1,006 miles and six days from Fort Collins to Missoula. Yes, we could have taken a more direct route and completed the drive in a couple of days but instead opted for a leisurely trip with sight-seeing along the way. Such are the perks of retirement!
And the grand prize, of course, successfully arriving at our destination and seeing this special guy!
More about our visit with Owen and his parents in upcoming posts. For now, a few photos and brief commentary about the places we stopped along the way, including Fossil Butte National Monument, Craters of the Moon National Monument (and our Airbnb lodging just outside the park), the Sacajawea Center, and (the somewhat lesser known) Lake Como.
Fossil Butte National Monument
Visiting Fossil Butte National Monument is a spontaneous decision. We don’t know anything about it, but we are in no rush and the weather is lovely, so why not?
Located in southwest Wyoming, the national monument represents (and protects) less than 2% of an ancient lake bed known as Fossil Basin, an area exceptionally rich in fossils dating back over 50 million years. Renowned for the quantity, variety, and quality of fossils, the National Park Service says “the quality of fossil preservation is extraordinary, nearly unparalleled in the fossil record. The quiet-water, fine-grained lake sediments, and water conditions that excluded scavengers combined to preserve articulated skeletons (all bones are in place rather than scattered).”
We start at the visitor center, which contains interesting and educational exhibits. Afterwards, we take the five-mile scenic drive to the top of the butte and on the way down, stop for a picnic lunch and short hike. Total visit around 2.5 hours – well worth the detour!
On July 17, 1955, Arco became the first town in the world to be lit solely (and briefly) by electricity generated from nuclear power. Today the small community with around 1,000 residents sits just outside the 890 square mile Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the U.S. Department of Energy’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.
Arco is also the jumping off point for a visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument, which is why we are here.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Described by President Calvin Coolidge as “a weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself,” Craters encompasses 1,117 square miles and includes three major lava fields, with the most recent volcanic eruption about 2,000 years ago. Having visited Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park twice when it was actively erupting, we aren’t sure that Craters will measure up.
I’m happy to report that we were wrong – we enjoy our one-day visit to this unique place very much. And one day is sufficient to explore the sights of this natural wonder. There’s plenty of lava rock, of course . . . .
Plus lava tubes and lava trees . . . .
And surprisingly abundant and beautiful wildflowers . . . .
It’s a terrific way to spend a day if you find yourself in east central Idaho!
Champagne Creek Lodge
After researching the limited choices for lodging near Craters of the Moon, we reserve a room at the Champagne Creek Lodge through Airbnb. The Lodge is situated on a 12,000 acre working ranch only a few miles from the entrance to the park but miles from the nearest town. In the left-hand photo below, you can just barely see the ranch buildings tucked up against the hillside.
Although the proximity to the park is perfect, we’re a little nervous about our two-night stay. We have a private bedroom but share all other living quarters, including the kitchen and the bathroom.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried – only one other couple (also retired) is booked for the same two nights as our stay. In fact, we enjoy visiting with Jari and Greg very much! They have been full-time RV-ers for 11 years, and we all share stories of travel adventures while relaxing on the porch with cold beverages.
We also enjoy our interactions with the Airbnb host family, including their 11-year old daughter, who drives over each evening (once on an ATV, once in a pickup) to invite us to bottle feed her two orphan calves, Hiccup and TuffNutt. Jari and Greg jump right in, while we’re content to watch and take pictures.
On the road leading to the highway from the ranch, we pass what appears to be an old ski lift that hasn’t been operational in many years.
Wrong again! A Google investigation tells us that it’s Blizzard Mountain, a “modest” ski area run by the Arco Lions Club, with one platter lift that operates on Saturday’s during ski season, weather permitting. It’s unclear, however, whether Blizzard Mountain actually opened this past winter due to mounting maintenance issues and lack of qualified volunteers.
It’s a relatively short drive between Arco and Salmon, so we stop for a 3-mile round trip hike to Lower Cedar Creek Falls outside the small town of Mackay. Good plan, but it doesn’t work out when we can’t locate the trailhead. Instead, we find ourselves crossing a dry and rocky creek bed – not even sure it’s a road. Pretty views, however!
So we abandon the hiking plan and head straight to Salmon.
The main visitor attraction in Salmon, at least for us, is the Sacajawea Center.
Owned by the City of Salmon and operated mostly by volunteers, the Sacajawea Center is dedicated to the history of Lemhi County, with a focus on the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, and Sacajawea and her people, the Agai’dika Indians. Exhibits in the small visitor center lay out the Lewis and Clark timeline and routes, as well as the circumstances that led to Sacajawea, her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, and their newborn son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau becoming integral members of the team of explorers.
We are fortunate to visit the Center on a Tuesday, one of three days each week featuring historical and interpretive talks by Judy, a volunteer who has a passion for all things Lewis and Clark. Expecting a 20-30 minute program, we are instead treated to an hour of anecdotes about lesser known happenings that occurred during and after the expedition.
Total visit time is around 2.5 hours, which also included a self-guided tour of outdoor exhibits alongside trails that crisscross the 71-acre property.
And finally, one more stop on the way to Missoula at Lake Como for a hike and picnic lunch. (I bet you didn’t know there was a Lake Como in Montana – we didn’t!) On the approach to Lost Trail Pass on the Idaho-Montana border, however, the temperature drops to 46 degrees, and we wonder about the wisdom of our stopover plan.
Fortunately, the weather improves in the 35-mile stretch after the pass, so we’re on track to enjoy an easy 2-hour hike along the lakeshore, followed by our usual picnic lunch – peanut butter sandwiches, cut-up vegies, and fresh fruit.
Afterwards, we drive the final few miles to Missoula and check into our Airbnb where we will spend the next nine days. The road trip is a success so far – more adventures to come.