Clear Lake Loop

Thursday, June 18

Gee, hope I’m not late.


Traffic is at a standstill, yielding right of way to the herd of bison coming down the road. Bertha idles while the cows and calves part around me, like the way a boulder parts a stream. In Yellowstone, we call these events bison jams, and they happen on a daily basis. Luckily I’m moving against the flow instead of having to follow behind the herd, so as soon as they’re all visible in my rearview mirror, I’m free to go.

The reddogs (calves) are getting bigger!

The reddogs (calves) are getting bigger!

I drive north on Grand Loop Road to Madison, turn northeast at Madison to Norris, and straight east from Norris to Canyon Village. It’s 43 miles, or about an hour drive in normal traffic, a bit longer today with the bison jam. Two miles south of the Canyon Village intersection is a spur road that crosses the Yellowstone River. At it’s end is Artist’s Point, a beautiful overlook of the grand canyon of Yellowstone, but I’m not going that far.

Uncle Tom’s parking area is my destination… except that it’s blocked off for maintenance. Cars are pulled over along the road, some not even all the way off the road, why’s it so busy here at 9 in the morning? Ah. Three elk, two of them bulls with good sized antlers, are laying on the hillside above the road, and folks are stopping to take pictures. It’s my second jam of the day.


Jayne is already waiting while I find a pullover with enough room and pull out my hiking gear. Today we’re doing the Clear Lake Loop, 7.2 miles and rated easy with little elevation change. The guide book talks about mature pine forests, back country hydrothermal areas, Hayden Valley, and a view of the canyon. Sounds good to me!

The trail starts with a slow climb up the grassy hill from the road, with small stands of pine trees interspersed. A bull bison trots up from the road, on course to cross over the trail in front of us. Uh-oh. We speed walk to get in front of him and because he stops a couple times to grab a mouthful of grass we manage it. He crosses the trail behind us and while I’m looking back to make sure we’re not being followed, I step squarely in a fresh pile of bison dung. It was a conspiracy plot, I’m sure of it!

I've circled the culprit

I’ve circled the culprit

At the top of the rise, hazy blue mountains come into view in the distance. The temperatures have been in the low 70’s regularly the past couple weeks and the snow is now gone from this particular range, a few of the taller peaks in the park still have some snow.


The mosquitoes pick up as Jayne and I descend through the woods to Clear Lake. Luckily we came armed with bug repellant, but it’s still not 100% effective. This view is worth the harassment though!



The water is surprisingly bluish, and fallen trees are visible under the surface quite a ways out. It’s clear, indeed. The water level looks lower here than in other parts of the park, more water must be going out than is coming in. As we travel along the shore, the smell of sulfur grows thick in the air, we must be coming up on a thermal area. It smells a lot like Mud Volcano did along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, so if I had to guess…


Yes, it’s the muddy kind of hydrothermal features! Several fumaroles vent smelly steam into the air, beyond them two muddy pools bubble like cauldrons.

clear-lake-loop-yellowstone10Beyond the influence of the hot spot, the forest closes back in again. It’s a mix of lodgepole pine and what I suspect are douglas fir, I’ve read that they grow in parts of the park where the soil is richer. Interestingly enough, the mature forests here aren’t as dense as the young ones. A lot of old trees have toppled over, letting sunlight filter down to the forest floor where patches of grass and plants grow. Younger trees grow in these gaps too, but not at the density seen where fires have wiped out the whole forest.

Lodgepole pine are well adapted to fire-prone areas, they have a special kind of pinecone that only opens to disperse the seeds inside when heated to temperatures seem in wildfires. So even though the bark of lodgepoles aren’t very fire resistant, they reproduce well during fire years.

Through the trees, little streams run through grassy courses and leave the trail muddy. Occasionally the forest opens up into another small pond or lake, but all of these are brown and murky.


We both breathe a sigh of relief when greeted with open meadow, leaving the mosquitoes behind. We then breathe a sigh of delight at the wildflowers growing rampant among the grass.


This is… odd. Past the meadow is a strange looking creek bed. The ground has that peculiar ashy look I’ve come to associate with hot spots, and nothing grows in it. A little water still flows down the center of the course. The water is cold (our trail crosses it), but I’m willing to bet it’s runoff from hot springs or geysers. There’s likely no thermal activity right here, but the water carries the minerals downstream and deposits them in it’s wake. Jayne’s guide says this is Sour Creek, it’s a fitting name.


At last we come to Hayden Valley. The trail climbs up away from the Yellowstone River, offering beautiful vistas.


And more wildflowers. We picked a good time of year to do this hike, even if parts of the trail were muddy. Summer is about two weeks ahead of schedule due to the mild winter.


The trail loops around to the starting point, and we realize we somehow missed the view of the Canyon. A look at the guide reveals we needed to take a little spur trail to get to it, we completely missed that, whoops! Still, we both agree it was a very scenic and varied hike, and was well worth it.


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Bison dung aftermath

Bison dung aftermath

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  1. Janett on June 27, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Great buddy-hike (minus the mosquitoes and-well you know) with great pictures as always. Love those wildflowers! I’m curious about the bison since there’s so many of them and this happens daily, where are they going? Another 7.2…almost at the half-way mark!

    • Becky on June 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm

      They move from meadow to meadow Janett, and as dense as the trees are in the new growth areas, the road is the easiest way for them to travel too. 😉 There’s about 4,900 bison in the park this year, the record is 5,000 so it’s been a pretty good year for them.

  2. Angela on June 24, 2015 at 9:08 am

    The bison traffic jam reminds me that we all share this planet and no one living creature is more important than the next. Lovely hike. Dung and all 🙂

    • Becky on June 24, 2015 at 10:23 pm

      I agree Angela, except perhaps when it comes to mosquitoes. 😉

      Stepping in that dung right at the start of the hike could have ruined the whole experience if I’d let it, but in the end, it’s just dung. It’ll wash out, there was no permanent harm done.

  3. Jim at Growing Faith on June 23, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    The more you post, the more I am convinced that in order to experience Yellowstone fully for ourselves, we need to spend a significant amount of time there. Thankfully, for those of us who don’t have that opportunity right now, we have you!

    You really do have a knack for taking us along on your adventures, with your writing and photos. I read other blogs, and I don’t always get that sense of living vicariously through the writer, even when that is what they are trying to convey.

    Thank you for sharing your life with us!
    Jim at Growing Faith recently posted..DenominationsMy Profile

    • Becky on June 24, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      You’re welcome Jim. And yes, Yellowstone is a place you need to spend a considerable amount of time in to fully experience, it’s just so big and spread out. And there are really so few developed areas for the acreage the park encompasses… you need to get out hiking to get the full picture.

  4. Kristin on June 23, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Oh wow, the herd of bison picture is amazing! You can even see their facial expressions. So cool! I think I’d be excited and yet a bit nervous to see that in person. Thanks for a great share! 🙂
    Kristin recently posted..Old Western Charm and Burros Galore in Oatman, ArizonaMy Profile

    • Becky on June 24, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Bison can do some pretty extreme damage to a car if they want to, it’s rare but happens. So when they get that close it’s exciting but you’re always a little worried too, haha. You’re welcome.

  5. Steve on June 23, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Great pics Becky. I especially like your bison poop
    Isn’t that area beautiful? And to think that whole area is inside a giant cauldron.

    • Becky on June 24, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this Steve. 🙂

  6. Jodee Gravel on June 23, 2015 at 9:18 am

    Not a fan of mosquitos for sure, but the trail looks like a nice one for seeing a lot of different areas of the park. I love that big valley of green and wildflowers. Fun to have a hiking buddy!
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Pt Reyes Peninsula: Cold, Gray and FabulousMy Profile

    • Becky on June 24, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Yeah Jodee, I actually have a few people I met through blogging/online that happen to be working Yellowstone this summer, one of the benefits of working for a popular park. The meadows are amazing to hike right now because of the wildflowers. 🙂

  7. Jerry Minchey on June 22, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Becky, I have been to Yellowstone two times, but I didn’t see any of the many things you are showing us. I think I need to go back and start over. Maybe the problem is that I acted like a tourist. I didn’t take the time to do any hiking. Thanks for showing me that there is so much more to see.

    I hope it’s ok to make this comment. My book, Motorhome and RV Retirement–the least expensive and most enjoyable way to retire, will be available free on Amazon Tue. and Wed. (June 23rd and 24th). Go to the link below to download it for free.

    • Becky on June 22, 2015 at 11:14 pm

      2.2 million acres Jerry, of which, over 2 million are managed as “wilderness”. To see most of Yellowstone, you need to get off the road. 🙂

      Congrats on the book release Jerry, I hope it does well.

  8. Rhonda on June 22, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    I so appreciate your commentary and photos, Becky. I am firmly ensconced at home for the unforeseeable future, so reading your blog brings joy and contentment. I may not be the driver but the back seat view of your neck of the woods is mighty interesting. 🙂

    • Becky on June 22, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      Hehe, glad you’re enjoying the view Rhonda, and I hope you get the chance someday to do some traveling of your own. 🙂

  9. PJ on June 22, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    I have also had the distinct “pleasure” of stepping in a pile of bison dung – mine was green and slimy inside the dark crust – YUCK!

    • Becky on June 22, 2015 at 11:08 pm

      Yeeeeah hard to tell with the lighting here but mine was greenish too. Luckily it really doesn’t stink much, I suppose digested grass wouldn’t.

  10. Ron on June 22, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    PHEW, What Smells???

    Classic buffalo jam photo, we have been in a few, up close & personal, we could reach out the window & pat them on the rear. As usual great photos and description.
    Thanks again for taking us along.

    • Becky on June 22, 2015 at 11:07 pm

      I’m going to have to send them through the washer. With regular mud, if you wait till it’s completely dry then use a bristle brush you can get most of it off, but the dung is persistent. 😉

      Glad you enjoyed this, you’re welcome.

      • Tom Reed on June 23, 2015 at 4:51 am

        Not to mention Odorous ….. Thanks again for the great pictures and verbal descriptive prose..TR

        • Becky on June 24, 2015 at 9:51 pm

          You’re welcome Tom. Actually it had very little odor, I suppose digested grass wouldn’t.

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