On our last day in Yellowstone National Park, we travelled towards the West Entrance in a convoy of three Bombardier Snowcoaches ("bombs"), a rather old mode of oversnow transport which will be familar to winter visitors to Perisher Valley in NSW, Australia. They were made in Quebec, Canada, and the 1953 model one we rode in, Chip was named for its likeness to a particular buffalo.
The quickest way to get a good view from a Bombardier Snowcoach was through one of two sunroofs. Love that spare tyre!
Not far from Old Faithful Village is the Black Sand Basin, named from crushed obsidian (volcanic glass) scattered around from an old lava flow. Here we followed a boardwalk to explore an eerie landscape around a huge and steamy hot-spring called Sunset Lake. Interesting features here included frosty or frozen lodgepole pines including many which were burnt out in Yellowstone's worst ever bushfire in 1988 which grew from several "controlled" burnoffs and eventually affected 36% of the park.
Many Yellowstone pines have serotinous cones which need heat to release seeds, thus ensuring their survival after bushfire.
Prior to the 1988 fire, it was already understood that forests can be regenerated by fire, and the fire was even then said to be "overdue". Lodgepole pines are partly propogated by serotinous cones which only yield their seeds at temperature (when a resin envelope is melted), and we saw that huge areas of Yellowstone forests consist for tall, stark skeletons of old burnt out pines, beside healthy tracts of shorter trees 30 years old.
This is the junction of Firehole and Gibbon Rivers, and it's here in September 1870 that an expedition, marvelling on Yellowstone's wonders, formed the idea of preserving the area for "public enjoyment". In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone as the first National Park in the world.
A side road goes down the deep and pretty Firehole River canyon and past Firehole Falls just before it joins the Gibbon River to become the Maddison River.
Coyotes (canis latrans) prey on cattle and sheep (as well as smaller critters), so used to be hunted. Very adaptable, they are now abundant in Yellowstone, aided by decline in wolves.
Past the Basin, we stopped at Fountain Paint Pots, a full house collection of strange and active hydrothermal features including hot springs, geysers, fumaroles and mudpots. Again, to protect us and the landscape, a boardwalk with interpretative signage guided us round keeping us out of the boiling waters. The paint pot colours here are due to various oxidation states of iron in mud, and the name "Fountain" is from Fountain Geyser (40m high, every 4-6 hours except when it goes rogue) in the area, itself named because of its appearance. Uniquely interesting is the Red Spouter which formed only as recently as 1959 as a result of a strong earthquake.
Strange landscape, but we weren't in the presence of spacemen. These two are from a snow mobile tour.
Drew Rush, National Geographic photographer, admiring Red Spouter, a thermal feature only dating back to an earthquake in 1959.
This lodgepole pine was probably burnt out in the 1988 Yellowstone fire, and is now a frozen skeleton.
We exited Yellowstone National Park at the West Yellowstone entrance in Montana, and switched from Bombardiers to a regular coach for an 80km drive (all downhill) to Big Sky, a ski resort in Montana, where we stayed at the Lone Mountain Ranch. The LMR is one of about 50 in the National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World collection, and it was a treat to stay here, even if only for one night. Each couple had their own very rustic but comfortable cabin, complete with a bed so big it evoked John Denver's song Grandma's Feather Bed, and an honest to goodness vinyl record player, complete with a bunch of C&W albums! After a NatGeo farewell reception, for dinner, we took a sleigh-ride up a hill to an unpowered, oil-lit cabin called North Fork where we enjoyed "family-style prime rib" (mmmm!) and were entertained (in the gloom) by an acoustic guitarist singing her own compositions. And then a brisk sleigh-ride back down the hill!
This is where we were turned around from the park twelve years, but what were we thinking anyway? Winter roads are uncleared!
Our Lone Mountain Ranch cabin had no TV but did boast a vinyl record player complete with some great country music albums.
Several sleighs took us 15 minutes up hill on a groomed cross-country trail to North Fork for prime rib dinner.
We saw much wildlife in Yellowstone, but sadly not a single wolf, not at any distance. Apparently, we were unlucky - "half the time" NatGeo expeditions will at least a glimpse a wolf. We heard from others in our group that a "kill" by a wolf pack of an elk had been sighted only a day or two previously, and saw this information reported on "sighting noticeboards" mounted around the park. There are only about 100 wolves in the park (https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/wolves.htm) in 11 identified packs. Trouble is, wolves and packs are not confined to the park, and can be shot legally in season outside the park. Dan Hartman, who follows the packs closely (http://wildlifealongtherockies.homestead.com/) told us the sad story of the alpha male of the already depleted Lamar Canyon pack being killed legally near his house, a death which will almost assuredly bring an end to the pack.
More Yellowstone images here.