Earthquakes, Gold and Headwaters: West Yellowstone to Three Forks, MT


“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America


In the evening, this is what the small table in my camper looks like: an array of maps, brochures, guide books and of course, the computer. I’m not sure I’m in love with Montana, but I’m certainly in no hurry to leave.

At the suggestion of a Visitor Center volunteer, we headed north on Highway 287, into the “Earthquake Lake Geologic Area”.  In 1959 a violent 7.5 earthquake triggered a massive landslide that caused 28 deaths (campers buried alive) and damed the  Madison River, creating Quake lake.

Sighted a pair of bald eagles and their mates, hanging out in the dead trees, but couldn’t get close enough for a good photo. The landslide rubble is in the backdrop, the natural dam that, in one night’s time, created the lake.

The dramatic story of the earthquake and it’s aftermath is documented along the highway, with signage and hiking trails. Bella and I hiked down to Refuge Point, a place where campers who were more lucky than others at the time, fled to higher ground as the river rose dramatically. 

The high meadow wildflowers are glorious this time of the year – wild lupines, daisies, columbines, asters….


And Bella couldn’t pass up an opportunity for a swim.


Along the Tobacco Root Mountains, now following the Jefferson River, this was gold country in the 1800’s. There are many historical markers telling stories of vigilantes and outlaws.  Through the little western towns of Ennis, Virginia City and Sheridan (just like in the movies)…  Then a tailgate lunch looking out over the Madison Valley.


Choosing a campground seems kind of like playing darts: you aim, and hope you hit a bullseye. From the array of campgrounds listed in an area, a choice is made based on ratings and availability, you make a reservation, and then just hope for the best.

Camp Three Forks, in Three Forks, Montana was a delightful surprise. Small campground, large and grassy sites, homey and quiet- it was hard to believe it was the eve of July 4th. Set in the middle of hay fields, I decided to stay a couple of nights.


A walk up the road offered a serene sunset. Montana really is Big Sky Country.


An interesting fellow camper was Jerry Yanz. He’s doing a solo bike ride from Washington state to Michigan, retracing the path of a ride he did in the 1970’s. Talk about inspiring…. he is also blogging about his journey.


Then off to Missouri Headwaters State Park. This is Lindsay, a full time RVer (as they are called) who is working, along with her husband at the park for the summer. In exchange for work, they park their RV for free, and are enjoying exploring the area.


Then off to the headwaters of the Missouri River, the longest river in North America. The path of exploration for Lewis and Clark. One of the rivers most used for commerce, and now one of the most polluted.

But at it’s beginning, where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers converge in the middle of Montana range, the Missouri’s waters run clear and clean. The three rivers join quietly, and the area at first seems more pond-like, then the beginning of a powerful river.

There really is much to love in Montana.


3 thoughts on “Earthquakes, Gold and Headwaters: West Yellowstone to Three Forks, MT

  1. LOVE Montana….so vast– so open. (Ok, I also loved the fast driving and the $5 max fine for the on-the-spot speeding tickets back in ’92!) Fun to read and see where you are!


    • The fast driving becomes inevitable on those mile after mile straight-aways through range and prairie…. unless towing a camper, which really slows you down. Glad to know you experienced this- it’s a beautiful part of the world!


  2. Hello Sweet Ellen! I am browsing with delight along side your mother (Hi Honey!) of your blog! What a treat! We are drinking up all the beauty and adventure you and Bella are having. We miss you like crazy but know you are having a wonderful time! So special to travel across the U.S. like you are doing. All of our love!! avril and mom


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