Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter Wildlife of Yellowstone National Park


             It's a February afternoon in 2009 and my husband Tim and I are in the lone car arriving at Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance today.  We stop at the visitor center and are told there are wolves at Tower Junction, 20 miles down the road.  So that’s where we’re headed.
At Tower Junction we find people with spotting scopes; they point to a lone female wolf lying in the snow on a far ridge.  We set up our scope and focus on her.  The wolf's coat, a mixture of tawny and gray, shimmers in the afternoon light.   She's gorgeous.  We watch her for awhile; she rises, trots down the hill and lies down again.  Then she raises her head and howls.  Her cries echo through the valley—primal, haunting, soul-stirring.  This is my first sighting of a Yellowstone wolf and I'm mesmerized, thrilled to be in her company.  

After the wolf sighting we drive to a pullout and see people focusing their binoculars on a distant tree.  We take a look and spy a giant golden eagle perched at the top of a dead tree high on a ridge line.  The eagle is surveying his kingdom, perhaps looking for a taste of a recent wolf kill.  
        Returning to the park entrance we photograph elk, bison and bighorn sheep and spot three coyotes lounging in the snow.  This has been an exceptional day for winter wildlife-viewing in Yellowstone.

                                                              ****

         On that February day three years ago Tim and I were too far away from the wolf to take pictures of her.  If you would like to view pictures of Yellowstone's wolves, click here.

          If you're lucky enough to be touring Yellowstone during the winter season, it's a good idea to stop at the Visitor Center to learn about recent wildlife sightings.  The rangers are not inundated with people—as during the busy summer months—and they're happy to share their time and wisdom with you.

To learn more about the wolf recovery program in Yellowstone National Park, visit this site:  http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/wolves.htm


                                                             ****

          Enjoy the following wildlife photos from the Lamar Valley in northern Yellowstone:

A lone bison in the Lamar Valley.


Mule deer in a meadow.


Bighorn Sheep browsing on winter vegetation.


Elk foraging on a wind-swept hill.


This bison was near enough to the car to
get a good shot with a telephoto lens.

The bison uses his massive head as a plow,
burrowing through the snow to find food.

A Bison and her calf face a chilly day.




Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cross-Country Skiing in Yellowstone National Park


          Blissful solitude in Yellowstone National Park.  “Impossible!” you say?   Not if you’re willing to brave the cold and visit the park’s northern tier in winter, a magical time of year.
        Tim and I stayed in Gardiner, Montana while visiting the park in February of 2009.  One morning we donned cross-country ski gear for a day trip to Indian Creek Trailhead.  At the Mammoth Terraces ski area we transferred our skis and poles onto a Chevy Van outfitted for snow travel.  The van is elevated and sits on four “mat tracks”, wide snow-grabbing chains that convert the van into a snowmobile-like machine.

Can your van do this?  This Chevy van—
converted into a mean, snow-traversing machine—is ready to take on
Yellowstone's winter weather.

         Our van driver, Dave, lived and worked in Yellowstone for 17 years as a teacher and principal of Mammoth Hot Springs Elementary School.  Also a naturalist, Dave conducted tours of Yellowstone during the busy summer season.  Dave dropped us off by a warming hut near Indian Creek Campground, started a fire in the hut, then drove off in his snow machine.  Tim and I stood alone with our skis in this section of Yellowstone National Park, 12 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs.  Our own private slice of Yellowstone.  Can you imagine? 

We're all alone in Indian Creek.  The trails await.

          We skied the groomed trails around the closed campground, then ventured onto two-track trails through the woods.   The sky was azure, the air still, the park hushed on this pristine day.  The quiet was interrupted by coyotes howling, their voices echoing across the valley.  Returning to the warming hut we noticed a huge male bison relaxing in the snow and were careful not to disturb him.

Trail to the warming hut on a pristine winter's day.
(The bison—not shown—is off to the right of the hut.)

Waiting for our ride back to civilization.

         We enjoyed the balmy 23 degree temperature while relaxing on the picnic table outside the warming hut and waiting for our ride.  Dave appeared at the scheduled time and drove us back to Mammoth Terraces where we skied the 1.5 mile Travertine Terraces trail.

Ready to ski the Travertine Terraces loop.

        Travertine—a form of limestone deposited by hot springs—often has a fibrous or concentric appearance and exists in white, tan, and cream-colored varieties.  Isn't it spectacular?

A fabulous place to spend a February day.

Skiing by the terraces.


         During today’s drive Dave asked: “Why don’t you two visit Yellowstone during the summer?”
“Oh, it’s much too crowded for us.”  
“Well then”, said Dave, “you can simply walk 100 yards from the main roads and leave the crowds behind.”   According to Dave—and he should know—most of the people who come to the park spend their time frequenting the bathrooms and gift shops.  
          Perhaps we’ll take Dave’s advice and return one summer’s day—venturing off the roads to disappear into the magic that is Yellowstone National Park.

                                                         ****

Have you ever been to Yellowstone N.P. in the off-season?  Ready to give it a try?


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Winter Fun at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana


          Light snow falls as your skis glide silently through the forest, jingle bells ring as Draft horses lead the way to a sleigh ride dinner, expert chefs serve a trail-side lunch buffet as you gaze over the mountains.  If this is your idea of winter fun, then be sure to visit Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana.
         Tim and I spent four days at Lone Mountain Ranch several winters ago.  Our stay at the ranch included three meals a day, a sleigh ride dinner, and access to over 50 miles of cross-country ski trails.

Porcupine Cabin's cozy interior.

A fire burns in the wood stove in Porcupine cabin (on right).

           Lone Mountain's cabins are located in the woods, far from noisy roadways.  Parking is available at the cross-country ski center and a ranch employee transports your luggage to the cabins while you walk the paths through the forest.  Our two-person cabin—Porcupine—is nestled into lodgepole pines and is equipped with a wood stove; a spacious front porch hosts log chairs for lounging and a rack for hanging skis and poles.

Tim glides through the forest on a snowy morning.

         
A gentle uphill climb,
leading to more difficult terrain high on the mountain.

Skiing through the meadows on a perfect blue-sky day.

          Diversity of terrain keeps the trails at Lone Mountain Ranch interesting; you can access gentle rolling hills on the golf course and along the stream, you can also tackle gargantuan hills in the forest. 

Made to order:
a ranch chef grills our trail side feast.

 Alfresco dining at its finest.
         The trail side buffet lunch is served every Monday.  Tim and I arrive around noon after an hour’s ski.  An open grill stands under the trees, the chef preparing these items:  homegrown beef on a stick, vegetable shish kebabs, medallions of elk kielbasa, shrimp and pineapple on skewers.  The lunch spread also includes fresh salad and pasta salad, cookies, brownies and caramel corn.  Urns provide hot water for coffee, cider and hot chocolate.  Tim and I fill our plates and take seats on a table under a towering Douglas Fir.  This buffet is a not-to-be-missed event while staying and skiing at Lone Mountain.

Jan—or is it Sandy?, harnessed and ready to go.

Horses and sleighs await their riders on a frosty winter's eve.



  
         Jan and Sandy, two Belgian Draft horses, will draw our sleigh to dinner.  Our driver describes Jan and Sandy as "two good old girls, both around 16 years old, weighing between 1500 and 2000 pounds and able to carry up to three times their body weight".  That’s a good thing because our sleigh and its 14 passengers may weigh over 4000 pounds.  Jan and Sandy huff and puff along the trail and stop three times to rest, steam rising in plumes from their massive bodies.  The girls will be put out to pasture (in a good way) after this winter season and not be put into service for logging operations as some of the other draft horses will be—it’s one of the benefits of their advancing years. I am in awe of these gentle giants, working so hard while enabling us to savor this ride through the moonlit Montana mountains. 
         Jan and Sandy pull the sleigh half a mile uphill to the cabin where we enjoy French onion soup, honey-molasses bread, baked potatoes, prime rib and roasted vegetables.  Huckleberry cheesecake is served for dessert while a cowboy poet strums his guitar, serenading us with Montana tales and tunes.


                                                            ****


Lone Mountain Ranch is located near Big Sky downhill ski resort in the town of Big Sky, Montana.  In addition to skiing the ranch offers day trips to nearby Yellowstone National Park.  




Interested?  Read all about Lone Mountain Ranch on their website:   http://www.lonemountainranch.com/
You don’t have to stay at the ranch to ski the trails or to attend the sleigh ride dinner.   Check out this website to find other options for lodging in Big Sky:   http://www.bigskydestinations.com/?eid=1.1.6.0&gclid=CNGcvam7xq0CFcoaQgod8Dbnfw

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Eve in Cathedral Valley Campground, Utah


                                   “Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1999.”
                                                                             --- Prince (1982)
Do you remember New Year’s Eve 1999 and the predictions of worldwide cataclysm?  Do you remember where you were on that momentous evening a dozen years ago?  Journey back in time with me as I recall ringing in the new millennium on this memorable outing...
If you were looking for a place to get away from it all on December 31, 1999 you couldn't find a better spot than Cathedral Valley campground in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah—accessible over miles of rough dirt roads.
Tim and I rolled into the campground on that frosty afternoon and set up camp, taking in views of snow-capped peaks to the west and of 500 foot tall sandstone monoliths in the valley to the north. 


Our Cathedral Valley campsite.
        We walked to Cathedral Valley overlook to snap sunset pictures and were rewarded with clearing skies and end-of-the-day golden light casting shadows in a valley of orange, red and gold cathedrals. 

Cathedral Valley—aglow in the late afternoon light.

         As the sun dipped below Thousand Lake Mountains Tim built a roaring campfire and heated our beef stew dinner on the coleman stove. 
By 7:00 p.m. we had taken seats by the fire and huddled under wool blankets to ward off the falling temperatures.  No other hardy souls ventured into the campground; we’ll be celebrating the final night of the 1990’s in solitude.

Lengthening shadows in the valley.
         Shortly after 7:00 we were treated to the sounds of coyotes yipping and howling, and chukars clucking and calling.  After this wildlife serenade all was quiet save for the crackling of our campfire.  The deathly quiet of this remote desert is so intense as to be almost deafening.
At 9:00 p.m. we noticed two lights in the valley, about 10 miles away.  The lights flickered, then disappeared—leaving us alone again and wondering if there are others camped in this vast desert tonight?

Sitting by the campfire before dark;
only seven hours to go until midnight!

         10:00 p.m. and time to turn on our battery operated radio and tune in to the clear channel AM station from San Francisco, broadcasting live from Times Square in New York.  We listened to the countdown to midnight and the ball drop on Times Square, then clicked the radio off—enjoying the silence of the desert for the next two hours until our private New Year’s celebration.
A few minutes before midnight Tim poured icy sparkling grape juice into two naturally chilled crystal stemware glasses.  When Tim’s watch hit 12:00 we toasted the New Year/Century/Millennium under a clear star-filled sky.   We then crawled into the tent, climbed into down sleeping bags, and cuddled under two down comforters.  

                                                           ****

January 1, 2000
It’s the dawn of the 21st century!  We woke to beautiful blue skies to the north, dark stormy skies to the south and a light dusting of snow on the ground. 
Our first meal of the new year was a delicious one—scrambled eggs, bacon, onions, potatoes, and corn muffins.  Nothing compares with breakfast outdoors after a night in the tent.  After breakfast we cleaned up, packed the tent and, and stood on top of the picnic table to change our clothes, invigorated by the 25 degree air.
We left our campsite and continued on the loop road down and through Cathedral Valley.

Parked by the Temple of the Sun.
Our red Ford F-150 is still with us, hauling us
and our camping gear to the ends of the earth for over 14 years.

        After driving 20 miles across the valley floor we encountered a group of 10-12 year-old children and a few adults, all dressed in 1800’s clothing and wearing wool overcoats.  Two large handcarts stood next to the group, piled high with 19th century camping gear.
The group was reenacting a pioneer handcart expedition, a journey their ancestors had taken many years ago.  The lights we saw in the distance last night must have been the coal oil lanterns used to light the way on their arduous trek. 
We nodded to the group and continued on, safe in the knowledge that we weren’t all alone in the universe after all.  But if those doomsday predictions had come true and world-wide chaos had ensued, I doubt we would have noticed—out here among the Temples of the Sun and Moon.


                                                         ****
How did you party when it was 1999—did you spend New Year's Eve in a special place, or attend an unusual celebration?  
If you’re interested in visiting nature’s cathedrals in Capitol Reef National Park, visit this website:  http://www.utah.com/nationalparks/capitol_reef/cathedral_valley.htm
Have you ever seen or heard a chukar?  You can read more about chukars here:  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chukar/sounds/ac


Happy New Year 2000 and -----
Happy New Year to all in 2012!