Carolina: Cruising Past 70: 6 of Nature's Best on American Roads, Westward from Kansas to Washington

Thursday, September 29, 2016

6 of Nature's Best on American Roads, Westward from Kansas to Washington

Scotts Bluff in Western Nebraska
We began our westward road trip from Kansas on the last week of August 2016. I had joined Bill for our 8th wedding anniversary in Kansas City and visited his sister and hometown in Pittsburg, Kansas. We had to drive back to Seattle, Washington to take a flight to Alaska in the first week of September.

We crossed Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon in ten days leaving no time for either relaxation or boredom. And, just as we expected, the six Nature Spots that shaped our itinerary gave us so much about which to write. Here comes another dose of America, the Beautiful!

The Lovely Sunflowers of Kansas

Sunflowers in Kansas~
Kansas is known as the Sunflower State which has been its official floral emblem since the late 1800’s. But it was in 1903 when the Wild Sunflower became the official state flower of Kansas. Lawmakers praised the Sunflower as a symbol of the state’s “frontier days, winding trails, (and) pathless prairies.”

August is just the right time; wild ones spring up all along the roadsides in western Kansas. The plants reach up to nine feet high and feature leggy stalks and broad round flower heads with bright yellow faces. They are a photographer’s dream, and mine, yellow being my favorite color!

We stopped in Goodland, Kansas where they farm the large industrial varieties for seeds and oils, used for cooking and as an alternative to biodiesel fuel. I was ecstatic to have my pictures taken with them those large dinner plate-varieties!

Natural Landmarks on the 19th Century Westward Migration Trails

the Louisiana Purchase, 1803
Most of the Midwest was added to the US in 1803 with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of $15M from the French. That began the western migration of eastern settlers and the expansion of the US as we now know it. It was exciting to trace their footsteps and to see these landmarks as they saw them.

One natural landmark they encountered is Chimney Rock in western Nebraska. It rises above the plains to a peak of 4,226 feet above sea level. By the middle of the 19th century, it had become a stunning sight for those on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails, visible for many miles along US Route 26.

Chimney Rock in Western Nebraska
Based on sketches, paintings, and written accounts, Chimney Rock was taller when it was first seen, but it has since become shorter due to erosion and lightning. Chimney Rock, rising 286 feet above its surroundings, is a National Historic Site operated by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Twenty miles north of it is another landmark, especially for settlers on the Oregon and Mormon Trails. The Scotts Bluff National Monument (operated by the National Park Service) is a collection of bluffs, the first large rock formations where the Great Plains start giving way to the foothills of the Rockies.

Scotts Bluff National Monument, Western Nebraska
Scotts Bluff, which rises over 800 feet above the plains, is the most prominent, but there are five other rock formations: Crown Rock, Dome Rock, Eagle Rock, Saddle Rock, and Sentinel Rock. Wagon trains used the bluff as a major landmark for navigating through Mitchell Pass before going deep into the Rockies. For Bill and me, it was travel to the past, at the time of the settlers.

Fossil Beds of the Eocene and Miocene Periods

After these historic landmarks, we visited two national monuments that preserve plant and animal life from millions of years ago in the fossil beds of Wyoming and Oregon. They were not only educational visits, they were also spectacular Nature spots.

Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming
The Fossil Butte National Monument, also managed by the National Park Service, is located 15 miles west of Kemmerer, Wyoming. It centers on possibly the world’s best collection of Eocene Epoch (56 to 34 million years ago) fossils found in Fossil Lake, the smallest of three great lakes at that time.

When the fossils were discovered, miners dug them up to sell to collectors. Commercial fossil collecting is not allowed within the National Monument, though. The Visitor Center features over 80 fossils, incredibly found intact, not merely broken pieces that need to be assembled, including those of fish, crocodile, turtle, and palm frond.

John Day Sheep Rock Unit, Oregon
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument lies in east-central Oregon. Located within the John Day River basin,{ it is} also managed by the National Park Service. Fossil plants and mammals lived there between the late Eocene, about 45 million years ago, and the late Miocene, about 5 million years ago, later than those found in the Fossil Butte National Monument.

There are three geographically separate units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit Clarno. The Sheep Rock Unit is near the town of Kimberly. It is composed of the James Cant Ranch Historic District with the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, Cathedral Rock, and other areas. Both the Park Headquarters and Visitor Center are in this Unit.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Painted Hills Unit
But it was getting late so we hurried on to the Painted Hills Unit where we wanted to spend more time.  Halfway between the other two Units, it is about 9 miles northwest of the town of Mitchell. I was complaining that the hills were not quite as colorful as I expected them to be when, suddenly, one by one the scenic beauties appeared, art works of Nature that seem fragile and may soon disappear.

Lava Hot Springs of Idaho

Between Fossil Butte and John Day lies Lava Hot Springs, a small town with a population of less than 500, part of the Pocatello Metropolitan Statistical Area of Idaho. It is a popular weekend resort location because of its numerous hot springs for bathing. There is also a mildly turbulent river running through part of the town that is perfect for tubing with those large yellow tubes so radiantly bright!

Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
These six nature spots were each a sight to behold, and we were glad we got to see all of them on our
westward drive from Kansas to Washington. On my next post, I will detail 13 interesting finds on these American roads, each adding spice to this 10-day nature road trip of August 2016.

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