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.
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!
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.
Beyond 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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