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A Dark Thirty Trip To Yellowstone National Park

Here’s an idea for beating the new god-awful crowds in Yellowstone—get out there early. Super early. Earlier-than-dark-thirty-early.

My old friend Jean Besmehn and I did this on Sunday. I left Livingston at 3:45 to pick her up in Emigrant by 4:15 a.m. Dawn comes early at these latitudes in the days before the Solstice—5:15 to be exact. And sunset isn’t until 9:15 p.m. That’s a solid 16 hours of Yellowstone daylight.

We opted for wildlife over geysers. Jean and I worked together at Old Faithful in those wonderfully awful concession jobs of our youth, so we didn’t really want to go back to “Old Filthy.” Those geyser basins glare white-hot on a summer day and going shoulder-to-shoulder with the selfie-stick crowd on those narrow boardwalks? Nah, we’ll pass.

The plan was to head to Lake over Dunraven Pass with a side trip out to Slough Creek to look for wolves.

We got to Mammoth by 5-ish and snuck some free coffee from the hotel lobby, probably intended for guests. We didn’t see any staff to question us, but it might be best to just bring your own.

When we got back to my car, I noticed something on the roof in between the roof rack bars. One tennis shoe. Oops, I must have set them both down on the roof at home while I loaded other items into the car.

“Maybe I’ll find the other one on the way home,” I laughed.

So we headed for Slough Creek to try to get a look at the the wolf pups. The Junction Butte pack has a den on the side of a long, steep hill about a mile away from the best, safest viewing spot.

The den is occupied by two females and two litters of pups. The older litter was born around April 15, Jim Halfpenny said Monday, and the younger one not much longer afterward. The pack comprises 11 adults and yearlings plus the pups.

Halfpenny, a Gardiner resident, is a world-renowned animal track expert and all-around wildlife biologist. He’s a cougar expert and also leads trips to northern Canada to view polar bears.

It’s not super common for two females in a pack to breed, but also not “unnormal,” Halfpenny said.

“If you’ve got a lot of food, you might as well have a lot of young,” he said.

The wolves’ major food source is elk.

They’ve got nine pups between the two of them. If you want wolf video, go to Facebook and look up “Optics Yellowstone,” a page maintained by wolf watcher and videographer Doug McLaughlin, Halfpenny recommended.

About 50 people were already gathered, scattered around the hilly terrain. The hardcore were set up with camp chairs, coffee cups, warm clothing and snuggly blankets, spotting scopes at the ready.

The crowd was friendly, but quiet in the dawn, murmuring in low tones if they spoke at all.

Halfpenny said most average visitors hear about the Slough Creek viewing area by word-of-mouth.

“About 90 percent are just people hoping to see a wolf, and so they’re ecstatic when the hardcore wolf watchers let them look through a scope,” Halfpenny said.

There was one wolf barely visible, laying down in sagebrush. We never did see the pups, which didn’t emerge from the den. But across the main road on another steep hillside, a few people had their scopes trained on a sow grizzly with two cubs of the year. The scope owners were generous in letting anyone take a peek.

We decided to head toward Lake. We stopped at the Tower General Store for coffee, but the store was dark. Surely it was open for the season by now? Yes it was, but not until 9 a.m. It was barely 8. We pressed on.

On the other side of Dunraven Pass, the clouds had settled in and it was cooler and raining a bit. We didn’t stop at Canyon. Jean suggested we get some breakfast at the Lake General Store. I recalled they had had a little grill in the past, with eggs and hash browns available. But not anymore apparently. I saw an order of biscuit sandwiches come out—they looked fresh from the microwave.

“Should we splurge on a Lake Hotel breakfast? Hell, yes!” Jean said.

Before we left the store, we teased the young man at the cashier stand. His name tag said his name was Olekseii and that he was from Ukraine. His English was very good, with a cute Boris and Natasha Russian accent.

I asked if he was a student and if he hoped to remain in the U.S.

“If you’re looking to get married and stay, my friend Liz here is available,” Jean said.

The look on his face was priceless.

“Or maybe I could adopt you instead,” I said, given our age difference.

We walked away, howling with laughter. Roving around, mixing it up with the staff and laughing at selfie sticks might be a whole new way to see Yellowstone.

We were seated immediately in the Lake Hotel dining room, another bennie to our early schedule. We popped in for breakfast around 9. The dining room was scarcely one-quarter full. The other early birds had already had breakfast and left.

I had a pretty good omelet and toast and a fried potato-like product on the side. Jean had huckleberry pancakes that came with huckleberry butter AND huckleberry syrup. The coffee was delicious. We lingered at our table by the lakeside window.

We chatted with our waiter, urging him to never, ever to get a real job and to stick with his seasonal existence as long as possible. Jean and I both regretted our insistence on leaving the park at the peak of our youth to settle down elsewhere and get real jobs.

“I think we were sold a bill of goods,” I said.

On our way out, I approached a young woman working at the hotel’s front desk.

“What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard this week?” I asked, knowing that whatever she had to share, it would be comedy gold.

“A woman asked me if there were any bear-free trails anywhere in Yellowstone,” she said.

“Ooh, good one,” I replied.

(For the record: No, there are not.)

I told her, too, to stick with the seasonal thing. She said she was thinking of applying at Zion National Park for winter. The concessions there are operated by the same company as in Yellowstone, Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

Jean and I headed back with a quick detour out the East Entrance Road, stopping at Steamboat Point. Chugging thermal features near Yellowstone Lake’s shore give the point its name. The lake was gray and choppy. A raven worked the crowd for treats, its demeanor somehow too cool to call what it was doing “begging.”

Then we moved on, heading back through Hayden Valley. First animal jam: approximately 1 p.m. Not bad. It was a handsome bull elk—at least six points on each antler—in velvet. Traffic slowed, but didn’t completely stop. People stayed in their cars. I didn’t see anyone try to pet the elk or offer it a chance to warm up in their car.

So by late afternoon, we’d had a full, successful day in the park. With a few more stops, including some wildflower viewing, we were ready to motor north.

I dropped Jean off in Emigrant. I continued north. About 11 miles south of Livingston—can you believe it?—I see my other shoe on the side of the road! I find a place to turn around, a safe place to park, and I walk along side the road. I pick up my shoe and go home.

We’ll do the dark thirty thing again soon.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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