We drove in to the Yellowstone area from the NorthWest. It was pretty easy to find our destination, the Wagon Wheel RV park. Ken not only checked us in but pulled out a map and gave us a thorough overview of the park and the town. He drew lines and circled and annotated everything, including recommended businesses and complete mileage logs for each loop. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but proved to be invaluable later. It would be difficult to find a better park manager than this guy! We set up the trailer and took a brief stroll through town. Things were pretty quiet — it was, after all, Sunday evening. Perfect! We love avoiding the crowds!
Normally I would walk you through a daily blow-by-blow of when and where we visited, but for Yellowstone I am going to cover things by feature. Besides, I'm writing this almost a month after our visit there and my photo dates don't seem to match up. So I'll just start with an overview.
Have you ever heard of a Supervolcano? There is only one supervolcano area in the whole world that is on land — that's Yellowstone. Every 100,000 years or so these things go off in massive explosions. This is the kind of eruption that makes species go extinct. Unfortunately they don't go fully, permanently dormant. So the entire Yellowstone region is sitting on top of this volcanic area. That is why there are regular earthquakes and tremors and lots of hot water bubbling up everywhere. And every time the earth quakes the water pathways are diverted. Old springs and geysers shift or dry up, new springs and geysers pop up or become more active. It's enough to make the Park maintenance crew crazy I'm sure! Note: Mammoth Hot Springs is currently 85-90% dry in 2011. I don't know if that will change, but keep it in mind when planning your trip.
One of the first things you notice when approaching a hot spring or geyser is the smell. It's hydrogen sulfide, a.k.a. that 'rotten egg' smell. It's not concentrated enough to be toxic, but whew! Stinky!
If the air is bubbling up slowly through water, you have a hot spring. You can find these all over the park. If the air flow is higher, you might end up with a geyser. Some geysers seem rather steady, but most oscillate. Some explode just a few times a year, others are very sporadic, and some go off on a regular schedule. It is rather surprising that 'Old Faithful' still adheres to a regular schedule after over 100 years of observation. Many others are no longer active.
If you have air coming up through mud, instead of water, you have a mud pot. The thick mud just bubbles and plops around. Very entertaining!
Of course there is plenty of non-heated water in the park as well. The Madison River is long and shallow and flat and a favorite of fly-fisherman. Most of the fishing occurs outside the park, but you saw guys in waders everywhere. The other main river is the Yellowstone, including the upper and lower falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This river begins at Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in all of North America. Most of the lake freezes three feet thick in the winter, except for along the northern edge where several hot springs keep it open or thin.
The average visitor to Yellowstone is going to see mainly three species of wildlife. One is the Osprey, which are plentiful. Unfortunately most people won't even notice them. Another is the elk, which are a frequent cause of traffic jams. The third is the bison, which are everywhere. Unfortunately we had already seen very good examples of each on our trip, so there really wasn't that much new wildlife for us in the park. Fortunately there are a couple of places in the park which have populations wolves and grizzly bears, so we headed for the east side to check out Lamar and Hayden valleys. Our first trip was rather uneventful. We saw a massive bison heard in the distance at Lamar Valley, but that's about it. We briefly scanned the Hayden Valley treeline but saw no wolves or bears.
The next day I got a great tip from Kevin Sanders, a.k.a. Bearman. He runs a tour guide service and is possibly more familiar with the park than anyone else, including rangers! He posted an update on his Facebook page and mentioned some wolves feasting on a carcass. We had missed them! But he indicated that they would probably be there again the next day, and sure enough they were! Unfortunately, they were WAY off in the distance, about a mile from the road. Our binoculars and camera zoom were insufficient for much detail. But we DID get a hot tip from one of the other wolf watchers. He said that just to our south a grizzly bear was munching on a carcass really close to the road! Soon we were in our car.
As we arrived there was a tremendous traffic jam. We parked in the first open area and walked down the road to where all the action was. And there it was! WOW that thing was close! We estimated that it was about 75 feet off the road. Normally it is NOT safe to be that close to a grizzly! Fortunately he was busy eating and was in a grove of trees so he felt protected. We took a lot of photos and video, but eventually the rangers pushed the crowds to the left and right away from the bear, ending any sort of good viewing. We were so excited to be able to see this beast from such a short distance!
In order to see all of these things in Yellowstone, you have to drive. You drive a lot! Most of the major features are on two main loops. The northern loop is about 70 miles, the southern loop is 96 miles. This doesn't include the roads in and out of the different exits, each anywhere from 5 to 30 miles long. In other words, there is a lot of ground to cover! You can see most of the main features from your car or by taking short hikes on well-traveled paths. You can also take long hikes cross-country, but just be sure to go in groups and take plenty of bear spray. Two different people lost their lives to grizzly bears this year, neither had any bear spray and one was hiking solo.
But in addition to the main features, there is also a lot of scenery. There are many locations in the park where it seems like you can see forever. Blue skies, green trees, brown grasses, water of blue and green and orange even! All of this makes for a lot of beauty to take in, so plan ahead and do just that.
When we first planned our trip, Yellowstone was on the map but neither of us thought of it as a highlight. I was more excited about the tall trees of California, Bryn was rather fixated on Yosemite. But Yellowstone got our attention and held it, its beauty and wildness proving why it was the World's first National Park.
There are 73 photos in this photo album -- see the whole thing here!
(click the picture below)