fire rises above the mountain slopes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

On the night I arrived, I could see a big mushroom cloud of smoke above the mountain range.  As I drove to the summit  of Trail Ridge Road I could see the billows of smoke from the Cameron Peak fire on the northern boundary of the park, A ranger told me that the huge cloud of white smoke was from a controlled burn or back burn to stop fire from spreading into the park.  As of last week, the Cameron Peak fire had burned well over 200,000 acres making in the largest fire in Colorado history.  Multiple fires have resulted in the closing of national forests from west of Denver to the Wyoming Border. As of last Thursday, the fire had spread across the continental divide and parents of Estes Park were under evacuation.

RMNP Elk

I arrived at the park bit late for optimum leaf peeping, but not too late for the elk rut or mating season.  In early fall bull elks descend to the mountain meadows to gather harems and vie for the attention and affection of females in heat.  I am not a particularly knowledgeable wildlife photographer, but I do love spectacle, and the annual elk rut is definitely a spectacle.  

A Bull elk guards his harem during elk rutting season in a Moraine Park meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I always remind myself while traveling that the journey itself is the prize, not the destination.  Weather, bad roads, closed facilities and many other circumstances may affect the trip, but that is what makes each adventure unique. When all is said and done the weather, equipment failures, mechanical break downs and missed opportunities may make for some great stories to tell friends and family back home.

Autumn color at Black Elk-Neihardt Park

Black Elk – Neihardt Park in Blair is a great place to go leaf peeping, and autumn color is at or reaching its peak in Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa.

 

Trail opens acres of park land to view

New vistas are open to view at  Black Elk Neihardt Park in Blair thanks to volunteers who have carved out a new mountain bike  and multi-use trail at the western edge of the park.  The trail opens up acres of park property that have been nearly inaccessible due to dense trees, grass and brush.

Cool rides turn out for Cruise Night

The weather was fine and so were the rides on Saturday night for the final cruise night of the season in Blair.

Hello Autumn 2020

Tuesday afternoon  I grabbed a lens that I haven’t used in awhile and headed down to California Bend to commemorate the first day of autumn 2020.

Looking for landmarks

Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska is the signature landmark on the Oregon Trail.  The stone column rises nearly 300 feet above the North Platte river valley.  The national historical site  and visitors center is maintained and operated by History Nebraska. The museum inside the center has been expanded and updated. The exhibits are interesting and the staff is knowledgeable and helpful.

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Conestoga wagon and oxen display at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Scotts Bluff National Monument is another must see attraction. The setting looks much the same as the scene in William Henry Jackson’s painting of a westbound wagon train crossing beneath Scotts Bluff.

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Mitchell Pass

Fort Laramie just across the state line in Wyoming was built at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers in 1834 as a trading post where the Lakota traded tanned buffalo robes for trade goods. In 1849 the US Army bought the old post which was called Fort John and renamed it Fort Laramie.
“This ‘grand old post’ witnessed the entire sweeping saga of America’s western expansion and Indian resistance to encroachment on their territories.”  (US National Park Service)

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Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming located at the confluence of North Platte and Laramie rivers.

West of Fort Laramie near Gurnsey, Wyoming is the locationof what the National Park Service describes as the most spectacular ruts along the entire Oregon-California Trail. Wagons crossing a ridge of soft sandstone in exactly the same place carved deep ruts to more than five feet in some places that are preserved in the stone.

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Wagon wheels carved deep ruts into soft stone along the Oregon Trail near Gurnsey, Wyoming.

Also located near Gurnsey is Register Cliff where travelers carved their names into the soft rock.  Unfortunately there is more twentieth century graffiti than signatures from the 1840’s, 50’s and 60’s.

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Pioneer graves in the foreground and Signature Cliff in the background near Gurnsey, Wyoming.

In Search of the Oregon Trail

After reading “The Oregon Trail A New American Journey” I knew where my next road trip would take me. The book is the story of the author Rinker Buck’s,  “crazy ass passion” to make the first unassisted covered wagon crossing of the Oregon Trail in over 100 years. I was totally captivated by the personalities of Brinker Buck, his brother and sidekick Nick, Nick’s dog Olive Oyle, and the three mules. The writer’s theme of  “journey as destination,” and learning to find comfort in living with uncertainty resonates with me.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska
Hazy morning sun at Lake McConaughy

I have traveled west on I-80 countless times but seldom leave the Interstate for the scenic and historic byways that follow the old Oregon Trail through Nebraska and into Wyoming.  In early September I decided to remedy that.  I don’t have a 19th century covered wagon and mules, but I do have my Wander Wagon – a pop up pickup camper and Tacoma pickup truck.

Oregon Trail in Nebraska
My modern day version of a covered wagon at at Lake McConaughy.

After a 350 mile drive from Blair I found a secluded campsite on a sandy beach at  Lake McConaughy just before sunset. The next day I set out to view some of the landmarks Buck describes in his book.

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Sunflowers along the sandy beach at my campsite at Lake McConaughy.

In the 1840’s through the 1860’s, thousands of covered wagon immigrants crossed the South Platte near Brule and  climbed the steep hill which came to be known as California Hill heading for the North Platte and Ash Hollow.  A marker on Highway 30 marks the site and by traveling ¾ mile on a minimum maintenance road, the deep ruts left from the wagon wheel can still be seen. From the top of the California Hill one can see a panoramic view of the South Platte river valley and  the stream of traffic moving along Interstate 80.

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Deep ruts made by thousands of wagon wheels can still be seen on California Hill in western Nebraska between Brule and Big Sprin

Following the ridge line for about 20 miles,  the wagons would make a steep dissent down what came to be known as Windlass Hill to Ash Hollow.  Ash Hollow provided the emigrants access to fresh spring water and lush grass for livestock and an opportunity to mend harness and wagons before moving on.

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Deep ruts carved into the hillside by thousands of wagons making the descent to Ash Hollow can still be seen on Windlass Hill.

Highway 92 from Ogallala to Scotts Bluff and into Wyoming parallels the old Oregon trail.  I think I felt a bit of the excitement that the pioneers might have experienced as the terrain changes and  Jail House Rock and Court House come into view on the horizon.

To be continued…

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View of Jail House and Court House Rock from Highway 92 in western Nebraska.