Last week a friend and I drove out to Pawnee Buttes, in the Pawnee National Grassland. This is on the prairie in northeast Colorado, not far south of Wyoming and Nebraska. It was a warm but lovely day. The grassland is beautiful: lots of miles on dirt roads; beautiful undulating hills; and the isolated buttes themselves. The only downside is the sheer number of oil and gas facilities out here, along with the accompanying truck traffic. In a time when it’s imperative that we phase out fossil fuels, I was discouraged to see the amount of fracking and other fossil-fuel extraction on this, one of our national treasures.
In Fort Collins there is a small botanic garden, the Gardens of Spring Creek, that turns on the holiday cheer and becomes the “Gardens of Light” for a few weeks. This Christmas Eve I joined dozens of other people who were walking through the display, where of course plants are the main theme. Here you’ll find giant coneflowers and daffodils and hollyhocks, vegetable plots with pumpkins and chilies and carrots, grapevines, a lily pond, and even Christmas cactuses (though not Christmas cactus). Little kids were running and giggling and adults were snapping photos. It was a bit nippy—exactly 32 degrees—and I was glad to warm up my hands afterward with the car heater. Happy holidays!
There were thousands of Canada geese hanging out this week at Loveland’s North Lake Park, where the ice was thin and getting thinner fast thanks to balmy temperatures (it’s been in the fifties much of the week). The image above is a small portion cropped out of one of the photographs I took there. Wish I’d had a tripod and a longer lens to do this justice.
I went to Benson Sculpture Garden to walk.
Really, I did. It didn’t even occur to me to take my Olympus along. The only reason I had my cell phone with me was that I was expecting a call from the vet. But I couldn’t seem to get very far down the path without pulling out my phone and taking photographs.
Benson Sculpture Garden is a very popular place for people to exercise, and in particular to walk their dogs. How they manage this, I don’t understand. I tried it once, not too long after moving to Loveland, and discovered that there is no “walking” my little dogs, Ginger and Punkin, at Benson; there is only hanging onto them, barely. The scent of other dogs is so strong that it acts upon them as an irresistible elixir, causing them to pull and tug and drag and stand rooted on spot after spot. My wrists and hands ached so badly by the time we finished our circuit that I’ve never taken them back. On Friday I watched in amazement as other people walked their dogs quite calmly along the curving paths and past the dozens of sculptures. Are my dogs really the worst? It would seem so, which makes me the worst dog owner.
Anyway, dogs aside, above and below are some of my animal favorites from the sculptures. It was the wrong time of day for the best view of the octopus, so I have a shot with a house prominently in the background. And I could have used a shallow depth of field for the cougar, but: iPhone.
The octopus lends itself to delicious closeups, some of which I’m including here to justify making this post. Hope you enjoy them.
My second full day in Yellowstone started with a traffic jam. After half an hour of inching along the road, I finally saw the reason for the hold-up: A entire herd of buffaloes was moving east between the road and the Madison River. Some of the buffaloes had found a nice place to roll cumbrously in the dust. Two males decided to spar. And I spotted a still-reddish baby buffalo in the group. If I’d been sitting in the passenger seat I could have reached out and touched some of these animals. As it was, for many of the photos I took I had to hold the camera up high to keep buffalo heads from being obscured by the door frame. And so, like everyone else on the road, I contributed to the traffic jam.
After the buffalo jam I hoped to visit a favorite of mine, Grand Prismatic Spring, but I gave up—cars spilled over from the parking lot all the way to the main road and more. Instead I spent an hour or so on Firehole Lake Drive, where there were few people but several interesting geysers and pools.
In the meadow between the geyser area and Firehole Lake, I stopped by this small stream and dipped my hand into the water. The morning was in the 40s, but the water was quite warm from the geyser runoff.
Eventually I drove south to West Thumb Geyser Basin, on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. From here you can see hot springs, geysers, the lake, and the distant mountains all in the same view. It was tough to get people-free shots here, because the boardwalks were crowded with selfie-taking tourists—a people jam. But it was worth the jostling to see the lake and the brilliant colors of the two pools below, the most beautiful at West Thumb.
I walked twice as far as I expected to at West Thumb. As I was heading back to the car from the lake, a ranger closed the boardwalk ahead of me because a group of elk were getting too close to the crowds, or vice versa. I backtracked along the lake all the way around to the other side of the basin—where people also were, you guessed it, being turned back toward the lake because of a large bull elk. So I backtracked over my backtrack and found a middle route up the slope.
At this point my feet were aching and I was extremely glad that I’d packed cheese and crackers and grapes in the car. Despite the crowds, some of the restaurants in Yellowstone had already closed for the season. After my early picnic supper, I drove down to Teton National Park, where the blinding sun just before sunset rendered the mountains extremely hazy. The photo below, considerably tinkered with in Photoshop, was the best I could do, which is not saying much. After getting lost a bit, I discovered that my motel for the evening—actually a cabin at the Togwotee Mountain Lodge—was about 15 miles east. And so I ended up not really seeing the Tetons on this trip. After several sleepless nights and lots of walking, I knew I needed to head home the next day.
But in the morning, before continuing east, I drove back about five miles west for a last glimpse of the mountains. And a wonderful visual effect occurred: As I rounded a curve, a mountain came into view on the horizon. Then another one, taller. Then another one, still taller. As the road continued curving, to my astonishment yet another mountain, massively tall, appeared. The Tetons are familiar to most Americans from countless movies and photographs. I’ve seen them on a couple of previous trips. Yet, like the Grand Canyon, they surprise you every time in person. I hope to go back.
Picking my road trip back up where I left off: On Day 3 I took the Beartooth Scenic Byway from just southwest of Red Lodge, Montana, to Yellowstone. I’d heard how beautiful this route is, and even though the day was foggy, rainy, and finally snowy, what I’d heard was true. This is, according to Wikipedia, the highest-elevation road in Montana or Wyoming, and somewhere recently I read that the rocks exposed at Beartooth Pass (elevation 10,947 feet) are Pre-Cambrian, making them some of the oldest exposed anywhere in the lower 48 states. The drive is through glaciated terrain. Near the top of the pass is a large plateau with many small alpine lakes. It started snowing as I drove across the plateau, and at the pass itself the view was totally obscured. The wind was up and the temperature was down to 28 degrees, so I didn’t venture out of the car.
The weather gradually cleared as I descended the west side of the pass. Aspens, a waterfall, and distant peaks made this a beautiful drive. The highway, which begins in Montana and then dips down through Wyoming, curves back up to Montana and the small mountain town of Cooke City, where it was snowing. Heading out from Cooke City, you come to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Almost as soon as I entered Yellowstone, I spotted two bison near the road. I was delighted. Well, little did I know that two bison were nothing compared to what was coming: whole herds! Buffaloes on the road, even. Buffaloes spread all across the Lamar Valley, where the snow had stopped, the sun had come out, and the meadows looked golden.
As I got close to Mammoth Hot Springs, I could see steam rising from the far-off terraces. In town, elk were hanging out on the grounds of the local clinic. A couple of weeks earlier, a tourist had drawn the ire of a bull elk here and narrowly escaped injury. I parked at the clinic for a few minutes, where this bull elk was bugling and keeping his little harem pointed in the direction he felt was suitable. The sign in the clinic window, which I didn’t notice until I was looking at these photos, reads: “Elk present?!?! Use back door.” This elk certainly looked and sounded like he didn’t want to be trifled with, and I took this photo through the windshield. Tomorrow: Hot springs and geysers!
The second day of my trip I also went to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, in Thermopolis. Unfortunately, I was so sleep-deprived that I couldn’t do it justice, which was a shame. This is a fantastic museum house in what is essentially an enormous pole barn. Why is something like this in Thermopolis? Because dinosaurs are being excavated here! The center raises donations to support its excavation work on a nearby ranch, as well as its preparation work, which museum visitors can observe through viewing windows. They’re planning for a beautiful new facility where they can better house their fossils and fossil replicas, and they have lots of both. Visitors also can pay to assist at the dig site, which in turn supports the scientific work.
Not just dinosaurs are on display; the museum is organized to show the progression of evolution from early organisms through the age of the dinosaurs, birds, and early mammals. I found myself wishing I had the time to read every single interpretive sign. Most of these iPhone photographs are of actual fossils, not replicas.
An especially prized fossil here is this one from China, of Microraptor, a small dinosaur with feathers not just on its arms but also its legs. You can see the impression of the feathers on all four limbs and also at the end of the tail.
The museum has plenty of large, complete dinosaur skeletons. Among the smaller dinosaur fossils is this beautiful specimen of Stenopterygius, a Jurassic-age ichthyosaur. But not just any old Stenopterygius. To quote the interpretive sign: “Ichthyosaurs are vivaparous, meaning they give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. The baby would come out tail-first to prevent them from drowning. This specimen preserves a mother in the act of giving birth.” Wow! And indeed, in the second photo below you can see the baby’s skeleton dangling below the mother. I’ve also included a shot of just the head and upper body because it is so gorgeous.
Another surprise: Fossilized dinosaur embryos and a reproduction of a nest of baby dinosaurs.
From tiny to enormous: Kids will love the big dinosaur skeletons.
I’ve been in a lot of natural history museums, so it’s possible I’m just forgetting, but to my knowledge I’d never seen a fossilized mortichnial trackway before. It’s the track or footprints of a dying animal—in this case, the final 32 feet of life of a horseshoe crab, which extended across nine large excavated panels on display. This particular exhibit, more than any other at the center, really brings it home to you that all these animals once were as alive as you are now.
I’m no paleontologist, but I can hardly say enough good things about the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. It’s only a six-hour drive from Loveland, not counting stops, and I’d gladly make a special trip just to visit here again. I didn’t notice any “No photography” signs, so I’ve taken the liberty of posting all of these photos as a kind of advertisement for the center. Long may it live!
I spent part of Sunday at Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming. This site is billed as having “The World’s Largest Mineral Hot Spring” (see photograph). The springs, which feed three bathhouses/pools in the park, were acquired from the Shoshone and Arapaho in a 1896 treaty with the stipulation that they be maintained free of charge for everyone. So far, that stipulation has been honored. I didn’t have time to visit any of the bathhouses—and hadn’t brought a swimming suit, not having read up on Thermopolis before I left Loveland. But that was okay; the previous day’s drive had been hot in advance of a front (87 degrees west of Casper in late September!), and I was relishing the refreshing coolness on Sunday. I was also relishing the lack of crowds while I had the chance; things would be very different at Yellowstone.
The park has several places to see the travertine formations created by runoff from the springs. The travertine is deeply “stained” by heat-loving bacteria, making a colorful sight. One of the most interesting things about the hot springs area is the profuse growth of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in the runoff. These bacteria form long, thick mats that ripple in the current like hair. The water where they grow is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Reddish and orange bacterial mats predominate where the water is warmer.
The park is on the Bighorn River, which is actually the downstream reaches of the Wind River. The dual names resulted from the fact that, until Wind River Canyon was discovered, no one realized that the Wind River cuts north through the Owl Creek Mountains. Just south of Thermopolis, it becomes the Bighorn. The original Crow (Apsáalooke) word for the Bighorn is a whopper: lisaxpúatahcheeaashisee, “which translates to English as Large Bighorn Sheep River” (thanks, Wikipedia).
Besides the hot springs, the park also features a suspension bridge over the Bighorn River and a drive through a hilly range that’s home to a buffalo herd. The red sandstone hills surrounding Thermopolis date back to the early Triassic and are called the Red Peak Formation (part of the larger Chugwater Formation). According to a park sign, the nearly 600-foot-thick formation is almost devoid of fossils because one of the planet’s great extinction events had taken place at the beginning of the Triassic.
I spoke to a man who was using a decoy dummy to train two 8-week-old pups to retrieve ducks. They were splashing in a little inlet of the Bighorn River where there was runoff from a large hot spring. The water temperature at that location stays in the 70s year-round, he said. The pups were having a blast but were more interested in playing and checking out visitors than retrieving the dummy. They were joyful, muddy, and very, very wet.
Next up: A visit to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
Granted, this is an awful lot of images for one post, but I’m hoping to simulate for people who have never been there the sensory-overload experience that City Museum offers. This place, like the Gateway Arch and the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has become a unique must-see in St. Louis.
Sometimes an unsharp photo can be turned into an interesting abstract with the help of a digital filter—in this case, a watercolor filter—tight cropping, and some color manipulation. The original photo is a small detail of the plumage of an unidentified bird at the Denver Zoo.