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Yellowstone Spring 2024 Trip Report, Days 8 – 9 (The End!)

June 6, 2024

Thursday was a looong day. Or at least it felt like it. Fourteen hours of exploration with relatively little photography does that.

We kicked things off with something different. At least once per spring trip I try to mix things up with a sunrise visit to Swan Lake Flat, followed by a little bit of exploration in the northwest corner before moving on to the more familiar haunts on the east side of the park.

We had clear skies, and some nice misty scenes as the sunlight filtered through fog… but the wildlife was largely absent near the road. Everything at Swan Lake Flat (mostly birds) was on the wrong side of the road and too far away. Down at Upper Terrace Drive, we buzzed through with nothing to photograph. However, we did get a brief glimpse of a jackrabbit crossing the road, meaning we tallied all of Yellowstone’s lagomorph species this week (yay).

Next we went south. We just missed a grizzly with three yearling cubs crossing the road and rushing up over the hill at Grizzly Lake. Next we drove as far as Gibbon Meadows. Lots of cool fog, but again, no wildlife of note. So it was time to get over to Hayden Valley.

South of Canyon, we rounded a bend and ran into a single-vehicle bear jam. Up on a hill, a cinnamon black bear stared directly into the sunrise. The light was astounding. Unfortunately, I was stuck behind the wheel initially, so all my shots through the windshield were soft. I was able to peek out for a slightly clearer but less dynamic view, but I’m pretty sure my clients came away with great images of this bear in stunning light.

Cinnamon black bear

In Hayden we were distracted with a few bird sightings. The fog that was lingering upon our arrival burned off almost instantly. We next traveled to the lake. Friends Bill and Peggy—featured in these trip reports as far back as 2006!—notified us that they saw a grizzly with two yearlings making their way eastward from Mary Bay.

We set in to wait, though we drove around a little nearby to check other hillsides in case the family appeared there. No luck yet, so we had to entertain ourselves with bison, marmots, and swallows.

Tree Swallow

After a while, we opted to check Lake Butte Overlook. Now, had I known that a certain other bear had finally made her first appearance this spring in the last couple days, I might have driven a little further east. Instead, we were still focused on the first bear family.

Thus, when we finally returned to the main road, we joined a crowd that was watching… the Lake Butte Sow (as the rangers call her) and her new cub climbing the hill high above the Lake Butte Drive.

Grizzly bear and cub

Nice to see her out with a new baby, but it felt like we just missed a good opportunity. The other bears never did show while we were there.

On our way toward Fishing Bridge, a Swainson’s Hawk fluttered to the ground near the road. It was our second sighting of this species hunting in this spot in consecutive days. A beautiful hawk!

Swainson’s Hawk

A quick check at Bridge Bay yielded no results, so it was time to head back to the north. Up over Dunraven Pass, we pulled into a picnic area for a prowling coyote. Down below Calcite Springs, we came upon a bear jam. Fortunate to find a parking space nearby, we joined a small crowd quietly watching a black bear. She had cubs, but this was not the same bear we had already seen on this trip. Instead of two black cubs, she had a mixed pair. We were fortunate to get some views of the cinnamon cub as it explored.

Cinnamon black bear cub

Though we had talked previously of visiting the Beartooth Highway on Friday (when I have to stop by Silver Gate), I suggested trying it today. The weather was nice, and that would mean more park time for us on our final day. So, following lunch at the Yellowstone Picnic Area, we headed out of the park.

The Beartooth truly was beautiful, but wildlife there was fairly quiet too. Sparse sightings of marmot, golden-mantled squirrel, and a single pika, and no mountain goats. That was it.

We rinsed away our lack of critter luck with some treats at the Stop the Car, and then had time to return to the park to wrap up our day with (hopefully) a few more sightings. Down the Slough Creek Road we checked on the owls, photographed ground squirrels, and staked out a Northern Flicker nest (alas, they never emerged).

Our check of the Tower Road gave us a brief view of the black sow (but not the cubs) and a coyote as we drove past. At Floating Island Lake we stopped for a moose. If she had a calf, it wasn’t out. At Geode, the largest bull elk of the trip rested in the bowl.

There’s one more day to go on this adventure. We have a plan in place, and I’m excited to see how it pans out!

 

June 7, 2024

Our final morning started with the fulfillment of some client requests. We had yet to see any of the bears on the west side of the park, so they remained high on individual wish lists. Unlike the previous day, there was no intention to pause at Swan Lake Flat. I wanted to do a quick run for those bears, and then get down to the lake as early as we could for slightly more reliable bears.

But we did get caught up at Swan Lake anyway, because as we drove onto the plateau, I spied a wolf wandering off through the sage to the east. I quickly pulled over, and we tried to capture what we could as it disappeared into a small draw behind the brush.

Gray wolf

Meanwhile, Client April—following in her own vehicle—pulled in as well. Even though we lost sight of the wolf, I could see she was still shooting. “She must still see it,” I exclaimed.

The wolf eventually reappeared along the far tree line, spooking some elk in the process, before vanishing for good. April came up afterward and said, “you still see it?”

”You mean the wolf?” I answered.

”There was a wolf? I was shooting a weasel!”

Lest you think this owl conjurer can also transform canids into mustelids with her powers, April completely missed the larger wolf because, when she raised her camera to her face, she spied a weasel bounding through the brush in the distance.

So that was our first delay. We made the promised run down the west side for bears. Near Grizzly Lake, I spied fresh grizz scat in the road, and the footprints dragging through it showed they had headed south. However, this didn’t help us identify what side of the road they might be on. A few passes yielded no bears, so we continued south, all the way to Beryl Spring.

Also no bears there, so we made the sleep-inducing trek across to Canyon, and zoomed through Hayden without pause. Did we make it to the lake in time? We did not. We did see a muskrat in passing along the lake shore. But we missed the closer bear show, as the sow with new cub had already ascended the steep hills.

We heard another sow with two yearlings had been seen back to the west, so we tried that, arriving just in time to see them climb up from Indian Pond and run through the distant trees. By this time a caravan had formed, mostly made up of the usual east side bear crew. A lot of leapfrogging and waiting didn’t pay off, though while stationed at Pelican Creek, we got to see a few wolves run across a distant meadow (too far for photos).

That ended the eastern portion of my tour, unfortunately. We had to head for Silver Gate for lunch, and to wrap up a few odds and ends. Plus, I had received a tip about one more potential sighting that might be fruitful.

After having our lunch in sunny Cooke City (highlighted by an excellent quesadilla at Wooka’s), we were back in Silver Gate. There, we checked in with my neighbors to witness a special sighting.

Moose cow and calf

During last year’s spring tour, the same thing occurred in nearly the same place, but that calf had not been healthy and soon perished. This year’s calf seems much more robust and active, despite only being a couple days old. What a treat to get one more wild baby to add to our list for the week!

We said goodbye to our Silver Gate friends (through mouthfuls of ice cream, in some cases), and returned to the park. April had to head home early, which is probably for the best, as she wouldn’t have appreciated the garter snake Client Pat found at Hellroaring.

There was time for one more crack at west side bears. This time, we finally got them. Though it was a distant view, the sow and three yearlings were clearly visible, and provided a fitting end to the tour.

Grizzly bear family

Thus ends a very strange spring visit. Lots happening, and we were certainly treated to the bounty of spring. Yet most of the action occurred away from (in some cases very far away from) our lenses. If it hadn’t been for a very fun group keeping me company, I might’ve felt a bit more frustration. But these days, the shared experience in nature—highs and lows—is more important than counting frames.

I’d like to express big thanks to my clients on this tour: Amy, April, Pat, and Tom. A shout out to all of those in Silver Gate who made us feel welcome, including C, K, and C at the Stop the Car, and neighbors J, G, R, M, and W for their help and insights. And of course, thanks to all of you who found time to read these stories!

One final note: I will be returning to Yellowstone very soon, but the next trip is a friends/family trip. It will be less photography-oriented, and much less intensive, so I won’t be writing trip reports. But I hope to still take some pictures here and there, so you can continue to follow my adventures on social media (FB, IG, Threads, Tw).

2 Comments

  1. Reny June 10, 2024 Reply

    Again I enjoyed reading your tripreports, love all the shots!
    Thanks for taking the time to write them after your busy days.

    Have fun during your family/friends trip!

  2. Kathy June 11, 2024 Reply

    Thanks, Max, for these reports. I enjoyed reading them and viewing your photography so much since this year we are not traveling. Dave just had shoulder surgery and will be having PT for the rest of the summer. We will be there in June 2025.

    I hope you and your family have a very relaxing and enjoyable time on your coming vacation. Sometimes the best surprises happen when you least expect them.

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