Truly Wild in Yellowstone National Park

Smoky sunset at Townsend

Magpies at dusk

Two nights in Townsend at the Canyon Ferry Lake area along the Missouri River was a needed break to take care of some housekeeping in the motorhome and just a break from our hike-a-minute schedule. But we were anxious for Yellowstone National Park and trekked out of town easily and through Bozeman (too early to stop at the breweries, darnit) toward Livingstone and through really thick smoke from wildfires. You could see the shrouded mountains of the Gallatin Range as we passed through to Gardiner at the entrance to Yellowstone.

 

Town of Gardiner

Victorian Inn

Time for a beer and elk tacos

Very cute town and a perfect stop for lunch on a patio overlooking the Yellowstone River. We noshed on elk tacos washed down with some local brews (remember, that is one of our trip objectives… sampling the local beer). Stopped at the Yellowstone Forever shop for some advice and Jackie was convinced that we needed to have bear spray while in the park. We found out where to rent canisters and holsters, so we were now prepared to enter the park.

Roosevelt Arch – northern entrance

Trying to recreate the picture from 1969

And what a huge park it is. A pretty big change even from Glacier. Driving distances between key sights are in the 30 – 50 mile range and the landscape is quite varied, going from the soft rolling hills of the north that are mostly dry sagebrush scrub and alpine grasslands interspersed with bands of spruce (and the remains of previous wildfires) to the vast stretches of lodgepole pine in the middle of the park. The Van did its best winding upward to Mt. Washburn (10,243 ft.) and back down toward Yellowstone Lake and our campground at Fishing Bridge. Everything starts at about 7,500 ft elevation here, so the altitude still takes getting used to. Campground is pretty darn big, with campsites staged tail-to-tail to maximize the number of units in the space, but it works for us just fine. Complete hookups means we can run the heater if it gets cold or the AC if it gets hot (both of which it does).

Campsite at Yellowstone

So what is there to do in this vast, strange land? Over the course of six days we did the typical tourist things with a few surprises. We find you just can’t be too quick to judge an area until you stay a few days while things change and evolve, both from a weather perspective and the appearance of wildlife.

Living on a Volcano
You learn quickly that the central part of Yellowstone is a collapsed and covered volcano’s caldera. The hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, steam vents and mud pots all come from the hot magma below. Air and water are heated and vent to the surface with all sorts of minerals. Some of the water is so clear and beautiful you want to take a dip. Not a good idea: it’s 180o to 190o. Other pools have rings of color surrounding them. Cyanobacteria and algae living in the water help give them their colors. We tried to see all the hot spots, from the steam and plop, plop of Mud Volcano to the roar of Dragon’s Mouth to the colorful hot springs like Grand Prism and the geysers like Old Faithful, Steamboat and Castle. Lots of stinky, sulfurous steam around. There are even steam vents and pools of boiling water along the shores of Lake Yellowstone. In the early morning you see steam rising from all sorts of places in the landscape – very eerie.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

Wildlife
Some of the first driving we did across and around the park we were disappointed not to see anything. The lodgepole pine forests were pretty much one-note, many areas that had burned over in the past had a lot of downed logs and new green trees coming in, but no wildlife that we could see. However, once we crossed into the Hayden Valley along the Yellowstone River, things changed. There were several herds of bison along the river and trumpeter swans floating in the water. We later spotted one elk cow in the woods just off the road, lots of other single bison, and a lone bald eagle perched near Lake Yellowstone.

Killdeer

Gray Jay

Bald eagle

Trumpeter swan

Elk with a keeping careful watch

But we wanted wolves and bears! We spoke to some of the park rangers and were told of three areas to check out: one was in the spruce/fir area near Mt. Washburn where black bear were spotted getting cones from the trees, one was the Lamar River valley in the far northeast and the other was a bison carcass in the Hayden Valley that was attracting bears.

The traffic jam

The crowd on the hill, early

The “carcass”

The main attaction – the grizzly

We had planned all along to go to the Lamar Valley to spot wolves, so that was our main destination one evening. On the way we passed through the Hayden Valley and soon saw a massive traffic jam on the road. Cars were lined up on both shoulders of the road and there was quite a crowd on the hillside – that had to mean something good. We quickly grabbed our camera, binoculars and spotting scope and rushed to join everyone. Sure enough, there was a very large, dark grizzly moving away from the dead bison. I would guess he was 300 yards off. Ravens and even a bald eagle were swarmed over the carcass and the grizzly moved ever closer to our hillside spot, perhaps as close as 150 yards downhill. We snapped some pictures and marveled at the sight. He soon drifted to an area out of sight and where everyone was banned from following.

Folks with good spotting scopes were noticing some grey wolves across the river popping their heads up every so often. One of the rangers explained there was a pack here with two gray females, three black males and a gray/brown male. The older gray female had given birth to five pups this year, so they were pretty excited for the pack. We watched for a while then decided to head on up to the Lamar Valley as planned.

Bighorn sheep

Scoping the Lamar Valley for wolves

Once in the valley we tried to spot some action or some clusters of cars that might be watching something, but it was pretty empty except for some fisherman and a couple of bighorn sheep. Doug suggested a bluff that overlooked the river so we set up the scope and scanned around for about a half hour. All we found were some herds of bison and figured we ought to go back to where we knew there were wolves near the “carcass” (as it is now known) and go with a sure thing. Back we went.

Watching for wolves

Bald eagle leaving the scene

It was even more crowded than before, with easily over a hundred folks on the hillside: scopes, chairs, stools, kids … crazy scene. We found a spot to plant the scope, watched both the carcass and the other side of the river for some action. No bear, but the bald eagle suddenly took wing, a white pelican flew down to the river, sandhill cranes flew over and into the valley and we began to spot the wolves popping up from the grass again.

Best I could do with 300mm lens at dusk

Then we were treated to a spectacular event. As it became darker the six wolves became more active and moved toward the riverbank. The alpha female led the way as they moved in and out of the grasses and along the river. They would stop, group up, jump around and wrestle, lick snouts and then stop to survey the scene. Not sure how deep the river was at that spot, but it was pretty wide. Down the bank they moved as we watched through our new scope (great close-ups), binoculars and long lens of the camera. Doug tried to get some shots, but the combination of low light and distance made it tough to get crisp pictures, as you can see. Naturally, the attachment for the scope that connects the phone camera to the lens was… back in the car. No time to run back.

The wolves, maybe a half mile off

Lead female separated from the pack by a wide margin and we almost lost her. Then someone spotted movement farther off and we thought we had three sandy colored coyotes moving in. We had a good look at them as they headed toward the wolves when we realized they were the young wolf pups coming to join mom. We watched a very playful reunion, tails flipping, pups wrestling … clearly she had given them some signal to join in.
The pack never did cross the river as it got darker and harder to see them. We packed up and considered ourselves very lucky to have seen this pack behavior.

Two mornings later we got up early to check the “carcass” on our way to a hike on Mt. Washburn and found another crowd lined along the bluff. Set up the scope, WITH the phone attachment this time, and got some shots of the grizzly sleeping and then moving along the riverbank. Over the hill and across the river folks said there was a pack of wolves that we could not see; but we did hear the pack howl and yelp for a good few minutes. Awesome. Things went quiet and we headed further on to the Mt. Washburn trailhead at Dunraven Pass.

The bear spray

This was going to be a challenging hike, uphill as much as 1,400 feet, and we really didn’t intend to go the full 3.5 miles. But the trail was wide and the day was sunny and warm, so we decided to go 1.5 miles, catch the amazing view, and then head back. On our way back a lone woman came huffing up the trail toward us, flushed and holding her can of bear spray. “A black bear just crossed the trail back there, you better have your spray ready.” Well, we had one can with us (Jackie’s was back in the car, Doug wouldn’t go back for it earlier, tsk, tsk). Ok, the can is almost out of the hip holster as we approach the area.

Black bear in the brush

Well, the picture was taken in a hurry …

Cautiously down the trail we went, scanning the woods for movement. Yes! There… not 50 feet from us was a dark brown lump moving in the brush. We got a good look at him as he dug and scrounged around, not really noticing us. Tough to get a good photo, what with all the trees in the way, but we had a good look at him and quietly pointed him out to another pair of hikers walking by. He ambled further down the hillside and out of sight and we continued on down the trail, totally satisfied with our decision to try this hike today. Of course everyone we passed hiking up the trail asked “did you see the bear?” and we relayed what we knew. Not sure how word of the encounter got downhill so fast.

Sometimes it is good planning that puts you where the action is and sometimes it’s just luck and a good sense of your surroundings. We had seen plenty of fresh scat on the trail, heard a ruckus of squirrels in the trees in about the same area and pretty much knew there was a chance of finding one of these bears. Maybe our training as wildlife biologists helped.

The “carcass” was a bonus for everyone who got to enjoy the bears that came and the wolves and scavengers who tried to join the action. We did hear that two bears got into a fight at the spot and one wolf had managed to sneak a bite while the bear was feeding, so if you stayed around long enough, it would have been a good sight.

Oh, and on the last night in camp, Doug was sitting out and saw a fox dash along the woodline along the campground, maybe only 50 feet away. How cool.

Hikes
Our impression of Yellowstone is that it is much more of a driving park than a hiking park, compared to Glacier or Badlands or Zion. Each of the different natural attractions is separated by quite a distance of boreal forest, alpine meadows or sagebrush scrub. There are plenty of spots to hike, they just tend to be long hikes of several miles, not something we were prepared to do on a daily basis. We hiked part of the aforementioned Mt. Washburn trail for 1.5 miles in and about 1,000 ft. up in elevation (to 9,700 ft., huff, huff) and got to see our black bear, plus plenty of Clark’s nuthatches, ravens and hawks.

Clark’s nuthatch is jay sized

Ravens are big.

Other hikes were on the boardwalks around the thermal areas, such as Norris geyser basin, Old Faithful and the Upper geyser basin and mud volcano area. Just because it is boardwalk, don’t think it doesn’t have some climbing – it does.

Natural bridge

We hiked in to see Natural Bridge and thought the surrounding woods were perfect for elk, but nothing was seen. A really nice morning hike through Pelican Valley only turned up a single bison, but we were darned sure there were bears around. It was probably our off-key singing that kept them away (and noisy hiking is so not what we do).

Waterways
Yellowstone Lake is the huge center of the caldera, feeding the magnificent Yellowstone River as it meanders through the Hayden Valley. Soon it carves through the rock, creating a beautiful waterfall and what is known as Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. There are several good vistas to see the falls and canyon and it all appears different from each view. One of the “must see” stops in the park, even if you have to wait a while for a parking spot.

 

Lodges and facilities

Old Faithful Inn


Yellowstone is another one of our great national parks that has this combination of CCC buildings of massive stone and timber, ‘60’s era “Jetsons” modernism and new environmentally sensitive lodgings and visitors centers. We lunched in the dining room of the Yellowstone Inn, marveling at the timber construction and real-wood touches.

Visitor’s Center was fantastic

We also had delicious flatbreads at the Canyon Lodge – part of their ‘60’s era modernization. The campground, however, needs some attention. Our loop was a pot-hole filled roadway of gravel and mud and the sites were tail-to-tail tight packed, but not as well-maintained as a KOA (but priced that way). And vault toilets throughout the park are few and far between, usually well used.

So our trip to Yellowstone National Park definitely was all we expected and more.  It is far larger than you imagine and it really remains very wild. It faces many challenges, from wildfires (which are really essential), from overuse in the more popular areas, from a public that doesn’t understand that wild animals need their space and from inadequate funding (all National Parks suffer lack of funding). But there are also lots of successes for the park, such as grey wolf re-introduction and grizzly management.
We didn’t feel a single earthquake and the volcano didn’t erupt, so I call that a success.

We next head on to Grand Tetons National Park in our quest to see all the wonders and wildlife we can, this time in search of more moose and elk. Thanks for following along on our adventures – we hope you enjoy the stories and the pictures.

Note: we just read that the fires in Glacier NP have spread, forcing some campgrounds and lodges to close and causing the loss of one of the chalets. Fires continue to burn in Missoula and surrounding areas, causing smoky skies even around us in Yellowstone. Lucky we had some clear days in both parks.

 

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