YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Bison surrounded our minivan. Big ones and little ones. Some weighing about a ton, strolling 3 feet outside my window. This was so Yellowstone.
Park rangers do their best to educate the public to stay well away from wildlife: 100 yards from bears and wolves, 25 yards from everything else.
In busy parts of the park, such as where an elk herd likes to chew the green grass in front of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, frustrated rangers yell “Keep back! You’re too close!” as a grandma from Ohio or Iowa waves her camera phone at a burly bull elk that could gore her in a selfie-taking second.
But sometimes the animals come to you, and there’s nothing you can do.
I was spending a morning with Shauna Baron, a naturalist and guide with the Yellowstone Association, the park’s nonprofit partner in education, and we were stopped on one of the park’s main highways, heading to the Lamar Valley.
As happens so often here, traffic ahead halted when motorists spotted wildlife. But this was a little different. This herd of dozens of bison was walking on the two-lane highway, which like many roads in the park follows historic wildlife migration routes.
“It was their road, and we paved it,” Baron quipped. “I’m starting to wonder if this group knows something we don’t, because they’re already moving to lower elevations!”
It was mid-September as we watched the humpbacked beasts, some of the thousands that live in the park. Earlier in the week, parts of the park had already seen 8 inches of snow, but most roads stay open until November.
We spotted bison pies on the double yellow lines this morning. “You don’t want to hit one of those when they’re frozen; they can pop a tire!” Baron confided. (Local knowledge, it’s everything.)
I felt more-or-less safe with the van door between me and a bull bison. But I’d already heard a ranger describe the beasts as all “big horns and bad attitude.” He’d told of an acquaintance who had stopped her brand-new Ford pickup for a bison in the road. It was a standoff for a long time — until the animal “suddenly turned and BAM, hit the front of her truck, then just walked away.”
So I wasn’t exactly complacent. In fact, it’s hard to be complacent in Yellowstone.
As autumn arrived I’d expected a September visit to this unique park to be relaxed, with thin crowds and perhaps fewer roadside animals as they prepared for the region’s bitter winter.
Turned out there were plenty of both — people and animals — still around.
Was she glad to have come at this time of year I asked visitor Tammy Wright, a Seattle nurse who was threading a crowded boardwalk and ducking young parkgoers, who were wielding selfie sticks and speaking many different languages, at Grand Prismatic Spring. The thermal feature of eye-popping, bleeding colors has become one of the park’s biggest attractions next to Old Faithful.
Yes, she said after looking around a moment. “Seeing this many people here now, I can only imagine what it’s like in the middle of summer!”
As visitor numbers have soared at the park in recent years, the offseason gets shorter and shorter, rangers told me.
September sees some drop in numbers; the Old Faithful visitor center gets about 10,000 people a day at summer’s peak, versus about 7,000 during my visit.
But parking lots still overflow at midday. Campgrounds fill. West Yellowstone motel rates remain well into triple digits. And traffic backups caused by a roadside elk can still measure in miles.
Crowds last until October if the snow holds off. There are plenty of reasons to stay away.
And yet there are good reasons to come as fall arrives, from the haunting bugling of rutting elk as the setting sun sparkles on the Madison River, to the smattering of golden aspens among the park’s millions of lodgepole pines.
“With its raging geysers and howling wolf packs, Yellowstone stands as one last pocket of a wild, primeval America,” writes Bradley Mayhew, co-author of Lonely Planet’s guide to the park.
My morning in the Lamar Valley was an invigorating taste of that.
VALUE OF A GUIDE
As we got moving again, Baron demonstrated the value of touring with a guide (she regularly leads field trips with her organization) as she related some of the autumn backstory of the Lamar, whose abundance of wildlife gives it the nickname “the Serengeti of North America.”
A few days earlier, the alpha wolf of the resident Junction Butte pack killed an elk, she told me.
But before his pack of 18 wolves could feed off it, an enemy pack on a fall migration from 25 miles away — pups are finally big enough to travel — took the kill.
When the resident alpha male tried to take it back, the marauders killed him.
“When packs come together, they fight like street gangs. So there’s been a big soap opera playing out this week between the two packs; things change constantly, there’s always cliffhangers,” said Baron, who has degrees in wildlife biology and science education.
On our visit, we could still fix a spotting scope on the body of the wolf, known pragmatically as Wolf 911M but sentimentally mourned by Baron, her colleagues and scores of citizen “Wolf Watchers” who had observed him grow up to lead the pack.
WILDLIFE OR GEYSERS?
If you’re a Yellowstone regular, it seems you eventually join one of two ranks: Wolf Watchers, who set up their high-priced scopes on roadsides at dawn and dusk in the park’s Lamar or Hayden valleys; or “Geyser Gazers,” who perch in lawn chairs next to geysers and help rangers record and predict eruptions.
Both groups, many of them retirees who live near the park, carry radios and gossip back and forth about their finds. (Chat them up for tips during your visit.)
This day we spied the dead wolf on the river shore near the site of the elk kill. Wolf Watchers crowded the roadside to see if more wolves would come to feed on the elk carcass. So far this morning, only a few scavengers in the form of coyotes and ravens had appeared.
Up the valley, a bison carcass — a casualty of fighting during the bison rut a couple of weeks earlier — was another stakeout site. Bob Jones, a Wolf Watcher from Billings, Mont., had a folding table on the highway shoulder with a propane stove on which he was brewing coffee in the morning chill. Overnight temperatures had dipped into the 30s.
“I came to see the wildfires last month, and then the bison fight, and then we’ve had just tremendous grizzly and wolf sightings,” Jones said.
Back in our van, Baron told me, “You learn the sociology of these groups. You can tell if they have something (in their scopes) just by their posture and how they’re talking to each other.” (Funny, she talks the same way about the animals.)
Peering through our scope from another vantage point, Baron let out a delighted squeal.
“I got a moose!”
I squinted through the scope. Sure enough, across a grassy hillside on the far side of the valley, a moose cow moved in the long-legged, loose-jointed lope that says “Call me Bullwinkle.” Moose have become relatively rare in the park since raging wildfires of 1988 burned much of the subalpine firs that moose like to eat in winter.
As we watched, a herd of pronghorn antelope scattered around the moose. “They’re probably saying, ‘What are you? A Dr. Seuss animal?’ ” Baron said with a chuckle.
Her best tip for spotting interesting wildlife?
“It always pays to sit tight for a while, not to always keep moving. And look for changes in the scene in front of you. What keyed me into her was the pronghorns moving. Other animals will tell you something has changed, something is new. Their lives depend on it, so they’ll alarm by moving or putting their heads up. They’ll warn each other.”
Yellowstone’s wildlife make the place phenomenal. Yellowstone’s geysers, mudpots and hot springs make it unique.
While there are geysers in Iceland, New Zealand and California, Yellowstone has more than half the world’s thermal features, boiling and bubbling and sending up raging heat and choking fumes from the bowels of the earth.
Much of the park sits atop what is quite literally an active volcano.
It makes for socially awkward situations. As you drive through the park, time and again you get a whiff of hydrogen sulfide and you may look around the car to say, “OK, who …?” And then you realize, oh, just another roadside fumarole.
My advice: Go beyond Old Faithful. Make it your starting point in Geyser Country.
It’s an easy checkoff on your list. When you arrive at the visitor center, you’ll not have a long wait before Old Faithful erupts (about every 90 minutes; go get a cup of coffee or stroll the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the majority of the world’s active geysers). And you can be among the hundreds crowding around to watch and hold up your phone when Old Faithful shoots as high as 184 feet into the air.
The real treat is taking a walk or drive to find geysers without the throngs. While rangers track the timing of eruptions for six of the park’s geysers, mostly near Old Faithful (see the electronic reader board in the visitor center lobby), many more are unpredicted.
My most satisfying thermal moment in the park was when I stopped along Firehole Lake Drive, one of several one-way side roads off the main highway, to photograph the Matterhorn-shaped White Dome Geyser.
I was there five minutes when the geyser suddenly erupted with a “fwooosh” of steaming water 30 feet into the blue sky. It lasted two minutes, a weird phenomenon that much of America’s educated establishment refused to believe in when mountain men first related the discovery in the 1800s, before this became the world’s first national park.
On this September day in 2016, I was one of a dozen people to witness it. Pure serendipity.
Seasonal changes were something to revel in.
With my $50 canister of bear spray in a belt holster, I hiked to see bison — their rut season finished — lounging in mud by pretty Lost Lake. I drove by the light of the harvest moon over 8,859-foot-high Dunraven Pass and saw the first pink of a chilly dawn on mists hanging over the Yellowstone River.
“Right now there’s amazing light and color — the understory in the conifer forest has turned yellow and salmon and orange and red, in the thimbleberry, dogbane and sticky geranium,” I heard from Ken Voorhis, director of education for the Yellowstone Association. “The other day as I was passing the Gardner River, a big bull elk stood in the river with all those colors around him and that fall slanted light really made the whole scene pop.”
That’s autumn in Yellowstone. You might not have it to yourself. But you won’t forget it.