Day 20: Sept. 15, 2011
Today was a little different than I’d expected--I got my distances wrong in my original plans, to begin with. Then halfway along, I got confused which route we were taking, so we changed our road choices several times. But also, we found places to stop which I hadn’t anticipated, one of which we would not have seen without my confusion with the map. In the end, we were absolutely thrilled with our discoveries du jour.
We left Lava Hot Springs heading southeast toward Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Our road took us through a valley of Idaho farms with mountains in the background on both sides… very pretty. We drove through Montpelier, ID, which sported cement planters and benches supported by black bears in honor of the Bear River which flows through the town. We stopped suddenly when I saw a historic marker reading “Bank Robbers” and the name Butch Cassidy jumped out at me. It turns out that Butch robbed the Bank of Montpelier in 1896. The original bank building (now a storefront) was across the street from the large marker, and another more detailed marker, with a delightful eyewitness story about the event, was at the curb. (If you click on this photo and enlarge it, you can read the story too!)
From there we soon crossed the state line into Utah. We enjoyed the scenery, read the roadside markers, and commented on the weathered barns and Latter Day Saints influence until we reached Bear Lake. On my map at home, Bear Lake showed up as a largish lake (for the area) which I needed to route us around. But in southern Idaho and northern Utah, Bear Lake is “the Caribbean of the Rockies” because of its turquoise color. I had read this in a flyer the other day, and was dubious, but the lake is, indeed, a gorgeous color of turquoise!
We turned southeast again when we reached the southern end of Bear Lake, and only a few miles later, to our surprise, found ourselves driving into craggy cut-out mountains.
The mountains then became rounder and softer, and then another change--we crossed the state line again, into Wyoming this time, and not longer after, saw a distinctive butte coming up, which was layered in reds, purples, grays and whites. We knew that as a result of my inadvertent route change at the south end of Bear Lake, we were approaching Fossil Butte National Monument. We suddenly realized that this butte must actually be Fossil Butte.
We didn’t know much about the place, since it was not in my original plans, but we figured that we had to stop and at least check out the visitor center and see what it was all about. It turned out to be utterly fascinating. We watched a 13 minute video to start with--it told us all about Fossil Butte, which is the remnant of three great lakes which covered the area of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado about 50 million years ago. The butte contains some of the most perfectly preserved remains of ancient plant and animal life ever found.
The fossils are there in such profusion and such perfect detail that scientists can use the fossil remnants today to understand not just the life of the past, but can actually compare the types of fish, fx, to their modern relatives. They have not just fish (which they have most of, since it was a gigantic shallow lake) but plants, insects, birds and animals also, so they can study an entire “community” of creatures which lived at the same period. The area which surrounds Fossil Butte is also rich in fossils. The ranger told us that they expect to find some kind of fossil remains in every CUBIC INCH of rock, a frequency which is just unheard of elsewhere. Private collectors and paleontologists have found millions of speciments since the mid-1800s.
There is not that much to do in the preserved area of the monument itself, although you can go fossil hunting with some commercial ventures in the area. But the visitor center has a nice little museum with lots of information and LOTS of fossils, and we found it very interesting. We spent about an hour there all together.
We left Fossil Butte feeling delighted that we’d taken the “wrong road” so we could visit there. By this time I realized my plan for getting to Flaming Gorge in the mid-afternoon was never going to happen, so I rearranged the next few days in my head, and set a new destination, for Vernal, Utah. This city is near Dinosaur National Monument, and I decided it made sense to go there first, and continue our prehistoric fossil experiences. We continued west in southwestern Wyoming, passing more colorful rocks… and to our surprise, suddenly found ourselves in what I’d call the Wyoming “Badlands”. Again, not the terrain we’d expected… it seemed that every time we took a new direction, we were pleasantly surprised by our surroundings.
We went through these kinds of craggy, “badlands”-ish mountains for a while, crossed the border back into Utah, and suddenly the mountains opened up into a beautiful valley just before Manila, Utah.
Of course we still had mountains everywhere, because Manila is just at the edge of the Flaming Gorge National Recreational Area. I envisioned that area a lot like a giant reservoir, because I knew the area was created by a dam further south along the Green River. We saw the river in the distance, but we took the road south to go around Flaming Gorge and head toward Vernal.
We couldn’t ignore Flaming Gorge for long, however, because we began one of those “oh my gosh, LOOK AT THOSE ROCKS” events which seem to happen to us so often. The rocks got redder, and craggier, and more and more colorful every mile we went.
Then we came around another curve and encountered Sheep Creek Bay.
We stood and gaped for awhile, then proceeded up the mountain until we arrived at a fabulous overlook of the bay.
By then the sun was getting very close to setting, and we still had about 30 miles to go to Vernal. We almost stopped at a Forest Service campground, but decided we’d do that tomorrow--with two blogs and all these photos today, I needed internet tonight. So, here we are in Vernal. Our plans tomorrow are to play with the dinosaurs in Vernal and in Dinosaur National Monument nearby. Then the next day we’ll be exploring those amazing red rocks and the Flaming Gorge--I am hoping we can rent a boat and get out into the river for a little while. This means we are playing for the next two days, and not driving too far. After today, that sounds like a good plan!