Yellowstone in November? Exactly…
When Halloween rolled around, more than a year had passed since my last big vacation. And, with my 30th birthday lurking right around the corner, I figured a week-long change of scenery was in order.I phoned up my younger brother, Brad, a Summit County bartender/artist with a fairly flexible autumn work schedule, and recruited him to join me.As we devised our escape plan, we brainstormed a slew of tropical destinations. But, with the introspection and reflection that inevitably comes with the arrival of a new decade of life, the wide open spaces of the American West beckoned harder than my bikini did.
The prospect of snow crunching under my boots on a Wyoming mountainside invited me to strip my soul down to its birthday suit, and giving it a good scrub in a way that sunblock and sand between my toes never could.On a cold, overcast, November morning, Brad and I threw our packs, fleeces, long underwear, hats and gloves into the trunk of his Honda Civic and made the 12-hour trip northwest to Yellowstone National Park.Most of the park’s roads, including those that lead to the famed Old Faithful geyser, are closed to automobiles this time of year, and the park’s hotels are battened down until the holidays. We pulled into Gardiner, Mont., at the park’s north entrance – the original entrance to America’s first national park and the only one providing access from area highways in November – and began pricing motel rooms.
The clerk at the Super 8 Motel quoted me a rate of $37 per night. That was in line with my budget, but I still asked her if she offered discounts to members of my automobile club.”I already gave you the discount,” she said. “We don’t get too many people here this time of year.”Brad and I got up the following morning just before dawn and drove to the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. These other-worldly, cascading rock formations glowed with hues of ochre, salmon, rose, turquoise, chartreuse and blinding white in the morning sunlight, which streamed through thick plumes of steam in the biting, 20-degree air.A vast network of underground fissures at Mammoth Hot Springs allows scalding water to percolate upward, heated by one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. The water brings with it dissolved limestone, which it deposits at the springs’ surfaces as calcium carbonate, or travertine, thus adding new layers to the constantly changing sculpture of tiers, terraces and bulbous mounds of rock.
We had the springs all to ourselves, save for one other down-and-fleece-clad visitor. Our virtually private tour of the Lower Terraces contrasted sharply with my childhood memories of Mammoth Hot Springs, in which I elbowed my way through sweaty summer crowds to see the formations.After exploring the hot springs, Brad and I stocked our packs with cheese, apples and energy bars for a 3,400-foot ascent of Mount Sepulcher, an 11-mile round-trip trek along creeks, through dense forests and open, young forests in post-wildfire regeneration and across golden, grassy meadows.As we crested the first ridgeline, I stepped forward to take in a sweeping view to the south and had my first wildlife encounter of the trip: I stood face-to-face with about 100 elk, munching grass in the sunshine. Within minutes, the entire herd descended the slope and charged southward, brush snapping under thundering hooves, until visible only as tawny specks on a distant hillside.
Though we were limited to the northernmost part of the park, given our between-seasons timing, each subsequent hike showcased unique, majestic scenery and offered new opportunities for wildlife viewing. But we never encountered another human on the trail the entire trip.The Yellowstone River Picnic Area Trail took us along the east rim of the Narrows of the Yellowstone River, with views of dramatic basalt columns, the towers of Tower Fall, the historic Bannock Ford and a family of three bighorn sheep. A pair of bison took us by surprise as we topped a berm during a snowy march through mature, coniferous forest on the Pebble Creek Trail.But our most exciting wildlife encounters occurred on our final day in the park, while Brad and I drove east through the Lamar Valley, where a black wolf trained its yellow eyes on us from the roadside as it chewed a piece of carrion.Wolves have roamed the Lamar Valley since their reintroduction in 1995. Small groups of wolf-watchers traverse the valley all year, armed with radios and scopes, observing and tracking the many packs.
A few friendly wolf enthusiasts let us look through their scopes atop an overlook to see a pack of 23 wolves guard an elk carcass.As we made our way out of the park, stopping on occasion to allow bison or elk to cross the road, a smoky pink sunset settled over the ring of snow-capped peaks surrounding the Yellowstone Valley. And I felt satisfied that a November road trip to Yellowstone was the perfect way to mark a personal milestone.Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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