Saturday, July 23, 2011

Little Bighorn NM & Cooke City-Beartooth Pass

View over Little Bighorn Battlefield
We came across Little Bighorn Battlefield on accident on our adventure west towards Yellowstone. As we were driving along Highway 212 we noticed cars on the ridge to our left and it looked like there may have been a statue. We were curious. After a little investigation with our Garmin we realized that abutting the road was Little Bighorn NM. Both of us voiced some interest in visiting the site and it seemed perfect that we happen to be driving by.

Marking the Calvary's Mass Grave
Here's a little history: At the Battle of Little Bighorn, late June 1876, George Armstrong Custer and 12 companies of the 7th Calvary went up against Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors. It was a culminating moment in the  Native Americans struggle against the European invasion. Custer and his men were defeated and buried in a mass grave. The fallen warriors were removed by their tribes and given proper Native American burials. Within a few years the area became a national cemetery and a monument was erected on the knoll where Custer made his "last stand'. Stones now mark where soldiers and warriors fell.

From the parking lot it is a short walk through the museum to the knoll where the monument lies. As you walk slowly uphill it's impossible not to think back to what the battle must have been like. The prairie dominates the landscape for as far as you can see like an ocean of grass and woody shrubs. The sun was beating down upon our face and shoulders, warning us to seek shade and drink more water. I couldn't help but wonder if the battle was on a day like that and what it really was like.

The stones that marked where soldiers fell were white granite, all except for Custer, who's stone had a black front. Where each Native American warrior had fallen there was a dark granite stone that informed the reader that he had died 'defending the Cheyenne way of life'. We thought that was quite beautiful.

Little Bighorn NM, Walking Tour
The path lead us into a circular area with stone walls reaching 6-7 feet. Dark plaques displayed the names of the warriors lost in battle and of famous warriors who had changed the history of the people. Along one edge there was an iron statue of warriors riding into battle and through the iron the prairie flowed below. The circular construction of the area helped us to feel the place. It felt like a memorial. Silent yet intense and somehow peaceful.

This was a great surprise for us on our journey. I think that we had been so focused on what we could do in Yellowstone that we may have overlooked some things to do along the way! From here we continued to head west, getting closer to Yellowstone with each moment.

The shortest route from the Black Hills to Yellowstone is straight East to Cody and in through the East Entrance. We wanted to leave the park that way so we decided on the Northeast Entrance. This meant that most of our drive was through Montana, a state I'd never seen before. It was beautiful.

Rock Creek Vista Point Rest Area
It turns out that Highway 212 would lead us all the way to Yellowstone's doorstep. In Red Lodge, MT we stopped to fill our cooler and stretch our legs. After looking around a bit, we thought that we could definitely live there. The town is nestled in a valley and felt like a outdoor paradise. It's the end of the line during the winter months when the Cooke City-Beartooth Pass is closed. It seemed like a fun little town.

As soon as we headed south on 212 there was a change in scenery. We were entering into the Shoshone National Forest and approaching the beginning of the Pass. The mountains on both sides of us nestled closer and seemed to climb higher. We followed the valley floor for miles before we began the slow climb up the mountain side. There were so many switchbacks that I lost count before we were at the first viewpoint. As we rose out of the valley we had spectacular views to take in. The mountain peaks were covered with snow and though they had felt far away, we were suddenly on the plateau cruising on top of the world.

Gardner Lake Overlook
Josh was doing most of the driving and I was envious. The road was narrow, constantly curvy and rarely had a guardrail. I wish I could have driven to distract me from the huge drop that we were coasting along. My toes were constantly tingling.

We stopped at each overlook and gushed at the views. As we had rose in elevation the temperature dropped significantly. In Red Lodge we couldn't escape the heat but on the high plateau it was in the 60's and the wind was howling and we needed sweatshirts. The lakes were edged in ice and snow still dominated the ravines. It was like stepping back into spring.

We began to look for a place to camp that night. Originally, we thought that we were going to make it into Yellowstone the first night but we talked about it and decided that we would like to make our entrance in the morning. We checked out few camping areas but none of them seemed to be what we were looking for.

It's a odd thing to be driving to a destination but to have no plans at all. Our schedule was up in the air and our time was our own. We eventually came to a campground called Crazy Creek and decided to spend our first night in Site 11. It was far away from the mosquitoes, had a view of rocky ledges and had a path that led down to a roaring stream.

Josh on Crazy Creek
We pitched our tent, blew up the air mattress, made the bed, started a fire and set to cooking dinner. This was the first time that Josh and I had actually been camping together and we were having a lot of fun. For dinner, I think I made beans and hot dogs with bread and cheese. It was definitely a cowboy dinner. We brought our dishes to the creek and washed them the best we could. The recent rain had left the creeks at record highs and it was a sight to see with the water rushing through the rocks and debris.

With the sun beginning to set we took the opportunity to glass the rocky ridge and try to spot Bighorn sheep. We didn't have any luck but it was incredibly peaceful to be sitting under a setting sun, in the middle of the forest next to my husband. It was a great start to our greatest adventure yet.

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