This journal is written in a blog format, documenting my road/camping trip from Milwaukee, Wis. to Yellowstone Nat'l Park in Wyoming. Lots of photos included! Separate journals with detailed reviews to follow.
by MilwVon on July 21, 2012
Living in Wisconsin provides a wonderful opportunity to really explore the Great Midwest. This rather last minute impromptu eight day road trip to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming took me across Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming . . . all rather large states to traverse resulting in long distances and a lot of windshield time within each.The beginning (out of Milwaukee) and the end (through rural Wyoming) provided opportunity to see some small towns along the way. In between, however, it was a long slog across I90 through the four states. Experiencing a July heat wave that saw temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees, the drive was in relatively nice weather.My drive out to Yellowstone took three days, mostly because I spent the better part of a full day exploring the Badlands of South Dakota as well as Custer State Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. All of these tourist destinations are in relatively close proximity to one another, making them an interesting way to spend the day getting from point A to point B.On the return drive home, I spent much less time seeing the sights along the way, making it home in what was roughly 21 hours drive time for the 1,400 +/- miles over a day and a half. When it was over, I was glad to be home in my own bed by midnight after two long days of driving.A bit more about "the plan". We have a Pontiac Montana van which I used as my sleeping accommodations for much of the trip (five of the seven nights). Originally my plan was to only utilize campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park, opting to sleep on the road in rest areas or perhaps Walmart parking lots where "boondocking" is widely practiced in the RV community.Once on the road, however, I realized that sleeping in areas not designated for over-nighting was probably not a good idea, so I did stay in campgrounds throughout my adventure. Fortunately, on my westbound trip I made it all the way to Badlands National Park by a reasonable hour and was able to get a campsite in their one campground at Cedar Pass. My second night west, plus my one night returning eastbound was spent at the KOA in Buffalo, Wyoming.Sleeping in the van was pretty comfortable. David made a wonderful sleeping area for me using several old comforters and packing blankets. With a fitted sheet to hold it all together, I had a makeshift mattress. Topped with a sheet and blanket, I was set. On a couple of the nights in Yellowstone, however, I did need to use my sleeping bag as a comforter as the nighttime temps dropped into the mid 30's.For meals, I had packed a lot of food that did not require refrigeration or cooking. I did have a small cooler with perishables for the first couple of days since I could start the trip with ice packs to keep things cold. I enjoyed hard boiled eggs along with tuna fish or chicken for lunch and dinner my first day on the road. By midday on day two, however, the ice was gone and I was to the packaged dry food items and fresh fruit. It was very convenient to travel and eat this way, making sure that I did stop to take a break from the driving every few hours. I started my journey on Sunday July 8th after breakfast. I logged 792 miles over 12 hours, arriving at Badlands National Park around 9:30pm MDT. I was able to get a campsite at the Cedar Pass Visitor Center, which was perfect!
Monday July 9thIt was fortunate that I was able to make it all the way to the Badlands National Park and able to find a camping spot in their Cedar Creek Campground near the main visitor center. I was in bed and asleep by 10:00pm MDT and up before sunrise the next morning. My plan was to find a scenic location to catch the sunrise for what I hoped would be lovely photos. From my pre-trip research, Norbeck Pass seemed to fit the bill, so that was my first destination on my drive of the park. With a 5:15am sunrise, I was ready with time to spare since it would take some time for the sun to clear the craggy peaks located along the Fossil Trail. In the meantime, I spotted my first wildlife in the park, a small rabbit. Once I was spotted, however, it hopped away.As much as I do enjoy a beautiful sunrise, they seem to happen entirely too quickly . . . with the perfect photo moment fleeting away. I did capture several nice images as the sun climbed into the sky. Perhaps more interesting was the effect of the rising sun on the landscape around me. The colors of the rock formations with their banded layers of sediment and fossils, take on varying hues as the sun climbs high into the sky. Previously my other trips through the Badlands had been at or near high noon, when the sun is its harshest and the reds and yellows are awashed to brown and grey.Early morning also found lovely song birds singing away; grazing animals enjoying the moist grasses in the valleys . . . and a beautiful swift fox hunting small rodents for breakfast. It was a magical time to have the entire park pretty much to myself! I think I saw my first human around 7:00am.I wanted to exit the park at the Wall, SD entrance in order to get to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site visitor center around 8:00am in order to obtain an admission ticket for their first tour of the day at 9:00am. SUCCESS! While I didn't get there until closer to 8:30am, traveling as a single, they were able to add me to the first group going to the Delta 01 Launch Control. That worked out perfectly as it would not require my hanging around Wall to kill time until my assigned tour time.This National Historic Site is free, but has very limited capacity (max of six every half hour) for their main tour of the launch control facility. At the visitor center, they have a couple of small exhibits and show a brief (12-15 minute) video explaining the significance of the missile facilities that existed throughout South Dakota during the cold war era of the 1960's. With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, the Delta Launch Control as well as the Minuteman II missile silo (aka Delta 09 Launch Facility) located some 10 miles away, were decommissioned and the missile itself unarmed.The amazing history learned as part of the two-part tour is well worth the couple of hours it takes to participate in the guided tour of the control center as well as the separate visit out to the actual missile silo location. Because of how my schedule went on my original visit, I returned to the silo during my drive home through South Dakota the following weekend. Lucky for me, I arrived early enough to find a ranger onsite providing an operational overview of the missile silo location.After my time at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site, I headed back into Badlands National Park to travel out the far western end, in hopes of see more wildlife including buffalo. Unfortunately, this part of my drive seemed to really be a long waste of time as the herd was too far away to see anything more than brown "dots" and the road itself was just a rough washboard gravel surface making for a long and bumpy ride. Coming out at the other end of the park, I then drove north into Rapid City where gas was a top priority before heading on to Custer State Park.I arrived at Custer State Park from the northern entrance near Mt. Rushmore. I had no interest in visiting this National Park Service site as I have been there before and have a general issue with them having no admission fee, but charging $11 for parking. As a national pass holder, I would get my admission free but the pass does not cover parking fees. In my opinion, this is a way around honoring their pass holders and still getting money out of all visitors. Besides, it really is not a site with a view that cannot be found from the surrounding area. This photo was taken as I passed through one of the three tunnels on the Iron Mountain Road that connects the Mt. Rushmore area to Custer State Park.Custer State Park was also a bit of a disappointment as the buffalo herd was also off quite a distance from the road. I get that these places are not drive-through zoos; I just wish there had been more opportunities for photographing these large animals. That said, I did get to snap some shots of the mule deer found in the park as well as the resident (and apparently tame) wild burros. To my amazement, park visitors are encouraged to feed them which has led to their domestication. It was clear to me, there was nothing "wild" about them as people gathered at one of the turnouts to feed and pet them.After my drive along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, I headed out towards the town of Custer. As with the town up by Mt. Rushmore, the tourism industry seems to be providing visitors with all of the trappings of any good tourist town. It looked remarkably like Branson, Missouri or Wisconsin Dells in terms of the old time photo shops, candy & fudge stores, tee-shirts selling two for $25, etc, etc. and too many people wandering the streets. I must say, however, I did enjoy all of the artistically painted buffalo found throughout Custer. Many told a historical story while some were simply decorated in wild and outlandish designs.I left Custer, South Dakota heading on west towards Wyoming. The next several hours would find me traversing through a lot of small western towns through the plains and oil fields that brought economic boom to this area many decades ago. I ended my night at the KOA in Buffalo, Wyoming . . . a perfect location to start my final drive day to Yellowstone.
Tuesday July 10thAfter a good night's sleep, I was up and ready for a nice hot shower in the KOA campground. It's probably been over 25 years since my last KOA stay; this reminded me of just how nice their locations are. This particular campground only recently affiliated with KOA having been an independent for many years operating as Twin Creek Campground.In addition to the great showers and restrooms, they offer a children's playground and decent size swimming pool. Hook-ups are available for RVs and there is complimentary WiFi (which I took advantage of the night before to contact home and post a few photos on Facebook).After showering and getting dressed, I was ready to hit the road at 6:15am. From Buffalo, WY I had two options in terms of routes . . . I90 through to Cody and into the east entrance at Yellowstone . . . or the more scenic route via US20 connecting to US26 that continued on into Grand Teton National Park via the Moran Junction. Road signage encouraged travelers to take the "safer and more scenic route" on US20 so that was what I did. While there was a lot of beautiful scenery and some wildlife (mostly deer), the road was under construction at several places resulting in significant delays as the two lane road was brought to single lane driving, complete with miles of pilot car escorting over a gravel road. I did stop to watch a small herd of pronghorn sheep along the Wind River between Riverton & Dubois.I enjoyed my drive through Ten Sleep, WY with their population of 260 and four saloons. Just outside of town was a park with a lovely lake. This photo is actually the pano-merging of six individual frames to make this one image of the full lake. The water was still, so it also provided the reflective image of the hills and trees surrounding it.I arrived at Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) at 2:00pm, which allowed me a nice leisurely drive through the park, first heading south towards Jackson Hole. My interests in that area were the Antelope Flats Road and Morman Row, given their distance from Yellowstone and my desire to make my trip out of Yellowstone limited to the more northern areas of Grand Teton. Morman Row is a settlement that dates back to 1892 with several of the original buildings still standing. One that is often photographed is the Moultan Barn, which has the nice backdrop of the Teton Mountains behind it.Antelope Flats is known as a wildlife viewing area. As with my prior day in South Dakota, viewing bison required the binoculars as they were at quite a distance away from the gravel road. The photos I took were unimpressive, requiring 2-4x zoom plus cropping to make out what animal I had photographed. Bah-humbug!Having researched prices of gasoline prior to leaving home, I knew high prices ($3.999) awaited me in Yellowstone so my plan was to buy at Moran Junction. Unfortunately "Gas Buddy" had a bad reporting for the Phillips 66 station outside the park, so I by-passed them. Now inside GTNP and needing to top off, I was at the mercy of pricing. Fortunately, the Signal Mountain convenience store was "just" $3.819 so I filled up there. That was good enough to get me through until Thursday when I also had planned for an "out of the park" morning in Gardiner, MT for breakfast at a cafe with free WiFi plus gas fill-up at what was expected to be around $3.699.While in GTNP, I did make a stop in the visitor center at the south entrance of Moose Junction. Heading back north towards Yellowstone, I saw a cute young male deer in the lake at Moran Junction. I arrived at Grant Campground around 6:30pm, where I had a reservation for the night. It was pretty cool to be welcomed at the entrance to Grant Village by an elk and her young calf. My campsite was well shaded and near the bathrooms, so I was very happy with the location.
Wednesday July 11thI went to bed last night shortly after 9:00pm and woke up cold a couple of times during the night. The first time, I put on warmer clothes and the second time, I broke out the "zero degree" sleeping bag and used it as a comforter. I woke up for the day at 5:50am to 48F outside.Since I had a shower to start the day Tuesday, I opted to by-pass using my shower pass at Grant Village in order to head out and get a early start on wildlife viewing and my planned drive around the lower loop of the Yellowstone Park Road. For those who are not familiar with Yellowstone, you can drive the entire park road in your personal vehicle. There are limitations on RVs and vehicles that are towing trailers and/or boats but for the most part, visitors have full access to most of the most popular attraction areas within the park. The road that covers the park is a figure eight, comprised of two loops with numerous spur roads that create the entrances and exits of the park.The lower loop is the larger of the two, and includes much of the geyser area as well as the popular Hayden Valley known for its large bison herds, grizzly bears and the canyon wolf pack. It also runs along the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Lake. Grant Village and the campground I stayed at Tuesday night is at the southernmost end of this lower loop, so it provided for a great start to my first day in Yellowstone.As I left the Grant Village area, there were elk everywhere; all females with young. Further on down the road, there were three large bull elk with quite impressive racks. I was fortunate to be able to stop and park while shooting photos of both groups of animals. It was a lovely morning, complete with a wonderful sunrise over Yellowstone Lake. The cold air temperatures provided enough of a differential to create a fog over many of the geothermal areas around West Thumb Geyser Basin and Mud Volcano. I did stop at the Mud Volcano parking area to use the bathroom. Imagine my surprise when I stepped out and saw a huge bison less than 10 or 15 feet away. I waited for him to move on further behind the rails protecting the boardwalk, before exiting . . . and of course snapping his photo! It wasn't much further to Hayden Valley and my first official bison road jam. There were mostly females and their young (known affectionately as "red doggies") on both sides of the road, as well as crossing or walking right down the middle of the road.Their young are quite adorable looking, but messing with momma is not a wise choice. It was interesting watching a couple of bulls joust, testing themselves as rut season is just around the corner. They were in the middle of the road, locking horns and providing entertainment to those who stopped to give them right-of-way. I moved on through the traffic jam continuing my drive north towards Canyon Village where I was hoping to be able to check in early for that evening's camp reservation. Before arriving there, however, I did make a stop and got out to walk the short, easy trail to the lookout at the Yellowstone River Canyon at Artist's Point. A bus had just been there, but was loading to head on, so there was no crowd. Further on down the road, however, at the next walking trail, there were a lot of people but I didn't allow that to deter my hiking up to the overlook point which provided a greater view of the entire canyon area. It was well worth the effort! At Canyon Village, I was able to check into my campsite and obtain my shower card for the day so I went ahead and took a shower. With the morning temps now up around 60F, it was warm enough for me to be out and about with wet hair. The shower felt good and I was now refreshed to continue on about my day.It was here that I first ran into a family from a city about 10 minutes from where we live. Over the course of the next few days, I passed them or parked by them several times. Their vehicle was especially notable as they had two handmade kayaks on their roof. They would not be the only visitors I'd run into from the Milwaukee area on this trip.My drive next took me across to Norris Geyser Basin. This is a very nice area of geysers and hot springs. Unfortunately with my asthma, I was unable to do much of the walking around the boardwalk areas leading up and around several of the geysers or out into the area known as the Porcelain Basin largely due to the high sulfuric content in much of the area.I did walk out to the overlook of Porcelain Basin and sat upwind from one particularly stinky vent. The view was lovely. From there I walked back through the museum and hiked the quarter mile boardwalk up to the Steamboat Geyser. While it is known for very large and unpredictable eruptions, all that I saw in my hour or so there were several spurting eruptions that only lasted 15 to 30 seconds, launching water upwards perhaps 10 to 15 feet in the air. Still it was fun to watch it percolate and gurgle as it sputtered and steamed.On the way up to Steamboat Geyser, the pathway takes you by the Emerald Spring, another rather smelly area. At least with the gentle breezes, it was possible to find a place to stand out of the air current containing the sulfur smells.(con't next page)
Wednesday July 11th (con't)Heading out of the Norris Junction area I found a small picnic area along the Gibbon River where I fixed a sandwich and enjoyed my lunch. There were children playing in the water and a fly fisherman upstream who looked to only be in ankle deep. Several minutes later, a large bull elk was seen grazing.Mobs of people stopped and went river-side to photograph the beautiful animal. As with the other elk I had seen in the park, he appeared to be healthy.Back on the loop still heading counterclockwise, my next diversion was the Firehole Lake Drive, home to what is touted as one of the most spectacular geysers in the park - The Great Fountain Geyser. Unfortunately for me, while the posted eruption schedule had it down as a 10:30am to 2:50pm prediction, I arrived at around 1:00pm and waited with many others (some who had been there since noon) . . . only to learn when the ranger came through at 3:00pm that it had already gone off around 11:30 that morning. Being on an approximate 12 hour cycle, it would not be expected until sometime around midnight, give or take two hours.While in the area, however, I did get to see (and photograph) the White Dome Geyser which seemed to be a regular twice an hour sort of event, with its brief (under three minute) eruptions that blasted around 20 or 30 feet in the air. I also stopped at the Firehole Spring which could be seen bubbling continuously. A note about the Firehole Lake Drive, RVs and vehicles towing are not permitted as the road is narrow and one-way, with lots of congestion especially around the Great Fountain Geyser and the Firehole Lake.There is another one-way side road trip in this area worth mentioning - the Firehole Canyon Drive. The short (less than 30 minute) ride meanders along the river with a nice lookout below the Firehole Falls. Again, no RVs or towed vehicles.My last stop along this major stretch of geyser locations was the world famous Old Faithful area. Having been more than 15 years since I was last here, I was surprised at the amount of development and traffic. The visitor center and adjacent parking lots all appeared to be built since my last visit back in 1996. My timing was such that I did get to take a bench seat and wait for Old Faithful's scheduled 4:19pm blast. Pretty much right on schedule, she blew and blew and blew. The children sitting in front of me kept encouraging it to go higher and faster.After the eruption of Old Faithful, many left the area heading for their cars. I took the time to call home since this was a known area of decent cell phone reception. Even with my crummy SPRINT service, I was able to have a nice phone conversation with David. The traffic jam out of the area was reminiscent of leaving Disney World at closing time. It was miserable!Heading back towards Canyon Village, it still seemed too early to go into my campground so I continued up towards the Tower area which had been a known black bear sighting area. I once again got caught in a bison jam in Hayden Valley; spent some time watching one large bull cross the river. The water was so deep, at one point all I could see was the top of his head and two horns. Once on shore, he shook the water off, much like a dog would after a swim.Before reaching Tower, I did come to a small bear jam of cars with people out trying to get a glimpse of the momma bear and her cub. The cub could be seen high up in a tree, but the sow was up on the hillside really out of sight for most of the time. One car stopped and the driver asked what we were looking at. He proceeded to get out of the car and climb up the small hillside to get a look for himself. He scrambled down quickly, reporting that "she was right there!" Dumb @$$! Because it was nearing dusk and the forest was dense, the lighting was not conducive to taking photos . . . not that they were really close or visible enough to get a clear, in focus photo.After the excitement of seeing my first bears, I figured it was about time to head back to camp. When I got to Canyon Village, I realized I had not eaten since around noontime and I was pretty hungry. With darkness coming, I didn't much feel like fumbling around to make a sandwich so I stopped in at the Canyon Soda Fountain for a burger. I have to say, it was not bad. Actually it was very good and reasonably priced ($8.05 for a burger & fries). Where they would get you, however, was on the $4.95 (16oz) milk shake. I kept it cheap with just the burger. I was lucky that I arrived right at 8:30pm, their last seating time at the counter.Feeling full, I headed on over to my campsite as it started to rain. I spent the next 30 minutes off-loading photos from my three cameras and taking a glimpse at what I had captured from my day. With a quick run to the restrooms, I was ready for bed by 10:15pm.
Thursday July 12thToday was a great "bear day" with lots of sightings throughout the park!It started at 5:50am with a frigid wake-up of just 36F after overnight thunder-boomers that rocked my van between 10:00pm and roughly midnight. The entire Canyon Village area was socked in with dense fog; even the bison around the junction were difficult to see.My plan for the day was to do the upper loop, again heading counterclockwise, with an added detour out the North Entrance to Gardiner, MT. Gardiner was on the agenda for two purposes: 1) to have breakfast at the Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe, and 2) to buy "cheap" gas outside of the park.This part of the park is also a well known area for bears, with many sightings and photos posted from June. I was excited in anticipation of what I might see today. Heading over the Dunraven Pass, my hopes were that I might see the bears from last night. Having measured the distance from Canyon Village to that point, I knew to start looking closely for them about 10 miles into my drive. Fortunately the fog had cleared by that time, but alas, no bears.As I continued on, I came to the Roosevelt Junction area where I would be staying the next two nights. I popped through the Roosevelt Cabin area to take some photos since I wasn't sure what time I'd be home for the night, which could mean close to dark when decent photos might be a challenge.I continued on in a westerly direction, stopping at a turnout to change out of sweats into more appropriate attire for the day as by 7:30am the sun was up and the air warming. Having read that the Blacktail Plateau was a good wildlife viewing area, I had a lot of anticipation as I drove through the area not realizing that there was an actual six or seven mile one-way loop road that ascended up to the area known as Blacktail Plateau. NOTE: The NPS Yellowstone brochure with map was clear in this matter, I had just not looked at it close enough to recognize it as a separate drive route.When I reached the signed turn-off, I took the left hand turn onto the bumpy gravel road. Nervously I continued through the low grasslands until the road ascended up into the pine forest. During the first couple of miles, all I saw were ground squirrels and what I believe were yellow bellied marmots. They scampered along the road and into the thick grass and sagebrush too quickly for me to get much of a photo of them. I did however get this one who was checking out what was happening around his hole.I have to say, as slow as I drove and close as I looked, I was disappointed not to have seen bears in this area especially since this loop road had been reported closed just the week before due to high bear activity. That said, as much as I expected this to be a wildLIFE viewing drive, I was pleasantly pleased with how many wildFLOWERS I got to see. There were so many that I took photos of, I will have to research what they all are before posting photos in this blog, so look for a subsequent entry later. In the meantime, here is one photo of a very dense area of beautiful pinkish-purple flowers, I believe fireweed.After returning to the main loop road, I again headed west towards Mammoth Springs and the North Entrance. As I made the large curve in the road, I noticed a family pulled off into a turnout using binoculars into the ravine below. I stopped to check out what they were looking for, to learn that they thought they had seen something moving around in the dead timber. I fished out my binoculars and started looking with them. They spotted the large black bear resurface as it came up from what appeared to be a dry creek bed. How exciting - a bear sighting in the morning daylight as it approached 9:00am.The bear ambled around for a bit, then climbed up on one of the dead logs, walking across it much like a gymnast on a balance beam. It rooted around seemingly looking for grubs to eat, hopped down and then disappeared into the thick brush.The drive from Mammoth up to Gardiner was very beautiful, with the road running parallel to the often whitewater rapids of the Yellowstone River. The North Entrance is also the location of the iconic Roosevelt Arch which is worth the drive just for the photo op. Atop the arch it reads "FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE" and it is noted that the Yellowstone NP was created by an act of the US Congress on March 1, 1872. In Gardiner, I enjoyed my ham & egg on english muffin sandwich and hot tea, as well as the free WiFi at the Tumbleweed Bookstore & Cafe. I also filled up my gas tank, paying the expected $3.699 as posted on Gas Buddy before I left Milwaukee.Heading back into the park, I noted passing the Mammoth Campground. I have to say, it would not be someplace I would want to stay, especially if parking an RV as there was no shade to speak of and all of the sites were on top of one another. I suppose it serves as a great location for those who go fishing on the river in that area. Speaking of which . . . this entire area reminded me of the movie "A River Runs Through It". The picturesque scenery was inviting, if only to stop to listen to the rushing water.Back in Yellowstone NP, I continued back through the Mammoth Village area, stopping in at the visitor center to stamp my NPS Passport and snap a few photos. The area was very busy with tourists and finding parking was a bit of a challenge. This is one of the older areas of the park, with lovely old buildings many of which are used for park employee residences.Heading south along the western side of the loop road, I passed through the Mammoth Hot Springs areas. I did not stop at the first area due to the lack of parking but did pull into the loop road that goes through the Upper Terraces area. There I was able to get up close to several of the hot springs. It was approaching high noon and the air temp was 80F. The steam from all of the hot springs in the area were noticeable for miles approaching Mammoth Village. Many of the rock formations looked surreal, as if something from another planet.As I approached the Norris Geyser Basin, I passed by the Roaring Mountain, a rather nondescript hillside other than the fact that it has numerous vents puffing out steam from the geothermal activity happening beneath the surface. Photos here were difficult because of the sun high in the sky coupled with the rising air temps (85F when I stopped). (con’t next page)
Thursday July 12th (con't)From the Norris Junction, I head back towards Canyon Village so as to continue my counterclockwise loop that would eventually land me back at Roosevelt Lodge and my cabin for the night. When I arrived in the area, it was really too early to check-in and go to the cabin so I figured I'd head up towards to NE Entrance at Silver Gate. Since the Lamar Valley is one of the better known wildlife viewing areas and there had been a black bear with two cubs seen in the area, it seemed like a decent way to spend a couple of hours.I wasn't five miles from the Roosevelt Junction when I came upon a large back-up of cars complete with a couple of park ranger vehicles. I knew immediately the black bear momma and cubs were in the area. Unfortunately, it was next to impossible to find a safe pullout spot especially since the rangers were strictly enforcing the "100 yards" rule for being near bears. I continued further down the road and found a second turnout with space enough to pull in. I was far enough away from the action, however, that watching the bears munch on the sagebrush required the binoculars. The good news was that they were moving in my direction. The bad news would be that once within the 100 yards, I would be chased out of the turnout.They continued to feed, often in areas not visible due to the thick brush or large rocks. At one point, it appeared as though they would be making a turn back away from where I was parked but then she stopped and reversed again. She did come within the distance that the rangers were concerned about those of us in the turnout, so they came down and had us move. Ironically, by having me move out, it required that I drive towards the bear activity. Better yet, it seemed momma wanted to cross the road, requiring that all traffic stop to give her right away.Once she was across the road, her two cubs followed her, between the cars and everything. It was amazing that none of the bear family seemed too concerned with the throng of vehicles and people surrounding them. I was fortunate in that I had a great vantage point to snap several photos during their movement across the road. It was very exciting, especially since the first year cubs were still pretty small.After all of that excitement I continued on up to the NE Entrance Area. I did see a small group of pronghorn just before getting to Lamar Valley. I stopped in the large parking area overlooking the valley, but didn't see much. Even the wolf watchers reported not seeing anything through their scopes.I continued on stopping at a small turnout alongside a rushing creek to fix a sandwich. In this area, the bugs (mosquitoes and biting flies) were pretty bad so for the first time I had to spray OFF on my exposed legs and arms to avoid them.The drive on up to Silver Creek was uneventful so once through the gates I continued into the small town and turned around. At the park entrance I asked about bear sightings that day and he said there had been a grizzly seen in the area but no further reports for several hours. I kept my eyes open, scanning for the illusive grizzly, but to no avail.The time from the NE Entrance back to Roosevelt Junction was about 75 minutes. Since it was close to 6:00pm I figured I may as well check-in. In the parking lot, I was met by my TA friend and roommate for the next two nights. I've "known" Nanc from the Alaska Forums on Trip Advisor, so meeting her in person and spending some time with her in Yellowstone was especially exciting!Once settled into our Roughriders Cabin, I took a shower. At 6:30pm we decided to head back out to Lamar in hopes of seeing more wildlife, especially the resident wolf pack. Nanc had camped the night before at Pebble Creek CG and said that there had been a grizzly bear on the hillside just outside of the camp. She drove first to that area and sure enough, there he was! It was my first grizzly viewing (and photo). It was a great experience, even if it was too far away to get a really good photo. I saw him with my own two eyes and did get this photo, which has been zoomed and cropped in order to see him. Other than a bison jam and more pronghorn, there was not much else happening in the Lamar Valley, so we headed back to our cabin and called it a night. It had been a long day, and I was ready for sleep! The cabin was comfortable as we had a triple bed room and was just across from the bathroom and showers. There was also an ice machine with free ice, so I got my little cooler and put some diet cokes on ice overnight. I think we said our good nights and went to sleep around 9:00pm.
Friday July 13th"Unlucky Friday the 13th" . . . HA! What another great day to be in Yellowstone National Park, enjoying nature and the beauty that surrounded me.Overnight we had quite the thunderstorm in the northern area of Yellowstone NP. At one point the crack of thunder was so loud it woke both Nanc and I up, startling us in our unfamiliar surroundings and beds. It was around 3:00am so plenty more sleep to be had. I know I rolled over and fell back asleep pretty easily. Next thing I knew, it was 5:30am and time to get moving.Nanc again offered to drive for our morning wildlife viewing and since the front seat area of my van was filled with stuff, I gladly thanked her for the offer. We headed back out towards Lamar in hopes that we might be early enough to see the wolf pack on the hunt or perhaps the bears grazing in the sagebrush. Unfortunately, there was little to be seen that morning other than fellow wolf seekers, a lone black bear way off in the distance and the pronghorns.At 9:15am we were back at Roosevelt. Nanc was going to go out hiking so I thought since I had good success seeing the bear on the road heading towards Mammoth Hot Springs, I thought I'd make the trek back in that direction. While no bears were seen during this part of my drive, it was nice to see elk around the Mammoth Visitor Center and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. I had heard that they could frequently be seen in the area, but had seen none the day before. Today, however, there were plenty all around. In front of the hotel, there were several females with young, chilling out in what shade could be found or snacking on the flower baskets on the yard. They acted pretty tame, although there were park rangers at both locations to do "human control" as people continued to attempt to get close up and personal with the animals.I decided to give Hayden Valley another try for the grizzly bears as Nanc had said she often found them in that area. While I had been through there several times already, I thought it was worth one more try. When I stopped in at the Canyon Visitor Center for the bathroom, a lady was posting their 11:00am bear sighting at Hayden. Boy was I excited, although I also knew bears can be in one place and gone out of sight within 30 minutes.That said, I went about my business and then continued on towards Hayden. I stopped where the wolf watchers were but there didn't seem to be much happening there. I asked about bear sightings and was told that they had not seen anything but that at the next overlook there were some people along with a ranger . . . perhaps they were watching bears. I headed on to the next overlook and sure enough there were about four vehicles including the ranger's. The people had large scopes out and one man had a National Geographic caliber camera set up on a tripod. I pulled in and got a nice central spot overlooking the Yellowstone River and the valley below. It was around 1:00pm by now. With binoculars in tow, I asked what folks were seeing today. They pointed at the black specs (not even dots!) across on the hillside, stating that "Over there is the grizzly mom and her two cubs." Even with my 10x50 binoculars, I could barely make out the bears. Much easier was the huge bison midway between me and the specs.I stayed and watch, waited patiently as we could see the bears moving across the sagebrush. At one point they made their way into a lush green, grassy area where clearly you could make out that they were brown bears. The ranger stayed in the overlook for hours, as people came and went, viewing through the high-powered scope that had been set up to help folks view the bears. He said that the cubs were actually two-and-a-half years old and that is it unusual for the family to stay together this long. The male cub had been collared earlier in the year in anticipation of his going off on his own this summer, but so far, the family has stayed together.Continuing to watch the bears, everyone was hoping that they would continue to make their way down the hill and towards the river. Earlier in the day it had been reported that they had been observed about half a mile down river playing in the water so of course we were optimistic we might see a repeat in the late afternoon heat. After a couple of hours of viewing and waiting, our patience paid off. The sow and her cubs swam the river and came to our side of the valley. It was impossible from my vantage point to get photos, however, as they entered the water near some dead driftwood along the shoreline. I was able to snap a few shots of them as they came ashore.Momma bear continued to graze on the sagebrush while her two cubs fell-out and napped after their long swim and run. They were still very far away, requiring a scope or binoculars to see them closely. I was able to get a few photos that when enlarged and cropped, provide a decent view. I only wish there was a better place to view and photograph them.While all of the bear viewing drama was being observed, this lone coyote made its way across the valley, looking for a place to come up and across the road. With all of the people pulled off onto the shoulder, there was no place for him to go, so he proceeded down further until he could find a safe place to cross.I spent over two hours watching the bear family and with thunder heard off in the distance; it was time for me to make my way back towards Roosevelt. My drive from Hayden over the Dunraven Pass was uneventful. There was a small bear jam of people trying to get a look at a black bear with cubs just before Tower. By now it was pouring rain. Unfortunately, there was no seeing much of anything so I kept moving on.When I got to Roosevelt, I thought I would take one more quick trip down towards Lamar Valley to check out what might be going on out that way. With the thunder, lightning and rain, I didn't expect to see much. I was wrong!As I made the slight bend just past the Yellowstone picnic area, there were several trucks and cars pulled off on the right shoulder. I slowed down and asked someone what was seen. The young man said that "just above the guy in the white shirt" was a black bear. I commented that the guy up on the hill trying to get a closer look was a dumb @$$ to which he quipped "Hey that's my brother." I told him that I didn't care, he was still a dumb @$$ for getting that close to a bear. About that time the rangers arrived and cleared the area out.I went up ahead and did a U-turn in one of the pullouts. I then entered the picnic area and turned off my engine. A few minutes later, maybe five, the black bear came lumbering down the hill into the picnic area and parked itself under a tall pine tree. Imagine my delight, as well as that of the others in the cars that had parked there with me. It was getting dark quickly as the loud claps of thunder continued. The poor bear seemed to be cowering beneath the tree as to be seeking cover from the storm.A few minutes later, the bear ran across from this point and climbed a tree that was about 20 feet away. It happened so quickly, that I missed getting a photo other than of its big rump up in the tree. Moments later, I could hear it vocalize (grunt-like sounds) and next thing I knew, it was backing down the tree trunk. And imagine my surprise when one-by-one, two little ones came backing down too! This was clearly the same momma bear and young cubs I had seen the day before, a mile or so down the road.And off into the sunset the young family of bears went. What a special experience to have witnessed! With that, I headed in for the night, meeting up with Nanc back at the Roughrider Cabin. In bed by 8:00pm, it was still storming well into the night.
Saturday July 14thI woke up early (5:30am) and was ready to hit the road after my good-byes with Nanc. She was actually up before me and ready to get moving first, so it worked out just about perfectly. As I did my last check of our cabin, I pondered what I would do with my day. Originally, my plan was to stay in the parks through the weekend and head home Monday in order to be home Tuesday night.I felt as though I had already had several great days of wildlife viewing, even if I had not seen the illusive wolves in either Hayden or Lamar. I had also not yet seen a moose, but I had what I thought was a good lead on locating them, down in Grand Teton NP which was my initial plan for tonight's overnight.I opted for the most direct route to GTNP, which would have me heading towards Tower and over the Dunraven Pass one more time. I did see a couple of blacktail deer near Tower. I also stopped in Hayden Valley "just in case" something was around to be seen. When I reached Canyon Village I was actually feeling hungry and wanting a real breakfast . . . you know, eggs, meat, toast. I remembered the breakfast hours at the Canyon Soda Fountain, and realized they would not be open for at least another hour, so I pushed on towards Lake Village.I stopped at the lovely Lake Lodge where there is a decent enough cafeteria where you can pick and choose ala carte. That seemed to fit the bill for my cravings just right. Admittedly, I over-ordered, but that was OK as it allowed me to make a sandwich for later in the day. The food was delicious in spite of not being piping hot. I couldn't believe how great a bottle of orange juice could taste!The view over Yellowstone Lake was beautiful. It was quiet and serene, especially since there were very few people up and around at 7:00am. After breakfast, I headed to the West Thumb Geyser Basin to take a couple more photos. The first time I had been through this area the sun was just rising and it was really too dark to get decent photographs of some of the boiling pots and other features in this area.Before leaving Yellowstone, I wanted to find out about the eruption prediction for the Great Fountain Geyser . . . you know, the one I waited for hours to see, only to later find out it went of early that morning. I stopped in at the Grant Visitor Center to inquire. The geyser had already gone off that morning around 6:00am so it was now predicted for 6:00pm plus or minus two hours. As much as I wanted to witness that event, it didn't seem worthwhile to hang around all day and overnight in Yellowstone to accommodate possibly seeing it, so I set about a plan that would have me leaving the area later in the afternoon.I again saw one of the resident bull elk at the Grant Village junction. From Grant Village, I continued on south to the John D. Rockefeller Parkway that connects Yellowstone NP with Grand Teton NP. Along that stretch of road I saw several deer, all passively watching traffic pass as they grazed on the morning dew moistened grasses.Arriving at the Colter Bay Visitor Center, I stopped in to get what would be the last of my NPS Passport stamps. I also asked the young ranger inside about wildlife viewing and bear sightings. He was not very helpful, giving the standard "bears are everywhere out there" response. OK - thanks!As I exited Colter Bay Village I did swing through the gas station to make note of the price as I knew I'd be needing fuel later in the day. At $3.579 it was going to be the cheapest in either of the parks, so this was the spot I stopped back later in the day to top off my tank.(con't. next page)
Saturday July 14th (con't)Earlier in the week, I met a couple from Portage, Wisconsin. In talking about the wildlife we'd seen, I was envious that he had seen moose. He told me that he had been told of a marsh area just beyond Colter Bay down the Pilgrim Creek Road. Sure enough, when I made the left-hand turn, I could see a number of cars pulled to the shoulder, and several people out walking into the willows. There was also a tour company with guests watching. Their driver/guide was explaining to folks about the moose habitat and that the bull moose in this area were getting ready for rut season next month.From the vantage point that I had, I could barely see the moose they were talking about. One man had hiked deep into the willow to get his photos with what appeared to be a 600mm lens. He was shooting without a tripod. All I could think was "good luck with that" as I have my challenges with my 70-300 lens at roughly a third of the weight. As the two large bull moose continued to eat, they worked their way into a small clearing. They didn't seem to be bothered much by the group of 10 or 12 people observing them. Surprisingly, there were only a couple of us interested in or trying to photograph the animals.After spending some time with the moose and getting a nice selection of photos, I felt amazingly fulfilled in terms of my desired wildlife photography. I decided to make the drive further into GTNP for what I hoped would be some interesting photos of the mountains and lake, and then I would head back to Yellowstone.I enjoyed my drive through GTNP to include the Jenny Lake area. With more people now awake, and it being a Saturday morning, the roads seemed quite crowded with people, cars and bicycles. It should be noted that if you enjoy bike riding out in the wild, this park is a great place to do that! There are numerous trails and bike paths; many of which are are relatively flat terrain. I did take the drive up to the Signal Mountain Summit, which had a nice view from the top. I was surprised to see so many cyclists heading to the top of what was a rather lengthy, winding road.So back in Yellowstone, my plan was to exit the park through the East Entrance towards Cody. That drive would have me passing by the Mud Volcano area again, so I also stopped there to get some photos (and video) of one of the more active gushing hot springs. I also made a brief stop at the Sulfur Caldron, another very stinky area that I had previously passed before the sun was up.As I exited Yellowstone NP, it was 4:00pm. I wondered about how far I would be able to make it before having to stop for the night. I considered the National Forest campgrounds just outside of the park, but realized that would have me stopping for the night before 6:00pm which seemed like a waste. I pushed on, enjoying the views as I passed through areas known for their bear population. I didn't see any, however, but I did stop along the way to photograph some of the lovely waterfalls that were seen coming out of the side of the mountains along the roadside. Around 4:45pm I was approaching the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Dam. I stopped in for a quick visit at the NPS Visitor Center, as they were getting ready to close at 5:00pm. This is a National Historic Site and open to the public seven days a week and is free. I wish I had more time to explore and take the self-guided tour.Moving on, the town of Cody, Wyoming was just minutes away. I first saw the infamous Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo Grounds and considered over-nighting in Cody in order to take in the evening's show. But since it was only 5:30pm and the show wasn't until 8:00pm, I didn't want to just hang around, especially since as I drove through town, it was apparent the other attractions were already closed for the day. Looking back at it as I write this a week later, I'm sorta sorry I didn't stay and experience a real western rodeo.In Cody I did make a call home to David to let him know I was on the road and heading home. I thought it might be possible to make it back to the nice KOA in Buffalo, Wyoming and that was my plan. I did some quick calculating, figuring that if I could make it that far, that would leave me with around 18 hours of driving to get home sometime on Monday.During my drive on through Wyoming, it was nice to be taking a different route east. This routing not only took me through Cody, but it also avoided all of the construction that I drove through going west. I also got to see a lot of free range livestock including cattle and sheep near Graybull. It was still very hot, with temperatures still in the high 90's at 6:30pm.I jumped on I90 at Sheridan and was able to make the rest of the drive to the Buffalo KOA. I checked in just before the office closed at 9:00pm. Completed zonked from the 500+ miles driven today, I was ready for bed. I did try to access the free WiFi from my campsite but being on the far backside of the property, the signal was too weak to connect.I feel asleep to the DJ spinning wedding music at the hotel next door. Yep that's right . . . there was an outdoor wedding reception next door with music blasting into the Wyoming night. Ah how I already miss the sounds of nature in Yellowstone!
Sunday July 15thI rested well at the KOA in Buffalo, awaking as the sun rose at 5:15am. I got around, straightening out the inside of the van in preparation for my long drive home to Wisconsin. I was showered and on the road by 6:00am. According to Toots (our Garmin GPS device), my ETA home was 11:15pm. I was pretty shocked to think I might actually be able to get home that evening, so that became my goal as I drove the last couple hundred miles through Wyoming and on into South Dakota. In South Dakota, I did want to stop in Wall to take a look around Wall Drug as well as the Minuteman Missile Silo at the 116 Exit from I90.The drive across the heartland was long, flat and hot. By 8:15am it was already 85F and when I arrived at Wall Drug at 10:00am it was 94F. It wasn't much longer before it was zooming over 100 degrees! For the rest of the drive until I got to the Minnesota border at 4:00pm, the temperature fluctuated between 100 and 104, with a spike of 106F just before noon. While there were strong winds, they didn't do much to cool things down as they were hot coming from the south. I was so happy to see the sun lower in the sky as I arrived in La Crosse, Wisconsin - our border with Minnesota along the Mississippi River.There really wasn't much to photograph along the way home. There was a barn quilt that faced I90 that I had seen on my drive the week before, so I did stop on my return through Minnesota to take a photo to send to the Barn Quilt lady who has written a book and is trying to document all of the quilts throughout the United States. Once in Wisconsin, it seemed real possible to make it home that night. I called David to let him know I was still on schedule to get home by midnight.The drive through Wisconsin took a little over four hours, and at times I was doubtful that I could stay awake for the entire distance. All that I could think was how it would really suck if I had to stop in Madison (about 90 miles from home) for the night. I did make it, however, thankful to be home to David and Miss Heidi.For the day, I drove 1095 miles in roughly 16 hours. All totaled, I logged just over 3,800 miles on this most excellent road trip.I loved Yellowstone National Park and hope to do it again some day. Badlands National Park and Grand Teton National Park were nice additions, but I could do without Custer State Park on any future jaunt across South Dakota. I would also encourage folks to consider the time to stop by the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Wall, SD as well.America is a remarkably diverse country with a variety of landscape, environments and wildlife. This trip reminded me of just how fortunate I am to live here, in such close proximity with the flora and fauna that makes the USA unique to so many other places on the planet.
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