After a month of travel in South America it was a much needed restful stay and wonderful time with our old friends Jagdeep and Vipin at their home in Saratoga, California. Mihika found her much needed company of children and became good friends with Riya & Saachi.
We were now ready for our next big destination – the Yellowstone National Park. We flew into Salt Lake City (SLC) on 2nd June 2016. SLC is not the closest airport to Yellowstone but the most reasonable one to fly into coming from California. At the car rental desk in the SLC airport we had to spend some time to get Montana included in the set of states we could drive in; the default rental agreement allowed us to drive in the states immediately neighbouring Utah and so Montana was not included. Yellowstone is spread across 3 different states – Wyoming (primarily), Montana and Idaho. While most of the park area is in the state of Wyoming, three of it’s five entrances (west, north & north-east) are in the state of Montana. We had chosen to divide our stay at Yellowstone in two, first half near the west entrance and second half near the north-east entrance, to enable us to explore the different parts of this vast park. With the car rental sorted, we were off on a long drive to West Yellowstone, our base for the first 3 of our 6 days at the Yellowstone National Park. Starting with the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies as we pulled out of the Salt Lake City airport, it was a scenic drive on the I-15 N through parts of Utah and Idaho. We passed by the town of Idaho Falls, made iconic (for us!) by our dear friends Mamatha & Sripathi for whom it was home for many years. We arrived in the quaint little town of West Yellowstone in the evening and checked into the cosy Alpine Motel located a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone park entrance.
The next morning we entered the park in anticipation of the wonders lying within the first ever National Park that was established over a century ago in 1872. In particular we wanted to see for ourselves what we had seen on videos of Yellowstone – the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser, the brilliant colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.
It was a bright sunny day and we were completely swept away by the beautiful vistas as we entered the park – endless stretches of pines, shimmering streams, snow-capped peaks in the backdrop, bald eagles flying near the streams.
Here’re some things we learnt through various resources about Yellowstone that make it a very special place. The entire region of the park as we have it today has been shaped by the “supervolcano” or geological hotspot that lies beneath it. The Yellowstone volcano is not the typical cone-shaped mountain that comes to mind when one thinks of a volcano; it is a huge chamber of hot magma spread over a large area of about 3200 km² and at about 5 to 8 kms underground it is closer to the earth’s surface here than anywhere else in the world. For us it was especially interesting having recently visited the Galapagos Islands which owe their existence to a geological hotspot too. Differences in other environmental factors between the two mean they are very different from each other. The key difference is water (precipitation & ground water), abundant in Yellowstone but scarce in Galapagos. Like Galapagos, this region maybe old for us on a human timescale but on a geological timescale it is young and continuing to evolve. There have been three supervolcanic eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot resulting in the formation of the Yellowstone Caldera and it is estimated that these have occurred every 650,000 to 700,000 years with the last one pegged at around 640,000 years ago. Which means the next one is just around the corner .. but at ~10,000 years it is definitely not going to be in history / geography textbooks any time soon! The magnitude of the supervolcanic eruptions are so huge that the entire landscape and life is altered …. it seems like a continuous cycle of birth and death or renewal by Nature. The combination of heat, earthquakes and water are responsible for the geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots) numbering over 10,000 in the park, the largest concentration in the world. It is like a giant pressure cooker that keeps venting steam and hot water while a lot is cooking inside. You can actually hear the activity beneath the surface! This region that remained undiscovered by the world until the latter half of the 19th century is home to four of the “big 5” of the North American continent – Grizzly bears, Grey Wolf, Bison and Moose.
Before we got into more of the wonderful sights of the Yellowstone National Park, we headed to the nearest visitor center to get Mihika enrolled for the Junior Ranger program, something she had enjoyed and had been a useful learning experience at the Everglades National Park. On our way to the Madison Visitor Center we saw our first herd of bisons grazing with many little calves prancing around!
At the visitor center it was a case of perfect timing with a ranger led intro & short walk starting just when we arrived.
The ranger started with an introduction to Lodgepole pines, the most widespread conifers in the region, named so for their use by the native American Indians as poles in the shelters they built. These are easily identifiable by their needles that grow in groups of two. The tree has two types of cones, one of which remains tightly sealed by a resin until exposed to high temperatures that can open it and disperse the seeds within. The talk made us see forest fires in an entirely new light – the natural fires caused by lightning strikes or high summer temperatures help to open up the fir cones and pave the the way for new trees to grow after the old forest is cleared by the fires and the burnt organic matter enriches the soil to promote new growth. This in turn attracts grazing animals and the entire food chain that follows creating a self-sustaining and balanced ecosystem. Based on this understanding of the adaptation of the trees to fire, the National Park Service has in the past few years changed its approach to natural forest fires and lets the fires burn except where there is a threat to buildings within the park.
We saw pretty white flowers on the ground that the ranger explained are wild strawberry which turn out quite small in size and that the larger strawberries we see in the grocery stores are the result of years of cultivation and improvements by humans. He added that we are free to pick and eat any berries in the park as long as they are all consumed within the park. As a rule no material found on park property is permitted to be taken out and any attractive finds like deer antlers are to be reported to the park rangers.
The ranger then pointed out to us a tree whose bark was shaved off in places as a result of bisons rubbing themselves against it, something they do to help get rid of itching as well as to shed off their winter coats. The tree actually had some bison fur (hair ?) on it as evidence!
As we walked past a mountain called the National Park mountain, formed by the last lava flow that occurred here about 70,000 years ago, we learnt of the historic expedition in 1870 by Henry Washburn, Nathaniel Langford & Gustavus Doane that led to a geological survey of the region by the geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 whose comprehensive report paved the way for setting up of the national park in 1872.
We then started off on our trip to cover the Grand Loop, the ~230 km roadway that runs around the park and is divided into the upper and lower loops. We had planned to devote a day each to the loops leaving the 3rd day to drive across the Lamar Valley, sometimes called the Serengeti of North America, that is a not part of the Grand Loop to the north-east end of the park.
We started with the lower loop with the Grand Prismatic Spring as the first major attraction. On the way we stopped by Firehole Falls and Fountain Paint Pot.
Fountain Paint Pot was an excellent introduction to the four different kinds of geothermal features in Yellowstone – geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. The former two occur in places of abundant groundwater while the latter two occur in places of limited groundwater accumulation. Geysers are formed when there is a constriction in the rocks above the accumulated water that results in a build-up of pressure as the water gets heated and eventually steam & hot water shoot up. Hot springs occur when there is no constriction in the rocks. Fumaroles are steam & gas vents. Mud pots occur when the surface is rich in volcanic ash and clay.
The many brilliant colours seen around the hot springs come from “mats” of different thermophilic microorganisms each thriving at different temperatures and extreme pH levels in the inhospitable waters. So fascinating!
Next up was the Grand Prismatic Spring, the much photographed colourful “eye” of Yellowstone. To get to it we crossed the dormant Excelsior geyser which no longer erupts but continues to pump huge volumes of hot water into the Firehole river.
On our way back we were surprised to see a flock of birds apparently enjoying a spa in the warm waters of another spring!
And then it was on to the ..
The most visited geyser in Yellowstone is so called for the regularity of its eruptions at about 90 minute intervals which guarantees visitors will see it in action. It was like show-time with people sitting all around from 10-15 minutes before the forecast time of the next eruption. And after a few bursts of steam and water, it finally went up about 13 minutes after the forecast.
We continued on the lower loop and passed by some spectacular views of lakes and snow-capped peaks before reaching Yellowstone Lake.
Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake and a serene sight with it vast expanse of blue water meeting the horizon in the distance. Amazingly there are hot water springs next to the lake whose water is pretty cold. We read about the spot which was once called “Hook & cook” where fishermen would simply put fish caught from the lake into the hot water pool next to it and the fish was cooked! Now fishing here is banned. In yet another example of invasive species destroying endemic species, Yellowstone Lake has seen a sharp decline in its population of Cutthroat Trout following the (accidental) introduction of Lake Trout. This has affected the food-chain and ecosystem in the area.
We had stopped to take the above photo when a fellow visitor tapped Manish on the shoulder and told us to turn around to see a grizzly bear in the distance. Not believing our ears, we thanked him and peered to catch a glimpse of this mighty animal. Sure enough we saw a bear a little distance from the lake’s shoreline, ran to wake up Mihika who was asleep in the car and excitedly went forward to get a better view.
Imagine our excitement when the bear climbed up towards the road nd went on to cross it as we watched! And we continued to watch him forage on the other side for quite a while before he headed deeper into the woods and out of sight.
Extremely thrilled and feeling super-lucky to have seen a grizzly bear at such close quarters on our maiden drive, at a time & place we didn’t expect to, we continued on our drive towards Hayden Valley where we were planning to be at sunset to see some wildlife. Beautiful scenery continued to emerge as we drove along the Yellowstone Lake.
The sun was in our eyes as we drove up an incline on the road and so nearly did not see the bull Elk that was crossing the road. We stopped in the nick of time and he backed up to return. He went back to graze and it was a visual treat to admire him at close quarters for as long as we wanted.
We saw bison grazing on either side of the road as we drove further. Just around sunset it was a beautiful golden light on the valley and meadows next to Yellowstone river. We could see deer crossing the river in the distance and thought they might be Pronghorns.
A little further up we were mesmerized by a huge herd of bison grazing right next to the road, quite unmindful of the cars around. It was soon an “animal jam”! These majestic, powerful animals are quite a sight from close quarters. Docile as they look, we heeded all warnings of staying at a safe distance from them to avoid any surprises.
It was nearly nine in the night by now and past our planned return time. What an action-packed day it had been!
The next morning we headed on to the upper loop with the first stop at the beautiful Gibbon falls where there were dozens of swallows constantly flying around the rocks.
Next up was the Norris Geyser Basin, the most active geothermal area of the park that includes the Steamboat geyser, the world’s tallest. We first took the trail for the Porcelain Basin, whose name is inspired by the milky colour of the mineral siliceous sinter deposited here. The colours around the springs here are a little less dramatic here as microbes too find it difficult to thrive in its very acidic environment.
We then went up to the Steamboat geyser and a number of others on the trail. Of course no luck with watching any of them erupt. The Steamboat does not erupt on a schedule and there can be long periods ranging from months to years between two eruptions. The last major one was on 3rd Sep 2014.
We then headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs stopping by the Swan Lake where we spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes.
At Mammoth we admired the terrace like formations created by the calcium carbonate deposited over years by the springs. Some springs have gone dormant leaving behind hardened cones to mark their existence.
We then stopped at the Albright Visitor Center and learnt about the park management history which had a chequered start in which little was / could be done to preserve the flora and fauna and there was a steady decline in the population of predators due to hunting, poaching and conflicts with humans. The Grey Wolf completely disappeared from here and it took many years and debates to put in place and implement a restoration program that reintroduced this species into the park in 1995. There is evidence that wolf restoration in Yellowstone has had multiple beneficial effects on the ecosystem and has demonstrated that perhaps ecosystems work in intricately complex ways that are not fully understood by us. Thanks to our friend Shastri for sharing this informative TED talk by George Monbiot that discusses effects on landscape as well.
Amidst all the action, Mihika had completed all the activities she needed to earn the honour of being a Junior Ranger and too her oath to preserve and protect. As our visit coincided with the centennial celebrations of the US National Park Service, she got an additional token to mark the event.
We went on to join a Ranger talk on the wildlife in Yellowstone, bears being of most interest. Mihika used the opportunity to enquire about grey wolf spotting opportunities and we learnt of a place near the Lamar Valley where a den and the presence of wolves was confirmed. So we duly noted that for the next leg of our stay. All ranger talks included a set of exhibits such as furs and antlers. The furs all had tags citing their origin, typically these were animals killed in road accidents or had to be put down due to preying on farm animals outside the park boundaries.
We then headed onward to see the Tower Falls encountering Robins, a little Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel, pine trees that looked like ready decorated Christmas trees and a warning sign about Bears.
As we drove towards Mount Washburn, we came across a traffic jam with people peering down the side of the road. We pulled up and found ourselves looking at a family of Black Bears, a mother with two cubs, moving away into the treeline. It was just a glimpse of the mother but we were entertained to the play of the two cubs on a tree branch for a long time! Wow!!
We had been told that Black bears and Grizzlies can be distinguished visually not by their colour (Black Bears can be brown, tan or black in colour) but by the hump on the Grizzly’s shoulder which is absent in the black bear.
We were in real luck again that afternoon – we soon came up on a second congregation of people and it was a second Black Bear family high up on a distant tree. It was a mother and two cubs with the mother curled up and done for the day we thought while the cubs were engaged in play higher above, nearly at the tip of the tree! It was quite remarkable to see how high they had climbed and how such a large animal was sleeping comfortably on what appeared to be rather thin branches of a pine!
The last stop on our route was planned to be the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” but we were out of time and energy. So we headed back and on the way saw a bunch of cars pulled up near a small turn-in. With no steam to keep us going, we decided to give it a pass but luckily spotted the object of interest – a Moose! So pull over we did and walked back to see this majestic herbivore, the only land mammal that can feed under-water while holding its breath.
On the last morning at West Yellowstone, we decided to pay a visit to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center before heading into the park, just so we could see a couple of grey wolves in case we were not fortunate to see them in the wild. The Center located near the Yellowstone park entrance houses orphaned and “nuisance” grizzlies and wolves. Nuisance bears are those that have got habituated to foraging in garbage and hence humans and keep straying into towns repeatedly. Here we got to watch two grey wolves, who were not grey at all, as we learnt about how they are encouraged to fish and behave as they would in the wild with a non-contact policy for the animal keepers. Grey wolves we learnt need not be grey in colour, they can be black or white too.
At the bear enclosure we witnessed how bears look at alternative food sources when available. Below is a demonstration with a bird-feeder being targeted by a Grizzly. The message to the public was “no bird feeders in bear country”.
There was a “Keeper Kids” program for the children that Mihika participated in to learn about the food habits of bears and help with hiding food in the bear enclosure also called “habitat modification” to encourage the natural instinct of the bears here to forage and look for food rather than have it dished out to them.
Post-lunch we headed into the park to cross-over to Cooke City, a small town near the north-east entrance. But first a stopover to see Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon carved by the Yellowstone river and the beautiful falls as the river enters the canyon.
We drove through the Lamar Valley, referred to as the Serengeti of Nrth America for the large numbers of animal congregation seen here especially towards the end of summer during the rut season. We stopped by the place from where a wolf den could be sighted across a river. There were lots of people but apparently no wolf activity, so we went on to see plenty of Bison and some Pronghorn antelope, the second fastest land mammal after the Cheetah.
We passed by a little village called Silver Gate at the north-east entrance before arriving at our destination Cooke City where we were greeted by the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows flying around the trees and buildings near our motel.
The next morning we made an early start to try our luck with spotting wolves and other animals around the Lamar Valley. A Mule Deer and some birds (not to mention the Bisons who were always there) later we arrived at Slough Creek, the location of the wolf den.
We were in luck as the adult wolves and nine cubs were active around the den. People pointed out the exact location of the den which was but a dot in the distance and after a peek through the scopes setup by some guides, we could spot the wolves through our binocs. It took a lot of focus as they were quite distant and very tiny even when seen with binocs / scopes. So no photos really, but we managed to get one shot in which a black coloured adult can be seen on zooming in – the tiny black dot just in front of the little bowl-like depression between two dry tree stumps.
Satisfied, we drove on to Hayden Valley and then back through Lamar Valley before calling it a day.
The next day was reserved for a drive through the scenic Beartooth Highway leading away from the park towards the town of Red Lodge. It started with some views from a higher elevation and spotting a pair of Pikas scurrying around the sagebrush on a rocky hillside and then the vistas expanded with snow in huge patches and frozen lakes! It was a high point for Mika and it was play time 🙂
The next morning we set off for the Grand Teton National Park located at the south of Yellowstone. On our last day at Yellowstone we were fortunate to spot Trumpeter Swans and a Grizzly bear across the Yellowstone river and help a few others to see it too!
The Grand Teton is like a little sibling to Yellowstone. We stayed in the town of Jackson just outside the Grand Teton national park to look through the sights here. It offers dramatic views of the Teton range of the Rocky mountains, reflections of the mountains in the quiet waters of its many lakes and flora that is more varied than the pine dominated Yellowstone.
The Grand Teton is considered a better habitat for moose but we weren’t able to see any. We saw plenty of Elk, some Pronghorn and Bison, but most valuable of all was the sighting of a Grizzly quite close to the park entrance as it sauntered away in the evening.
We learnt of the “dude” ranches that had started up here before the National Park was established – dudes beings the well-heeled folks from the Eastern parts who wanted to experience the countryside and rural life. The visit would not be complete without a drive through the gravel track of Mormon Row featuring barns and homesteads established in the 1890s.
After a week completely immersed in the wonders of nature, it was time to return to SLC and head back to San Jose for a short pit stop before the next big undertaking – a 21-day road trip starting with Yosemite National Park and covering a whole lot of sights, all subjects of the upcoming posts!