Canyons, Geysers, and Wolves

Yellowstone National Park is big. So huge, in fact, that unless I’d been taking notes, I’d have forgotten the exact when and where of many locations and sights. Even so, I overlooked the visit to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and want to give it a nod before moving forward to Old Faithful.

In a word, amazing. Online sources report that the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is basically “24 miles of twisting, sheer rock cliffs carved 1200 feet deep.” After visiting the Grand Canyon in Arizona a few times, this one seemed smaller, more narrow and not as deep. I could see the Yellowstone River clearly, but the Colorado River rushing through the Grand Canyon in Arizona  was too far down to see or hear. No matter how times people asked, “See it? It’s like a ribbon,” my answer was always the same. No.

What really struck me about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was its V-shaped steepness and the colors. According to our tour guide, the canyon is still being eroded by the Yellowstone River. I could get technical and use scientific words like hydrothermal alteration and iron compounds in rhyolite to explain the amazing colors, but I think I’ll stick to the description of painter Thomas Moran who said, ‘Its beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art.”

Reportedy, Moran felt so impressed with Yellowstone that he began signing his paintings “TYM” to stand for Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran. His work helped change public perception of the area to that of a wonderland and not a wild place blemished with hellish geysers.

After visiting the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs, we continued to the sight we’d all been awaiting: Old Faithful. There are several buildings, including Old Faithful Inn and a welcome center,  gift shop, and restaurant, and while they were rustic and welcoming, our attention was drawn toward Old Faithful’s location. It wasn’t hard to spot. There were hundreds of people of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes sitting on benches, in parents’ laps, and in wheelchairs. Just as many were standing, all waiting expectantly for the next eruption, due to take place in about twenty minutes.

In twenty-two minutes, we heard a sputter and then saw a loud, gushing forth of hot steam. I can’t recall how many minutes Old Faithful performed for us, but I do recall that all in attendance were rapt. Afterwards, everyone dispersed, awed at the majestic spectacle they had witnessed.

We ate lunch and visited the Welcome Center before coming back for an encore ninety minutes later. Since its discovery in 1870, Old Faithful has been erupting every ninety minutes (give or take).  While there, I learned that the timing depends on several factors, including the length and strength of the previous one.

There are more geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else in the world. In the world! While Old Faithful is not the largest, it’s the most popular geyser in the park and has a  steam temperature above 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Interestingly, although visitors were repeatedly told to stay on the boardwalks to avoid injury, there were people who ignored the warnings. Didn’t they understand that Yellowstone sits atop a volcano? Fortunately, there are plenty of park rangers who gently but firmly moved those folks from the fragile crust.

After viewing Old Faithful erupt twice, we still had thirty minutes to absorb the wonderland before the bus’ arrival. I’d been eying the boardwalks overlooking hot springs and fumaroles and decided to take a quick walk to get a more up-close look. There may have even been a paint pot there. I don’t know. I know only that the views were unlike anything I’d ever seen. My only regret is that our time at the Old Faithful site was so short.

Alas, we climbed aboard the Gate 1 Travel bus and headed back to the little town of West Yellowstone, Montana where we spent another night. There are several restaurants, gift shops, and tourist attractions there, and we enjoyed the ambience of the area.

That night we heard wolves howling from across the way.

 

 

Sacred Ground

If I haven’t mentioned that Gate 1 Travel is an awesome company, I’m doing it now. Our National Parks Tour began in Rapid City, SD and ended in Jackson Hole, WY, and each day was filled with beautiful sights to see and interesting information to be absorbed. Much of the education was provided by our tour guide, Tim Miller, and two step-on guides, but nighttime found us googling additional information about what we had seen that day and what was on tap for the next.

So much to learn, so little time.

On the second full day, our bus driver suggested a change of plans: a visit to Devils Tower near Sundance, WY. Ignorant about what that was, everyone on the bus was nonetheless eager to visit this laccolithic butte in the Bear Lodge Mountains. Essentially a rock formation formed as magma, molten material beneath the earth’s crust, this monolith is considered to be the remnants of a volcano.

Trying to prepare us, Tim said the best way he could describe the rock/mountain’s appearance was that of a bunch of pencils held together by a rubber band. Hmmm. He also told us that the grounds were considered sacred by Native American tribes, including the Lakota and Kiowa, and that many American Indians tie prayer cloths on trees near Devils Tower’s base. “Don’t touch them,” he said.

Tim told us that some people refer to the monolith as Bear’s Lodge and shared a fascinating story about how that name came into being. According to the Kiowa and Lakota tribes, several bears began chasing some young girls who were outside playing. Scared, the girls climbed on a big rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The rock rose toward heaven and out of reach of the hungry bears. According to legend, the bears left claw marks in the sides of the rock in their futile efforts to reach the girls.

Even from a distance, the Tower cast a spell on me, and when our feet actually touched the earth and we saw what appeared to be millions of rocks and feel the gentle breeze, I knew this holy ground. And that dappled sunlight filtering down through the tall ponderosa pines and aspens was divine. The leaves on the nearby aspens shimmered and shook, and my husband whispered, “This is beautiful.” Magical, too, I thought.

There was no way I was leaving the monument without further exploration, so I walked the 1.3 mile trail around the base of the tower. Paved, it was easy going, and the views were absolutely magnificent. I knew there was a slight possibility of seeing climbers ascending the mountain, but that day (June 20), there were none. Native Americans view climbing the monument as desecration and oppose it, and in June there’s a voluntary climbing ban.

It probably took 25-30 minutes to “do” the trail, mainly because of stopping to gawk, take pictures, and wind my way around other walkers who apparently didn’t have a bus to catch! Take Nike’s advice and JUST DO IT!

In the afternoon, we visited the battlefield where the Battle of Little Bighorn took place. Known as Custer’s last stand to many, I learned that many Lakota call it the Battle of the Greasy Grass. The day was gorgeous, sunny and breezy, and it was unsettling to ponder the noise and bloodshed that had happened on almost the same day (June 25) 142 years prior. Were the long grasses and the wildflowers gracefully swaying in the breeze that day too?

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There’s also a National Cemetery on the premises, and its neat rows of identical white crosses are quite a contrast to the willy-nilly tombstone arrangement on the Bighorn battlefield. From what I read and heard, the combatants were buried where they fell.

Our minds filled with thoughts of Custer, Sitting Bull, and others, we left for Billings, Montana to spend the night. Lucky me. My college roommate and her husband met us for dinner that night

A+ Mount Rushmore Morning

 

Up, out, and loaded by 8:30, our band of happy travelers cruised out of Rapid city and headed toward Mount Rushmore. All the way to and from the park, our tour guide (gate1travel.com), Timothy Miller, entertained, regaled, and educated us with information about the area and its history and people. Considered a sacred area to the Lakota tribe, Rushmore’s ownership is still controversial.

About thirty minutes later, our bus pulled into Mount Rushmore Memorial Park, and the excitement in the bus was palpable as Lisa skillfully drove around and around the mountainous curves. Soon, however, we came to standstill and realized the reason for it: other tourists zooming by on the left lane and cutting in somewhere in front of us. To our relief and rescue, several rangers came to our appeared and began directing traffic.

At the top at last, we got our first view of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Although they were shrouded in fog and somewhat obscured by trees, people began snapping photographs. Lisa parked the bus, and Timothy gave us valuable information about where to go and what to expect. The Presidential Trail? The Flag Plaza? It all sounded confusing, but as soon as we began traipsing around, all became clear.

First stop—the welcome center, an area occupied by dozens of other tourists. We decided to come back later and headed to the gift shop. In case any readers are wondering why we didn’t immediately walk closer to gape and gawk at the men carved in stone, it was raining. Once inside, we could see that the gift shop was large and well-stocked and absolutely too full of people to walk around. We opted to brave the elements.

The rain dwindled to a sprinkle, and at last the fog slid away from the Presidents’ faces.  Everyone standing around the flag area went crazy. Our reaction was more of awe than excitement. Someone (Luigi del Bianco and several hundred workers) actually carved the faces of these four greats from granite! Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the work from 1927-1941. Sixty feet tall, their countenances overlooked the surrounding land with dignity and contemplation.

We inched closer—and closer still, stopping every few seconds to look up at the flags representing the fifty states and several territories. We quickly realized that the states were represented in alphabetical order, and we hustled forward to read all about the Palmetto State. It’s not that we expected to learn anything new; we just wanted that feeling of “ah, us.”

Moving past the flags, we entered the Grand Terrace where tourists were enjoying a more up close and personal look at the four famous faces. The Terrace experience was lovely. Birdsong and the sounds of laughter and conversation filled the air.

“Let’s hike the Presidential Trail,” I suggested.

“That’s crazy,” my husband said. “It’s starting to rain again.”

“How likely is it that we’ll ever come this way again? I’m going for it.”

The climb to the top was awesome. Spectacularly beautiful with views of huge boulders, ponderosa pines, and juniper, the mountain ascent was invigorating.  Alas, the hubs was right, and the sky fell in as I approached the last overlook. I turned and hurried back down—but not before I got one good look at all of these well-known faces, men of strength, courage, and integrity. I’m not naïve enough to think they were perfect, but I see them as worthy of respect and admiration.

On the trail back down to the Grand Terrace, I heard a little boy say, “Hey, at least we got a free shower out of it.” Funny.  Another child whined, and her father said, “It is what it is.” I slowed down long enough to say, “I LOVE that expression. My son says it all the time.” Later on the Terrace, he glanced my way and said it again.

Our adventure almost complete, we bought mega cups of ice cream for lunch and sat at a long table with young American servicemen as we ate it. Enjoying our view of the granite boulder and its faces through the huge windows, we ate our sweet treat and discussed our perceptions of the morning. A+