A Spring Day in Yellowstone

Sunday, May 8th, 2016 – Canyon Campground, Gallatin National Forest, Montana

6:30 a.m. – 42 degrees

Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were back on the road to Yellowstone. The morning sky was a bright blue pallet on which we would paint our day.

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(24 minutes later…)

6:54 a.m. Historic North Entrance, Yellowstone National Park, Montana

We are officially in Yellowstone! Although some construction prevented us from passing between the welcoming columns, we were able to experience a unique perspective of this historic entrance.  The famed archway greets visitors with one of my favorite Theodore Roosevelt quotes, that embodies one of the most important and joyful benefits of the National Parks: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.

Upon passing the ranger station we search for the information we needed.  The park signage confirmed our estimation of what campgrounds might be open and informed us of other closings in the park. (Beartooth Pass, of course, we were well aware of!) We were disappointed to see that access to the Boiling River was closed as we were looking forward to a dip in one of the thermal soaking areas that is safe (and legal) to soak in within the park.  But, the most important issue at that moment was camping. Mammoth Campground was open, but how occupied was it?   We headed straight for the campground to try to secure a site.

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Only three Yellowstone campgrounds are open in early May.

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Spring Closures

Thankfully we were able to find a site that suited us and within the hour we had a reserved a spot for the night, put up our tent, and set out toward Lamar Valley. Located in the northeast corner of the park, Lamar Valley is one of the best places in the world to see wildlife. Derrick and I have had many amazing wildlife experiences in the Lamar Valley; bison, elk, coyote, wolf, fox, large birds, pronghorn, deer, sheep, black bear, grizzly bear, and even a curious family of badgers are among the sightings we have been fortunate enough to share.

This is one of the reasons why we prepare ourselves to spend a fair mount of time in the car when we visit Yellowstone. The park roads were specifically constructed to bring you to and through the best attractions of Yellowstone.

In the Lamar Valley, the park road follows the curve of the Lamar River and the Soda Butte Creek as it branches northeast. The drive through the valley provides access to picnic areas, trailheads, a few small first-come first-serve campgrounds, stunning mountain and riparian landscapes, and countless places to pull over and watch wildlife.

Soon we approached a line of cars pulled over on the side of the road surrounded by people pointing toward the Lamar River. Animal jam. We pulled up slowly and surveyed the riverbank. A large dark figure was hunched over on the shore. A bear. A grizzly bear. The huge mammal sat beside a muddy wallow that surrounded the remains of an animal. Elk? Bison?  Hard to say.

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Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) guarding a carcass

This time of year, Yellowstone grizzly bears are at the beginning of their summer-long buffet. A fair portion of a grizzly’s diet in spring consist of winter kill or wolf kill, though they are known to prey on elk calves as well. Otherwise, this time of year is what a good friend of ours calls the “salad course” for bears. Their diet consists mostly of grasses, sedges, clover, other plants, insects, and the occasional food cache. We noted the location of the grizzly bear and decided to check back later in the day.

Two grey foxes frolicked through the sage and sedge, disappearing from sight almost as soon as we spotted them. We continued down the valley and began to see dark brown figures scattered across the landscape.  Bison. Spring calves were bounding around the herd and nudging their mothers for milk. Others were laying on their sides, basking in the warm sunshine. Larger yearlings trotted in circles and charged one another in play, while the massive adults stood stoic, munched grass, or flopped back and forth in dirt wallows.

We pulled over to the side of the road to view America’s National Mammal from a safe distance. Again, I cannot stress enough how nice it is to Yellowstone with some time on your hands to play with. You never know how long you might be sitting and staring at an animal or group of animals.   If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you could spend an hour or more just watching or looking for wildlife.

After a sufficient first bison viewing, we decided to follow the road to the end of the park boundary, then turn around and come back.  At the end of the road, we chuckled at this reminder of last night’s drive.

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Not as jarring this time around.

On our way back through the valley, we pulled into a picnic area to make coffee and breakfast. Right along the river, the picnic area provided an excellent view of the mountains and a place to sit back and soak in the sunshine. The mountains were showing only patches of snow. The rest poured down to the valley in swollen waterfalls and creeks.

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Spring thaw in Lamar Valley.

This marked our 5th trip to Yellowstone in as many years. (A tradition we intend to keep up as long as we can!) Each time it is different and just as wonderful as the time before. This trip, however, was the first time we had come to Yellowstone in the spring.  It was so early in the season that most of the campgrounds and even some of the concessioners were still closed for winter. But, more importantly, it meant that we were seeing the park and the wildlife in the glorious gush of spring, when life seems to be all around.

After a nice riverside breakfast, we continued on our leisurely quest for animal sightings.

We returned to an area where we had spotted a bison carcass earlier to see if there was any action. It’s quite common to see groups of people camped out by their cars near an abandoned kill in hopes that a predator or scavenger might show up. As long as you keep a safe distance from the subject, there is potential to witness some spectacular animal behavior.

Again, presence of curious humans indicated a possible animal sighting. Another line of cars were parked along the road.  A clump of people with their vision extended beyond human capacity, pointed and leaned toward the river, searching for…something. A wolf, perhaps?  Bear?  Coyote?  Binoculars were raised and adjusted, scopes, lowered and anchored, and a flurry of hands gestured at the landscape. So much direction and explanation was being exchanged between eager animal spotters, it was clear that they were looking at something very specific. We pulled over, grabbed the telephoto lens and our binoculars and set our eyes on the sagebrush.

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Can you see what they are looking for?

Eventually, I was excited to see a tannish figure moving in the distance. Its coat lightened by the sun perhaps? A coyote?

“I see it!” I exclaimed, and zoomed in my lens. “No. No, it’s a pronghorn.”

We trained our eyes back to the terrain. I tried to eavesdrop on the other searchers, but learned nothing of value.

“I see it!” Derrick said with excited certainty. “It’s black. Along the riverbank.”

I adjusted the position of our telephoto lens. Suddenly, I saw it too. A lone black wolf.

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Canis lupus – Do you see it?!

We watched the wolf trot confidently across the landscape toward the river. It was distinctly canine in its movement, defined and unmistakable. At the moment, it did not seem interested in the bison carcass we had come to the area to check on. The wolf continued toward and into the river. We watched the wolf play on the sandbars and stone shores of the Lamar, before slowly making its way across the landscape, crossing right before our eyes.

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As the wolf passed us, we quickly turned the car around and drove up the road a bit, trying to anticipate the wolf’s path. Thankfully, we guessed correctly and again were positioned perfectly to watch the famed beast troll the valley floor. Such a dark coat made it easy to spot and exceptionally dramatic when viewed as a silhouette against the light spring grasses.

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The wolf continued to follow its path, which we began to realize was straight in line with a bison. As the wolf got closer, the bison turned its body broadside to accentuate his enormous size and never took its gaze off the wolf. It was an obvious warning to not come any closer. The wolf trotted boldly forward, closer to the bison.  The bison watched its every move.

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The bison tossed its head and slashed horns through the dusty air between him and his challenger.  The wolf took a few brazen steps closer, his trajectory now focus in the bison’s rear. This was too close. The bison turned and charged a few steps toward the wolf.

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Finally convinced that it was not worth his while to go at this bison alone, the wolf wisely moved on.

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Soon, the wolf directed its attention to a small pronghorn. Like the bison, the pronghorn was keenly aware of the wolf’s presence. The pronghorn’s instinct compels it attempt constant awareness of its surroundings in order for it not to become prey. The wolf entertained the possibility before him for few moments, and assessed his odds by stepping toward the pronghorn.  The pronghorn kept its distance. With the ability to break in to sustained sprints of 45-50 miles per hour up and the wolf’s comparative top speed of only 35 miles per hour, the attentive and fairly distant pronghorn had a decided advantage. One again, deciding it was not going to be worth the effort, the wolf continued on its way.

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Pronghorn (antilocapra americana) know to keep a safe distance from this predator.

What a fantastic first day in Yellowstone! A wolf sighting is always a rare treat, but to be able to watch the wolf move along the river and then approach a bison and pronghorn?! We had never seen anything like that before. It was not our first sighting of one of the Lamar wolves, but it was certainly the longest and most eventful! Around the next bend, we encountered a small group of bighorn sheep grazing and working to itching off their winter coats.

Pleasantly surprised by the big horn sheep and elated by our wild wolf experience, we worked our way back toward camp to give the car a rest and to go for a hike.  Back at camp, we saw several elk cooling themselves in the shade.

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Keeping cool.

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We took a lap around camp and then made our way to a trail wove up the sage-covered hill on the west edge of the campground. It seemed like the trail it would lead us up the ridge to the Mammoth Springs visitor area where the hotel, ranger station, historic buildings, and terrace trails are. We wound up the hillside through the dense vegetation.  As the sage and bushes that lined both sides of the trail reached up to our shoulders in some areas, we made sure to talk at a decent volume and keep our heads on swivels. One of the worst positions you can put yourself in is surprising a wild animal, putting it instinctually and immediately on the defense.

For us, this brings up one of the most frustrating misconceptions many people have about wild animals, particularly bears. Despite the maddeningly popular belief perpetuated by sensationalized stories and specials about animal attacks that animals are lying in wait in attack you, I assure you, they are not. Much like humans, animals in general most often become defensive when they are provoked and when they are scared or startled.

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A lot of places for animals to be…

If an animal is not downwind and therefor unable to become aware of your presence by smelling you, you can protect yourself and the animal by announcing your presence audibly. Think of it as honking your horn while driving into a one-way tunnel. How else would anyone on the other end of, or inside, the tunnel know you where there if you did not announce your presence for the safety of self and others? Learning the basics of hiking safety in bear country can go far to help you and others stay safe not only in Yellowstone, but many other parks and wild places. You can help the national parks and wild animals everywhere by passing this knowledge and safe hiking habits on to others.  This will help to dispel the inaccurate and harmful idea that wild animals are sitting around waiting to attack people.

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The trail became steeper as we approached what we hoped would be Mammoth Springs. We climbed the final leg of the trail, and emerged from behind the ridge exactly where we hoped we would.

Elk are often present in the Mammoth area. On this warm spring day, a group of cows heavy with calves sat panting and cooling in the shadow of the Mammoth Springs hotel. We walked around the concessions, ate a couple of bison brats for lunch, and then headed to the Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace walkway.

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Mmmm…bison brat.

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Elk (Cerves canadensis) cows chilling in the shade.

Home to more than half the world’s geysers and over 10,000 thermal features, Yellowstone offers visitors many unique sights in addition to wildlife. The Mammoth Hot Springs displays colorful terraces that give visitors a slight inkling of the volcanic forces churning below the ground.

But even here, right along side a thermal springs with temperatures that measure in excess of hundreds of degrees, wildlife still flourishes. A long bull snake slithered over the delicate terrace crust, the pattern of its scales mimicking the distressed surface of the bacteria crusts. Ranging from 50-72 inches long, the bull snake is the largest reptile in Yellowstone.

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Bull Snake – Pituophis cantenifer sayi

We continued down the terrace path. For being such a delicate and dangerous environment, it is amazing how close Yellowstone’s boardwalks allow visitors to get to the thermal features and springs. In many areas you can get close enough to feel the hot stream emitting from below the ground.

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We admired the strains of thermophiles, the heat-loving bacteria that thrive in the scalding water. It looked like long wispy strands of taffy or spider silk undulating in the current of the spring.

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Once we made our way to the parking lot on the far side of the terrace boardwalk, we saw an excellent example of how fragile and dangerous the fragile crust of the constantly changing and ever-expanding thermal features can be. A concrete barricade that had been placed on the edge of a parking lot to protect visitors by separating them from the fragile crust was being slowly eaten away and was now on top of open crust. It looked like it may not be long before a new barricade might need to be installed. Another reminder that yes, we were technically standing on an active volcano.

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Yeah, this might need to be adjusted sooner rather than later.

As the afternoon light began to elongate the shadows, we headed back to camp. The sun was sinking into the horizon and daylight was starting to fade. We found our trail back to campground and moved down the trail with a purpose.

Fast approaching dusk, we took one more drive to look for animals. We decide to focus on the area where the grizzly bear had been earlier. Sure enough, the bear was still there. But now, the carcass had been moved and positioned in such a fashion that it was obvious what animal it was. It was a bison. Evident by its smaller size and somewhat curly brown locks on its coat, which bison yearlings tend to exhibit, my guess was that it was a young bison that didn’t survive the winter or had been targeted by wolves; no way to say for certain. What a feast for the grizzly though! No wonder it hadn’t left the carcass.

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Grizzly with a meal worth guarding.

A coyote nosed around in the distance, brought in no doubt by the smell of the carcass. The coyote will have to wait its turn though. Grizzly bears will defend carcasses until they are finished with them. Another bear of similar size is usually the only other animal that will challenge a grizzly. A coyote is a scavenger though, and well-practiced at waiting his turn at a grizzly-guarded carcass.  Content to let the grizzly continue to enjoy his meal, we continued on our way.   A few more close-up bison sightings and we returned to camp.

Back at camp, a bison calf with its mother had made themselves at home in between the camping loops. Elk continued to graze and bed beneath the trees. These Yellowstone residents are so used to human presence that walking through, or bedding down, in an occupied campground is sometimes just part of their day.

We started a fire and began dinner. Thanks to the Cinco de Mayo leftovers from a few days ago, we had the luxury of enjoying crunchy AND soft tacos over the campfire. As we relaxed, we discussed the plan for tomorrow. We wanted to move further into the park and follow the park loop southwest to Madison, in hopes get a campsite there for tomorrow. Then, we would decide how long we wanted to stay in that area. But how early did we need to get up to get to Madison and get a site? Operated by park concessioner Xanterra, Madison Campground is one of the campgrounds at Yellowstone that you must have a reservation for. If there is availability, it is possible to make it the same day, at the campground, right before you occupy the site, but a reservation must be made. We decided to get up at a sensible time so we could get to Madison early and also allow ourselves time to catch up on some shuteye if we needed it.

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A beautiful end to a beautiful day!

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We reclined in our tent and listened to the night. It had been a wonderful first day in Yellowstone. We were so glad we had decided to come, despite the closed roads and extended car time it took to get us here. It had all been worth it. Now, we drifted to sleep to the concerto of neighboring campfires cracking, bison hooves clacking on the campground path, and elk rustling in the sage and darkness around us.  Goodnight, Yellowstone.  See you in the morning.

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