September 2, 2018.
Having camping in a deep valley and stayed up late, I once again found myself sleeping in the next morning - no sunrise to coax me out of bed before dawn. When I'd pulled into the site the night before, I'd worried that we'd have absolutely no view - a shame since Sunlight Basin is so pretty in the morning light.
As it turns out however, it was the lack of visibility in complete darkness that made me think that - because our site was quite beautiful - sun filtering through the trees, creek rushing by in the background, and orange cliff faces to our north and south.
Everyone else realized essentially the same thing as they started climbing down their ladders and looking around. We also decided that it'd be a good time to air down our tires - something we'd chosen not to do on our rush into camp the night before, and paid the price for!
Then, at our usual "early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese" time of 11:00am, we finally rolled out of camp - on our way back to the main road where we'd turn west, heading up Sunlight Basin Road, hopefully further than we had on our previous adventure.
As was the case the previous day, there were tons of other folks out on the roads - many of them hunting, others out enjoying the amazing weather for the long weekend. That meant traffic as we headed up the valley, and most of the group kept up a speedy pace to stay in front of the trailing dust clouds.
But not me. With views like this, I just slowed down and let the traffic by. And then, I stopped and got out of the truck.
Even so, it wasn't long before everyone else ran into a few slower UTVs and I was able to see them just up ahead, their backdrop one of the more dramatic we'd see this beautiful day. Knowing it was only a matter of time before I completely caught up, I did the only thing I could think of. I stopped and got out of the truck again.
And again. Seriously - this is one of those places where you just can't help yourself, the views getting better and better by the moment.
Eventually we reached a part of the trail where the creek has completely washed out (and taken over) the road. It's not deep or difficult to navigate - quite the opposite, it's a super-fun, extra-long water crossing. So in we went, unfortunately the water not really deep enough to wash off more than our tires.
We continued up the canyon, views and UTVs revealing themselves around nearly every bend. As was our rhythm, we stopped here and there to let the annoying little buggers pass or to take photos of the moon setting over the rocky mountains. We were having a grand time, everyone in high spirits.
Oh, and the water crossings. The trail was much drier than the previous year, but there were still plenty of crossings for us to get our feet wet - and we took advantage of them all, Monte @Blackdawg hopping out of Igor to snap head-on photos, and me hopping out to get shots from the rear.
Strategies were of course different. Mike @Digiratus, always the pragmatist, stopped in the middle of the creek to "wash off."
But not Dan @drr, and definitely not Zane @Speedytech7. And well, I think I may have won for "most water on the hood," again; though it was hard to tell even a few seconds later as the sun dried everything up quickly.
We were soon on our way again, followed by a group of UTVs that we decided to let pass; everyone else deciding that the slower, "stop to take pictures and enjoy ourselves" pace was the right one for today. So, just after the next water crossing we all pulled to the side of the road making a clear path for the UTVs to just keep driving on the road.
But no. These were UTVs. And when you drive a UTV, rule #1 is "Be a Dick." So they crossed the river, and then proceeded off-trail to skirt around us. And not just by a couple feet - we're talking 30- or 40-feet off of the road.
Nice, guys. Way to be stand-up humans.
To relax our nerves, we turned back to enjoy the views around us. Despite the UTVs, life was good.
Eventually, we found ourselves climbing mountains at the back of Sunlight Basin - further than we'd been able to travel the previous year, and sure to yield great views of the valley below once we navigated the switchbacks across scree fields.
Before long, we reached the top - or at least, the top for us - the rest of the track covered by a 3-foot deep, off-camber snow drift. It was the perfect spot for lunch and a bit of exploration...though not in that order!
The views were spectacular, as we'd hoped - brilliant greens on the rocky mountains contrasting with the cloudless blue sky.
We eventually put our cameras down and got our chairs out and sandwiches made. Sheltered from the wind by our circled trucks, we ate lunch and soaked in the moment. It turns out that we also ran into the UTVs that had passed us at this point, and chatted for a while about the pros and cons of Tacoma's vs. UTVs; no one mentioning the brain cells that are lost by sitting down in a UTV - at least, not until they'd taken their leave.
But as usual, our late start meant that we could never spend quite as long as we wanted to in any one spectacular place - and so once our food was gone and our chairs were stowed, it was back into the trucks for a race down the mountain.
We didn't stop much along the way, having just seen most of the sights on the way up the valley - though Mike and I did take a short side-trip to see the ghost town of Lee City. To call this a town was a bit of a stretch, the remnants of a single building all that was still visible.
We quickly turned around and continued down the road - now a mile or two behind the rest of the guys. Oh shucks, less dust for us.
With liberal use of our skinny pedals, we caught up to the group as we neared the mouth of the basin, their spacing evidence of the fine dust and light winds billowing up behind them.
Eventually, we all stopped one final time in Sunlight Basin to capture the gatekeeper to the valley - White Mountain to the north, part of the Northern Absaroka Range, before heading out to air up and hit the highway.
We had two more stops to make this afternoon before meeting Monte's parents @woodnick who were going to join us for a night of camping with the Frankenstein Recovery Vehicle (FRV), so named for the numerous times it's been used to rescue Frank from trips over the years.
Our first was a quick stop at the Lake Creek waterfall just off the highway. This was one we nearly drove by, but Monte's hint at some interesting history got us to pull over and get out just pass the historic cascade. Turns out that the falls have two claims to fame - first, a bridge (now for hikers only) near the upper falls is one of the last bridges still standing from the original Beartooth Highway; second - and more interestingly - an 85-year old woman fell off the new bridge, some 90 feet to the creek bed below. She was airlifted to the hospital, ultimately surviving with only a broken leg!
The hike was short and enjoyable, especially the shenanigans as Monte caught Mike ogling the Redhead on the way back.
Naturally, we all remarked on the Jeep that had pulled up behind us as well. Obviously self-conscious, it'd kept it's distance. Don't worry little Jeep, it'll be OK.
As we pulled back onto the Beartooth Highway, we fired up our APRS to see where Monte's folks were - we knew they had to be close at this point. In fact, it looked like they were less than an hour behind us, and we called out over the radio that our new rendezvous point was Clay Butte Lookout - near the top of the Beartooth Pass at 9811-feet.
Still in front of the FRV by 30 minutes, we moseyed up, the views of Clay Butte and the surrounding landscape opening up around us.
The lookout itself was the most civilized I've seen. Several stories tall, the top story was still used as a fire lookout, while the lower and middle stories were a historical museum, and public viewing platform respectively. Clearly, this was a lookout visited by many, and we took our time exploring, and capturing it all.
Here, Mike in front of the flag at half-mast in memory of John McCain who'd died a couple days earlier - a reminder to us all that despite the crazy political times in which we live, just because someone's Democrat or Republican doesn't mean they have to fight the other about everything; conversation, compromise, respect, and understanding the other side (even if you disagree), important building blocks of our country.
Right on time, the FRV arrived. We heard it long before we saw it, the supercharger and custom exhaust whining their way up the pass, and then up the dirt trail to the lookout - a cloud of dust left behind.
Greetings and smiles all around, we discussed our next stop - the final one for the day - camp at Sawtooth Lake, just a bit further up the pass. This would also be where Dan split off from the group - having to be at work on Tuesday, so headed out for a long drive that he'd split between Sunday evening and Monday.
So it was, as we pulled off the highway, Dan just kept going - a "Thanks guys, I had a great time!" his farewell over the CB. We all called back, sorry to see him go, looking forward to our next trip together, as we headed off toward the lake.
As we did, Monte came over the CB to ask if we wanted to air down. It was about four miles to the lake he said, some of it rocky. "I think I'm going to regret this, but let's keep going." said Mike.
A statement we'd all regret for the next hour, as we bumped and bounced over the rocky terrain - some of the larger boulders of the trip taken at full tire pressure. Eventually, this even got to Zane - who is generally unphased by anything - who announced unprompted over the CB, "I'm definitely airing down before we drive out of here." Way to go Zane! So am I, so am I.
The drive - while bumpy - was as beautiful as ever and we eventually found ourselves at Sawtooth Lake, having the entire place to ourselves. As was tradition, we each got our trucks leveled and tents setup as the last of the sun's rays hit the water and the aptly-named Sawtooth Mountain to our east.
We threw sticks into the lake for Satch and Bix (the two pups travelling in the FRV) And of course, we got setup around the campfire.
As is always the case, with Dan gone and with Devin @MissBlackdawg and Monte's folks at the campfire, the dynamic changed. Much more ribbing of Monte and his pants - though, they could more appropriately have been referred to as "patches in the shape of pants." Having forgotten a belt this trip, they'd been slipping down his hips, and as he crouched to get the perfect shot of the trucks, they'd split along the entire rear seam.
And somehow familiar to me.
At any rate, when your mom's around, it's suddenly a bit more important to do something about that, so Devin helped out with a brand new duct tape patch as we all commented on the fact that the sun had apparently come out again, Monte's legs so bright white!
As the sun finally set, we all crowded around the fire - another good, hot one even with Dan gone to enjoy dinner and each other's company. The lack of clouds and our position in a bowl meant there was no spectacular sunset, but I'm not sure any of us noticed - Mike's salsa, good conversation, and the knowledge that tomorrow we were going to try Goose Lake again - more than enough to keep us all in the highest of spirits.
As the temps dropped, and with a higher ratio of older-than-twenty-somethings around the fire than we'd had to this point, we called it quits a bit early - it was 11:30pm when we said our good-nights and headed off to bed.
The dogs, Bix and Satch still wet as they huddled in their kennels, but happy as could be.