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.