After many months of looking forward to it, our Yellowstone trip finally arrived and ten days ago we piled into Chris and Louise’s roomy Dodge Durango and headed north. We did, indeed, see ample antelope, bison, and elk. Well, mostly bison and elk and even though we’d thought we were pretty jaded to bison, seeing them somewhat regularly as we do over on Antelope Island (where we traditionally see far more bison than antelope!), we actually saw so many more of them on this trip—and often quite close-up!—it was still exciting.
And the elk were positively amazing, thanks to our skillful travel planner, Louise, having booked us into the classic old Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at the northern end of the iconic national park. Mammoth is known — rightfully so, as it turns out! — for the elk grazing right on the hotel grounds and they accommodated us with regular appearances every day we were there.
While we were never certain whether we were seeing the same herd day after day, or perhaps the hotel grounds were a favorite of many herds passing through, it was a fascinating look at the elk society. The bull (or buck as we persisted in calling him) keeps a careful watch over his gals and gets downright testy when things don’t seem to be going to his liking. The park rangers’ primary job at this particular location, it seems, is trying to keep hotel guests from getting too close to the elk (and bison) and provide as safe an environment as possible for the elk to be elk.
On our final evening there, while we were enjoying a couple of card games at the hotel before going out to eat, there was considerable excitement as the bull faced a bit of herd mutiny. Part of the herd decided to cross the main road and graze across the way, while another part was quite content to laze about where they were. Clearly the bull’s work in guarding his herd was made more difficult by their determination to be in two locations, so he began the task of trying to consolidate them by goading the malingerers to get up and cross over to join the others.
The ultimate excitement in this process came as he became more agitated with passing vehicles who, certainly in his view, were making his job harder and were much closer than he wanted them to be. (Bear in mind that the elk are smack dab in the middle of this tiny community so the vehicles aren’t doing anything “untoward” but just trying to get to where they’re going.) Mr. Bull decided one RV that had stopped right in front of him was simply too impertinent and he charged, ramming the RV’s side with his massive rack. The RV wasted no time in rounding the corner and I’m sure its inhabitants breathed a sigh of relief as they rolled away. We figure those folks have gotten a lot of good story-telling mileage out of that particular vacation experience!
Although the elk offered the most entertainment, the sight of bison grazing right on the front lawn of the hotel was not to be dismissed and we discovered that our timing had been impeccable. As we headed out for breakfast our first morning there, we commented on the bison and were told that, yes, it was the first time they’d been seen at the hotel in over three months!
Yellowstone has the distinction of being the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. According to the National Park Service, “they are pure descendants of the vast herds that once roamed the grasslands of the United States. The largest bison population in the country on public land resides in Yellowstone. It is one of the few herds free of cattle genes.”
So what did we do for entertainment beyond bison and elk watching? Although animals had been our collective primary interest (all four of us having been to the park at some point in our pasts and seen “the basics”), we decided to spend our last full day there driving down to Old Faithful and taking in the natural sights along the way.
With my grumpy old hip, we didn’t try any adventurous hiking (although let it be known that I’d encouraged the others to do whatever they wanted, I was content to chill out and read, and they consistently declined anything more vigorous than what we did!) but the park is so well laid out that you can get close enough to see a genuinely dazzling array of natural wonders without undue physical strain. (It actually appears that much of the park’s sights are even wheelchair accessible, although we did see warnings on one smooth pathway that the grade was steep enough that power chairs might not have enough ooomph to make it back up on the return trip!)
The varied terrain as you move about the park is amazing, from being in dense forest, to sweeping valley views, striking waterfalls, and otherworldly landscapes in areas full of steam and bubbling pools. Even the weather cooperated fully, with the area having gotten a dusting of snow during our day of travel followed by each day there being crisp, clear, sunny, and mild. We’d come armed with cold-weather gear, “just in case” but no one needed anything beyond a simple fleece, and usually not even that by afternoon. Admittedly mornings were chilly and I think Chris was glad he had brought his gloves as he tackled the cold steering wheel each morning!
Okay, so we’ve covered wild animals, natural wonders, what else did we do? Why, EAT of course! We started weeks prior to the trip, researching online starting with lunch on the drive up to the park and by-and-large our research paid off. We took a slight detour on the drive there, both to bypass some road construction and see the Mesa Falls, near Ashton, Idaho. That led us to Five11 Main where we had an enormously successful meal of sandwiches, pizza, root beer floats for the guys, and ice cream samples for some. This old fashioned soda fountain is housed in a century old building and the Big Bad Wolf pizza lived up to its well-deserved reputation. All the food was great, but we forgot to take pictures of any of it, so you’ll just have to check it out yourself on your next trip through Ashton, ID (population 1,091).
Since Chris had spent the whole day driving, we thought for our first night there we might just stick close to home and eat at the hotel, but when we sauntered over there around 7, we learned the anticipated wait time was close to an hour and suddenly driving a few miles to the nearby town of Gardiner, Montana, didn’t seem so bad. The Antler Pub and Grill hit the spot with bison skewers and elk burgers.
The following morning we tackled the hotel dining room again, this time with great success. After lengthy consultation with our waiter (who in turn consulted with the kitchen) I ordered the smoked trout eggs benedict which were totally delish. (The “issue”—and factor that normally keeps me from even trying to eat eggs benedict anywhere other than at home—is that I’m one of the few humans on the planet that will only eat eggs with fully cooked yolks. This request simply stymies most restaurants, but they totally rallied to the cause in this case and they were perfectly cooked. They were so good I closed out our trip a couple of days later with another order, just before we hit the road for home.) David, Chris, and Louise all had the multigrain pancakes—blueberry, or pecan in Chris’ case—and the only complaint was that even the recommended “short stack” was just too big. I figure if that’s the primary complaint of the day, then life is pretty damn good. (Although my raving about the wonderful eggs benedict led both David and Chris to try them on that last morning, but seemingly the cook was challenged this time in making their eggs the normal runny way and mine hard-cooked, so theirs ended up being over-done. Life is hard, you know.)
Speaking of being hard, it’s hard to end this post since I have other great pictures both of nature and more yummy food—like the lunch David ate that consisted solely of pie. Three different kinds of pie. But I’m thinking that this has gone on long enough, so I think I’ll close here for now and save the rest for another day. (Who knows, maybe even tomorrow which would give me a clear new record for frequency of posts!)
Do you have any Yellowstone memories? Or have you done any recent traveling? Eaten any great food? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments! (And remember, you can click on any of the pictures above to see them larger.)