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 Four

 Day four begins slow.  Being worn out from the previous days, and with the beginnings of a head cold, we sleep in a bit and get a bit of a later start.  As usual, we meet the elk in Mammoth as we enter the park, but today there is a twist.  Apparently one of them has made friends with a magpie.  We watch as they seemingly “play” for several minutes.  It occasionally looks like the magpie is whispering in the elk’s ear.  It was amusing, but we move on.

 Since we got a late start, and being a little disappointed with the wildlife turnout over the first three days, we decide that today we would do the “tourist” thing and check out the features of the park, and if we happen to see wildlife, so much the better.  As we head south from Mammoth, the features begin to show themselves in very dramatic ways.  The steam coming from this river, combined with the smell of sulfur lets us know that this is not your normal river.  In fact, when you pull over and look, there are areas where the water is bubbling.  I never got a straight answer if the water was actually boiling or if the bubbles was just gas escaping, but I wasn’t going to stick my hand in to find out.

 Our first stop was at the Norris Geyser Basin.  There is a boardwalk there where you can walk out over the basin and smell the sulfur first hand.  What a treat (note sarcasm)!  It really is pretty cool to be this close to the exit ports of a live super-volcano when you really think about it though.  Like I told my friends back home before we came, if it goes off while we’re there, don’t worry about us cause we won’t have time to care.

 After leaving Norris, we come across this beautiful elk displaying his rack which begged me for a picture.  I know I have some relatives who are hunters who are wishing they had THEIR equipment right about now.  These truly are magnificent beasts!

 A little further down the road we catch this small, multi-colored geyser.  Again, note the steam coming from the water.  Very hot.  Do not touch!  Very pretty though.

 Next stop is a place called “Artist Paint Pots” which are essentially “boiling” mud pits and holes with colorful deposits around them.  The surprising thing to me was how much plant life there is that actually survives around these things.  I would have expected the toxicity of the ground to be prohibitive to such growth.  Guess that explains why I am not a botanist.

 And no trip to the Artist Paint Pots would be complete without the requisite “boiling mud” photo.  Karen caught this one at just the right time!

 After making the climb to the top of the paint pot area, we were admiring the view when a kind passer-by offered to take our picture.  So we handed him one of Karen’s cameras and I must say, it turned out pretty good!  Thank you kind stranger!

 Down the road from the paint pots we came upon Gibbon Falls.  This is yet another of the Yellowstone waterfalls which are literally right off the roadway.  But as each of them have their own character, more pictures must be taken.  Something about the roar of the water just puts me in a mood, a very good mood.

 From there, we continued along the Grand Loop road, around the southern part of the park, and then turning north, we passed by the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone.  There Karen caught this photo of the small island with the single tree.  It looks so lonely out there, but also very peaceful.  Of course, the mountains in the background don’t hurt either.

 A little further up on the West Thumb, we spotted this elk, just standing out in the water.  Not really sure what she was doing, but it gave me another chance to pull out the 600mm lens so I stopped.  I carried that thing all the way up here and I’m going to use it!  At one point she looked over her shoulder at me and I snapped…the picture that is.

 We continued on and crossed over the Fishing Bridge area and out to Mary Bay.  By now the sun was beginning to get low in the sky and clouds were building.  Kare caught this magnificent shot of the cloudy reflections in the water.

 And as the geese begin flying home, we also headed back to Gardiner for the evening.

Since my main goal for this trip was wildlife, I was beginning to feel a tad disappointed, but at the same time, I truly enjoyed being here nonetheless.  This is a beautiful place, with or without wildlife.  Once more, we are thankful for the things we saw.  Time to rest up for day 5.  It will prove to be a very exciting day!

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!

Yellowstone: Day One

Welcome to Michael and Karen’s 2011 Yellowstone Adventure!  We flew into Bozeman MT on Saturday to rainy weather, and today (10/16) looks to continue that trend.

We got up early, not because we really wanted to, but I guess we’re just getting old and can’t sleep in as much as we used to when we were younger.  Today was to be an easy day, our first real “vacation” day where we really had nothing planned or anyplace that we just had to be.

I took the opportunity to test the camera equipment off the deck of our vacation rental.  It sits on the Yellowstone River in Gardiner, MT, just outside the park entrance.  Pretty view, but I’m hankerin’ for wild critters for my lens.

After breakfast and meeting with the property manger, we buy some bear spray (just in case) and head into the park to scout the route to the Hayden Valley.  Obviously, this is the park entrance.  As you can see, it is still rainy, and will rain on us most of the day.  But that’s okay.  Compared to the miserably hot and dry weather in Texas this summer, the rain and cold (lower 40s all day) isn’t all that bad to me.

Well, this looks promising.  Just after entering the gate to the park we see a group of mule deer trotting along the top of a ridge.  While this isn’t the last of the wildlife we will see today, let’s just say that most of the wildlife didn’t seem to care much for the cold rain.

The obligatory “entering-the-park” sign.

Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, just inside the north entrance.  Very interesting place, and very photogenic. It also had a very “slight” odor of sulfur.

This was taken after leaving Mammoth and give you an idea of the weather here today.  Again, I am by no means complaining.  This is a welcome change to the record-breaking “Summer of 2011”.

After leaving Mammoth, we aren’t finished with the thermal features.  In fact, the entire western side of this park is spotted with them.  Technically, Yellowstone is sitting on top of a “super volcano” that is so large, it it were to go off, the effects would be felt around the world, and I wouldn’t really have to worry about being right here at the epicenter.

This is “Roaring Mountain”

I thought this was pretty cool.  From this overlook, you can see the steam rising from numerous geological features in the area.

We made our way down to the Canyon area, a place we visited two years ago when we were here, but this time we observed the falls from the north rim instead of the south.  Still a very impressive sight.

But even the beautiful falls cannot compete with the beauty of my wonderful wife, Karen!

Or to the power of her magnificent husband!  (Okay, maybe not).    (And yes, it was a bit chilly, but being a “real man”, my coat was in the car)

As be begin to get close the Hayden Valley, we begin to see at least a little more wildlife.  This hawk was sitting patiently in a tree right next to the road.  I shot it from the drivers seat.

After making it all the way to the Fishing Bridge with no bears or wolves, we turn around and head back north.  Then, while passing through Hayden again, we see a few cars stopped on the road.  That usually means some sort of wild action, and sure enough, there was this coyote.  Looks like it was planning an attack on some Canadian Geese that were in the nearby water.  Karen was able to grab this shot from her seat.  We turned around and I set up the big lens where we were expecting it to come out of the weeds, but it disappeared in a stealth-like manner and was nowhere to be found.

But finally, as we were approaching Mammoth, we saw activity and pulled over.  There were some elk out in the field.  We could hear the males bugling, but they were staying hidden.  I did manage to get this shot of one of the females before the light was totally gone.  Finally, a real-world test of my 600mm lens!  Not the greatest of shots, but a good start!

Tomorrow, we will scout the northern and north-east parts of the park near the Lamar Valley and see if any wolves or bear show themselves there!  The forecast is calling for sun, so maybe we’ll see some action.

(Pictures taken with Canon 5DmII, 7D, and T1I)