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Wandering the West

All summer the roads are jammed, the rooms are full and the restaurants are crowded anywhere in or near Yellowstone National Park. Now the days are shorter and colder, the weather unpredictable, and the restaurants and hotels are closing. Fewer people are there to tough out the changing conditions.

But now you’ll see things you just won’t see in Yellowstone’s summer prime. October is my favorite month in my favorite national park.

Yellowstone has two grand attractions. It holds half of the world’s geothermal features geysers. It also is home to the best variety of free-roaming charismatic mega-fauna to be seen anywhere outside of the Serengeti Plain.

That’s a wildlife biologist’s longwinded way to say really big, cool animals. And from marmots to coyotes, elk, bison, deer and the park’s two superstars the wolves and the grizzly bears they’re all out and more visible now than during the heat of the summer, when many of them bedded down all day and only came out at night.

I’ve lost count of the number of trips I’ve taken to Yellowstone, and while I won’t say if you’ve seen one geyser you’ve seen them all, I will say I’ve seen enough boiling water to last a lifetime. It’s wildlife I go to see.

You can see many of Yellowstone’s animals any time of year, but now they’re busy preparing for winter. They’re spending all their waking time foraging, to fatten up for Yellowstone’s brutally cold winters. If it’s wildlife you’re after, now’s the time. Consider my last October trip. In Lamar Valley I watched a wolf pack march up the valley, and heard the nervous barking of a nearby coyote pack who sensed a larger predator in their midst. At the top of Dunraven Pass a grizzly sow grazed a hundred yards off the side of the road. After it ambled off, I started down the road only to stop within a mile to watch a bull elk mingle with his harem of twenty or so cows. In Hayden Valley a bull moose swept his antlers through the Yellowstone River to tear up weeds to eat, while on the grasslands the buffalo herds looked like something out of a pioneer journal.

The next day a short hike to loop around Norris Geyser Basin (OK, so I do still like to see the geysers) turned into a long, close observation of two bull elk, each with its harem, bugling their lungs out to intimidate each other. I was startled to see the first one standing with about a dozen cows in widely spaced trees just ten feet off the trail leading down to the basin. The lodgepole on the other side of the trail were close together too close for a bull with its wide rack to penetrate. I ducked into the lodgepole prison to watch and listen. From just a few dozen yards away I saw and heard the bull bellow nearly nonstop for an hour while another bugled back from the other side of the basin.

Later in the day by Mary Bay on Yellowstone Lake I found three other grizzlies rooting in a meadow for food roots, perhaps, or maybe gophers. In all my trips to the park I’d only rarely caught a glimpse of a grizzly. This October trip yielded seven sightings, and more of black bears, which are smaller. (Black bears can be brown and are often mistaken for grizzlies. The griz have a flatter face and a distinctive hump between their shoulders.)

If you’re a photographer, autumn light just seems softer. The meadows, the cottonwoods and aspen are all golden. Warm golden tones against the green lodgepoles and, if you’re lucky, a dusting of fresh white snow up high produce some of the best photography in the park all year. Put one of the park’s animals somewhere in a scene like that and you’ve got a winner.

Snow can hit any time and, when it starts sticking, the roads close. Scheduled closings start October 14 when the Tower to Canyon road closes and the road over Beartooth Pass closes. All park roads close November 3, or sooner if the park gets blasted with an early snowfall.

An Indian summer day in a Yellowstone autumn is about as fine a day as you can spend anywhere.

THE VITALS:

Park City to South Entrance (via Jackson, Wyoming): 310 miles

Web sites: http://www.nps.gov/yell/ http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.com

Insider tip: Stop at the visitor’s centers, especially this time of year, to ask for current wildlife sightings. Rangers monitoring radio traffic can steer you to locations of recent wolf and bear sightings, something they’re not likely to do in summer when roads are already jammed.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.


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