Wednesday, August 19, 2009

 

September Song of the Wildflowers

Reggie accompanies me into the forest across from Henry's Lake to look for late summer wildflowers.

Well, of course, the wildflower season is in decline. It's mid-summer or for this latitude and altitude it is really late summer and most wildflowers are singing their "September Song" (the days grow short when you reach September..when the autumn weather turn leaves to flame..etc). However, it is still interesting to go into the forest and look for nice wildflower specimens. There is still a lot of color to see.

Some of the color is now provided by the leaves and the berries and not the flowers. Today, my Golden Retriever Reggie and I went into the Targhee forest across from the RedRock RV Park and Henry's Lake (near Yellowstone National Park and Island Park, Idaho) to see what wildflowers were still looking relatively nice.

Red Baneberries (poisonous to humans)

The first head-turner just within the forests edge was the Red baneberry (Actaea rubra). It has a beautiful cluster of red berries in a bottlebrush shape. Prior to fruiting these were beautiful little white flowers. The leaves are green, large and coarsely toothed with deeply lobed margins. It's a perennial herbaceous plant, living more than 2 years. Seeds germinate the following year and flower the third year. The plant and the berries are very poisonous to humans (not birds who distribute the seeds). It appears that most mammals avoid them to some extent and there is not much evidence for bears eating them.

Buffaloberries (left) and baneberry growing side by side.

Growing right beside the baneberry was the Canada Buffaloberry or Soopolallie
(Shepherdia canadensis). This is a shrub that also has red berries but not as bright red, numerous or as large as the baneberry. The berries are edible but extremely bitter and are usually eaten with other berries, whipped up into a froth produced by the chemicals in the berry.

Buffaloberry

Not far away I found the orange colored berries from the Fairybell flower (Disporum trachycarpum). The berries are edible but rather tasteless (according to my sources.) They do make for a nice bright spot in the forest this time of year.

Fairybell berries are bright orange.

The Indian Paintbrush is still lingering to make bright red spots throughout the darkened forest floor. They are especially nice looking when a ray of sunshine manages to get through the forest canapy and shine on them.

Indian Paintbrush

Many other plants are still providing color this late in the season under the forest canopy including the purple Rocky Mountain Asters, a few (rare) yellow Heart-leafed Arnica, the white headed Englemann Asters, the purple Common Harebell, the wild Blue Flax, the yellow western hawkweed, red clover and more.

One of the many wildflowers still blooming is the Wild Blue Flax.

Many of the plants are waning but still provide beauty in the colorful display of their leaves as Fall approaches. The Sticky Geraniums can still be found with blooms, but many of them have leaves that are starting to turn various shades of red and orange. It's fun to search for the most interesting and colorful leaves among the dying plants.

Sticky Geranium plants begin to turn fall colors already.

Some meadowrue leaves have started turning a nice reddish purple color. Contrasting with the still very green leaves, this makes for a beautiful display.

Meadowrue leaves begins to turn colors.

So, even if you are late with your summer vacation, if you come visit us at RedRock RV Park in the middle to the end of August, you'll get to see some of the beauty that the wildflowers give to our area. You might have to look a little closer and be a little less discriminating in your choices, but you'll still enjoy them, I promise.

Western Hawkweed (Hieracium scouleri) dots the forest floor with yellow.

Remember, that beauty is all around you. You just have to look for it. It might make you happy for a few moments. Look down and look closely at the small stuff. You might be surprised at what you find.

Monday, August 17, 2009

 

A Mid-summers Drive Yellowstone/Beartooth

Last week I drove from RedRock RV Park in Island Park,Idaho to the top of the Beartooth Mountains. The whole trip was about 320 miles round-trip, but well worth it. Of course, the path takes us through the northern part of Yellowstone National Park and it's always fun to look out for wild animals. On this trip my cousin from Merced, California accompanied me and she was thrilled to be able to see so many animals. This trip is not unlike one that many people visiting RedRock RV Park take everyday so I thought I might share it with you to give you an idea of what touring from here might be like.

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.

My cousin and the Madison river looking west in Yellowstone.


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.

My cousin and the Madison river looking west in Yellowstone.

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).

Yellow-bellied Marmot blends in with the lava rocks at Sheepeater Cliffs.

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.

Colorful spring at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Continuing past the community of Mammoth Hot Springs we cross the Gardiner River over a deep canyon before it dumps into the Yellowstone River. Stopping here will often produce views of wildlife feeding in the meadows far below next to the river, but today we press on-wards.

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.

Udine Falls, 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.

Grizzly Bear foraging across from Blacktail Beer Plateau.

About 5 miles later we encountered another traffic jam, this one mediated by a Park Ranger. We were able to pull off the road (at quite a slope to the Jeep) and get out to find that a wolf pack was resting far below us in the canyon. An observant tourist had spotted the pack running down a deer. The pack was so far that you could only see a couple members of it by using powerful spotting scopes that people had set up. I was able to set up my telephoto lens and get a glimpse of a black wolf, but not with the clarity for a good photograph. The wolves are very elusive, especially in summer and have been very difficult for me to photograph.

Black Wolf far below in canyon after chasing deer along northern park road.

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.

Lamar Valley and River.

Bison lounging along Lamar River.

The Lamar River is a wide and shallow river with many bison seen standing on the banks and even in the river. You'll also see a lot of the fly fishermen standing the 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.

Mountain Goats on the steep slopes of Barronette Peak. (See the white spots?)

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.)

Beartooth Lake and Clay Butte

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.

Twin Lakes at the top of the Beartooth Scenic Highway.

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.

Mountain Goats along Beartooth Scenic highway.

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.

Pilot Peak from the Scenic Beartooth Highway.

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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