Mount Rainier…June 8, 2018
Grant Teton…June 14, 2018
“No matter what brought you to
Yellowstone - wildlife, geysers, scenery -
it is the volcano that affects everything you see”
Entering the Nation’s 1st National Park…
From Missoula we drove the remaining five hours, making our entrance into the Yellowstone through West Yellowstone at around 2 PM. Our original plans included one night at the Madison Campground and two nights in the backcountry, but the forecasted weather and trail conditions were less than favorable. Again, much of the trails were still covered in snow and temperatures were to drop to mid-twenties during the night. With similar conditions at Grand Teton (our next stop including backcountry), we decided to extend our stay in Yellowstone until Wednesday and cancel our backpacking trips at both Parks. We would later both accept the fact that sleeping under these circumstances would have been miserable.
With our campsite set up, we drove to the eastern part of the Park to explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It is believed that the Grand Canyon is a result of the caldera eruption which struck over 600,000 years ago. Erosional effects, especially from lava flow, formed the landscape and natural features of this area. We took in some great views of the Canyon and its waterfalls from Artist Point. However, due to the crowds, we did not want to stay for too long. Pulling out of the Canyon, we had our first up-close encounter with wildlife. A bison (also known as buffalo) was grazing right off the side of the road. This fueled our desire to see first-hand as much wildlife as possible.
The Grand Canyon and Lower Falls
Yellowstone River (and a rainbow) at the Grand Canyon
With an hour or so to spare, we headed into the nearby Hayden Valley, one of the two hotspots for wildlife enthusiasts. Due to the shrub-and-grassland that make up the valley, it provides a suitable habitat for grazing species. Bison, elk, moose, and others. The presence of these species naturally attracts their predators such as bears, coyotes, and even the infamous Yellowstone wolves, to the area. We soon realized that there are possibly more buffalo in Yellowstone than there are people, or at least it felt that way. Other than that, we were able to watch a male elk grazing in one of the meadows. As we passed many groups of wildlife watchers with their binoculars and scopes, we began to understand that simply using the naked eye is not enough to spot the wildlife that may be blending in with the landscape. Back at camp, we talked about how exciting seeing the wildlife was and how we would devote more time during the stay to observe the animals. Since our plans had changed and we were now dependent on first-come-first-serve campsites that often fill before 8 AM, we went to bed early.
Yellowstone River at Hayden Valley
Mammoth Hot Springs…
By 6:30 AM, our alarms had gone off and we were getting ready to move campsites. A little before 9 AM, we reached the campground at Mammoth Hot Springs and thankfully, there were enough spaces to choose from. With our tent pitched, we drove into the village to experience the thermal features. Since the ground around the hot springs is so fragile, we walked on boardwalks to get a closer look at the Hot Spring terraces that are made of calcium carbonate (travertine). To us, the area appeared like an outdoor spa. While the water temperature and acidity at Mammoth are relatively low and neutral (around 163° F and pH 6), other thermal pools at Yellowstone record temperatures beyond the boiling point, with pH values between 2 and 3. Leaving this spectacular site, we were certainly reminded of the Park’s volcanism.
Lower Terraces at Mammoth
As mentioned, we originally planned to do some serious backcountry hiking at Yellowstone. With those plans canceled, we chose to use the available time to do some day hiking. Right next to the Hot Springs is the trailhead for the 5-mile Beaver Ponds Loop, one of Yellowstone’s favorite hikes. Anticipating rain in the late afternoon, we did not waste any time getting on our way. After about a mile of passing by beautiful wildflowers, we came across a group of four hikers that were stopped by a bear who was in their path. The group had backed up and informed us that a large cinnamon-brown bear was grazing in the meadows. Pulling out our bear spray, the six of us passed the bear carefully. We are still unsure whether the bear was a grizzly or a black bear since the two can easily be mistaken when judging solely by the color or their fur. On the remainder of the trail, we looped around a set of ponds, while spotting the occasional deer. Once we finished, we rewarded ourselves with Huckleberry Ice-cream Sandwiches, a pact that we made the previous day. The change in weather arrived just as predicted, so we took the opportunity to rest for the night.
Wildflowers and scenic views on the Beaver Ponds Hike
A race against time to Tower-Roosevelt…
For day three, we sought to get a campsite at Tower Falls, the most competitive first-come first-serve campground in the Park at this time of year. This is likely due to the fact that it is located the closest to Lamar Valley, Yellowstone’s biggest wildlife hotspot. After stopping to take a quick look at another black bear, we arrived at Tower Falls just minutes after 8 AM. Luckily, there were two sites left and we happily took one of them. Without a chance to eat breakfast while racing from one place to another, we took an opportunity to grab some coffee and a muffin from the nearby general store. With a feeling of relief, it was time to truly start the day. Being close to the Yellowstone River, we took some time to drive along the cliffs, stopping at various turnouts to look around. Thanks to the help of a friendly park visitor’s binoculars, we got a glimpse of some bighorn sheep on the cliffs across the river. Without the binoculars, these animals would have been impossible to spot. Finally, we made our way to the Tower-Roosevelt Ranger Station to get some expert advice on the area. We talked to a very resourceful ranger who suggested a few hiking options, in addition to helpful tips for increasing our chances of encountering some of the more sought out wildlife.
Yellowstone River near Tower Falls with Lamar Valley in the back
The Lost Lake…
Of the hikes recommended to us, we chose the Lost Lake Loop, which took us right by the Petrified Tree. The tree was fossilized by the covering of volcanic materials during times of activity. Although the tree to us didn’t look significantly out of the ordinary, the process is quite fascinating to think about. By about noon, we started the roughly 3-mile loop that would take us passed Lost Lake. The narrow path first lead us into an open field of green that was decorated with gorgeous yellow, purple, and blue wildflowers., and about a mile into the hike we passed within 25 ft of two deer grazing lackadaisically. This portion of the trail was followed by a set of steep forested switchbacks until finally giving way to a large open meadow and the Lost Lake. Having been told by the ranger that a moose may be in close proximity, we were both on high alert for a possible sighting. Although unsuccessful, we still admired the tranquility of the lake and how secluded we felt from everyone even though we were not far from the busy roads. We made it back to the car just before the clouds broke, letting way to a cold rain that lasted most of the night.
A close encounter with some deer
The meadow at the Lost Lake
Cooke City Supply Run…
With a quick “five minutes” (short nap) under our belts, our mission was to drive to Cooke City to pick up some groceries and a pair of binoculars, since we had been easily convinced of their usefulness. The route brought us through Lamar Valley and out the northeast entrance of the park. Along the way, we observed a pronghorn antelope and her fawn, a bald eagle up in a tree, and numerous bison. Turns out that Cooke City is not really a city at all, but is, in reality, a single road with gift shops and small restaurants scattered along both sides. Needless to say, there was not a grocery store where we could pick up any of the food we had originally intended on getting. With the weather even more miserable than earlier in the day, our plans just weren’t doable anymore. Not expecting to find an authentic Asian food stand in the middle of this small mountain town in Montana, it was not a hard decision as to what we’d eat instead. We’d both been craving this type of food for awhile, and it definitely hit the spot. If any of you ever find yourself in Cooke City, Montana be sure to stop and grab a bite to eat at MontAsia because you will not regret it. Our trip to this town was far from what we thought it would be, but it was certainly a success. With a new pair of binoculars in tow and cravings fulfilled, we drove back to our campsite to get as much sleep as we could before our earliest wake-up call yet, 4:30 AM.
Wildlife Watching in Lamar Valley…
We managed to wake ourselves up and leave the campground before 5 AM despite the freezing temperatures and darkness. Shortly after we pulled onto the main road, a deer and its fawn crossed right in front of us creating a significant spike in motivation. By the time we reached Slough Creek, one area that is frequented by the Lamar Canyon Wolfpack, some daylight had emerged. We waited and scoped out the surroundings, but realized that we may have been a little too early. Besides sighting a wolf, our other main objective was to see a moose. The previous day, the ranger had told us to look for moose near the Northeast Entrance, so we made an effort to drive that direction. After creeping along (20 MPH) for about 20 minutes, Amanda happened to spot something moving in the trees next to the river. We threw the car in reverse and stopped right next to a female moose with her calf. They did not seem to be bothered by us too much as the river acted as a natural barrier. We were also the first to spot them, which was a proud accomplishment for us wildlife rookies. Once the two were out of sight, we decided to turn around and head for Slough Creek for a second look.
A mother moose and her calf near the Northeast Entrance
The moment we arrived back at Slough Creek, a big crowd was lined up with their huge scopes. This meant something of interest was nearby. In order to find out what all the excitement was about, we asked an older couple and learned that one of the pack’s wolves was laying somewhere up in grassy hills. Since our binoculars proved to be insufficient for getting a glimpse, we were grateful when we were offered to take a peak through one of the high-end scopes. While we waited for the wolf’s next move, we learned a lot about some of the people and their dedication to Yellowstone’s wildlife. Many of them return year after year and are rewarded with witnessing nature in its purest form (stuff you would see on National Geographic). We cannot say that we got to see the wolf in full action, but at least we saw him pop his head up several times. Although nearly all attention was focused on the wolf, an older man took the time to point out the other wildlife in the valley. These included a golden eagle, a beaver dam, and two male bison fighting. At around 9:00 AM we had to conclude our wildlife adventure to pack up our campsite for our last relocation within the Park.
The three bears…
Back at the Tower Falls campground, we hurried to pack up and make breakfast in order to make check-out at 11 AM. Our path took us south on the loop back toward Canyon. We were informed by our camp neighbor, another annual Yellowstone visitor, that there is always a bear along the route. Just as he had promised, we spotted a small crowd on the left side of the road and pulled over to take a look for ourselves. In the trees, we were directed to a large black bear sow and her two cubs. While the mother grazed unimpressed by the growing crowd, the two siblings played by fighting and chasing each other up and down the trees. It was a very entertaining and adorable moment to witness. We made sure to watch the three as long as possible before getting back into the car and drive. To learn a little bit more about the volcano at Yellowstone, we took the time to stop at the Canyon Village Visitor Center and visit the exhibits. These exhibits are an awesome source of information throughout all of the National Parks. With some new knowledge gathered, we had one more item on the agenda to take care of; eating our daily huckleberry ice-cream sandwiches. Feeling delighted with the way our day had been going, we continued to drive to our campsite at Bridge Bay near Yellowstone Lake.
Our last night…
We checked in at Bridge Bay campground and ate a late lunch before going back out in search of some more wildlife. After we took a short stroll near the massive Yellowstone Lake, we patrolled the nearby Hayden Valley one last time. Without any significant sightings, we headed back for an early night’s sleep. Just when we least expected it, we spotted a male elk grazing on the side of the road. During our stay at Yellowstone, we saw many elks, yet this was only our second male elk sighting. We can truly say that we had nearly maxed out with the amount of wildlife one can handle in a day. More than satisfied, we ate dinner and went to bed.
Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic…
Our final stops at Yellowstone National Park were Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. Since the Park opened, Old Faithful has shown a fairly consistent schedule of eruptions, which regarding its size is truly spectacular. The geyser erupts every 35 to 120 minutes and shoots a fountain of water into the sky that averages 90 to 184 feet (27-56 m) in height. We arrived at the Old Faithful Visitor Center and checked the next predictions for eruption (which can vary by 10 minutes either way). With a good spot to view the action, we waited patiently for Old Faithful. Just five minutes prior to the predicted time, the eruptions started and lasted about 4 minutes. It was fascinating.
To get a glimpse at the largest thermal feature of the Park, we drove about 8 miles to the basin of Grand Prismatic Spring. Before arriving at the main attraction, we passed a series of smaller thermal pools that already left us in awe. The grand finale of our stay at Yellowstone had us standing in front of the world’s third-largest spring. To put it into better perspective, Grand Prismatic is bigger than a football field and holds hot water to a depth of 121 feet (40m). The highlight of the spring was definitely the rainbow-like colors that stem from different species of thermophile bacteria. It is safe to say that Grand Prismatic Spring was a fitting ending to an amazing stay at Yellowstone National Park.
Basin of Prismatic Spring
Volcanic ground at Grand Prismatic
Both of us were blown away by Yellowstone’s variety of landscape and wildlife. The volcanism that is responsible for many of the unique features around the Park has created an aura that makes it easy to explain why it was designated as the country’s first national park. Next, we will make the short drive to the neighboring Grand Teton National Park and spend a good portion of a day there.
Amanda & Janek