Tag Archive: Yellowstone National Park


Lest my rant give the misimpression that my September 2016 trip to Yellowstone National Park was an exercise in tourist frustration, I enjoyed a quiet room at the new Canyon Lodge and some peaceful day hikes.  Sometimes enjoying the best of Yellowstone happens when you park your car and use your feet.

On a lovely but cold morning, I drove Hayden Valley drinking hot coffee looking for wildlife while the sun rose. Many folks have clued into this:  drive at dawn and dusk, watch for other cars stopped, and voila, wildlife.  I stopped at a pullout for this lovely view of the river.  Apologies to the gentleman taking pictures of a bald eagle.  I have a nesting pair by my home, and while I don’t take them for granted, their Wyoming cousins don’t have the unique attraction of a pretty sunrise on a foggy river.

I decided to day hike to Sentinel Meadows after perusing the Jake Bramante map over morning coffee.  It was a great choice for solitude. I veered off the common road to the Fairy Falls/Imperial Geyser trail, which everyone else was taking, and ended up with the place to myself.

The trail starts by a thermal, Ojo Caliente, which could be morphed into, “Oh no, super caliente!” if you were so foolish as to enter the steaming pool.



The trail leads past this  thermal through wide meadows with fresh bison patties, wood debris and enough trees to provide perfect habitat for cavity nesting, insect eating mountain bluebirds.  These busy little birds find perches in meadows to hunt, then dive to the ground to grab their meal. They also hover, which is fun to watch but hard to catch without a great camera.


The trail winds past the Queen’s Laundry, thermal features that apparently people- well, used for laundry at one time (doh!).


The trail climbs a small hill, winds around a corner through another small meadow, through some trees, and then drops into another meadow.  In this case, a meadow filled with bison and thermal features.


There were lots of bison sacked out, and spread out over a wide area.  A couple trailing groups approached them in a line.  The orange trail markers indicated my trail crossed their path, so I sat on my pack to eat lunch and waited for them to cross. Or not.


Two cows suddenly felt the need for a siesta, and plopped down right by the trail.  A giant bull stood sentinel over them, killing my plan to have a short lunch while the parade rear guard moseyed past. It was going to be a really long lunch, or a detour.


Not passing too close to this big guy, for sure…..

After awhile, I decided it was a detour. With the thermal features in the area, I was cautious about picking a route.  There was a social path blocked by a tree limb that I used (sorry, YNP) to head down valley from the bison.  I swung wide across the valley, watching for bison trails and picking a narrow part of the marshy stream to hop across.  After the stream, I followed more bison paths back toward the trail.

The whole time I detoured, I kept an eye on the bull even though I was well distant from him and his girls.  He turned his head a couple times, but never lifted his tail, so I figured I was paying appropriate respect.

The trail passed small thermal features before crossing a stream on limbs and entering a forest. Then it crossed back to a connector with Fairy Falls and the common gravel road again.  I walked the road chatting with a couple from Seattle who had made a last minute decision to visit Yellowstone to hike since he was nursing a bad ankle.  We passed one more group of bison on the way out, and then reached our cars for a cheery au revoir and off to our evening destination. All in all, a peaceful pleasant day in a super popular national park.



I have returned to Yellowstone National Park a half dozen times.  I’ve backpacked, hiked, taken classes and certification training at the park.  I’m a member of Yellowstone Association and a monthly donor to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.  But after my trip to the solitude and freedom of American Prairie Reserve, my visit to Yellowstone made me feel like the child of an unpredictable and inconsistent parent.

Yellowstone is having a rough year during the centennial celebration of the National Parks. Record numbers of visitors arrived at the park. One hundred years after the military got poaching and illegal mining and logging under control, the 22nd death in a hot spring occurred. Some decided to ignore the many signs around hot springs:  six people caught on video off trail, four Canadians strolling on Grand Prismatic Spring, and tourists who bundled up a baby bison in the back of their car to bring it to warmth, leading to its being put down.

And YNP has a controversial image as wildlife stewards. The park was under fire again  after they announced a huge cull of bison under a controversial agreement with Montana to ostensibly reduce potential of brucellosis transmission to cattle (which has never happened, and oh yeah, elk carry brucellosis too, but let’s not talk about that). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, likely under pressure to show success of the Endangered Species act, and coincident to applications for trophy hunts by Wyoming and Montana. YNP had to tiptoe around that during public comment periods in 2016.

So you can hardly blame YNP rangers and the Park for being worn thin. When I drove into the park, a grizzly kill site at Dunraven Pass had created an obstinate parking lot of vehicles on the road with people running toward the site saying, “It’s just like you see on TV!” The crowd was blocking a fuel tanker truck trying to mount the hill and pass.

But after politely stopping for a bison herd that stepped into the road (one hoof was on the yellow line, but no bison in my lane), I found a ranger screaming up the hill, honking his horn furiously to send a young calf out of his way and waving at me to continue.  It was complete ranger road rage, and this after we passed several temporary flags warning us to be patient with extensive delays for wildlife on the roadways.


YNP, try to understand the natural temptation to reach out and touch nature.

Yellowstone is sending mixed and soft messages that don’t speak clearly or directly to tourists.  “Wildlife are dangerous and unpredictable” blames wildlife for being- well, wild.  How about, “You can get yourself killed by wildlife”? That puts blame where blame belongs. How about being specific about how to drive around a bison herd?  I wasn’t sure whether moving on would send the animal into the car it was passing or start a stampede.

And the YNP ommunications folks want your pictures for social media, which encourages you to take more interesting and unique pictures, that just get you into trouble. This effort to get people to avoid taking selfies with wildlife is- well, just dumb.  Do you think people really will skip the picture with the live bison to get a selfie with a giant stuffed toy?  And why give it a name that flies in the face of trying to convince people wildlife are wild?billythebison

Even the tour operators aren’t following rules.  I saw a Yellowstone yellow bus tour stop and let people out to chase this grizzly for a picture. (Note to Ranger: I snapped his photo with my Canon HS60-XS superzoom from a pullout down the road and decided to change my hiking destination from a nearby nature trail).


I sat at the Canyon Village Fountain Grill counter eating a salad and listening to four women talk about how that ranger shouldn’t have been yelling at one of them.  “I was sensible,” she said. “I knew what I was doing.” A few minutes later I realized that her tour bus had stopped to watch a grizzly sow and cubs, and she had separated from the line of people out of their cars on the road to come up behind them for pictures, effectively hemming them in. No, not sensible, but remember, she was on a tour. Tour operators may have to sacrifice a tip to keep their customers in line- I saw it happen in Costa Rica, so it can happen here.

Yellowstone, you need to be a better, more consistent parent with clear rules, and stop blaming the “kids” for- well, being kids.  Understand the temptation to reach a hand out of a car and feel a bison passing by with your fingertips- no, not smart, but these magnetic creatures suddenly feel within reach and touch.


Don’t worry, Ranger- this picture was taken from the safety of a car in a pullout at a great distance with a small superzoom camera. 

And you need to be willing to call out deliberately ugly or dangerous behavior.  There are great photographers, but legions of amateur long-lens photographers who bait and harrass animals for photos. There are people who throw food and objects at animals and feel entitled to camp anywhere they want.  The Park Service might want to consider some good old-fashioned shaming for punishment, not just standing nobly silent or saying obliquely that rules don’t allow you to step off the boardwalk onto the thin crust of a boiling hot spring.

And prioritize safety, not natural wonder.  Your Web is organized to require someone bedazzled by images of thermal features and wildlife to click on a section called “Safety”. Do you really expect people to do this?  Maybe recharacterize the whole park as the Serengeti of the U.S. with boiling acidic cauldrons waiting to eat you alive. Yes, there will be people who step into the cauldron or reach out to pet the wild animal, but it won’t be the majority who are now encouraged to “Marvel. Explore. Discover”.ynpweb

I know we visitor people make honest but dumb mistakes or can be stupid (okay, the baby bison incident was beyond the pale). Sometimes we’re just bedazzled and tempted by the marvel of nature that we increasingly only know in electronic form. It’s happening all over the world, and will only going to get worse as we are more isolated in cities, and tempted to sin by more new technology (drones are already a problem and virtual reality is next).  You’re going to have to sit down as “parents” of the park and have a tough love conversation about what you need to do to protect people, wildlife, cultural resources, and the environment.

Maybe it’s not communications that will fix the problem. Maybe it’s confining people to ranger-led tours and shuttles.  I would pay for it, and go with you. But honking and yelling at people who are trying to do the right thing, and soft-balling risk while asking people for cool images- well, you’re kinda asking for what’s happening.


So what exactly am I supposed to do when I’m pulled over safely in my car with the windows up and the bison decides to start shoving it out of the way?


Summit of Mt. Sheridan, Heart Lake below

Summit of Mt. Sheridan, Heart Lake below

This was the trip I tried to do last year with my friend Brenda when she became injured. This year, I was fortunate to have the company of Michelle, a new friend from the National Association of Interpretation training I attended.  Michelle’s easy-going partner Jamie couldn’t make it due to work, unfortunately for him as he would have enjoyed the fly-fishing.

I did what is becoming a routine:  drove to Montana to decompress on the road, stopping overnight at the Motel 6 in Missoula, and then heading to Yellowstone the next day.  That drive appeals to the Midwestern road-tripper in me, and lets me unwind from work, which is crazy right now. The big scenery spins by the windshield and I daydream and listen to music cruising along Interstate 90, eventually leaving the to-do list and worries behind.  Why the Motel 6?  Dunno, started out there, and it’s become a habit.  I learned this time that the 3rd floor smells a lot like cigarette smoke (1st floor doesn’t), but I sleep well anyway.

Montana experienced an unusually rainy August and September, creating lovely color along the drive.  There were black-eyed Susan flowers blooming on the roadside, and the hills were green-gold instead of the rich yellow I saw the last couple autumns. Aside from a little haze coming from Washington’s wildfires, the sky is clear this time.

I arrived to an unusually busy fall crowd, rushing into the closest campground, Norris, just before it filled.  This turned out to be a good choice, since Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin erupted the day before for the first time in years and was marked by a towering plume typical of the steam phase that lasts 24-48 hours after an eruption.

Steamboat Geyser, about 30 hours after eruption

Steamboat Geyser, about 30 hours after eruption

Norris Campground is by a historic ranger station that is still beautiful in its creative and sturdy construction, with a trail leading to the Norris Geyser Basin.  It also has a great staging area for talks, and the night’s heavily attended ranger presentation was on the night sky.  The growing moon made it difficult to see stars, but it is the first time I understood anything about them from the stories the ranger told.  She brought a laptop and volunteers brought telescopes, through which you could see the rings of Saturn and craters of the moon.  My little Canon didn’t do too badly photographing the moon, either.

The beautiful moon

The beautiful moon

It was a cold night, registering about 24 degrees, but I was prepared and slept well in my reliable old North Face tent, which has accompanied me on adventures for 20 years.  The next morning, I met up with Michelle in West Yellowstone and we headed for Grant Village to pick up permits, day hike, and camp one more night before heading out.  I’m a sea level gal, and Yellowstone is at altitude, so this acclimation period is necessary before shouldering a heavy pack and heading uphill.

We traveled to Pelican Valley, lovely but notorious for a rare, unprovoked fatal attack on a lone woman camper in 1986 by a grizzly bear that was never found.  Camping is no longer allowed in the valley, and people are supposed to enter only after 9 a.m. and leave before dusk.  We saw a lone hiker, the seasonal employee that often becomes the victim of bear attacks by traveling alone, or sometimes, as we saw later, the lost hiker separated from a group of other inexperienced seasonal employees.As if to make a point, a grizzly left a pile of scat at the trailhead, full of elk hair.  A track followed not much further.  Wolf tracks also appeared, suggesting the wolves might have taken down the elk, and a grizz took the carcass over, as they will do.  We also found scratches on trees from grizzlies marking, or perhaps trying to beat up the trees, as they will sometimes do in frustration when they are disrespected by a bigger bear.

Pelican Valley

Pelican Valley

Michelle said Pelican Valley was once the last holdout for the 25 remaining bison of 65 million that once roamed the U.S.   Those 25 were brought to Lamar Buffalo Ranch to become the herd of 4000+ that exist today.  If the bison had more room to roam, there would be many more than 4000; currently, culling is used to control numbers. Pelican Valley is perfect for wildlife, with water, grasslands, and trees for shade and hiding predators.

The next morning we headed out on the Heart Lake Trail.  We had divided food and common supplies, with Michelle bringing real food for lunches and dinners.  I got a great education on backcountry cooking, which I stink at, relying on freeze-dried and instant food that inevitably makes me lose my appetite when I really need to be eating.  We reached Paycheck Pass below Factory Hill and stopped for snacks, Michelle’s application of blister treatment and geyser investigation.  Heart Lake was visible in the distance, but still 2 miles off, with our first campsite another mile further.

The Heart Lake area was subject to the historic 1988 wildfires and several since, with the mosaic burn pattern typical of these fires.  Why some trees live and others burn is dependent on microconditions in the burn area.  Since wildfires are nowhere to be when they are burning, only distant detection methods help to figure out wind speed, air temperature and moisture, and ground heat.  The fire snags can be quite lovely in the right light, gleaming silver like a valuable statue rather than a long-dead trees.

Mud pot, Paycheck Pass

Mud pot, Paycheck Pass

The geyser basin at Paycheck Pass includes a mudpot, a superheated soup of dirt and mineral that bubbles and pops thick muddy bubbles.  These are the most entertaining thermal features to me, with no spectacular explosions of water, but a constant burbling chatter only they can understand.  It sounds like some sort of gnome lives within them, stirring the pot and grumbling.

Even though you can see Heart Lake from the pass, it’s still 2 miles, and then for us, another mile and change to campsite 8H3.  We were happy to be in camp, setting up for the first night.  Michelle scouts a tent site in the grass because the established tent sites are all really close to the bear pole, a typical set up by the Park Service even though they want you 100 yards downwind of your food.  Michelle cooked pasta for dinner and we retired early, with a big moon rising and a sound of distant elk bugling.

The next morning we set out to summit Mt. Sheridan, about 3.9 miles and 3000 feet gain, to top out at 10,300 feet or thereabouts.  The trail is really nice, good footing even when it’s steep, despite the bad rap it gets from my guidebook.  It travels through an old burn, where we hear branches snapping, then silence as we listen.  Later, we learn another party has spied a grizzly on the slopes of Sheridan, and at the end, rangers tell us the bear is a fixture there.  No worries for us: it is a good huckleberry season.  The weather is cool and windy, which saves us on the ascent.  The trail finally winds around the back of the shoulder through lovely alpine meadows, and then makes the final climb to the summit and lookout.

Trail to summit of Mt. Sheridan

Trail to summit of Mt. Sheridan

The slopes going around the lookout appear barren from a distance, but we see lovely rock gardens full of flowers.  We find no one at the summit and have a great lunch of burritos and fruit and nuts, taking pictures of the huge view, our route around Heart Lake, and the flowers.  There is even a picnic bench on the summit.  Mt. Sheridan marks the south end of the Yellowstone volcano caldera, and Mt. Washburn, visible from here, marks the north.  We can see Yellowstone Lake, which has volcanic features under the water, and Shoshone and Lewis Lakes as well.  Grand Teton and its companions are in view but obscured by the weather they are kicking our way.  I learn that the Teton Range whips us a lot of storms with heavy lightning, explaining what Brenda and I experienced last year.  The weather spins our way, but we don’t get overtaken during our break on the summit.

We descend and suddenly run into three groups.  The first, in very trendy trail clothes, tells us they saw the grizz.  “Awesome!” I say.  “Michelle heard a stick snap- must have been him.”  The lead guy says, “Well, be careful.  There’s eight of us,” as if to imply that the bear is back there counting heads and will leap out to eat us because we’re a party of two.  We run into a party of two, but since the older gentleman looks distinctly unhappy with the elevation or strenuousness, I don’t want to add to his troubles with talk of a grizz.

The day heated up as we ascended, so we shed clothes.  We’decided to stop at the geyser basin, which I need to do to wrap a blister.  At the geyser basin, we hang out and wait for Rustic Geyser to erupt, which happens about every 20 minutes, and take pictures of the lovely blue geyser pool nearby, where a boneyard eerily decorates the sediments under the superheated water. An elk or moose appears to have fallen in, perhaps being chased, or just starving or ill. Rustic is really a fun geyser to watch.  The water rises and recedes ominously a few times, and then, on a recession, suddenly it bursts in big, successive burps of steam and water before abruptly stopping again.  Later, Michelle reads that the odd shape was created by Native Americans, who squared it up with logs around the rim; the logs are now covered in sinter. Interestingly, the plumbing for Rustic geyser and an adjacent geyser must be connected, because this more modest feature starts to bubble and burp and overflow after Rustic erupts.  This is common, and in fact, when we visited Steamboat Geyser to see the steam phase before we went on our hike, Cistern Geyser was empty, as will occur when Steamboat erupts. No one understands the Yellowstone geysers well; Michelle says only Old Faithful has been subjected to video in vents in between eruptions.

The ground around these geysers can be very dangerous, and you have to pick your way through, checking for soft spots and cavities to make sure you’re not going to plunge into a superheated pool and scald your feet.  It happens. I don’t want to be the next to fall in a lovely but deadly pool, so I’m careful.

Remains of victim, Heart Lake Geyser Basin

Remains of victim, Heart Lake Geyser Basin

We hobble back to camp for a good night’s sleep and get ready to hike to Basin Lake the next day.  The night is cold, in the 20’s. but the sun comes up and warms the next morning with beautiful light.  We take pictures, filter water, pack up, and head out around the lake.  Just as we enter the forest, there are a marmot eating berries and a pika nearby, harvesting hay.  We find scratches way up a tree- not the climbing type, but the very-tall-bear type.

I backpack the next couple days in my Keen sandals to give my blister a chance to heal, which works marvelously.  Michelle ditches her new insoles, since they have helped create her blister, and does fine.

Grizzly track, Snake River, where there was day-old scat and a day bed

Grizzly track, Snake River, where there was day-old scat and a day bed

The trail travels through nice shady forest and then breaks out in some big grassy flats and wetlands.  We have a little trouble finding the turn to Basin Lake, since there is no sign, but a wide, pummeled trail going the opposite direction to an outfitter camp full of horse crap.  We double back and then find our camp.  The camp at Basin Lake is really our best, with space to spread out, no rampant outfitter signs, and peace.  In the morning, I see a pine marten, and we hear the echoing calls of sandhill cranes as they do practice laps in preparation for their winter migration.

Our next couple days are also marked by birds- a pair of sandhill cranes in every basin we pass, grouse blowing out of the grass unexpectedly, sapsuckers hammering holes in trees, and red-tailed hawks. Flocks of robins hang around patches of huckleberries, perched in fire-killed trees, looking fat and content.

Sandhill crane stalking food, trail to Basin Creek Lake

Sandhill crane stalking food, trail to Basin Creek Lake

The river fords are cold, but Michelle is able to fish at our next crossing of the Snake River, and even gives me fly fishing lessons.  I do not of course catch a thing, but get a feel for how different the cast is from the mighty salmon cast I use to fish on my river.  During the trip, she catches (and releases) five fish- two native cutthroat, a rainbow, a brown trout, and a cutbow (rainbow/cutthroat hybrid).

We reluctantly leave and hike on a cold morning to our next camp at the outlet of Heart Lake.  The weather is turning, and Michelle does her usual routine of cleaning up a bad fire ring while I help gather kindling.  In Washington, I just don’t start fires, what with the scarcity of wood in the alpine areas and the fire danger.  It’s low fire danger here, and the burn areas provide an abundance of firewood without compromising the environment.  At night, we hear elk bugling, one quite close to our camp. We expect it to snow that night, but it waits until we hike out, a long day of 12 miles.  We stop at the Heart Lake Ranger station on the way out and eat a snack sheltered from the increasingly cold wind.  Snowflakes start falling, then become thicker. Michelle does the right thing and stops us at Paycheck Pass to eat hot quesadillas in the snow before we continue the slog out to the parking area. We’re actually stopped by two rangers on the way out, one an enforcement ranger, and asked to show our camping permit.  They ask us if we’ve seen an Eastern European girl traveling alone, separated from her group.  We say no, only one guy going in, and a couple coming out.  Michelle tells me it’s likely a seasonal employee- they head out into the backcountry and go astray, with alcohol as an occasional culprit.  Michelle said they can’t be too worried, or they would have the cavalry out, not just two rangers.

Heart Lake Ranger Station

Heart Lake Ranger Station

We’re finally at the car.  I’ve done well, with only tired feet.  We stop at Grant Village for showers, which feel really good after six days with minimal cleaning and no hair-washing (hats are a critical item on these trips).  We both waste lots of hot water since there is no time limit on showers.

The next night was going down to 15 degrees, so I camped on Jamie and Michelle’s couch, sported for pizza dinner, and the next day, decided to check out the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone before I started the drive home.  The Center is a non-profit that houses renegade bears and wolves that can’t go back to the wild and does some great education.  The bears also help testing out bear containers and finding whether they really work or not. This center is the polar opposite of the notorious bear mills, that raise cubs and when they stop being cute, butcher the animals for medicinal parts and hide, or allow canned hunts for $20,000 or more to fake sportsmen.

Grizzly playing with tree, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Grizzly playing with tree, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

The bears and wolves are managed in natural habitats.  The bears get trees to maul, a pool of trout to fish, and food cached by staff in different places around their habitat each time before they are released into the enclosure, so they can do what they would naturally do in the wild.  The bears are turned out alone (for the largest, Sam) or in groups that get along.  Education includes a house front and garden with bear no-no’s, a display of bear-destroyed trash containers, a bad campsite, and better ways to protect gardens, chicken coops, and animal pens.  Inside, the Center has more conventional displays with the biology and ecology of bears, threats like poaching, and the history of bears in North America, including recovery efforts.  And then, there are the rehabilitating birds- injured animals that do a job in raptor displays as ambassadors and educators.  The Center is working to add more bear habitat and a riparian display, an ambitious project with underwater viewing areas and river otters, expected to be completed 2020.  I really enjoyed the center, spending a good three hours there, and would gladly return for another visit.  I donated to support Acadia, a rescued saw-whet owl, before I left.

All in all, this was one of the most peaceful vacations I have enjoyed in recent years, and I felt quiet inside as I drove home. The weather cooperated, cool when we needed it, and warm at times, too.  The period around the full moon was clear so we had lovely nights bathed in moonlight. I had just the right amount of energy, stamina, food, and patience for the backpack trip.  We saw animals, plants, and fungi enjoying late season rains and preparing for the upcoming winter.  We saw few people but a lot of nature, just the way I like it!

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