Yellowstone To Home

‘The top of the hill is but the bottom of another mountain.’ – Unkown

It was time to leave Yellowstone and head home. We had spent six nights in our cabin and enjoyed the stay immensely. The first two nights were nice and crisp and the wood burning stove in the corner made for a toasty home. Each morning we got up to the sound of the stream steps from our door and stumbled groggily out to make a hot breakfast and decide how to spend the day. Most days we went hiking. These were strenuous hikes that started at more than a mile high and ended at eight or nine thousand feet. The terrain was beautiful and the views awe inspiring.

Being there in the spring we saw our share of babies. All were adorable as they welcomed the warm weather and pranced around without a care in the world.

Yellowstone, however, represented an end for us. It was the last major stop and the last national park. It was the last of the mountain flying.

The mountain flying was the most challenging of the trip. Yellowstone is in a basin with really high terrain on all sides. We came in from the south when we arrived and, doing so, the only navigational aid is an ADF. ADF technology dates back to 1902, but does provide some level of guidance that you’re on the right path. Going north to south through the mountains is generally easier as the ranges tend to be oriented north to south. Trying to get from Yellowstone to Chicago is a distinctly west to east activity.

We had a couple options. One was to head north to Livingston. There was a nice wide valley going that direction and not only would that provide some lower ground to fly over, but would be an easier view for Beth. While improving day by day, she was still nervous about some aspects of flying.

Option two was to head directly east. Heading east would be much more scenic. West Yellowstone airport is, you guessed it, west of the park. Heading east would allow us to fly over Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake and then over the mountains via Sylvan Pass. The name Sylvan Pass sounded appealing (Sylvan means forested) and going north looked like it might run into some weather, so east we went.

Training in Boulder and flying to the highest airport in North America proved to be ideal for this leg. Even though this was the most challenging flying on the trip, it seemed quite reasonable compared to flying near Boulder. As an example, Sylvan is 8,500 feet. Returning from Leadville the pass we navigated was well over 10,000 feet. Approaching Sylvan we did all the necessary things. We took our time and climbed well before getting to the pass, flying a big lazy circle around West Yellowstone before departing to the east. We approached Sylvan at a 45 degree angle to be already part way through a turn if we needed to bail out and head back to lower ground. We climbed, in fact, to 13,500 feet. This gave us about five thousands feet of air to use if we needed to glide down. Of course, we didn’t need to glide down. Everything went great. A cloud deck at about 14,500 covered the snowy mountains as far as the eye could see. But it’s still a good insurance policy to have that extra altitude in your back pocket.

The final stop was a quick one at Mt. Rushmore. I guess it wasn’t much to write home about. We’re not all that patriotic and the many, many photos and videos that any american has seen over the years do a better job of showing the monument than being there in person does. Overall the impression left was one of “smaller than I expected”.

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The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world…This Park was created and is now administered for the benefit and enjoyment of the people…it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of us all. -Theodore Roosevelt

We left St. George, Utah and the diversity of Zion and Bryce canyons for the most technically challenging part of the trip, for Rich, the hard core mountain flying. Instead of a straight flight plan, it was riddled with zigs and zags to avoid mountains higher than we could fly over. A quick stop in Spanish Fork, near Provo, had us double checking the weather at our final destination as mountain conditions can be problematic and sketchy. Flying over The Great Salt Lake, we headed northeast and a 2pm landing had us headed for the first official National Park in the U.S. – Yellowstone!

Yellowstone is, in a word, big! I previously hadn’t done much reading about our route once inside the park boundaries and found myself with the map in my lap navigating along mountain and meadow roads trying to snake us to our final spot, Roosevelt Lodge and the Roughrider Cabins. With 56 miles to our destination, we were held up by construction (of course) and a large herd of buffalo right inside the gate.

The wildlife is abundant and we were treated to buffalo, elk, bear and fox within the first few days of our visit. Upon entering the park for the first time, the ranger asked us where we were headed. When we assured her we were not going south, she revealed that the road was temporarily closed because of a Life Flight needed to remove a park visitor who had been gored by a buffalo. She strongly cautioned us against trying to pet these mighty beasts. Good advice.

We woke up our first morning in the park to thunderstorms. *sigh*

We decided to go back to West Yellowstone (56 miles) to do laundry and grab some lunch. The Roosevelt Lodge is one of the oldest in the park that offers a cost friendly option for accommodations. At $69 a night, we had a small cabin (10×12) with no air conditioning, no phone, no tv, no cell reception, no internet, no bathroom, no shower and a small wood stove for heat. Yes, it was heaven! Visiting the ‘shower house’ brought me back to the days of camping as a kid and it was great. Unfortunately, our closest option for food was in the lodge dinning room where you could get several different options for each meal with prices that matched the grand scale of the park itself. We decided to side-step the second mortgage to feed ourselves for the next 5 days and visited the grocery store in West Yellowstone to prepare our own meals by using our camp cook stove. Ha! There’s more than one way to skin a buffalo!

Our first official hike was the Beaver Ponds trail. “5 miles of moderate trails with several active beaver ponds, birds and aquatic wildlife” the hiking guide said. Not quite. True, it was a nice hike and true there were birds and aquatic wildlife, but no beavers. Oh well, to me even a bad hike is a good day. Our second hike of the day was to Bunson Peak. A strenuous 1,200 ft. elevation gain and 4 mile trek had us perched atop the peak with expansive park views stretching all the way to Grand Tetons National Park to the south.

After a full day of hiking on sunday, we decided to take the ‘easy’ trails marked in the guide on monday. Avoiding the construction delays had us taking a southeastern route towards a new part of the park. A lazy 1 mile hike along Pelican Creek treated us to the local white pelican and Yellowstone lake and a stop at the mud volcanos had us marveling at the geothermal activity concentrated in this area of the park. We planed to hike the Natural Bridge next, but were turned away when the trail was closed due to bear taking advantage of the cutthroat trout spawning in the river we were to be hiking next to. So, our plan to take the easy paths ended up thwarted when we found ourselves hiking on the Continental Divide. A fairly strenuous one hour trek had us standing atop the Divide at 8,822 ft. a height that neither of us had been to before in the states. We had hiked over the divide in the Canadian Rockies outside of Banff, but this was our first footprints on it in the continental U.S.

Our last hike was the most hidden and the best of all that happened to be right in our own backyard. A 2 mile trek up the hill behind our cabin took us to Lost Falls and Lost Lake. What a serene spot. The 40 ft. falls tumbled down the hillside and continued on down the hill to ramble right next to our cabin. We ventured around to Lost Lake and had a small ‘siesta’ by the water’s edge complete with snacks and mosquitoes, of course.

No visit to Yellowstone would be complete without a visit to everyone’s favorite geyser, Old Faithful. We braved the crowds to sit and wait for it to erupt and were not disappointed. It can spew boiling water and steam up to 185 ft and can last from 1.5 to 5 minutes approximately every 90 minutes. Very impressive indeed.

For me, Yellowstone embodies the true essence of the National Park system. Land that rolls on acre after acre, unbridled wildlife and the freedom to enjoy and revel in every part of it. It’s diverse landscape and unique features can have you soaking it all in, or studying one aspect in minute detail. Please forgive the length of this post, but Yellowstone so eloquently deserves every approving adjective that exists in the English language and demands a wealth of commentary. The original archway to the north entrance stands as a testament to the sole purpose of every national park. It was erected in 1903 with Teddy Roosevelt’s words inscribed upon it from his dedication speech, ‘For the enjoyment and benefit of the people’. And so we did and so we shall be…

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