Winter in the Sun Canyon

Castle Reef in Wagner Basin with bighorn sheep at the base.

Winters are fickle in these parts. Last year, our February slogged on with temperatures well below zero for weeks on end and heavy snows. Yesterday, we traveled on mostly open ground with plenty of sunshine. That makes me happy.

Sun River Wildlife Management Area

Sun Canyon is one of my favorite places near our Great Falls’ home. Roughly 45 minutes to the small town of Augusta, then another 45 minutes up the Sun Canyon, it’s a gorgeous transition from the seemingly endless prairie to the rugged mountains. Along the way, travelers pass the Sun River Wildlife Management Area, which is closed from December 15 to May 15 to give the 4500+ elk a safe place to overwinter as they migrate from the high country in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the more open foothills and prairie. Yesterday, we spotted a few hundred braced against the wind along the hillside, but more could possibly be out of sight just beyond another rise.

Just beyond where we saw the elk, we caught a glimpse of another herd. At first, we assumed they were elk, but upon closer inspection they were actually mule deer… with 4 white-tails hanging in with the bunch. On our way up the canyon, they were all bedded down, but on the way back they were up and moving so I counted 77 of them as they meandered along the grasslands.

Walking into Wagner Basin

Despite it being a bit breezy – probably 30 mph winds gusting to 50 mph – I talked the boys into hiking to the “skull tree” in Wagner Basin to see if we could spot sheep. After crossing the bridge over the Sun River, you veer right to the Wagner Basin area. There was a little snow on the road in the shaded areas, and a grouse was hunkered in the middle before wandering off to the side.

I was pleased to see the culverts were replaced at the creek along the way allowing us to drive to the trailhead instead of park 1/4 mile short and walk. Two years ago, heavy snows followed by spring rain caused extensive flooding, blowing out the stream crossing. Cabin owners with trucks seemed to find their way across, but I always felt more comfortable parking on this side of it. Now we don’t have to. A single bighorn sheep ewe hung out near the cabins, which seemed odd until we stepped out of the truck and were blasted by the wind. Maybe she’s the only smart one who figured out how to not be blown to death?

The hike into Wagner starts on a narrow trail along a limestone cliff face. It’s narrow, but not scary. Much scarier sounding then it really is, the skull tree is a local where local artists hang the (mostly deer) skulls on which they paint wildlife and other outdoor themes. There aren’t many of the painted ones left as the color flecks off in the harsh conditions, but we always like to check. There’s also a picnic table in the little grove of trees (I have no idea who hauled that back there!), making it a nice place to stop before continuing up the hill, or just to bring a group of kids. It’s only 1/2 mile from the trailhead on a relatively flat trail so this is one practically anyone can do.

Thankfully, we saw a white-tailed doe in the trees causing us to hike up in the more protected area where we eventually spotted a small group of bighorn sheep. We managed to work our way closer to them noticing they were all ewes and young rams. A large group of white-tails were nearby in the grove a bit further down, and Grant spotted a large group of bighorns at the top of the overlook. (Which is where I really love to go, but I didn’t want a mutiny on my hands.) Of course, since it’s a couple of miles away, he couldn’t quite tell if the bigger rams were up there.

There’s a reason Sun Canyon is my go-to for a quick outdoor fix. It doesn’t take long to be out of cell range and in the middle of some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities around, along with so many different hikes there’s always an adventure that fits the mood for the day. Plus, it always changes. No matter how many times I visit, there’s always something new. New tracks, new wildlife, new flowers, or the scenery changes as the seasons progress. It’s a snippet of the whole world of wonder so close to home.

Springtime in Yellowstone

Experiencing Yellowstone at any time of the year is special, yet spring is always my favorite. Babies abound and the green landscape adorned with wildflowers is the best pick-me-up after our long winters. And, up until a few years ago, a springtime tour gave locals a chance to enjoy it without the crowds. I’m sorry to say, this is no longer the case. I realize it’s only going to become busier as the season progresses, yet the traffic and lines at popular areas was mind-boggling.

Beautiful morning in Yellowstone

Anticipating more visitors than in the early days, I made reservations at Bridge Bay campground 3 months ago through Xanterra, the concession for the hotels and some of the campgrounds. Although most of the available reserved camping sites are currently taken for the summer season (at least according to their website), I highly recommend this for anyone traveling to the park at practically any time of the year. I requested that we were near a restroom since having to walk one of the boys to the bathroom in the middle of the night would easier, and sure enough, we had a fantastic spot with a straight walk to one of the facilities.

We had a great camp spot, but the rain the first night was a challenge.

For most NPS campgrounds, it’s simply first-come, first-serve. You find an empty spot, possibly wrestle for it, stake it out, and pay for it immediately by filling out the little form and depositing your money in the box. Your stub proves it’s yours. At Bridge Bay, we entered one of the two lines formed to check in and received instruction on proper camping procedures, particularly when it comes to not attracting bears, which frequent the campground. Despite dealing with a continuous line of traffic, the attendants were courteous and helpful.

Bison are frequent visitors to the Bridge Bay Campground

It started to rain when we entered the north entrance, and it showed no signs of letting up as we pulled into Bridge Bay. We seriously wondered whether the rain fly and extra canopy Grant brought would be sufficient to keep us dry. We couldn’t ponder about it long. We were starving, so as soon as we pulled into our campsite, the first order of business was to set up the canopy over the picnic table to cook hotdogs since the hamburger and chicken were still solidly frozen. Once the rain stopped, albeit momentarily, we started a fire and made s’mores, each of us eating a couple apiece, before hustling to set up the tent and dive in once the rain began anew. It poured for hours, yet everything held and we stayed dry.

The Norris Geyser Basin is literally a hot bed for thermal activity.

Inside the Old Faithful Inn.

Weather on Saturday was completely different. Sunshine and warm weather was a welcomed change as we explored some of the thermal features and pestered rangers with questions. One of my goals for this trip was to sit down with Lee Whittlesey, the park historian who has written multiple books and articles on the extremely complex history of Yellowstone, as well as trying to gain my bearings on what the park used to be like. Although there are currently 983 structures within the park, it has changed considerably over the century of its existence. Our focus for the book veteran photographer Michael Francis and I are putting together, is to be able to paint a picture of what is happening in the vintage photos he’s collected giving readers a glimpse into what it was like. The first step is understanding what was available during various time periods, and this trip taught me, despite studying for the past several months, that I have barely scratched the surface. It’s going to be a fascinating journey.

People walking the boardwalk at the Norris Geyser Basin

During our visits to many of the popular geothermal areas, as well as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the traffic was off the charts. Parking took skill and patience, both things I lack, especially when people are not thinking or are being rude. While we thoroughly enjoyed walking along the Norris Geyser Basin, and hearing a fascinating talk on Steamboat Geyser, the best times were when we could escape the crowds.

The spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The Dragons Mouth Spring at Mud Volcanoes. This was my favorite of the thermal features we visited.

The trick to avoid the masses is to be out early in the morning or later in the evening,  when people are typically having dinner. We were able to find a picnic area very close to Bridge Bay where no one was parked, allowing us a walk to the beach of Yellowstone Lake to spend time alone. Chorus frogs and water birds were our only company. And even though we were there for fishing, Sam and John preferred to look for frogs. I was happy to sit and listen to them, despite still being able to hear traffic from above.

Sunday we opted to walk a couple of miles along the Mary Mountain trail starting south of Madison. This 22-mile hike that was part of the same trail followed by the Nez Perce as they fled through the region reaches from the west side of the Grand Tour Loop Rd. to Hayden Valley, and appears to be an exceptional, if very long, day hike. Wide and well-worn, the trail was an old wagon road winding through open parks and forested areas, ultimately meeting up with the Nez Perce Creek within a couple of miles. Grant broke out the fly rod and tried his hand tempting the trout in the fast flowing water while I geeked out over wildflowers and the Sam looked for water striders. Grant almost landed a small trout, and the boys each took their hand at fishing. On the hike back we took a closer look at the trees rubbed from the bison. During our first day in the park, I wondered why so many were barkless on one side towards the bottom.  It was nice to be away from everyone and have a moment to breathe and notice the beauty of the area.

Where Nez Perce Creek meets the Mary Mountain Trail.

While Grant and the boys fished, I looked for wildflowers.

The Mary Mountain Trail is a perfect example of how easily you can avoid the crowds. Even though it’s on a busy route, only one hiker passed us on our walk into the creek, and a family of 4 from New Jersey (evident since they had no water, no bear spray, and no packs) approached on our walk back to the car. (On a side note, not being prepared with the basics makes me cringe since more than one person has muttered, “I’ll be right back,” intending to go for a quick walk that turns into a harrowing experience. Thankfully, their walk didn’t last long and we saw them back at the trailhead.)

Heading back to the car on the Mary Mountain Trail.

Yellowstone abounds with life – including humanity – at this time of the year. By heading out very early or later in the evening, or simply finding trails that don’t have interpretative signs along the way, you can experience the park on your own terms.

Bison are the epitome of Yellowstone.