Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A rainy museum day in West Yellowstone

September 18, 2013
West Yellowstone, Montana
Grizzly RV Park

We had planned to explore the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone today but our second day of cold stormy weather caused us to stay close to “home” and check out a couple of museums in town.

The first stop on this rainy day was the Yellowstone Historic Center which is housed in the original Union Pacific Depot. Vic used to teach American History so his interest in these types of museums is especially strong. I enjoy it too, but don’t have the same compelling need to read every plaque.  Suffice it to say, that we need to allot a fair amount of time to these endeavor and that’s fine with me as a major reason we are full-timers is to get a more in-depth appreciation for this amazing country we call home.
Vic visited Yellowstone once before as a ten-year-old boy.  He doesn’t remember much about the experience except for seeing bears, camping in tents, and watching the miracle of Old Faithful.

vic at ys in 1950s

old faithful in the 50s

This trip was my first time here, so neither of us knew much about the history of Yellowstone. The museum turned out to be fairly small and limited in scope—but a worthwhile stop. The main highlight was learning about travel to and within Yellowstone through the different eras since the park opened in 1872. (Yellowstone was the first national park.) 

union pacific poster

Some of these souvenirs were popular when Vic was here as boy in the 1950s. I think they still sell the same spoons today although I bet it is hard to find the originals that were sterling silver.

When the park first opened travellers arrived by stagecoach, but by 1908 train travel was the preferred mode. In fact, the whole town of West Yellowstone grew out of the need to have services for the arrival of these passengers. I enjoyed seeing how elegant the train trips were as they had several displays of the fine china and linens aboard the train. When the tourists arrived, they could rent special dusters to wear in the carriages that took them on a five-day tour of the park.

The camping was all set up for them as part of the tour package, but I imagine it was still pretty primitive. The crazy part that I mentioned in my previous post was how much interaction there was between the tourists and the wildlife. Feeding them by hand was not uncommon.  If an animal threatened a human, I guess they just shot them back then.  

Traveling in the park in the winter was another interesting part of the museum’s display. In the park’s early days, it closed for the winter but by the 1930s the roads leading to the park were paved and plowed allowing for more travel into the park. In the 1950s, they started to use snowcoaches to take people around the park. This 1953 vintage snowcoach on display outside the museum was built by Bombardier, a company later famous for its Ski-Doo snowmobiles.

When snowmobiles became popular in the 60s, this opened up a whole new form of travel for winter tourists leading the park to eventually open year round in 1971 for winter recreation. Snowmobiles were allowed in the park until tighter restrictions on noise and pollution changed the regulations.  Nowadays, they only allow snowmobiles by special permit (thankfully, they have to be the newer quiet ones that meet EPA guidelines). The park still uses more modern snowcoaches that take people on tours around the park, an especially popular choice when some of the roads are closed due to snowfall.

This Arctic Cat snowmobile brought back youthful memories to me as I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when this model came out in the 60s.  With over 300 annual inches of snowfall, snowmobile recreation was incredibly popular in the UP and northern Wisconsin and Minnesota as many of the early models were manufactured there.

Our second “museum” experience of the day was a visit to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.  Our guide from the previous day’s tour recommended that we visit this place. It is a non-profit wildlife center whose aim is to educate people about Yellowstone wildlife, with an emphasis on bears and wolves.  The big surprise is that they have two wolf packs and nine grizzlies who live at the center. These are animals who either could not survive in the wild due to abandonment at a young age or who would have been killed because they were deemed nuisances or threats to humans. The center has several acres dedicated to these animals which are set up to be as close to natural surroundings as they can be. It was also impressive to learn the animals have no human contact with the employees who work very hard to keep the animals “entertained.”  We saw them hide squash under rocks for the grizzlies and put out a deer carcass for the wolves to eat (about the time the battery on my camera died.)  Everyday they put out new scents and rearrange different aspects of their surroundings to keep things interesting for the animals. It still seemed sad to see them captive, but at least this place has high standards and is focused on education. They describe their animals as ones who “serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts.”

The wildlife center also has a birds of prey in special aviary areas where these beauties hung out.

Aside from going to the museums, we also enjoyed checking out the end of season sales in the local outdoor recreation stores. With these cold temperatures (lows in the 30s at night), we needed a few things to keep us warmer than our typical Florida winter apparel. 

It was a little disappointing not to be outdoors on this day, but we rolled with it. In the past year, we have had very few days of rain or even weather that was too hot so we have been quite blessed. The good news is the weather forecast for the rest of the week is sunny—cool—but sunny. Tomorrow, we plan to hike in the Midway Geyser Basin area to get a good view of the Grand Prismatic Spring before we leave this iconic park.


  1. Enjoyed your post and learning some of the history of Yellowstone. We missed the museum but enjoyed the Discovery Center. Their animals are treated much better than the ones we saw in Bandon, especially since they could not live in the wild anyway. The wolfs and bears seemed quite content and not bored when we were there. Beautiful picture of the swan.

    1. Yes, we were quite impressed with the care that was evident at the Discovery Center. I read your post about the Bandon place and agree that the "for profit" motive contributes to the feeling that those animals are exploited vs. rescued and used as "ambassadors."

  2. Museums are my first rainy day agenda. There are always interesting things to discover there. I'd love to do Yellowstone in the fall. How cold has it gotten?

    1. The weather has been a bit of a challenge--first thunderstorms, now freezing temps overnight. I would still prefer these conditions over the summer crowds and heat though.

  3. We missed the first museum. Love the wildlife museum.
    We just saw the weather for your area. Buddle up before you go out. They are talking about snow up there. A little snow may add an additional beauty to the area.

    1. Yes, we have had to disconnect the water line at night because of temps predicted to be below freezing. It was lovely though to wake up to snow-capped mountains in the distance.

  4. Yellowstone is my all time favorite park. I love all the different physical features. But I am a HUGE wildlife fan. We were there again for our first visit since becoming fulltimers. It was wonderful to be able to spend so much time visiting. You mentioned the Grand Prismatic Spring. This is amazing but you need full sun. I am attaching a link to our blog on this area. There is a trail about a mile south the Fairy Trail that goes on the backside of this spring. You can climb straight up this hill (very steep but short) to get over the top of this spring for the view you see in travel info. It is worth the little struggle for the view. It isn't very far down the trail. http://ohtheplacestheygo.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/exploring-yellowstone-more-geysers-and-mudpots/

    I had to laugh at your description of the visit to the first museum. I thought I was reading my own words!! John also taught American History and reads EVERY plaque! I do tolerate to a certain point. I have been known to take a book for visits to some war museums. But this museum is really neat.

    I am so looking forward to your visit to Yellowstone. Hope you see lots of bears!!

    1. I am all about sighting wildlife too. So far we have not seen any bears here, only black bears in Glacier. Happy not to see any bears on the trails!

      We did find the trail that went up the hill to get a great view of the Grand Prismatic. Thanks!

  5. What a nice history lesson! Thanks for sharing. That's so funny to see a folded up mattress and springs packed up for camping! And oh my, I really don't think I want to be that up close and personal with the wildlife as they were back in the day.

    We hope to do some hiking in Yellowstone one day...can't wait to see your pictures!


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