We got an early start and headed back west toward Yellowstone, retracing our steps from two nights past. It was interesting to see the scenery we’d missed on our trip into Cody, although we could have lived without the half-hour delay just inside the East Entrance, where we got to wait with a line of other vehicles until a pilot truck came to lead the entire caravan through the seven miles of construction. John and I ate a couple of string cheese sticks while we waited; other people got out and stretched and chatted; on the whole everyone was pretty calm about it. When we got going, John was finally able to see why I’d been so nervous when we’d driven the road in the dark.
Our first destination was an open meadow near Sylvan Lake, where two days before at twilight we’d observed some elk. We’d been told it was prime bear habitat, but there were no bear in sight when we got there. We did see some mule deer in the distance and a lone coyote that skulked near them. We aimed the car toward Canyon Village and Yellowstone Falls, stopping along the way for a look at Mud Volcano and Sulphur Cauldron, where we decided we’d had about enough of bad smells for this trip.
We had a long walk downhill and uphill to various overlooks of the Upper and Lower Falls. I was pretty fresh when we started out, but on our final uphill return trip I was winded. I would like to blame the altitude but it was probably more due to my being out of shape. Still, the falls were beautiful and I wouldn’t have missed them.
After the falls, our destination was Tower-Roosevelt, further north, and it was on this leg of our drive that we encountered that uniquely Yellowstone experience: a Bear Jam. Ahead we saw cars pulled over to the shoulder and stacked in a nearby turnout; telephoto lenses, binoculars and telescopes were pointed up a nearby hill. When we drew abreast of the mess, we could see a grizzly bear sow and two cubs feeding in the meadow about 150 yards up. We found a place to park and walked back down to join the throng. The sow was beautiful – her fur a rich honey gold – and the two cubs, whose heads occasionally peeked up above the long grass, were classic examples of bear cub cuteness. We watched them (and the crowd, and the rangers trying to control the crowd) for about fifteen minutes, then started back toward the car. Much to our surprise, the bear and her cubs followed along, romping through a line of trees and causing consternation to the observers who’d set up camp in the original position. We took a few more pictures of the threesome, then drove on to Tower-Roosevelt.
We decided to have lunch, and broke out the sandwiches I’d made earlier in the day and ate them sitting just inside the CRV’s open hatch. A Uinta ground squirrel popped onto the walk where all the park visitors were walking back and forth; it looked startled, like someone who’s inadvertently walked into a party, and scooted back into the underbrush. After our lunch break, we continued westward toward Mammoth Hot Springs, stopping along the way to see more falls and views. We ran into our second Bear Jam, this time a lone black bear climbing a hill, with the same crowds of excited tourists and exasperated Park Rangers. John has seen plenty of black bears in the Adirondacks, so we were content to snap a photo of it and drive out of the mess.
I have to note that in both Bear Jams, the visitors were very good and didn’t charge the bear or invade its space in order to get a photo. People take liberties with the buffalo because they seem so docile, and we did see one group take off after a group of elk, but by and large people behaved themselves.
We had a long, hot (and somewhat stinky) walk around Mammoth Hot Springs and stopped to have a little ice cream. Since it was nearly 5 PM, we decided to head back toward Cody, but agreed that going through the East road mess again would be both irritating and repetitive. We decided to take the Northeast road and then curve down toward Cody – a longer trip, but at least we’d be moving and not stuck waiting for a pilot truck. We also wanted to see a different part of the park, and since I’d read that the Northeast road was one of the least used and went through some great wildlife viewing areas, we headed that way.
Only a few minutes past Tower- Roosevelt on the Northeast road, we saw another jam ahead. We figured it was a bear again since everyone seemed so excited, but as we drew abreast we saw something we’d never expected to see: two bighorn sheep sitting placidly in the shadows of a low tree, very close to the road. Again, everyone was being very respectful and staying well away, so the sheep were able to maintain their comfortable position and people were able to get the photos they wanted.
Half an hour down the road we were in the Lamar Valley, and other vehicular traffic had slowed to a trickle. We pulled off on a turnout that overlooked a wide, verdant meadow, where we could see for miles and where buffalo clustered in big herds and a small family of pronghorns romped among them. It was the first place where we got a sense of what Yellowstone can be – not an enormous petting zoo, but a place where wildlife can live outside human influence. Here we encountered our first wolf observers, set up with their telephoto lenses and a palpable, almost mystical patience – the Druid wolf pack which inhabits this area usually shows up at twilight, if they’re visible at all, but the wolf people seemed happy just to be in the vicinity.
As we exited the park, we stopped to bid it farewell by taking our photo with the Yellowstone sign, something we’d intended to do every time we entered the park but kept forgetting. Civilization smacked us in the face as we passed through Cooke City, one of the skankiest towns we’d seen on our travels (and with the most expensive gas to date – $3.70 a gallon for unleaded), but we left its ugliness well behind as soon as we turned onto the scenic Chief Joseph highway – about forty miles of winding road that climbed and descended through some of the prettiest countryside we’d seen on our trip. At the end of the road we stopped at an overlook to see what we’d come through. A friendly chipmunk took an offering of apple and skittered away, and we climbed back into the car and drove onward to Cody.