When it comes to fall colors, the eastern half of our country has the reputation for the most colorful displays. Another less-heralded display occurs in the west that combines brilliant fall colors with a major river, abundant wildlife, a backdrop of spectacular mountains and more than half of the world’s thermal features.
The 22.5 million acres that comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem include Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, but also seven national forests, three wildlife refuges and three major mountain ranges. This is what makes it so special, so wild, and so beautiful. Lit by fall colors, but minus the crush of summer tourists and insects, September is a wonderful time there.
Here is a taste of what we experienced on a Naturalist Journeys tour I led with Greg Smith this fall:
Stupendous views opened up along nearly every turn of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Golden-green – rosy hues of Aspen, Willow and Cottonwood trees were illuminated by an ever-changing cloudscape with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop.
At Oxbow Bend, the astounding fall colors reflected in the Snake River in impressionistic fashion creating a view that Ansel Adams would have probably photographed and Claude Monet would have likely been inspired to paint.
We awoke in Yellowstone to the haunting sounds of elk bugling. Later, we saw the buglers in action: a bull elk herding his small harem of four cow elk. On the way to Hayden Valley, we met a lone Bison calmly walking toward us in the opposite lane of the road. He continued strolling beside our vehicle, unperturbed by our presence.
At our first Hayden Valley viewpoint we once again heard elk bugling and then saw a herd of 20+ elk on a high bench across the Yellowstone River. A was coyote hunting on the hillside just below us – he would walk a few steps, side-step, pounce, sniff, dig and then repeat in its never-ending search for food. We then moved to another viewpoint in sight of a known wolf den. We found two in the scope: a black and a gray morph wolf. What a treat to see them on our second day out!
Acting on a tip from other wildlife watchers, we headed to Bridge Creek in search of a Great Gray Owl. Soon, we were watching in amazement as one perched, flew, hunted, pounced to the ground and at one point flew to a perch within ten feet of us. Seeing this, the largest of all North American Owls, was a life bird for most in our group, including me.
Moving on, we walked to several viewpoints above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including the upper and lower falls with their 100-300 foot drops into the multi-colored canyon. It is so vast and beautiful that photos and paintings cannot do it justice. Thomas Moran, renowned national park painter and promoter said that it “was beyond the realm of human art.”
Continuing into the center of Yellowstone and its huge super volcano caldera, the animals just kept on coming: Big-horned Sheep seen on a hike and along the roadside; Elk lounging on the hot water and travertine formations at Mammoth as if it were there personal spa;
a large cinnamon-colored Black Bear foraged on a hillside near the Tower area, walking and balancing on logs with the grace of a gymnast.
Heading east we entered Lamar Valley where thousands of Bison were joined by Pronghorns, Coyotes and other birds and wildlife. This valley, along with Hayden Valley, offer a glimpse of how the west might have appeared to Native Americans and early settlers. These valleys have been referred to as North America’s Serengeti due to the abundance of wildlife they host.
Indian summer weather prevailed as we continued northeast from Yellowstone Park to the Beartooth highway which the late great television journalist Charles Kurault said was “America’s most beautiful.”
Our group described the Beartooths as: “Indescribable, majestic, sublime, overwhelming, intoxicating, fantastic, beautifully brutal, awesome, humbling, breathtaking, expansive, spiritual, ineffable, stark/beautiful, dazzling, joyous, and unbelievable. “
At Beartooth Pass, just below 11,000 feet, we searched for Pikas on a rocky scree slope. It did not take long for us to find them. First we heard a nasal “beep!” and then saw one perched on a rock. Other beeps!” and more Pika sightings followed.
Our last stop in Yellowstone was Old Faithful geyser basin. There we hiked to the iconic Morning Glory pool that resembles a giant piece of Southwestern Indian jewelry with its deep tones of blue, green and yellow.
As we reluctantly departed from Yellowstone, the fall colors increased in intensity in Grand Teton National Park along the Snake River valley, reaching a crescendo at Oxbow Bend. Everyone departed from Jackson with fond memories of the natural wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem embellished by brilliant fall colors. This is a magical time in which to visit a magical place.
Photos by Lori Cohen & Woody Wheeler