Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Chapter 33 - Butte to Gardiner, Montana

Sunday, July 26th:
Today marks the start of our third month on the road and today we leave for Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner is a town that we had never heard of until recently but because Gardiner sits at the north entrance to the Yellowstone National Park, it is mobbed with tourists during the summer months. We were lucky to get reservations at the Rocky Mountain RV Park especially since this park sits on a ridge above the city and above the entrance to Yellowstone. This photo was taken from the RV park. The mountains in the distance are in the Yellowstone National Park and the river in the foreground is the Yellowstone River.

The drive today was just under four hours but here again most of our drive was on the interstate and we arrived at our new campsite around 11:30 am relaxed and excited about visiting the famous Yellowstone National Park.  This afternoon we want to drive into the park just to "get our feet wet" so to speak and at least visit the Mammoth Hot Springs area which is only around eight miles from the north entrance. We provided a map of the park above so that we can better explain the areas we plan to visit. Tomorrow we will drive the entire park or at least the "figure-8" road shown on the above map.  The total distance is around 150 miles and it will probably take us the better part of Tuesday.  On Wednesday we will again enter the park but this time towing our travel trailer and we will exit the park at the East Entrance towards Cody, Wyoming.

Our drive into the park (after showing our new Senior Lifetime Pass) was up a steep winding road that followed in part the Yellowstone River and some steep mountain cliffs.  My immediate thought as we traversed this mountain road was will my poor Dodge Grand Caravan be able to tow our travel trailer up this mountain on Tuesday.  Stay tuned for the answer in a later blog.  Anyway, after driving the eight miles uphill we arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, a highly developed commercial area complete with a large hotel, stores, and even a gas station.  Furthermore the place was crowded with people and no place to park.  What surprised us even more was that alongside the road were several dozen wild elk eating grass and seemingly oblivious to the traffic and numerous tourists with cameras.  A nearby sign warned that the elk were dangerous but they sure did not give that appearance.

We drove past the commercial area hoping to view some of the nearby hot springs that have made this part of Yellowstone famous. Within a matter of minutes we began to see what looked like smoke or steam rising from the ground both on our right and our left.  It was almost as if the ground were on fire. The steam of course was from the hot water bubbling up from the ground reacting to the cool air at the surface. At the same time the hot water reacts with the area's limestone bedrock, dissolving it in part and creating in the process carbon dioxide which in turn is released into the air. We read that this release into the air is kind of like what happens if you shake a carbonated soda and then remove the top of the bottle. You get the idea. In any case, the vision of what appears to be the ground on fire is quite an experience.

As we stated the hot water also causes the limestone rock at the surface to partially dissolve which when combined with the water then flows down the slopes giving the odd illusion of melting or frozen ice.  The hot solution also kills most of the vegetation in its path.  This photograph shows a good example of the end result appearance.  After spending several hours in the area of Mammoth Hot Springs, we decided to return to our campground, relax, and get ready for tomorrow's adventure again into Yellowstone National Park.

Monday, July 27th:
We arose even earlier than usual today both because of our eagerness to see Yellowstone but also because we felt that it was important to get to the park entrance early to avoid the long line that we had encountered on Sunday. It worked; we were into the Park without delay shortly before 7:30 am. Our first goal this morning is to go visit Old Faithful located about 58 miles south of the north entrance. Well, between the quantity of cars and the road construction the drive south to Old Faithful took us a little over two hours mostly nonstop.  We did have one delay however, that was delightful.  Cars were stopped in both directions because one big old bison decided to walk right down the road.  I took this photo as he passed by our stopped car; I could have almost reached out and touched him. He looked angry. Perhaps he too was upset by all of the cars.

We arrived at Old Faithful around 9:45 am and parked in a huge parking lot filled with what seemed like a million cars.  Obviously Old Faithful is the most popular feature in Yellowstone and the crowds in mid-summer certainly reflect that fact. We stopped in a large shopping center by the parking lot to get directions and a brochure and there we learned that Old Faithful had erupted only a few minutes earlier and we had a wait about one hour before the next eruption. From what I read during our wait, the frequency of Old Faithful's eruptions range between 45 to 125 minutes, the boiling water rises to an average of 145 feet, and the eruption lasts between 1-1/2 to 5 minutes.  We were excited and despite the rather chilly winds, we enjoyed sitting and watching the crowds of people gathering to wait for the show to start.  Unfortunately, dogs were not allowed to enter the close up area, so we found a nearby bench, sat down, and discussed how excited we were.  I took this photo around the peak of the eruption.  It lasted around two minutes but it was worth the wait.  Cabo slept throughout the entire show.

We left the Old Faithful area around 11 am and continued on the highway that at this point had turned east headed directly for Yellowstone Lake. Once again we ran into a delay caused by highway renovations.  Kathy was convinced that all of the road renovation work was due to the fact that next year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and their first national park was Yellowstone that was established back in 1872.  Right or wrong, the park service was sure doing a lot of work on their road system.  Even considering the slow driving conditions, the incredible and diverse scenery offset any frustrations caused by the driving delays. Our road followed Lake Yellowstone for 20 to 30 miles and we were not at all surprised to read that Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake in North America at an elevation of over 7,000 feet.  The lake measures approximately 10 miles wide and up to 30 miles long. Frankly I was a bit chilly when Kathy took this photograph.

One of the enjoyable parts of driving through Yellowstone National Park is the ever changing scenery.  So far in our drive we have seen hot springs, geysers, lakes, the rapids of the Yellowstone River and the beauty of Yellowstone Lake, steep mountain cliffs, and elk and bison up close. We have even crossed the Continental Divide three times, our highest point being at Dunraven Pass at 8,859 feet above sea level during our last leg of todays drive.  Fortunately during this last leg of our drive the traffic was less so that we had more chances to pull over, find a parking space, and take more photographs of the spectacular scenery such as this one of Kathy and Cabo at the gorge below Tower Falls.

We knew that the weather today was suppose to turn much cooler with rain expected by the end of the day. We also faced high wind conditions as our highway again turned west headed back towards Mammoth Hot Springs.  This photo of Cabo and Kathy was taken probably at an elevation of around 7,500 feet with a temperature in the low 50s, and winds at least 30 mph.  Once the photo was taken Kathy rushed back into the car. One feature of the mountain sides that we could not help but notice and does show in this photo, is the end result of past forest fires with the diminished size and quantity of trees.

We are going to include this one last photo that we took inside the Park mostly because it again shows the many surprising sights that we encountered during our drive today. We were unable to learn exactly what we were witnessing.  At first we thought that the wagon was just a tourist ride but when we looked closer it was clear that all of the riders were dressed in clothes that might have been worn by early settlers in the mid-1800s.  Perhaps we had just let our imaginations run wild.  Maybe these really were just settlers looking for a Yellowstone campground for the night. I wonder if they know that most of the campgrounds are full.

This final photograph was taken of our travel trailer in our campground in Gardiner, Montana.  The photo was taken on Sunday afternoon.  By Monday evening however, the skies had darkened, the temperatures had dropped to the high 40s, and rain started falling by 6 pm.  By mid-night the temperatures fell into the high 30s.  Perhaps it was this ugly turn of the weather that made us rethink again about our plans for the next day.  Perhaps hauling our travel trailer up into the heights of Yellowstone National Park might be just too much for our car. We will decide what to do tomorrow morning assuming that we survive the cold wet weather in these mountains of southern Montana.

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