Saturday, December 12, 2009

Yellowstone Dawn

I have heard that most people who visit places like Yellowstone National Park rarely leave their cars--something like 90%. They drive the Grand Loop, pull over to look at things out their car windows. Perhaps they walk far enough to see Old Faithful, or the Terraces, but for the most part they only leave the comfort of their vehicles to go to the gift shop.

Edward Abbey, in his book Desert Solitaire, wrote way back in 1967 how he thought cars--and all motor vehicles--should be banned from the national parks and everyone should have to travel by bike, or on foot, or horseback. His argument was that you cannot possibly fully experience a place from the climate controlled confines of your car. He was right. Oh, you will see stuff, for sure. Driving through Yellowstone is like driving through a zoo--the animals are right there, wandering around on the road in some cases. But to really experience a place--to hear it, to smell it and feel it--you need some solitude, some space, and we fully intended to find it, even if we only had four days to do it in.

Since we took a plane out west instead of driving we couldn't really bring camping gear and were left with a hotel room in West Yellowstone. Little did we know at the time we made the reservations that most of the wildlife is on the east side of the park. So, we were up before dawn each day, out on the road to get to a place where we hoped to see some wildlife before the heat of the day forced them into the woods. Each morning at 5:30 am we could be found headed down the West Entrance Road. This road follows the Madison River and Madison Canyon until the road joins the Grand Loop Road and the Madison meets the Gibbon River. This area was great for elk viewing, and in the morning there were almost always elk cows and calves right by the road. Later in the day as traffic increased they moved farther into the plains. These elk were our first sighting of wildlife in the park.

The grasses were just beginning to ripen and cast the meadows and prairies with yellows and golds. What movement the up-ended roots of this old pine convey, like a dancer twirling by the stream.

We saw a lot of elk in the park, and it was hard to not stop and take pictures of all of them. This group glows in the sunrise.

Yellowstone is, as you probably know, a HUGE volcano caldera. Scientists believe that some of the largest eruptions in the planet's history occurred with this volcano, eruptions that would have changed life on earth. I couldn't help but think that if the thing was going to blow, I would rather it do so while I was there and save me the suffering of the aftermath of such an event!

Thanks to the heat that lies just below the surface, the park is replete with geothermal features such as geysers, sulfur springs and bubbling mud pots. Steam rises seemingly at random from fissures in the ground. Again, this is something best seen in the early morning when the air is cool. The morning sun had just crested this rise to light up the steam.

Along the Madison river, quite near the road, was a bald eagle nest. The area was roped off to discourage people from pulling over and disturbing the birds. By late July the youngins had flown the nest, and I think this may have been one of their brood, perched in a tree several hundred yards from the nest. I will confess I shot this from the car.

There is a line from an Indigo Girls song that has resonated me since the first time I heard it:

"Everywhere I turn, all the beauty just keeps shaking me."

This is exactly how I felt on this trip. We couldn't go ten feet, it seemed, without running into another stunning scene. This is Gibbon Falls, easily seen from the road. I was most mesmerized by the tree in the foreground. It was lit it up like a firebrand even though the sun had not yet touched it.

More geothermal activity. I long to return to Yellowstone in the winter to see bison, caked with snow, warming themselves near these vents.

I am not certain but I think this is Secret Valley Creek. After two years I have to rely on the order of my photos and a map of the park to help me remember where we were! The reflection of these towering dead trees surrounded by the next generation caught my eye. This area of the park was ravaged in the North Fork Fire, one of nine named fires that laid waste to the park in 1988. I can only imagine what the landscape looked like before the fires.

Not everything in Yellowstone is big, not all of the beauty and majesty is in the panorama, the raging river, the mountain range. Those who remain confined to their vehicles will never see the small things, the things of delicate beauty, the subtleties. They won't hear the cry of the hawk, or the howl of the wolf, and they will miss the hair bells and yarrow, growing along a stream at the base of a pine in the early morning light.

Hell, they probably aren't even out of bed yet.

Next: Artist Paintpots


  1. lovely, lovely
    we go to Yellowstone each year,
    have a condo outside of West...
    have gone to the Park almost each of my 54 years
    and I still have a list of things I want to do,
    to see,
    to experience..

    One year, my goal was to capture Old Faithful by the light of the full moon, so we planned accordingly....
    So much to see - experience and to fuel our senses
    Thank you for sharing your vision, views and words

  2. I've visited Yellowstone a number of times, usually surrounding backpack trips to the Beartooth or Wind River Mtns. I always found it interesting how few people get up at or before sunrise to enter the park. They wonder where all the wildlife is, not knowing it was right there in plain sight early. We also found more to see in the evening, when everybody else was dining and watching prime time television.

    Fellow Michigander