Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day 11 - Buffalo and Other Delights

Day eleven was another chilly start.  But it did get off to a slightly earlier start.  The plan was to eat breakfast and then head out but the plan was thwarted because we had run out of milk.  Shame on us but we decided to get a quick breakfast McSomething and eat it on the go.  First stop was for (what else?) more fuel.  At $4.25 a gallon this was painful but there was nothing for it.  Fueling up usually involves chatting with somebody who is feeling similar pain.  Today it was the owner of a class B camper who shouldn’t have fussed about getting almost 20mpg.  West Yellowstone  is a town built for the purpose of serving people who visit Yellowstone and enter through the west gate.  It has a population of about 1200.  There are a few charming-ish log cabin style structures, several motels, some chain restaurants, a small supermarket, various services and a variety of local business.  Big Gun Fun certainly seemed unique.   The McDonalds has a sign inside that says “A wife and a steady job have ruined many a good fisherman”.
Since Brett got his park pass yesterday we were able to go through the “speedy” entrance line.  But there were a lot of cars lined up so Brett picked one of the “buy your ticket” lanes and the waiting game ensued.  According to Lowell, arbiter of all wagers, races and arguments, we got under way 2 cars later than if we’d stayed in the speedy lane.  Nonetheless it was a 10:30am start. 
We wanted to see something a bit different today so chose the Hayden Valley as our destination.  The park is organized around two big loop roads.  Yesterday, we drove on the southern loop and realized that if we had a “must see” then we weren’t going to be able to stop at everything in between because we would run out of daylight before we ever got there.  Did I mention that this place is huge?  We were told yesterday that there was a good chance of seeing wildlife in the valley.  Marching orders for today were to get to our furthest stop and then make our way back to the west gate visiting the remaining sights then.  It was a pretty good theory.  

I think that Saturday traffic was quite a bit heavier than yesterday.  It also seemed slower for the first while.  We threaded through cars that had stopped along the road to watch fly fisherman.  Then there was another traffic jam while people watched a fox who so far from the road that most little cameras wouldn’t have been able to get a decent picture.  I found it interesting that at the visitors center most people were asking where they could see moose.  Since we’ve had moose on the back patio, we are more interested in seeing bison and elk.  Hayden Valley was the place to look. 

Canyon Village was right on the way so we stopped to visit.  There is another excellent information center with lots of displays about the geology of the area.  We were here for almost an hour.  I know it sounds hokey but I got a Passport To Your National Parks and wanted to get stamps for each of the centers.   It will also be fun to try to visit as many national parks as we can.

This center had a general store where we stopped to get cold drinks and a bag of Reese’s Pieces.  Brett can’t pass up a bag of candy either.  I was pleasantly surprised that the prices were comparable to those we pay at home.  

I've been noticing lots of things with YNP written on them and it just occurred to me that it stands for Yellowstone National Park.  It took me less time to reason this out than it did to figure out that Nola stood for New Orleans, LA.

 On our way to the valley we climbed to 8,200 feet elevation and crossed the edge of the volcano’s caldera.  We passed two serious bicyclists who didn’t seem the least bit tired pedaling an 8% grade at this elevation.  I have trouble pedaling on flat ground at sea level.  We also were warned of “Smoke Ahead” on the road and drove through an area where the park is doing a managed burn.  Controlled or not, they look very serious.  They are used to improve habitat, control disease and pests, remove undesirable plants, add nutrients to the soil, remove undergrowth and allow the lodgepole pine cones to open and spread their seeds.  Lodgepole pines were so named because they are so tall and straight that they were often used to build Indian lodges (teepees).

Hayden Valley is a large, sub-alpine valley through which flows the Yellowstone River.  The valley floor along the river is an ancient lake bed.  It is one of the best locations to view wildlife.  We saw a small herd of bison down by the river as well as many Canada Geese.  By the way, buffalo is the common name for bison so either word is correct when referring to the beast.   We were not the only ones who were planning to see wildlife.  I saw so many expensive telephoto lenses here that I felt positively green with envy.  It did appear that a downside of these lenses is their weight.  Several photographers looked more than a little tired while trudging up the hill with their gear.  It was a lovely spot to visit.

Our ultimate destination for today was the Mud Volcano.  Here we walked along a ¼ mile loop trail to see hot springs, cauldrons, geysers and fumaroles and partake of the aroma of hydrogen sulfide.  While certainly not mountain fresh, I was surprised that it wasn’t completely unpleasant.  Certainly I didn’t breathe deep when the fumes were blowing into my face but neither did I gag and fall to the ground.  It was a strong, rotten egg smell.  

If I was a tree, I wouldn't want to live here!

“Dangerous Ground” seems an understatement.  This stuff is hot and acidic with a lot of steam to boot.  We saw a drain grate in the parking lot with steam wafting up from it.  Half of the grate had been dissolved.   The Dragon’s Tongue was quite impressive.  Hot water is rising to the surface and gases expand creating an explosion in the cavern which sounds quite a bit like Thunder Hole at Acadia but with steam rather than salt spray.  

Fortunately, signs advised taking the walk in a clockwise direction for a less steep hike.  Steep, of course, being in the legs of the beholder.  This overweight, asthmatic beholder did the walk but was very glad to see the truck at the end of it. 
We headed back at this point and stopped at a picnic area beside the Yellowstone River to eat our lunch.  Peanut butter sandwiches have rarely been eaten in such beautiful surroundings.  While there we became acquainted with some Gray Jays who were scavenging what they could from picnic leftovers.  

Our final stop was the Norris Geyser Basin.  I felt pretty geysered out by this point but these were also things of wonder.  The Porcelain Basin is a large area with many frothing, bubbling and erupting geysers.  These are all fairly unpredictable and the only way to determine when they will erupt is to watch them.

Another trail led to Steamboat geyser which erupts about every 9 minutes but wasn’t very energetic today.  We also passed beside Emerald Pool which had that sulfur smell and vivid colors caused by the micro-organisms that live in the heated water.  This path had us over the tree tops and offered a beautiful view of some of the surrounding mountains. 
The remainder of the drive back to West Yellowstone was on terrain we covered yesterday.  We saw the same herd of elk in the same place as yesterday.  There was also a bison jam on the road back from Hayden Valley.  The bison we saw by the river had made their way up the hill and were crossing the road.  There must be a way that park officials come to know this is happening.  One ranger was on hand in a jeep, shooing the slow pokes off the road by blowing a siren at them.

We decided to stop for dinner at a local pizzeria that was decorated with lots of western themed photos and paraphernalia (like chaps and whips and spurs).  I really hope that I chose the correct restroom!

The Wild West Supreme pizza was enjoyed by all.  We returned home with time to do laundry and a little relaxing.  Tomorrow should be another exciting day. 

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