Thursday, August 1, 2013

2013 Yellowstone--Little Gibbon Falls

In trail sign to Little Gibbon Falls

Chimene and I spent the first five summers of our marriage in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, working for my Dad at the Playmill Theatre.  We spent a great deal of time in Yellowstone while we lived there.  We tended to see mostly the major stuff back then because we were always on a deadline.  We had to be back in time to do a show.  We moved away in 1988 and lived as far away as Buffalo, New York in the east and the greater Seattle area in the west.

In 2000 I took a position in southeast Idaho and we were back in the area.  Once again, we tended to visit the places we knew.  Each time we visited the park, we'd see signs for different trails and we'd say, "Someday we need to take that trail." or "Someday we need to see that."  About five years ago, we took our family up to Yellowstone and for once we didn't have a plan.  Chimene looked at me and said, "What if today is 'someday'?"  I knew exactly what she meant and we went for it.  The world of Yellowstone opened up for us that day and it has been 'someday' ever since for us.

We discovered that there are approximately 300 waterfalls in Yellowstone.  We decided to see as many of them as we could.  The hot water always gets top billing in Yellowstone, but for us, the cold water is more exciting.  You have to hike to most of them, which means less people.  When you see an eruption of Old Faithful anytime in June, July or August you'll share the experience with up to five thousand strangers.  Contrast that to a hike that covers three or four miles and you might see ten people the whole time.  Solitude.  That can't be beat, no matter how spectacular the geyser happens to be.

Last year I purchased a book called Day Hikes in Yellowstone National Park by Robert Stone.  We spent the summer using that book, but mainly stayed in the northwest corner of the park.  One of the hikes I found in the book that we didn't take last year was the Ice Lake Trail which ended with Little Gibbon Falls.  The regular Gibbon Falls is one of my favorite waterfalls in the park, but I rarely stop in the summer because of the huge amount of traffic the site sees.  When you see Gibbon Falls in peak season you share the experience with up to a thousand people.  Much better to see it in the spring or fall.  Little Gibbon Falls is billed as a scale model of the larger one.  Seemed like one we needed to see.

Our son Garrett is at the wrong age this year.  His older brothers are both at band camp and all his friends are at scout camp.  He's stuck at home with two old people.  We decided to take him somewhere his brothers had never been.  Little Gibbon Falls seemed to be the place for us last Tuesday.

Gibbon Falls taken in Spring of 2012.
In summer months there is not this much water.
I posted this picture of the main Gibbon Falls to provide a comparison with Little Gibbon Falls later in this blog post.  Gibbon Falls drops 87 feet to the canyon below and Little Gibbon Falls drops 25 feet.

The trailhead for Ice Lake is about three and a half miles east of Norris Junction on the road to Canyon.  There is a parking area at the trailhead to Ice Lake.  From the time we crossed the narrow wooden bridge until we made the loop and exited the trail on the highway, we were the only people we saw.  Almost nobody sees this beautiful feature in Yellowstone National Park.

Garrett and his mother at the trailhead

Garrett and me at the trailhead
The trail to Ice Lake takes off through a heavily burned part of the forest.  The remnants of the forest fires of 1988 are evident everywhere.  Fallen trees and burnt out hulks line the trail.  In some places the deadfall is piled up to four feet deep.  It appeared that a massive wind storm had also added it's destructive power to this part of the park as well.

And yet, amid the destruction was new life.  A new, healthy lodgepole pine forest is springing up where the old one used to be.  We lived in West Yellowstone in the summer of 1988 and we believed that Yellowstone was dead after the fires.  We believed it would be a hundred years before it was back to being seeable.  We were wrong.  Everywhere the fires touched, new life is thriving.  The fires opened up great tracts of new grizzly bear habitat.  Everywhere, new life is abundant.  As much as we lamented the fires in 1988, it seems they have created a new birth for Yellowstone.  The phoenix has truly arisen from the ashes.

Wild Lupine and Fireweed line the first section of trail to Ice Lake and beyond.  We spotted many other wildflowers as well.  Then we spotted the wild strawberries.  When I was a boy, I went picking wild strawberries in the national forest land by West Yellowstone.  We picked for hours and got enough to each make about a pint of jam.  The strawberries are about the size of a man's little fingernail. 

Evidence of the fires of 1988... everywhere

Unfortunately, there is also evidence of idiots.  Luckily, this was the only evidence of vandalism we spotted

The fire and windstorm evidence

With Garrett

The green trees were naturally seeded by fire in the summer of 1988.
They are nearly a third the height of the earlier trees.

Life will find a way no matter what.
Wild Lupine


Parry's Bellflower (Bluebells)

Random butterfly
Wild Strawberry

The first view of Ice Lake is less than a mile from the trailhead, and there are primitive campsites all along the lakeshore.  Ice Lake is a 224 acre lake on the Solfatara Plateau.  It's narrow and shallow.  I don't know why they call it Ice Lake, but I imagine it freezes over in winter.  It's very picturesque.  The trail winds around the three sides of Ice Lake and there is a gradual ascent of about a hundred feet or so.  The ascent was easy and at no time was it taxing.

Garrett and his mother on the trail

Ice Ice Baby Lake

Ice Lake

The circle of life.  Within the burned out stump were growing other plants including wild strawberries

What the sky looked like that day

Ice Lake from the ascent

Antler or a horn rub

New meadow where a forest used to be

One of the most dramatic burned hulks on the trail
The trail continued for almost a mile past Ice Lake, gently ascending until finally there was a sign pointing to Wolf Lake and Grebe Lake in one direction and Little Gibbon Falls in the other.  Just before the turnoff, the trail descended to the Gibbon River which was just a stream at this point.  In places, the trail was flanked on both sides by four feet of fallen timbers and it appeared that wild game used the trail as a highway.  I spotted some deer tracks in the mud.  There was also a lot of fractured obsidian all along the way.  The trail skirted a shaded wetland area and we crossed the stream on a fallen log.  I viewed some Columbian Monkshood at the stream crossing.

Deer tracks in the mud on the trail

The Gibbon River at the first crossing


More Monkshood

I don't know what this flower was, but I liked it.

Big game highway

Obsidian boulder in the middle of the trail

New forest amid the carcass of the old forest.  What the sky looked like
We crossed the Gibbon River again, this time just before the falls.  The trail moved up a steep rise for about twenty feet and up on a ridge.  The river had cut a deep gorge through the rhyolite along the plateau.  When we came around the top of the canyon on the far side, the view of the falls was spectacular.  It was well worth the three and a half miles to get there and the mile out.  It is a hike I'd be willing and very likely to do again.

First view of the gorge

Chimene and Garrett at the approach to the falls

The second river crossing

Upstream from the same spot

The gorge

Chimene and Garrett at the brink of the falls

First view of Little Gibbon Falls

The gorge at the base of the falls

Best view of Little Gibbon Falls

The other best view of Little Gibbon Falls
From the falls, the trail skirted the ridge for a short time and then cut down into the Virginia Meadows.  As we crossed the meadows both Chimene and I had the feeling that this had been a lake at one time and had slowly filled in and become a meadow.  I had witnessed the same thing from the time I was a small boy to adulthood with Swan Lake in Island Park.  The lake across the street from Swan Lake slowly transformed into a meadow before my eyes, and Swan Lake is not far behind.  Virginia Meadows appears to have had the same history.

There was a stream that flowed lazily through the meadow, creating ox-bow turns, and every now and then we saw evidence of extinct ox-bow lakes.  The wind came across the tall grasses and laid it down in a very picturesque way.  Finally the trail terminated at the highway and we had to walk the last half mile along the roadway to the parking area.  Across the street from the trail terminus however, was the parking area to Wolf Lake Trail.  The next time I take this trail, I will probably hike directly from the Wolf Lake Trailhead to Little Gibbon Falls.  I didn't mind the hike past Ice Lake, but the next time I go I'll probably be tourguiding and we'll want to get to the falls quickly. 

Chimene and Garrett at the entrance to Virginia Meadows

The wind laying the grasses down

The scope of the meadows

An ox-bow

An extinct ox-bow lake

Fringed Gentian

A stand of Fringed Gentian

Chimene and Garrett hiking out amid the wildflowers

The worst part of the trail
We reached the car ahead of the rain.  The weather was pleasant but overcast.  We drove into Canyon and got Garrett an ice cream.  We stopped in a new visitor's center that talked about the volcanos.  It was first class.  Well worth it.

Finally, we drove out through the Hayden Valley in the rain.  We spent time in two of the biggest traffic jams I've ever been a part of in the park and it turned out to be for bull elk and bison.  Chimene reminded me that many of the people in the traffic jam had probably never seen elk or bison before.  She was right.

The weather broke and the sky cleared in time for us to stop briefly at Keppler Cascades.  I hadn't seen this waterfall for several years and had forgotten just how pretty it is.

Keppler Cascades
This was a great day in Yellowstone National Park.  And while Garrett's brothers and friends weren't available to him, at least he got some good time with Mom and Dad.  This was a wonderful day.

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