Train Forward!

This blog captures some of the memories of a trip that we (Ellen and Sara) took from June 13 to 23. We started by boarding the Amtrak Empire Builder train in Chicago’s Union Station for a 31-hour ride to Whitefish, MT.


We were inspired to take this train after hearing about a trip taken some years ago by our relatives. It seemed like a good idea and we’ve pondered it ever since. Once we decided that 2016 was a good year to go, we thought about what we’d do if we took such a trip. Touring a few national parks seemed like the best idea.

We decided to pick up the train in Chicago and exit at Whitefish, MT. Along the way, we passed through Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. The train stopped 30 times, most times for just a few minutes but sometimes for up to an hour.

We paid extra for a “roomette” which is the smallest room with sleeping arrangements. At night, an attendant helps to pull down the upper bunk and make the beds. Meals are included in the dining car (breakfast, lunch, and dinner depending on when you are on the train) if you get the roomette. We booked about 7 months in advance and got pretty good rates.

The scenery from the train was pretty good (you got to see both sides if you went to the scenic car). We got to see the sun go down in Minnesota (and again in Montana the second day) and the sun come up in North Dakota.

After departing in Whitefish, we went to Kalispell (next town over), rented a car and began a 9-day journey to explore Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. We flew home from Jackson Hole, WY on June 23rd.

We set out with 2 cameras, 5 lens, 2 tripods and a couple of iPhones. After traveling 1620 miles by train, 1458 miles by car, and 1567 miles by plane, we had over 2000 pictures and a bunch of stories.

We expected to find amazing vistas, beautiful wildflowers, and wild animals. We were not disappointed. The blog posts here showcase some of what we photographed. You can click on any photo to view it in a larger size and go into photo slideshow mode.

The blog posts in order of our travel are (or you may be able to just scroll down):

Glacier Wildflowers

Scenic Glacier

Scenic Yellowstone

Yellowstone Wildflowers

Thermal Yellowstone

Scenic Grand Teton

Grand Teton Wildflowers

Wildlife We Saw




Glacier Wildflowers

Glacier National Park was the first of the 3 parks we came to visit; the expectations for western wildflowers were high. Paintbrush (Castilleja) and lupine (Lupinus) were both high on my list to find. Glacier did not disappoint for those, but I’ll do this in the order in which we traveled.

It is fitting that at one of our earliest stops (and you can get a sense of the order of our trip by looking at the Scenic Glacier blog post) we found one of the oldest plants around: Equisetum, also known as horsetail or scouring rush. This plant reproduces by spores so it doesn’t have any flowers. Stopping here and there, we found other interesting plants and it was cool to see butterflies, bees, flies and other pollinators doing “their thing” with these early flowers.

As we traveled south around the bottom of the park, I started to notice beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) and added that to my “must take a picture of” list. We found a wonderful group of it near a tiny motel. There was also one of the first pussytoes that we’d find – a genus that would span all 3 parks in a beautiful array of species. In the next few miles, we’d also find paintbrush and large blackberries.

As we approached the southern pass, we came upon a delightful small field of wonderful things. According to my camera timestamps, we stayed for about 20 minutes exploring all the flowers.

Our next big stop was Two Medicine Lake and there were plenty of plants to see. Our hike from the parking area to the other side of the lake took us through a rather open forest with lots of beargrass and plenty of diversity (still no lupine).

As we headed north to Many Glacier, we pulled over to the side of the road when lupines were finally spotted! After a brief photo session, we headed northward again. After we made the turn into the Many Glacier area, we found a wonderful, sunny area that was dry and rocky.

All in all, some great flowers in Glacier in mid-June.





Scenic Glacier

Glacier sign 708aWednesday morning, June 15th, our hotel shuttle took us to Glacier Park International Airport to get a rental car and we drove east on Hwy 2 to the West Entrance of Glacier National Park. At the Apgar Visitor Center we found out that Logan Pass would not be open that day due to road repair work (not due to snow). In order to reach our hotel in the Many Glacier area, we would have to drive via Marias Pass, a southern pass.

We decided to drive along Going to the Sun Road towards Logan Pass for a little while anyway, knowing that we’d have to backtrack at some point. This route took us adjacent to Lake McDonald for a long way (not a bad view!). Lake McDonald is a deep glacial lake that fills the valley where a glacier used to be long ago. Click any picture to see it full size.

We stopped several times to take pictures of the lake and the scenic views around it. The water was very clear, and I was particularly impressed with the beautiful, polished rocks that made up the shore. The array of colors and the swirled patterns were incredible.

We stopped once to hike, but the area was so crowded that we decided to turn around and start on our southern journey to get to the other side (hoping for less crowded stops along the way). We went out of the park and got back on Hwy 2, driving through Flathead National Forest, following  the Flathead River and often passing the very train tracks that we rode in on.

We stopped several times along the way, exploring several areas of wildflowers, the area at Marias Pass, and generally awesome scenic views. We stopped for a longer exploration at Two Medicine Lake and hiked up a path to the lake that was full of beargrass and other wildflowers.

From there we continued north onto Hwy 89, crossing through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on our way to the Many Glacier area and our lodging at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins.

We spent one night in a small but very nice cabin with shared bathroom facilities. At $95 a night, it was very affordable! Here are some pictures from around the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Mountain goats were spotted on the mountain that we faced.

After breakfast at the Inn, we headed out. We thought initially that we would turn north on Hwy 89 again and go up to Waterton. However, we paused at the junction to set up the GPS just to see how long it would take us to get to Yellowstone. The GPS said 6-8 hours so we decided to skip Waterton and turned south for the long ride to Yellowstone …under some BIG skies! Here’s a video that I took standing in the middle of the road on our way.

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Scenic Yellowstone

We drove south from Glacier National Park on US 89, on long, lonely stretches of road and under a sky that went forever. We came into Yellowstone National Park at the north entrance via Gardiner, MT around 6 pm on Thursday, 6/16/16. We immediately saw elk lounging around the parking area.

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Well, she looks good!

This entrance brings you into the Mammoth Hot Springs area so we stopped and took the tour. The terraces here are quite other-worldly and almost unnatural. The extensive boardwalk system allows visitors to get pretty up close to the hot features! You can see pictures of the thermal features we saw in Yellowstone in the post “Thermal Yellowstone.” From there we left and drove to the Canyon Village area to get checked in for our 5-night stay.

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Porcelain Basin


On Friday, we got up and drove to the Norris Geyser Basin. After exploring the geysers and thermal features there, including the Artists Paintpots, we came back toward Canyon Village and visited Artist’s Point and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Note: click on any photo to see it full screen or captions.

Saturday, we went north and east from our lodge to visit the Lamar Valley. On our way, we stopped at Dunraven Pass to look at high elevation wildflowers and meadows. You can see pictures of the wildflowers we saw in the post “Yellowstone Wildflowers.” Lamar Valley is known as an area for wildlife viewing and it did not disappoint. We saw pronged antelope, huge amounts of bison, a young bear at a river crossing, sheep at Calcite Springs overlook. We also stopped by Tower Falls. To see pictures of some of the wildlife we saw, visit the post “Wildlife We Saw.”

Evening light lasts a long time so after dinner we headed out again, this time going south to Mud Volcano. We saw a big crowd so, of course, we stopped to see what animal they had found. It was a beautiful male elk sitting quietly in the grass. From there we went further south to explore the top end of Lake Yellowstone and the Fishing Bridge area.

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Elk (male)

On our way back to the lodge, we found another crowd. Here people were looking very far away, across a small river. Some people thought that a wolf had taken down a bison. It didn’t appear so after all, but a male bison, a female, and a young calf were clearly upset about something and started running until they reached the safety of a group much further away. We got back into the car and went to the small store at Canyon Village for cereal and beer and got back in time to see a great sunset.

On Sunday, we drove south and west into the lower part of the park to see Old Faithful. We got to the Visitor Center at 9:45 am and saw a big sign that the next predicted eruption would be at 10:10 am. It was right on time and lasted about 4 minutes, plenty of time for pictures and video. We walked around the extensive boardwalk to explore the Upper Geyser Basin which had some gorgeous thermal features and then had lunch in the cafeteria and drove north to the Midway Geyser Basin to see the spectacular Grand Prismatic Spring.

From there we decided to go the West Thumb area so we went south again and then east, stopping at the Continental Divide along the way (we crossed it several times during our whole trip). The geyser area at West Thumb was very nice. Remember you can see pictures of thermal features here. We continued north from here back up to Fishing Bridge for an afternoon coffee at the gift shop and picked up some souvenirs (the selection of t-shirts varies greatly from shop to shop).

It’s still Sunday … and we decided to continue east from Fishing Bridge out to the Yellowstone east entrance. The pictures above show how different Yellowstone can be: the picture on the left as we ended east; the picture on the right was behind us.

We spotted a crowd at the guard station, and, since we all know that means an animal, stopped to find them admiring a young moose on the edge of a wetland. He entertained us all with a little dance in the water and Sara captured it on video. We drove out the east entrance to look for gas and a meal – we had to go about 20 miles before we found either! But the restaurant was nice and the gas was cheap and we enjoyed seeing the different rock formations. On our way back we saw a herd of elk and stopped for a few sunset pics. What a day!

Monday became a day to finish up loose ends so we went north first to see the Petrified Tree. (The area was closed on the day we went to Lamar Valley because of a bear in the area.). We stopped on the way at the trail area for Mount Washburn to see more high elevation wildflowers (can’t get too many of those). As we passed the Tower Falls area, there was a crowd so we stopped to watch a young female sheep and her ewe try to enjoy breakfast with the crowd. A huge truck went past and she decided that was enough and they scrambled out of view.

After the Petrified Tree, we went west back towards the north entrance where we saw some great antelope right near the Yellowstone sign. We went into Gardiner for a meal and then came back and drove south and west to Madison but didn’t go all the way out. On our way back, another crowd alerted us to the presence of a young frisky coyote way off in a field. That night, there were bison in the area around the lodge and we could watch them from a balcony. A video that I took from the balcony is here. It was a nice ending to our stay in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Wildflowers

This post is about the wildflowers that I photographed in Yellowstone. The range of conditions in Yellowstone and the diversity of the flowers reflected that. From roadside lupines, to special plants that grow near thermal features, and all the way up to windy alpine meadows, the wildflowers of Yellowstone were looking very good in the second week of June 2016.

Click and photo to see full size.

Flowers that could grow in gravelly soil.

More tough-as-nails flowers.

Alpine flowers were gorgeous and tough in their own right.

An assortment from all over.

While the flowers could be tiny, a whole meadow of them could be a beautiful thing!

Thermal Yellowstone


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Picture from Old Faithful area (‘you are here’ marker references that)

Yellowstone National Park contains geothermal features thanks to being located above the Yellowstone Supervolcano. An eruption approximately 630,000 years ago created the caldera that we can now walk around in. The caldera is only in part of the park and is approximately 34 by 45 miles in size.


Hover over the picture to see the caption. Click on any picture to see it full size.

We entered via the North entrance so our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, a large complex of hot springs on a hill of travertine created over thousands of years as hot water from the spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate. This area and all of the geothermal areas have extensive boardwalks for visitors to safely view the features.

In general, the geothermal features are classified as five types: travertine terraces, geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles (superhot steam vents). On day two, we visited Norris Geyser Basin (take a virtual tour here), a collection of all the features types, including the colorful area known as the Artists Paintpots. There were no large active eruptions but we saw lots of hot springs and fumaroles. Hot springs can support the growth of organisms, resulting in different colors and appearances.


The following pictures are from the area south of the Norris Geyser Basin known as the Artist Paintpots. You can see a video that I took of the bubbling mudpot here.


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Dragon’s Mouth Spring


On Saturday, we stopped by Sulphur Caldron (phew!) and Mud Volcano for a quick visit. The Dragon’s Mouth Spring was worth seeing; it is aptly named.

On Sunday, after consulting with the ranger about which days are generally crowded at Old Faithful – the answer is Tuesday, we headed for the Upper Geyser Basin where it resides. We got there at 9:45 and found a big sign at the Visitor Center that the next eruption was predicted for 10:11 am. We grabbed a front row seat and waited. It was right on time. Old Faithful is not the biggest geyser, but it is the most reliable and it lasts 3-4 minutes, ensuring that everyone gets enough pictures. As you look at the picture of it, it blows up on the left and then steam drifts to the right. I took a video of the eruption and you can find it here.

You can walk from that area along paths and boardwalks around the Upper Geyser Basin and we did. We saw some beautiful features. I was amazed to see such special flowers as pink shooting star and gentian growing right among the hot features. Pictures are in the group above.

We then drove northward to the Midway Geyser Basin to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. It is the largest and most well-known chromatic spring in the area and was well worth the stop. The warm steam wafted over the boardwalk like a sauna. I took a video and you can see it here. It is worth seeing a bigger picture of it than we could take; you can see a good aerial picture of it here and learn more about why it has colors.

From there we decided to go south again to see the West Thumb Geyser Basin. You can take a virtual tour of West Thumb Geyser Basin here. The area is an extension of Yellowstone Lake, created separately about 162,000 years ago. One of the interesting aspects there is to see thermal features in the lake.


Scenic Grand Teton

Grand Teton was the last park we visited – after a long train ride, 2 days in Glacier and 5 1/2 days in Yellowstone. We found Grand Teton to be very beautiful, blissfully serene and wonderfully easy to get around. We both agreed that it was a great way to end our trip.

It is said that the mountains that comprise the range with the Tetons is relatively young at 13,000 years. The sharpness of the peaks certainly would seem to support this. The way that they seem to jump up out of nowhere is amazing. You feel like they are right in front of you. From the beginning, it hard not to pull over and take a picture from a dozen vantage points. Each seemed more striking than the last.

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One of our earliest stops was a view along the roadside with wildflowers on our side. While it was a beautiful view from any angle, Sara’s suggestion to put the lupines in the foreground was a winner.

In many ways, capturing the mountains with something in front of them was a great way to showcase not only the scale but the landscapes themselves. Below is a wildflower meadow in front of a group of young conifers.

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One of the prettiest views near where we stayed in Signal Mountain could be found at Oxbow Bend turnout. Lots of birders were there (and they said they saw a bald eagle). The water at the bend made for some nice reflections in the morning and at sunset.


The view of the snow-covered mountains reflected in the water is my favorite and will always be my strongest scenic memory of Grand Teton:

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