Yellowstone National Park…..truly a natural wonder

September 13th, 2011

Idaho to Montana

After an early morning flight from Seattle I touched down on time in Boise, Idaho. At the airport were lined up a number of Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft of the Idaho Air National Guard, and when I was picking up my hire car a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet was landing (no idea why as Idaho is a long way off from the coast for a Navy or Marines Hornet? Might have been from Canada?). I then literally drove across the state of Idaho for 6 hours until I reached West Yellowstone, Montana.

The first 3 hours were spent driving mainly through the vast dry grassland prairies with constant views of mountains in the distance. After a stop in a place called Burley I went on past Pocatello, then started to head towards Idaho Falls  where the countryside started to become more farming land (Idaho is famous for growing potatoes even the car number plates say so!). Interestingly I drove for about 5 hours before I saw any forest (the prairies and mountains virtually had no trees, the only places were in towns or near farmhouses where you might see a few. There were plenty of power generating wind farms though). The Targhee National Forest close to the border of Montana finally provided some greenery!

West Yellowstone, Montana is a nice little tourist town that has been made to look like the frontier town it probably once was (it is not over the top). There are  lots of gift shops, a cinema and IMAX, a history museum, cafes and restaurants to cater for all the tourists (at the moment there seems to be a lot of old people from all over, French and Asians visiting). I had a nice bowl of chili and some cherry pie for dinner.

West Yellowstone Montana
West Yellowstone

I visited the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Centre in town.  It was cool to see the wolves up close – they were feeding and later started howling together. Such a great noise! Whilst watching some of their Grizzly bears feeding, one didn’t like the other getting too close and let out a huge roar! The wolves were all bred in captivity, but the bears were all from the wild, unfortunately they had all started to live off rubbish etc around towns and became a problem. Rather than seeing them be destroyed, the discovery centre took them into their care.

West Yellowstone Montana Grizzly bear
Never mess with a Grizzly!

Both the bears and wolves have numerous large living areas within the centre with ponds, logs, rocks, grassland and trees. Although not ideal they appear very well looked after and content, and the centre provides a valuable education resource on these incredible creatures. The entry ticket is good for 2 days, so I returned the next evening to see some of the other bears (they rotate them through the main open area every 45 minutes, so all get some exercise and interaction on a regular basis).

West Yellowstone Montana Wolf
Leader of the pack

There are also a number of Grizzly bear statues around town and interestingly a large number of Bison statues that are brightly painted with all different types of murals on them (like the cows back in Victoria, Australia).  Just across the border in Wyoming is Yellowstone National Park, my destination for 4 days.

West Yellowstone Montana Painted Buffalo
Painted Buffalo

September 14th – 17th, 2011

Wyoming and the Park!

Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and declared America’s first national park by President Ulysses S. Grant (the famous Union Army General during the American Civil War 1861-1865). The park was named after the Yellowstone River which is the main river that runs through that area. The park is predominately in Wyoming but parts also cross over into Idaho and Montana, it covers a massive area of over 2.2 million acres and each section encompasses very different environments to explore!

On the western side is the Madison River valley (a good place to see Elk and Bison), and also running north to south on the western side are many geysers and thermal pools and springs with steam pouring out and boiling water and mud (these areas are known as Mammoth, Norris, Madison, Old Faithful and West Thumb). Signs abound “do not walk off marked path” – simply because you could fall through the earth into a pool of boiling water and be scalded to death (and it has happened here)! Yellowstone is basically sitting on top of a super volcano (one of the largest in the world) and has the most geysers of any part of the world (yes even more than New Zealand and Iceland)!

Madison River Yellowstone
Madison River

To the north and north east is the Tower-Roosevelt section with mountains, valleys and waterfalls (a good place to see Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Pronghorn and Bison). The Mammoth Hot Springs area is in the far north section.

In the east is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (including great waterfalls and valleys which are also a great place to see Wolf, Grizzly Bear and Bison) and in the south east is the massive Lake Yellowstone. Mountains and evergreen forest, and big plains abound across the park and you never know what animals you might see out there amongst all the wonderful scenery.

Grand Canyon Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Over 4 days I travelled to all of these places, some numerous times, especially the Madison, Norris, Canyon and Tower-Roosevelt areas which tended to have the most areas to spot wildlife. Each day I spent approximately 12 hours in the park, arriving early in the morning, often in the dark and leaving just before sunset. From the west to the east of the park was at least a 2 hour drive, so some days long distances needed to be covered to see the good stuff!

Pronghorn Yellowstone National Park
Pronghorn on Blacktail Plateau (Tower – Roosevelt)

The animals I particularly wanted to see were Wolf, Bear (Grizzly and Black Bear) and Moose. The most likely time to see these animals is early morning or late afternoon/early evening, but I met a number of people who saw Grizzlies mid afternoon, and I saw a Black Bear from a distance on the side of a mountain in the Canyon section of the park at about 3pm on one of the days. A lot of the time it requires patience and some luck to spot certain animals, especially the apex predators.

One tell-tale sign that something interesting to see is about is to look for large groups of cars and people on the side of the road. I thought the park would be quite at this time of year, but there are plenty of tourists still about, and a significant number of fly fisherman in the rivers (obviously not too worried about bears…even though 2 hikers have been killed by Grizzly Bears here this summer!).

Elk and Bison

Each day in the western section (where I would enter the park from Montana) along the Madison River I saw a lot of Elk (Fall/Autumn is rutting season so the bull Elks were keeping a close eye on their herds and bugling to attract attention from the ladies from time to time) and I also saw Bison (usually individuals or in pairs, at times very close, one was walking beside my car on the road, another right and I mean right behind me when I got out of the car to take a look at the river!). I also saw a Bald Eagle flying low above the river on the first day, but never saw one again (I did see  a number of Osprey at times all over the park).

Madison River Elk Yellowstone
Madison River Elk
Elk Yellowstone
Madison River Elk

On one day I got a bit carried away with things, and ended up way too close to a massive bull Elk, the antlers on this big fella were huge and so was he! He was in amongst a clump of trees and I got down there to get a close up photo, not recommended during rutting season as they can be quite aggressive, but he was laying down and very peaceful and was not going to hurt me. Unfortunately the Park Ranger that suddenly appeared did not agree with me and sternly asked me to get away (no closer than 25 yards)! Technically what I had done was illegal, but he just warned me away ( some nice photos though)!

Bull Elk Yellowstone National Park
Bull Elk up nice and close!

Geyser Country

I visited the geyser basins on 2 separate days (first and last). The associate thermal pools came in such an amazing array of colours from clear water to azure blue, green, brown or milky white and could be surrounded by earth coloured brown, white, black, pink or orange depending on the nature of the area they were in.

Biscuit Basin Thermal Pool Yellowstone

Norris which has a large geyser area at the Artist PaintpotsNorris Geyser Basin and Roaring Mountain was the first main geyser area I explored in the park. Apart from the smell of sulphur it was kind of nice walking around these areas in amongst all the steam etc, as the water was so hot it kept you warm from the cold morning air (although later in the day it was quite noticeable that my clothes reeked of sulphur)!

Yellowstone Fountain Paint Pot Thermal Geyser
Fountain Paint Pot

Further north is the historic Mammoth area,which has these amazing hot spring up high, where the soil has formed into thermal terraces and created amazing shapes and colours (white, brown, pink and orange). Quite impressive. Below this area is a major tourist area called Mammoth Hot Springs that has a ranger station, shops, restaurants, a hotel etc, and is also where the Historic Fort Yellowstone once operated (many buildings still exist). The US Army Cavalry were responsible for protecting and maintaining the park in its early days until 1916 when the National Parks Service was established.

Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone
Mammoth Hot Springs

The most famous geyser is of course Old Faithful which is in the Upper Geyser Basin (which is actually in the south western section of the park). Old Faithful shoots water and steam high into the air every 1.5 to 2 hours, and attracts crowds of hundreds of people around it when it does. The spray of water lasts about 5 minutes.

Old Faithful Geyser Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful

Old Faithful can be watched from the boardwalk around the geyser or from the balcony of the Old Faithful Inn which was built in 1903 entirely of wood (during winter!). The old inn a very impressive place, especially from inside the main foyer that has a cavernous open area, with multiple wooden floored platforms, exposed wooden poles and beams all the way to the very high roof (which has a very high platform where a band once played music from).

Yellowstone Old Faithfull Inn Lodge
Old Faithful Inn
Interior old faithful inn lodge Yellowstone
Inside the Old Faithful Inn

There are many other geysers from the very small to the large around Old Faithful in the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins. In winter apparently snow is all about the park (it gets to -40 celsius) but so much heat is thrown out from the thermal water that the snow melts in their immediate area of the springs and pools, but the paths right near them can be completely snowed under!

Wolves and Bears where are you?

In the Tower -Roosevelt area is the Lamar Valley, the famed spot in the park to see Wolf and Grizzly Bear…on the first day there after many hours of exploring all I saw were numerous big herds of Bison (one interestingly had a lone Pronghorn charging madly through them).  Apparently about 1 hour after I left this area on the first day a Grizzly Bear was spotted there eating a bison carcass…luck of the draw when dealing with wild animals, you just never know when you are going to see them. It wasn’t a complete loss for the predator side of things, on the way back towards West Yellowstone, near the Canyon area of the park I saw a Black Bear up on a mountain side which was pretty cool.

Bison herd Yellowstone Lamar Valley
Bison – Lamar Valley

Seeing Bison all day stuck in my mind…that evening back in West Yellowstone I had a bison burger for dinner. A 1/3 pound “Tatonka Burger“. Bison is good eating – very tasty!

Yellowstone Bison
Bison enjoying the sun

Wolf Pack!

I left West Yellowstone at 5.30am on my second day to drive 2 hours in the dark almost entirely through fog, across Yellowstone National Park  to get to the Lamar Valley and more specifically Druids Peak. This was the area where wolf were infamously reintroduced back into the park in 1995 after being wiped out many years before (the last wolf killed there was in 1926). Many people were unhappy about this for various reasons, but the wolves were reintroduced from ones captured in Canada and they have been a success story in bringing the species back from virtual extinction in the United States. From that original pack there are at least 11 packs and some lone wolves now within the park (around 100 wolves with an average of 8 per pack), and they have not decimated the parks wildlife or left the park to roam farmland as once feared, instead they have restored an order of balance in the food chain that always existed before man intervened!

Wolf Pack West Yellowstone Montana
I wish I had been this close in the wild!

Anyway, I was rewarded for this effort when 5 wolves appeared from the fog (3 black, 2 grey). They were a fair way from where I was standing, but a fellow wildlife watcher lent me his scope to view more closely. It was fantastic to see these magnificent creatures playing together. Well worth the drive (I was worried about hitting some large animal in the dark on the way, but all I saw near the road were 2 Elk and 3 Bison). The next day in an area known as the Hayden Valley I saw a lone black Wolf, again from a long distance but you could clearly see what it was up to which was great (running around the plains near the edge of the forest).

Bison Traffic Jam!

Hayden Valley in the east of the park is very similar to the Lamar Valley and I saw many herds of Bison in this area. In one comical moment I found myself stuck in a Bison caused traffic jam. One bull Bison decided he was going to walk down my side of the road and was not going to get off onto the grass, so I led a parade of cars on a very slow journey behind this Bison! There was no chance to overtake as all the rubber necker drivers coming the opposite way blocked the road and you do not mess with an angry Bison! Every 5 minutes it would stop and look back with a very annoyed look, then move on. After 15 minutes of this slow travel he decided to get off the road and eat some grass and we could all move on!

bison traffic jam Yellowstone
Bison traffic jam!
Ground Squirrel Yellowstone
Ground Squirrel

Just north of the Hayden Valley is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. An impressive sight with many colours of stone and dirt forming the walls of the deep canyon (brown, white, pink). From both the north and south rims of the canyon you have spectacular views of the fast moving river below and the Upper and Lower waterfalls. This is a very popular area and can get pretty crowded.

At the nearby Canyon Village I had a rather amusing lunch, accompanied by a little Ground squirrel watching me constantly in the hope of some food. It would scurry up to me, right near my foot, looking up whilst standing on its hind legs, almost like a begging dog. Alas his cuteness did not work on me (you should never feed park animals, no matter how cute they are)!

Buffalo Bill Country

William F Cody
“Buffalo Bill” Cody

My third day in the park was marred by on again off again rain showers (the day I saw the lone Wolf), so I decided to take about an hours drive from the parks east entrance further east to the town of Cody, Wyoming. Named after William F. Cody aka “Buffalo Bill” Cody (the famed buffalo hunter, army scout in the indian wars and later a wild west showman who became a folk hero of America) who once lived in the area.

In Cody is the large and  impressive Buffalo Bill Historic Center which celebrates the spirit of the American West (history on William F. Cody himself and the plains indians, the largest collection of American built firearms in the world – seriously this is a huge collection, western themed artwork and a great section on Yellowstone natural history – current and prehistoric), and although this was worth the drive in itself, just to get there was an impressive journey.

Buffalo Bill Historic Centre Cody Wyoming

Once you leave Yellowstone you are immediately in the Shoshone National Forest, then the Buffalo Bill State Park both of which run along the Shoshone River in a valley with impressive mountains and rock formations, then you reach the Buffalo Bill Dam and associated lake which has an interesting little museum and great views across the lake and into the canyon. The dam was started in 1904 and when completed in 1910 it was the tallest dam in the world (originally called Shoshone Dam the name was changed in 1946 to recognise the influence Buffalo Bill had on the dam being built there in the first place – he was involved in irrigation farming in the area). All in all a great day trip, which was finished off by returning to Yellowstone for more wildlife watching.

Buffalo Bill Dam Wyoming USA
Buffalo Bill Dam
Shoshone National Forest Wyoming
Shoshone National Forest

South to Grand Teton National Park

My last day in the park was a busy one in the geyser and lake section of the park, but ultimately I was heading south to Grand Teton National Park just south of Yellowstone (but still in Wyoming).  I didn’t get to see a Grizzly or Moose in my 4 days in Yellowstone, but the next park offered an opportunity to see both….for what happened down there you will have to wait for my next post! All in all Yellowstone National Park was a fantastic experience and one trip I had always wanted to take. I recommend you visit if you get a chance some day.

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