Marie and I visited Arches National Park together back in 2016, but – as Marie not-so-subtly mentioned – in my eternal quest to get good photos, we might have spent a little too much time waiting around for perfect light and not enough time just wandering around exploring.
So a return trip was in order, with a lower priority on photography. Late April tends to be a great time to visit Arches, and we managed to get a reservation at the park’s only campsite. We decided to extend our trip by looping back home through Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes National Parks, alternating hotel nights with camping nights.
We left our dogs with my mom on a Monday morning and drove straight to Moab. That afternoon and the next day we checked out all the greatest-hits arches, as well as a couple I hadn’t seen before, including Partition Arch, which was really cool. The weather, unfortunately, was less than ideal, with washed-out gray skies and sporadic rain. At the start of our hike to Landscape Arch it began hailing, sending us scurrying back to the car to wait it out. The hail stopped as quickly as it had started, and we laughed at ourselves for chickening out so quickly.
The next morning we drove to Mesa Verde National Park, where it turned out a lot of the most interesting trails were still closed for the season. But it was Marie’s first time there, so it was still worth it for the views of Cliff Palace and some of the other dwellings.
That night we stayed in Durango, Colorado. When I was a kid my family vacationed at a dude ranch in Durango two years in a row. The ranch – Colorado Trails – is still there, and Marie and I drove by for a quick look. The cabin my family stayed in back in the 70s had one of its beds in a cubby-hole loft, and my two sisters and I fought over who got to sleep there. My parents decided the loft would go to the oldest kid first, which meant my sister Kathleen the first year, and the second-oldest kid next, which meant my sister Ann the second year. I was repeatedly promised I’d get the loft on our third visit, but – of course – we never went back. The injustice still burns!
From Durango Marie and I drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, where we planned to camp. But the forecast for that night looked ugly, so we decided to just climb the dunes and head back home. Climbing the dunes turned out to be more than we bargained for, with extremely high winds creating a sand-blast effect that stung any exposed flesh. It took me three days to get all the sand out of my ears.
A couple weeks later I hopped back in the car for another road trip. Yellowstone this time, but without Marie, who’s been volunteering with a horse therapy nonprofit in Longmont and didn’t want to miss her shift.
May is a great time to visit the park. The crowds are bad but not nearly as insufferable as they become after Memorial Day, and it’s fun to see all the baby animals. The only downside is that the weather can be highly variable, with a beautiful 70 degree day followed by a snowstorm, which is basically what I ended up experiencing.
My first bear sighting happened before I even reached Yellowstone. As I was driving over Togwotee Pass (between Dubois and Moran Junction) some dark shapes on a snowfield turned out to be a grizzly mom with two cubs-of-the-year. I wanted to stop at a pullout, but a Forest Service agent on the scene was forcing people to move along.
In Grand Teton National Park I continued my fruitless search for the famous grizzly 399, again with no luck. So I drove on to Yellowstone, and on my first pass through Lamar Valley I spotted another grizzly mom with two cubs, too far away for photos. Thankfully a black bear was kind enough to pose for me near Tower Junction.
It wasn’t until the next day that my grizzly luck improved. The same Lamar Valley grizzly with two yearling cubs wandered much closer to the road, just across the Lamar River from a pullout. A large crowd gathered, of course, and from a safe viewpoint we watched the family for almost thirty minutes.
I always enjoy seeing all the newborn bison calves – sometimes called red dogs – and for a while I watched a big herd slowly making its way across a field of newly-green grass. Later near the northeast entrance a red fox was hunting along the roadside and I was able to get a quick shot of it from my car window.
That evening I came across what I think was the same fox in basically the same location, but this time with a rodent in its mouth and the paparazzi hot on its tail. One photographer walked briskly on the road behind the fox, with two cars following nearby. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to wildlife photography, and I’m constantly questioning and second-guessing my own behavior, but that struck me pretty clearly as harassment. Sometimes it’s tough to know where to draw the line, and seeing scenes like that make me think I need to pull my own line back some more.
The next day began with a string of moose sightings. First up was a moose mom with a calf at the Warm Springs pullout, followed by a bull moose crossing Soda Butte Creek a few miles to the south. Having just mentioned wildlife photography ethics, I should point out that for these shots – and most of the others here – I used my 600mm lens with a 1.4x extender, and almost all the images are heavily cropped. So the animals look close when in fact I was a good distance away.
Later that morning I stopped by Silver Gate to say hello to the couple who sold me and Marie our new home. We don’t take possession of the cabin until mid-August, and the wait has been even more agonizing than we expected. “Did it make you feel better or worse to see the cabin even though we can’t move in for months?” Marie asked.
“Ugh, I don’t know,” I answered. “It was kind of like being really hungry and sitting down to an amazing meal that I could smell but not eat.”
It was fun to catch up with the former owners, who have their own cabin next door and built ours initially to use as a rental property. They’ve been living in the area on-and-off for about 20 years, and every time Marie and I talk with them we learn something new. In a tiny community like Silver Gate, it seems like having such good people as neighbors will be an especially big deal.
After two nights of camping in mild weather at Mammoth I stayed in a hotel in Gardiner on my third night and woke up to an inch of snow on my car. Lucky timing! If my itinerary had been a day different I would have been digging my tent out of the snow. I’d planned on one more night of camping before heading home, but with the forecast calling for more snow I decided to drive back to Colorado that day.
I passed through Grand Teton on my way home and failed to find 399 yet again. I did get a pretty substantial parting gift, however, when I approached Togwotee Pass and saw the same grizzly mom and cubs I’d passed on my drive in. This time the little family was up on a hillside by a part of the highway with wide pullouts, and other photographers were already shooting away.
The grizzly and her cubs, grazing on fresh grass, worked and played their way along the side of the hill for over an hour. The cubs raced around and wrestled each other with seemingly inexhaustible energy. I felt incredibly grateful to have been able to watch them for so long.
When I returned home it didn’t come as a big surprise to learn that the Togwotee grizzly is well-known and somewhat controversial. The mom – a grizzly tagged as 863, called Felicia by many – has apparently been causing traffic jams on Highway 26 for years. In the spring of 2019 Felicia appeared with two cubs, her first-ever litter. Adult male grizzlies will sometimes kill bear cubs, hoping to put the mom back in estrus. Like some other bear moms, Felicia seemed to be trying to protect her cubs from aggressive males by staying near the highway and humans. It takes a savvy grizzly to walk that Scylla and Charybdis tightrope, however, and experienced wildlife watchers said that Felicia wasn’t handling it well (unlike 399, the master).
In May Felicia lost one of her cubs, likely to a male bear, and not long after she became separated from her second cub, known as Pepper. Throughout June wildlife watchers spotted Pepper on his own, clearly in distress, sometimes miles away from Felicia. There were calls for Wyoming Game & Fish officials to help Pepper, but they declined, saying that their policy is to avoid interfering with natural processes. Somehow Pepper survived alone and managed to reunite with Felicia in mid-July. Unfortunately, though, Pepper didn’t reappear with Felicia in the spring of 2020.
Now Felicia has a second litter, starting the drama anew. To my relatively inexperienced eyes, she seemed to be doing a good job this time. She appeared calm and in control, she kept some distance between her cubs and the road, and when she decided the time was right she retreated back into the woods. I really hope Felicia has what it takes to follow in 399’s footsteps and learn the skills required to keep her new family safe from both humans and bears.
2 thoughts on “Arches, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and Yellowstone National Parks”
Awesome wildlife photos!!
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