Western Adventures: Buffalo Bill Highway

Canyon view on Buffalo Bill Scenic Highway

June 5th:

My heart started racing as I began the fifty-two mile drive west from Cody to Yellowstone’s East Entrance.

Yellowstone holds a piece of my heart. I fell in love with the land in 2002 when I first moved to Montana to attend Montana State. A car accident forced me to return to NC and eventually I transferred to Belmont University (I’m a musician and Nashville seemed the best place for trying my hand at songwriting)…but Yellowstone has stayed with me. It calls me back and if I’m gone too long from Yellowstone Country I feel that ache – the longing for God’s country.

During the darkest parts of the pandemic, my mom and I found hope by watching online videos of Yellowstone and playing Yellowstone Monopoly (a must have for board game lovers). To come back really felt like an answered prayer. I didn’t think it could happen this year, but God always has a plan.

There are several options for reaching Yellowstone via Cody – the most popular is to head west on Highway 14/16 through the Buffalo Bill Scenic Highway to Yellowstone’s East Entrance.

You can also follow the Chief Joseph Highway towards Cooke City (Northeast Entrance). I hope to take the Chief Joseph route next year.* (Several days after I left YNP this year, catastrophic flooding closed the Northeast Entrance and much of the Lamar Valley – but Cooke City is still open for business and worth the trek on the Chief Joseph).

After careful debate, I decided to drive the fifty-two mile scenic Highway 14/16 to the east entrance. It would provide a more direct path to Canyon Village and other spots I wanted to visit in Yellowstone before checking in at Old Faithful later in the day.

The sky was overcast, which surprisingly seemed to draw out the bright vivid yellows and rustic reds that paint the canyon country just outside of Cody.

Heading west, I was treated to stunning views of the Buffalo Bill Dam. This state park is a perfect recreation spot for swimming, boating and picnicking. I stopped for a few photo ops at a roadside turnout. The dam is surrounded by a fortified canyon with a mural of colors and rugged notches. The geology is a work of art – sweeping in scope.

I’m a history buff and love studying Lewis and Clark. Sacajawea is an inspiration to me and I really enjoy the stories of the Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark were only about fifty miles from Yellowstone (Clark during his tour of Yellowstone River) and the Corps at Three Forks of the Missouri near Bozeman MT…and yet they didn’t see the wonderful geysers. I often imagine what would have happened if they had veered south…

One of the Corps did – brave adventurer John Colter. He asked to leave the expedition early to focus on hunting. And during one of his adventures he encountered the first sign of the Greater Yellowstone region’s thermal features.

When Colter described the foul smelling hot springs upon returning home – many made fun of his ‘discovery’ and doubted his account. They jokingly referred to his discovery as ‘Colter’s Hell.’ This greatly hurt Colter at the time, who was sincere in his account. Colter is vindicated – you can visit Colter’s Hell – a few foul smelling thermal features just outside of Cody on the road to Yellowstone.

The Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway follows the north fork of the Shoshone River through the Wapiti Valley into eastern Yellowstone. Similar to our route from Buffalo to Cody – what is striking about this stretch of road is the mix of unique geologic features and awesome views. Painted canyons and unique rock formations stun travelers with each bend and break in the road. This is set against rich thick forests and snowcapped mountains.

The majority of the road to Yellowstone (west from Cody) is in the Shoshone National Forest; founded in 1891 to protect the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In 1903, the first ever forest ranger station built by federal expense was erected in the Wapiti Valley (west of Cody).

The Shoshone National Forest is a recreation lovers dream with backcountry hiking and wilderness pursuits. The area is known for it’s abundant wildlife…this is a place where the bear, bison, elk and antelope roam. Remember this is their home – you are just visiting – show respect when you encounter wildlife.

Roughly halfway between Cody and the eastern entrance, you’ll enter the Wapiti Valley. Wapiti is a Native American name for Elk – it translates to white or light colored deer due to the white rears of elk.

The Wapiti Valley is a great place to stay if you are looking for quicker access to Yellowstone and a more rustic experience. The Wapiti Valley is home to fourteen historic lodges and campgrounds. A few spots I recommend:

The Wapiti Lodge – great food, and good stop before you get in the park for restroom and a snack.

Pahaska Teepee Resort – includes Buffalo Bill’s original ranch!

I took my time driving, stopping at multiple turnouts for photo ops and just enjoying sitting in the serene unfathomable beauty that only God could create over eons of chiseling. It gives me hope to remember that the most beautiful places on earth were often formed by difficult geology – volcanoes and earthquakes. It took every bit of strife to create something beautiful. It helps you put things in perspective to look at geologic history and the details that it took to create something as peaceful as a roaring river hidden in a canyon.

Next entry – we’ll enter Yellowstone – from Yellowstone Lake to Canyon and Old Faithful…get ready for fire and ice adventures.

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