Sunday, October 01, 2017

Last Day at Yellowstone

On our last full day at Yellowstone, we started early. I don't just mean earlier than the previous day, but also earlier than we thought we did. My new Casio watch was to blame.

Just before leaving for the trip, I bought a new wristwatch whose one flaw is that its hands can only be moved forward while adjusting the time. When we crossed over from Central Time to Mountain Time while driving to Badlands on the first day, I didn't set my watch back by one hour because that would require moving the hands forward by eleven hours. I just thought I'd remember to subtract an hour every time I looked at the watch. I didn't remember it this morning. So when we thought we were leaving a little before our check-out time of 11:00 a.m., it was not yet 10:00 a.m. We realized our mistake sometime later, but we were happy we made it.

Cow elk near Grant Village
Today our first stop was at the Lake Area. There wasn't much to see, apart from the large Lake Hotel facing Yellowstone Lake. In fact, we had been driving next to the lake all the way here. Wikipedia says
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park. The lake is 7,732 feet (2,357 m) above sea level and covers 136 square miles (350 km2) with 110 miles (180 km) of shoreline. While the average depth of the lake is 139 ft (42 m), its greatest depth is at least 390 ft (120 m). Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in North America.
Me in front of Yellowstone Lake
We didn't spend too much time here, but we did take some photos in front of the lake. Then we looked at the map and decided we wanted to do a short hike at the Natural Bridge trail nearby. We hadn't hiked much on this trip so we looked forward to it. We drove to the Natural Bridge trailhead, parked our car and got ready. I took the camera and accessories, and Poulami took her binoculars. We filled our backpacks with trail mix, water bottles and rain ponchos. We put on hats to protect ourselves from the sun, and sprayed ourselves with bug spray. Then we walked to the end of the parking lot and there we saw a sign at the beginning of the hiking trail:
We came back to our car and put our stuff back into the car. Soon we were driving away towards our next destination, the Fishing Bridge.

Fishing Bridge is a small bridge on the Yellowstone River where we spent some time taking photos. Then we drove to the Mud Volcano area which has a handful of hydrothermal features. This place is also one of the most changing places in Yellowstone. The place called "Cooking Hillside", for instance, was a dense forest until 1978. Then there was an earthquake and the ground temperature rose to 94 degrees Celsius. The trees sizzled and toppled one by one until the hill became barren as we see it today. Names of other landmarks, such as Sizzling Basin, Churning Cauldron, Black Dragon's Cauldron, Mud Volcano, Sulfur Cauldron, Sour Lake and Mud Geyser, have equally interesting origin stories. I found the Dragon's Mouth Spring the most interesting of the lot. It is a cave with smoke coming out of it. There is also a constant rumbling roar coming from the inside, accentuated by rhythmical waves of water splashing out. I could almost believe that cave was home to a mythical giant or a real dragon.

Dragon's Mouth Spring
Next we passed Hayden Valley again. By this time we were so used to bison that we didn't even bother to stop. We had seen bison resting at the Mud Volcano area as well. We drove on straight to Artist Point near the Canyon Village. We had seen pictures of the waterfall on Yellowstone River taken from this point and they had looked amazing. On reaching there, however, we had to spend quite some time to park our car. If Yellowstone National Park has one flaw, it's that it is not equipped to adequately handle the amount of visitors it gets. Particularly, if they build a few more restaurants, and keep the existing ones open from morning till night, a lot of that problem can be solved. People don't stick to strict schedules for breakfast, lunch and dinner while on a trip, and so it is odd that restaurants should stick to that schedule and close down during the afternoon while there are people waiting outside to eat.
View from Artist Point
Artist Point is an overlook that juts out from the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and offers a view of the 308-foot tall Lower Falls of the same river a mile away. The waterfall itself is magnificent, and the colourful walls of the canyon provide a fantastic frame for it, making it many times more beautiful. In fact, I can't remember ever seeing a place that looked so beautiful that it looks equally good in all kinds of photos, irrespective of the camera or the photographer that captured it. We spent some time here, taking our own photos, having our photos taken by kind strangers, and kindly taking group photos of strangers.

Next we went to the Canyon Village. We would stay at the Canyon Lodge here for the night, but right now we were only interested in lunch. We left for Lamar Valley after having lunch. Lamar Valley was the last major area that we were going to see in the park. It was famous for a variety of animals, but most notably for wolves. And it was easy to see why Lamar Valley was famous - we came across a big bison herd right by the side of the road as we were entering the valley. A lot of cars had gathered at the place and people were photographing the animals from the roadside. We did the same. There were rangers around to keep an eye on everything. Poulami had always wanted to have a picture with bison in the background, and here we had the perfect opportunity to do that. Although the bison seen in the background of this photo are at what is known as a 'safe distance', had they decided to run for some reason, they would have been on top of us in no time.

Poulami's bison-background photo
Further down the road we saw more bison in the grasslands far away below the road. This place was similar to Hayden Valley - a vast grass-covered plain far below the level of the road, crisscrossed with streams and dotted with occasional trees. As we stopped the car and scanned the valley below, Poulami discovered something light-coloured in the grass with her binoculars and we were momentarily excited thinking it was a wolf. It turned out to be a pronghorn antelope. We saw more pronghorns closer to the road while returning and we were also able to get photos.

Bison herd at Lamar Valley
A little later, we hit the main bison herd. I speak figuratively, of course. There were bison of all sizes on both sides of the road as far as the eyes could see. They were standing, sitting, grazing and blowing up little clouds of dust close to the road. The traffic slowed to a crawl, and from time to time, even stopped long enough to allow me to take the camera from Poulami and click a few pictures on my side of the road. We passed through this place and then came to a part of the valley where there was a river by the road. There were people hiking and fishing here, and we felt that really destroyed any chances of us seeing bears and wolves. So we decided to turn back from this point. And while returning, we had our first bison-on-the-road moment of the trip.

 As I mentioned above, we faced quite a lot of traffic while going. However, while returning, we didn't face that much of traffic. As we approached the area where the most bison were grazing, we saw bison cross the road in ones or twos in the distance. Cars were avoiding them by moving to the other lane because there was little oncoming traffic at this time. Suddenly, there was some activity in the herd to our right and about twenty of the animals stampeded towards the road, just ahead of our car. Now I have bicycled among a stampeding herd of (domestic) buffalo in Allahabad during my school days, but I was young and silly in those days. Although I was in my car now, these were wild bison and I wouldn't want a score of these animals charging at my car.

I want to make it clear that the bison here were not aggressive towards us, or attacking us. In fact, all evidence seemed to suggest that they didn't even see us. But just because there were so many of them and they were starting to climb on to the road about 50 feet from us, I slammed on the brakes and waited. There were no other cars on the road for at least a quarter of a mile in either direction. As the first few animals climbed on the road and turned to face our car, I put the car in reverse and started backing up, and stopped again, unsure of what to do. Then, I saw the other car in the rear-view mirror.

It was a white SUV with the National Park Service logo on it. It came from behind us, passed our car and stopped close to the bison - probably about ten feet from the front of the herd. Then a ranger put his hand out through the window and waved a white piece of cloth. The bison seemed terrified of it and they scattered back into the grass. The SUV started again and we followed it. We were not bothered by the bison anymore that evening. We saw a dead bison at one point while driving, and although we didn't realize it at the moment, it could have provided us an excellent opportunity to see wolves or bears had we waited on the road and kept watch on the carcass. However, we decided to drive on.

We saw one more animal that evening. Before leaving Lamar Valley, we saw a large crowd of people on a bridge, looking at something down in the river below. It seemed like an ideal place to see bears safely, and we were very excited. As I found parking by the road and we walked towards the bridge, we met a man returning from there. "What did you see?" I asked eagerly. "There is some sort of animal," he replied, "but I don't know what it is." Finally, when we peered over the railing and looked down at the river below, we saw a pair of beavers swimming in the water. Later they came up on the bank and gave me opportunity to take pictures. The gentleman standing next to me had a professional-looking camera on a huge tripod with an immense camouflage-covered telephoto lens attached. With every press of the shutter, his camera shot off at least half a dozen frames. He looked most comical shooting the beaver when it was right below us, and at one point I thought his camera was going to topple over the railing and fall to the riverbed below. However, we didn't wait for it to happen, because we were tired and hungry.

The Chinese dinner at the Canyon Village was a welcome change, and we took it to our room in the Canyon Lodge. We also brought some grocery supplies for our onward journey. This lodge was the best one on this trip so far and the room was nice with a view of the parking lot. We even saw some deer from our window. We turned in soon, because we wanted to leave early next morning for Grand Teton National Park.

Next morning, we started at six, when it was still dark. We were driving to the Jenny Lake campground in Grand Teton National Park and we wanted to secure a campsite at this most coveted first-come-first-serve campground in the park. The drive was expected to be two and a half hours, but we faced unexpected problems right after we started. First, there was dense fog and second, there were bison on the road. I had to drive very slowly to avoid them. As we crossed Hayden Valley, we had to stop for bison crossing the road in the headlights of idling cars in the fog. Later on, we avoided bison several times, walking about absent-minded on the road. At one place, we found a bison walking towards us in our (right) lane, and some idiot was driving a car in the oncoming (left) lane at the same speed as the bison, so that they could stay alongside it. People inside the car were taking photos. I could neither pass by the bison on our lane, nor go to the other lane and hit the oncoming car, so I just stopped and waited. The bison would have probably walked by our car if it had reached us, but when it was about twenty feet away, the driver of the other car sped up and left, leaving me free to bypass the bison via the oncoming lane.

Bison crossing in the fog
As we drove by the Yellowstone River, the fog rising off the water presented a pretty picture. I mostly ignored it because I wanted to reach that campground on time, but when the sun showed itself, like a giant egg yolk, over the treetops on the far bank of the river, I decided I needed to stop and capture this scene. So we stopped at a suitable pullout and photographed the sunrise.
Sunrise over Yellowstone River
Then, as the sun rose higher over the treetops and the first rays hit the leaves, we exited Yellowstone through its south entrance and sped southwards. The word 'sped' is just used in a manner of speaking, of course. The area between Yellowstone and Grand Teton is also full of the same animals that live in the parks, and so I still had to drive slowly. Just seven miles after leaving Yellowstone, we found a sign welcoming us to Grand Teton National Park. After a brief break and selfie-session, we entered Grand Teton National Park and proceeded towards Jenny Lake campground.

(To be continued...)

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