Monday, October 26, 2009

Vacation 2009: day 4

The alarm clock in the hotel room goes off and I get up immediately. The plan is to get to Hayden Valley before dawn to increase our chance of spotting animals. But when I look at my phone I'm shocked to find out it's only 3:18, and my watch confirms it! Turns out the alarm clock is totally crazy and goes about half minute faster by the minute! Damn, last night I noticed the time on the clock was way off but I thought it might have been unplugged so I just adjusted it without thinking too much about it. I wish I had paid more attention to it.

Although there's still more than two hours left for sleeping I'm now having trouble getting back to sleep. I'm not sure if I finally get any real sleep before my the alarm on my phone goes off and we get up and head out. It is super foggy outside. By the time we smell the Mud Volcano again the fog has got even thicker, and when we park our car at Hayden Vally we hardly got more than 30 meters of visibility. There's already another couple there. they are from Washington and have had better luck with wildlife viewing than us. They saw black bears yesterday from a pullout along the road to the north, which we'll be heading up today. They are hoping to see wolves today, too. But with this fog it doesn't seem likely anything will show up.

morning fog
the sun's out but the fog remains

The sun finally rises but the fog remains. After another half hour we accept defeat and drive up north. We have to get to the Tower Falls campsite to grab a site before it's too late. The road winds uphill past the Canyon area. Not far beyond the trail head to Mt. Washburn, we see over 20 cars parked on the road side, people with big camera lens pointing them into the woods above the road. There's only one thing that can cause this. We quickly park and run back to where the crowd is. Up in the woods, some 50 meters away, is a grizzly bear! Now the park rules state you shall not get within 100 yards of a bear, but keeping that much distance is impossible at this stretch of the road. The bear doesn't seem to mind the crowd at all. It wanders in that area for 5-10 more minutes then walks further up and disappears into the woods. We have planned to hike the Mt Washburn trail today but with the grizzly just miles away we've changed our mind. The idea of just the two of us encountering a bear w/o anything like a bear spray is too exciting to actually carry out.
the bear!

The campsite at Tower Falls is primitive and small, with about 30 sites. We have no problem grabbing a site but some late comers are not so lucky. We set up camp, cook, eat, and head out to Larmar Valley. Now I've got high hopes for Larmar Valley. It's said to have the most wild life in the park. But we get disappointed again. There's nothing but more bisons. The sun is fierce and Juny is very much opposed to the idea of hiking in the sun. But there's absolutely no shades on the valley trails so we turn back and head up the road towards Mammoth.
columnar basalt (top layer of the rocks) near tower falls

basalt by the road side. the column shape is quite visible.

We'll have the whole day tomorrow to explore Mammoth so we don't intend to go there today. But I'm interested in a dirt road along the way called Blacktail Plateau Drive. It goes deeper into the back country with little traffic. That means the chances of seeing wildlife should be good. Although the timing doesn't work in our favor: by this time we've learned that animals don't like coming out during the day in the sun. The road condition is poor and there's no reason to rush if you want to see animals. We drive slowly on the dirt road, and even with the little traffic it gets, we pull over to let faster cars pass for several times. Our patience finally pays off. Suddenly we spot a black creature trotting across the horizon. It's a lone black wolf! It keeps a leisure but bouncy pace across our field of view and finally disappears behind a ridge. wow, that is so cool!

We don't get to see more wild animals on the dirt road. On our way back to camp we also checked out the petrified tree. It looks like a regular tree stump. I'm not very impressed.
the petrified tree

It's now only 2:30 but we are so sleepy so we head back to camp and take a nap. By the time we head out again the cloud has gathered. We've noticed the same weather pattern almost every day we stay in Yellowstone: it's foggy in early morning, then clears up and gets quite hot by noon. The cloud appears in the afternoon and by 4pm there's enough shade to hike comfortably. Then near evening it'll start to rain.

So now is about the best time of the day to take a hike. We go to Lamar Valley again and start hiking down a trail at the head of the vallye. Less than a mile into the hike on a gentle slope I stop and scope the valley behind us. That's when a white dot catches my attention. I take out the spotting scope and find the white dot. It's a pronghorn antelope! It's about 500 meters out and that's too far for the camera. We start moving back toward the antelope, stopping from time to time to take a better look through the scope and take some pictures. Finally we are able to get close enough to take some great pictures. The antelope also notices us and would stop grazing and look up in our direction, then keep doing its own business. This is so exciting! A bear, a wolf, and an antelope all in one day!

We drive on down and before long I spot another antelope 2-300 meters off the road. We finally pull over the road near the center of the valley. Many people are gathered around this spot looking for wolves. We don't see any wolves, but we see three more antelopes. This time all female, with one being a cub. We stick around as the hopes of seeing wolves fades. Then head back to camp and get some hot dogs (again) at the general store. It's been a long and fruitful day and we go to bed quite early.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Vacation 2009: day 3

Despite the rain, last night was still pretty warm. And although we had little luck seeing wild animals yesterday, we heard elk calls through the entire night. It's mating season for elks but I still don't understand why they call in the middle of the night.

The day gets a foggy start... When we get to the West Thumb geysers area we can hardly tell the lake from the sky. Grasses all got heavy condensation on them. The pools in this area are not as impressive as I've imagined. Maybe we saw too many yesterday. But I still like this area - it has a surreal feeling to it. The dead trees, the fog, and the steaming pools (which look like smokes) give it an ancient battle field look. I almost expect an army of ghost soldier to emerge from the heavy fog.
heave condensation on the grass
the abyss pool
really really thick steam
the ancient battle field
there are thermal springs in the lake, too. these spots don't freeze in winter and become otters fishing holes.
water fowls. i'm counting these as wild life spotting, too...

We take a detour to hike the natural bridges trail on our way to the Fishing Bridge. It's a very nice and flat trail, 3 miles round trip. For most of the hike in we hike with an old couple we run into on the trail. They are from Ohio and on a road trip to California. I wish we could do a long road trip like that, hopefully before we get to that old :). Despite the bear warning signs, we don't see any animals on the trail except chipmunks.
trail head to the Natural Bridge.
the Natural Bridge

We skip the Lake Village to the Fishing Bridge area. My original plan was to rent a canoe and go into the lake, hoping to spot some wild animals drinking water on some remote lake shores. But after yesterday I feel the chance of actually seeing any wild life from a canoe is pretty slim and spending hours in a canoe on the vast lake doesn't seem such a great idea after all... maybe next time.

The Fishing Bridge got its name because fishing from the bridge used to be allowed. Now it's a good spot to enjoy the reflection of mountains and the sky in the Yellowstone River.

We take a short hike at Pelican Creek. There's a short loop trail that goes out to the lake shore. According to our guide book the Pelican Valley is a favorite fishing ground for bears in spring. Alas, it's not spring now. We probably would have had a better chance if we hiked deep into the valley. But two smallish people like us hiking deep into the bear country doesn't seem too smart :P. We should bring more people next time. The first part of the trail is very muddy. So although we don't seem any wild animals on the trail, we do manage to get our boots wet and dirty. But just as we are back to the parking lot and about to leave, a bison wanders along the road! Hey our first bison sighting in this supposedly bison-rich park! (we saw two yesterday up a hill, but we feel that didn't count). This guy slowly walks up the road towards us, walks around our car and onto the trail we just walked out. If we had stayed 5 minutes longer on the trail we'd be walking into the bison right now :)
the muddy trail
and it just walks around our car and onto the trail we just came off.

Yellowstone River, favorite fishing and grazing grounds for both species.

Lunch is sandwich (again!) at the Fishing Bridge general store. It's really getting old but there's not much choices. After lunch we head north. The first stop is the Mud Volcano. This place stinks! The air smells strongly of rotten egg. No other thermal areas we've been to smells nearl as bad. The main attraction in this area is a big pool of boiling, well, mud. The pools in Yellowstone is so fascinating: the clearest water could be just steps away from the muddiest. There's also a steam hole named Dragon's Mouth, for the strong puffing sound it makes.

The boiling mud pot

the grass is greener where the water is muddier.

puff the magic dragon

Next up is Hayden Valley. Now this is supposed to be one of the areas with high wild life concentration so we've had high hopes for it. Just minutes past the Mud Volcano we see hordes of cars parked on the road side so we pull off to the parking area with other and step off the car. And there they are! Vast span of valley floor dotted with bisons! In the past couple days we've seen 4 bisons, and now there're countless of bisons as far as we can see. The closest ones are only a stone-toss away and they don't seem to be paying any attention to the tourists at all. Across the road are just as many bisons up the hills. Now that's more like the Yellowstone I've heard about! The bisons don't do much other than grazing, even the new borns in yellow furs are not very playful. So the excitement wears off pretty quickly. I can't help thinking wolves must have a pretty good life here. This is a like a dinner buffet to them. Too bad we don't know when their reservation is.

this vast valley in front of us is littered with bisons.

two cubs still wearing yellow furs.

With plenty of day light left we keep driving north towards the canyon area. The now so peaceful Yellowstone River would soon become narrower and more violent as it goes down the Grand Cayon of Yellowstone. The main attractions of the canyon are the falls. But the canyon itself is nothing short of spectacle. It's quite deep and steep. The limestones are no match to the erosive water from underground and have been eroded into tall cones. Rich minerals in the water also gives the cliffs various colors. No wonder the first look out we go to is called the Artist's Point. Some seriously steep stairs called Uncle Tom's trail lead to a look out half way down the cliff on the south side. But we skip it and drive to the north side, where a less steep trail lead us right to the mouth of the lower fall. There are several lookouts on the north side, some require a short hike but it's all worth it. From the Inspiration Point you can look down the river and see steams coming out of holes near the bank.

We head back with plenty of sunlight to spare. But to our surprise, the traffic comes to a complete stop near Hayden Valley. It doesn't take long for us to figure out what's going on: the bisons in the valley have finished dinner and are crossing the road to higher grounds. Couple of rangers drive up and down this stretch of road trying to move the bisons off the road using their sirens. But bisons are apparently used to it and stick to their own paces.
looking ahead

and looking back, there's no end to this traffic jam.

all because these guys are ready to cross the street!

When we check in at the Grant Village Lodge it's already dark. We had dinner (buffet) at the lake house, which would have a fantastic view of the lake during the day. The food is quite bad, but at least it's not a sandwich! Back to our room we discover the smallest shower stall we've ever seen, with a shower head that ejects mists rather than a stream of water. The soap is quite cute, though, in the shape of a bear. So we decide to steal it :P

There's no TV or Internet in the room. But that suites our plan just fine. We are both getting antsy for not seeing any bears or wolfs, so we've decided to get up really early tomorrow and get to Hayden Valley before dawn for wild life watching. But just as we are getting ready to bed Juny is unable to find her glasses. We finally come to the conclusion that she must have left them in the campsite's bathroom this morning. A late night trip to the campsite turns out to be futile, and she has to settle for wearing her prescription sunglasses when not wearing contacts.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Vacation 2009: Day 2

We again rise bright and early. Wow last night was hot! We expected it to be real cold (all sources say weather here is highly unpredictable and it may even snow) and got new down sleep bags and pads. Guess what, I don't think the temperature even got close to freezing. We initially had two bags zipped together for warmth, but soon abandoned that idea. And I still couldn't go to sleep until I fully unzipped my bag and slept directly on my pad, using the bag as a quilt.

The morning air in the woods is clear and crisp and immediately wakes us up fully. We first take the scenic drive by Jenny Lake. The road goes through the woods and past Jenny Lake, giving us the opportunity to stop and watch the first sun light hit the tetons. We also see a cow moose grazing near the roadside, but don't get a chance to take any good pictures of her.

The south entrance of Yellowstone is just 8 miles north of Grand Teton. Unfortunately the road in between is undergoing some heavy construction and has been reduced to a bumpy dirt road. Not only that, a long stretch of the road only allows one-way traffic at a time, so we have to stop and wait for our turn. The drive is still pleasant because of the scenery. Some aspen leaves have turned yellow. It's a bright, vibrant yellow and contrasts very well with the leaves that remain green. Patches of some red grass complete the color pallete.

I have high hopes of spotting some wild animals along the way, but have no luck till we stop at the entrance to Yellowstone. Entering Yellowstone got my hopes high again. I expect to see herds of bisons for which Yellowstone is famous for. But I get disappointed again. The first wild animal we see in Yellowstone is an elk cow in the parking lot of Grant Village, some 20 miles after entering the park. But again the scenery more than makes up for it. The road follows the snake river for the most park and the grass by the river is just starting to turn into its full fall glory, with a spectrum of color ranging from green to yellow to red covering the riverside.

We quickly check into the campsite (the only reserved campsite of the whole trip) and head for Old Faithful. Old Faithful is probably the most famous landmark of Yellowstone. It's known for its predicatable eruptions and upon arrival we find out that it's only minutes before it's next eruption. Yay!

Old Faithful is located in the Upper Geyser Basin, with hundreds of other geysers, hot springs, and steam holes. Upon arrival we immediately notice this is different from any other parks we've been to. Steams! Steams are coming out of the ground everywhere, you'd think the whole place is on fire. (BTW, a huge wild fire in 1988 burned 1/3 of the park and I think these steams must have played role. People probably just ignored the initial smokes from the fire, confusing them with the steams.) Around Old Faithful are benches and they are all taken now. This is the most crowded area in Yellowstone and feels more like an amusement park than a national park. (Days after returning from the trip I watch Colbert interviewing Ken Burns, maker of the documentary "The National Parks, America's Best Idea". Burns says "... if we hadn't make Yellowstone a national park, it'd be turned into Geyser World", to which Colbert relies "Have you been to Yellowstone? It is Geyser World". I think I agree with Colbert on this one.)

I have to mention the boardwalks in Yellowstone. They are very well maintained and cover all major geo-thermal areas. They keep tourists from stepping on the unstable grounds in these areas, where seemingly solid surface could be just a thin crust covering a pot of boiling water.

Shortly after we find a spot and ready our camera the eruption begins, right on the minute of the predicted 11:28 eruption time! Impressive. I wish people could be as punctual as this geyser. The eruption only lasts a couple minutes but it's a fantastic show of what a super-sized tea pot can do. This makes me tend to believe that some Indian probably had invented the steam engine long before Watt did. As the Old Faithful eruption dies down, we notice another geyser several hundred meters away uphill is erupting, too. We later find out it's the Lions Geyser. From this distance it looks even bigger than Old Faithful. But by the time we take pictures it has died down, too. Here's a tip for future visitors: prioritize Old Faithful lower than any other geysers. If you see another geyser erupting, run to catch it. You'll always get a chance to see Old Faithful as it's the most predictable.

After a quick sandwich lunch we set out to explore the rest of the basin. We first take the small loop trail of Geyser Hill. It's a small area with high concentration of various geothermal features. The ground has been colored by sulfur and other minerals in the water. The water itself appears to have different colors because of various micro-organisms living in the pool. The whole scene is so foreign to what we are used to see it could be from another planet. Geysers don't erupt that often. Most of the time they just bubble, give out steam, or squirt a little bit of water. The Lions Geyser erupts again and this time we are much closer. But the eruption is also much smaller than before, probably just an aftermath of the last one. Just as we are about to move on from Geyser Hill, a lady with a notepad in hand informs us that the Plumes Geyser is about to erupt. She's either a scientist or a maniac geyser watcher, since her notepad has hand-written records of all eruptions of all the geysers around. She also tells us about the Grand Geyser down the way. It's far less predictable compared to Old Faithful, with a 4-hour window for the next eruption. "but even if you had to wait the whole 4 hours to see it, you'd think it's worth it". I don't think we have 4 hours to spend waiting around. We'll just have to try our luck. The Plumes does erupt exactly when the lady says it will. This geyser is quite fun. It's not a big one. But it erupts for 10 seconds, then stops for 10, then erupts again, and repeats 4-5 times.
the Plumesnow you see it
now you don'tnow you see it again
now it's gone

The trail will eventually lead to Morning Glory Pool, famous for its vibrant colors. On the way we'll pass numerous geysers and pools. Among them the Grand Geyser attracts most tourists. Although the geyser lady says it's worth the possible 4-hour wait, and the people who are already waiting around it apparently agree, we decide to move on and, if we are lucky, see its eruption on our way back. Each geyser and hot spring pool we pass are unique in its own way, but the Morning Glory Pool, at the end of the trail, is definitely worth the hike. Its shape resembles that of a morning glory. Its colors are beyond my words, I won't even try.
the Morning Glory

We pass the Grand Geyser again on our way back, and wait for 10 minutes but finally give up. And just as we are stepping away, it starts! It reaches its full glory almost instantaneously. Compared to Old Faithful, this one is taller, wider, just way grander. As the big one is going, some smaller geysers next to it starts to erupt, too. Seen from where we stand, the water and steams cover half the sky, seemingly reaching up and connecting with the clouds. And it just keeps going, lasting about 10 minutes with more or less the same ferocity!
this guy's determined to wait for the Grand!

One our way back to the car we also pass the Castle Geyser, which doesn't show us much more than a couple steams. But we think we are already quite lucky for catching the Grand. It's also at this point that we realize we've got a little sunburned. I got a "raccoon tan" thanks to my sunglasses.
crested pool
the Castle Geyser

Out next stop is the Midway Geyser Basin, where the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring are located. Although this area is much smaller than the Old Faithful area, these two places make it a must-go. The Grand Prismatic Spring is the subject of so many photos and postcards. It's best viewed from the air because on the ground, the steam blocks the view and keeps you from seeing the full spectrum of its colors. It's also big so you can see the whole of it standing so close to it. Next time we should try to see it from a higher ground, maybe from the trail behind it. The Excelsior Geyser Grater is a different story. It used to be a geyser, then one day some 100 years ago, it exploded, leaving this big crater with this unbelievably blue water. Unlike the Grand Prismatic, it's just one color. But the color is magical, enchanting, even. You'd be able to just stare at it for hours and you'd feel you have accomplished something. It's really impossible to describe. You just have to be there and see it. The Excelsior also gives out vast amounts of steam. It's like an outdoor sauna, with rotten egg smell, of couse.
water running from Excelsior to the Firehole river

also in midway geyser basin, but forgot its name.
a flower blooming next to the hot springs!
a bug actually lives in this water!
At this point we both feel we've seen enough geysers and hot springs. But there are even more to see. The Firehole Lake Drive takes us past Great Fountain and White Dome geysers. We can only imagine what the eruptions look like, though, as neither is ready to give a show. The Fountain Paint Pot is also interesting in that it's a pot of boiling mud with a pinkish hue!
the firehole lake
the Fountain Paint Pot

Now we are pretty close to Madison but there doesn't seem to be anything quite interesting there, so we turn back taking the Firehole Canyon Drive. It passes a pretty nice swimming hole, but we are not ready to get wet today, as it's a bit cold for swimming. We also make a stop at Fountain Flat Drive in an attempt to spot some wild life. Nothing but a small blue bird. Till now we've only seen an elk (in a parking lot) and two bisons (walking mid-hill while we drive by) in Yellowstone. Is this the park known for its abundance of wildlife? Where are the bisons that's supposedly blocking the roads? Are we even going to see a bear?
the swimming hole on firehole river. there are two girls in bikinis behind the tree. use your x-ray vision or imagination :)

no luck seeing wildlife, and the rain clouds are closing in!

Out luck improves as we head back to camp, when traffic stops for a big bull elk crossing the road. We'll see more elks before we reach camp. But I can see elks in my "home park" of Yosemite. Please, show me something I haven't seen before.

It's getting dark when we reach camp, and about to rain. We quickly cook and setup tent, then have to eat in the van because it's raining. It's been such a long day and we still haven't seen much of wildlife. Maybe we used up all our luck to see the Grand. Well, that's worth it. Hope we got better luck tomorrow.