There was a time I thought I would not return to any place until I have seen all I want to see. I was wrong, won’t be the first or last time of course. I have returned to Peru and to Yellowstone only to fall in love more! I have now decided what I want to do is know more than the surface of a place that touches my soul, and go back as many times as it takes (as long as I can, anyway) to find its pulse.
Our second trip to the Yellowstone National Park came after 6 years, but it was as if I had dreamed of the mountains and valleys often enough for it to remain fresh in my memory. This time the start of the trip was from Billings, Montana where my husband had a trip for work. Billings is about 4 hours from Gardiner, the north entrance to the park and its only entrance that is open year round.
As soon as I knew we would go, I also knew that this time, we had to go on a wolf tracking expedition. It is not as grand as it sounds but every bit or more as fantastic. I found several companies that had guided wolf tracking tours and wrote to two. I do try to keep it local, not a huge company and preferably owned by people who are naturalists. ecologists by profession. The wild side, is indeed a company started by two naturalists who also conduct research on wolves of Yellowstone. It was pretty short notice, I think I emailed with little less than two weeks left to leave, however, being slightly expensive it is not that sought after I think. Also, it was August, a little late in summer and early for winter wolf watching.
We left for Gardiner in the afternoon. Billings is a nice town but I looked at it mainly a gateway to Yellowstone. We had strong recommendations for taking the slightly longer, but jaw-droppingly gorgeous beartooth scenic highway. Nothing better than local opinion, I say and it was a great tip, proving my point, yet again! Of course, as long as the locals are reliable, anyway. So, we drove to Red Lodgeand started onthe beartooth highway that goes through the Shoshone national forest. The highway was in one word: poetic. As we wound upwards we passed melting glaciers feeding into prussian blue mountain lakes that changed colors as we moved. Every turn out was beautiful, as we passed wild flowers of all kinds by the roadside. August end is late in the season for them, we hardly saw any in the park, but on the highway fireweeds waved us into the mountain passes with multi colored slabs of rock.
At one of the overlooks close to the top of the beartooth drive, we got off the car to look over the valley, along the pavement I saw a fluffy mountain ground squirrel making a very good imitation of begging. Except it wasn’t an imitation and have you ever seen a ground squirrel begging? At that point I forgot that we are not supposed to feed wild animals and also, in my poor defense, there were no signs forbidding us to feed them in that overlook. So I used the little box labeled chipmunk food and was quickly surrounded by little chipmunks that were only too happy to climb up to my hands and take their food. It was nuts and seeds, not human food. At least that is something, I suppose. I was overjoyed as I watched them stash their finds into the mouth for later or nibble. Kids all around were probably just as excited, not more.
At the very top, I only call it that as we sort of went down after that, is a ledge like overlook with slabs of rock. As the clouds swirled around us, I caught a few glimpses of one or may be more, pika with a hankering to rush from one hidden crevice to another.
Right from the beginning, even if I didn’t know it, seeing the pika should have told me it was going to be a lucky trip. On our way to the motel we saw a bighorn (young) who was of course being gawked at by people in and out of five or more cars in the curve of the road which was not very broad to begin with. The mountain side it was on was all loose rock and gravel and it would clearly have preferred to simply cross the road but after much contemplation he decided to keep going on the sliding slope. Big horn.. check.
Our motel had also been a last minute booking. Staying inside the park is nonsensical even when you book months in advance, august is a warm month and people visit with family and like to stay inside the park, I think. We found decent reviews of the Yellowstone River Motel. Very very reasonably priced. And for some reason, they also gave us the room with the best view of the Yellowstone river flowing by. The room was a suite and pretty clean and comfortable. The owner has what I would say, not a typical personality of a manager, but he runs the business smoothly. We would need to change our room over the three nights, and he informed us they would do it as long as the bags were packed, they weren’t picking our dirty socks, he said. We loved the motel and would recommend to anyone who is staying at Gardiner and doesn’t want to pay a fortune for a comfortable place to sleep. They do have to want to spend more time in the park, although they do have a lovely lovely place to read books overlooking the river.
Next day bright (well, not outside) and very early at 5:30 our guide and wolf-tracker, Bonnie, came to the motel to pick us up for wolf tracking.. she had scopes and stories of wolf packs, there are two main ones in Yellowstone. The one we were going to track (which basically means trying to look for) was in Lamar Valley. Famous for wolf watching. It has had many many good hunters, including a female, in the past and a lot of people came to watch her hunt and take down deer. She dies a few years ago. And the pack has had a treacherous year, with the alpha male also dying as they went into the territory of the other pack. Where he was injured fatally and the alpha female barely escaped. She continues to be the alpha female, but a couple young ones from the other pack have now joined her in the valley and one of them is alpha now. She had 4 pups this year, one of them grey. We saw her, at least two of the black pups, and the grey one. We heard her howl echo in the valley. Over and above the crowd of people gathered in the place much before 5:30 with scopes and chairs. One or two veteran wolf trackers who do this every morning. All year. Years and years. They stay in contact with others who are in surrounding areas they have previously seen the wolves. And track every movement.
After many hours of wolf watching, we went onwards to some more wildlife watching. Bonnie knew we like birds so took us to a spot close to floating island but more in the valley here sandhill cranes are often seen, we had caught a glimpse of a couple flying overhead (which, by the way counts, but I don’t count instances where I can’t remember seeing the bird). We did see a leucistic red-tailed hawk, which has a whole lot of white all over, especially the head and back. It was too far for a good photo. We also saw mountain goat, white fluffy things high, very high up on the mountains. I always see antelopes’ face markings and their horns as a sort of V , without binoculars. We saw many of them, practically half the population (Bonnie said there weren’t that many only about 400, and we saw a very large flock which had a hundred, we thought that were visible). The park is huge (in case you forgot!!).
Bonnie showed us on the map other places we could find birds and she said that in the Hayden valley there had been sightings of the elusive (well, we had already seen wolves, so elusive is a relative term as usual) grizzlies. We were done with our eight hours of wild life watching, with many short snacks in between and a nice picnic lunch by 2 pm.
In the evening we returned to the park and just around, saw elks around Mammoth Springs. We went back to the amazing formations of mammoth springs which have 500 yr old junipers (not alive) on some of the older sulphur springs. Then we went to the artist’s point, which is on the Grand canyon of the Yellowstone, which looks over the lower falls. Then onwards to the upper falls and then to dinner. See where to eat below.
Next day we drove towards the Hayden Valley with frequently watchable wildlife. Highlight were the trumpeter swans sitting serenely by a lake, visible from a mile away. The serenity was sort of tempered once they started trumpeting, but their gorgeous white was bewitching. I stayed as long as they didn’t swim away to the other shore. We went looking for harlequin ducks in LeHardy rapids.. , the fast moving waters there are ideal for them, but we had to be satisfied with a very close and fantastic look of an American dipper! I am quite sure she thought we couldn’t see her, she was still, only blinking sometimes.
We stopped over at the Yellowstone caldera (the yellowstone supervolcano) and saw the dragons mouth hissing and the sulphur huffing and puffing. On the way back we saw an entire group of common mergansers that appear to spend the evenings together as we watched them swim towards a tree trunk and small beach. I think there were eight, all males that I counted. There had been two to begin with, then all the others swam from upstream and downstream to the spot!
We decided to head straight back so I could go back to the restaurant we had gone to the first night and found closed the previous one. On the way, and here is a permanent tip for Yellowstone, to be used with discretion of course, like all tips. Every time you see a whole bunch of people standing on only one side of road, parked both sides. At least one good scope, maybe more and everyone looking with binoculars there is a good chance it is something you don’t want to miss. I forced my husband to pull over. And crossed the street, asked the guy with the best scope what they were looking at. It was a grizzly. He offered his scope. I jumped on it. Impossible to spot while driving, he had clearly been looking for this guy. But clear as day on the scope (it was a swarovski). I think I monopolized the scope for as long as it seemed polite (and maybe a little longer). My husband was delighted!
I can’t imagine a better two days in Yellowstone. Or anywhere.
The first night I saw a sign that beckoned to me. They do that. And I have learned to listen. The sign was for Antler Pub and Grill (located inside the Comfort Inn hotel, where we weren’t staying). I tried a beer recommended by my husband’s colleague “Cold Smoke”.. it is dark but very drinkable. I had speciality bison burger which had cheese and jelly and bacon with the perfectly cooked burger, it was wonderful. My husband had pulled pork on chips and that was great too. I immediately decided we must come back, the very nice bartender was a definite draw too. The whole place has mounted animals and yes, antlers. Not too fond of the prize hunts.. but, thats the owners of the restaurant and hotel.
Next day I persuaded my husband to go back, it seemed like the ideal restaurant, in the smaller town of Yellowstone, where nothing else talked to me. Local food, they also have elk and another bison burger i had seen on the menu. However, they were closed. And then my husband got the perfect opportunity for us to drive about 5-6 miles on the highway to a restaurant with very good reviews: The Lighthouse restaurant. This one is less local, opened by people who chose to live in Gardiner and start a restaurant and also, given the name and the distance from sea, by a sailor. The whole restaurant has fixtures and little souvenirs from sailing and nautical trips. Their menu was more varied, with sushi and oysters, and a sriracha cake (hot an sweet), Taj Mahal Vegetable curry and Bengal Beef. We had the oysters and sushi and I tried the bison burger here as well. Pretty good, great looking waiter (as the giggling teenagers totally ogling at the poor guy would testify, if they could stop giggling and spoke in sentences, he must also have been very young, but spoke well. I will not be surprised if he wasn’t american). But I preferred Antler pub and grill.
Last day we were back to my favorite place, it wasn’t crowded and the bartender asked us to take our favorite seat (he remembered). I forgot to mention that when it wasn’t overcast they have a terrific view! He suggested Plumb St Porter and that was better than Cold Smoke. And he was really nice too. This time I had the hoagie, not as good as the burger the last time. But the service was great and Moniraj’s pork hoagie was pretty good with an awesome sauce on the side or in it.
We also had breakfast at Rosie’s bistro which was a good hearty breakfast. I am surprised that the lighthouse restaurant in #1 in Tripadvisor whereas Antler’s Pub and Grill is not mentioned. I guess Trip advisor’s isn’t always right.