Snow covered mountains off on the horizon slowly zoom in as we approach the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. Turning onto a dirt track we follow it across wide open high meadow to the Circle Park campground, a range of white peaks just ahead of us. It’s a long time since we’ve been anywhere near the Rockies and we’re excited to be approaching them; these outlying ranges giving a hint of the spectacle to come.
The campground is deserted, possibly because the water is not yet turned on for the season, possibly because the overnight temperatures are hovering just above freezing: we see a low of 33 degrees F (0.5 degrees C) on the first of June.
As so often of late, we’re here to do a couple of days' work. It’s noses to the keyboards interspersed with short strolls and lunch outdoors, in the warm mid-day sun, ahead of the gathering cloud and rumbling thunder that arrives as accompaniment to the afternoon rain.
The highlight of these first couple of mornings are the Snowshoe Hares that come visiting, attracted by the new growth vegetation around the campsite. Their winter clothes are all but gone, their disproportionately big feet still clad in whitish booties but otherwise there’s just a hint of their white winter fur remaining around the edge of their ears. They are a delight and are much quieter than the red squirrels chattering away to each other as they run along the forest floor or jump onto a tree stump for a quick look around. A single doe appears one of these mornings. She stands staring in our direction and makes us wonder if a Disney film crew are due to arrive.
It’s time for a day off and there’s a short circular hike from the campground that has our name on it. Up through the Lodgepoles the scent of pine is heavy on the air. Breaks in the trees present views out to the lower hills and alpine meadows. The trail is covered in deer and elk prints and Sterling speculates whether there are Moose this far east.
We have our answer as we drive out towards the highway in the early afternoon. Movement in a boggy area catches our attention. Two moose, a cow and a yearling are steadily feeding on the burgeoning foliage of the aspen saplings. Their thick shaggy coats suggest that they haven’t finished moulting, their appetites that they’re bulking up after the winter. The yearling is showing antler buds giving him an altogether unusual appearance although it has to be admitted that these are some funny looking animals at the best of times. They are largely unconcerned by our presence and while the photographs don’t do them justice we spent a wonderful fifteen minutes watching them munch through an impressive weight of aspen leaves.
We’re heading for the small town of Thermopolis with its hot springs and warm memories. In 2001 we did a four day cycling tour starting and ending here although our motivation for this visit is a lot less energetic. We’re here to take a dip at the State Bath House in Hot Springs State Park. Entrance is free thanks to a treaty signed with the Arapahoe and Shoshone Indians back in the late eighteen hundreds specifying that a quarter of the waters from the source had to remain accessible to all for no charge. The remaining waters are diverted to the various commercial ventures that have concessions in the park.
We haven’t been in a hot spring since Big Bend National Park, well over a year ago. The hot, milky, slightly sulphurous waters are an absolute delight. Floating and soaking in the compact outdoor pool makes us seriously discuss whether we’d want to live in a town quite this small. After due consideration, Thermopolis makes our B List: the setting and the springs sway our decision.
Another trip down memory lane takes us from the steaming waters to the settlement of Meeteetse. We stopped here on our bike trip and we head to the same motel, booking into one of their RV sites rather than a room this time. We remember walking the few hundred yards across the river, along the covered boardwalk and into the Cowboy Bar where we ate a fantastic pizza. Admittedly we were just off the bikes and would have eaten virtually anything put in front of us but we’re here to see whether it lives up to our recollections. On the wall behind the bar is the obligatory large mirror surrounded by the carved dark wood frame and shelves. The remaining walls are covered in dead animal bits, guns, saddles, western clothing, old photos etc. There’s no horses tied up outside but maybe they’re in the livery stable. It’s worth the visit for the bar alone and as it turns out the pizza is delicious, especially the thick bready crust.
Highway 296 northwest out of Cody passes through some amazing scenery: the mountain road demands my attention around the numerous switchbacks, my eyes stray to the stunningly green slopes of the open parks, the swathes of yellow flowers and the snow accented mountains. We haven’t driven through scenery like this or on such an enjoyable road for far too long. We’re giddy with the pleasure of being back in the west, back in the mountains.
We stop the night at Crazy Creek campground ahead of going into Yellowstone the following day. Nearby there’s a huge waterfall, its waters swollen with snow melt, racing and churning, its channels crisscrossed with fallen trees lying like matchsticks, the last sunlight highlighting patches of the white water. The sound is incredible, a deep persistent roar announcing its power. The background roar of the river, feet away from the campsite, is our soundtrack overnight.