My Week in Paradise: A Yellowstone Adventure
Paradise Valley, Montana. An aptly named little slice of heaven that flanks the Absoraka range and is about a twenty-minute drive from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. My husband and I have been coming here for years. It’s our fall getaway and this year didn’t disappoint. We couldn’t have asked for a better week.
8/22/2021: First full day in Yellowstone. Slept like a log after nearly an entire day of travel, where everything went smoothly, but still…very tiring. We stopped in Billings for lunch at the Montana Brewing Company where I had a huckleberry bear that was delicious. Then a two-hour drive to a cabin we rented on VRBO, which overlooks a huge expansive vista of mountains, fields, and valleys, and where the deer come in droves on schedule every night at dusk to allow us free access to watch their peaceful dinnertime. As we are staying on the Absaroka range (in Emigrant, MT), I was reminded of Longmire, this great series on Netflix that my husband and I were so obsessed with last winter during COVID—we binged-watched all six seasons. It’s about an intriguing, rogue cowboy Absaroka sheriff with a tough exterior, a heart of gold, and a chip on his shoulder. The series is based on the novels of the same name by Craig Johnson. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s a perfect pairing with Yellowstone!
Our cabin (home-away-from-home for a week):
8/23/2021: Yesterday was the most amazing day! We headed out the door by 8:00am and went directly to our favorite breakfast restaurant in Gardiner, MT (the Yellowstone Grill) and had the hugest meal—for me, biscuits and gravy, for my hubby, pancakes and eggs. The best kind of fueling for our day of hiking. Before we left, we scrolled through the Yellowstone Day Hikes book to map out our travels. While drinking our coffee, I got the most wonderful unsolicited and unexpected email from Sarah, the docent at the Cabin at Wildflower Woods (Gene Stratton-Porter’s home in Rome City, Indiana), which I had just toured in July. I don’t know why, but sometimes in life you have an instant connection with someone and that was the case with Sarah and I on that hot summer day at the lake when she showed me GSP’s world of wonder. I hadn’t heard from her since, but in the email she said she has just finished reading my novel, Punk, and wanted to tell me how much she enjoyed it. She handwrote some sweet, kind, poetic words about the book and then took a photo of the notes and emailed them to me. This was such a delight—to hear from her again and her love of the book—my head was in the clouds after that!
Anyway, after leaving the breakfast place, we got on our way, stopping to take photos at the Roosevelt Arch next to the park entrance (see photo above), and then paid our weekly pass and drove in, as always, in awe of the scenery and beauty of this majestic place. Not twenty minutes into our drive, there was a traffic jam; people jumping out of their cars and running toward something moving near a creek-bed along the side of the road. I screamed at hubby to “stop the car” so I could see what all the commotion was about and squealed in delight at the sight—a mama black bear and her two cubs, plucking the meat from several newly caught fish for their breakfast! Thankfully, the mama bear seemed completely unfazed by the crowd of forty tourists gawking and clicking away, trying to get the best shot. Amazing!
After that first bit of excitement, we headed to the hiking trail, Slough Creek. As my hubby prepared our backpack, I sat in the car watching a flock of Cedar Waxwings devouring a huckleberry bush and marveled at the many natural wonders of this park (both great and small!). Hiking straight up a steep incline, I quickly remembered how hard it is on the lungs to handle elevation, but after a two-hour hike that included thick forests, wide open fields, and a lake view, we felt invigorated and refreshed. Unfortunately, our favorite lunch spot, The Beartooth Café in Cook City, was closed because it was Sunday, so we settled for The Bistro across the street, which was fine, but not the same. Taking slow viewing hours to get home in the car, at the end of the day, we decided to make our own dinner back at our cabin and after our big meal, I was ready for bed, but forced myself to stay up to catch the full moon. I was waiting and waiting, constantly pointing my Night Sky App toward the horizon, but there was nothing to see but the dark mountain face, so I finally went to bed. Not fifteen minutes later, my hubby opens the bedroom door and whispers, “Come quick, it’s happening!” and there it was, rising like a cratered phoenix, a big white spotlight peeking out from behind its hiding place to say hello. You can’t feel anything but small and insignificant in the presence of such natural wondrous beauty, its visage at once miraculous and mysterious. I’m so glad I woke up to see it!
8/24/2021: Apparently, everything around Yellowstone is closed on Monday, so we didn’t have much luck finding breakfast yesterday. Ended up buying pre-packaged muffins from the grocery store and coffee from the local to-go cafe. Then we were on our way, driving to a trailhead that sits at the base of a mountain. This trail starts slowly, flat and sunny, then branches off in two directions (reminds me of Frost’s Road Not Taken, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”), one trail goes up a mile to a peak and then back down again, the other trail stays straight for two miles, then down a huge, steep cliffside (with many switchbacks) ending in a spectacular waterfall. We definitely “took the road less traveled” by tackling the latter (Osprey Falls trail) and I’m still debating if we made the right call. When you read a trail guide that says “10 miles,” you think, sure I can do that, just go slowly, enjoy the sights, then you actually start hiking and at around mile six when your feet feel like they’re poured in concrete and your mouth is so dry you feel like you’ve eaten twenty cotton-balls, you wonder at your mental capacity to comprehend logic and reason. When we finally made it back to our car, I slid slowly into the passenger seat, selected “Finish” on my MapMyRide App, and typed into the Notes: “I want to die.”
Anyway, we survived and after a hot shower and a long nap, I was nearly back to normal again. Out to dinner to historic and lovely Chico Springs, where we had Prince Edward Island mussels (P.E.I. home of my favorite, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), steak topped with fresh gorgonzola crumbles, potatoes au gratin, broccolini, followed by a dessert of salted caramel chocolate cake and latte (for hubby) and sambuca (for me). OMG, the best meal after a long day of hiking!
At the bar, sitting next to us, we met a local woman who works for the film industry, making costumes, and is currently working on a movie they’re making right here in Emigrant, MT! She was telling us that they still make quite a few westerns out here, which makes sense because the surroundings are ideal for that type of story (i.e., horses, ranches, wide open spaces, rolling hills). We talked for the longest time, and she mentioned that she was really into genealogy and asked if we had traced our family histories yet? Nope. Well, by the end of the night, hubby and I both agreed that we would look into ancestry.com to do a complete work-up of our mutual backgrounds, since we are mostly in the dark about our own family origins. I told her about my book, Punk, which is loosely based on my grandmother’s diary from 1932, and she said that the 1900s are only just the beginning and that she was able to trace her family back hundreds of years. Whoa! We exchanged numbers and I can’t wait to get home and sign up and see where the history leads us—I told her we’d send her our results when we’re done.
8/25/2021: We decided to lay low after our long hike on Monday. Ate breakfast back at our favorite place, this time I got the “Old Faithful Plate,” the standard eggs, bacon, toast, hashbrowns. Then we drove to a short one-mile trail called “Artist Paintpots.” It’s a boardwalk that weaves in and out of these naturally bubbling pools of mud, hot springs, and small geysers. The colors of these sulfur smelling pools vary from deep sea-green to creamy white to rust brown, so you can see how this trail received its name. We took a lot of photographs, and I forced my hubby to take several “publicity” shots of me with my new book, Bibliointuitive.
On the way back to our cabin, we stopped at a food truck for “Follow Your Nose BBQ,” which was delicious, especially their spicy pickles and cold slaw. After a quick nap, we headed to Chico Springs again, this time to soak in their Olympic-sized hot springs pool. It is somewhat like a floating bar, as there were many revelers who were…um…let’s say, “over-served,” which made us laugh and join-in. Vacation is vacation, after all.
Sometime later, sufficiently pruned, our muscles turned a happy mush, we drove home, showered, and headed to The Outpost for dinner, a small one-room rustic restaurant with about twenty animal heads staring down at us as we ate a scrumptious Caesar salad and large pizza, people-watching the whole time—anglers, cowboys, ranchers, family groups, locals, and tourists. To cap off the easy day, we started watching a new series on Netflix called Manifest. We only got through one episode but loved it so far—very intriguing.
8/26/2021: We slept in a little and opted for to-go scones and coffee from the to-go café (I wasn’t impressed with their huckleberry scone but loved the strawberry-chocolate).
We set our sights on Lamar Valley, which is known as the place where the Yellowstone wolves roam (after they were successfully released back into the park in 1995 following total annihilation from over a hundred years of hunting). Unfortunately, on this day we didn’t see any wolves (you have to get up really early and have a large spotting scope to catch a glimpse), but we were satisfied with the spectacular views, not to mention the traffic jam caused by a lonely buffalo who decided to walk down the middle of the double-yellow line of the road, causing both sides to stop and wait patiently for him to make up his mind.
We decided to hike two trails that are both known for their initial steep incline (1,000 feet ascent respectively) followed by a flat, clear lake (Trout Lake Trail) and a rocky cliffside (Warm Creek Trail). Both trails left us out of breath (by the elevation and by the breathtaking vistas).
In between hiking, we stopped again in Cook City and this time The Beartooth Café was open, so we sat inside, drinking in the atmosphere (a rustic cabin) and eating our bison burgers and nachos. So good! We made it home a few hours later and after a quick nap, headed to Sage Lodge (a rather fancy restaurant and hotel up in the hills overlooking Emigrant, MT) for our 6:30 reservation. We ate inside (soup and salad for me, steelhead trout cakes for hubby—everything locally sourced and amazing!) and then took the remains of our glasses of wine out to the expansive patio area that sits at the base of a mountain. They have gas firepit areas set up, surrounding by Adirondack chairs, so we plopped down next to a young couple from Minneapolis. In the middle of getting to know them, it started to rain (massive drops) and I thought, wow nothing is subtle or small here in Yellowstone, even the rain is huge!
8/27/2021: Yesterday woke up fresh as a daisy after that wonderful evening. Went to our usual for breakfast—a long wait (line out the door), but they have the best biscuits and gravy and that is always worth the wait. Then we drove two hours to a new trail we had never hiked before—somewhat near the southeast entrance of the park—called Avalanche Peak. This one goes straight up and up and up (2,000 feet incline in elevation, leading to 10,000 feet at the top). My knees and hamstrings were barking after an hour, but we kept going until we stepped out of the forest and into the clearing, a huge rockface bowl and a stunning 365-degree view from the top. As the wind whipped and the temperature dropped, we didn’t care because of the triumph of making to the peak. At the top, I watched a little curious groundhog that kept popping in and out of the tumble of rocks and wondered, how does anything survive up here? It’s like being on the face of the moon. We stopped to take photos by Sylvan Lake because it reminded me of Sarah, my docent friend from the Gene Stratton-Porter house on Sylvan Lake in Indiana. Hours later, back at our cozy cabin, we decided to stay in and eat our leftovers, sit on the balcony and watch the deer, and catch up on another episode of Manifest. All around, a wonderful day.
8/28/2021: Our last day! We ate at our favorite breakfast spot, then went directly to hike a four-mile trail, only to get stopped a mile in by a storm, quickly hightailing it back to our car. Oh well, we drove around instead and watched the buffalo and pronghorn sheep frolicking on the plains. After the storm blew over, we hiked the Lost Lake trail, which is one of our favorites and much like its namesake, starts with an incline up a wooded hillside where it opens up to a lake (that seems to appear out of nowhere) with crystal clear waters, fringes of lily pads, and ducks drifting by languidly. We took a lot of photos and sidestepped a small snake on the trail, finishing with a box lunch on the front porch of the Roosevelt Lodge, sitting, eating, and watching the world go by on the rocking chairs. Have I mentioned the wildflowers—goldenrod, toadflax, lupin, yarrow, thistle, rabbitbrush, aster, and so many more—beautiful!
We fly out soon and I’ll be sad to leave our perfect piece of paradise, but I know fit as much into a week as we could and now back to reality and the hope and anticipation of the next trip!