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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 37: montana, yellowstone

glacier national park

bill: just south of the border from alberta in montana is glacier national park. american glacier is very different from canadian glacier, and surprisingly from the rest of the canadian rockies just across the border. for one, it has way less glaciers (climate change has eliminated 75% of the glaciers here, and in coming decades it may not have any glaciers at all), but there is also a distinct change in character. there are deciduous trees everywhere, something you never see in the canadian rockies, large open plains full of grazing cattle with ambling rivers full of trout right next to tall alpine peaks. real cowboy country. montana in the fall is beautiful. golden grasses wave in the winds, all of the aspens are turning yellow, maples turning red, rolling hills of amber as far as the eye can see, glacial peaks in the distance.

Amy: We immediately fell in love with Montana. The true Wild West! After crossing the border, we crossed plains of waving grasses toward a jagged mountain range looming on the horizon. By the time we arrived in Glacier National Park, it was late afternoon. We decided to chase the setting sun down the “Going to the Sun Road” on the motorcycle (no RVs allowed on this winding road!). On our way back, we stopped to watch the sunset. On one side of us - glowing red mountains reflected in a long glacial lake. On the other side - a big grizzly bear forging for food on the hill above (at a safe distance). My first grizzly sighting! (Little did I know, it wouldn’t be the last…)

bill: we only have about 24 hours here, so we have to make the best of it. the afternoon we got in, we found a place to camp then rode the motorcycle down a twisting windy road that drives straight through the heart of the mountains over a tall pass in the middle of the park. leave it to america to build a road where a road should absolutely not be, but everything in america has to be accessible either by f150 or rascal scooter. but hey i’m not complaining because the drive up and down the mountains was amazing.

the going to the sun road barely visible on the right coming across the mountains

bill: the next day we did the grinell glacier hike, a pretty chill 16km 600m hike up to a glacial lake, well worth the hike but wildly busy. even in the shoulder season this park is filled to the brim. we walked past the lake and up to the glacier itself because this would probably be our last chance to be on a glacier for the remainder of the trip. on our way back down, we ended up much too close to a grizzly for comfort, probably 5-10m away on the side of the trail, and on the one day we forgot our bear spray! we caught up with another group that had their bear spray but they were pretty insistent on continuing to walk past the bear, so we just kept up until we were past. in 7 years in the canadian rockies i have seen a grizzly bear once, and 24 hours in glacier i have seen 2 and been much too close to one of them.


hanging glacier

bill: and that was about all we had time for in glacier, we wish we had more time but we have to keep moving because we are on a deadline to get back to ontario, we will definitely be back though! i rode the motorcycle well into the dark as we drove through sunset in rural montana over the rolling hills capped with cattle and horses.

Amy: With Glacier a National Park in the rear view, and a powder pink sky ahead, we pressed on through rural Montana. As the sky faded into a dusky purple twilight, I drove by a cowboy trotting alongside the road on a chestnut horse. I kid you not, he tipped his hat at me as we drove past like something right out of an old western movie. 

yellowstone national park

bill: yellowstone national park sits just over the montana/wyoming border and was the world's first national park. it is also home to the worst-behaved tourists. both modern and historical, tourist behaviour here was so bad on its inception they had to station the army here to keep people from poaching the buffalo or jamming up the geysers, now it more takes the form of a million tripods with a million overzealous photographers pushing to see who can get the closest shot of the back of a buffalo’s cornea, which every year results in tourists getting gored by buffalo and elk or attacked by bears they cornered trying to get pictures of their cubs.

there are animals everywhere in this park. it almost feels like a park omega, except all the animals are wild. there are regular traffic jams from bison walking on the road, grizzly bears everywhere, pronghorns running through all the fields, and elk sparring in the town centre. the other special thing about yellowstone is the geothermal features. yellowstone sits on top of a very thin layer of the crust of the earth, underneath which is a super volcano which heats up the ground water and causes all kinds of weird hydrogeology, with geysers and hotsprings everywhere. the dissolved minerals and the thermophile bacteria that live in these thermal springs form these crazy formations over time out of travertine which are very otherworldly. they also smell like farts.

most of the yellowstone attractions are much more weird than they are beautiful


Amy: Before arriving in Yellowstone I had visions of dipping my toes in alluring turquoise hot springs, sinking beneath the steamy spa-like waters after a long day of hiking. Unfortunately, you can’t dip in any of the pools - primarily because they are too hot (120 degrees Fahrenheit and up). Many people die falling into them because the crust around the edge is so thin and fragile. From a preservation perspective, they also don’t want people messing up the pools and rock formations that took thousands of years to form. Which is exactly what happened in the early years of the park. Apparently tourists would throw coins and various other objects into the pools and geysers, permanently plugging the features. 

pronghorn antelope

Our first day, we walked around the Mammoth Hot Springs. Very eerie to see the ground literally smoking from vents in the ground, and water trickling down white, pink and yellow terraces. We kept imagining what Indigenous Peoples and early explorers would have thought seeing these bizarre sights for the first time. Even with a basic grasp of geology, this place seems otherworldly.

bill: the next day we drove down into the lamar valley to see if we could find some

buffalo - it turns out that they are frigging everywhere in the park and we almost ran them over a few times, very cool to see the herds out on the plains. there were previously millions of buffalo in this area but they were almost hunted to extinction, now with extensive rehabilitation efforts, the population is back up to 2000 or so.

Amy: Seeing the buffalo up close sparked the same feelings of wonder and awe we felt whale watching in Mexico. There’s something about looking a giant beast in the eye and coming to a sort of unspoken mutual agreement to trust one another. Buffalo are massive. Their heads alone are probably the same size as my whole body curled into the fetal position and covered in about 20 pounds of brown matted hair.  Their eyes are a little dorky, spaced too far apart in a “Hey Arnold” sort of way. They lumber around the park with the physique of body-builders who only lift with their top half. But the babies are adorable, prancing, dancing, kicking their hind legs in the air, springing circles around their mothers. We watched several herds grazing and frolicking in the Lamar Valley, and passed a few up close on the road.

bill: we then went and climbed one of the tallest peaks in the park, mt washburn, which was a medium effort 10km 600m hike up to a weather station which we were actually able to go inside which was very cool! it was also our highest point in the trip so far at well over 3100m!

yellowstone actually has its own "grand canyon" which is pretty cool but mostly just involves driving to different lookouts. there are a ton of waterfalls and a lot of weird coloured sandstone that is very reminiscent of bryce canyon.

look at this elk though

we booked a backcountry site on a small lake so that we could stay inside the park and not drive an hour out to sleep at night, but we did not sleep very well because there are a ton of very habituated grizzlies in the area and a family were spotted right near our camp right before we got in... it is also getting very cold here at night, like below 0 because we are mostly above 2000m of elevation so it was not the greatest night, but nice to have a fire.

bill: the next day we went to check out the geysers and hotsprings. the first hot spring you see is very cool, the first geyser even cooler, the second maybe less so, and by the two hundredth they are not all that interesting and are mostly just different coloured holes in the ground. we saw old fathiful, which was right on schedule but not nearly as tall as i thought it would be. a lot of yellowstone is devoted to hot springs and geysers, so we spent a lot of time hiking around and seeing different coloured holes in the ground. wow.

newfie archaea

old faithful

the biggest most colourful hole in the ground is the grand prismatic spring, the famous giant blue-orange spring. it was predictably extremely busy, both on the spring side trail and on the overlook, but cool to see anyways.

Amy: Yellowstone has such a varied landscape. One minute you’re driving through thick brushy forest, the next you’re passing through flat grassy plains, then shortly after you're climbing winding roads up mountainous passes. And you never know when you may spot a spouting geyser or steaming spring on the side of the road. In our thermal feature tour of the park, we saw crystal clear pools in all shapes, sizes and shades of blue; whooshing tornados of steam forced through small holes in the ground; burbling pink, orange and red “paint pots”, which literally looked like pools of thick boiling paint; glistening rust-coloured bacteria carpets striped like a tiger; small, sporadic spouts of water, sputtering unpredictably; huge aggressive geysers shooting boiling water 100 feet high. By the end of our third day, we felt like we had seen it all. Definitely a worthwhile stop - I'd say Yellowstone is in the top 5 national parks we visited this year, mostly because it’s so weird.

they got water that is in holes in the ground, water that goes up, and water that goes down

bill: overall, yellowstone is pretty cool, in my opinion mostly because of the wildlife, but if different coloured water in holes in the ground is your thing, i highly recommend it. i am also getting very tired of my beard and all my clothes smelling like sulphur. it is also extremely busy, even in off season, so the crowds are something else. every day we played a game of count the tripods - i have seen more $1000 tripods and 2 foot long camera lenses here in three days than in my entire life before. time to move on.

no video this week because i am going to make one big montana/wyoming video next week!




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