Saturday, October 05, 2013

Yellowstone- September 2013

Hey Boo Boo, Have you seen my pick-a-nick bas-kit?

Very little light pollution at Yellowstone
Yes, I was feeling it from the previous nights festivities in Bozeman, but Yellowstone National Park was calling loudly so I couldn't sit around all day licking my wounds. "Ok, ok, Yellowstone, take it down a notch, have some sympathy!" Firstly, I filled my belly at Bozeman's great Co-Op then stocked up on groceries and beat it down to the west entrance of Yellowstone.

I began by driving down "Geyser Alley" and upon seeing the multitude of vast plumes rising high into the air, I wondered if the entire park was not ablaze as it was in 1988 when 36% of the park caught fire in the parks largest recorded wildfire. Fortunately is was steam from the geysers just giving the appearance of smoke.

Down at the Old Faithful Visitor Center I received some educational tidbits. Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park created in these here United States. It's one of the largest and also has two thirds of the Earth's geysers. Thanks to the heat loving microbes known as "thermophiles" not only does it have yellow stones, but it also has tan, red, orange, green and blue stones! Additionally, Yellowstone happens to be one of the most geologically active areas on the Earth with lava a mere 3-8 miles below the surface. The funny thing is that the 45 mile diameter Caldera is so huge that once you are in the park it's easy to forget that nearly the whole thing sits on a massive volcano. Notwithstanding the evidence staring you in the face in the form of 1000's of hot springs and geysers, of course. 

Old Faithful
Long ago there was an initial massive eruption 2.1 million years in the past, another  one 1.3 million years ago and the last eruption happened 640,000 years ago. So it erupts about once every 800,000 years. Or about once every 300 million days. By my calculations that means that you are nearly as likely to get swamped by or doused in lava while visiting the park on any random day than you are to win the Mega-Millions Lottery! I wonder how many lottery players conveniently dismiss those odds while betting their lives by entering the park? Seems to me that your life is a much heftier bet, but then what's a few bucks donated to the State? I guess those punks "Just feel Lucky!"

Of course, you're pretty much obligated to watch Old Faithful blow its top and since it goes off every 90 minutes or so there is no excuse not to and I did. However, the first couple of days I was entranced by The Great Fountain Geyser which has built up terraces by spewing out minerals for eons and has created a beautiful multi-terraced base which happens to catch and hold water and sunsets equally well creating wonderfully mirrored reflections. The bad news is that it only goes off once every 12 hours and the predictions are + or - 2 hours so it's difficult to catch the eruption which can reach up to 200 feet high when it's strong. Even with the wide prediction latitude the park's predictions for Great Fountain were woefully inaccurate the first two days I tried to be witness to it. Or maybe it was just taking time off for the Labor Day Holiday, I don't know!
Great Fountain Geyser (not "geysering")

Oh well, the park is HUGE and there is lots more to discover so off I went. At Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin there is no shortage of smaller geysers and colorful springs. A little past Madison Junction there is the Gibbon River and Gibbon Falls. In the northwest section there is Beryl Spring and Monument Geyser Basin along with bubbling colorful mud pits in the area known as Artist's Paintpots.

I tried to stop at Norris Geyser Basin, but there was no parking. So much for waiting for Labor Day to pass to thin out the crowds! It was too bad because it is the park's largest geyser, although it rarely has a full eruption. It must be getting old!. It didn't seem worth circling endlessly for a parking spot just to see a half erection,...uh,.. I mean... eruption so I continued driving north. Next time I'll bring a viagra to toss into it. (Incidentally, a big no-no. Don't toss anything into the geysers or springs, it clogs them up!)

Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace
Down the road Obsidian Cliff used to be filled with volcanic glass, but was a disappointment since it has been picked dry by thoughtless visitors over the years. Sheepeater Cliff provided a nice view, even to a vegetarian's eyes. As did Swan Lake, although I left after the first intermission. Ballets always bored me. Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces are another very impressive array of mineral terraces that don't just form the base of a geyser but cover an area of a few football fields and are enhanced by a multitude of colors!

Part II

Driving towards the east part of the park you can stop and have a gander at Undine and Wraith Falls which are nice, but neither one will take the cake for being the park's most impressive. Continuing east you can take Blacktail Plateau Drive for a slow off road adventure along a road less traveled. That is unless you have a new Mustang like the one that went just ahead of me and now is missing a piece or two! The views are great if you can make it through though. 

Down the road there is a stop to check out the last remaining Petrified Tree out of the three original that were there before souvenir hunters took away the other two, literally piece by piece. Tower Falls is available to see, although again, it won't even come close to taking first prize in the category of Yellowstone's Falls. I debated on whether or not to go out the northeast end of the park into Lamar River Valley which is fairly sparse, but is said to be a good wildlife viewing area. In the end I decided to head further south seeking out yet another dirt road climb up Chittenden Road towards Mt. Washburn (10,243') where the Grizzly Bears are said to frequent. 

Bear sightings, both Black and Grizzly, are fairly common in Yellowstone and I was really hoping to shoot one (with my camera), but I didn't have the luck to be in one of those "right places" at one of those "right times". I did, however, get to see a very nice rainbow in the evening and as I was hiking back down the mountain in the morning after my bear hunt I came a across one lone Bison. He was kind enough to pose for me and then decided to follow me back to the parking lot where I was able to get about 6 feet away while hiding behind the corner of Mage(van) for protection. You really don't want to get much closer, those mammoth creatures are surprisingly quick and nasty when they decide they've had enough of you!
Brink of Lower Falls
Continuing south along this massive parks figure eight loop I stopped to walk along the Washburn Hot Springs loop and continued on through Canyon Village. From there it was on to explore the North and South Rims around the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone which happen to be the home of the park's King and Queen of waterfalls. There are various spots to view both the Upper and Lower Falls and each vantage point is worth seeking out, especially the brink of the Lower Falls where I caught an incredible rainbow emanating out from the bottom of the falls. The two best viewpoints are Artist Point (go figure!) and Uncle Tom's Trail. It's even worth every one of the 328 steps down Uncle Tom's trail. The 328 steps back up the trail is another story and up for debate!

Lower Falls
Continuing south there is Mud Volcano and not far from there is Sulphur Cauldron, which stunk by the way! Near to that is the Fishing Bridge where you are no longer allowed to fish, but as you can guess was once a popular fishing spot. Across the bridge is another visitor center which is a fine example of old timber construction on a large scale and has a nice wildlife exhibit. It also rests on the shore of Yellowstone Lake if you'd like to get a little beach time. 

Yellowstone's Natural Bridge
After driving along the lake's Gull Point Drive you might consider stopping for a hike to find the Natural Bridge. Not to be completely left out by Arches National Park, Yellowstone's lone natural rock bridge still stands. No doubt due to the fact that plans back in the day to develop it so that cars could drive over it luckily fell through, otherwise by now, a car would have fallen through. Further along the northeast side of the lake I stopped to shoot a hawk and received a bonus when a Bald Eagle moved in. The skies were gray, but I may just have finally got that "good" Bald Eagle shot I was looking for, or at least a decent one.

Further east you can picnic by the two quaint little lakes, Sylvan and Eleanor. Or if there is too much oxygen there you can always go a bit further and stop at the much higher elevation of Sylvan Pass between "Twin Peaks", Avalanche and Grizzly Peaks. On the way back into the main thrust of the park it's worth a short steep climb up to Lake Butte Overlook for an expansive look at the Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding mountains. From there I was treated with a "fire in the sky" sunset that was leaves you wondering if the sun hasn't exploded.

Part III

For some reason the power was out the next morning at the Fishing Bridge General Store, but luckily the registers were on UPS power supplies so I was able to get my morning's cup of joe before they ran out of juice.

I circled back around to the Old Faithful area to further explore the less faithful geysers in the area as well as the famous Morning Glory hot spring which really is gorgeous. After catching Castle Geyser erupt I made my way to take photos of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring which is nearly as colorful as Morning Glory only much, much larger. 

Thinking that the third time might be the charm I went back to the Great Fountain Geyser to hopefully see it erupt. I did get another great sunset view there, but alas it didn't go off during the daylight. However, patience and perseverance were to  pay off when after sticking around past dark, a group of determined individuals trained their headlights on the fountain and around 9pm I finally got to see the grand spectacle. 

Grand Prismatic Spring
The following morning it was showing signs of getting ready to do its thing again so I got to see it repeat, this time in daylight. Afterwards I drove to Fairy Falls Trail, not to see the falls, but to get to a vantage point where I could get all of the Grand Prismatic Spring in camera frame. It was a very steep climb up, but the hike down after getting my shots was the really tricky part. 

So that is the short (kinda) synopsis of my 8 days Yellowstone.  On that final morning I picked up two Yellowstone employees hitching to the lake on their day off to do some kayaking. I dropped them off in the Thumb Village area, said good bye to Yogi and Boo Boo and promptly  continued south towards some of the highest peaks in the U.S., the Grand Tetons. Tune in again to find out what those bodacious tatas have to offer........

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Montana Big Sky Country August 27-31

Montana is known for its big skies, but they have big ice too. In most parts people call them glaciers, here they just refer to them as "ice cubes", that's how big things are in Montana. Their ice cubes are so big that in order to house them under that great big sky of theirs they created a national park. In fact, they are so big that even after creating the park they figured they would share them with our Canadian neighbors to the north and thus the "International" attribute of Glacier International Park (

 So after breaking camp in the Flathead National Forest I entered the park to have a look for myself and drove the entire length of the "Road to the Sun" which crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and was considered an engineering miracle when it was built in 1932. The road engineering is impressive, if a little narrow for today's vehicles. The fact that it is an International Peace Park shared with our Canadian neighbors is also not lost on me, but I have to say that I wasn't all that impressed with the park in general. Perhaps if you hike in and explore the backcountry you might get more "wow" factor out your visit, but to my eyes it was much less scenic than many other parks. Maybe it's the influence of those conservative Canuks!? (just kidding)

St. Mary's Lake
For one thing, there were very few glaciers visible and I certainly expected more on that account based on the park's name. Even the scenic overlooks were pretty lackluster to me. I might have thought that I simply took a bad route through the park, but the "Road to the Sun" is the only road through the park. The saving graces were the views of St. Mary's Falls and Virginia Falls as well as Sunrift Gorge which was small, but interesting. The park's big lake, St. Mary's, is usually the spot with the most photo potential , but the wind was on it enough to mess up the reflections and not enough to blow away the wildfire haze in the air. I decided to cut my losses and exit the east end of the park rather than spend another day exploring.

I did duck back into the park a little farther south just a bit before dark to settle in for the night. I woke up at 4:30am for some reason so I peaked outside and saw clear skies and moonlight. Figuring I can always sleep when I'm dead, I set up the camera and managed to recoup some of my perceived losses by getting a good moon lit photo of mountains reflecting in Medicine Lake under the stars. 
Medicine Lake helped cure my ills
I noticed the lack of humming coming from my refrigerator the next morning and knew I had burned another fuse. To add insult to injury the inside of the fridge was coated in yogurt which had exploded due to the pressure differentials of going from low to high altitude. I stopped in Great Falls, Montana and bought some more fuses. I didn't notice any "Great" falls or even "So-So" falls there so I continued on down to Helena

After lunch I noticed that not only the fridge was dead again, but so was everything else in the van! It was time to quit side stepping the issue and get down to business by ripping everything apart  and troubleshooting.  Mr. Murphy must have been grinning as his stupid law was once again proven correct when I eventually found the problem.  A loose ground wire, the very last connection I tested!

Juiced up again I visited a local bike shop to pick their brains on a good ride for the next day. My internet research and the bike shop guy's opinion matched so the ride for the day would be The Mount Helena Ridge. It's a ~12 mile ride and considerably more strenuous and technical than I expected. (Ride Specifics: Gravel road ride up Grizzly Gulch and right onto Prospector Gulch, 4.5 miles to trailhead. Then a strenuous 1.1 mile rocky single track climb. Up down, up down and then another extremely difficult, but short climb.  Next  is 4.5 miles of mostly downhill rocky single track with a few tricky tight switchbacks. At the 10 mile mark make  a right and drop down on McKelvie Trail to Dump Gulch which leads straight back to parking lot.)  The last 2 miles were very fast, and you are on the brakes most of the time. And like the rest of the ride, it is very rocky. Kicked my ass, but it was a hoot and worth it. There are also some very nice open meadows with great expansive views along the ridge. 

Leaving Helena and arriving in Bozeman I saw a post  from my friend Carl that he was up from Utah and also in Bozeman. Small world. More on that in a moment.

In the morning I decided to keep my legs pumping and in the morning drove down into Hyalite Canyon where there are lots of different rides to choose from. I stopped in at the reservoir which was a center of much activity on this beautiful clear morning with lots of people and pets frolicking in the water and enjoying activities such as kayaking, fishing, rafting, picnicking, etc.  I ended up at the "History Rock" trailhead for another great ride. 

Two groups were doing it as an out and back. But a third group said it was a seriously strenuous climb requiring many dismounts or "Hike-a-Bikes", so I opted for a loop. Montana must have highly skilled riders because again this ride was more challenging and technical than the descriptions would lead you to believe.  (Ride Specifics: Rode the Canyon Road 2.8 miles north along Hyalite Canyon and hung a left onto Langor Creek forest road. ~5 mile ascent, sometimes tough. Then another left at the top onto History Rock Trail. 3 mile Bomb down to the parking lot!)  There were  really tight switches, lots o' rocks (fixed and loose), roots, some off camber sections and really fast downhills. Your brakes will be scorching! The second half of the downhill was equally fast, but much less rocky and more swoopy!  Another great ~11 mile ride in all and I finished quicker than both of the out and back groups.

Climbing towards Big Sky
On the way out I found my buddy Carl hanging from a big rock where he was giving climbing instruction for MSU. I sat in on the class and watched as he taught knots and hitches. After class they decided to do a little climbing so I took pics until it was my turn. There was a 5.8 and 5.10 route. Since there was no 5.13 to do I went for the 5.8. So what do you get for not doing any upper body work for over 6 months? Well, if you're like me, you only get up half way before your arms get overly pumped and start to cramp. In my defense, it was only the second time I had ever climbed and I was assured that the route was a solid and legitimate 5.8 (Easiest starts at 5.4). 

A good day of physical activities always calls for a good meal and usually a few cold ones. So we ended the day by riding bicycles to Bacchus Pub where we met a few more of Carl's friends, both local and non local. We all enjoyed an evening of lively discussions on topics such as climbing, the fracking in North Dakota, and the critical water conditions facing the west,  all while racking up a $300+ tab! 

Tomorrow I'll make way into Wyoming and Yellowstone Park. If I'm not too hung over, that is!

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