Yellowstone National Park

Shan and I were both very excited to finally make it to Yellowstone. We had tried to visit it at the start of our trip, in fact it had determined the time we departed as we wanted to get here before the snow closed the roads. It was not to be and we tearfully continued on our journey after posing for a photo at the gates. Fate (and my parents) had now intervened so we could make a second pass.

Yellowstone is the region that inspired the concept of the National Park. The landscape so impressed the early Europeans who witnessed its sights they invented this new concept of protecting its natural beauty for future generations to enjoy. In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was legislated into existence.

Not everyone was happy with the concept of conservation. Animal poachers, souvenir hunters and developers threatened the park. The United States Cavalry was brought in to enforce the rules of law establishing Fort Yellowstone, a settlement that remains an administrative hub today. The Park Rangers were handed control of the park in 1918 and assumed the protective duties. It felt strange seeing Rangers armed with pistols and was interesting to learn the history of rougher times that accounts for this. Also, there are bears.

A mother Grizzly bear with her three cubs.

We saw many bears in Yellowstone. Spring is the time of year the mothers bring their cubs down from the hills to forage in the grasslands recently revealed by the retreating snow. The cubs are incredibly cute however there is always an air of caution as this is the time the mother bears are not only most protective and territorial but are especially hungry after hibernating all winter and giving birth.

Baby Bison were also out on display, looking slightly ungainly with their spindly legs and slightly too large head. Their lovely caramel coloured coats contrasted with the darker brown fur of the adults. Jackson, our bison stuffed toy, was gleefully thrust out the window by Shan in an attempt to lure the more inquisitive bison to investigate. Early one morning we entered a valley engulfed in thick mist, out of the mist a bison emerged, plodding along the highway. We pulled over to let him pass

People traversing the boardwalk that minimises damage to the geyser pools of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

Apart from the diverse wildlife Yellowstone offers an amazing array of volcanic features. The park itself is a super volcano, the last cataclysmic eruption occurring 640,000 years ago. It's not expected to erupt anytime soon but I couldn't help but think about it as I watched the geysers erupt and the ground bubble as it released sulphurous gas into the air.

The Grand Prismatic Spring

We stayed in West Yellowstone, a town that exists solely to service the 3 million visitors who enter the park each year. The season was just starting to ramp up, a few restaurants were still closed from winter time. I imagine the town must be pretty quiet in the colder months even though the park remains open to snow trekkers.

While driving we came across a lone Grizzly, already spotted by a bank of wildlife photographers with lenses that gave me lens envy. One brave guy ventured to the other side of the road. Even while shooting he looks braced to run. I can't blame him, this is a field where the person with the biggest zoom has the least chance of being eaten. Shannan's vantage point trades proximity for people closer to the bear than she is. A safe choice, looks like that investment in a pair of binoculars is paying off.

Grand Teton National Park

We failed to make it inside Grand Teton National Park on our first attempt, see Failing at National Parks. This time the government was functioning and the snow had (mostly) melted so we were in high spirits.

This fence runs next to an old, two room log cabin. The early settlers encountered some very trying situations but they did get rewarded with morning views like these.

The Grand Tetons are unusual in that they have no foothills to take away from their immense rise from the ground. With the winter snows melted away the bison are enjoying the easy grazing of the lowlands however we didn't see many other animals. It can still snow at this time of year and the food is not particularly plentiful yet.

We are now travelling with my parents who are on their way to visit my brother in Canada. Our accommodation is somewhat more sophisticated than the old 'tent on the mud' setup we had grown accustomed to. As a testament to our well honed travelling skills we didn't have too much trouble adapting.

Shannan has collected a friend for Smokey, Jackson the bison. It comes complete with sounds to attract the real thing to our car.

Yosemite revisited

Returning to California was supposed to be the beginning of the end of our journey. From Cayman we were booked to return to San Jose, catch up one last time with our friend and collect the suitcases we left in her keeping before flying back to Australia.

We were not done with travelling yet and the opportunity presented itself for us to extend for about a month, starting with a sneaky trip to revisit Yosemite National Park. As we arrive the park is just emerging from the winter snows and spring is in the air. The birds are chirping and the tourists are visiting.

I had plenty of time to pause for reflection while waiting, perched on a rock, for a particularly enthusiastic couple to get all the angles they needed for their new book.

We had planned to camp overnight in the valley. On arrival in the early afternoon we discovered the rest of California had decided it was a perfect weekend to do the same. We added our name to the (long) list on standby for a campsite with strict instructions to return at 3pm to see if we would have a place.

This gave us time to find a lovely spot away from the bustling crowd for a picnic. As an aside, it strikes me as odd how, across the US, picnic spots are put in the least scenic areas of carparks. It certainly makes it easier to carry your food to the table but misses the point as far as I'm concerned. 

Returning to see if we could stay the night we filed in with a crowd of other hopefuls. Names are called out for the reserve campsites. We are still a long way down the list when the last name is called. Even though we lucked out I am struck again how motivated and helpful the park rangers are. We have been to a fair number of National Parks in the US by now and we are yet to come across a Ranger who won't go out of their way to be helpful and seems to genuinely enjoy their job.

Making the most of the rest of the day we circle the valley before heading up higher to areas that were closed off due to snow on our previous visit. We made it to Glacier Point just as the light faded and had a glimpse of the spectacular waterfalls and the valley below. It was just enough to make sure I want to come back again. Maybe with some hikes next time...

You can see the post and photos of our original visit here: Yosemite National Park

p.s. We had said our teary goodbyes the night before with much 'you must visit us in Australia' and 'oh you're welcome back anytime's. Well we cashed in on the 'anytime' offer the following night after we were unable to find a campsite in Yosemite. So be warned if you invite us back after we've come to visit!

The Cayman Islands

The return to civilisation as we know it. Our first dinner in the Caymans is fairly representative of our feelings. We went to a 50's themed diner and spent an age pouring over the extensive, delicious and expensive menu before eventually alighting on some options, all of which turned out to be available and as described. I ordered a virgin raspberry colada which was as manly and pink as one would expect. While waiting for the meal to arrive we found ourselves in a particularly good mood. We had missed the ease of life. Being understood (apart from our accent), understanding what everyone else was saying, no haggling, no fuss, huge expense. Even the money was colourful and had the Queen on the back! We were sad to leave Cuba and the latin american chapter of our holiday however we were also ready to relax a bit.

Stingray city, a sandbar where the stingrays have been training humans to come and feed them squid for over 50 years.

We stayed in a lovely B&B where we had a delicious breakfast each morning before we went on the days activities which usually revolved around snorkelling, our newfound love since Galapagos. The waters are clear and warm, the beach white and fine. The fish were huge, some the size of sharks and rather intimidating when they approached wondering if we had food (or perhaps, were food). A sea trampoline provided fun as we worked out how to climb up it and then felt drunk as we tried to bounce on a surface that shifts on the water underneath us. We got to see Conch crawling around the ocean floor (shy little fellas) and some squid we thought might have been doing a mating dance but were perhaps a bit too shy to finish it with us watching. Tiny, glowing fish, one of whom adopted Shan and followed her around wherever we went.

The owners of the bed and breakfast were also involved in one of the tour boats that went out to see stingrays. We took their boat to the sandbar and jumped off into the waist deep water. The stingrays are used to people around here and would come and brush up against your legs for attention. The rays have been named by the tour guides including Pizza Slice (who looked like he'd met with a boat engine earlier in life) and our favourite, Stumpy, who had a short stinger and was very pregnant. We got to hold her and look at the bulging pouch on the top of her body where the baby stingrays were growing. Shannan had, by this time, thrown her childhood phobia to the wind and gave Stumpy a goodbye kiss. I fed them some squid, holding it out and waiting for one to 'sniff' it out and come over the top with a strong vacuum cleaner suction to pick it up from my hand. One of our fellow tourists screamed out in frantic surprise as this same vacuum cleaner ability was used on his leg leaving him with the greatest hickey I've ever seen!

One of the most amazing experiences of the whole trip was the bioluminescent tour we did in the darkness of a new moon. The boat took us out to a harbour (actually peoples backyard, their houses surrounding the bay). We put on our snorkel gear and I was first off the boat. As I climbed down the ladder into the water my foot started to glow an eerie blue colour. Everywhere I moved in the water there was beautiful blue light trailing me. The others on the boat stopped to watch as I went deeper before hustling to get into the water themselves. It was even more amazing once in the water. In the blackness I moved my hands in front of the snorkel goggles. Moving slow made tiny blue dots appear, outlining my hand and even the hairs on the back of my hand. Moving faster activated more lights blurring together and creating a bright blue stream of plasma. It was like being in our own sci-fi movie.

The glow is caused by bioluminescent microscopic organisms. They are present throughout the oceans, often churned up by the wake of large ships. The bay provides the perfect conditions for these tiny creatures with it's high salinity, warmth and nutrients from nearby mangroves. They are present here in a concentration many thousands of times higher than the open ocean.

Shannan and I are now throwing plasma balls at each other in the water. As our eyes grow more accustomed to the low light we can see things beneath us in the water. Fish dart in and out of sight as they move and go still. We found a lobster crawling around with it's spindly legs being outlined as it plods along the floor.

Shannan makes a bioluminescent angel

I climbed back onto the boat to get a photo of Shannan making a bioluminescent angel. The low light conditions make it very hard to capture this effect on camera. Other tourists are incurring my wrath by using their flash, destroying night vision and capturing a photo of people in water (the dim blue glow drowned out to invisibility by the bright flash). I settle for smug satisfaction as I get the photo I'm after.

There are only 12 places in the world that the conditions are right for the bioluminescent organisms to exist at such a high concentration. If you ever have the opportunity to do a tour like this make sure you take it, and make sure you go for a swim. There was also a kayak tour that went through the same area but I doubt they had anything near such an amazing experience as we did actually swimming in the water.

The Cayman Islands lent itself well to having a car. It turned out we could hire a car for two days and save a fortune. $25 per day for the car as opposed to $40 for a return bus trip to see the far side of the island (ouch!) and about $25 for the short taxi ride back to the airport (ouch!). So we got a set of wheels and finished off our Cayman experience checking out various snorkel points around the island. This was my first time driving on the Queen's side of the road in over 17,000 kms.

Our final night in the Caribbean we caught a catamaran across the bay to a beachside BBQ and recovery on the deck chairs. Goodbye tropics, you will be missed!