Yellowstone is the granddaddy of National Parks. Within the boundaries of a single national park you can find abundant wildlife, unique geothermal features, subalpine forest, high-elevation lakes, deep canyons, pristine rivers, dramatic waterfalls, lush valleys, and snow capped mountain ranges. There is nowhere on earth quite like Yellowstone National Park. Early explorers who surveyed the land developed a deep feeling it was a special place and pushed for it to be preserved and protected. That led to the establishment in March of 1872 of the United States first national park. It is also widely recognized as the world’s first national park. Encompassing nearly 3500 square miles, it is the second largest national park in the lower forty-eight states. It receives around 4 million visitors each year.
Honestly, we weren’t sure we would get to visit Yellowstone on this trip west. We didn’t have campground reservations and we were not having much luck finding any. We are not the type of travelers that plan a year or more in advance. But we did try six months ago to get a campsite, without success. We continued to check for cancelations almost daily. All the news hype about campgrounds being completely booked for the summer was proving to be true.
With perseverance and good fortune it all worked out. Two weeks prior to arrival, we booked three nights each at a couple of campground resorts outside of Yellowstone National Park. “You’re in luck! We just had a cancellation for those days”, a reservationist at both places said (insert eye roll here). Of course we paid a premium price, averaging around $80.00 per night and it was a bit of a drive to the park. But, all said and done, we were happy to have a site.
The first three nights, we stayed at Yellowstone Edge RV Park, thirty-five miles from the north entrance gate. It was a great resort on the Yellowstone River. You know the kind of place…clean, modern, well manicured, and a binder full of rules. The distance from the national park was not as bad as it may seem. It was a lovely drive along the Yellowstone River to the gateway town of Gardiner and with a posted speed limit of 70mph, we were there in no time.
On the day we arrived, we wasted little time getting to the park. We had already spent a couple of hours in the morning at Pompeys Pillar, which was the subject of our last post, and then drove for three and a half hours before getting the trailer all set up. But, with the extra adrenaline from the anticipation of seeing Yellowstone for the first time, we forged ahead to get a look.
We no sooner got inside the park than we experience our first traffic jam. An elk chomping on the grass along the edge of the highway had everyone stopping to take a picture. We took our turn and snapped a photo before moving along. We would see many more elk. For instance, when we arrived at Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs, elk were lying under the nearby shade trees. I think we saw more elk in Mammoth Hot Springs than we did in the wild. It reminded me of Estes Park in Colorado where we saw small herds of elk walking the streets in that town.
The historic Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs, once the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters for Fort Yellowstone, was closed. In fact, I think all six of Yellowstone’s visitor centers were closed. They have not yet reopened from the COVID shutdown. Everything else was open…the stores, the lodges, the restaurants, the post office. I don’t understand the logic of keeping the visitor centers closed. An information table was set up outside. I felt sympathy for the rangers standing in the elements behind the table wearing a face mask while answering questions and providing information to a continuous line of park guest. We were thankful for the information they provided us.
We continued to drive for a short distance and found a spot to park near the Mammoth Hot Springs Lower Terraces. Getting our first look of the geothermal sights inside the park, we strolled across the boardwalks through a pungent sulfur cloud seeing, among other things, sights such as Liberty Cap, Palette Springs, Minerva and Cleopatra Terraces. The steaming hot water cascading across the white travertine terrace was a stunning thing to see. It was here we learned about thermophiles and the role these living organisms play in giving the hot water an array of beautiful colors.
We drove to the Upper Terrace too. With more boardwalks to tread we crossed the Main Terrace to see Canary Springs. Distant views of the valley juxtaposed with the colorful foreground beckoned to be photographed. Actually, everything we saw was a perfect picture. If you are not inclined to walk the boardwalks, the loop road around the Upper Terrace affords some good views of the hot springs from your vehicle.
The day was coming to an end. It had been a long day for us and we were starting to feel the effects. We turned back toward our camper. One last stop at the North Entrance Gate to take a long look at The Roosevelt Arch. Marking the original park entrance, Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the arch in 1903.
A young girl with her family offered to take our picture in front of the national park sign. It saved me the trouble of setting up the tripod. “Thank you, that was very kind. Where are y’all from?”, I asked. Wesley Chapel, Florida, was their reply. “Really? Wow, we are practically neighbors”.
It is always recommended to arrive to the park early to avoid some of the crowds, so the next morning we were through the park’s gate before 8:00 a.m. Not a great feat for some people, especial for those that arrive at first light, but for us it was quite the accomplishment. We spent a long day sightseeing, stopping on a whim, trying to see as much as two old folks can see in a day. Beauty abounds in every direction. It was hard not to stop at every opportunity to take a picture. There was not enough time for that, but we stopped a lot.
We stopped at a pullout in the area of Golden Gate to view the roadside Rustic Falls. We stopped at Swan Lake with the snow capped Gallatin Mountain Range in the background. We stopped at another pullout where Winter Creek and Obsidian Creek merge on the outside chance of seeing a moose wading in the water. Unfortunately, no moose this time. We stopped at Roaring Mountain to see super hot fumaroles. We witnessed a bison walk pass and through the steaming vents.
We arrived at Norris Geyser Basin. The parking lot was filling up. A line had formed and we were suddenly blocked in. No turning around now. We were stuck. As good fortune would have it, a car in front pulled away opening a premium spot for us.
We took a couple of hours to explore Norris Geyser Basin. It is the oldest and hottest of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. There are actually two separate basins at Norris Basin — Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. The Porcelain Basin is barren of trees and provides dramatic views of one of the most extreme environments on the planet. A boardwalk trail provides access through this unworldly area. The hissing and gurgling sounds, the sulfur odor, the radiant heat and a rainbow of color from living thermophiles had our senses stimulated and our heads shaking in wonderment. It was here when I began to comprehended that we were standing on top of a supervolcano.
The Back Basin Trail passes through a pine forest to some amazing hydrothermal features. It is where you can find Emerald Spring and Steamboat Geyser. Steamboat is the world’s tallest geyser and can reach close to 400 feet high when it erupts. Intervals between eruptions are unpredictable. It can be anywhere from 50 years to just a few days. It is currently going through an active period erupting 128 times from March 2018 to the end of 2020. The last eruption at the time of this writing was on May 31, 2021.
Next we went to Artist Paint Pots located three miles south of Norris Basin. A half mile hike through the pines to a clearing where an array of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and especially mud pots are displayed under a cloud of steam. The colorful mud pots that give this area its name, are found mostly on the hillside. They gurgle and splatter gobs of hot mud.
From Artist Paint Pots, we backtracked a little to get on the road to Canyon Village. Twelve miles to Canyon Village through this country is a joyful ride and we had plenty to look at. Of course as previously stated, Canyon Village Visitor Center with all its educational exhibits, films and murals was closed, but the General Store was open. Grammi did some shopping—buying t-shirts, hats and various souvenirs items. Then we went to see Yellowstone Falls.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River is twenty miles long and roughly 1000 feet deep. Three roads offer access to numerous vantage points where some of the most dramatic and breathtaking views in the park can be seen. The yellow hues of the canyon walls give rise to the parks name. The thunderous upper and lower falls echo through the canyon.
We chose the South Rim Drive where we stopped at Upper Falls Viewpoint. Unfortunately, the popular Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed but we still had great views of the falls. Then we drove to Artist Point where, according to the ranger at the visitor center, was the best view of the canyon and the Lower Falls. It was nothing short of magnificent.
Driving out of Canyon Village and heading back to our campsite for the night, we encountered another traffic jam. Another elk along the road. But this was a bull elk with a large velvet coated antler rack. What a beautiful animal!
The next morning we were in the park earlier than the day before. Hey, we are getting better. Early morning or late evening are the best times for wildlife activity. We are going to drive through the Lamar Valley, an area known for its abundant and varied wildlife. We are hoping to see a bear or a wolf.
I thought Grammi and I were obsessed with our pursuit of finding wildlife. That was until we came to Yellowstone. These people here are serious! In position before dawn with long lens cameras poised on tripods, they wait sometimes for hours to get the shot. Equipped with spotting scopes and high-powered binoculars, they use walkie-talkies to relay information on sightings to one another. “There are five bears on the mountain side”, said a lady near me. I tried and tried to see what she was talking about. Even with my own binoculars I could not see them. She allowed me to look through her spotting scope. Sure enough, a black speck was moving across the screen. “That’s it! That’s one of the bears”. she said. Hmm…really? Not what I had hoped for. We tried to prove our commitment, sitting at a spot with other amateur photographers near a known wolf den. After an hour and no sign of the wolf pups, we moved on.
Further down the road was another group of photographers. We stopped and asked what they were looking for. A young man said, “We are trying to get a picture of a badger, but so far all I have is a shot of a hole in the ground”. We wished him luck and moved on.
Around noon, we stopped at a turnout. We thought it was a gorgeous spot for having lunch. A bison herd was grazing in the foreground of a steep mountain cliff. A truck stops and three guys get out. They look up at the cliff through a pair of binoculars and begin to point. I howler over and ask what they see. “Mountain goats! See the white specks on the cliffs? You may need a pair of binoculars.” Okay, here we go again with the eye strain. I saw the white specks on the cliffs, but I can’t say for sure they were mountain goats.
Later we came upon a traffic jam. Cars stopped on the road and people were pointing. This should be good, I thought. There…I saw it. A mama black bear and three cubs. It was in the distance, probably a 1000 feet away, but at least I could make out it was a bear and not a gnat. Woo-hoo! Then they disappeared over the ridge.
Certainly we saw plenty of bison. By far, some of the biggest herds we’ve seen so far. Bigger herds than we saw at Custer State Park or Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Among the herds were dozens of calves. Their cuteness overwhelmed.
We drove out of the park at the Northeast Entrance through the high elevations of Beartooth Pass where ice still hangs from the cliffs. Then we turned around and went back the way we came.
As was the day before and the day before that, we did a lot of driving. It is a very big park. I guess you can say we are trying to see as much of it as we can in the short amount of time we have. Tomorrow we hitch up and move to another RV resort on the west side for three more nights. We will continue to see all we can. I will share that adventure of Yellowstone in the next post.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.