[This is the second of three posts describing a brief road trip during July of 2016.]
With our Glacier 14 Year Reunion Trip behind us, Judy, Courtney and Sally flew out of Missoula very early in the morning. I returned to the motel, had some breakfast, wrote some post cards to kids/grand-kids, and headed back to the airport to pick up my old buddy Jack M. Jack was flying in from Tucson, to join me for about a week; and we were heading to Yellowstone NP.
It was just after noon, and I had to show Jack one of my favorite places in Missoula- especially when we’re near the airport, which is almost co-located with Big Sky Brewing Co. One of my favorite craft brews is Big Sky’s Scape Goat Pale Ale, named (possibly) after the Scape Goat Wilderness (part of the Bob Marshal Wilderness) about 100 mi. NE of Missoula. Who couldn’t love a beer named (possibly) after one of the best wilderness areas in the lower-48? Highly recommended!
After a brief visit to Big Sky, we were on the road again, headed for Butte and Bozeman, then S on Hwy 89 to Gardiner, MT and the NW entrance to Yellowstone NP. It seemed like a long drive, and we were anxious to get there before dark. We entered the Park with a couple hours of sunlight yet available, but we still had a long way to drive. I’d never entered Yellowstone from this side of the Park and I’d never visited the NW section of the Park, home to Mammoth Hot Springs, so it was all new to me.
Yellowstone NP was established in 1872 as the nations first National Park, and it encompasses over 2.2 million acres. The National Park Service was created 44 years later -on August 25th, 1916 -by President Woodrow Wilson to protect about three dozen national parks and monuments. This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service, and there is plenty of memorabilia available to help you celebrate.
American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio, is working with the National Park Service (NPS) to help celebrate their 100th Anniversary throughout the year. Hams from across the country will activate NPS units, promote the National Park Service and showcase Amateur Radio to the public. Watch for the Ham operators in any Parks you visit. If you’re a Ham, get out and activate a Park near you.
Elevations in Yellowstone range from about 7,500 ft. to 11,000 ft. Yellowstone Lake is North America’s largest lake above 7,000 ft. Grey wolves were successfully reintroduced in the Park in the earl 1990’s, and there is an abundance of mountain lions, back bears and Grizzly bears, elk, bison, deer and antelope to name but a few of the animals living there.
We had a nice cabin near Lake Lodge on the north end of Yellowstone Lake. The historic Lake Hotel was within a mile of us. We ate most meals in the Lake Lodge Cafeteria where food choice and quality was good with very reasonable prices.
We went to Lake Hotel one night for dinner and found it to be excellent. Jack and I both had the Bison Tenderloin and we agreed it was the best tenderloin we’d ever eaten- and believe me, that is an award to hang on the wall, under a spot-light! We may have been the only folks wearing dusty trail boots in the dining room, and I didn’t see any back packs laying around the front desk or in the bar, but I liked the place. Lake Hotel is a first class operation in every way.
When driving around Yellowstone Lake in the Central Plateau area along the Loop Roads, you’re likely to see wildlife throughout the day- especially in early morning and evening hours. It can be a challenge driving in those low-light conditions however, and there are often animals on or near the roadway at those times, so use caution.
During the day, traffic can get hectic and don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the middle of a traffic jam, surrounded by a heard of bison. Or vehicles might be backed up so folks can get a picture of that mama Grizzly with her cubs. It can get frustrating! If you don’t like traffic, come in the shoulder months- you might enjoy the cooler weather, rain and/or snow.
The bison seem to be everywhere; along side the road, on the road, and off in the distance. Large herds will migrate through the park on a seasonal basis, and probably the only thing that will stop them is a large fire. They will cross rivers and roadways, and developed areas can be infiltrated with them as they pass through. It is their home and they know it!
These bison were scattered among the cabins in 2010. We walked by them on the way to the Lodge, wondering if management knew these guys were scattered throughout the cabin area, often only twenty feet from the people walking by. Perhaps the bison were wondering what all the people were doing getting so close… crowding them. But then, perhaps such thoughts don’t even enter their mind. I guess it comes down to how a perceived threat is processed– by them or by us!
Bottom line– Don’t mess with the bison, or the elk, or the bears. Keep your distance. They can move faster than you and they are very dangerous. Give them their space. Don’t feed the animals. Yes, you’ve heard it all before. But every year stupid people do stupid things in our National Parks, and sometimes they are hurt or even killed.
In 2010 I visited Yellowstone and hiked the Dogshead Trail just N of Lewis Lake. Much of the area had been burned, possibly by two fires, over several previous years. On this trip, Jack and I re-hiked the Dogshead Trail to see how the forest had recovered. It’s amazing how nature repairs and replenishes itself.
Much of the forest had consisted of lodgepole pine. Some species of lodgepole pine (pinus contorta) are fire-dependent and require wildfires to open their cones and release their seeds, thus helping them maintain healthy populations of varying aged trees in the forest. These lodgepole forests are usually densely populated, and tend to self-thin themselves resulting in many dead trees standing in the dense forest. The species is also susceptible to a fungus spread by pine beetles. Thus, these forests can often be a tinder-box waiting for a spark. The species is named for it’s common use as structural poles for Native American tipi shelters.
There were large wildfires at Yellowstone in 1988, and smaller wildfires every few years scattered throughout the Park. The lodgepoles are usually scattered throughout the forest, and play a role in most of the wildfires. Below are several pictures of the forest in 2010, contrasted with the same or similar areas in 2016.
We visited the Canyon Village area and had lunch, then visited the Falls area. The Upper Falls are 109 ft. high. The Lower Falls are 308 ft. high. This was one of the more crowded areas of the Park, another being the Old Faithful Lodge and Geyser to the SW.
We decided to get an early start next morning to try and get some wildlife pictures. Our main destination was the Lamar Valley in the northwest portion of the Park. I’d always wanted to visit the area which is home to the numerous re-introduced wolf packs in the Park.
The area is very remote, and mostly accessible only by trail. The Northeast Entrance Road connects the Loop Road with the Entrance from Hwy 212 near Silver Gate, MT. There are several dirt roads that can get you a mile or two off the blacktop, to the numerous trailheads which usually connect you with remote campsites, hopefully near a water source. Be sure you’ve got proper maps, a compass and water before you head out on any of these trails. A couple of well known trails are the Slough Creek and Pebble Creek trails and campsites. There have been serious Grizzly encounters at both areas in recent years. But you can disappear for days or weeks in the Lamar Valley. The Slough Creek Trail will even take you up into Montana. This is an area I’d like to backpack in the cooler late summer/fall season -lots of trail options!
We found some people with spotting scopes and long-distance cameras looking at a Grizzly and a wolf den where cubs had been spotted, but we didn’t have any optics to reach out at those distances. We did look around the Slough Creek area for awhile but didn’t spot any wildlife.
We enjoyed a big breakfast at the Irma Hotel (est. in 1902) in Cody, and proceeded directly to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center where we spent several hours touring the Whitney Gallery of Western Art and the Cody Firearms Museum, before continuing east to the Big Horns.
Part three of the 2016 Road Trip will cover our visit to the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area just east of Lovell, WY on Alt. 14. It’s the Grand Canyon of north-central Wyoming!
Then we travel east about twenty miles to Medicine Mountain, and visit a Native American holy spot, a place of ritual, a place of prayer, known as Medicine Wheel. Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain reflect thousands of years of Native American culture. Medicine Wheel is located at the top of the mountain -elevation 9,600 ft.
Lastly we continue east a short distance to camp and hike in the Big Horn Mountains.