Thursday, July 19, 2012

Post 047 - America's Serengeti

This is a continuation of "How did I get here" posts, answering that question from post 041, but given this is about Yellowstone National Park, a world class destination, it deserves its own title.

The ride back up through the switchbacks to the crest of Beartooth Pass was smooth and clear. The weather was pleasantly cool, the sky free of clouds, and the traffic almost nonexistent. I could not have ordered a better morning.

I did not stop at the summit, but cruised down the other side. It was drier passing through the alpine meadows on the Wyoming side. The smell of pine and sage was not as strong, but the memories lingered. It was just as lovely.

I came to the turn for Chief Joseph Highway. My new route was right, west, snaking along the Wyoming-Montana border. It had taken me about an hour and a half to get here from Red Lodge. More quickly than I would have guessed.

I cruised the mountain valley road into the little towns of Cooke and Silver Gate, both in Montana, before reaching Yellowstone's northeast entrance in Wyoming. The paved roads in Yellowstone form a large wide figure 8. My plan was to establish a campsite at one end and do a loop, then go to another campground at the other end and do a different loop. I planned to spend many days. Many to me is four.

Just inside the Gatehouse is a large sign listing all the campgrounds. Most had the word "Full" attached. I hadn't anticipated this. One, Tower Falls, had space and was close, so I headed for it. I connected with Yellowstone's Loop Road at Roosevelt Lodge. Teddy R. liked to camp here. Today they have many cabins and horse stables, also a restaurant. There is a gas station nearby. Tower Falls Campground is only 2.5 miles away.

Yellowstone is America's Serengeti. The geology is fascinating, but nowhere else can you be stopped by herds of buffalo, antelope, elk, sheep, or bear. I started seeing buffalo soon after passing through forest into open field. Ones, and twos grazing on grass just off the highway. Then a whole heard lounging lazily further off in a field. Long horn antelope leapt along and then paused to graze. One coyote scurried through the grass on a mission.

It was not until the morning of my second day that I saw a bear. It was young and sleeping next to a tree, cute and innocent. A phalanx of cars and people blocked the road to get a view. My philosophy is, 'let sleeping bears lie.' I moved on. I would see two more bears, another young one loping happily in a field of grass and a mature grizzly on a hill side grazing. The second bear was very large. I was glad to be a good distance away.

I did not see any elk or big horn sheep. I drove slowly through areas where I thought I might, but none awaited my arrival.

From Roosevelt Lodge I drove up the hill along crumbling cliffs to a pull-off with with a store and gift shop that provides parking for folks to go see Tower Falls. It was packed. Parking was nearly impossible, hard for a motorcycle, impossible for an RV and there were many RVs.

I parked in a narrow space between two vehicles I hoped would not move while I was there. I marched along with dozens of other tourists to the Tower Falls viewing area, took my picture, and marched back. I was uncomfortable. The drive in had been relaxing, but this did not feel like being in nature. It felt like Disneyland.

The road to the campground is across the road from here. I went up it and immediately ran into the campground hosts, a happy couple. Yes, there were a couple of spots left. I could have my choice. I selected the last 'real' campsite, not a place in a picnic area and not in the 'biker/hiker' area. It was exposed and hot, but everything was exposed and hot. There was no reprieve.

About 'biker/hiker' camping areas, this became an issue for me. Greg, the host at Tower Falls said I could use the 'biker/hiker' area since I was on a bike. I had assumed bike meant bicycle. No, he said, it's first come, first serve. Okay, good to know.

Let me jump ahead and say this: biker does mean bicycle in every other campground in Yellowstone. I booked into the last space available many miles away from Tower Falls only to discover after driving up that I could not take it. No motorcycles. This caused me an additional 40 mile drive to another primitive campground. Primitive meaning compost toilets and no showers. I could have stayed at Tower Falls for that and saved the hassle of packing and unpacking.

After setting up camp at Tower Falls I drove west to Mammoth Hot Springs. The western side of Yellowstone is the geologically active area from Mammoth in the north on down to West Thumb in the south. Open fields and forests alternated along the road. There are many pull-outs and trails. It was late afternoon and hot. Not the best time to see grazing animals. I did find one old bull buffalo laying on its side in dirt next to a shallow pool. There was no shade, but the occasional roll in the dirt seemed to make it happy. Little birds came and rested on it looking for bugs in its fir. All was in balance.

I sat down and waited for the buffalo to do something spectacular I could photograph, like jumping jacks. The closest it came was shifting from its left side to its right without standing up. It took great effort and snorting. The birds kept their distance until it settled down again. A cloud of dust settled over the scene, the birds returned, all was back in balance.

Given the odd location where I pulled off to find this watering hole, I was the only one there. This is a rarity in Yellowstone. I was alone with a buffalo. So I sat there and in time began talking to it. The thoughts were whirring around in my mind, I just let them out so he could hear. My verbiage had no effect, positive or negative. There was only the occasional rub in the dirt. Not once did he get up for a dunk in the water. I ran out of things to say and told him so. With that he rolled up into a sitting position and stuck his tongue out at me.

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