28.0 mi / 12.7 mph / 812 ft. climbing
Home: Roosevelt Lodge cabin
Hey, there goes that 5am alarm again! But this time the main reason to get an early start wasn’t one on our normal list (usually wind, heat, or traffic). It was because we would be riding through the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, called the Serengeti of North America, and they say early morning is the best time to see the wildlife. Ok, and beating fellow-tourist traffic in Yellowstone would be a nice side-effect too.
We crept down the creaking wooden steps of the Range Rider Lodge, hoping to not awaken a sleeping half-ogre who was surely slumped over a table in the back of the tavern after never making it up to his room last night. The common room had a microwave, toaster, and coffee maker, so we made our usual camp breakfast of bagel sandwiches, and kept the campground vibe up by wearing our down jackets inside the night-air-cooled lodge and using our headlamps and lantern to see in the shadowed torch-lit interior.
Once again the road felt like our own personal bike path, except today that bike path took us (after a single mile) into one of the five entrances of the world’s first National Park. At this early hour, the line of cars at the booth wasn’t the only thing missing, there was also nobody to take our money (though that meant we’d also have to do without a brochure/map). The complete absence of other people at this time and place in this otherwise incredibly-crowded park was almost surreal; it felt like we had snuck in the backdoor of a mega-concert and had free reign of the entire backstage area. I was almost waiting for a park ranger to drive up and say “sorry guys, park’s closed today, you must have missed the signs!”
Another mile past the entrance (and now back in Wyoming), Rett spotted a dark shape just off the road, nearly on the white line. “Is that a bison…? Oh, no, just a big rock, silly me.” <the rock moves> “Oh, shit, no, it is a bison!!” We pulled over to the left edge of the roadway and slowed to a stop. Luckily the first car of the day approached from behind us seconds later, and we asked him to “escort” us past the bison. He was a Yellowstone regular, happy to help, but a bit perplexed about our concern. “I see him every morning, he ain’t gonna bother you none!” Probably not, but given how much regular cattle react to us on the bikes compared to their total non-reactions to cars and trucks, we figured it was better to err on the side of caution for our first time by this giant cattle-relative standing less than two of his body-lengths from our path. We made it by with no issues, except the excitement of having this intimate of an encounter with Yellowstone’s wildlife five minutes after entering the park. I had seen bison on my 2007 ride through Yellowstone, but only from within a mass of stopped-in-the-road cars, so this “backstage pass” version was so much better.
The narrow valley we were riding through was well-shaded from the early morning sun by the mountains, and then we passed a section of Soda Butte Creek where the road rose up while the creek continued through a slot canyon down below. Understandably it’s named “Icebox Canyon”, so that made me look at my thermometer, and it had dropped down to 36F! I bet down in that narrow gorge, in between the rocks, the air temperature actually is near or below freezing on this mid-August day!
We just made it through the pinch-point where two mountains were trying to trap us in their valley, and the tube-TV views (which had seemed gorgeous up until now) expanded into a 70mm widescreen movie. The Lamar Valley is compared to the Serengeti due to the number and diversity of large mammals roaming its landscape, but even without the fauna, the flora and water and light made it feel like we had been transported to the African savannah.
We had continued to see individual bison near and far (mostly far) as we rode, but finally we came upon a whole herd of them, which definitely gave that safari feeling I’d been hoping for.
Around 8am we started to finally see some traffic, though most of it initially was wildlife-watching tour vans. The Lamar Valley is known as one of the best places in Yellowstone (and thus the country) to observe wolves in their natural habitat, though they’re supposedly still hard to see. So the advice for people like us is to find people with spotting scopes set up at a pull-off and ask them to show you what they’re looking at. I figured our chances of finding wolves even that way were small, so in a strange way it was good to see wolf-watching vans passing in the opposite direction. It told me that even the experts weren’t finding wolves in the usual locations today (further ahead for us), so there was no need for us to race forward in hopes of seeing them before they bedded down for the day.
We had gone over a couple sections of rebuilt road that had been re-routed around massive washouts from last year’s catastrophic flooding, amazed how well and quickly they were able to restore the roadways in this notoriously construction-resistant park. But finally we hit a section of active construction, and for only the second time in my 20-year bike touring life we needed to be carried through the zone in the pilot car. Coincidentally the first time was also in Yellowstone, but that time the car took a 2000-ft. climb out of my day; this mile-long ride wouldn’t be nearly as generous. We had to take all the bags off our bikes, and lift them into the back of the pickup, awkwardly, because the truck’s tailgate was blocked from opening by the “Pilot Car” sign. Oh, and the driver could only take one of us at a time, so I sent Rett ahead first while I waited 15 minutes for the return loop.
Shortly after the construction (and once we re-loaded the bikes) we came across another bison herd, this one closer to the road. And finally I could confirm that the rumbling, whooshing, dinosaur noises I had been hearing on and off as we rode were not from geysers, or distant vehicles, but from the bison themselves! We also saw several of them rolling themselves in the dirt, legs skyward as they ground their butts into the dust. While that part was funny, watching them create a dirt-pit for themselves by moving a huge amount of material with just a few scrapes of a hoof certainly engendered a healthy respect in us for their frightening strength and power.
While we sat astride our bikes in the middle of the road watching the bison to our left, we noticed a big bull (with that same frightening strength and power) heading directly toward us from the right on the way to his females. Oh shit! We inched forward a bit, and he ended up passing just behind us, not because he was trying to avoid us (given that he wasn’t even attempting to get off the road once he reached it), but because that’s the spot he was always planning to go to anyway, and fuck you for even thinking he might re-route for your benefit, puny human.
At the entrance to Sprague Creek campground, there was a huge mass of vehicles and people with scopes and giant cameras set up on tripods. This was likely one of the prime wolf-watching spots, but no one was actively looking through their scopes, suggesting there was nothing worth seeing at the moment, so we didn’t even stop. Instead we took a break in a quieter spot and found a lone pronghorn out in the sagebrush watching us carefully. That made two large mammal species, but we didn’t see any bears, wolves, elk, or moose in our Lamar Valley transit. Despite that, neither of us had ever had that level of bison encounters, so the valley’s reputation remains intact in our book.
We looked at stopping for lunch at a picnic area above the Yellowstone River (and then maybe doing a bit of a hike from there), but there was also a big construction project going on there making a lot of noise, so we just continued the final few miles (down and back up a steep climb across the Yellowstone River) to our destination at the Roosevelt Lodge, reaching it by 10:30am.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a store selling a small amount of food and snacks in the complex, though baffled that Internet research hadn’t revealed that fact (I had assumed we’d need to do the ~3 miles back and forth to the Tower General Store). So we got some lunch and ate while relaxing in two of the chairs lined up on the covered porch of the historic lodge.
At 11am, just because we had nothing else to do, we decided to check in at the desk about when our room might be available even though it was 4 to 5 hours until the official check-in time. Well, the clerk was even more surprised than we were when she looked and found that our cabin was available right now! What luck! (It was because there had been a no-show last night, so there was no need to re-clean the room this afternoon). That meant we were able to settle into our cozy cabin much sooner than expected, and get cleaned up in the not-in-our-cabin showers. And then we spent the rest of the day relaxing in the perfect weather, drinking Scotch back on the lodge’s porch, and just absorbing the feeling of living inside Yellowstone National Park. We then treated ourselves to a (relatively) fancy dinner at the lodge restaurant. Oh, we get a table right in front of the window looking out onto the porch? Sure, no need for you to know we’ve been enjoying that view for the last four hours, and no need to turn down another hour of it!