Yellowstone was the goal for our whole honeymoon road trip. Before we planned anything, all we wanted was for the first National Park to be the objective destination for us to hit. We arrived on the evening of May 13th to our little cabin on five acres in the Wapiti Valley. I found the cabin on HomeAway.com and Sandi, who helped us book it was amazing. Positioned right in between Cody, WY and the East Entrance to Yellowstone, it was a perfect hold up for a few days.
On our drive through US-16, we drove through Greybull, WY. I include this as a cautionary tale… the cops lurk there in hidden holes. I saw the sign ahead that said 45mph, so I sped up to that speed…. Mr. Handle-bar-mustache-my-brother’s- the-town-judge informed me otherwise and gave me a hefty ticket. We have towns in FL where the local cops make all their revenue off of speed traps – I should’ve known better.
Once we got to our cabin in Wapiti Valley, we immediately pulled everything out of the car, which admittedly had begun to smell like an old shoe after 2,700 miles and 45 hours of driving (FYI, stock up on air fresheners if undertaking such a trip), and headed for the park. As we were driving through the Shoshone National Forest, we saw our first buffalo. They are the most majestic, peaceful beings I’ve ever seen – they are enormous, can outrun and kill you if you mess with them, but they are just adorable. We jokingly said, “Looks like someone let a bison out of the park,” and had a good laugh. When we got to the entrance to pay our fee ($25 for a week, which is ridiculously cheap for all that you can see), the ranger told us how tourists have let them know that “[their] bison had escaped,” along with, “the animals in the park are all tame right?”
These comments, along with the human interaction with wilderness we’ve seen in the park, have sparked a long discussion between Hasha and myself. Numerous signs tell visitors not to approach wildlife – to stay at least 25 yards from buffalo, and 100 yards from predators such as bears. You know that there is a bear off the road by the massive amount of cars and people crowding the narrow 2-lane roads. The first bear we saw was a momma grizzly and her cub. It was absolute chaos on the road – cars pulled over, and sticking into the road, people all over the side of the highway, people down in the valley trying to get closer to the bear. Not until a ranger came to get the people to move their cars out of the road, and say, “God, summer’s going to be insane,” did it start to break up. It almost feels like an intrusion into a sacred moment of a mother grizzly teaching her cub how to forage – she became a roadside attraction to be gawked at and photographed. And we were a part of it; we are just as much to blame. It’s a fine balance between experience and respect for wild beings, and something that we’re both still trying to understand. Education and immersion are some of the most powerful tools to cultivate conservation in a person’s soul. Getting people into the wild can instill a lifelong love of wild places and conservation, but if they’re there to just take a photo and check off a box, how can we make it more meaningful?
Speaking of immersion, that first evening in the park we drove around for a few hours just to get into the wild. On our way back we saw a lookout at Lake Butte and decided to stop there for a little bit. It was a gorgeous lookout over Lake Yellowstone, and also happened to be the first spot we got cell reception in a few days. As I sat on a rock and checked my emails, Hasha went up a little trail to a higher point. I followed him up a few minutes later and was taking photos of the snow-covered mountains, when he starts fervently whispering “What do I do? What do I do?!” over and over. I looked ahead of us and saw the most beautiful bird all puffed up with a huge fantail running right for us! I told Hasha to just stand still and be quiet – the majestic dusky grouse was just defending his territory. Dusky grouses are one of the largest grouse species in the Americas, and very territorial. Their cousin, the Western sage grouse, is one of the rarest birds in the US, an article in the newspaper the day before in Buffalo, said they’re predicted to be extinct within 10-12 years. Their habitat is impacted by ranching and fossil fuel extraction, pitting them against human “progress.”
This very puffy, very grumpy guy ran up to us and then back into the forest a few feet where he jumped up on a fallen branch and proceeded to make low calls through the gorgeous throat sacs that puffed up with each vibrational call. He then ran to the edge of the cliff, that overlooked the parking spots, and proceeded to jump in the air clapping his wings together – and across the way another one did the same. He would run back and forth between the edge and the fallen branches, repeating his calls and puffing his tail and throat sacs. When the grouse across the way flew over to his side, he immediately charged to the edge… he was meeting a female! He strutted around her and did his calls, but she sadly flew back across the car park to her tree, leaving him looking longing after her. Being a determined little guy, he resumed his charge back to his fallen tree to resume his calls and display his majestic tail. It was one of the most beautiful mating displays I’ve ever seen, and I feel so privileged to have witnessed an this determined little guys attempts to further his species.
The next day was our first full day in the park. Given that a number of the roads were still closed, again most things don’t open till after Memorial Day, we had to take the long way around to see the sites. We chose that day to head west and south to see Old Faithful and the prismatic springs. Taking this route is where we saw the mother grizzly and her cub; we also encountered the smelliest mud volcanoes and thermal features. We’d been to Rotorua in New Zealand, where similar thermal vents open into the Earth’s surface, and where everything smells like sulfur; we figured we’d be prepared for these – boy, were we wrong. The Mud Volcano area was the most putrid smell that has ever graced my olfactory system! I don’t think I can even begin to express its assault on the senses. We also stopped at a few mini geysers and springs. Yellowstone has the largest concentrated collection of geothermic features in the world. I had really wanted to see the Grand Prismatic Spring – the photos of it were stunning – aquas, oranges, greens – the most stunning colours I had ever seen in photos. Sadly, with the temperature hovering around 48 degrees, the steam from the spring muted all of the colours, but it was still a cool sight to behold. We traveled further south to Old Faithful – the most famous geyser in the world. We sat around in a rain storm, with temperatures in the low 40’s – completely under-prepared with our Florida blood and the ponchos we had to buy in the gift shop. When it finally did explode, it was pretty impressive, but I would say that the vistas and geological formations left more of a lasting impression on us.