Rocky Mountain Weekender: Yellowstone + Jackson


It’s an exceptionally crisp spring morning in Yellowstone’s incomparable Lamar Valley. Actually make that a cold spring morning – light snow begins to fall, and it’s late May.

But spring is the perfect time to explore the Lamar – a.k.a. the Serengeti of the United States. The weather is incidental. I’m here with my dad and our friend Dave, and we’re here to see wolves and bears and bison, and the cold doesn’t quell their hunger. Best of all – and unlike midsummer – it feels like we have the park to ourselves.

Wildlife is most visible here in the spring when the park’s higher elevations are still snowbound, plus it’s calving season, and the wolves and grizzlies are acutely aware of this fact. And the calves’ mamas are in turn acutely aware of the predators.

At Slough Creek, we’re three of a dozen or so of hopeful wolf-watchers armed with high-power scopes aimed at the adjacent mountainside. There, under a pair of aspen, is the local pack’s den. We watch and wait. Patience is a virtue when it comes to glimpsing a wolf in Yellowstone.

The wolves don’t make an appearance, but a grizzly bear does. A big, dark male lumbers out of the timber into the sagebrush plain below the mountain, sniffs at the air, and starts making his way up the valley. We train our scope and binoculars on the big fella and watch the majestic critter until he’s out of view. Dad, Dave, and I grin at one another. Grizzly bear – check.

Now we need to find a wolf. We have some ideas – we took a class together on wolf ecology and management at the terrific Yellowstone Association Institute last spring. Held at the old buffalo ranch in the Lamar Valley, the class was an educational revelation on all things Canis lupus. I can’t recommend the Institute enough.

The snowfall ebbs, and a minor traffic snarl appears ahead. This could be good. Sure enough it is: A wolf is perusing the meadow floor for a juicy rodent. I hop out of the car and snap a few photos. It’s one of the best glimpses I’ve gotten of a Yellowstone wolf in more than a decade of looking. Once again, there are grins all around. Gray wolf – check.

Soon we’re in the confines of the Miner’s Saloon in Cooke City enjoying buffalo burgers and Pabst Blue Ribbons. The snow picks up as the sun goes down. We toast the day and call it a night before retiring to our rooms at the Elk Horn Lodge across the street.

The next morning, we check out and drive west through the Lamar again. Dave takes a verbal inventory of the animals we’ve seen. Beyond the griz and the wolf, there was a sandhill crane, ruddy ducks, a golden eagle, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyotes, and a half of a moose – my dad decides a moose’s backside doesn’t count as the whole thing.

Luckily, we spot a second moose’s backside later that day in Grand Teton National Park en route to Jackson, Wyoming, to round the half-moose up to one. The trails here are still largely clogged with snow, so we enjoy the grandeur of the Tetons from afar. No matter how many times I lay my eyes on this spectacular range, it blows me away all over again every time.

After checking in at the four-star Rusty Parrot Lodge and Spa on the outskirts of downtown Jackson, we take a stroll around town, wet our whistles at the one and only Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, and head out to dinner at the Rendezvous Bistro. We toast the trip (among many other things), and my trout dinner hits the spot.

Yellowstone National Park: (307) 344-7381;

Yellowstone Association Institute: (406) 848-2400;

Miner’s Saloon, Cooke City, Montana: (406) 838-2219;

Elk Horn Lodge: (406) 838-2332;

Rusty Parrot Lodge & Spa: (800) 458-2004;

Million Dollar Cowboy Bar: (307) 733-2207;

Rendezvous Bistro: (307) 739-1100;

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