July 28- After our worst camping night thus far (the campground, which was the only one in the area that had any spots available, lost our reservation and thus put us in a parking lot next to the fish cleaning station with an extension cord-- fortunately this didn't set the tone for this leg of the trip), we headed into the Park.
First stop- Old Faithful. In part to experience it, in part to get it out of the way. Yes, I really did overhear a woman behind us say, "This happens on its own, right, the Park Service doesn't do anything does it?" No, you idiot, Ranger Rick throws a switch. Sigh. . .We did a nice four mile round trip hike to see the other features in the Upper Geyser Basin, but, as to be expected, there were way too many people throughout. I have an inordinate fascination with thermal features, though, so I didn't mind too much.
We also explored the other geysers and hot springs in the area. Rob and I both have the same favorite- Grand Prismatic Spring- though that one is hard to appreciate from ground level—someday we are going to have to figure out how to climb the hills behind it in order to view it properly.
Even in Yellowstone, like Yosemite, it only takes a little effort to get away from the crowds. We got our first chance by taking Fountain Flat Road, which ends at a bike path that goes all the way back down past Grand Prismatic. We didn't make it that far, but we did get all the way to Goose Lake, seeing only four other people, and only one after we passed the Ojo Caliente spring. Rob didn't join us on the ride; instead, he did some exploring, on the basis of some interweb intel, along the Firehole River, and we caught up with him afterward to enjoy the places he had scouted out. There was an established trail but no boardwalks, signs, or other people. We got to see a really cool mud pot (seething gray mud, the kids dubbed it "Shrek's Bathtub") and one of the loveliest, most pure blue hot springs we saw all day. To top it off, we had a wonderful natural soak at a spot where another hot spring met the river, forming a small pool cool enough for us all to sit in (this was what Rob had set out to find on his exploration, based on a tip from a web forum for hot springs lovers). I highly recommend escaping the boardwalk if you go to Yellowstone, just make sure to stay on the trail.
July 29 - We left our first night campground, Madison, and headed east to see the Artists' Paint Pots (boiling mud pits in surprisingly delicate shades of white and gray), the Roaring Mountain (a huge hillside full of steam-spewing fumaroles and sulfur-loving bacteria), and Obsidian Cliff(cool, but not as cool as the obsidian flow in Oregon). We also did a hike through Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and most acidic thermal area in the park, which is also home to tallest geyser in the world - Steamboat - but its last major eruption was in 2005, so we didn't sit around and wait.
Late in the afternoon we drove over to Canyon (where we are camping 2 nights), and checked out the falls. When we came to Yellowstone eight years ago, we only went to the North Rim side, so this time we did the South Rim Side. I didn't know anything about Uncle Tom's Trail, so that was a really cool surprise. The trail is essentially a metal staircase that hugs the canyon wall and gets you to an up close and personal view of Lower Falls.
We came back to camp and did a pretty quick dinner, since our plans entailed getting up at 5 AM the next day, which brings us to. . .
July 30- Wildlife day! The 5 AM wakeup was ugly, but a necessary condition of getting the Lamar Valley on the east side of the park early enough to catch activity. I have been there three times before, so I knew its reputation as Amerca's Serengeti is well deserved. However, even I was blown away by the day we had. We got down to Slough Creek on the west end of the valley around 6 AM. I pulled in and we saw a bunch of cars, but I (stupidly, it turned out) thought they were for the campground so we pulled back out.Headed up the road a ways and saw a pronghorn. Rob's first one. Awesome—worth the 5 AM just for that. Also saw bison scattered about and a few more pronghorn far up on the hill, across the river. Rob was watching one of them and noticed it spook and run—searched about a bit more, and, sure enough, grizzly up on the hill! It seemed to be a young one and was a very light cinnamon. A few minutes later we were watching a bison closer to the river, and then saw another dark brown shape that was decidedly unbisonlike. Another grizz! We saw a canid down there too, toying in on the grizz and then backing off, but we decided that was a coyote. Between those two and a bunch of ravens that were hanging out there, we are pretty sure there was a kill down there by the river.
We mentioned to another watcher that we were hoping to see wolves, and she said "Oh, we just came from Slough Creek, there are about 100 people there watching the alpha female on a kill." Scrreeeech, back in the camper, back to Slough Creek. Turns out all those cars were in fact wolf watchers, the actual campground is two miles further down the road. We arrived just in time to see the female on the carcass, and then head up the hill, with, no kidding, what looked like an elk leg in her mouth. Several of the wolf researchers (some Carnivores folks, in fact) were on hand and mentioned that the rendezvous site was up the hill, so we hoped to see the female feeding the pups. Alas, we lost her in the sage and didn't see her again. But at least we saw her.
Even though we had already had a great morning, we figured we should take another drive down the Lamar Valley. We headed back to the spot we'd seen the two bears, and there was a wildlife tour there and they had their sights on no fewer than FOUR grizzlies. An adult cinnamon tearing bark off a downed log, a brown mother and cinnamon cub (probably the one we had seen earlier), and the dark one we had seen earlier on the kill. We sighted two good-sized groups of pronghorn up on the ridge, and - holy crap—yet another grizzly up on the hill checking out the pronghorn. Absolutely amazing. The hundreds of bison, the bald eagle, osprey, sandhill cranes, and gadwall we saw practically seemed like also-rans. As I mentioned to a woman next to me, "You know you're having a good day when you say to yourself, oh, that's just another pronghorn."
It was later than we intended when we left Lamar (obviously), but we still managed a quick view of Tower Falls, and then embarked on our major afternoon objective - a climb of Mt. Washburn. We did this one before (with Kieran in the backpack), but it is such a great hike that we couldn't pass up the chance to do it again. The hike starts at Dunraven Pass, 8800 feet, north of Canyon, and follows an old stagecoach road up to a fire observation station on one of the Park's tallest peaks (10,200 feet). About 3.5 miles each way and not too steep, so the kids managed it in grand style - they are getting to be great hikers. And once at the top, you feel like you are on top of the world, or at least on top of the Park.You can see how miles of rolling forest abruptly give way to the gigantic Yellowstone Canyon, you can see Yellowstone Lake, steam rising from various thermal features, and the seemingly endless mountains that surround the park, all the way to the Grand Tetons. Plus we saw bighorn sheep on the way up, one of the only of the Park's large mammals that we hadn't already seen.
After such a full day, we are spending the evening relaxing in camp, making s'mores to celebrate the kids' second-longest hike. Despite already having a full day planned for our last day in Yellowstone (heading south from Canyon to explore Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb Geyser Basin, and another 6.5 mile hike out to Shoshone Lake), we have determined that we absolutely have to have another crack at the Lamar Valley—so it's another five o'clock morning for us (though this time without any apprehension about whether we'll be wasting our time, anything we see tomorrow will be gravy.)