Since we live in California's Sierra Nevada Range, you may be surprised the Sierra is not our favorite mountain range. We've enjoyed travels into many of the West's Wilderness areas and mountains including the Beartooth-Absaroka, Sangre De Cristo, North Cascades, Snake, White Mountains, Eagle Cap, Sawtooths, Rubys, East Humboldts, White Clouds, Sawatch, and San Juans. Each are extraordinary and hold unique special treasures, but our favorite mountains are Wyoming's Wind River Range. We have made many trips into the Winds and could spend the rest of our lives in bliss rambling through its rugged terrain. A massive glaciated granite block rising to almost High Sierra heights, glacier filled cirques, trout laden lakes, and large mammals - moose, elk, bighorn, grizzly; who could want for anything more? Vast areas are without trails. Here are mountains you can disappear into.
The Winds are so special I must issue a warning - beware, if you read further you will want to go. If you don't, well, there's something irrepairably wrong with you.
The Winds are around a two day drive for us, a bit faster if we use the dreaded Interstates. We wanted to start our journey with stops at Oregon's Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and Steen's Mountain.
We were stopped along Hart's Bluesky Road. A huge encampment had caught the Lady's eye up a smaller dirt road. It looked like a city. Dust trails showed several vehicles climbing up the draw. A small sign at the intersection read, "Deer Creek Inn." A crew cab new Ford F150 pickup with four men inside stopped beside us. The driver leaned over and asked, "Do you guys need help?"
"No," the Lady beat me to a reply. "We were just trying to figure out what that is." She pointed with her see mores to the encampment.
"Order of the Antelope!" the driver cheered.
"You were right!" the Lady blurted out to me. "I thought you were kidding!"
Four sets of eyes were riveted on me. I did not say a word. I did not change my expression. In a moment the driver's arm reached for the sky. "Order of the Antelope!" they all cheered. They drove past us and turned up toward "Deer Creek Inn", adding their dust to the trail marking the route in.
Thank god the Lady didn't ask them if they belonged to the "Order of the Cantelope!", the ones who show up primarily for the drinking.
From what I gather, the Order of the Antelope is a well connected group of men who helped establish Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Their annual get-togethers became legendary as noted in this 1994 Seattle Times article. I expect the reason for the allowed continuation of these events is well placed political connections.
We continued down Bluesky Road to Post Meadows. The area was a mini Serengeti, alive with pronghorn.
Sage hens with clutches of mostly grown chicks were seemingly around every corner.
We left Post Meadows and circled back to Hot Springs Campground on a small 4x4 road. We encountered only one vehicle, a side by side traveling in the opposite direction. The two adult males were shirtless, both sporting remarkable, stunning, sunburns - most likely Cantelopes.
Our camper was sporting a new thick coating of dirt.
The mostly empty campground was peaceful, just the way we like it.
We toured the developed hot spring pool and the warmer undeveloped pool above.
We were up early to watch the sunrise show.
As we headed toward Steens, the speed goats (pronghorn) escorted us.
A side note - On 17 July 2014 both Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge went into fire restrictions. Along with the usual regulations commonly seen on National Forest and BLM public lands, the Fish & Wildlife Service requires all vehicles to carry -
All motorized vehicles must carry the following equipment:
1) one shovel not less than 26 inches in overall length, with a blade not less than eight inches wide;
2) one water container of at least one gallon filled to capacity or a 2.5 pound fully charged fire extinguisher and;
3) one axe or Pulaski with a handle at least 26 inches in length and a head weight of not less than two pounds.
Besides being an incredible "sky island" in Oregon's Basin & Range country - a high country paradise, a tilted block mountain carved by glaciers into huge U shaped valleys - Steens Mountain's rocks also carry evidence of past major fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field. Steens' evidence is detailed in one of my favorite PBS Nova programs that can be found here - Magnetic Storm.
We made an early morning stop in Frenchglen.
The hotel still operates and serves evening family style dinners. We enjoyed a dinner at the hotel several years ago. The general store has a gas pump but did not open until 9:30 am. We waited and walked around Frenchglen. Although a wonderful small town, that burned up about five minutes. Oregon requires an attendant to pump gas, no self serve. A car pulled in front of the store. An older woman with two crutches got out and slowly, very slowly, made her way up the two stairs to the board walkway. She fumbled with the keys to the door. I took note of the distance to the gas pump and number of steps down. She would not make it. There was no one else in the car. She opened the door and made it inside. The sign in the window was turned to "Open." I entered and asked about getting gas.
"You'll have to pump it yourself. Can you work the pump?" she asked.
"Yes ma'am, I'll have no problem pumping the gas," I answered.
"Good!" she said. "Come in and tell me how much money the pump says when you're done."
After topping off the gas tank we started up the north end of the Steens Mountain Loop Road. There was a major wildfire further to the east in Oregon and the lower valleys were greatly affected with dense smoke. We appreciated the gain in elevation.
We stopped at Kiger Gorge overlook.
We took the spur road over for the short hike to the top of Steens Mountain and enjoyed the smoky view down into the Alvord Desert.
Sharing the summit with an array of communication facilities diminished any feeling of solitude. The southern leg of the Steens Mountain Loop works its way down the tilting plateau between Little Blitzen Gorge and Big Indian Gorge. Speed goats hang out up here. The road then traverses steep mountain sides and uses switchbacks to drop to the valley floor. We visited the historic Riddle Ranch along the Little Blitzen River.
Up is our preferred direction of travel, especially the Lady's, so we retraced our drive and returned to the top. With only a few vehicles this late afternoon, it was a pleasant drive. We took it slow. We stayed in Jackman Park Campground for the night. We wandered the plateau in the evening among the mountain mahogany, sage, lupine, and indian paintbrush.
Two shepherds were moving a band of sheep into the high country below Jackman. It took a while for the bleating and baaing to quiet down before we dropped into deep sleep. It was Friday night.
We needed to be in the Winds Monday night, campground reservation near our trailhead. Our route was a bit open to whim and how we felt. The smoke was driving us out of eastern Oregon. We decided on two lane to Ketchum, Idaho. We have enjoyed the Trail Canyon Road up and over the Boulder Mountains many times and figured we'd find a dispersed campsite along Summit Creek on the east side.
Ketchum is one of our favorite towns. Years ago a friend of ours was District Ranger. One of his highlights was working with Clint Eastwood on the special use permits for filming Pale Rider in the area. The District's Winter Sports Specialist (administered all the ski area permits and operations) was a workshop leader when I attended National Avalanche School. Also an avid fly fisher (noted for always tying flies during District staff meetings), he was a great source for information on high country trout.
We got a early dinner and some fresh produce at the market. Seems I also remember a great cup of ice cream from a street side vendor in the square. The Elephants Perch is a long time outdoor shop in Ketchum. In the evening we made the drive over the pass and found a nice dispersed site right where we figured. We took a long walk in the night.
I suggested venturing up Granite Creek in Wyoming's Gros Ventre Mountains for a place to spend Sunday night.
Granite Creek is a beautiful stream included in our National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. The dirt road ends 10 miles in from highway 191 at the Granite Hot Springs.
The concrete pool is run by a concessionaire. Use costs $6 a person. The pool is drained and cleaned every night. The road is closed after hours and the gate locked below the parking.
It is a short walk from the parking area to the pool.
Below the hot spring is Granite Falls.
And this brings us to the story of Camp Bubba. Granite Creek Campground is about three quarters of a mile below the hot springs and dispersed camping is allowed only below this area. On our drive in Sunday early afternoon, we took note, for future reference, of the opportunities. We tend to like the small, out of the way (and out of view) spots. We are also pleased to have some vegetation intact. There were a couple of large encampments of RV's and vehicles. These folks appear to travel in packs along with a large assortment of maggots - atv's, utv's - littering the area. This is heavy impact on the land. There is no getting around their presence. Camp Bubba.
Just down from the falls, on the south side (across the river), a hot spring flows from the vertical rock above. There is a pool on the edge of Granite Creek. As we were enjoying the roar and mist from the falls and the magical wildflower display...................................................
......................................three young men arrived at the parking area above; three young men on one atv. Our guess, from Camp Bubba. They apparently had heard about the hot spring across the river at the base of the falls. Camp Bubba must have rules such as, "Don't spill your beer when fording fast flowing mountain rivers."
Thoroughly entertained - actually it is hard for me to make light of this as far too many times I have heard about and helped pick up the pieces when poor behavior makes the inevitable turn to tragedy - we returned to the campground and dinner. The canyon setting is wonderful.
We wandered and explored down the road as night came on. I'll just let the photos tell the story.
The road is a cherry stem giving access into the surrounding Gros Ventre Wilderness. Three trailheads are along the road. Wonderful opportunities are nearby.
We entered the lower loop of Granite Creek Campground after some cross country travel and exploration. The view along the road from the campsites is down to the creek. A spike bull moose was feeding in the willows. I pointed him out to the Lady.
The image is poor because it was close to dark. I boosted the iso to the max and used the largest aperture I could in an effort to gather some light. This made me yearn for a long lens with a big hole and a monopod. Once the Lady understands the need, she will be much more inclined to help carry additional lens and accessories.
As I pointed out the young swamp donkey to the Lady, two women camped nearby made hand signals wanting to make sure we saw the moose. A new motorhome was in the last campsite of the loop. A young couple with their two children were on a point, above, watching the moose. One of the young girls saw us and whispered to her mom and dad. She quietly made her way over to us.
"Do you see the moose?" she asked.
"Yes we do," the Lady answered. "Thank you for asking."
"He was here this morning too. We watched him!"
This was just as special as seeing the moose.
It rained during the night. There was a heavy cloud deck in the morning that passed quickly with the arrival of the sun.
This was our breakfast view from camp.
It was time to head to the Winds. A bald eagle flew down river as we quietly drove down Granite Creek. We enjoyed the quiet stillness and did not want to wake up Camp Bubba.
Our first stop in Pinedale was for laundry and a little housekeeping.
Continued in Part Two, please click Here