Yellowstone springs into summer

[Monday June 16, 2008] Winter in Yellowstone did indeed end last Friday (Friday the 13th of June). After three major snow storms since just before Memorial Day weekend – with all the attendant road closings; the Greater Yellowstone Area is finally enjoying a string of real spring days. Day temperatures are firmly fixed in the 60’s (15C) and nights flirt with freezing. All the roads in and around Yellowstone Park are now open, including the Beartooth Highway, which was plagued with avalanches and closed for more than two weeks.

That doesn’t mean all signs of winter are gone. The amount of snow remaining in some areas can be astonishing, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the park. Hikers looking to trod the trails of Hayden Valley, Mt. Washburn, the Central Plateau, and the Pitchstone Plateau (among others) will find these areas passing through the ‘motley cow’ phase of snow melt – patches of white alternating with brown – making for soggy trails (at best). Trails at higher elevations (above 8,500 ft) may still be impassible. Historically the winter was ‘normal’, but the prolonged spring is a bit unusual. Ice went out on Yellowstone Lake around June 10, the latest in twenty years.

But the snow is going, fast. The long range forecast for the end of June indicates much above normal temperatures. This could mean flooding, as this year’s large snowpack in the mountains, much delayed by the cold spring, finally melts. The upper Yellowstone and Pacific Creek south of Yellowstone Park are already in flood; other creeks and rivers could follow. This complicates life for those who like to fish, as high and often muddy water makes fish difficult (or impossible) to catch. Some streams, such as the Firehole River and Gibbon River, are high but fishable. Others, like Slough Creek fluctuate with day/night melting patterns and local rains. Still others, such as the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers, are big muddy torrents and will remain that way well into July.



Lamar Valley melt-water pond              nk2008
Lamar River foaming      nk2008
Kids sampling              nk2008 

For the animal spotters, the big concentrations of elk and bison herds in the major valleys are now beginning their perambulation to higher terrain. The elk herds in particular have almost completely evacuated; leaving only the usual remnant few in places such as the Madison River valley and Mammoth Hot Springs. Wither the elk, so the wolf packs; the days of nearby sightings are just about over.

For the hydrothermal world of Yellowstone (the geysers, hot springs, et al), the changing of the seasons doesn’t have an obvious effect. Things are cooking along as usual. Recent studies show that changes in the water table, the effects of drought or an abundance of underground water does have a role to play in the cycle of many geysers. Drought usually lengthens the time it takes for a geyser to accumulate enough water and steam to erupt, so they have longer cycles. Geyser gazers will be tracking the geysers throughout the summer to see what this year’s bigger snow melt might do.

The next month or so in Yellowstone is always the ‘prime time’ for the beauty of nature: Snow capped mountains, lush green valleys, robust waterfalls, and mild weather. This year, add mountain highways that pass through canyons of snow, blooming plants almost a month later than recent years, and old dry waterholes brimming with water. It’s should be enough to make people grin and bear costly gasoline, and take that vacation to Yellowstone anyway.

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