The Medicine Bow Mountains extend from northern Colorado into southern Wyoming. (Photograph by David Crockett, Alamy)
The Medicine Bow Mountains extend from northern Colorado into southern Wyoming. (Photograph by David Crockett, Alamy)

The Ultimate Road Trip Through America’s Mountains and Prairies

Lyrically, “America the Beautiful” covers “sea to shining sea,” but at its heart it’s about where prairies and mountains meet. Katharine Lee Bates, a schoolteacher-poet from Massachusetts, wrote it in 1895, after a trip up Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs, where she looked east over the plains and soon found herself reaching for a pen.

It is a dramatic pairing though, those purple mountains and those amber fields. They’re not always connected on itineraries, but both are partners, vast and inspiring in their own ways. The mountains’ crammed pathways amidst twisting river-cut gorges below peaks capped in snow, or stretched-out prairies of lager-colored tallgrass waving toward distant horizons. What unites them, in Bates’s song and in practice, is the big sky.

My last trip—actually taken by train—connected major metropolises in the Northeast Corridor of the U.S. This time it’s something different: I’m making a Batesian arc between three states not always linked on cross-country trips—Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota, mostly playing in that space where meadows and mountains meet.

For starters, I’m following someone who knows about that space. Isabella Bird, the sickly Victorian British travel writer, aimed for a tiny log cabin in the Colorado Rockies in 1873 by way of “plains, plains everywhere … rolling in long undulations, like the waves of a sea which had fallen asleep.” Mostly I want to retrace her steps as a color tour, and find the “blue hollow” and “purple gloom” she wrote about so memorably.

To the north, the Medicine Bow Mountains and Snowy Range are a prong extension of Colorado’s Front Range, and one far more easily accessible. Just 45 minutes from I-80 at Laramie, visitors reach glacial pools at the foot of snowy mountains. I’ll follow bits of the Overland Trail and Lincoln Highway before detouring on gravel roads to reach public lands—and poke about to see if I can find the ultimate souvenir: a piece of agate, or “Wyoming jade.”

I’ll take U.S. 14, one of the nation’s oldest numbered highways, along parts of the old Black and Yellow Trail, which connected the Black Hills and Yellowstone.

The last time I saw Mount Rushmore was on the only trip I took with my dad alone, in the summer of 2001. I can’t forget his unexpected gulp of surprise at seeing a dramatic first glimpse of the stone presidents after a drive along the Needles Highway. This time I’m exploring the area differently, by boot and bike.

Ian Frazier wrote in his travelogue Great Plains, “The beauty of the plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them.”

That works for mountains too. And wherever I go, I’ll be sure to look up.