Monday, June 27, 2011

Postcards from the Road (My Birthday Trip Part 2)

When we last left our intrepid heroine and hero, they were sleeping in a little motel in West Yellowstone. Stuffed with tasty barbecue and beer from a local restaurant, neither one slept incredibly well because it was snowing outside. Only little flurries, but still. It was snowing and they knew they were going to be spending the next few nights in a tent.

(I can hear everyone saying in their heads "Okay, enough with the dramatic foreshadowing!" I'll stop. Sorry about that.)

We were also nervous because we were heading into the park without a reserved spot in any specific campground. There were several good reasons for this, but the main one was that we wanted to camp in a smaller, quieter campground i.e., one where they don't allow the really big RVs. Nothing against RVs, but they are loud. All the smaller campgrounds were first-come-first-served, no reservations. So our plan was to get up fairly early to drive straight into the park, so we'd get our pick of campsites. Then we'd set up camp, and go get groceries and start exploring.

Yellowstone National Park

When you enter Yellowstone from the west, you drive through the Targhee National Forest. I'm still dying to know if the name is in any way related to the Targhee breed of sheep.

Our fears about the campground filling up were unfounded. We set up camp in the Norris campground, in one of the walk-in sites. A walk-in site might sound like a lot of work, but it really just meant that we carried our gear about 200 feet away from the campground road and got a little closer to the undeveloped part of the campground.

Yellowstone National Park

A beautiful little river winds back and forth through a little valley along one edge of Norris. The picture above is what it looked like on the day we arrived. By the end of our trip, the river was swollen with snowmelt and much of this muddy marshy ground would look smooth and glassy with the extra water.

Yellowstone National Park

Camping in Yellowstone was significantly different from most of my other camping experiences in a few ways. One was the wildlife, which Yellowstone has in abundance. We saw lots of bison (they were everywhere, and thrice we waited in a traffic jam for a herd to finish crossing the road:


We also saw a few yellow-bellied marmots, including this one who politely posed for us:

We saw elk:

and bears (!):

I'm pretty sure the bears were grizzlies, which is cool because I've never seen them in the wild before. It's hard to tell in the picture, but there's a mama bear and two cubs. We saw them on the warmest day of our trip, and they were pretty much just finding a sunny spot in the meadow for their mid-day nap.

The best wildlife experience we had was on Saturday morning. We woke up a bit late, and were finishing up our morning coffee when two little girls came up the path, squealing "Look, look!" and pointing out towards the river. We both turned just in time to see a fat, sleek river otter jump out of the river, run past the bend, and hop back in where it turned straight. There was no time for either of us to grab a camera. The girls' mom apologized to us for disturbing us, but I told her we wouldn't have seen the otter otherwise. I've never been camping and felt so surrounded by wildlife.

On the first two nights we heard wolves howling to each other.


Another difference was swimming: I can't remember a single childhood camping trip that did not involve swimming in rivers, lakes, or the Pacific Ocean. At Yellowstone in early June the rivers were all too cold (believe me, I checked), and the hot springs are off-limits (you can get burned by extremely hot water). And speaking of hot springs, another aspect of the park that I wasn't used to was the boardwalk-style trails around the thermal features. It made sense after reading the first warning sign about how the ground can be thin and fragile around a boiling hot spring (see aforementioned burn warnings), but this California native has always associated "real hiking" with unpaved trails through dense forest. The boardwalk trails felt a bit like cheating. Yellowstone, I later realized, is an old, and very well-developed and well-maintained park. We saw more than one wheelchair-bound person who was able to enjoy being immersed in nature because of those boardwalk trails.

So we spent the next four days exploring. Friday night was cold, but Saturday morning dawned clear and sunny. We saw the Yellowstone River, hiked along the huge canyon that cuts through the middle of the park, learned how to spot thermal features with our eyes and noses, and marveled at how much difference 1,000 feet of elevation makes. At the lower-elevation points in the park, it really felt like late spring, but one trail we tried to hike was too covered in snowdrifts for us to attempt it (the fact that it's called "Ice Lake" should probably have tipped us off). Originally, I'd thought that we would see if we could rent a canoe and row out on Lake Yellowstone, but that was also not in the cards:

Yellowstone National Park

Sunday was definitely the hottest day, but "hottest" just meant that I didn't have to layer leggings under my jeans until the sun went down. Monday was my actual birthday, so we planned for a long (for us) hike and a nice dinner at one of the lodges. The weather looked nice again, although the forecast for Tuesday was not promising. We packed trail mix, hard-boiled eggs, apples, and lots of water, and did a very strenuous (again, for us) climb up to this lovely lake:

Yellowstone National Park

After the hike we relaxed with the thought that we wouldn't have to wash dinner dishes in the dark, but we could also smell damp in the air. The weather forecast was a 70% chance of rain. And the lodge was at lower elevation than our campsite, so if it rained there we might get snowed on overnight. Every night so far, I'd worn the following to sleep in: long johns, flannel pj pants, knee-high wool socks, a tank top, a long-sleeved shirt, and a wool sweater. All this inside a sleeping bag rated for 10ºF. The thought of it getting even colder that night... but we're campers! Husbeast is an eagle scout! We've both been camping for as long as we can remember, surely we're not THAT spoiled by California weather, right?

I'll cut to the chase. We woke up to this view from the cabin on Tuesday morning:


We may be spoiled, but damn it felt good to take a hot shower and sleep really soundly that night. Stay tuned for Part 3, the journey home!

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