Thursday, May 31, 2012

Yellowstone: For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People

Yellowstone. It is all you imagine it to be. Picturesque snow-capped mountains, wide valleys teaming with wildlife, marvelous thermal features and an ecosystem more diverse than you have ever experienced. 

When Congress signed into existence the World’s First National Park in 1872, they changed the way unique lands are preserved for future generations to enjoy. In those days the park was home to only a few bison as they were nearly extinct and soon after wolves, considered a nuisance, were removed from the park ecosystem. Back then it took great lengths to even get to Yellowstone. It’s lodges and facilities something for the very rich.

Yellowstone has evolved. The park is still awe-inspiring. It will still  blow your mind as it did for those who came to see it back in the 19th century. After all, you are standing in the largest supervolcano on the continent. Today’s Yellowstone is home to 67 species of mammals, of which include bison, black bear, grizzly, pronghorn, elk, moose, Canadian lynx and grey wolf. Its nearly 3,500 square miles contain half of the world’s geothermal features and is home to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest remaining, nearly intact ecosystem in the earth’s northern temperate zone.

Every time we go (this is our 4th trip) we experience something new. This year it was the hair-raising cliff hugging road that extends from Canyon to Tower-Roosevelt and from there to Mammoth. This route took us over Dunraven Pass (8859ft), a section of road that is closed to traffic most of the year due to poor conditions. This was the first opportunity we had to take the scenic route and we jumped at the chance. The area promised a higher concentration of grizzly bears and mountain goats. The entire stretch of this 2 lane road teeters precariously along the edges of Observation and Prospect Peaks without the comfort of a guardrail of any kind. I found myself pressing my foot steadily on my imaginary break pedal while clutching white knuckled the center console and telling Paul in my most calm voice to slow down. A glance out the window provided a dizzying drop into the canyons and valleys below. One fowl move and we were toast. When we reached the point of no return, it started to snow. The hairs on my neck stood up as I pictured us with no snow tires slipping off into the abyss. Paul kept exclaiming that he couldn’t believe this road was even open to the public. I concur. We will not be traversing it again, which is a shame since it is the only in park route to the Lamar Valley, the parks greatest concentration of animals. Last year because of several avalanches Lamar Valley was the only part we were able to see and it was well worth it.

Yellowstone in May is unpredictable. Up until Monday it had been snowing heavily and the East Entrance, which we had intended to use, was closed due to poor conditions. Luckily, a little rain and some snowplowing allowed us to take this route through the Wapiti Valley on the Theodore Roosevelt Scenic Byway, which is considered the “50 most beautiful miles in America”. And it is.

We entered into a winter wonderland. At our first opportunity we stopped at lovely (and frozen) Sylvan Lake to play in the snow. We skipped the sled, snow pants and winter boots this year thinking that there wouldn’t be enough snow. Although we didn’t need the sled, we certainly missed the snow pants and boots. The snow was 3 feet deep and in many spots not packed enough to stand on. As we played we frequently found ourselves sinking up to our crotch in the wet white stuff. Fun while you’re playing, not so much when you have to get back in the car all cold and wet. It was the perfect kind of snow for making snowballs and snowmen. We made a nice 4 foot snowman with pinecone eyes, a stick smile and an actual carrot nose. Would you believe our luck when I opened a package of mini carrots to find a nice 4 inch one? Perfect for our snowman!

Not long after we started driving again we came across our first “Bear Jam”. If you have not had the pleasure of going to Yellowstone, you may not know what a Bear Jam is. There is only one way to get a traffic jam in the park. Well one main way anyway. And that is an animal crossing the road. This could easily be a moose jam or a bison jam…but this particular time it was a Bear Jam. A momma grizzly and her little cub were strolling down the middle of the road rather than trudge through the snowy drifts alongside. I can understand the desire to take the easy route, but the cars still needed to get through the pass and so the rangers nudged them back onto the side. We enjoyed watching them climb higher and higher through the snow and disappear into the trees. Every now and then they look annoyingly back at the group of gawkers who caused them to take the harder route.
The next stop on our list was Sydney’s request: Old Faithful. She had been watching Yellowstone Podcasts on my iPhone for months and wanted to give us a tour of the area. We arrived with an hour to spare before the next eruption, give or take 10 minutes. A stroll around the pools and geysers located around Geyser Hill took up the additional time. We saw steaming bright blue pools bubbling over, their cooling micro-organisms creating bright yellow and orange crusts at the edges. Small geysers spewing sulfur enriched water and large geyser cones quietly awaiting their turn to erupt. They were all interesting, but none was as impressive as Old Faithful. We made it back to the beginning of the boardwalk just in time to catch a spot on the edge of the massive crowd. And right on schedule, Old Faithful spouted fourth a gush of hot water into the air.

At this point it was getting pretty late, so we hit the road again and took that crazy path through Dunraven Pass. I still think it was completely insane and it was my idea. I had no idea what we were getting into. I only wish I had some pictures to show you how alarming it was! We made it to Mammoth with no time to spare. We HAD to get back on the interstate and fast. So we crossed into Montana with an ETA at the hotel of 9:30pm. The kids were so awesome. No complaints, or crying as we trudged 5 more hours!

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