Thursday, August 13
The campground is still a study in grays when I pull out this morning. The sun is just now officially rising, but because Old Faithful sits in a bit of a valley it’ll be a little while before the first rays can top the ridge to the east and cast things in color.
I don’t much care for waking up early, but I love how quiet and peaceful the park is at this time of day. Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, and Midway Geyser Basin all slide past Bertha on the left without fanfare, it’ll be a while yet before the tourists get out here. Steam billows in the cool air into a cloudless sky.
Today’s destination is Wahb Springs in Lamar Valley, a good two hour drive from Old Faithful which is why I’m awake so early. The trailhead is supposedly 14.6 miles east of of the Tower/Roosevelt junction, so I keep an eye on my mileage.
First bison jam I’ve been in for over a month. They’ve all moved to Lamar and Hayden for the rut and are scarce elsewhere in the park. Luckily this is a small herd and passes quickly.
At 11 miles I pass the Yellowstone Institute where I took my class last month and I begin to wonder… Yep, the trailhead is at a pullout I am actually quite familiar with, I just didn’t know it was a trailhead too. It’s the Footbridge, where my wolf class got so many sightings of the Lamar Valley pack.
My heart falls, there is no room in the parking lot to speak of and the trail is roped off. I drive to the next lot down and back looking for Jayne’s car and don’t see it. I speak to a fisherman who is also trying to find a place to park, apparently the trail is closed because there’s a carcass that the wolves are feeding on nearby – hence all the people with scopes.
Jayne is still nowhere around, and there is no phone signal to send a text. Luckily, on my way back to the Roosevelt lodge to get gas she spies me and follows me to the gas station.
We weigh our options and settle on two smaller trails in the Roosevelt area.
The Yellowstone River Picnic Area trail begins at… well, I bet you can guess where. The trail climbs to the top of a ridge and the river becomes visible far below, a sparkling blue-green ribbon through the golden landscape.
Around a bed the opposite bank is devoid of trees and grass and loose soil seems to run in rivulets to the water below, it’s a thermal area! The small plumes of steam don’t show up on camera so you’ll have to trust me that they’re near the water line.
The northern range looks a lot different in late summer than it did at the beginning of July. What started out sweatshirt and light jacket weather is quickly turning hot as the sun climbs through clear skies. Yellowstone gets less rain this time of year and the grass and sage in the valley turn yellow and brittle as summer progresses.
Past the thermal area, the rock rises into steep cliffs, carved by nature into fins and spires. It’s one of those areas that really fill a person with awe. Imagine all of the things that must have come together to make this scene what it is. Think about how long it must have taken to sculpt these rocks into what we see today.
Just upstream from the cliffs, the land mellows into a broad valley that the Yellowstone River meanders through. What a contrast. Where the cliffs were stark and imposing, the valley is serene and idyllic. In my eyes they’re equally beautiful, just two very different types of beauty. Maybe this is why when people ask me what is the favorite place I’ve visited on my travels, I can’t give an answer. Every place I visit I think is beautiful in some way, and trying to rate one type of beauty as better than another is impossible for me.
As the trail leaves the river to venture further into the grassland, a faint noise catches my attention. What was that? It sounded like an animal, but a glance around doesn’t reveal anything.
A few steps further, and they become visible at the crest of a hill, a herd of bison on the move.
While the dry August grass may not look as inviting to our eyes, it still sports enough nutrition to keep the herbivores of the valley fed. The bison stop occasionally and drop their massive heads to grab a mouthful, and farther down the trail two pronghorn are also grazing among the sage. This one is standing right on the trail in front of us, and Jayne and I grab a hasty picture while he debates what to do. To our surprise he doesn’t dart away but slowly moseys off the trail, mostly unconcerned with our presence.
The animals inside Yellowstone haven’t been hunted in generations and don’t react as strongly to humans. This leads some visitors into thinking they’re “tame” and can be approached. Please, please, please, if you’re ever visiting a park, keep a respectful distance from the wildlife, even if they don’t run away when they notice you. We’re up to five bison gorings and I believe three elk attacks this season, and they were all people who thought it’d be alright to get within 20 feet of a wild animal. Park regulations state visitors should stay 25 YARDS (75 feet) away from bison, elk, moose, coyotes, pronghorn, etc., and 100 yards away from bear and wolves.
After finishing the Yellowstone River trail (4.0 miles), we drive back to the Roosevelt Lodge for the Lost Lake trail, which is advertised as a 2 mile, moderate trek.
I wouldn’t call this moderate, even though it isn’t long. The trail climbs several steep switchbacks up the side of the hill behind the lodge and there is some deadfall to climb over. It’s vigorous enough that I don’t even think about taking pictures until we’re at the top, where a glimpse of the valley through the trees lets you know just how high we’ve climbed in 0.8 miles. There may have been some talk about Lost Lake staying lost on the trip up.
The lake is pretty neat though, I must admit. A quick search of the guide reveals that there are no fish, but it’s a decent size and hosts several ducks. Lilly pads grace the shallows and tall spruce and fir grow right up to the shore on the northern side.
There is evidence of beavers on the stumps and living trees near the waterline, but not recently. We walk to the end of the lake and could continue another mile up to a petrified tree, but as there has already been a lot of walking today and we’re getting hungry, we turn around and head back. Jayne nearly steps on this amphibious critter with a paddle shaped tail that I’m guessing spends at least some of it’s time in the lake. Can anyone identify?
We take the horse trail down instead of the switchbacks. At first it seems clearly to be the better choice as it’s less steep, but there are a lot of horse apples to dodge and in places the trail is pretty churned up. A bridge crossing a little stream looks very inviting indeed as the day has only gotten hotter, but I don’t relish the thought of putting wet feet back into dirty, sweaty hiking shoes so I resist.
Then we come to a pretty spectacular viewpoint: the gas station, lodge, and junction all laid out below with the valley spread behind. Okay, dodging horse apples isn’t so bad, really. A few fluffy white clouds have rolled in, but they don’t look like the sort that produce rain.
The trail ends, understandably, at the horse corral. We attract the attention of several of the occupants as we stumble down the last couple yards. Maybe they’re wondering what we’re doing on their trail without horses ourselves.
Well, that’s another 6.2 miles down on the way to 100. Jayne and I actually don’t end our day with this last hike. We drive out to Cooke City, peruse two of the NPS campgrounds in Lamar valley, and see a whole lot more bison – but that’ll all have to wait for another day as this post is already getting long and I still need to edit the pictures and get it up before going to bed tonight.
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