Driving the Continental Divide
Published: July 2010
By Heather Smith MacIsaac
Tracing the highest ridge of the Rockies, T+L takes the mother of all road trips—a two-week journey from the glaciers of Montana to the mesas of New Mexico.
Side by side, we steadily made our way up the mountain pass. Our path traced the narrow edge of two cliffs of stone—one above us, one below—that defined sheer, as if one section had cleaved from the other and then, never losing a degree of verticality, had plummeted a thousand feet. While I hugged the rock face on our left, my old friend and excellent traveling companion Lynn kept a very steady eye on the lip of what we knew to be the other falling away out of sight. Already, on the first day of a drive that would take us from just shy of the Canadian border 2,000 miles to southern New Mexico, we were encountering an extreme version of a condition that would be our constant companion: the contest between the route before us and the glory all around us, between close concentration and overpowering distraction.
What I wanted to experience on this trip was the sweep of the nation in an against-the-grain orientation, driving along America’s spine from north to south. The iconic American cross-country road trip has always been east to west. Such was the manner by which our nation unfolded until it bridged the oceans. The west is where the sun sets; for Americans, it is our magnetic cardinal point. Spin us around and we will come to rest with our arrow pointed west. Westward ho, westward expansion, go west, true west—the pull is lodged in our national psyche.
To trace the Continental Divide, the mighty invisible line that runs along the top of the Rocky Mountains and determines whether water flows west to the Pacific or east to the Atlantic, I assembled a route that followed it as closely as pavement would permit, allowing for minor detours. On other trips I had given the national parks their due. This time, they would be dioramas rolling along with two urban dwellers (a New Yorker and an Angeleno) who were happy to cruise unimpeded by stoplights and traffic.
Only a few hours off the plane in Kalispell, Montana, we were already making our way up one of the most celebrated highways in America. Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, in spite of its solar aspirations, would not be the highest road we would travel, but it would turn out to be the most spectacular and not merely for the panoramas it afforded. To build a road in the 1930’s, mostly by hand, blast, and grit, that would take visitors up and over the Divide into the heart of Glacier National Park was an early triumph of not just engineering but sensitivity as well. Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, saw to it that the highway lay—like all early government-contructed roads—“lightly on the land.”
We got out at Logan Pass long enough to admire the flowers standing up, though not very tall, to the bully that nature can be in these subalpine climes. And there at the crown of the continent we confronted some new math: Triple Divide Peak, from whose flanks water traveled in not two but three directions, adding the Arctic to the Atlantic and Pacific. The tiny droplets, as if propelled by a thirst for salt, join increasingly more-intimidating flows until they reach one of the three bodies of water. Sadly, we also learned that if global warming continues on its present path, Glacier National Park could run out of its eponymous ice masses as soon as 2020.
Between the gray stony peaks of Glacier’s Livingston Range and the Tetons in Wyoming, Montana was all green and gold—a honeypot of forest, open space, fertile land—and copper. Evidence of the wealth and population that mining brought to the West lies in Brigadoon-like settlements throughout the Rockies. Some are true ghost towns, others just have that air, so quiet are their streets. Philipsburg, where we bunked for the night at the Broadway Hotel, was a silver-mining town turned Western charmer.
The next day, descending into Anaconda toward the end of the Pintler Scenic Loop (Montana Highway 1), we drove alongside an endless chain of railcars frozen idle on a long-abandoned siding, a reminder of how mining had long ago halted abruptly in its tracks. That great wealth had belonged to Anaconda is evident in its liberal use of local brick, granite, and copper for grand Victorian buildings such as the county courthouse, the Hearst Free Library, and the former city hall.
Thirty miles farther east, the Berkeley Pit is an open sore on the eastern edge of Butte, a boomtown once nearly as bright and racy as Las Vegas. The former copper mine, now a 40-billion-gallon pool of toxicity, is an oddly compelling attraction, one of the largest hazardous waste sites in the nation and surely one of the only ones with a viewing platform and a gift shop. After having a look Lynn and I retreated to the safety of the minivan and the security of the open road. Just south of Butte, a signpost indicated distance: 20 miles to Divide, 75 to Wisdom.
Such was the pendulum rhythm of our mountain route. Our drive was swinging between nature’s tenderness and her might, man’s genius and his shame. The human footprint, especially its brutish stomps like the Berkeley Pit, propelled us back to nature for succor, or maybe to apologize. Then, eight hours in the car, consuming land and sky, revved up an appetite for civilization. Pulling up to the Old Faithful Inn after a day on the road was a tonic. With a full moon lighting up the steam plumes escaping Yellowstone’s burbling pits, we snugged down in our room—all plain wood, simple bedsteads, and fresh air.
Scotch was our cure the following night. At the Two-Bit Cowboy Saloon in Miner’s Delight, a tiny former mining settlement tucked away in South Pass, B&B proprietor Bob Townsend took the edge off a long drive and a growing chill with tastes of single malts from the best selection in Wyoming. Remote as it now is, South Pass was once a superhighway of westward migration. This gently sloping, 20-mile-wide crossing of the Continental Divide was one of the easiest, even at an elevation of 7,660 feet.
The Oregon, Mormon, and California trails and the Pony Express route all converged at South Pass. Such traffic would have been a boon for Polly Hinds and Lynda German, who, since 2000, have sold old books, fresh eggs from their property in Sweetwater Station, a one-time stagecoach stop 40 miles from the nearest gas station. Mad Dog and the Pilgrim Booksellers’ 75,000 antiquarian, out-of-print, and just plain curious volumes derailed our forward thrust like a mighty pine fallen across our path. Plus, Hinds had the casual erudition of Annie Proulx, her literary neighbor 126 miles down the road in Saratoga, Wyoming. Arriving in the town later that night, we took the hot-springs cure in tepee-tented pools at Saratoga Resort & Spa.
Coming off the open range of Wyoming, Colorado seemed constricted, as if its north and south borders had put the squeeze on the Rockies, forcing them up in tight clusters of steep peaks. High sagebrush desert gave way to blue spruce, pickups to Subarus, gun racks to bike racks, cowboy hats to baseball caps, though the faces were still tan and weathered. Having slowed or stopped to take pictures of every sign posted to mark the Continental Divide, we pulled over at Milner Pass, elevation 10,759, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The fourteeners of Colorado (the 58 peaks more than 14,000 feet high) that drew prospectors in the 19th century now mint gold less concentrated but just as subject to speculation. Where once the major boomtown was Leadville—the source of Meyer Guggenheim’s fortune—now it is Aspen where the mining digs deep but seems clean, done over drinks and on the slopes. Linking the two towns is Independence Pass, at 12,095 feet the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide.
I had thought that Aspen would be a lark, a reprieve from meat-heavy menus and hard-wearing outdoor clothing. The Sky Hotel delivered: fake-fur–trimmed lounge chairs; a lampshade as outsize as the lobby timbers; tuna-tartare tostadas; travelers in summer whites. But across the street at the Little Nell, the coterie of black Escalades, ready to beam guests the few short blocks to the Caribou Club or Prada or Dior, was deflating, a glossy reminder of Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive.
Two thousand miles in a car can make anyone long for release. In Colorado, we found it soaring on ziplines through a canopy of ponderosa pines at the end of a canyon where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a.k.a. Newman and Redford, leaped to the Animas River. For once we were both passengers, up in the treetops and aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the only means of accessing the canyon. We found it strolling among the heirloom hollyhocks in the gardens dense with color at Blue Lake Ranch. We found it tucked just under the mesa top in the recesses and platforms and arches of Balcony House, a cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. And we found it emanating from the earth itself in New Mexico.
Here, mountains—as if put through a giant plane—emerged shorn of their peaks, rising randomly across a high desert floor as tables draped in gold and red. After the cool of Colorado, we welcomed a warmer palette, higher temperatures, hotter food, and a deeper culture. That Pueblo Alto, an 89-room 11th-century dwelling in Chaco Canyon, still stands, and that Acoma Pueblo was ever inhabited, and is still lived in, are reminders that we should be as conversant with ancestral Chacoan (formerly known as the Anasazi) as we are with their contemporaries King Arthur, Leif Eriksson, and William the Conqueror. Why is enlightenment so rarely sought in our own backyard?
New Mexico made us thirsty. Crossing Interstate 40, we stockpiled bottled water before entering the swirling volcanic terrain of El Malpais National Monument. For the next hundred miles, we encountered not a single vehicle, coming or going, as we crept across a black crust shattered by cinder cones. Iced tea cooled the afterburn of green chile cheeseburgers at Largo Café, in Quemado. More water carried us through the final leg of our long descent from Canada, skirting Arizona in former Apache country, then winding through the Gila National Forest before plunging down into colorful Silver City. South of town the landscape would finally level off toward the Mexican border, but hilly Silver City itself sat right atop the Continental Divide. Cloudbursts here regularly turn the streets into rivers, and one practically needs a step stool to mount the high curbs. Lynn and I would not be staying for the next storm but instead would divide and head home, like the waters, to our oceans.
When to Go
The ideal time is late May to mid-September. The passes sometimes do not open until June and some close in early fall (Logan’s Pass, in Glacier National Park, closes just after Labor Day; Independence Pass stays open as late as November).
Great Value All of the hotels below are under $250 a night.
Doe Brothers’ Restaurant & Soda Fountain 120 E. Broadway, Philipsburg, Mont.; 406/859-7677; lunch for two $20.
Atlantic City Mercantile 100 E. Main St., Atlantic City, Wyo.; 307/332-5143; dinner for two $75.
Kennebec Café & Bakery 4 C.R. 124, Hesperus, Colo.; 970/247-5674; lunch for two $20.
South Pass City State Historic Site 125 South Pass Main St., South Pass City, Wyo.; 307/332-3684; southpasscity.com.
Mad Dog and the Pilgrim Booksellers 4176 Hwy. 789, Sweetwater Station, Wyo.; 307/544-2203.
Soaring Tree Top Adventures Durango, Colo.; 970/769-2357; soaringcolorado.com; canopy tours from $429 per person.
Mesa Verde National Park Mesa Verde, Colo.; 970/529-4465; nps.gov.