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If you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tanzania here, check out the new blog I've started on Wordpress as of November, 2017. It's called "Back to Tanzania" and you can read it here. All new adventures in Tanzania from an older, wiser, more experienced expat.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bison or Grizzly? The Eternal Yellowstone Puzzle

In my last post, I told you all about my first two fun-packed days in Yellowstone National Park with my friends Diane and Alice. Here's the scoop on my next two fun-packed days. There really is a lot to see in Yellowstone.

On our third morning, we left the "comfort" of our accomodations at Canyon Village and headed north over spectacular Dunraven Pass. Elevation at the summit is 8,859 feet (2700 meters). But the elevation didn't bother me at all. Because I was riding in a car.

Wildflowers were going crazy. The sweep of yellow is a million arnica flowers (a bright yellow wild daisy-ish flower).

When I said "arnica," Diane, who is a physical therapist and a lover of trivia, told me that arnica gel is an effective, frequently used pain remedy.

We all thought this should be grizzly habitat. Diane scanned with the binoculars, but all she saw was arnica. And some sagebrush.

What a beautiful road! As Diane drove, she told me the arnica all turn towards the sun and that all the flowers were facing in our direction of travel and filling the rear view mirror with yellow. I didn't believe her until we got out of the car the next time and I could check for myself. She was right!

A view of the Yellowstone River in the Tower/Roosevelt area.

Here we are in the Lamar Valley, famed as the release site for wolves when the government re-introduced them into the Yellowstone ecosystem. Famed as the best place in the park to see wolves, and grizzlies, too.

And we saw... more bison. Just like our first two bison-filled days in the park.

But never mind. The Lamar Valley was beautiful and I loved just passing through it.

At one scenic pullout, we saw a small group of people looking through binoculars. We took our positions off to the side, and Diane raised her binoculars. There was some discussion among the group as to whether or not that dark spot waaayy off in the distance was a grizzly or a bison. A woman next to us announced that it was a grizzly.

 Diane said, "It's a bison. It's not moving at all. Grizzlies keep moving, they don't just stand still."

The grizzly woman pounced. She said, "That's not true. Yesterday a grizzly two miles from here denned up in a hole next to the road and he stayed there and didn't move at all for six hours."

She was surprisingly angry. I couldn't decide whether she viewed herself as an expert and did not brook any challenge to her authority, or if it was more that she felt herself to be one with the grizzly and we shouldn't challenge her psychic connection. Whichever, she seemed a little crazy, so we hopped back into our car and went in search of lunch.

We'd already discovered that Yellowstone has maintained the long tradition of concessionaires selling crap food for high prices inside national parks, so we drove on through the Lamar Valley and outside the park to Cooke City, Montana. Cooke City is tiny and about 90% of it is log cabins, three of which are cafes. We had good sandwiches but had to sit inside, since a motorcycle gang was occupying all the patio tables, except for one that was taken by an elderly couple with a toy poodle.

Finally, a grizzly! And right on Main Street in Cooke City.

After lunch, we retraced our route back through the Lamar Valley, and still did not see any wolves or grizzlies. We did see several animals other than bison, though. The first were mountain goats clambering around on a cliff far in the distance. Through binoculars we could see white spots with four shaggy legs. It was amazing to see the places they climbed. I badly wanted to get a picture so I could send it to Margaret over at one of my favorite blogs,   "Nanny Goats in Panties,"  so it could be a "Goat Thing of the Day." But it would have been just one more picture in my extensive catalog of black or white dots off in the distance that may or may not have been animals. (The best one is killer whale dots in Alaska!) Then I saw a small badger walking beside the road. That was exciting, only the second one I've ever seen. Also no picture, because we were driving and just zipped by and he was gone.

But look! Pronghorn taking a walk through the lupine (those purple flowers) and sagebrush (those silver shrubs).

In my last post I mentioned that we used to say "buffalo" instead of "bison." We also used to call these "antelope" instead of "pronghorns." But I guess that's wrong now, too.

And then we saw even more bison. But this time, they had babies with them!


We left the Lamar Valley and headed west onto Blacktail Deer Plateau. Our first stop there was the Petrified Tree. But I'm not even showing you the picture I took, because it was such a strange, disappointing spectacle. Basically, you got one stone cylinder about 15 feet tall inside an iron cage. I guess they have to fence it to keep people from chipping away souvenir slivers of stone. But if you want to see petrified wood, I recommend Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona...

 ...where they have beautiful pieces of petrified trees like this...

...scattered all over the ground like this.

But back to Yellowstone. Thousands of acres of Yellowstone are lodgepole pine forest, an ecotype in which fire plays an important role. Back in 1988, wildfires burned a lot of the park (over 790,000 acres according to Wikipedia). It was in the early days of natural resource agencies' policy to embrace fire as a management tool, or "Let It Burn," as the media called it. The Park Service was the focus of a lot of outrage from the public when all those tourists who loved Yellowstone, and weren't used to seeing any of it black and burnt, came back. They all had the idea that the park was somehow dead and gone after burning. I remember this clearly because my previous trip to Yellowstone was in 1989 with my family. My mother was a member of the outraged public. Every time we passed black trees, she'd say "They ought to hang the Park Superintendant." Only she knew his name, which I've since forgotten, and would use his name when making this threat, so it was even more personal. I'd earnestly explain to her that fire was a natural part of this ecostystem and that the forest wasn't dead and would in fact be healthier in years to come for having been naturally thinned out. She'd nod and say, "I see." Twenty minutes later, we'd drive by another blackened stand, and she'd say again, "They ought to hang the Park Superintendant." The Park Service didn't hang him, but I seem to remember he was reassigned to a different park. 

Driving through the Park, we saw many burns of different vintage. The black trees against the new green are striking.

Views from up high on Blacktail Deer Plateau.

Not a blacktail deer, but an elk on Blacktail Deer Plateau.

We made it to Mammoth Hot Springs and our reservation at the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel there in late afternoon. Diane and I grabbed our cameras and ran for the boardwalks, babbling about the beautiful afternoon light. Alice came along to see the thermal features, but she knew she was in for a long, boring photo session. But she was a good sport ( just like at every geyser basin on the whole trip. Thanks, Alice!).

Scenes around Mammoth Hot Springs...

Alice on the boardwalk. "When will it be over?"

Not yet! Just a few more shots...

This is the original infinity pool.

It looks like snow and icicles, but it's calcite deposits and running water. Some places the water was hot and some places it was cold.

Diane and Alice on the boardwalk.

Mountain bluebird clinging to a calcite cliff. Several of them were swooping around and climbing in and out of a crack in the cliff. Diane and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get pictures of them while Alice found a shady spot to patiently wait for us. Thanks, Alice!

The Roosevelt Arch frames the park's north entrance. President Teddy Roosevelt laid its cornerstone in 1903. Miss Trivia, Diane, didn't tell me that. I looked it up in Wikipedia.

The arch is just outside Gardiner, Montana, where we spent the evening in another successful attempt to avoid the food inside the park.

When we stopped to photograph the arch, we met a man and his father from Michigan, who were waiting for all other tourists and cars to clear the arch so the son could photograph the father standing in front of the arch. The father was about 80 years old and walked slowly with a cane. He hobbled to and from the arch a couple of times while we chatted with the son, just waiting for others to finish their pictures and move on. The son told us that his father had wanted for years to get this picture of himself standing in front of Roosevelt Arch. The son was quite emotional telling us about it. Eventually, everybody did clear away and the father was posing in front of the arch in this pretty evening light as we headed into Gardiner for dinner. As we sat eating giant plates of fettucini, I suddenly said, "Damn! Why didn't we offer to take a picture of the two of them together in front of the arch?" Diane said, "Damn! We should have offered!" That bothered me all evening.

Then back to our room at the historic hotel. I always imagined it would be romantic to stay in one of the park's historic lodges. This one looked beautiful from the outside. But it turns out historic is not the same thing as comfortable. Each floor had one bathroom with two toilets and a shower for men and two toilets and a shower for women. Although we didn't have to wait for showers, so I guess that wasn't really a problem. In sharp contrast to our freezing cold mornings in the cabins at Canyon Village, we sweated our way through our night at Mammoth. There's no air conditioning, because it wouldn't be historically accurate. And there's no breeze coming in the room's one window. They did supply us an electric fan. We plugged it into the room's one outlet, which placed it between the beds up near our heads. As it rotated, the breeze hit only my calves and feet. So I slept with my head at the foot of the bed to try to get the most benefit from the fan.

We were off early the next morning for one last day and a few more animals and dozens more geysers and hot springs and mud pots.

We stopped first at Sheepeater Cliffs to see the columnar basalt formation named after early Native Americans.  Diane and I both knew that bit of trivia about the basalt.

These yellow-bellied marmots were more fun than the basalt, though.

Farther along the road, we saw this sandhill crane with chick.

Our first geyser basin of our last day was Norris geyser basin, where we got plenty of the spa steam treatment, with just a touch of sulfur dioxide fragrance.

Boiling mud pot

Killdeer wading in warm mud

This side is called Porcelain Basin, and is the park's hottest exposed area. Diane recalled the boardwalk being closed a few years ago when she visited due to extreme surface temperatures.

It was also in this area where we saw the sign explaining how a geyser had been damaged by people throwing in coins which gradually became coated with calcim carbonate and clogged it. Which Diane had told us happened to Old Faithful! Ha ha! Wrong this time! But I think this was the only time...

At this point, Diane's shoes had blistered her foot and she hobbled to the bookstore/ranger museum to take a break. I think it was her shoes, unless it was the surface temperature and she didn't want to admit to having stepped off the boardwalk.

Don't worry, Diane! I took plenty of pictures on the second loop, so you can see it all!

And on up the road to the Artists Paintpots area. It was here that we met a man carrying his brand new iPad to use as a camera and to pull up the Park Service website and read about the paint pots. It was hard not to notice. He waited until a crowd had gathered, then held it up over our heads, and said loudly, "Can someone take a picture of us?" I hope sulfur steam doesn't damage iPads. Sort of.

Overview of Artist's Paint Pots.

The light grey parts are boiling mud.

It was coming up close to lunch time by now, and we were within striking distance of the town of West Yellowstone, which would allow us to yet again avoid eating inside the Park. We could have hit a few more geyser basins along the way, but Alice had seen enough of them. And now I'd come over to her side and also had seen enough. I think Diane could have kept going, but she was a good sport and we headed west for the exit.

And for our final Yellowstone wildlife sighting, a group of elk crossing the Madison River.

Good-bye Yellowstone!

In the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, we found one more round of huckleberry ice cream (which Alice and I had started back at Old Faithful) and cheaper souvenirs. After a shopping break, we headed north to Big Sky, Montana. Next time, find out what to do for summer fun in a Montana ski resort!

To see more photos of the parts of Yellowstone visited in this blog, click here.


  1. I have no idea how I missed part one of this adventure, since I'm a subscriber, but I just spent far too long reading both posts and lingering over the photos. Sitting here in Seoul and looking at your photos, I have an overwhelming desire to jump onto the next plane and head straight for Yellowstone and/or the Grand Tetons (never knew the origin of that name, by the way.) I also need to learn to take better photos....yours are incredible!
    Love hearing your adventures, including the ones from your childhood! What's next?

  2. I'm so loving your posts from the US. It's allowing me to see a part of the world I've not visited. Perhaps I need to put that right! I've got my next 'major' adventure booked for next March - Mexico. Done a bit of Asia and a bit of Africa so it's time for a bit of Latin America. Europe is on doorstep - well, UK is part of it - lol!

  3. @Ms.Caroline-I need to do one more post on this adventure, a few days we spent in Big Sky, Montana. Then the next will be a few days in Southern Utah seeing plays at the Shakespeare Festival there and hiking in a small sandstone national park down there. I have a couple of more small trips percolating around in my mind that I might take soon. And in late September, I'm going hiking in Sequoia Nat'l Park, so that one should be wonderful!

    @PeeJay-Oh, I love Mexico! You'll have fun. But you should visit the U.S., especially the western part!

  4. What a magical place! I love the fantastic photos, but the last photo is so exquisite! Thanks for sharing! Wonderful stuff here Barbara!