Out of all of the drives I’ve done in the mountains, and even some on the wrong side of the road on international trips, I’ve never been nervous about the road…that is until now.
U.S. Highway 212 runs into Yellowstone National Park from Montana, starting just west of Billings, via Beartooth Pass.
Beartooth Pass, at just a touch under 11,000 feet elevation, is the scariest drive I’ve ever done in my life. It was snowing so hard at the top of the pass, and around it, that I really couldn’t tell where the road was save from the help from the drivers in front of me.
I trucked along through it in shorts and a tshirt wondering when, not if, I’d hit an icy spot and slide over the edge and down the side of the mountain since there were no guard rails to be found on the road.
Thankfully, by taking it extremely slow, I finally made it to the little town of Red Lodge and on into Yellowstone, my final destination on this trip, via the northeast entrance.
No sooner had I paid my national park entrance fee and pulled into the park than I saw several different heards of bison near the roadway. But, more on all of the wildlife, the most impressive part of the trip, later.
I made my way to my cabin, which was near the Lake Lodge, and finally checked in after what was much more driving, thanks to Beartooth Pass, than I had initially anticipated for the day.
I liked the rustic look of the main lodge, but particularly of my cabin. It was exactly what I had hoped…a private room with private bathroom facilities with running water and absolutely NO television. I was able to stay there without the temptation of turning on any sort of electronics and just relax.
Heck, even if I wanted to turn on something, like my cell phone or radio, it wouldn’t have mattered since there’s no service in most of the park. The only spot that I was able to get cell reception from was near Old Faithful, and I only did that once to call some family so I could wave to them with the help of the Old Faithful webcam.
Anyway, the scenery of the park, from what I saw on my initial impression and throughout the trip, wasn’t nearly what I had hoped for or anticipated. Several people that had recently been to the park that I spoke with made it sound like it was one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Yellowstone is beautiful, and it does have it’s uniqueness to it, such as the geysers, but in terms of sheer mountain beauty, Colorado one ups it with no problem.
But, not to be disappointed by the scenery, like I said, the geysers were pretty spectacular.
The only geyser I really saw go off was Old Faithful (let), but the others were constantly smoking and sputtering, so there was really no loss of effect there…particularly if you’re interested in feeling as though you’re walking on another planet. After all, that’s really how I felt when I walked amongst the geysers.
All of the hot springs and different pools in the area were quite something. The first one I noticed, or rather smelled though, was the mud volcano area, just south of the Canyon Village, thanks to the rotten egg smell from the sulphur caldrons.
None of the rest of the park thankfully smelled like this, just this one area, or I would’ve really started to have second thoughts…particularly if my cabin was near it. Nothing really was around this area though, not even wildlife. But, in either direction you’d take from the mud volcano you’d quickly spot something.
The most prevelant animal in the park seemed to be the bison. I saw them everywhere, and began to wonder, on my last day, why people kept stopping, and particularly getting out of their cars, to take pictures of them. The bison are really everywhere in the park, even on the road many times. Heck, I saw this one, as I was driving towards my cabin, walking up the mountain looking as though he had just got in a fight with a tree.
The next most populous animal, at least from my what I could tell from my brief time in the park, was elk. A lot of people stopped to take pictures of elk too, and I can’t really blame them. They’re nice looking animals and rather interesting to photograph.
The first elk I saw was because I pulled over where I saw a bunch of other cars parked along side the road, which is a good quick lesson to pick up on; if there are a bunch of cars parked somewhere, odds are there’s wildlife around so get out and take a look.
I pulled up on one group, got out and walked up a small hill, and sure enough there was a 16-point buck grazing in a small meadow. After a short while, maybe 30 minutes, he decided he had had enough and just plopped down in the middle of the grass. I walked around a bit, trying to get a different angle on him since he didn’t seem to want to cooperate with the rest of the group, and I was thankfully able to get a nice shot of him looking right at me from the grass.
And now if only the rest of the animals would be so easy and willing!
On my second day in the park, my first full day, I went in search of some bears on the road between Tower and Mammoth. I had been told, by some coworkers and a park ranger, that this would be the spot to see bears, particularly in the Tower Junction area.
I drove the stretch of road several times though and never saw a bear. Heck, I didn’t even see anything but more bison that afternoon and was beginning to worry, with only another full day left, that I’d see a single bear in the park if I didn’t see them in the one area they’re supposed to frequent the most.
Later that night, back at the Lake Lodge for dinner, I ran into a coworker of mine who just so happened to be in the park on a solo holiday the same time I was. After eating we sat in the bar talking about a great many things, but ended on an agreement to get up early at 5:15am to go find some bears.
If there was ever a time to find them, it’d be at dawn or dusk and I wanted to make sure I took advantage of both opportunities.
After just over four hours of sleep, 4:30am came quick. But, I needed to get up earlier than my colleague so I could meet him at his campsite up in Canyon and then off to find the bears. Unfortunatley though, when I got to him, somewhere in the night he changed his mind and decided he wanted to sleep in and leave me on a solo journey to find my elusive bear.
I drove the Mammoth – Tower road several more times that morning, not seeing a thing, and wondering if maybe my friend made the right decision and I should’ve slept in too. Finally at about 8:30am though I made the decision to drive the six mile stretch of gravel road known as the Blacktail Plateau.
I was a bit worried my little car could handle the Blacktail, thinking maybe it’d be a really rough road, but overall it did alright. It was a rough road, and I probably shouldn’t have driven it as many times as I did, but this is where I felt like I would ultimately find something.
So did I finally find my bears? In short, no.
I drove the road twice seeing absolutely nothing, but finally, on my third try, I came across a bull moose sitting the trees relaxing and have a bit of a snack.
Some cars behind me though wanted to get by so I drove along ahead as well, feeling the pressure from them, instead of thinking about it and pulling along off the road a bit to keep watching the moose.
But, I think this was meant to be since, as I drove back around to get on the road again, I came across a couple that seemed to be looking at something through binoculars. I stopped to ask what they were seeing, unfortunately though it was nothing. When I told them what I had seen, and was going to see again though, they were absolutely delighted.
The woman said that she had wanted to see a bull moose for as long as she could remember, only having seen a female before, so they followed me off into the woods some more, coming to the moose, which sat about 20 feet off the road, and pulling off to watch for a bit.
We all snapped a bunch of photos, as well as some other people that pulled up behind us, from the safety of our cars. We had all heard the stories about moose attacks and knew better than to get out, so just sat in the seats and snapped away.
Well, one by one the cars pulled away leaving me alone with my friend Bullwinkle. And, just after they left, he decided to grace me a bit more with his presence by walking up roadside, less than 10 feet from my car, to have more of a snack. I backed my car up a bit so I could get a better angle on him, and he didn’t mind me one bit.
He looked at me in between bites, and knew I was there taking pictures, but he also knew I was no harm to him…or maybe that he was no match for me in my car, which was only slightly larger than him.
After letting me take dozens of pictures of him he finally decided to trot off into the woods. I had some great shots though, and had plenty of time to just sit and watch him as well, with my camera in the seat next to me, and admire the wildlife for how beautiful it really is.
But, that really just made me hungry for more. I wasn’t satisfied with that, I wanted to find one of those bears. So, after getting off the road, I made a quick loop around and got on the trail again in search of the bears.
Again though my efforst were thwarted…to an extent. About halfway along I noticed a small critter, at least compared to the moose, up on the hillside and stopped to have a better look through my lense. And, sure enough, there was a pronghorn grazing up on the hillside.
A few other cars pulled up behind me once again, so, after a few quick shots, I decided to head on out. After all, it was the bear I was truly looking for and not the pronghorn. Although, I should admit, that it was nice to see one, the only one I saw on the trip, and be able to check it out a bit.
By now it was getting on lunch time so I headed over to Mammoth Hot Springs for a sandwhich and some fuel. While in the little village I decided to hit the vistor’s center, which had several nice displays, and check out some of the history of the park. While I was in the park I overheard someone asking a ranger about wildlife sightings, to which he responded by handing out maps of where different wildlife generally were found.
I jumped at the chance to get one of these maps, hoping it would point me to where I could finally see some bears.
As I looked over the map I had realized I had really been in all of the spots where the bears were listed to be. The one spot, from what I could tell, that I hadn’t been was up on top of Mt. Washburn.
So, off to Mt. Washburn I headed to go find some bears, and go for a bit of a hike…something else I had been looking forward to doing while in Yellowstone and had only had a limited opportunity to do thus far.
The top of Mt. Washburn is about 10,500 feet, so I knew it’d be cold and I’d need to have a few things with me. So as I pulled into the parking lot, I made sure I had plenty of water, some snacks, and my coat and hat for the hike up to the top, where I would hopefully aslo see some bighorn sheep.
I walked up the trail, which is also a gravel road for the ranger to get to their station on the top of the mountain, I remembered that bears hate being suprised by people and it’s a good habit to make noise so they know you’re coming. And, since I didn’t have any bells to ring or anyone to talk with on my hike, I resorted to the only way I could think to make noise…singing.
I had just started a random tune about meeting a bear on the trail and making sure he knew I was coming so I wouldn’t get eaten when I ran into a couple, coming down the trail, who told me of a black bear in some woods just off the road having a snack.
I nervously approached the woods, still singing, and sure enough found the little guy in the trees having a snack out of a log. As I snapped some photos I realized there was no real need to sing anymore since he really didn’t care that I was there. He was way too absorbed in his lunch and had no need to bother with me, 50 feet up the hill, since I was no where near him or his food.
Once I snapped a few quick photos I started on my way again to try to find some bighorns. As I made my way up the trail I rememberd the couple I met on the road that told me they had also seen a grizzley bear up ahead too…time to start singing again!
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I did not run into the grizzley. I guess my singing was just too much for him to take and he trotted off on the hillside to leave me with my miserable tune.
I guess it was also too much for the sheep since everyone coming down from the top of the mountain had said they didn’t see any bighorns up top.
By this point the weather had begun to change for the worse so I thought it best for me to head back down to the parking lot and my car, particularly since I didn’t have good winter clothing in case it started to snow. Upon reaching my car I realized I made the right decision to turn around since a few rain drops had started to hit me in the face.
Satisfied at seeing my bear I climbed back in my car and decided to set off and drive the whole grand loop of the park. And while that may not look like much on the little map above, realize that Yellowstone National Park is as large as the States of Rhode Island and Delaware…combined!
I saw a bunch of cool waterfalls, as well as some more geysers, on my drive and had a nice relaxing time to some tunes on my MP3 player. And actually, on the drive, this was the first time I had turned it on since entering the park. Otherwise, for all of the driving I did, I never once turned it, or the CD player, on while driving. Instead I decided to go for the natural approach and just listen to the road.
I had a big meal of fried chicken and roast turkey breast, with all the fixings, later that night in the lodge and called it an early night. I had a long drive back to Denver the next day and was tired from the early wake up call this morning, so a 9pm bedtime it was!
As I waved goodbye to Yellowstone I immediately entered the Grand Teton National Park. And here I finally saw the scenery that was oh so impressive that I immediately understood this will need to be another roadtrip in the not-so-distant future.
I also, before even catching a glimpse of the Tetons, saw another moose down in a creek having some breakfast by taking note of a bunch of stopped cars. She was with her calf, but seemed perfectly content to be photographed from the road, about 50 feet away and up a bit of a hill.
Seeing the moose here, while cool, wasn’t unexpected though. I had run into someone in the park that said they live in the city of West Yellowstone and that the Tetons are the place to see moose. You never see them, after the fires of 1988, in Yellowstone, particularly the northern part, anymore.
And that is what made my trip; I could not have asked for anything more than knowing that I had what was probably a unique experience with some wildlife in a spot that they’re normally not supposed to be…a moose in the northern side of the park.
Thanks Yellowstone for a great stay.