Yellowstone: Riding Through Nature’s Disneyland
Jim Bridger, a famous mountain man in the early 1800s, bragged that he had seen waterfalls that “fell up,” a pumpkin 40 feet tall and rivers that ran so fast they caused friction that created boiling, steaming water. Of all his tall tales to the traders back in Saint Louis, though, his biggest “whopper” boasted of a waterfall taller than a mountain that dropped into a valley of gold. Bridger’s eyes gleamed with the wondrous sights he had seen in the wilderness of the Wyoming Territory.
It may be 175 years later, but Yellowstone still astounds the eyes and delights the imagination. The early explorers like Bridger rode in on horses and mules. Today we can ride our two-wheeled iron steeds for a peek at the wonders of Yellowstone National Park. Gary, Dan and I headed into the park from the south entrance. The best time to see Yellowstone? Go in May before the tourist season or September after school starts. Those are also the best times to see the most wildlife.
Following the Lewis River, a cool wet wind slapped us in the faces as we cruised through silent, white skeletons of burned pines that remained after the last great fire. In only the last 13 years, 6-foot saplings have grown bright green from the forest floor and pink fireweed—the first plant to grow in a burned area—bursts from every corner of the woods. Not far along the road, Lewis Falls is a deep narrow canyon where raging white water roars through a slice of rock. There, on the edge, is a tree growing right out of the rock. No soil, no water source, nothing but rock.
We followed the river past where it emptied into Lewis Lake and climbed to 7,988 feet over the Continental Divide. Not a mile of straight road existed in the park. We either pulled up long serpentine climbs or glided down tight, rock-walled corners. It was peculiar riding through hundreds of acres of burned forest. At altitude, Dan’s and Gary’s bikes pulled a little easier up the grades than my Honda CX500, but my bike ran those curves just like theirs did!
At West Thumb, we turned northwest toward the granddaddy geyser of them all, Old Faithful. However, to get there, we had to cross over the Divide again at 8,391 feet and 8,262 feet at Craig Pass. Along the way, Dan spotted a buffalo munching grass in the woods. We stopped for a few pictures. At one time, more than a billion of those beasts roamed the prairie. One note of caution—a man approached a bison while we were there and got himself gored.
Old Faithful is the major attraction and most crowded at Yellowstone. I’ve never seen so many motorcycles in one place other than Sturgis. Not only that, they came from Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Canada and a half dozen other countries. One Hollander, riding an old Triumph, walked up to us.
“You are from Colorado?” he asked, pointing to our license plates.
“Denver,” Dan said.
“I go there in two days,” he said. “What is the best thing to see?”
“Rocky Mountain National Park,” Dan said.
A long boardwalk with seats forms a semi-circle around Old Faithful. Millions of visitors each summer watch it blast into the air every hour on the hour. We watched it steam, gurgle and finally erupt 100 feet into the air. Was Jim Bridger a liar about upside down waterfalls? From what we saw, he told the truth and we saw the proof 175 years later. The one sad note was a display showing how many bottles, cans, junk and trash visitors had thrown into the lakes, streams and geysers of Yellowstone. There is a special notice to “LEAVE NO TRACE” when you visit the wilderness, but, for many who visit, they take pictures and dump their film wrappers onto the ground, along with a trail of trash. On the way to Madison, the curving road featured sideshows filled with steaming caldrons of blue, green and sometimes yellow water. I followed Gary and Dan through the curves. It was a battle glancing to the side at geysers while keeping the bike in the middle of the treelined road. I had to stop several times, which made Gary and Dan ride back to where I was. One time, a coyote popped out of the woods and walked right by us like he owned the place.
Such names as Firehole River, Sapphire Pool, Mystic Falls, Fairy Falls and Grand Prismatic Spring created magical colors and watery action along the road. One of the best we stopped at was the Fountain Paint Pot. A long boardwalk led us around boiling, steaming blue water caldrons surrounded by lacelike rock and smelling of rotten eggs. One of the geysers boiled and shot jets of water skyward every few minutes.
Today, we know the science behind the geysers, caldrons and boiling mud pots. In Bridger’s time, many legends grew out of those magical scenes.
Just before riding into Mammoth Hot Springs, Gary, Dan and I took a side trip on Terrace Drive. Dan eased his Honda 1100 Shadow ahead of me, and Gary rode behind. It was like riding through a Disney Enchanted Forest. Aspirin-white mounds dripping like liquid frosting poured down the sides of a birthday cake formed by the constant eruption of super-heated minerals deep under the surface. Gray, leafless trees that once grew near the oozing formations stood out like scarecrows in a fallow field. Terrace Drive offered many astounding sights. But we weren’t ready for the next bend in the road—wouldn’t you know it, that pumpkin that Bridger talked about popped out of the woods.
“I’ll be hanged,” Dan said, as we parked the bikes.
“That’s the same pumpkin Bridger talked about 180 years ago. It’s still here and glistening with all the water boiling out the top of it.”
“We can thank Hayden, Langford and Moran for this, Dan,” I said, looking at my history guide.
“Why’s that?” Dan asked.
“They helped create the national park system,” I said. “If it weren’t for their efforts and Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, this place would have been trashed by fortune seekers.”
As I’ve biked through every national park and monument in this country over the years, I’m profoundly appreciative of those who came before us with a vision of conservation.
After a great camping night and ranger talk around the campfire, we toured the park headquarters the following day. The buildings, over 100 years old, housed a garrison of soldiers who protected the park in the early days. What did they protect? If it hadn’t been for those soldiers, Old Faithful would have been destroyed and the bison wiped out along with the elk, deer and beaver.
On our way to Tower Falls, we watched a great herd of elk grazing along the highway as well as another lone coyote. Two mule deer popped out of the woods. Another hawk soared through the brilliant blue sky. Our bikes purred through the wildflower-lined curves. Later, we dropped into open valleys that soared upward into dense forests reaching for the sky.
To make sure Bridger wasn’t a liar, we stopped to see another one of his whoppers. Sure enough, growing out of the ground was a petrified tree on the side of a mountain. Jim Bridger was a storyteller, but his stories held kernels of truth. Tower Falls proved its name. On either side of the waterfall, huge brown towers shot skyward looking much like the Empire State Building. The towers pointed to the sky while frothing whitewater raged downward. Bridger wasn’t far off in his bragging about the magical scenes he saw in Yellowstone.
On the way up a 10-mile climb headed for Dunraven Pass, we rode along the flank of a huge valley filled with trees and prairie. Halfway up, a dozen cars had pulled over to the side of the road. Everyone held binoculars as they eyeballed something deep in the valley. Gary waved us over.
“Let’s check it out,” he said.
“What are you looking at?” I asked one lady standing at a tripod-mounted telescope.
“Have a look,” she said.
Through the scope I spied a big grizzly digging through an old tree stump. The big, brown, perhaps 900-pound bear shoved his nose into the bark and tore at the insides. He was after something.
“It’s a grizzly,” I said to Dan.
“Here,” I said. “Take a look.”
Dan and Gary watched the grizzly for a few minutes each. We thanked the lady for allowing us such a great view through the telescope. By that time, a hoard of tourists had lined the road with cameras. There wasn’t much to see because the grizzly was so far away. We cranked our bikes and headed up the pass.
At the top, the fires of Yellowstone had left a forest full of leafless trees. They stood like ghost sticks yelling at the sky. But beneath them, thousands of fresh saplings grew in a new siege toward the heavens. Dunraven Pass, at 8,859 feet, pushed into the sky. The roller-coaster ride down the mountain carried us to the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Second in popularity only to Old Faithful, the Lower Falls offers riders a view of nature’s patience. Millions of years in the making, the canyon cuts over 1,000 feet deep into the wilderness. It looks like a gold-plated, multifaceted, smaller, tree-lined Grand Canyon. Osprey swoop along the updrafts and into the spray created by the falls. One of the birds sat on a nest near the falls with its young. When Bridger first saw the falls, his eyes widened in astonishment. Some of the names indicate the beauty and romance of the falls, like Inspiration Point and Artist Point. They could add another: Eye-Popping Point.
Back on our iron steeds, we followed the Yellowstone River as it snaked through deep canyons and dense wilderness. Just before Yellowstone Lake, we stopped where several cars were parked. So far in the trip, we had seen buffalo, elk, coyote, Bighorn sheep, mule deer, hawks, white pelicans, trumpeter swans, pronghorns and Mallard ducks. But no moose!
Wonder of wonders, a moose and her calf browsed in a thicket near the road. She munched on grasses near some fireweed while her little one stood quietly beside her. A circus of tourists surrounded the mother and calf. The river emptied into the vast, deep blue Yellowstone Lake that stretched for miles and was trimmed in pine trees. Off to the west, storm clouds boiled overhead. We throttled into a misting rain. Quickly, it broke open as we headed back toward the south entrance to the park. A cold rain plastered my fairing and fogged my sunglasses as it soaked my gloves. Miles down the road, with wet pavement beneath my wheels and fresh clean air filling my lungs, the setting sun gave rise to a fully arced rainbow.
I stopped and yelled back to Gary and Dan, “Let’s get a picture of it.”
“Do something crazy,” Gary said, focusing his camera. I threw up my arms while straddling my bike under the rainbow.
“This is magic!” I yelled.
Gary and Dan smiled as they sat watching the rainbow. It arced over the acres of burned forest and fresh, green lodgepole pines shooting eagerly upward into the bright gray sky. Their wet needles glistened like diamonds. That’s the wonder of nature. It captures our imaginations and gives us great hope for the future.
Jim Bridger was right when he said, “Gents, there’s magic up there.”
As my friends Dan and Gary would say, “Warm up your iron horse, throw some provisions into your saddlebags, gather a few friends and ride into Yellowstone’s magic.”
(This Yellowstone Magic story was publishes in the September 2009 issue of Rider magazine.)