Yellowstone National Park is unlike any other park we have ever been to. As Pat says, it’s Nature’s Wonderland. Most of the park is within the caldera of the world’s largest super volcano, so a lot of really wild things are going on. In addition to lakes and mountains, there are mud pots, steam vents, fumeroles, geysers, boiling rivers, and exotic looking streams running at or near the pH of battery acid.
There are also stunning and expansive valleys full of wildlife. We saw bison, wolves, elk, big horn sheep, a coyote, Rocky Mountain goats, pronghorn, black-tailed deer, moose, white pelicans, sandhill cranes, Clarke’s nutcrackers, mountain bluebirds, grouse, trumpeter swans, river otters, golden eagles, bald eagles, and osprey, among others.
There is so much to experience and no rest for the weary. Each day we’d depart after breakfast and not return until ten or twelve hours later.
In twelve days and nearly 90 miles of hiking, we ascend the 10,568′ Avalanche Peak and get caught in a hail and electrical storm on the summit, see six of Yellowstone’s 97 wolves — including a lone wolf from about 70 yards in the Pelican Valley — find a herd of bison in rut along an unmarked trail on the Firehole River, and soak at dusk in a natural hot tub formed by the merger of the icy cold Gardiner River and the scalding hot Boiling River.
We spot about 20 big horn sheep and cause a traffic jam when we get out our scope to observe them, meander among spectacularly colorful hot springs on the boardwalks and in the backcountry, watch in solitude as the remote Imperial Geyser erupts every 30 seconds or so while a golden eagle rides the thermals just above us, and stay at the magical Old Faithful Inn.
We descend into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the river’s edge, watch a family of river otters fish and frolick on the Snake River, see Orion embedded in the Milky Way extending from horizon to horizon while elk buggle all around us, and gaze awestruck by the the magnificent Grand Tetons.
Day 1: the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the Elephant Back Trail and Lake Yellowstone:
We arrive in the Yellowstone Park and have an inauspicious start on a decidedly poor hiking trail to Natural Bridge. Things improve dramatically as we spot our first wildlife, Elk, a cow and her calf. We begin to appreciate the very real fact that we are inside the caldera of the world’s largest super volcano as we tour the West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shores of Lake Yellowstone.
We become fluent in some key vocabulary: geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and mud pots. We end the day with a hike up Elephant Back with panoramic views of Lake Yellowstone. We are happy to miss the grizzly that has begun frequenting that area. After checking in at our Lake Lodge cabin, we have dinner at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel dining room. Poor and expensive choice. (6.5 miles.)
Day 2: Hayden Valley, the Mud Volcano, Avalanche Peak, the Sylvan Pass & our first Bull Elk
Up at 6.10 for an early breakfast before the drive out to the Hayden Valley. We see two bald eagles enjoying breakfast along the bank of the Yellowstone River. Bison are ubiquitous. We stop at the Sulpher Caldron, the Mud Volcano and the Black Dragon’s Cauldron, among other seething, sulfuric, fuming mud pots and fumeroles. Then off to Avalanche Peak, which a ranger had previously described as a brutally hard hike. 2100 feet of ascent over 2.5 miles to the 10,568′ peak. We see only three other hikers on the trail.
As we ascend the final talus fields and follow the ridge trail, we hear thunder and it starts to snow. There are windbreaks rangers have built from the stone but we have to delay lunch. The snow quickly turns to hail and an electrical storm rolls in. Another hiker arrives to say, “A lesson learned today: never get a late start when hiking at altitude in the Rocky Mountains.” We take each others pic and then start descending as quickly as possible. The thunder is louder and more frequent; the lightning, uncomfortably close. Really, this is too much excitement.We debate whether or not too ditch our poles and lie flat. Instead we hustle down the mountain.
That hike kicked my ass and I was glad we take a relaxing, beautiful drive — with hints of Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road — to the east entrance (Cody, Wy). On the way back we stop at an overlook just east of Sylvan Pass. A guy spots elk across the canyon up a draw. Though our scope, we are treated to a massive and beautiful bull elk with a huge rack of antlers and about half a dozen cows in waiting. We head back out to the Hayden Valley but it is pouring a cold rain. We see a bald eagle along the Yellowstone River and bison grazing on the far slopes. At dinner, we inhale huge plates of turkey and prime rib. (5 miles)
Day 3: Pelican Valley & the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We check in at the Ranger Station to assess whether or not we should hike the Pelican Valley Trail. It’s prime Grizzly habitat closed to human traffic from 7 pm to 9 a.m. It’s posted that hikers should be in parties of four or more.The ranger advises that we really should travel in a party of four but says if we are very careful we should be all right. “Just don’t become a park statistic,” he says as we leave.
(While at the Ranger Station, Pat sees displays for trumpeter swans and white pelicans and announces that she’d like to see both in the wild.)
We decide to go. Sean tests his Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray and gets an accidental whiff. The trail begins in a burned out, resurgent forest. Lots of opportunity to surprise a bear. We draw on the bear safety lesson we got from Ranger Bob in Glacier and yell “Hut!” or “Hop” loudly about every 20 feet.
While coming through a narrow wooded section of the trail and into a more open area, a lone gray wolf appears across a depression about 70 yards away. Thrilling; hearts racing.
We watch the wolf for about four minutes as it saunters on its way across the opposite ridge line until it disappears out of sight. We see and photograph wolf tracks. Then doubt intrudes. “Was it a coyote?” I ask. Pat: “If all those nature shows were worth anything, that was a wolf!”
We emerge from the lodgepole pine forest and enter the broad and arresting Pelican Valley. There are golden eagles and lots of bison. It is one of the more beautiful places we have ever hiked.
We head back to see the ranger and show him our pictures of the wolf and the wolf tracks. He verifies both: “You are really lucky,” he says. “That was a gray wolf and those are wolf tracks.” We tell him we were on our best bear avoidance behavior but point out that six of the seven hiking parties we encountered were without bear spray, one of which had a baby in a backpack. He just shakes his head.
(Here’s a rule: if you want to see examples of poor judgment and bad behavior, visit a national park.)
As we pass again through the Hayden Valley, Pat’s morning wish is fulfilled: she spots trumpeter swans in the binocs and then we get a beautiful view of them in the scope feeding along the Yellowstone River. We end the day at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It’s hailing again as we descend the 307 steps down Uncle Tom’s Trail for a view of the Lower Falls. Our calf muscles aching, we drive to Canyon and check in at the Cascade Lodge. (8 miles.)
Day 4: Seven Mile Hole & The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We descend the Seven Mile Hole Trail from the North Rim through snow-covered lodgepole pine forest and past a number of geothermal formations into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We cross a stream as acidic as battery acid and walk over thin crust among a field of fumeroles. This is the best thing about the back country trails: you experience the park’s geothermal wonders alone, without tour buses full of brash, aggressive, selfie-seeking foreign tourists. The only unsettling thing is that the trail leads you directly through areas of thin crust over scalding or acidic water that would be decidedly off limits along the Park Service’s boardwalk trails.
We have the whole trail to ourselves until we reach the bottom of the canyon and see two guys fishing at a campsite about 200 yards down river. The Yellowstone River is beautiful. Fumeroles vent steam all along the canyon’s walls. Small, thermophile-filled streams glisten in the sunlight. The pallette of multi-colored canyon walls is the result of geothermal activity over the millennia.
We head back to Canyon and discover a 45 minute wait for dinner. Instead, we grab two beers and head to the Hayden Valley for more wildlife viewing. Through the scope, we watch two bull elk competing for cows. By the time we leave one is looking quite lonely. On the way back to dinner, Sean spots another bull on a ridge silhouetted by the twilight. We pull over, watch it in the binocs and hear the first of many elk buggling. Wonderful. (Listen the the elk’s buggle below courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife National Digital library.) (11 miles).
Day 5: Mount Washburn & Slough Creek
We hike to the top of Mount Washburn for panoramic views of the caldera and the Rocky Mountains. It’s a very busy trail up an old road. At the top, the ranger points out Avalanche Peak in the distance.
On the way down we see two bald eagles being harassed by a flock of about about 20 ravens. There are Clarke’s nutcrackers everywhere.
We head toward the Lamar Valley for a hike on the Slough Creek Trail, which is a bit disappointing after the splendor of the Pelican Valley. We see a mule train and I get a chuckle out of the weathered cowboys when I ask them what they’d do if I put my thumb out to hitch a ride. Our exit is long delayed as a Bison decides to walk the trail ahead of us at a glacial pace. Four or five times, we are hopeful as the bison leaves the trail only to discover that he’s taking the shortest distance between two points on a switchback.
In the deserted parking lot, we have an unsettling experience. Two hillbillies spot Pat (and not me) outside the car. They pull up quickly, block our car with their ramshackle camper and ask her to change a $20. I get out of the car and after a few increasingly uncomfortable moments, they leave. In retrospect, it was clear that they were either interested in Pat or her money. Sean wakes up in the middle of the night regretting being so naive and wondering why he didn’t go straight for the bear spray, just in case.
On the way to the Lamar Valley we see a pronghorn close by. Then among a crowd of wildlife viewers waiting for a grizzly to feast on a bison carcass about 120 yards from the road, we see a herd of pronghorn and one bull elk. (The grizzly never appears.)
In the dark, we drive to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for a late check in. (10 miles)
Day 6: Mammoth Hot Springs, the Black-tailed Deer Plateau, Mountain Bluebirds on the Rim & More Wolves
Our legs are beat and we opt for a leisurely tour of the Mammoth’s geothermal areas where hot springs form colorful travertine terraces. In the town center a massive bull elk is hording his harem in front of the post office, which no one can enter. We take a slow drive along the Black Tailed Deer Plateau and enjoy Lava Creek, Wraithe Falls and a self guided tour describing the regeneration of the forest after the 1988 fires.
Later, we hike the Yellowstone River Picnic Area Trail along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near Tower. The day’s highlight is to be surrounded by mountain bluebirds nesting in a stand of trees at the canyon’s edge. As evening approaches, we return to the Lamar Valley and at Slough Creek watch four wolf pups through the scope for about 90 minutes. We also see a herd of pronghorn. (6.5 miles)
Day 7: the Bull Creates Havok, the Norris Geyser Basin, Grizzly Lake, Big Horn Sheep, A Traffic Jam and the Boiling River Soak
After breakfast, we are entertained by the bull elk and his harem in the middle of Mammoth Hot Springs. A rival bull has appeared and buggles from across the street. The more massive bull buggles right back. The rival is no match. Apparently the evening before the bull rammed an SUV that lingered too long. At first we think of this as a bit like a petting zoo. As Patty points out, however, this bull is running the town and the people are the one’s in the zoo contained behind the fences and barricades.
As we drive south toward the Norris Geyser Basin, we stop at Swan Lake, a beautiful wetland with views of the Gallatin Range. At the Norris Geyser Basin, we walk the loop through upper basin past Steamboat Geyser and then another loop through the Porcelain Basin where we watch the Vixen Geyser erupt. In the afternoon we hike to Grizzly Lake where we have lunch while serenaded by buggling elk. We hear other unidentified snorts and howls and spy an osprey on the way out.
We head north back through Mammoth Hot Springs on our way to the Roosevelt Arch. The Bull Elk now has his harem on the town square. He is quite agitated. Rangers are working frantically to manage auto and foot traffic. A ranger stops traffic one car in front of us as the bull herds an errant cow back across the street and onto the town square. As the bull calms, the ranger allows traffic to proceed. Suddenly, the bull turns, raises his massive shoulders, drops his head and charges the vehicle in front of us. It’s a bluff charge. As the driver escapes, we hear the ranger sigh, “This bull just hates diesels.” We then pass unscathed.
It’s a beautiful drive to the north west entrance and Roosevelt Tower. On the way back, Sean spots big horn sheep, a ewe and her lamb, about 800 feet up on a cliff edge silhouetted by the early twilight. Pat spots another 18 big horn on the other side of the canyon above us. We get out the scope and binocs and immediately cause a traffic jam. Sean watches through the scope as the lamb suckles the ewe.
We end a pretty extraordinary day at the natural hot tub formed by the merger of the scalding Boiling River and the icy Gardiner River. We enter extremely cold water slightly above the confluence, carefully wade the the very narrow line where one leg is burning and the other nearly numb, and then relax in the pleasantly warm waters resulting from the merger of the two. We soak for about 30 minutes as bats swoop overhead. (7.5 miles)
Day 8: Lamar Valley, the Firehole River, Fairy Falls & the Imperial Geyser & Old Faithful
We depart Mammoth Hot Springs where the Bull Elk and his harem continue to occupy the center of town. Because of a road closure we need to take a long detour but don’t mind as it means we can make another visit to the Lamar Valley where we enjoy herds of bison grazing, many pronghorn, and — through the scope — a brief glimpse of a black wolf on the far side of the Lamar River. We also get our first view of sandhill cranes feeding in distant grasses.
At Pebble Creek we see more elk and are alerted to two Rocky Mountain goats on a rock face high above us. On the way back through, we can’t resist and check back in at Slough Creek, where we see the wolf pups again — one grey and one black — but just miss the badger folks have been observing.
At the Fairy Falls Trail parking lot, we get a tip from a fly fisherwoman and take an unmarked side hike up and along the Firehole River to check out a herd of bison demonstrating mating behavior. We walk through pretty intense geothermal area. Hot springs, geysers and fumeroles lines the Firehole River’s banks. We find the herd. The bulls are agitated and there is plenty of grunting and snorting. One male is very eager to mate but the cow fends him off.
On the way back, we spot two bald eagles riding the thermals just above us and then hike to Imperial Geyser. Maybe our favorite geyser, Imperial cycles about every 30 seconds to 40′ or 50′. Not only do we have this back country geyser all to ourselves but a mature golden eagle graces us with his presence, hovering just above the geyser and at one point about 30′ directly above Sean. We continue to Fairy Falls. On the way back, an agitated Bison threatens us by rolling violently to create a dust cloud before pawing the earth and looking about to charge — despite being at least 70 yards away.
We head to check in at the majestic Old Faithful Inn but not before getting excellent views of two pair of sandhill cranes. After dinner we watch Old Faithful erupt in the starlight with about 20 other folks. (9.5 miles)
Day 9: Old Faithful area
After breakfast we have a front row seat for the Old Faithful eruption … we decide we prefer the geysers that are away from the crowds. We attend a program led by Ranger Woody and learn lots of interesting stuff, such as that the water emerging from the geysers fell as rain or snow upwards of 40 years ago. We watch the Anemone Geyser erupt and then walk geyser hill above the Firehole River. Continuing to the Upper Geyser Basin, we see the super heated Crested Pool boil so vigorously it rises five feet. While awaiting the spectacular eruption of the Castle Geyser, we are are treated to a long display by the Sawmill Geyser. Its a three ring circus of geyser entertainment.
We miss the overdue eruption of Grand Geyser by just a few minutes but catch the last historic tour of the Old Faithful Lodge, which we really enjoy. Then we head out to Mid-Geyser Basin for view of the Prismatic Spring and the Excelsior Geyser eruption. Returning to the Inn, we cry uncle and pass by the Black Sand Basin and head instead for a cold beer and bath before dinner. We have a wonderful dinner in the historic dining room and then spend the evening sitting at the railing of the second and third floors, indulging in the beauty of the Old Faithful lobby — right up there, we decide, with that of the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. (4 miles.)
Day 10: Jackson Lake, the Hermitage Point Trail and sunset over the Tetons
Upon departing Old Faithful, we have to detour north to Norris and over to Canyon because of another road closure. On the way we see a young bull elk and then at Yellowstone Lake a white pelican eating its breakfast. Coming back through the Hayden Valley, we spend ten entertaining minutes with the scope watching a coyote ford the Yellowstone River and then hunt for small mammals, bouncing up and down for better view.
As we arrive at the Grand Tetons we are delighted to see that the iconic views are now enhanced by quaking Aspen and Cottonwood trees, fluorescent in their autumn yellows. We hike to Hermitage Point on Jackson Lake and encounter a blacktail deer, a buck with a pretty good rack. We also have great views of Heron Pond and Swan Lake along the way and then at the point of Elk Island, Mount Moran, Falling Ice Glacier, Rock Chuck Peak and Mount St. John. Of course the Teton range dominates: Grand Teton, Teetwinot Mountain and Mount Owen.
Returning by the other side of the peninsula we see beautiful wetlands with many white pelicans. We end the day on our deck at Signal Mountain Lodge enjoying a beautiful sunset over Jackson Lake and the Teton Range. (10 miles).
Day 11: First light on the Tetons, floating the Snake River
Up before sunrise, we are blessed to see first light on Grand Teton made more spectacular by an electrical storm and a rainbow over the range. On the way to our float trip on the Snake River, we watch a bull elk running though the sage brush at Antelope Flats.
Patty strikes gold by having insisted on the family-run Ewing-Barker float trip. Fabulous. Michael, a raconteur who has spent 16 years as a river guide, has encyclopedic knowledge of the entire ecosystem. Amazingly, he calls a bald eagle to within 20-30 feet of the boat and later grunts like a bull moose in rut to get a cow and her calf to turn and look directly at our boat. We see and hear four bald eagles, two osprey and a moose and her calf. Almost the entire trip we have beautiful views of the Tetons.
After hitting the Dornan Chuck Wagon for breakfast, we drive through Antelope Flats and Mormon Row where we see pronghorn and bison and have familiar iconic views of the Tetons.
At Gros Ventre campground, we observe moose and a family of grouse. A photographer walks between the moose and her calf. We are always amazed at the crazy things people do. Dangerous for them and for the wildlife. The Park Service makes very clear not to come within 25 yards of wild life and within 100 yards of wolves and bears. A few days later, the moose dies as a result of the bad behavior of park visitors. Apparently, as crowds converge, a photographer ventures within ten feet of a bull moose courting the cow. Agitated, the cow jumps over a picnic table, severs her rear legs and has to be euthanized. Pathetic.
We continue on to a hike at Taggart Lake and the Beaver Creek Trail with intimate views of the Tetons and the occasional sound of elk buggling. Later, we walk a trail with a series of beaver dams but see no beaver. We finish off the day at the Snake River oxbow where we have more stunning views of the Tetons, white pelicans and sandhill cranes. Back at the Signal Mountain Lodge, we are treated to an electrical storm over the Teton range as the sun sets. (4.5 miles)
Day 12: Two Oceans Lake, golden eagles soaring & river otters frolicking
We sleep in because of fog on the mountains. While having coffee on the deck and watching the mountains clear, a bald eagle banks and then flies right past us at eye level along the banks of Jackson Lake.
We head to Two Oceans Lake for our last hike. Almost immediately we are treating to soaring and calling golden eagles. There are gorgeous views of — you guessed it — the Grand Tetons. About a mile from the trail’s end, a very large mammal (moose? elk? bear?) starts crashing around in deep brush about 25 feet from trail. Nervous moments follow.
We stop one more time at the oxbow. We see an osprey in the distance and then a bald eagle circles above us. We finish the day at Cattleman’s Bridge where we smile and laugh as a family of six river otters fishs and frolics on the far bank of the Snake River, all the while hearing elk buggle around us.
Day 13: The Milky Way
We drive to the airport at 4.30 a.m. vigilant as we do not want to hit an elk on the dark road. It’s a cloudless sky and we cannot resist. We stop at a turnout to witness Orion embedded in the Milky Way, which stretches from horizon to horizon accented by the new moon rising. Elk buggle all around us. What an emphatic exclamation point to a great trip!
As another Sean & Pat adventure comes to a close, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to explore two more of our country’s extraordinary national parks.