When Gather Away joined the Kusini Collection in July this year, I knew from the resume and reputation of owners Julie Sivertson and Paul Brown that they would be a perfect addition to the Kusini Collection. But until recently, I hadn’t experienced their operation in person. I also hadn’t been to Yellowstone in over twenty years and my two previous visits were self-drive, day visits. I’d never visited Yellowstone with a private guide. My expectations of Gather Away’s operation were high but to be honest, I didn’t have very high expectations for the wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. On my previous visits, I hadn’t seen much wildlife other than bison. And I’ll admit it, I was a bit of an African safari snob. In both cases, my expectations were exceeded in every way!
My trip to Yellowstone started here in Seattle. As Paul, Julie and I would be spending several days together in a vehicle, we all got tested prior to the trip. In Seattle, getting tested is fairly easy and there are many drive-thru and walk-up free testing sites. I scheduled a test at a drive-thru site five minutes from my home several days in advance. In Seattle testing is done by the University of Washington and results are expected within 72 hours. Covid symptoms and/or potential Covid exposure are not required for testing, so with my appointment, I simply showed up and got swabbed (the fairly uncomfortable deep nasal passage swab aka the “brain tickle”) and 12 hours later, I had my results (posted at 11:15pm – thanks for working late UW labs!). Pretty impressive.
Flying to Bozeman, MT
My flight to Bozeman left early on Sunday morning. My first flight and first visit to SeaTac Airport since March 12th and I felt a nervous excitement as I made my way through a fairly quiet security line. It felt good to be back at SeaTac, one my favorite airports (yes I’m a homer) and while not frenetically busy as it was pre-pandemic, there were a lot more travelers than I expected. Everyone was masked and social distancing was observed for the most part. My flight on Alaska Airlines was about 3/4 full and on Alaska’s regional Embraer e175 jets with a 2×2 configuration, one of the aisle seats is blocked unless booked together by a traveling party. But regardless of blocked seats, social distance in air travel is impossible.
Pre-pandemic, I was always a bit embarrassed when I wiped down my seat area, usually when traveling with my young daughter. But in these times, I felt no such embarrassment. And while Alaska states they have “developed and validated enhanced aircraft cleaning procedures with the University of Washington Medical Directors, specializing in Infectious Diseases”, after boarding, I thoroughly sanitized my seat, seatbelt, tray table and air vents. And speaking of those vents, I turned both on high and pointed then directly down over my head as recommended by both the airlines and medical experts to keep cabin air moving and circulating away from your face.
The rest of the short two our flight to Bozeman was uneventful. There were several cabin announcements reminding passengers that masks must be worn over the nose and mouth unless actively eating or drinking. On this flight, from my observations, most people followed the rules.
Arrival in Bozeman – SNOW!
A light dusting of snow greeted our flight upon landing in Bozeman – a good reminder that the weather can be unpredictable in the Rocky Mountains and snow is possible even in the early fall.
Paul and Julie greeted me curbside with hot coffee and snacks in their Ford Expedition Platinum! Paul took one look at my light sweater and rain shell and recommended that I add more layers. And indeed, it felt COLD! From Bozeman, it’s about an 1.5hr drive to Gardiner, Montana, which is located at the northern gate of Yellowstone. Driving over Bozeman pass, the temperatures dropped and the snow was really coming down, making driving a bit treacherous.
The snow abated as we drove south into the beautiful Paradise Valley, where the highway roughly parallels the Yellowstone River as it flows into the national park. The valley is flanked by the Absaroka Range on the east and the Gallatin Range on the west. According to Paul, during the winter the valley offers excellent wildlife viewing, especially elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, as the deep snow in the mountains drives the wildlife into the valley.
Gardiner, MT – Gateway to the Northern Range of Yellowstone
Gardiner, MT is a classic “tourist attraction” town and it owes its existence to Yellowstone entirely. It sits on the Yellowstone River and many of the hotels in town line the riverbank. Beyond its location, it doesn’t offer a lot. When selling Gardiner, expectations must be set about the town and the limited quality hotel and restaurant options. While there are quite a few hotels, only a handful meet Gather Away’s standards. You can view their preferred accommodation list here.
The best hotel in town and Gather Away’s preferred property is the Wonderland Lodge, with six suites, all which feature a full kitchen. Most have view decks and the larger 2-bedroom suites have their own fireplaces. It’s cute, comfortable and homey, with a contemporary western/Yellowstone theme to the décor. It is the only boutique property in town but by no means a luxury property, so proper expectations must be set. The owners are building another hotel down the street but as they haven’t broken ground yet, it’ll likely be a few years until it’s operational.
The restaurant scene in town is also pretty slim, with most menus heavy on burgers – including bison and elk of course – and BBQ. The Wonderland Cafe has the most diverse menu offering “unique, farm to table and hand-crafted cuisine” as well as an in-house bakery.
Despite the limitations and operational challenges of staying in Gardiner, the town offers the best access to the wildlife-rich Lamar and Little America Valleys also known as “the Northern Range of Yellowstone.” This area, occupying just 10 percent of the park, is the hub of wildlife in Yellowstone. It is the winter range for the biggest elk herd in the park and is arguably the most carnivore-rich area in North America. If you want to see wolves and grizzlies, this is the place.
From Gardiner, it’s about an hour’s drive to the Lamar Valley vs over two hours from West Yellowstone. It’s for this reason that Gather Away prefers to have guests stay in Gardiner when exploring the Northern Range of the park. In addition, the only road which is plowed and remains open to vehicles throughout the winter runs from Gardiner through the Northern Range to the northeastern corner of the park and the towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City.
Tom Miner Basin
On my first afternoon and evening in Gardiner, we headed up to the Tom Miner Basin, a rural ranchland located just outside Yellowstone where private landowners and ranchers have come together with conservationists to protect an ecosystem which benefits both wildlife and livestock. The wildlife viewing in this area is typically excellent and we were not disappointed! Within the first ten minutes, Paul spotted a mother moose and her calf and a mother grizzly and two cubs! In addition, we spotted a coyote, tons of whitetail deer and a large herd of elk, complete with a bugling bull thanks to October being the end of the mating season or “the rut.”
Typically, the Tom Miner Basin is a great spot to visit on the first night in Gardiner as it is close to town, offers consistently good wildlife viewing and features a number of excellent view points for a western-style sundowner! But in our case, thanks to the freezing rain, we opted to enjoy warm drinks in the vehicle instead!
The Northern Range – Little America and Lamar Valleys
On my first full day in Yellowstone, we spent the day exploring the northern range. Just like on safari, the day begins early, well before dawn. Because none of the hotels in Gardiner offer an early breakfast (before 7am), Paul and Julie always prepare and deliver breakfast to their guests room about 30-45 minutes prior to leaving for the park. In the summer, this means breakfast is often delivered around 5am thanks the early sunrise! Breakfast varies each day and is tailored to the guest preferences but typically includes tasty baked goods from the Wonderland bakery (Gather Away has a special arrangement with the overnight baker to pick up fresh baked goods each morning), hard boiled eggs or a breakfast sandwich, yogurt and granola and fresh fruit. And coffee or tea of course!
Pre-dawn, coffee in hand, we made our way past the iconic Roosevelt gate, through the deserted pay gate (too early even for the rangers!) and into Yellowstone National Park! The road to the Lamar Valley winds up the Gardiner canyon, through the small town center of Mammoth (this is where the park HQ is located along with a lot of park staff housing), past the imposing Mammoth Hot Springs, up and over the Blacktail Plateau and down into the Little America and Lamar Valleys just as dawn was breaking. We spent the rest of the morning observing wildlife including several grizzlies, the huge “Junction Butte: wolf pack (one of the largest in the park), elk and plenty of bison. All but the bison, and incredibly, a lone wolf just off the road (see photo below from Instagram), required the spotting scope.
Setting expectations – the spotting scope & tourist hordes
The spotting scope is a critical tool for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. I’d never used one before and while initially it takes a little getting used to, it’s part of the experience and must if you want to see wildlife, in particular, wolves and grizzlies. Like a good fishing guide who preps the fishing polls, Paul does all the work of setting up the scope and the guest simply has to adjust the focus for their eyes.
Even on my visit in October after the summer and fall rush of tourists and despite the rain/snow/sleet, there were still quite a few tourists. But thanks to Paul’s decades of experience in Yellowstone, he always managed to find a quiet spot for us, away from the line-up of visitors and their scopes, where we could peacefully watch the wolves on our own. Just another sign of an excellent guide.
Cooke City and Dan Hartman’s gallery
In the early afternoon, we drove up to the northeast entrance and the twin towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City for a quick look around. These two small towns offer very limited hotel and dining options (the Super 8 is the best hotel option), though there is a private house which offers a good home base for family groups. But a highlight of any Yellowstone trip with Gather Away is the chance to meet and visit with Dan Hartman local film maker, photographer, and naturalist who along with his wife Cindy has lived in Cooke City since 1989. Dan and Cindy raised two daughters in their small homesteader cabin. They have a small photo/art gallery where Dan will share stories and slides recounting exciting memories of close calls with wildlife and speaks about the animals he has gotten to know over his many years of filming and following them.
Paul Brown – one of the best guides I’ve ever had, anywhere
I knew from Paul Brown’s resume, and the rave reviews from Gather Away’s guests this summer, that I was in for an incredible time. But even with my high expectations, I was still blown away. Paul’s sharp eye, his uncanny instincts for wildlife behavior, decades of experience as a wildlife guide and naturalist, and his encyclopedic knowledge, made the wildlife experience in Yellowstone so much richer and fulfilling.
The biggest take-away for me from this trip is the value of having a private guide while visiting Yellowstone. It is the single most important ingredient to fully experience (and see) the wildlife in Yellowstone. ⠀
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