Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hiking trail runs across America’s Serengeti

Among the best spots to see bison is Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.
Topo map for Lamar Valley Trail.

Bison, elk, other
wildlife make
their homes near
Lamar Valley Trail 

Day hikers can explore the “Serengeti of North America” on the Lamar Valley Trail at Yellowstone National Park.

Like the mountain-ringed African plain, Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley serves as home to the classic megafauna that define North America. Bison, elk, grizzlies, black bears, wolves, coyotes, eagles, osprey and more all can be found there.

The entire Lamar Valley Trail runs up to 5.3 miles one-way, but you only need to walk a segment of it, running about 3.8-miles round trip, to the Lamar River. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see active animals.

Creek crossing
To reach the trailhead, from the Lamar Ranger Station/Northeast Entrance Road off of U.S. Hwy. 212 near the Wyoming/Montana border, head east about four miles to the Lamar River Valley Trailhead. Another trailhead exists only 2.8 miles from the ranger station, but this generally is used for horse riders and requires fording a creek.

From the trailhead parking lot, head east. A wooden footbridge crosses Soda Butte Creek. The trail then veers south along Lamar Valley's eastern edge at Mount Norris' base.

Though flat, the trail as passing through sagebrush and bunchgrasses also is fully exposed, so be sure to don a sunhat and sunscreen. Be careful to not turn off onto game trails, which crisscross the valley floor.

Once the horse trail joins the hiking trail from the northwest, the thin path climbs a steep bench. From there, you should be able to spot any grazing or hunting wildlife, so be sure to carry binoculars.

Bison and elk
Bison and elk usually can be seen in the valley’s southern end during the day, as they move in and out of the forest's protective cover.

Bison spend all year in Lamar Valley. Males can weigh up to 2000 pounds, the size of a small car. Females weigh up to half that amount at best. Though large, bison are agile and can run up to 30 miles per hour. They typically mate in late July through August; new calves usually can be spotted in late April or May. Around 5000 bison call Yellowstone home.

Elk are comparatively smaller – males weigh about 700 pounds while females are about 500 pounds – but the bulls’ antlers make them stand out on the horizon. They mate in September and October; newborns can be seen in May to late June. During summer, between 10,000–20,000 elk, separating in six or seven herds, make Yellowstone their home.

Coyotes also can be seen wandering about, looking for a meal. Bald eagles and osprey grace the skies as well. Grizzlies reside in the woods, but they and the area’s other big two predators – black bears and wolf packs – prefer to remain under cover than be seen.

Lamar River
Atop the bench, the trail junctions with the route heading for Upper Lamar to the east; continue left/southwest. In the distance you’ll notice a grove of cottonwoods; that is your destination.

The cottonwoods offer picnic shelters. On the other side of the picnic area is the Lamar River, which cuts down the valley’s center.

This marks a good spot to turn back. Crossing the Lamar River is dangerous and should only be attempted in late summer or autumn by those with fording experience.

If you do ford the river, the trail continues into the range beyond, roughly paralleling an unnamed creek. The trail is one way to reach Amethyst Mountain, the highest peak on the valley's southwest horizon at 9,614 feet.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.