Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is a sparkling winter wonderland, and the Lamar Buffalo Ranch is an ideal mid-valley location with a bit of civilized warmth from the frigid winter surrounds. The ranch was instrumental in saving bison from extinction in this country in the early 1900’s. Today, although not open to the public, the ranch hosts educational opportunities through the Yellowstone Forever Institute and the National Park Service’s Expedition Yellowstone.
Let’s walk up to where Rose Creek splits into three separate creeks as it races down into the valley to join the Lamar River. The trail is hard packed, but let’s put ice-traction cleats on our boots for safety. It is a little after 10am and about 8 degrees, but with no wind, it feels much warmer. What a beautiful day! Don’t forget your sunglasses.
Cottonwoods stand along Rose Creek’s edges, and this time of year every branch and twig is ice coated with hoarfrost. We’ll get a closer look at hoarfrost further up the trail on both trees and shrubs.
Jumping over the snowbank at the end of the parking area, we see a portion of the trail we’ll be walking. In the center of the picture you see the foreground hillside come down with a large cottonwood behind its edge. That’s where we are heading, although in a round about track.
Cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa) are a type of poplar that loves high-moisture soil. If you see them in an area, you will find a creek, stream, or river nearby. They are fast growing, able to grow 6 to 7 feet a year up to about 150 feet. In the scheme of tree life they do not live long, surviving about 100 years, with a few making it to 120 years. Young cottonwoods are invaluable to wildlife. Various insects, predatory birds, and mammals feed on their twigs, bark, leaves, and cambrium (the annual growing layer that produces the growth rings). Beaver use them for food, dams, and lodge building. Rabbits, hares, deer, elk, and moose feed on the young shoots. During very high snow events, grouse survive in these trees, roosting and feeding on the buds during the day.
So why the name cottonwood? If you live near cottonwoods you know this annoying answer. Each spring the trees spread their seeds in white bundles that look like fluffy cotton. Some days it actually looks like it is raining cotton. It is a nuisance to clean up, but the cotton only flies for about two weeks each year. This time of year? Just lots of twig-sized branches sparkling with ice.
Here we go. That’s Druid Peak behind the cottonwoods, the name given to the first wolf pack reintroduced in this area in 1996. The Druid Pack thrived in Lamar Valley, but no longer. The Lamar Canyon Pack now lives in Druid territory. The last of the Druid pack, an unusually large alpha male known as 778M, was killed outside the park last December. What a legacy the Druids left for Yellowstone and for us.
Can you see the ice crystals? These are the winter “flowers” for us to enjoy. In winter it is not about color, but about shapes. This is hoarfrost. No, not whorefrost, and let’s not even go there, thanks. The beautifully discernible crystals are always so beautiful and give us a sparkling landscape as light hits their icy edges.
Of the three branches of Rose Creek, this is the central branch, heading south along the western edge of Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Summer walks along its bank are beautiful with many types and colors of wildflowers. Stay tuned . . .
Crossing the wooden bridge of the creek’s eastern branch, we get another view the the valley with Specimen Ridge in the background. See all the fences to the left of the ranch? In the summer the rangers have horses there. They travel on horseback to check on possible new fires and other needs that require backcountry travel faster than on foot.
The shrub holding on along the creek has another type of frost (I always thought frost was just frost too). Although called Rime frost , it is actually ice that forms quickly as a result of supercooled water droplets in fog or clouds hitting an object in its path. Sometimes it looks the same as hoarfrost so I never worry much about exact identifications, but if you experience freezing fog you are most likely experiencing rime with its thick white appearance.
It sure is nice to have a packed trail to follow. See the various animal trails up the hillside? The busy trampling on the right in the shade is from bison digging to graze and walking around trying spot after spot. The saying here is that the bison eat wonderful cereal all spring, summer, and autumn, but in winter they are left to eat the box. The fat their put on during the other three seasons helps them survive the harsh winters. Temperatures well below zero are not uncommon with -40 degrees registered occasionally, but -20’s are more common. Along with the frigid temps, the bison deal with deep snow at this elevation of about 6,500 feet. Staying alive to see spring is the annual challenge.
We can see our destination from here, the stand of evergreens straight ahead.
Here we are, at the point where Rose Creeks splits into three branches. The cottonwoods out in the valley are iconic. Somehow pictures of Lamar Valley are just not complete without them.
We could go on further, but not today. If we continue UP another mile or so we will come to the only remaining wolf enclosure from the 1996 reintroduction. It is in a dilapidated state, but in a beautiful setting. This is a better walk in the summer. I don’t know how long the trail is packed or how deep the snow gets higher up the mountain, so we’ll stay safe here. Let’s enjoy this area for a bit. Then we’ll head back for lunch. OK?
Sure am glad we brought sunglasses today–the bright is so intense in the winter making for stunning blue and white days.
Check that out, what an unusual track. The neat thing about winter is you see so many animal’s tracks that indirectly you see so many more animals than you see in the other three seasons. Checking the snow tracks field guide, it appears that this is a porcupine track. It might be a muskrat trail, but I’m not sure the creek is deep enough for their liking. Well, think I need to find an expert.
Here we go, heading back downhill.
WOW! We did hear wolves last night, pretty close, but here we have proof they headed our way. That is one big canine! Wolves (Canis lupus) don’t like us at all so stay away as first choice. However, they are not stupid, and would rather walk on packed trails than sludge through deep snow and here’s the proof.
The Lamar Canyon Pack frequents this area. I believe there are only four wolves in the pack due to mange, but they are surviving as of now. The wolves of Yellowstone can stand two to three feet tall at the shoulder with long legs. They can be 6-1/2 feet long then adding a tail length of about 20″. The largest wolves can weight as much as 170 pounds. I’m glad they make every effort to avoid us, that is one big animal with very big teeth. They are also marathon runners and can chase prey long distances. They wouldn’t have to work very hard to chase me down. OK, creeping myself out. Let’s go.
Long shadows of the frost-covered sage.
Here we are back at the bridge that crosses the east branch of Rose Creek. This is also where we have picnics and campfire meetings in the summer.
It is warming up a bit, probably mid teens, but the water of the creek is still much warmer creating steam.
Not much longer, there’s the ranch.
Home sweet temporary home, the middle cabin. The cabins are for resting and sleeping only, no food, no toiletries. We have a Bath House–with a heated floor!!!–and a Bunk House with a full kitchen and classrooms for seminars. Lamar Buffalo Ranch is off the grid, so the stay is peaceful and beautiful although a bit rustic. I love it! I’ll just drop my gear and let’s go have lunch.
Thanks for joining me on this very blue and white day. Until next time, bundle up and keep warm in your part of the world . . .
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”
― Theodore Roosevelt