[This is day 4 of a 7 day trip to Montana and Wyoming in September 2012]
We made an early start today in order not to miss a minute. One of our greatest hopes for this trip had been to see wildlife. We had been more than happy to see the bison and elk yesterday, and the antelope throughout. We decided we would visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone just so that we could see those two elusive animals. The doors opened at 8:30, so we grabbed food for the day at the Food Roundup grocery store, gassed up to ensure we wouldn’t run out on the Beartooth highway, and went to the Center.
Bears, Wolves, and Raptors
We heard the wolves before we saw them. One was vocalizing every few minutes – not really an outright howl, but enough to satisfy! It was fascinating to see how far open his mouth went before he actually began any noise. There were two wolves in the habitat on one side of a small viewing building, and 3 or 4 in the one on the other side.
We drove back into the park, watching for the telltale slowdown of cars that indicate something has been seen. On the way out, we saw a bald eagle thanks to about 20 cars pulled to one side. Every visitor owes a debt to someone else’s sharp eyes at one point or another. We headed south again for just a bit to see some of the other hot springs, including the Grand Prismatic spring. I find these far more interesting than Old Faithful but they don’t have the same fireworks. The colors raise all sorts of interesting discussions though, about minerals in the earth, about the impact of the hot water and the blue color, about the bacteria that is growing in the heat, about the crust covering the springs.
Over the Beartooth
The rest of the day was spent slowly meandering north and east. We saw bison and elk frequently as we headed over towards the canyon, where we got out and saw the Yellowstone river going over the waterfall. We climbed out with hundreds of others and saw the amazing colored soils at Artists Point. As we drove north again, towards the Tower junction, a wolf trotted down the center line of the road. All traffic slowed down and stopped as he loped along the side of the road, then crossed over and headed up on the west side and into the brush.
We kept our eyes skinned for more wolf – or grizzly bears as we passed the Antelope Creek area where they frequent – but nothing. The Lamar Valley, where wolves were reintroduced from Canada near Druid Peak, was empty of wolf as far as we could tell. Of course, there were about 300 bison arranged in 4 large herds, so it’s not like there was a lot of room for anyone else! We couldn’t believe how many bison were there. In fact, we had stopped and stared at about 100 that had spread themselves across either side of the road and were amazed at the numbers. Then we continued on and came across many more.
They can be distracting. I was watching them out of the corner of my eye – they were at a distance, down on the valley floor – when a pronghorn antelope leapt across the road two cars ahead. We all slowed down but within a second or so, two additional antelope had joined the first and were moving at breakneck speed across the field.
We left the park and zigzagged in and out of Wyoming and Montana, which had become a bit of a joke. One of the boys kept saying “such and so is amazing here in [insert state]”. Whichever state he said, we would be in the other one. Then he’d make another comment and refer to the other state, and we would have already returned to the first one! There was a cry of “Hallelujah” when we finally arrived in Montana for the duration of the trip.
The Beartooth highway is an easy drive but it is entirely switchbacks and can’t be driven at any kind of speed. We drove it in late September and it will close in a month or so for the winter. It looks very Swiss Alps-ish as you drive up, with little lakes dotted here and there, only visible as you come around a switchback and see a vista that was previously hidden from you.
We made it to the top and headed down the other side to Red Lodge, where we were staying the night. It is a nice small town right at the edge of the mountains. From this point on, we would be returning to the flat – and antelope-rich – land of southeastern Montana. But there was one historical site to see before we hit Billings, so tomorrow we would see where Custer made his last stand, at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.