We have very mixed feelings about Yellowstone: we loved it…but we didn’t like it too much.
We had tried to get a reservation to camp in Yellowstone but people begin reserving their sites almost a year in advance and it was very difficult. We had resigned ourselves to not camp when we called for the last time and were lucky enough to find a cancellation at the Madison campsite. Our first choice would have been the Canyon campground but we found Madison to be very centrally located and accessible and would recommend it.
Since we arrived in Yellowstone from the North Entrance and made our way south, we began by touring the Mammoth Hot Springs and all the other geysers, fumaroles, and mudpots which cover this area.
There are wooden walkways for people to stay on since the ground is fragile and scalding hot water runs underneath. There are signs all over warning of the real threat of death from stepping in the wrong place and although other posted signs warn people not to touch the runoff water from these springs, it is something we all feel attracted to do and we noticed people who couldn’t resist the temptation.
We arrived at Madison midday and after setting up camp, left to visit the Old Faithful which didn’t disappoint. The estimated time of the eruption is posted in the visitor center and we noticed it was accurate to within 12 minutes which when you’re waiting in the burning sun seem like hours. There are benches set up all around the geyser and although many people sat for over an hour saving their spot, I don’t think it is necessary to do so. At the time of the eruption, people who didn’t have seats or weren’t happy with their seats, simply sat on the walkway edge in front of us. It didn’t bother us though since we could easily watch over their heads. The eruption lasts about 5 minutes, unless you count the many false starts which make it lots longer.
Our favorite feature of this geothermic area was the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. With it’s many rich colors caused by different kinds of bacteria, it is a sight not to be missed. Different kind of bacteria live in different areas depending on how hot a certain area happens to be, this means that the spring changes constantly and what you see is different every time. The water at the center of the spring is so hot that the environment is sterile, meaning no bacteria can live there and the deep blue is simply the color of the water. Absolutely beautiful and terribly interesting.
The highlight of the day for the boys though was swimming in the river while the parents grilled dinner on shore at one of the many picnic stops the park offers.
There are many warnings all throughout Yellowstone about bears and how even the slightest scent from one’s shampoo could attract them.
We had to take them seriously enough since there were two separate deaths due to bear attacks reported in 2011. Given that, I was very vigilant about making sure not even crumbs remained after a meal, keeping a clean camp and ensuring no food stains remained on the boys’ clothes when they went to bed. The Madison campground is huge and although every individual site is big, there is no sense of privacy whatsoever since there is no shrubbery between sites.
Camping in Yellowstone was very different from what we’re used to. For one, we had access to not one but three different bathroom buildings close to our site which made it a bit confusing when we were stumbling out of there in the sleepy morning hours. The bathroom buildings have a separate kitchen sink area for washing dishes. This is necessary because even the water used to wash your dishes could attract bears to your camp. Every last bit of food, utensils and even toiletries must be stored either inside a locked vehicle or in bear-proof boxes provided throughout the camp. Although the camp had a sign announcing that it was full, we noticed that it was halfway empty for the two nights we were there. I believe that people make their reservations so far in advance, thinking that if they wait they won’t get a site, that they can’t accurately predict if they will in fact be able to make it on one particular night. This is a self-fulfilling proposition since then people who actually can make it, like us, find every site reserved although half of them unused. A frustrating concept.
The next day we drove to the Canyon area and took several hikes in there.
We had read that the hike to the base of the Lower Falls following Uncle Tom’s Trail was very strenuous. The climb back up is in fact strenuous but after our Harding Icefield hike, this seemed like a simple walk. The views from this hike are amazing
so don’t let the warnings deter you from trying it; take water with you and use the many rest stops on the way back, it is worth the effort.
The best part of the day though were the many, many, many animal sightings.
Yellowstone is home to the largest number of free-roaming bison in the planet and we saw all 4,500 of them. We didn’t really see all of them but it certainly did seem like it. We saw bison giving themselves dirt baths
fighting, calves suckling
and some even just looking back at us. Bison have attacked more people than bears have in Yellowstone and every year there are more injuries from bison goring than from bear attacks. We tend to forget that these are wild animals and when they charge they are very dangerous, unsuspecting photographers are common victims.
It is difficult to navigate through Yellowstone because people (understandably) stop anywhere they see animals to look and this crowds the roads. We noticed that park rangers here aren’t as relaxed as in other parks and this is understandable given the huge number of visitors they have to deal with. Any time a group of cars would stop on the road to view wildlife, a ranger would show up just seconds later to move them along.
This made us remember the bus system in Denali and appreciate it more. There are so many people and cars in Yellowstone that it is difficult to really feel as though one is out in nature. In contrast, Denali feels so isolated, one forgets the trappings of regular life. Finding the balance between these two extremes is a difficult task.
We drove all the way out to the Lamar Valley in search of wildlife and saw a mama black bear with her cub.
We also saw herds of elk
and pronghorn antelope
roaming freely. Eagles, pelicans
tons of pika
and even the beautiful Anise Swallowtail butterfly. It flew around us and off again, giving me no time for pictures but here‘s one from the park’s site.
The next morning, after picking up camp, we drove out to Hayden Valley in search of moose. In 1988 there was a huge fire in Yellowstone which is believed to have been caused by lighting. The fire burned down most of the old growth forest where the moose live and although it’s been almost a quarter of a century, the effects of the fire are still very obvious throughout Yellowstone.
According to the rangers, most of the moose relocated south to the Grand Tetons National Park area where much of the forest is still intact.
Once again we saw tons of bison, antelope and elk. We didn’t see any moose but we were terribly lucky to see, not one, but two, separate wolves! One seemed to be simply walking along the valley.
We saw the other one a bit farther ahead and it seemed to be scouting out the bison,
and of course it was being followed from afar by a coyote hoping for scraps.
It was truly an exciting experience and we can’t stop bragging about it. 🙂 The wolves were shy and took off as soon as they spotted us. When we later heard a ranger say that seeing a wolf was a “once in a lifetime” experience, we couldn’t believe our luck.
We stopped at the West Thumb area of the Yellowstone Lake to make lunch
and the guys used the opportunity to take a dive in the freezing water.
We left Yellowstone headed to Grand Tetons National Park with mixed feelings. Yellowstone is beautiful and the landscapes are very varied, they range from canyons and waterfalls, to valleys, lakes and even geothermic features like Old Faithful. There are so many animals which call Yellowstone home that it is impossible to come here and not see at least some. On the other hand, Yellowstone is also the most civilized park we’ve ever been to: it has hotels, several gas stations, restaurants, highways and even overpasses in its midst. It is a letdown to be hiking in what one thinks is pristine country only to come out onto a road and see a Budweiser trailer-truck rushing by. We loved Yellowstone and all it’s wondrous sights nevertheless.