Today we are going to make a giant loop – skirting along Lamar Valley, then up to Roosevelt Lodge for breakfast before back-tracking to Tower Falls, and around the top to Mammoth Hot Springs. From there, we’ll make our way south to Norris Geyser Basin via Sheepeaters Cliff and Roaring Mountain. This last stretch of road is going to be slow-going.
Most the of road is no longer paved, with long sections limited to escorted one-way traffic. The entire stretch from Mammoth south to Norris is undergoing major repairs. While this route is the more direct way of traveling, the lack of pavement and long delays aren’t winning much favor. Yet the meadows with sparkling streams and wildflowers are not to be missed. At least in my opinion.
The Mammoth area of Yellowstone is unlike any other in the park. Not only are the formations unique to this area, but Mammoth Village is the only year-round settlement within the park with a year-round population – as in people live there and call it home. While privately owned housing does not exist, there are full-time residences. Children attend school in nearby Gardiner just beyond the north gate. The population of Mammoth Hot Springs in is around 500 people in the summer, and around 350 in the winter. The road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City, Montana, is the only road that is open and maintained for auto traffic year-round. Just five miles north of Mammoth is the famous Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner Montana. In the park’s infancy, the site of Gardiner, not yet a town, was the point of entry for those adventurous enough to visit the park. Early on, rail lines brought visitors to the closest established towns in Montana and Idaho. From there, travelers packed into the park on horseback. Realizing there was a profit to be made, it did not take long for stage lines and wagon train operators to offer transportation to the park. By 1880, the town of Gardiner had been founded. By 1883, the railroad had arrived in Gardiner, doing away with days and days of stagecoach travel. Once the railroad arrived, stagecoach companies carried travelers from Gardiner and eventually West Yellowstone into the park. While the railroads companies themselves tried to gain direct access to the rustic destination hotels being built within the park by laying tracks along the stagecoach routes, all attempts were squashed. Stagecoach tours continued to operate in the park until 1917 when all transportation was converted to motor vehicles. Bus tours of Yellowstone were popular because the roads were not the best for personal auto travel. Besides, it was better for the bus to break then your car. Today stagecoach services have returned, transporting visitors from several hotels out to a good, old-fashioned western cookout suppers complete with entertainment. And Yellowstone Nation Park has reintroduced their vintage style yellow tour buses Now if only rail service would return to Gardiner, Cody and West Yellowstone.
Fort Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone
Thanks in part to photographs, artist renditions and the efforts of those who had seen Yellowstone first hand, in 1872 Congress designated it as our Nation’s first National Park. The land and all within its boundaries was set aside for its citizens to enjoy for generations to come. Preserving and protecting the newly formed park fell to the Department of the Interior of the Federal Government. By August 1886, it was obvious that the Department of the Interior was unable to effectively manage the park. Congress refused to appropriate funding for the ineffective administration of the Interior despite the need to do so. Then Secretary of the Interior, Lusicus Q. C. Lamar II, a gentleman from Mississippi, called upon the Secretary of War for assistance as authorized by Congress. On August 29, 1886 the US Army took over the duties of park management as this responsibility was then transferred to the War Department. (Does that make sense?) General Philip Sheridan sent a company of Cavalry to Mammoth Hot Springs to set up a post for the protection and preservation of the park. (Ironic, when you realize that Sheridan once publicly promoted the slaughter of buffalo as a way of solving the “Indian problem” and now was entrusted with their protection). The Army’s management of the new National Park was viewed a temporary solution. A tent-city make-shift post of Camp Sheridan was established that summer. In 1889, Congress appropriated funds for the establishment of a permanent fort. The Department of the Interior set aside lands just north of Camp Sheridan for the construction of permanent facilities. By 1910, 324 soldiers lived in Fort Yellowstone, along with their families and civilian employees. In the summer, the cavalrymen patrolled the park on horseback, and in the winter, they patrolled on skis. That same year, 1910, saw the three-story barracks structure destroyed by fire, the cause unknown. By 1916 Congress created the National Park Services, and by 1918, the cavalry had relinquished control of the park to the new federal agency. The fort’s buildings still stand at attention in the park today, maintained as a tribute to the Calvary’s past.
Sylvan Lake, East Gate
On this, our sixth day in the park, the weather was amazing. Not a cloud in the sky. The air was warm and sweet and inviting. Hubby was kind enough to stop at Sylvan Lake just below Grizzly Mountain so that I could do what I love to do most – reflective pictures.
Lamar Valley on the way to Roosevelt Lodge
The near extermination of bison in the west during the 1800s did not spare Yellowstone. Even after the park was established, poachers faced little deterrents. By 1902, there were less than 25 head remaining within the park. That year, Congress appropriated funds to purchase 21 additional head of “pure” bison from private owners. In order to preserve the wild species through management, these bison were fed, bred and cared for at a ranch built just for this purpose in Lamar Valley.
Although bison are no longer kept at Lamar Buffalo Ranch, it still exists today as part of the park’s history and to serve as a ranger station as well as training facilities. Forever Yellowstone hosts students enrolled in many of the field programs offered. As the herd once kept at the ranch grew, they were released to breed with the park’s free-roaming population. Today the Yellowstone herds number in the thousands. It is one of the largest bison populations in North America, with the distinction of being one of the few genetically pure herds as none of the bison have been interbred with cattle. (Just as a note, if you have ever eaten a Buffalo Burger 20 years ago vs a buffalo burger today, you will taste the difference in “pure” bison. Many of the bison raised for meat today have some “cow” in their bloodline, and have lost much of that wild, gamey flavor).
Lamar Valley is located in the northeastern corner of the park along the Lamar River. This valley has been called the Serengeti of America for its large, easy-to-see populations of large animals. Lamar is home to the Junction Butte and Lamar Canyon wolf packs. There are large herds of bison in the valley, along with pronghorn, badgers, grizzly bears, bald eagles, osprey, deer and coyotes.
Twice daily the massive herd of bison bring traffic in the park to a stand-still. Each morning the herd moves up from the river, across the road and further into the hills to graze the day away. In the evening, the herd moves back across the road to spend the night in the lower part of the valley along the riverbed. This occurs in both Hayden and Lamar, and the traffic jams can crawl along for as much as an hour. It’s interesting to see how the larger bulls will actually hold traffic at a standstill while the calves and their mothers make the crossing. Should a car roll forward, the bulls become vocal and just a little crazed.
Native Americans, fur trappers and explorers traveling the Bannock Trail camped in the area that is now known as the Roosevelt Lodge Historic District. While Teddy Roosevelt never actually spent time in the lodge that bears his name, it is reported that the lodge stands in close proximity to Camp Roosevelt, a tent camp set up by the Wylie Permanent Camping Company in 1906 to commemorate Roosevelt’s 1903 visit. In truth, while Teddy visited Yellowstone, there is no documented evidence that he actually camped at this site, although President Chester Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, did in 1883. Even the sign outside the lodge is vague in connecting the lodge to Teddy Roosevelt. The sign outside the lodge reads “Roosevelt Lodge – Established in 1906 in commemoration of a camping trip to this region by President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied by naturalist John Burroughs, April 1903“. It does not say he actually camped on this spot. Yet visitors to the lodge assume that they are standing on a piece of Roosevelt history. Who knows . . .
The Roosevelt Lodge was actually built in 1919. It was meant to serve as a field laboratory of students and educators conducting research in the park. However; as the popularity of the park continued to increase and the need for lodging in Lamar valley grew, Roosevelt Lodge became a destination for tourists. In the early day of automobile travel, Roosevelt’s location provided a convenient overnight stop for visitors traveling between Mammoth Hot Springs and the majestic Yellowstone Canyon. Today, visitors to Roosevelt enjoy a hardy breakfast, then relax on the veranda in rocking chairs. Rustic cabins continue to provide lodging in the area.
Tower Falls, Calcite Springs and the Yellowstone River
In September of 1869, members of the Cook-Folsom-Peterson Expedition spent an entire day exploring the Tower Fall area before crossing the river to continue east. While not the most famous expedition to what would one day become a national park, this privately financed expedition was the first to document and survey the area. It was their accounts that spurred future expeditions. The following August, 1870, the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition camped near the falls and extensively explored the area for several day before continuing on to Yellowstone Lake. The nearby Calcite Springs along the Yellowstone River are considered the end of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
The Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs and Mammoth Village
Mammoth Hot Springs is home to Park Headquarters as well as some of the oldest buildings in the park, including the remaining structures of Fort Yellowstone. When you consider the history of the park and the thermal features that so captivates visitors, it makes sense. The North Gate and the Roosevelt Arch are five miles north of the village. This was the main point of entry to the park and its amazing Terraces were easily accessible to visitor. As it was then and is today, the main attraction to the area, aside from the elk that meander throughout town, are the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. Back in the stagecoach days of Yellowstone, wagon trails forged what is now the Terrace Drive. The Mammoth Hot Springs are a surfical expression of deep volcanic forces at work. Although the springs lie outside the caldera boundary, they are fueled b the same magmatic system. The super heated waters flow from Norris to Mammoth along a fault line. The waters cool to about 170 degrees before surfacing at Mammoth. Both the Mammoth Hotel as well as Fort Yellowstone are built upon an old terrace formation. There was some concern when construction of the fort began that the hollow ground would not support the weight of these buildings. Several large sink holes can still be seen on the Parade Ground. Mammoth Hot Springs has been thermally active for thousands of year. To truly appreciate the area, some up and down hill walking is required along the boardwalks of both the upper and lower terraces. Despite the long drive from any other feature in the park, Mammoth draws in the visitors during the height of the summer season.
Gardiner Montana, the Gateway to Yellowstone and the Roosevelt Arch
Gardiner is situated in Southwest Montana, just outside the North Entrance to Yellowstone. The town was founded in 1880, in anticipation of the coming rail road line. Nestled in the breathtaking Paradise Valley, with the Yellowstone River running smack through town. Spend enough time in Gardiner, and you are bound to meet the Antelope, Bison, Deer and Elk that meander through town. It’s not uncommon to see mule deer grazing in the same pastures with horses and cattle. The most famous attraction in town is the Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 24, 1903.
Today the quaint little town offers visitors lodging, restaurants, shops and art galleries. Gardiner is sandwiches between the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the north an Yellowstone to the south. The name Gardiner is for Johnson Gardiner, a fur trapper who operated in the area around 1830. When the Hayden survey party of 1871 passed through the area, they encountered two men, J.C. McCarthey and H.R. Horr, who had laid claim to 320 aches, establishing a ranch and bath house on the Mammoth terraces These entrepreneurs eventually established a primitive hotel at Mammoth and were not evicted from the area until many years after the park was established. McCartney also went by the name Jim Gardiner. Guests of his hotel revived packages through him that were addressed to Jim on the Gardiner. On February 9, 1880 a territorial post office was established just outside the park boundary and Gardiner, Montana was officially born. Gardiner continued to serve as a railway gate to Yellowstone until 1948. The following year, bus service is available from Livingston rail depot to Gardiner. While service is discontinued, the tracks and depot remained. The last passenger trail to roll into Gardiner was for a special event for the Girl Scouts of America in 1955. The following year, the depot was torn down. By 1976, the tracks themselves were torn up. As nostalgic as the idea sounds, rail service will not return.
Driving from Gardiner to Mammoth – 5 Miles of Surprises
After a lovely lunch in Gardiner and a stroll about town, it was time to head south, back into the park. Just beyond the North Gate, crossing the Gardiner River, we were surprised by the small herd of Mountain Goats making their way down the steep hillside to the river below. While it would have been amazing to see one of the Big Horn Rams, watching the females with their young was delightful.
Wishing for . . .
Getting this . . .
Kiddo wanted to stop at the 45th Parallel for a photo. While looking around, he noticed a bird of prey resting on a hillside just above the river. As the bird flew away, our cameras clicked. Not being bird experts, we haven’t a clue what kind of bird he was except say to with reasonable certainty it wasn’t a bald eagle or an osprey.
No drive through Mammoth Village would be complete without an Elk encounter. In 2013, we had noticed a sharp decline in the Elk population within the park, and in particular in Mammoth Village. When asked why, the general opinion was that the reintroduction of the wolf in 1995 was now visible in the reduction of the herds. In 2012, the wolf packs were sufficient enough to have the wolves removed from the endangered list, and the management of the wolf population was transferred from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, who immediately created a trophy hunting and trapping season aimed at wolves outside the National Park boundaries. At that point, there were at least 277 wolves in 43 packs roaming the wilds of Northwest Wyoming. Hunting has had an impact on elk, and their numbers are returning.
Going off the Pavement – Mammoth to Norris
Road construction in Yellowstone in perennial. Harsh winters make it impossible to repair roads in the “off season”, and therefore visitors to Yellowstone will fall victim to travel delays in some form or another. The 21 mile drive from Mammoth to Norris was no exception. Miss the caravan through the area that is limited to one-way travel, and you could sit for as much as 45 minutes waiting for the next. So why take the chance? There are meadow marches and bogs, prime habitat for Moose, to strange lands devoid of all visible life due to the steam vents that are so hot and acidic all life in the area is dead. Roaring AMountain once announced its presence with a loud hissing sound that could be heard up to 4 miles away. While much more quiet, at times silent, the thermal vents and the heat of the water on the landscape can still be seen. These would be missed if not taking this route through the park. We were lucky. Just as we brought up the rear of a long line of cars pointed south, the caravan began to move. The timing was perfect.
The marshy meadows, streams and bogs traveling south from Mammoth Village and the Mammoth Hot Springs
Roaring Mountain and nearby picnic areas with views
Twin Lakes area just above Norris Geyser Basin
At Long Last – Hayden Valley
We were tired, and glad to reach the final stretch of our journey back to the Ranch. As we entered Hayden Valley we realized immediately it was going to be a slow crawl – the herd was picking its way back across the road, and down across the river. Bison enthusiasts had abandoned their cars, and in some cases their common sense for a better look.
This was a long day filled with so many wonderful surprises and new adventures. As we kicked off our hiking shoes and settled in to our cabin for the night, we realized that we had only one more day to spend in the park. It was with mixed emotions that we gazed up in wonder at the brilliant night skies of Wyoming.