Monday, August 14, 2017

Yellowstone National Park -- Revisiting for the 4th time.

     I have often said that every person should take the time and effort to drive from middle America across the wide expanse of countryside at least until they reach the front range of the Rocky Mountains. My husband and I along with at times our young children have done this several times. In 1967, after marrying this young man from Israel who had come here to go to school, we decided to make such a jaunt. I had never been west of the Missouri River, and only west of the Mississippi to go to undergraduate school at University of Iowa. My husband had toured this country shortly after arriving on a student visa in 1963. He purchased a ticket that was available then from Greyhound that for $99 allowed him to travel by bus anywhere in the continental US as long as he didn't use the ticket to keep going back over the same route again and again. After this trip, he was able to actually show me my country. It was his idea to take this big wedding trip, not exactly a honeymoon, because we had to arrange it at the end of summer after we had finished our respective summer jobs and before school started in the fall after Labor Day. We left Madison, WI for a 13 day trip west, stopping in the Badlands and camping in the valley near the visitor center the first night after driving 700 miles that day. We went on to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, Devil's Tower, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, then up into Idaho, to Mount Rainier, on to Seattle, down into Olympia National Park, then up to Vancouver, and back through the Canadian Rockies to Banff, Jasper, and then down to Calgary, to Waterton Lakes Canadian National park, Glacier National Park and then home to Madison. That is correct; it was done in 13 days. I recall seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and wanting to just sit and enjoy this for a while. I had never seen mountains and landscape like this. But I was already learning that I only had the time it took for my husband to take the photos that he wanted and then we were on to the next stop. I complained about that overlooking the magnificent canyon with its two waterfalls, but I just barely heard his comment as he led me back to the car, "We'll come back some day." And we did, 3 more times, this 4th visit just completed to celebrate 50 years of our marriage. This time we brought our two sons and their families to meet us in Yellowstone, at Old Faithful Inn. My younger sister went with us. These younger people wanted to do many more activities than we were capable of at this point in our life. But we told them the only expectations we had of them, was that they be back at Old Faithful Inn for dinner each night by 6:00 PM. They could otherwise do whatever they wanted during the day.

East Approach to Yellowstone
     Throughout these 50 years, Yellowstone has deserved its popularity as a travel destination. Although Yosemite in California was set aside as public land called a Forest Preserve previously, Yellowstone was the first public land set aside and called a National Park, signed into law on March 1, 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant. Yellowstone is so very unique in that it contains more than 10,000 geothermal features ranging from geysers, to boiling mud pots, to fumaroles, to hot springs many of which are colored like a rainbow by algae that grow at various hot temperatures. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and its two magnificent waterfalls are almost unrivaled in the West and is more intimate than the better known Grand Canyon. Mammoth Hot Springs is unique in the world and in my view from our world travels, is only rivaled by Pamukkale Hot Springs in Turkey. Lake Yellowstone which occupies 1/3 of the giant caldera which forms the Yellowstone Plateau is the largest fresh water lake at this elevation in North America. Add to that Hayden Valley with the buffalo and pronghorn antelope and their predators including relatively newly reintroduced wolves. Multiple waterfalls and cascades, short and long hiking trails, horse riding and ranch activities in the north of Yellowstone at Roosevelt, and mountainous beauty make the 3,400 square mile park (larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined) a wonder for visitors no matter what their interests.
Old Faithful Geyser, often erupting to 100 feet of boiling water and steam.

Bubbling Mudpots at Lower Geyser Basin

Lower Geyser Basin

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs

Norris Geyser Basin
     After 4 visits to Yellowstone, I can relate to some of the changes that have occurred during those 50 years between our first and now our most recent visit. In 1967, I don't think we even had any reservations. We found a cabin on the same day that we arrived, in one of the sites with cabins -- I don't know if it was in Canyon or perhaps in Norris Basis. I know it was not in Old Faithful. On that trip there were animals all over the park. Particularly the black bears were prominent along the roadways. Sows would bring their cubs to the roads to teach them how to beg at the cars. People were stupid then, just as they are now. They would get out of their cars and approach the bears to take a relatively close photo. The bears would move from car to car, panhandling. We always had lunch from a cooler in the back seat and on one occasion while stopping for the bears, we had some sandwiches sitting on the console between our two seats in our red Dodge Coronet. I saw a fairly large bear slowly walking up on my passenger side of the car. I had forgotten about the visible sandwiches. I quickly rolled up the window and watched. That bear stood up on its hind legs against my door. I had not gotten the window completely tight and the bear got its claws in over the top of the window glass and began to pull the window down. I yelled at Amos to drive, but he said, "I have to get a photo first." I am currently trying to transfer this photo so you can see my terror.

     The next tine we went with the kids when they were about 10 and 7, there were no bears to be found. At one of the evening ranger programs we asked about the bears. The rangers had apparently been instructed to not answer that question. They basically ducked it and began talking about the bear life cycle. But other articles did state that the bears had been moved. The open dumps where grizzlies gathered every night had been closed. Bear proof garbage cans had been installed throughout the park so that we would no longer as we had then see a black bear upended in a garbage can as we had skirted around on our way back to our cabin that first night in 1967. Bears that were used to coming to the roads had been tranquilized, caught and transported to the high country. On the third trip, a black bear sow and her cubs were sighted near a hiking trail near Tower in Yellowstone. The rangers are on call and were immediately dispatched to such a sighting. The trail was closed until the bear had moved away from it. Bear encounters when they occurred were closely controlled.

My sister's cabin at Old Faithful

Inside the cabin.
   least chipmunk, smaller than the common ones we have here in the Midwest.
     This last trip no one in our party saw a bear in Yellowstone, except me. Driving back to Old Faithful just at dusk, I caught a glimpse of a car with its sunroof open and someone standing in it taking photos. The object of the photo, a young bear standing on its hind feet, scraping a young tree. No other bears were seen. Indeed, the striking contrast in this recent trip is that very few animals were seen at all. Some members of the family saw a black wolf with the buffalo in Hayden Valley. An occasional elk, or mule dear was seen. Each evening at dinner we compared notes for our day of touring. One evening the only thing I could come up with in the line of animals were two least chipmunks that had crossed the road in front of our car. Well, that was my first time seeing what I identified as a least chipmunk, which is about 1/2 the size of our Midwestern common chipmunk.

      I did find two lifer birds though: a Clark's nutcracker, and a violet green swallow. Several members of the family were impressed by the white pelicans and also by the trumpeter swans.

     If you would like to know the complete and most striking change from 1967 to 2017, it is the number of people. Yellowstone is swamped with people. More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone annually. That is probably one reason why so few animals are seen.

      We made reservations for our Old Faithful Inn rooms and for my sister's cabin at Old Faithful, along with all of our dinner reservations over one year in advance. One certainly can not whip around either of the loops to easily make an appointment for an activity. There is construction which ties up traffic. In the middle of day, one comes to one of the major attraction sites and there is a line to get into the parking lot with your car. Often people are parking off the side of the main road where they can and walking the 1/4 mile or more into the site before they even get to the viewing trail. Old Faithful area looks like Time Square between 11 AM and 4 PM. The only recommendation I can make is to get up early and get to the main sites very early in the morning. Most people start to head back to their lodging about 4 or 5 PM so one could pack a dinner to take along and see some of the sties before dusk. That is when it is more likely to see some of the animals. My other suggestion is to go off the beaten path if you are capable. Make reservations in advance for kayaking, boating, fishing trips, or hike some of the longer trails which do not attract every visitor.

     For 2017 and the next few years, here are some very specific suggestions for things to do in Yellowstone to get away from the maddening crowd. During our family visit, several members of the family did a few unusual things. Our son's family of 4, including 2 children 10 years old and 7 years old reserved a kayaking trip on Lake Yellowstone. There are several outfitters that provide this service and will accept beginning kayakers and offer some teaching to start out. Views of geothermal areas are different from the lake surface. Most of these start at Grant Village or in the West Thumb area of the Lake because the geothermal area is there. Many start at 9:30 or so in the morning giving time to get there from your lodging and end at about 2:30 pm. Another great activity is fishing either on Lake Yellowstone or on some of the smaller lakes. Lake Lewis in the south of the park is a fairly little used but larger lake. From here one can motor up the Shoshone river Channel to smaller Shoshone Lake. In the nearby southwest corner of Yellowstone is the Bechler and the Falls River. Cave Falls on the Falls River is reachable by road and provides a dip and exploration of a cave under the falls. Many water falls can be hiked to from this area of the park. The Bechler and Falls River provide the most waterfalls in number and in beauty of anywhere else in the Park area, save Canyon. Speaking of the Canyon area, Cascade Lake Trail with its trailhead near Canyon will provide a day hike and will get you away from people. If you have a fishing permit, you may even be able to catch some trout during this hike. The Firehole Canyon Drive on the west side of the Park, just south of Madison Junction is a popular drive, but for those who stop, it offers a relatively off the road swimming hole and a nice view of the Firehole River and its falls. Another nice drive would be to Lamar Valley, heading toward the northeast entrance to the park. Some of my family drove there and reportedly there is good animal viewing in this area of the park. You are decreasing the number of people who go this directions as most people enter from the east from Cody, or from the south and the Grand Tetons, or from the west from West Yellowstone. If you are planning a visit, look into these less traveled areas and ideas for activities. Yellowstone is a big Park and can provide lots to do. You just need to get off the beaten track.

      I do think in the long run, Yellowstone is going to have to make changes, perhaps following the path of Yosemite and just closing down the entrances when a certain number of people have arrived on any given day. Perhaps they can also follow Yosemite's path and allow those with backpacking gear and back country campsite reservations to get into the main park even after the day quota of entrances have occurred because they know these people will be heading away from the main confluence of people.

     There is one thing that has not changed in Yellowstone. Old Faithful Geyser is still quite faithful for a geyser, going off between 1 hour and 1 hour and 15 minutes between eruptions. Some are short in height and large in volume, and some are very very high with smaller breadth, often more than 100 feet in the air. The local geologists are able to use some of these data to predict the next eruption with some degree of accuracy. And we found staying right at Old Faithful, we still went out every evening to see another occurrence. It never seems to get old.

Old Faithful Inn, our base for 4 nights at Yellowstone. Built in 1904, this building is the largest log hotel n the world. possibly even the largest log building in the world, built of local wood and stone.

     In spite of all of the people concerns, we did enjoy the park. It was my sister's first visit, and my two daughter in law's first visit as well as my two grandsons. They all had a good time by applying some of these tricks that I have described above.    

     I want to close this post with an interesting story about our first stay at Yellowstone and perhaps the most frightening encounter with a bear, though my view of that car window encounter produced a fair amount of my adrenalin. The first night we were in Yellowstone, we were able to take a cabin, much like the one my sister stayed in this time, pictured above. But we did not know that most of the cabins closed on Labor Day. Our stay was to last a bit longer. We had camped on the way out to Yellowstone, at the Badlands and at Devil's Tower, but we had not intended to camp in Yellowstone primarily because of the bears. Now learning that cabins were all close and being unable as students to afford Old Faithful Inn or even any of the other lodges, we decided to camp our last night in Mammoth before exiting the park. WE bedded down in our little dome shaped pop up tent and fell asleep quickly. In the middle of the night we were awakened by people in the tent at the next campsite banging on pots and pans, making a terrific racket. We thought, "What is going on? Are these people packing up and leaving in the middle of the night?" The next thing we heard was the recognizable sound of a car rolling on gravel. We were mystified. AND THEN, we heard a snorting and snuffling sound at the wall of our tent. We now knew this was not a human sound and we hugged each other thinking that we were done for. Whatever it was outside, moved away, and I unzipped a window to catch sight of a black bear behind as it hurried away. Later we found out that the people at the next campsite owned a convertible and had placed their food in the trunk. Two bears had gone through the roof of the convertible and were trying to claw their way into the trunk from the back seat. One of them kicked the car into neutral and as we had heard, it began to roll. This scared the bears out of the car and they escaped, checking our tent for any scent of food, before taking off into the woods. We learned that the night before the folks at our campsite had made the same mistake I had made earlier and didn't get their window up totally on their hard topped car which contained food in the passenger compartment. Bears had entered that care and had done a lot of destruction in getting to that food. So as you can see, times and bear encounters were very different back in 1967. Obviously these encounters between humans and bears could not be allowed to continue, and now at least those encounters are much healthier for both species.

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