February 27, 2021

Linkage Mag

Geared for the Automotive Life

In the Big Country

The Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. Photography by Chester Allen

At least once every year since 1988, I’ve driven to Yellowstone National Park.

These days, the trip usually starts in Portland, Oregon, and it’s about 756 miles to West Yellowstone, Montana.

When I’m on the highway, I drive fast. The speed limit in Idaho is 80 mph, which means everyone is doing 90 mph. Millions of sagebrush dot the countryside, and the radio finds honky tonk and mariachi bands.

Pendleton, La Grande, Ontario, Boise, Twin Falls… the cities get farther apart, and then, just past Idaho Falls, the road climbs into the volcanic caldera that is Yellowstone.

I put another 800 miles or so on the clock during the two to three weeks in Yellowstone. This is big country, and it’s often a long way from one point to another. Driving from West Yellowstone to the East Entrance — which takes you to Cody, Wyoming — is 85 miles over constantly changing terrain. The two-lane road winds over 8,500-foot passes and lopes over rolling countryside. Mountain peaks are everywhere.

When I’m in Yellowstone, I drive slow.

The speed limit is 45 mph — max. So, where does the driving fun start?

Well, if you start your Yellowstone day at dawn, you’ll probably see a grizzly bear or two. You’ll see mountain peaks turn pink with the new light of day, and there will be few of the dreaded motorhomes on the road.

There will be plenty of elk and bison on the road, which is why the speed limit 45 is mph. 

The road itself is a challenge, as it twists and turns upon itself in the high country, and you will shift gears early and often. The meadows, forests, wild rivers and towering peaks pull your eyes aways from the road. 

The road over the passes is always steep and narrow, and some sections don’t have guardrails. Dunraven Pass, between Canyon Village and Tower-Roosevelt, reminds me of the Austrian Alps  I’ve driven these roads in pickup trucks, station wagons and, on one memorable afternoon, in a Datsun 240Z. 

The 240Z loved the tight, twisting turns and short straights.

I see lots of great cars in Yellowstone, as it is a destination run for a lot of car clubs. Supercars aren’t happy in the park, but I’ve seen plenty of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens grumbling along. I’m sure those cars really sing on the long highways to and from Yellowstone.

Porsche 911 drivers seem to have a great time in Yellowstone.

The wise driver has a good camera handy — and pulls over in the many roadside pullouts to admire the landscape, gaze at wildlife and take photos. Driving in Yellowstone can be a lot of fun, but it is never, ever fast.

Leaving at dawn helps you avoid the “bear jams,” which happen when an animal — bear, elk, bighorn sheep, bison, wolf, moose, deer or pronghorn — shows up near the road. Drivers will stop right in the middle of the road to look and shoot photos.

The best times are always early and late in the day.

I was driving along the Yellowstone River in the Hayden Valley this past August — very early in the morning after a night of rain. The rising sun broke up the storm, and the fading clouds flowed over the landscape like square-rigged sailing ships.

I stopped the Tacoma to take some shots. I got out of the truck to take a photo, and the musty stench of dead meat filled my nose. I got right back into the truck, as grizzly bears will happily kill to protect their lunch.

I looked down the slope from the truck, and, about 100 yards away, a big griz stuck his head out from behind a rock. Time to leave.

A few more miles down the road, the clouds flowed down the mountains onto rolling meadows and across the Yellowstone River. This landscape, except for the road, hasn’t changed much since the last Ice Age.

The breeze carried the clean, wet-mud scent of a trout-filled river — and the sharp smells of sagebrush and lodgepole pine. The light and clouds changed every few seconds. The ticking of the cooling engine was the only sound.

“In a Big Country,” a song from Big Country, a 1980s band, filled my mind.

“In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive”

I put my Canon DSLR on a tripod and watched the world change over and over again. The photos look like watercolor paintings.

Right now is a good time to plan a summer road trip to a national park. National parks in the United States are a screaming deal — a week-long pass to Yellowstone is $36, and camping is cheap. If you prefer a hotel, there are fantastic hotels in and out of the park. You can sleep in luxury and wake up to bison walking past your window.

The driving is sublime, as every turn in the road is a new vista — a new adventure. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it’s also full of weird geysers, hot springs and waterfalls. If you want a faster drive, loop out of the park into Montana or Wyoming, where you can drop the hammer — and the scenery remains stunning.

The best time to go is from Labor Day to early October, as the kids are in school and the summer crowds are gone. The weather is usually sunny, warm days and cold nights, but it can snow any month of the year in Yellowstone.

The second best time is from the middle of May through the first week of June. Expect some company from biting bugs this time of year.

All you have to do is make reservations — right now is best, as the hotels and campgrounds fill up fast — and get your car ready. If you have more questions, shoot me an email!