While the thermal features are certainly striking, they aren't the only thing in Yellowstone to get excited about. Yellowstone is also known for its abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery.
The national park is located on the Yellowstone Plateau, which is part of the Rocky Mountains. With an area of over 3,000 square miles, there is a great deal of diversity in the topography and scenery in this national park. Yellowstone has mountains, forests, meadows, canyons, rivers, waterfalls, and lakes.
Most of the park is at an elevation of approximately 7,000 feet, but the mountains to the east can go to about 10,000 feet. The climate throughout the park is cool because of the elevation. Temperatures were in the high 60s and low 70s during the day and in the 40s at night when we were there. One morning when we woke up, our outside thermometer read 30 degrees. We were glad we took our plants in!
Yellowstone Lake has an area of over 130 square miles and is almost 400 feet deep. It is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in altitude in North America. The Yellowstone River flows northward out of Yellowstone Lake. Along the river is Hayden Valley, which is a good place to spot wildlife, especially in the morning and evening.
A little farther downstream (north) on the Yellowstone River are the Upper and Lower Falls. The most beautiful scenery in Yellowstone in our opinion is in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone right below the Lower Falls. Here the 300+ foot high Lower Falls sits at the head of the canyon whose walls of yellow gave Yellowstone its name.
The walls of the canyon are dotted with hot springs, which stain the rock with minerals and provide a kaleidoscope of color.
You can sometimes see puffs of steam from some of the springs. The steam is a little hard to see in the photo below. It is flowing the same direction as the river, but the steam is a little darker gray.
The Upper Falls, surrounded by pine trees, are only 109' high and have a much different appearance than the Lower Falls. The Upper Falls are often overlooked because of its close proximity to Lower Falls, but Upper Falls are beautiful in their own right. There is an overlook right at the brink of the falls where you can stand and hear the water roar and feel the mist on your face.
There is an exposed lava flow farther down the canyon. This lava flow formed cracks as it cooled, which formed columns; and although it is a lot shorter and wider, it is reminiscent of Devils Tower.
Yellowstone National Park has five major rivers. The presence of all the rivers also means Yellowstone is a fly fisherman's paradise. No matter where we went, we always passed people with waders fishing in the cold waters.
The changes in elevation in the park also mean there are many waterfalls. Yellowstone has over 275 waterfalls and cascades with a height of greater than 15 feet. One that is easily accessible is Gibbon Falls on the Gibbon River, which flows south between Norris and Madison on the western side of the park. The falls tumble about 80' where the Gibbon River flows over the escarpment into the Yellowstone Caldera.
Traveling up the Gibbon River from Gibbon Falls, we passed Norris and began following the Gardiner River, which flows north. On our way to the North Entrance, we passed a marker for the 45th Parallel, which is the latitude that is half way between the Equator and the North Pole. It was a good reminder that since we have passed the summer solstice, the sun was heading south; and it was time to start thinking about planning our path to follow the sun for winter. :)
The climate in the area around the North Entrance is actually a little warmer than the rest of the park, because it is at a somewhat lower elevation. The North Entrance is the only one of the five entrances that is open in winter.
Roosevelt Arch is located at the North Entrance. This 50' high stone arch was built in 1903. At that time, most visitors arrived by train and the arch faced the train station. Although we couldn't get a good picture because the other side of the arch was in shadow, a stone plaque at the top is engraved "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People."
The landscape around the North Entrance has a different appearance than most of the rest of the park. Gone are the pine forests, replaced instead by sparse trees, grass, and sagebrush.
Paul took the photo below because of the elk (more about wildlife later), but the picture does a good job of showing the grass and sagebrush landscape.
Along the northern edge of the park near Tower, there is evidence from the past of a warmer Yellowstone. The petrified redwood in the photo below is genetically the same as present-day redwoods in California. The tree was buried by volcanic ash and landslides. Then silica in the volcanic ash filled the cells of the tree creating a trunk of stone. There were originally three petrified trunks standing in this area before souvenir hunters many years ago chipped away the other two. The remaining tree is now protected by a fence.
On the way back from the North Entrance, along the eastern side of the park, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed the view toward the Absakora Mountains to the east.
In addition to thermal features and beautiful scenery, Yellowstone has abundant wildlife. One needs to be a little careful driving in Yellowstone because wildlife is just that - wild. The animals don't look both ways when crossing, and they think nothing of taking a walk right down the road. When someone in a car spots wildlife, they slow down to look, sometimes stopping on the road. These slow-downs are referred to as bear jams (or bison jams, or whatever).
When we think of wildlife at Yellowstone, we think first of Bison. Bison are in the same family as cattle; and although they are sometimes also called buffalo, this is a misnomer. They are not related to Asian and African buffalo.
Bison are unpredictable. They may appear docile and slow, but they can turn and charge without warning. Bison can outrun and out maneuver all but the fastest horse and an adult bison can weigh up to a ton. Therefore, all our bison photos were taken either from a distance or from inside the car. We were surprised to learn that they lose their fur every year. Does that mean your buffalo blanket is only good for one year before it sheds all its fur? :)
Elk are even more plentiful than bison in Yellowstone. There are 15,000 to 22,000 elk that live in the park in summer. Adult bulls weigh around 700 pounds while females weigh around 500 pounds. A herd of elk apparently lives by the Madison River which flows along the road by which we entered and exited the park every day. We saw females and calves almost every time we passed, but we were thrilled one morning to see several bulls with their new, velvet-covered antlers.
Also along the same road was a bald eagle nest. Cars were prohibited from stopping and walking along this stretch of road was banned, so it was hard to get a clear shot of the eagles in the treetops from a moving car. We did see the parents most days and even saw one of the eaglets standing on a branch near the end of our stay. It's a little difficult to see, but the photo below is one of the bald eagle parents standing on the branch of a tree adjacent to their nest.
We also saw numerous smaller birds, but didn't get a good enough look at most of them to be able to identify them. However, this raven did come right up and sit on the wall alongside the pullout where we had stopped to photograph Gibbon Falls.
While we're on the subject of birds, there is a creek in Yellowstone named Pelican Creek and for good reason. There were numerous white pelicans there both times we passed by. We were used to seeing brown pelicans in Myrtle Beach and Florida, but had never seen white pelicans. White pelicans are larger (9' wingspan vs. 6 1/2' for brown) and white pelicans do not dive below the surface from the air to feed like brown pelicans. White pelicans feed while swimming. The photo below shows a group of white pelicans resting on a log in Pelican Creek.
Yellowstone is also well known for its bears. All trash receptacles in Yellowstone as well as the dumpsters in the campground had bear-proof latches on the lids. Despite all the precautions and warnings about bears, we didn't see any. Wolves are also an elusive resident we didn't see. They probably stay deeper in the woods or in the more remote parts of northeastern Yellowstone. Wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, and they are thriving. At last count, there were 170 individuals in the park living in 11 packs.
Coyotes are also somewhat elusive, but fairly plentiful. We did see one trotting down the road. By the time we did get close enough for a photo, he had jumped up on the bank and was making his way off through the wildflowers. You can just see his ears and backside toward the right of the picture.
Speaking of wildflowers, there was a patch at least a quarter of a mile long along the road from the East Entrance near Yellowstone Lake. We didn't see it in time to get the camera ready and get a photo on our way in with the motor home; and, of course, there's no easy way to turn around with the motor home. Therefore, we went back to get a better look and to photograph the flowers one day we were near that area.
The majority of the trees in Yellowstone are Lodgepole pines, which grow straight and tall to 75'. Native Americans used them for poles and frames for tepees and lodges, hence the name. There are also Engleman spruce, subalpine fir, and whitebark pine.
Aspen trees are making a comeback because of the wolves. The elk, which had no real enemies in the park, had been overgrazing young Aspen shoots for many years. Now that wolves have been reintroduced to the park, the elk are moving about more; and the Aspens are again beginning to thrive.
Back in 1988, the U. S. experienced one of the driest years on record. Barge traffic on the Mississippi was restricted by low water. These drought conditions greatly contributed to numerous fires in Yellowstone and throughout the west that year. In 1988, wildfires touched almost half the area of the park. Even Old Faithful Lodge which is shown in the photo below, was threatened.
Throughout many areas of Yellowstone evidence of fire can be seen. There are tall, bare trunks standing and many fallen trunks strewn about on the ground. Many of the trunks have charred areas. Smaller pines about 12 to 15' tall are growing among the fallen and standing dead trees.
Fires have always been part of the history of Yellowstone and of forests everywhere. Many plant species can survive fires and some, like the Lodgepole pines so plentiful in Yellowstone, actually depend on fire to reproduce. The seeds of the Lodgepole pines are only released from the pine cones by intense heat.
Signs of recovery from the 1988 Yellowstone fires were almost immediate with new growth beginning in some areas within a matter of days. The most noticeable and longest lasting effect of the fire has been the loss of large trees. The policy of the National Park Service is to not intervene in the natural order of things so no attempt was made to reseed or replant. As you can see in the photo below, the growth of new trees is abundant. These trees represent 20 years growth so it will be some time before tall trees once again fill the park, but they have a good start.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Yellowstone. It is such a large and diverse park that changes constantly so there will always be more to see. We look forward to returning someday soon.