A Trip to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole

 

 

Christmas 2009 (25-31 December)            

Version: 0.9

Date issued: 10 January 2010   

Author: Thomas Harbour

File Name: Trip-Report_Yellowstone-2009.doc


 

Table of Contents

 

1    Background. 3

1.1    Future of Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park. 3

1.2    Getting There. 3

1.3    Costs. 6

2    Jackson Hole. 6

2.1    Jackson. 6

2.2    Turpin Meadow Ranch. 8

3    Snowmobiling in Yellowstone NP. 13

3.1    Yellowstone National Park. 13

3.2    Day 1 (Flagg Ranch to Gardiner) 14

3.3    Day 2 (Gardiner to West Yellowstone and back) 20

3.4    Day 3 (Gardiner to Lamar Valley) 26

3.5    Day 3 (South to Old Faithful and the exit) 34

4    Conclusions. 40

 

List of Figures

 

Figure 1. Flights between Ottawa and Jackson. 4

Figure 2. Chicago O’hare (left), American Airline terminal on Christmas Day (right) 4

Figure 3. Brocken spectre in our airplane (left), flying past Tetons (right) 5

Figure 4. Tunnel between United Airlines terminals at O’Hare (left), Chicago on New Year’s Eve (right) 5

Figure 5. Mule deer near Flat Creek (left), common goldeneyes on Falt Creek (right) 6

Figure 6. Cigar store Indian (left), elk antler arch in Town Square (right) 7

Figure 7. Elk antler arch (left), reflection of elk antler arch in store window (right) 7

Figure 8. Turkey Christmas supper at the Cadillac Deli (left), Jackson at night (right) 8

Figure 9. Drive through Jackson Hole to Turpin Meadow Ranch. 9

Figure 10. Bull elk in National Elk Refuge (left), Tetons bordering Jackson Hole (right) 10

Figure 11. Grand Tetons (left), coyote hunting mice/voles in Jackson Hole (right) 10

Figure 12. Buffalo Valley Road to ranch (left), pair of female moose near ranch (right) 11

Figure 13. Turpin Meadow Ranch (left), ‘Moose A’ bungalow (right) 11

Figure 14. View of Teton Range from ranch (left), Teton Range across Turpin Meadow (right) 12

Figure 15. Snowshoeing in Turpin Meadow. 12

Figure 16. Log interior of lodge (left), friendly staff – Jenny and Lisa (right) 13

Figure 17. Teton Range from the ranch (left), the Grand Teton (right) 13

Figure 18. Map showing large Yellowstone caldera. 14

Figure 19. Grand Teton Range from Moran Junction (left), sunrise at Moran Junction (right) 15

Figure 20. Snowmobiles lined up at Flagg Ranch (left), Arctic Cat TZ1 (right) 15

Figure 21. Day 1 - Flagg Ranch to Gardiner (92 miles) 16

Figure 22. Sign at Yellowstone NP entrance (left), West Thumb Geyser Basin (right) 17

Figure 23. Warming hut at Fishing Bridge (left), Donna as Varth Vader (right) 17

Figure 24. Mud Volcano area (left), bison herd in Hayden Valley (right) 18

Figure 25. Upper Falls of Yellowstone River (left), Lower Falls (right) 18

Figure 26. Refuelling at Canyon Village (left), bison along Gibbon River (right) 19

Figure 27. Lack of snow on road in north (left), moon over Golden Gate (right) 19

Figure 28. Roosevelt Arch, Gardiner (left), view for our hotel (right) 20

Figure 29. Day 2 – Gardiner to West Yellowstone and back (98 miles) 21

Figure 30. Big horn sheep (left), ewe left by herself (right) 21

Figure 31. Wolves with radio collars (left), 5-member Quadrant pack regroups (right) 22

Figure 32. Gardiners Hole with Gallatin Range in distance (left), warming up our snowmobiles (right) 22

Figure 33. Norris Geyser Basin from a distance (left), some geothermal features in basin (right) 23

Figure 34. Rime frost-covered tree in basin (left), Gibbon Falls (right) 23

Figure 35. Information at Madison warming hut (left), 1960s Bombardier Snow Bus (right) 24

Figure 36. At stop-light in West Yellowstone (left), an unkindness of ravens (right) 24

Figure 37. Snowmobile parked at Wild West pizzeria (left), pair of bald eagle and their eyrie (right) 25

Figure 38. Mattracks-equipped van (left), Hägglunds Bv206 (right) 25

Figure 39. Bison grazing along side Gibbon River (left), sunset over Mammoth Hot Springs (right) 26

Figure 40. Elk grazing in Gardiner (left), Donna trying to feed mule deer at our hotel (right) 26

Figure 41. Day 3 - Trip to Lamar Valley (25 miles) 27

Figure 42. Park ranger leaves on ski patrol (left), hot drinks on trip to Lamar Valley (right) 27

Figure 43. Watching bull elks (left), bull elk grazing (right) 28

Figure 44. Coyote hunting mice. 28

Figure 45. 3 wolves on top of Specimen Ridge (left), watching 3 wolves on ridge (right) 29

Figure 46. Toilet with a mail box (left), bison grazing in sagebrush (right) 29

Figure 47. Juvenile bison locking horns. 30

Figure 48. Well-equipped photographer (left), herd of female elk (right) 30

Figure 49. Slow recovery from fires of 1988 (left), main terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs (right) 31

Figure 50. Snowcoaches at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (left), elk feeding amongst buildings (right) 31

Figure 51. Elk bedded down near Fort Yellowstone (left), Liberty Cap & Lower Terraces (right) 32

Figure 52. Rime frosted-covered tree near Palette Springs (left), close-up of frosted-covered tree (right) 33

Figure 53. Palette Springs (left), close-up of the face of Palette Springs (right) 33

Figure 54. Green thermophiles on Palette Springs (left), colourful thermophiles in stream (right) 34

Figure 55. Day 3 - Mammoth Hot Springs to Flagg Ranch (90 miles) 35

Figure 56. Coyote hunting for mice/voles. 36

Figure 57. Cliffs along the Firehole Canyon Drive (left), at Firehole Falls (right) 36

Figure 58. Passing oncoming snowmobiles (left), heading towards Old Faithful area (right) 37

Figure 59. Passing by Bombardier Snow Bus (left), tough sledding into Old Faithful area (right) 37

Figure 60. Old Faithful Geyser before eruption (left), coyote at Old Faithful Geyser (right) 38

Figure 61. Upper Geyser Basin from Old Faithful (left), geyser erupting in Upper Geyser Basin (right) 38

Figure 62. Old Faithful Geyser eruption starting (left), Old Faithful Geyser erupting (right) 39

Figure 63. Ranger removes sign about eruption (left), racing south pass Bombardier Snow Bus (right) 39

Figure 64. Sun setting on forest near West Thumb (left), posing with Casey, our guide (right) 40

Figure 65. Dark enough for headlights (left), exiting the south exit of Yellowstone NP (right) 40

 

List of Tables

 

Table 1. Key Vacation Costs per Person. 6

 

References

 

  1. Gorilla Groups, http://www.rwandaecotours.com/gorillas/gorilla_groups.shtml.
  2. Killings of mountain gorillas in Congo prompt U.N. probe, http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/africa/07/27/congo.gorillas/index.html, 28 August 2007.
  3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1208479/Shocked-gamekeeper-runs-life-ton-hippo.html#ixzz0PC0uVpNR, 24th August 2009.
  4. Software Mogul Attacked by Elephant During Safari, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/09/03/business/AP-US-Siebel-Elephant-Attack.html, 3 September 2009.
  5. Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes,  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/world/africa/08kenya.html?scp=1&sq=kenya%20drought%202009&st=cse, 7 September 2009.
  6. Kenya's hippos hard hit by drought, http://news.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/World/Story/A1Story20090902-165126.html, 2 September 2009.
  7. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1924258,00.html, 17 Sep 2009.

 

 


1       Background

1.1      Future of Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park

In the summer of 2005, we drove out to west to Calgary and spent several days camping in Yellowstone National Park.  Yellowstone NP is a fascinating park due to its geothermal features, including geysers and large wild animal population.  So rather than go to a destination, we decided to visit Yellowstone in winter which is obviously different than during the summer because it is possible to see Yellowstone without the crowds and the animals are easier to view compared to the summer.

 

Rather than taking a trip in a snowcoach, we wanted to snowmobiling through Yellowstone NP.  However the future of snowmobiling in Yellowstone NP is up in air due to court proceedings that may ban snowmobiling in the coming years.  In 2001, opponents of snowmobiling in Yellowstone NP started court proceedings in a district court in Washington, D.C. to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. 

 

After years of reducing the number of snowmobiles allowed to enter the parks, the National Park Service issued new rules that govern winter recreational use of Yellowstone NP for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons.  The National Park Service has limited the number and type of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone NP to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches per day.  The rules also require that most recreational snowmobiles in the park meet air and sound emissions requirements and that snowmobilers and snowcoach riders be accompanied by a commercial guide.  The vehicles also must be of the best available technology and traveling off designated oversnow routes is prohibited.

 

Since it is only certain that snowmobile access to Yellowstone NP is assured until the end of the 2010-2011 seasons, this winter seemed a good time to make a snowmobile trip through the park. 

 

We booked in October 2009 with Turpin Meadow Ranch for this Christmas trip.  Although we booked everything through Turpin Meadow Ranch, the snowmobile trip is officially with Yellowstone Snowmobile Tours.

1.2      Getting There

Our flight between Ottawa and Jackson was via Chicago O’Hare airport (Figure 1).  The total distance was 1,819 miles (2,927 km). 

 

Figure 1. Flights between Ottawa and Jackson

On 25 December 2009, we flew from Ottawa to Chicago on an American Eagle Embraer EMB-140 that left at 0655 hours and arrived at 0820 hours (Figure 2). 

 

Figure 2. Chicago O’hare (left), American Airline terminal on Christmas Day (right)

At 0945 hours, we left on an American Airlines Boeing 757 for our flight to Jackson. 

 

Figure 3. Brocken spectre in our airplane (left), flying past Tetons (right)

We arrived at 1155 hours and took a US $16/person shuttle bus into Jackson.

 

Our flight was trouble free but on this day, a Nigerian man tried to ignite explosives on a Detroit-bound Delta Airlines jetliner and kill 278 passengers and 11 crew.  Fortunately, nobody else was hurt but the terrorist.  However this terrorist act meant that air travel security was increased and so on our return trip, I was patted down by TSA agents at the Jackson Hole Airport.

 

On 31 December 2009, we flew from Jackson to Chicago on a United Airlines Boeing 757 that left at 1300 hours and arrived at 1700 hours (Figure 4).  At 1900 hours, we left on a United Express Embraer EMB-140 for our flight to Ottawa.  We arrived at 2200 hours and then battled to get the thick coating of freezing rain off our car in the Park'N Fly parking lot before we could drive home.

 

Figure 4. Tunnel between United Airlines terminals at O’Hare (left), Chicago on New Year’s Eve (right)

All our flights went despite the heightened airport security due to yet another terrorist airline bombing attempt.

1.3      Costs

The costs of this vacation are shown by leg in Table 1.  The grand total cost was about C$2,650/person for a week which is more than double what we’ve paid in the past for a week at an all inclusive sun destination in the Caribbean.  In short this was an expensive trip for us.

 

The Canadian dollar was at about the 93 cent level compared to the US dollar when I exchanged money in Canada.

 

Leg of Trip

Travel

Hotel

Miscellaneous

Remarks

Cash for meals, fees, souvenirs, incidents.

 

 

US$100

 

Flight between Ottawa and Jackson, Wy

C$783

 

 

Expedia.ca: American Airlines outbound and United Airlines homebound

Anglers Inn, Jackson

 

C$53

 

Expedia.ca (1 night – 25 Dec)

Turpin Meadow Ranch

 

US$394

 

3 nights including meals

Yellowstone Snowmobile Tour

 

 

US$1200

3 day (2 night) snowmobile trip through Yellowstone NP

Table 1. Key Vacation Costs per Person

2       Jackson Hole

2.1      Jackson

We spend Christmas Day and part of Boxing Day in Jackson.  Because Jackson is a tourist town, we had thought that Christmas Day would be special.  However, it the event it was disappointing since almost everything was closed except for a couple of restaurants.

 

Fortunately the wildlife was not closed for Christmas Day so we saw some interesting animals in Jackson (Figure 5).

 

Figure 5. Mule deer near Flat Creek (left), common goldeneyes on Falt Creek (right)

There were a number of interesting sights around Jackson (Figure 6).

 

Figure 6. Cigar store Indian (left), elk antler arch in Town Square (right)

At sunset, the Town Square is lit up and very attractive (Figure 7).  The elk antler arches in particular are very impressive.

 

Figure 7. Elk antler arch (left), reflection of elk antler arch in store window (right)

We had a very good traditional turkey Christmas supper at the Cadillac Deli (left, Figure 8).  There was an excellent offer for those dining before 1800 hours – free champagne and a second serving of the turkey dinner – for only US$17.

 

The Town Square and night skiing on Snow King Mountain formed a fascinating scene on Christmas Eve (right, Figure 8).

 

Figure 8. Turkey Christmas supper at the Cadillac Deli (left), Jackson at night (right)

2.2      Turpin Meadow Ranch

On Boxing Day at 1130 hours, we were picked up at the Angler’s Inn by Lisa from Turpin Meadow Ranch for the 45 minute drive through picturesque Jackson Hole to the ranch (Figure 9).

 

Figure 9. Drive through Jackson Hole to Turpin Meadow Ranch

Just out of Jackson, we passed by the National Elk Refuge with its population of wintering elk (left, Figure 10) and soon the beautiful Teton mountains hove into view (right, Figure 10).

 

Figure 10. Bull elk in National Elk Refuge (left), Tetons bordering Jackson Hole (right)

As we drove along Jackson Hole and views of the Teton Range constantly changed (left, Figure 11).  We saw some coyote out hunting mice/voles in the fields (right, Figure 11).

 

Figure 11. Grand Tetons (left), coyote hunting mice/voles in Jackson Hole (right)

Past Moran Junction, we turned on the Buffalo Valley Road for the ten mile drive to the ranch (left, Figure 12).  Nearing the ranch we rounding a corner and came upon a pair of big female moose (right, Figure 12).

 

Figure 12. Buffalo Valley Road to ranch (left), pair of female moose near ranch (right)

Finally we arrived at the Turpin Meadow Ranch in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (left, Figure 13) and we were installed in the cosy and warm ‘Moose Eh!’ bungalow (right, Figure 13).

 

Turpin Meadow Ranch began as a dude ranch in 1932. It is one of the oldest continuous operating dude ranches in the Jackson Hole area.

 

Figure 13. Turpin Meadow Ranch (left), ‘Moose A’ bungalow (right)

The ranch has a good setting on the border of Turpin Meadow and the bank of the Buffalo Fork River.  It has wonderful views of the Tetons in the distance (Figure 14).

 

Figure 14. View of Teton Range from ranch (left), Teton Range across Turpin Meadow (right)

We had a day and a half at the ranch before we’d leave on our snowmobiling trip through Yellowstone NP, so we had time to explore the ranch’s environs.  The ranch provided both cross-country skis and snowshoes but we opted for the snowshoes with ski poles to get us onto the meadow (Figure 15) and into the woods. 

 

Figure 15. Snowshoeing in Turpin Meadow

The meals were taken in the ranch main building which is built of logs.  The interior of the lodge is an attractive western theme (left, Figure 16).  The meals were good home cooking of the type that you’d expect at a dude ranch.

 

The staff at the ranch was very friendly and outgoing and they made our stay there very nice (right, Figure 16).  Curiously, the ranch does not have a liquor license but we were able to bring our own alcoholic beverages to the lodge for meals.  We bought some liquors and wine at a nice liquor store in Jackson prior to our stay at the ranch.

 

Figure 16. Log interior of lodge (left), friendly staff – Jenny and Lisa (right)

I’ll not soon forget the ranch and its wonderful views of the Teton Range (Figure 17).

 

Figure 17. Teton Range from the ranch (left), the Grand Teton (right)

3       Snowmobiling in Yellowstone NP

3.1      Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is located in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Yellowstone is the first and oldest national park in the world (created in 1872) and covers 3,470 square miles (8,980 km²), mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming.  The park is famous for its various geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal features and is home to grizzly bears, wolves, and free-ranging herds of bison and elk. It is the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest intact temperate zone ecosystems remaining on the planet. [Ref I]

 

The fascinating geothermal features in Yellowstone are the due to past massive volcanic eruptions left a huge caldera 43 miles by 18 miles (70 km by 30 km) sitting over a huge magma chamber (Figure 18).  Yellowstone has registered three major eruption events in the last 2.2 million years with the last event occurring 640,000 years ago.  Its eruptions are the largest known to have occurred on Earth within that timeframe, producing drastic climate change in the aftermath.  For that reason, the Yellowstone volcano has been called a super volcano.

 

Today's geothermal activity in Yellowstone is due to the heat provided by the partially molten magma chamber which underlies the caldera.

 

Figure 18. Map showing large Yellowstone caldera

3.2      Day 1 (Flagg Ranch to Gardiner)

On the 28th of December, we left the ranch at 0800 hours for the drive to Flagg Ranch where we’d pickup our snowmobile and guide for the 3 day tour of Yellowstone NP.  Unfortunately, our van overheated and we waited at Moran Junction for a half hour until a replacement vehicle arrived.  Interesting we stopped at a collection of government buildings which included a primary school that only had 18 pupils and a staff of 2 teachers!

 

While the wait was unexpected, it did give us a chance to take some good photographs of Jackson Hole scenes (Figure 19).

 

Figure 19. Grand Teton Range from Moran Junction (left), sunrise at Moran Junction (right)

At Flagg Ranch, we met our guide, Casey, and picked up our brand new Arctic Cat TZ1 snowmobiles (right, Figure 20).  These excellent machines had a 4-stroke engine that was quieter and less polluting than the 2-stroke engines used outside of the park.  They had heated handlebars, throttle control and seats which made for a more comfortable experience in the cold.  Their 123 HP engine meant that they had no problem achieving the 45 MPH speed limit within much of the park.  In fact while catching up to the group, I briefing easily achieved 53 MPH.

 

Our group consisted of 11 people including the guide.  We both had our own sled while a family of four from Tennessee shared two sleds as did a family of four from Arkansas.

 

Figure 20. Snowmobiles lined up at Flagg Ranch (left), Arctic Cat TZ1 (right)

After the briefest of briefings on how to operate the snowmobiles, we were off on our 92 mile ride from Flagg Ranch to mammoth Hot Springs at the north end of the park (Figure 21).

 

Figure 21. Day 1 - Flagg Ranch to Gardiner (92 miles)

We stopped briefly at Yellowstone NP entrance (left, Figure 22) and then rode on to the West Thumb Geyser Basin (right, Figure 22).

 

Figure 22. Sign at Yellowstone NP entrance (left), West Thumb Geyser Basin (right)

Leaving West Thumb, we drove on along the west side of Yellowstone Lake to the warming hut at Fishing Bridge were we ate our bagged lunch around a blazing hot stove (left, Figure 23).  Until 1973, Fishing Bridge was a very popular fishing location since the bridge crosses the Yellowstone River above a cutthroat trout spawning area.  Now however fishing from Fishing Bridge is banned.

 

Yellowstone Lake is a large natural lake with a surface area of 136 square miles and 110 miles of shoreline. Its deepest spot is in excess of 390 ft.

 

Figure 23. Warming hut at Fishing Bridge (left), Donna as Varth Vader (right)

We stopped for a walk around at the Mud Volcano area (left, Figure 24).  A popular feature in this area is the Dragon’s Mouth Spring.  However, the activity of the spring has diminished over the years.  Until 1994, it used to spit mud and the accompanying noise could be heard for a mile.  Now, it just rhythmically sloshes water in and out of the mouth of the small cavern along with the steam while making a low growling noise.  Apparently the Indians name for it was “breathing buffalo” which is very descriptive and appropriate but unfortunately it didn’t fit in with the cutesy names that the explorer insisted on slapping on most features.

 

Leaving Mud Volcano area, we rode across the Hayden Valley.  This large valley, approximately 7 miles (11 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide, straddles the Yellowstone River between Yellowstone Falls and Yellowstone Lake.  The valley is well known as one of the best locations to view wildlife in Yellowstone.  We raced past a herd of bison grazing near the road but they were located in dead ground and neither our guide nor others in the group saw them so I did not stop.  As we raced passed this herd, I expected the guide to stop so that we could take photographs of the large herd of bison that was plainly visible in the distance (right, Figure 24).   However, we kept on going and going so I stopped on my own and took a photograph before they were lost from view.

 

Figure 24. Mud Volcano area (left), bison herd in Hayden Valley (right)

Near Canyon Village, we stopped first at the Upper Yellowstone Falls (109 ft) and then the Lower Yellowstone Falls (308 ft).  Both are in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and they had significant ice build-up and a much lower volume of water flowing over them when we visited in the summer of 2005.  The Yellowstone River begins south of the park and travels more than 600 miles to its terminus in North Dakota where it empties into the Missouri River.  It is the longest undammed river in the continental United States.

 

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the geologic feature from which Canyon Village takes its name. The canyon is roughly 20 miles long, measured from the Upper Falls to the Tower Fall area with a depth varying from 800–1,200 ft. and a width of 1,500–4,000 ft.  The present canyon is no more than 10,000 to 14,000 years old.

 

Figure 25. Upper Falls of Yellowstone River (left), Lower Falls (right)

We refuelled at the nearby Canyon Village (left, Figure 26) before heading to Norris junction and then north towards Mammoth Hot Springs.  Just north of Norris we passed by a trio of bison grazing in a snow covered field along Gibbon River (left, Figure 26).  These bison did not even bother to look up at our passage.

 

Figure 26. Refuelling at Canyon Village (left), bison along Gibbon River (right)

With a normal depth of snow, we would have snowmobiled to the area just above the Upper Terraces of the Mammoth Hot Springs.  However the lack of snow cover (left, Figure 27) meant that vehicles from our hotel in Gardiner, Montana picked us up well short of there before Gardiners Hole.  We then drove through Gardiners Hole, the dramatic Golden Gate pass (left, Figure 28) and Mammoth to arrive at Gardiner.

 

Figure 27. Lack of snow on road in north (left), moon over Golden Gate (right)

On the outskirts of Gardiner, we passed through the Roosevelt Arch (right, Figure 28) which stands alone in a field outside of town.  The Roosevelt Arch is the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner.  The arch's cornerstone was laid down by President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The top of the arch is inscribed with a quote from the Organic Act of 1872, the legislation which created Yellowstone, which reads "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People".  Before 1903, trains brought visitors to Cinnabar, Montana, a few miles northwest of Gardiner, where they would transfer onto horse-drawn coaches to enter the park. In 1903, the railway finally came to Gardiner, and people entered through the Roosevelt Arch.

 

We stayed at the Best Western in Gardiner.  The view from the hotel was very scenic (right, Figure 28).  The hotel itself had a small casino and a restaurant called the Rusty Rail Lounge and Casino.  We ate together as a group so we got to better know our fellow travellers.

 

Figure 28. Roosevelt Arch, Gardiner (left), view for our hotel (right)

3.3      Day 2 (Gardiner to West Yellowstone and back)

This was our second day (29th of December) and we were supposed to drive to see the Lamar Valley and then pick up our sleds to ride to West Yellowstone to spend the night.  However, an error meant that our trip to the Lamar Valley was booking for the following day.  Hence you itinerary was changed such that we stayed another night in Gardiner and picked up our sleds to ride to West Yellowstone and then return to Gardiner.  This meant that we’d ride 98 miles this day, however on the other hand, we did not have to pack up our stuff today.

 

Figure 29. Day 2 – Gardiner to West Yellowstone and back (98 miles)

Driving through the Golden Gate pass, I spotted a big horn sheep standing high up on the cliffs.  Coincidently a jet was flying through the scene leaving a contrail in its wake (Figure 30).

 

Figure 30. Big horn sheep (left), ewe left by herself (right)

Subsequently, as we were driving through Gardiners Hole, I spotted something unusual which turned out to be the Quadrant pack of 5 wolves (Figure 31).  We were very lucky to see the Quadrant wolf pack on the Swan Lake Flats.  Later we were told that they had a carcass in that area from an earlier kill.

 

There were no wolves in Yellowstone in 1994 since they had been hunted to extinction in the area.  The wolves that were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 thrived and their population reached over 300 living in the Greater Yellowstone Area.  However at the end of 2008, they were only 124 wolves in 12 packs and various groups occupied Yellowstone National Park.  This represents a 27% decline compared to the 2007 population and was similar to the 30% decline in 2005.  Only six of these packs were breeding pairs, the smallest count since 2000.   High mortality of both pups and adults caused the low breeding pair count, despite there being 12 packs. Disease and intraspecific mortality, i.e. wolf-on-wolf fratricide, are the two primary factors that caused the wolf population decline.

 

To facilitate monitoring and research, all of the wolves brought from Canada were radio-collared before release and Yellowstone NP maintains radio collars in all wolf packs within the park.  The Wolf Project staff monitors population dispersal, distribution, reproduction, mortality and predation on ungulates.

 

Figure 31. Wolves with radio collars (left), 5-member Quadrant pack regroups (right)

Apart from seeing the animals, the drive through Gardiners Hole was scenic (left, Figure 32).  Finally we arrived at the location where our sleds were parked overnight and after warming them up for a few minutes (right, Figure 32), we were off riding south to Norris junction.

 

Figure 32. Gardiners Hole with Gallatin Range in distance (left), warming up our snowmobiles (right)

We stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin which is hottest and most changeable thermal area in Yellowstone.  It is the home of the world's tallest active geyser, Steamboat, which can erupt to more than 300 feet (90m).  Unfortunately Steamboat rarely erupts.

 

Figure 33. Norris Geyser Basin from a distance (left), some geothermal features in basin (right)

Some of the most spectacular winter sights do not include wildlife or geothermal features.  Rather on mornings following very cold and clear nights, feathery hoar frost lavishly decorates everything.  Hoar frost forms when water vapour freezes instantly upon contact (i.e. it sublimates - turns from gas to solid without passing through a liquid phase) with tree branches and other objects.  In geyser basins, rime frost plasters trees adjacent to active geysers and other thermal features.  Rime frost grows into the wind. It forms during cold weather on trees and railings in geyser basins. Although rime frost can weight a tree to the breaking point, it does provide opportunities for amazing photos (left, Figure 34).

 

Figure 34. Rime frost-covered tree in basin (left), Gibbon Falls (right)

Leaving the Norris Geyser Basin, we stopped at Gibbon Falls which is roughly halfway between Madison and Norris.  Gibbon Falls is an 84-foot (26-meter) waterfall that tumbles over remnants of the Yellowstone Caldera rim. The rock wall on the opposite side of the road from the waterfall is the inner rim of the caldera.  This stretch of road looks like a dormant construction site since during the during the construction season, a new bridge span is being built across the Gibbon River and the road is being realigned near Gibbon Falls.

 

We stopped at the Madison warming hut is co-located with one of the much sought after heated washrooms.  Posted on the walls of the warming hut was some useful information for the winter visitors.

 

The road from Madison to West Yellowstone follows the course of the Madison River.  The Madison River is formed by the junction of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers at the eponymously named ‘Madison Junction’.  Later downstream, the Madison joins the Jefferson and the Gallatin rivers at Three Forks, Montana to form the Missouri River.

 

Figure 35. Information at Madison warming hut (left), 1960s Bombardier Snow Bus (right)

Just outside of the west gate of Yellowstone NP is the town of West Yellowstone.  This town permits snowmobiling on its streets and does not plow them down to bare pavement so that snowmobiles can operate freely.  We drove through downtown, parked and then went to lunch at the Wild West pizzeria (left, Figure 37).  After lunch, we refuelled and then headed back towards Gardiner.

 

Figure 36. At stop-light in West Yellowstone (left), an unkindness of ravens (right)

On our way to West Yellowstone we saw a bald eagle on each side of the Madison River.  However even better was on the way back from West Yellowstone when we saw the two eagles paired up near their eyrie (right, Figure 37).  Bald eagles build their eyrie (nest) in large trees near rivers and a typical nest is around 5 feet in diameter.  The eagles often use the same nest year after year so over the years, some nests become enormous, as much as 9 feet in diameter and weighing two tons.  Even when a nest tree falls or a strong wind blows a nest down, the established pair usually rebuilds at or near the site within a few weeks if it is near the breeding season.

 

Figure 37. Snowmobile parked at Wild West pizzeria (left), pair of bald eagle and their eyrie (right)

The passage of snowcoaches never ceased to be of interest.  There were the Mattracks-equipped vans (left, Figure 38) and rare vehicles such as the Hägglunds Bv206 (right, Figure 38).  Mattracks-equipped vehicles are widely used in Yellowstone NP.  They’ve been on sale to the public in only since 1994.

 

Figure 38. Mattracks-equipped van (left), Hägglunds Bv206 (right)

While we stopped for a bathroom break just north of Norris, near the Gibbon River, I was able to watch up close some bull bison grazing (left, Figure 39).  Nearing Gardiners Hole the snow became scarce so we again parked our snowmobiles and got on a bus for the trip into our hotel in Gardiner.  This time passing through Mammoth Hot Springs, we were able to see the sunset over the terraces at 1753 hours (right, Figure 39).

 

Figure 39. Bison grazing along side Gibbon River (left), sunset over Mammoth Hot Springs (right)

Arriving back in Gardiner, we passed by a pair of young male elks grazing beside a house (left, Figure 40).  While back at our hotel, there were three mule deer feeding so Donna unsuccessfully tried her hand at feeding them (right, Figure 40).

 

Figure 40. Elk grazing in Gardiner (left), Donna trying to feed mule deer at our hotel (right)

3.4      Day 3 (Gardiner to Lamar Valley)

We packed up and setoff on a long day of activities and sledding.  The morning was given over to a drive out to see the Lamar Valley (Figure 41). 

 

Figure 41. Day 3 - Trip to Lamar Valley (25 miles)

Since this drive was along a regular highway, we went in vans lead by a local guide (right, Figure 42).  In fact the highway through the Lamar Valley connects to Cooke City (Figure 18) so it is well used.  Hence it was heartening to see that the National Park Service (NPS) still conducts patrols on foot in the park (left, Figure 42).

 

Figure 42. Park ranger leaves on ski patrol (left), hot drinks on trip to Lamar Valley (right)

The Lamar Valley has been a wolf watching mecca since the wolves were reintroduced in 1995 so we were hoping to see some wolves up close. 

 

 

Figure 43. Watching bull elks (left), bull elk grazing (right)

Wolves are known to kill coyotes and may exclude them from core areas of wolf pack ranges.  Since the reintroduction of the wolf in 1995, many coyotes have been killed or displaced by the wolves.  In one area of the Lamar Valley where there were four contiguous coyote territories containing 25-30 coyotes prior to wolf reintroduction, there are now no coyote packs.  Nevertheless, we saw a couple of solitary coyotes in the Lamar Valley area (Figure 44).

 

Figure 44. Coyote hunting mice

The destruction of the wolf in the Yellowstone NP, is a sad chapter in the history of this park.  The Northern Rocky Mountain, a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), was a native to Yellowstone when the park was established in 1872.  However, predator control was practiced in the park in the late 1800s and early 1900s and between 1914 and 1926, at least 136 wolves were killed in the park.  Hence by the 1940s, wolf packs were rarely reported while by the 1970s, scientists found no evidence of a wolf population in Yellowstone. 

 

Following an extended period of public planning and input, wolf restoration to the Greater Yellowstone Area began in 1995, when 14 wolves were brought to the park after being captured near Hinton, Alberta (Canada).  They were held in acclimation pens for 10 weeks and then released.  In 1996, an additional 17 wolves were transplanted from Saint John, British Columbia (Canada) and released in more widespread locations throughout the park.

 

We stopped near the Roosevelt Lodge at Tower for a breakfast of burritos and hot chocolate and then proceeded east into the Lamar Valley.  We came upon a large number of people watching 3 wolves high atop Specimen Ridge (left, Figure 45).  We stopped and setup telescopes to see them (right, Figure 45).  They were mainly quite to content to lie in the snow.  The only way to photograph any details of these wolves was through a telescope and of course these images were marginal (inset - left, Figure 45).

 

Figure 45. 3 wolves on top of Specimen Ridge (left), watching 3 wolves on ridge (right)

 

Leaving the inactive wolves behind, we stopped at a basic toilet in the valley.  Interestingly the toilet is collocated with an active mail box which serves a ranch in the area (left, Figure 46).  Nearby the toilet was a bison grazing amidst the sage brush (right, Figure 46).

 

Figure 46. Toilet with a mail box (left), bison grazing in sagebrush (right)

We turned into the Soda Butte River valley and proceeded on to the Pebble Creek campground where we turned around and started back to Mammoth Hot Springs.  We encountered the very interesting sight of juvenile bison locking horns (Figure 47).

 

Figure 47. Juvenile bison locking horns

We passed by a well-equipped photographer walking along the road (left, Figure 48).  He was kitted out in camouflage whites and was carrying a very impressive camera system.  We could only imagine the incredible photographs that he must capture.

 

Figure 48. Well-equipped photographer (left), herd of female elk (right)

In the summer of 1988, forest fires swept across 1.4 million acres of the greater Yellowstone area affecting 793,880 acres or 36 percent of the park.  Within a few years, Yellowstone’s grasslands had largely returned to their pre-fire appearance but the burned forests are still in the early stage of a succession process that may unfold for more than a century.  While lodgepole pine seedlings and saplings are well-established in many areas, the first seedlings of Douglas-fir are only beginning to emerge.  Near the Undine Falls, we saw the vast area of charred and singed trees awaiting forest re-growth (left, Figure 49).

 

Figure 49. Slow recovery from fires of 1988 (left), main terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs (right)

We drove back to Mammoth Hot Springs (right, Figure 49) for a quick lunch of soup and a 30 minute period to look around the area.  While the other folks went to check out the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (left, Figure 50), we made a flying tour of the Lower Terrace area.

 

Figure 50. Snowcoaches at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (left), elk feeding amongst buildings (right)

There were numerous elk bedded down in the sage near Fort Yellowstone that looked like dark brown plants (left, Figure 51).   From 1886 until the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the United States Army was responsible for the administration and management of Yellowstone National Park

The buildings in Fort Yellowstone were built between 1891 and 1913 to serve as Army headquarters and to accommodate the troops assigned to Yellowstone National Park.

 

The Mammoth Hot Springs terraces are extensive and impressive in size.  There are several key ingredients combine to make the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces: heat, water, limestone, and a rock fracture system through which hot water can reach the earth's surface.  

 

  • Heat – This is provided by Today's the partially molten magma chamber which underlies the Yellowstone caldera.

 

  • Water – This is provided by the rain and snow falling in and around Yellowstone which seeps deep into the earth. This cold ground water is warmed by heat radiating from the magma chamber before rising back to the surface.

 

  • Rock fracture system – A system of small fissures allows heated water to move upward to create approximately 50 hot springs in the Mammoth Hot Springs area.

 

  • Limestone (calcium carbonate) – Thick layers of sedimentary limestone which were deposited millions of years ago by vast seas, lie beneath the Mammoth area.  The water moving underground forms a weak carbonic acid solution which dissolves great quantities of limestone as it works up through the rock layers to the surface hot springs.  This limestone is deposited as travertine that forms the terraces.

 

Since there are so many variable involved, the terrace features can change rapidly in appearance over a relatively short period of time.

 

A unique feature in the Mammoth Hot Springs area is the Liberty Cap (right, Figure 51).  It is a 37-foot (11-m) hot spring cone marks the northern portion of Mammoth Hot Springs.  This unusual formation was created by a hot spring whose plumbing remained open and in one location for a long time. Its internal pressure was sufficient to raise the water to a great height, allowing mineral deposits to build continuously for perhaps hundreds of years.

 

Figure 51. Elk bedded down near Fort Yellowstone (left), Liberty Cap & Lower Terraces (right)

On the boardwalk to Palette Springs, we passed by some incredible rime frosted-covered trees bracketing the cloud obscured noon day sun (Figure 52).

 

Figure 52. Rime frosted-covered tree near Palette Springs (left), close-up of frosted-covered tree (right)

Palette Springs (left, Figure 53) is an area where water flows from a flat area and then down a steep ridge, creating a colourful hillside palette of brown, green, and orange (the colors are due to the presence of different heat-tolerant bacteria, i.e. bacterial thermophiles).  The effect is much the same as an artist would achieve by allowing wet paint to run down a vertical surface (right, Figure 53).

 

Figure 53. Palette Springs (left), close-up of the face of Palette Springs (right)

Part of Palette Springs is covered with green thermophiles (left, Figure 54).  However, the difference in pH allows for a different class of bacterial thermophiles to live in the water, creating different color patterns in and around the Mammoth Hot Springs waters (right, Figure 54). 

 

Figure 54. Green thermophiles on Palette Springs (left), colourful thermophiles in stream (right)

3.5      Day 3 (South to Old Faithful and the exit)

We left Mammoth Hot Springs at 1230 hours to return to our snowmobile parking area where we would fire up our sled for the 90 mile dash down to Flagg Ranch just outside of the south end of the park (Figure 55).

 

Figure 55. Day 3 - Mammoth Hot Springs to Flagg Ranch (90 miles)

Near the Madison warming hut we came upon a coyote hunting for mice/voles along side the road (Figure 56).  The coyote is a common predator in the park, often seen alone or in packs, traveling through the park's wide open valleys hunting small mammals.  They are capable of killing large prey, especially when they cooperatively hunt.  Yellowstone's coyotes (Canis latrans) are among the largest coyotes in the United States with adults averaging about 30 lbs.  They stand less than two feet tall and vary in colour from gray to tan.  They live an average of about 6 years, although one Yellowstone coyote lived to be more than 13 before she was killed and eaten by a cougar.  A coyote’s ears and nose appear long and pointed, especially in relation to the size of its head. It can generally be distinguished from its much larger relative, the gray wolf, by its overall slight appearance compared to the 75 to 125-pound size of the bigger dog.

 

Figure 56. Coyote hunting for mice/voles

We were ready to leave the Madison warming hut at 1415 hours for the 16 mile ride to Old Faithful.  Our guide told us that we could drive along the Firehole Canyon Drive as long as we did so rapidly as the next eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser was around 1545 hours and if we missed it - too bad, so sad – since we needed to be back at Flagg Ranch before sunset.

 

The Firehole River starts south of Old Faithful, runs through the thermal areas northward to join the Gibbon and form the Madison River.  The Firehole is world famous among anglers for its pristine beauty and healthy brown, brook, and rainbow trout.  The Firehole Canyon Drive, a side road, follows the Firehole River upstream from Madison Junction to just above Firehole Falls.  The drive takes sightseers past 800-foot thick lava flows (left, Figure 57).

 

Firehole Falls is a 40-foot waterfall (right, Figure 57) with a very popular swimming in the warmest of the summer season but not in during our passage.

 

Figure 57. Cliffs along the Firehole Canyon Drive (left), at Firehole Falls (right)

Returning to the main road from the Firehole Canyon Drive, we started to encounter the most oncoming traffic of our 3 day trip.

 

Figure 58. Passing oncoming snowmobiles (left), heading towards Old Faithful area (right)

We always passed any snowcoach that we encountered since we were much faster (left, Figure 59).  Turning off the Old Faithful area, we encountered a stretch of dirt covered pavement (right, Figure 59). 

 

Figure 59. Passing by Bombardier Snow Bus (left), tough sledding into Old Faithful area (right)

Arriving at the Old Faithful area, we refuelled and then had about 45 minutes to stroll around before the scheduled eruption of Old Faithful at 1545 hours.  The heated washrooms were welcome and after buying a coffee mug at the gift shop, we walked out to the visitor seating area near the Old Faithful Geyser.

 

The Old Faithful Geyser was quiescent (left, Figure 60), but amazingly there was a coyote scouting for food around the spectator area (right, Figure 60).  The coyote trotted off before other people came to await the eruption.

 

Yellowstone, as a whole, possesses close to 60 percent of the world's geysers.  The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the largest numbers of these amazing geothermal features found in the park including Old Faithful.  Within one square mile there are at least 150 geysers.  Old Faithful along with several others can be predicted regularly by the naturalist staff.

 

Figure 60. Old Faithful Geyser before eruption (left), coyote at Old Faithful Geyser (right)

While waiting for the eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser, we watched to activity out in the Upper Geyser Basin NW of Old Faithful (left, Figure 61).  As we were watching, a geyser erupted (right, Figure 61).

 

Figure 61. Upper Geyser Basin from Old Faithful (left), geyser erupting in Upper Geyser Basin (right)

Old Faithful erupts more frequently than any of the other big geysers, although it is not the largest or most regular geyser in the park.  Its average interval between eruptions is about 91 minutes but it varies from 65–92 minutes.  This average interval has lengthened through the years due to the effects of earthquakes and vandalism (throwing debris into the vent).  An eruption which lasts between 1½ and 5 minutes expels 3,700–8,400 gallons (14,000–32,000 litres) of boiling water and reaches heights of 106–184 feet (30–55m).  It was named for its consistent performance by members of the Washburn Expedition in 1870.

 

Finally around its scheduled eruption time of 1545 hours, Old Faithful Geyser erupted for about 4 minutes shooting water and vapour high into the air (Figure 62).  The eruption was beautiful against the blue of the sky and the white of the snow and the green of the forest.

 

Figure 62. Old Faithful Geyser eruption starting (left), Old Faithful Geyser erupting (right)

Once the eruption was over, the ranger removed the sign listing the time of the eruption (left, Figure 63) and we hurried back to our sleds as our guide wanted to get moving south to Flagg Ranch.  Our guide wanted us to keep a pace of at least 35 MPH and we easily exceeded it as we passed by several snowcoaches bringing people and supplies to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge (right, Figure 63).

 

Figure 63. Ranger removes sign about eruption (left), racing south pass Bombardier Snow Bus (right)

The forest between Old Faithful and West Thumb areas looked very pretty in the fading light (left, Figure 64).  However the road between Old Faithful and Flagg Ranch was heavily rutted which made for a very bumpy and squirrely ride as we moved along at speeds up to 45 MPH.  In fact the passengers on the other snowmobiles felt at time that they fall off their machines.

 

We stopped briefly at an overlook of Yellowstone Lake for photographs with Casey, our guide (right, Figure 64) following which, it was a non-stop dash to Flagg Ranch.

 

Figure 64. Sun setting on forest near West Thumb (left), posing with Casey, our guide (right)

In the fading light, our snowmobile headlights became visible on the snow-covered road (left, Figure 65). 

 

Figure 65. Dark enough for headlights (left), exiting the south exit of Yellowstone NP (right)

We exited Yellowstone NP at 1716 hours (right, Figure 65) and arrived at Flagg Ranch about 15 minutes later.  We refuelled our sleds, parked them and were very soon picked up for our drive back to the Turpin Meadow Ranch for our final night there.

4       Conclusions

This was a very good trip and we very much enjoyed the Turpin Meadow Ranch and the snowmobile trip through Yellowstone NP.  

 

Hopefully sanity will prevail and the opponents of snowmobiling in Yellowstone NP will not succeed in banning snowmobiles and slowcoaches from the park.  The snow machines now being used do not emit copious quantities of vapours and they are not excessively noisy.  There are only 318 snowmobiles allowed in each day and they are restricted to operating on the same roads as the hundred of thousands of cars use during the summer.  We saw no evidence that the wildlife was disturbed by our presence and in fact we did not see any animal flee as we drove along.  In short, the move to ban snowmobiles seems to be ideologically driven by environmental fanatics.

 

Finally it is unfortunate that the terrorists continue to disrupt air travel and cause air travel to be even more onerous than it already is.

 


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