Wouldn’t you know it, we are back in the USA again, where we saw the New Year in. We seem to have spent quite a bit of time here over this past year but more on that another time, for now I shall pick up from where I last left off….
It’s National Park time, starting off with Glacier National Park in Montana.
The biggest and apparently best thing about Glacier is the Going-to-the-Sun Rd – I say apparently as our timing to visit was completely off. Whilst we were able to hike and explore some of this spectacular park and definitely did experience its ‘wow’ factor, I do fear we missed out on the best part as the most scenic section of the road was closed due to there still being a lot of snow up there.
We had a bit of a moan about it, not quite understanding the closure as down below there wasn’t a single sign of snow. So I had a fabulous idea – why don’t we just hike up high for some views? Turns out they weren’t kidding about the snow, after a couple of hours of steady uphill climbing our hike ground to a halt when the snow became too deep (hip height) to continue walking and we could no longer fathom where the path was. I think we’ll have to revisit one day.
One of the highlights of this National Park trip was the wildlife and for hiking in particular, this meant bears. Springtime, which is when we were there, is when they are coming out of hibernation and it was quite likely that we would run into one. Carrying bear spray and making sure to make noise are two pieces of sound advice hikers are given and rules we obeyed. We took some time to practice rapidly removing the spray from our belts as well as tying our travel bell to us so we merrily ding-a-linged along on our hikes because we did indeed see bears in the following four weeks.
Our next stop could quite easily have been the destination to poetically end our travels with. Yellowstone National Park is a place we have wanted to visit since 2010 after watching the three-part BBC documentary about the different seasons in the park. The wildlife and geothermal activity of the world’s first National Park intrigued us and I can tell you that it lived up to and even surpassed all expectations. It is a little known fact that Yellowstone was indeed our inspiration to get out and explore this big, wide world whilst it was still easy enough for us to do.
The park is a huge 8,987 square km or 3,472 square miles and we had ten action packed days in which to discover these vast and varied kilometres.
We began up north in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. The main attraction here are the travertine terraces formed over hundreds of years of hot water bubbling up from the earth, cooling and depositing calcium carbonate. Miles of boardwalks have been built so that one can easily observe every area of these impressive organic carvings that are unique to this area of the park.
Looking back on our first day in Yellowstone gives us a laugh. We spotted three bison in a field so stopped the car in excitement to get out and run down to have a closer look – what rookies! There is absolutely no shortage of Bison to be seen in Yellowstone, in fact like all the animals in the park, it is their territory and bison traffic jams are a daily occurrence here. A herd of Bison will decide to walk along the road and there is no stopping these huge, dangerous beasts, it’s actually quite alarming when they head straight towards your car as if they are looking for a fight.
Our first day also brought with it our first black bear sighting – oh what a thrill! We were fortunate enough to have quite a few black and grizzly bear sightings in our time, cubs too. One always knows if there’s been a bear sighting by the random congregation of cars parked on the side of the road where they normally shouldn’t be. Then there’s the interesting breed of wildlife photographers who line themselves up along the road, dress themselves and their long camera lenses in camouflage gear, have walkie talkies to communicate with each other and the Rangers and will sit in the one spot for as long as it takes in the hope that an animal appears.
It was a time like this that we had one of our most memorable bear experiences. A grizzly and her cub had been spotted quite a distance off, walking along the river. She was moving rapidly (as opposed to how they are more often observed, grazing slowly) and it wasn’t long before she turned her sights to the direction of all us humans checking them out through our various lenses. I had a fantastic view through my binoculars as they started charging towards us. A little alarmed, I had to keep peering up to check just how close she was getting. Panic then set amongst everyone as the Rangers began yelling at the tops of their voices, ‘everyone get to your cars NOW.’ When I no longer required my ‘bins’ to see every detail of the two bears charging in our direction I thought it probably intelligent that we too head to our car, in fact I became quite nervous as it was very high drama with everyone running to get to the safety of their vehicles. Michael however, along with a couple of other photographers, decided that the advice to never run from a bear was one he would always obey, especially given that in this situation it meant he’d capture a cool bear shot. Thankfully the bears simply wanted to cross the road and not attack any people, but talk about an adrenaline rush.
Yellowstone’s geothermal area is nothing short of spectacular. The fact that it is the world’s largest geyser field certainly helps. Once accustomed to the strong, sulphurous smell we were blown away by the vibrant coloured algae that accompanies the gurgling mud pots, steaming vents and roaring geysers.
The Yellowstone geyser gazer crowd was another eye opener for us. They too have walkie talkies to communicate with each other, get about carrying their own fold up chairs and will sit for hours waiting for an eruption. Granted, it is pretty astonishing to see these enormous bursts and we found ourselves running about in order to catch the ones that are a little more predictable.
Whilst we lucked out on the Road-to-the Sun Rd in Glacier, we were reimbursed by way of one of the USA’s most scenic drives that had just opened for the season – Beartooth Highway. The 64 mile stretch of road is just outside the North East entrance of Yellowstone and is full of breathtaking views that accompany the hairpin turns.
Our finale for this section of our travels was Grand Teton National Park. Given its proximity to Yellowstone we were surprised by how different it actually is. The regal granite peaks that seem to come out of nowhere from the valley floor along with the winding Snake River as the foreground for this amazing scene, made such an impression on us that we have been back twice more since. The nearby, lively little mountain town of Jackson Hole, with its Wild West vibe has also been a factor in our attraction to this area.
Bears, bison, elk, pronghorns, and deer are in abundance here too but what the Tetons have over Yellowstone are the moose. I was desperate to see a moose but we just didn’t seem to be having any luck. On our second to last day however, whilst on a remote hike we happened upon a moose grazing in the bushes, it was only a metre or two away from us. In awe, we quietly observed it for a good twenty minutes. Thankfully at the time we were completely ignorant to the fact that these are very aggressive animals and in fact many people fear them more than bears.
Departing the Tetons we felt a real sense of accomplishment. All the animals and scenery had been experienced, we could easily end our travels should we wish. Hmmm????