To Yellowstone & Back – Life is a Journey

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Those words, often credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are my motto.  The experiences I enjoyed journeying to and from Yellowstone National Park last weekend demonstrate the truth of those words.

Our journey experiences began on the way to Yellowstone as I drove through a gauntlet of elk, deer and bison along Hwy 89, south of Gardiner.  Most of the wildlife was north of Yankee Jim Canyon.  We passed elk by the hundreds, mule deer by the dozens and one group of bison that was bedded on the shoulder of the road.  Then, right outside of Gardiner, we came upon a battle scene.  Two very large bull elk were engaged and battling in earnest — locking antlers, pushing each other back and forth.  We’re not talking the casual “mock battles” that you might see in early rut or among young bulls.  These two big veteran bulls were SERIOUS.  We watched for 1o minutes or so until they had mostly moved out of the light cast by our headlights and were in the dark of a moonless night. Perhaps a nearby cow was in a late 2nd or 3rd estrus?

Saturday morning, under a warm sun in bright blue skies with only whispy clouds, we headed through the Arch.  Yes, I said warm.  Yes, this is a January Yellowstone Trip Report.  It was WARM.  30′s in the afternoon.  What’s more, there was no wind.  I got a sun burn instead of a wind burn this trip.  Really!  Yeah, I wouldn’t believe it, either.

There were bison and elk everywhere, but mostly either too far for my wimpy lens or too close, as in the case of this bull that was unwilling to move off the the road and into neck-deep snow. He made cars go around him.


Many of the animals are finding travel and foraging difficult.    The snow is deep but a very soft pack.  The soft pack is a good thing for elk and bison when it comes to pushing snow to get to grass beneath, or would be except the snow is so deep and so soft that it makes travel difficult.   Animals that move off the beaten track quickly find themselves up to their necks in snow. What’s more, that soft snow caves in around them. I don’t have any photos of that, as we don’t stick around to add stress when an animal is in that situation.


While there weren’t many wildlife photo ops for me (though there was a red fox curled up sleeping on a boulder west of the Ranch, a coyote across from Ranch, rams at the Confluence and more across from Hitching Post), I thoroughly enjoyed the blue sky, the whispy clouds, and the glitter on the snow.




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We traveled on to Cooke City before turning back west. There is a bit of snow there in Cooke.


We stopped at Hitching Post on our way back west and played with Retta (my sister’s almost 1 year old daughter) in the sled and, while there, talked to a YA Guide who told us about an injured doe at Confluence. He thought she’d been attacked by a mountain lion due to the placement of her injuries (more on the head end than the hind end — cats for for the front, canines the rear, typically). We stopped at the closest pullout to wait for drama to unfold. Then Bob Landis showed up and I said “This doesn’t bode well for us. Nothing every happens when we are at the same place as him. I know stuff happens around him because I see it on TV, but nothing ever happens when he’s at the same place as us.” Sure ’nuff. We waited a couple hours before moving on to check out the pretty wolf that several people had told us about.

And a pretty wolf it was — silver, gold & black with a two tone face (dark upper, light lower) and shades of silver & gold fur with streaks of black. It was bedded down and occasionally howling when we first arrived. Now and then I barely picked up an answering howl from the east. After a bit, it got up and slowly headed east. Normally, a wolf doesn’t move slowly, even in deep snow. Normally, they can pretty much lope right over the snow. Not so in that soft snow. Every couple steps it sunk in neck deep and the soft snow caved in on it and it had to lunge out. It was working and panting hard for every yard gained. The howls increased in frequency and volume and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’ll say that the howls sounded like howls of frustration.

The next day was mostly more of the same, though we did witness a confrontation of sorts.

This elk wanted to cross the road.

Eventually it decided to have words with the driver of the Suburban that was blocking the “intersection.”

It spared a few words for the passenger, too.

It wasn’t pleased to have to walk around the Suburban blocking the intersection with the trail where snow was packed down.
(what was that about anthropomorphizing?)



Bison were headed west for the North Gate and past Gardiner by the hundreds — as we are all reading in the news this week.
The herd with the late calf that’s still a lil red doggie was among them.

Not much else to report for Sunday. Like I said, pretty much a repeat of Saturday, at least until we got to Anaconda. Then we had a harsh change. Yellowstone was warm, with temps in the 30′s and still air. Anaconda was COLD with temps around 5 degrees and howling wind driving biting dnow (so wind chill undoubtedly below zero). After unloading Dad’s van and getting my gear back in mine, I headed for Lolo. I didn’t make it far before turning back, though. Visibility on Hwy 48 between Anaconda and Warm Springs was getting close to zero and I was debating turning back but thinking I’d see if it was better on I-90 past Warm Springs (it often is) when Stacy called and said that the state road report website showed I-90 closed between Garrison and Drummond. So, I turned back, called my husband to let him know our son and I would be returning home the next morning and called my boss to let him know I’d be late for work.

As it turns it, we were VERY late for work and school Monday as a migraine got us going late. For once, though, I’m glad that the migraine altered my plans. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the right timing for the best experience of the return journey. A first for me. I spotted a bobcat while going 80 MPH on I-90!

I slammed on the brakes, pulled over, backed up along the shoulder looking for it and didn’t find it. I then drove slowly forward along the shoulder and was just about to give up when I caught a bit of movement in the grass which was, by that time, concealing the cat quite effectively. I got off a double handful of photos before it disappeared. I stayed in the car as it was well aware of me and I didn’t want an attempt to exit the car and get any closer to spook it and ruin any chance of getting at least a couple photos. They are ID/Documentary photos only (these are enlarged 30% and cropped about 60%) but definitely made my day!



Meanwhile, my son, Bridger, was protesting,  “Mom! I’m late for school, you’re late for work, we don’t have time for this!” I explained that I was 35 years old and had never seen a live free bobcat and it was worth being an extra 10 minutes late. When I showed my boss (who was a wildlife biologist before he became an entrepreneur) the photos, he agreed absolutely and enthusiastically. I’m sure Bridger’s teacher would, too.

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