72 at the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Yellowstone Park,

September 2014

Ed Strauss writes:

From as far as Texas, Vermont, and the Bay Area, classmates and guests journeyed to Billings, Montana, for the start of the Class of 1972’s epic visit to Big Sky Country. Once again Jim and Chris Robinson had mapped out every detail with superlative care and forethought. On Tuesday afternoon, September 9, some of us explored such Billings highlights as the Army-Navy Store and Lou Taubert’s Western Apparel. Our first rendez-vous was for cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres in the lobby of the Northern Hotel that evening, followed by a festive dinner there.

Early next morning we set out, forty-nine strong (one more joined us en route), in our comfortable bus expertly piloted by Shawn an adopted member of the Crow Nation who became familiar to us by his first name. We were heading east and south from Billings about sixty miles through rolling grassland and sagebrush countryside to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. First came a talk in the visitors’ center by a park ranger, recounting the dramatic events of June 1876. Then we were joined in the bus by an expert guide and commentator Noel Two Leggings from the Crow Nation, as we toured the battlefield, in light drizzle, along the crest of the ridgeline overlooking the Little Bighorn River, to the scene of the Reno-Benteen fight and the summit where Custer made his legendary last stand.

We had hoped to enter Yellowstone Park via the legendary Beartooth Highway but the road was closed for the season due to earlier-than-expected snowfall (more than ten days before the end of summer). So we took an alternate route south into Wyoming and then, at Cody, turned due west along the Shoshone River, up into the soaring Absaroka mountains and into Yellowstone Park by the East Gate, arriving at the Lake Lodge, our home for the next several days, just before dinner. Bright and early next morning, with frost and a dusting of snow underfoot, we met our four guides from the Yellowstone Association, a non-profit which undertakes educational and conservation programs in the Park. Each guide spent at least one day with each of our four groups – in which we self-selected by degree of hiking prowess -- surveying a wide variety of the natural treasures the Park has to offer. Our guides dazzled us with their breadth of knowledge and lore, whether about "charismatic mega fauna” (i.e. big mammals – bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, gray wolf, bighorn sheep, mule deer), the massive forest fire of 1988, or the 1877 trek of the Nez Perce across the Park. One day or another, each group got to see many of the same highlights, except for those who chose the most ambitious path: a climb up Mount Washburn, on our third and last day in the Park, more than 10,000 feet high, for a 360-degree panorama of the Park’s northern half and its neighboring peaks. Our daily itineraries ranged from Old Faithful to the Lamar Valley; each day we crossed Hayden Valley, especially rich in wildlife. We marveled at the steaming, bubbling, other-worldly mud pots, fumaroles, geysers, and other thermals. (Half of the world’s inventory of these geological wonders are located within the Park). We enjoyed dinners at the majestic Lake Hotel and comfortably rustic Lake Lodge and the Roosevelt campsite in Pleasant Valley. Temperatures ranged from the 20’s to the high 60’s, so we became adept at layering. Early Sunday morning we returned to the Billings airport and then on to our respective homes, immeasurably enriched by the enjoyment of myriad natural wonders while in fellowship with the very best of congenial company.

Yellowstone, Group 1-- Ed Strauss writes:

"Day One: Geysers, Mud Pots, and Hot Springs.” Thursday morning, with light snow and frost underfoot – one iPhone reported 26 degrees - we gathered for breakfast in the Lake Lodge and then were introduced to our guides from the Yellowstone Association Institute – our fabulous, all-knowing, enthusiastic leaders/instructors for the next three days: Carolyn, David, Juliane, and Owen. Groups 1 and 2 boarded the big bus, again expertly piloted by Shawn, with engaging commentary by Juliane and Owen, for our first look at the Hayden Valley, rich in avian and mammalian wildlife.

We then turned west, crossed the Solfatara Plateau as we learned about forest fires and blowdowns. At Norris Geyser Basin we began following the Gibbon River and had our first glimpses at the abundance of other-worldly geo-thermal phenomena: the Chocolate Pots and Gibbon Meadows. (Merc adds that Groups 3 and 4 climbed into passenger vans and embarked on the same itinerary. With little difference in route, the several groups were treated to various lengths of brief brisk outings amid the steamy springs and the somber narratives of fatal visitor misadventures amid the thermal pools casually referred to as "terminal selection events” by our guides.) At Madison we met the Firehole River and marveled at the Fountain Paint Pot and nearby thermals in the Midway and Upper Geyser Basins, leading us right to Old Faithful where we enjoyed our box lunches and were dazzled by this world-renowned natural icon (we were treated to two eruptions, right on time – about 65 minutes apart). We admired the spectacular Old Faithful Inn (1903-04), said to be the largest log structure in the world, and traced the trails and boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin, which alone contains about a fourth of the world’s geysers. Our return trip followed the same route in reverse, with a stop at the Mud Volcano and Sulphur Cauldron in Hayden Valley. Dinner was in the dining room of the majestic Lake Hotel, the oldest in the park.

        "Day Two: Wildlife Watching on the Northern Range.” Friday the 12th we rallied extra early for a look at "critters,” setting out at 6 a.m. Guided by David in one of the small buses, our route traversed the Hayden Valley, then continued north through the Washburn Range and Dunraven Pass.

Merc Morris Adds:

         On the shoulder of Mount Washburn, vans 3 and 4 pulled onto an overlook to watch as a bull elk pushed two cow elk down the steep slope towards the road at a blind curve for oncoming traffic. There were tense moments as we watched the elk negotiate the steep roadside cut looking as if they might at any moment tumble in front of a vehicle. Thankfully no tragedy to visitor or resident animal transpired and we embarked again for our wolf watching destination. The caravan turned east onto the North Eastern Entry Road at Roosevelt Tower and eventually rolled to a crowded stop at what would be our wolf watching prominence, a high bluff off of Slough Creek Campground Road. All available clothing layers were mustered to service in the morning cold as we took a short hike to join a cadre of other early risers peering through the precise optics of wildlife spotting scopes. Sharp-eyed observers narrowed our field of view as we panned a the grasses and vegetation of a river island approximately 600 yards distant for glimpses of the black, gray and white shapes of one of the park’s more reliably viewed packs. Guide Carolyn then treated us with a fascinating narration of the surges and ebbs of the wolf population since the reintroduction into the park.

        Following the wolf watch, the groups returned to their buses and followed the course of the Lamar River into the Lamar Valley where they were treated to one of those inexplicable, hurried movements of bison from one side of the valley, across the river, to the other. We were told by our naturalist guides that this is what bison do and no one knows exactly why.

        The groups parted ways again two buses continuing on to a parking turnout to ascend a trail that skirted forest to Trout Lake, a beautifully nestled natural lake surrounded by tundra and one bull bison napping contentedly beside the lake. It was a timely cue and the hiking group fanned out across the tundra for a hillside lunch above the bison and then proceeded to walk around the lake detouring respectfully uphill to avoid the bison that also decided to saunter without care or alarm along the footpath. Nice Bison….

        On the return to the vehicles, some sharp-eyed hikers pointed out the tiny, but bright white shapes of mountain goats mingled into the tree line on the 10,500 foot Thunderer Peak across the road where our buses were parked.

Ed Strauss Continues:

In the Lamar Valley we had further close-up views of bison herds and pronghorns. Two groups continued to lunch under towering cliffs at the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area we visited the Hartman Gallery in Silver Gate, just outside the park’s northeast corner, where we were treated to a slide show and commentary by wildlife and nature photographer Dan Hartman, in the tradition of Western wilderness storytelling. Everyone assembled for a chuck-wagon cookout dinner at Roosevelt Lodge in Pleasant Valley.

Merc Morris on the Mount Washburn Hike:

       Saturday was the much anticipated hike of Mount Washburn, the summit of a mountain range completely contained within the park. Following a brief stop the Lower Falls Overlook, the buses carrying the Mount Washburn hikers departed for their jumping off locations: parking turnouts at Dunraven Pass south of the peak and a parking area on the mountain’s north shoulder accessed by Chittenden Road. Our hiking groups would start at opposite sides of Mount Washburn cross over the top and then descend to the side opposite their starting point. Our intent was to rendezvous for lunch at the base of the fire observation tower/observation deck atop the 10,243 foot peak. Each group would ascend approximately 1500 feet over the two mile hike. The two approaches were markedly different: the Chittenden Road route serves as the vehicle access for the fire tower a route easily driven by passenger vehicles. The Dunraven Pass "trail” followed an abandoned access road once open to motoring park visitors. In its day it was narrow, unguarded and very much a white knuckle drive to the summit. The hike was breezy and open to say the least.

       The Dunraven Pass group summited slightly ahead of the Chittenden Road group who had slowed their pace to observe a herd of bighorn sheep climbing slightly behind them—completely oblivious to the now hushed tigers above them. As that group of hikers continued, the Dunraven hikers, higher on the mountain, were treated to a view of the hikers and the herd of sheep crossing the road after the hikers passed. Way Cool.

       Cool, too were the view and the breeze atop Mount Washburn. Fifty miles away, the jagged outline of Grand Teton was a blue silhouette against the sky. Astonishingly, except for that peak and one other near Grand Teton, everything visible was contained in the park boundaries. The scale was astonishing: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone appeared as jagged-edge groove in a forest and most of what we could see, most visitors never do. According to our guides, less than 1% of the Yellowstone visitors ever see the back country.

One other moment was not to be missed and that was the photo opportunity provided by Bob Wright who packed his class banner to the summit. Following lunch and the group photo, each group completed its hike by descending to the opposite trailhead. Back in the bus and on our way back to the lodge with a quick stop at the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River. We were tired but invigorated by the camaraderie and scenery of our most ambitious day in the park.

Ed Strauss on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the journey home:

Saturday the 13th, while the more ambitious Groups 3 and 4 summited Mount Washburn, we followed our customary (but never routine) itinerary across Hayden Valley, this time halting at the Canyon Visitors Center and, along with Group 2 and led by Carolyn and David, we had our first awe-inspiring look at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, from the South Rim, starting at Uncle Tom’s Point lookout for a view of the Upper Falls (109 foot drop), then a hike through the backcountry, past Clear Lake and across a field of bubbling, steaming hydrothermals, to Lily Pad Lake and our spectacular, vertiginous picnic site near Artist Point and a dramatic view of the hugely photogenic Lower Falls (308 foot drop), then by bus back across the Hayden Valley, with a stop at the bucolic, peaceful Nez Perce Ford picnic area on the banks of the Yellowstone River, soon reaching our home base at the Lodge, bidding fond farewells to our fabulous Yellowstone Association instructors, and enjoying a festive buffet dinner punctuated with toasts and locomotive cheers. Sunday morning the 14th we packed up, boarded the big bus, and headed east along the north shore of Yellowstone Lake and out the park’s East Gate, retracing in reverse our route of entry, and through the Shoshone National Forest to Cody and the Billings Airport, and home. What a treasure chest of memories we have to savor of this magical wonder, the world’s first national park, created exactly one hundred years before we graduated from Princeton. Let’s hear it for ’72!