Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How I Spent My Summer, 2012 Part IV: Travelogue: Yellowstone Canyon

Lower Fall of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

I grew up with Yellowstone National Park literally in my backyard.  When I was young, though we mostly went into Old Faithful and then returned home because of the family business.  When I was about fourteen I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with Dad and my brothers to fish.  I did that two summers in a row.  The joke was that it took fifteen minutes to get down to the bottom of the canyon and two hours to climb out.  It wasn't a joke.  Other than that, I had been to Artist's Point and a few of the other scenic overlooks over the years, but I had never really experienced Canyon.  I found out for the first time last summer that Canyon is Chimene's favorite part of the park so I determined that we would do Canyon right this summer.

My oldest sister, Cynthia and her husband Byron and son Chad were in town last week and wanted to have a picnic in Yellowstone with as many family members as possible.  Since I was out of school, it was possible for us to attend.  We decided to meet at noon on Tuesday at the Wapiti Picnic Area on the south rim of the canyon.  My Mother was there as well as my sister Paula and her husband, Ferron and two of their daughters, Emily and Shelley.  I brought Chimene and two of my sons, Haydn and Garrett.

We met for the picnic and enjoyed one anothers' company for an hour or so and then we went our seperate ways.  Mom and Cynthia had tickets for The Playmill and were headed that direction, Paula and her clan were headed to Cody, Wyoming for a vacation.  That left us to explore Canyon.

Picnic in the park

I bought a book last year called "Day Hikes in Yellowstone National Park--82 Great Hikes" by Robert Stone.  We consulted the book and found that the Crystal Lake hike had it's trailhead at the Wapiti Picnic Area.  It was a loop hike that started and ended at the picnic area.  I like loop hikes better than there and back hikes because I always want to see something new.  The Clear Lake Trail seemed like the right thing to do.  Last season, a man was killed by a grizzly bear on that trail, so naturally we had to take it.  The trailguide called it a moderate hike, nearly level.  It started out in a sub-alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and snaked it's way toward the forest for almost a mile before we ended up in the trees.  Throughout the meadow we saw numerous buffalo wallows, where bison paw and scratch at the dirt and roll around supposedly to keep biting insects away.

Chimene, Haydn and Garrett on the trail

I was there too

Sub-alpine meadow covered in wildflowers

Wildflower covered hillside

Beautiful view

One of many buffalow wallows

The trail entered the forest and we came almost immediately upon a thermal feature called Clear Lake.  There was no inlet and no outlet and we could see a steady stream of gas bubbles out in the middle of the lake.  The water was cool to the touch, though so it wasn't a particularly hot lake. 

We followed the trail past Clear lake and entered into a barren, almost alien looking landscape where thermal activity had once flourished.  There were remains of exploded geysers and the rubble that ejected from them littered about the ground.  There were also a few active mudpots, but nothing so impressive as Fountain Paint Pots or some of the others.

After we passed through the alien landscape we came to another thermal lake covered in lily pads and aptly named "Lilypad Lake".  It was a pretty little lake out in the middle of the forest with a marshy area at one end and a floating bridge spanning it.  After that the trail wound through the forest past interesting rock formations.

Clear Lake

Barren landscape

Lichen covered boulders ejected from an exploding geyser

Lilypad Lake

Floating bridge over the marsh

The boys in front of a rock

After Lilypad Lake, the trail wound through the forest for a quarter mile or so and suddenly burst out onto the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Up until this moment, I had kind of considered the hike to be a bit of a letdown.  The scenery was pretty, but not outstanding.  Chimene and I both commented that we were glad we chose to hike the direction we went instead of going in reverse because it would have been anticlimactic otherwise.

The view of the canyon was breathtaking and astonishing.  Words and pictures don't do it justice, they just whet the appetite for future travels to the canyon.  From the rim to the bottom of the canyon is about 1000 feet.  The Yellowstone River is a mighty stream that has carved this canyon and continues to carve it.  The rocks on the walls of the canyon are colorful but the predominant color is yellow, which is where the park got it's name.  There is a high sulphur content in the rock because of all the thermal activity and vulcanism of the region.  All along the canyon walls were remnants of harder rock eroded into spires and minarets.

We followed the trail along the canyon rim and emerged at Artist Point for a wonderful view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.  That is the iconic view of the falls and one of the signature images of Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Yellowstone River

Where the park got it's name

A colorful canvas of rock

Rocky outcroppings all along the canyon wall

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River from Artist Point

A random tourist snapped this for us

After we had enjoyed the view from Artist Point, we made our way along the south rim toward the Wapiti Picnic Area.  The trail passed by the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River as well.  The scenery was spectacular all along the trail.  The beginning of the trail was okay, and I'm glad we took it but once we arrived at the canyon it was fantastic.

First view of the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River

Lush undergrowth along the trail

Moss on the rocks near the brink of the upper falls

The old road, now a walking path

When we arrived back at the car, Chimene said she wanted to go to Inspiration Point on the North Rim.  I mentioned that it would be sad to come all this way and not see Crystal Falls which was at the Brink of the Upper Falls pullout just across the river from where we were.  We walked down to the brink of the Upper Falls, then did a short hike to Crystal Falls, then we drove to Inspiration Point.  On the way we spotted a large bull elk in a meadow along side the road.

Bull Elk

Wildflowers that found purchase in the rocks at the brink of Upper Falls

Crystal Falls

The south rim from Inspiration Point.  We hiked all along that, right on the edge

On the way home, we decided to take a scenic drive along the Virginia Cascades Loop Road.  It had been years since we had seen the Virginia Cascades and we wanted to photograph them.  It's a two or three mile one way road past the cascades and opens up in a beautiful meadow where moose ought to roam.  We didn't see any of them this trip, but I'm still holding out hope that we will this summer.

The Virginia Cascades

The meadow

The sun setting over the Madison Plateau

In total, we hiked around 7 miles in the canyon area.  It was a pleasant hike that I would not be opposed to doing again.  We had a wonderful time with our family.  It was a good day.

Monday, July 30, 2012

How I Spent My Summer, 2012 Part III--Travelogue: Lower Mesa Falls

Brink of the falls, Lower Mesa Falls

On June 16th, 2012, Chimene and I went to a retirement party for one of my colleagues up in West Yellowstone, Montana.  We decided to leave early and take the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.  We had been to Mesa Falls many times, but this time we noticed a trail to the brink of Lower Mesa Falls.  In some of the travel literature we have, I saw a close up picture of the Lower Falls and we decided we had to hike it.  I couldn't find much literature on hiking trails in the area, but I did find a link that talked about scrambling down the talus slope to the river and a great view of the falls.  That's the route I decided to take.

Talus Slope at Lower Mesa Falls

Our party included Chimene (my wife), my sons Haydn and Garrett and me.  On the way, we stopped at one of the scenic overlooks to view the Teton range.  At many places in the snake river plain the Teton mountains are visible.  This is a beautiful spot to see them from.  While we were there, we came across several different species of wildflowers, some of which we had never seen before.

The Teton Range from the scenic overlook

Wild Sweet Pea


Possibly Payette Beardtongue

When we got to the Lower Falls, Chimene discovered that she had not brought along her hiking shoes and only had sandals.  So the overlook for Lower Mesa Falls was as far as she went.  The rest of the time she spent reading in the car while Haydn, Garrett and I scrambled down the scree slope.

Chimene's only pic of the day

The hike consisted of a scramble down about 500 feet of boulders with a few stands of trees in the middle.  It was tough going.  Some of the boulders weighed in excess of a ton.  The pitch was up to 60 degrees in some places but settled to around 45 degrees in others.  By the time we got to the bottom, I decided I was going to find a different way up.  All the way down and back up, Garrett and I feasted upon wild raspberries that we found in the canyon.  They tasted like raspberries, but were slightly more tart than the domesticated ones.

Haydn and Garrett on the scree to show scale.  Note the pitch at around 40 degrees

Looking up the scree pile.  Daunting

Life will always find a way

A grove of trees in the middle of the scree pile

Wild raspberries

After we exited from the small grove, we came upon our first view of the Lower Mesa Falls.  It was magnificent.  There is a basalt tower that is a remnant of an earlier falls at the location.  The falls are steadily moving upstream.  We saw evidence of at least two other falls systems while we were on the trail. 

Haydn and Garrett wanted to go all the way to the river's edge and I felt it would be more practical to skirt alongside the talus at the level of the falls until we got to the brink.  They visited the river and I cut a trail to the falls through the boulders.  We met up about a hundred yards from the falls where we picked up a real trail.  When we got to the falls, they did not disappoint.  The Upper Falls is wide and a single sheer drop and is impressive in it's own way.  The lower falls, however is a tiered waterfall that shoots through a narrow canyon over three distinct levels.  The Lower Falls drops about 65 feet in total.  The trail went right to the brink of the falls.  It was magnificent and the sheer power of it was incredible.

Our first view of the falls after exiting the grove.  Note the sun shining through the mist from the falls

Haydn and Garrett at the river

Another view of the falls with the basalt tower visible

The basalt tower from the trail

The falls from the trail

The first tier of the falls

A deep hole I would not want to kayak through

Pretty little grotto on the side of the falls

Possibly my favorite picture of the day.  Complimentary colors of yellow and purple with Goldenrod and Fireweed at the edge of the waterfall

None of us wanted to climb out the way we had come down the canyon so I opted for another trail.  We skirted along the columnar jointed basalt until we found a notch we could climb up the cliff.  There was a plateau there that gave another view of the falls but more interestingly it showed at least two previos extint channels the falls used to follow.  I found a jeep/horse trail that gave access to a few backcountry camping spots and we followed it for awhile.  It became clear to me that it exited at the Upper Falls campground which was a mile away from where we wanted to be.  What I learned though was it is an easier trail than the one we went down and the one we went up.

We backtracked and cut across the plateau to a much gentler incline up the scree pile than the one we came down and made our way up to the top.  We emerged right in front of our car in the parking area.  This was a rigorous hike across the boulder field, and one that I'd like to do again, but when I'm in a little better shape.  The boys liked it and we had a fun time together.  This was well worth it.  I recommend this hike.

The boys climbing out

The falls from the plateau, also showing the ancient course of the river and waterfall

The river valley from the plateau on the way out of the canyon