TBT: Yellowstone National Park Part 2

This is one of the many crystal clear springs in Yellowstone. The water is so transparent, you can see several feet down into the pool.

This is one of the many crystal clear springs in Yellowstone. The water is so transparent, you can see several feet down into the pool.

This Throwback Thursday is more of a Flashback Friday, but instead of finishing the video and posting this entry last night, I decided to go see the Minion movie. (It was hilarious and adorable, by the way.) But, hey! At least I finally have it finished. It only took two years.

In the world of Vagabond Girls adventures, I last left you in Cody, Wyoming, on the last full day of adventuring in our trip cowboy hunting out west in 2013.

Spoiler alert: We never found cowboys – or at least not the kind we were looking for. Apparently they go out of season, along with everything else in Wyoming, and Cody turns into a ghost town. The only cowboys we ran into were of the retired variety, and while they seemed to be pretty awesome in their day, we would have preferred to find cowboys still in their day.

You can look just about anywhere in the park and see steam rising from the ground.

You can look just about anywhere in the park and see steam rising from the ground.

It was the last day of our trip, we had one more day to adventure and then head back to Denver to fly home the next day. Our goals were twofold:  To have plenty of time to explore the park, and to get back to town before all the restaurants closed up for the night. We really wanted a dinner that didn’t come from a cooler or a fast food window. The night before, the only place we could find open past 8 p.m. was an Arby’s; everywhere else was observing off-season hours.

So remember: If you visit Cody, Wy., after peak season, be prepared for nothing to be open.

The day before, we had a sleep-shortened visit to Yellowstone National Park where we got to see some bison and do some light hiking before heading back to town. The second day, we got to check out some more wildlife and more of the geothermal spots around the park – including Old Faithful.

Old Faithful! This time, I got to see it from the front row with all the other off-season travelers.

Old Faithful! This time, I got to see it from the front row with all the other off-season travelers.

The last time I visited the historic geyser, it was August and the place was so packed we were practically in the parking lot watching it erupt. Thanks to our off-season vacation, we were able to get front-row seats with the AARP crowd, all of them taking pictures with their iPads.

It was awesome.

Yellowstone is a place everyone must see before they die. It was America’s first national park and it’s the crown jewel. I haven’t seen all of the national parks, but I’ve seen many of them, and nothing I’ve seen come close to this.

Seeing bison is almost a given at Yellowstone. But don't be that guy who walks up to them and ends up getting gored. They're still wild animals, yo.

Seeing bison is almost a given at Yellowstone. But don’t be that guy who walks up to them and ends up getting gored. They’re still wild animals, yo.

Both times I’ve visited Yellowstone, first in 2010 and again in 2013, I’ve gotten to see bison herds and elk. Once, I saw a moose and antelope. No bears yet, I’m happy to say. As cool as it would be to see one, I’d rather not have to test my survival skills.

Then there are the crows, following you around until you are about to lose your mind from the ca-cawing.

And of course, the geysers. You could be in the middle of a field of wildflowers, and a vent will be right next to you, spewing steam into the air. It’s a constant reminder that under all the beauty, a wild, uncontrollable force continues to shape the land.

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#TBT: Yellowstone National Park Part 1

#ThrowbackThursday: Each Thursday, I revisit a past adventure and publish more of the story than made the first cut.. Beginning the series, I will be recounting parts of the Gypsy Trip – a cross-country endeavor in 2010. 

My first trip to Yellowstone National Park was too freaking short. My second visit to Yellowstone was too freaking short. I really think that no matter how much time I have to spend at Yellowstone, it will be too freaking short.

I really wanted to get my video edited from the second trip, but I didn’t get that far this week, so you will have to sate your appetite with my old flip cam video until I can get the rest of it put together. It’ll probably be at least another week; the weather has been so nice that I’ve been spending more time outside having adventures than at a computer splicing them together. The constant rain this week is keeping in indoors and helping me get caught up on work.

But back to Yellowstone. It’s the Big Daddy of the American National Park System and does us proud. I find it so interesting because it has so many different geological formations – there’s geysers, hot springs, even the Grand Prismatic Spring – that in two visits to the park I STILL haven’t seen! Seriously, I don’t know why I keep missing it. And of course, there’s Old Faithful.

My favorite thing about the park is the wildlife. No other park I’ve been to has shown me so much diversity. There’s bison – not buffalo, those are only in Africa and South Asia – elk, and bears. Thankfully, I haven’t met a bear yet. If I did, whatever bear safety research I did before my last trip out west would go right out through my ears and I’d get eaten.

Getting up close and personal with bison

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These lumbering giants gummed up traffic while we were at Yellowstone National Park.

These lumbering giants gummed up traffic while we were at Yellowstone National Park.

After our white-knuckle trip into Cody, Wyoming and a 2 a.m. arrival, we slept in. For the first time on the trip we weren’t worried about covering miles, making up for lost time or being stranded. That day, all we had on our agenda was exploring.

Cody is about 50 miles from the east entrance of the park, so we had an hour-long ride through some breathtaking Wyoming scenery a Big Boy statue – that we never did get a picture of. He was just hanging out near the road, double-decker burger and all.

When we arrived at the park the weather was a little … unexpected. We’d prepared for the trip expecting Glacier to be cooler than Yellowstone and it was actually opposite. The weather in Montana couldn’t have been more perfect. But in Yellowstone, it was raining — pouring at times — and the cheap fleece I was wearing did absolutely nothing to keep me dry. After our first stop, which was a half mile hike from a parking lot to a restroom, I was already soaked. Memo to myself: Pack for rain next time.

Yellowstone greeted us with a spooky fog laying heavily on the land.

Yellowstone greeted us with a spooky fog laying heavily on the land.

The morning’s cold rain created a dense fog over the park that blocked most of the hilltops and restricted our view. It gave the park a surreal, almost spooky feel.

It didn’t take long for the rain to let up and we decided to hit one of the trails and try to see some geysers. The trail didn’t lead us to any geothermal curiosities, but it did give us the opportunity to practice karaoke hiking — that is, our own soon-to-be-patented method of not sneaking up on bears, or any wildlife for that matter. We serenaded the Wyoming wilderness with “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. And when I say we, I mean Lacey did most of the singing. I probably would have gotten us mauled.

One my least favorite things about going to parks is people stopping their cars in the middle of the road to take pictures of wildlife. Because that deer they see out in the middle of the field is so different than the ones that dart across the road back home.

Lucky for me, the traffic jam on Main Street, Yellowstone National Park was a bison herd ambling its way across the road. And before you ask, no. I was not one of the people weaving my way through the herd.  I have a little bit more respect for wild animals with horns (and brains in my head) than to try to get this close to them. Thank you, but I happen to like not being gored and I’m too clumsy to have to run for my life. I stayed in the car and still got eyeballed by a muncher on the shoulder.

Generally, I don't want to be making eye contact with something that has horns that large.

Generally, I don’t want to be making eye contact with something that has horns that large.

If you are an unfortunate person who hasn’t had the opportunity to see bison up close and personal, I’m sorry. They are beautiful beasts. You could call them bigger, furrier cows, but that’s deceptive. The animals’ size makes it seem as if they can only lumber along at a glacial pace, but they can actually run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.

They’re kind of like that big, hulking football player you see in a line of scrimmage that looks like he’d be better suited at a table with a steak in front of him. But as soon as that ball snaps he turns into a graceful athlete, weaving through the other players and spinning down the field. That’s what a bison is like.

The Discovery Channel has a clip on YouTube of a cow defending her calf from wolves, and even though its a real nail-biter at times, it’s surprising to see how agile she is.

This herd was the first of two we got to see at Yellowstone. The other herd was a safe distance away – way out over the plain and across the river.

Though you can't see them in this picture, there were some people standing on the sides of the road where the bison were crossing. I applaud their idiocy. Fortunately, we didn't see any bison attacks.

Though you can’t see them in this picture, there were some people standing on the sides of the road where the bison were crossing. I applaud their idiocy. Fortunately, we didn’t see any bison attacks.

Because of all our lazing around we didn’t get to see much in the park that day. Just the bison and a few of the thousands of geysers in the park. We left in the early evening looking forward to a big, hearty meal fit for a cowboy coming in from a cattle drive. We’d been living mostly off sandwiches and snacks we kept in the car and hadn’t stopped for a really good meal in days.

The first thing we noticed when we got back to the town is how dead it was. I mean, it wasn’t particularly hopping when we left in the morning, but things were open and places were busy. It was just after 8 p.m. when we tried getting into a barbeque restaurant. It was on “winter hours” and closed at 8 p.m. There’s even a Cassie’s Steakhouse — kitchen no longer open when we got there.

By this time, we were starving. The Wendy’s lunch we had on our way out was long gone and I won’t lie. Lacey was starting to look a little bit like a T-bone steak. We gave up on good food and just tried a Dairy Queen. They have decent enough food and ice cream to boot. We walked into the dining room and waited at the register while several workers passed by, looked at us and never stopped to take an order. Completely disheartened, or maybe that feeling was just the low blood sugar, we got Arby’s and took it back to the hotel room.

To see more photos from Yellowstone National Park, check out my Flickr account.

No fail recipe for stargazing

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This picture of a road was lifted from video in Wyoming. At least this road had reflectors on the edges, we didn't even have that on the way through Montana.

This picture of a road was lifted from video in Wyoming. At least this road had reflectors on the edges, we didn’t even have that on the way through Montana.

You’ll need one part wild west, one part white knuckles and a whole lotta darkness.

I got a surprise late Christmas gift this year  when I changed the memory card in my camera and found a few hundred more pictures from Yellowstone National Park. Talk about excited! But, it also reminded me that  I hadn’t ever finished posting to Flickr or blogging about the rest of the trip. Life intervened. But, let’s see if I can sum up what’s left of the trip.

I could go back and gush about Glacier National Park some more but I’ll move on. I still pull out the photos from that part of the trip and flip through them about once a week, drooling and wishing I could just pack up and head back to Big Sky Country — for good this time. But that good thing came to an end and we started on the last leg of our trip: Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. The drive was to be another long one — our last, thank goodness. So we got an early start, knowing we’d be racing against the Montana darkness again. I think this will be the third time I marvel at just how dark a place can be.

Thankfully, we had an uneventful day of driving. No blown out tires, no getting lost, no hitting wildfires. Just crossing Montana country heading to the state line was quickly as we could. The quiet gave me the chance to get some school work finished  — because going back to school for a different degree seemed like a good idea at the time — and so Lacey gave me a break from driving until the sun set. And then the fun began.

For all we knew, the road we were driving was on the side of a mountain, like this part of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

For all we knew, the road we were driving was on the side of a mountain, like this part of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Imagine darkness. I bet your imagination conjured something with faint outlines of objects, maybe a sliver of light under a door. Now, take that away. No more outlines, no more shadows. Now, as you adjust to that darkness, take it down another notch. You can’t even see the hand in front of your face. The darkness takes on a life of its own and you can feel it pressing in on all sides of you. It is terrifying and inescapable. That’s the kind of darkness I’m talking about.

Its a darkness I would welcome if I weren’t trying to cover almost 400 miles and knew what it felt like to be stranded on the side of the highway. 

The beautiful thing about not having a big city or any other kind of suburban civilization nearby is you don’t get light pollution. When the sun sets you only have the light you carry with you. In this case, that’s my headlights. So, I can only see maybe 10 or 20 feet in front of the car at all times. I can’t tell if there’s a curve or an animal up ahead until I’m up on it and there’s nothing I can do about it. Fortunately, there were no animals. But there were some tight, winding curves. The kind of curves you would encounter when you are driving along the sides of mountains. But we couldn’t tell what kind of geology was around us, and that made it still more terrifying.

I’m here to tell you that that old saying that goes something like dim lights shine brighter in the darkest night just isn’t true. The darkness eats the light until there’s nothing left. So I did the only thing I could think of and drove with my brights on for about 200 miles.

Our only companions were your friendly, over-the-road truckers, whose headlights in my rear view, and then side view mirrors as they passed me, only contributed to the blindness. We discussed calling the hotel, letting them know we’d be a day late and staying somewhere on the road, but my stubborn streak kicked in and I wanted to keep pushing through. We’d already lost a day, I refused to give up any more of my vacation.

On we went, knuckles white and eyes open wide with adrenaline and No-Doz. And about the time we crossed the state line and reached Wyoming, Lacey started staring at the sky. She said something along the lines of, “If you can, you may want to pull over and get a look at the sky.” On the side of a county road leading to Cody, Wyoming I beheld the most beautiful night sky I’d ever seen. I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures of it. It was a swirling mess of galaxy and glittering stars with a violet-black backdrop. We stayed, me leaning on the side of June, until a car started out of a nearby driveway. Then we moseyed on down the road to the Big Bear Motel.

Featured image of the Orion Nebula courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via Flickr Creative Commons. 

Day of Wyoming storms precludes disaster

This photo is a freeze frame from one of my favorite lightning strikes from the Wyoming lightning storm. We didn't know it at the time, but this storm on our first night was a precursor of things to come on the trip.

This photo is a freeze frame from one of my favorite lightning strikes from the Wyoming lightning storm. We didn’t know it at the time, but this storm on our first night was a precursor of things to come on the trip.

Before there was the blowout, there were the storms, We didn’t know it on day one of the trip, but storms were about to become a major part of our life. After we landed in Denver that first day, we needed to cross about 1,026 miles – about 15 hours of driving – to get from Denver to Glacier National Park. We decided to spend Saturday knocking out about half of that drive time.

Our fist pit stop: Sheridan, Wyoming.

Our fist pit stop: Sheridan, Wyoming.

We covered about 435 miles and landed in Sheridan, Wy. that night to sleep. Along the way we saw some beautiful scenery and watched a storm come from the mountains and blow across the highway in front of us. (You can see more pictures in my flickr account.) But the best part of the day was driving into the lightning storm.

Of course at that time we didn’t know that driving in and around storms was going to be a recurring theme of the trip, but watching the lightning show was truly a beautiful sight. I made a video montage of the best shots I was able to get, complete with commentary from Lacey and I, and a sample of our playlist from the trip.

I just want to note that trying to catch lightning on video is like trying to play Whack-A-Mole.  The lightning strikes felt like they were surrounding us – really they were on three sides. Just when I’d think I’d have a good idea of where the most activity was, it would all switch up. We watched the storms for hours, but I only got about five or six decent shots of actual lightning bolts.

There were white markers around the battlefield to mark where soldiers fell. This group was in a line that ended in the walking path.

There were white markers around the battlefield to mark where soldiers fell. This group was in a line that ended in the walking path.

Day two of the trip dawned bright, clear and full of promise. We left Sheridan early and stopped at the Little Bighorn National Monument, the scene of Custer’s Last Stand. The area, like the rest of the state, is undeveloped and it really isn’t hard to look at the landscape and imagine what happened that day. The trail leading visitors around the battlefield and the markers that show where soldiers and warriors fell also help illustrate the scene. Plus, there is a tour guide who can be heard around the entire battlefield. So even if you aren’t in the tour or don’t want to hear it, too bad. You’re getting the story anyway.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument sports a new memorial to the Plains Indians. Its still under construction and when complete the walls inside the circle will showcase various native symbols and carvings.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument sports a new memorial to the Plains Indians. Its still under construction and when complete the walls inside the circle will showcase various native symbols and carvings.

A new project that I’m excited about is a memorial for the Plains Indians. The metal cutouts of Native Americans on horseback are already there but there are still carvings to be done on the stone walls inside the circular monument.  I’m excited to go back and see it when its complete.

After we got through all the fun times of the day, we were ready to put the hammer down and knock out the remaining seven hours of driving we had left to get to Whitefish. That was about the time I saw the tire going away from the car and, well, you know the rest of that story.

Karaoke-hiking (and other bear safety tips)

Aside

Elk have quite the sense of humor accompanying their size and general dangerousness. I lifted this picture from Yellowstone National Park's Facebook page August 30.

Elk have quite the sense of humor to go with their size and general dangerousness. I lifted this picture from Yellowstone National Park’s Facebook page August 30.

There has never been a better time to visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. The summer crowds are dying down, the dog days of summer are behind us, the elk are in rut, the bears are about to hibernate and the wildfires are blazing. That’s right folks, Lacey and I are getting an earful on the daily from our respective parents about the dangers of this trip, why we need to be careful and the best ways to go about doing it. (Nevermind we’re almost 30 years old and smart enough not to chase after wild animals.)

So I thought I’d do a little research. What exactly are the dangers lurking in these unassuming national parks? How can we protect ourselves? Here’s what I found: A little common sense goes a long way.

See a bear off in the valley? Don’t go running after it with camera in tow. Is an elk camped on the side of the road leisurely munching grass? Take a through-the-window shot and keep it moving. Does that big bison look like he couldn’t move fast enough to harm a fly? Think again.

First off, the National Park Service is almost as worried about our safely as our parents are. It kind of mars the park image when someone gets mauled. So Yellowstone has put together bear safety videos and Glacier has its own safety page chock full of information. My takeaway:

  • Avoid an encounter with a bear. Hike in groups and make a lot of noise. Lacey and I intend to sing. It’ll be a karaoke hike.
  • If you do encounter a bear, know how to react, If it charges you, you need to defend yourself. If you just startle it and it starts acting a little like its trying to make a big show, just back away. Don’t try to out-alpha it.
  • Know how to use your bear spray — and what it’s limitations are. Its not insect repellent, as the park service is quick to point out. Think of it more like super-mace. You don’t want it anywhere near you.

Yellowstone also provides a nice elk safety video — basically don’t walk up to them or park your car next to them.

So, Toni and Sandy. Your daughters are armed with cutting edge National Park safety technology. I think we have a 99 percent chance of survival in the wild, wild west.

Sheila giveth and Sheila taketh away

Note from Cassie: I’m posting this a few days late. The last couple days of the trip we had sketchy internet connections and I was tired of fighting my Blackberry to get things posted. Sorry for the delay! 

Old Faithful

I’m not sure if we should bless or curse the name of Sheila though. I think she’s pretty half and half right now between getting us lost and getting us where we need to go. We mapped our route in the cabin Sunday night to get to Yellowstone using Google Maps on our phones. We expected a two hour drive to get to Yellowstone but when we keyed our desination in Sheila, she told us it was going to take three hours to get there.

Lewis Lake

I was cursing the name of Sheila. We ended up on several state roads, one of which we were stuck in a 25-mile-per-hour construction zone behind a huge truck. But soon enough we realized that she was taking us through the Tetons and I was blessing the name of Sheila. I had wanted to go through the park, but we really didn’t have the time to drive through it. So we got to see the Tetons as well.

Mud Volcano

Probably ten years or more ago, some friends of the family came back from a tour of the West — including Yellowstone — disappointed. They said it wasn’t worth the trip.

I have no idea what they were talking about. Yellowstone was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Dragon’s Mouth

As per our usual on this trip, we only had time to hit the high points of the park. In this case, we got to see Old Faithful, pieces of lakes and rivers, the mud volcano and the sulfur springs. Bring a mask to the sulfur springs. The smell is nauseating. My only complaint is that we didn’t have enough time.
http://www.youtube.com/v/EUtblSpO1oU&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xd0d0d0&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&fs=1