Monday, August 17, 2009
A Mid-summers Drive Yellowstone/Beartooth
It was bit of a cloudy day to start and we were fearful that we'd have a bad weather day, but like most of the weather here, it changes pretty dramatically from hour to hour and place to place.
One of my favorite places to stop and "change gears" from the commercial to the wild "frame of mind" is a just a couple miles from the West Yellowstone park entrance at a turn-off next to the Madison River. Few people stop here and it is a refreshing view of the magnificent Madison river, with dark blue water, blue sky, white clouds, eagles, osprey, and often an elk or bison munching around you. Today, it was just the view of the water that we enjoyed. There is a boardwalk that has several informative markers about the effects of the 1988 fire. It's worth taking and gives you a chance to get a little exercise.
I like to take it slow along the Madison River. Most tourists are trying to zip along at 45 mph rushing to the geysers or slamming on their brakes if someone spots an animal.
There are always so many animals (elk, bison, deer, otters and muskrats), birds (eagles and ospreys) and beautiful scenic spots along this section of the river. There are several pull-outs that allow you to get out and look around. Many have explanatory signs that give you a bit of information about the wild life or geology around you. Take the time to read them and you'll enjoy the experience more.
At one of the many turn-offs is a small sign that points to a trail across the road. The trail is for Harlequin lake. This is a rarely visited lake snuggled up against the volcanic cliffs that often has beautiful lily ponds and sometimes a bear or elk grazing nearby. It's a quick 15 minute (1/2 mile walk) through the pines that is well worth the effort, especially if you like getting away from the crowds.
We continued on towards the northern part of the Park. We pass the Norris Geyser basin this trip. It's certainly worth a couple hours of exploring but our destination today was much further away and we'd never make it stopping at every interesting place. Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most malleable thermal area in Yellowstone. Rainbow Colors, hissing steam, and pungent odors combine to create an experience unique to Yellowstone.
One of my favorite areas going north is the section along Willow Creek. You might see moose here in the early morning or late evening. Alas, we weren't here at the right time, but still the landscape is beautiful. We stopped at nearby Sheepeater Cliff where interesting lava cliffs have formed columnar basalt rocks. These interesting rocks sit next to the Gardiner River which is rushing by in all its fury here. We spotted a yellow-bellied Marmot blending in with the lava rocks here. One lady told me it was a beaver, but my training told me that wasn't correct. Beavers don't normally bask on open rocks (and they have a large flat tail).
We drove through Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest corner of the park, a natural wonder of calcite springs, the park headquarters and a commercial center for tourists. A short drive through the thermal area is worth taking. The main feature here are the thermal terraces. Thousands of years of dripping calcite water created a magnificent terraced display. The glistening terraces are definitely beautiful especially those with the colorful bacterial mats.
Along the northern road there are several interesting turn-offs. One provides a great view of Udine falls. This falls a distance of 110 feet along Lava Creek.
Along the northern road we encountered a traffic jam. This is often indicative of wildlife along the road. So many motorists ignore the park rule to pull off the road and instead stop dead in the road pointing their cameras for long periods. Today was a 10 minute delay while a curious tourist had his full of a full grown grizzly bear on the hillside. We finally found a place to pull off and was able to photograph this large bear ourselves as he foraged for plants.
Once I'd seen enough of the small black spot in the canyon, we decided to drive into the Lamar Valley, heading towards the northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park. This is another one of my favorite areas, mostly for the solitude and the wide open views with wildlife. The Lamar River meanders through this valley with herds of bison, a few pronghorn, and an occasional Grizzly Bear chewing on the abundant grasses and forbs. We encountered another bear spotting, but it had just disappeared behind a close hill and we missed seeing it. I suspect we are seeing more bears because they are fattening up for their long winter sleep. Since Fall is approaching fast they know they need to put on a lot of weight soon. We spotted a couple pronghorn as well.
Bison lounging along Lamar River.
We headed west following Soda Butte Creek towards the northeast entrance and encounter the next wildlife opportunity. Barronette Peak (10,404 ft) is a massive wall of stone along the road that is home to a few families of Mountain Goats (Oreamnos americanus). They aren't recently native to this area. They were brought into the Beartooths between 1940 and 1960 from western Montana. They aren't welcome to Yellowstone due to the "native" only policy of the park service. It's hard to believe they weren't originally native here and maybe chased away by man. They are hard to see because they are so far away and they are hanging on the steep cliffs. You look for little white specks that are moving then use your binoculars to zero in on them.
We stopped in Cooke City, Montana for a great lunch at the Beartooth Cafe and headed on to the beautiful Beartooth mountains in Wyoming. This portion of the trip along the Beartooth highway is delightfully wild and scenic by most standards. The road skirts a couple streams before it starts climbing into the alpine eco-system. The first really scenic sight is Beartooth Lake with its view of the gorgeously colored Beartooth Butte and Clay Butte. (There's a dirt road to the top of Clay Butte with a retired fire lookout station that is definitely worth the drive for the sweeping views and wildflowers.)
The road winds up in elevation until you reach the tree line and the alpine lakes. The views in every direction are indescribably beautiful. Be sure to stop at as many places as possible to soak in this beauty. Look down at the tiny wildflowers, the wind-swept trees, the glacier carved peaks and the alpine lakes. At roughly 3,000 square miles, the Beartooths are one of North America's largest land areas rising above 10,000 ft, reaching its highest point at Granite Peak (12,799 ft). This is a land of high alpine lakes, glacier carved cirques, windswept trees and fragile tundra. When you get to the top (10,000 ft) look for the famous Beartooth peak, the namesake of these mountains.
You'll also find Mountain Goats up here. Here they often graze close to the road on flatter ground. This trip we couldn't find them, but I'll include a photo from a previous trip that I took. Sometimes you'll also see domesticated sheep along with a sheep herder and sheep dogs.
We turned around at the Montana border (overlooking this awesome switchback from Red Lodge, MT). The opposite direction affords different views and you are tempted to stop frequently. One example is the view of Pilot peak. This is a very distinctive peak. We planned to be back before dark so we didn't stop much on the way back. This is a long trip but if you stay with us, please plan to take it if you have time. You won't regret it.
I hope you've enjoyed this beautiful trip. Obviously this is just a taster. Make sure you check the weather and road conditions before you set out and take plenty of warm clothes and water. Conditions at the top can often change dramatically in a short time.
Come see us at RedRock RV Park near Yellowstone National Park in Island Park, Idaho. You'll be glad you did!
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