We had big plans for the third day of our road trip. A visit to Lamar Valley, a wolf watching destination since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. A hike to the summit of Bunsen Peak. Well, do you want to read the "rest of the story"?
Departing the cabin at 7.45 AM, the temperature gauge read 27 degrees. Brrr. Perhaps I should not be surprised that it did not seem to faze the cow elk we observed standing in the Madison River.
Or the bison grazing along the road, as you see in the video below. Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Yellowstone bison are special because they are America's largest bison population on public land and have not been hybridized through breeding with cattle.
By 9 AM, it was snowing. Our truck was still sporting summer tires, so we took it steady. We reached Canyon Village around 9.30 only to find the road north closed. (We assumed because of snow, but I later learned - by reading the Park brochure - that this section of road was closed all year for construction!) This basically ruled out a visit to Lamar Valley, as it would take too much time to reach the Valley through Mammoth Hot Springs and still fit in our plans to hike/visit the Mammoth complex. I abhor backtracking, but there was no alternative. Reaching "new" territory, we headed north from Norris Basin and shortly passed Roaring Mountain.
We tooled along, speculating about the visibility from Bunsen Peak, our chosen hike. A few miles short of the trailhead, we could see red taillights. Hmmm - more wildlife? We pulled up behind a stopped car, the last in a line of at least a dozen vehicles, and the truck skidded slightly sideways. Oh dear. Not good. Ahead, we could see some flashing lights, but not much else through the falling snow. We waited 15 minutes, studying the map and watching several cars turn around and head back south. One paused to talk to us, but couldn't offer any information. We surmised that there was an accident ahead; the map showed the road entering a canyon with twists and turns. Shortly, a plow came southbound, and we made the tough choice to turn and follow it. No Bunsen Peak or Mammoth Hot Springs for us!
Our decision was rapidly affirmed as we squeezed past trucks skewed sideways on the road, and witnessed several vehicles in the ditch. Our day seemed blessed by comparison! We paused at Roaring Mountain for a couple of pictures. Amid the steam and sulfur-rich gases, microscopic organisms are hard at work. This barren slope, inhospitable to humans, is the perfect home for Sulfolobus acidocaldarius. Billion and billions of these thermophiles live here, wearing away the mountain. We also took the opportunity to select another hike - we don't give up easily!
Most of the route to Wolf Lake passed through a tangle of downed trees, among which lodgepole have emerged, sometimes quite thickly. It must have been an intense fire about 20 years ago. We encountered two stream crossings. Downed trees had to serve as make-shift bridges, and with a slick covering of snow, it was tricky!
The sun was shining when we first arrived at Wolf Lake, but suddenly the wind picked up and it began to snow, so we didn't linger. On the return journey, we took a spur to Ice Lake. A log made for a snack spot, as we watched 2 coots bobbing on the lake, and listened to the screeches of a Clark's Nutcracker.The clock read 3.45 when we reached the truck, and the temperature had risen to 37 degrees. We contemplated another attempt at visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, but rejected the idea due to the late hour and the condition of the roads. A bit of a disappointment, but we were soon comforted by the warmth of the cabin and another delicious meal from Head Chef.
October 16: Exploring Teton Valley
In my research of "things to see" for this trip, I read several recommendations for the drive through the Teton Valley for its scenery and quaint towns such as Tetonia, Driggs and Victor. As we departed Island Park, with a temperature of 30 degrees and high winds, we were content to be in the truck for a bit! We hurtled down Highway 20, noticing the numerous signs for snowmobiles - obviously a popular spot for this sport in the winter. We also whizzed by a prominent sign for the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, and a quick consult of the map showed this would not take us much out of our way and could be interesting. So Spousal Unit made a safe U-turn, and I am so glad he did - this road led to the Upper and Lower Mesa Falls - spectacular.
The Upper Falls had an extensive set of boardwalks that provided several vantage points and numerous placards with historic, geological and nature information.
If you would like to see (and hear) the Upper Falls in action, check out this video.As we left the Falls, I was amused to see this snow pole. If you had any doubt about the snowfall they get in these parts, that pole should erase it! (The Lower Falls had only a distant overlook; we could see tiny people who had walked from the Upper Falls. We will have to make time for that walk the next time we come this way.)
Our next destination was the Darby Wind Cave, which I had also discovered during my Internet research. We were pleased to find that the temperature had warmed to a comfortable 42 degrees, and we set off with great anticipation. The trail was remarkably diverse - pine forest, canyon, alpine meadows. About halfway through the hike, you can spy the Wind Cave across the canyon. Can you see it near the middle of the picture to the right? If not, the collage below is from a closer vantage point. Near here, Spousal Unit spotted a bright red bird at the top of a pine tree. I grabbed my binoculars and soon had it in view. Later, I was able to easily identify it as a pine grosbeak.
As we reached the headwall of the canyon, we crossed a dry creek bed and began the final ascent toward the mouth of the cave. At one point, a rope is secured between trees to help hikers pull themselves up a particular steep section. We were grateful for a set of steps that had been constructed to climb the final 30 feet or so. That section was wet and icy and would have been treacherous without them. (The blue speck at left is Spousal Unit.) We had read ahead of time about the highly technical nature of this cave - with steep drop-offs and deep, cold water, most of it should only be explored by experienced spelunkers with full caving equipment. We ventured about 50 feet inside, enough to get an an interior shot and an interesting picture looking out of the cave. (There is a passageway from the drop-offs to a nearby ice cave, which produces a cold wind. This is what lends its name to the Wind Cave.)Looking at the thick brown foliage in the meadows, and the uncountable bare-branched aspen, I could imagine that this hike would be even more jaw-dropping in the summer and early fall. The barren trees make it slightly easier to spot the Clark's nutcrackers and a Steller's Jay, while a hawk lazily circled overhead. The sun came out as we re-traced our steps, and I thoroughly enjoyed the downhill tramp, absorbing the earthy autumn aroma and the pine scent cast into the air by the sun's rays. (In studying the map for this post, I have just realized that while the trailhead for this hike is in Idaho, the cave itself is in Wyoming!)We cruised on down Highway 33, with the Tetons looming on the southeastern horizon. As you reach the summit of Teton Pass (8,431 feet) the valley that encompasses Jackson, Wyoming spreads before you. I literally gasped out loud. My picture of the valley is not the best, but perhaps you can get the general idea.