PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
This was the third time that we've visited Yellowstone National Park. It's such an immense and varied place that each visit is fresh and new. It would be hard to be board in such a place.
We arrived early in the camping season this year. Only a few campgrounds were open, but there were enough visitors that the available campsites filled up early. Even though the campgrounds were busy, traffic in the park was still light.
It had been a mild winter. The only traces of snow were in shaded hollows and hillsides. Warmer weather was calling bison, elk, and deer back up from the lowlands. They still follow the traditional routes that they have used for millennia. When a campground is constructed along their route, they traipse among the tents and motorhomes.
Bison use the river valleys as thoroughfares. They travel in extended family groups, lacking only the big bulls who tend to travel alone. Calves and mothers follow matriarchal Grandmothers from meadow to meadow. They parade past river rapids, past geyser flats, and through pine forest on their way to lush high plains.
Wildlife is only one of the attractions in Yellowstone. In addition to bison, bears, and wolves, the park boasts marvelous landscapes for hiking. The best known attractions at the park, however, are the geysers.
These remnants of an ancient volcanic cataclysm are spectacular. Perhaps more importantly, they are easy to see. The most famous of all is 'Old Faithful'. Despite it's fame, it's not the largest geyser in the area. It's notoriety stems from the regularity of it's eruptions as much as from their size. Huge crowds fill a semicircle of benches and walkways a hundred yards from the 'star attraction' of Yellowstone while a handful of more adventurous souls stand within feet of the roaring eruption of Beehive Geyser across the basin.
Many of the geyser basins have wooden walkways leading from hot spring to mud pot to geyser. They offer dramatic rewards to the few visitors who are inclined to make the modest effort to experience them.
There is more to see than just geysers in the geyser basins. Hot springs of crystalline water rimmed by intricate patterns of travertine are common. The water temperature and mineral content varies from spring to spring giving each a distinctive hue to it's waters. Springs with extremely hot water boast a jewel like sapphire blue tint to their depths. Slightly cooler springs display an emerald green glow. Even cooler waters host bacteria and algae that coat their bottoms with mats that sometimes look like leather.
Mud pots, the ogres of the basins, contrast the fairy like beauty of the hot springs. Superheated water deep underground absorbs sulfur creating a powerful acid. The corrosive mixture is so potent that is dissolves the stone that it travels through on it's way to the surface. The noxious muddy mixture bubbles and oozes from the ground releasing some of it's load of sulfur in a steaming caustic stench.
The volcanic event that gave rise to these miracles was huge even by geological standards. It was so huge that the eruptions at Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Penetubo were minor belches in comparison. The explosion in Yellowstone was so massive that it left a caldera roughly 30 miles across. The hot spot beneath the park still lingers, driving water to the surface in fantastic displays.
Time is the earth's companion in creating the wonders at Yellowstone. Time enough to cover a mountainside with calcium dissolved from the rocks below at Mammoth Hot Springs. Time enough to carve the Grand Canyon Of Yellowstone with it's immense waterfalls. Yellowstone has been a work in progress for eons.
Even though the Park Service has done an excellent job of making the highlights of Yellowstone easily accessible, the essence of the area can only be experienced on foot. Yellowstone has a network of trails that offer up the beauty of the wilderness. Footpaths lead to hidden lakes, beaver ponds and meadows surrounded with birch and pine.
We enjoyed several hikes this trip. The most memorable trail wound up through meadow to an alpine lake rimmed with water lilies. Near the trail, just below the lake, we found the skeleton of a bull elk. It was nearly intact, stripped clean to the bone save some hide near the hooves. As was continued walking, we spotted another set of bones across the creek. Only the back half of this skeleton was intact. We wondered about the demise of these elk. They might have simply succumbed to the winter cold. They may have met their end in the embrace of a bear or before the teeth of a pack of wolves. However they met their fate, they were a stark reminder of the harsh reality of the wild.
As we were parading back down the trail, skeletons still fresh on our minds, we spotted a lumbering black shape ahead. A bear was foraging along margins of the meadow. He seemed uninterested in us as he hunted for tidbits among the trees just above the grass. As he was on the opposite side of the valley, we quietly make our way down the trail.
Yellowstone is one of the few places where wolves still thrive. We had heard of an area where they had been active lately, so we decided to see if we could spot them. A short way up a dirt road, we found a place to park overlooking the valley we had heard about. We had several hours to wait before the early evening hours when the wolves are usually active. We settled in to watch the valley and far hillside. We took turns scanning the distance with binoculars when a coyote trotted within a few hundred feet of our coach. We watched him hunt through the sagebrush when, quite unexpectedly, he flushed a badger that was away from his den. After a brief chase back to the badger's den they settled in to a stand-off. The coyote would mill around the entrance to the den, slowly edging closer until the badger would charge out. They'd parade about one another displaying strength, looking for weakness. The coyote eventually lost interest, and resumed his trotting hunt through the sage.
As the afternoon progressed into evening, we were joined by several other people. Some of them set up high powered telescopes. They did eventually find the wolves far across the valley. The view of an adult with several pups through one of the spotting scopes was extraordinary! We did manage a photo of one of them, though it's barely good enough to make out his shape.
It would be easy to spend an entire summer in Yellowstone. Perhaps, someday, we will do just that.