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Report on my trip to Montana & Wyoming

September-October 1997
by Chuck Kruger

I departed on Friday, 9/26 out of Portland via Cincinnati and Salt Lake City to Bozeman, Montana. I was part of a party of six people. The group met in Salt Lake City. Upon arrival in Bozeman, we lunched at the much vaunted Frontier Pies restaurant and then drove in 2 rental cars to the home of a friend in Ennis, 52 miles away.

The home where we stayed in Ennis is located near the end of 2-mile winding dirt road on about 20 acres of scrubby hillside topped with fascinating rock formations and sweeping views across the wide valley plains to the Madison and Gravelly mountain ranges. The vista from the house is a seemingly endless stretch of peaks, some capped with fresh snow despite day time temperatures this week in the 70's (I attribute the fact that we had warm and sunny weather throughout our trip to the considerable amount of warm clothes we all brought). The house is comfortable and eclectically decorated. Among its finest features is the wraparound deck encompassing a large hot tub that saw considerable use during our 3-day stay. I'll never forget gazing up from the bubbling steam at the big moonless sky, pocked with stars and striped with the milky way thicker than this easterner has ever seen it.

While we were in Ennis, so too was a Hollywood film crew making a major feature produced by and starring Steven Seagall, who owns a large ranch outside of town. The film is called The Patriot, and word is that in the story Seagall's character saves Ennis from the Montana Militia intent on taking over and bending the townsfolk to its service. According to local gossip, the actual Montana Militia was a bit unhappy about its portrayal in the script, and so quite understandably issued daily death threats to Seagall. This problem was allegedly solved in standard Hollywood fashion by hiring several of the militia leaders as paid consultants to the film.

We toured a spectacular 50-mile expedition over the Gravelly Ridge Road, which featured an up-close sighting of a large moose and at one point reached an altitude of 9200 feet above sea level. After many stops for photo opps, we reached the village of Cameron, where we enjoyed a fine meal and some beverages at an established called The Grizzly Bar. On Sunday (between viewings of NFL games via satellite) some of us hiked over the ridge behind the house and crawled over rock formations that towered over the hillside to heights of approximately 80 feet. According to local lore, these were either Shoshone Indian ceremonial altars or UFO touchstones, or possibly both. We just thought they were cool.

We also drove to Virginia City, which is part museum, part tourist trap. Several of the stores have been preserved exactly as they were in the late 1800's; others purvey tacky trinkets and fleecy clothes. Boots and hats are big. I bought a hamburger.

On Monday we left Ennis and headed into Yellowstone Park via the west entrance. Just before the Park entrance a small city has sprouted up to serve the tourists. Chain hotels, fast food emporia, gas stations, and tacky gift shops are abundant here, but we chose to experience the IMAX movie Yellowstone, which was truly breathtaking; and The Grizzly Discovery Center, home to a pack of 10 wolves and 8 Grizzly Bears, which have been relocated here because of trouble they got into elsewhere. The most memorable story we heard was about Toby, a 7 year-old grizzly from the Denali region of Alaska. Seems he grew rather fond of the cinnamon buns prepared in a bush camp kitchen, and no matter how the staff tried to secure the building, Toby kept getting in and feasting on the delicious buns. Finally, rangers decided to move him to a location 150 miles away over a steep mountain range. It took Toby just 7 days to make his way back to his favorite breakfast place.

As we drove south down through the park, we visited the Norris Geyser basin where large areas of soft, milky turf gave way to holes from which steam spewed, and pools of tropical green dotted the area. Just past that we encountered a wide plain area cut by a flowing stream. Out in the distance were 2 large bison, grazing. In a wooded area on the bank not far from the road, I spotted a large elk with a full antler rack, head high as if to sniff the clean autumn air. This first elk prompted a full stop by our 2-car caravan, and armed with cameras we quickly scampered back for the shots. Hidden back behind this magnificent stag was his family, a large cow and young 'un. The most daring of our group was Bret, who waded across the stream to get a close-up with flash. We watched in fascination, as one of our group, the stag, and each of us gathered on the bank knew that if the big beast (I'm referring here to the elk) decided our pal was too close, he could not possibly have outrun the animal. He snapped off a dozen shots with his flash from only 3 or 4 feet away, then the stag got up slowly, signaled to his family, and sauntered away. He said later that he felt his only option if charged would have been to turn 180 degrees and go face-down in the stream; his big concern was whether I could catch his camera when hastily thrown. Unfortunately, we had to keep this scenario on the fantasy level.

I came away from this encounter truly moved by my first experience of an elk in the wild. The power of emotion was diminished somewhat when, later in the town of Mammoth Hot Springs (our destination this day), we came upon perhaps 50 more elk roaming around the downtown area. The impression was that there were more elk than people in the downtown, though I'm sure this wouldn't be true in the summer when tourists throng this most popular of parks so thick that the rangers have to hold cars backed up for miles at the entrance gates. At this time of year we felt we had the park to ourselves, which is a very desirable way to experience such a spectacular, magical, and well-preserved place.

Mammoth Hot Springs Resort is on the site of old Fort Yellowstone, and the original buildings of the encampment are still there, used as housing for Park staff. The resort is run by a concessionaire, and the lack of competition shows in both the accommodations and the food. The mediocre service can perhaps be attributed to the fact that most of the resort staff is comprised of college kids who have left by the end of September. But anyone who complains about anything here needs to revise their expectations. We took lots of shots of the elk wandering around, literally ignoring the cars and people who snapped pictures and honked. The male:female ratio seemed to be about 1:9, with each stag in full rut, herding his harem around, chasing and cajoling them, bleating and squealing and frequently approaching a female from behind with slobbering tongue extended, apparently ready to mount and fire, though none of us actually saw that. We assumed each male probably had his way with each female in the group several times each day.

On Tuesday morning, before heading down toward Old Faithful, we hiked around the "steam tables" (actually tier upon tier of terraced stone and cascading water) above the town. Then a day of scenic cruising that included buffalo, more elk, and a stop at an overlook spanning the Yellowstone River valley, where with binoculars we watched a photographer with a huge lens stalking a silver wolf. We hiked down into the breath-taking 300' lower falls, and later stopped for beach shots at the surprisingly large Lake Yellowstone.

As you drive through Yellowstone Park, evidence of the 1988 fire is everywhere: new green growth surrounds "cabin-pole" pine trees that still stand or lie where they fell nine years ago.

The Inn is a massive place, built in 1904 of cottonwood logs, with several hundred rooms and an adjacent park visitor center. We could see the famous geyser from our rooms; it erupts on an irregular, but predictable schedule based on the previous eruption. Food and service was comparable to Mammoth, which is to say so-so; if I do the Park again, I'll stay just one night there, rather than the two that we did.

Next we headed down to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the final stage of the trip. The ride out the south entrance of Yellowstone, down the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Highway, and on into Grand Teton National Park was spectacular. The Teton range is even more grandiose than the mountains we'd seen in Montana; and their rise up off the plain is even more extreme. As the highway runs due south along the base, the rising sun hits these stately peaks with a drama than cannot be described. Our first stop in town was the National Wildlife Art Museum, followed by the Images of Nature Gallery of Thomas Mangelson, where I bought a large framed photograph entitled Shore of Lake Wonder. Jackson Hole is a power-shopping mecca for the rich and famous; somehow we managed to fit in. We lunched at The Bunnery, then headed up to Teton Village and our spacious condos at the base of the famous ski area. Dinner at the Mangy Moose.

On our final day, we drove north through the Wilson Pass to the town of Victor, Idaho, which had more peaking foliage colors than we had seen in the previous 2 states.

This trip exceeded my expectations in every way. The weather couldn't have been better (sunny and in the 70's every day except for a couple of hours our first afternoon in Jackson, when we had planned to take in the museum anyway.

In all, we got up-close and personal views of many wild animals in their natural surroundings, including: grizzly bear, wolf, coyote, buffalo, moose, elk, mule deer, bald eagle, hawk, and peregrine falcon.

The company was as good as the weather; much laughter amid the comfort of friendships that go back 20 years. I came home to a wonderful family and a thriving business. A pause to be thankful for so many blessings; then off to California....

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