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Yellowstone Spring 2024 Trip Report, Days 0 – 1

May 29, 2024

This year’s spring Yellowstone adventure kicks off the “busy season” on my tour schedule. This is the first of five tours—and the only domestic one—I have lined up between now and November, and marks my first guided trip of the year (following earlier scouting missions to South America and Africa).

Because the schedule has gotten jam packed, I was forced to cut back on my park time during this visit. That means only having a few days to myself before the start of my photo tour, a repeat of last year’s experience. It’s tough not being able to spend more quality exploration time in one of my favorite places, especially one that happens to double as my second home. But work and life get in the way, and I have to set aside the understandable FOMO and try to make the most of it. Though I’m not quite sure what “making the most” means in this case, since I have to get a sense of everything that’s happening in the park prior to my tour, find time to say hi to old friends, and maybe even take a picture or two for myself along the way… all in three measly days.

I departed Seattle on Wednesday, landing in a damp and dreary Bozeman. The moment I stepped out of the airport, the deluge began. Darkness and hard, driving rain followed me as I carefully drove eastward. Only after navigating Bozeman Pass did conditions become less opaque and a bit brighter. The distant skies didn’t show blue, but at least it started to look more like 4pm on a May afternoon than 4pm in January.

Since I had missed visiting the park in the winter, it felt like my last trip here was ages ago (I kept thinking a full year, forgetting that we did make a family trip out last August). After significant time away, one can’t help but note the small and subtle changes to the landscape.

Driving south on 89, a new banner erected on ranch land loudly declared that the region was under the control of so and so’s political party. Presumably this was a warning to help fend off hordes of marauding Californians. Of course, it was preceded a couple miles back by a bright and shiny new sign for a neighboring guest ranch… which was likely paid for, in part, by hordes of visiting Californians.

As I sort of expected, Yellowstone weather didn’t match Bozeman weather. While the skies over the park weren’t exactly friendly, it was noticeably drier. The sun did its best to burn through the clouds, and I predicted a rainbow… which ultimately greeted me just as I drove through the gate.

Rainbow

I had time to snap a quick shot with my cell phone, but by the time I reached for my camera it had disappeared.

I was greeted by familiar sights: elk crossing the road after the Arch, a blackbird chasing a raven out of a tree (the raven would undoubtedly get its turn with an eagle in the coming days, so I didn’t feel bad), and the occasional bull bison lumbering in roadside meadows.

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the road through Lamar Canyon is free and clear (after being told it was still metered during construction). That will certainly save us some exploration time this coming week.

There wasn’t really an expectation to take many photos on the way to the cabin—indeed, my wide angle lens remained on my camera since the failed attempt at the rainbow—but I did finally pull over for this. Wouldn’t you?

American bison and bison sign

A bit further into the Lamar, I was forced to slow for my first bison jam. The car in front of me paused in order to snap pictures of a roadside buff, but in the oncoming lane a camper van was also busy documenting bison on their side. So there was no way through (a common issue I’ve pointed out in my Bison Jam article). As I inched forward, the camper van crawled up alongside me. The driver glanced at me with wagging eyebrows and a knowing smile (you know, the scatalogically consuming kind), as though we were sharing the same amazing experience. I’m pretty sure the only experience we shared was driving at 44 below the speed limit, but I gritted my teeth and eventually found a way to slide past his back bumper.

From there, smooth sailing. The high peaks above the eastern Lamar may have been adorned with white goat dots (hard to say, as my binoculars were still packed away). A grizzly bear lump protruded from a hillside well beyond the road. At the northeast gate, I ran into some neighbors, who gave me the lowdown on recent sightings that promised a potentially fun week ahead.

When I finally arrived in Silver Gate, it looked as gray, gloomy and damp as the scene outside Gardiner two hours earlier. As darkness descended in earnest, freezing rain began to fall.

 

May 30, 2024

I slept horribly. Which isn’t all that surprising. My first couple nights out here are usually uneasy. It’s likely a combination of the altitude, unfamiliar confines, and a racing mind thinking about how to cram way too much park into only a few days.

So yeah, while I would’ve preferred more than two hours of sleep, I still managed to rouse myself at the appointed hour and hit the road more or less when I intended. Overnight, Silver Gate had been coated in a thin layer of snow. Pretty, but I already knew it wouldn’t last. Robins danced in the melting mush as I drove out onto the highway.

At Round Prairie, I passed a trio of bull moose. Down in the valley, I made my way past one well-known badger den site (which would be quiet this early in the morning) and proceeded to a coyote den site that had been attracting a lot of recent attention. I stopped in to say hi to old friends, and given the absence of any coyotes, was back on the road for some short term exploration. While it would be nice to linger for longer periods at some of these places, I am feeling the usual pressure of surveying wider territory to get a greater sense of what’s happening before my group arrives.

In this case I did a short recce all the way through Little America and up to Tower before returning to the coyotes. This time I intended to stay for a bit, and though it took a while, we were eventually rewarded with views of a few pups up on the hill.

Coyote pups

The specter of a nap was looming by late morning, so I drove slowly toward the northeast. A quick stop at the badger site gave me a better sense of the great view, but I wasn’t ready to sit around to take photos just yet. Instead, I drove up to the Soda Butte Creek picnic area for a brief lunch. While I ate I glanced longingly at a lovely Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler that was flitting about near the creek (it’s been too long since I’ve photographed one of the males). As I was packing up to go, a red fox trotted down the road, followed by a short parade of cars. It was not my last fox of the day.

I did get my nap in Silver Gate, and stopped in to say hi to everyone at the Stop the Car Trading Post (possibly walking out with an energy-inducing semi-frozen beverage). I entered the park via Fox Highway. At least, that’s what we’ll call it for now. Along the way, I saw three different foxes. The last of which visited the empty Soda Butte picnic site to scrounge for crumbs.

Red fox at picnic area

I paused briefly at the badgers (missed them again), before heading to Slough Creek to check on a lead for a nest. I did find the birds in question, though it wasn’t exactly a photogenic spot. Afterward I chose to walk a short distance up the trail to see if perhaps last year’s Calliope Hummingbird was around (not today). This delay was either fortuitous or costly. I’m still not sure…

On the return leg down the gravel road, I spied some photographers focused on an adult coyote… which was joined by a badger! My only previous coyote-badger hunt happened in almost this exact spot a couple years prior. Unfortunately, this last gasp view didn’t produce any usable photos, as the badger kept following a ways behind and wouldn’t fit into the frame (tall sage didn’t help).

The pair moseyed over the hill and disappeared. Everyone packed up and left. I also packed up, but chose to drive a bit further ahead, in case the hunting pair turned back toward the road. I was able to locate them, and wandered up to a nearby hill to monitor their progress. Eventually the coyote ditched the badger and went off on its own for a brief spell. I sat down to wait for a possible reunion.

It was nice having a few moments of peace. While it’s a priority for me to check the usual roadside haunts as part of my scouting, I really enjoy even a brief sojourn over the occasional hill or through a stand of trees. Though the road wasn’t far, I had this little viewpoint to myself… unless you count the blackbirds, Snipes, ground squirrels and other critters passing by. I was even treated to some quick glimpses of… the Yellow-rumped Warbler I’d seen earlier in the day.

Audubon’s Yellow-rumpled Warbler

The coyote sat down to rest for a while, but eventually roused itself and headed back toward the road. I hoped it might pair back up with its hunting buddy, but had just about given up on that notion when the badger finally appeared out of the sage. They were only in the frame together briefly before the badger began to hang back again.

Coyote and badger

That was a nice unexpected treat to end the day. I found myself turning for home, in spite of some lingering rays of late afternoon sun imploring me to go west. On the way home, one last fox sighting brought the day to a close. This one, like the sighting at the picnic table, issued a stark reminder that some of these animals are a little too comfortable around vehicles and human activity.

Red fox at road

The folks in the van were only filming, not feeding, but it’s obvious what the animal’s expectation was. And as it’s the denning season, they’re spending a lot more time around the park roads right now. Hopefully they manage to survive the season.

4 Comments

  1. Reny May 31, 2024 Reply

    So glad you’re back in the park AND writing trip reports !

    We didn’t see any foxes during our stay (10 nights) in Yellowstone. We did see the badger and the coyote together though, was very fun to watch.

    Enjoy your little time alone and the park and have a great tour with your clients.

    • Author
      Max June 3, 2024 Reply

      Glad you guys saw badger-coyote. I need to see it again, hoping with both staying together in the frame longer!

  2. Ria June 1, 2024 Reply

    Ooh, that feeding thing gets my goat! We had very close views of a sea lion in the water on our recent cruise to Alaska but the way it was accomplished was by the tour guide pretending to throw food to him. 😡 Granted it was right in Ketchikan marina but the locals should should definitely know better, as bears outnumber humans there.

    Also, it’s been so long since I’ve been there that it took me a couple seconds to think where Slough Creek was. ☹️

    On a happy note I’m loving your pics and stories! Hope you have a great tour!

    • Author
      Max June 3, 2024 Reply

      Hmm… time for a return, I think. To “re-educate” you. 😉

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