Thursday, July 9
Three coworkers and I roll on up the road through a morning fog. Because of the hour, the traffic hasn’t gotten bad yet and we make good time, heading north from Old Faithful to Madison, northeast from Madison to Norris, east from Norris to Canyon, and then north from Canyon over Dunraven Pass.
“Is that Lewis’ Monkeyflower? Stop the car!” The driver listens to his wife and stops at the next pullover. The four of us pour out to inspect bushy plants with deep pinky-purple flowers beside the road. “It is! Wow, I’ve never seen so much of it in one place, and so healthy!” Apparently this plant isn’t common, it’s named for Meriweather Lewis – famous explorer. I snap a picture of it and the pass, and we snake our way down the other side of the mountain to Tower.
I’m back in Yellowstone’s northern range, a lower elevation area of the park outside of the caldera where spruce and fir instead of lodgepole pine colonize the hills and vast meadows dominate the valleys. We’re driving all the way out to Lamar Valley for a hike less than two miles long, but in this case the drive is as much the point as the hike.
My coworkers want to know where my Institute class saw the wolves last week, so we stop in both of those pullouts, and at the second one get lucky and see one of the Lamar Canyon wolves at a great distance beyond a herd of bison. We have no scopes ourselves and the binoculars can’t pick it out, but there are people already there with scopes trained on it, and are generous enough to let us have a peek.
The parking lot for the Trout Lake hike is completely full, so stop at the next pullout instead and are led by one coworker on an impromptu foray down to the creek, where she saw moose poop not long ago. Moose are one of the hardest animals to spot in Yellowstone, they aren’t nearly as common here as down in the Tetons for instance. We do find evidence of moose, if not the animal itself.
After that brief walk, it’s back to Trout Lake. The trail climbs 0.6 miles up into the hills through a combination of fir trees and meadow.
At the end lies the lake, complete with a beautiful backdrop of yellow field, green conifers, and mountain peaks. Fishermen cast lazily into the water, the place is quiet and serene compared to the bustle of tourists at the attractions you can simply drive up to. This is one of my favorite parts of hiking – getting away from the crowds.
You can choose to turn around and walk directly back for a total of 1.2 miles, or walk around the circumference of the lake, which we do to get a better view of what the lake is named for, the trout! Spawning season is almost over now, but there are still a few to be found near where a stream feeds the lake from the mountains above. Fishing isn’t allowed in the spawning area, to ensure there will be cutthroat trout here for years to come.
We’ve heard there’s another lake around here that can be hiked to, but aren’t quite sure where it is. We follow the stream upward but are quickly cut off by a massive snag of fallen trees. Retracing our steps, we find a side path leading away from the stream, and try that.
It doesn’t go up so much as stay parallel, leading across a field where the grass is up to my chest and the sound of crickets and songbirds reign supreme. Cresting a small rise, we find the other lake!
Or another lake anyway, whether this is Buck Lake or not is hard to tell. The banks are steeper, the water murkier, and the shoreline more forested. There’s not another soul around except a family of geese.
In the shade of an impressive fir, we plunk down and talk about this and that, soaking up the view while billowing white clouds build up to the west. They get darker as we talk, and before long we agree it’s time to head back.
We take the long way home, stopping at Fishing Bridge to eat and finishing the grand loop. With the extra hiking out to the second lake and the brief detour to the steam in the morning, we probably hiked about 3 miles today and drove over 100.
More driving, and this time it’s me behind the wheel. Jayne and I are meeting in Mammoth on the northern boarder of the park to hike Beaver Ponds today. We’d contemplated hiking Lone Star Geyser near Old Faithful, but the weather at home looks precarious. The northern range is going to be drier, so that settled it.
Beaver Ponds is a five mile hike and rated moderate, or moderately strenuous depending on which guide book you look in. It’s a loop that has two possible start points, the more obvious one is behind the hotel in the employee/bus parking lot (there’s a wooden sign to mark the way). But Jayne has heard from coworkers that it’s easier to start at the other end of it, behind a stone house near Mammoth Hot Springs. We park in the employee lot at the “end” and walk to the other side to start.
Up a little ravine we go, traversing a small stream several times while off to our left the terraced steps of the hot springs come into view.
The first mile is a steady climb through sage meadows interspersed with fir trees, the view at the top is worth the climb.
There are even aspen trees up here! I’ve always thought they were very pretty. There’s just something really cool about the contrast between the white bark and brilliant yellow leaves in fall. As a species they were in decline in the park, but have made a bit of a comeback in more recent years. You’ll see stands of old mature trees with little tiny saplings below hiding in the grass, but not too many in the middle.
And the amazing panoramic view continues…
After following this high meadow for another mile or so, the first of the ponds comes into view. There are no beavers in evidence, but life does abound here. Red wing black birds fight for territory in the small islands of tall grass growing along the shore while a mother duck and her three charges hang out in the deeper water beyond.
The next two ponds are smaller and shallower. No birds make their presence known, but the sound of them is all around. The fourth pond is larger again with no fewer than three broods of ducks, and at one end a jam of sticks and trees could be a sign of past beaver activity.
Past that the trail climbs onto another grassy plateau, this time offering a good view of Gardiner. Jayne and I wonder about a long line of cars stopped on the road – is there an animal caused traffic jam? But no, they’re all waiting to get into the park! Jayne needs to drive in to Mammoth from Gardiner every work day, which makes me thankful that my commute is only one mile and within park boarders.
We can see the road twisting below us, linking the two towns.
To the south, dark clouds are gathering, and we joke that they’re probably right over Old Faithful right now, we picked the right place to hike.
Past a thin line of trees, a spot of brown catches my eye against the yellow grass… and it’s watching us. A cow elk stands with the ridge overlooking Mammoth behind her. If she has a calf, it’s well hidden. We eye each other for about 30 seconds, then she meanders into the trees and out of sight.
The trail ends on a hill overlooking Mammoth, offering a good view. The rain is moving closer, but the sun is still shining.
I have yet to see Mammoth’s famous terraced springs, and decide to change that as long as I’m here. The ground here in the northern range has a different composition than the soil in the park’s interior, and so the hydrothermal features look different. Where at Old Faithful for instance hard sinter deposited by geysers and hot springs builds very slowly, the softer travertine (limestone) that is carried in the water bubbling up at Mammoth can build as much as an inch a year. The “steps” it leaves are impressive to behold.
The terraces of active springs are white, often with areas of orange colored by heat-loving bacteria. Dormant terraces are a dull gray, and because of the soft nature of limestone deteriorate after a time.
People often ask if the Mammoth hot springs are slowly dying, since there are so many dormant terraces. The truth is the water output for this basin has remained relatively constant since it started being monitored a little over a century ago and the waxing and waning at the individual springs is natural, there is never a time when they’re all active at once.
After a late lunch, Jayne and I part ways and I head back home to Old Faithful, into dark clouds that are actually all bark and no bite.
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Up next! A “ladies’ day out” trip down to Grand Teton with three of my coworkers on Thursday. This will be my first time down there and I’m really looking forward to sharing this adventure with you (hopefully I’ll get that up on Friday). Have a good week all
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