After an amazing day visiting the Badlands and the Black Hills on our national parks bucket list trip, we set out on a 500 mile drive toward Yellowstone National Park. There were wonderful sights along the way that we couldn’t fit into our adventure – like Little Bighorn Battlefield – but we loved driving the incredible terrain and were rewarded with beautiful western art & culture. Plus our own “Close Encounters of the Third Kind“…
Devils Tower National Monument is roughly 100 miles northwest of Rapid City, SD and just a short side trip off interstate 90. It was the first United States national monument, established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Although “Hollywood aliens” came in 1977, this very cool geologic formation has been a place of reverance for Northern Plains Indians and indigenous people for centuries. Stories and histories shared by tribal members indicate that the Tower was a sacred site – a place for winter camps, vision quests, and summer ceremonies. Indigenous people of the region today include Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Lakota and Kiowa, and many tribes still utilize the park for traditional ceremonies.
Additionally, Devils Tower is one of the best crack climbing areas in North America. I didn’t know that was even a thing! What some ancient stories describe as the claw marks from a giant bear, vertical cracks or fissures in the rock apparently create an exhilarating type of rock climbing. I will never know…
We continued further into northwest Wyoming on our way to the town of Cody.
The drive through the vast Bighorn Basin was beautiful, but unless someone told you (thank you, Smithsonian Magazine), you’d never know what a geologic wonder you were traversing. It has layers of rock from nearly all geologic time periods – some older that 2.5 billion years, many much younger. Because it’s so dry there, it’s easy to see the rocks. If you’re interested in the history of the earth, you’ll enjoy the article. We certainly enjoyed the views.
Cody was our overnight stop before heading onward to Yellowstone. We arrived late in the afternoon with barely enough time to visit the Plains Indians Museum and the Whitney Western Art Museum, both housed in an excellent five museum compound, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (“5 amazing museums, one Wild West!”) If we could have gotten back the extra day we lost when Delta canceled our original departure flight, we might have spent a full day in Cody. We cherry-picked two of the five museums, and they were excellent.
The Plains Indians Museum was interesting and well done. These tribes of indigenous people are often thought of as the “typical American Indian” in modern culture, but in truth, the Plains Indians were comprised of over 30 tribes, each with their own language, customs, religious beliefs and way of life. Their art is known for intricate designs and bold colors. They lived in tipis that were easily disassembled to follow the buffalo – their main source of food, clothing and shelter. And they were one of the last indigenous peoples to be conquered in North America.
As much as I’ve enjoyed seeing and learning about the incredible artifacts, not only here but while revisiting the arts & culture of Canada’s First Nations last summer, my heart struggles with this history. Next year will mark the centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. What? Think about that…
Ken and I’ve enjoyed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and we were really looking forward to visiting Cody’s Whitney Western Art Museum. It was such an opportunity to see many works of well known western masters as well as the work of many contemporary artists. Ken and I each found our own favorites – many the same – but since I’m the writer, these are mine!
After the long day’s drive (all Ken, I was shotgun) and museum viewing, we opted for dinner at Cody Steakhouse. Even though they were quite busy, food and service was very good. I especially enjoyed my pre-dinner cocktail and the time to relax and relive the museum experiences. Friends Lois & Tom attended the Cody Night Rodeo when they visited and said it was lively and fun, but we hit the hay early so we’d be ready to attack the convoluted switchbacks of the super scenic route to Yellowstone.
The next morning we headed west from Cody towards the Absaroka Mountain Range, a northern segment of the Rocky Mountains. Having recently watched the six seasons of the western detective series Longmire, we were no strangers to the Absarokas! One of the most scenic drives in America, our route began in the grasslands, climbed to Dead Indian Pass, wound through the Shoshone National Forest, continued on Beartooth Highway, and eventually reached the northeast entrance of Yellowstone. Not a route for a large RV, and not the route for a winter drive!
Although we were traveling west, most of our path followed the route taken by Chief Joseph as he led the Nez Perce east out of Yellowstone National Park in 1877 as they attempted to escape relocation by the U.S. government. Part of our route was just a small portion of the 1,170 mile Nez Perce National Historic Trail through Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming that was established by the US Forest Service in 1986 to commemorate 1877 Nez Perce War and flight.