Cody to Yellowstone
Following a whole day of driving from the southeast corner of Wyoming to its northwest tip, we spent the night in historical Cody and woke up the next day refreshed and anxious to see the bear, buffalo, and other wildlife they say roam free in Yellowstone.
We had never been to Yellowstone National Park, so we did not know what to expect.
After doing some research online, we had decided to make Cody our home base. We were coming from Cheyenne, and Cody was the closest, most-logical place to stay. The old western city lies nestled in the shadow of mountains about an hour’s drive from Yellowstone’s East Entrance. When we were done visiting Yellowstone, we planned to travel east to South Dakota, and Cody was right on a major route that would get us there.
As much as we liked Cody, WY
we do not recommend
using it as a home base for Yellowstone.
This is why.
We had carefully mapped out our visit to Yellowstone:
Canyon and around to Norris and Mammoth . . . to Tower Falls, Fishing Bridge, and back out to Cody.
We figured it would take two full days to see everything.
We left Cody for Yellowstone early in the morning to ensure we would have plenty of time to take in as much as we could. It’s a good thing we had that early start. Things did not go quite as planned.
Cody to Yellowstone—Day Two
Monday, May 16, 2011 . . . What should have been an easy one-hour drive from Cody to Yellowstone turned into a full-day affair.
First, we took the North Fork Highway (US 14-16-20) west from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone. When that didn’t work out, we drove back to Cody and headed northwest on the second leg of our journey.
Travel time: East Entrance (round trip) – 104 miles, 1 hour 53 minutes.
The North Fork Highway (US 14-16-20) west is the only road that takes you from Cody to Yellowstone’s East Entrance. There are no side roads, no shortcuts, or alternate routes.
The drive from Cody to Yellowstone is awesome.
The highway follows the Shoshone River through Shoshone Canyon, past the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Dam, through lush Wapiti Valley, and into the heart of the Shoshone National Forest where the deer and the antelope play. Elk, moose, bighorn sheep, black bear, and the highest concentration of grizzlies in the continental USA are said to inhabit the area.
Scenery along the route is breathtaking.
Shoshone Canyon starts on the western edge of Cody. The canyon is rugged and craggy. Carved from volcanic rock by the river, it has Cedar Mountain on its south side and Rattlesnake Mountain, a massive peak with a summit over 9,000 feet high, to the north. The highway follows the Shoshone River right through it.
The size of Rattlesnake Mountain is impressive. It rises over 3,300 feet above the river. Shoshone River has its start out west in the surrounding Absaroka Range and flows northeast for 100 miles—first to the dam at Buffalo Bill Reservoir . . . through the canyon . . . and then the towns of Cody, Powell, Byron, and Lovell . . . before joining the Bighorn River at Kane, near the Montana border. It’s a long river—we rode alongside it almost all the way to its mountain source.
About six miles west of Cody, three tunnels cut right through Rattlesnake Mountain’s towering mountain rock.
The first two tunnels are short . . . you’re in-and-out in a flash. The third tunnel is 3,200 feet long, has overhead lights in its domed rock ceiling, and seems to go on forever. Not good if you’re claustrophobic.
Emerging from the third tunnel, we were treated to our first look at Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Dam
We could not resist stopping.
The reservoir is spectacular.
Water surface covers approximately 8,000 acres. That’s a lot of land water!
On display, in the parking area, is the original wood and concrete ball plug, once used to halt the flow of the Shoshone River in the reservoir at the dam.
The dam, built from 1905-1910, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and worth seeing.
Aerial views of Shoshone Canyon and Buffalo Bill Reservoir
Copyright © 2001 Louis J. Maher, Jr., Geology by Lightplane.
Buffalo Bill State Park surrounds the reservoir.
The landscape looks surreal . . . almost like an alien planet. The state park, reservoir, and dam were all named for the famous Wild West showman, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who once owned the land.
Wow . . . what a view!
What’s great about this route, aside from the breathtaking views, is the absence of billboards, advertising, and other distracting road signs. No street lights either . . . so we agreed it might be a good idea to find our way back home before dark.
Past the state park, the landscape gives way to beautiful Wapiti Valley. Snow-capped mountains of the Absaroka Range frame the rolling, green-tufted hills and loom large on the horizon in every direction. The scenery is stunning.
Born and raised a city girl, it is hard for me to imagine living in the shadow of mountains so far away from civilization, theaters, restaurants, and shopping malls . . . but I understand and appreciate why others choose to do it.
Your eyes would beg to look far into the distance following clouds to their conclusions.
The grass would invite you to stay awhile, sit longer for a deeper answer
than one that merely satisfies.”
—Dennis Janke, Mountains.
On the south side of the highway, not far from Shoshone National Forest, there’s a lone structure called Smith Mansion. You can’t miss it. It sits high on a hill . . . all by itself . . . and is rather ugly. It looks unfinished with raw timber set at odd angles like a pagoda. Built by Francis Lee Smith, one log at-a-time, the whimsical house is a local landmark.
The North Fork Highway (US 14-16-20) enters Shoshone National Forest about 24 miles west of Cody. If you miss the signs, you won’t even realize you’re in a forest—it does not look like a forest. At this point, the highway officially becomes the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. We stopped at the information kiosk to stretch our legs, walk our mini-Schnauzer pup, and take in the mountain air.
Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway continues to follow the North Fork of the Shoshone River, winding its way through the forest for 27.5 miles to Yellowstone’s East Entrance. I immediately went on high alert for bear, buffalo, and the bighorn sheep that like to traverse rocky mountain cliffs.
The route is known for its abundant wildlife and amazing rock formations. One formation, the Holy City, can be seen from the road . . . and it’s worth stopping for a closer look.
Shoshone National Forest consists of 2.4 million acres of pristine wilderness. Immense areas of exposed rock are interspersed with hillsides, thick forests, and meadows. Rugged mountains frame the horizon. The higher peaks are snow-clad most of the year. Honestly, it is astonishing how beautiful the scenery is.
We saw deer, antelope, moose . . . and a herd of elk, who took off running the minute they heard me squeal with delight, “Oooh, look at them!” Shortly thereafter, we enjoyed a closer view of American bison. When you squeal with delight at seeing a buffalo, they just stand there and ignore you. Posing for the buffalo-head nickle is typical.
Chimney Rock, not far from Yellowstone, looks like it might be a hoodoo, one of many unearthly rock formations that are a common sight along the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. There’s so much to see, it’s impossible to capture it all. What’s really striking is how diverse the landscape is—one minute you’re looking at cliffs, then forests, mountains, meadows, and rolling hills. Everything, everywhere you look, is beautiful.
Wildlife have the right of way on the road. The speed limit is slow. You never know what you might encounter around the next turn.
In several different spots along the way, we came across bighorn sheep and buffalo. There’s not much you can do about it, except wait for them to pass. For the most part, they weren’t the least bit interested in us. They looked in our direction, but never came near the car.
We waited, watched, took photos. There were no other cars around, and it was quite nice having the animals all to ourselves.
At one point, a rather large herd of buffalo meandered on by as if they owned the road. Bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can sprint 30 miles per hour. Since we heard they are dangerous and unpredictable, we held are breath and didn’t take any chances coaxing them over for a closer look.
truly rugged, remote, and wild. There are no roads or buildings. No trucks are allowed . . . no cars, campers, bicycles . . . or anything on wheels. If you want to go anywhere in the wilderness, you have to hike or go by horseback. If you do plan to go, you better know what you’re doing.
The wilderness beckons.
A comprehensive system of trails, for backcountry hiking, can be accessed directly from the road. Or you can simply get out of your car and take a short, leisurely stroll along the Shoshone River.
If you’re more adventurous and don’t mind high-risk, you can make like a mountain man and explore the vast, truly rugged, and remote areas. It’s your choice—you have the Washakie Wilderness to the south and the Absaroka Wilderness to the north. Both are death-defying.
Whatever you do, keep in mind, this is serious bear country. Be sure to take bear spray.
Shoshone National Forest, with its surrounding wilderness, is said to have the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the continental USA. Warning signs are posted everywhere. One sign on the road read: Bears are dangerous . . . do not approach . . . up to $5,000 fine. Translation: You WILL be fined up to $5,000 if you try to get in too close for a photo. Not a problem for me. I wasn’t planning on getting anywhere near a bear. I have a good zoom, and intended to use it . . . if, and when, we ever saw one.
We were not surprised to see snow in Yellowstone. Yellowstone sits on a volcanic plateau, at an average elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level, and is bordered on nearly all sides by tall mountain ranges. The air is thinner, cooler. Spring arrives more slowly, and it’s not unusual for snow to fall in the mountains as late as June.
To our dismay, the East Entrance was closed. An avalanche or two, about a week before at Sylvan Pass, was blocking the road; and the ranger said they were still trying to clear the snow. This explained why we had not seen even one car traveling on the highway. Apparently, everyone knew . . . except us. Major disappointment.
We were mostly disappointed with our hotel. We had phoned for room reservations at the last minute—the night before we arrived. It would have been courteous of them to simply mention that Yellowstone’s East Entrance was closed, just in case we were planning to visit, so we could make other arrangements. O well.
Yellowstone has five entrances. See map. Only the North Entrance is open year-round. The other four entrances are open depending on weather, road, and other conditions. Do yourself a favor and call the park the day before you arrive to make sure the entrance you want to use is open. Otherwise, like us, you’ll be looking for an alternate way into the park.
Hope springs eternal….
The ranger told us other entrances to Yellowstone were open. The South Entrance was 6+ hours away from Cody and Northeast Entrance about 4 hours (round trip) . . . so Northeast Entrance it was. We turned around and headed back to Cody and then northwest. After all, we didn’t come this far NOT to see Yellowstone.
Cody to Yellowstone, Continued
c o m i n g s o o n
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