Nasturtium up close and personal ~

Nasturtium

Nasturtium

This nasturtium graced my breakfast plate at the Regis Café in Red Lodge, Montana. I don’t recall ever having been served a flower before. A fellow diner told me that nasturtiums are delicious, but I just photographed mine with my iPhone and then took it in the car with me.

Not just dinosaurs ~

Hypacrosaurus

Hypacrosaurus, a duckbill dinosaur of the late Cretaceous

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.

Fossil brittle stars

Fossil brittle stars – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Fossil crinoids

Fossil crinoids (sea lilies) – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

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.

Microraptor

Microraptor, a small dinosaur with feathers on all four limbs – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

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.

A female stenopterygius...

A female stenopterygius…

...in the process of giving birth!

…in the process of giving birth! – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Another surprise: Fossilized dinosaur embryos and a reproduction of a nest of baby dinosaurs.

Fossilized dinosaur embryo

Fossilized dinosaur embryo – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

From tiny to enormous: Kids will love the big dinosaur skeletons.

Triceratops horridus

This Triceratops horridus skeleton is the actual fossil, not a replica – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Pliosaur

This head belongs to a complete replica Pliosaur skeleton – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

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.

Fossil horseshoe crab

Fossil horseshoe crab and last segment of mortichnial trackway – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

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!

Fossil of whiptail stingray

Whiptail stingray – Wyoming Dinosaur Center. I don’t know what exactly all those filaments are, but the beauty of this 50-million-year-old fossil blew me away.

Hot Springs State Park ~

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

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.

Streamers of cyanobacteria

Streamers of cyanobacteria live in the runoff channels at Hot Springs State Park

Heat-loving bacteria

Heat-loving bacteria are responsible for the red, orange, and yellow colors

A mix of thermophilic bacteria

A mix of bacteria (reddish-orange) and cyanobacteria (green)

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).

Bighorn River north of Thermopolis

Bighorn River north of Thermopolis

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.

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming. The green in the water is long mats of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which thrive in the warm water.

On the (fenced) range

On the (fenced) range at Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Bison at Hot Springs State Park

Part of the bison herd at Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

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.

Pups being trained to retrieve ducks

Pups being trained to retrieve ducks

Next up: A visit to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

Guanella Pass ~

 

For this year’s aspen photos I drove the 24-mile Guanella Pass Scenic Byway from Highway 285 north to Georgetown. The road starts out gently on the south side of the pass and gradually ascends. The aspens were at their peak, and flowers were still blooming here and there.

It was a beautiful Friday. These photographs show no hint of the sizable crowds at the Summit Overlook (elev. 11,669 feet); this is definitely “curated” reality. Something I’m learning about Colorado in 2018: There are now so many people driving the drives and hiking the trails that you must be a very fit person to find solitude in the mountains. Every trailhead I passed in eight hours of driving, from Highway 285 up through Clear Creek Canyon, had a pretty full complement of cars. A number of people were hiking the Square Top Mountain trail (below), which originates at Summit Overlook on Guanella Pass. It was an unusually warm day, probably at least 70 degrees at the pass and breezy.

Square Top Mountain and trail

Square Top Mountain and trail

Solitude on the high plains ~

This afternoon I drove up to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, located about 15 miles north of Fort Collins and about 10 miles south of the Wyoming border. The last several miles are on a very well graded dirt-and-pea-gravel road. I went to the north parking lot, where there was only one other car, and walked a short trail to a site that overlooks a former archaeological dig, now restored to prairie. This is some of what I saw. I’m still working on an identification for a couple of the plants. I’m also a bit puzzled by the rocks atop the fenceposts—are they decorative, or do they have some sort of significance I can’t read?

The sense of remoteness and the solitude were gratifying, very different from the isolation of being at home. It was a beautiful, unusually cool day for August and it was windy; my ears actually got cold. I was fine in a T-shirt but began thinking longingly of earmuffs; what a strange sight that combination would make! A hat or scarf would have done the trick. I want to return to this area soon with my Olympus and my binoculars.

Some perspective ~

I’m keenly missing many things from Southern Illinois—besides my friends, I mean, whom I miss constantly. Maybe it’s time to tally up a few things I like about Colorado and Loveland, to allay a sort of disoriented feeling I’ve been getting lately when I ponder that I really live out here now:

  • Cool nights even on hot days.
  • Lilacs. The lilacs out here grow much larger and bloom much longer than they do in Southern Illinois. (I guess the cold nights agree with them.) The large lilac in my yard bloomed for a full month this May. And in Loveland there are enough lilac bushes to perfume the air for several weeks.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park. Now that U.S. 34 is once again open through Big Thompson Canyon, it’s less than an hour away. Also: The Peak-to-Peak Highway, which runs from Black Hawk to Estes Park, and the drive from Fairplay over the mountains to Breckinridge. I’m itching to do some mountain drives that are new to me.
  • The sky. Although I don’t see as much of it as I’d like to, I see enough to appreciate that the clouds are very interesting out here. If it weren’t for the fact that winters and summers are both more extreme out on the open plains, and everything so remote, I’d like to live out there. Since my house has no mountain view, I wish it at least had a good view of the sky. Fortunately, things open out just a block or two from home.
  • Benson Sculpture Garden in Loveland, which has more than 100 works of art, mostly bronzes, in a very pretty pond setting.
  • Aspens, of course, and columbines, with their lovely molded five-cupped centers.
  • Tokyo Joe’s, a “fast-casual” chain where I can get a big bowl of udon noodles, veggies, and wild salmon for $11.65. Oh, and New York–style pizza bought by the slice. Yeah, they have that here! I wouldn’t be my mother’s daughter if I didn’t mention food in some fashion.
  • No chiggers! As Calvin Trillin knows, this is never the least consideration in any list of  positive attributes.

That’s a start. More later, I hope.