The Road To Yellowstone, Part Two

The Road To Yellowstone, Part Two
Travel Date: September 14, 2017

Hwy 26 along the east side of the Wind River Range.

After waking up in Sinks Canyon on our third day of the trip, we were anticipating our arrival in Yellowstone later that day. But first, we wanted to explore the Wind River Range.

We had started exploring Sinks Canyon the night before but started running out of daylight, so we had more to see. After scouting out Frye Lake the night before, we knew we wanted to catch some pictures of the lake with the mountains in the background at sunrise. So we headed back up the canyon to the series of switchbacks, arriving at Frye Lake at mid-dawn. While waiting for the sun to come up enough to provide good lighting, I had an exciting moment.

Going into the trip, there were four animals I had never seen before in the wild and really wanted to. I wanted to see a bear, a wolf, a bighorn sheep and a moose. At Frye Lake, in the calm quiet of dawn, I heard a noise that I was sure was a moose grunting. Like a prairie dog or a meerkat, I stretched my head up in the direction from which the noise was coming. I didn’t see anything immediately so I cautiously started walking towards the sound. Frye Lake is actually a small reservoir, and it seemed like the noise was coming from the downstream side of the dam, so I ended up walking along the top of the dam towards the noise. I was making my way at a slow pace, because I didn’t want to startle or get too close to an animal that could do me harm, and soon the noise started fading. I thought I’d lost my chance. I could now clearly see the small meadow below the dam, but did not see any animals, so I started walking faster to get a glympse behind some trees where I thought an animal might want to go. It was just about at this time that I came upon the control valve structure for the dam, which lets water out of the reservoir. All of a sudden, I heard the noise again, but this time it was on the lake side of the dam, and seemed to be very close to me! As I whipped around to see what was there, I saw the… whirlpool. Yep! The lake level was kind of low and the water draining to the outlet stream was making a whirlpool, which happened to make a sucking sound that I mistook for an animal’s grunts. No moose.

Rebecca took this picture of me when the “moose” noise caught my attention.  The control valve structure, which determines how much water flows through the dam and ended up being the source of the noise, is the building right in front of me.

But now, after turning to look westward over the lake, the sun is giving the mountains a reddish glow. This is what I had hoped for! I quickly forgot about the “moose” excitement and soaked in the beauty of a Wind River morning. It didn’t take long before the sun was directly beaming on the mountains, changing them from reddish to white and green. I could have just sat on that dam looking at that gorgeous scene for hours but we had a lot more to do that day, including a visit to the namesake of Sinks Canyon.

Filtered through some thin clouds early, the mountains took on a reddish hue.
Eventually, the sun came up higher, providing a more normal but soft light.

Sinks Canyon gets its name from a phenomenon that happens to the Popo Agie River a little further down from our campsite. After riffling over rocks down a relatively shallow grade, the terrain over which the river flows gets steeper and it cascades around a curve. Shortly after the curve, the river sinks into a cave and seemingly disappears! This location was named “The Sinks”, which is where the canyon got its name.

The Popo Agie River rounds a bend and “sinks” into the cave at left.
The view into the Sinks.

What happens to this water flowing into a cave? It turns out that there are many tiny cracks in the limestone at the back of the cave, which are enough to absorb all that water flowing in. It’s kind of like a reverse spring. Spelunkers have tried exploring the cave but they don’t get very far into it before the spaces become too small for a human to enter. The water then travels underground through an unknown pathway through the rock and surfaces about a quarter-mile downstream at a place called “The Rise”, where it continues as a regular river. Though the exact pathway is not known, the connection between the Sinks and the Rise has been confirmed. When pink dye was dumped into the river just before it plunged into the Sinks, it surfaced two hours later in the Rise. It took two hours for the dye to travel just a quarter-mile downstream! If the dye was dumped in at our campsite, it might only take five to ten minutes to be seen a quarter-mile downriver. There has yet to be any definitive explanation for what happens to the water once it enters the Sinks, which makes it one of those mysterious experiences that arouses your curiosity.

There are observation points at both the Sinks and the Rise. The main observation deck at the Rise puts you thirty feet or so above the pool created by the water resurfacing. From this point, you can see many large trout, swimming in place as they balance their speed against the flow of the water. The trout are mostly Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) but a sign at the observation point says there may also be Brown Trout (Salmo trutta). Though members of different genera, they are both in the subfamily Salmoninae within the family Salmonidae. As the name suggests, this family includes the salmon in addition to trouts. As the trout swim upstream they come to the Rise, which is similar to the Sinks in that the cracks out of which the water resurfaces are too small for even the trout to swim through. This natural barrier keeps them from going any further upstream, but the trout don’t mind. Because the water flows fast enough out of the Rise, the water never freezes, providing year-round habitat. There is also an abundance of both natural and artificial food. A feeder is located at the observation point where visitors can enhance the trouts’ diet. Also, fishing is not allowed at the Rise so the trout are protected from their main predator and there is a very good chance you will be able to observe them.

This is where the water resurfaces and continues downstream (towards the right). Trout can be seen all over the Rise.
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) at the Rise.

Another common inhabitant of the Rise is the Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia). This black-white-and-blue bird can be seen pecking on the sandbars around the rise, just feet from the trout, or in the trees lining the shores. These birds are in the family Corvidae, which is in the order of birds know as Passeriformes. This order is one of the largest, if not the largest, orders of birds. We’ll experience plenty of birds related to the Magpie but this is a pretty one and there’s a good chance you’ll see one between here and Yellowstone.

A Magpie pecks around a sandbar at the Rise.
Close-up of a Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).
Public domain photo

We left the Rise and made our way out of Sinks Canyon, heading towards Lander. From Lander, we headed northwest on highway 287. Thirteen miles or so out of town the highway passes Ray Lake, on the Wind River Indian Reservation. As with all the best experiences, pictures just can’t capture the awe that being in a scene like that can inspire. You really can’t see more than foothills from Lander but here the Wind River Range was out in all its glory! And it stayed in it’s glory for the next thirty to forty miles.

The Wind River Range behind Ray Lake.

This whole stretch is within the indian reservation, which is absolutely not the same as a park, in concept, but is more park-like than many places. Much of rural Wyoming is ranch land that seems just a little more developed than the rural land on the reservation. There is definitely some ranching on the reservation, and the towns look like most rural western towns, but overall the land seems more natural. And the views of the mountain range to the west were magnificent!

The mountains from the Wind River Reservation.

The areas along highways 287 and then 26 through the reservation are also prime habitat for Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana). From a distance, pronghorns look a lot like deer but there are significant differences. One of the most visible differences is the shape of the horns on the males. Male deer grow antlers every year which can be multiple feet in length and vary in shape from deer to deer and year to year. Male pronghorns do not even have antlers at all but a unique type of horn that grows only to about one foot in length and it is always essentially the same shape, with two points or prongs on each horn. Pronghorns shed the outer coating of these horns but do not lose the whole thing, like deer do. These and other differences put them in a family separate from deer, called Antilocapridae, and they are the only species in that family. From a low population in the 1920’s of a little more than 10,000 pronghorns, there are now about a million of them in the country, and half of them are in the state of Wyoming. This is definitely the state in which to experience this amazing animal, and the road through the reservation gives them a beautiful setting.

Male Pronghorn

One quick story about our experience with pronghorns on the trip involves one running alongside our car in an open-range situation. Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America, and one of the fastest in the world. Later in the trip, once we got into Yellowstone, we were driving on one of the park roads at about 45 miles per hour. A pronghorn came out of nowhere, running across the road at an angle in front of us and proceeded to run along the side of the road in the same direction we were traveling once she crossed. It happened so fast that I barely took my foot off the accelerator before she was out of our way. So I continued at the same speed and this animal was right beside us for a good five seconds before she took off away from the road. I don’t think she was even going all-out and it was still an amazing display of speed!

Female Pronghorns

Back in the Wind Rivers, we were approaching the western border of the reservation when we came to the turnoff for the Dinwoody Lakes. I wanted to check out this valley because the lakes looked like they had turquoise water when I looked at the satellite view of Google Maps. As we drove up the road towards the lakes we saw more pronghorns, a Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus) and a Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus). We’ll discuss chipmunks in Yellowstone. The Sage Thrasher, also known as the Mountain Mockingbird, is a bird related to starlings, in the family Sturnidae. Though not very similar to the magpies, they are also in the order Passeriformes. It’s a very large order or birds.

Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus)

A more exciting bird for me came just up the road from the Thrasher. About a mile down the road off highway 26, we saw what looked like a very small old-western town so we turned off the main dirt road to take a look. We were still on the Wind River Reservation, and there was no sign announcing it as a tourist destination, so it could have been authentic but it looked a little artificial. There was some kind of house-like building behind a gate nearby, so maybe there were people living there who took care of this short stretch of storefronts and church that looked like they could have come out of a western movie set. We couldn’t see anyone around and there seemed to be a parking lot for a few cars just asking for us to check it out, so we did. I wish I knew more of the story behind it but it was a neat, unplanned little stop.

Old west storefronts. I don’t know if they ever functioned as anything but an interesting tourist stop.

It is while we were at this stop that I saw the bird that excited me a little more. Swans are not all that rare but they always seem to be in garden ponds and less wild places. But here, in a calm spot of the creek that flows out of the Dinwoody Lakes, was a wild Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). A very regal-looking bird, this male was all by itself. In the family Anatidae, which also includes ducks and geese, it is quite different from the magpie and the thrasher. Swans spend a lot of time in the water, which is where their order, Anseriformes, gets the common name of waterfowl. The one disclaimer I should make is that I am not sure that this was a Trumpeter. Adult Trumpeter Swans look very similar to adult Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus). They’re both all white except for their black bills. If the two species were side-by-side, it might have been much easier to tell, because Trumpeter Swans are noticeably bigger than Tundra Swans. But this was a single male at a distance of almost 100 yards, in the middle of a body of water, far from plants or any other reference points. I am very confident that it was a swan of the genus Cygnus, so that’s good enough for me. It was a good stop.

Swan (Cygnus sp.)

After leaving the old western town, we continued up the main dirt road towards the lakes. We didn’t get far before we got to a sign saying we were about to enter a ranch and needed permission to enter. There was no way I could have known this from the satellite view of Google Maps and I was a little disappointed. However, we could see the first of the lakes at a distance from this point and the water didn’t look turquoise from where we were, so maybe I would have been disappointed even if we could have gone further. Turquoise waters are usually created by runoff from glacial till that is composed of the right kind of rock being suspended in the water and reflecting that unique color of blue. It could be that there hadn’t been much runoff for a while and the sediment had settled or something or it could have been that the angle at which we were looking at it was too shallow to see any turquoise. I have no idea. But, overall, the little detour off the highway was well worth it.

The view from Google Maps that lead me up the Dinwoody Valley. Compare the color of Dinwoody Lake, in the bottom-right, with Torrey Lake in the upper-left.

We headed back to highway 26 and took it northwest out of the reservation. The next side trip was just up the road and into the Torrey Valley. The Torrey Valley, home to a chain of lakes that includes Torrey Lake, is where you can follow a self-guided wildlife tour with a focus on Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis). The tour is provided by the National Bighorn Sheep Center, located just to the north in the town of Dubois.

The area featured in the tour is home to one of the largest wintering herds of bighorn sheep in the world. I didn’t get to see a moose at Frye Lake so I was really hoping to be able to get a glimpse of a bighorn sheep on this tour. Once you turn off the highway and head south on Trail Lake Road, you drive about two miles to a kiosk which marks the start of the tour. I won’t rehash the information contained in the brochure but suffice it to say that we did not see any sheep along the six-mile tour. Strike two.

The kiosk marking the start of the self-guided wildlife tour up the Torrey Valley.  The bare slope in the background is said to be a relatively common place for Bighorn Sheep.

We did see plenty of other stuff in this beautiful valley. A couple miles into the tour we came to the head of Torrey Lake where we saw a very obvious osprey nest in a dead tree. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) are eagle-like birds that dive towards lakes and snatch fish right out of them. It’s quite exciting to actually see it happen.

Osprey nest at the head of Torrey Lake.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Notice the fish it’s holding.

Another bird we saw just upstream, at Ring Lake, was a Common Merganser (Mergus merganser). If you look at this duck-like bird up close, you can see a feature that separates mergansers from ducks. Instead of a broad, flat bill used for eating vegetation, as ducks have, the bills of mergansers are narrower and have serrated, teeth-like edges. This allows the mergansers to have a diet of fish and other small animals. Like many birds in the duck family, Anatidae, there is a significant difference in the appearance of the males and females of the same species. The one we saw was a female, with a rusty-colored head and a light gray body. The males of this species have dark green heads and a lighter-white body. I had seen osprey before but this was my first merganser. Good experience!

Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) female on Ring Lake.
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser). The lighting wasn’t very good for us so this is a public domain photo by Alan Wilson for better detail.

While keeping our eyes open for bighorn sheep and not seeing any, we reached the end of the self-guided tour, which put us at the trailhead for Glacier Trail and the Fitzpatrick Wilderness. After sitting in the car for the past few hours, we were ready to stretch our legs so we decided to check out a little bit of the trail. Shortly after climbing a hundred feet or so on the trail we ran into a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis). Many people mistake these small rodents for chipmunks since they are striped. One difference between this squirrel and a chipmunk is the fact that they are larger than chipmunks. But the easiest way to distinguish a ground squirrel from a chipmunk is related to those stripes. On chipmunks, the stripes are not just on the body but on the face as well. The stripes on ground squirrels may run up the body and onto the back of the neck but not on the face. This one didn’t seem to mind us much as long as we kept a little distance and we watched it scurry around on some rocks for a few minutes.

The Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) we saw on Glacier Trail is on the left. Compare it to a chipmunk we saw later in Yellowstone. Notice the stripes on the face of the chipmunk but not on the ground squirrel.

If we would have had more time, we could have continued up the trail to some waterfalls, but we felt like we had stretched our legs enough and wanted to get to Yellowstone. We looked for sheep as we drove back to the highway but, again, did not see any. Highway 26 took us west through the town of Dubois (we did not stop at the Bighorn Sheep Center) and then towards Jackson Hole. There are five main ways to get into Yellowstone and we were to enter through the south entrance. To do this, you have to pass through Grand Tetons National Park. Even if you have no intention of doing anything but driving through that park on the way to Yellowstone, you have to pay an entrance fee. They do offer a joint seven-day pass for a slight discount over what it would cost to buy each individually but we were planning to be in the area for eight days so it was actually cheaper to buy the annual pass that gets you into any federal fee area for a year. This includes all the national parks and it happens to work as a boat ramp pass at the federal reservoir in Kansas, where we live. So it was worth it.

Once we were in Grand Teton National Park, we were anticipating some great views of these majestic mountains but it was so cloudy when we were there that all we could see were the bases of the mountains. No big deal, our plan was to come back this way after Yellowstone so maybe the weather would be better. Our route took us north along Jackson Lake and into the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. This is a small piece of land, operated by the National Park Service, that bridges the gap between the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Finally, we came to the entrance to Yellowstone. This is where I’ll pick up the next time.


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