Big Horn Sheep, Hot Springs, and (No) Bears – Oh My!

Original Post: September 22, 2015

We were in for another long trip, but really, was there any other kind on this vacation?  We left our little cabin in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho by 7 am and drove through the western edge of Montana, thinking all the while that we’d definitely be retiring there in the future.

The views are amazing, the roads clear, the speed limit excellent at a reasonable 70 mph (though I must admit that this feels awfully fast when you’re speeding downhill and around curves, even though you’re just keeping up with traffic), but there was one curious little thing we noticed.  What were these weird looking fences on the hillsides? 

It didn’t take long to realize what they were, though seeing them in the middle of the summer didn’t do much to help us solve the mystery.  Snow retention fences.  Of all that is holy.  If the snow gets that high, maybe we don’t want to retire in Montana after all…  We saw these fences through all of western Montana and straight through Wyoming.  Those, and a lot of “Turn back to (insert-name-of-closest-town-here) when flashing.”  That meant the road was closed due to inclement weather and you’d better get your butt back to the last town and hunker down.

Big Sky Country, indeed.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, we rarely see snow so crippling that the major highways are shut down.  Back roads, maybe.  But main highways?  Never.  I can only remember a handful of times when work has been closed.  (Of course, some school districts close at the drop of a snowflake sometimes…)  But even in the worst of these snowstorms, never have I seen the roads completely shut down. I won’t lie.  The thought, especially while traveling amongst the isolated Montana wilderness, made me shiver.  Imagine what it was like for the settlers as they made their way westward.  Sobering thought.

Before we made our own way to the entrance of Yellowstone, we drove through a wilderness area (isn’t it all wilderness here?) and spotted Bighorn sheep on the rocks.  The best part, they were standing on a small outcrop no higher than a car and right next to the road.  An odd sight to say the least.  If I’d thought we were going to see them, I had no doubt pictured it from far away and at the top of a mountain.  Not the case.

We continued our drive past Earthquake Lake, formed when – you guessed it – an earthquake struck in 1959 and filled the area with water.  The lake definitely exuded a creepy vibe.  I could just imagine the opening of some horror flick taking place as we drove.  Thankfully, we “escaped” unscathed and made our way to Yellowstone.

We arrived at the park after 4:30 pm, but instead of setting up camp like responsible campers, we decide to head straight to Grand Prismatic Spring to take advantage of the sun while we had it.  As we had learned in Yosemite, the weather can turn at any time and the last thing we wanted to do was get stuck with crummy weather for crummy (or no) pictures.

Grand Prismatic is amazing.  It was exactly what I thought it should be and though I was not surprised by the number of tourists there, I was amazed by the sheer stupidity of some of them…

There are very specific boardwalks set up for both visitor safety and to keep the surrounding land untouched.  But mostly, I will stress again, for visitor safety.  Let me say it one more time.  Visitor. Safety.

So, when I saw toddlers running around and ready to step off the planks of the boardwalk before their mothers hastily grabbed them back and scolded them, it put my heart in my throat.  When Nate and I saw an older teenage boy walking toward us on the fragile bacterial mat before jumping back onto the boardwalk despite the numerous (and I mean numerous) danger signs placed all around the area, it was just a bit too much to take.  Nate gave him a quick, “Yo!  What were you thinking?  Didn’t you see the sign?  That’s dangerous!” The teenager sheepishly ducked his head and gave a, “Yeah, I know, man.”

But, oh it couldn’t end there…  Mom had to chime in.  (And I sure do wish I could somehow manage to type the nasally inflection in her voice when she said this…)  “I’M parenting him.  I’M parenting him!”

Rather annoyed at this exchange myself, I actually responded.  (If you know me, you know I’m perhaps the world’s most non-confrontational person, so I surprised even myself with this exchange.)  “Sure didn’t look like it.”

At the same time, Nate responded with, “What happened to the first 15 years?”

At that point, she had passed us and she never stopped walking, so at least she didn’t feel the need to keep the conversation going,.  I’m quite sure, however, that she continued to curse us out for at least the rest of the day.  Regardless, we had provided some amusement for the teenage girls walking in front of us.  Score for us. (If you’re interested in, you know, keeping score and all.)

We had gotten some great shots of Grand Prismatic Spring and the smaller springs nearby, but I was still perplexed.  I wanted a bigger shot.  I wanted to see the whole spring…  Spying a mountain not far away, we decided to take a hike.  We stuck to the Fairy Falls trail for a while, but realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to take us to any decent elevation.  Despite the signs that declared the hillside next to us wasn’t a trail, we saw obvious evidence of hikers having used it extensively.  Nervous without bear spray (there were a lot of hikers, so we didn’t think we needed to carry it), we began to scramble up the hillside.

Ultimately, the gamble paid off and we got to see Grand Prismatic Spring from above.  Simply breathtaking. All in all, the springs, all of them, were scarily beautiful.  It’s hard to imagine that something so pristine, so infused with vibrant color could be so deadly.  And yet, the evidence was plain to see.  Bleached animal bones stood prominently in the center of some of the springs.  And yet, still, people continued to step over protective barriers to take their vacation selfies.

Once back down, we were forced to be satisfied with the day (despite our desire to hop on over to Old Faithful) and we decided that since it was now 7 pm, we’d better head to our campground and set up the tent.  By this time, we were pretty confident in our ability to set up the tent in under 5 minutes, so arriving at the campground by 7:30 wasn’t bad. 

What was bad was that we were too late to sign up for the historic yellow bus tour that would take us on an early morning tour for some stellar wildlife photos.  We spent some time at the visitor’s center, talking with employee and new buddy, Kirk, who told us that there was a single seat left on the bus.  Nate graciously offered it to me, but what fun would a trip like that be without my best friend beside me to enjoy it?  Nada.  I forewent the trip, but Kirk was happy to tell us the route the bus takes daily and where the best spots for finding wolves and bears would be.  Of all of the animals in Yellowstone, the wolves and bears are really the “crown jewels” of the park.  Most folks manage to see elk and moose and everyone who visits Yellowstone sees bison.  It’s rather impossible not to.  And yes, bison are quite stunning on their own and definitely bigger in person than one would expect!  But I wanted wolves.  And I wanted bears.

Thus we made the decision to take the same route the bus would take, only we’d leave about 15 minutes earlier.  And you realize, of course, what that meant.  Night night.

Day 1 in Yellowstone.  Bighorn Sheep.  Check.  Hot Springs.  Check.  Bison.  Check.  Bears and Wolves?  Day 2. 

We hope.

A smaller spring with an unknown name, but notice the bones of an unfortunate animal who wandered too close to the left of the deep middle.  Beautiful, but deadly.