Montana Road Trip:
Yellowstone National Park
This trip was spawned from last minute planning and the desire to get away from work. It was also a good excuse to visit our Bozeman friends and to see Yellowstone in the fall. Our previous visits to Yellowstone National Park were in the summer - at height of the tourist season and crowded. Fall provided a good time to get away from the crowds and to hopefully see wolves.
We didn't have any set plans, but were just guided by our desire to see some sights and enjoy nature. After a brief stop over at Brent and Elizabeth's house, we headed on to Yellowstone. We camped at Slough Creek in Yellowstone for three very cold nights. I think the temperatures fell to at least 20 degrees, with the first night being the coldest. Each morning we woke up to frost covering the grass, the car, and even the bison. The campground was situated on Slough Creek, with several great walk-in campsites next to the creek. Before we arrived a grizzly bear had raided the campground a few days earlier so a park ranger visited each site in the evening to make sure everyone was bear safe.
The days were very enjoyable - sunny and warm. We spent one frosty morning hiking up the Slough creek trail. The trail meandered up the hills to a high meadow that Slough creek ran through. The sun sparkled in the icy grass. Bison grazed in the vast meadow that was surrounded by sagebrush-covered foothills and snow-dusted mountains in the distance. On the trail, we saw bear, coyote, and wolf scat. A long-tailed weasel scurried right by us through the brush then up and down a fallen log. A stubborn bison stood on the trail rubbing itself on a tree as we skirted off the trail around the lumbering ungulate. From a clump of white pines that bordered the golden meadow, an owl called during broad daylight. Perhaps it had just thawed out enough to call. We hiked farther on to another vast meadow where the backpacking sites were located. We stopped for lunch at one of the sites along the creek before heading back to the trailhead. A two horse drawn wagon passed us on the trail. They rode quickly with ease over the bumpy and rocky road. Across the meadow, a herd of elk ran on the hillside after being spooked by an approaching pack team. On the pines edging the meadow, two pine grosbeaks softly warbled from the treetops, and a pair of three-toed woodpeckers squabbled and chased each other from trunk to trunk.
One morning we awoke early to head out to the Hayden Valley. We had heard word of a bison was being taken down by a wolf, so hoped to see the action. On the way near the Blacktail Plateau, we pulled over when we saw a fair number of car in the pullout and several people with spotting scopes. They were wolf people who were watching two wolves not too far away, but had just dropped out of view. We set up our scopes and hoped they'd reappear. Then we heard a wolf howling and another howled from the hills across the road. We were immediately entranced by their song. I thought that even if we didn't get a chance to see them this experience was alone satisfying. But then on the ridge in front of us, I caught a glimpse of a wolf jogging through the tall grass. She was a beautiful gray and white wolf with a tracking collar. Behind her a black wolf trotted into view. We watched them through our scopes as they sniffed the trails and stopped to howl. The yellow eyes of the black wolf were piercing in contrast to its charcoal fur. They eventually crossed the road toward the Blacktail Plateau. On the hill was another black wolf, but this one was lankier, like a teenager. Perhaps it was from this year's litter. The youngster howled along with the others before they all vanished into the hills. Although the encounter only last for less than 30 minutes, it was magical nonetheless. My fingers and toes were numb from standing outside in the cold, but it was worth it.
On the way to the Hayden Valley, we saw a road killed bison next to the road. It was covered with frost and positioned in such a way that I first mistook it for a log that looked a lot like an animal. We had pasted a tractor on the way and concluded that the park was going to move the bison to a safer location. We later asked the visitor center where they moved road kill to and were told that they were moved to gut piles - inaccessible to the visitors. Probably for the best. A little farther down the road, we saw the telltale sign of something interesting - people parking badly on the road. A grizzly bear was making its way through the meadow quickly in the direction of the roadkill. Perhaps it sensed there was a good meal to be had.
The morning that we were leaving, we decided to let the tent and sleeping bags thaw before packing up and walked down the road of the campground. We didn't get far before we saw a male bison running over a small hill and stop not too far from the road. It was obviously irritated, grunting and looking back from where it ran. Suddenly another male bison appeared at the hilltop and ran toward the first male. After much grunting, the first male took off and continued away past some pine trees. The second male still agitated, grunted and pawed at the ground before running in the direction of the first male. We stood there in awe of the power and speed of these animals and were unsure of what to do. A few moments later the dominate second male reappeared and ran back over the hill toward where it originally came from. We continued down the road and saw on the other side of the hill was a herd of bison, mostly cows and calfs with several males mixed in. The bison were in the road so we couldn't proceed any further. Instead we watched the herd. The dominate bison was clearly agitated and now testing the females who seemed the least bit interested in him. After watching the herd, we turned back toward the campground. The losing first male ran back out of the trees and stopped short of the small hill. A female bison grazed on the top of the hill, while the male slowly made his way back to the herd. I'm not sure of bison herd politics, but it was interesting see their social interactions. And I walked away with a greater respect for bison strength and speed.
Before we left the park, we took one more hike. We hiked up to Specimen Ridge. It was a steep and quiet climb to the ridge. I could only hear the sounds of grasshopers and my racing heart at we hoofed up through the sagebrush and dry grass. On the top of the ridge, we got a clear view of the mountain ranges (including Mount Washburn) to the south and a view of the Lamar Valley stretching below us to the north. A Golden Eagle followed shortly by a Cooper's Hawk glided southward over the ridge and down to the valley.
We left Yellowstone fulfilled with a more intimate view of it, but still knowing there's a lot to explore down there. Back in Bozeman we stayed at Brent and Elizabeth house and enjoyed their hospitality and company. Brent took us to Fairy Lake up in the Gallatin National Forest for a short day hike. The wind was so powerful it whipped the water into a spray over the lake. While at their house in the mountains, we took a walk around the "block," which was up to the ridge and back down the other side of the valley, about a nice 5-mile hike. Along the way we saw a black bear on the other side of the valley and plenty of mule and white-tail deer. It was a nice wind down for the trip, before heading back home.
On the way home, we found Tor's Tower song:
Pictures - click on pictures to enlarge