Driving Day Continued: down from the top of the Beartooth

Driving down from the top of the Beartooth Pass involved lakes, mountain scenery, fewer switchbacks than going up, and of course more road construction. We were stopped for about half an hour waiting for the lead construction car to come back from its previous trip to lead us through the construction zone. Stopped here we met up again with the Australian Bikers, a construction worker from Nebraska, and lots of mosquitos. We were also stopped in prime bear country, but with the construction commotion and cars, we were in no danger of BEAR ATTACK here. Just mosquito attack. And by ‘bears,’ I do mean grizzlies. Black bears inhabit the area too, but they’re not of large concern—the grizzlies are the more volatile and dangerous species.

Past the construction we drove through some more beautiful scenery, had a jaunt back into Montana through Cooke City (again I was calmed). Here we questioned: fill up with gas in Cooke City, or fill up with gas in Yellowstone? Which will be cheaper? We opted to fill up in Cooke City. We soon found this was the wrong decision, as gas at any of the little villages in Yellowstone was quite a bit less expensive. In Cooke City we were also stared at by a belligerent, angry-looking pickup driver at the gas station. I don’t know why, maybe he hated tourists. If that was the case he was in the wrong town, since this is one of the gateway towns into Yellowstone National Park.

The area around Cooke City is Custer, Shoshone and Gallatin National Forests. Technically, visitors can pull over and camp anywhere in a National Forest, however, in these forests there were big new-ish looking signs stating ABSOLUTELY NO TENT CAMPING ALLOWED posted outside of town. I am not exaggerating here. This seemed odd, but I did remember there had been a bear attack last year in the area, so figured the signs were still in reaction to that. Not exactly reassuring, but we were staying in the park still about 60 miles away, so…no big deal?

Finally, we enter Yellowstone (excited!)! And leave Montana (sad). But, we’re in Yellowstone (excited!)! The northeast entrance is one of the lesser-used entrances to the park. It’s beautiful forest, but not the most immediately eye-catching scenery. The road winds through forest for quite a ways before opening up to catch glimpses of the Yellowstone you see in pictures—though you can start smelling the sulfur much sooner. Yellowstone is one big geologic hotspot and a super volcano, so sulfur smells are not infrequent.

Yellowstone is a very large park—over 2 million acres—it takes a while to get places. We drove for a while, saw some bison herds in the Lamar Valley…etc…this was lovely but not unique, and there’s a much better bison story to come.

Finally, (we’ve already been in the car for 8 hours this day, so it deserves a ‘finally’) we get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area where we had planned to take a hike nicknamed Uncle Tom’s Trail, a long staircase to the base of the lower falls of the Yellowstone River. This is said to be an amazing vantage point. I’ve been to Yellowstone before, but never taken this hike, so was really excited to do so! The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking area. This area was Marie’s first introduction to the volcanic cliffs—here, they’re chalky white and dusty pink and yellow, and at dusk, the colors deepen. We were just driving up at dusk. Sounds great, but really…

The Grand Canyon area is also an area known for grizzly activity.

A backstory—on a previous trip to the park, a friend and I had pulled off on a trail head, intending to take a hike to a spot a Park Ranger had mentioned as a great place to see moose. We trekked to the trailhead, but when we got there the trail was “Closed Due to Bear Activity”. The manner of closing: stringing what I remember as masking tape between two trees and hanging a sign that had been hastily typed and printed on letter-sized paper. Anyone could just walk right by this sign on to the trail if they wanted. Five years previous, this was how the park noted bear activity.

Back to present day, the signs started before the Grand Canyon turnoff. Not little pieces of paper, but large blinking-light electric road signs. The digital ones, taller than the cars, with the orange and white barricades, saying DO NOT PULL OVER DO NOT STOP DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR. The frequent ittle roadside pulloffs were barricaded. We crossed the river to get to the South Rim hiking on the other side, and still the signs continued. DO NOT STOP. DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR. We passed a parking lot—one of the larger parking areas in the park and a popular place to start day hikes—the entrance to which was completely barricaded and parking lot shut down because of bear activity.

TIP #4 ON A ROADTRIP: pay attention to road signs.

I knew there had been a man killed in July by a mother grizzly protecting her cub (not erratic behavior for a bear, but in no way less tragic), but two months later these signs seemed a bit excessive. We wondered if something else was going on.

Our planned hike started right across the street from this parking lot, at dusk. There were very few people around, most of whom we did see were headed back to their cars. We started the hike—I brought my bear bells, Marie sang loudly on the trail, we made it about 100 yards before turning back. I was mostly sorta OK with continuing further, but Marie called it off, and I admit to being relieved. Bear bells and loud singing were not enough to ward off the uneasy feelings from all of the DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR signs. Especially when it was almost dark. Bear bells and singing are not weapons. They just make noise, so the bear knows something is around and will stay away. That’s the idea, anyways.

So back to the car and a little further down the road away from the bear signs, still on the South Rim, was a large turnout with views of the Canyon. That’s where we stayed until almost dark, watching the colors change on the canyon walls.

Grant Village in the south of the park was our destination, where the lodge room awaited. Have I mentioned this before: Yellowstone is a large park. We had about another hour drive before getting to Grant Village. Without much scenery, since it was dark. Except for the moon over the lake. That was pretty, for a quite a while.

Next up: We did arrive at Grant Village finally, though I couldn’t tell you what it really looked like. And then another full day in Yellowstone.


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