Yellowstone Day 2: Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt areas

Our itinerary for our second day in Yellowstone was:

Mammoth Hot Springs area, Tower-Roosevelt area, wagon ride and cookout

(This is another post in my “How the West Was Won: Vacation” series: Intro | Idaho | Grand Tetons and Jackson WY | West Yellowstone and the Park | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Days 4-7)

Sheepeater Cliff

Entering the park again from the west entrance, we drove towards the Mammoth Hot Springs area and stopped off at Sheepeater Cliff along the way. The cliff is actually basalt columns, naturally formed and remarkable for their rectangular shape, and named after a Shoshone tribe (the sheepeaters). My daughter was more interested in seeing the yellow-bellied marmots that live in the cracks and crevices than the cliffs themselves. This wouldn’t be a must-see on my list, but it was worth a stop on the way to the Hot Springs area.

Mammoth Hot Springs Area

After hitting some traffic due to road construction, we finally got to the hot springs area, which is close to the north entrance to the park. This is definitely on our must-see list. The Mammoth Hot Springs is a series of limestone and travertine “steps” with upper and lower terraces. It’s hard to capture in just frame of a photograph how cool this view is. The steps look more like something you would see underground, in a cave, alongside stalactites and stalagmites, rather than rising like a hill carved into colorful stairs above ground. The terraces change shape with the flow of water from the springs and like most of the other hot springs in the park, thermophiles living in the water create the different shades of color.

As a bonus, the visitor center area is one of the larger ones in the park so it makes for a good spot to eat lunch, look for souvenirs, get gas, or hit the restroom (sidenote: gas stations and restroom facilities are in short supply in the park – plan accordingly!)

On the way from Mammoth to Tower-Roosevelt, we came across this guy. So close to the road that if I had a mind to, I could have patted him on the head as we drove past.

Tower-Roosevelt Area

Next, we moved on to the northeast side of the park to the Tower-Roosevelt area. There, we stopped at Lamar Valley, renowned as a place to see wildlife. Due to the way our plans worked out and how long of a drive this area is from where we were staying, we didn’t get there until the afternoon, long past “prime time” for seeing wildlife, but we managed anyway.

This was a good example of people being totally nuts and getting far too close to these animals. I guess it’s easy to underestimate bison…they look like a herd of placid cows and seem far too big and awkward to run. But, they are moody, unpredictable, and fast. This explains why so many people get gored by these things each year. We took that first photo from behind a railing and inside our car to be safe, but there was a number of people standing on the other side of the railing, including one man who posed with his back to a bison standing no more than 50 feet at the most behind him. Considering that these things can run up to 40 miles per hour, or almost twice as fast as Usain Bolt’s world-record speed, it is foolish to say the least to stand that close.

Tower Falls

Tower Falls
Aptly named Tower Falls

We stopped off at Tower Falls, which offered a lovely view from a lookout platform and then headed to our wagon ride and cookout that evening.

It’s always a risk booking things in advance since you have no way of knowing what the weather will be, and this was a good example.

According to many of the park staff we talked to, the week we got there was the first break from rain, rain, rain they had had for a couple of weeks, but on this night, it returned.

We had our first bear sighting just before we got into the wagon. It was a black bear on the other side of the road, sadly too far away and running too fast for me to get a good shot of. We loaded up and headed out for a cookout and cowboy tunes.

Old West Wagon Ride and Cookout

This turned out to be one of those things that sounds like a good idea, but turns out to be a bad one. After an uneventful and leisurely wagon ride to a camp area, we noticed that the weather was getting a little ominous. We lined up for our dinner, keeping an eye on the darkening sky. Thunder rumbled and the wind picked up and we just hoped we could get under the pavilion before the rain started. I turned and said something to my son and was surprised to note that I could see my breath. The temperature had dropped quite precipitously.

Since this is Wyoming/Montana, when the skies opened up, it wasn’t just rain. It was rain and sleet, with a barrage of hail. Part of my group made it under cover just in time, but others weren’t so lucky and got fairly saturated and were peppered with rocks of hail.

Then, we heard an enormous CRRRRACK and a tree came down just on the edge of the campsite. Things were getting a little scary, I have to say. The guides ran out in the storm to deal with the horses, who you can imagine weren’t very thrilled with the weather. Neither were we. Wet, cold, and semi-miserable, we were ready for the cookout to end. We even talked jokingly about making the short walk back to the ranch instead of waiting for the cookout to be over. Turns out, that would have been a really bad idea.

Finally, it was time to head back. The guides got all of the riders mounted and off, then loaded up the wagons. At that point, we were just grateful that we had opted for the wagon instead of going by horseback. As the wagons neared the halfway point, a lone bison appeared on our left and it was irritated.

The horses were spooked and a collective gasp arose from our wagon as the beast turned and glared at us, then lowered its head and took a few steps closer. Talk about arrogant! The thing was actually contemplating charging ! I couldn’t believe it would think to take on a wagon big enough to hold 30 people, pulled by 2 draft horses and part of a 12 wagon convoy. The drivers grouped the wagons closer together to make it appear that we were all one giant thing, much too big for a bison to take on. The ruse worked and the bison lifted its head and turned away, once more grazing as placidly as a cow. It was a good illustration of how quickly these things can turn aggressive.

But the fun didn’t end there. The rain came again and we had to make a run for it from the wagon to our car. Then we still had to get home.

Of all the nights for the sky to darken early, this was the one. Normally, we had noticed it stayed light until around 9, but due to the storms, it got dark much sooner. We decided to take the canyon road route home, a shorter route that also avoided the road construction. The trouble was that this way took us up to higher elevation.

It was a white-knuckle ride back.

I watched the digital temperature display on the dashboard as we dropped a degree every few minutes. The rain continued to come down and I knew at the rate things were going, if we didn’t traverse the high elevation portion of our route soon, the rain would freeze. The last thing I wanted to think about was driving on icy roads in the dark, at elevation with no guardrails. No thank you.

My husband and I both breathed a sigh of relief as the road started to go back down and the temperature went back up. Thankfully, we made it back to the cabin with no further misadventures.

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