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A Mostly Yellowstone Report


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Our only previous trip to Yellowstone was in February of 2006. Our winter trip was magical and I would highly recommend it. The northern road through the park from Gardiner to Cooke City Montana is open year round and snowcoaches operate to other areas of the park.


After that first trip we had talked about returning in a different season but somehow never got around to it. It was a conversation with @@Atdahl and his wife who we met up with in Tucson in January about their upcoming spring trip that really got the ball rolling. I remember "bears" and “baby animals” being mentioned several times :) Once we got home we started looking at possible dates. We knew we wanted to travel fairly early in the spring season to beat the crowds (I had read about the increased visitation in recent years and with this year being the US National Park centennial we were a bit concerned) but not so early that it would be too limiting in where we could go. The second week of May seemed to fit the bill as the road through Hayden Valley was scheduled to open on May 6th and the road to the south entrance would open on the 13th as we traveled down to the Grand Tetons.


We drove out from Carmel on May 4th and this is roughly the route we took with an overnight stop in Incline Village on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, another overnight in Elko Nevada and a couple of nights in Ketchum Idaho before reaching Yellowstone on the 8th.




We arrived on the north shore of Lake Tahoe on a cloudy and drizzly afternoon.



The next morning it snowed which then turned into downpours as we dropped down in elevation. As a matter of fact the forecast for the trip as far out as I could check looked terrible at this point with stormy weather every day and we started to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into!



In the end we really lucked out and didn't run into much foul weather and the snow day at Yellowstone was gorgeous and blissfully peaceful.

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Our main reason for the overnight in Elko was to break up the drive as we like to keep our drives to 6 hours max and preferably closer to 4. Lamoille Canyon about 30 minutes south of Elko was an added bonus. In early May the road wasn't fully open but we were able to travel far enough to see some of the beauty of this glacier carved canyon.





We got our first glimpse of yellow-bellied marmots here but they ran off quickly and this was what we were left with.


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A first sighting of yellow-bellied marmot excrement. Nice way to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the US National Parks! John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt would find that amusing. So do I!


How early in the season did you go?


Looking forward to more celebrations.

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Neither of us had ever been to Idaho before so instead of just driving through we decided to take a slight detour. The Sawtooth Mountains and Craters of the Moon looked interesting and the little ski town of Ketchum seemed like a good base to see both. Despite it being off season with many restaurants closed, we had the most delicious food of our trip in this town.


Downtown Ketchum



Trout at Town Square Tavern



Morel, asparagus and egg linguine at Warfield Distillery


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We spent the good part of a day driving through the Sawtooth National Forest stopping for lunch in the town of Stanley.


Some of the many pronghorn we saw here.



A sandhill crane



Redfish Lake



More Sawtooth scenery



As I was taking photos of the mountain scenery, I heard what sounded like a mini rock slide behind me. I looked back to see if I needed to quickly move out of the way and it turned out to be a yellow-bellied marmot running down the cliff side.






He politely posed before scurrying into a hole.


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@@Patty Really enjoying this TR - the marmot is very cute and the Sawtooth scenery is magnificent.

Edited by Treepol
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our family trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons was in summer quite a few years ago, and was one of my favorite trips. I've since wanted to go back in winter, and though I know you were there in Spring, I look forward to seeing it in snow and hearing of what you saw. We live not far from you in California but when we went, we wanted to spend the least time getting there and we only stopped one night - in Idaho Falls I think it was, though it doesn't look on your map like that is halfway and I thought it was! Love the little yellow-bellied marmot!

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Really excited to see this, as my first trip to Glacier and Yellowstone starts in fifteen weeks! ( Not that I am counting or anything!!! ) Looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip.

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One of the places on my bucket list, I'll be reading this one and taking notes thank you.

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Also on my list. Thanks for the report- very nice start.

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There's your yellow bellied marmot in the flesh! Nice to include Idaho, since you were in the neighborhood.


Thanks for the dates. Do you think those are good dates to choose? Of course every Spring is different and Springs are less predictable than other times of year.

Edited by Atravelynn
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@@SafariChick Idaho Falls is nowhere near halfway! :D


@@Seniortraveller Glacier is still on my list.


@@Atravelynn Yes I think that week worked out well for us. We had everything from 80 degrees to snow. It's a good time for bears as we saw them at all times of day. I believe as it gets toward summer they move higher in elevation and aren't out as much during the heat of the day. We saw lots of bison calves but were a little too early for calves of elk, pronghorn, etc. so if you want to see more babies, later in May or early June might be better but the tradeoff will be more people. Here's an article about the increased visitation to Yellowstone http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/economy/yellowstone-park-superintendent-talks-tourists-park-growth/article_8b0bd5d3-946a-5249-b1c9-2d9cc554b5f4.html We never had more than one or two cars in front of us at the park entrances the week we were there. The only crowds we encountered were at bear and wolf sightings and we were able to avoid the worst of it by getting out early. Later in the day the bear jams became harder for the rangers to control. @@Atdahl was there the week after us so it will be interesting to compare notes.


Thanks everyone else for your comments and for following along.

Edited by Patty
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On Sunday we started our drive to Yellowstone making a stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument.







There's a local push for national park status and a news van showed up while we were at the viewpoint so both of us ended up on Boise news http://www.kivitv.com/news/craters-of-the-moon-a-push-for-idahos-1st-national-park with Mark walking back down the cinder cone at 1:14 and me taking photos at 3:33.

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@@Patty ha ha I know! Ok I think I might know what we did - we stopped somewhere else overnight that was more halfway, and stopped for lunch in Idaho Falls - I think that was it!

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We made another stop at Harriman State Park and had our picnic lunch at Silver Lake.



We passed many parks, lakes and wilderness areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that looked interesting and wished we had more time to explore. By early afternoon we reached the West Yellowstone entrance. We're here! And our first sighting is of some bison by the Madison River.



We slowly meandered our way toward Gardiner Montana where we spent the next 4 nights. The only in park accommodations open at this time of year are at Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful. We did spend one night at Old Faithful after Gardiner but didn't see a big advantage to staying at Mammoth over Gardiner as we knew we'd be heading to Gardiner to eat, grocery shop, etc. anyway. We also debated staying in Cooke City to be closer to Lamar Valley but since Dunraven Pass was still closed at the time of our visit, it would've made it harder to get to other areas of the park from Cooke City. And Yellowstone is BIG! It takes a lot of time to cover different areas of the park. Every park we went to after Yellowstone on this trip seemed tiny in comparison. If we'd had more time we probably would've split our stay between Gardiner and Cooke City but in the end it really didn't matter because there was good wildlife viewing throughout the northern section of the park.


Gibbon Falls



Artists Paintpots area



A mule deer



Mammoth area



Elk at Mammoth



Really relaxed elk bedding down next to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel



A ranger came by and moved people to the other side of the road



We arrived in Gardiner, checked into the Super 8 and restocked our picnic supplies. The one small grocery store in Gardiner is fairly well stocked and had a much better selection than the markets inside the park. They also had hot prepared food like roast chicken, ribs and various side dishes which we found useful on a couple of nights when we were too tired to venture out to eat. I had tried to find a room or cabin with a kitchen but most of the popular places were already booked at the beginning of the year. Quite a few people return to the park regularly and book their favorite places far in advance. The Super 8 turned out to be fine and was also full during our stay.





It was 80 degrees when we got to Gardiner but the forecast for the following day was much cooler weather with rain starting mid-morning and turning into snow in the evening. The woman who checked us in said this was normal weather for May.

Edited by Patty
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I used the forums at Yellowstone.net for planning and sighting information. There weren't too may reports prior to our arrival but I did find out about a carcass at Blacktail Pond, another carcass just west of Lamar Buffalo Ranch and a wolf den at Slough Creek. We found the forums at YNet and talking to other people at sightings to be the best source of information. The park rangers at the entrance stations and visitor centers did not have much sighting information to offer. The rangers who roam the park probably have better information but they always seemed to be busy with crowd control and enforcement.


We set out early on Monday morning thinking that we'd get a few good hours before the day became rained out. Getting out early was pretty much our plan each day and it worked out well. Some days we'd go back to the motel and rest mid-day and head back out later in the afternoon. Other days we were exhausted and never made it back out in the evening. At 5am there's no one manning the entrance station but there were always other wildlife watchers already in the park.


Our first "red dog" (bison calf) was seen crossing the road in the early morning.



Followed by some elk



Then at Blacktail Pond we saw our first grizzly!



He was near but not feeding on the carcass.



And decided to go for a swim



Here's the Blacktail Pond area. We stayed until he crossed to the other side and became hard to see.


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Continuing on we ran into a bison herd with more red dogs.



And I finally found a good use for my sunroof!



We headed down Slough Creek Road and saw the wolf watchers with their scopes out. We had purchased a cheapie scope prior to our trip but were immediately offered the use of two scopes before we'd even gotten ours out. A black female of the Junction Butte pack was resting just outside of the den. She was barely a speck through binos and still hard to make out through the scope mostly because she only raised her head once the whole time we were watching. But still, our first wolf sighting! Here's a photo from a different day. In the middle of the 3 clumps of trees (not the trees on the ridge) is where the den is.



We did find some nice bison bulls nearby.



We continued and found the carcass before Buffalo Ranch but there were only ravens there and then had our picnic breakfast by Soda Butte Creek where a uinta ground squirrel posed for us.



We scanned Barronette Peak and found some mountain goats (too far to photograph) and exited the northeast entrance. On our winter trip we were unable to drive beyond Cooke City so we wanted to see what this area looked like. Shortly after Colter campground there was a red fox mousing near the road.











We were delighted to watch a successful hunt and were the only people around.



We proceeded as far as the intersection of the Beartooth and Chief Joseph highways before turning around (the Beartooth was open for another 17 miles past this point). The scenery was just breathtaking.



Returning into the park we saw some pronghorn.



We returned to the Mammoth area and had a mediocre lunch in the Mammoth hotel dining room (there's also an order at the counter grill and the market serves burgers, hot dogs, etc. here). The one good thing about lunch was their strong coffee and we finished another pot. After lunch we decided to head to the Canyon area. There was some exciting grizzly/wolf interaction at Otter Creek on Saturday so we were hoping we might get a glimpse of something. On the way we ran into a bison jam.



Things turned out to be pretty quiet in the area so we decided to go see Lower Falls and called it a day.



We considered ourselves very lucky for only running into one brief shower and it started to flurry when we got back to Gardiner.

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Fantastic photos of the red fox and how lucky to get that all to yourself.

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Tuesday, snow day!


It was still flurrying in Gardiner when we woke up in the morning but there had been no accumulation at this lower elevation. We decided to check out Yellowstone Lake and were treated to snowscapes in the park.




Otter Creek



Yellowstone Lake



Yellowstone Lake from Lake Butte Overlook



Picnic area in front of the still closed Lake Lodge.



Thank goodness they set aside one bear safe table for us! :D This morning was in the 20's and we wondered why neither of us thought to pack a thermos with hot food as we ate our cold picnic breakfast.



On our way back we stopped to look for harlequin ducks at LeHardy Rapids.



Things were pretty quiet in terms of both animals and people through Hayden Valley and we returned to Gardiner and split an elk pizza at Yellowstone Pizza Company for lunch.


Edited by Patty
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We set out in the afternoon and made Mammoth our first stop to look for the great horned owl nest I'd heard about. We inquired at the visitor center and were directed to the wrong location and wrong tree species. To the ranger's credit she did say she hadn't seen it herself and wasn't exactly sure where it was. As were we scanning the wrong trees wondering how we were unable to find the nest (it's a great big owl so it must be a great big nest, right?), Ken from Yellowstone Safari Company walks up behind us and asks us what we're looking at. Nothing we said but we're trying to find the owl nest. He kindly directs us to the correct tree where the great big nest was easy to find :)



We chatted with Ken and he made sure we knew about the grizzly at Blacktail and wolves at Slough Creek. Then he told us the general location to look for black bears (near Tower) as we hadn't seen one yet adding that he hadn't seen one that morning. We thanked him, parted ways and made our way toward Tower where right on cue we ran into a bear jam.



There was a black bear on the hillside and Ranger John was doing an admirable job of maintaining order, keeping cars and people off of and on the other side of the road, whereas I may have been tempted to just bear spray the whole crowd :P It was here that we also first heard the story about the bison calf that some tourists had put in their car because they thought it was orphaned :huh:



We went back to Slough Creek but no wolves were out. In Lamar we came across some bighorn ewes.





They eventually made their way down and crossed the road in front of us.



Near the Yellowstone River we found the bighorn rams.



Coming back through Tower, we got a better view of the same black bear that had moved to the other side of the road. Ranger John asked everyone to stay in their cars not so much due to the bear but because he was worried about cars hitting people coming around a bend in the road. I could understand his concern. While we were in the park, there were incidents of people driving into a meadow to get a better look at bison and someone rolled their SUV over pulling into a parking lot (it was dry and sunny). :o



On returning past Blacktail Pond, there was a different carcass with what we were told was a different grizzly napping by it. A bald eagle was waiting nearby.



The grizzly looked up a few times and went back to napping.


Edited by Patty
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You did a fine job with the big horns. I am surprised at the #s in the park at the time you went. The behavior you describe of some of those people is not surprising. Bear spray the whole crowd! I nominate you for ranger!

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Superintendent Dan Wenk gave a speech on May 19th in which he stated visitation was up 60% to date this year.


I forgot to add that we had a nice dinner at Raven Grill in Gardiner on Wednesday night. It's the only somewhat more upscale restaurant in town. It was fairly busy so I'd definitely make reservations in season.

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We started Wednesday morning by returning to Blacktail. We were the first car on the scene and as others arrived we pointed out the location of the sleeping blob. It was dark but he was easy to find as he was exactly where we left him the previous day.


Dawn bear patrol



We positioned ourselves on the opposite hillside and watched him wake up and feed.



By the time we left there were only a total of 6 cars. This wouldn't be the case later on in the day.



We stopped at Slough Creek again to scan for wolves. While we didn't find any wolves we did spot a grizzly bear in the distance. We set up our scope to get a better look and a few other people got a quick look through our scope before it disappeared past a ridge. So far we're finding it much easier to see bears than wolves. There were wolf sightings at other locations in the park but we kept missing them. Farther in Lamar we stopped for another distant grizzly sighting.


On the recommendation of a couple we met at Blacktail this morning, we decided to have breakfast at the Log Cabin Cafe in Silver Gate.



Freshly cooked trout and eggs sounded and tasted a lot better than yesterday's breakfast.



We continued along the Beartooth and spotted possibly the same red fox in the same general location. Once past Cooke City we hardly saw another person.



We took a short hike in the national forest area outside of the park (with our bear spray of course!) and it was nice to get out and stretch our legs. Many of the trail areas in the northern section of the park were closed due to bear or wolf activity.



Returning to the park we found another example of what not to do.



Near Tower there was a cinnamon colored black bear.



We decided to return to Gardiner to rest mid-day. On our way out passing Blacktail, we saw the worst bear jam so far. There were at least 25 cars with half of them parked blocking the road and lots of people out on the ridge to get a better view of the bear. There was a ranger car there but I don't know if they were unsuccessful getting people to move their cars, waiting for backup or just gave up. We didn't bother to stop.


While we had every intention of returning to the park in the late afternoon, we never made it back out. For dinner we split another pizza at Yellowstone Pizza Company.

Edited by Patty
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Thursday started out as another early day. As we were moving to the Old Faithful area today, we figured this might be our last chance to spot wolves so we headed out to the carcass near Buffalo Ranch first to give it one more try. A lone skittish coyote showed up.





Bison by Soda Butte



We spotted a lone moose near Pebble Creek.



And stopped where some people were scanning and were somewhat deflated to find out it's only a distant grizzly. We're getting jaded at this point :P


Back at Slough Creek there were 30 or more cars along the road today so we figure something must be happening. Three wolves from the Junction Butte pack were spotted along the hillside though they were still quite far away.



See the hill on the right? That's where they were. We only got a quick glimpse before they disappeared out of sight but did enjoy watching some bison and pronghorn from this vantage point.



We decided this was a good time to eat breakfast. The road which was partially open earlier in the week had fully opened and we found a picnic area at the end. We also found a second bathroom at the end. This is very important because up until this time, the lone bathroom at the beginning of the road always had a line. Slough Creek was also one of the few areas in the park with cellular reception. Picnic tables, check, bathroom, check, cell service, check. What more could you want while waiting for wolves to show themselves?


Upon arriving at the park, I had searched for an updated wolf chart but none were to be found. The 2016 charts had not arrived yet and no one had leftover 2015 charts to sell. At the Canyon visitor center, I finally found a ranger who produced a map of pack ranges from last year that I could photograph.


Edited by Patty
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