There is a reason that Yellowstone was chosen in 1872 as the first National Park in the world; it’s totally unique. It’s also a supervolcano which is even more awesome than just a regular volcano. I always urge foreign visitors to travel up there (as well as the Grand Canyon) because these are two places no other country on Earth has. Sure, I love my local Rocky Mountain National Park and it will always be special to me, but it was high time to introduce the kids to the original park.
You’ve seen eight quintillion photos of Yellowstone. It’s so iconic to be cliched and loads of photographers have made careers documenting the incredible sights there. So I’ve set myself a challenge of one cliched scenery photo per day salted out with pictures more unique to our trip (mostly pictures of my kids doing weird things).
Day 0 – Driving up.
Actually, this was two days since we split the drive into a six-hour leg up to Thermopolis, then a shorter 3-hour drive from there to the East Entrance to the Park. A few notes: Wyoming is marketing the hell out of the upcoming solar eclipse. Every rest area, grocery store, and brew pub has eclipse glasses, t-shirts, and all manner of other stuff. It’s clearly the biggest thing to hit this state in decades. The “Ring of Fire” black IPA at the One Eyed Buffalo brewery in Thermopolis was really good. I am inspired to try making one myself.
Driving in WY is either stultifyingly boring or really cool. The latter was typified by the drive from Shoshoni to Thermopolis (Wind River Canyon), from Cody to the East Entrance (Shoshone Canyon), or the scenic bit from Moran Junction to Dubois on the way home. The former is typified by almost all of the rest.
We played the license plate game on the way up and, when all was said and done, managed 48 states, eight provinces, several flavors of governmental plates, and one South American country (Argentina). This game has gotten a lot harder now that most states allow dozens of different versions of their plates.
Thermopolis is a cool town with the standard “Wyoming town trying to make it as a recreation hub” look (see also Sheridan, Rawlings, Laramie, and probably many others). The thermal pools for which the town is named were a nice finish to a six hour drive and a nice warm-up for the real deal in Yellowstone. We had fun wandering around and soaking in the state hot springs (free!) and seeing the extensive and weird taxidermy at the Days Inn.
Shoshone Canyon west of Cody (spectacular, see above) is blocked on the western end by the Buffalo Bill Dam and a huge reservoir. You come upon the dam after a long tunnel and there is a visitor’s center. Who could resist? I have to say I was completely unprepared for how high the dam was from the top. 350 feet (largest in the world when it was completed in 1910). Definitely worth a stop.
Day 1 – Roaring Canyons and Bubbling Mud.
We were camping for five nights with the Ogle family and one night with the Felses as well. Our campground at Bridge Bay was nice and centrally located so, for this first big day in the part, we opted to head to the Canyons area today and sights in between.
It’s bison rutting season and driving through Hayden Valley featured a log of up-close bison viewing. You could hear them bellowing and snorting. The kids were enchanted. Heck, we all were. Bison are really big and look comical in their furry cowboy chaps and nearly-bare butts.
A lot of the parking areas near the Canyon are closed for construction, but we managed to find some spots and wandered out the groomed trail to Artist’s Point, the spot I’ve chosen for today’s tourist picture. I remember being underwhelmed by the Canyon when we visited in 2005, but this view was stunning.
From there, we left the groomed trail and wandered along the south rim of the canyon for half a mile, then checked out Lily Pad Lake (bubbling waters and huckleberries), then continued another bit to some awesome, unheralded boiling mud springs in a small, unexpected thermal area.
After lunch by the Yellowstone River it was more boiling mud springs with a stinky stop at the Mud Volcano area by which time we were all pretty wiped out and retreated to camp.
Day 2 – Geysers galore.
The iconic sight in the iconic park has got to be the famous Old Faithful geyser — you can tell from the huge viewing area which circles 3/4 of the way around the sinter plain! Day 2 was raining when we set out early (the better to get parking), but it ended up not being too bad (the rain, or the parking). Shortly after we arrived, we stood in the light rain and saw the geyser do its thing before continuing on the boardwalks to seem more (and frankly, better) geysers, hot springs, fumeroles, and so forth. Riverside Geyser was a particular crowd-pleaser as it blasted firehose-like for a solid 20 minutes into the air at a jaunty angle.
Flush with success and a now-clear sky, we made our way to the Midway Geyser Basin where I remember Grand Prismatic Spring being one of the surprisingly astonishing spots from my last visit. Wary of parking woes, we quickly snagged the first spots we found and started hiking. After half a mile, a sign pointed away from the road up a steep hillside and away from the turquoise mists hovering on the horizon which announces the giant hot spring. We veered left… and it’s fortuitous that we did! The main trail we’d been on never even made it to the boardwalks around the pools (that was from a different parking area). Instead, we made it to a brand new viewing platform with a stunning overview of Grand Prismatic. The view! From down on the boardwalks, you never really see the extent of this huge pool, but from up here…!
Day 3 – Rest, Relaxation, and Hailstones
After two big days and two early (for camp, at least) starts, we took a down day on Wednesday. After a leisurely breakfast, we hiked the 1 mile up to the Natural Bridge for which Bridge Bay is named. It was surprisingly interesting.
In the afternoon, I took a quick run exploring out to Gull Point and then back toward the Bridge. The weather turned from marginal to ominous to, in the last mile, a pretty significant hail storm. I hunkered down under a bush to wait for a few minutes while the worst of the storm passed, but it kept getting worse. Dime and nickel-sized hailstones made the lodgepole forest surreal as they bounced off the understory back a foot or two into the air. Drifts of hailstones clogged the trail. After ten minutes, I was cold and bruised and the better part of valor was to run for more substantial shelter.
Back at camp, things weren’t much better. Everyone was holed up in tents except Martin who was out digging channels to direct the worst of the water away from his tent. I threw on a jacket and helped with the water management.
Day 4 – Mammoth and Montana
I remember Mammoth Hot Springs as being a long way away from the central park area, but extremely cool. This was accurate. We again got an early start, drove north for an hour or so, and snagged a quick parking spot at the hot spring terraces. Mostly they’re white “dead” flowstone, but the “living” portions are really stunning. We walked the boardwalks up and around marveling at how quickly things have changed there. Dead trees out in the middle of the springs, Martin pointed out, are actually the tops of much larger trees, most of which are buried. These things grow fast!
We had a lovely, shady lunch at the historic Fort Yellowstone before parting ways – Martin for a hike and us for Montana! Joe was fascinated by the idea of driving to a state that doesn’t border Colorado and heck, I’ve never been to the Big Sky state either. So we drove a few miles down the hill a few hundred yards into Montana and spent a while throwing rocks in the Gardener River (and looking out for “Gardener Snakes” as Ellie said). It was idyllic.
A long scenic drive out brought us past a few more sites and sights which we half-heartedly saw. Mammoth was a nice way to finish the trip and it was clear that, after four nights, it was time to go home.
Day 5 – All the way home
In principle, it’s a 9 hour drive from home to Yellowstone. In practice, with potty and throw-rocks-in-lakes stops, it’s a full 24 hours. We came home via the southern route through the Tetons and past Jackson Lake (very smokey). Blasting across the Great Divide Basin listening to Harry Potter was surreal and beautiful, if stark. The last three hours on interstate were just an endurance event to get over with.
As we’ve discussed, we’re really entering the Zone now; our kids are old enough to do stuff and put up with pretty significant adventures, yet still young enough that they think hanging around with their parents is cool. Five nights of camping (even if mostly we’re driving around in the car during the day) is a long time and we were glad of the Ogle and Felse kids to keep ours company and distracted. As always, it’s wonderful to see amazing places again in the amazement of young eyes.
Yellowstone was very different from our normal haunts not just in the scale and type of scenery, but in the people as well. Despite my fears, the traffic was never bad (except the inevitable bison-in-the-road issues) and parking was even okay as well. We were surrounded by people from all over the world (Dutch, Chinese, Italians, Danes, Canadians, Australians were all adjacent to us in the campground at one point or another).