Greetings from Montana,
It’s time for a slightly late check-in, but hey, I’ve been busy. As you might have already guessed based on the title of this post, this check-in is all about Yellowstone National Park. Now, I thought a lot about this post and how I wanted to do it. The thing is, there’s just no good way to write a blog post about Yellowstone. No image is going to capture the proper scale or beauty of the place. No description I can come up with is going to do the park justice. While I wouldn’t say Yellowstone is something you need to see to believe, it is something that you need to see to see. So, this post can, at best, only scratch the surface of the park, and that’s sort of my mindset as I start writing it. I’m not attempting to give you a virtual tour of the park, even 1000s of photos and endless descriptive pages couldn’t do that. No, I’m simply recounting my own little voyage to it, and even then only in a seriously abridged fashion. Overall, the point is thus: if you can go to Yellowstone, you should. And since the park is 3,500 square miles, you can even plan on going more than once. As a last administrative note, some of these photos were taken by Meem, so photo credit goes to her as well.
In many ways Meem’s visit kind of centered around our Yellowstone trip (similar to last years Rocky Mountain National Park trip), and for his part, Tristen was immensely excited about it.
So, on Friday of the 4th of July weekend I took a half day at work and Meem and I were off, first headed east to Livingston, and then south to Gardiner, which is located at the North Entrance to the Park.
We stayed at a “Mom and Pop” type hotel called the Yellowstone River Motel, which was located within sight of the Roosevelt Arch. Tristen was quite a fan of the very, very red heat lamp in the bathroom.
After a quick stop at the hotel we went and got gas at the Sinclair, which quickly became Tristen’s ALL-TIME favorite gas station, for obvious reasons.
From there it was just a quick jaunt over to the entryway Arch itself.
The arch was very large and is adorned with language from the Organic Act of 1872 which created Yellowstone.
If it wasn’t obvious, the arch is named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who laid the cornerstone.
Once inside the park, traveling via the Grand Loop Road, it didn’t take long for civilization to fade away.
We even found this cool little area, that I honestly had no idea fell inside of Yellowstone.
When you come in from the North Entrance, the first major area you come across – and really the administrative hub of Yellowstone – is the Mammoth Hot Springs Area, which includes Fort Yellowstone. There is a herd of elk that has pretty much taken over this area.
There are also creatures of the smaller variety, such as this little fellow.
The administrative offices and visitor centers occupy many of the old fort buildings, and this is where Meem and I picked up our National Park Passports, which were the NPS Centennial Edition no less.
From there we headed up to the Mammoth Hot Springs themselves.
It was amazing how colorful (and smelly) they were. I learned that the algae and bacteria are what cause the color differences, something I never knew before.
Tristen was pretty enamored with the place, as it was “Rust rike rinosaur rimes”
I found the geography to be just as fascinating as the colors.
It was pretty cool.. er.. hot, rather, how the springs sort of occupied this little “dead zone” which was surrounded by greenery.
And when I say “dead zone,” I pretty much mean it – though it was beautiful in its own way.
Once out of the Mammoth area, we headed for greener prairies.
Our destination was Lamar Valley, which is known for its wildlife populations – especially at dawn and dusk, and since it just so happened to be nearing dusk, Meem and I figured that would be a good time to visit – and it just so happened that it was a very good time to visit indeed.
There was a herd of bison grazing up on a little mound. They were in their defensive circle with the calves in the middle, and with the sun behind them it was a pretty amazing moment. This was the first time in my life I’d seen wild bison like this and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. It was double cool since wild bison are sort of my clients right now.
Tristen even seemed a bit entranced by it. That or he was trying to figure out how to eat them.
While we were watching that herd, a couple stopped in a car and told us that an even bigger herd was up the road a bit and was moving across the highway. So we jumped back into Moose II and headed further into the valley, and sure enough, hundreds and hundreds of wild bison awaited us.
Tristen had the privilege of driving us through the edge of the herd
But once you got more towards the middle, you really couldn’t do much other than share the road with them.
In addition to having one bison about 2’ front the car (at most – seriously) we got to hear them nomin’ things and talking to each other. A couple were even fighting! Tristen loved that, obviously.
We had also came at just the right time of year to see tons of babies!
Even once we’d passed the bison herds the area continued to be absolutely stunning.
In fact, it was along this road to the northeastern entrance that we had a fairly spellbinding moment. In addition to the setting sun, we had a rainbow over the Lamar River. It was simply incredible; I can do it no justice.
After our little spiritual nature moment, we kept heading northeast in the hopes of finding something to eat at the Northeast Entrance since it was going to be way too late by the time we got back to Gardiner. Although the town at that entrance was more of a village and very, very quiet, we found a little place to have a late dinner.
It might look like a greasy spoon – and sure, the restrooms are outside in a cabin – but the food was amazing and our waiter was a summer student from France. We even got to sit at table with a bear photo above it and the dining room had a moose holding flowers in its mouth!
On the way back it was pretty late and obviously quite dark. I mean dark-dark, there was no light pollution whatsoever to be found out here. But what was to be found was a coyote, who seemed quite at home walking back and forth in the cone of our headlights when we met him just outside of Tower Junction.
He just kept meandering back and forth, like we were there to light the way for him, it was quite funny. After that we headed back to the hotel and Meem even went and got me beers at like 12am.
The next day we headed back into the park and it didn’t take long for us to find a bison-bro just chillaxing.
He had made himself a little bed next to the trees.
We were heading to the Norris Geyser Basin, but first we stopped at the area around the Museum of the National Park Ranger. Which is housed in an old Army station turned ranger station turned museum. It was a cool place and we got to talk to two retired rangers, plus the area itself was gorgeous.
Tristen found some bison poo, he was proud of that.
After seeking out all the poo in the immediate area, he chilled on the porch for a bit.
From there we headed into the geyser basin itself.
One of the first geysers you come to is the Steamboat Geyser, which is the tallest active geyser in the world! It can shoot boiling water as high as 300 feet in the air! Of course it’s widely unpredictable, and eruptions can occur as frequently as every four days, or once every fifty years. Yep, quite a range. If you were curious the last major eruption when we were there was on September 3rd, 2014. Of course just because it isn’t having a major eruption doesn’t mean it isn’t doing anything.
In fact it seemed to be having a fairly constant smaller eruption.
The basin contains a wide variety of geological points, from geysers, to pools, to steam vents, to springs, etc. You name it, it probably has it. Tristen was in dinosaur heaven.
Like the Mammoth area, there was a very clear line between “forest” and “basin.”
One of Tristen’s favorite things in the area was the “Green Dragon Spring” for obvious reasons.
It was quite large, very hot, and well, green!
Little geysers sort of just dotted all over the place, some weren’t doing much while others were just chugging along – at least the ones that hadn’t been partially clogged by dumbasses throwing stuff in them earlier in the park’s history.
It was kind of cool seeing the differences in the geysers. A few of them shot straight up, while other’s sort of splashed around, while others just kind of boiled.
Some of the geysers in this area get extremely hot, in fact one of them “Pork Chop Geyser” (which literally blew itself apart but is still active – and it also recently ate someone) was once measured at 459 degrees Fahrenheit!
One of the larger sub-regions of the Norris Basin is the Porcelain Basin.
This area gets its name from the porcelain appearance of the waters.
It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and, as mentioned, it all has to do with the heat, algae, and bacteria.
Intermixed with the “porcelain” springs are also some more “ordinary” hot springs.
After walking around pretty much the entire basin, we headed to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You’re forgiven if you had no idea Yellowstone had a “Grand Canyon,” I didn’t either. But it is absolutely something that can’t be missed.
Even Tristen was stopped in his tracks (both literally and figuratively).
Naturally after looking at the canyon we wanted to go down in it, like true explorers – or people who just need to get across, or both. Plus, there are both “Upper” and “Lower” falls to see in the canyon.
One of the better ways to get a good view of the Lower Falls is to take Uncle Tom’s Trail.
I’d really recommend reading the history on the trail, as it’s pretty interesting. As you can see, it’s changed a bit from rope ladders, but it’s still quite steep!
The trail pretty much just descends with the Lower Falls.
The bottom viewing area is as close as you can get to the base of the falls without doing a bit of (dangerous) trailblazing.
Here is the view from the bottom looking further down the canyon.
Meem didn’t go all the way to the bottom (though she went further than she planned, yay Meem!), but Tristen and I did, which was fun until we had to go up.
Once done with Uncle Tom’s Trail we headed further up the canyon to the (very well titled) Artist Point (though apparently it kind of got its name by mistake). It doesn’t really need a description, I’ll let the picture speak for itself.
Along with the Lamar Valley Rainbow, Artist Point is probably the other main area that I just really struggle to capture and describe. So I won’t really try, but I will say that both places literally gave me goose bumps in a very good way. The sheer scale is just textually incomprehensible. It’s absolutely amazing. Again, go if you can.
Interestingly enough, no sooner than I had snapped a couple of photos of Artist Point (Meem was still getting some) it started to hail pretty substantially.
Hail is fairly common out here, but this was my first time being stuck out in it. The few of us out at the point took shelter under some trees.
After getting bombarded by the Heavens (I suppose to counterbalance all the natural beauty) we took off towards Hayden Valley. Along the way we spotted a wolf eating what looked like an Elk down by the Yellowstone River. I had no idea how HUGE wild grey wolves can get. We also saw some more bison herds.
Of course even without the wildlife the valley was stunning.
Inside the valley is something called the “Mud Volcano” which is kind of something you have to stop and look at based on the name alone – plus I don’t think Tristen would have let us pass it up anyways.
It was pretty much what it sounds like, a Mud Volcano! However, what was next to it was even cooler (not sure if literally): the Dragon’s Mouth Spring!
The spring was making a constant “roaring” sound and was spitting steam and hot water. The noise came from the water running along the cave walls. It was really awesome, we were all surprised by how loud it was!
From there we kept heading south to Yellowstone Lake, which was HUGE, 136 square miles to be exact.
It was also gorgeous, especially at dusk (if it wasn’t obvious we did a lot of traveling later in the day (more wildlife and less people).
While driving along the lake, which seemed to go on forever, night caught up with us. But that didn’t stop us from stopping at probably the most famous place in the entire park, and since this is probably the most famous park in the United States (if not the world), that’s saying something.
Yep, Old Faithful itself. Now our Old Faithful trip was a bit unusual. For starters it was like 10:30pm. So, while the place is was PACKED (and I mean, PACKED) during the day (especially during the Centennial Celebration on 4th of July Weekend) it was pretty barren at night. My guess is that there were no more than 40 people in the entire area, and if that sounds like a lot it’s because there is a hotel and lodge right there, so 40 people is actually pretty dang deserted. However, since it was so dark when we pulled up, Meem and I had no idea where Old Faithful was, so I took off walking while Meem stayed in the car to eat some snacks and organize her photos. Turns out we weren’t that far from Old Faithful at all. Tristen and I found it in under 5 minutes, and while it was steaming it wasn’t erupting. Of course with no cell signal in the area, and with all the places with “countdown” clocks closed up, we had no idea how far away the next eruption was (Old Faithful erupts every 60-110 minutes, with a +/- 10 minute variation and an average time of 74 minutes), so we just sat down and watched the steam rise and the final rays of sunlight fade away (it stays light very late out here).
Right about the time Tristen and I were going to go get Meem (we’d sat for maybe 15 minutes) Old Faithful started erupting. So while my Old Faithful experience probably wasn’t an ordinary one – for instance I watched it by moonlight with a dinosaur as my companion, it was still an experience I wouldn’t change for anything. It was way cool to finally see the world’s most famous geyser in action. Once it was really going – and I’d say it went for 3-4 minutes (it can last anywhere from 1.5 to 5 minutes) some people started shining flashlights on the water blast, which made it look really cool (the area isn’t lighted). Sadly I have no photos since by that point it was too dark and my phone camera sucks even in dim light, let alone darkness. So, like I said, go if you can.
That night we drove to West Yellowstone, which is just beyond the Park’s West Gate (meaning we’d seen three of the five gates!) and got some sleep. The next day we started heading back north in the park.
Along the road we saw a grizzly bear! My first wild grizzly (last time was a black bear)! We even think that she might have had two cubs. She close enough that I could tell she was a grizzly, but just far enough away that I’m not sure if the two brown things that appeared to be following her were cubs (or tree stumps that had came to life), but I think that is an educated guess and it would be the right time of year for them.
We also made a stop at Tower Fall along the way. It was actually kind of a “Oh hey let’s stop here” kind of stop, which are sometimes the best kind.
While you couldn’t get right up to the base of these falls (at least not via trail – it was closed for restoration), you got a nice view from the adjacent cliff.
The falls are located right near the confluence of Tower Creek and the Yellowstone River.
Tristen and I were mountain men and climbed all the way down to the water, which in hindsight we probably should have had a Backcountry Permit to do, but oh well we left no trace (I am extraordinarily respectful of such requests).
After that adventure we kept slowly progressing north, with lots of little sight-seeing stops. It was raining off and on, but we didn’t let that stop us.
It was actually really funny, right around Tower Junction we saw our coyote buddy again! He was only like 500 yards up the road from where we spotted him last time and he was doing the exact same thing as before – zigzagging in front of the traffic like he owned the place. I got a kick out of it, must be a diva coyote.
From diva coyote’s house we continued up the road to a little Ranger Station in the hopes of getting a passport stamp for the Tower Fall, but the ranger was out on patrol. So, we continued on to the Petrified Forest area, which in addition to having a really well preserved petrified redwood (yes, a redwood in Wyoming) also has a really pretty valley.
Around 50 million years ago, scientists say this area of the park was flourishing with tall redwood trees, maples, magnolias, oaks, dogwoods, and pines when volcanic eruptions from the nearby Absaroka Mountain range buried the forest in ash. Unfortunately much of the forest is now gone, either naturally eroded away, or even more unfortunately – destroyed by dumbass tourists for souvenirs. So now one of the last remaining trees has its own little guard fence.
After that we headed back up through the Mammoth area, where Tristen was able to stop and claim the old mail carrier’s cabin.
Tristen even made a little Ground Squirrel buddy – who lived under the porch.
From there it was back north to the North Gate and Gardiner.
This road follows the Gardiner River.
One thing that makes this stretch of the river special is that it’s a Boiling River.
If you’re thinking it just looks like an ordinary river, then you’re not wrong. What makes it a boiling river is that in one location a hot spring dumps boiling/scalding hot water into the cool mountain river water, which in turn creates a wonderful little hot spring area in the river itself.
And yep, you can swim in it – and Tristen and I did.
You could really tell where the “cold” water was, and were the “very hot” water was. When I first got in it felt very cold, but as I approached the convergence it got extremely warm. In fact you have to be careful not to scald yourself (as the signs at the trailhead point out)! But Tristen and I were fine, and Meem got some photos of us swimming, though it was more like “standing on a rocky riverbed” and “sitting next to boiling water” than traditional swimming. Still loads of fun though.
On the way out the rain caught us, so I sprinted back to the car with Tristen and toweled myself off. The cool thing was that the rainstorm made the drive back into Gardiner gorgeous.
That evening (which despite being like 8pm was still our earliest night yet) we got some dinner and chilled at the hotel (Yellowstone River Motel again), which has some great views of the river.
Since it was late on July 3rd, we even saw a couple of amateur fireworks!
Meem also won 25$ on a machine in the local Restaurant/Saloon/Casino (lol, for real).
The next day we got up and around with no hurry and sort of said our goodbyes to the Gardiner area (we vastly preferred Gardiner [North Gate town] over West Yellowstone [West Gate town], as an FYI).
We were greeted by bright blue skies, which didn’t make leaving any easier.
We had breakfast right next door to the Flying Pig’s Camp Store, which both Meem and I figured Pig would love!
Meem offered to buy me a horse ride through Flying Pig’s (I’ve never rode before in my entire life and doing so is one of my Montana goals, though sadly its expensive so who knows if it will happen), but I was ready to get back to the Bozeman area and still kind of tired from all my driving (over 380 miles just in the park itself!). So we got Moose II some food – at Tristen’s most favorite station on Earth:
Then we were on our way.
The trip back was cool because we saw some things we’d missed while heading the opposite direction.
Plus, after some afternoon rain in Yankee Jim Canyon, there were some weird nearly perfectly horizontal clouds in the sky – and no, this isn’t a camera artifact or something, they were cloud lines.
And heck, we even saw some more wild Elk – who were nomin’ some farmer’s crop.
Once back to my Montana home we unpacked, chilled for a bit, and then went and saw Finding Dory (it’s good) and then got ice cream – a very good end to a Yellowstone Vacation.
So, all in all, my message is thus: Like many natural wonders, Yellowstone must be experienced in person to truly be experienced. And while I hope you’ve enjoyed my little digital check-in, I can’t stress enough that I barely even scratched the surface of the place. For instance, the photos in this post only represent about 15-16% of the photos Meem and I took, and we only saw a tiny portion of the overall park – that is the stuff that you can easily drive to. Some people have said you could spend a month there, and if you are a hiker/outdoorsman, I do not think that is an exaggeration. Heck, even in a car you could easily spend a week and as it just so happens your $30 park pass (as of 2016) is good for exactly 7 days.
I’d definitely like to go back again in the future, preferably with more time and during an “off-peak” (people) season, not only because there were be fewer crowds, but also because the places to stay might be more affordable (or you might actually be able to get a campsite). But even if I don’t get to go during a non-peak season SB and I are already planning to go while she’s out here, which is exciting! Plus, I’ll never forget this park, and that’s because going and actually seeing these hard-won protected lands reminds me of why I do what I do, even when it doesn’t pay much, is largely thankless, and causes a lot of people to hate me. But, I’ve learned that being hated for a good cause is quite alright with me, quite alright indeed.
Until next time,