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Route 89 to Yellowstone National Park

Above: Mammoth Terraces. Below: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Our trip actually started on Route 22 as we started in Calgary, wending our way through the foothills, where everything was startlingly green after a long winter and a cold, white countryside.  This is a particularly scenic drive with the Rocky Mountains in the background and the rolling green hills in between.  There are also many attractions along the way to lure you into breaking from your journey.  We succumbed to Chain Lakes Provincial Park, which is about 120km from Calgary in the Willow Creek valley between the Rocky Mountains and the Porcupine Hills,   and drove in to have a closer look.  Stocked with rainbow trout and home to bull trout, the lakes offer facilities for boating, fishing,  picnicking and birding – the lakes are a migration stop-over for eagle, osprey and trumpeter swans.  We left reluctantly, planning our next trip when we would be armed with fishing rods and irresistible flies.

The second tangent we took was at Frank Slide in Crowsnest Pass where, in April 1903, 74 millions tonnes of limestone broke away from the east face of Turtle Mountain, covering 2 kilometers of the Canadian Pacific Railway, destroying houses and outbuildings and killing approximately 76 people.  Most of the victims still lie buried and the rocks which lie scattered across the landscape remain as a memorial to them and a reminder of  the biggest landslide which has ever occurred in North America.

Although it was my second visit the impact of that devastation, the shorn mountain  and the rock strewn countryside was not lessened by familiarity.  We spent about an hour going through the excellent Interpretive Centre.

Then onto Route 6 and the last lap of the first day.  This route is marked by wind farms where hundreds of windmills march like aliens across the countryside; trains, two kilometres long, crawl across pastures and grasslands like enormous millipedes; and cut-out metal cowboys chase cut-out metal horses across the farmers’ fields.

At Waterton Lakes National Park we drove up Red Rock Canyon and picnicked in the rain near the canyon itself.  The misty rain dissuaded us from revisiting the canyon, which we have seen before.  No bears this time – on our last visit we were treated to the sight of a black bear with two cubs, one a yearling the other probably not long out of the den.  Instead we witnessed a helicopter rescue from the mountains beyond the canyon where a couple of hikers had taken the wrong path and ended up spending an extra night the woods.  The bad weather and the difficult terrain meant that the helicopter could not land and the rescue operation had to be performed using a heli-sling – the cold, hungry but otherwise unhurt hikers and their equipment were assisted out of the valley suspended at the end of long, swaying rope.

Retracing our steps, we bed and breakfasted at the charming Shintangle Springs, about 5 minutes north of the Waterton turnoff and then  headed for Chief Mountain and the American border.  A black bear crossed our path near the top of the mountain, generating a great deal of excitement and much juggling of the camera, unsuccessfully as it turned out as he took off down the mountain into the dense forest which covers these slopes.  This first part of today’s trip through the mountains on route 17, which is flanked by tall conifers and newly greened aspens, was the prettiest part of our journey.  After a fairly painless entry into the United States handled by two friendly but businesslike customs officials, we soon found ourselves driving through the extensive Blackfoot reserve, farmlands and cattle ranches where the relative monotony of green pastures and rolling hills was relieved by patches of purple heather reflecting the distant mountains which etched the horizon.

At St Mary’s we digressed once more, this time into Glacier National Park where we followed the famed Road to the Sun as far as Logan Pass on the continental divide and back.  We were rewarded by soaring snow clad mountain peaks, dense forests of pine, spruce and aspens and winding pavements where the grassy roadside, sprinkled with wild flowers – red, yellow, white, blue and purple,  drops away precipitously to reveal a breathtaking view of lesser peaks and valleys and the beautiful St Mary Lake.  Without doubt a road which must be followed to its end next time around.

After the splendours of Glacier National Park we had a long, uneventful drive to the pretty little town of Choteau where  we stopped at the Ice Cream Parlour for ice cream cones and spent an interesting and enjoyable hour wandering through ‘The Old Trail Museum’, which features among its exhibits fossils and dinosaurs; Native American artefacts and grizzly bears; Jesse Gleason and A.B. Guthrie and even memento’s of the last hanging at Choteau!

Our next stop was Freeze Out Lakes just outside of our destination, Fairfield.  Freeze Out Lakes is on the migratory path of numerous water birds, including thousands of snowgeese, and is a favourite bird watching spot for serious twitchers.  American pelicans, American avocets, black necked stilts, a killdeer who desperately dragged her wing ahead of our car to lure us away from her unseen nest and many beautiful yellow headed and red winged blackbirds rewarded our observation but our hopelessly inadequate bird book made it impossible to identify most of the water and shore birds we saw.  Another destination to add to our ‘we will return’ list!

Then Fairfield Park Inn where we relaxed, read and watched TV in the comfort of their Antique Room before heading for Shorty’s where the meal, unfortunately, was mediocre.  We have frequented this Steakhouse and Saloon before and been very happy with their service.  Perhaps the cook had an off day!

From Fairfield to Great Falls the following day, where we resisted the temptation to visit the Lewis and Clarke centre since we had been there before.  Well worth a visit if you haven’t seen it, the centre covers the Voyage of Discovery, the epic journey which Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, accompanied by approximately 40 soldiers and tradesmen, and guided by a young Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, undertook in 1804 – 1806  across the North American continent to the Pacific ocean.

As we continued to head south on Route 89 towards White Sulphur Springs the Montana landscape stretched out on either side, short green pastures, rolling hills and occasional stands of trees, usually around the homesteads – truly Guthrie’s ‘Big Sky Country’.

Belt Creek and the Little Belt Mountains presented us with a different side of Montana, one we had not seen before as until now Great Falls was the furthest south we had ventured into this lovely state.  We crossed and re-crossed Belt Creek as it followed the road from Armington to the Sluice Boxes State Park  and met us again at Monarch.

About 40 miles from Great Falls, Sluice Boxes State Park is small but spectacular with vertical limestone cliffs sheltering the meandering Belt Creek. A seven mile hike follows a well-defined trail through Sluice Boxes Park, and crosses the Belt Creek about 14 times.  We took half an hour off our journey to wander along the banks of Belt Creek through the park, admiring the wild flowers and marvelling at the caves which have been carved in the cliffs of the gorge.

Winding through the mountains from Monarch, through the  Lewis and Clark National Forest, alongside the Belt Creek, surrounded by pine trees, we travelled through one of the most beautiful areas  of our  trip, eclipsing even the drive over the mountains from Waterton through the US customs.

Once we had left the forests behind us the ranch lands seemed to have undergone a metamorphosis – the groomed pastures giving way to  more rugged, scrubby fields.  The road, no longer winding through forest and hills, stretched out ahead of us endlessly, with not a tree in sight in whose shade we could stop and enjoy our lunch.  Finally we drove into Clyde Park where we filled a worryingly low gas tank and bought a very welcome ice cream and the makings of lunch for our drive  through the park tomorrow.

A short hop from there to Livingstone and then we followed the Yellowstone River south through Paradise Valley to our destination at Gardiner.   At first a seeming misnomer, Paradise Valley proved to be an apt name for the last section of our journey, where the Yellowstone River ran through the forested flanks, sand stone cliffs and snow strewn peaks of the beautiful Gallantin  Mountains.

This range is a wildlife corridor through which some of the largest herds of elk and moose in North America make their annual winter migration out of the Yellowstone National Park, returning again at the beginning of Spring.  We stopped to watch a number of river rafts plunging through a series of rapids and again to finally have our lunch on the banks of the river. Then Gardiner and our room (with a very welcome air conditioner) at the Yellowstone Village Inn after a brief visit to the North Gate of the Yellowstone National Park where a pronghorn nonchalantly flipped its tail at us as it gazed fixedly into the distance.

We entered Yellowstone National Park at about 9am, which was perhaps a little late for animal viewing.  However, from Mammoth Springs the physical wonders of Yellowstone, both bizarre and beautiful, more than met our expectations.  Hot springs and geysers, mud volcano’s and waterfalls, mountains covered with spruce and pine forests, sweeping plains, and grotesque rock formations, had us taking 10 hours to cover the 120 odd miles we travelled around the Grand Loop from the North Entrance past Mammoth Springs, Old Faithful, and Yellowstone Lake,  past Tower Falls and back.

However, besides the ubiquitous bison, the numerous animals of Yellowstone were conspicuous only by their absence.  We saw two squirrels, followed a rather mangy coyote along the road, and watched, fascinated, as a number of large cut throat trout rested in the shelter of rocks in the DeHardy rapids on the Yellowstone river, before launching themselves upwards once more.  But of the 30000 elk which roam the park in summer, we saw one female, on the sidewalk near the shops at Mammoth Springs!

It rained during the night and we drove to the Park early on Friday morning under an overcast sky.  Our destination – the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone which we had missed the day before.  We stopped at three of the main observation points, Lookout Point, Red Rock Point and Inspiration Point, all of which provide spectacular views of the awe inspiring canyon with its soaring yellow walls and cascading waterfalls.  A sign at Inspiration Point chronicles an earthquake in 1975 which sent the original observation platform, which extended more than 100 feet over the abyss, plunging into the canyon. It ends with the ominous warning: ‘Do not assume the scenery will be the same when you return’.  A reminder that Yellowstone National Park lies on the most violent active volcano in the world.

An unexpected but very welcome result of the cooler weather and occasional rain was the reappearance of Yellowstone’s animals:  a moose; a herd of elk cows and their calves; big horn sheep, silhouetted above us against the grey sky; a coyote, leaping on its prey only meters from the vehicles which lined the road behind it; black bears; and even a grizzly, unconcernedly turning rocks in search on some delectable treat.

As a final curtain call, that evening, as we were finishing off a delicious meal at Pedalino’s, overlooking the Park, a herd of pronghorn crossed the meadow in front of us and vanished into the hills. We quickly followed them into the park and met up with a straggler who kindly posed  for a few minutes before crossing the road in front of us and hurrying off, presumably to catch up to the rest of his herd.

Tomorrow it is time for us to leave as well, and retrace our journey back to Calgary, taking back many memories and many plans for our next trip along the R89.

January 31, 2010 - Posted by | Travels |


  1. How come you did not publicise your blog on e-mail. I have just discovered it by accident.
    Sounds as though your trip was fantastic. When did you do this trip?

    Comment by Brenda | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  2. We went to Yellowstone in June last year, Brenda, after Ray and I got back from Egypt. I’m surprised we didn’t tell you all about it! It was really worthwhile.

    Comment by wordsworkinc | February 8, 2010 | Reply

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