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Published: September 14th 2012
Monday's dawn at 1A1 was chilly, albeit comfortable, and it was the warmest Yellowstone morning we would have. Night had come and gone from the valley without a peep from wind, water, or wildlife—unlike nights to come!—and left nothing but a light dew in its wake. Margaret isn't a morning person, yet she (thankfully) handled my eagerness well; I'm not always a go-getter in the morning, but the great outdoors generally fills me with vigor. A full bladder doesn't hurt either.
We cooked up Mountain House's Scrambled Eggs
(of which we both approved), gathered camp, and hiked back to the trailhead without incident or animal, save one distant bison. Monday's plan was ambitious, but we made it, and down to the wire at that. We continued west to Mammoth Hot Springs; swung by some thermal features (which reach temperatures of 163°F and discharge an estimated 1.4 million gallons per day); passed through the north entrance arch at Gardiner, Montana
; backtracked to Tower-Roosevelt; and headed south to Canyon Village.
Since we would double back towards Tower we made a seven-mile bee line for Mammoth and only wildlife would give us pause. The land was barren in this respect until the outskirts of Mammoth; it
was there we joined a growing gathering of vehicles to watch a dozen or so elk off to the south. Heads-down grazers in the brush make for poor photography, so I ventured across the road to gander at Mount Everts
' alluvial fans—
fan-shaped deposits formed where streams transition from canyon to plain—
and, at the opposite end, a glimpse of Mammoth's offerings: a chalky, mottled, smoldering plateau. When I returned from my aside Margaret informed me that I had missed a series of elk-bird interactions: a bird was landing on a particular elk, being blown off by the beast, and then returning to repeat the process; they eventually exchanged glances over the situation. Interspecies behavior like this makes for great photography; alas, I had been lured away. Such are the seductive surroundings of Yellowstone.
Mammoth Hot Springs is diamterically opposed to Tower-Roosevelt. Yellowstone Treasures
offers a half-page map of Mammoth (as well as maps of the terraces), whereas Tower-Roosevelt lacks a map altogether. Mammoth harbors a visitor center, hotel, grill, school, clinic, chapel, median, post office, employee residences, the only cultivated green lawns in the park, and an abundance of thermal features, of course. It's also quite open—
not forested like Tower—
and encompasses Fort Yellowstone
In the park's early years a civilian staff was unable to protect the park and as a result the United States Army set up shop in 1886 and "held the fort." The National Park Service
was formed some thirty years later and assumed control; to this day the fort acts as Yellowstone's headquarters.
It was late morning and we had to make camp that night outside of Canyon Village some forty miles away, so we stepped into Albright Visitor Center and acquired advice on time allocation. We departed with two features in mind, a map, and a lunchtime hunger. Across the way we nabbed goodies at the general store and settled on one of three empty picnic tables; from here we watched the traffic of people and vehicles and kept the company of a small bird.
After lunch we were lucky to find parking across the street from Main Terrace and we took a brief boardwalk trip to Palette Spring. On the way we passed Liberty Cap: an extinct hot spring cone that's easily identifiable due to its height of thirty-seven feet—
I was eyeing it during lunch. Near Palette Spring the earth becomes tan, bulbous, and smooth; the runoff of
nearby thermals washes through and keeps the ground moist and dappled with shallow glimmering pools. A few feet from the boardwalk we spotted a Killdeer
they're named onomatopoeically after their cry and infamous for their broken wing act; apparently we weren't a threat and the fellow had no cause to "wing it." The Mammoth Hot Springs Trail Guide—
made available by the Yellowstone Assocation for a donation of 50¢—
describes Palette like so:
Water flows in crisscrossing patterns down a steep ridge where colorful thermophiles create a changing palette dominated by hues of orange and brown. This effect is much the same as an artist would achieve by allowing watercolors to run down a vertical surface.
are heat-loving microorganisms and different temperatures attract different colors that may vary with the seasons; the colorless and yellow grow in the hottest water, while orange, brown, and green thrive in cooler waters. Pictures are worth a thousand words here: I recommend looking at my photo set on Flickr
to fully appreciate this phenomenon. The watercolor effect would resurface later that day during our hike along the canyon rim.
From here we continued south, rounded a few switchbacks, and wound 1½ miles through Upper Terrace Drive. Canary Spring was the recommend sight per the visitor center, but we passed it up due a lack of parking on the one-way road and a misunderstanding on my part—
I thought I had gotten a decent glimpse from the road, but further reading
proved me wrong. The pedestrian-friendly speed limit was enforced by a plethora of potholes which fit the terrace's erosive theme well. Margaret sat on the brake a few times so I could poke my camera out the window for a photo. One target was the New Highland Terrace: a pale lumpy mound sparsely spotted with grass, stumps, and the skeletons of trees whose soil had failed them during a resurgence of thermal activity. Around the corner we parked at the curvaceous emergence of Orange Spring Mound; water cascaded from its pastels and accumulated in a log-lined drainage ditch along the drive. I balanced myself here between the passing cars and runoff and filled my camera's flash card further. The last sight I recall was at the end of the drive: Angel Terrace. It "may have been named for its snowy whiteness or for the deliciate miroorganisms that sometimes live around it." We pulled up to this ashen emptiness and discovered a lone cloud hanging over a dark splotch bounded by salmon-colored stains; it was as though some craft had crash landed and oozed. Our drive was short and largely car-bound, but nevertheless interesting.
Inactive terraces are white; long-inactive ones are various shades of gray. What makes the springs that build the terraces so unpredictable? The accumulating travertine tends to clog the plumbing, and varying water supply, chemistry, temperature, and frequent earthquakes may also contribute to the changes.
We made good time among
the terraces and decided to drive five miles out of town to see the north entrance at Gardiner, Montana. It was the park's first entrance and it exhibits the Roosevelt Arch. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in April of 1903; the inscription at the top reads "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Amen!
We passed through the arch, moseyed through the Yellowstone Assocation
, emptied our bladders, and headed back. The beautiful drive twists alongside the Gardner River, crosses the 45th parallel of latitude—
the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole—
and an elevation change of almost a thousand feet varies the climate and vegetation. Unfortunately, I didn't spot a big horn on the cliffs, a grazer in the meadows, nor a bird soaring high. It was the perfect time for Margaret to squeeze in a nap.
We restocked our beverages in Mammoth and headed east towards Tower, crossing the Gardner River Bridge for the second time. "When completed in 1939, this was the largest bridge in Wyoming, both in length (805ft) and height (200ft)." On our return trip we would stop to see Undine Falls, Wraith Falls, and stray from Grand Loop Road. Undine Falls, a
triple waterfall, offers a roadside overlook for its one hundred plus feet plummet into Lava Creek. Wraith Falls, on the other hand, requires a small hike—
less than a mile roundtrip. It's unique: water emerges from a mass of lodgepole pines and, rather than collectively roaring over a precipice, fans out onto rock and bulges, forming the shape of a wishbone. I thought it was flowing well when I arrived;
however, the name "wraith"—
a barely visibile vaporous column—
foretells what could've been: a trickle. Margaret had stirred from her nap by the time I returned from my solo hike and we pushed on, looking for the alternate route to Tower: Blacktail Plateau Drive. Here I would engage the Hyundai's all-wheel drive.
This 7-mile unpaved one-way road is closed at night, after storms, and all winter. The first road built through the area, it follows a tortuous route through the hillsides climbing 500 feet higher than the four-season main road.
The beginning of Blacktail Plateau Drive was rough, but it smoothed out enough for our tastes within a mile. What I recall is the one bison we encountered; we were fairly close, yet the road's embankment provided a safe vantage point. We arrived just in time to see the big fellow nuzzle a small tree and send it shaking against its side. The beast was headed in the opposite direction and he just wouldn't keep still for long enough;
I went through a couple gyrations of getting out of the car, snapping a photo, getting back in the car, reversing a few dozen feet, and then repeating the process. Eventually he was through with us and other cars began to arrive so we moved along. The drive definitely had a backcountry feel and we eagerly scanned the highs and lows for wildlife: there was nothing more. Later in the week, at the canyon visitor center, the "Wildlife Sightings" board would report a sighting of three moose on the drive!
At Tower-Roosevelt junction we turned south for the eighteen-mile trek to Canyon Village. I recall canyon vistas and road construction—
which blocked the pull-outs for the vistas—
the first few miles. After this mess we went right into another at the tourist-packed general store by an overlook for Tower Fall
. Yellowstone Treasures
says this "area is extremely crowded all day" and so it was. I patiently waited to maneuver my camera into the good spots to capture the spectacle—
the only waterfall in the park deemed "fall" rather than "falls" likely due to its clean drop into the creek one hundred and thirty-two feet below; here lie boulders up to ten feet in
diameter with an estimated weight of up to thirty tons.
Roughly a dozen miles later we pulled into Canyon Village, poked around, and got our fill of sandwiches and liquids. Canyon Village is situated about a mile north of the majestic Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
and its constitution falls inbetween the calmer, sylvan Tower-Roosevelt and the bustling expanse of Mammoth Hot Springs. Canyon Village has a visitor center, backcountry office, general store, outdoor store, cafeteria, grill, and dining room, all of which line the perimeter of a large parking lot. Not far from here you can find a service station, various cabins and lodges, and a large campground. I popped into the backcountry office to check the activity of weather and bears: A-OK. Trails south of Wapiti Trail were closed because a pack of wolves had recently made a den in the area. Wolves have had a tumultous history in Yellowstone—
more on that later—
and the park was taking care to aid in their reintroduction. Also, campsites to the far east were closed due to fires in the area. So we lucked out: we had the go-ahead to make camp amid the wolves, wildfires, canyon rim, and whatever else decided to show up
2½ miles out in the wilderness.
We found our trailhead, Artist Point, at the end of South Rim drive. The Blacktail Creek trailhead from the previous night was a dirt-floored nook next to nowhere that could've taken in a dozen compact cars. Artist Point's lot was an oblong stretch of pristine asphalt that could've fit a dozen tour buses and them some. And it had bathroom facilities to boot. The lot and its sidewalks ebbed and flowed with tourists. Margaret and I could feel the stares as we prepared our mighty backpacks and readied our bear spray. Yes, the lookout is
nice, but it's merely a man-made annex to the real
Yellowstone. These folks—
who looked abled-bodied, mind you—
were filling their eyes with awe (atop asphalt no less!), turning away, and plopping back into their automobiles: what a tragedy!
Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day. The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur, most of which is unrememberable. Far more time should be taken. Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature's sources never fail. Like a generous host, she offers here brimming cups in endless variety, served in a grand hall, the sky its ceiling, the mountains its walls, decorated with glorious paintings and enlivened with bands of music ever playing. The petty discomforts that beset the awkward guest, the unskilled camper, are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.
— John Muir
Time was against us, and the tourists a wee thick, so we headed for our outer sanctum. At the overlook's cul de sac we found our deviation marked by a sign that warned overlookers of the backcountry beyond. The trail undulated through moderately thick forest and opened up when it reached the canyon's southern rim. And what spectacular views it
bestowed! The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone cradles the Yellowstone River
for approximately twenty miles as it arcs from Canyon Village to Tower-Roosevelt. Its walls slant upwards and outwards reaching heights of twelve hundred feet and they're strewn with watercolor-like stains, courageous trees, statuesque crags, and a variety of nooks and crannies. In short: it's amazing.
The colors in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone derive both from minerals and from living organisms. There are infinite shadings of yellow and orange, and also reds and pinks, off-whites, browns, greens, and black. Most of these colors result from the weathering of the rocks and from the upward passage of hot water and steam.
The sun continued its descent. We were camping at 4R2 for two nights and Tuesday was devoted to the area, so I suppressed my inner photographer and tried to minimize pausing at the canyon's maw to gaze. After a half mile we turned inland, passed Lily Pad Lake, and picked up the Ribbon Lake trail to continue east. It would guide us 1½ miles through a quiet and fairly thick forest—
a thickness that kept Margaret and I very bear aware. She tapped her trekking poles together every couple of yards and I filled the gaps by jiggling my tripod's metallic legs. We also developed some chants along the way, e.g.: "Hey bear / Over there / Don't give me a scare / I don't want to shit in my underwear." No bears showed, but we did cross the paths of a mule deer
and a skittish coyote. The evening light softened, our packs grew heavier, and the trail made a relatively dramatic elevation change as it approached the lake. We stood panting at its peak and graciously ogled the lake through the treetops. After a large downhill, a creek crossing, and one final gain back to the canyon rim, we were nearly there.
4R2 had that tucked away feeling. Yesterday's 1A1 sat exposed under the gaping firmament and possessed the incessant ripples of Blacktail Creek. At 4R2 the sky was held at bay by the towering, albeit thinning forest, and its floor was scattered with the fallen. To the south the forest gives way to a small stretch of dried-up marsh; nearly knee-high grasses advance to a lake rimmed with lily pads and onward to dark patches of forest beyond. Unless a squirrel dislodged something from above, it was silent.
The bear pole was an easy find: it was right against the trail (which is fine since 4R2 is the end of the line). One leg of the pole was unique and it gave us a thrill: it "beared" claw marks that were now inset with hardened sap! Margaret wasn't as excited about this as I was. We rigged the bear bag, set up the tent (after much scouting), and revisited the lake for water. I balanced myself out onto the makeshift pier—
a bundle of logs—
while Margaret worried about me falling in. We tried cooking dinner aferward, but stove complications and a fading twilight opposed; thus, our second-string energy bars filled our stomachs. We quickly wrapped up, layered up, and navigated the onset of night by headlamp.
The day had been packed to the brim and we had made it, through and through.
We were tired. And sleep came easy. View all photos on Flickr
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