Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands

Entrance to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana. Merriwether Lewis’ and William Clark’s expedition never visited these caves: they were not discovered (by whites, anyway) until the later 1800’s. But the expedition did pass nearby, a little further south along the Jefferson River, so the caverns were later named for these intrepid explorers

Journal: Billings, Montana, Friday, July 21, 2017

In my idealistic early adulthood, I often lamented how a certain coffee chain, with its weirdly militarist logo of a two-tailed mermaid with a star on her head (the old logo was much better), seemed to crowd out much of the market for charming coffee shops serving Italian style preparations while playing quality music. The more I’ve traveled, however, the more I’ve come to appreciate their ubiquitous clean bathrooms, unlimited wifi, comfortable chairs and tables to write and read at, and dependable coffee.

Especially this morning. I woke up disheveled and a bit cramped: I camped out in the car last night on a pull-out near the road block at the very top of the pass on Beartooth Highway, which runs through the mountains of the Shoshone and Custer-Gallatin National Forests. There’s construction on the road and I made it there too late to get through; they close the top of the pass during the night so that the construction zone can be navigated safely, only in daylight hours. My decision as to where to spend the night, therefore, was made for me: every campground, lodge, and hotel I passed were full. It was too windy to set up my tent in the dark, so I re-made the nice cozy nest in the backseat that I had made the night before to spend the night in Yellowstone. I fell asleep to a spectacularly clear and starry night, and I woke up to this:

View from Beartooth Highway at the top of the pass on Hwy 12 through Shoshone and Custer-Gallatin National Forests, very near to where I spent the night

So I drove another hour or two until I came to Billings. I found the nearest Starbucks, took a baby-wipe-and-sink bath, brushed my teeth, changed into fresh clothes, and ordered oatmeal and coffee. Now, clean and comfortable, I’ll tell the story of my last two days on the road.

After enjoying my cold beers and a little rest at Lochsa Lodge in the early evening following my Wendover Ridge Hike in the Bitterroot Mountains on Tuesday, July 18th, I drove to Butte, Montana, where I found a cheap but perfectly acceptable motor inn which had, most importantly of all, a bathtub. The hot bath finished the restoration that dipping my arms, head, legs, and feet in the Lochsa River had begun, and I awoke the next morning ready for a long day.

On Wednesday morning, July 19th, I headed for the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and on my way, I noticed signs for the Lewis & Clark Caverns. I had heard of them a few times before and that they were well worth seeing. So I followed the signs, and I’m so glad I did. Here’s (some of) what I saw:

The limestone and minerals that make up most of the Caverns are colored in shades of white and gray highlighted here and there with shades of yellow and pale rust. The Paradise Room, the lowest, largest, and most colorful cave in the system, is richly hued mostly in shades of pink and purple. The lighting is carefully designed to show the colors as they would appear in daylight.

In the first of the caves, we noticed that most of the small stalactites and some of the smaller stalagmites were broken. This mangling of this natural wonder occurred in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when the Caverns were managed and shown to tourists by private entrepreneurs, who charged high prices and allowed visitors to break off pieces as souvenirs of their visits. This is yet one more of the hundreds of examples to show how important the national and state great public parks are. Unfortunately, profit motives and human psychology very often result in short-sighted decisions that cause long term harm, and the tragedy of the commons is revealed in the way some individuals rob the wider community of the opportunity to enjoy the riches nature has to offer unless the people unite to protect, defend, and steward them. Government, in this case as in many others, does provide an invaluable check and balance to the self-centeredness and destructiveness that form parts (but only parts) of human nature.

So I’m with documentarian Ken Burns in his belief that the National Park System (and by extension, every state and regional park system) is America’s best idea. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and countless others of the most awesome, most beautiful, and most rare of the landscapes built by the forces of nature, were despoiled and marred by humans seeking to profit off these wonders regardless of whether their efforts served to protect or destroy them in the long term. Much of the damage is still being repaired if it can be at all, and some of the damage is ongoing and still unresolved as in the case of the great Yosemite Valley in my own California, where heavy car traffic is causing pollution, overcrowding, and wildlife destruction. Even good government fails sometimes, so the public needs to act as a check and balance on that as well. I would recommend that we demand that the National Park System close off Yosemite Valley to private car traffic.

Early Wednesday evening, I arrived at Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world (way to go, America!) and explored many of its wonders, stopping along the way to inquire at every campsite I passed whether a site had opened up. At long last, late in the evening, one did, a tiny RV site where pitching a tent is not permitted. So, I slept in the car. I felt better about that anyway, since as I was about to pull in to park, I watched a tall, thin man in a black shirt and a long black pleated glossy skirt walking slowly and deliberately backwards through my site, like a scene out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I’m pretty broad-minded in my opinions of human behavior since I consider the variety and creativity in the human species among the most interesting and often delightful of natural phenomena, but this was a little weird. I let him do his thing undisturbed.

Once he left, I created a cozy sleep space in the backseat with my sleeping bag and camp sleeping pad, additionally padded at one end with my coats, towels, and sweaters, then I stepped outside, sipping from the large bottle of ale I brought with me and leaning on my rental car, looking at the brilliant stars showing between the black silhouettes of the trees. Eventually, a sustained rustle of a large creature of some sort sent me scurrying to my backseat nest. I didn’t fear bears here since the large number of other campers and their fires would keep them at bay, but the strange man had left me just a little spooked, rather to my surprise. So I laid there in the car drinking more of my ale and thinking about the amazing sights I had seen earlier that evening, only a few of which are pictured below:

Fountain Paint Pot, with intense blue above the white surrounded by brilliantly colored microbes and minerals. The water is incredibly clear and you can see the deep opening in the earth from which the water wells up

The sun sinking low over Artist’s Paint Pots, Yellowstone

I watched Old Faithful erupt for several minutes just after sunset.

The next morning, July 2oth, I explored the park. I saw wonder after wonder after wonder! Here are some of them:

Looking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from the top of Lower Falls. I see where the park got its name

View of the Lower Falls from the side of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I didn’t get any successful pictures of the osprey’s nest on a tower of rock near the cliff side, where the mother was guarding and feeding her two young. It was a beautiful sight to see her swoop gracefully through the air and quickly return with wiggling prey. A nature videographer on the overlook kindly let me get a few good views of the action through his camera.

A view of Yellowstone from the road between Tower / Roosevelt Junction and Mammoth Hot Springs. On recommendation, I took a brief trip to Gardiner to get water and a few supplies and to find a nearby campground to return to that night, still having no luck in Yellowstone. On the rise above Gardiner across the river and the valley between, I got these beautiful views of Yellowstone. But when it comes to a campsite, no luck here either! I shrugged my shoulders and returned to the park. Something was bound to work out… the spirit of adventure was and is strong in me, and I don’t care much where I sleep

Roosevelt Arch at the north gate of Yellowstone; I was here last this January and the backdrop was white with snow where it’s now green.

A hillside clothed in brilliant grasses and wildflowers across from the similarly garbed Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone NP

The trail up Mt Washburn, a 3-mile hike which climbs 1,400 feet

See the animals dotting the side of Mt Washburn? I saw so much wildlife up here: elk, horned mountain sheep with their young, birds, and chipmunks.

At the summit of Mt Washburn. My elation is pretty evident in this photo

The setting sun from the trail as I descended Mt Washburn

From the base of Mt Washburn, I readied myself for the drive of undetermined length from Yellowstone, Hwy 212 towards I-90 en route to my next destination via Cooke City-Silver Gate. When I was in Yellowstone in January, I saw a lot of buffalo but hadn’t seen any at all this trip. But as I drove in the dark, my headlights picked up a dark shape off to the side with two glowing eyes. I stopped and put on my hazard lights as a fuzzy, light brown, charmingly ungainly creature appeared, followed by a mother buffalo and two more calves. Over the next fifteen minutes or so, I watched a small herd of buffalo wander onto the road then mill around. Two young males found this a perfect place to tussle and push. Bison social hour was finally ended as an impatient motorist finally decided to clear the road by driving slowly at the herd, honking, until they took fright and scampered off the road. A little further on, I came across another car, pointing in the other direction, with its hazard lights on and its bumper caved in. The driver ruefully confirmed that he had collided with one of the herd, but the stricken animal was nowhere to be seen. Buffalo are hardy creatures, I hope that one recovers from the impact. Later on, my headlights picked up elk, two waddling fat little creatures (marmots?), and a red fox. As you may imagine, I drove particularly slowly after all that.

I drove on, winding up and up and up, until I reached that roadblock I told you about. I gazed at the bright, bright stars awhile, then curled up to sleep.

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6 thoughts on “Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands

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