Feathers and Fur – Part 1 of 2…by Brad Marks

Well, we are officially off to the West. During our absence, I am turning the keys to the Intrigued Headquarters over to Brad. He will be keeping you entertained while Linda and I quest for the Holy Grail…eh, more like a bird or two or fingers crossed 20. Figured this would be a perfect time to roll out one of his two-parters from probably my favorite destination – Yellowstone National Park. Enjoy!

Take it away Brad and remember, no mega-parties at HQ until AFTER the work is done …

Many years ago, our family (Jan, Allyson and I) took a trip to Yellowstone National Park.  You may remember me telling you that our daughter Allyson didn’t want to spend so much time looking at rocks in this prior post.  Based on the pushback from a tweenager, I only booked three nights at a lodge in the park, giving us two full days for exploring.  Accommodations inside the actual park are limited and usually fill up 8+ months in advance for summer visits.  Two full days is by no means an extensive amount of time in Yellowstone (we still drove hundreds of miles inside the park and barely saw anything, IMHO).  Taking the advice of a fellow traveler, photographer, and friend, we had flown into Salt Lake City and rented a car for the drive to Yellowstone.  Our trip was in early June, hoping to miss most of the tourists with their kids still in school.  We approached from the west entrance through West Yellowstone in Montana.  Literally within a few minutes of the park rangers checking our annual park pass, we stopped along the road and were greeted with this view.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

Hit the jump to read more about Brad’s Yellowstone experience.

What a great start!  We are barely into the park (five miles) and already had seen a heard of bison, with their youngins close by.  We dodged the stream of the cars passing by and carefully walked across the road to photograph the bison families along the river.  It’s too bad so many cars were driving straight past the bison.  They are one of Yellowstone’s iconic animals.

Just a bit further up the road was a no-parking zone.  Normally no-parking zones don’t have a bunch of park rangers hanging around.  Knowing something of interest must be nearby, we stopped right after the no-parking zone to check it out.  We found out the no-parking zone was there to protect an eagle nest.  The zone extended for a quarter of a mile on either side of the eyrie.  No cars were allowed to park very close, but pedestrians were allowed to approach the nest, so we did.  In the nest was someone trying to stretch their new wings.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

This is the first eagle I have ever photographed.  I relied on my Jan-pod to get a decent photo of the young eagle testing its wings.  A “Jan-pod” is me resting my long camera lens on Jan’s shoulder to help steady the really long shots because I didn’t bring my monopod on the trip.  The sky was overcast but very bright, hence the dark subject.  Plus, we were photographing from about 40 feet beneath the eyrie from a ditch across the road.

In case you did not know, Yellowstone is a VERY BIG national park.  There are five main entrances.  Each of the entrances has roads leading to the “core” roads.  On a map (visit here for one of the best maps of Yellowstone) the core roads loosely resemble a squiggly block figure-eight layout (like the older scoreboards at a high school basketball or football game).  The shortest of any of the segments in the “8” is the middle segment which is still 12 miles long.  The top park speed limit is 45MPH, but near most of the good stuff speed limits slow to 35 or even 30 MPH.  Plan for travel times and delays for a bear or bison jam.  What is a bison jam you are wondering?  It’s when a herd of bison, or a single animal, crosses the road in front of you (or the 100 cars in front of you).  No amount of honking or cajoling or swearing at it will encourage the animal(s) to move one iota quicker.  In fact, I think it does quite the opposite.  When the bison (bear or elk) wants to finish crossing the road, it will.

Back to the narration.  Once we found the “8” we headed south, driving counter-clockwise around the lower circle of the “8”.  A sign for scenic Firehole Canyon Drive immediately grabbed our attention, so we stopped to stretch our legs.  Along the Firehole River we spotted this furry little greeter.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

It’s a Golden-mantled ground squirrel (or chipmunk where we are from, but its real name has ground squirrel in it).  He was quite skittish, so this is only one of three photos he let us take.  This is one of Allyson’s favorite animals from when she was little.  I think it could be because of the stories my father-in-law made up for Allyson when she was tiny.  The critters are plentiful in Grandpa’s back yard, which the both of them nick-named “chipper” (for obvious reasons). 

Continuing south around the “8” we headed to see Old Faithful.  C’mon, you have to see the icon of the park at least once per day.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

As its name implies, Old Faithful erupts like clockwork, well, at least like old clockwork.  When I was little, Old Faithful would erupt roughly every 60-65 minutes, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year for the past few hundred years.  An earthquake in 1983 impacted the geyser’s plumbing and now Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes.  An added bonus was catching a Mountain bluebird and its mate hopping around past the boardwalks away from the tourist crowd.  Mountain bluebirds are one of the first migratory birds to return to Yellowstone each year.  (As Brian says, “always shoot the loners.”)

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

At this point, we hadn’t even been to the lodge yet.  Leaving the Old Faithful geyser basin, we passed over the Continental Divide. . . twice . . . on our way to Lake Lodge.  The lodge (61 driving miles from the west entrance but still nearly 30 miles from the east entrance) is in the Lake Village area of the park.  As we neared Lake Lodge, we were greeted with traffic patrol keeping cars at a safe speed throughout the park.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

Elk are a common site in Yellowstone, but often overlooked for their more famous park-mates:  bison, bears, wolves, and geysers.  While we waited for the elk jam to clear (the elk only moved after a few minutes when he was good and ready) I spotted movement outside to the left, far across a meadow.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

I was really hoping to see one of Yellowstone’s famous wolves.  But when I compared characteristics of coyotes vs. wolves, this one had more coyote bits than wolf bits.  The ears, standing tall and upright usually, are a dead giveaway.  This one still has its winter coat.

When I mentioned before it was early June, it really felt like January because there were still mounds of snow in the park.  Weather forecasts called for snow the entire visit.  A very exciting prospect for visitors from the Midwest who had already been mowing their lawn for several weeks.  It does make packing clothes a bit difficult.  We had to plan for arctic and desert conditions all in one trip (Arches and Grand Canyon were after this part of our trip).  When we woke up the next morning, several inches of new snow had fallen.  The local residents had already cleared some paths in the snow to get to the yummy greens below.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

Our rental car had 4” (10cm) of fresh snow all over it.  Not having a snow scraper, I used my benefits card from work.  It was sturdy plastic and did an admirable job under the circumstances.  Lake Lodge sits at 7,800 feet of elevation (just below the park’s average elevation of 8,000 feet).  I suppose snow should be expected at this elevation, even in June.

We thought we would make an attempt to see the Yellowstone’s Lower Falls.  However, once we arrived, snow began falling and intensified for just a bit.  The snow was coming down so hard we couldn’t even see the Lower Falls.  After chatting with a ranger we found out that while we only had 4” of snow at the Lake Lodge, between 8” and 24” had fallen on the road north (Dunraven Pass) and was completely snowed in.  (BTW, Dunraven Pass would not be cleared until late June.  Yes, I said late JUNE, because snow continued to fall in the higher elevations for the next week and ended up being several feet deep . . . in JUNE!).  Having the pass closed meant we had to traverse the other direction around the “8” to Mammoth Hot Springs to try to get to our chuckwagon dinner that night.  Quite cold, and a bit disappointed with poor visibility and snow falling, we jumped back into a mostly warm car and continued to Mammoth Hot Springs.  Wouldn’t you know it, about 20 minutes after we started driving the snow stopped, but we were almost halfway to Mammoth by then.  The hot springs are mostly dry when we were there because of geological shifts from earthquakes in recent years. 

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

“Downtown” Mammoth was full of tourists checking out the sites and the shops.  After asking around a bit, we learned that road to the northeast entrance (named Tower) was also closed because of the snow.  Our trail ride and camp fire dinner would not happen that night.  Or the next.  I tried to call the reservation hotline on my mobile phone, but the park had close to zero cell service at that time.  I succeeded in finally finding a payphone (kids ask your parents what those are) and found out that both tonight’s and tomorrow’s chuckwagon experiences were indeed cancelled.  Full refunds for everyone.  Disappointed, we wandered around town a bit.  Right next to the Albright Visitor Center I noticed these two in the ground.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

Uinta ground squirrels are usually found in heavy grassland areas or meadows.  A pair will have a litter of 6-8 kits early in the spring.  These two must have just woken up from a night of tending the raucous litter.

A short walk away, away at the edge of the parking lot near the hot springs, I saw this escalation occurring.  The photo is NOT slanted, the ground is.  I’m sure the hierarchy is obvious to a seasoned elk observer.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

Still disappointed from the cancelled chuckwagon dinner and show, we started the 50+ mile drive back to the lodge.  We ended the day with a cup of hot chocolate looking out over Yellowstone Lake at the snow-covered mountains.  The snow from the morning had melted and the sun was peeking through the clouds just before sunset.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park from Brad Marks

The mountains in this photo represent part of the northeastern ridge of the Yellowstone caldera.  There is no active lava like the Kilauea caldera from this prior post.  Yellowstone has plenty of thermal features to go around, hinting at the enormity of the magma chamber stretching for miles under most of the park.

Don’t touch that dial.  Stay tuned.  Same Wildlife Intrigued website! (OK, anyone old enough to remember what a TV “dial” is or the phrase “stay tuned” means, please let me know)

To be continued . . .


Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan and Allyson for some of the photos in this article, and for spotting the animals.

Thanks to the National Park Service website for helping with maps and critter details. 

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