Yellowstone became our nation’s first National Park in March of 1872. I had the privilege of exploring it for the first time when I visited with my family back in 1990. I was 7 years old. Since then, I have always dreamed of returning. Many memories of my childhood have escaped me, but our trip to Yellowstone never has. It was impossible to leave the park without an indelible mark stamped upon my memory.
Angie and I made the seven-hour drive from Denver to Yellowstone National Park on Labor Day weekend of 2019. My friends had recommended going elsewhere to avoid the crowds in the park, but we took our chances in hopes of finding some solitude in the backcountry.
We entered through the South Entrance and drove along the Lewis River towards the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. We then drove west on the Grand Loop over the continental divide at Craig Pass (8,262 ft) and stopped to see Old Faithful, the mighty geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin.
Old Faithful is one of nearly 500 geysers in Yellowstone and one of 6 whose eruption times can be regularly predicted (NPS 2020a). This is an exceptionally high concentration of geysers, considering there are only 1,000 known geysers existing on Earth (Thompson 2008). Geysers form where there is geothermal activity close to the Earth’s surface, an abundant water source, and cracks and fissures in the Earth’s crust. The ground water is heated to the boiling point by the hot volcanic rocks and the expanding steam overflows through rock fissures. This creates a reduction in surface pressure on the super-hot water below, which sets off a chain reaction of violent steam explosions that can expand the volume of the rising water by 1500 times or more (Thompson 2008). The scalding hot water then explodes into the sky like a fountain.
No visit to Yellowstone is complete without a visit to Old Faithful
Today, the time between eruptions is roughly 91 minutes. Studies have shown that the interval between eruption times can be altered due to changes in precipitation and earthquakes. Generally, during droughts, interval times become extended or in some cases where the geyser is small, the eruptions stop completely. The interval time for the old faithful geyser has increased by 30 minutes when compared to 30 years ago (NPS 2020a). This is due to both decreased precipitation and several recent earthquakes.
We spent some time in the luxurious Old Faithful Inn, admiring its rustic log and wood-frame structure, rhyolite fireplace, and overall asymmetrical architecture meant to reflect the chaos of nature (NPS 2020b). Built in 1903, the Old Faithful Inn is one of the few remaining log hotels in the United States.
The rustic log walls inside the Old Faithful Inn
Bobbing and weaving through crowds of international tourists, we made our way to the Midway Geyser Basin, parked our car, and arranged our gear. At the South Entrance visitor center, we had purchased two backcountry permits: one for the Fairy Falls trail and another for the Lamar Valley. We were excited to set out into the Midway Geyser Basin for our first night of camping together in Grizzly Country.
Our long weekend in Yellowstone consisted of spending two nights in different backcountry areas. The first night was spent along the Fairy Falls trail near the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin area. The second night was spent on the Lower Lamar Bench in the Lamar Valley
Our backcountry permit for the Lower Lamar Bench area of the Lamar Valley. Note: there has been a bear frequenting the area
Moments after we had set foot on the trail, a friendly bohemian leaving for a backpacking trip of his own engaged us in conversation. Eli was his name. He was excited to learn about our plans and tell us about his travels throughout the American west. Eli joined us on the trail until we arrived at the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook, at which point he bid us farewell. He had forgotten his sleeping mat and needed to return to his car.
At 370 feet in diameter and 121 feet deep, the Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone's largest hot spring. The brilliant blues, greens, and reds are formed by thermophiles, bacteria that can live in extreme environments
The hike to our campsite was only a mile and a half from the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook. The trail took us through dense stands of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), the dominant tree inside the caldera of Yellowstone’s supervolcano that erupted 640,000 years ago. We noticed chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) flitting about on lower branches, but things were pretty quiet otherwise. At our campsite, there was an adjacent site with a wooden tower about 300 feet away. This area was where we would store our food, hauling it high above the ground in a bear bag to keep it away from foraging bruins.
Chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) were fairly abundant in lower branches of lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta)
Our campsite near Fairy Falls
By late August, Yellowstone becomes quite cold, especially at night. We snuggled up in our sleeping bags and gazed up at the night sky nestled in our hammock. We both fell asleep and moved into the tent later that night.
In the morning, we were awakened by the sound of a bugling bull elk (Cervus canadensis). His search for a mate would only intensify throughout the month of September when the elk rut goes into full effect every year. If he was strong enough, he may have secured a harem of dozens of cows, leaving his regal legacy passed on through his genes.
We did some morning birding on the short hike up to Fairy Falls. Once at the foot of the falls, we were mesmerized by the ethereal ribbon of water spilling over the surface of the rocks. The morning sun breached the horizon, illuminating several vapor plumes rising from the basin. We filtered water and joked about how we would be drinking fairy water for breakfast.
At 200 feet tall, Fairy Falls in one of Yellowstone's most spectacular waterfalls
Vapor plumes rise from several geysers near Fairy Falls in the Midway Geyser Basin
Suddenly, we were surprised by a voice coming from the pines.
"I thought I might see you guys up here at some point!"
It was Eli. He had slept without a tent under the stars nearby the falls. Eli joined us as we hiked another half mile up to Spray and Imperial geysers. We invited him back to our campsite to eat with us. Eli taught us a lot about backpacking. One thing that stuck with me is that when packing for a trip, you should aim to pack food that provides roughly 100 calories per one ounce of weight.
Morning sun rays filtered through sulphur mists at Imperial geyser
Invigorated by Eli’s energy and intellect, we invited him to join us on our second leg of our backpacking trip into the Lamar Valley. After packing up camp, we hiked back to the parking lot and agreed to meet Eli at the 3K1 Lamar River Trailhead.
We continued clockwise along the Grand Loop past Madison, where the Madison and Gibbon Rivers meet the Firehole River where it continues south into the Geyser Basins. We stopped at Gibbon Falls for a photograph.
Gibbon Falls descends 84 feet along the Gibbon River
Farther north, we drove through Canyon village, where we made a brief detour to view the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellow calcite deposits on the canyon walls inspired the name of this park.
North of Canyon Village, near Mt. Washburn (10,243) we stopped to let a young black bear (Ursus americanus) cross the road.
We reached the Tower-Roosevelt area and headed East into the Lamar Valley. This portion of the trip excited me more than anything else. The Lamar Valley is sometimes referred to as the North American Serengeti and it is one of the best places in the world to view wild wolves. Reintroduced to the Lamar Valley in 1995, gray wolves (Canis lupus) have formed 9 packs throughout Yellowstone’s northern range. This area, of which Lamar valley resides, is home to the densest concentration of wild carnivores in the lower 48.
Gray wolf (Canis lupus) pack territories within Yellowstone National Park in 2016 (NPS 2020c)
Immediately after starting our hike, we were surrounded by herds of grazing bison (Bison bison). Yellowstone is the only place in the country where wild bison have lived since prehistoric times (NPS 2020d). They are also one of the few bison herds that have not been hybridized with cattle. In 1902, the Yellowstone herd was reduced to 24 animals by illegal hunting. Today, there are 4,829 animals in the park, consisting of two primary breeding herds: the Lamar Valley herd and the Hayden Valley herd.
Bison are the largest North American land mammal and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. We witnessed the towering size and formidable presence of these animals as a herd crossed the path in front of us. We weren’t sure whether to keep going or stop and let the rest of the bison cross. We decided on the latter idea, which was a smart decision considering the animals were in their breeding season (the rut) and more aggressive than usual.
The older males were displaying their size and dominance by bellowing and stomping the ground with their hooves. We also passed several areas bison had used for wallowing and taking dust baths. Bison sign was everywhere. Out in the grasslands of the Lamar valley, we even found a bison carcass with the head still fully intact. Was this the remains of a wolf kill, we thought?
Angie enjoyed practicing scatology on this trip. Here she poses next to a giant bison patty
We spotted a mature adult bald eagle (Haileatus leucocephalus) in a cottonwood (Populus deltoides) along the Lamar River
After a five-mile hike, we arrived on the banks of the Lamar River where we made camp. The gravel beach reaching out into the meandering river provided the perfect place for us to kick our feet up and relax. That night, we listened for the howls of wolves in the wild void of night. A frigid air settled into the valley and chased us into our tents.
Enjoying the sunset on the banks of the Lamar River
The next morning, we woke to a bright sunny day and took our time relaxing around camp. We found fresh bear scat not far from our tent. It was loaded with grass, half-digested berries, exoskeletons and a few small bones. About 90% of a bear’s diet is vegetation. I wondered if there was a way to tell the difference between black bear and grizzly bear scat. I would never know exactly who it was that wandered past our campsite the previous evening until I found footprints.
The Lamar River near our campsite
On our return, we hiked past a barren sulfur plain where we found abundant bear footprints. We were far enough from our camp to assume it was the same bear that left the scat we had found earlier. Examining the print, we could tell it belonged to a black bear.
We walked past black bear (Ursus americanus) tracks scattered through a sulphur barren in the Lamar Valley. You can tell these tracks belong to a black bear and not a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) because the top of the foot pad is distinctively curved along with the toes
Angie standing on a barren sulphur plain in the Lamar Valley
A song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) spies us from the willows
We continued onward and came across a surprisingly docile herd of North American pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). The open grasslands and sage-steppe ecosystems found in the Lamar Valley make it the best place to see pronghorn in the park (NPS 2020e). The pronghorn is not a true antelope, but it was described as such during the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition. It is actually more closely related to the giraffe. It can run at speeds of 45-50 mph, making it the second fastest land mammal in the world. Despite their apparent abundance and nonchalance, the pronghorn is a species of special concern in the park.
The pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) is a species of special concern in the park
When we arrived back to our cars, we had not seen any of Yellowstone’s largest predators while on foot. We did see their sign everywhere, however. The bison carcass could have very well been the remains of a wolf kill, as parts of the body were spread all across the hillside. We found bear scat near our campsite and scratch marks and hair on a tree. The wildness of the area could be felt viscerally around every bend.
Getting out of our vehicles and setting foot in Yellowstone’s backcountry opened our eyes to why this place is so special. It is a magical place that will continue to call me back for as long as I live.
A three minute compilation of videos we shot while traveling through Yellowstone
Thompson, Andrea. 2008. Secret of Old Faithful Revealed.
Accessed August 28, 2020. [https://www.livescience.com/4957-secret-faithful-revealed.html].
National Park Service. 2020a. Old Faithful Geyser. Accessed September 2, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/places/old-faithful-geyser.htm].
National Park Service. 2020b. Old Faithful Historic District. Accessed September 2, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/oldfaithfuldistrict.htm].
National Park Service. 2020c. Gray Wolf. Accessed August 28, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/wolves.htm].
National Park Service. 2020d. Bison. Accessed August 28, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bison.htm].
National Park Service. 2020e. Pronghorn. Accessed August 28, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/pronghorn.htm].