Yellowstone-Mother Nature at it’s Best

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Yellowstone is by far the most interesting, wild, dangerous, and beautiful place I have ever been in my travels.  I understand why it became our first National Park and I thank those insightful people who thought to protect and preserve it for future generations.  We spent a week there at the end of September, and it still wasn’t long enough to see the whole park.  Late September is a wonderful time to visit Yellowstone!  Their peak season is July and August and rumor is the traffic is bumper to bumper then.  We were able to cruise around at leisure and had many areas of the park all to ourselves. The temperatures were pleasant, and the Aspen Trees were glowing orange. We camped at Henry’s Lake State Park in Idaho, about a 20 minute drive into the entrance of West Yellowstone.  Interestingly enough, even though it’s only 20 minutes away we had to pass through a sliver  of Montana before we entered into Wyoming. We chose Henry’s because it was a first come, first serve campground and several of the campgrounds inside the park were already closing for the season during our visit.  Henry’s was great! We easily explored the north and south sections of the park from the middle entrance of West Yellowstone.  The lake was beautiful and there were great hiking trails complete with moose right at the campground.  I have been dying to see a moose in person, from a safe distance of course, and I finally got my chance hiking the trail at Henry’s.  A female moose snorted and stomped at us from a distance and then took off into the trees.  It was awesome and exhilarating!

As I mentioned before Yellowstone is a wild and dangerous place! It is home to Grizzly and Black Bears, the huge American Bison, elk, coyotes, and several wolf packs.  These animals run free living, hunting, breeding, and raising their young here.  We are the guests/intruders on their land and it’s easy to see why the rangers and signs warn visitors to keep a safe distance from these glorious animals.  Within an hour of entering the park we were treated to a herd of elk frolicking near the Yellowstone River.  We were lucky enough to be there for the rut, hearing the bugle call of the bulls as they tried to impress the ladies was an experience I will never forget.  As we were watching the herd a female and male walked out of the shadow of the forest (I’m assuming after a mating session). The male swaggered into view, his huge rack prominent, and let out a deep, loud, from the gut call that echoed through the night.  He was the king of the forest in that moment.  A short while later a massive bison came up to the herd and began chasing the elk through the field and across the river.  It was a better greeting into Yellowstone then I could have imagined!  We also saw a coyote wandering through a field one afternoon, he looked sleepy and somewhat bewildered by the people pausing to take his picture.  There are so many bison wandering through the park that you sort of become accustomed to them and forget that they are massive, wild creatures that will gore you with their horns if you get to close.  We had been out on a hike one afternoon and when we were coming back to our car we found a herd of about a 100 bison had taken up residence between us and our car.  We had to move slowly and cautiously and try to go around them.  Several times we caught the attention of some really ginormous fellas that started walking towards us, and the feeling in my stomach was sheer nerves as we scurried out of their way as quickly as possible.   Another evening, at dusk, we set up shop with our binoculars in Hayden’s Valley, a well known area to spot bears and wolves, but unfortunately all we saw were elk and a bald eagle.  We met a nice couple there that were lucky enough to see the wolf pack rally together and surround the elk herd the night before in the same spot.  I wish we had been that lucky!

The other major danger at Yellowstone is the thermal zones created by the volcanic activity happening beneath the earth’s crust here.  Yellowstone is the site of a massive eruption many, many years ago and is still an active hot bed for geological activity.  There are several geyser basins located throughout the park where visitors can walk along boardwalks to observe hot springs and if you are lucky, see a geyser go off.  The hot springs look steamy and inviting but they are highly acidic and extremely hot! Several people have lost their lives by ignoring the signs to stay on the boardwalk.  Looking down into the hot springs is like seeing into the center of the earth, you can see how fragile an environment we really live in and how easily it could be destroyed by an eruption here.  The smell of sulfur is strong in many of the geyser basins and the air thick with steam and gases from down below.  There are colorful mats of bacteria that have formed in and around the hot springs creating natural works of art.  We had to go see Old Faithful of course, and I have to admit there is a sense of patriotic pride that comes with watching her blow, a sort of American right of passage if you will.  She wasn’t my favorite geyser though.  We were out riding our bikes near the Old Faithful Visitor Center one evening and we passed Castle Geyser on the way and noted it was predicted to erupt in the next hour or so.  We peddled out to see Morning Glory Hot Spring and on our way back the Castle hadn’t erupted yet so we stopped and waited.  Right at sunset she blew and oh what a sight!  Hot, steamy water flew 200 feet straight up into the air for over 15 minutes and was followed by massive amounts of steam and more water for another 45 minutes.  The sound as she vomited the steam out was something like a tornado or a fleet of freight trains coming out of the ground.  It was by far the best thing I have seen on this trip.  If you ever go to Yellowstone please seek out this geyser, it usually erupts every 12 to 14 hours.  It is truly magnificent!  Our other favorite thermal features were the mud pots and paint pots.  They are thick, gloppy puddles of mud and clay that bubble and plop and put on a really great show.  We could have watched the globs of mud fly through the air and hiss and steam all day.  Some of pots were waterier then others and different colors based on the minerals that are present.

We also visited the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  It is a huge canyon carved by the Yellowstone river flowing through it.  There is a massive waterfall that is not to be missed and several hiking trails to give visitors different viewpoints of the falls both near and far away.  We hiked down below the edge of the canyon to the brink of the falls where a platform is situated and you can stand and watch the water drop over the side as it plummets to the canyon floor.   It’s mesmerizing watching the power of the water as it cascades down into the canyon, totally worth the hike down.  From there we hiked along the North Rim of the canyon to the Red Rock trail.  A great place to go for some solitude and to admire the waterfall from a distance.  There were quite a few people at the viewpoint on top of the trail but few ventured down to the lower viewpoint.  Also in the park we saw Gibbon Falls, and Firehole Falls, both excellent sights.

Yellowstone has something for everyone, and out of all the places we have seen both on this trip and in previous travels, it is the most intriguing and the best show of mother nature at work.  It’s definitely on my list of places to return to someday!

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Idaho-It’s All That and a Bag of Potatoes

Our last post was over a month ago and we have been on many adventures and through several states and times zones since then! So with a good data signal, an electric hook up, and the World Series playing in the background, I will try to get the blog up to date.

We last left our readers on our way out of Oregon, crossing into Idaho heading towards Yellowstone National Park.  Idaho ended up being much more than just a pass through state, it was a state with plenty of adventure activities, scenery, and wildlife viewing to keep even the most avid outdoorsman happy for a long time.

Our first destination was the Birds of Prey Conservation Area.  Being bird watchers this was a natural choice on our route.  We stopped here to lookout over the Snake River and saw many species of birds flying overhead.  Thanks to my excellent navigation skills and some shoddy assistance from Google Maps we ended up seeing a lot more of the area then originally intended,but hey it’s a road trip right? After a scenic drive we decided to camp for the night at Bruneau Dunes State Park, it ended up being an excellent choice! Bruneau Dunes is located in a high desert climate in Southern Idaho and is home to a 470 foot sand dune.  Upon arriving we were super excited to see they also housed an observatory with a massive telescope for stargazing.  They highly encouraged visitors to keep their lights off at night so everyone could enjoy the fantastic stargazing in the park.  We arrived on a Thursday and once we discovered they had a Friday night Astronomy program at the observatory we knew we had to stay an extra night.  By staying another night we had a full day to explore the park and decided to conquer the giant sand dune.  We set out on a hike to the top and discovered about half way up that the “trail” disappears in the sand due to wind and it’s just a free for all climb to the crest.  It was so steep I had to channel my inner Spiderman and basically climb straight up through the sand.  When I reached the top I pulled myself up to sit on the crest and realized it was a sheer drop into a huge crater on the other side.  Being perched on top of a crest with a sheer drop on one side and a pretty steep drop on the other was not ideal for someone who does not really enjoy heights a lot, but I sucked it up and waited for Ryan to join me at the top (apparently I have the better Spiderman skills). Once at the top we followed coyote tracks across the dune and finally down to finish out the strenuous desert hike.  Later that evening we rode our bikes from our camp to the observatory for their Friday night astronomy program.  The program was run by a volunteer student from Idaho State University who is studying astronomy and happens to be an intern for Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is best known for abolishing Pluto as a planet in our solar system.  Neil also has an excellent show on Netflix called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.  Anyway it was a great program about how big the universe is and then we got to go outside and look through several telescopes at cool things in the sky, like Saturn, and we each got to take a turn looking through the giant telescope in the observatory.  Then we pedaled our bikes through the crisp ,starry evening back to our campsite where we got out our own telescope to finish our day in the high desert.

After we left Bruneau Dunes we decided to foray into the world of Boondocking.  Boondocking is a term used for camping for free off the grid (often on government/public lands) and usually with no amenities.  It is also called dispersed camping or wild camping.  There is a fantastic website called Campendium that has GPS coordinates for free campsites and also pictures and reviews by people who have stayed there, similar to TripAdvisor, but for camping.  We wanted to camp near Craters of the Moon National Monument so I typed that into the search and found that we could camp for free at Hayspur Fish Hatchery near Hailey, Idaho. We were super impressed with our first boondocking experience and ended up staying almost a week exploring the area.  We had our choice of two huge fields to camp in and each site had a make shift fire ring and even a picnic table.  We set up camp next to a babbling brook with a stunning view of the Sawtooth Mountains.  From our site we went hiking in the Sawtooth National Forest where the aspen trees were fully changed over for fall, looking like balls of orange and yellow fire.  We took a drive down a back country road and set up the our giant binoculars to try and see a bear at dusk but unfortunately all we saw were deer.  This area is also home to Sun Valley Ski Resort and the cute ski towns of Hailey and Ketchum.  When skiing is not in season mountain biking is, or bikers can opt for a spin on the paved Wood River path that runs from Bellvue to Ketchum.  We put down some miles on the path enjoying the mountain scenery and the quaint ski towns.  Feeling thirsty after a day of activities we popped into Powerhouse, a trendy bar/restaurant that doubles as a bike shop, and enjoyed a couple local brews. No road trip is complete without stopping in at a few roadside attractions so we had to hit up the Shoshone Ice Caves near our campsite.  For $10 a guide takes visitors down into a cold cave with ice in it and gives a history lesson on the discovery of the cave and also some of the geological activity in the area, but if you really want to see some cool caves and get a lesson in geology, Craters of the Moon is the place to go.

When driving towards Craters the landscape shifts to endless fields of black rock as far as the eye can see.  It is fields of lava that were deposited thousands of years ago.  According to the park literature these lava fields were created by the Great Rift, a series of fissures that began erupting 15,000 years ago with the most recent eruption occurring around 2,000 years ago. The visitor center is full of testimonies from long ago settlers and explorers reaching this barren area and trying to traverse it.  It was really interesting reading their stories and impressions of the landscape. Along with the fields of lava there are giant cinder cones to hike up and deep colorful craters to marvel at.  There are also really cool caves to explore, but be warned you must have a flashlight, a sense of adventure, not mind bats, or small spaces.  We enjoyed touring Beauty and Indian Caves, but Dewdrop and Boy Scout Caves were too tight, dark, and batty for my liking.  Indian cave was huge and had enough light coming in that flashlights were not needed.  Adventure seekers can hike all the way through the cave and then scramble over huge boulders and climb out a hole and hike back across the lava field to the cave opening.  This was our favortie activity at the park. This park is a must see if you have any interest in volcanoes.

Well that’s it for our Idaho adventures, birds, boondocking, volcanoes, and caves, it’s so much more than just potatoes!