16.2 mi / 12.0 mph / 567 ft. climbing
Home: Madison Campground hiker/biker site
Unexpected light rain in the middle of the night forced me into the least-fun task of climbing out of the tent in the dark drizzle to cover our bags and other sensitive parts of our bikes/campsite. It’s so un-fun that you think we would just prepare for the possibility every night before going to bed, but apparently with our frequent access to quality weather forecasts, unexpected rain happens rarely enough that the costs of every-night prep would outweigh the cost of the once-a-month groggy scramble.
We were up again by 5:30am, doing our standard bagel-sandwich breakfast for what felt like the first time in forever. We got ready to ride out of camp, and at the last minute I remembered to pay for a third night (since we initially had only been thinking of two nights here).
We had an easy morning ride south along the nicely-shouldered section of road following the Firehole River. It was a preview of the actually-moving-on ride we would do tomorrow, and a valuable one because our offshoot onto Fountain Flats Drive (a rare non-Grand Loop bit of road in the park) showed us that we should stick to the Grand Loop tomorrow. The road was fine (and took us through a gorgeous prairie), but when it turned into the Freight Road gravel bike path, we learned it was not a great surface for practical transit (especially when our bikes would be loaded tomorrow). It was nice to be able to ride our bikes to the start of the Fairy Falls Trail though rather than having to walk the whole way!
There isn’t exactly a bike rack where the hiking trail branches off of the bike trail, but the mix of trees and clearings meant that it wasn’t hard to stash them right near the trailhead but also well out-of-sight (in a spot that would also be great to illegally set up a campsite!) A trail just a quarter mile away from the one we were going to take had a sign (just posted yesterday) saying that it was closed due to grizzly bear activity, but luckily ours was still open (because the bears are trained not to go a quarter mile outside of their zone?) We had seen a lone bison during our bike ride striding along with us to our left, but otherwise we were completely alone out here. As we walked, we eventually spotted another bison off in the distance behind us. And then, I’ll let the photos and and captions tell what happened next:
Phew. While it would have been amazing to witness the battle between the bison turning physical, it also would have been scary to be in collateral-damage range to two tons of muscular energy. With the psychological battle apparently over, the two bison were now essentially moving along the trail ahead of us, and we could hear the deep dinosaur-like rumbling of more of them ahead in the trees, so continuing along the official path seemed like a worse idea than staying off-trail and attempting to find a way around them. So we tromped off across the grass between the trees, which were sparse enough to easily find routes between them, yet dense enough to obscure where any bison might be hiding. The land was strewn with many fallen trees that we had to step over, and after some time I realized that we were walking through an area that had burned in the massive 1988 Yellowstone fires. Thirty-five years later, 95% of the dead trees long-since fallen over, many now decayed into tree-trunk-shaped strips of wood chips. And all the living trees we could see certainly seemed to be 35 years old or younger. So thank you bison for forcing us to observe some of Yellowstone’s history that we probably wouldn’t have noticed if we’d stayed on the trail.
We’re trying to skirt to the left of the group of bison, but, stop!! Suddenly ahead to our left I heard another monstrous chortle in the trees. We freeze, listen, confirm another bison too close for comfort, and wait for him to emerge. He seems to be heading towards the group to our right, so we continue pushing further away from the trail to the left. We proceed like this for at least a mile, always attempting to angle back to the trail to our right, but always being held left by glimpses and sounds of more and more bison seemingly converging in a large group right where we also want to be.
Luckily OpenStreetMap has excellent maps of Yellowstone, so I can see exactly where the trail is relative to our GPS dot on my phone. That means we won’t get lost, but the map also reveals that there is a creek coming up, and the only place to cross it is a bridge on the trail, so we need to return to the trail before we’re cut off and hemmed in by the water. And from what we can hear (we still can’t really see them) the bison herd seems to generally be drifting towards the crossing as well, so suddenly we’re in a race, because if they make it to the crossing before we do, we’re going to be trapped on this side.
Picking up our pace, we break into an area with a clear view and can finally see the whole group behind us for the first time. There must be at least fifty of them! The way to the creek looks clear, and we risk twisted ankles stepping through the heavily-potholed ground hidden beneath the yellowed grass (presumably from bison hooves) in our drive to make it to the crossing point before they decide they want to move on again. Before we even reach the trail and its bridge, we see a clear spot in the creek with a fallen tree across it, so we take the opportunity and leap across. Finally we feel safe enough to stop, turn back, and observe the great beasts who forced this adventure on us.
Whew! While I never exactly felt “scared”, my nervous system was definitely telling me to be on high-alert through the whole escapade. Unlike cattle, which spend much of their time simply standing, bison are almost constantly in motion. Usually not fast or far, but it lets you know that they could spring into more aggressive action at any moment. They’re also visibly much larger and stronger than most cattle. And the deep prehistoric sounds that they make are something you’ll never hear from cattle. Beyond all that, much of the tension also came because there was literally no one out here for at least a mile in any direction besides us and the bison. Which is also a large part of what made it one of the most-thrilling hiking experiences we’ve ever had.
And almost unbelievably, we hadn’t yet even gotten to our actual reasons for doing this hike. We finally turned back around to continue forward on the trail, and there was a cliff wall rising off the plain with Fairy Falls coming off a split in the face, and tumbling 200 feet down, with the illusion of a giant train tunnel behind. It’s one of the most unique waterfall setups I’ve seen.
There is a shorter hike to the falls that comes from the opposite direction, so suddenly there were other people here. Including annoying kids feeding even-more-annoying chipmunks while we attempted (and failed) to eat our snack in peace. Maybe we should go back to the bison! We didn’t do that, but we did scramble 20 feet up a slope where we could look back over the trees and still see our bison out there on the plain, and we were now feeling even more lucky to have had that wild, intimate encounter, while the suckers here were completely oblivious (and of course we didn’t tip anyone off).
The last planned target of the hike was then The Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the most iconic scenes in Yellowstone, and one that I had not yet seen in my two previous visits. But the trail would take us not to the main parking area and boardwalks, but to a hillside viewing point from which we could look down on the spring from above. It’s a view that didn’t exist until those 1988 fires cleared the trees away (though by now the new growth is again beginning to obstruct the view).
I’ve seen a million photos of the Grand Prismatic Spring, but as usual seeing it in person is even better, and one thing you don’t get from photos is to see how the colors ebb and flow as steam rising from the hot surface filters the sunlight that bounces back off the colors and into our eyes.
What’s more “Yellowstone” than a single hike with three (completely different!) things that each on their own would have been a highlight of an entire vacation elsewhere? Quite satisfied, we just walked the direct route back to our bikes along the bike trail to complete our 7-mile loop. I realized that the whole reason we lucked into that bison encounter (and no one else did) is because we’re “limited” by our bicycles. The route we took was just the most-direct path we could take to get to Fairy Falls from Madison, but if we’d been in a car it would have been longer to go that way so we would have just spent the entire day with the the Grand Prismatic Springs/Fairy Falls masses.
Before getting back on the Grand Loop road, we stopped for lunch at the Nez Perce Picnic Area on the banks of the Firehole River. And somehow we got showered with goodies by fellow travelers, more than we ever have before, despite the fact that we don’t even look particularly adventurous because most of our bags aren’t even strapped to our bikes today! A guy walked by and said “hey, you guys are awesome, have a couple apples!” The perfect thing, since we’re in no-produce zone right now! He then came back a couple minutes later with his friend and said “you know what, take all of this, I don’t need it!” and dumped out a few more apples and some bags of trail mix. Thank you! Then we took a picture of a woman from Florida and her young grandson, and she gave us some of her fresh-baked cookies! She’s also encouraging her grandson to do a pretty cool thing, to visit Yellowstone every five years. As a kid, as a teenager, as a young adult with his friends, with his wife, with his new kid, etc. Given our experience today with the 1988 fires revealing the constant evolution of this place, that sounds like an especially wonderful idea!
Back at the Madison campground we took another river bath. Then afternoon rain came, which mostly helped create community as most of the people at the hiker/biker site tonight gathered under the office’s tarp-shelter (the opposite of all holing up inside our own tents). Last night there were only 3 of us, but tonight there would be at least 10! (and still plenty of room for all of us). In addition to us there was a German(-ish?) couple riding Argentina to Alaska (northbound), a couple from France in their 70s, two young-ish guys from Alberta who had done 100 miles coming in and would do the same tomorrow, and two through-hikers.