Tuesday, July 16, 2013
My Prius is an ATV
Monday was a day highlighted by two very different hikes.
As planned, I left the campsite at Meadowlark Lake and in short order found road 422, a serviceable gravel road leading through some sub-alpine forest. My plan was to follow 422 to 419, which was listed as a gravel road suitable for passenger cars and which terminated at a trail leading into the area below Cloud Peak. There were several RV campers set up along the road in distributed sites, a theme would be intensified later in the day. Less than a mile down the road an unmarked gravel path that could have been a road, as in it could have been 419, wandered off into a pasture that at that moment was filled with sheep on the move. Somewhere in amongst them was a sheep with a bell, and the sound of their journey across the road in question was distinct. Not sure that this was the right path I continued down 422 for a bit but quickly encountered a stream crossing under the road, which meant that my sheep covered path was, in fact, 419. I turned around and headed for the sheep.
When I got there, the sheep had mostly crossed the path, but the more I looked at this supposed road the more uncertain I was about its suitability. It was crossed by several largish washout ruts and littered with rocks and partially uncovered boulders. It headed up the hill to my left, so I followed it, weaving about to find the path least likely to insult the undercarriage of my Prius; an undercarriage that is in the best of times not very far from the ground. As I headed over the top of the hill, the road plunged…and I am not exaggerating…down into a valley of pasture land. The rocks were at times so bad that it was better to leave the road and drive through the unknown perils of the grass. I continue this way toward the other end of the valley, at which point the road turned left and was proceeding over a hill into an open valley up that direction. At the bottom of the valley just after the turn, the road was crossed by a small stream…without benefit of bridge or culvert…it just washed over the road. Seemed like a good time to get out and walk. In theory, this road was supposed to go to the trailhead, but I already had considerable anxiety about my ability to get out back over the terrain I’d already covered. It was time to acknowledge that apparently a Prius is not part of what the Forestry Service includes in its category labeled, Passenger Car.
I donned my trusty backpack and thus armed with camera and water bottle, headed up the trail. It wound along the edge of the pasture, with a pine forest running along the right side of the field. This sub-alpine forest is interesting as there is almost no underbrush. Shrubs don’t really grow here, and the trees themselves don’t have a lot of branches in their lower sections. By the time the trees age and die, creating deadfall, they have the fewest possible branches, so the deadfall consists primary of a trunk and some unconvincing branches sticking at various angles. The road continued to rise and at the top of the second rise I encountered a series of post markers that I presumed marked the trail. They went up the ridge to my right, which was an open field that also was part of the grazing land that the sheep were using…though at that moment they were still down in the main part of the valley where my car remained. The path would go up a rise, and then another rise would appear. Though I had not gone far by this point, all of it had been up hill and being at about 8,500 feet, I was easily winded. It appeared that the trail was going to continue up to the high ground ahead of me, and I could see Cloud Peak off to my right, along with the Big Horn mountain range ahead and slightly to my left. With some luck, while I wouldn’t have the wind to get all the way up to the alpine section of Cloud Peak, I was still going to have a pretty good view.
As expected, the trail continued to the high point of the ridge, and then turned down into a valley below before moving into the trees across the valley. I suspect that had I followed it further it would have brought me up above the trees and to the alpine section that I could see across the valley, but I was done for now.I took a few pictures and then turned back toward the car. It was an easy hike back down, during which I found a small vertebrate in the grass, and when I reached the car the sheep had spread themselves out in the valley below the road. Assuming I could follow my path in without incident, I should be able to get back. I had gone about a hundred yards when suddenly three large huskies came charging out of the flock of sheep barking as if their lives depended on it. They charged the car from behind and, fearing I might hit one of them, I slowed to a stop (it wasn’t like I was going fast in the first place). As soon as I stopped, they seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to wander any further from the flock, and they milled about quietly beside the car. I experimented with driving away. They attacked again, happily waving their tails I might add. I stopped. They stopped. It seemed clear that they had it in their heads that I was a very large and unusual blue member of the sheep herd (flock…herd…I think it’s flock but herd sounds better here). I tried again with the same result. So I sat there quietly waiting for them to decide that they needn’t worry about me. They slowly drifted off toward the sheep, though one of them kept looking back out of the corner of his eye. Finally, I slowly rolled away and it seemed they had lost interest. I was able to navigate the road back without incident, and my greatest emotion in the entire escapade was immense relief that I had returned to safe ground and would not have to find some amicable cowboy to drag my city car out of his pasture.
From there I traveled back over the Powder River pass and into Buffalo. About half-way between the top of the pass and Buffalo I began to pass bikers pedaling their way up the mountain. There were quite a lot of them and in one rest area there was a comfort van where volunteers were giving massages and fresh water to the bikers. It’s a rise from 4,600 feet to 9,300 feet between Buffalo and the top of the pass. I’m pretty sure they had started in Buffalo, as it was about 11AM, which would have been enough time to get to where I saw them. I didn’t realize what was going on until I had passed most of them, so I wasn’t able to ask for sure. In any event, I was completely impressed.
I soon arrived in Buffalo, where I used a fully plumbed restroom and purchased a coffee. In order to investigate the north end of the Big Horns, I would need to run up I90 to Ranchester, where I would connect with highway 14 and head back into the forest. The northern and southern sections of the Big Horns are not connected on the interior by any roads that I might venture to travel. There does seem to be some sort of trail system that might do the job, but I would need a real ATV, not a fake Prius ATV. The road goes through a small town and I stopped there to purchase a frozen steak (no grocery store in town so no fresh meat) for dinner. Steak on the fire pit grill had an awesome sound. If they had had baked potatoes I would have purchased one, but alas no such luck. The road up into the Big Horns goes over the Tongue River pass and it is a beautiful drive. Once over the pass you quickly come to Burgess Junction, where 14A runs off to the west through the northwest section of the forest, and 14 heads south into the west central section. I had been checking off the points of interest from the forest service map and one of these was a water fall some off a road on 14A, so I headed that direction.The terrain along 14A is remarkably different from anywhere else in the Big Horns. It consists of a large basin that is probably at about 9,000 feet. Used largely for sheep grazing, it has a variety of streams and creeks flowing through it, and is punctuated by various peaks that climb to 10,000 feet or so. At one point I was in the valley of the North Tongue River, where a number of cars were parked presumably by folks who were fly fishing in the river. This terrain is also different because, unlike the southern portion of the Big Horns, you are often at high points where you can see down through the valleys and then into the large basic that runs between the Big Horns and Bear Tooth ranges. It is an enormous vista.
It wasn’t long before I came to road 14 (not to be confused with highway 14) and followed the gravel road accordingly. When I came to a steep canyon that had been the site of a large burn in 1967 and was still quite markedly impacted by that event I also came to the side road that leads to Porcupine Falls. It was a short ride in, with a strange little abandoned wooden shack sitting just short of the parking area. The forest service map describes this point of interest as a, “Short day hike to overlook where 200 foot thundering waterfall can be viewed.” Sounds lovely, yes? I’m not sure where the overlook is supposed to be, unless they are referring to the last bend in the trail down the side of the canyon. From there, it is true, you can see the waterfall; however, at that point you have walked 90% of the way down the canyon face so you might as well finish the hike to stand at the foot of the waterfall and dip a toe in the pool.
When I started down the trail from the parking lot, I wondered where the waterfall was, as I couldn’t really hear it. The trail itself immediately starts to go down steeply and after about 100 feet you can hear the falls start to become more distinct. You continue on another couple of hundred feet, and for a little bit the falls fade from your hearing. Another couple of hundred feet and they are prominent again. Keep in mind, all of this is going down…quickly. At this point I encountered a couple with four kids, three walking and one riding on dad’s back. I was impressed with their energy as they walked up the trail and asked if it were much further. Dad says, “you’re about half way…it’s not too bad.” I am old and feeble. Another couple hundred feet and it sounds like you may be getting there.Pretty soon they are in view and they are quite lovely. The pool is also lovely. There was a family at the bottom as well, this time the parents along with two teenage daughters and a younger child. They kids were egging on the father to jump in the water, which was similar to the water in the Stillwater back in Montana. He had his shoes on, which seemed an odd choice, and was edging his way to the water, though with some reluctance. He and I commiserated for a few moments about the probable water temperature and I described the pool on the upper Stillwater. He remarked that the girls had already jumped in, so they thought it was his turn. I took a few pictures, sat for a bit, and then headed back up the path. Before I had reached the first turn that took the pool out of view he had finally jumped in and as he climbed out he gave me a friendly little wave that seemed to be sharing some kind of fatherly bond.
The climb up the hill was a challenge for me. I rested about every seventy-five steps, and to amuse myself counted the number of steps required to get to the top. It required 1,284…less than I had anticipated. I took a series of pictures…one looking back after every 150 steps that I'll post separately. I was hot and sweaty, so it seemed a good moment to change into clean clothes before heading back out to the highway.
Having pretty much covered all of 14A that interested me, I headed back toward Burgess Junction intending to get back on 14 and follow it down to the west central section of the forest. When I passed through the Tongue River valley again I saw more folks fly fishing, so I stopped and asked how they were doing. To my surprise, this is prime time for fly fishing, not in the spring when apparently the water is too cold. I am amazed at the tiny streams they are fishing in. They are mostly not more than twenty feet wide and you can see so clearly in them that its hard to believe there are fish there that can’t be seen. But there were fishers scattered throughout the valley, so I guess it works. I listed for a bit as an old hand had a conversation with a young couple and a kid, all of whom were fishing, about flies that work and places to go.
By this time it was after five and I was starting to consider where I might camp or whether this might be a good night to do a hotel. I had five sticks of good firewood in the car and a steak to put on a grill, so it seemed silly not to camp, but the north end of the Big Horns is very different from the south. In the south there are campgrounds just off the road all along route 16, but so far, after driving quite a long way, I had mostly just seen RV camping in random spots off the side roads and no organized tent camping at all. The map indicated that if I went down 14 to the west I would come to an area where there were a number of campgrounds, one of which was called Shell Creek, which sounded appealing. Shell Canyon was a dramatic area with a road that hugs the side of the canyon and winds down until suddenly, there’s a road up into the canyon indicating camping. Sure enough, there was the campground laying right along Shell Creek.My white noise box was provided by nature yet again. I quickly unpacked, put on bug goop…the bugs are pretty thick here…and am ready for a night of good sleeping.
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