You can't beat Yellowstone for the wildlife and scenery


Yellowstone is something you definitely want to put on your bucket list

It must have been because I had binoculars around my neck and a spotting scope set up in front of me that a guy walked up and asked, “Do you know your wildlife?”

I replied, “Why, yes I do,” sort of in a manner of a Grey Poupon commercial.

He then asked, “Is there any such thing as a black coyote?” as he pointed to the black critter making its way down the valley.

After I told him it was a wolf, several of us kept the binoculars and scopes on it. Shortly afterwards, the wolf discovered an antelope fawn and chased it through the sagebrush and into some trees. Photo Credit: SCOTT STAATS/SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River plunges 308 feet.Believe it or not, the fawn escaped or maybe the wolf gave up or wasn’t too hungry. He finally disappeared from sight into Lamar Valley. He had a collar on, as several wolves in the park do.

There are currently ten packs of wolves in Yellowstone, four of those in the northern part of the park. The park’s wolf population has dropped substantially since 2007, when the count was 171. The latest data shows that at the end of 2012 there were at least 83 wolves in the park.

There are a number of factors that affect wolf populations. Disease, for example, periodically kills a number of pups. In 2005, distemper killed two-thirds of the pups. The next outbreak occurred only three years later and all but 22 of the pups died. Infectious canine hepatitis, canine parvovirus and sarcoptic mange also have been confirmed among adult wolves.

Adult wolves also kill each other in territorial disputes. Such disputes happen each year, but increase when food is less abundant. This may have been why so many adult wolves died in fights during 2008. That year, biologist also found two wolves whose deaths were partially due to starvation.

Most of the decrease has been in packs on the northern range, where it has been attributed primarily to the decline in the elk population there.

On this trip we stayed mostly in the northern half of the park, first visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, then Norris Geyser Basin, Lamar Valley and Canyon Village (Upper and Lower Falls).

My favorite part of the park is Lamar Valley since that’s where I feel more wildlife and fewer tourists can be found. I wasn’t disappointed on either count. When entering the valley we saw literally several thousand bison. The tourist number was quite a bit lower than that.Photo Credit: SCOTT STAATS/SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Orange Spring Mound is a unique feature in Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs is always impressive. Several key ingredients combine to form the hot springs: heat, water, limestone and a rock fracture system through which hot water can reach the earth’s surface.

The huge molten magma chamber, a remnant of the cataclysmic volcanic explosion 600,000 years ago in central Yellowstone, supplies one of the ingredients, heat. The source of the water flowing out of Yellowstone's geothermal features is rain and snow that seeps deep into the earth. It’s then warmed by heat radiating from the magma chamber before rising back to the surface.

To erupt as a geyser or flow as a hot spring, hot water has to reach the surface in large volumes. Even though Mammoth is located north of the caldera, a fault trending north from Norris Geyser Basin, 21 miles away, is suspected to connect Mammoth to the hot water of that system — creating approximately 50 hot springs in the Mammoth Hot Springs area.Photo Credit: SCOTT STAATS/SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN
 - Bison along Soda Butte Creek near Lamar Valley.

Another necessary ingredient for terrace growth is the mineral calcium carbonate. Thick layers of limestone, deposited millions of years ago by vast seas, lie beneath the Mammoth area and as ground water seeps slowly downward, it comes in contact with hot gases charged with carbon dioxide rising from the magma chamber. Some carbon dioxide is readily dissolved in hot water to form carbonic acid, which dissolves great quantities of limestone as it moves toward the surface. When exposed to the air, some carbon dioxide escapes from solution. As this occurs, limestone can no longer remain in solution and a solid mineral reforms and is deposited as the travertine that creates the terraces.

One of my favorite formations at Mammoth is Orange Spring Mound. Heat-dwelling bacteria and algae grow abundantly in the mound’s water, creating tapestries of living color.

Norris Geyser Basin, named after an early Yellowstone superintendent, is the hottest and most changeable thermal area in Yellowstone. Steamboat Geyser, the largest geyser in the world, is located here. The geyser has long periods of dormancy, but when it erupts it sends jets of water nearly 380 feet high.

There are two loop trails at Norris that total just over two miles, taking visitors into Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Porcelain Basin is more open terrain with hundreds of densely packed geothermal features, whereas Back Basin is more forested and its features are more scattered and isolated. Both places have hissing steam, pungent odors and colorful hot springs.

The barren landscape of Porcelain Basin is the result of an acidic environment. Due to the hostile condition plants, algae and bacteria have a hard time establishing themselves. Instead the basin gets its colors from mineral oxides. Iron oxides produce the pink, red, orange colors while sulfur and iron sulfates produce the yellow.

Besides Old Faithful, one of the most visited places in the park are the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Lower Falls is the highest plunge-type waterfall in the park at 308 feet (The highest horsetail-type waterfall is Silver Cord Cascade at 1,200 feet).

Prospectors in the 1860s brought back stories to Montana Territory of a huge waterfall on the Yellowstone River, claiming the falls were “thousands of feet” high while another claimed fifteen hundred feet and called it “the most sublime spot on earth.”

The Folsom expedition of 1869 named both falls from their positions on the river, and attempted to measure their heights. Their map carried the notation “Lower Falls 350 ft.” Early visitors also referred to Lower Falls as the “Great Fall” or “Grand Fall” of the Yellowstone.

Upper Falls is 109 feet high and also has some history connected to it. Jim Bridger was familiar with the falls and visited it with fellow explorer James Gemmell in 1846. Viewpoints of Upper Falls are accessible on both sides of the canyon and are a favorite of Yellowstone visitors.

We did see one grizzly bear in the park about a quarter-mile from the road near Mount Washburn. Every time we visit the park we check this area out since it’s in the bear management area. The bear was munching on grass as it moved through patches of wildflowers. This bear was a big bruin with a collar on its neck just like the wolf in Lamar Valley.

For those who have never been to Yellowstone, it’s something you definitely want to put on your bucket list. If you want to see colorful aspens and cottonwoods, plan a trip for the end of September or the beginning of October. Besides the spectacular colors, there are fewer visitors in the park then.

Scott Staats is a freelance outdoor writer. His column can be read every Tuesday in the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.