Road Trip! Back to Yellowstone and Grand Teton… Finally!

Yellowstone 2021: What can we learn from a pandemic?

It’s only a faint memory now, the daily news reports about something making people sick in a far away place. Early news reports told us it would ‘suddenly disappear,’ but other reports were more disturbing. I recall one of the doctors warning that ‘millions upon millions of people will die’ under a worst-case scenario.

It was late March, 2020, when my home state of Ohio first began warning of indefinite lockdown of non-essential businesses and public schools. During the early part of the lockdown I did what many people my age did – I rarely left the house. I also learned to cut my own hair, which I still do, and I’m improving with each weekly ‘trim.’ And, I didn’t have so much as a sniffle over the next year. So, it seemed in my world that it wasn’t all bad. The world news was horrific, though. I pray for all those families less fortunate than mine.

What must the wildlife be thinking? “Where is everyone?” I guessed.

I used my down time to learn new skills and hone some that needed honing. And, while I stayed busy working on my art, my mind drifted off to far away places. I wondered what a place like Yellowstone might look with no cars…no bison jams… no tour buses! What must the wildlife be thinking? “Where is everyone?” I guessed.

Grudgingly it seemed, the months slowly passed. My close friend and photography colleague, Eric Curby, and I were on the phone one day in April, 2021, when the subject of traveling once again was first mentioned. I had told him back in March that I was taking the bold step of a road trip to Colorado in between Covid-19 vaccination shots.

While parks were closed for the pandemic, wildlife took over. Now, they don’t want to give it back.

I had taken another bold step (for me) by staying in a hotel one night on each leg of the Colorado trip. “I pretty much had the entire floor to myself,” I told Eric, “so I think if we are both open to the idea of a Spring trip there won’t be many people traveling yet.”

After bouncing around a couple of ideas as to places we could go, Eric came up with the most brilliant idea. “What about this year we go someplace we know really well?”

“Yellowstone!” I think we both said it at the same time. And, it stuck.

What Lessons can Man Learn from the Beasts?

I remember the two-day, seventeen hundred mile drive from southwest Ohio to Island Park, Idaho, the site of our AirBnB. Compared with past experiences that drive seemed pretty mellow. On our first morning drive into West Yellowstone and the west entrance to the national park, we discussed how different it seemed, as though we had the entire place to ourselves. I believe the park service had four lanes open, with no more than three vehicles in any of the lanes, and moving quickly.

It was a little before 9 am and, after all, there were no international flights coming into the United States at that time due to pandemic restrictions, and K-12 schools were still in session here in the USA. I remember thinking it all made sense, most people are working and if they travel at all this year, most will delay traveling until their children are out of school.

“It makes a person think… For the here and now, we travel the roads of Yellowstone as permitted by the bison.”

Soon we exchanged greetings with a park ranger at the gate, showed my NPS Senior Pass, and proceeded through the gate with park map and newsletter in hand. The drive from the West Entrance to Madison Junction told us a lot about how the pandemic-induced absence of people had impacted the natural order of things, in Yellowstone at least. Bison and elk had discovered a preference for man-made roadways over taking traditional game trails, not simply as places to be crossed, but instead as primary routes of migration for entire herds. We saw hundreds of animals taking up both lanes of the two-lane road, a scene we witnessed day after day in a number of regions in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks.

It makes a person think. I’m speaking of the sight of hundreds of 2,000-pound bison, shoulder-to-shoulder, tall as many SUV’s, moving at a serious gait, right at you. You, for what it’s worth, are helpless if not defenseless in your sheet metal and glass vehicle, sitting dead stopped in the midst of total chaos – hooves clicking, grunts gurgling, calves darting in and out of the crowd looking for the parents, it’s all dusty and smelly and a bit scary. It causes a person to contemplate his or her place in the order of things. For the here and now, we travel the roads of Yellowstone as permitted by the bison.

There have always been bison jams. This year, however, entire herds are taking to the roadways.

What lessons can be taken from what we are witnessing now? For one, we have learned that in the absence of man, the beast will move on just fine. For another, we are now learning that re-introduction of man into the ecosystem tends to upset the natural order that was set in place while man was away.

Let’s talk about the Experience: Seeing Yellowstone post-pandemic

There is also a lot about Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks that remains the same. The springtime is sensational. As expected, spring snowmelt had swelled rivers and streams. We stopped occasionally mid-span of a bridge over a roaring stream, shutting off the engine and putting windows down so we could witness the unreal roar reflecting off trees and canyon walls.

A sudden snow squall appears over ice-covered Yellowstone Lake, just as we are walking around West Thumb geyser basin.

Sudden springtime snow squalls are commonplace. We might be driving across the expanse between West Thumb and Lake Junction, enjoying a sixty-plus degree spring day, only to encounter a sudden temperature drop of twenty degrees or more, as storm clouds form over Yellowstone Lake to our right and sleet begins to pop against the windshield. Then turning north at Lake Junction, driving up through Hayden Valley, the weather deteriorates further and snow begins to build up on the roadway. Later, we reach the Canyon Junction and the weather has improved dramatically, as if nothing had happened.

I must say that my personal experience in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks in the spring of 2021 was unlike any spring I had experienced there, and I’ve been in both parks many, many times. It is not lost on me that the spring of 2021 happened at a time when circumstances in the world were quite unique. We arrived in Yellowstone on May 10th, a time when only half of the Grand Loop road system was open. Fewer than half of the facilities were open, almost none of the picnic areas or lesser known thermal areas were open – think Firehole Lake Drive, Artist Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic Overlook, etc.

But what we lacked in terms of access during out first week was more than covered by what we witnessed in the way of wildlife. By our second week there, roads began opening up and our access expanded rapidly. Weather was still a stinker, though. Just to give you an idea how crazy the weather got in late May, on our last full day it began to snow and sleet on us around 5:00 pm, just as we were heading back to our AirBnB in Island Park, Idaho, from Jackson Hole.

Our AirBnB hosts were very understanding when we reported that we were stranded. Here, Eric preps the car for the 1,700-mile trip back to Ohio. The date was May 22, 2021. Happy Spring!

By around 7:00 pm, we were within seven miles of our destination as we headed up a pass on Highway 20, just outside of West Yellowstone, Montana. The wipers were starting to load up with wet, sticky snow. Eric had to grab the driver-side wiper about every two or three minutes to ‘snap’ it to clear the buildup of snow. I’ll spare the reader all the nasty details… I’ll just say we didn’t make it home. but that’s a story for another day. It was a memorable trip, as they always are in Yellowstone and Grand Teton!

Best Places to See Bears in Yellowstone

If you are wondering where to see bears in Yellowstone, I wrote this article just for you. As I am writing this post, the date is Thursday, June 10, 2021. I recently completed a two-week photography trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Before you read any further, you will see some pictures of bears in this article. These pictures are from my personal collection. I don’t approach close to bears, period. All of my bear watching is done from long distances using binoculars, and my pictures are taken with telephoto lenses from distances well in excess of 200 yards.

It often happens that, upon returning home from a trip to Yellowstone, friends and family will ask two questions: First, “Did you see any bears,” and second, “Did you get any good pictures?” Well, it’s been happening again this year. So, I decided I would write a blog post on this topic.

Bear Management Areas in Yellowstone National Park (Map courtesy of NPS.gov)

I have spotted one or more bears on almost every trip to Yellowstone (and Grand Teton) national parks, since 2004. Referring to the map above, one of the first bears I spotted was a Black Bear sow with two cubs, in Area “E” of the map. This is quite near Mammoth Hot Springs, in an area called “Blacktail.” We were driving along the northern road between Mammoth Junction and Tower-Roosevelt Junction. I cannot call this area a hot spot, though, because that spotting happened over 15 years ago, and I haven’t seen a bear in that area since.

My next spotting (2005) was also a one-time event that happened near West Thumb, along Highway 191, just past West Thumb Junction as we were driving north toward Old Faithful Junction in the vicinity of Duck Lake See Area”N” on the map). There was then, and still is, a lot of ‘deadfall’ timber on a hillside. A large Grizzly Bear was turning over fallen logs, looking for grubs to eat. This eventually became a particularly dangerous encounter, as a high number of visitors stopped soon after we spotted the bear. At one point the bear became irritated and tried to leave the area to cross Highway 191 and continue on down to Duck Lake on the other side of the road. There were so many people out of their cars that the bear didn’t know how to get through the parked cars and gawking visitors. Luckily, it ended without incident and the bear managed to get across the road.

A large Grizzly Bear encounters a large number of visitors and parked cars, just wants to cross road (telephoto lens from over 100 yards)

Another time, I was hiking with a couple of friends in a very remote back-country area known as the ‘Bechler’ region (see the lower left corner of the map). Walking into a thickly forested area, we came across an old Forest Service cabin that appeared to be occupied, because we could see smoke coming from a chimney. A short time later and maybe a half mile down the trail, we saw a dark shadowy figure in the distance, off to the left side of trail. We all immediately stopped until we could make out what was there. Suddenly, a very large Grizzly Bear stepped into a clearing where we could get a good look. I pulled out a digital camera and got off a couple of shots. At that point, we decided to head back to the Forest Service cabin we had seen earlier. We knocked, and a ranger came to the door. “We just saw a large Grizzly, and we thought we should report it to you.”

“I doubt it was a grizzly,” the ranger told us, “we don’t get them down here.” At that point, I pulled out my camera and showed the picture to the ranger.

“Hmmm. I think you just saw a great big Grizzly! I will have to report this… the Chief will be surprised to know we have one of them here.”

Each of these events were one-time events. Please don’t go looking in these areas with high expectations of finding a bear… but, you could. Next, I’ll share the story of a very light colored Grizzly Bear that we have seen on several trips over a period of 4-5 years.

Spirit Bear (left) and Mom, seen in the same place over multiple years (telephoto lens from 500 yards)

We came to call her ‘Spirit Bear,’ because of her coloring, which was nearly white. Staying very close to her Mom, a very large sow, she looked to be 1 ½ to 2 years old. The first time we saw her was in the Fall of 2016. Speaking with a few ‘locals’ over the years since then, some call her ‘Snow.’ Frankly, although most people refer to the bear as female, no one has been certain. We found her along the Southeast Entrance Road just before the turn-off to Lake Butte Overlook as you drive toward Cody, WY (see area J1 on the map).

Spirit Bear in 2018, in the same place, but this time without Mom (telephoto lens from 300+ yards)

We returned again in the Fall of 2018, and once again our Spirit Bear was in the same exact spot. And, then we returned again in 2021, but we were disappointed that our ‘Spirit Bear’ did not show up. There could be a couple of good reasons for her absence: For starters, our trip in 2021 was a very early Spring trip and some bears were still in hibernation. Second, she may have found a mate by now, and moved to maintain family ties.

I’ll close this out with some safety information about bear-spotting in Yellowstone. You will read in various places that 100 yards is the minimum distance to keep between you and the nearest bear. That sounds really scary to me – these are huge and very fast predators! I stay far enough away that I need a telephoto lens to photograph them, and a pair of binoculars to see them well.

I also have a concern about bear spray. Please don’t think it works like mosquito repellant. When I read the instructions on the bear spray can, I notice a picture showing how to use it – the can only sprays a short distance! If you get yourself into a pickle, so deep that you reach for your bear spray, you better get right with God right then! Bear spray might be great as a last resort, but my hope is to never get myself into a ‘last resort’ situation.

Just keep it simple… stay far enough away that the bear isn’t nervous, and neither are you. Use binoculars and/or telephoto lenses to get a great view and pictures. Live for another day.