The original plan had been to spend a few nights boondocking in the Grand Tetons, but our extended stay in Rock Springs for repairs put a kink in that plan. Instead, we would just have to settle for driving through the Tetons and promise to come back and stay here another time. Even viewed from the main road, the Tetons were stunning.
We arrived at this viewpoint at the same time as a bus full of asian tourists. Their selfie skills were seriously impressive. All my selfies seem so boring after watching these guys.
The large snow pack you see between the peaks is an actual glacier. It used to be much larger, of course, but global warming is screwing everything up. I feel very grateful that we are able to see things like this before they are gone for good.
While planning our route we determined that the fasted route to the west side of Yellowstone (where we would be camping) was to drive straight through the park. Even with typical Yellowstone park traffic it was still at least an hour faster than going all the way around and through Idaho. However, I did call the Yellowstone visitor center in advance to make sure we would be okay driving our 37 foot bus on the park roads. I was told that we would do just fine. People drive huge RVs through the park all the time. There is only one major road that is not RV friendly and we would not be driving it on our route. However, the ranger also warned us that we should probably do our sight-seeing another time because we would have a terrible time finding parking in a bus. She was absolutely right. We saw a number of people attempting to tour the park in their RVs. They were all having a difficult time and annoying everyone else by taking up multiple parking spaces. Don’t be that guy. Take the toad. Unless, of course, your RV is small enough to fit in a normal parking space (i.e., camper van or truck camper), in that case do whatever you want.
Most of the camping spots in Yellowstone were first-come first-serve. We wanted to have a reservation somewhere and we had heard good things about Henry’s Lake State Park in Eastern Idaho, about 30 minutes from Yellowstone. Henry’s Lake was lovely (and significantly cheaper than any other place we found outside of Yellowstone) but after a week of driving back and forth we decided that it was probably a little too far from the park. Seriously, we had to drive through three states to get to the park. We were camped in Idaho but had to drive through a section of Montana to get to the park in Wyoming. This would not have been so bad if touring Yellowstone did not involve so much driving in and of itself.
So if you don’t mind driving a lot, we’d totally recommend staying at Henry’s Lake to tour Yellowstone. And if you like to fish, you’ll love it. The Lake is primarily a fishing lake. You could also stay at one of the RV parks in the town of West Yellowstone but those were very spendy. I saw prices from $50 to $75 per night. Or, do what most people do and plan ahead so that you can get one of the few reservable spots inside the park. Of course, you can also play the first-come first-served game and arrive at dawn to claim your spot. We’ve found this system to be very prevalent in the national parks. It really simplifies things for the parks department but we’re not big fans of so much uncertainty. We’re still new to this nomadic lifestyle and still like to know in advance where we’ll be parking for the night. I’m sure we’ll eventually get over it.
Yellowstone National Park feels like the quintessential American road-trip destination. The traditional tour is a driving tour. You drive through some of America’s most breathtaking scenery, see some of its astonishing volcanic wonders, and get up close and personal with some of its famous animals. The road through the park runs in a figure-eight pattern and is hundreds of miles total. Along the way you are directed (by signs or traffic) to stop at points of interest (geyser, hot spring, lake, etc.). You say “wow” a lot, take a selfie, and get back in the car. At the far north and far south ends of the park you can stop to enjoy an overpriced bison burger. This feels very wrong after you spent the past few hours marveling at their majesticness and sorrowing in the fact that we nearly decimated the entire species. But you’re really hungry so you eat the burger anyway.
The whole place feels like a theme park where nature is the main attraction. It’s a conflicting place because, like theme parks, Yellowstone is impressive and a lot of fun. I honestly think everyone should see it in their lifetime. But by the end of the day you are so ready to get the hell out of there.
We decided to break up our tour of the park into two loops. We would do the northern loop first and the southern loop second. At this point we really didn’t comprehend how big the park is and how bad the traffic could be. We planned to do the southern loop second because that loop contains Old Faithful and the bulk of the thermal activity. We thought it might be less crowded on a weekday. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter. Old Faithful is crowded every day.
On day 1 we drove from Henry’s Lake to West Yellowstone (the small town near the entrance to the park) and on into Yellowstone. Our annual parks pass got us in for free.
We turned left at the Madison Campground and made our way north to Norris. This section is technically part of the southern loop and contains a number of geo-thermal springs. We had never seen anything like it before so we stopped at everything. Before long we realized that we had only driven 20 miles but had been in the park for three hours! We had to keep moving if we were going to make it around the loop before dark.
Our favorite stop on this section was the Artists Paint Pots. The paint pots are a section of geothermal springs all clustered together. The whole place smells of sulfur and the air is warm from the steaming water. The paint pots are a 1/2 mile walk from the parking lot. The dirt trail is flat until the paint pots, where a loop goes above the pots and back to the main trail. Maybe 1.2 miles for the whole trail. Very easy. You could probably do everything but the upper loop with a stroller or wheel chair.
On the upper section of the loop you walk by a series of bubbling mud pools. The sound and sight of mud boiling is hypnotic.
We continued north from Norris around the west side of the park in a clock-wise direction. Our next big stop was at the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, just south of the tiny park community of Mammoth Hot Springs. I really wasn’t sure what to expect out of the terraces. It wasn’t a geyser and it wasn’t pools like the paint pots, but I had read that it was a must-see. And it really was. The water cascading over the rocks, and changing from white to orange was beautiful. We tried, but this really is the kind of place where pictures are never fully adequate and descriptions fall short. It’s like an alien landscape.
Following the terraces we drove into Mammoth Hot Springs, where we found a little tourist enclave in what had been a military establishment in the early 20th century. Elk were lounging in the grass like they had completely given up on avoiding humans. If you have somehow managed to tour the park without spotting an elk, just drive to Mammoth. The elk are always there and will happily pose for your photos.
Just past Mammoth Hot Springs, near the north entrance to the park, is the Boiling River. The Boiling River is a snow melt River that is intersected by a hot spring. There is a particular section where you can swim in the combined waters. It’s seriously bizarre. On one half of the river the water is HOT and on the other side it is freezing. The two mix in the middle to form a natural hot tub! Also, for some reason everyone at the river seemed to be French. Yellowstone has lots of international tourists but I’m not sure why so many French tourists were congregated at this one attraction. Whatever the reason, hearing predominately French while sitting in a hot tub river made it all the stranger. Put this one on your bucket list.
The second half of the northern loop moves much faster, mostly because there aren’t as many popular stops. Still, we didn’t make it back to West Yellowstone until 9:30pm. For reference, we left at noon. This would become somewhat of a trend during our Yellowstone stay, no matter what time we left or how long we planned to be gone, we would arrive home hours later than we intended.
Something we have seen consistently during our national park tours is dead forest and regrowth. Some of the trees are killed by the lodge pine beetle (as in Rocky Mountain National Park) and some were killed by forest fires (common in Yellowstone and Glacier). I believe these trees were killed by fire. The baby trees you see are naturally reseeded, all part of the natural life cycle of the forest.
We ate dinner at Bullwinkle’s in downtown West, just about the only place that was still open. The food was good but overpriced (like everything in West). They know they are the only town around and that everyone there is on vacation. Bullwinkle’s is also a casino/liquor store so we picked up beer on our way out. How convenient!
Day 2 in Yellowstone was a zero day. We had driven hundreds of miles in the last two days. Between the drive to Yellowstone from Rock Springs and the drive around Yellowstone, we were totally beat.
I spent literally the entire day getting all 1,200 of our wedding photos up on the blog. Brandon played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. Hey, we all have our own ways of relaxing. In the evening we went for a bike ride around Henry’s Lake.
Day 3 in Yellowstone was a Tuesday, which we hoped would be a slow day in the park. It wasn’t. I don’t think there are many slow days in Yellowstone. Maybe snow would do it. Maybe.
Our plan for the day was to hit the most popular section of the park, the southern loop from Madison to Old Faithful. Beyond the big attraction of Old Faithful, this section of the park includes the largest concentration of geysers and thermal activity. We took the doors off the Jeep for better viewing and just because it’s fun.
We stopped at all of the big attractions between Madison and Old Faithful except for the Midway Geyser Basin, and only because the parking lot at Midway was overflowing every time we drove past. It looked amazing and we probably should have waded through the crowds to see it but we didn’t.
More lost hats, but these were particularly festive lost hats. The problem with losing your hat at Yellowstone is that it is strictly forbidden to leave the boardwalk when viewing the thermal activity. The area is very delicate and stepping off the boardwalk could damage the land or cause injury. The crust is very thin in parts and you could step on a weak spot and end up in hot water, quite literally. So when your hat blows off you just have to let it go. I imagine a park ranger comes by regularly with some sort of extendable grabber arm and retrieves all of the lost hats.
If you don’t want the hassle of driving through the park yourself you can rent a tour on one of these “vintage” tour busses. We saw them all over Yellowstone and Glacier (in Glacier they’re red). The body of the car is a 1936 vintage bus, some of the original National Park tour busses made by the White Motor Company, model 706. The busses were restored by Ford onto a modern chassis and now run on propane. The canvas top rolls back to provide that “convertible” experience. We didn’t look into tour prices but it looks like a great way to tour the park.
We also took every little side road we could find. The best was the loop for swimming access to the Firehole River. The clerk at an outdoors store in Longmont, Colorado had told us that we need to stop for a swim in the Firehole River. Like the Boiling River, the snowmelt water is mixed with a hot spring, but the hot spring is farther upriver so the water is less hot tub and more summer swimming hole. We didn’t bring our swim suits today (and nudity is prohibited) so we’ll come back tomorrow. Note: the swimming area is not actually at Firehole Falls (that would be dangerous), but the road takes you by the falls as well as the swimming area.
We had been told there was construction going on between Madison and Old Faithful, but we got lucky (this time). Our plan was to have dinner at the Old Faithful Lodge. Despite what nature documentaries show, Old Faithful is surrounded by a complex of hotels, shops, and restaurants. We parked in the first spot we found and wandered through the nearby gift shop. We realized we were not near the lodge so we moved the Jeep to go find the lodge. We ended up parking right in front of the Cafeteria and got out as soon as we saw that people were quickly walking towards Old Faithful. It was about to erupt! Perfect timing.
Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes and an eruption clock is posted in most of the major buildings in the complex. We only waited for about 15 minutes before it went off. Amazing! We were among literally hundreds of people watching the eruption. Old Faithful is not colorful like the thermal pools (it’s just a steaming pile of rocks until it erupts) but it is far more dramatic than anything we had seen so far.
After watching the eruption we walked over to the lodge for dinner. They were booked until 9:45 pm. We settled on gin & tonics, beer, and hot wings at the bar. After dinner we wandered around the lodge (which is amazing) before eventually coming across a balcony patio where we saw Old Faithful erupting, yet again. Our timing is pretty on point so far. Well, except for getting a table for dinner.
The entire lodge is build from logs, most hand-cut. The crows nest you see at the very top of the photo below is no longer accessible except by special tour (we asked, one tour a week and they fill a year in advance). The lodge has to limit use of the upper floors because an earthquake weakened the support beams and they prefer to limit usage rather than replacing the original beams. The lower three levels are accessible at any time.
The lodge restaurant where we failed to get a reservation.
I loved that the second floor was still lined with these historic writing desks. I can just imaging visitors drafting letters and post cards here many many years ago.
It’s not the camera angle, the stairs really are crooked.
The lodge really is exceptionally beautiful and we were so glad we stopped even if we were not able to eat in the main dining room. After our bar dinner and lodge tour we headed home to rest up and do it all again the next day.
Day 4 would be our last day in Yellowstone so we wanted to do some of the things we still had on our list. We wanted to try to do lunch at the lodge and go swimming in the Firehole River. We were also really tired so we planned to head back home after our swim and lunch. Of course, this is Yellowstone so that didn’t happen. We went much farther than we planned and made it home right before dark, again.
First stop was the Firehole River. There were probably 50 other people swimming in the river. There really are no “secret” spots in these big national parks. I don’t know if the water was unusually cold that day or if we were just expecting it to be more like the Boiling River but the water was COLD. We tolerated it for about ten minutes before giving up. It was still very beautiful and I image would have been very pleasant on a warmer less windy day.
Stop two was the Old Faithful Lodge. We had heard that the restaurant is not as crowded at lunch time and that they don’t take reservations. However, on the way to the lodge we got stuck in the construction traffic we had heard about and the restaurant was closed for lunch by the time we arrived. We settled on bison burgers and hot wings in the bar again. The hot wings were actually really good but we had our hopes up to eat in the historic dining room.
After lunch we decided to just go for it and drive the rest of the southern loop rather than backtrack and get stuck in the same construction traffic again. However, we neglected to think about the other cause of traffic in Yellowstone, wildlife. When people talk about Yellowstone they tell stories of entire herds of bison blocking the road. We had yet to see an entire herd of anything. More frequent were what the park rangers called “bear jams”. The flow of traffic abruptly stops because someone thought they saw something brown and furry. Most of the time it’s a deer or a single bison. This wouldn’t be a problem but every single car then has to stop and see what all the fuss is about.
I feel like this photo really sums up the contradiction of Yellowstone, amazing creatures right in front of you and overzealous tourists getting so close to the wildlife that you think you’re about to be in an episode of When Animals Attack, all for an Instagram post. It’s all pretty bizarre yet feels so very American.
Our trip around the southern loop took us by Lake Yellowstone, which is huge, very cold, and stunning.
We also stopped by one of the marinas and ran into a pair of off-road vehicles we had been seeing all over the park.
Renting a boat from the marina looked like a fun way to spend the day.
Brandon said these were for gold mining.
A little further down the road traffic came to an abrupt halt. I started joking about how it was probably all because of a single deer. Except this time it wasn’t. It really was an entire herd of bison blocking the road.
We had taken the doors off the Jeep so we were completely exposed if one of these guys decided to charge at us. I don’t think the bison in the park are all that aggressive but I did get a little nervous with this one staring at me from just a few feet away.
We also learned that bison make the most hysterical noises!
We were eventually saved when a park ranger came to herd the bison off the road. The whole experience was pretty incredible. As we were driving through to the other side of the herd we realized that we got off pretty easy. We had been at the very front of the jam. Coming out the other side we saw cars backed up for miles. It would be hours before those guys made it home.
We were stopped once more before we finally made it home right before dark. This time the traffic jam really was caused by a single deer. The same deer that has been munching on grass in the same spot by the river, nearly every evening for the past week.
We had planned to make one last trip into the park the next day. We were going to ride our bikes on one of the trails. However, our last day in Yellowstone really took it out of us. We decided to call it good and spend a day at home.
This turned out to be a wise choice as I woke up the next morning feeling like dirt. I’m guessing I picked something up in the park. It’s been a while since we were around so many other people. I went through an entire box of Klennex and many many cups of tea. Brandon finally coaxed me off the couch with promises of Chinese food. Spicy chicken noodle soup was just what I needed.
I felt much better in the morning, just in time for our long drive to Glacier National Park!