August 28, 2016

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Back home, after all that riding, and off the bike for an entire week.

That's just not right, not right at all.

Having donated blood two days earlier, what I needed was an easy-going ride. Short, nothing to get my heart rate up too high.

There was a club ride that fit the bill: just one hill to climb. [So it's steep. Get over it.]

Normally the group would make a turn to climb up a side road, toward Walden West. The plan today was to bypass that, going straight to Sanborn County Park instead.

There was some chatter about going to the very end of the road. [Huh. What's up there?] I hadn't visited the actual park in years; the road doesn't end at the park?

Of course I had to keep going.

There was a spirited disagreement about whether, if you kept going past the end of the pavement, you would connect to Bohlman or Black. Looking at the map, it appears that both answers are correct—though private property might get in your way.

Twenty-eight miles, 1,735 feet of climbing.

Easy. Like Sunday morning.

August 24, 2016

Yellowstone Wrap

Thanks to a shift in the winds, the view of the Yellowstone River from my balcony was crisp this morning.

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and for three days admission to all National Parks and Monuments will be free. [Translation: Crowded.]

That won't matter to me, as I will return to the Bay Area today. But before heading north, back to Bozeman, I had some time to slip through the Roosevelt Arch one more time.

The 45th parallel is marked where it passes through the park. [I know you were wondering about that.]

My plan was to head south (counter-clockwise) on the Grand Loop Road, as far as my time budget would allow. Perhaps the road construction wouldn't interfere. [Wrong.] Apparently one section is under one-way control, with traffic being released at 30-minute intervals. I made a u-turn.

My GyPSy guide suggested some interesting basalt columns, which gave me the opportunity to stretch my legs alongside the Gardner River.

A boy and his father were climbing the 500,000-year-old columns closest to the road, which appeared to be crumbling naturally. I didn't stick around to see how that turned out (but I was rooting for the rocks).

Given that I couldn't venture deep into the park, I paused to see whatever I could. I stopped at Swan Lake to admire the distant peaks of the Gallatin Range and spotted some white birds on the water. [Duh.] Swans.

A very detailed description of another roadside turnout rewarded me with a view of Rustic Falls, with Glen Creek snaking through the canyon, hidden from the drivers high above who must keep their eyes on the road.

During this trip, I've noticed that if I am the first to pull over, others almost certainly follow. Not a bad strategy, I suppose, if you're not being guided (by book, map, or app).

There was also an opportunity to pass through Silver Gate, a tiny loop through a field of massive limestone boulders that have toppled down from Terrace Mountain. For a closer look, I found a spot to park and walked back (along the road, very carefully).

Technically, they're not hoodoos—but that's the name that's stuck.

People often combine a visit to Yellowstone with a trip to Grand Teton National Park. Another time, for me. 

August 23, 2016

Smoke, Steam, and Sulfur

My goal today was to meander over to Old Faithful, fitting in a couple of stops I missed yesterday and covering some new territory. To avoid the road construction delays, I still needed to travel the loop clockwise—not the most direct route to reach Old Faithful.

I arrived at Dunraven Pass, the other side of Mt. Washburn, around the time I needed to stretch my legs. It was less windy today, so ... of course I had to go up. The parking lot was nearly full; there was plenty of activity on the trail.

This chipmunk appeared to be working on a sun salutation. Looked like an open invitation to feed an eagle, to me, but there weren't many birds in the air.

The elevation at the start is apparently around 8,859 feet. The altitude wasn't bothering me, but I took my time. No need to rush. There is a building at the summit, a tiny bump on the peak to the left in the next photo.

The views were not great, with all the smoke hanging in the air, but it was still a good workout. The summit was marked: 10,213 feet. An upper segment of the trail, following the ridge, was a prominent sight.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I reached the top, so I was happy that we were welcome to enter the building, where there were some displays (and a logbook to sign!). I recorded the route as I hiked back down. I wasn't planning to do a long hike, but it was 7.4 miles round-trip, gaining more than 1,300 feet in elevation. By the end of the day, I would cover nine miles, and my legs were feeling it. [Note to self: do more hiking to cross-train.]

There were the remnants of a paved road up there, and a fence (weighted against the wind with wire baskets of rocks) to mark a stretch where the land slid out. Nothing fancy, but I suspect that's not a problem because the people who make it this far are hardy folks with common sense. [Not the tourists who treat every park like Disneyland.]

Near the summit, we were rewarded with the sight of a small herd of pronghorn. I was surprised to learn that they're more closely related to the giraffe than to the antelope. They can run fast, for a long distance; but this group was just grazing, keeping a wary eye on the humans.

There weren't many wildflowers this late in the season, but with a little patience I snapped a photo of a butterfly. The ecosystem has its share of small creatures, too.

After lunch at the Canyon General Store, I ventured south. Thermal features are particularly concentrated in this part of the park, and I stopped to check out a few. The Churning Caldron is a bubbling mud pool with a small geyser spouting pretty regularly.

A reminder of the dynamic earth just below the surface was a steaming hole fenced off in the parking lot.

I continued to the Lake Village area and Pumice Point for a shoreline view across the vast expanse of Yellowstone Lake. A lone bald eagle soared offshore.

I was headed for the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which is right on the shore of the lake.

There are plenty of signs warning visitors to stay on the boardwalk, because the area around the springs is often just a thin crust of minerals deposited above a pool of boiling acidic water. And of course I wouldn't think of stepping off. But I was amused to see an elk grazing nearby, and tracks (and scat) through much of the area. If it were winter, I could understand that the animals sought the warmth around the springs. But now? I wondered what would attract them here, with its sparse vegetation, toxic gases, and pools of acidic mud. Somehow they don't break through the crust. [Or, maybe, sometimes they do?]

A family passed. “Are we going to see stinky stuff every day?” asked a child. [Yup.]

There wasn't time to linger, though, if I wanted to fit in a visit to Old Faithful.

Seeing the famous geyser was not at the top of my list of sights-not-to-missed in Yellowstone. Frankly, it felt like a cliché. But then, I'm here ... how can I not see it? That just seemed wrong.

My timing was (im)perfect ... the parking lot was packed, but the crowds were headed for their cars. That plume I'd glimpsed rising above the rooftop as I pulled in was, of course, the geyser erupting.

The next eruption would be around 8:20 p.m., give or take 10 minutes. Waiting would mean driving 70 miles back to Gardiner through the park (in the dark), which seemed foolhardy.

My GyPSy guide was emphatic about visiting the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. “I'm not going to say anything more. Just do it.”

So I did. [He was right.]

By the time I had a snack and whatnot, it would be close to 8 p.m. and I'd be driving back in the dark anyway.

I took a seat. Perhaps this was meant to be: at this hour, there was no crowd. The sun would set at 8:14 p.m.

The geyser steams away, in wisps and puffs and occasional blasts. As the pressure builds, it throws up small spouts of water.

At 8:30 p.m., on schedule, Old Faithful erupted. [It was worth it.]

As I headed for my car, I convinced myself that there would be other cars on the road. Most of them were headed for West Yellowstone, of course; the nearest exit. Once in the lead, I carefully scanned left and right, right and left, for wildlife. Headlights can't help around corners, so I took the curves particularly slowly.

A pair of cars heading south temporarily impaired my night vision; they were moving very slowly. I soon saw why.

There was a big animal in the road ... was it a moose? [Nope.]

A huge bison was ambling up the road. In my lane, traveling in the right direction. His taillights were out.

August 22, 2016

Waterfalls and Canyons

It was pure serendipity that led me to a smartphone app that, totally, made my visit: the GyPSy Guide for Yellowstone National Park. It's a brilliant idea: guiding you through the park, using your GPS location to trigger the narration along the way. It was worth every penny (and then some).

Undine Falls was a quick stop I likely would have missed, otherwise.

Ditto for a petrified tree, part of a redwood forest that flourished here 50 million years ago. It's fenced in to discourage visitors from prying any more samples loose.

There was road work in progress on a key section of the Grand Loop Road through the park, with one-way traffic controls at 30-minute intervals. Traveling clockwise was the solution. I saw a lone bison grazing in a field a couple of times, but saw a herd only once. I was also fortunate never to encounter an animal jam on the road.

A trail ride might have been fun, but advanced reservations are recommended.

I visited Tower Fall, hiking down to the level of the river. It turned out that the best view was only at the top (as the signage indicated). This was the one time that the GyPSy Guide let me down. Along the way, I passed a notice dating to 2013 stating that the trail (leading to an apparent vista point) was closed; I suspect the hillside slid out. It was a nice hike, anyway.

Wait, a hike? What about those bears?

There were enough people clambering around here that I deemed the risk low, even though technically I was not a group of three. (This would be my strategy for the rest of the trip.) Since the trail down was steep, and didn't promise a better view of the falls, it wasn't clogged with tourists. [Just right.]

Soon my GyPSy narrator mentioned that Chittenden Road was coming up on the left, and would lead part of the way up toward Mt. Washburn (one of the highest peaks in the park). “It's a dirt road,” he explained, but perfectly fine in an ordinary car if there hasn't been recent weather to tear it up.

“All right!” he exclaimed. “I see we've made the turn. Now I'll tell you a little more.”

There were a couple of people coming down the trail from the summit, but I stayed on the lower slope; the gusts were strong. I needed to angle my body into the wind, or simply crouch down, to avoid being blown over. That strong.

I had a good vantage point to view the smoke from the Buffalo fire, and during the short window I spent there, the winds whipped it up. A huge cloud of gray smoke suddenly billowed up beyond the ridge to the north.

My plan today was to explore the Canyon area of the park. Heeding my narrator's advice, I headed first for the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, to view the Upper Yellowstone Falls before continuing to Artist Point.

Of course I had to take Uncle Tom's Trail, starting at an elevation of 8,000 feet and descending 328 steps down (and back up) the side of the canyon for the best views. I counted the steps on the return trip—it helped me understand where I was, and I didn't feel a need to rest. On the climb, I reassured people that it was worth the descent (even if they couldn't go all the way).

The north rim, with its view of the Lower Falls and more of the canyon, was next. The farthest vista spot, Inspiration Point, was closed; but I took in the view from the rest (Red Rock, Lookout, Grand View). Overall, I managed to hike another three miles today; I didn't track the elevation gain, but there was quite a bit of that.

The late-afternoon light amplified the colors, though some of the canyon was already deep in shadow.

Having decided that I preferred spending time sightseeing more than eating, a sandwich from the Canyon General Store was my dinner.

The light was fading as I headed back toward Gardiner. Instead of backtracking, I headed west to continue my clockwise route along the Grand Loop. As it turned out, this was perfect: with road construction paused for the night, there was no delay (and new sights).

Seeing people out of their cars at the side of the road, I pulled over. Elk, grazing in a field.

In the Mammoth area, there was an elk nursing her calf right on the lawn, thrilling a small crowd nearby. (She moved on before I could stop for a photo.)

Yellowstone, with its reputation for hordes of visitors (more than 3.8 million in 2015), and for visitors doing foolish things, hadn't been high on the list of National Parks I wanted to visit.

I was wrong about that, and now most grateful to be setting that right.

August 21, 2016

Mammoth Hot Springs

The north entrance to Yellowstone National Park was so close to my hotel that I could easily have walked there—across the state line, into Wyoming. I considered doing that, to buy my entrance pass, but I arrived early enough in the afternoon that there was ample time to start exploring.

My hotel was right on the Yellowstone River. My hopes of drifting off to sleep to the sound of rushing water were dashed by thick smoke from multiple fires burning within the park—best to keep the windows closed.

The guide books counsel that most park visitors never stray off the boardwalks, if they do get out of their vehicles at all; words to the wise for those who wish to avoid the crowds.

But then they caution that you should always hike in groups of three or more people, make lots of noise, and carry bear spray. [So go figure.]

Sadly, looks like it will be the boardwalks and crowded vistas for me. I am a group of one, not three. A canister of bear spray costs $50 (and you can neither ship it nor carry it with you on a plane). The locals hike with guns, not bear spray. Think about it: If the bear didn't smell you, you're downwind of the bear. If you're downwind of the bear, who's gonna get end up getting sprayed?

I stopped at the nearest visitor center, part of the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District. The lush green lawns attract elk, the elk attract people. The people were pretty well-behaved; the animals seemed unconcerned. Especially as they clustered around the red signs posted: Danger, do not approach animals.

Parking looked chaotic closer to the hot springs. What's a little more walking, after biking some 500 miles? I left the car where it was.

I wandered around the boardwalks, up and down, fascinated by the features of the various hot springs. By the time I was done, I'd covered about three miles.

Yellowstone sits within a giant volcanic caldera, and these places where the planet gives us a hint of the molten, super-heated layers within are humbling. Day to day we go about our business on terra firma, all too easily forgetting that we're not simply spinning around the sun on a solid chunk of rock.

The smoke contributed a post-apocalyptic feel, and colored the sunset.

The crowds thinned out at the upper levels, above the travertine terraces. [Climb stairs? At altitude?] A boy ran ahead of his parents. “This is tiring!” he complained to me. I laughed; he looked to be all of four years old.

Unintentionally, my timing was spot on. Colors were intense in the early evening light, and families headed for dinner.

Dining options in Gardiner hadn't looked exciting, so I chose a bison burger before leaving the park. [Indistinguishable from beef, to my tastebuds.]

Looking forward to a full day, tomorrow.