Yesterday we explored the North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, so today we’d do a more-extensive excursion around the South Rim. This time we took our (mostly-unloaded) bikes and rode them four miles to the parking lot at Artist Point. The viewpoints here all have uplifting aspirational names (Artist, Inspiration, Sublime…), with Artist Point positioned perhaps the best to live up to its name.
We grabbed a bunch of photos there, and then headed down-river along the rim. Compared to the north side, here there are no stone and concrete walls or asphalt pathways to corral you, so even though the terrain and views are objectively very similar, it’s remarkable how different the feel is. Sure, the trail on this side has also been walked by millions of people over 100 years, but it’s far easier to tell ourselves we’re making a journey of discovery and opening these sights to human eyes for the first time. And that just makes it feel a lot more like a “hike” rather than a visit to a curated and sanitized museum exhibition.
We walked along the rim to the end of the trail at Sublime Point, which ended up being sort of pointless because there wasn’t any particular view there, or at least not anything better than what we were able to see along the whole stretch.
We then turned “inland” to do a loop by a couple of lakes, which I thought would give us a bit of variety and let us absorb more of the unspectacular side of Yellowstone, because that’s the truest way to get to know a place. We did skip going the long way around to the trail’s namesake, Ribbon Lake, because the clerk at Canyon campground said it wasn’t really worth it, and then Lily Pad Lake lived up to both its name (it was literally covered end-to-end in lily pads) and my unspectacular-but-still-beautiful expectations (we overheard a trail guide leading a group by that even though it looks like prime moose habit (my exact thought!) that he’d never seen a moose there).
But then, Yellowstone, always effortlessly exceeding expectations, surprised again. The dark forest soil along the trail suddenly turned to a chalky gravel, and the scent of sulfur came wafting through the area. We were crossing a thermal zone, one not even mentioned on the trail guide! Holes in the crust revealed boiling water, spouts of steam, and most-uniquely, mud pools of varying consistency and activity. Yellowstone has such an embarrassment of riches that this thermal area, which on its own would be designated at least a State Park if situated anywhere else, doesn’t even have a name! Like “oh, yeah, that stupid boring area with giant mud bubbles? Nah, not even worth mentioning in comparison to the real geyser basins.”
Then after after a hundred yards or so along the chemical trail, the thermal zone ended as abruptly as it began, and we were back in “normal” forest. Lake #2, the aptly-named Clear Lake, was somehow entirely free of lily pads despite its similar size, shape, and location.
And then we were into open wildflower meadows. Holy crap. I’d had zero expectations for this unfamous trail beyond seeing incredible views of the Grand Canyon, but in addition to that we’d gotten two different mountain lakes, a thermal area, forest, and now meadow. If we’d skipped the pointless offshoot to Sublime Point, it would be an easily-accessible less-than-5-mile loop introducing you to almost all the major features of Yellowstone. The only thing really missing was big-animal sightings…
“Hey, there is a bison lying just off the trail ahead”, says the woman coming from the other direction with her family. WTF?! I guess nothing is missing on this trail! A quarter mile later, there he is! Just resting in the tall grass 30 yards away, but as we approach, he stands for us! Today we didn’t even have our bicycles as a bit of intimacy-diminishing mechanization, it was just us and the beast. And, it was really just us. The road to Artist Point was just another 30 yards to the other side of him, but it was behind a line of trees, so we laughed at all the poor suckers driving by who had no idea he was there.
Completing our loop brought us back to the Grand Canyon for new and different never-gets-old views of the Yellowstone’s falls.
Back at camp it was time for some chores, doing both a load of laundry and getting showers (both in the same building near the campground entrance). The laundry area had outlets to make our device-charging a bit more-comfortable, because the campground bathrooms here are the first place we’ve seen with signs over the outlet directing them to be used only for personal grooming devices, and to not leave unattended electronics plugged in. If we use our phone’s front-facing camera as a mirror, it’s a personal grooming device, no?
The showers were a unique setup, with an attendant to collect payment ($5.15) before entry. For car campers they include two free shower passes per day, so I thought they might do the same for us (hiker/bikers are likely to be more smelly and dirty than car campers!), but no such luck. The advantage of the setup is that the showers were clean, and you could use as much water/time as you wanted.
As we were cleaning up from our camp dinner, Rett suddenly hush-shouts, “Neil! There’s a bear!! A bear cub!!” It was only about ten yards from both our tent and from her. Having heard all the messages about bear safety, the instant thought for both of us was “WHERE’S MOM?!!” A quick scan revealed her nosing through the grass thirty yards away, not (yet!) paying any attention to us, and thankfully not on the opposite side of us away from her babies. I was still frozen to inaction though, because they had turned up at absolutely the least bear-safe time of our day. We still had food all over the picnic table, dishes about, and the bear box was open. What should I do first?! Close the bear box? Throw the food inside? Grab the bear spray? Grab my camera?
The bears themselves helped break the ice, when a subtle move from Mom recalled the curious cub back over to her side and away from us. Cleaning up camp felt pointless at that time, and they seemed to be heading away, and a new bike tourer appeared with his bear spray in-hand, so I went with the camera. Although I wasn’t able to fully capture the ultra-cute bouncing of the little bears’ furry butts as they trundled away after mom, I was at least able to reactivate my wits enough to snap a few photos.
The new bike tourer, Edward, was from the UK and it was his first bear encounter, so he was simultaneously (and understandably) excited and more than a little freaked out (not to make it sound like we’re jaded bear experts or anything!) To my inexpert eye they were “good bears” who simply were transiting our campsite with zero interest in humans and their crap (well, that at least applies to Mom, but she presumably was passing that trait down to her kids too). But Edward was concerned enough that he wanted to move his camp, initially asking if he could set up right next to us for power in numbers and to share a campfire (yes, of course!), but there wasn’t any good place for him to string up his bivy bag, so he ended up going near the campground road where he felt closer to other people (and further away from the bears’ path) up there.
After seeing all the bison in the Lamar Valley on our first day in Yellowstone, we had basically seen no impressive wildlife over the next two days, so had been starting to lament our “bad luck” as terribly entitled Yellowstone visitors. Well, today we’re back on track with more than we deserved!