Weather - 56 and mostly sunny with a few rain (and hail) showers thrown in
Steps: Shaun - 8,150; Shan - 7,411
Varmints: Elk (with antlers!), bighorn sheep of all varieties - males, females and yearlings, magpies, Kamakaze mule deer, black bears, bison with tons of babies, pronghorns with yearlings, mountain bluebirds, common merganser, mountain goats -- oh yeah!
Point tally: Shaun - 16; Shannon - 16
Today was a big driving day since we were making our way from Gardiner just outside the northwest corner of the park (see our lovely B&B above) all the way to the northeast corner, back down the Dunraven Pass Road (that just opened today), across the middle, and then south to Old Faithful. We figured out that it was a total of 142 miles, which doesn't sound like a lot on a highway, but trust me, these are not highways. Not only are they twisty and turny with very unforgiving cliffs off the side of them, but you have the added challenge of looking for animals every which way, not to mention trying not to run over them or the humanimals parked in the middle of the fricking road!
Shan looking down at the Gardner River
Our first sighting of the day (besides the elk grazing in Mammoth town square) were five bighorn sheep. I told Shannon that I was surprised at how many of these heretofore elusive animals we are seeing, but hey, I'm not complaining. They are seriously cool!
After we watched a bunch of stupid tourist chasing these poor animals over a ridge, we almost got mowed down by four Kamakazee mule deer that shot across the road not 20 feet in front of us. I did the typical mom move where I plastered my arm across Shannon's chest to protect her, which allowed my camera to go flying into the floorboards since somehow it seems to always end up in my crotch when I'm driving.
ut of literally hundreds of elk we've seen so far, they were the very first ones with antlers. It seems highly improbable that we've only seen females and yearlings, so we don't understand, and you know how I hate to not understand something! Oh well, they were very cool and super close to us, so I'll just have to learn to live with uncertainty.
After the elk we came upon more of our favorite yellow-headed blackbirds as well as our favorite duck so far, the ruddy duck (but I must say that we're having a blast with all these new ducks we're seeing. Aunt Betty would be so proud!). Unfortunately, the picture doesn't do Mr. Ruddy service because the best thing about him is that he has a bright blue bill (yes I said blue). It's totally bizarre but beautiful just the same.
Our next encounter was a bust. There was a huge line of cars on the side of the road which usually signified a bear had been spotted. It's funny because you start to recognize what animal is involved by the amount of insanity displayed by the tourists. Anyway, had to park way down the road from where a bunch of people were on a ridge, and what did we see? Nothing but a bunch of bison bringing their babies off the mountain. Apparently there was a mama grizzly and three cubs up there, but they were gone by the time we got there. Dang!
Our next big stop was the incredible Lamar Valley, known for the variety and frequency of animal sightings that occur there. As with Hayden Valley in the center of the park, we were a little disappointed disappointed only because everything we read gave us the feeling that this would be the quintessential place to see everything and anything, including wolves! To be fair, though, we weren't seeing it at either dawn or dusk which is the best time for animal viewing, so we contented ourselves to get some great pronghorn shots, searching for bison births, and we even watched a stream crossing that was pretty funny (once I added my personal narrative to it pretending to be them talking to each other because they looked pretty tentative even though bison are really good swimmers).
Still heading towards the northeast entrance of the park, we came across this extinct geyser that shows all the buildup of travertine that was formed when it was active. It is the only thermal feature in this part of the park, and it was very smelly to boot!
These are really hard to see (as you can imagine, we are really far away, but Grandma Dar's camera still got the shot!), but there are about a dozen mountain goats sprinkled right below the snow drifts at the top. Look for the two in the trees at the right, and then go across the picture to the left. They're all right there, I promise!
After Lamar Valley, We came to the snowy cliff face of Barronnette Mountain where some people had stopped and were pointing their cameras toward. Could this be the mountain goats we were hoping to see? Yes, it was! It's hard to see them in the pictures above, but there were at least nine mountain goats on the mountainside, and you can differentiate them from from the snow by their little legs. We met a nice lady at the turnout who initially showed us where the goats were and chatted with us for awhile. She and her husband had been coming to the park for years, and they had seen a bunch of bears in that time. She gave us postcards she had made from her pictures of the bears, and their license plate was even "grizzly2see"!
We finally reached the northeast entrance to the park and the lovely (not) town of Silver Gate, Montana. We were quite hungry, and the next closest town was Cooke City which was quite a ways away, so we decided to try the only restaurant in town. Big mistake. Huge. We were pretty hopeful when we looked at the menu because they touted themselves as serving local organic, healthy food and they even had tempeh that could be added to their salads and sandwiches and everything. No kidding. The first four things we ordered were unavailable (including the tempeh). I ended up getting pretty much lettuce on a plate, and Shannon got a hamburger (that to be fair wasn't that bad). I guess this early in the season they hadn't received their food shipment, and to top that off, it took almost an hour to get our food. Then they tried to charge me $13 for my salad that should have been $5, so all in all, it was a pretty disappointing meal.
We headed back west the way we'd just come, and right away encountered another bison jam. This allowed us to get up close and personal with some babies, so of course we had to take more pictures! Aren't they just the cutest!
Next up was Tower Fall, a 132ft waterfall immortalized in one of Thomas Moran's most famous paintings (Thomas Moran is the most famous artist in Yellowstone and was part of the large expedition sent by the U.S. geological survey that resulted in Yellowstone becoming the first national park). We walked down the short trail to see the falls, which were very nice, though the base was covered by trees. There used to be a trail that led to the base, but it had gotten washed out a few years ago, so we could only view the falls from the overlook. Still, they were lovely to see from above.
It was getting late, so once we reached Canyon Village, we headed to Old Faithful with no more delays. Our plan is to hit all the stuff north of Old Faithful during our two days in the area. We are staying at the Old Faithful Snowlodge, but we got a little turned around and ended up at the Old Faithful Lodge. This turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events because not ten minutes after we arrived, Old Faithful herself rose to greet us. It was rainy, cold, and grey, so we stayed under the overhang at the Lodge, but it was still an incredible sight. What a warm welcome!
Our final varmint sighting was when we were going into the Snowlodge to check in. A beautiful male mountain bluebird flew right up to us and posed so that we could properly admire him. What a gorgeous bird! And with that, we ended the excitement for the day. Hopefully tomorrow will have more surprises in store.