Day 4: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone


Total Distance: 0 miles / 0 kmMouse: 0,0

Per usual, a brimming bladder and the exctiement of adventures-to-be extracted me from the warmth of my sleeping bag. And Tuesday morning was a nippy one. Odd calls from the lake—a bird, I suspected—punctuated the silence. Outside the tent I paused to mimic the call and commit it to memory, but it didn't hold until Canyon where I hoped to identify it. The forest floor crackled underfoot as I made my way to the bear bag: everything was intact and I spotted no signs of nocturnal mischievousness. I then veered left, took care of business, and paid a visit to eleven-acre Ribbon Lake where I stood shivering in the sedge meadow for some time. I scanned the forest edges with my binoculars; small frogs hopped toward a sea of lily pads hugging the lake's perimeter; a low-hanging fog wafted across the water; a solitary duck puttered through it. This was the quintessence of quietude and "getting away from it all"; this is what John Muir meant when he wrote of wilderness being a necessity. I continued observing, shivering, and grinning from ear to ear until the cold worked its way into my bones.

Back at the tent I reunited with my bag and stirred Margaret. She grumbled for a bit before questioning me about last night's sounds; she reported two rustlings outside the tent: footfall atop brush and a movement she described as "sneaky" that snapped a few branches before vanishing. I had had my fair share of tossing and turning throughout the night; still, I heard nothing.

The stove worked properly this time—I wasn't tightening it enough before?—and we were able to have a warm bag of Mountain House's Breakfast Skillet. It and the aforementioned eggs from day 3 were the two backcountry breakfasts we toggled between on the trip and they were both winners. Bellies full, we prepared for departure. We were staying at 4R2 again that night so we lightened our packs by stashing an assortment of clothes and gear in our sleeping bags. We would return to the car via yesterday's familiar route—through the forest and along the canyon's rim—and pass a few Gray Jays on the way out of camp.

When we obtained our permits for 1A1 and 4R2 on Sunday the ranger mistakenly thought that the Ribbon Lake trail was closed—something about carcasses, i.e., bear magnets. She spoke of a "social trail" (an unmapped and unmaintained trail) leading from Point Sublime to camp. We had the whole day to explore the area and an adventurous curiosity, so we gave it a shot. We stuck to the canyon rim and soon stumbled upon the brink of Silver Cord Cascade. About a quarter mile outside of camp Surface Creek emerges from Ribbon Lake, flows north, and takes a twelve hundred foot tumble into the canyon, creating Yellowstone's tallest waterfall. We eased down a steep bank of loose rock and straddled a log to reach a small pool about twenty feet from the rim. Here we discovered a small waterfall fringed with green flora and moss-covered rock; it reminded me of the arduous, but wondrous Hanging Lake Trail in Glenwood Canyon. There appeared to be a faint trail beyond the gravelly pool, however, it was far too steep. We picked up a trail lining Surface Creek instead and it lead us back to the beaten path.

We weren't on the trail long before our first human encounter. A stocky middle-aged man was headed our way and he lacked any semblance of a hiker: he was without hat, pack, and water bottle, and his (non-wicking) shirt was blotched with sweat. He inquired of our whereabouts and I unfolded my map, pointed, and described the trail beyond. Satisfied, he turned back and hiked ahead of us. About a third of a mile east we reached a busy intersection with the Wapiti Trail. (Wapiti is another name for elk.) His group was snacking there and two others were approaching on the prongs. The canyon rim would be quite populated as well: this was the busiest backcountry we'd seen yet; however, we remained the only folks with full-blown backpacks. On the way out we crossed paths with a mule deer and paused at the rim often to indulge in admiration and photography; description is best left to the visual stimuli in my Flickr set. The final stretch, like yesterday's departure, lead us through a mass of tourists. Asphalt was under our feet again. At the overlook we got a gorgeous glimpse of Lower Falls—"by far the most often photographed of Yellowstone's many waterfalls"—and hours later we would stand just yards away from its thundering threshold.

Artist's Point, a must-see for the full effect of the colorful canyon and Lower Falls. Although every book about Yellowstone describes or pictures this wonderful vista, there's no substitute for standing there yourself. Absorb the unbelievable coloring of the rocks, the depth of the canyon, the grace of the falls with their faint roar nearly a mile away, and the thrill of the rushing river below you.
— Yellowstone Treasures

After emerging from the wilderness we spent a good chunk of the afternoon in Canyon Village. We scarfed down lunch and I busied myself while Margaret took a nap in the car. I browsed, bought some ice cream, procured our permit for Thursday and Friday, helped a fellow plan a day hike when the backcountry volunteer was tied up, and attempted to find someone knowledgable in camp stoves to determine why mine malfunctioned last night—no luck there, but it would give us no more trouble. I also canvassed the area to find a piece of chocolate cake for a grumpy member of our party. Blessed be the Canyon Cafeteria; it's in the construction zone, but it's open for business. At three the campground showers were through with their cleanse and no longer off limits. We gladly forked over $3.50 each (if I remember right) for a shower. They were the first showers we'd seen since Saturday. And they were wonderful; warm and refreshing.

It was late afternoon when we departed from the village and we took a trip down the nearby North Rim Drive. We stopped at the first parking area to have a look at the Brink of Lower Falls. Trail. It was a trail. One that consists of "a strenuous but rewarding drop of some 600 feet in about one-half mile." We wearily eyed the descent disappearing into the canyon and teeter-tottered into a commitment—one that was easy to uphold on the way down. And I'm glad we did. Eventually the trail levelled out alongside the Yellowstone River and lead us to two stretches of railing that were a stone's throw from Lower Falls' roaring precipice. Beyond the railing the canyon yawned in breadth and depth into a view that felt eternal. A mile away the river snaked out of sight and three hundred feet below a permanent mist billowed and bedewed the chasm; its walls were darkened from dampness and the clutches of a thirsty green. This is, without a doubt, a must-see and well worth the trek. Take water; take photos; take breaks; take a picnic; take your time. Just don't pass this up.

Halfway through the drive we pulled over at Lookout Point with a mission. Earlier that day, on the wildlife sightings board, the report of an eagle's nest here caught my eye. The nest was a quick find and easily observable via binoculars and my camera's telephoto lens. But they weren't eagles: they were osprey. These large raptors are known for their fishing prowess and they feed predominately on fish; as a result they've earned the apt alias of "fish hawk." Osprey are easily identified by their marbled white head feathers, mottled brown-white wings, and especially by the dark mask that stretches across their eyes. The nest was resting about one hundred yards away and crowned a fortress of rocky pillars. When we arrived one was standing in the nest and calling its call—a series of cheeps. We kept watch and I experimented with my teleconverter (which didn't turn out well, unfortunately). During our short stay we saw the bird take flight, drop behind a cluster of rocky spires with wings wide, and reappear minutes later. The vantage point was perfect and beautiful regardless of the birds; although, wildlife always exponentiates the situation for me. We would be back. And we'd see more osprey!here and elsewhere.

Our last stop on North Rim Drive was Inspiration Point: an overlook jutting into the canyon that we had seen from the opposing side during recent hikes. Honestly, I don't recall much herehow could I after the excitement of the osprey? Here's what Dr. Wayland Hoyt had to say in the late 19th century:

The whole gorge flames. It is as though rainbows had fallen out of the sky and hung themselves there like glorious banners. The underlying color is the clearest yellow; this flushes onward into orange. Down at the base the deepest mosses unroll their draperies of the most vivid green; browns, sweet and soft, do their blending; white rocks stand spectral; turrets of rock shoot up as crimson as though they were drenched through with blood. It is a wilderness of color...

That was our last stop and the evening was on our heels again. The canyon had "rocked" our world and rest was most welcome. We returned to the big parking lot; to our medium packs; to our small camp down familiar trails now thrice-hiked. There we cooked our most unplesant meal of the trip: AlpineAire's Texas BBQ Chicken with Beans. We chased it with a helping of water and slept.

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