August 24 – 29, 2011: West Yellowstone, MT and the National Park

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

We pulled out of Bozeman the following morning, one last time down Main Street and out to the vet’s office where we waited about an hour for Teddy’s urn. Placing it in his crate, we turned south for West Yellowstone, our last Montana stop.

One of the things we quickly discovered about Yellowstone is that tourists like us need to plan carefully to see what we want to see. The Park is so vast that key locations are spread out along the half-dozen primary driving routes through the park. Hikers and campers have different challenges: finding trails, finding campsites, and dodging wildlife. We need paved roads.

Part of the planning also involves selecting the closest entrance to the places you want to see. We originally intended to bivouac in Gardiner, just outside the north entrance, but chose West Yellowstone instead. It was a fun town, and not crowded this late in the season. It was just a half mile to the Park’s entrance gate – out of Montana and into Wyoming. The campground was nice, but we were warned to watch out for wolves and bears, especially while walking pets. Even barbecue grills had to be brought in at night.

In the four full days we were there, we took three excursions into The Park and spent the other day exploring town. The first 14 miles were duplicated each day, from the entrance to Madison, named for the same river that eventually becomes one of the three forks of the Missouri. This guy greeted us on our first day in.

We stopped in Madison on our first excursion to check on the estimated eruption time of Old Faithful. Then we turned south, encountering three geyser basins. The first featured Fountain Paint Pot, a steaming, bubbling caldron. The second highlighted Grand Prismatic Spring, a colorful collection of erupting grounds with lengthy walkways and viewing platforms. The third – with our arrival timed perfectly – was Old Faithful herself. Predicted to perform at 10:27 AM, she was within one minute of that. The setting was quiet – watchful waiting. Once the show was over, there was a modicum of applause. More than a carnival atmosphere, there was an air of reverence. OF’s schedule has been modified by the large 1959 earthquake; the eruption schedule is variable but still predictable ; eruptions average 90 minutes apart. Visitors Centers point out that the entire park is an active volcano and is subject to thousands of tremors each year of varying degrees. Seismometers were everywhere, as are steam vents and shifting ground.

From Old Faithful, we turned east to Yellowstone Lake. I’ve mentioned before that we’ve heard many qualified superlatives on this trip. The Lake has one, too: the largest lake in North America that’s over 7,000 feet in elevation! It’s roughly 136 miles in area; 15 x 20 miles in size. Coming from the west, the first thing you encounter is West Thumb, a large cove that appears to represent about 10% of the overall lake. It is a popular geyser basin, complete with its own collection of periodic eruptions, pools, springs, cones and paint pots.

This was our turnaround point for Day 1. On Day 2, it was back to Madison and then northwest through Norris to Canyon Village and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, traveling the full length of its north side. No size record, it is nevertheless extremely impressive: 800-1200 feet deep, one quarter to three quarters of a mile wide, and 24 miles long.

And here’s a bit of the resident fauna…

On Day 3, we went north at Norris up to Mammoth Hot Springs, where we explored much of the Upper and Lower Terraces.

And the Albright Visitors Center, housed in the BOQ building of the old Fort Yellowstone, considerably expanded our knowledge of The Park. Much of the fort still exists and is little changed from 1916, when the army turned Yellowstone over to civilian management . This area, just five miles from the park’s north border, is also the headquarters; the administrative offices are located in a former Fort Yellowstone 200 bed barracks.

On the way back, we also took in the Obsidian Cliffs, a 180,000 year old lava flow, and the Norris Geyser Basin.

Finally, we need to provide an animal census. We saw more bison, singularly and in a herd. One was so set on continuing is stroll down the road that Dot reached out her hand and touched his hump as she crept by. We saw elk, mostly females. But Mr. (or Mrs.) Moose has still escaped our vision. More on bears and wolves below.

On Day 4, we stuck to West Yellowstone. First stop was the Imax Theater, where we viewed “Yellowstone,” an excellent flick created by a team of Academy Award winners and tracing the park from its earliest inhabitants, the Tukudika Tribe,until its establishment as the first national park. Of special interest was the extensive exploratory and development role played by John Coulter, a member of the L&C expedition.

Next stop was the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, an accredited preservation and education center. As the name implies, the Center is an opportunity to see these two species in as natural environment as possible. The bears, of which there more than half a dozen on site, are let out into the broad habitat in pairs – we got to see the brother and sister team of Kobuk & Nakina, who have been at the Center since 1998. The habitat is designed and operated to give the bears constant challenges; features are changed, food is hidden and they even get to fish in a stream. The Center has also added a Birds of Prey section, not quite ready for prime time when we were there but opening this fall.

Across the street was the West Yellowstone Historic Center Museum. Housed in the old Union Pacific depot, the museum features numerous exhibits that chronicle the history of the city and its neighboring park. The railroad is covered in detail, of course, but so was aviation. An airport was opened in 1935, and one of its earliest users, pilot F. H. “Chris” Christianson, built skis for his plane to land on the frequently snow-covered runway. He did a major mail run for years, dropping the pouches when landing was impossible. The transportation theme also covers wagons on the trails and the Yellow Buses, sisters to the Red Buses in Glacier. A video exhibit detailing the 1988 fires that shut the park down is a highlight; over 200 fires blazed from June through August that year, the largest of which was caused by the careless drop of a timber man’s cigarette. Behind the building stands a boxcar paneled with wood siding. It was one of seven such cars that made up the Montana Centennial Train that crossed the country in 1964 to celebrate the anniversary and put Montana on the map. It stopped in 16 cities and was parked for two years in Flushing Meadows at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Gone are the hand-painted murals – two per car per side – that adorned it, but the story is told on the nearby sign and in a documentary movie inside the station. There’s also some great footage from the time on YouTube.

We packed a lot into four days, and now it was time for the Tetons.

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