I love Mountaintop summers. The mostly warm to hot days are inviting for so many outdoor recreational options from hiking, golfing, swimming, and gardening. My 2015 garden exploded with produce at the end of July including tomatoes, beans, squash and other fresh fare.
But there are other places on our great planet that can only be enjoyed in the summer months and Charlie and I made the trek out to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to enjoy the experience with the Dicus family last week.
The kids began their adventure three days before we did packing up their Honda mini-van to the max and driving cross-country to South Dakota in two days. I don’t have the stamina to travel 1200 miles in that amount of time. The grandparents headed to the Avoca airport Monday afternoon August 3 and took off for Bozeman, Montana, the closest airport to Yellowstone’s northern entryway at Gardiner, Montana.
The park was established in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill drafted by Congress to establish our first National Park. Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey had invited landscape artist Thomas Moran, and photographer William Henry Jackson to join his geological survey team in their exploration of the Yellowstone region. The expedition was financed by Jay Cooke, director of the Northern Pacific Railroad and Moran and Jackson’s pictorials of Yellowstone were successful in lobbying Congress in approving a bill establishing the Yellowstone region as the first national park in 1871. Grant signed the bill into law 1872.
Yellowstone Five Distinct Areas
The huge park, the result of a huge volcanic explosion 640,000 years ago, has five distinct areas, each offering unique features. They include Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, Lake Yellowstone, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Norris Geyser Basin. You can travel 50 miles within the park between Old Faithful and Lake Yellowstone. The expanse is huge.
We started our visit in Gardiner, Montana where the park headquarters including law enforcement and a federal court deal with offenders who do not abide by the Yellowstone tradition. The original Fort Yellowstone is still at Mammoth Hot Springs, which has active thermal activity that is always reshaping its travertine terraces.
Charlie and I last visited Yellowstone 25 years ago after the fires of 1988, which consumed nearly one third of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, and the landscape is always changing. The Yellowstone plateau is 63 miles north to south and 54 miles west to east. Elevations vary from 6,200 feet at Mammoth Hot Springs to over 8,000 at the summit of Mount Washburn, with the average altitude 8,000 above sea level. Lake Yellowstone is 7, 773 feet high and is the largest lake at the highest altitude in the world. The air at 7 to 8,000 feet has only 40% oxygen and it didn’t take long for me to feel it.
I have been hiking Mountaintop trails quite a bit for the past couple of years, and my hiking muscles are strong but the rarified air takes several days of acclimation. They tell you to drink a lot of water and I did, but my first uphill experience at Mammoth on the boardwalks that traverse the hot springs found me resting many times on a short 1 mile uphill route. One step at a time and rest when you feel stressed. The next day was easier and after about five days my altitude stress declined.
The Dicus family joined us in Mammoth after their visits to Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and Devil’s Tower. From then on we shared the enjoyment of discovery of Yellowstone.
The kids camped in the Canyon area and we had a room at the newly refurbished Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which is the oldest structure in the park first opening in 1881 and celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2016. The 16 miles between us at Yellowstone Lake and the kids at their campground became the longest route for us. The connecting road goes through Hayden Valley, a gorgeous diversified area featuring the Yellowstone River and lots of hills, mountains and a variety of wildlife.
We were excited to spot our first bison along the side of the road and we quickly learned that the tourists stopping to look and photograph them venturing onto the roadway was a recipe for long waits. The half hour 16-mile trip took us 90 minutes each way.
The Bison are huge animals that graze in herds in Hayden Valley and cross the road to the river at irregular intervals. August is the mating season for the bison and many a bull, old and young, were interacting with the females. Eye to eye contact for us with the bison became the norm as a huge bull would stand right in front of our car and stare us down on the roadway. There was nothing to do but wait it out.
A large elk with a rack that would be the lifetime prize for any hunter could usually be seen in a wooded area closer to the Yellowstone Canyon. Cars always stopped for better views and if we were lucky park rangers came along to keep things moving.
After experiencing the bison delays for several days we were grateful if they were not in the area at the time of our journey.
The Dicus family enjoyed a ranger walk over a meadowland overlooking Hayden Valley and saw a grizzly bear along the trail. Charlie and I did not see any bears on our hikes and that was fine with me. Wolves also live in Yellowstone, but they are solitary and seldom seen from more populated areas.
Yellowstone Thermal Areas
Yellowstone’s thermal areas are unique numbering about 10,000 and include geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots. The largest concentration of geysers are in the Old Faithful Area, where the park’s most famous Geyser Old Faithful erupts approximately every 92 minutes shooting water into the air from 120 to 160 feet for two to four minutes. The area has an extensive boardwalk that visitors can walk around to see the many active thermal features in what is called the Upper Basin. The Norris Geyser Basin north of Old Faithful has a diversified offering of thermal features. Yellowstone has more thermal features than anywhere else on earth.
Hiking is another favorite activity in the park. Day hikes range from one to five miles. The top five include Mount Washburn to the highest point in Yellowstone, Lonestar and Fairy Falls in the Old Faithful area and Storm Point, east of Fishing Bridge.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone shows the grandeur of the park with its deep carved yellow stonewalls and a beautiful waterfall. We hiked the canyon trail from Uncle Tom’s Trail to Artist Point overlooking the expanse. Up and down, all the trails in Yellowstone feature changes in elevation, a challenge for many. I had envisioned a nice walk along the canyon rim. Nature doesn’t work like that in Yellowstone. High altitude hiking adds an added dimension to the experience. Oxygen is premium.
Our day for the Mount Washburn hike dawned dark and rainy. Knowing that Mount Washburn creates its own weather we drove up to the parking area in driving rain and fog. There would be no 50-mile vistas to enjoy if we managed to trek through the elements, so we opted for a quick ride to the Petrified Tree near Tower Falls and the Roosevelt Lodge area. Petrified Tree was formed when a huge volcanic eruption millions of years ago covered the forest forever preserving the tree. It is now inside an iron fence and is easily the most overrated feature in Yellowstone. Thirty years ago when our young family visited Yellowstone we were similarly disappointed. Next to the geysers, wildlife and expansive vistas the Petrified Tree is underwhelming.
We stopped for lunch and a little shopping at the Tower Falls General Store, grateful for picnic tables covered from the rain by an overhang. After lunch with the weather still a factor we drove east through the Lamar Valley, another beautiful area populated with herds of bison. We also saw a small solitary black horned antelope.
Mount Washburn Revisited The weather looked a little brighter
and we decided to give Mount Washburn another shot. Up, up, up the road we traveled toward the higher points. The parking lot had at least 20 cars, a good sign that our hike was on. Our group was mixed as to whether they wanted to take the hike at all, 5.5 miles round trip. We agreed that one-mile up and back was our plan. The first 500 feet of the steep trail had me going at my slowest pace of the week. We were now above 8,000 feet. I was the last in line, but like a tortoise I just kept on going meeting Charlie and three grandchildren who had had enough at the .65 mile mark. I persevered and made it to the 1 mile meeting Lara, Mark and Patrick Dicus. The weather had cleared and the sun was shining. We happily snapped pictures of ourselves and the expansive vista. This was high enough for all of us.
Lake Yellowstone Our final day in Yellowstone kept
us in the Lake Yellowstone area, where we once again embarked on one the most popular trails to Storm Point in the Fishing Bridge area.
The day was cool but mostly clear with peaks of sun, perfect for an easy 2.7 mile hike across the meadow along the lake edge and through a lodge pole pine forest. Lake Yellowstone has 141 miles of shoreline and the surface is 141 square miles. Roughly 20 miles wide and 30 miles long, Lake Yellowstone can also create its own weather. The lake is huge and surrounded by mountains. Sunrise and sunset reflect their colors on the clouds and mountains.
The hike billed as one of the top five hikes in the park on mostly level terrain was beautiful and serene. We only saw one bison, but after encountering hundreds on our Hayden Valley route during the week that was fine.
After lunch we enjoyed a cruise on Lake Yellowstone on the Lake Queen II from the Bridge Bay Marina. The ranger accompanying the cruise was a wealth of information about history of the region. The first cruises from the main road were offered to travelers going to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel in the early 1900’s. After traveling four days by stagecoach over corduroy roads lain with trees, the option of cutting off another 12 hour journey to the hotel was a winner for the boat vendors. The Bridge Bay Marina was built in the 1950’s and is now the primary ingress to the lake for fishermen and recreational boating.
Lake Yellowstone is expansive and was formed at the time of the great Yellowstone volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago filling in with water rather than lava. There are thermal areas that heat up the lake and the ever-changing landscape is a marvel for scientific research.