Saturday, October 30, 2004

Yellowstone during the 'shoulder' season

Our Fall "shoulder season" visit to Yellowstone yielded many treats
Timing a trip to Yellowstone National Park is important if you want to get the most out of it.
Go during the height of the summer tourist season and I guarantee mobs of people, stressful traffic and high prices.
I love to visit during the “shoulder” seasons between the summer rush and the winter snowmobile season and then again in early spring.
You’ll have the park to yourself.
I like the last week of October and made such a trip again this year.
The attractions include bugling elk that wander near the road and into the town of Mammoth, the “winter” lodging prices, and the elbow room. Generally, the hillsides are dusted with snow, which enhances the visuals.
I traveled to the park with a brother from Chicago and seeing it through his fresh eyes made it more pleasurable for me.
We found a very good and quiet motel for $45 a night in Gardiner at the park’s north entrance in Montana. Gardiner is a tourist town, but has an authentic western feel to it. There are no McDonald’s, no Holiday Inns, no Giant Mazes or Snake Pits to foul the ambience.
There are some good cowboy bars and places with Montana character with names like the “Two Bit” restaurant, where you can get a reasonably priced meal.
One night we found a bar that makes homemade pizza and were entertained by the owner and her son with stories about local characters.
If you want a gourmet meal there’s Chico Hot Springs resort about 15 miles downriver. Our first night we had a creative dinner there, served elegantly, but unpretentiously in rustic lodge-style surroundings. By Montana standards the meals are pricey --- in the $20-$25 range per plate. But this is a treat well worth paying for.
My main goal for this visit was to show my brother the elk that gather on the grounds at Mammoth, the park’s historic and scenic headquarters. The elk were there in numbers wandering in front of the park offices and residences. The big bulls had gathered their herds of cows and jealously bugled out challenges to other bulls nearby. There is something primeval about the high-pitched bugle.
Because there was already sloppy snow and ice on the ground our hiking was limited to getting in and out of the car. We stopped at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, the Norris Geyser Basin, and a trip down the Firehole River.
In addition to elk we saw lots of bison, tundra swans, a coyote and the biggest treat of the trip, a grizzly sow with her two cubs who put on quite a show just off the road near Yellowstone Lake. They ignored about a dozen people who watched just yards away from their cars as they rooted around sagebrush stirring rodents who popped out and were quickly eaten. These were smallish silver-tipped creatures, but awesome enough that all spectators can them a respectful and quiet distance.
As we drove it started to rain that turned to light snow.
The plan was to cap our tour with a soak in the Boiling River that flows into the Gardner River just beyond the Montana-Wyoming border and just downhill from the Mammoth campground.
There is a parking lot there and it is a half-mile walk to the put-in.
There was a party of two leaving, and another party of four in the water when we arrived.

There is about 150 feet of prime water to soak in, where the water from the boiling, thermal stream gushes into the ice-cold river. It is partially overhung by caves and there are some holes deep enough to go neck-deep in the warmer water. You can feel an occasional cold current of the Gardner River hit you, pushing you back toward the warm, sometimes hot waters of the Boiling River.
The party of four left and for more than an hour my brother and I had the hot spots to ourselves. We could sit in the rushing waters and look above us and see the snowline coming down the cliffs across the river as the rain and snow continued. We would occasionally take advantage of the overhangs and shelter ourselves from the rain because eddies of hot water flows into these caves.
Our soak had warmed us up sufficiently that we didn’t get cold walking the half-mile back to the car.
When we woke up the next morning there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground that turned the high mountains around us into a winter paradise.

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