Thursday, September 4, 2014

August 2014: Specimen Ridge, Yellowstone

Petrified tree stump on Specimen Ridge

One of the best investments I have made over the years are several trailguides for Yellowstone and the surrounding area.  I took one with me on the trip to New York and in my spare time I located a hike that I thought I should take my family on.  It was Specimen Ridge.

I remember my brother taking us on the Specimen Ridge hike when I was a boy, but I really didn't remember much of it.  We were supposed to have seen a petrified forest but I have no memory of the hike other than being out on a hike.  I didn't remember anything else about it.

According to the trailguide, Yellowstone's fossil forest is one of the best preserved in the world.  In the trailguide it said there were two approaches to Specimen Ridge in the Lamar Valley.  We found both trailheads and we chose the second.  At the second trailhead, there was supposed to be an old elk trap that the park service used to use to thin the herds.  They would have a roundup and either ship the excess elk out of the park or shoot them for meat or just shoot them and bulldoze their carcasses into a mass grave.  When people found out about that, there was quite a furor and the park service stopped.  Also at that location, there were supposed to be ancient stone rings that were used in building the lodges for the Shoshone tribe that frequented the area.

We did not find the elk trap or the stone rings at the second trailhead, which means we'll have to do this hike again.

The trailguide claimed the hike was 1.4 miles with 1751 feet of elevation gain.  That's just over a thousand feet of gain per mile, in other words a brutal slog.  The first thousand yards or so of the hike were across relatively level ground which meant that the elevation gain was going to be compressed even more in a shorter distance.  This begs the question, "Why?"  The answer, and the only appropriate answer is, "Because it's there."

I don't typically take photos of elk anymore, but there were these two bulls that had been locked in deadly combat for quite
some time.  They were close to the road and this guy looked like he had a battle wound on his side.  It is the rut season now.

The trailhead to Specimen Ridge

The Hot Chick and the boys at the trailhead

That's me with the Hot Chick.  Notice I'm wearing my Cobalt Studios T-shirt

After awhile, the trail begins to climb.  I thought that was steep.  Turns out, this section is tinker toys compared to what was to come

As we made our ascent up the trail, we crossed several game trails.  I knew they were game trails because a herd of bison used one in front of us.  Bison don't understand the concept of right of way. They think they own the place for some reason.  So we had to wait for them to pass.

Since the Hot Chick and I are getting older and at least I'm not in the best shape, we stopped to catch our breath frequently.  Typically I pretend I'm not winded and use these opportunities to take a photo. Devilishly clever of me.  On one of those photo ops, we turned around and saw a beautiful oasis in the steppe.  There is an ox-bow turn in the Lamar River near the parking area.  On the far side of the ox-bow there is a flat area covered with grass next to a curved hillside.  I imagined what it would have been like to be one of the Native Americans who frequented this place.  That oasis would have been a great place to set up the lodge.  There was tall grass to picket the pony herd in and it had a great view of the valley so you could see when the bison were strolling through the valley.  I imagine things like that when I hike.

We progressed up the hill and it became steeper.  Sometimes a hike becomes so steep that it becomes almost like climbing stairs.  Somehow that seems easier to me.  Maybe that is paradoxical, I dunno. We reached an area close to the summit and the trail branched in two.  We had been told to hang to the right because we'd see more petrified wood that direction, so that is how we went.

Bison think they own the place

This bull brought up the rear.  He stared us down a bit before he finally passed.  His job is to make sure no riff raff gets to the ladies.  It is rut season after all

This is one of those times when I pretended to take a picture instead of admitting
how winded I was.  Note how steep the trail is at this point.  It got worse.

View across the valley

And the other direction

In the top right quadrant of this photo is the oasis I mentioned.  That appears to be a great campsite!

Steeper still

Illustrating just how steep this climb is

The boys at the fork in the trail

A mushroom in a non-petrified tree stump

And then we started seeing the wood.

We came across our first petrified tree stump.  And another and another.  We looked up the side of the mountain and saw a major one sticking out of the ground.  It was everywhere.  It was amazing. We'd get to one tree and think there couldn't possibly be anymore and then there would be another one.  It was some of the best preserved fossil wood I've ever seen, at least in place.  We kept hiking along the ridge and seeing more and more wood.

At some point the wind started to blow quite hard.  That became unpleasant.  After awhile, some of the members of our party started to suggest we turn back and go home.  I told them I didn't come all that way to see one tree and then go home.  It helped my case that we kept seeing bigger and bigger trees all the time.  Finally, I thought we surely must have seen everything there was to see up there and we turned back.

The boys on the first petrified tree stump we found.  Large tree but not the largest

The Hot Chick on the same tree

Top of the tree


Detail of another tree

Vertical petrified tree stumps were everywhere


Youngest son sitting on petrified tree, shaded by living tree

Like I say, it was everywhere

Then we spotted this boy

And saw this on the way

This one was quite spectacular

And everyone wanted to pose on it

Including me

Solo shot


Another stump

I love to see the rings

Then we started seeing the stuff that wasn't vertical

Some stuff was buried standing and other stuff was knocked over

Like this one

And this one

The trailguide said some of the trees were giant sequoias.  I think this must have been one of them.

End view

The stuff was everywhere

And very dramatic

The detail was stunning

The level of preservation was very good, enough so that people smarter than I am are able to identify the types of trees they used to be

This was the smallest vertical trunk we saw, only about 6" in diameter

Another fallen tree.  Don't know if it was knocked over during the eruption or if it had already fallen and was covered by ash after the fact.  Really doesn't matter, though because it's dang cool!

This was on the way down.  We kept seeing it


we turned around

it was there

Detail of the top of a stump

One of the olde timey mountain men (Bridger I think) reported this finding in Yellowstone this way, "I saw a peetrified bird singin' a peetrified song in a peetrified tree."  I didn't see any peetrified birds, but I did see more peetrified wood in one place than I'd ever seen before.  Pretty intense.  It seems that when we started seeing the wood I forgot how fatigued my legs were.  Amazing how that works.

On the way down we had a standoff with a pronghorn buck.  It ended in a stalemate with both of us just moving on.  That was pretty cool though, it was the closest I'd ever been to a pronghorn without a car in between me and it.

After we got back to the car, we drove into Tower and hiked to the falls, but not until after we bought the boys some ice cream.  It seems that we can't go to Yellowstone without the obligatory ice cream stop. And I'm okay with that.

The Hot Chick on the way down

The view was tremendous


Standoff with the pronghorn buck

Geraniums.  Love the saturated color here

Tower Fall

Heavily eroded mountain side near Tower Fall

Hoodoo that voodoo that you do to me

They ice cream payoff

It was a very cool trip up to Specimen Ridge.  I thought, "Well, okay, now I've done that, I guess that's that."  Then I got home and google image searched Specimen Ridge.  Turns out we should have kept going.  Turns out we saw less than a percent of all the petrified wood.  Turns out the stuff we saw was only fair compared to the other stuff that's up there.

We need to go back...