A Little Place Called Yellowstone

After leaving Glacier, we traveled south towards Yellowstone, briefly stopping in Helena and then Livingston, MT. Neither Maggie nor I had ever been, and I didn’t realize just how massive the park was. The park has an upper loop and a lower loop that look like a figure 8. Each loop takes a couple of hours to drive. Since we arrived late in the season, many of the campgrounds were closing or had closed for the year which made the remaining campgrounds pretty scarce. Luckily, we were able to secure a site at the Norris campground, located in the southwestern portion of the upper loop.

Since it was close by, we started our exploration of the park at Norris Geyser Basin where we all learned about Yellowstone’s different hydrothermal features (hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and mudpots). From there we drove to the Old Faithful visitor’s center to watch Old Faithful erupt along with hundreds of our closest friends.

While Maggie and I found the hydrothermal activity very interesting and different, the kids really wanted to see the herds of bison, pronghorn, and wolves which are located in the Lamar Valley on the northeastern side of the park. The drive to Lamar Valley did not disappoint. We saw dozens of buffalo herds, some of which were only a few feet from the road and several pronghorn antelope. We made the drive late in the afternoon in the hopes of doing a dusky hike along Slough Creek which, according to the ranger we asked, was the best time/place to spot one of the park’s wolf packs. While we didn’t see any wolves, we were treated to some gorgeous views and a few bison bulls.

The next day Maggie had to head into the nearby town of West Yellowstone to do some work. After dropping her off at the library, I took the kids to the Bear and Wolf Discovery Center. The BWDC is a non-profit that takes in nuisance bears (bears that have learned to associate people with food) and allows them to be ambassadors for their wild counterparts. It is also where a lot of bear proof containers and trash cans are tested before they can be certified as “bear-proof.” Liam and CJ enjoyed seeing all the animals as well as several mangled prototypes that did not pass the bear-proofing test.

Later in the week, our friend Jacob was kind enough to pop in and visit us for a few days between business trips. The kids enjoyed the car full of junk food that Jacob brought for them and, in return, I enjoyed taking Jacob on a short, but punishing hike to the top of Avalanche Peak.

Jacob also joined us for a hike through Pelican Valley which is touted as “some of the best grizzly country in the lower 48.” While we did not see any grizzlies while we were hiking, we did see and pick up two Dutch tourists who asked to join our crew for safety since the ranger told them that they should not hike this particular trail with less than 3 people in their party. After 6.2 miles of Liam and CJ yammering away at them, I expect next time they’ll take their chances with the bear.

After a long day of hiking and exploring the park, we all decided to get dinner at the Old Faithful Lodge. After waiting close to an hour to be seated, we had a bizarre dining experience in which we had to sit at a table with a random person who was pounding liquor. A fellow customer who was observing our dining experience, felt badly enough for us that he surreptitiously paid our tab. After dinner, Maggie had to drive Jacob’s rental car, because neither Jacob nor I were able to drive. I’m not sure if it was the speeding or lack of headlights that first caught the park ranger’s attention, but within minutes of leaving, Maggie was pulled over on the side of the road and getting grilled by the park ranger. It appeared that she was about to get a slew of tickets, but when she told him that she was the designated driver and the ranger saw the two numbskulls that she was having to drive around, he immediately softened and let her go with a warning.

Yellowstone is a massive and well visited park, but it’s beauty really does live up to the hype. Even though it was more crowded than we like, we were able to find plenty of solitary hikes and breathtaking vistas without another human in sight. Seeing bison up close, watching the mist rise from the rivers in the morning as they meander through fields of golden grasses, and observing coyotes hunting down their lunch were just some of the unforgettable sights of Yellowstone.

Crown of the Continent – Glacier

Despite a couple of wild fires raging in the park, we made the most of our visit to Glacier by staying in four different areas of the park and enjoying what each had to offer. Since we were coming from the West, our first stop was Apgar, the western portion of the park. Unfortunately, this was the area most heavily affected by the fires and most trails and roads were closed. We had a long drive from Spokane so we decided to camp there for two night anyways to give the kids (and us) a break from the car. Despite the closures, we still managed to enjoy some short hikes that were open and paddled on Lake McDonald and down McDonald Creek. We were desperate to see some moose and beaver, but instead spotted a baby fawn and a bald eagle and had ourselves a pleasant float. The second day we explored the nearby town of Whitefish. We enjoyed our favorite treat – huckleberry ice cream – and the kids got to play on the playground while I worked at the library. We spend so much time in the woods, “town days” are really special for us. The kids love a chance to play with other kids, I can usually get some work done, and Rick usually gets a break from dish duty.

After taking it easy at Apgar we headed southeast to Two Medicine. We almost didn’t stop here, but over concern about the other campground’s availability decided to pull in. We are so glad we did, we found a beautiful spot on the creek and were treated to a moose walking right through our site on the first evening to munch on some bushes along the opposite bank. The setting of the campsite alone was gorgeous, and the hikes even more so. There were numerous trails spurring off straight from the campground, but to avoid a mutiny from the kids, we were selective in the ones we chose. Many of them included waterfalls, and the longest one we did, Scenic Point via Appistoki Falls, gave spectacular views of the mountains. Liam and CJ seemed less interested in the views at the top, and more interested in sword fighting Rick (whatever keeps them motivated). The only downside to Two Medicine was the wind. We had several sleepless nights as the camper rocked and swayed. Our final day Rick had hoped to paddle across Two Medicine lake for a paddle/hike combo, but to the relief of both me and the kids, it was too windy to take the canoe out. Instead, we hit the road and headed northeast to Rising Sun. While Rick went to the dump station, the kids and I walked along the lake and got up close to two young bighorn sheep.

Rising Sun is one of two campgrounds located on the eastern side of Glacier, the other being St Mary’s. We chose this one because of reports of high bear activity – the park service has banned any tents or soft-sided campers in the campground. For Rick, this was the equivalent of sending up a bat signal. After 9 months of hiking the kids are starting to rebel a little, so Rick and I took turns completing the Hidden Lake trail at Logan Pass – one of the prettiest we’ve done. The trail leads up through alpine meadows and among steep cliffs covered in wildflowers and fluorescent lichen. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, and bear are all common sightings and we got to check each off our list. The kids got to pick the evening activity and Liam was stoked to listen to a ranger talk about Ice Age animals. Liam was spouting off saber tooth facts while the ranger tried to get through her lecture. The highlight was learning about the short-faced bear and getting to look at it’s skull.

Before leaving Rising Sun, I did get to spot one of the campground’s resident bears. It was an adolescent black bear who was munching berries on the hillside that buffered the campground. I was working inside the camper while Rick took the kids to the ranger station when I was roused by to the sound of repeated clapping. Curious I started walking around the campground, along with several other campers only to find out it was a ranger trying to chase the bear off. Clapping/talking loudly, but calmly are common techniques the rangers employ to haze the bears. They encourage hikers to use these tactics while hiking – it turns out they are a lot more effective than bear bells.

Our final stop in our grand tour of Glacier was Many Glacier – also bear central and high on Rick’s list. If you want to see wildlife, this is the place to come. Our first day was relaxed, we indulged ourselves with lunch at the lodge before heading for a short hike around Swiftcurrent Lake. The lake is nestled into the foot of towering rocky mountains, synonymous with Glacier. It’s also a hot bed for moose activity and we saw two as we made our way around the lake. That evening we enjoyed one of the most engaging ranger talks, which discussed…time – or atleast how animals use their time. We learned some interesting facts, such as Grizzly bears get much of their protein not by snacking on hikers, but by eating MOTHS!

Our down day was with a purpose, the next day was a grueling but rewarding paddle/hike combination, where we had close in counters with some of the top mammals found in Glacier. The first leg of our trip required a two-mile paddle across two lakes with a quarter mile portage (carrying the boat) in between. Rick and I carried the canoe over our heads while we called out “heeeeey bear” in the hopes that we would scare off any nearby grizzles. With the canoe over my head, all I could see was the ground in front of me and the massive piles of bear scat we kept stepping over. I was just hoping the site of a giant green canoe moving on legs would be enough to scare off a bear before they noticed the tasty morsels trotting along at our heels…Liam and CJ.


Once we got across the second lake we stopped on a pebble beach to have lunch before we began the 8-mile hike. We had just finished our sandwiches when hikers on the cliff above us shouted, “Bear!”

“What?” We called back. “There are FOUR bears headed your way!!!” Picnic over, we quickly instructed the kids to hop in the canoe while we gathered up all our food and threw it haphazardly into the boat. Just as we were picking up the paddles and preparing to shove off, we saw a momma grizzly and three cubs emerge from the brush and splash across the water 25 yards from us. We jumped in the boat and paddled a short distance from the shore. The bears were completely uninterested in us and we got to watch the cubs play on the beach while mom ate her fill of grass and berries. It was completely unforgettable and I’m so glad we opted to take our own canoe instead of riding the concessionaire boat across the lake. Every now and again, Rick’s insistence on doing things the hard (and cheap) way pays off…

With our recent bear sighting buoying our spirits, we began our ascent to the Grinnell Glacier. This was a really long and difficult hike for the kids, but Rick and I thought it was extremely important we get up to see it before it disappears. Unfortunately, there are only about 25 glaciers left in Glacier NP (down from 150 when the park was created in 1910) and scientist expect the remaining glaciers will be gone by 2030. To keep our hike interesting, we had several more animal sightings as we made our way up. First was a momma mountain goat and her kid. Snowy white and shaggy, they seemed oblivious to the hikers ogling and snapping photos of them. Further along, and in between the stunning views of Grinnell Lake, we spotted two large male bighorn sheep. Their brown coats blended perfectly with the talus rocks on the mountainside and we marveled at their enormous curved horns. Finally, after shepherding the family up 4 miles – Rick often carrying both kids tandem, we made it to Grinnell Glacier. It was both a heartbreaking and breathtaking sight. The glacier stands out as a shock of white against the surrounding brown mountains and at its base, a brilliant turquois pool of glacial water, complete with floating chunks of white ice. The sadness in looking at it is realizing that it is only a fraction of what it once was and that it will not be around for CJ and Liam to view as adults. Oblivious to this fact, the kids had a blast fishing ice out of the water, CJ of course ate some. While we sat and marveled at the view, a giant cracking sound echoed through the air and we watched as a corner of the glacier broke off and crumbled into the icy waters. The sound reverberated off the cliff wall and about a minute after the ice hunk had fallen, waves began to slam into the shore that had previously been placid. After enjoying the glacier and resting our legs, we began the trek back down. Along the way we say marmots, ptarmigan (an alpine bird similar to a grouse), and the same bachelor bighorn sheep from earlier. As we paddled across the lake, surviving the second portage, we spotted a young male moose bedding down along the bank. This brought our critter count up to the highest of any hike thus far on the trip. We finally pulled into the boat ramp 8 hours later, satisfied that we had just completed the prettiest, most exciting and definitely most grueling hike of the trip.