Badlands to Yellowstone
On my last day in the badlands, I headed out on some gravel roads searching for wildlife.
The Prairie Dog towns stretch for a mile or more in places and on this trip I found some Bison Bulls grazing through one of the towns.
In another vast town I came across this Coyote searching the area for breakfast. He would stop and sit at one of the burrow entrances for a minute or two, then probably realizing they were on to him, would move on a bit to another burrow and repeat the action. Never saw him come close to actually catching anything.
I finally came across a Burrowing Owl that stayed within distance of my 600mm lens. Watched him come up out of a Prairie Dog burrow and fly up to this fencepost to check me out. From there he took off and landed at another burrow entrance too far off to get a good shot of him disappearing down the burrow.
With yet another potentially dangerous storm system, with high winds, heavy rain and the possibility of large hail predicted to move through, I decided to leave the Badlands for Yellowstone National Park. Starting out at 6 AM, I headed west straight into the storm system, black skies and flashing lightning, winds buffeting the motorhome, but fortunately, no hail. Turned out to be a very long day on the road and I pulled into the National Forest ‘s Canyon Campground about fifteen miles north of the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park around nine PM.
Yellowstone National Park
I had scouted out the Canyon Campground on Google Earth and hoped there might be a spot open when I arrived, but that was not to be. Turns out there are only three sites in the small campground where I could fit and they were all occupied. Being dead tired and seeing as how it was already after nine, I found a level spot just off the road inside the campground where I set up for the night.
Next morning, one of the three spots I could fit in happened to open up very early, so I quickly moved in and set up among the large rocks and lodgepole pines. This small campground is right off Highway 89, so there is some road noise, and the interior loop road inside the campground is in just awful shape, very deep potholes and ruts, but the site I ended up in actually was very nice, so nice I abandoned my original plan to try and get into the Mammoth Campground just inside the Park and decided to stay here … for the princely sum of $3.50 a night. No utilities, no dump station and no trash receptacles or dumpster, as primitive a campground as you can get, but turned out to be quiet, no neighbors shining lights all night, no smoky campfires nearby, ended up being a nice restful spot.
Early each morning I would drive the fifteen miles into Gardiner and the north entrance into Yellowstone, passing the scene in the image above, as well as several small herds of elk grazing in the fields along the highway.
Since I usually would go through the park entrance before they were staffed for the day, I avoided any long lines waiting to get into the park. Five miles past the park entrance I passed the Mammoth Campground and noted the ” Full ” sign posted every day, making me glad I decided to stay at the Canyon campground.
There are two major hotspots for wildlife sightings in Yellowstone, the Lamar Valley and the Hayden Valley. On my first two days I headed for the closer Lamar Valley.
There were Bison with new young spread throughout the valley, along with a few Pronghorns.
There were many small herds of 20 to 50 bison spread throughout the valley and almost all cows had a ” Red Dog ” accompanying them.
There were a few solitary bulls here and there, shedding their winter coats and looking very bedraggled.
A Bison mom takes a roll in the sagebrush, scratching some kind of itch.
The youngsters, if not nursing, were bouncing around with typical youthful exuberance …
… or settling down for a nap.
I got a kick out of this group of calves deciding the center of the road would be a great place to settle in for a nap …
… but their wiser Moms roused them out before anyone got run over.
With all the youngsters in the valley, I really thought I might see some Wolves or perhaps a Grizzly hunting some of the young, but never saw any such thing.
From my vantage point on the side of the road, I watched this small group of Bison head down the slope…
( Mom checking on Junior to see if he could manage the calm waters of the side channel )
… with the intention of crossing the river, perilously swollen with spring runoff. Into the river’s main channel they go.
Though Mom has no trouble with the swift current, two youngsters are immediately swept downstream …
… instantly realizing that her offspring is in danger of being swept downstream, Mom quickly turns with the current …
… and positions herself just upstream of Junior to block the powerful current and allow him to get back to a depth where he can hoof it back to shore.
The lead two Moms decide to abort their river crossing, realizing the youngsters just are not yet able to handle such a strong current.
They wisely decide to continue grazing this side of the river.
I was able to catch this sequence fairly early in the morning, before there was a lot of traffic in Lamar Valley. Yellowstone is, of course, notorious for traffic, a fact I am well aware of having visited several times over the past fifteen years, almost always after Labor Day. I would never dream of being here in the summer months. Unfortunately, now, after this springtime trip, I would have to say that I would hesitate to visit at any time of year ( well, maybe during mid-winter ).
Knowing that one’s best chance to catch something interesting, wildlife -wise, is to get to a potential hotspot, i.e.. Lamar Valley, early and set up … and WAIT. Hopefully, something will occur during the hours that you patiently wait. More often than not, something does happen. But one needs to be patient. This morning I found my spot, a pulloff, on the side of the road, on a small hill, overlooking the valley and not too far from the river bisecting Lamar Valley. With only one other car there, in a pulloff large enough for maybe ten cars, I set up my tripod, with the 6oomm lens mounted on the camera, pulled out my folding camping rocking chair … and prepared to settle in for the morning.
I shot the above Bison sequence around 7:30 with only a few other people around, but then a small commercial wildlife spotting van pulled in and dumped out a dozen ” photographers ” who had trouble understanding that the backs of their heads did not make for very interesting shots. I can not understand how anyone can so easily set themselves up only ten or fifteen feet in front of another photographer, and not feel at all embarrassed in doing so.
To then make matters worse, a #%*^#@#! tour bus pulled in belching diesel fumes and deposited another 40 or more folks in my formerly peaceful little pullout. They quickly spread out, blocking views on both sides of the road and pullout. Then, unbelievably, here come not one, but two, yellow school buses, dumping about a hundred ten to twelve year olds, along with several adult chaperones. Now, not yet 9 AM on a beautiful spring morning, there are probably close to 200 people piled three deep all around me. Welcome to Yellowstone!
Needless to say, my plan to patiently wait for wildlife to show was now dead, so I packed up and headed back towards Gardiner. There are plenty of other spots in the Lamar Valley where I could have gone, but by 9 AM the road was choked with traffic ( remember this is only mid-May, not the 4th of July weekend ) and there really was no point in setting up anywhere else in the valley.
Just outside the valley, on the way back to the North Entrance, there is an old established Osprey nest high up in a lightning blasted pine.
On another day, I decided to get out early and circumnavigate the park loop road. Despite my misgivings about traffic, Yellowstone is still a wondrous place.
I drove south from Mammoth toward the Madison area and took the crossroad east and continued south down to the Hayden Valley. Being at a higher elevation than the Lamar Valley, there was still snow on the ground here and there in Hayden and very little in the way of green grass, and consequently, there was absolutely nothing in the way of wildlife, anywhere in the valley, with the exception of a few Canadian Geese and a duck or two here and there.
Disappointed with the lack of wildlife, I continued south along the shore of Yellowstone Lake and on to the Fishing Bridge area, again seeing absolutely nothing. Making the turn northward again, I proceeded through the geyser meadows, spotting a lone bull Bison here and there, but nothing else, unless you count the endless stream of traffic.
Then, about three miles south of the Madison Campground, I finally encountered some wildlife, a herd of about 50 or 60 Bison using the loop road to travel down toward the geyser meadows.
I had about three or four cars in front of me when I came across the herd.
This shot is through the windshield ( I took the others holding my camera high out the side window but had to pull my hand in when the Bison on the left of the shot above about took my side mirror off as it passed ).
I don’t know what these guys were rolling in, but it was RIPE! I could easily have reached out the window and touched these guys as they passed within a foot of the Prius.
They were walking at about what I would guess was around four or five miles an hour, obviously not in a terrible hurry to get to their destination. They used both sides of the road where it was clear of traffic heading north, as I was. When the last of the herd passed, there was a line of traffic bottled up behind them, and that line stretched back to the Madison Campground, about three miles back. People in that line, more than likely were destined to take a couple hours or more to get the 15 or so miles to the geysers, since the herd was very unlikely to leave the convenience of road travel as dense new growth forest came right down to the road’s edge.
I ended up very disappointed in my lack of wildlife sightings, and very frustrated fighting traffic and mobs of inconsiderate people in the park DURING the off season. This was in all likelihood my last trip to Yellowstone and so now it’s on to Grand Teton National Park, one of my all time favorite spots to visit, and here’s hoping that the Memorial Day weekend crowds won’t be too bad there.
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