Monday, October 8, 2012

Sunlight Basin -- Chief Joseph Scenic Highway

One of my favorite scenic drives in the West is the 76 miles between Cody, Wyoming and Cooke City, Montana.  The trip includes 46 miles on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Wyoming State Highway 296) through the Sunlight Basin, and approximately 14 miles on the Beartooth Highway (US Highway 212) bringing to Cooke City the gateway and northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park leading into the Lamar Valley.

The late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway "the most beautiful drive in America."  If you can find the time the drive to Red Lodge, Montana on the remaining portion of the Beartooth Highway the scenery is nothing short of spectacular.

The Sunlight Basin drive offers extraordinary landscape vistas and plenty of opportunity for wildlife viewing (elk, deer, moose, mountain goats, and bear are sometimes spotted).  Wyoming's Hwy 296 takes you over an 8,000 foot summit at Dead Indian Pass and traverses seven switchbacks down to the rim of the Clark's Fork gorge.

Be sure to read the historical markers to learn about how -- in 1877 -- Chief Joseph led his Nez Perce tribe over 1,000 miles of mountainous terrain to escape U.S. cavalry and the governments attempt to force them onto a reservation. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is part of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

Whenever I get a chance to visit Cody, Wyoming, and then double back into Yellowstone I try to time my drive so I'm traveling through the Sunlight Basin just after sunrise.  On a recent trip we spotted a young grizzly bear that darted across the highway a hundred feet in front of us just before entering Cooke City.

Once inside Yellowstone Park the Lamar Valley never fails to please wildlife seekers.  On my last trip we caught a glimpse of the last of the druid wolf pack just before they disappeared into the trees on the south side of the valley.

Tip:  Watch for folks with spotting scopes.  Lots of these folks are local residents that know when and where to spot a wolf pack or grizzly.

If you have time to park and glass the valley with a good pair of binoculars (or spotting scope) you're likely to be treated to any number of nature's dramas.  Look carefully for wolves, bear, antelope, buffalo, and golden eagles.

The Lamar Valley is home to a large herd of buffalo that stretches for 40 miles on both sides of the road.  Just watch your speed because hitting a 2000 pound buffalo bull could sure ruin your day :)

Happy trails.

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