Rocky Mountain Weekender: Yellowstone Overlook

It’s a crisp October morning at one of my favorite spots on the planet, the 2.2-million acre tract of wilderness known as Yellowstone National Park. I’m in the Lamar Valley in the park’s northeastern corner on a tour with the superlative Yellowstone Association Institute. Our eyes, enhanced by binoculars and spotting scopes, are collectively aimed at one of the park’s 150 grizzly bears, foraging for voles and plants on the valley floor.

Our trusted guide is MacNeil Lyons, who asks us how much meat a grizzly can consume in one meal. Knowing a wolf’s capacity to be 20 pounds of meat, I throw out a wild guess of 100 pounds. I’m way off: A grizzly maxes out at 14 pounds of meat, says Lyons, despite outweighing a wolf several times over.

“You can see the benefit of wolves on the landscape,” he adds, noting that their kills provide many a scavenger with sustenance – namely ravens. Among the smartest birds on the planet, ravens have even been observed leading wolves to carcasses.

Unlike the summer, fall lures no crowds to Yellowstone: For a half-hour, we’re the only people watching the bear.

We continue east through the Lamar Valley, pass a herd of about 75 bison, and come across a telltale sign of wildlife near Soda Butte: a group of human beings at the roadside with all eyes fixed in one direction. It turns out to be exactly what we’re looking for: a pack of wolves.

Rick McIntyre, one of the park’s top wolf biologists, is on hand. “These wolves would be the great-great-grandchildren of some of the original Canadian wolves introduced to the park in 1995,” he explains as the group’s members take turns eying the majestic canines through his high-powered scope.

After a creekside lunch, we retrace our route out of the park and into Gardiner, Montana, the park’s dinky northern gateway, and hit the newly restored Yellowstone Association HQ building. Next, it’s back to our temporary home at the Yellowstone Overlook Field Campus in the foothills above Gardiner proper. Directly bordering the park, the Overlook campus opened earlier this year to provide a lodging option for groups while they participated in one of the Institute’s courses or private tours.

From my cabin’s deck, the view extends from the Yellowstone River below to the unmistakable chalky terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs to the south. I breathe it in and slowly exhale. It’s good to be back: I worked in Gardiner during a college summer, and still have a soft spot for the place.

Soon I’m enjoying prawns and risotto at Chico Hot Springs, located about 30 miles north of Gardiner in the striking Paradise Valley and home to one of the best restaurants in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Everything, from the expertly picked wine to my cumin-dusted salmon entree to the Montana-grown cherry sorbet, hits all the right notes on my taste buds. My plates thoroughly cleaned, I’m left with an overwhelming desire to get back, and we haven’t even departed.

After a restful night at my cabin at the Overlook campus, we depart early for a hike in the heart of the park called the Clear Lake Loop. The first few miles gives us a great lunch stop with a view of the Hayden Valley, a look at the acidic Clear Lake and the surrounding geothermal hotspot, and then we march through the woods towards the main attraction: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

On our approach, Lyons recalls a quote from an early explorer, David Folsom, who wrote that “language is entirely inadequate to convey a just conception of the awful grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature’s handiwork.” (Keep in mind that “awful” meant “awesome” in 1869.)

I take a long look at the 1,000-foot-deep canyon with the serpentine blue of the Yellowstone River below. Adjectives escape me – I couldn’t agree with Folsom more.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Yellowstone National Park: www.nps.gov/yell

Yellowstone Association Institute: www.yellowstoneassociation.org/institute

Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa: www.chicohotsprings.com

Yellowstone’s interior roads close to car traffic on Monday, November 8, but the road from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley, and Cooke City is open year-round.
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