Yellowstone by train - 2007

Discussion in 'Travelogues / Trip Reports' started by MARC Rider, May 13, 2019.

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  1. May 13, 2019 #1

    MARC Rider

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    MARC Rider

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    One of my longer Amtrak trips, I don't think I wrote this up, in fact I took this trip before I joined AU. A nice ride, even if it included my personal all-time longest Amtrak delay.

    My cross country ski club had a Yellowstone trip planned for that winter, lodging, bus transfer from Bozeman, transportation inside the park. If you've never been to Yellowstone in the winter, I highly recommend it. Less crowds, incredible winter scenery, and lots of wildlife, it's sort of like the snowy Serengeti of North America. There's only one road in the park open to cars, all the other are snow covered and groomed for tracked vehicles. The concessionaire (it was Xanterra at the time) maintains the hotels and runs the snow coaches and other activities. Using the snow coaches you can see most of the park that you can see by car. The attraction to us was the cross country skiing and snowshoeing combined with wildlife viewing and seeing the thermal features.

    Unfortunately for me, by the time I decided to sign up, it was sold out. But the trip leader said I would be more than welcome to ski and hang out with them if I made my own travel arrangements. Naturally, I thought of including a train ride in my plans. First, I found another guy to share my room with me. He would fly out with everybody else, and I would meet him at the Bozeman Airport and we would carpool.

    After looking at the map, it appeared that the closest practical place to approach Bozeman by Amtrak was to take the Empire Builder to Havre, which is about 200+ miles on the opposite side of the state. However, there was a Budget rental car agency in Havre, and the train arrived and departed in both directions at a reasonable time (about 1 PM or so). My plan then developed into Northeast Regional from Baltimore to Washington, Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago, Empire Builder to Havre, an afternoon rental car drive to Great Falls, and then a drive the next day to Bozeman. The following day I would go to the airport to pick up my roomie, and then a drive to Mammoth Hot Springs in the park to start the ski trip. This is February, mind you, and I had some qualms about massive western blizzards turning my vacation trip into the motorist's version of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. However, I found out that unless a storm is actually coming through, it might be cold out there, by there's actually very little snow until you get to the high mountains. And it turns out that Montana is mostly a few high mountain ranges surrounded by lots of plains, which is where the roads are. The schedule ran two noights on the train, one night in Great Falls, one night in Bozeman before we got to Yellowstone. Then three nights at Mammoth Hot Springs, 4 nights at Old Faithful, and a night a Mammoth Hot Springs before I drove my roomate back to Bozeman and then I continued on to Great Falls and reversed the trip. I didn't think to program nights in Chicago in case of missed connections between the Cap and the Builder, and I had no problems either way.

    I left on a weekday at my usual ungodly 5:30 AM time, as I was going to work before I rode out. Instead of taking the MARC train, I took NER 67, mostly because it had usable overhead luggage racks. I had checked my major luggage (ski bag and a large roller duffle with snowshoes, ski boots, backpacks and all sorts of winter paraphernalia) through to Havre two days earlier, just to be sure the stuff would be waiting for me when I arrived in the middle of nowhere having to get out of town immediately. I was carrying a smaller duffle and a backpack with the stuff I needed on the train trip. NER 67 arrived on time and I wasn't late for work that day. Because the Cap leaves before my normal (former) quitting time, I took a couple hours leave and got back to Union Station at about 3 PM. I had roomettes on both the Capitol and the Builder, and these were paid with cash, as I don't think I had enough AGR points at the time to redeem a roomette trip.

    The ride to was uneventful. I know that there are chowhounds among you who think that eating gourmet cuisine is the point to train riding, but I'm sorry to report that I forget what I had for dinner, though I do remember that the dining car food in 2007 was better than it is now. We passed by Harper's Ferry with the Potomac frozen over, which doesn't happen all that often, and then it got dark. We woke up the mext day to snowy weather, but nothing too heavy. Arrival in Chicago was a bit late, but I had plenty of time to have lunch in the old Metro Deli and make my connection to the Builder.

    My roomette was in the Portland sleeper, which was at the end of the train. I had some fun looking out the railfan window. We left Chicago in a reasonably heavy snowstorm, which didn't seem to affect the operation of the train, though I heard from one of my fellow passengers that the airports had just closed down. A bit after Milwaukee, the snow stopped, and it stayed light enough for us to see some of the curious rock formations at Wisconsin Dells. After that, it got dark, and I went to dinner, noticing that at that time the Empire Builder was using real plates, not the plastic disposables used elsewhere. I do remember that I had the Flat Iron steak for that meal. After some riding around in the dark, we finally arrived at St. Paul, which was a long stop, because they refueled the train there. It seemed like most of the coach passengers got off there. I went out on the platform, which might not have been the brightest idea, because it was COLD.

    Yellowstone fol013.JPG Yellowstone fol019.JPG

    I went to bed before we left St. Paul and tried to sleep, except the track was some of the roughest I've ever ridden. I did eventually get some sleep, though, and awoke the next morning somewhere in North Dakota. We had two fresh air stops before Havre, one in Minot and one in Williston. The car attendant said something about it being something like ten below (farenheit) out. I was cold, but I sort of enjoyed being out in the fresh air for a short period of time.

    Here's Minot, including some very frozen trucks.

    Yellowstone fol022.JPG

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    Here's Williston:

    Yellowstone fol030.JPG Yellowstone fol032.JPG

    Some views of North Dakota and eastern Montana, not a boring as everyone thinks. I can imagine that the early European-American explorers, more used to the eastern part of the continent, were pretty amazed at the wide open spaces and big-sky country.

    Yellowstone fol027.JPG Yellowstone fol039.JPG Yellowstone fol043.JPG

    Finally, we got to Havre. First, though the train had to be refueled. The fueling stop was not at the station, but a little bit east. So we cooled our heels while they pumped the diesel in. We did get to see a lot of container traffic.

    Yellowstone fol045.JPG

    Finally, into Havre, where my checked bags were waiting for me. A quick call to Budget (which was actually the local GM dealer -- they sold everything form Chevys to Cadillacs to GMC trucks) resulted in my ride arriving some after. It was still cold, at least to me, but I suppose 10 or 11 below isn't that bad for the locals, and it was nice and sunny. I rented a 4WD SUV, though it turned out I didn't need the 4WD, but it was February in Montana.

    Soon I was driving down US 87 on my way to Great Falls. By 2007 Montana abandoned it's old policy of no speed limits, but the 70 mph speed limit on this well-paved 2 lane road was more than adequate for my needs. The road was clear, but the winds blew the powdery snow in sheets across the highway like you see in pictures of the Sahara desert. I made a short side detour to see Ft. Benton, which was the head of navigation on the Missouri Rover and was the gateway to Montana in the days before they built the railroads. I managed to slip into Great Falls just as it was getting dark and found my motel in the center of town. The motel, the O'Haire Inn, is locally noted for its tiki bar and mermaid tank (don't ask). A couple of drinks at a tiki bar on a 10 below night in Montana was not a bad way to end the day. Little did I know however (because I didn't bother to watch the weather report on TV, and I didon n't have a smartphone then) that I was going to experience the noted weather phenomenon known as the Chinook. More about that later.
     
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  2. May 13, 2019 #2

    MARC Rider

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    MARC Rider

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    After spending the evening trudging though 6 to 8 inches of snow in subzero weather to the pub where I had a nice dinner of a buffalo (bison) burger, I was sure surprised to wake up and find that is was in the 40's (Fahrenheit) and the snow was rapidly melting. Thus, my first experience of the infamous Chinook wind. I had some concerns about how this might affect my ski vacation, but, as it turns out, this doesn't really affect the high plateau of Yellowstone. However, it did make driving around Montana in February a bit more pleasant. Before I left Great Falls, I checked out the C.M. Russell museum, full of Russell's realistic paintings of various Western scenes. I drove down I-15 to Helena, the state capitol, where I had lunch. While most states cap their capitol domes in gaudy gold, Montana tops its with dull copper. Well, for Montana, for many years copper was their gold and mining it was a major part of their economy. Turning off on a cutoff that allowed me to avoid a the mountain passes into and out of Butte, and dropped by Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers meet to form the Missouri.

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    From there, it was a pretty quick drive on the Interstate to Bozeman, where I checked into my hotel, a chain property out by the highway. That evening, when I went for a happy hour drink at the lounge, we had a power blackout which cause more than usual camaraderie, and so I enjoyed some time talking with random people by candlelight. And even better social icebreaker than eating in the dining car! I also ran into two people from my group who had come out a day earlier. We went out for dinner a bit late, about 9 PM, and found that many restaurants in Bozeman stop serving dinner well before that. This is something us city slickers always have to keep in mind when traveling in the hinterlands. We did find a place though, and had a decent pasta dinner.

    I had the next morning to explore downtown Bozeman, as my roommate's plane wasn't set to arrive until the middle of the day. When the time came, I went to the airport, and we loaded his stuff into my SUV and off we went, while the rest of the group was being loaded into their charter bus. After a drive on I90 over a mountain pass into Livingston, we turned and headed toward Gardiner, the original park entrance. It cost about $20 or so per car to enter for a week. Heh, now with my senior pass, I can visit for free.

    Yellowstone fol081.JPG
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    As you can see, the snow is pretty thin on the ground. But not to worry, most of Yellowstone is a plateau with an elevation between 7-8,000 feet above sea level, or about 1-2,000 feet higher than the entrance. The altitude makes all the difference in snow cover. But it was nice that our drive to Mammoth Hot Springs was on a nice clear road.

    Most of Yellowstone is a caldera, that is , volcano that blew its top off. This happened a few times between 2 million and 600,000 years ago. The place is still thermally active, so you get the hot springs and geysers, and some think that it still has enough punch underground to blow up in our face again. This northern part of the park, however, is not part of the caldera, and you don't see much in the way of hot springs and geysers until you get to mammoth, which is also the site of Fort Yellowstone. (The Army managed the park in its early years, until 1916 when they set up the National park Service.)

    While Yellowstone is noted for its natural wonders, there's also a Historic District at Mammoth the army post is old enough that it actually has historic interest.

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    Note the elk wandering around the place.

    Here's a view from the upper part of the Mammoth terraces.

    Yellowstone fol102.JPG
    And here's the hotel:
    Yellowstone fol089.JPG

    The hotel is historic, but not particularly interesting architecturally. The dining room is the building to the left, so you have to go outside to eat. I thought the food was fine, some of the gourmets in the group though it was overpriced for the quality. They had buffalo (bison) and elk on the menu, but I don't think the meat came from the animals you were viewing during the day. There was no cell phone reception, which caused my wife some anxiety, as she wanted me to check in every day to let her know I hadn't been attacked by Indians or outlaws or buried in an avalanche, or whatever. Without cell coverage, I had to resort to using the room phones, and for some reason I couldn't dial direct, and it was like the 1960s or something with having to coordinate long distance calls with the front desk. Fortunately, at Old faithful, someone built a cell phone tower and cellphone service was fine there. Anyway, off to bed, the next morning we will finally get to play in the snow.
     
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  3. May 13, 2019 #3

    Ziv

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    Ziv

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    Mammoth/Gardner is one of the ends of my favorite drive in Yellowstone. I go from there across the "top of the 8" on the North side of Yellowstone, over to the Lamar Valley and back early in the morning. Tons of wildlife, both grizzlies and black bears, fox, elk, wolves...
    The main roads in Yellowstone Park are in two circular routes, kind of shaped like an 8, so it is easier to describe where you are by noting which part of the 8 you saw the grizzly bear vs. where you saw the wolves vs. where the black bear cubs were.
    Love that place! Never been in the winter though I have been snowed on a time or two!
    The photo is of Scarface, near Blacktail Plateau, who has sadly passed away. Blacktail Plateau is just east of Mammoth on the top right of the 8.
     

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  4. May 14, 2019 #4

    oregon pioneer

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    I went on a winter ski tour in Yellowstone a few years back (2013). Drove up from eastern Oregon, met family & friends at the Bozeman airport, sounds like much the same agenda. I am really looking forward to reading more (including the late train saga on the return trip).
     
  5. May 15, 2019 #5

    MARC Rider

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    Finally, in ski country! This was the program:
    Day 1. Skied around the upper Mammoth hot spring terrace in the AM, drive to Lamar Valley in the afternoon. (Why not, I was paying for the rental of a car that would be parked a Mammoth while we went up to Old Faithful.
    Day 2. Snow coach ride up through Golden Gate to Indian Creek Campground and ski trails
    Day 3. Snow coach ride from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful Snow Lodge
    Day 4. Ski in Old Faithful geyser basin and vicinity
    Day 5. Backcountry snowshoe hike from Continental Divide to Old Faithful.
    Day 6. Skiing to some of the other nearby geyser basins, walking around the Old Faithful area to see they various geysers and hot springs in more detail
    Day 7. Snow coach ride back to Mammoth Hot Springs

    Here are some pictures:
    Going up 200 ft in elevation makes a big difference. There was skiable snow in the upper basin of Mammoth Hot Springs, and all kinds of neat travertine formations. Of course, near the hot springs, the snow melts.

    Yellowstone fol096.JPG Yellowstone fol112.JPG

    If you drive up the road, you go through a gap called the Golden Gate. Once you gain another 1,000 ft, there's really a lot of snow:

    Yellowstone fol164.JPG Yellowstone fol152-adjusted.jpg Yellowstone fol162.JPG

    If you decide to drive on the only plowed road in the park, it's scenic, but has its own pitfalls.

    Yellowstone fol135.JPG Yellowstone fol143.JPG

    Finally, off to Old Faithful. The baggage gets shipped in a snow coach that can ride on pavement right to the hotel door. We passengers had to take a bus up the hill to where they stopped plowing the road.

    Yellowstone fol182.JPG Yellowstone fol183.JPG

    Here's our classic Bombardier snow coach. I think this is very close to Bombardier's original design as used in rural Quebec in the winter.

    Yellowstone fol186.JPG

    Boy was it loud! And being "classic" or "vintage" meant we were about to have an "adventure."
     
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  6. May 16, 2019 #6

    MARC Rider

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    Our snow coach trip was not only transportation to Old Faithful, it was a bit of a park tour. We stopped at a couple of the thermal features, but not all of the scheduled stops, because our vintage machine decided to break down in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, all of the snow coaches are equipped with radios, and after some delay in the parking lot of a snowed-in picnic area, relief, in the form of a more modern snow coach design, finally arrives.

    Yellowstone fol189.JPG

    We continued on to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge -- not the famous historic hotel. It's impractical to heat the old place in the winter, so they shut it down for the season and have opened a new place. By the time I made my reservations, all the hotel rooms were gone, and I had to take a "cabin"-- actually one of a 4-plex unit. The rooms were actually larger than the hotel rooms, but you had to walk outside to get to the lounges and dining rooms.

    Yellowstone fol193mod.jpg Yellowstone fol194mod.jpg IMGP0996.JPG

    A few of the thermal features, as well as a shot showing some bison blocking our ski trail. In this place the animals have the right of way, and the rangers will give you a ticket if you bother them. Even getting up close is bothering them at this time of year, when they're pretty hungry and stressed.

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    The snowshoe hike was quite the trek. They drove us up to the Continental Divide, and we took an 8-mile backcountry trail that sort of paralleled the road. It had been a while since the last user, and it was snowing pretty hard, so we had a lot of work breaking trail. the woods were awesomely beautiful with that thick load of snow. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. But you don't even think about getting through it without skis or snowshoes.

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    Just to give an idea of how deep the snow is out there, this photo shows a path the cleared outside the hotel.

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    Coming up, the epic conclusion!
     
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  7. May 16, 2019 #7

    MARC Rider

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    Time to leave Old Faithful. We left in the early afternoon giving us a final morning to wander around the geysers, and I finally got to see one particular one go off in a display that I thought to be superior to that of Old Faithful, not that Old Faithful isn't impressive. We packed up and hit the road, but at one point we had a traffic jam with the bison, which prevented us from stopping at the Fountain Paint Pots, which is supposed to be an impressive thermal site. Oh well.

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    Despite the excitement, we returned safely to Mammoth before dark, spent the night. We were up the next morning bright and early and drove to the Bozeman Airport, where I dropped off my roommate for his flight back east. I continued west, made another brief stop at the Missouri Headwaters in Three Forks and then decided to take a detour to see Butte. In its heyday Butte was a swinging town with luxuries otherwise found only in the large cities of the east. All of that was from the copper mines. Then they started open-pit mining and dug up up half the town. What's left is the notorious Berkeley Pit, one of America most toxic Superfund sites. It's a bit of a tourist attraction and I wanted to see it, but the viewing platform is closed in the winter, so I had to settle for a drive-by shot.

    IMGP1179.JPG

    With clear roads and sunny weather, I soon found myself back in Great falls, where I settled in again at the O'Haire Motor Inn, and enjoyed dinner at a Mexican restaurant and a nightcap at the tiki bar watching the mermaids swim around. The next morning I was up early (I didn't want to miss my train) and took in my last view of the mighty Missouri River before rolling into Havre.

    IMGP1182.JPG IMGP1188.JPG IMGP1190.JPG

    The statue is of the "Empire Builder" himself, J.J. Hill.

    I drove up to the GM dealership to return my rental car, and -- whoops! -- it was Sunday, so the place was closed. There was a number on the door to call, which I did, and the nice lady on the other end told me to just park the car in the station parking lot, locking the keys inside, and they would take care of it on Monday. Which I did, after taking my stuff out and checking the big bags through to Baltimore. Some time after I got home, I got a call from the rental agency, apparently when they retried the car, they found the windshield cracked. It certainly wasn't that way when I left the car, but that sort of thing does happen when temperatures change. Of course, I was on the hook for the repair, I didn't want to bother my insurance company with a claim for something that small, but I got a reimbursement from my platinum card issuer for the deductible amount.

    As I wasn't sure whether I would have lunch served on the train with my ~1 PM departure, I walked down the street to a local supermarket and got a sandwich. While I was waiting for the train and taking movies of the container traffic, my memory card decided to go on the fritz, and that was it for photography on this trip. I thought I had lost half of my pictures until I figured out how to download a program that retrieves data from impaired media like my memory card.

    The Builder rolled in, not too late by Amtrak standards, and I found out that indeed I did get a lunch. So much for the sandwich. A little later, the SCA came by and let me know that they were having the wine and cheese tasting in the dining car. (These were the good old days of 2007.) They were featuring Washington State wines and Wisconsin cheeses, representing the the two states along the route of the Empire Builder that are actually noted for such products. After the tasting, we had a trivia contest to determine who got possession of the unfinished bottles. Surprisingly, I won one of the questions. ("What is the official name of Amtrak?" "National Passenger Railroad Corporation.") Sometimes, I guess, it pays to be a rail geek. This got me a nice opened bottle of one of the wines (I forget which variety), about 2/3 full. It was nice to have with dinner. Later in the afternoon, as I looked out the window, I saw a coyote sitting watching the train. Either it was a railfan coyote or maybe it was hoping someone would through a few scraps of food out. It was the kind of look that I've seen in many dogs I've known.

    As it was getting dark, we had a "fresh air," I mean, smoke, stop at Minot. And they were smoking. It was a lot warmer than when I was heading out, but still winter. I chatted with a lady who was actually using the train for transportation -- there's really not too many other ways to get from Minot to St. Paul or Chicago. Then I turned in and slept through eastern North Dakota and a good bit of Minnesota.

    We arrived in St. Paul in the morning, more or less on time. The ride down the Mississippi to LaCrosse is, in my opinion, one of the more scenic train rides I've taken. I enjoyed most of it from the sightseer Lounge. We left Milwaukee on time and were moving along smartly to Chicago, when some sort of mechanical defect stopped us in our tracks for a half hour while the conductors ran around outside to figure out what it was.

    We rolled into Chicago about 30 minutes late, which was fine for my connection with the Capitol Limited. I think the Builder was supposed to come in at about 3:30 PM, and at the time the Cap was leaving some time around 6. Being a half hour late was fine with me, less time to have to cool my heels in the Metropolitan Lounge. Which is what I did. But right before we were supposed to board the Cap, word came down that there would be delays due to weather. Oh, yes there were. Finally they said, this is going to be a pretty long wait, board the train, and we'll serve you dinner while you're sitting in the station. Which is what they did. Then I went back to my roomette and chilled until the train pulled out at about 9 PM. Three hours late right from the get go. We chugged out of Chicagoland, and once the lounge was opened, I went there to hang out. Some railroad worker was telling us that this was a really bad situation. It wasn't a lot of snow, it was freezing rain, and switches were getting frozen and some of the signals were getting messed up. The chain reaction of delays used up all available crew, and by this point there were a whole lot of freight trains just sitting on the tracks waiting for fresh crew that didn't exist -- at least not yet. They announced that because the Norfolk Southern line was essentially blocked with these dead freight trains, they were going to route us through Michigan (Amtrak actually owns some of the tracks) and get us on our way. Some time around 11, somewhere outside of South Bend, we just stopped and sat there. I figured it was time to go to bed, and got a pretty nice sleep. I think at some point we started moving. Wile I might have wanted so see the rare mileage running between Detroit and Toldeo, it was dark, and I was more interested in sleeping.

    When I woke up, the sun was shining, and we were sitting in .. Toledo! The scheduled time for Toledo is normally about 11:30 PM, so we were pretty late. I got up, took a shower, taking advantage of the fact we were sitting still, and went up and had breakfast. Then we started moving, and I had the rare opportunity to ride all the way across Ohio in daylight. It seemed like we were making good time, but our estimated arrival time in Washington was being put back later and later. Given that I had to connect to a Northeast Regional in Washington to get to Baltimore, I was starting to get a little nervous, as the last Regional North is 66 at 10 PM. The afternoon was getting longer as we rolled into Pittsburgh. A lot of people got off there, to be bussed to Philly and New York. The rest of us stayed on as we were really really late.

    At lunchtime they served an extra abbreviated lunch ion the diner for sleeper passengers. As we crested the Sand Patch grade and the sun was going down, they offered an emergency Amstew dinner to everybody, coach and sleeper passengers. It's the only time I've ever had a chance to "enjoy" Amstew.

    After we left Cumberland, I was getting more nervous about my connection in Washington. It looks like we're going to be 10 hours late. I called my wife, and we discussed my getting off at Harper's Ferry, where she would pick me up. It's only about an hour and a quarter from our house, but she was reluctant to drive around on unfamiliar roads in the dark, and I was reluctant to sit around in a deserted train station in a deserted town at 9 or 10 PM on a winter's night. The SCA was OK with my getting off at Harper's Ferry, but in the end, he said that they would hold 66 for me.

    Finally, at about 10:15 PM, we reached Washington. I was told get myself over to the track where 66 was waiting. As I boarded, I could swear that at least half the passengers were staring at me, giving me the stink-eye for delaying their train. Well, what could I do. We soon got to Baltimore where my wife was waiting to drive me home. My luggage, of course, didn't make the connection, and I had to pick it up a couple of days later. It's a good thing it was the end of the trip.

    It was a great trip, the train part and the skiing part.
     
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  8. May 16, 2019 #8

    Ziv

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    Ziv

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    Great trip! I love Yellowstone and have only been there in early May for snow adventures. But only a mention of the mermaids? They are worth a picture too! Though I have to admit that the last time I visited the Sip N Dip, the mermaids were not quite as... Memorable. A couple of my favorite shots of Yellowstone below, I wasn't as close as they look, I had a fairly long lens.
    YellowstoneBuffalo.jpg YellowstoneBlackBear.jpg
     

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  9. May 17, 2019 #9

    oregon pioneer

    oregon pioneer

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    My favorite shot from Yellowstone January 2014 (i am the little one on the left).
    We are standing on the boardwalk in the geyser basin at Old Faithful.
    group_by_hotspots14.jpg
     
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  10. May 19, 2019 #10

    MARC Rider

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    You really need those ski poles when you walk the boardwalks in the winter. They don't shovel the snow, it piles up, gets walked on, then it melts a little from the geothermal activity and becomes an uneven hard packed slippery mass that is difficult to walk over. And, of course, you don't want to slip off the boardwalk, break through the travertine crust and possibly get boiled alive. If I ever go back, I'm going to bring along a pull-on pair of spikes for my boots, so I can walk around on the stuff.
     
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