Scott’s Big Adventure, Day Five: Sun Valley to Yellowstone

Got up at a decent hour, and had coffee and a bagel at Tully’s in Ketchum. Ketchum and Sun Valley are right next to each other. Sun Valley has the resort development and Ketchum is the tourist trap town. I had to make some repairs before leaving. My camera tripod broke so I had to get some epoxy from a local hardware store to fix it. I also had to tighten the left-hand mirror which had loosened due to vibrations. This involved stripping off all of the electronic attachments on that side, so it took a while. I ended up leaving town at about 10am, headed for West Yellowstone, Montana about 400 miles away.

I rode south out of the mountains on Hwy 75 until it intersects Hwy 20, then east on Hwy 20 which skirts the northern edge of the Snake River Plain. Stopped for gas in Picabo! I didn’t realize where I was until I left and saw the road side. There’s nothing there except a convenience store and a few houses, although lots of ranches in the area. In case you haven’t figured it out, this is the “town” which Picabo Street, the skier, was named after. Blink and you’ll miss it.

A little further east brings you to the northern edge of a huge lava field which dominates central Idaho. A large portion of the field forms the Craters of the Moon National Monument. When I got to the visitor’s center, I drove around the loop and checked out some of the sites. Its a pretty desolate place with only a little bit of vegetation clinging to the rocks. I climbed up one of the cinder cones and got some pretty good pictures of the area. Apollo astronauts trained here for the moonwalks, although the actual surface of the moon turned out to be pretty different from this volcanic wasteland.

Still further east is a large fenced off area which is currently called the Idaho National Laboratories (INL). It’s been renamed several times in it’s history, so who knows what it’s called when you’re reading this post. This is a place kind of like Hanford in eastern Washington, where they build and test nuclear reactors and related activities. As you might suspect, its all highly secured, but because the ground is so flat, you can see many of the facilities off in the distance. Over the years since about 1950, there have been more than 50 nuclear reactors build and operated on this site, although only a handful are still in use. The United State’s only fatal nuclear accident happened at this site in 1961 when the SL-1 reactor had a core meltdown and exploded killing the three technicians who were on duty. The three had to be buried in lead-lined coffins because their bodies were so radioactive.

The one part of the INL that is open to the public is the Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1 (EBR-1), located about a half-mile south of the highway. Though now decommissioned, ERB-1 was the world’s first nuclear power plant, generating electricity for the nearby town of Arco. It was closed for the season when I visited, but you can still look around outside. For me, what was even cooler was in the parking lot are two experimental reactors which were used to test the feasibly of a nuclear-powered bomber. The program was canceled in 1961 because missile technology had rendered it obsolete before it even flew. But there sitting out in the Idaho desert is a nuclear reactor with two jet engines attached. How cool is that?!

A little further down the road, I paid a visit to the town of Atomic City. When you see a name like that on the map, you just have to go see. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty sad little place. It was once the home of a large community of workers from the INL (which was called something else back then), but now it seems on the verge of becoming a ghost town.

About 40 miles further east is the city of Idaho Falls. I rode into the middle of town, and sure enough, there on the Snake River is a pretty substantial waterfall, low but wide. I took some pictures which I’ll post on Flickr when I get the chance.

From Idaho Falls, Hwy 20 turns to the north-northeast and runs up to West Yellowstone. The first half of this segment of the trip was a pretty straight run through farm and rangeland. I caught a glimpse of the backside of the Tetons off to my right, but they were shrouded in clouds so they were kind of hard to make out. The second half of the segment was a climb up into the mountains and some very pretty–but touristy–outdoor recreational areas.

Finally Hwy 20 makes a sharp eastward turn and comes into the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, which is right at the western edge of Yellowstone National Park. I got into town right at dusk, but it was still light enough to see the pass into Yellowstone proper. I’ve never seen a more obvious mountain pass than this one. Its almost like God came along with a giant axe and chopped out a notch and said, “Here. This is the way in.” Update: God’s axe is named the Madison River.

So here I am in West Yellowstone, which is about the tackiest tourist town I’ve ever seen. I’ll head into the park itself in the morning, and probably spend the whole day inside. I’ll be heading out through the south entrance and on to Grand Tetons NP. Don’t know yet how far I’ll get or where I’ll be spending the night. The weather is supposed to be clear with highs in the mid-60’s and overnight lows below freezing. I’ve got my thermal under-layers ready to go for the morning.