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Yellowstone Spring 2024 Trip Report, Days 2 – 3

May 31, 2024

I doubled my amount of sleep overnight. Which, if you read the first report, shouldn’t impress you. Still, I managed to avoid any stumbles as I groggily loaded the car. A few large snow flakes tried to reach the ground without attracting attention, but I’m not sure they even made it. It was going to be a warm and dry day.

I wanted to travel south, and made steady progress through the Northeast until reaching Roosevelt (little to report, aside from a moose at Lower Barronette and a coyote crossing the road in Little America). I made my way up past Tower and into the open expanse overlooking the Antelope Creek drainage. Once again—as seems to be the case every time I make my first drive up Dunraven Pass on a trip—I started reminiscing about a previous era of spring trips here. As I’ve mentioned before, seventeen or eighteen years ago Dunraven was a destination, not just the means to accessing Hayden and beyond.

But the wolves are seen here infrequently these days, and there are no longer reliable grizzly bears like back then. These changes, of course, have little to do with increased visitation and all the other alterations to the park experience that old timers moan about. It’s the result of the vagaries of a diverse and relatively healthy ecosystem. There will be a time, perhaps as soon as a decade or even only a few years from now, when Dunraven will start showing off again.

On this particular morning it wasn’t exactly dead though. A large herd of cow elk was scattered over the steep slope beneath the road. I rolled my window down and even heard one bugling. At the top of the pass, some large bison grazed in the flats before a pretty impressive mountain backdrop. Sadly, they were in a closed area, so I couldn’t line up the shot I envisioned. But I drove around a few corners and found more bison above the road. They would have to do.

American Bison

As I drove over the south side of the pass, Dunraven’s watchmen—Clark’s Nutcrackers—perched atop the dead trees and shrieked in their scratchy way.

I was running behind, but any questions about whether I missed the morning fog in Hayden Valley were answered by the time I reached Canyon. The fog was still lingering even at the junction, so I knew I’d get it in Hayden. The sun was at least making an effort, showing off above the trees as I passed Chittenden Bridge.

Sunrise in fog

I love foggy mornings in this valley, even if the valley itself sometimes proves challenging from a wildlife photography perspective. At least nothing beats the mood. This time, I was this close to lining up a shot I’ve envisioned for some time, with a bison and the sun in thick fog, but only two of the three elements cooperated (I’ll let you guess who was being stubborn).

A pair of swans dabbled at Alum Creek. A Great Blue Heron took off from the golden river runoff under a thin layer of fog (very cool as seen from the road high above, but it happened while I was driving). Ravens swooped and dove over the road and out onto the valley floor. Another bird caught my attention at Mud Volcano: a Killdeer was scuttling through the grass near the road.

Killdeer

Turning left at Fishing Bridge, I was soon passing distant pelicans at—you guessed it—Pelican Creek. Mary Bay was holding on to one last nugget from winter, so I stopped for a portrait.

Ice at Yellowstone Lake

At Sedge Bay marmots peeked over the shoulder of the road. Finally I began to approach Lake Butte Overlook, where I planned to check on the popular grizzly bears that call this part of Lake Country home. It wasn’t that difficult. I could see the large line of vehicles from Nine Mile.

Lest you think I haven’t been looking for bears until now, that isn’t the case. I forgot to mention the (distant) grizzly with COY that I saw in the eastern Lamar on Thursday. And so far my brief checks around Tower had come up empty. Eventually, I knew that I’d find more bears.

I found a place to park and joined a small, quiet crowd of onlookers. Lenses were pointed high up the hill above. All I could see initially was the silhouette of a cow elk. The sun was rising quickly above the hill, casting everything into shadow, so it wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of some rim-lit, rotund backs and round ears that I spied the grizzlies.

While I was busy trying to photograph silhouettes up north, a grizzly had found and killed an elk calf. The family was feasting when I arrived… in silhouette, naturally. It was that kind of morning. But the rim lighting was actually really good! I’ve only had one other opportunity to photograph starkly backlit bears like this in the park, so while others griped about how hard it was to stare up into the sunlight, I was relishing the opportunity. Even though I had missed all the anguish and gore, I was pretty satisfied with what I did get to see.

The bears eventually finished their meal and began to roam the deadfall, perhaps in search of more calves. The cow elk continued to follow them, likely due to instinct despite her recent loss.

Grizzly Bears and Elk

At one point the grizz sow chased her off, but eventually the bears opted to ignore her.

The family continued to go up, so I went down, back to the main road. A fourth grizzly grazed in an open meadow well above the road as I left. At this point I chose to complete my usual “Eastern Circuit.” Meaning that after exploring Lake Butte and the Bays, I turned south to check Bridge Bay and Gull Point. The latter was quiet and out of the way enough to invite a much-needed nap, so I accepted and got some shuteye.

Following lunch and a call home, I began the drive north. I made the obligatory check at LeHardy Rapids. I had already seen my first Harlequin Duck on Thursday (in the Lamar River, of all places), and found a few more at the rapids. There was only one drake, and the bright sunshine wasn’t conducive to the photography I like at that spot, so I was soon back on the road. At Mud Volcano, a distant pair of grizzlies stood on the hill above the thermal basin.

At this point I maintained my northbound route, but I wasn’t quite sure where I would end up. I had formulated a crazy idea that I would… HIKE.

It was still close to midday, so I needed to find a way to occupy my time. And goodness knows I can stand to exercise a bit more. So a hike made a lot of sense. I honed in on the idea of tackling the Yellowstone Picnic Area trail, a trail I had not visited in ages. If I didn’t keel over right away, maybe I’d even extend the walk a bit further.

But first I had to get there. At the bottom of Dunraven, several cars were pulled over along Antelope Creek. Rangers were keeping folks in their cars, and as I drove around I caught a brief glimpse of a cinnamon black bear working its way through the trees. Down the road a short way, a large crowd had gathered at the Tower parking lot. More bears, I assumed. It was indeed another black bear, this time resting under a tree while her cubs remained sequestered somewhere nearby.

Stopping briefly at Calcite Springs, I checked for Peregrine Falcons and bighorn sheep. One very pregnant ewe was resting down in the canyon.

Bighorn sheep

I carried on, and was glad to find an available parking spot at the Yellowstone Picnic Area so I could proceed with my hike.

While I was gathering everything I needed, I heard a shout from behind. A group had just started up the trail… with their dog in tow. A tour guide happened to be in the parking lot and quickly got their attention, informing the group that dogs aren’t allowed on park trails. There was much grousing and grumbling, even after the guide informed them there was a bear in proximity of the trail farther on. If she hadn’t finally pulled out her radio and offered to call a ranger to discuss things further, they likely would have continued with their plan.

I chose to start my hike and not wait around for spicy discussions about park regulations. The sunny weather made for perfect hiking conditions, and the wind gusting over the canyon rim kept things cool (it also hid the sound of my wheezing breath quite effectively). Along the way I stole the occasional glance into the canyon, but my wildlife sightings were mostly limited to passing birds: Chipping Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Townsend’s Solitaires, and ravens. There was one marmot splatted on a boulder near the trail.

Yellow-bellied Marmot

The views were spectacular, and I reached the end point of the trail in good time. Not the official end point, but the point where friends and I had stopped so many years ago before turning around.

Now I finally had a long-awaited opportunity before me: I could continue on toward Specimen Ridge. This might have been a mistake given the shape I’m currently in, but there was nothing holding me back from at least trying to get to the top before deciding what to do next. On the way up, I realized quietly that this marks my 25th(!) year in a row coming to Yellowstone. And in that time, I’d never hiked up to Specimen Ridge. I felt like I was about to right a major wrong.

I did make it to the top, and though my water was running low, I wanted to stretch things a bit more, so I continued across the plateau. A small hawk (a Sharpie or Cooper’s) circled overhead in the distance, and I finally saw another mammal when an elk spooked and trotted away through the sage.

By this time I had caught up and passed a couple on the trail, and since I was back in the lead I began calling out to bears the moment I met my first “blind” hillside. Nobody was lurking on the other side. However, almost immediately I spied a dark dot in the distance. I paused and peered through my binoculars. Eventually the object took on a more recognizable shape. It was a grizzly bear, and it was accompanied by at least two other tiny specks.

At this point the trail split. With water running low, I didn’t know if I wanted to continue much further. The bears were well over a mile away, and weren’t close to the trail, but I felt this sighting (the couple had rejoined me and said they spotted a third cub!) was a fitting way to end this leg of the hike. I headed back down, veering off onto the Specimen trail (something else I had never done) to reach the road.

By the time I got close to flat land and pavement, my body was feeling pretty creaky. Joints were achy and I’m pretty sure I hyperextended my chub, but it was worth it.

I still had to get back to the parking lot. A small semi-circle of visitors kept their eyes and lenses on a Sandhill Crane pair (I didn’t see a colt, but confirmed it on Saturday). I kept moving, but did pause for another Yellow-rumped Warbler. When I finally made it back to the car, I was officially out of water, so I returned quickly to Tower for a refill. The black bear family had moved to the shade of a different stand of trees. I imagine I’ll see them some time soon.

It was time to head for home. A quick detour down the Slough Creek Road came up empty. The coyote family in Lamar Canyon has officially moved on, so the route was free and clear. I did stop at Hitching Post to see how the badgers were doing.

Here I remained in the parking lot to chat a bit with another photographer. We watched from a distance as a single coyote brought all east valley traffic to a complete standstill, mainly because the lead vehicles on both sides refused to move for at least ten minutes. Time to write a Coyote Jam article…

At one point, we caught sight of flashing lights just around the bend up the road. A ranger had stopped in the road. I assumed someone was getting a ticket. Shortly thereafter, all of the photographers packed up en masse and left. I found it a little strange that such a group exited in such a coordinated fashion, but didn’t dwell on it. I never did see the badgers.

Near Trout Lake, the fox action kicked off again. A lightly-colored fox dashed out into the road in front of an oncoming motorcycle. The driver did well to brake and avoid it. Eventually, the fox settled down for a short nap on the nearby hillside.

Red Fox

The Soda Butte Picnic fox was back, circling the tables again. And near the northeast gate, another fox was busy exiting the park. The foxes are definitely working overtime right now!

Overall, it was a fun and fruitful day. There’s one free day left before I switch bases and begin the tour!

 

June 1, 2024

I was feeling a bit rickety this morning, following yesterday’s hike. Nothing like several hours of sitting in a car to limber me up though!

This was my last free day. Well, half day, so I had to make the morning count. I opted for another trip down to the east side of the park, so it meant another early start. It was dark still, before 5am, when I spotted an animal in the road in the northeast corner. I figured it was one of the many foxes, busy hunting for breakfast for hungry mouths back home. But it was too small. A marten maybe?

No, it turned and trotted away off the road. I caught the flash of a white tail tip. It was a fox kit. I’ve never seen a kit out at night like this, much less on the road. Later I learned that not only are visitors feeding the adult foxes, but kits as well. Sigh.

Soon afterward I had to slow to navigate my way through a herd of deer. Deer were everywhere near the road this morning, even up on Dunraven Pass. Speaking of Dunraven, I did spy a distant moose down in the drainage.

Moose

And while I had the window down to snap a photo, I heard a grouse drumming somewhere nearby. Things are looking good for a Dunraven comeback!

There was less fog in Hayden Valley compared to Friday morning. Too bad, as I arrived a tick too late to adequately capture this pair of bison while the sun warmed the haze around them.

American Bison

Afterward, I was sort of at a loss, unsure where to go next. Sometimes I drive back and forth through the valley, hoping a wolf will pop into view. But today my time was a bit limited, and I wanted to follow up on a new lead. That didn’t generate anything exciting (along the way I saw the same two grizzlies at Mud Volcano, by the way), so I headed down to the lake.

Yesterday’s bears had receded. I went up to Lake Butte and decided to check for grouse. It had been a couple years since I had seen a grouse in this spot, but soon heard the telltale thumping (the same sound I’d heard on Dunraven earlier in the morning). In this case the grouse was quite close. He picked a few different spots from which to drum and display. Unfortunately, he kept moving downhill, so I was mostly forced to get creative with some shots from behind.

Dusky Grouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dusky GrouseThat proved to be the highlight of the day, from a photo perspective. I had to return home to start preparing for client pick-up day tomorrow, so I couldn’t linger and explore further. Up and over the pass, then another stop at Calcite (yesterday’s preggo sheep had not moved… a lamb has to be due any time now!).

Around this time I got a message from friends indicating that the mother badger in the Lamar was rumored to have been hit by a car the previous evening… coincidentally, around the same time I was hanging out in the parking lot near the den on Friday. That might explain those flashing lights, and why everyone suddenly packed up and left.

As I approached Roosevelt I realized I had not yet checked the Petrified Tree area on this trip. This came to mind because there was another badger den rumored to be over there. So I drove up that way to see if I could find it, and as I approached I could see a crowd of people not on the Petrified Drive, but over near the end of the Blacktail Plateau Drive. I supposed it could be a badger, or perhaps a bear.

Turns out I had just missed a wolf! I was skeptical when I heard this, as were others, but everyone crowded around the one tourist quick enough to get a photo. Indeed it was a gray wolf. I congratulated him, but stopped short of lavishing him with too much praise. After all, he was wearing an Oregon Ducks shirt.

On my way through the northeast, I passed the badger den… and found my friends who had messaged me standing there. Apparently the mother badger had survived the collision with the vehicle (which had happened while I was standing obliviously 100 yards away), but she had a broken leg. She made it back to the den and was seen, but it was unknown how she’d cope with such a major injury.

I had to return to Silver Gate and got to work on tour prep. At one point I took a break to video call home, and while sitting on our deck, I heard a munching coming from around the corner. I peeked around to see a massive bison walking past. And just at that moment, he spied a rival male in the neighbors’ meadow. Much snorting and even some dirt kicking ensued. Pretty soon a chase was on, and they rumbled past our cabin and into the woods toward the other half of our property. I was able to broadcast it to the family (still on the call) back home.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up by two very important tasks: an ice cream visit to the Stop the Car, and a nap. There were still a couple hours to kill afterward, so I decided to wander into the park and look for foxes. I saw a couple, actually, though I took few photos, and spent most of the time chatting with some of our neighbors that were there.

I capped things off with a short drive a couple miles further (a lone moose sighting, and just missed another fox) before returning for home.

On Sunday I head to Bozeman to pick up my group. Then we’ll be back in the park first thing Monday morning!

3 Comments

  1. Kathy June 3, 2024 Reply

    Max, what a wonderful blog entry this was! You went to our favorite places and described your experiences so well that I could picture myself standing next to you. I was cheering when you said you were able to live video the bison incident at your cabin to your wife and son. May you have exciting adventures with your tour group this week, and not be too tired to share them with us!
    Dave and I have already planned our June 2025 trip, and that makes us enjoy reading your activities all the more enjoyable.
    Kathy

    • Author
      Max June 3, 2024 Reply

      Thanks, Kathy. I wish I could’ve recorded that video AND live broadcast it, so more folks could see it.

  2. Reny June 8, 2024 Reply

    I’m catching up on reading your reports, as always I love reading them, it feels like we’re back in the park again.

    I hope the badger will do well after her car crash.

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