Road Trip With Dinosaurs and Waterfalls
We didn’t start out on the road. We started out at the airport in Detroit and, like Dorothy in Kansas, went up into the air and came down in a different place. Do people think, anymore, about how strange this is? I watched out the window as we left our freshwater Great Lakes, crossed crop circles, thread-thin rivers, floured mountaintops, and landed beside a Great but Salt Lake. There we rented a car and, finally, the road part of the road trip began. We saw mountains from the ground this time and skinned up their sides into Wyoming, more or less along the Mormon Pioneer trail, paralleling the Pony Express route. The Mormons would have been going the other way. At about Fort Bridger the Interstate left these two and picked up the Oregon Trail. The fields were full of cattle grazing, and by our own dinnertime we were in the town of Green River. The river did not look green. I tried to discover whether it was named for its color of for someone named Mr. Green, but sources disagreed. Steak for dinner, cheap and excellent.
About five miles south of town in the morning, we passed the turnoff for the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport. This was said to have been established in the 1960’s for the benefit of beings fleeing disasters on their home planets. I hope someone will do that for us one day.
Then we drove into Utah’s Flaming Gorge, which lived up to its name. No waterfalls, the river just knifed its way down through the layers of rock, winding between the stubborn bits instead of leaping over them, slashing open red layers as it went. There seemed to be a lot of local traffic, impatiently cutting out and around lollygagging sightseers like us. There were some scenic overlooks, and many more boat ramps and “sportsman’s access” points. There was a little town, Manila, with an airport apparently not intended for intergalactic travel.
At the south end of the Gorge we walked innocently into the Red Canyon Visitor Center, and were bowled over backward with the view: walls of windows were all that stood between us and falling off the rocks and into the river some 1400 feet below. Somehow this seemed more vertiginous than walking around outside where you actually could fall into the river. We spent a bit more time being amazed at the spectacle, had lunch on the patio at the Red Canyon Lodge, and drove on to Jensen and Dinosaur National Monument.
This is a large park, most of which sits in Colorado, but you can see the dinosaur fossils only from the Utah side. A shuttle from the Visitor Center took us to the Quarry Exhibit Hall, a structure built over a swath of rock two stories high from which many fossils had been extracted, but in which many still remained. It was formally known as the Carnegie Quarry, but they called it the Wall of Bones. We walked in at the top level, where a Ranger was demonstrating to a group of small children how to walk like an apatosaurus, as opposed to how to walk like a t-rex. No word on whether the dinosaurs shrieked with the same glee the kids did.
A ramp to the lower level took us right up to real, embedded fossils, which we could touch. These had been creatures living the palmy life until climate change gradually erased their river. The dinosaurs, oblivious, just stayed there and died. Probably you don’t have to be a poet to see the metaphor here, or to appreciate how like dinosaurs people can be. But finally, when it could no longer do them any good, wet weather returned, flash floods washed their bones into this area, and time turned them into fossils. They felt like stone to our hands, but their boney origins were apparent. There were trails outside, too, leading right up to more fossil-bearing rocks.
Of course I knew, we’ve all known since we were children visiting our first Natural History Museums, that this was how fossils were found. Still, it was a shock to see them like this, sticking out of an ordinary wall of rock. Imagine how their discoverer, Earl Douglass, must have felt, scanning this same rock in 1909 when there was no Visitor Center nearby, and suddenly seeing a whole section of dinosaur spine sticking up out of the ground. He brought in a crew, started digging, and found not just a few vertebrae, but almost an entire Apatosaurus. Then they kept digging, and found dozens more skeletons, complete and incomplete. The results of these excavations are on display at museums all across the US and Canada, and that is very fine, but it was Douglass’ idea not to dig them all up that I most appreciate. Yes, it helps us feel his excitement and understand something of the work involved. But imagine if you were a hunter or gatherer some hundreds of years ago and you found such a thing yourself, without the context of paleontology to help with your amazement, your consternation, and your sudden need to reorganize your cosmos to account for this new being.
The Quarry was made a National Monument in 1915, to protect it in its awe-inspiring state.
We stayed the night in Vernal. Sunday morning we motored back up to Flaming Gorge, this time turning east and stopping to see the dam, briefly, before driving across it to Dutch John, a town, not a person. The person it was named for was not Dutch but German.
Continuing up the east side of the Gorge, there were fewer overlooks but more sportsmen’s access and boat ramp sites. We went through Green River again, and northwest through Pinedale – slogan, “All the Civilization You Need.” We noted it had a Fine Arts Council. We also noted many beautiful roads, all along our route, that weren’t designated “scenic.” How did they decide which roads were scenic? Did it depend on whether anyone thought to ask?
We stopped in Jackson, and tried to stroll through the million tourists jamming the streets around the town square. Since I already had a Jackson Hole t-shirt, we crossed over to the square itself, walked through one of its four big arches made of elk antlers, and found a nice bench to sit on and look at our maps. The other tourists must have been day-trippers, because come five o’clock they all disappeared.
Monday morning we backtracked to where UM’s Camp Davis sat along the Hoback River, in a spot ringed by mountains. Doug had to talk with the people who ran the camp; I did a little sketching.
In the afternoon, on the advice of the camp director, we went to see Jackson’s National Museum of Wildlife Art, a building that matched its terrain, something in between Mesa Verde and Hobbiton. The landscaping supported a series of sculptures we’d have liked to linger over, except that it was now raining. Inside, there were paintings in a variety of styles, from Thomas Moran to William Merritt Chase to Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of the nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings set the animals in heroic poses or situations, some to anthropomorphize them, some to romanticize wildness. Except the O’Keeffe, which was a skull. Honest bones, one reason I love her work. But I was surprised to find I liked the creature-free landscapes best of all. It must have been the mountains. I’ve always been a fan of mountains.
Across the road from the museum was a huge empty area which, the camp director had told us, was an elk refuge. It provided habitat for elk in winter, and in gratitude large numbers of elk shed their antlers there. The Boy Scouts collected them and, in May, auctioned them off, raising money for the elk refuge. Broken antlers were used to repair and reinforce the big antler arches on the corners of the town square.
We returned to Camp Davis for dinner, and sat among the undergrads who were there for geology and ecology lectures and field work. They were mostly Program in the Environment majors, engaged, excited, ready to take on the problems of the world. Whenever I meet UM students, my faith in the future of humanity is restored.
We had breakfast with them, too, then set off over Teton Pass through Driggs, Tetonia, and Felt, to see the painterly side of the Tetons. We had learned, in the Museum of Wildlife Art, that early painters of the Tetons viewed them from the Idaho side, which explains why in those paintings the peaks lean to the left, while in others they lean right. We had to check this out. Sure enough.
All very well, I hear you say, but when do we get to the waterfalls? Here they come.
The road above Ashton became the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, and led to Upper and Lower Mesa Falls. Here the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River fell over the remains of a huge, ancient volcanic explosion. These falls remained wild, untapped for hydroelectric power, carving their way through rock and trees, graced by a pale rainbow. There was an historic inn where the Forest Service ran a Visitor Center with exhibits, books, maps, a trail for viewing the falls, and, bless them, a bathroom. Children were having fun in a room full of animal exhibits with “touch-me” fur, and families were picnicking on the lawn. It wasn’t crowded, it just felt appreciated.
We followed the loop of Scenic Byway to its reconnection with US-20, then rolled down through St Anthony and Rexburg which, I was surprised to see, contained Brigham Young University Idaho. I thought there was only one BYU, in Utah.
Near Rigby the road crossed the Snake River, and we maneuvered our way down to its bank, to the Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast. The proprietors were out, but left a key for us. Inside was a handsome common room with a stone fireplace and log-hewn staircase. Upstairs there was a sitting area with a quilt frame set up, a library with both books and boardgames, and a table to play on. Our room had its own little deck with a lovely view of the Snake. We had thought we’d go into town and try to find the Television Museum. One look at the view and I said, “I’m staying here.” We both did. I sat with a book but mostly watched the river, its fast-running current slowing my thoughts.
A list of possibilities for dinner included the Wild West Grub Slingers, and how could we resist? Like everywhere else on this rangeland trip, they had good steaks. They also had country-western music, not a favorite of ours but well suited to the decor and menu.
Back at the B&B and out on the deck again, sunset coming so late here, we watched a small boat with two men standing in it come down the river. The current carried it very fast, one man steering as it came, keeping fairly near the bank without crashing, while the other man cast a fishing line quickly, repeatedly, as they went: cast, haul, cast, haul, but without seeming to catch anything. The fast, repeated motion looked comical.
At breakfast we met three women who were also staying at the Blue Heron, artists who had come to take a workshop from a colorist in oils who taught in Rexburg in the summer, and we met the couple who ran the B&B. The wife cooked up omelets for breakfast while the husband garnished fruit cups and poured juice for us. I asked about the quilt frame, and she told me that in winter she always had a quilt on it, a tied quilt, and guests liked to learn how to work on it.
I mentioned the fast current, and the husband said they had once seen a mother moose and her two calves get swept downstream to the nearby railroad bridge, where they managed to get out. This was impressive, considering how large and heavy a moose is.
This would have been a very lovely place to stay a few days, but waterfalls were calling us away.
The Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls had only remnants of the Lewis and Clark exhibit I’d hoped to see, but had much info on “Atomic City” and the history of the development of nuclear power. Experimental Breeder Reactor Number One, a couple of miles from the nearby town of Arco, was the first facility ever to produce electricity by means of nuclear power. But it’s Idaho’s waterfalls that supply more than half the state’s electricity today. Idaho, meanwhile, turns out to be a made-up name. It was represented as being an Indian word, and proposed first for the state that became Colorado; having failed that it was suggested for the state that became Montana; and finally, since I guess people were getting used to it by then, it was suggested for the state we do call Idaho. After it was adopted someone attempted to trace its ancestry, and discovered that no Indians anywhere on the North American continent had ever heard of it. Some suspected that the (white) man who made it up did so as a joke on gullible friends.
We set out to find the falls for which the town was named, sort of expecting directional signs to appear: “waterfalls, this way,” something like that. No such luck. We found the river, and drove along it until there was no more road, but found no waterfall. We found a road that went the other way and followed it for a while; still no waterfall. Not even a “site of former waterfalls.”
“Isn’t this place called Idaho Falls?” Doug asked.
We feared perhaps they had vanished into a hydroelectric project. Finally we saw a brown “historic site” marker pointing down an intersection and figured we could at least go see that. There behind a pair of historic marker signs, neither of which said a word about waterfalls – were the waterfalls. They occupied a tumbled and beautiful stretch of river, and all along the way they were accompanied by a wall of water running forward and falling sideways into them at the same time: the hydroelectric project. They were extensive, noisy, and delightful. They were also being used by the local firemen to practice rescue operations. Firemen in yellow vests were paddling bright yellow rafts against the current and over rocks; fire engines stood in hasty angles on the adjacent road. There were paths to walk and benches to sit on and it was such an inviting civic amenity, it was hard to see why they didn’t want to let touring travelers know where to find it.
Refreshed and restored, we drove on. We had started to see lava fields along the highway, like strange dark crops. At about Pocatello the Oregon Trail joins the Snake River, draped across the wide part of Idaho like a smile. We followed it to American Falls.
Approaching American Falls it was easy to tell what we would find, because a large reservoir ran alongside the road, and large H-shaped power towers sprang from its narrow end. Indeed, not only had the original falls disappeared under the dam, the entire original town and a swath of the Oregon Trail had disappeared under the reservoir. But there were small parks tucked in around the dam, and an impressive variety of birds. A group of white pelicans sailed serenely at the base of the dam. We climbed up and down a series of short trails, finding many little platforms and nooks for fishermen, often with a fisherman on the premises.
The Oregon Trail emerged from under the reservoir and continued west. We followed it to Massacre Rocks State Park. Despite the name and the scary, ambush-ready rock formations emigrants called the Gate of Death, it’s not clear any massacre ever happened there. The opening in the rocks was only one wagon wide at the time and it made them really, really nervous. Now it was one interstate wide.
The park had a campground. We walked out the Pohogwe Trail to get an idea of how it might have felt for the emigrants, and found trail markers we absolutely did not understand, until we realized they were part of a frisbee golf course. Since there wasn’t a whole lot of local population, we figured this was set up as entertainment for campers. We climbed the geology overlook trail to see the lay of the land, which was full of odd, isolated rocks, huge rocks deposited by the Bonneville Flood.
The Bonneville Flood was an event of truly Biblical proportions. The current Great Salt Lake is a mere remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, which left signs of its shoreline about a thousand feet above the level of the current lake. Imagine, we were told, Lake Michigan plunked on top of Utah, and you get the idea. As a side benefit, we were also told we should imagine camels roaming its shores. Camels somehow lent biblical verisimilitude.
But unlike Lake Michigan, Lake Bonneville had no natural outlet, so when it got too full it made one for itself. One day about fifteen thousand years ago the natural dam at Red Rock Pass gave way and a huge wall of water roared out, tore its way down to the Snake River at about what’s now Pocatello, and scoured a path along the Snake to the Columbia River and finally to the Pacific Ocean. The wall of water traveled down the Snake at 70 miles per hour and continued for weeks or months, until a thousand cubic miles of water had left Lake Bonneville for good. It took a lot of rock along with it, carving and rearranging canyons, strewing detritus as it went, making waterfalls and rapids, and generally – from an artist’s point of view – improving the landscape. Though I do feel sorry for the camels.
Did the flood last for forty days and forty nights? There’s no evidence of humans in the area until about eleven thousand years ago, but if they were around, this would have been a monumental story-maker. Those who came to the area after the flood do have stories about giants who moved huge boulders.
One of which was the next stop on our tour: Register Rock, a couple of miles down the road from Massacre Rocks but still part of the State Park. It was on the Oregon Trail at a spot where a creek runs into the river, and where travellers would be breathing easier after having made it through the Gate of Death. It was a popular place for them to camp. Handily, the river had put down a great big boulder there, and with the universal urge to graffiti, many of them chiseled their names into it. Much erosion has happened since then, but a roof and chain link fence now protect the rock from weather and modern graffiti overlays.
We went back to Pocatello for the night. In the morning we plotted a careful course to find Shoshone Falls no matter how they might try to conceal it, but this turned out to be unnecessary. The way to Shoshone Falls was well marked, and even with some construction in the area we had no trouble finding it. The last part of the road wound down some steep terrain, but it was a good road with safe parking at the bottom. The falls were loud, the air was misty, and then there they were, the Niagara of the West, gift of the Bonneville Flood. There were at least a dozen separate waterfalls on several levels, and there was a spectacular rainbow across their toes. It was the least evanescent-looking rainbow I’d ever seen. It not only seemed permanent, it looked solid enough for Wotan and his gang to troop up and back across. This is how an opera fan judges rainbows. There were a variety of paths available for viewing the falls from different angles and heights, and we made good use of them, enjoying ourselves and them.
We spent more time there than we’d expected, but eventually were back in the car and off to the town of Twin Falls, where we found massive traffic along the route to cross the river on the Perrine Bridge. But we did cross, pulled into a viewing area, and were rewarded with a wonderful view of the bridge and the gorge below.
We also got to marvel at a group of teenagers who clambered way out onto the cracked and crumby rocks over the abyss that defeated Evel Knievel. I held my breath until they were on solid ground again.
And then we crossed the bridge back again and had to re-deal with all the traffic. So we didn’t stop in the official Visitor Center or see Mr. Knievel’s ramp. We did, however, find the lovely, quiet, historic downtown, and a sidewalk cafe where we had a nice lunch. Did I mention, everywhere we went in Idaho the potatoes, french fried or otherwise, were excellent.
We continued along the Snake on the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway. Thousand Springs was another place where it was hard to tell exactly where to go. We saw an array of about two dozen springs leaping or trickling out of canyon walls into the river, but the riverfront there was taken up by a resort with no place for passers-by to stop. We saw it was possible to take a boat tour and see the springs, but didn’t have the two hours required for it. Thousand Springs State Park was discontinuous, much to our confusion, with many entrances that went only a short way, often to a boat ramp or fishing spot.
But we did find the park at Malad Gorge. The Malad River is a tributary to the Snake, and from the park’s overlook it was spectacularly deep and twisty. There were also more springs leaking out of the canyon sides into it. People say the Thousand Springs are the reappearance of the Lost River, which sinks into the ground over a hundred miles away, on the other side of the lava fields. Another topic ripe for myth-making. Maybe a little more Greek, this time, than Near Eastern or Nordic.
Doug said, “They owe us 970 springs.”
I said, “Let’s save them for next time.”
The next day’s travel took us across a wide band of black rocks and crumbly lava as we headed north. They call this area “Magic Valley” because once they built irrigation canals and brought in water, the very fertile volcanic soil instantly turned into great farmland. Moving north of that we began to come into the mountains, at first startlingly colorful, red and orange rock shading into green vegetation like a rainbow. As the mountains got taller they got browner, then bluer, with varying sized white snowcaps. This was the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, and glorious.
Just short of Ketchum we stopped at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, and spoke with one of its gardeners. She pointed out the fences they have, keeping out deer and elk.
“They could jump over it,” she said, “but there’s so much else for them to eat out there, they don’t bother.”
They do have various small critters, she told us, which used to be controlled by foxes. Then the foxes all got mange and died. The mange caused them to scratch themselves raw, and then get infections, which killed them. But now there were signs the fox population was rebounding, and that would help get the small munchers back down in numbers.
I admired the huge columbines and rampant wild geraniums, expanding as flowers do in the light at high altitude.
We took a slight detour into Sun Valley, wondering why we didn’t see any ski trails. Then we looked in the rearview mirror, and there they were. Some had been obscured by other scenery, but most just seemed to be on this side of the mountains.
Back on the main road, we found an interesting pull-off, for Goat Viewing.
It was equipped with a pair of large, standing, swiveling binoculars and information about mountain goats. We didn’t find any, but it was fun looking.
We drove on to Stanley, where there was reputed to be a great bakery. We even found it, but it was only open for breakfast and lunch and was now closed. We found an ice cream shop instead. A very young, very pretty woman scooped our ice cream for us; another very young, very pretty woman came in and consulted with her for a moment, then left; and yet another very young, very pretty woman came in and asked after the one who’d just left. Another v.y.v.p.w. was standing in the parking lot, talking with someone in a car.
“Where do you suppose all the guys are?” I asked Doug.
He smiled his watch-out-for-a-groaner smile. “In Boise,” he said.
And exactly then, a tourist couple stopped and asked the ice cream girl if they were on the right road for Boise. The girl prescribed a route, advising them to follow it rather than do what their GPS suggested.
“I go there all the time,” she said, “and this is really the fastest way.”
We continued on to Challis, now travelling the Salmon River Scenic Byway, certifiably beautiful. There’s a bison jump outside of town, that is, a cliff with a lot of bison bones at the bottom of it, and butcher marks on the bones. It’s a well established ancient hunting method, but there’s disagreement in this case over whether humans deliberately ran the herd off the cliff, or whether the bison stampeded for some other reason, and humans took advantage of the suddenly available food supply. Herd animals do sometimes stampede themselves into trouble like that, and possibly people got the idea for this type of hunt from having seen it happen. A deliberate hunt usually left artifacts on the cliff top. There were none at Challis, but this didn’t prove there were never any.
We were there on the eve of a big event, the River of No Return Endurance Run. Personally, I would avoid a run with a name like that, but hundreds of people were unfazed by it. It was a set of three races, a 25k, a 50k, and, unbelievably, a 108k run. 150 people had signed up for the 25k, 100 for the 50k, and somehow they had found 50 people to sign up for the 108k run. I looked up some of the finish times for these races. They were about two hours for the 25k, starting at eight a.m., about four and a half hours for the 50k, starting at 6:30 a.m., and anywhere from 13 to 22 hours for the 108k, starting at five a.m., but 22 hours was the maximum allowed for that one. I wondered if that meant they went looking for you if you didn’t finish in that time. I can’t imagine walking, much less running, for 22 hours. Or even for 13 hours. And by the way, this course was up here in these mountains. The river got its name because boats could travel downstream, but rapids and a fast current made it impossible to travel back up. I noticed one of the groups that was thanked for their support was a Search and Rescue.
The River is also called the Salmon, and that’s what I had for dinner in the Tea Cup Cafe on Main Street. We returned there for breakfast, carefully timing it to avoid the throng of runners.
So we came to our last day on the road, and headed down the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway. Lest you think Idaho was getting carried away with all these scenic byways,
I hasten to reassure you. In fact, there were many more roads that could have been called scenic byways but remained undesignated. We passed Mount Borah, the highest peak in Idaho, passed the reservoir at Mackay, and had mountains all the way to Arco. There we turned west to the Craters of the Moon National Monument.
I had heard about these lava fields, that they were strange and dramatic and so forth, but I had imagined them as being rather flat. No one had told me about all the vertical relief, which was truly amazing. Besides the fissures and rifts that I expected, there were spatter cones, cinder cones, giant chunks of rock that had been floated around on lava flows, and weird, reefy rock assemblages that looked like buildings fallen into ruin. But strangest of all, there were flowers everywhere, little short, toe-hold-size flowers. The Visitor Center had supplied me with a guide to some of these: dwarf monkeyflower; bitterroot; dwarf buckwheat; and something that claimed to be a syringa, though it was unscented. There were lichens, first responders to the task of breaking rock into soil. There were trees, too, pine and juniper. The park had a loop road with lots of places to stop and take a half-mile or so walk through interesting features, or up to an overlook. From one of these the view of volcanic cones lined up to illustrate exactly where the rift zone was.
In the Visitor Center there was a display of notes children had written after seeing the place. One young gradeschooler said that when he first looked at the lava fields he thought they were boring, but when he walked into them and looked more closely, they were not boring at all. “I don’t know how that happened,” he said, “but it did.” It was not the kind of landscape you’ve ever walked through before. Even the flat lava fields were full of different textures, depending on how the lava emerged and how it cooled. They also changed as the angle of light moved through the afternoon. It was another place where I could have spent a day or two drawing, just to get some of these textures right.
But we got back on the road to Arco, then turned southward. We decided against taking the dirt road turnoff for Atomic City, since we’d read all about it at the Idaho Museum. We thought of stopping for a photo of the sign for the Atomic Bar, but it will instead live forever among the photos we should have taken. We continued down to Blackfoot, resumed the Interstate, and made our way through glorious mountain passes to Salt Lake City, such a sad sight with those chunky power towers wherever you look from the freeway. It was actually prettier when we turned off to the airport. We slept well, and in the morning returned the rental car. Road Trip over. We flew home. We hope to come back again.