Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Yellowstone National Park: Avalanche Peak & More

Yellowstone National Park – Day 5 – Avalanche Peak and a Whole Lot More – 7/26/15 – 5 miles

My favorite day of our Yellowstone trip – two like-minded people, traveling light, making choices as we go along is so enjoyable.  Having one or two goals per day, not overplanning, is key and leaves room for more exploring and more relaxing.  Also following Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice of “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  On this day it was Avalanche Peak.

Avalanche Peak is near the East Entrance to Yellowstone NP bordering the Absorka Wilderness and Shoshone National Forest.  It is part of the Absaroka Mountain Range.  This destination would have been simpler from our home base in Canyon Village, but that didn’t work out and consequently we had a longer drive from our new home base at Madison Campground. 

But we had a black bear sighting along the way

We drove through Hayden Valley, a sort of half-scale Lamar Valley also known for wildlife viewing especially in the early morning hours.  This part of the Grand Loop follows the Yellowstone River upstream toward Yellowstone Lake. 

Buffalo roaming in Hayden Valley

Shore of Yellowstone Lake near Steamboat Point – keeping our eye on the sky with a little bit of rain to the west

Swaths of dead trees in this area of Yellowstone look like the result of fires, but the pine beetle is the real destroyer.  Many researchers believe this is a result of climate change – hard winters used to kill off the beetles that bore into the trees but now they are surviving the milder winters and munching away.

Along the drive to the trailhead, Jim and I were getting nervous that we didn’t have bear spray.  We’d read the guidebooks, seen the signage in the visitor centers strongly encouraging hikers to carry it, but just hadn’t faced up to it.  Why not?  I carried it with me when I hiked in Glacier National Park (borrowed from a friend).  Were we too cheap?  Were we in denial?  I should have read this blog post before we went.  So far we had felt safe on popular trails (a misperception because bears like to go where people/food are.)  But this section of the park seemed more remote, less people and more… I don’t know, bear-like.  We agreed to stick together like glue, keep our eyes peeled and make a lot of noise on the trail.

At the parking lot a family consisting of mom, dad and two teenage boys were preparing to start the same hike with us.  They were from Georgia and this was their first serious hiking experience out west. They all looked well equipped – in fact, the woman and I had the same Leki hiking poles and Osprey daypacks.  I noticed all the males were carrying bear spray.  The dad was also carrying a firearm – first time I had seen that in a national park, although they have been legal since 2009.  We talked about the possibility of grizzlies and the dad actually offered a bear canister to Jim (which he took) with the agreement to return it at the parking lot after the hike.  Well, that felt a little safer, except for the loaded gun part.

 [The woman asked me if I realized that this was a Category “H” hike?  I kinda shrugged, not understanding what she meant, and replied that I knew it was over 10,000 feet.  It is well documented that I am susceptible to altitude headaches and difficulty breathing above 10,000 feet, so I was anticipating a struggle. Later on I read in Hiking Yellowstone that the author categorized Avalanche Peak as Category “H” for “horrible,” tongue-in-cheek meaning extremely steep.]

Avalanche Peak Trail ascends 2,100 feet in 2.1 miles and does not start off gently.  It is serious from the first step, no switchbacking nonsense. 

That means stopping often for flower photography

At 1.2 miles the tree line ends and the “mountains majesty” views begin.  The trail curves steeply up through a scree field that made me whimper at the thought of the return descent.  (Click to enlarge and see the tiny person on the far left of the photo.)  This guy was hiking in flip-flops!

At least there were some switch- backs now and choices of routes across the talus fields, some steep and some steeper.

Yes, that's a trail

The trail we chose took us to the ridge line at the saddle point between peaks where this rock bunker offered some shelter from the blustery wind.  (Yellowstone Lake is in the background.) The peak to the west was slightly lower than the true summit of Avalanche Peak to the east.  We arrived about the same time as our Georgia friends.

I’m almost there

At the summit

Or is it?  The ridge line continued on through another slight dip and then ended where thoughtful hikers had built two more rock shelters.  We all settled down to eat lunch and gaze upon God’s amazing handiwork.

Yellowstone Lake to the west

Hoyt Peak to the south

Silvertip Peak to the northeast

The wind took Flip-flop Guy's hat and he chased after it.  We saw him at the parking lot after the hike and his big toe was wrapped in a great big bandage.  But he was still all smiles.

Time to head back

Talus or scree?  The debate rages on.  My interpretation is that scree is pebble sized and talus is hand-sized or larger.  They feel different on a descent.  Scree feels like you’re going to slip, your feet are going completely out from under you and you’re going to break your neck.  Talus seems to move just a little bit and is easier to walk on, although I’m sure your neck would be just as broken if you fell.  Maybe it’s all in my head.  Anyway, the hike down required great concentration. 

A flat spot!  I don’t remember this on the way up!

The remainder of the descent was still not a breeze, very steep and requiring caution and creaking kneecaps.  At the parking lot we were feeling elated after a successful climb (no bears, no injuries) to a lofty height (10,566 feet and still breathing). 

But the day wasn’t over!  We decided to scratch our semi- planned second hike of the day at Elephant Back Mountain and enjoy a leisurely drive along the west shores of Yellowstone Lake. 

Found a secluded peaceful spot to plop down our tailgate chairs and have a little siesta. 

Continuing around the lower Grand Loop, we skipped Lake Village and West Thumb (we’ll be back someday, right?) and stopped at the Old Faithful area to treat ourselves to dinner at the Snow Lodge Obsidian dining room (lamb, roasted root vegetables, creamy polenta).  With a couple of hours of daylight still to go, on our way back to Madison campground we drove around Firehole Lake Drive, nearly deserted.

Firehole Spring

Surprise Pool

Great Fountain Geyser

“Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the skies
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Yellowstone National Park: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone In 1,000 Photos

Yellowstone National Park – Day 4 – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – 7/25/15 – 10 miles

Jim and I broke down camp very early because we’re changing campgrounds today.  While parents were wrangling small children to breakfast and other folks were enjoying that second cup of coffee, we were the first car in the parking lot ready to walk both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

GC of the Yellowstone is the largest canyon in the park, formed by erosion rather than as a result of glaciation.  From Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows north through the canyon, dropping from Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls to carve the gorge in dramatic style.  The most spectacular section called the North and South Rims is about 3 miles long, but the entire canyon is about 20 miles long from Upper Yellowstone Falls to Tower Falls, up to 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep in places. 

Ask Jim and he’ll tell you that this is the most outstanding, don’t-miss area of Yellowstone NP.  Because of the infrastructure created to make it all easily accessible, the crowds are there, but like Old Faithful it’s good to see people enjoying and appreciating these natural wonders (mostly).

We started on the North Rim Trail at Brink of the Lower Falls, a steep .75-mile trail that includes switchbacks and a lot of stairs down to – yes – a viewing platform at the edge of the Lower Falls.  The thundering noise of the waterfall left me speechless.

Looking down river, see the mist rising from the base of Lower Falls

Back on the North Rim Trail, Lookout Point is just a few steps off the path for a stunning panoramic view of Lower Falls.  

For a closer view requiring more effort, we hiked to Red Rock Point, a steep quarter- mile descent with stairs and switchbacks.  (Interestingly, this trail is not on the park website or park map.  I found it in hiking guidebooks.)  Lower Falls drops 308 feet, twice high as Niagara Falls.

The view down river from Red Rock Point

Back up the steps and continuing along the North Rim, we watched a young couple hop the low stone wall and venture out on a narrow ridge, where they dangled their feet over the edge and the woman struck yoga poses for the camera.  The rest of us followed the rules, stayed on the sidewalk and judged harshly. 

A little girl with sharp eyes pointed me to an eagle’s nest with two chicks. 

Grand View:  the pink and yellow colors along the volcanic rhyolite canyon walls indicate the presence or absence of water in individual iron compounds formed during the time that the area was an active geyser basin.  [End of geology lesson.]

Rather than continue out to Inspiration Point, Jim and I opted to turn around at Grand View and retrace our steps along the North Rim back to our car, where we picked up our daypacks and turned toward the South Rim.  [We stopped at Brink of the Upper Falls but I can’t find the pictures!]

The pavement went away and we followed the dirt trail, first crossing an old bridge left in place from the original road to the North Rim and then connecting with Grand Loop Road where it crosses the Yellowstone River on Chittenden Bridge. 

Walking along this section upriver of the falls, we didn’t encounter more than a handful of people and had the feeling that most don’t venture here, choosing instead to drive across the bridge and hike each of the rim sections separately.  The water was both placid …

… and turbulent.  Just past this point is the Upper Falls.  Jim commented that if you fell in you wouldn’t be able to save yourself. 

Following the trail for the first mile along the South Rim from the bridge was sketchy, hard to tell where we should and shouldn’t be walking.  Well-worn paths were everywhere but so were “no-no” signs to stay off certain places. 

Found a dangerously fantastic view of the Upper Falls on the opposite bank from the Brink of the Upper Falls viewing area. 

After this picture we hiked past one of those warning signs.

We paused briefly at Upper Falls Overlook but knew that there were better things ahead.  By the time we reached the top of Uncle Tom’s Trail, the tour buses had disgorged the masses and we joined the flow.  A rambunctious little boy ran ahead of his family and got mixed in with the crowd, but the parents finally caught up with him.  The dad was carrying a baby in a front pack and a toddler in a backpack.  Oh, and there were one or two other kids…  lots of credit for Dad still smiling.

Uncle Tom’s Trail isn’t really a walking trail, rather a series of concrete and mesh steel staircases (328 steps) attached to the canyon rock.  The trail is named for Uncle Tom Richardson, who guided visitors on this trail back at the turn of the 20th century (then 528 steps and rope ladders).  The lung-busting climb back up is best done slowly with pauses for reflection.  Great hike, highly recommend it, but early or late in the day.

Rainbow at Lower Falls along Uncle Tom’s Trail

Lower Falls from base of Uncle Tom’s Trail

The trail along the South Rim is wide, paved in some places, and generally ascends towards Artist Point.  The river disappears deep into the canyon except for the occasional glimmer and the main attraction becomes the canyon walls.  We stopped for lunch here. 

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Did I say that the crowds had arrived back at Uncle Tom’s Trail?  Well, aside from those few hundreds, the remaining inhabitants of planet Earth were all at Artist Point Overlook.  Coming off the trail into the parking lot was a serious buzz-kill and we nearly turned around rather than muscle our way to the viewpoint.  We got that iconic photo, but there really was no enjoying the moment. 

We took our time on the return hike but agreed we didn’t need to check out every overlook a second time.  We did pause again, though, in the quiet section above the Upper Falls to eat again and savor being so close to the river. 

Back across the bridge there was a small traffic jam caused by a handsome elk enjoying his own afternoon snack. 

At Madison Camp- ground, we found our assigned tent site, again not an ideal space because sites were close together and very open, but at $25 per night one cannot be persnickety.  Dinner called to us from the Slippery Otter Pub in the town of West Yellowstone, our only venture outside of the park.  We toasted to a third enchanting day in Yellowstone National Park. 

"Language is inadequate to convey a just conception of the awful grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature's handiwork."  ~David Folsom, early Yellowstone explorer