Touring Yellowstone: The remembrance of A Middle-Aged Former Employee.

We here at Greybull Travel would love to invite you to tour Yellowstone National Park. We’ve got itineraries, hosted, escorted, or on your own, for you to enjoy. There’s so much to see and do here. There’s the lovely Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone; Old Faithful Geyser and Steamboat Geyser, Steamboat being the tallest active geyser in the world; Grand Prismatic Springs; Hayden and Lamar valleys; and, of course, the wildlife.

There are the bison or buffalo, which are not true buffalo; grazing serenely in the Hayden and Lamar valleys. Look closely at the two herds and you’ll see that they vary slightly in color. There are the wolves; reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. There are packs in most sections of the Park these days; two of which are known to take bison.There are the big horn sheep. You are most likely to see them between Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs near the North Entrance, standing on the cliffs near the 45th Parallel Marker, which isn’t at the 45th Parallel; it’s off by about 1/4 mile. That area plays home to the pronghorn antelope, which like the buffalo not being a buffalo, is not a true antelope. You’ll see them just before you get to or just after entering the North Gate, with its arch named for Teddy Roosevelt, a frequent visitor and layer of its cornerstone, or on the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction.

Elk can be seen throughout the park, but the largest, and most dangerous, population of them can be found up in Mammoth Hot Springs. Male elk shed their antlers each spring and spend the summer regrowing them. Their full-grown racks, resplendent in the late evening sun, can best be experienced in October during the rut, or mating season. Female elk calve in the spring.

There are other denizens as well. Bald eagles can be seen soaring above the Yellowstone and Gardner rivers, Golden Eagles abound in the park. Hawks, soaring high, buckling their wings and diving toward the ground at fantastic speeds to catch a snowshoe hare, can be seen with some regularity. Pika, small rodents live among the rocks near the Golden Gate of Yellowstone and Calcite Springs, can elusive and hard to see.

Osprey are here as well. I can even guarantee a place you’ll see them. Drive north from Gardiner to Livingston. You’ll come to a rest area. Pull in. Turn and look across the road near the northern pull in. There’s a utility pole with a nest. Be patient and you’ll see two to four little heads pop up and scream kee, kee, for mom and dad to bring them fish. Heck, buy a lunch at Gardiner Market if headed north, or at Albertsons or The In and Out Burgers (not the chain, by the way) in Livingston if you’re headed south, park for lunch, pull out your sandwich and enjoy the show.

Most surprisingly, there are pelicans in Yellowstone. Flocks of them. They are white in color. You can see them near Fishing Bridge General Store.

Beaver and otter are in the park as well. Number yourself among the lucky if you see either. In my two tours of working at Yellowstone, I saw one beaver and three otter. They are as rare as hen’s teeth, and fun to watch, especially the otter as they play in the river or slide down the banks.

Of the large animals, the moose is the least common. When the fires blazed through Yellowstone, their habitat was decimated. I was told by a Park Biologist this past summer that the number of moose in the park is thought to be 25 or so. I’ve seen them on the way to the Northeast Entrance, between the Lamar Valley and Cooke City. This summer there were also several that resided in the Shoshone National Forest just outside the East Entrance at the bridge at Pahaska Teepee. If your sole goal is to see moose, add Grand Tetons National Park to your tour. They are plentiful there.

Who can forget the bears? Baby Boomers who visited here in their youth might remember throwing marshmallows to the bears. The rangers even encouraged it back then. Not now.

Bear are rarely seen. It is estimated that less than 10% of visitors to Yellowstone National Park see one. This last season, and in 2014, sightings were commonplace. The snow pack was 150 to 200% greater than normal in the winters preceding those springs. The bear were forced down from the mountain ranges in search of food earlier than usual, and in larger concentrations. 2014 was a bonanza year for me. I had, over the course of the spring and summer, 173 bear sightings including 17 in one day.

There are two types of bears in Yellowstone–the black bear and the grizzly bear. The grizzly bear is massive and powerful looking. Usually brown in color, they have a hump on their back that is the distinguishing characteristic. The males are the largest carnivore in North America. They are less numerous than the black bear. A pair of grizzlies have been known to hang around Lake Butte Overlook on the road from the East Gate to Fishing Bridge for the past two summers. Affectionately named, Snow and Raspberry, they created many a happy bear jam as tourists stopped to take their pictures.
The black bear look cute and cuddly. They aren’t. They are every bit as dangerous as their larger cousin and are more numerous. And don’t think every brown bear is a grizzly. Black bears run from blonde to a brownish red (cinnamon) to the full black coloration. Remember, look for the hump on the back to tell them apart. They are frequently near Tower Falls.

About two paragraphs back I mentioned a bear jam. Let me take a second to explain how traffic flows through Yellowstone. . .or sometime doesn’t.

I get it. All sightings of wildlife are exciting when you don’t see them every day as I did. Heck, I’ll admit it. Even this old, jaded, park concession warrior, battle-scarred through many hours of waiting while cars stopped to take pictures of a female elk, has hit the brakes and wondered at the sight of a grizzly sow with triplets eating wildflowers up at Swan Lake Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs. I have stood in awe as I watched bison in full rut, challenge and fight each other, oblivious to the fact that the traffic was backing up behind me. I do understand. I get it. I’ve been there, BUT

Don’t be that tourist. Be the visitor that follows the rules, that are there for your safety. . .and the animals’ safety as well.

When you see an animal that you want to photograph, and go home with lots of those photos, please, pull off into the nearest pullout. If there is none, make sure your car is completely off the road. Don’t stop in the middle of the road to take a picture because it will “only take a second”. Remember that female elk I mentioned before. I spent two and half hours to go 13 miles because of cars stopping to take pictures of her.

Also, remember. Yellowstone’s wildlife are just that; wild and full of life. They are also dangerous. Every year, the elk at Mammoth Hot Springs trample several park visitors and employees. Bear attacks are not common, but do happen. Get bear spray and LEARN TO USE IT. Get bear spray and LEARN TO USE IT. Get bear spray and LEARN TO USE IT. Any ranger in the park or volunteer at the Visitor Centers located throughout Yellowstone will gladly teach you the technique. Stop by Greybull Travel, and I’ll teach you how to use it. It’s not inexpensive, I know. If you don’t feel the need to buy it, it can be rented at the Visitor Center at Canyon Village. Costco in Bozeman carried it last year. Bear spray works on elk, bison, and moose as well.

Bison are notoriously cantankerous. 2014, there was a bull in Hayden Valley that attacked diesel trucks. There was an alpha elk up in Mammoth that had his horns removed every year because he hated red cars.

Here’s how the animals were explained to me: The bison are schizophrenic, the elk are psychotic, and the mule deer are suicidal. The was told to me by a now-retired lady I met my first day working there.

Here are the rules you need to remember:

Stay 25 yards (about 20 meters) from all wildlife.
Stay 100 yards (about 90 meters) from bears and wolves.
Do not harass the animals. This includes honking your horn at them to get them to move. Yellowstone is their home. You’re the visitor.
Stay on the boardwalks and trails when visiting the thermal features (hot springs, geysers, mud pots, etc.). The crust is fragile, and boiling, acidic water lies below it.
Leave nothing behind and take nothing with you except pictures and memories.

Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit Yellowstone National Park. As Ken Burns so aptly put it, America’s Best Idea!!!

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