I set off for the Park from Bozeman at 10:30 AM. I’ve had two days to “play house” in my new condo and have loved every minute of it. Although it’s still mostly empty, I now have enough furniture and household items to make my future visits comfortable, safe and fun.
Two straight days of chilly rain have, alas, prevented me from seeing my dual mountain views, but last night, right at sunset, the Bridgers peeked out to teasingly assure me of their permanence. Today is rainy, too, but I am delighted to see countless little creeks overflowing their banks through fields and forest. Reports warn of a big snowstorm heading toward the Park but I welcome it, as I find cold weather leads to better animal viewing.
My usual luck has provided me with a perfect car for my trip - a little gold Subaru Outback I’m calling “Golda“. The seats fold down nicely so I can sleep in the back (it helps to be a short person!) leaving plenty of room for all my gear. My late start will make me miss the Loonion photo at Mammoth today, however, I am hoping to hook up somewhere with the group of Loons on the Rolling History tour with Roadie and Ballpark.
The scenery is so gorgeous and green and inviting that I feel I simply couldn‘t be happier to be here. And I must mention the welcome sight of lilac bushes in bloom all over Bozeman. I see bush after bush, each laden with heavy, drooping blossoms in purple and pink and also creamy white, scenting the air in a most heavenly way.
I am driving up to the Park via West Yellowstone, for variety’s sake. I must get used to the expression going “up” to the Park, which is, of course, correct and in common use in Bozeman. Few rivers in the East flow north as they do here, and so Easterners tend to think of “south” and “down” as synonymous.
I am delighted to see that a good deal of farming and ranching landscape remains on the outskirts of Bozeman. In a city that is so rapidly expanding, it is nice to see so much land still in a rural state. I pass a horse farm full of gorgeous appaloosas, and above it a hawk is “drawing lazy circles in the sky”.
The Gallatin River is surging, roaring, frothing milky white over a base color of café au lait. It looks oh so deep and oh so rough. From a craggy bluff on my left a golden eagle suddenly takes flight! Such a huge bird! Wow. Cool. A bit later I spot another golden cruising above Moose Creek. And the mountains in this area are still full of snow.
On and on I go, through canyons and meadows with a sky so big above me it can hold three types of weather at once: sun, clouds and rain. The sky is one of my favorite things about Montana.
In a marshy area I hope for a sight of moose. There are a number of fishermen here, dressed warmly. The aspen are bright green, yet a different shade than the grass. And the dark rows of conifers march down from the mountains right to the river’s edge. I begin to notice a light covering of snow atop the meadows and on the fir branches, no doubt from a recent squall.
I see an elk at the edge of the trees on a green slope above the river. I stop to glass the area further. Aha! She has a calf with her! So sweet! I set up Layla and watch them a while. I think to myself this is kinda early to see a calf and I feel especially lucky to see it. The little thing seems only a few days old, unsure on its feet and sticking close to mom. They stay right along the edge of the trees. The mom nibbles grass, then nuzzles her baby, looks around, very wary, nibbles a bit more and looks around again. After a few minutes of this she moves into the trees, with her tiny one close beside her.
I smile and scan the river bank. The river is more placid here than in other spots and I find geese feeding near the edge. Then I spy a long, crooked neck between tall blades of grass that turns into a great blue heron. A light snow begins to fall and the sun-side of the sky gets cloudy again.
Soon after this, I enter the section of the Park that overlaps the road near the Fawn Pass trailhead. And wouldn‘t you know it, sunshine bursts out! I see my first ground squirrel, dashing across the road. I stop at the next pullout to admire the colors of the valley, brightened by the sudden sun: yellow, gold and green as well as rust and purple and intermittent sage all combine in an exquisite mix of natural beauty. It makes me sigh in contentment.
On I go. The snow falls more thickly and the lakes and ponds I pass sport icy edges. Snow is blowing at my windshield and the road gets foggy. I climb higher and pass the sign for Hebgen Lake. The wind grows fierce.
As I approach West Yellowstone the weather abates and out comes the sun again. The town is hopping, full of people and signs of thriving commerce. I stop for groceries and a tasty lunch and then head for the West entrance. Fat, dry snowflakes begin to waft lightly in the air. As I head east along the Madison, the landscape looks strangely dry to me. I had thought the year had been fairly rainy. Despite this, the Madison itself looks full.
Before I realize it I have passed the bald eagle nest and its “no stopping“ sign.
I turn around at the next pullout and go back to park, well west of the sign. No sooner do I have Layla set up when I see an adult flying in. It lands on the nest, folding its heavy wings. The eagle lowers its head and I see what I presume to be the head and beak of an eaglet. I‘ve heard there are two but I only see the one. The adult feeds it (them) for several minutes, bobbing its head up and down. Then it flaps off across the river and selects a tall snag rising from the bank to perch on.
I wait a while, hoping it might hunt or return to the nest but the eagle remains in that spot, allowing me excellent, unimpaired viewing of its gorgeous white head, its sternly-browed eye and sharp, yellow beak. I also admire its strong talons, firmly grasping the wood of the snag. The sun pops out again adding more drama to this already nice view.
The second parent may have been nearby but I don’t see it. I drive on, enjoying the scenery but apparently I am driving quite slowly, because at a straightaway, three cars pull around me rather abruptly and pass! Oops! Sorry!
I see geese in the river and then a kind of creepy sight: the decomposing body of an elk in the middle of the river. Winter kill perhaps, or the result of a predatory attack? I see small herds of elk and bison in the lowlands on the right. Then the wind shifts and snow falls more thickly.
At some of my favorite pullouts in this area I see more bison, a lot of geese and a single gorgeous bluebird. Then I see a bird flying above the river through the falling snow that looks like a seagull, except for its tail, which seems too short. Are there sea gulls in the Park? If not, what could it have been?
I decide to take a look at Madison Campground, where I first stayed in 1998 on my “discovery” trip. There are bison all over the campground, in the road, between the RV’s, napping at the base of trees. I chuckle as I remember waking to the grunts of a bison as they passed my tent one early morning.
Next I head for Norris. I stop at Gibbon Falls to take a look. It is ENORMOUS! And so loud! Then I have a bison jam at Gibbon Meadows. While everyone else is stopped, taking photos and video of the bison, I head to a pullout and scope for wolves. It’s chilly and the air smells fantastic. I find no wolves so I watch the bison. They are very shaggy, losing their thick winter protection in clumps and long, dragging strips. As the jam ebbs and flows I shake my head at a guy hanging way out the window of a slow-moving car so he can film the bison walking mere inches away. It’s a credit to the bison that the guy escapes injury.
The snow turns to rain, then stops. The bison are now assembled in the meadow, happily grazing. I drive on until Roaring Mountain where I see people pointing north and learn that I just missed seeing a grizzly with a cub. Ah well. It starts to rain again. I find it soothing and take a little snooze. All this driving makes me sleepy!
At the next pullout I see a car sporting a pair of yellow Loon flags. No mistaking that; it’s Lew & Deb! In fact, it’s the whole Loon Tour. I pull over next to Frank, who grins broadly when he sees me, betraying no surprise. I hop out and give hugs to all the Loons in reach. Especially Lew and Deb who have come through so much just to be here. They are in great spirits and already have some wonderful bear photos to show me.
I meet numerous other Loons at this pullout, including Hellroaring Kat and Connecticut Carolyn and of course Roadie. I don’t want to hold up the Tour though, so I cut my visit short, knowing I will see most of these folks tomorrow on the Specimen Ridge hike.
In Willow Park I see two cow elk looking picture perfect amid the green. Indian Creek is overflowing its banks and everywhere I look I see abundant water from snowmelt and rain. There are more cow elk at Swan Lake flats. This is usually a favorite calving spot, and although I don’t see any calves in the short time I’m here, the presence of so many cows leads me to believe that it is still a good place for them to bear and hide their young.
Electric Peak looks marvelous, crowned with a generous amount of snow. I hear sand hills and find two, then three of them. I see two ravens landing on the same spot near the far shore of the lake but don’t stay long enough to find out what might have drawn them.
I continue through the Golden Gate and down into Mammoth. Every crease of Mt. Everts is lined with green, making it look unusually pretty. I stop below Kite Hill and have my first-day-in-the-Park visit with Allison. I think she may have been wondering what took me so long! A gentle rain begins to fall, turning the ground dark brown and releasing the heart-stirring scent of sage.
Now it’s time to get to Tower. The rain comes down more heavily as I cross the high bridge. The Gardiner river is full and frothy way down below and as I head up the other side I see a rainbow!
The Blacktail Ponds are not quite as full as I want them to be, but the area looks green and good. Just east of the Children’s Fire I see a Ranger vehicle pull over and park behind an SUV with California plates. I slow down. The Ranger gets out and walks into the meadow this side of the jumbled rocks. Ah! I see a photographer way back there, in camouflage and with a huge lens, beyond the rocks, intent on something I can’t see. I pull over, curious.
The photographer seems so engrossed in whatever he is watching, that he doesn‘t seem to hear the Ranger approaching from behind. Surely a twig or two snapped? Only when the Ranger stops about 3 feet away does the photographer turn. There is a discussion and the photog shows the Ranger a card from his pocket (his ID?) Next thing you know the photog has picked up his tripod and begins to follow the Ranger back to the pullout.
I decide I don’t need to snoop any further so on I go. I wonder what is back there that drew his attention and whether it is something off limits? Perhaps it is a coyote den or maybe marmots, to which the photographer was too close?
When I get to Phantom Lake, I am thrilled to see water in it! And the hillsides near Elk Creek are carpeted with bright yellow arrow-leaf balsam-root. I spot my first bear just past the Tower Ranger station. It’s a black bear, a big boar, feeding on what may be an old kill on a hill opposite the Roosevelt corrals. It starts snowing again so I get lazy and stay inside Golda, watching him with binocs until he moves out of sight into the trees. Very few people see this bear. It’s only me and two old gents, which makes me wonder where everyone else is?
I get my answer a bit further up the road. The Rosie bear, with her two cubs of the year, is in view on the hill opposite Calcite. It’s a two-ranger jam and one of them is my Loon friend John. He is all smiles; his housing worked out fine and he is going to be here in the Park all summer. He tells me Dunraven is closed for snow and that Old Faithful is getting pounded. He thinks Tower campground may already be full and advises me to get going.
So I forego the Rosie and cubs sighting and it’s lucky I did, as it allows me to snag the second to last remaining campsite. The guy behind me gets the last one! I have #8, right above Tower Creek. I’ll be able to hear the gurgling water while I sleep.
On the way back down I get the briefest of sightings as Rosie and her rambunctious twins move over the hill. But I am reasonably sure I’ll have another chance to watch her in the coming days. I see two mule deer, and then a bison near Rainy Lake, tearing up some bushes next to the road.
Just before I make the turn to Lamar, I see another black bear - this one is on Jeff’s Hill behind the Ranger Station. I stop and watch him graze the hill a while, eating flowers and digging.
It’s nearly 7:30 as I pass the little stream that runs under the horse-bridge and down the hill towards the Yellowstone River. I keep a photo of this little stream on my desk at work. But unlike its appearance in the photo, the real stream overflows its banks, tumbling down the hill to its destination.
In Little America I find pronghorn and welcome levels of water in all the ponds. Again, I’d prefer that they be fuller than they are but it is a comforting sight, nonetheless. Despite the presence of falling snowflakes, the sun still strikes the hilltops near Slough Creek, making them glow beautifully.
I stop at Dorothy‘s and instantly find a grizzly way up there just below the snow patches. There are elk, bison and pronghorn in the flats and a calmness, an unmistakable serenity in the valley. I sit on the railing and take deep breaths, drinking in this view of views. How wonderful to be here.
After a while I head further east, enjoying every sight and sound in this most beautiful of valleys. At Round Prairie I see two cars in the pullout and my heart pounds with hope of seeing the Druids. Marlene is here, along with a few other Druid fans. She tells me they were seen this morning but so far tonight, they have not appeared.
I study the area, scanning the tree line, every inch of the low knob, and of course, the banks of the river. There are numerous water channels that I’ve never seen before, sights common only in spring. I study the rocky cliffs both right and left, where I have always imagined mountain lions lurking.
But, alas, the Druids do not appear. It starts to rain again, lightly, and I take it as my cue to turn in for the evening. I bid goodbye to Marlene and company and head west.
It’s a very pleasant drive, and not too long either. When I reach the campground, I find my neighbors have a fire going. Mmm! It smells so good!. I heat water on my stove and wash my face. Boy, does that feel good! The temperature is near 40, just about perfect for me.
Once I have everything arranged, I climb in the back and stretch out, finding it surprisingly comfy and cozy. I put tomorrow’s clothes in the bottom of my sleeping bag so they’ll be warm come morning. I choose cubby holes to safely stash my keys, flashlight and glasses so I can easily find them in the dark. I leave the front windows open a crack to get fresh air and to hear the river music.
There is soft laughter several sites away and a night bird calls once, twice, three times. Then it’s off to dreamland for me.
Today I saw: antelope, 5 black bears (3 adults and 2 cubs) 1 grizzly bear, bison and bison-ettes, 4 mule deer, 2 bald eagles (1 adult and 1 eaglet), 2 golden eagles, elk and elk calves, geese, 2 hawks, a great blue heron, magpies, ravens, 3 sand hill cranes, assorted Loons (never got an accurate name-list but about 25 I think!) and the spirit of Allison