By Ruffin Prevost
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — As spring slowly takes hold in Yellowstone National Park, a familiar cast of critters are emerging to claim center stage on a landscape still shedding the snow and ice of a long, cold winter.
Familiar favorites like sandhill cranes and harlequin ducks have flown in from far-flung locales. But some new stars have arrived too, including baby bison, grizzly bear cubs and even a few nascent bubbling mud pots and babbling brooks that have emerged since fall.
Also making the rounds over the weekend were throngs of early-season park visitors, anxious to see Mother Nature’s dazzling display. The long-lensed wildlife watchers and gregarious geyser gazers were out in force, along with plenty of vocal locals. As always each spring, a healthy contingent of accidental tourists also showed up, shivering in shorts and flip flops to see the sights while day-tripping through Yellowstone on their way from somewhere to elsewhere.
But no matter what drew visitors on one of the first weekends this year when the park’s vast interior has been open to automobile traffic, Yellowstone didn’t disappoint those who made the trip.
“We are madly in love with this place,” said first-time visitor Jennifer Land, who traveled from Ohio with her son, Ashely Teeple. “We love everything about it.”
Land and Teeple said they didn’t mind the brisk wind gusting Sunday morning atop Lake Butte Overlook as they took in sweeping views of Yellowstone Lake far below. The pair were on the fifth day of an itinerary that included stays in Cody and the Montana gateways towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner.
Highlights of their trip included seeing a grizzly bear with two cubs in the Hayden Valley and a day trip to the tiny tourist town of Silver Gate, Montana, just outside Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance.
Land said she wasn’t surprised by the weather, which was often overcast and cool, with daytime temperatures ranging from 40-60 degrees. But she “never expected it to be as beautiful as it is here.”
Despite spending a decade of planning for their big trip, Land realized that “it’s kind of impossible to try and plan everything. You have to get in the park and just wing it.”
But at Lake Hotel, some visitors who were winging it for dinner reservations realized that planning is key for snagging a spot in the popular dining room at the Colonial revival property, first opened in 1891 and the oldest operating hotel in the park.
Only three days after opening for the season, the Lake Hotel dining room was already 90% booked for the next two months, reported hostess Brin Carlile, who said she spent much of her shift apologizing to disappointed diners and offering directions to the restrooms or taking reservations for August and September.
The elegant venue offers the most upscale food in Yellowstone, with locals and savvy visitors booking tables months in advance to enjoy dishes like grilled quail with cranberry compote or lobster ravioli in asiago cream sauce.
Originally from Australia but now living in Illinois, Carlile said she was excited to spend the summer working in Yellowstone, which she had never visited before.
“Everything here has been kind of closed and frozen over until the last couple of days,” said Carlile, who arrived a week ago and had already seen a wolf and a grizzly with two cubs, and cited Artist Paintpots as a favorite thermal attraction.
“But what I really want to see is a moose,” she said, her eyes widening as a broad grin spread across her face. “The way they move just looks so amazing.”
At Mud Volcano, a collection of thermal features at the south end of the Hayden Valley, a boardwalk leading to churning hot springs and hissing fumaroles was closed. But none of the dozens of visitors there were complaining.
That’s because a nearby mother grizzly and cub were foraging along a hillside — and were the reason for the closure — as they had been frequenting the area for the past few days.
The year-old cub stuck close to its mother, which was more focused on digging for tubers than the sprawling phalanx of park paparazzi lined up along a weathered railing, constrained at both ends by tenuous strips of yellow caution tape. The cub elicited a range of delighted “oohs” and “aahs” in unison from onlookers as it romped and gamboled between rocks trees.
“This is just so far beyond my wildest expectations,” said Bebe Bushra, a first-time Yellowstone visitor, who snapped cell phone pictures of the bears—and herself. An Instagram influencer from Texas, Bushra was documenting her five-day solo trip through Jackson and Grand Teton National Park, and decided to spend a final day in Yellowstone.
Adding a swing through the world’s first national park was clearly the right call, she said, as she asked fellow travelers to shoot photos of her in a flowing pink dress and bright red cowboy hat against backdrops of steaming sulfur pools and snow-capped mountains.
A few minutes later and a few miles down the road from Mud Volcano, Bushra struck social media gold again as she stood up through the sunroof of her rental car to safely photograph a herd of bison grazing just a few yards away. A crowd quickly gathered to see the “red dogs,” newborn bison calves whose brightly colored fur and frisky antics make them a favorite spring sighting.
A nearby volunteer in a blaze-orange vest, working to manage traffic and keep people and wildlife safely apart, smiled and gamely acquiesced when Bushra handed over her cell phone and asked him to play photographer for a moment.
“Only in Yellowstone,” said another visitor taking in the scene. “Now I have to check out her Instagram page when I get home.”
Written by Ruffin Prevost and reprinted with permission from Wyoming Truth.