Yellowstone National Park: The Earth’s Giant Pressure Cooker

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.

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A warm, lovely welcome for us, handcrafted by little Saachi
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Old is gold when it comes to friends – Jagdeep & Vipin, our college and first-job buddies

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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.

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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.

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Madison River flowing through the western part of Yellowstone

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!

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A grazing bison herd, the first we saw in Yellowstone!

At the visitor center it was a case of perfect timing with a ranger led intro & short walk starting just when we arrived.

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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.

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Lodgepole Pines constitute about 80% of the trees in Yellowstone

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.

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Wild strawberry plant

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!

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A tree bearing the marks of bison rubbing against it

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.

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Mihika concludes a session with a Yellowstone National Park Ranger

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.

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Firehole Falls

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.

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Hotspring in the Fountain Paint Pot trail
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How many shades of blue!!

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!

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An unexpected sight – a small snake seen in the warm acidic water at Fountain Paint Pot

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.

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Hot water flows into the Firehole river from the dormant Excelsior geyser
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The Grand Prismatic Spring

On our way back we were surprised to see a flock of birds apparently enjoying a spa in the warm waters of another spring!

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IMG_5306The 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.

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Old Faithful, the most visited geyser of Yellowstone, erupts at 16:37 on 3rd Jun 2016

We continued on the lower loop and passed by some spectacular views of lakes and snow-capped peaks before reaching Yellowstone Lake.

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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.

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Yellowstone Lake with a small hot spring in the foreground

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.

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Our first sighting of a Grizzly Bear in the wild!

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.

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Grizzly crosses the road near Yellowstone Lake

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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.

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Yellowstone Lake shore at Pumice Point

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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.

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A bull Elk grazes in Hayden Valley

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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.

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Sunset in Hayden Valley
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Deer crossing Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

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.

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A herd of bisons at sunset in the Hayden Valley

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A bison calf

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.

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Gibbon Falls

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.

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Porcelain Basin in the Norris Geyser Basin

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.

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Sandhill Cranes near Swan Lake

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.

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Lower Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

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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.

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Mihika joins the Yellowstone Junior Ranger club

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.

IMG_5503We 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.

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Chipmunk or Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel?
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A robin watches as we pass by
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A pre-decorated Christmas tree!!
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Warning signs are placed at various places, needed more to keep the bears safe

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!!

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Black Bear cub plays on a branch!

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.

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A Moose grazes at sunset, no care whatsoever for the gawkers!

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.

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Grey Wolf fishing at the Discovery Center in West Yellowstone

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”.

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No bird feeders in bear country – they become bear feeders!

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.

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The Yellowstone Falls as the river enters a deep canyon
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The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone carved by the Yellowstone river

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.

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Pronghorn in Lamar Valley – the second fastest land mammal
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Bison herds graze in the Lamar Valley
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Bison crossing the Lamar River at dusk
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Drive through Lamar Valley

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.

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Eye-catching name at Silver Gate near the North-East entrance to Yellowstone
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Tree Swallow

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.

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Mule Deer
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Black-billed Magpie
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Brewer’s Blackbird

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.

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A wolf in the distance appears as little black dot between the two dry tree stumps

Satisfied, we drove on to Hayden Valley and then back through Lamar Valley before calling it a day.

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A Bison rests in Lamar Valley
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Flock of Canada Geese near the Lamar River

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 🙂

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American Pika

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Play time with snow!
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Rock shaped like a dinosaur head! Seen on Beartooth Highway
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Biker’s Stop to refuel on the BearTooth Highway
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Snow all around in June! View from the Beartooth Highway
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Wild strawberry flowers by the Little Bear lake on Beartooth Highway

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The Bear Tooth – the pyramid shaped spire created by glaciation that gives the mountain its name

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!

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Trumpeter Swan
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Spot the Grizzly amongst the sage brush?

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.

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A reflection of serenity, the Grand Teton National Park

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Mt. Moran at sunset

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.

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A Grizzly at the Grand Teton
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Elk crossing river at Grand Teton
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A Mountain Bluebird, the state bird of Idaho and Nevada. Finally managed to get a pic of this beautiful bird in the Mormon Row at Grand Teton

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.

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A private ranch in Grand Teton, a few of these co-exist with the National PArk
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The Mormon Row with homesteads setup by Mormons primarily from Idaho

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!

Las Islas Encantadas: The Bewitched Islands a.k.a Galapagos

“Getting to Galapagos is so difficult” – a sentiment echoed by many fellow-travelers we met on our much awaited visit to this archipelago 1000 kms west of the mainland of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Logistically and economically it is a challenging destination which perhaps helps with the ecological preservation of this unique natural World Heritage Site.

Our journey to this dream destination began with having to change plans – our originally booked flight out of Quito was cancelled and we were put on an earlier flight. So we had to come back a day earlier from Mindo and book an overnight stay at Quito. At 5 am on 3rd May, we queued up at the Quito airport for an entry permit / “visa” to the Galapagos Islands costing $20 per person. We had to get all our luggage scanned to ensure we weren’t carrying any organic material and then each one was sealed, a process that was repeated on entry and exit out of the two islands we visited.

Our flight with a hop at Guayaquil, the largest city of Ecuador, was to the Baltra island (Isla Baltra) in Galapagos, one of the 18 major islands and is solely dedicated for the airport. Only 3 airlines/alliances operate flights to Galapagos.

IMG_2379At the Baltra airport, we were greeted by warm weather, a welcome change from the chill of Quito, and a desert like environment.

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As we entered the terminal building of the Aeropuerto Ecológico de Galápagos, the first things to catch the eye were the huge fans, two of them covering the entire “immigration” hall. These industrial fans with temperature and CO2 sensors to auto-operate them are part of the energy efficient design of this LEED certified airport.

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We went through the “immigration” checks to verify our passports and entry permits and paid the Galapagos Islands entry fee of $100 per person. After collecting our baggage we boarded a bus that took us to the dock for a short ferry ride across to Isla Santa Cruz, the second largest island and the one with the largest population.

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At the dock we were excited to see numerous birds, some of which we could not identify then, flying around and diving for fish. Pelicans flew by so close, it was breath-taking!

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We unloaded a second time at Santa Cruz to take a taxi to Puerto Ayora, the town that was to be our base for the next few days to explore Galapagos.

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45 minutes later we were at our hotel, finally! We freshened up and headed out to the Charles Darwin Research Station that was a 10-minute walk away from us.

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Here we were delighted to spot Marine Iguanas for the very first time as well as the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs, some Darwin’s finches, a type of cuckoo later id’d as the Smooth-billed Ani and a striking songbird later id’d as the Galapagos Mockingbird.

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Marine Iguana
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The brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot Crab on the dark volcanic rocks is quite a sight!
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Smooth Billed Ani – a type of cuckoo
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Ground Finch – one of Darwin’s finches, endemic to Galapagos
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Ground Finch – female
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Galapagos Mockingbird

All this excitement even before we entered the core area of the research station that hosts Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana breeding centres. And then we came face-to-face with the gentle giants that gave Steven Spielberg his inspiration for the visage of E.T.! These creatures at once evoked reactions of E.T., Anaconda and Voldemort 🙂

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Galapagos Giant Tortoise – the inspiration for the face of E.T.
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The largest species of Tortoise, now Vulnerable – the Charles Darwin Research Station has a breeding centre where eggs are collected from islands for safe hatching and later release into natural habitat
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A neck that can extend quite a bit to reach up for food, perfectly adapted to its environment and thriving on Galapagos islands until man struck here!

A few steps ahead and peep over the wall revealed the beautiful yellow shades of a Galapagos Land Iguana.

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Land Iguana – a Vulnerable species, endemic to Galapagos

We noticed the unique tree-like cactus growing all around, and later read that it is called Opuntia echios, endemic to the Galapagos islands and a very important part of the ecosystem as a food source.

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Opuntia echios – grows slowly in the volcanic rocky crust, provides food for iguanas, tortoises, finches

After a lot of time spent admiring these beauties, it was time to head back with Mika having learnt a bit about Charles Darwin and his Galapagos inspired Theory of Evolution.

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Mika with a statue of Charles Darwin

Let me share a little perspective on Galapagos that we learnt while here. The first recorded visit by humans to these islands was in 1535 when a Spanish ship on its way to Peru was blown off-course. It is possible that the the islands were visited earlier by the Incas but no records exist. The islands were initially named Las Islas Encatadas by the sailors who reached here; while today this is popularly translated as the Enchanted Islands in the “charming” sense 0f the word, the sailors meant it as “bewitched” because of the islands suddenly appearing & disappearing in the fog. All life originally found here arrived either by the ocean or aerial route and hence the marked absence of any land mammals. All arrivals had to adapt to harsh conditions to survive and significantly, the same species adapted differently in different islands in isolation from each other. As observed by Charles Darwin, this archipelago seems to be nature’s laboratory of evolution by design!

The islands are of volcanic origin resulting from an intense “hotspot” beneath the ocean on the equator. There is constant activity which results in the formation of new islands and disappearance of older ones. In geological terms, the current islands are described as young meaning just over 2 million years old! Contrast this to human history terms .. we view the 5000 year old Egyptian civilisation as ancient!!

The climate of the Galapagos islands is determined entirely by ocean currents, the major one being the cold Humboldt Current which brings cold south polar water to the shores of these islands. No wonder then that the water here is so cold despite being on the equator! While this makes it difficult for people like us to get into the water to get a peek at the aquatic life, it is what makes the ocean extremely productive by pushing up nutrients from the ocean floor to upper layers where life-giving sunlight reaches.

The name Galapagos translates as per different accounts to either a type saddle or tortoise. Any which way, the name is derived from the Giant Saddleback Tortoises that roamed the islands in huge numbers when they were first visited by the Europeans.

On day 2 we headed off to the Tortuga (Tortoise) Bay in the hope of finding marine iguanas in the wild and an opportunity to spot some sea turtles and fish while snorkelling in the bay. It was a 2+ kilometre trail to walk from the entry point – worked well for us serving the dual purpose of getting some exercise and enjoying the place in peaceful solitude.  At the end of the cactus and then mangrove vegetation lined trail, was the vast blue expanse of the Pacific with waves breaking on the lava rocks at some places and rolling on to the white powdery sand at others.

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Our first look at Blue-footed Boobies from a distance and without knowing what we were looking at!

As we walked across the beach to cover another kilometer to the bay, we saw a swarm of birds who were flying and diving from time to time. The dive was a vertical drop, like a rocket! We managed to capture some of the action. It was later we learnt that the diving rockets we saw were the clownish Blue-footed Boobies who we got to see and admire from very close quarters. Hordes of pelicans were “surfing” and flying, just having a wonderful morning!

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A circling swarm of birds with some diving in at regular intervals
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A Blue-footed Booby diving vertically to catch fish!
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Brown Pelican

As we neared the bay, we spotted a Great Blue Heron standing still and to our huge excitement we saw our very first set of Marine Iguanas “in the wild” with a 2-metre radius circle drawn on the sand around them. It is a standard instruction everywhere in Galapagos to keep a 2-metre distance from all animals.

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Great Blue Heron – seemed to be meditating
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Marine Iguana basking in the morning sun – Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz

The Marine Iguana, endemic to the Galapagos, is the only sea-going lizard in the world. We were entertained by the occasional “sneezing” of some of them – a mechanism to excrete brine. The bay ahead was a good place to relax and build a sand castle with Mika, something not done in a long time. But the water was not clear at all for any luck with spotting anything while snorkelling. But our day was made with the mutiple “clusters” of marine iguanas we saw on the beach as well as witnessing some taking off to the water and some swimming up to the beach and move across to find their own spot under the sun.

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A Marine Iguana swims to the beach to sun itself

As we left the beach, I saw this pelican which seemed extremely content!

Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun - Satisfied!
Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun – Satisfied!

Standardisation of services is always useful for visitors – in Puerto Ayora all taxis are Toyota Hilux / Pickups with a standard charge of $1 for a ride anywhere within the town. So after the 3+ km walk back out of the trail to the beach, it was a $1 taxi ride back to our lovely accommodation for a refreshing shower before heading out to what became one of our favourite places in town – the harbour. One just needs to stand by the pier and watch to see a whole variety of animals – sea lions swimming or resting on the benches, pelicans and herons on boats, marine iguanas climbing up the walls and sea turtles, golden rays and baby sharks swimming past!

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Animals have right of way and seating here!

The next few days saw us venturing out to the non-human inhabited North Seymour and Santa Fe islands. The former hosts colonies of the Magnificent Frigate birds and Blue-footed Boobies along with Land Iguanas that we got to see at just over an arm’s length. The latter provides great snorkelling spots where we got to swim with sea turtles, sting rays, baby sharks and watch a bunch of young sea-lions up close. We had just five people on the Santa Fe trip and our guide forecast correctly that it was a “lucky day”. He showed us a fantastic sight of hundreds, maybe a thousand fish forming a beautiful pattern on the ocean floor at one of the spots and in another (with truly freezing water) we saw the most amazingly colourful fish right out a NatGeo production!

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A Magnificent Frigatebird family nesting in North Seymour island – the father takes the responsibility of safekeeping of the eggs and upbringing of the chicks, the mother helps with the feeding of the chicks
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Male Magnificent Frigatebird with his scarlet throat pouch inflated like a balloon, common in the breeding season
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Blue-footed Boobies seen on Santa Cruz northern harbour
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A Blue-footed Booby family nesting in North Seymour island – what a lovely close-up view!
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Blue-footed Booby taking care of its eggs – the male and female take turns to do this
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The scrubby terrain of North Seymour island
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The North Seymour shoreline
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In the backdrop here is Mosquera island, a sand beach at sea level
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A sea lion stretches itself neck after a swim on the North Seymour shore!
Our guide for Santa Fe - the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us
Our guide for Santa Fe – the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us

Isla Santa Cruz has sights to explore on land as well. The ones we visited were the beautiful Las Grietas, Los Gemelos and the giant tortoise reserve and lava tunnels at El Chato.

Las Grietas - a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue "swimming pool" with the colourful parrot fish for company
Las Grietas – a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue “swimming pool” with the colourful parrot fish for company

At Las Grietas, we opted for snorkelling looking at the depth of the water and lack of “landing” places in between the length but our little mermaid was off swimming by herself and disappeared to explore the next two pools beyond!

Los Gemelos are an interesting feature in the highlands of Santa Cruz where the vegetation is completely different from the lowlands due to higher precipitation. On two sides of the road are two large sinkholes (not craters) created when the earth surface became unsteady and collapsed due to the hot magma underneath. Over the millenia, a lush green forest has grown here.

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Los Gemelos – large sinkholes where the surface sank due to the hot magma underneath, now covered with a lush Scalesia forest
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Tree covered in moss, perfect Halloween prop!

The El Chato tortoise reserve is privately owned and a large property where giant tortoises roam freely. The property also has a series of lava tunnels that one can walk through like an underground tunnel.

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El Chato Tortoise Reserve – where the gentle giants roam free
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Unique road sign – probably the only place in the world
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
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Lava Tunnels at El Chato, Santa Cruz island
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Lava Tunnels

Six days later we left to go to the Isabella island, the largest in the archipelago and the youngest at about a million years of age formed by the merger of 6 volcanoes of which 5 are still active. The last eruption on this island was a year ago in May 2015. Isla Isabella was our base for the next 3 days to explore and admire the rich wildlife in and around it. It was a 2-hour boat journey in the middle of the Pacific, both unnerving and calming at the same time. Unnerving when we looked at the expanse of water with some large waves and not a speck of land in sight making the power boat look quite powerless. Calming to stare into infinity and feeling the harmony in the interconnection between everything around.

At both Santa Cruz and Isabella islands, the bigger boats dock a little away from the piers and water taxis (smaller boats) are used to transfer people & goods to the island. It is a very systematic execution with perfect coordination between the boatmen in handling everyone and the biggest pieces of luggage for a smooth operation. And standard rates for the water taxis with no haggling for luggage. A very pleasant experience overall.

As our water taxi approached the island, the boatman pointed out to a penguin standing on the rocks, it felt like a dream to be seeing this! One of the reasons for coming to Isabella was to see the Galapagos penguins that reside here.

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Entry into the little village of Isabella, solar-powered street lights in the background

A walk to the bay later that day offered us sights of numerous sea lions and marine iguanas snoozing near and on the walkways, benches, anywhere they wished! And penguins swimming around looking like ducks in the water 🙂

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Three sea lions snoozed peacefully with a larger adult on a bench nearby, completely unperturbed by the humans passing by within a couple of feet
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The largest single congregation of Marine Iguanas we saw in Galapagos was on Isla Isabella
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Penguins swimming near Isla Isabella dock

The next morning Manish & Mika decided to go snorkelling to Tintoreras just off Isabella; I opted to stay back and catch up on some writing as I am not too fond of being in the water and wanted to reserve my last bit of stamina for the next day’s snorkelling at Los Tuneles, the lava tunnels in the ocean. The under-rated Tintoreras turned out to be the most magical experience for Mika and Manish with close encounters with sea lions and penguins in the water and sighting scores of white tipped sharks from arm’s length while walking the Martian terrain. For the details of this day, you need to read Mihika’s blog on her experience!

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Galapagos Penguins at Tintoreras, off Isla Isabella
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White-tipped sharks resting in shallow pools at Tintoreras
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A sea turtle raises its head out of the water!

For all the action I missed in the morning, we compensated with sighting of dozens of brilliant Flamingos on another part of the island.

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American Flamingos in Isla Isabella

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The next day was the big day with a 45-minute boat ride to Los Tuneles, with a short circle around Union Rock where we sighted Nazca Boobies, another species of boobies, this one with black feet.

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Nazca Booby at Union Rock, off the coast of Isla Isabella
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Nazca Boobies

The snorkelling at Los Tuneles was a long, exhausting and fully worthwhile experience for the ability to see and swim with seahorses, full-sized white tipped reef sharks, different types of rays including the beautiful Manta Ray, octopus and giant sea turtles.

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A delicate seahorse
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Swimming with the Rays!
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White-tipped Reef Sharks rest here
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Mika at the Los Tuneles under water!
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Lobster on the head!!
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Los Tuneles – the lava tunnels off Isla Isabella
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A sea turtle swims by at Los Tuneles

The day ended with a relaxed stroll on the beach and watching a beautiful sunset.

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A colourful sunset at Isla Isabella

As we ended what we thought was a once-in-a-lifetime stay at Galapagos, we were quite sure we would be coming back here some day ….

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Posting this as we leave for the Amazon rainforests with no phones, internet for 3 days and generated electricity for only 3 hours each evening! Good luck to us 🙂