Bison, and Mosquitoes, and Shriners, Oh My!

Lost Lake
Day 14
Yellowstone National Park
Miles Hiked: 10 (80.7 overall)

Nearing the completion of their Master’s theses, two young, wild women struck out on the adventure of a lifetime. Meridith and Rachel’s 2012 Besties National Park Roadtrip was a transformative journey around the Western US National Parks. 10 states. 9 National Parks and 1 National Monument. One summer of fun!

Ecologist in action
After a day of full on touristing, it was time to get serious.  Our alarms went off at 4am, and we slithered out of our sleeping bags.  We dressed and washed up in a bleary haze before piling in the car with blankets and binoculars.  As per the recommendations of Jim and Dot (the adorable park ranger couple), we drove the 35 miles from Bay Bridge to Tower Falls and hung a left.  Along the stretch of road between Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth, we found a pull off parking spot and were in position just as dawn broke over the sagebrush and meadows.  Wolf watching.  The wolves of Yellowstone get my scientists imagination running.  During the mid-90s the National Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves (mostly from the Canadian population) to Yellowstone, and the ecological impacts we are seeing appear to be profound.  For an excellent look at why top predators are important, check out this piece by Estes and colleagues.  Beyond the science, I think the mythos of these carnivores really plays on some of our most basic, primal thoughts.  What I really want to say, is I’m a stereotypical, hippie wolf-lover.  Seriously, wolves, wolves, wolves.  
Swimming Lost Lake

So, we arrive at our spot, we ate some granola.  We chatted about how hard core we were.  We covered up with blankets, because it was still cold, even inside our car.  More snacks.  And then…I totally fell asleep!  I know, it’s potentially the lamest thing I’ve ever done.  Lucky for me, Meridith is not so easily deterred and kept a keen eye out for any sort of non-Bison esque animal.  In spite of Mer’s proven ability to manifest rare wildlife, no dice.  Around 5:30, I was reanimated and we watched the frosty Bison graze as more people appeared to enjoy some wildlife watching.  A beautiful, if slightly disappointing morning.  But you know what soothes such situations?  Doughnuts.  We gassed up the car, consumed some well deserved sugar, and headed toward Roosevelt Lodge.
Sage and Skirts

We met up with the Lost Lake trail head behind the Lodge and began our first hike of the day.  This trail was a 4 mile loop, which doubled as a horse trail.  We wound up through trees, sage, and wildflowers until we came to Lost Lake.  This is a really beautiful little lake, at about 6,700 ft above sea level.  Little known fact about me, when I see a (clean) body of water, I generally want to be in it.  Meridith hung out on the shore, writing and enjoying the flowers, while I waded out past the lily-pads for a morning swim.  Shortly, we continued on around the loop and soon came upon one of Yellowstone’s petrified trees.  This ancient redwood signals just how different the plant communities and climate conditions once were in this area of the world.  An art student was also on hand with an antique camera, attempting to recreate period photographs from around the park.  Yellowstone.  It really attracts everyone.  Back around the hill and we were down at the Lodge again where we took a few moments to enjoy our afternoon sammies on some rocking chairs on the front porch.

Petrified Redwood Tree
As our day had started at 4am, we were getting a bit sleepy.  We drove the few miles up to Mammoth Village where we napped in the grass, enjoyed some staff internet, and wrote several more adorable postcards.  Apparently, composing haikus recharged our batteries, and we set off for the Beaver Ponds trail.  The initial climb and views were great, but as we neared the ponds themselves, we quickly renamed the trail, Mosquito Ponds.  We tried really hard to appreciate the wetland-pond complexes as we hiked rather quickly along the latter half of the trail.  Still no moose sightings, which had been our secret hope.  

Road Haikus
We took a few minutes to wind down from our speed hike by exploring the terraces around Mammoth Hotsprings.  I often get caught up in the challenge of hiking.  I love to go far and climb high.  So, it’s good for me to explore an accessible, interpretive trail.  It reminds me of the educational mission of the parks, and I always learn a lot from the signs!  By the end of the road trip, we had a running joke when we didn’t know the answer to a question.  “Where’s my interpretive sign?!”  I also really love when the wild and weird things about nature drawn the public in, and Mammoth Hotsprings are certainly something unique.  The smell of sulfur and the strange microbial mats were fascinating.  We couldn’t help but imagine what early visitors to the park must have thought of these crazy thermal features.  

Beaver Ponds Trail
Beaver Ponds Trail 
Early visitors to the park?  That reminded us, we had seen an advertisement for a lecture happening that evening at Mammoth Lodge (nerd alert).  We filled our water bottles and found our seats just as the lights went down before the lecture.  What followed was a delightful trip through early Yellowstone with a family of Shriners. The presenter explained that he found a trip scrapbook in an antique shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spent a few years tracing the history of the book’s contents.  The Shriner couple had explored the park in horse carts, ate dinner in large dining tents, and sat in bleachers to watch bears feed on the scraps leftover from the kitchens at Mammoth Lodge.  The intersection between personal history and park history was compelling.  I especially loved the pictures of the women’s hiking clothes!  I was about 1000% certain I was going to fall asleep as we walked into the room, but I was happily alert the whole time.  

On the drive back to our campsite, we watched the sun set over the Bison and chatted about the history of the American West.  As we pulled into camp, I set my alarm for 7am.  The theme of day two had been water.  Tomorrow, the theme was mountains.

Mammoth Hotsprings

Joining the Ranks of Tourists and Fangirls in Yellowstone

Obligatory “NP Sign” Photo

Day 13
Yellowstone National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 3.5ish (70.7 overall)

After the rain

Nearing the completion of their Master’s theses, two young, wild women struck out on the adventure of a lifetime. Meridith and Rachel’s 2012 Besties National Park Roadtrip was a transformative journey around the Western US National Parks. 10 states. 9 National Parks and 1 National Monument. One summer of fun!

Yellowstone, the Disney of U.S. National Parks. America’s first national park welcomes over three million people each year, and Rachel and I were certain we wanted to be part of the excitement during our adventures. When we were first planning our trip (which was a very exciting and motivating time during that spring semester) we knew we wanted to take our time exploring this particular gem. Three days seemed adequate, but I’m sure we also could have spent the entire summer there hiking and learning. Even after all of the hiking we had just completed at Rocky Mountain NP, plus arriving at Bridge Bay Campground at 2 am, we couldn’t wait to explore this national treasure!

Right on time!

I hope we don’t need to remind you folks, but on our Awesome Besties National Park Roadtrip we weren’t messing around. We went on an early morning jog along the Natural Bridge Trail (this was when we were being extra amazing…I don’t think it lasted all summer), which was both invigorating and a prime opportunity to try and spot a moose!  Post-jog and granola hoovering, we struck out toward the epicenter of all that is Yellowstone: Old Faithful. And wow, the crowd here couldn’t have been more different from others we’d seen at the previous parks. People of all ages, itty little dogs on leashes, bikers, hikers, photographers, families, and us were all milling around until the next eruption time. Conveniently, eruption timers were plastered all over the viewing area. Old Faithful really did live up to it’s hype and was spectacular to view.

As per usual, we sought out the park ranger that looked like they had the full low-down on the park, and, as per usual, we were not disappointed. A lovely old couple took turns answering our questions and suggesting possible itineraries (Editor’s Note:  Jim and Dot are the business!  Go find them!). We explained we had three days, and while we wanted to hit up the major tourist attractions, we were also quite badass and wanted to do some tougher hikes and see some wildlife. Pausing only to insist we go check out another geyser about to erupt, this couple quickly outlined where we should adventure, and and passed on an important safety tip. Apparently, up until this point in our trip we had been walking bear lunches and didn’t even realize. My thoughtful, well-meaning mother bought me a Bear Bell to attach onto my pack to ward off bears. How sweet!  However, according to our newest ranger friends, these bells acted more like dinner bells than warding off bells. Good to know; acquiring bear spray was necessary.

Meridith’s idea of heaven

Luckily, we could mosey on over to one of the many stores scattered around the park by way of the the largest log structure in the world. Thanks to my love for science documentaries I was able to give Rachel the briefest of overviews of the famous, historic Old Faithful Inn. The highlights: super fantastic craftsmanship and the ice cream shop we found. Rachel treated me to an ice cream cone, and I was in heaven. But, as my luck would have it, heaven was about to get even better. As we wandered back into the lobby, we noticed a man at a small table, which seemed to be set-up for a book signing. Recognition washed over me as I felt my face flush with excitement and sudden anticipation. There, seated before us, was one of my personal heros. The dude who writes the “Who Pooped in the Park?” books. Gary D. Robson, in person. Rachel was kind enough to let me fangirl a bit and we went up to get a photo. If you’ll take a moment to imagine a grown woman, possibly with ice cream smudged on her face, trying to contain her excitement whilst in line among a sea of young children, waiting to meet a gruff older man sitting at a table with scat samples covering it….well, then you’ve pretty much nailed the scenario. I managed to resist elbowing a few 8-year-olds out of my way before getting to the front of the line.

Our second Grand Canyon together!

Still star struck, we battled the brewing rains to finally get to the gift shop with bear spray. I was a little dumbfounded at the steep price, but I suppose if you are investing in your personal safety that price is well worth paying (Spoiler Alert: we never needed the bear spray so now when not out on hikes with me, it lives on the rack behind my apartment door where it waits for State College’s unluckiest home intruder.). I honestly don’t remember the entire conversation, but I chatted up the sales clerk while purchasing the bear spray and through some combination of comradery and the ol’ Meridith charm, I walked away with the staff password to the wireless internet in addition to the bear spray! SCORE! We waited out the rest of the afternoon rain while bingeing on stolen…borrowed internet.

You know, just hanging out on top of a mega-volcano

Now you might think that it was a total bummer to have rain on our first day of visiting Yellowstone, but it was actually quite beneficial! The afternoon storm scared off the majority of people so we were able to hit up the major tourist highlights without dealing with the crowds! We were treated to amazing experiences and sights at the various geothermal elements, artists paint pots, and even the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Even more, we got to enjoy a pretty sunset and several of the majestic bison! One even was sweet enough to pose stoically in front of the setting sun before ambling across the road right past our car. Being the responsible and safe park goers that we are, we kept a safe distance from the wildlife and stayed inside the car in a designated pull off area. (Excuse me while I side-eye and judge everyone else not as responsible as us). All in all, it was a perfect first day in Yellowstone. We tucked in early because we knew that day two was sure to hold ever more excitement!


Road Trip Record: Three Ecosystems in One Hike

RMNP Montane Ecosystem
Time to get in the wayback machine for a trip down science/nature travel memory lane.  In the summer of 2012, just after I had finished my MS degree and just before I was slated to move on (and up the coast) to start my PhD, Meridith and I planned and executed the Amazing Besties National Parks Road Trip!  Meridith was tantalizingly close to completing her MS degree as well, so it totally counted as a double celebratory trip!  Our goal was to see as many national parks as possible, with an eye to balancing quality and quantity, and road trip our way from Las Cruces, New Mexico (Mer’s former hood), up to Portland, OR for the Ecological Society of America conference, then scoot back down the California coast to Long Beach, where I would pack my stuff into a truck and move!  If you’re new to this series of blog posts, I highly recommend you check out the summaries of the early stages of our trip, which were originally posted on Meridith’s former blog and later migrated to our current one.  Clickity-click for:  the take-off, Carlsbad Caverns National Park (days one and two), ABQ New Mexico, on the road, Zion National Park (day one and two), me getting us really lost, Arches National Park, a babal about invasive species, and Rocky Mountain National Park day one!   

Day 11
Rocky Mountain National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 8.9 (67.2 overall)
About 95% certain this is a portion of Bear Lake from above.

When last we left our Amazing Besties National Park Road Trip, we had just finished our first full day in Rocky Mountain National Park.  We had taken an awesome hike up Deer Mountain, seen 18 big horned sheep, and I had beaten Meridith in a friendly game of pool.  We didn’t let all this fun keep us up too late though.  We had big plans for the next day, July 20, 2012.  

Pretty sure this is Meridith “being a critter” in the montane ecosystem.
We got up early, as per the instructions of the friendly park ranger we spoke with on the previous day.  We were planning to hike the Flattop Mountain Trail, which peaked in altitude at 12,324 ft!  The ranger had warned us afternoon thunderstorms were common in the region, so we wanted to get an early start and avoid getting caught in the weather on an exposed mountain.  Plus, Bear Lake Road (the road to the trail head) would be closing after 9am, necessitating a shuttle trip if we didn’t get up and get going.  The many benefits of getting friendly with the park rangers!  I love having the inside scoop.

Wildflowers and feetz
We were rewarded for our early start with a sparsely populated Bear Lake area, which is one of the most popular spots in the park.  After a stop to apply sunscreen (easy to get sunburned at high altitude!) and fill up our hydration bladders, we found the Flattop Mountain trailhead and began our ascent.  The park ranger had suggested this trail based on our desire to get a bit of a physical challenge (8.9 miles roundtrip and almost 3000 feet of elevation gain) and see all three high altitude ecosystems the park had to offer. We are the nerdiest of nerds.  

We started off in the montane ecosystem, much like what we had hiked through the day before on Deer Mountain.  According to the park’s website, montane ecosystems occur between 5,600 and 9,500 feet.  We saw many of the characteristic pines of this ecosystem.  We were also treated to some lovely lupins (Lupinus), Indian piantbrush (Castilleja), as well as some other pretty wildflowers whose faces don’t have a name in my mind.  One of my favorite parts of climbing up is looking back down at the same landmark over and over again.  Watching Bear Lake get smaller and smaller as it peeked from between trees made the first mile or so go very quickly.

Subalpine Ecosystem, everything look so intense!
That is a huge cairn, which we though was hysterical.
As we moved up into the subalpine ecosystem, spanning the range from 9,000 to 11,000 ft in elevation, the vegetation began to change.  Short, gnarled subalpine spruce and Engelmann fir dominated the landscape, but a few pines persisted.  Most of the larger trees we spied had the tops snapped off, making them look a little naked.  We hypothesized (like you do) that snow was the likely culprit.  I remember being in Africa and thinking I could tell, just by the character of the plant life, that this was a hard place to live.  I felt the same way about the tough looking scrub trees along the trail.  Way to stick with it, guys!  At this point in the hike, the types of animals we saw also started to change.  We saw our first yellow-bellied marmot!  These guys are essentially just fatty squirrels.  It’s funny, because the noises we made upon catching our first glimpse were very similar to the noises he made while checking us out from his rock.  Appreciative squeaks all around!  
Amazing alpine tundra!
Mt. top naps for the win.
Finally, our hike brought us into a true alpine tundra ecosystem.  I think I might have been annoying Meridith a little bit with the phrase, “I totally have a crush on this ecosystem.”  I totally do!  It’s just so fascinating.  This ecosystem begins around 11,000 or 11,500 ft in elevation, past the point where trees can grow.  Due to the exposure, liquid water is a major limiting resource, meaning tundra is basically a type of desert ecosystem.  I was instantly squatting down, peaking at plants, and pointing out adaptations I thought were similar to those we had seen at Zion and Arches National Parks.  Suddenly, we heard the most precious of little sqees.  A pika!  This adorable alpine guinea pig pretty well made my day.  Due to my love affair with the tundra, it took me a little while to notice that Meridith had flagged down and boarded the Struggle Bus.  The impacts hiking at high altitude have on a person are, in my experience, not correlated at all with physical fitness.  In retrospect, Meridith likely had a touch of altitude sickness.  Pro tip for those prone to such things, a preemptive Advil or some such thing can help you make it!
Being the total trooper that she is, Meridith made it to the top of Flattop Mountain (and so did I)!  We both oohh-ed and awww-ed at the view for about 2.5 seconds before taking an epic mountain top nap.  Highly recommended.  When we awoke, we were both feeling grand.  We ate a spot of lunch, then poked around the mountain top, enjoying our accomplishment, before heading back down the way we had come. (Editor’s note: This is about the time I decided to aggressively drop my camera for the umpteenth time, dislodging some vital wiring innards, essentially rendering the back screen useless. However, it still managed to arrive alive at the end of our journey!) See Meridith’s previous post about the proper way to descend on a hike.
For example, on the way down, you might notice a huge field of wildflowers
you missed on the way up!
We were feeling really good about ourselves at this point, and super excited about the play day we had set-up with one of our friends from the previous night.  We shared food and chatted around the campfire well into the evening.  He convinced us to take Myers Briggs Personality test and, as fate would have it, Meridith and I have super compatible personality types.  The descriptions pretty much said, “You guys should be best friends and take lots of adventures together.”  Noted Myers Briggs.  Eventually, we had to break-up the party and head to bed.  The next day, we were hitting the road again, this time for Yellowstone National Park!
Obligatory NP Sign Pic