Lamar River, Yellowstone National Park
If you have been following this blog, you know there are some places that are just so special for me. Alaska, Vancouver Island, Bella Coola, the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, and here, at home, in the San Juan Islands and North Cascades. But every so often, I just need a wildlife fix. To watch and photograph fox, bear, owls, and otter. And for that, there is absolutely no where better than the Greater Yellowstone Area (northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana, and eastern Idaho).
“I think at a deeper level to understand and love the concept of what a national natural park is, is to accept that there are changes that have always been taking place.”
Bruce Stein, National Wildlife Federation
Harlequin, LeHardy Rapids, Yellowstone River
Alaska and BC are great for wildlife, but they are so vast that sightings can be few and far apart. Yellowstone is a wide area as well, but uniquely (and wonderfully) the wildlife is often visible and plentiful. Herds of bison, elk, and packs of wolves surround you. And if you stop driving, and look more closely, you will see coyotes, mink, cranes, osprey, and so much more. Just-born babies in the spring, hundreds of ground squirrels in your face as you set up camp in the summer, moose in umber and gold willow in the fall, and otters on the ice in winter.
Full Moon Over Lamar, Yellowstone National Park
For the last week, I have followed the major flooding and mudslides occurring over nearly all of southern Montana from Yellowstone to east of Billings, with the northern areas of Yellowstone National Park, including Lamar Valley and the Mammoth to Gardiner area, hit especially hard. For me, this post brings a surge of memories, feelings, and images from past visits (evocation) and anticipation for eventually getting back to one of my very favorite places. For those who follow my writing and photos, I hope this post (and previous Yellowstone web logs) will summon the amazing spirit, wildness, and beauty that is Yellowstone. I hope it will encourage you to visit other beautiful places in this area and understand the need and value of visiting and supporting those communities that depend on the park for their very existence.
Beartooth Highway View, Montana
Of course I am sad realizing that I may not get back into Northern Yellowstone for years as they rebuild roads and bridges. But my sadness is for those that work there, and more importantly for those nearby, wonderful communities such as Gardiner, Cook City, and Silver Gate Montana that are dependent on tourism and who are still recovering from the Pandemic and its continuing hit on travel.
Mountain Goat Family, Beartooth Pass, Montana
These are the communities where I can slip out of the wilderness to grab a hot chocolate on a cold, snowy morning, tacos from a new food truck overlooking Yankee Jim Canyon along the Yellowstone River, or a barbeque dinner from die-hard Steelers fans hidden at the edge of the Shoshone National Forest (Buns “N”Beds in Cooke City). These communities, and others, will be (at the least) hurting for a long, long time.
Chief Joseph Highway to Cody, Montana
One of the best experiences in Yellowstone (and all of our National Parks) is talking with the mostly young workers who have come from around the world to work in the tourist season. I am sad that many of these jobs will be lost, as well as experiences and the ability (dream) to live a season in Yellowstone.
Rock Rabbit (Pika), Beartooth Plateau. Montana
I am not sad for the wildlife or landscapes in the northern areas of the park. Yellowstone would not exist without nature, and throughout its history, nature on a rampage. The Yellowstone caldera was created by one of the largest volcanic eruptions known to have occurred in the world, as well as at least two other “super volcano” events, the first one about 6,000 times larger than the May 18th 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens here in Washington State. For the wolves, bears, buffalo, and antelope of the Lamar, flooding may bring a few years of healing and recovery?
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
Perhaps the flooding is nature’s way of calling a time-out? I will need to wait to see how nature heals and how the park chooses to fix and repair the road and bridges.* And in the meanwhile I will look for ways to assist and stay connected with those nearby towns as they work to rebuild and recover.
For those of us that love this area, or for those who were hoping to visit this summer, there are still plenty of beautiful places to visit. In fact, the southern loop in Yellowstone opened with limited capacity just this past Wednesday, June 22nd. To the south, you have Grand Teton National Park, and several hours north, Glacier National Park. Immediately to the east you have the fantastical Beartooth Highway (Route 212) that reaches 10,947 feet over Beartooth Pass. The Beartooth was also hard hit by the flooding, with major repairs needed before it can open (it had just opened June 9th from its annual winter closure).** While damaged, the highway is a lifeline between Cooke City and Red Lodge, and hopefully the road can be reopened quickly (check before you go)? Reports are that repairs will start this week.
Heading Uphill. Beartooth Highway, Montana.
Last year, after visiting British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska, I said the early-post-Covid travel message was “be nice or go home.” That advice applies if you are visiting anywhere in the Greater Yellowstone Area this summer. And more, not only be nice, but understanding and sympathetic. Don’t go home -- spend your money in these areas. Your vacation plans may be changed, but these communities have lost much more. Think of it as investing in future trips and vacations. Yellowstone is definitely worth it!
West Glacier, North Fork Road Sunset. Montana
· One PBS news article reported that, over the Memorial Day weekend, three inches of rain fell in the Park, and warming temperatures melted 5.5 inches of snow. The combined water caused the Yellowstone River to rise six feet within 24 hours and topped out at 51,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). For reference, one cfs is about the size of a basketball. Imagine that many basketballs coming at you (mixed with rocks and trees) continuously. And if that doesn’t help you imagine the magnitude of the flooding, the previous recording was 31,000 cfs. For Yellowstone, a 500-to-1000-year flood event. A lot of water no matter how you look at it.
· *Repairing infrastructure in National Park and Forests nationwide has been a problem for decades. In our local Mt. Baker Wilderness, many of the most popular trails (Skyline Divide and Heliotrope Ridge) are inaccessible due to flooding and slides. Yellowstone, before the flooding, was already facing an estimated $929 million in deferred maintenance and repairs. And as much of a pain any road or bridge rebuilding is, I am glad to know that the National Park Service is addressing climate change and future flooding in its parks. The road from Gardiner to Mammoth along the Gardiner River is gone, and most probably will not be rebuilt in the canyon. Yellowstone’s Superintendent quoted “I don't think it's going to be smart to invest potentially, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or however much it is, into repairing a road that may be subject to seeing a similar flooding event in the future."
· ** On my last visit, I tried to cross the Beartooth on three consecutive days. Overnight spring snows kept closing the road (even as online resources said it was now open). Hit the jackpot on day four, with mountain goats at the pass and pika on the way down to the Beartooth Plateau.