When you’re hot on the trail to Yellowstone National Park, you don’t go home just because they won’t let you in.
We had been merrily on our way to Yellowstone, but were stopped dead in our tracks. The East Entrance to the park was closed due to four significant snow slides blocking the road at Sylvan Pass. We had come too far and were too close to give up and go home without seeing Yellowstone. So we decided to try the next nearest entrance—Northeast Entrance—which was at the park’s far northwest corner.
. . . Road Trip thru Wyoming . . .
May 15-16-17, 2011
Day Two (cont’d): Yellowstone or Bust / Trek to NE Entrance
Monday, May 16, 2011 . . . After being thwarted at the East Entrance, we returned to Cody . . . and headed northwest on Highway 120 (Belfry Highway) . . . to the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (Highway 296) . . . to Highway 212 north . . . through the small towns of Coulter Pass, Cooke City, and Silver Gate in Montana . . . to Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance.Travel time (Route 2: Cody to Yellowstone’s NE Entrance, not including stops for photos) – 80.5 miles, 1 hour 48 minutes
Travel time, thus far, for the day (including Route 1): 184.5 miles, 3 hours 41 minutes
Highway 120 (Belfry Highway) is the only road you can take from Cody that goes to Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance. It zigzags northwest out of town and is hard to follow at first, but once it crosses the Shoshone River and you find yourself outside the city limits, there’s nothing but rolling grassland, vast open range, and mountain views.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (Highway 296) is highly regarded as one of the most scenic drives in Wyoming. It’s about 17 miles north of Cody and extends 47 miles northwest—from Highway 120 to the Beartooth Highway (Route 212)—linking Cody with Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance.
Two Dot Ranch
The first eight miles of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway run through a section of historical Two Dot Ranch. The area is unfenced and designated open range. Cattle dot the landscape and are free to graze wherever they want. It’s not unusual to find them near the road so extra care is needed around the many turns.
We didn’t see it, but wish we had
With cattle roaming free on Two Dot Ranch’s open range, from time-to-time cowboys on horses to round up the livestock and take them home. Unless you have inside info, a cattle drive is not something you can plan to see while on vacation. But if you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s a traffic-stopping experience and definite photo op.
Scenery on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is spectacular.
The rich brick-red of the Chugwater Formations is offset by every imaginable shade of green—emerald grass, silvery sagebrush, forest green shrubbery—against the dark mountains and soft blue skies. They contrast dramatically with the greenery around them . . . and are ancient. They date back to before the Jurassic period of dinosaurs 250 million years ago.
Dead Indian Pass
From Two Dot, you enter Shoshone National Forest and start winding your way up Dead Indian Hill. It’s a slow, gradual climb. Elevation at the summit is 8,673.
Dead Indian Summit Overlook, a paved turnout at the high point of the Byway, provided a perfect place to stop. View from the overlook, wow. Just wow.
It’s hard to capture it all in a photo without a wide lens the size of China.
What you’re looking at is the North Absaroka Wilderness to the south, Dead Indian Creek below, Sunlight Basin, the volcanic Absaroka Range of the mighty Rockies beyond, Clarks Fork Canyon, with Gallatin National Forest and the granite Beartooth Mountains to the north. It’s a pristine, rugged, remote, wild landscape with majestic snow-capped peaks stretching into the distant horizon in all directions, plunging canyons, and deep valleys disappearing around forested ridges and slopes.
It is beyond awesome.
A stone marker commemorates the historical significance of Dead Indian Pass.
The inscription on the stone marker reads:
This pass is the summit of Dead Indian Hill. Through this portal great herds of wild game seasonally migrated from the mountains to the plains. This high pass was the gate way for countless Indian hunting and war parties, and through this portal Chief Joseph, in 1877, led his Nez Perce Indians in a strategic and defensive retreat, pursued by U.S. Army soldiers. Over this one and only opening of the valleys to the west traveled a vast army of miners to seek the wealth of Cooke City. And down this steep hill the early settlers of Sunlight Basin braved its dangers. The first road improvement was made possible in 1909, by dwellers of Sunlight Valley whose names are here inscribed . . .
More signs at the overlook explain the 1877 escape over this pass by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. I can only imagine their desperation and determination as they traveled through the mountains and wilderness in their epic attempt to flee from the U.S. Cavalry.
In 1877, the Nez Perce were forced off their native land in Oregon by the U.S. government. Refusing to sign a treaty to settle on a reservation, Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce set off for Canada with the U.S. Cavalry in hot pursuit. For over three months, the Nez Perce outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers, traveling 1,170 miles—across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and into Montana—with the ultimate hope of reaching asylum with Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in Canada. They fled through Yellowstone and over what is now the byway named in Chief Joseph’s honor. At Dead Indian Pass, they managed a successful escape north into Montana. On October 5, 1877, however, after a devastating five-day battle during freezing weather conditions—with no food or blankets and the major war leaders dead—Chief Joseph formally surrendered in the Bear Paw Mountains of the Montana Territory—just 40 miles short of the Canadian border and freedom. Read more
The Flight of the Nez Perce
Dead Indian Pass is where the Nez Perce almost succeeded in shaking their pursuers.
We missed it, but it’s worth seeing
A bit farther up the road is another scenic overlook. This one is easy to miss if you don’t see the “Point of Interest” sign. Just past a bend in the road, the wide vista comes into view with a small pullout where you can park and look out at Clarks Fork Canyon, with its vertical 2,000-foot cliffs, and the Beartooth Plateau.
Descending from Dead Indian Pass, you encounter the series of switchbacks seen from the overlook. Navigating the switchbacks can be tricky. The road is paved, but there are no street lights and, at times, no guard rails. Winding your way through the mountain is slow-going.
Dead Indian Campground is located in Sunlight Basin at the bottom of one of the switchbacks on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. Campsites flank Dead Indian Creek, offering soothing water sounds, and a trailhead leads right into the North Absaroka Wilderness. There are other campgrounds along the Byway, and still more can be found on the many gravel side roads that lead deeper into the National Forest. Be aware—this wilderness is a remote, rugged, wild place with thriving populations of grizzly bears, black bears, mountains lions, and wolves. Take care. Take bear spray and practice safe food storage. Read more
Sunlight Bridge is eight miles west of the campground. It is a simple one-span concrete beam bridge that crosses an immense gorge so narrow and deep, sunlight rarely reaches the creek below. At 285 feet, the bridge is the highest in Wyoming.
We missed it, but it’s worth seeing
You can’t miss Sunlight Bridge; you come around the bend and there it is. But you might fail to realize—like we did—that you’re driving over something spectacular. It’s worth a stop. There are parking lots and walkways on both sides of the bridge allowing for some dizzying views of Sunlight Creek.
Because Sunlight Basin is so remote, it’s been said the only thing that can get into the valley most of the year is sunlight . . . hence the name.
We missed it, but it’s worth seeing
Swamp Lake Botanical Area lies nestled at the base of Cathedral Cliffs. It’s a rich wildlife habitat and wetland composed of fine-textured sediments (marl), floating vegetation mats, a large number of regionally rare plant species, shallow water with emergent vegetation, and open water for fishing.
Continuing west, the Byway follows the Clarks Fork River. Clarks Fork is a tributary of the Yellowstone and named for Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark duo. It’s wild and scenic, surrounded by forestland, the kind of river bears love—full of brook trout, rainbow trout, and Yellowstone Cutthroat trout—but we didn’t see any bears or other wildlife the entire time we were on the Byway.
Do not miss this scenic drive
When all was said and done, I was glad the East Entrance to Yellowstone had been closed and we had no choice but to take the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. We might never have experienced it otherwise. If you are ever in the area, do not miss it. It is a must-see. Highly recommended.
Near the junction for Beartooth Highway (US 212), snow-covered Pilot and Index Peaks dominate the view.
We missed it, but it’s worth seeing
The Beartooth Scenic Byway is the section of US Route 212 between Red Lodge and Cooke City. It traces a series of steep zigzags and switchbacks, along the Montana-Wyoming border, to the 10,947-foot high Beartooth Pass. Worth seeing.
Photo: Sebwite, Wikipedia.
At an elevation of 8,200 feet, Colter Pass, just east of Cooke City, has snow from November through May with an average snowfall of 500 inches a year. They say “only the hearty can live year round on the Pass.” Yep.
Cooke City is an old mining town about four miles east of Yellowstone. Nestled deep in the Beartooth Mountains surrounded by forestland, it feels remote and isolated.
We stopped to get gas and stretch our legs. Piles of snow, plowed to the side of the road, were as high as a grown man in some places. The air was crisp and clean, but not cold.
Cooke City has a definite western flavor and is small—just ten square miles—with only 100 full-time residents and about 300 more who come during the summer months.
It’s a great place to get gas . . . gifts and souvenirs . . . burgers, pizza, and Moose Drool on tap.
The town caters mostly to tourists. There are motels, restaurants, and bars along the road, a couple of gas stations, a general store, gift shops, and other seasonal businesses. Everything to do in the area involves the great outdoors—hiking, boating, fishing, hunting, mountain bike riding, horseback riding, ATV and snowmobile rentals, skiing, snowboarding, etc.
You can count on meeting bears, moose, and bison while in town or out in the surrounding wilderness.
At the Cooke City Visitor’s Center, we picked up maps for Yellowstone and were told it would be unlikely we would see any bears . . . they only come out in the early morning and at dusk when foraging for food.
Blink and you’ll miss it. Silver Gate is a tiny town located one mile from Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance. It has one stop sign, eight full-time residents, a restaurant, a couple of motels, a rustic lodge, some rental cabins, and a general store. Elevation is 7,480 feet with peaks towering above at over 10,000 feet. Soda Butt Creek, with plentiful trout, runs through the town. The ancient Bannock Indian Trail is within close proximity.
Silver Gate Lodging has a general store and 29 cozy cabins, making it a perfect place to stop for last minute picnic or hiking supplies . . . or, if you need a place to stay while visiting Yellowstone, it makes a great home base. It’s all about location location location. One mile from Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance, away from the crowds, surrounded by majestic mountains and pristine wilderness, you couldn’t ask for anything more serene and convenient.
(Photos: Silver Gate Lodging)
Yellowstone National Park
At last . . .
. . . and the road was open.
Copyright © 2011 Patricia Petro/Tom Schmidt. All rights reserved.
Maps and some photos were found online. Links to the source sites have been provided. I encourage you to visit these sites to read what others have to say.
America’s Byways | Cooke City Chamber of Commerce | Brett DeWoody | Elfino 57 | Knight Adventures | Ladybug’s Lair | The New World Mining District | Nez Perce Campaign | Chris Sanfino | Emily Sharp | Shoshone National Forest: Campground List | Silver Gate Lodging | Jon Vermilye | Wyoming Tourism | Dan Zachariah
Artwork: “Chief Joseph” by Paul Shafranski, pen and ink, 2013.
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