Yellowstone: Day Six – The Last Day

Day six… our last day here before leaving.

The day started out by resting.  Yesterday wore us (as my daughter would say) “smooth out”.  We took our time getting up and then roamed Gardiner to do the requisite t-shirt shopping!  Gotta get the kids and grandkids all taken care of.  I wasn’t going to get one, but then I saw one that said “The mountains are calling and I must go. – John Muir” and had to have it.  It expressed my feelings very well.

So, once we got that all taken care of, and then shipped the box of t-shirts home because our bags were already full, we headed back into the park for one final day.  We decided to give the Lamar Valley one final shot before calling it a day.

As usual, we entered the park and went to Mammoth, where the elk were lounging around being the center of attention.  I love how this one was lying right next to the sign saying “Danger! Do not approach ELK” as if to say, “I dare you.”  The people were being good though and kept the distance.  No “tourons” (tourist/moron) out today.

Turning east from Mammoth, it didn’t take long for us to find yet another bison herd.  They decided they needed to cross the street in front of us, and since in the national park the wildlife has the right of way, we stopped and waited for them to pass.  Besides, they really are beautiful creatures even if they are abundant here.

Further down the road, we caught a view of a couple of them who weren’t really getting along all that well at the moment.  They were kicking up dust and pushing each other around with their heads.  We watched for a while, but then they grew tired and just walked off together.  Maybe it was just an exhibition match for our enjoyment!

As we made it to the Lamar Valley, it became very overcast and rainy.  We stopped at the footbridge pullout to watch for wildlife, and I promptly fell asleep.  It was so peaceful, and with the sound of the light rain on the hood of the car, the next thing I knew I woke myself up snoring.  I turned to Karen and ask how long I had been out.  She said, “about 20 minutes.”  That was a very peaceful 20 minutes, let me tell you.

So not seeing any wildlife, we started up the car and began to make our way back.  We saw a few wolf-watchers sitting up on the hill near the confluence, but when we looked out over the valley we couldn’t see anything.  I later read that the pack was way out in the distance feeding on a recent kill, but they were way out beyond the reach of cameras.

Continuing back, I spotted this scene off in the distance and decided to pull over.  It reminded me of an old western painting of a frontier landscape with the bison crossing the river and the others up above the cliff.  Again, a very peaceful scene to add to the day.

If nothing else, this was certainly bison day.  As I approached a blind curve, a small gathering of bison decided they needed to go around the curve in my lane.  So, I let them.  They moved very slowly with me, and now 5 other vehicles behind, followed.  Once around the curve, they turned off on another road and allowed the rest of us to continue on.

I wanted to take one more pass over the Blacktail Plateau trail, hoping for one last glimpse of something exciting.  While there were no big mammals to be seen, I did catch a glimpse of this mountain bluebird.  He caught me by surprise so much that I didn’t really get a chance to focus on him before he flew off.  But one more bird to add to my list that I have seen.

Making it back to Mammoth, the elk are still the stars of the show.  You can expect to find them pretty much any time, and they are always happy to pose for your photographs.  Nothing like shooting wildlife “in town.”

And then, the saddest shot of all.  Our last sight of the “Leaving Yellowstone” sign.  It has been a wonderful trip and one we won’t soon forget.  Especially with the abundance of photos that we took.

God created some wonderful things for us to enjoy in this world and I can’t wait to see what He shows us next!   Until then, keep the batteries in those cameras charged.  You never know when a photographic opportunity will present itself to you!

Yellowstone: Day Three

Day three began much like the others, up early and try to catch the critters while they are yawning.  By this time, we’re starting to do a bit yawning ourselves.  But we get up, pushed forward by the excitement knowing we will see wonderful things today.

We enter the park, and as usual, we are greeted first thing with wildlife.  The silhouetted mule deer on the ridgeline, (one with a bird on its back) brings us into the right frame of mind for the rest of the day; peaceful and calm.  But then of course, pretty much any day this time of year in Yellowstone will bring you that feeling.

As we increase in altitude driving into the park, the temperature drops.  I think this was the coldest temperature we noticed on this trip.  19 degrees is quite chilly for this Texas boy, but it sure does feel invigorating!  I could learn to love this weather.

We decide to make our way to the Lamar Valley again today.  On our way we spot some bison, which, as you have noticed by now, is not uncommon here.  However, the contrast between the bison and the frost covered grass was not to be missed.  The entire place had a sense of “wonderland” to it with the animals, the cold air, and the frost.

After finding nothing but bison hanging out in Lamar this morning, we headed back to Mammoth and then down to the Hayden Valley.  Normally, this would be a short drive over the Dunraven Pass, but that road closed for the winter a few days before we got here, so we have to go all the way around the park.  Someday we’ll make it here when all the roads are opened at once!

Heading south from Mammoth, about a third of the way to the Norris Junction, I spotted this scene and had to pull over.  Something about blue rivers winding through evergreen trees just cries out to me for a photograph!

As we continue south, we begin to see more thermal features.  With a chill in the air, the steam rising from the warmer streams brings an air of mystique to the area.  We’ll see even more of the thermal features tomorrow.

Once in the Hayden Valley we see… more bison.  This seems to be bison day!  They are everywhere.  This herd was just hanging out near the river, grazing on the grasses and resting in the sun.

Continuing on through the valley, we head down to the Fishing Bridge area in hopes of spotting the reported grizzly sow and her cubs.  We drive, and look.  Look and drive.  No sow.  We do however, enjoy the beauty of the scenery and the mountains across the Yellowstone Lake.  Trivia points:  Yellowstone lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7000 feet  in North America and has an average depth of 139 feet.  In the winter the ice on the lake can get up to 3′ thick and stay frozen  from December to May or early June!

After no critter sightings in the Fishing Bridge/Yellowstone Lake area, we head back to the Hayden Valley.  On the way we decide to stop at the LeHardy Rapids, another spot where bear are known to be spotted.  Once again, no bear, but we did notice these little guys sitting on the rocks in the middle of the rapids.  There was a fish and game officer there and I asked him what they were.  He said that they were harlequin ducks.  He also said that he was worried about them because most of the others had already migrated away and wasn’t sure why these were still here.  Here’s hoping that the little guys made it.

Finally tired of driving, we stop at a “wildlife exhibition” area near the Alum Creek pullout.  Nothing here but the ravens.  Karen thinks they are ugly, but I argue that their solid blackness has a certain allure to it.  We begin talking about some of the recent bear attacks and Karen mentions that at least the ravens aren’t known for violent attacks!  Just about that time, the raven sitting on the display sign, hops down to the ground on top of a field mouse, and pecks it to death!  I guess he didn’t like being taken so lightly in the danger department.  He then proceeded to feast on the little rodent right there.  Karen decided it was time to leave.

And speaking of the recent bear attacks, as you can see from this sign, the Mary Mountain trail was still closed due to the recent fatal bear attack on a hiker.  As we pulled up, a lone bison came walking down the trail, as if to say, “Those signs don’t apply to me, and even if they did, who’s going to stop me.”  I guess a 2000+lb bison isn’t worried about a bear.

Another day under our belt without a large variety of wildlife to speak of.  But as we exit the park, we see our only pronghorn this trip.  When we visited the Grand Teton National Park in 2009, these guys were all over the place.  Here in Yellowstone, it appears that the bison have taken over that spotlight.  Still though, it was nice to see and photograph.  Trivia points:  The pronghorn (it is not an antelope) is the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere, and considered second only to the cheetah for speed.

And never let it be said that Gardiner, MT is a boring place.  Once again, right in the middle of town, more mule deer, feasting on the grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.  Karen and I discussed how cool it must be to have wildlife like this just roaming all over town and in your yard.  But then we thought about the mess they would probably leave behind.  I guess the free fertilizer is just the tradeoff for living that close to nature.

Once again, our day is over too soon.  And once again we are thankful for the things we have seen.  And once again, we are plum tuckered out!  I think we’ll sleep in a little tomorrow…

Yellowstone: Day Two

Day two started out in a magnificent manner!  I stepped out of our residence to this view!  Snow capped mountains right out the front door!  What’s not to love about that!  Gardiner is a very small town right at the north entrance of Yellowstone.  I’m told that the actual population of the town is somewhere around 800 people, but obviously, the number of visitors, especially in the summer months, is much higher.  The size of the town is perfect for its location, nestled in a small valley surrounded by the wonderful mountains!

We get a somewhat early start to the day, still recovering from our normal work-life and travel.  One of the places I wanted to visit is a trail over the Blacktail Plateau.  It is known to have copious amounts of wildlife, so we’re really hoping to see and photograph them.  However, this trip, it seems that about the only wildlife to be seen there is this herd of bison grazing in the fields.  Still, any chance to interact (even from the car) with a beast powerful enough to leap it’s 2,000+ pound body over a fence, is a chance not to be missed.  While these animals appear to be very docile, their looks can be deceiving.  In fact. more people are injured each year by bison than pretty much any other creature in the park.

Also, the safety of being in the car, give a great chance for those up-close shots that really accentuates the power of this beautiful animal.

One of the things Karen and I were really hoping to see this trip was snow, and we were not disappointed this day!  It wasn’t much, but coming from Texas where we just suffered through a record-breaking summer of heat, any change was appreciated.  Most mornings started out in the teens and twenties, which really didn’t bother us in the least.

After leaving the Blacktail Plateau, we headed to the Lamar Valley, known for wolf and bear sightings.  These are two animals we seem to always miss out on when we travel.  We are really hoping to get to see them this time.

On our way to the valley, we spot this lone elk in a field at the Roosevelt Junction.  This is another of the creatures which is numerous in Yellowstone.  The males, with their proud antlers always look so majestic.  This one was alone and we just couldn’t pass by the opportunity to capture a few memories of his image.

Once in the Lamar Valley, we traveled up and down the road with no luck.  Normally you can tell if there is wildlife (wolves in particular) in the area because there will be many people pulled off the road with spotting scopes and cameras.  Nothing was to be seen today though.  But even with this bit if disappointment, we were still privy to the wonderful mountain views from the valley!  It just doesn’t get much better than this.

After driving through the Lamar Valley a few times, we come across a guy and his dog Jake, (yes, I rememberd the dogs name and not the guy) and have an opportunity to chat with him for a while.  While talking, he casually asks, “Do you want to see some wolves?”  Well DUH!  He tells us that the Blacktail pack have been spotted over near Elk Creek.  That’s near the exit of the Blacktail Plateau Trail we were on earlier.  That’s all we need to hear and we are off, after we thank him for the information of course.

We arrive, and sure enough, there are all the wolf-watchers with the scopes and cameras set up.  We finally get a spot to park, and I grab the big lens and hike up to where they are.  Then I ask, “Where are they?”  I’m pointed to these little black and gray dots way out in a field!  Well, that’s even too far for my 600mm lens.  Disappointment sets in for a second, then someone says, “Listen!  The wolves are howling!”  How cool is that!  If you have never heard that sound in real life, you really should get to some day.  It is amazing!

But the adventure here isn’t over yet.  A couple of the wolves decide to come closer and cross over the road.  Still a ways off from where I am, but at least I can get a “I saw them” shot and crop it enough to tell they are wolves and not just dots.

Giddy with excitement, we leave the Blacktail pack and begin heading back toward the area of our home-base.  On the way, we spot a herd of Elk on the side of a hill, all grazing together.  We hike the trail at the bottom of the hill and are able to get a few shots.  The male elk was higher on the hill watching over his herd, taking a very masculine pose with his big rack and one of his ladies.  This situation just begged for a photo, so I obliged.

After leaving the elk, we stop off at Udine Falls, which is right off the roadway.  When out photographing areas, it is hard to grow tired of waterfalls, especially when they are surrounded by wilderness.  Waterfalls have that combination of power and beauty that just makes one feel right about the day.

Okay, for those that live in the area, the magpie is a nasty bird.  They are compared to our grackles here in Texas.  But for those of us who don’t live there, this is very pretty bird!  Very basic black and white color scheme just draws my attention.  I thikn I’d trade our grackles for the prettier magpie any day!

One of the craziest areas of the park is the town of Mammoth.  This is the area where the army set  up Fort Yellowstone when they were in charge of the park before the creation of the National Park Service.  This town almost always has wildlife roaming around the buildings.  Usually it is the resident heard of elk, but this day, we spotted this coyote roaming around like he was looking for something.  He didn’t seem to worried about us, as he gave us a single glance and then went about his business of sniffing out whatever he was looking for.

And the aforementioned elk.  This one caught our attention as it appeared he was about to bugle to his harem.  We paused, took pictures, but nothing ever came out of his mouth.  A silent bugle.  That was a big strange, but as you are about to see, strange is relative in this place.

As we get back into Gardiner, the strangeness steps up a notch.  There are elk everywhere.  We see them in people’s front yards and as I look across the river to the hotel there, I see elk, not just in the surrounding yard, but actually right outside the first floor rooms!  It made me wonder if when you check in they ask questions such as, “Smoking or non-smoking?  Elk or no elk?”

Bottom line: This is a very cool place, especially if you like close interactions with wildlife.  Today will not be our last interactions for sure, and the best is yet to come.

Day two comes to a close and we are thankful for all we have seen!

The Wyoming Adventure Day 7

Day 7 began nice and easy. We slept in for a bit and then did the tourist thing in Jackson during the morning hours. Looked through the local shops, bought some t-shirts, and of course, took a picture of the Elk antler arches at the town square. No trip to Jackson is complete without them.

Antler Arch

After about 2 hours of this, we got board so we headed out to see what wildlife we could see. First stop was at the National Elk Refuge where we got to see a lot of… no not Elk, Ducks and Swans. Go figure. 🙂

Swans

From there we headed out to Antelope Flats where we ran into a herd of… no, not Antelope, Pronghorn. Apparently, even through they are sometimes called Pronghorn Antelope, they are not really a true Antelope. At least they were kind enough to pose between us and the mountains for a nice shot.

Pronghorn and Teton

Pronghorn

From there we continued on, looking for Elk, Moose, or maybe a Bear, when we ran into (not literally) a herd of Bison. Did you know that true “Buffalo” are native only to Africa and Asia and what we have in North America are actually Bison? They are distinctly different animals. So, I guess he should have been called Bison Bill, though it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Anyway, we stopped along the road to watch them graze, and before you know it, they had actually grazed right up to us. The herd then split and went around our car, surrounding us. They were about 10 yards away when I remembered being told by one of the Park Rangers that more people are killed by Bison attacks here than by Bears. Great! At least I have a rental car to hide in if they start to charge.

Big Bison

Bison Call

While some of the moms in the group kept a close watch on us, we just stayed calm and kept shooting pictures and everyone went home happy. But if you ever want to know what it’s like to stare down a 2000 pound Bison at a distance of about 10 yards, either Karen or I can tell you.

Bison and Calf

Bison Head

As we were returning back to town to enjoy a long awaited steak dinner at the Million Dollar Steak House, I had to grab one more shot of the giant peak! I love that mountain. It’s just hard to pass it by without taking a shot at it. Add on the fact that the Aspens have started to change this week and it makes the mountain even more irresistible.

Teton and Aspens

Tomorrow we leave Jackson and head home. While we have really enjoyed our visit and are continually awed by the wonder of God’s creation, we must always remember that it is the Creator and not the creation that deserves all the glory and honor.
Until next time…