Day 15 (August 10, 2017 – Moran, Wyoming): “Mission 66”
It was about 5:25am when I awoke to one of the last alarms as I had ignored the 4:30am and 5am alarms. I figured that since I had finished the day’s blogging from the day before on the same day as it happened (a first on this trip), I had earned the ability to sleep in for a few minutes instead of trying to get caught up on yesterday’s events.
Still, we had to get an early start so we could get to Yellowstone and the plethora of activities as soon as possible for it was going to be a full day further complicated by crowds, finding parking, and other expected delays from road construction to wildlife sightings, etc.
So after getting some breakfast on the go while also eating some kefir in the brekkie room, it wouldn’t be 6:55am when we were all set up and ready to leave Bozeman. Even despite our early start, there were already lots of people in the breakfast room. Clearly, we are a nation of early risers.
Anyways, this would be our very last moment in Montana as we’d pretty much be in Wyoming for the next few days.
The drive east to Livingston then south towards Yellowstone pretty much involved following slower vehicles for just about the entire drive (especially along the 89 south to the North Entrance).
There was a lot of haze in the morning sky obscuring the mountains. And we figured that this must have been from the northwest Montana fires such that the wind had blown in this direction and brought the associated smoke over. After getting through the entrance gate by Gardiner, we drove by the Mammoth Campground and saw mostly inactive terraces before turning left to go east on the northern Grand Loop Road.
By 8:30am, we pulled over at the spacious pullout for Undine Falls. As I had expected, it was pretty much against the sun, but at least we got some more photos and videos to provide some better content than the stuff we’ve got there right now concerning this waterfall that we hadn’t seen in 13 years (the last time Julie and I were in Yellowstone).
Since Tahia was sleeping and Julie can’t leave Tahia alone, I solo’ed the view of Undine Falls before continuing the drive east.
At 8:35am, we then parked at the trailhead for Wraith Falls. This was another one of those repeat waterfalls that I had to do in order to better document the trail experience. The hike out to Wraith Falls was delightfully serene and quiet. There was only one couple that was wrapping up their hike, and thus I was the only one on the trail.
After the trail went through the familiar Lupine Meadow then went over a bridge before turning to the left looking right at the sun starting to peek above the neighboring hills, I saw the bulbous Wraith Falls. Then, I did my photos and videos before quickly making it back to the parked car at 8:55am.
Next, I followed a couple of cars driving slowly towards the Tower Junction, where I skipped Tower Fall since I knew that you could no longer get to the base of that waterfall. Actually, this time of the morning was the perfect time to see rainbows at its base. But now with such a subpar viewing experience and the crowds that were already there, I figured it wasn’t worth the stop anymore so I kept driving south to Roosevelt.
We’d eventually arrive at the Roosevelt Lodge at 9:20am. I managed to score on of the few scarce parking spaces here, where I started off by gearing up with bear spray and my camera, and then proceeded to hike to Lost Creek Falls (or Lost Falls).
Like I had recalled, there was a signed junction between Lost Creek Falls on the left and Lost Lake on the right. I went ahead and went gently uphill between the thick vegetation leading to the pretty quiet hike. While there were still lots of people out and about dining at Roosevelt Lodge or getting in and out of their log cabins, I found myself all alone on the Lost Creek Falls Trail just like I was 13 years ago.
Pretty soon after hiking about a half-mile or so from the backside of the Roosevelt Lodge main building, I’d eventually start to see parts of the Lost Creek Falls, where the trail officially ended. I saw that there were now more obvious scrambling paths leading right up to the base of the falls for a much better and less obstructed view. I went ahead and did those paths, which were remarkably easier than I had remembered before when I found myself scrambling amongst the fallen basalt.
The sun was just starting to penetrate and light up the uppermost sections of the falls. But I wasn’t being too picky about the lighting conditions since I knew that there were still more things to check out on this day.
We were all back at the car at 9:55am. Next, we followed a caravan of cars over the Dunraven Pass towards Canyon Village. It was the first time that we had ever driven this road since our last trip had this road closed for repair or something like that. Anyways, this stretch of road seemed to be pretty nice for panoramas. However, we didn’t stop for any of them because the skies were too hazy and the panoramas were way too muted or the visibility was poor.
We’d eventually arrive at the Canyon Village at 10:25am, where I was afraid that we’d have to compete for parking spaces in much the same way that Logan Pass parking in Glacier National Park was next to impossible if you weren’t there at the crack of dawn. But when we realized that the Canyon overlooks were at least a mile or two away from where were at, I resigned myself to needing to drive to the lookouts then driving back to the village despite how frustrating it could be to find parking in both spots (especially along those Canyon Rim Lookouts where I knew parking must be very limited).
So we got back in the car at 10:40am, which was probably 15 minutes we could have gotten back by heading straight the overlooks instead of outsmarting myself. And sure enough, ten minutes later, there was a bit of a traffic jam right around the bend of where the North Rim drive started.
It took some time for the traffic to move, but the source of the jam was that people in the front of the line who didn’t know better were waiting for a parking spot, and the single-lane road was clogged. Little did they realize that the Brink of the Lower Falls parking area (which was a lot bigger than I remembered it) was merely the first in a series of a handful of overlooks.
When it came our turn to try our hand at parking, I was about to drive right through the first parking area when Julie spotted some parking spaces near the toilets. Anyways, we’d finally park the car at 10:50am. And then we promptly walked along the Rim Trail past the turnoff for the Brink of the Lower Falls (which was closed again, just like it was closed the last time we were here), and we promptly kept walking to the Lookout Point and Red Rock Lookout.
It turned out that as we were walking this stretch that my gut instinct was correct. We should have kept driving because there were more parking spaces and far less congestion than the first parking area, especially at the Lookout Point parking area. So that probably cost us several minutes of walking right there.
Anyways, we then walked over to the Lookout Point overlook where we were totally competing for the choice viewing spots at the limited spaced overlook of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. It was just as big and thunderous as we had remembered it 13 years ago, and the sulphur-caked cliffs that gave the park its name were also very impressive.
After getting our fill of the upper spot, we then walked down to the Red Rock Lookout. Just like before, it was quite a ways down and we knew that going back up would be taxing. Some of the folks who were making their way up were breathing very heavily (especially those out of shape). That kind of told us what we were in for.
There was one guy who was trying to scramble down the gully off trail alongside the approach to the Red Rock Lookout. When I saw how he was struggling with trying to pull it off (made trickier because there was still water running off in that gully), I had an aha moment where he was doing what some people in the past were probably able to do in that they were able to scramble to access the base of Lower Falls. Either that or the Uncle Tom’s Trail at one point used to go all the way to the bottom. By the way, the Uncle Tom’s Trail and many other accesses in the Canyon area would be closed for at least this year and into next year due to some major Trail Restoration Project going on.
There were some old photographs taken from the base of the Lower Falls, and even the Yellowstone Waterfalls and their Discoveries book by Rubenstein, et. al. had a color photo from such a vantage point. Perhaps this gully was the lone way left to get down there though it definitely looked pretty steep even going down this gully, and then you’d still have to scramble alongside the bottom of the canyon to get all the way to the Lower Falls. It was probably a foolhardly effort by this guy.
By 11:30am, we made it down to the Red Rock Lookout (so named because there was a big ridge or spire adjacent to the lookout) and we got a few more shots of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone though we were low enough that some trees were in the way of the nice views from here. I remembered the last time we were here, there was enough spray from the falls that sometimes we felt mist making its way downstream towards us. But that definitely wasn’t the case on this trip.
At least we didn’t have to compete for choice viewing spots too much as there were far fewer people down here than there were up at the main overlook at Lookout Point. Regardless, we quickly had our fill of this spot as more and more people made their way down, and then we proceeded to walk back up. Just as expected, it was taxing, but quite manageable to get all the way back up.
Pretty much the route was paved with some sections of wooden steps towards the end (or the beginning in our case). By about 15 minutes later, we finally made it back to the crowded parking area. I told Julie and Tahia that they could wait for me here, while I went back along the road to pick up the car and then bring it over here to pick them up.
By 12pm, I got the car back, and then we promptly drove past the remaining lookouts (skipping Grand View) and some intermediate lookouts on the way there before getting to the road closure at the junction of the Inspiration Point Road. We got to that junction at 12:10pm.
At this point, I told Julie that I was going to get off here to do the hike to get to Silver Cord Cascade (the lookout). And that Julie could drive the car into Canyon Village so they could have a proper lunch while loitering about the village area while I was soloing the hike.
There was some guy in an unmarked big gray pick-up truck who thought I was trying to drive on the closed road blocking anyone from driving onto Inspiration Point Road. There was also another vehicle blocking the ability for us to pull off and switch drivers while the gray pick-up looked like he wanted to get through us and leave. By the way, he was just leaving from behind the barricades so I thought he was someone who managed to drive the road, but turned out he was probably a subcontractor doing the renovation work.
When the private white van finally left, Julie helped me gear up with leftover turkey sandwich and water while I was busy putting on boots and wearing my pack with handheld GPS. Just as we were going this, the guy in the big gray truck said, “You can’t park here, buddy!”, to which I told him, “I know.”
Anyways, we parted ways, and I prompted walked the empty Inspiration Point Road. For about a half-mile or so stretch, the road was delightfully empty. Then, I got to a spot where there was definitely some work going on for the pullout at the Glacial Boulder Trailhead. I promptly walked up to the glacial boulder which I swore we hadn’t noticed before when Julie and I were here some 13 years ago.
Well, I got to the trailhead at 12:20pm, and then I promptly did the hike on the conventional trail leading to both the Silver Cord Cascade Overlook (said to be a mile away from here) and the Seven-Mile Hole amongst other spots.
The forested trail undulated down and up so it wasn’t as flat as I thought I had remembered it. But the slopes weren’t too extensive and severe in the grand scheme of things. There was a large group of Asian hikers with British accents having a picnic or something along the way so at least I wasn’t completely alone on this hike though I did pass them and keep going.
They said that they hadn’t gotten to the waterfall yet, and I suspected that they picked this trail to walk at random or something because it didn’t appear that they knew about Silver Cord Cascade (or maybe they did?) based on my passing inquiry about whether they made it to the falls or not.
The trail would continue to go up where I started to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River again before the trail made a bit of a lengthy descent leading to some unsigned spurs towards somewhat obvious viewing spots where the Silver Cord Cascade could be seen.
The sun was still shining brightly even though some of the budding thunderstorm clouds were blocking the sun intermittently. It wasn’t during the minutes that I was at the falls view at 12:50pm so I had to manage the bad lighting situation in much the same way I had to when I was last here 13 years ago.
Once I had my fill of this falls, I was looking to have a picnic here, but the problem was that there was no shade. So I had to walk back to the main trail, then start looking for a little better shade so I could finally have that turkey sandwich and water. Just as I was doing this, the large group of hikers were passing by. One girl asked if I had seen a bear, which I denied.
By 1:10pm, I was done with the impromptu picnic lunch in a very informal shaded spot, and then I promptly made it back to the Glacial Boulder Trailhead at 1:30pm. Next, I walked back on the Inspiration Point Road to the junction with the North Rim Drive (getting there at 1:40pm), and by 1:55pm, I had finally bade it back to the Canyon Village.
Once I was there, I went looking in the General Store as well as the Visitor Center, but Julie and Tahia were nowhere to be found. I also asked the backcountry office employee about the latest conditions for the Union Falls hike, but her situation report printout was no different than what I had already seen online. The thing was that the updates for the Union Falls hike hadn’t been updated for about a month. She said that if that happens, it’s usually because the conditions haven’t changed.
So I guess I’d have to be dealing with a 30″ river ford. She did say that I didn’t have to cross right at the trail. I could always scramble around and look for the shallowest and safest crossing once I’m there.
Anyways, we also talked about the Rubenstein, et. al. book which she said was out-of-print now and was missing from that backcountry office. I told her that I already had a copy of that book and that they did some crazy off-trail stuff (which she acknowledged).
Well, with that, I thanked her and then walked to the other side of the village where there was a Canyon Lodge Dining and Gift Shop area. I managed to find Julie inside the gift shop at about 2:20pm, but it wouldn’t be until about 2:45pm when I regained the car. It still took Julie and Tahia time to get their souvenirs (Julie got a T-shirt and cap combo while Tahia got her own as well as a bison stuff animal she called “Bisie”).
While they were doing what they had to do, I saw some signage at the village depicting photos of how crowded it was even here back in the day when Model Ts were the norm. It talked about Mission 66 which was the biggest investment of public funds into the National Parks for the purposes of improving the infrastructure to accommodate the growing demands of increased visitation as well as the impact to the environment. Yellowstone certainly had a heritage of dealing with such issues being faced today. And I’m betting this village area was probably revamped from when we last stayed here at Canyon Lodge on our last visit.
By 2:50pm, we were finally leaving Canyon Village and resuming the sightseeing, which started to feel more like a work day to me since most of the repeat experiences of today were largely driven by me wanting to overhaul and update the writeups made from data collected 13 years ago, which was way more sparse and now definitely inaccurate given all the changes over the years.
Next, we drove to Arist Point. Along the way, we saw that the Uncle Tom’s Trail and parking area was closed. Even the trails leading to the views of the Upper Falls were not accessible so I couldn’t improve that writeup other than the logistics behind it. But there’d be no new photos and no new videos either. Same with Crystal Falls when we decided to forego the Brink of the Upper Falls spur on the way to the South Rim Drive.
By 3pm, we made it to the crowded Artist Point parking area, but we saw that there were quite a few parking spaces. It was nothing like what I was expecting, and it really did seem like the park service did a good job of managing the crowds and the congestion. It was a far cry from the Glacier National Park experience. And it really did seem like the Mission 66 initiative was definitely paying dividends to the park visitor experience at Yellowstone.
We then got onto the crowded overlooks for Artist Point, which didn’t disappoint. Of course the plethora of people here made it feel claustrophobic, especially when it was hard to get people shots or even just normal shots of the attractions of the Lower Falls looking west and the colorful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, which was getting perfect lighting looking downstream.
From hearing all the foreign accents and foreign languages (many European though a good chunk of them were mainland Chinese), it was pretty obvious that Yellowstone was a world famous attraction. Julie commented how the $30 entry fee for an entire party in a car was a bargain compared to most of the other attractions around the world. This was probably also why the National Park Service relies on donations and volunteers, and always seems to be resource strapped as admission fees don’t keep up with the costs of upkeep.
By 3:35pm, we were back in the car. We then drove west towards Gibbon Falls as my mission to do my own little Mission 66 of my website was resuming. Julie and Tahia were napping at this point so by the time I got to the Gibbon Falls Parking area at 4:15pm, I was hiking to the overlooks on my own.
By the way, they definitely changed the Grand Loop Road at this spot as I remembered last time there were pullouts alongside the road causing congestion at this very spot. But now, they had that spacious parking lot and you had to walk to the familiar overlooks.
So I gladly spent time doing that, and I totally didn’t mind the exercise and extra time spent given this infrastructure. It was definitely Mission 66 at work here, I thought, and it was a very good change at that. Anyways, I managed to read the signs and capture photos and videos from the Upper Lookout, an informal Middle Lookout, and the Lower Lookout. Even though the signs had pointed to a brink view, it didn’t seem to be anything.
And with the nice afternoon lighting, I was finally able to capture Gibbon Falls the right way as the last time we were here, we were looking against the sun in the morning.
At 4:40pm, I was back in the car. By that time, both Julie and Tahia were up. It seemed like Tahia had been saturated with waterfalls (even though we hadn’t seen that many to this point) as she wanted to check into our lodging at Flagg Ranch instead of visiting Virginia Cascades (which was next) nor the Natural Bridge, which I had my sights on since grizzly bear activity closed off that trail 13 years ago when we were here.
At 5pm, we were back on the narrow Virginia Cascades Loop Road, which was one way counterclockwise. We were the only ones on the road and pulled over at a pullout just before we were starting to see the familiar Virginia Cascade again. But this time, we were getting the benefit of afternoon lighting though it seemed like the trees grew taller (i.e. obstructed the views more) and some of the west-facing falls started to be in shadow of the cliffs as the sun was further west on the horizon.
Regardless, we got what we needed just as a group of bikers and other vehicles passed by, and by 5:15pm, I was back in the car and ready to head in the direction of Natural Bridge and then Flagg Ranch.
Just as we were making our way to Canyon Village, I had this idea that perhaps we could eat at Yellowstone Lake Lodge while I’d do the Natural Bridge hike while waiting for the food to show up. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perhaps we should go back to the Canyon Village and have our dinner cafe style.
So we did that and got back to the sparsely populated Canyon Village at 5:30pm. We went ahead and did our pretty affordable and healthy meal, until we got back in the car at 6:40pm. We had another Chipotle-style cafe experience consisting of wild salmon, rotisserie chicken, and Tahia’s Montana-beef bolognese pasta. We spoiled ourselves with huckleberry ice cream, where the single scoop we ordered was generously big.
Next, we headed south to the Natural Bridge, but in doing so, we had to cross through Hayden Valley, which I knew was a wildlife viewing spot. It turned out that on this trip (unlike the last one) that it was sparse in wildlife viewing. However, when we saw there was a huge traffic jam and people with lots of binoculars and powerful zoom lenses, I wondered if they had spotted grizzlies.
We didn’t stop because whatever they saw, it wasn’t obvious from the road. So we kept driving. But when I started to see bison grazing, I pulled over and let Tahia get excited about seeing wildlife for the first time in Yellowstone. Since she got the stuffed animal of a bison at the Canyon Village, she was overjoyed at seeing them for real, and she kept yelling out “Bisie!”
Julie and I weren’t sure if we were disturbing the peace with Tahia’s overjoyed squeals. But after having our fill of this stop, we then made another stop when we saw a giant herd of bison spread out all over Hayden Valley. I was worried that some of them might want to cross the road and cause a traffic jam so after getting our fill of them at 7:15pm, we then promptly got back in the car and had to insist our way out of the pullout amidst the traffic confusion.
Next, we passed by the Mud Volcano area, which Julie wanted to see upon seeing all the rising steam and vents. But I knew that we were pressed for time and couldn’t stop here. She obviously wasn’t happy about my decision to keep going (knowing that we’ve done this before), and she criticized my decision at going to the Natural Bridge, which was something we hadn’t done before.
And in the midst of this argument, I decided that perhaps we should do neither and go for the Crecelius Cascade since that was a waterfall that we had missed the last time around.
I knew that at about 18 miles from the Fishing Bridge Junction, that we were doomed to have to drive in the dark on the way to Flagg Ranch. With the amount of wildlife in this park, the thought of hitting wildlife with the car and damaging it was always foremost on my mind.
Eventually at 8pm, we’d make it to a signed pullout for Eleanor Lake once we finally figured out after the fact that the Crecelius Cascade was on the east side of this reflective lake. Along the way, there were some nice views of Yellowstone Lake but we didn’t have time to make stops for them. It turned out that we had overshot this spot earlier and made it all the way to Corkscrew Bridge view which was beyond Sylvan Pass.
Tahia couldn’t hold in her pee and happened to miss the emergency pee bag and got it on the seat, which really upset Julie.
Anyways, as the sun was setting, I got out of the car, walked to the east side of Eleanor Lake (which had another pullout but no signage indicating the Crecelius Cascade), and I finally spotted the falls on the south side of the road (and not the north side as I had previously thought all this time).
Finally, I was able to capture the falls in video and photos, and we finally bagged the last of the frontcountry waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park. As I was walking back to the car, I saw a gorgeous red globe sun behind the trees in the way and wished that we could have caught the sunset with Yellowstone Lake in view.
But alas, it was about 8:20pm when I was back in the car. Now, we were doomed to drive in the dark though that didn’t stop us from making a couple of stops for ok views over Yellowstone Lake as well as stopping for deer grazing not far from the road (the very reason why you don’t speed drive at night).
After following a caravan of cars on the way to Fishing Bridge (where we topped off on gas) and then we had to lead the way to West Thumb Junction, and then we followed another caravan of cars south to Flagg Ranch (where some impatient drivers passed by on the two-lane highway and risked striking wildlife while speeding some 20-30mph above the posted speed limit while we were already going about 5-10mph above the speed limit), we’d finally arrive at the Headwaters Flagg Ranch Lodge at 10:10pm.
We had some trouble finding the check in reception, but once we finally did that, we then had to try to find parking closer to our cabin, where the lot was full and we had to improve by parallel parking at the edge of the lot. Then, I had to make multiple trips from the car to the lodge in jettisoning our stuff into the room and freeing up the car from containing too many valuables for the rest of our stay in Yellowstone and the Tetons since we’d be staying here for the next four nights.
Julie commented that it was no wonder why this place was so expensive because each of the rooms were pretty much their own cabins (actually shared cabins but the privacy was definitely there). And with our late check-in (we weren’t the only ones by the way as many others had arrived after us), it wouldn’t be until well after midnight when Julie and I finally slept.
With tomorrow’s early start to beat the road construction delays near the South Entrance, this would definitely not be a restful night. Plus with the plummeting temperatures (it was below 50F here), I’m sure getting up and out of bed would be difficult as well…
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