The plan was to walk up to specimen ridge and see the ancient petrified forest in Yellowstone. Besides having the most number of petrified tree stumps that are actually standing, the place is home to some 27 (no typo that!) layers of ancient forests - a time capsule which tells a story of Yellowstone through the ages when it was a much different place than it is today. The books said this was no easy trail and we realized that when we tried to find the trailhead. Since we only saw places that could be potential trailheads and we were not sure which one we should take, we headed a down the road to the Yellowstone river picnic site to take an alternate trail to specimen ridge. The trail from the picnic site took us on a quick ascent of a several hundred feet and then flattened out to gentle ups and downs along the yellowstone river canyon.
Ravens and other birds were seen and heard for much of the early part of the hike. When on a trail, I generally have the camera with the telephoto lens on. It makes sense because I use the telephoto lens to shoot animals or birds and the wide angle of scenery and such things. The stationary objects always have time for a change of lens right? The first big animal we saw on the trail was a surprise. It came out of nowhere and fearlessly jogged past us without stopping or even looking. I thought it was a coyote first but then it turned out to be a red fox losing its winter coat and on its way to get its summer coat. When the fox was moving towards me, I didn't have time to even focus at the animal and as it passed just a few feet away, it was just a little too close for my lens! After moving away, the fox decided to pause for a moment and look at me, the camera fired and the fox moved on. The fox was out of sight in no time and I nervously looked at the photographs I had and it turned out that the one photograph that I hadn't shaken was the one when the fox looked at me. Thrilled about the fox, we moved on and came across a marmot sunbathing on the edge of the canyon. The marmot was a not too happy with intruders but still held ground and we left him in the exact same place we saw him.
At about the same time, an old couple came by on the trail and they told us that not too long ago that the exact same place we were walking was home to a mountain lion and a lot of people used to see it regularly from the opposite side. That sure made it more exciting. A little scary, but still exciting. As we continued along the trail, we noticed something moving in the shadows and out came three little lambs, followed by a bunch of mama big horn sheep. They were walking towards us and the little lambs showed no fear of humans as they walked up the trail and stopped to look at strange creatures standing on two legs. The female big horns took a more cautious path, but they were still very calm. The light was terrible for photography, but who cares about light and photographs when you can watch such beauty up close?
The fox and the sheep had pretty much made the hike. It couldn't get any better, can it? Probably not because something happened not too long after the sheep had moved on. We were walking along the trail and noticed a bison several hundred feet away. It was running from the open grassland towards the canyon rim. Remember the trail was along the rim and that meant the bison would either have to move along the trail or go along the trail. And then I realized it wasn't just one bison. The lead bison was part of a small herd with three young calves. Expecting the bison to move away, we continued to walk along the trail. Now the trail was not just flat, but had gentle hills which meant parts of the trails were not visible when in a trough. As we moved along and got to the top of another small hill, we noticed that the bison herd had moved quickly in our direction and were standing on the hill on the other side less than a couple of hundred feet away. They were moving towards us and moving quickly. They had no idea we were on the trail but I could only imagine bad things if they got too close to us and spooked because they had calves to protect. Moving out of their path was the only option then, but we didn't want to go to the open grassland, so running to the trees was the only option. The trees were on the very edge of the cliff and the nearest one was some distance away. We quickly moved to the trees expecting the bison to come charging down the trail. Since the trees were a little off the trail and into the canyon, we didn't actually see the bison go past us, but when we finally went back up the trail we could see the herd running along the trail to the place where we had seen the big horn sheep. The herd was moving fast. Just amazing to think that such ponderous animals are so quick. Glad that we were not a part of the great stampede on Specimen Ridge trail, we moved along.
When the last drop of water from the last water bottle was empty and specimen ridge still a few miles away, we decided we had to turn back. No use exhausting ourselves on a hot summer day high in the mountains when we could see a storm building up in the distance. Besides, I realized that walking on ridges and steep slopes with a heavy backpack makes hiking very cumbersome and one bad step on loose gravel will see man and camera go rolling downhill (Rolling hills like they say!). The downhill route was way more easy like it should be. It was more open grassland though and if we came across more bison, we'd have to come up with another strategy because there were no trees in sight. Grizzly scat and bison dung told us it was probably a well used path. However, the most dangerous things we saw were two American badgers. Now badgers are small and look cute an all that but let their cuteness not deceive you. They are some of the most feared animals in the wild world. They are known to be extremely fearless and huge animals like lions and bears stay clear of a badgers path. Some reputation then? Well, the badgers showed that the part of being fearless was true because they saw us and continued going about their business digging burrows. We were not sure if it was their burrow or if they were raiding a burrow for lunch, but we sure didn't want them to come and investigate us. For several minutes, the badgers hung around and finally decided to move uphill and we started moving back along the trail to the point where we had started.
A lamb on the trail...
Pronghorn just before we headed out on the trail
The Red Fox
Marmot on the Canyon wall
Bison moving on the trail towards us
The inquisitive badgers
Baby Big-horned sheep
Mama Big-horned sheep
Big-horned sheep lambs.
Fearless lambs! :)
They don't come any cuter...