Despite avian beauty, camping in Yellowstone was an albatross

Lamenting a summer adventure while celebrating Clark's Nutcrackers, magpies, ravens and more.

MAMMOTH, Wyo. — Birding and camping go together hand in hand. There’s nothing like waking up in a tent and hearing the sounds of birds in the faintest light of dawn. There was a Gray Catbird in our campground in the Upper Peninsula this summer who was jamming right from the start of the day, Whip-poor-will and Common Loon calls among its repertoire. Then there was the Winter Wren emitting wonderful tremolos and flute-like cascades from somewhere deep in the woods.

In contrast, there was our camping experience at Yellowstone National Park. Even a month later, I still can’t believe I’m writing those words with regret. It was pure joy last April when we lucked into a two-night stay at Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs campground. 

But first the good aspects of camping in Yellowstone, and of being out West in general. It’s a widely disparate avifauna from that of the East. You see familiar species in a new light, like the Pine Siskins that were seemingly more common than American Goldfinches in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Then you see species that you’re not as familiar with, like three beautiful corvids in Black-billed Magpie, Clark’s Nutcracker and Common Raven.

I find the Clark’s Nutcracker particularly enchanting. It’s a striking bird with a dagger-like bill for opening pine cones. And you just aren’t going to see this bird anywhere: one needs to be pretty high up in the Rockies. Indeed, that’s the case for Mammoth Hot Springs campground, which tops more than 7,000 feet. 

There’s a transformation that’s happened in American camping in the last decade or so. There’s a move away from tent camping to RV camping. That means more pavement and gravel, more electricity (including the constant drone of generators) and less grass, fewer trees and an overall less rustic and less naturalistic experience. One of the things I’ve noticed most is how an RV-laden campground blocks the sight-lines around camp. It isn’t good for birding and it isn’t good for admiring nature and the surroundings environs either.

The situation’s been exacerbated by Covid-19; after all, who wouldn’t want to have the comforts and quarantine-ready convenience of a house-on-wheels during a historic pandemic? In places like Yellowstone, you can throw in the popularity of the #vanlife fad, too. And let’s also note the mass consumption of fossil fuels to run these rigs as well.

All of this was evident at Mammoth Hot Springs, though the biggest challenge there was simply the location of the campground. Essentially it’s wedged into the crook of a hairpin turn (see below). So when a large truck or RV whirrs by—and trust me there were plenty of them—you have the pleasure of hearing it coming and going. There was a deep irony in that there was more noise camping at Yellowstone than in my Chicago backyard. The vegetation and tree cover at Mammoth is scant—this is essentially a high-elevation sagebrush steppe—and the campground is exposed to all manner of elements, as we’d soon find out. Or at least that was the case at Site 6. 

August 17 dawned smoky in northwestern Wyoming, as it had throughout our trip. Smoke from western wildfires had blocked out most all of our views, including of the beautiful and jagged Grand Tetons. A cold front was on the way, though, and we were looking forward to the change. It’s just that the campground at Mammoth Hot Springs wasn’t the place to be for that. 

We set up camp in the afternoon, the sky smoky and temperatures warm. Going through several days with smoke in the air is nothing I’d wish on anyone. The air quality was terrible, and our respiratory and otolaryngology systems bore the brunt of it. 

We could see an afternoon storm brewing in the distance. A pot of pasta with pesto for dinner was on the stove when the winds shifted and the storm came straight at us with gale-force winds. (I grabbed the pot and rode it out in the front seat of the car.) My traveling companions, aka my wife and two daughters, were in the tent playing cards. If not for their body weight, I’m sure the tent would still be aloft somewhere high over the Absaroka range. The gravel campsite was good for a camper or trailer. Not so good for a tent that requires stakes.

As it turned out this was just an amuse-bouche of what was to come. Rain started coming down steadily around bedtime, and the wind eventually picked up, too, as temperatures dropped into the 40s. Again, it was maybe our body weight that kept the tent from being flung into the nearby Gardner River valley. 

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There’s nothing like leaving a tent in a steady cold rain. The comforts and warmth of a sleeping bag are difficult to escape. Then there’s the logistics of getting one’s shoes on and staying reasonably dry while emerging from a fabric shelter. In our case, this was around the time we also decided we’d had enough of Mammoth Hot Springs. The forecast was for rain all day. There just was nowhere to go. Worse, the rising Covid numbers meant going indoors, say, to Mammoth Hotel for the day, would have been a bad idea, too.

Packing up a tent in a steady rain is an awful job. Sure, there’s the rain soaking into clothes, but there’s also the unpleasantness of fitting a waterlogged tent into a small nylon bag. Then there’s the problem of a soggy tent stored in the car for what promised to be a hot, lengthy ride back to Chicago: an ideal recipe for mildew.

First we packed as much as we could while inside the tent and dry. Remarkably we were still dry ourselves, but packing the sleeping bags and sleeping mats revealed some pools of water starting to seep in. You just can’t stay dry in a tent that’s in a puddle. And that’s what our site had become (gravel and all). 

Clad in raingear, we all escaped to the car for a few moments before tackling the tent.

So that’s how we left Mammoth Hot Springs, and a few minutes later, Yellowstone altogether. We decamped to Gardiner, Mont., where a coffee shop with breakfast sandwiches beckoned.

Camping is a constant learning experience, which is something I love about it. In this case, we learned where not to tent-camp in Yellowstone, at least not at Mammoth, or maybe in any developed campground. It was a contrast because we had a great tent site in Grand Teton National Park (check out the Lizard Creek campground if ever in the area).

I don’t want to make it sound as though we were clueless about Mammoth: we knew some of the risks going in just by looking at a map. But we didn’t know how much noise there would be and just how vulnerable it would be to the elements. Or that by the end of the experience, we would be pining for the relative tranquility of our little Midwestern backyard.

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TWiB Notes

Friends of Big Marsh has an event tomorrow, Sept. 18, Birds, Bikes and Beats, which is certainly worth checking out, especially for a glimpse at the new Ford Environmental Center……You might recall I wrote about Big Marsh in “Five spots to go birding in and around Chicago this fall.” I’ll be leading a Chicago Ornithological Society trip there on Saturday, Sept. 25, from 7:30-10:30 a.m. There are still slots available. Sign up here…..Beer in the Woods, an event benefiting Friends of the Forest Preserves, takes place Saturday, Sept. 25, from 2-6 p.m. at LaBagh Woods Forest Preserve on the city’s Northwest Side. Purchase tickets here……Truman College’s Uptown Exchange talked to Bob Hughes recently as part of a piece on Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. Bob may be the dean of Montrose birders and shares some great insights from 40 years of birding there.


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