Bears, wolves, geysers and homo sapiens: Yellowstone has it all in abundance

Yellowstone, the American Serengeti, has lots to offer but it isn’t for those with crowd-phobia, at least in the summer. So my first order of business in Yellowstone was to somehow adapt to seeing these masses of homo sapiens that pile here like dry fall leaves that you just can’t seem to rack up! Saying that I passed with flying colors would be a complete exaggeration but I managed well enough to enjoy all the wildlife and scenery of Yellowstone.

My pleasant crowd-phobia teacher

My pleasant crowd-phobia teacher

This is a long post, making up for 2 weeks so let me start by sharing a  shot of a typical river valley and mountain vista in Yellowstone:

Bighorn Pass at Sunrise

Before I get into the plentiful wildlife, I’ll share a few tales of our hikes in the park. Lamar valley below is absolutely gorgeous and one cannot help but think of Wild West as you walk through it looking at bison herds.

Lamar River overlooking Bliss Pass

The trek up Buffalo Plateau on the northern fringes of Yellowstone was anything but a ‘walk in the park’. We hiked straight uphill for almost 11 kms in blazing heat and sun. The prize was the ever better view of the Rockies surrounding the park; strange that the actual designated campsite was another grueling 2 kms OFF the trail into bug capital with NO view even of open space let alone alpine valleys! Note to self: do not camp at site 2B1!

Trek up Buffalo Plateau

Taking rest at one of the few 'trail markers'

Our front country camp at Slough creek was the best the park has to offer (if you can manage to get a spot and ward off stalkers) and was right by the beautiful creek and surrounded by mountains and offered some of best wildlife viewing opportunities, we saw a black bear right next to camp one beautiful morning.

Slough Creek camp

We also toured the Mammoth Hot Springs which makes for a great trip since all the sulfur in the air makes it hard to distinguish any other sort of wind. It wasn’t me! I swear!

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs - no bathing here!

Let’s start with wildlife then: first up is Grizzly bears , the BIGGEST reason for me personally to make this pilgrimage. Coming from east, Yellowstone is the first place in North America where you can witness these gentle giants in their natural setting. Two things to note about that sentence: 1) ‘gentle’ giants and 2) natural setting.

The first hints to the fact that there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the Great bear and its ferociousness and tales that any close encounters end up in injury to one of the parties. These are in reality our perceptions of the bear and couldn’t be further from reality. There are hundreds of told and untold tales of peaceful encounters where the bear was minding its own business so long as we observed the mutual respect and did not let the bear feel threatened.

Grizzly mother and cubs peacefully grazing sage brush

Grizzly mother and cubs peacefully grazing sage brush

Bears have a lot more to fear from our encounter than us from theirs. Dozens of bears are killed every year when they are reported to have been aggressive or when they find food in campgrounds. In almost all cases, we are to blame. Just last week in Yellowstone, a brilliant camper had enlightenment: he thought to prepare extra beef stew and keep it in his tent in case he got hungry again later!!! Sadly, a male Grizzly got hold of it when the genius was away and now the grizzly will be relocated and shot if needed. What’s worse is that it was a mating pair and now the male will be separated from the female.

The second note was about natural setting since I’d much rather see them in the wild than in a zoo or worse, a circus! The grizzly has very little of its original habitat left. England and most of western Europe no longer has bears — human fear killed them long before the Magna Carta. Plains grizzlies no longer roam the breaks of Saskatchewan and Missouri rivers.

We had many amazing encounters with the Grizzly in Yellowstone: we imagined the great bear prowling the shadows in the forest as we lay in our tent while the Ursa Major glowed bright in the night sky overhead. We saw couple of grizzly sows (females) with coys (cubs of the year) in the grizzly flats and swan lake flats close to Indian Creek campground, our first stop in the park. One had two cubs and the other had four which is exceedingly rare!! They were very far from the road (clever mums) so we don’t have good shots of them. Yellowstone park is full of ‘bear management areas’ which are prime bear habitats so we are not allowed to hike in till mid-late July for their and our safety.

From the up close encounters, we have the few shots below to share: the first set is from a grizzly sow with 2 coys that was grazing sage and digging bugs and roots just a few feet off the Mt Washburn hiking trail in broad daylight. I’ve also added our happy shot from making it to the peak under brutal sunlight 🙂

Grizzly Sow Mt Washburn trail

Grizzly Sow Mt Washburn trail

Mt Washburn Peak

Mt Washburn Peak

Then there was the time when we had slept at a trailhead on the Yellowstone lake and woke up to find this big guy munching on dandelions literally 30 feet away from the van. While we watched, amazed, a dark grey wolf passed in the background:

Silvertip Grizzly up close

Silvertip Grizzly up close

It was also quite cool to see this sow below with three coys on an elk carcass in Hayden valley. There was also a coyote watching from a safe distance as well as a lone wolf which looked injured form the way it walked. Seems to be a funny relationship between bears and wolves, they seem to have a love n hate relationship like old couples, but always around each other!

Yellowstone Grizlly Sow and three cubs on elk carcass

Grizlly Sow and three cubs on elk carcass

Black bears crossed our paths when we least expected. One was right next to our campsite at Slough Creek and gave a fine show by climbing a fallen log and walking across it:

Young black bear walking on a fallen log

Young black bear walking on a fallen log

Then there was this brave yearling, probably recently cast-off from his mother, having lunch close to the bridge crossing Yellowstone river and even made his way across the bridge to get onto the other side without trouble. Now, if only the migrating wildebeest in Africa could figure this trick out before jumping headstrong in the river facing hungry crocs:

Black Bear grazing!

Black Bear grazing

Yellowstone Black Bear: Time to cross the bridge

Time to cross the bridge

We saw a few wolves and pups but usually spotting through binoculars and WAY out of range of most cameras so don’t have any good shots to share. Wolves are generally much more elusive than bears but much easier to see in Yellowstone then elsewhere since their reintroduction here from Canada in 1995. The original wolves of Yellowstone were all hunted in the early 20th century and were reintroduced when the park management realized their importance in a balanced ecosystem.

Other notable wildlife in Yellowstone is bison. They can be seen by the hundreds in the Lamar valley. We also had a few ‘bison jams’ on the road as they are self-appointed kings of the road when they should so desire. I wasn’t gonna take any chances with making more dents in the van so we usually chilled until they got bored of the same old and moved off the road. On the plus side, their calves are super cute:

Yellowstone Bison jam

Bison jam!

Lunchtime for bison calf

Lunchtime for bison calf

three siblings: bison calves

three musketeers

Other great wildlife we saw in these 2 weeks:

Even elks get an itch

Even elks get an itch

elk skull

this one didn't move much

On a lighter note, you’ll be delighted (we sure are!) to note that showers have become much more common and frequent lately, especially since we made our very own ‘shower spots’ map of Yellowstone! We are in Grand Teton at the moment and will be posting an update on that shortly. Look forward to jaw-dropping mountain vistas that is the home of the Tetons . Don’t ask about what the ‘Teton’ means yet, I’ll reveal those single-minded Frenchies later ;-))

You can see the full album here:

Dirt and grime down the shower drain

Ok, I admit that was a tad disconcerting title. Let’s get into how that came to be though. This is the story of our way across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming to get to Yellowstone.

It was about 2200 KMs from Chicago to Yellowstone and given that Jamhuri drives at about 100 km/h max with good winds on the back, it took us 3 nights on the road and 8-10 hours driving a day. First 2 nights we just parked and slept at real nice highway rest stops in Wisconsin and Minnesota that have bathrooms and water but no showers. What more can you ask of a free rest stop?

We didn’t mind too much thanks in part to wet wipes 😉 More than anything, it was the light at the end of the tunnel in our minds that we’ll stay at a front country or car campground in Yellowstone first couple of night when we get there which should of course have showers.

Not too much to mention about the long drive save that Wisconsin was one of the greenest states to drive through and South Dakota was a lot like Saskatchewan prairies except (thankfully) with many more hills and horses. I’m still reminded of one of the jokes that always crack me up “imagine Spiderman in the prairies, squinting with his eyes, wrist outstretched, wondering for the life of him what the hell he’s gonna jump onto…..”

sunrise in south dakota near lewis and clarke trail

sunrise in south dakota near lewis and clarke trail

We did stop by Mt Rushmore in South Dakota as it was only a couple hours side drive. The 4 presidential faces carved onto the mountain side are impressive but not so impressive as the fact that the sculptor Borglum began this monumental task when he was 60!!! Talk about a sweet retirement package.

Grinning in front of Mt Rushmore

Grinning in front of Mt Rushmore

Once we entered Wyoming, it was beautiful montane vistas all the way. Our 3rd night on the road we stayed at a free forest site in Big Horn National Forest where its basically a huge forest and you can park anywhere you see a firepit and there’s not much else in way of amenities. This forest was right under a 10,000 ft snowy mountain peak and its totally wild. After a bit of offroading with the van , we parked (in once piece) at a clearing in the pine forest overlooking the peaks.

jamhuri parked in bighorn forest under snowy peak

jamhuri parked in bighorn forest under snowy peak

True to its name, we saw many horned animals in big horn forest including bunch of moose, dozens of elks and few prong horns.

young bull moose having dinner

young bull moose having dinner

When we got to Yellowstone on Friday June 18th, we had to drive almost all around the park through 4-5 campgrounds to get a camping spot as this place gets packed like a beehive in summer weekends! Since we needed to get a camping spot, we passed by the showers at the entrance of the park! BIG mistake!

When we finally found a spot late evening after an initial sigh of relief from4 days on the road, we realized that our campground had no showers so we drove to another one 20kms at late night on uphill winding mountain roads without guardrails and full of animals that can total even our full metal van. Urge to feel human again can be a strong motivation!

Like corralled horses being let out of pans, we ran to the bathroom and could almost feel the divine light shining down on us! We opened the door of the washroom and our eyes took a few moments to adjust to the incandescent lights! What we did see was heartbreaking… only toilets and no showers!

Like Eeyore, we drooped our heads low and drove back to our camp spot with a firm decision to drive back to the entrance of the park 80kms away if we had to next day for a shower. We did finally got to showers on Saturday and were barely surprised at the $3.25 per person you have to pay in Yellowstone for a shower!!!

We’re still in Yellowstone right now and saving up for our next shower, stay tuned for an update in a week or so…

Leaving for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons

We stayed about a week in Chicago with my sister Deepa and brother-in-law Mayank. They’ve been amazing hosts and were very patient with us while we slowly tried to ramp up our spice tolerance with Indian food.

After reading a few accounts on Yellowstone such as the fact that this has been the year with the most number of bear cubs and that a grizzly can close in a 100 yards gap in few seconds to the advice that a group of smaller than 4 people hiking in Yellowstone backcountry can be dangerous, we decided to take couple extra days to ensure we were well prepared.

Learned one important thing that the Bear Sprays sold in MEC are very weak compared to the ones required for serious grizzly country like that in Yellowstone or Denali. For that you need the ones sold in REI or Cabela’s such as Udap or Counter Assault which have 2% Capsaicin content vs. the 1% in the Frontiersman sold at MEC. Glad we figured that BEFORE we saw any grizzlies!

Now we’re off for 2-3 weeks in Yellowstone and will post updates afterward. Keeping my fingers crossed that we see many many bears.