Friday, July 20, 2012

Yellowstone National Park - Day 2

Thursday - July 12th

Today was a great "bear day" with lots of sightings throughout the park!

It started at 5:50am with a frigid wake-up of just 36F after overnight thunder-boomers that rocked my van between 10:00pm and roughly midnight.  The entire Canyon Village area was socked in with dense fog; even the bison around the junction were difficult to see.

My plan for the day was to do the upper loop, again heading counterclockwise, with an added detour out the North Entrance to Gardiner, MT.  Gardiner was on the agenda for two purposes:  1) to have breakfast at the Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe, and 2) to buy "cheap" gas outside of the park.

This part of the park is also a well known area for bears, with many sightings and photos posted from June.  I was excited in anticipation of what I might see today.  Heading over the Dunraven Pass, my hopes were that I might see the bears from last night.  Having measured the distance from Canyon Village to that point, I knew to start looking closely for them about 10 miles into my drive.  Fortunately the fog had cleared by that time, but alas, no bears.

As I continued on, I came to the Roosevelt Junction area where I would be staying the next two nights.  I popped through the Roosevelt Cabin area to take some photos since I wasn't sure what time I'd be home for the night, which could mean close to dark when decent photos might be a challenge.

I continued on in a westerly direction, stopping at a turnout to change out of sweats into more appropriate attire for the day as by 7:30am the sun was up and the air warming.  Having read that the Blacktail Plateau was a good wildlife viewing area, I had a lot of anticipation as I drove through the area not realizing that there was an actual six or seven mile one-way loop road that ascended up to the area known as Blacktail Plateau.  NOTE:  The NPS Yellowstone brochure with map was clear in this matter, I had just not looked at it close enough to recognize it as a separate drive route.

When I reached the signed turn-off, I took the left hand turn onto the bumpy gravel road.  Nervously I continued through the low grasslands until the road ascended up into the pine forest.  During the first couple of miles, all I saw were ground squirrels and what I believe were yellow bellied marmots.  They scampered along the road and into the thick grass and sagebrush too quickly for me to get much of a photo of them.  I did however get this one who was checking out what was happening around his hole.

I have to say, as slow as I drove and close as I looked, I was disappointed not to have seen bears in this area especially since this loop road had been reported closed just the week before due to high bear activity.  That said, as much as I expected this to be a wildLIFE viewing drive, I was pleasantly pleased with how many wildFLOWERS I got to see.  There were so many that I took photos of, I will have to research what they all are before posting photos in this blog, so look for a subsequent entry later.  In the meantime, here is one photo of a very dense area of beautiful pinkish-purple flowers, I believe fireweed.

After returning to the main loop road, I again headed west towards Mammoth Springs and the North Entrance.  As I made the large curve in the road, I noticed a family pulled off into a turnout using binoculars into the ravine below.  I stopped to check out what they were looking for, to learn that they thought they had seen something moving around in the dead timber.  I fished out my binoculars and started looking with them.  They spotted the large black bear resurface as it came up from what appeared to be a dry creek bed.  How exciting - a bear sighting in the morning daylight as it approached 9:00am.

The bear ambled around for a bit, then climbed up on one of the dead logs, walking across it much like a gymnast on a balance beam.  It rooted around seemingly looking for grubs to eat, hopped down and then disappeared into the thick brush.

The drive from Mammoth up to Gardiner was very beautiful, with the road running parallel to the often whitewater rapids of the Yellowstone River.  The North Entrance is also the location of the iconic Roosevelt Arch which is worth the drive just for the photo op.  Atop the arch it reads "FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE" and it is noted that the Yellowstone NP was created by an act of the US Congress on March 1, 1872.

In Gardiner, I enjoyed my ham & egg on english muffin sandwich and hot tea, as well as the free WiFi at the Tumbleweed Bookstore & Cafe.  I also filled up my gas tank, paying the expected $3.699 as posted on Gas Buddy before I left Milwaukee.

Heading back into the park, I noted passing the Mammoth Campground.  I have to say, it would not be someplace I would want to stay, especially if parking an RV as there was no shade to speak of and all of the sites were on top of one another.  I suppose it serves as a great location for those who go fishing on the river in that area.  Speaking of which . . . this entire area reminded me of the movie "A River Runs Through It".  The picturesque scenery was inviting, if only to stop to listen to the rushing water.

Back in Yellowstone NP, I continued back through the Mammoth Village area, stopping in at the visitor center to stamp my NPS Passport and snap a few photos.  The area was very busy with tourists and finding parking was a bit of a challenge.  This is one of the older areas of the park, with lovely old buildings many of which are used for park employee residences.

Heading south along the western side of the loop road, I passed through the Mammoth Hot Springs areas.  I did not stop at the first area due to the lack of parking but did pull into the loop road that goes through the Upper Terraces area.  There I was able to get up close to several of the hot springs.  It was approaching high noon and the air temp was 80F.  The steam from all of the hot springs in the area were noticeable for miles approaching Mammoth Village.  Many of the rock formations looked surreal, as if something from another planet.

As I approached the Norris Geyser Basin, I passed by the Roaring Mountain, a rather nondescript hillside other than the fact that it has numerous vents puffing out steam from the geothermal activity happening beneath the surface.  Photos here were difficult because of the sun high in the sky coupled with the rising air temps (85F when I stopped).  Hopefully this one illustrates a bit of what it looked like during my stop.

From the Norris Junction, I head back towards Canyon Village so as to continue my counterclockwise loop that would eventually land me back at Roosevelt Lodge and my cabin for the night.  When I arrived in the area, it was really too early to check-in and go to the cabin so I figured I'd head up towards to NE Entrance at Silver Gate.  Since the Lamar Valley is one of the better known wildlife viewing areas and there had been a black bear with two cubs seen in the area, it seemed like a decent way to spend a couple of hours.

I wasn't five miles from the Roosevelt Junction when I came upon a large back-up of cars complete with a couple of park ranger vehicles.  I knew immediately the black bear momma and cubs were in the area.  Unfortunately, it was next to impossible to find a safe pullout spot especially since the rangers were strictly enforcing the "100 yards" rule for being near bears.  I continued further down the road and found a second turnout with space enough to pull in.  I was far enough away from the action, however, that watching the bears munch on the sagebrush required the binoculars.  The good news was that they were moving in my direction.  The bad news would be that once within the 100 yards, I would be chased out of the turnout.

They continued to feed, often in areas not visible due to the thick brush or large rocks.  At one point, it appeared as though they would be making a turn back away from where I was parked but then she stopped and reversed again.  She did come within the distance that the rangers were concerned about those of us in the turnout, so they came down and had us move.  Ironically, by having me move out, it required that I drive towards the bear activity.  Better yet, it seemed momma wanted to cross the road, requiring that all traffic stop to give her right away.

Once she was across the road, her two cubs followed her, between the cars and everything.  It was amazing that none of the bear family seemed too concerned with the throng of vehicles and people surrounding them.  I was fortunate in that I had a great vantage point to snap several photos during their movement across the road.  It was very exciting, especially since the first year cubs were still pretty small.

After all of that excitement I continued on up to the NE Entrance Area.  I did see a small group of pronghorn just before getting to Lamar Valley.   I stopped in the large parking area overlooking the valley, but didn't see much.  Even the wolf watchers reported not seeing anything through their scopes.

I continued on stopping at a small turnout alongside a rushing creek to fix a sandwich.  In this area, the bugs (mosquitoes and biting flies) were pretty bad so for the first time I had to spray OFF on my exposed legs and arms to avoid them.

The drive on up to Silver Creek was uneventful so once through the gates I continued into the small town and turned around.  At the park entrance I asked about bear sightings that day and he said there had been a grizzly seen in the area but no further reports for several hours.  I kept my eyes open, scanning for the illusive grizzly, but to no avail.

The time from the NE Entrance back to Roosevelt Junction was about 75 minutes.  Since it was close to 6:00pm I figured I may as well check-in.  In the parking lot, I was met by my TA friend and roommate for the next two nights.  I've "known" Nanc from the Alaska Forums on Trip Advisor, so meeting her in person and spending some time with her in Yellowstone was especially exciting!

Once settled into our Roughriders Cabin, I took a shower.  At 6:30pm we decided to head back out to Lamar in hopes of seeing more wildlife, especially the resident wolf pack.  Nanc had camped the night before at Pebble Creek CG and said that there had been a grizzly bear on the hillside just outside of the camp.  She drove first to that area and sure enough, there he was!  It was my first grizzly viewing (and photo).  It was a great experience, even if it was too far away to get a really good photo.  I saw him with my own two eyes and did get this photo, which has been zoomed and cropped in order to see him.

Other than a bison jam and more pronghorn, there was not much else happening in the Lamar Valley, so we headed back to our cabin and called it a night.  It had been a long day, and I was ready for sleep!  The cabin was comfortable as we had a triple bed room and was just across from the bathroom and showers.  There was also an ice machine with free ice, so I got my little cooler and put some diet cokes on ice overnight.  I think we said our good nights and went to sleep around 9:00pm.

For the day, I drove 230 miles, with Nanc doing the drive out to Lamar and back.

I will close with the photo of this sign.  I was very happy to see some of Obama's recovery money going to improve our National Parks.  I had also seen similar signs in Grand Teton NP earlier in the week.

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