Sunday, April 22, 2012

How I Spent My Spring--Travelogue: Part I Yellowstone

It has literally been decades since I saw Yellowstone with snow on the ground.  Normally, because of my busy schedule, I am only able to visit Yellowstone in mid to late summer.  Some friends of ours visited last year in early spring and told tales of snowdrifts ten feet tall.  I decided I wanted to see it that way and we have been eagerly awaiting when the park would finally open to wheeled vehicles.

Last Friday was opening day in Yellowstone.  Saturday we went.

Only a few roads were opened, West Yellowstone to Madison Junction, Madison Junction to Old Faithful, Madison Junction to Norris, Norris to Canyon, Norris to Mammoth, Mammoth to Cooke City.  This time of year, most of the back-country things are closed.  Bears are having babies so that's not a good place to be, plus the summer staff isn't yet in place to manage people on the trails, and there is still quite a bit of snow which makes alot of the trails impassable.  Along the main roads though, most of the boardwalks in the geyser basins are clear.  We decided we'd get the most bang for our buck if we went to Old Faithful.  It did not disappoint.

This time it was Chimene and I, our oldest son, Tyler and our two youngest boys, Rhys and Garrett.  Haydn had a service project and couldn't come.

On the way to Yellowstone, we passed through Island Park and saw a swan on Swan Lake.  It has been quite some time since I saw a swan on Swan Lake.  I remember when I was young, and we'd be driving back and forth to Yellowstone, Dad would always say that the number of swans on the lake corresponded directly to the millions we'd make at The Playmill Theatre.  I think Dad's figuring was always slightly off...

Swan Lake
On the Henrys Lake Flats, there is a stand of aspen that has a gravesite.  It's one of the landmarks that I used to look for when I was a kid and I've passed it on to my kids.  Whenever we take the trip to Yellowstone we make a game of looking for the landmarks.  This time we actually stopped and got out to look at it.  There is a simple wrought iron fence but no stone.  I had stopped decades before and there had been a stone but all the writing had weathered off.  I believe this to be a very old grave.  People still care for it, though because there were flowers on it and a teddy bear had been left.

The gravesite
When we got to Yellowstone, it became apparent that it would be an animal day.  Within the first seven miles we had already seen more Elk and Bison than we had seen on our last two trips in the park last summer.  We saw our first large mammal, an elk at the river road turnoff.  The river road is a small section of the old highway through the park that is flanked by the Madison River.  Dad always liked to take that road and so do I.  The elk still had it's heavy winter coat so it looked a little scruffy.  Just as we left, two other elk came into view.

Scruffy Elk
The animals we saw all seemed to be well fed.  The winter was relatively mild this year and I think the animals benefitted greatly.  It's not uncommon after a hard winter to see the animals' ribs through their coats.

As we approached 7 Mile Bridge, a small herd of bison sauntered down the road, oblivious to the twenty or thirty cars that were stuck behind them.  They were in no hurry to get to where they were going.  I think they are magnificent animals and I enjoyed seeing them pass so close to our vehicle.  One of them was close enough that I could have touched him.  I didn't because my Dad did that once and the bison kicked his car.

Bison on the roadway
Garrett started counting the number of animals we saw and about halfway through the trip he abandoned his count.  It was a good animal day.

We also saw Canada Geese and Ravens.

Canada Geese
For the last several years we have focused on cold water in Yellowstone, and have been on a quest to see as many of the waterfalls in the Park as we can.  We've been doing pretty good.  Most of them, however are in the backcountry, on trails that aren't open just yet so we decided to hit some hot water things this time.  I'm glad we did.  It was nice to see some of the geyser basins without so many people there.  It made for a very relaxing time.  First we stopped at Fountain Paint Pots and then we went to Midway Geyser Basin.

Elk tracks in bacterial mat at Fountain Paint Pots
Beautiful blue pool at Fountain Paint Pots
Mudpots at Fountain Paint Pots
Spasm Geyser at Fountain Paint Pots
A view from the bridge at Midway Geyser Basin of the old swimming hole
I used to skinnydip here when I was a kid.  It was legal then, but too many people left debris on the cliff face, like beer bottles and cans, bras and panties.  The rangers made it illegal.  I asked one of them once why and he said he got tired of cleaning it up every day.  Too bad because it was a really cool place to swim.  It was much like the Boiling River at Mammoth, alternating cold and hot water.

After Midway, we drove into Old Faithful.  There was quite a bit of snow on the ground there.  The geyser wasn't set to go off for about forty minutes, so we decided to climb up to the observation point to watch the eruption from there.  I hadn't seen it from there in about thirty years so I was kind of excited to do it again.  The view was spectacular.  It's not a tough climb.  There's around 200 feet in elevation gain over half a mile.  Afterwards we poked around the Upper Geyser Basin for a little while, then headed for home.

Snow at Old Faithful
Rhys and Garrett on the snow at Old Faithful
Random trail sculpture
Chimene and Tyler on the trail
Rhys and Garrett on the trail
The eruption from the observation point
Us at the observation point
Finally, one of the coolest things I saw on the whole trip were black bear paw prints in the bacterial mat at the Upper Geyser Basin.

Bear tracks in the bacterial mat
This was a nice day.