My dad almost never says a negative word about anything or anyone. It’s pretty remarkable, really. If you press him for an opinion about something he doesn’t like (e.g., broccoli), the worst he’ll say is, “Well, it’s not in my top ten.”
In that spirit, I have to admit that Yellowstone in the summer is not in my top ten.
Of course Yellowstone is one of the most amazing and awe-inspiring natural wonders on the entire planet, and it’s an incredible privilege to be able to experience it in any season. But wow, the summer crowds are just brutal.
Winter spoiled me. Average park visitation in December is 19,433. In July it’s 922,018. And the summer visitors are different in style as well as volume. The cold-weather crew tended to be polite regulars who followed the rules. In the summer all bets are off. People get way too close to wildlife, stop in the middle of the road, and often seem completely uninterested in how their actions affect others.
Watching a grizzly by myself or with a few calm people is an amazing experience. Watching a grizzly in the midst of hundreds of people jostling and yelling is borderline painful.
Yes, it’s easy to escape 99% of the other visitors by hiking out on a trail, and I’ve been doing that often. But just getting to a trailhead requires a lot of driving, and by the time I shed the crowds my blood pressure is already spiking.
A week in Supai and Zion with Marie at the start of June provided a great change of pace, and when I returned to Montana I resolved to do a better job of finding wildlife photo opportunities in places less densely packed than Yellowstone.
I started my search on Facebook, oddly enough. The manager of my apartment building told me about a widely-used Facebook group for Livingston residents, so I put up a post asking if anyone knew of local wildlife spots they’d be willing share. A few people were kind enough to respond, and one of the tips was especially promising – a fox den just 10 minutes away. I drove over early the next morning and right there, only about 30 feet from the road, were a couple of young red foxes walking on top of an old log pile.
The logs, I was later told by locals who stopped to talk, had been there for many years, and this spring a fox mom converted them into a den. The mom and three of her five pups had the less-common cross-fox coloration, with lots of black and gray fur instead of the usual orange-red. The foxes were definitely aware when people were nearby but for the most part they seemed unconcerned as long as we stayed near the road.
It was a real treat to be able to watch them. I returned again and again. The mom was almost always out hunting, and I only caught a glimpse of her once as she returned to the den at the end of the day.
Cutting back on Yellowstone trips gave me more time to explore other interesting places in the area. I hiked in the Crazy Mountains, paid a quick visit to Grand Teton National Park, hiked the Gallatin Petrified Forest Trail in Tom Miner Basin, and drove over Beartooth Pass.
I didn’t completely ignore Yellowstone, of course. I made regular runs to Lamar Valley, camped at Madison, and hiked up to Trout Lake many times. River otters, I’d been told, can often be found at Trout Lake when the fish are spawning, which usually happens in early July. I didn’t have any luck finding the otters up there, unfortunately, but I did have a great moose encounter one morning.
Marie came to Livingston for a visit in early July. We spent some time at the fox den and saw three bears in Yellowstone. We hiked to Pine Creek Falls in Paradise Valley and camped for a night at Glacier National Park. It was Marie’s first time at Glacier and she agreed it’s one of the most strikingly beautiful landscapes in the country. We had a lot of fun and the week went by too quickly.
After Marie’s visit I decided it was time to try fly fishing. I’d wanted to learn how for – no exaggeration – about 20 years, but for one reason or another I never got around to it. In mid-July I finally bought a fishing license at a local shop, dusted off my fly fishing rod (which was given to me as a gift in 2001 because I kept yapping about how much I wanted to learn to fly fish), and walked over to the island in the middle of the Yellowstone River right outside my back door.
‘Fiasco’ is probably too strong a word, but my long-awaited fly fishing debut was short-lived, awkward, and entirely unsuccessful. I didn’t have my reel set up right, my casting motion was a clumsy flail, and my hook frequently got stuck in the riverbed rocks. Humbled and defeated, I retreated back home. I’m beginning to wonder if I just like the idea of fly fishing and not fly fishing itself…
While driving through Lamar Valley one morning I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye: a lone wolf moving towards the road! It trotted across the road directly in front of my car, the closest I’d ever been to a wild wolf. Everything happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to take out my camera. A couple days earlier, though, I’d been able to catch a different wolf in the same area.
My favorite wildlife experience in late July hardly even required me to get off my couch. One evening in my apartment I heard some of my neighbors whispering excitedly: “Moose!” I took a few steps towards my back door and immediately saw a moose mom with a calf wading in the Yellowstone River only about 100 feet away. They casually took a drink in the late-day sun before sauntering slowly to the opposite shore and vanishing into the trees.
Why have I been driving all the way to Yellowstone like a sucker when apparently the animals will come to me? Backyard wildlife is definitely in my top ten.