American Road Trip: Back West & Crater Lake

As I drove away from Glacier National Park in Montana I had a feeling that my road trip was winding up and that perhaps I’d seen the last of the wonderful sights I experienced on this trip.  Once again I was wrong.

Although I still had 9 days before I had to be in San Francisco to catch my flight to Korea, I wanted to get to the West Coast quickly.  I needed plenty of time in a town big enough to offer a variety of major retail stores in order to purchase the supplies I needed for the Russian leg of my trip.  I needed time to get my clothes washed and dried, and to repack everything into a much more compact set up than I was currently using.  I wasn’t going to have the luxury of a car to sprawl all my stuff out in and would need to be able to comfortably carry all of my possessions on my back.  I also had a lot of stuff to dispose of.

For that reason I resolved to suck up a long day of driving and try to get as far into Washington as possible.  I had one more attraction that I was determined to hit before I started my preparations and that was Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.  So I headed off from Kalispell, Montana intending to get as close to US 97 as possible, a roughly north/south route through eastern Washington and Oregon that would eventually lead me to Crater Lake, then onto California.  It was a dreary day with low dark clouds and the odd patch of rain.  It took me a few hours on backroads to make my way through the last of the incredible Montana landscape to hit Interstate 90.

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This incredibly long highway runs all the way from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast.  At about 3,000 miles long and the longest interstate in the US, it is generally the route of choice for people wanting to traverse the northern part of the US.  I had driven I-90 in various places; I spent a few days on it getting between Watertown, New York and Ohio.  I joined it again to get me across parts of Wyoming and Montana, and was to follow it on this day for 265 miles all the way through Idaho to Ellensburg, Washington.

As far as Interstates go this one was pretty awesome.  Many of them are often are bordered by trees or huge concrete walls meaning that if you are passing through anywhere interesting you can’t see it.  Others simply don’t pass by anywhere that interesting.   Or as is the case with Interstate 10, it is interesting to look at the desert for the first 70 odd miles in California, but by the time you get into West Texas about 15 hours later you are pretty much over it.  I-90 on the other hand offers some really great and variable scenery, and for the most part you can actually see it.  It is one trans-continental route that leaves you feeling as if you did really see the continent.  So although it was fairly built up with traffic when I hit it again in western Montana, it was still a lovely drive firstly through an impressive mountain range where the speed limit dipped all the way down to 45mph at times so we could all safely negotiate the pass, the top of which marks the Montana/Idaho state line.

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A steep climb down into the first Idaho town made the state seem a gloomy and somewhat forbidden place.  The day remained dark and as I pulled into a gas station there didn’t seem to be any humans about, just an empty town with a few small stores.  But the weather was misleading and I knew Idaho was in fact a beautiful place.  As I gassed up I toyed with the idea of heading south to explore more of the state. I’d been to Boise many years before on business and I enjoyed the people as well as the landscape.  In the end I resolved to continue with my original plan, an Idaho road trip would have to go back on my bucket list for another time.

Crossing the northern part of Idaho is fairly quick as this is a narrow part of the state sandwiched between Montana and Washington.  However even this small area offered some lovely scenery, especially around the town of Coeur d’Alene and the lake of the same name.  Before I knew it I was crossing the state line into Washington and the landscape changed dramatically.  I hadn’t noticed until then as I’d been driving through the fairly built up area between Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, Washington.  Friends in Seattle had often told me that the eastern part of their state was desert.  I had been living in the New Mexico desert at the time and as various people told me this whilst enjoying drinks overlooking the very lush and very wet Puget Sound, I have to say that I didn’t really believe them.  Instead I imagined a dry area that people from green and rainy Seattle mistook for desert.

At first I thought I was right.  I drove through a huge and vast plain and it simply looked like a prairie grassland gripped by drought as opposed to a desert with sagebrush or cactus.  As I travelled further west it became apparent that it was a desert of sorts, not like the ones I was used to but desert nonetheless.  Whilst it had its own beauty, particularly in the late afternoon light, I have to say that this landscape didn’t win me over.  I began to feel out of sorts and basically just wanted to get out of there.   If I’m honest I was already feeling a little homesick for Montana.

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As I got further into Washington I noticed a lot of agriculture in this arid landscape and later found out that this is one of the biggest vegetable producing areas in the US.  Someone had handily put signs up along the fields telling you what was growing in each one.  I saw sweet corn, alfalfa, peas, potatoes and beans which may not sound exciting but it made for a fun solo game to see if I could guess the crop, which I never could.

After a good 8 hours of driving I finally made it to the small agricultural town of Ellensburg and checked into a motel.  My room had a pleasant view of a tiny lifestyle farm complete with chickens and a big fat pig all of whom were right outside my window.  I liked it so much that I immediately booked another night so that I could spend a few days recovering, start my Russia preparations and talk to the pig.

Two days later I set out on another long drive south to Bend, Oregon where I planned to stay the night before heading to Crater Lake.  This road took me through the stark yet beautiful Yakima River Canyon and this entire region is a wine producing area.  If I’d had a sober driver I’d have been tempted to make a few stops at vineyards because Washington certainly does produce some great wine.

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I was initially heading for the city of Yakima because I needed to find a Macy’s.  As I drove into town I realised that Yakima was Washington’s version of El Paso, Texas, a town I spent a lot of time in when I lived in New Mexico.  When I got to the mall where Macy’s was I had a mini-freak out because it was laid out exactly the same as the El Paso mall I used to go to with all the same stores in all the same places.  And there were Mexican restaurants everywhere too.  I’ve never heard anyone discuss the uncanny resemblance between Yakima, Washington and El Paso, Texas but if anyone else reading this has also visited both places then I’d love to hear from you.

After a few hours I’d found what I needed so struck south for Bend, still about 4-hours drive away.  This took me on an incredibly remote road through dry grassy landscape and endless plains.  After two months of driving through the US this was the only road that warned about the lack of gas stations.   This was the Yacama Scenic Byway and although dry the landscape wasn’t my kind of thing it definitely was an interesting route.

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After an overnight in Bend, Oregon I made my way to Crater Lake National Park.  I had got to within 21 miles of here on the very first day of my American Road Trip back on May 1st.  You can click here to read about that in my Oregon post but the upshot was that I hadn’t been sure if I had enough fuel or time to visit the lake, or even if the roads would be open at that point.  Apparently this area receives the most snowfall of any of the lower 48 states so the park roads often didn’t open until July.  So I sadly did a U-turn and continued on with the rest of my trip, hoping I’d find time to come back at the end on my way to San Francisco, just as I was doing now.

It was absolutely worth the wait.  It was a short drive through the park and I still wasn’t able to drive the loop road around the whole of Crater Lake as the eastern side of the road was still closed so the whole thing took less than an hour.  The lake was formed by a collapsing volcano several thousand years ago and it is famous for its deep blue color.  The other incredible fact about it is that there is no external water source such as a river keeping the lake full.  Any water evaporation is replaced by snowmelt and rain over the years, thus it’s crystal clear water and colour.  I don’t really have words to describe just how beautiful this place is so I’ll leave you took look at the photos.

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I ran out of road to explore pretty fast so made my way back down the mountains through more forest and fairly soon was back at Union Creek, the exact location where I made my sad U-turn 54 days previously.  I had to stop for a photo to mark the occasion.

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I spent a short while on road I’d seen before and had intended to spend the night somewhere around Medford, Oregon but it was still early so I pressed onto Yreka, California where I’d found a particularly cheap motel online.  I think it is safe to say that Yreka is a strange town.  Apparently the name comes from the fact that a well regarded bakery used to be here.  It had a large ‘Bakery’ sign outside that eventually lost it’s ‘B’.  Somehow or another it was read backwards minus the ‘b’ and thus the town was forever known as Yreka, bakery spelt backwards without the b.  Okay.

I visited the odd supermarket where everyone started at me a lot then settled in at the motel to plan my trip down the Pacific Coast the next day which was a Saturday.  It became clear that the motel prices would drop by 50% if I hung out in Yreka for another day and hit the coast on Sunday instead.  So that is exactly what I did however I booked the extra night with the nice people at the front desk before I realised that I had a family of crackheads on either side of my room.  Mum and Dad were smoking crack on one side, occasionally moving to the room on the other side to smoke crack with their kids.  Often family arguments born from drug addled paranoia would erupt right outside my room.  It was a little disconcerting but they appeared to be keeping it in the family and had no interest in me so I resolved to stay the night anyway.  It was definitely an interesting one but thankfully they checked out the next day.  Or they got kicked out the next afternoon.  I’m not sure which but the important thing was they’d gone to smoke crack together somewhere else.

I spent an interesting few hours at the local Walmart where more people stared at me and left gratefully the next morning for Fortuna, California and the last leg of my American Road Trip.

Highlights:  Coeur d A’lene, Idaho  |  Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway  |  Yacama Scenic Byway  | Crater Lake National Park

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