Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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I was up the moment the sun reached Beartooth Mountain - at least it looked like a bear tooth. Some twenty minutes later I entered Yellowstone National Park from the Northeast. That way I'd pass through Lamar Valley on my way in, and of course I knew that the probability would be fairly high that I'd see some buffalo. Obviously, the big Sigma and a means to stabilize it (tripod/monopod) would come in handy.

I wasn't disappointed - there was a somewhat large group of buffalo close enough to the road - but it still wasn't easy to get the perfect shot... since it wouldn't be wise to approach these animals, or even just wonder across the meadows they grazed on, the best spot to take pictures from was the shoulder of the road, within easy reach of the safe confines of my car should the need arise. Obviously, that limits the possibilities of composition and perspective. After a while, I moved on but vowed to come back in the evening.

Just as I was about to leave Lamar Valley, in a spot where there was a hill to the right and a drop-off to the left, I got to see more buffalo than I had bargained for - in fact, a large heard came galloping towards me on the road, tongues out and obviously not prepared to stop for a puny SUV. My first gut reaction was to reverse - while I was pretty sure that a buffalo wouldn't attack a car, I wasn't so sure if they wouldn't give a shove to something that was inbetween them and wherever they wanted to be, and even just a shove from an animal like that wouldn't be pretty.

My retreat came to a end when a car drove up behind me. I stopped and pretty soon the buffalo caught up with me, and ran past the car, pretty much ignoring it but certainly not touching it. Some ran up the hill on my right. My worries had been unfounded, obviously.

I headed on and turned East at the Tower-Roosevelt junction. A mile later, I followed the turn-off to Petrified Tree. Since there's a fence around it, getting a decent shot was almost impossible; and the petrified tree didn't look all that spectacular to me in the first place.

I continued East, soon reaching Mammoth Springs, and the adjacent hot spring terraces. The weather was much more favourable than when I had last visited them in 2004, and the flow of some of the springs seemed to have changed too. I hiked up past Minerva Terrace (which was dry), and then on to the Main Terrace that still held water and had a little steam rising from it. It was also more colourful, with not just shades of grey (like Minerva) but also various shades of brown and even a bit of a blue tint to the water in some places, for example the aptly named New Blue Spring. I took quite a lot of pictures, even if the light was pretty flat owing to the high position of the sun. I walked on past Cupid Spring to Canary Spring. This spring probably changed in size of intensity in recent years, because there's still dead trees standing in the middle of its run-off.

I backtracked to Cleopatra Terrace and then past Palette Spring, which was getting unflattering light in the mid-day sun. Trying to get the worst of that sun behind me, I had lunch at Mammoth Springs before heading South. My first stop was Golden Gate, a rock wall of volcanic origin that forms one side of a narrow passage as the road climbs from the Mammoth Springs basin to the Yellowstone plateau.

Shortly thereafter, I stopped along with some other cars for what turned out to be merely deer at a fairly large distance, and then continued on to Sheepeater Cliff, a basalt rock wall not unlike Devils Postpile in California. I also took some shots of Gardiner River while I was there, before heading on to Roaring Mountain. This is an alien-looking mountainside surrounded by dead trees and with occasional puffs of steam rising out of fumaroles, although the blue sky with puffy clouds made it look much less somber than on my previous 2004 visit.

Next up was the Norris Geyser Basin, where I first talked photography with a fellow visitor and then walked around for a while. Once again, I was shocked by how different this place looked as compared to a drearily wet and cold day in August the year before - and while I hated every minute of that previous visit due to the unfavourable conditions it lent a certain otherworldly atmosphere to the area that was now missing. It could almost be said that everything looked too bright and optimistic.

But the bright sunny conditions weren't without merit - Pinwheel Geyser seemed much more alive, with ground below the run-off forming a green-to-yellow-to-brown rainbow that stood in great contrast to the otherwise grey surroundings. Overall however, the atmosphere seemed too calm, too quiet, almost idyllic in spots; and not at all like I was standing on top of a huge volcanic area that could blow up any moment.

As the sun was slowly starting to descend, I thought that it was time to drive to my planned "sunset" destination of the day - the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I spent time along the various viewpoints along the rim, making good use of both wide-angle and ultra-zoom to capture the varying vistas - which don't bear a lot of similarity to Arizona's Grand Canyon, for that matter. There were more and more clouds in the sky, but since the area I was in was still getting direct sunlight, they were very welcome as providing a more dramatic background that the clear blue skies of earlier in the day.

With the sun still high enough but all viewpoints covered, I decided that the remaining daylight would be best spent elsewhere, and as such I started off North towards Dunraven Pass, ultimately ending up in Lamar Valley. Along the way, I still photographed a coyote (at least I now think it was a coyote, rather than a wolf) and a lone buffalo, before finding a herd of buffalo camped out just next to the highway. This enabled several close-up shots, but I was always careful not to approach the buffalo, instead opting to stay close to the safety of my car at all times. Occasionally, a few buffalo would wander onto the road, causing small traffic jams and sending me close to the car door in case one of the bulls suddenly started to charge towards me rather than of its male competitors. Thankfully, they merely charged each other a handful of times, but none of the encounters seemed violent. Mostly, they were grazing peacefully.

The sun was finally setting, and I retreated to my camp site.

Miles driven: 197mi (317km)

Campground Accommodation: Tower Falls Campground (Yellowstone National Park): $12

First part written February 16th 2008 on flight AF 062 from Paris to Los Angeles; finished June 2nd 2008 in Luxembourg