Monday, May 25, 2015

Day 7 - Gardiner to Old Faithful

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.

Our next sighting was a perplexing one.....we came upon two bull elk with fairly well developed antlers.  The weird thing is that o
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.

The next half hour was amazing!  Shannon's "designated animal of the day" was a mountain goat meaning that it was her goal to see one.....and let's face it, whatever Shannon wants, Shannon gets, right?  Sorry, I just like jerking her chain.  Anyway, we saw the animal in the top picture above silhouetted against the sky and got super excited because we thought for sure it was a mountain goat.  We spent a lot of time looking at him as well as the dozen or so other animals below him, but we were confused again because some of them looked like big horn sheep but others looked like mountain goats.  Well, it turned out that the female bighorn sheep have horns like mountain goats. We were very grateful when a biologist stopped by to straighten out the group with definitive answers.  Aren't they cool though? They were playing and head-butting and having a generally good time, totally oblivious to the crazies at the bottom of the mountain staring at them.

As we were looking at the sheep, I looked just to the other side of the ridge and gee, look, there are three pronghorns.  This was to be a day full of pronghorns, so we have some much better shots later in the day.  I guess we didn't need to walk half a mile down the side of the road to see one like we did yesterday (or was it the day before?), but who knew they were going to be all over the place?  We're learning that the park has very distinct ecosystems that support certain animals more than others, and the northern section is where a lot of the non-bisons can be found (the bisons are everywhere!).

Not 500 yards down the road was a very large herd of bison, and normally we wouldn't have stopped, but then I spotted the telltale red spots that signify.....wait for it....babies!  Yay!!!!  Not only did I get a point for that sighting, but they were so cute!  We could have stayed there all dang day watching them prance around and play.  They were all over the place too, so I guess the time is just right for babies now.  It was weird, though, because as we headed east, the babies got fewer and fewer even though the bison didn't.  Why would that be?  Hmmmmm, another conundrum.

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!

We were really hoping to see a calf being born, and Shannon saw this little one coming out the wrong end of his mama thinking that maybe, just maybe, this was a birth....but alas, it was just a nap!

An awesome display of Shannon's photographic prowess

A much better picture of pronghorns, don't you think?

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). 

Mr. Bison was so nice to be right where we needed him for this picture

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!

Here are two female mountain goats lower down the mountain than the rest of the herd

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!

          Here's a little bit better shot....but not much!

            This is the big male mountain goat

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 we came to another group of bighorn sheep fairly close to the road.  They were all young males, so we didn't mistake them for mountain goats this time!

After we reached Tower Junction where we headed south towards Canyon (this road had been closed before today as part of the park's phased road opening policy), we came to the wonderful Calcite Springs Overlook. This is the opposite end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from where we were a few days ago, and it's known as the Narrows. The view here was just as spectacular as it was at the other locations we visited. It also had an interesting additional feature on the opposite cliffside in the form of hexagonal basalt columns. We had seen columns similar to these on the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, though those were freestanding. These were part of the layers of rock that accumulated over time, sandwiched between glacial deposits and volcanic ash. As we were following the short trail along the edge of the overlook, we saw another female bighorn sheep, looking perfectly at home on the side of the cliff.

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.

We left the Tower area and headed into the Antelope Creek Valley. With the exception of the usual elk and bison (we're getting so jaded, aren't we?), there weren't many animals, but the scenery was amazing.

Further down the road, we started heading up into the mountains, skirting the edge of Mount Washburn and traveling through Dunraven Pass. Rain clouds were following us, and you can see their abrupt start in the bottom picture above.

We stopped at an overlook that stood at the northern edge of the caldera that formed after the last volcanic eruption in the area 640,000 years ago. It is hard to see because the caldera is approximately 40 miles wide, but from this point, we could discern the abrupt drop in the landscape at the perimeter. Many of the waterfalls also go over the edges of the caldera where the soft natural stone of the area meets the harder volcanic rock. In the picture above, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is visible in the distance as a slash of rock in the otherwise forested surroundings.  It was easy to see why this road was the last to open because the snow was still 4 feet deep in places.

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. 

1 comment:

  1. Shaun and Shannon. Simply awesome.