Yellowstone: Not Just A Hot Steaming Mess!

Yellowstone: Not Just A Hot Steaming Mess!

If you have been watching the news recently, you will know that Yellowstone was temporarily closed earlier this summer due to historic flooding. The park was closed down because these floods destroyed roads in the north loop. This closure drastically reduced the amount of visitors in the park even after it reopened, making us quite lucky to be there within the first days after it reopened, when a ton of the crowds were gone. The historic nature of our Yellowstone trip was actually quite nice, although it did come with complications, including the fact that our reservations at the Canyon Lodge were canceled. Although we were quite lucky to snag an extra night at the Old Faithful Inn (with a geyser view) and a night at the Lake Lodge. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the crowds were not there while we were. To figure out how many tourists we dodged, we asked a ranger on the way back to our room at Old Faithful Inn how much more crowded it would usually be, and he said two to three times the crowds we dealt with on a normal day.

Let’s start off the Yellowstone experience with some iconic wildlife from the area. Now, imagine you are driving down your typical Yellowstone road, looking around into the forest. Suddenly, you check your rear view mirror and… wow, that’s a very large bison! Yes, this did happen to us, and it’s actually a very common experience in Yellowstone. Sometimes, the bison end up in front of your car, and, when they do this, they typically cause what is known as a bison jam, which can sometimes last several minutes. As we were driving up to the Hayden valley (a wildlife spot I will mention later), we got caught in a major bison jam where someone was stupid enough to drive behind the bison at high speeds, causing the bison to kick at their car (unfortunately, the bison missed.) This should be pretty self-explanatory once you see the size of these bison, but don’t get too close to them. Also, please be respectful of the bison and don’t agitate them by taking selfies. Actually, just after we left, multiple people were gored by bison in Yellowstone. They can also hide pretty well, as we learned on our Storm Point hike. One bison we found was sleeping in a deep rut on the path, making it practically invisible from certain angles. Thankfully, we saw it and were able to cut off the path to avoid it, but it would have been dangerous if we hadn’t noticed him quickly enough. Now for a less deadly type of bison, the babies! Baby bison are so darn cute! They look like baby cows in the shapes of their incredibly cute snouts, but they have reddish fur and tiny little horn nubs. Also, their little tails are quite sweet! These adorable little guys are known as red dogs. The best view we found of red dogs was when we drove down a section of the loop road near the Hayden valley and found a huge herd of bison. They were all crossing the road around our stopped car and there were some seriously adorable red dogs in the group. It was so strange watching those enormous animals just walking past your car. Also, you know how large bison are, right? It seems like they would be quite clumsy, but they’ll probably surprise you. They can jump up to 6 feet high and 14 feet forward. They can also swim (well, kind of flounder along and nearly submerged, but still) and sometimes roll in the mud to clean themselves. One time, when we were watching a bison, we saw it go down a hill, plunk itself into the water, and start swimming (extremely slowly and awkwardly) across the water. We thought it was going to sink, but it made it across and celebrated with a very awkward roll in the mud. Mud started spraying everywhere around the bison and then it got up and made a very low burping noise, perhaps showing off for the female bison that was also in the area.

Next up is another large and spectacular mammal, but for a different reason. The elk in the area are beautiful, with their huge antler racks and long, graceful faces and legs. Everything about them echoes grace and beauty. The thing that I find most impressive about elk is the antler racks, which can be up to 4 feet tall and wide! The very first animal that we saw when we came into the park was actually a young bull elk. He was hiding behind a tree at first, but then crossed the road in front of us (and gave us a great view) before walking out into the river. We assumed he was just going for a drink, but he instead proceeded to give us a great view of him as he crossed the river, even turning back to give us a better view of his head at one point. Speaking of heads, you know how elk hunting has a class of “trophy elk,” which have 6, 7, and 8 antler points respectively? On the way from canyon to lake, we saw 2 separate pairs of elk with 6 antler points. We took some photos of the first ones, which were laying down, then we found the next one a little farther down the road. At first I only took a few photos of the elk (who was lounging under a tree, similarly to the last one) and started to walk back to the car, but then he stood up and started grazing. I took plenty of photos there, as he was positively enormous, and with a rack to match his size. This guy certainly looked the part of his beautiful species, and he wasn’t even fully grown yet! You should definitely not miss out on one. If you find them, make sure to savor the experience!

Yet another awesome mammal from Yellowstone is the marmot! While also brown, the similarities to elk and bison end there. They are on the large side for rodents, quite chubby, and have adorable little faces. I find them quite endearing, but the locals certainly do not. Apparently, marmots have a quite annoying little habit of chewing on anything, including nylon (What? Why would you eat that? It has no nutritional value whatsoever!) and car parts (yum, wires and cording, very tasty). Sometimes, campers would wake up and walk out of their camp, only to discover that their entire shoulder strap was gone thanks to those marmots eating a section of the backpack. They sometimes also chew a hole in the top and eat the food you had inside. The little nylon-munchers can be found on the roadside randomly, but the best place to find them is at Storm Point. Here’s my recommendation on marmots, watch your back (pack!)

Now, moving away from mammals (though they are awesome) to talk about the Lehardy Rapids. Supposedly, it is a great spot to see trout jump! Awesome, right? Well, we unfortunately only saw one trout the whole time we were there, but it was great for other reasons. The walk itself is amazing, and you can find some cool birds there! We found a small colony of harlequin ducks hanging out on a rock in the middle of the river. Harlequin ducks have really cute red, black, and white coloration. These ducks actually live in very extreme places, nesting on whitewater rivers and spending the winter on rocky coastlines. When interacting with each other, they make noticeably odd noises for a duck. These little squeaky noises gave them the nickname sea mice. When we found this group of sea mice on the way down the river, they were just sitting on a rock, but by the time we went back up that section, they were in the water and seemed to be racing each other upstream, perching on branches to catch their breath. They were really quite adorable, and I hope you get to enjoy them too! Speaking of cute birds, there are also robins in the park that are quite similar in color and easy to find.

Now, back to the mammals (sort of) with the Hayden Valley area! This area is a bison hotspot, and is also great for elk (they come out of the trees to sleep in the more open sections of the valley at night) and Canada geese (but you can find those anywhere and everywhere.) When we finally got there, it was mostly empty (with the exception of those Canada geese that, as I mentioned, would be almost impossible not to see.) As we waited, the elk started moving out of the trees and clumping up together for the night, gradually filling up the hill with brown. In my opinion, it is a great place to eat a PBnJ dinner with a side of chips (I’ll touch on why not to get park food later) while watching the wildlife congregate (not just elk, there can be eagles and water birds in the area).

Yellowstone is known for many things, including not having the greatest of food options. Follow these quick tips and you can eat well on your trip!

  1. Pick up barbecued turkey sandwiches at the Firehole Grill in West Yellowstone before you go in. It’ll buy you one great meal you don’t have to worry about (their bison sausage and brisket are also delicious, and you should enjoy them while you’re there. Why couldn’t they move into the park instead?)
  2. Buy supplies for PBnJs (and perhaps some potato chips for on the side) as they will probably be better than the park food.
  3. Most, but not all, of the food in the park is bad. Some good (relatively speaking) options include the bison hotdogs and ice cream (which is actually pretty good, and you can get unique ice cream flavors like huckleberry fudge and some great huckleberry ice cream bars.) Otherwise, the food is more similar to amusement park food (okay, but nothing great, in my experience) than school hot lunch (aka cleverly disguised toxic waste.)
  4. Get some Umpqua Oats (instant oatmeal) from a shop and bring them into the park (but only the sugared ones, the others suck).
  5. Pack lots of snacks and water!