With just one full day left at Yellowstone National Park and at the West Yellowstone Hostel, the goal today was to get up to the Northeast section of the park and spend some time in Lamar Valley. There were, however, so many sights along the way that almost no time was spent up at Lamar Valley. Instead the day was spent in Gibbon Meadows, at Tuff Cliff, Undine and Wraith Falls, driving the Blacktail Plateau, at the Yellowstone Petrified Tree and taking photos of elk, bison and the sunset!
The first stop on the attempt to get up to Lamar Valley was a little boardwalk that provided a nice walk round some pools and a small lake. It was the only (outdoor) area in Yellowstone seen so far that has actual hours posted for when the area is open along with the standard warnings and rules about leaving the boardwalk or swimming in the thermal areas of the park.
The next point of interest along the failed attempt to get to Lamar Meadows was Tuff Cliff. It’s an easily accessible sight from the Yellowstone Grand Loop Road and has a small picnic area set back a little way from the cliff. From the perspective of where you are when you drive up to it, it is more of a mountain in front of you, not a cliff you look down over. It was created by dense ash clouds flowing across the area to form the rock that makes up the cliff. Today various forces of erosion and sudden earthquakes cause it to crumble and erode.
Gibbon Meadow is yet another amazing place at Yellowstone along the way to the Norris Geyser Basin from the Madison area of Yellowstone. There is a picnic area there along with pit toilets in case you need to make a pit stop. The picnic area lies right along side the Gibbon River and the meadow just beyond that. It’s a great place to get out, do some hiking and potentially see bison, elk or other large and small animals off in the distance.
The Museum of the National Park Ranger was the next unplanned stop along the way up to Lamar Meadows. They have a passport stamp so be sure to bring your national parks passport book if you stop here! The Museum of the National Park Ranger is near the Norris Geyser basin and offers up displays about park rangers, has a nice porch outside with a few chairs in which to sit down and relax and is a worthwhile 20-60 minute stop along the road to Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone.
When driving up toward Mammoth Hot Springs or to the Yellowstone Plateau, the “Golden Gate” of Yellowstone is along the way, an impressive concrete pass around the mountains. In the old days, it used to be an old rickety wooden structure but has since been replaced by a solid and safe concrete roadway that offers great views and requires slow driving up or down the windy road on the pass. Rustic Falls is located at the top of the Golden Gate and can be viewed directly from the road.
A few bull moose lie just ahead in the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone which, of course required yet another photo stop on the way to Lamar Meadows. Most of the time when moose have been seen it has been one male and a flock of females. One a couple occasions, a couple bull moose would be yelling at each other and bluffing for territory but never actually butting heads or antlers as the case may be. Today at Mammoth Hot Springs there were three bull elk all laying around in the same area.
There were no females to be seen anywhere and the males showed no signs of being territorial. Lots of people stopped to take photos. Some got fairly close but there was never a ranger in sight, only one gentleman who was much less aggressive than the rangers tent to be requesting that people stay behind the cars which was still probably closer than the guideline of 25 yards to stay back from elk, deer, or other non predator animals at Yellowstone.
After stopping at Mammoth Hot Springs just long enough to take pictures of the bull elk the next stop along the way was Undine Falls. Undine Falls consists of three consecutive waterfalls flowing down from Lava Creek and is easily seen from an overlook along the main road. It is possible to walk a little bit past the overlook, however extreme caution must be taken so as not to lose footing and slide or fall down the steep cliff right in from of the overlook.
The next detour along the road to Lamar Valley was Wraith Falls or actually the Wraith Falls trail. Unlike most of the waterfalls found and photographed in Yellowstone, Wraith Falls actually requires a hike to get to. The hike isn’t long or strenuous and will take anywhere from 20-60 minutes to go round trip from the road to the falls and back depending on your hiking speed and the number of stops along the way.
While driving along the Yellowstone Grand Loop road after the Wraith Falls hike the Blacktail Plateau Drive turnoff appeared on the left side of the road. The Blacktail Plateau Drive is a 6-mile dirt road detour of sorts off the main paved road. It’s a rough road and helps to have all wheel drive when driving on it. It is narrow, steep in some places and one-way with enough room for only one car in many places. In mid September is was nearly deserted and only a few other vehicles were seen along the route.
The Blacktail Plateau Drive winds through another beautiful area of Yellowstone through areas of the park burned in the 1998 fire. The areas along the Blacktail Plateau are in various stages of rejuvenation following the fire. Burnt areas can still be seen off in the distance from the road. A variety of wildflowers dot the landscape and off in the distance smoke from the forest fire burning between the Tower Falls and Canyon areas of the park could be seen.
About a mile after the Blacktail Plateau joined back up with the main Grand Loop Road another Yellowstone landmark came up on the road; the petrified tree. The petrified tree at Yellowstone is the lone petrified tree left in the area (there used to be 3 but over time the other two fell victim to souvenir hunters.
The tree is about 30 feet tall with only a portion of the trunk remaining in tact. The petrified tree(s) formed when volcanic ash, water and landslides covered entire forests. Before the tree could rot, the silica in the volcano plugged living cells and resulted in this petrified tree and others that used to stand along with it. If you are in the Tower-Roosevelt area of the park, a stop at the petrified tree will take at most 30 minutes.
One big bison herd was the final straw in the failed attempt to make it up to Lamar Meadows. The bison were everywhere and the herd may have been as many as 100 bison. Lots of cars were stopped, many right in the middle of the herd. Some of these bison were a little more aggressive than others seen in Yellowstone. Though they would occasionally throw a fierce stare are people and cars along the road they only butted head with each other.
Some of the large bison would find a nice spot of dirt and repeatedly roll around in it but for the most part they would just wander around make what sounded like big burping sounds from time to time and eat the grasses and other pants in the meadow. The herd was large enough that there would usually be one or two in the road to block traffic.
By the time the bison herd moved on the sun was starting to set and it was to late to make it any farther up toward Lamar Meadows, particularly with the road construction between the Norris and Madison areas of the park. Arrival back in West Yellowstone was close to 10pm after a long drive back. Tomorrow would be the last full day in Yellowstone and nothing would prevent getting up to Lamar Meadows!