Travel dates: June 17-21, 2017
I’m tearing right along with these posts now, because I started mapping out in my head how many I’ll need to do a week in order to finish before our next summer trip….and I realized I needed to get moving. I’ve got to say, though, that spending the entire year between summer trips blogging about them makes the waiting a little easier.
We left Fishing Bridge and made the relatively short drive to West Yellowstone and Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park, our base camp for the second part of our Yellowstone visit. I’ll talk more about West Yellowstone when I review the campground next post, but it’s a charming little town immediately outside the western entrance to the park and we really enjoyed staying there. In fact, our first afternoon/evening we spent exploring the town itself and didn’t go back into Yellowstone until the next day, when we set off to check out the sites on the western side of the loop road.
In fact, we were still doing things in West Yellowstone the next morning and didn’t make it into the park until late morning….which meant this day didn’t really go as planned. Early starts are your friends in Yellowstone!
We made a quick stop at the Madison information station and talked to the rangers there a bit about plans for the day:
Abe was an absolute monster here and for much of the day….only late that evening, when he fell asleep in the car and broke out with a fever, would we realize it was because he was sick. Poor kid. We dragged him all over Yellowstone anyway in our ignorance, and he managed to rise to the occasion more often than not.
After Madison, we headed north, making a quick stop to see Gibbon Falls:
And then what was supposed to happen was a stop at Norris Geyser Basin. Except that when we got to the parking lot, it was completely full. In fact, it took us a good 15 minutes or so to even get through the huge line of cars hoping for a spot and get back out to the road. I’m really glad we made it to West Thumb a couple of days earlier, because we never got back to Norris. Next time!
Instead, we kept on going north until we got to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Mammoth Hot Springs is way up there and takes a long time to get to from many of the most popular areas of the park (and when we went there was construction going on on the road there, making the trip even worse), but it’s worth the effort.
If you’re interested in the human history of the park, this is a great place to go; this is where you can see the original 1886 Fort Yellowstone, the base from which the US Army protected Yellowstone back before there was a National Parks Service to do it. The Albright Visitors Center was originally quarters for Army officers; now it houses exhibits about the park’s wildlife:
You can pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour of the historic district, or you can head across the street to see the otherworldly hot springs area itself. After navigating around all the elk who were hanging out right by the visitor center, that is:
There’s a system of boardwalks to take you all around the hot springs area, and it’s a more intense walk than you might expect it to be just by looking at it–lots of steps to go up and down, depending on where you go. You can also drive around to a higher section of the trail (we did that later and drove the short loop–didn’t get out to walk around more).
Mammoth might have been my favorite part of Yellowstone; I always like the historical side of things, and I also loved how totally different the landscape here is from other parts of the park. Mammoth is outside of the caldera left behind by the last eruption of the giant volcano under Yellowstone, but it’s still very much shaped by the enthusiastic thermal activity in the area. There are signs showing how much the area has changed just in the last century, with photos of areas that used to have active springs now totally dry and vice versa.
Earlier that day, someone had offered to take our family’s picture and, as I often do, I’d said no thank you almost reflexively. It seems like someone’s always in a bad mood, or someone else has wandered off, or for whatever other reason it’s easier to just say no. But then I reflected on how few family photos we have of all of us together and resolved to start saying yes anytime we got such an offer going forward. And just a few hours later one came along. So thanks to that friendly stranger, we now have my favorite family photo ever. Some of us are even smiling!
The Mammoth area is right next to the north entrance to the park, so we headed that way next to get our Yellowstone sign pictures:
….a bunch of pictures of the Roosevelt Arch:
….and have dinner in the small town of Gardiner, MT, just outside the gates. We ate at Iron Horse Bar & Grill, which had good food (heavy on local bison and elk), a respectable selection of local beer, a nice outdoor seating area overlooking the river, and, best of all, marmots hanging out on the banks of the river right near where we were sitting.
It was on the very long drive back to the campground after dinner that we realized Abe had a fever, so we spent the next day hunkered down in West Yellowstone.
The day after that was our last full day in Yellowstone, and we headed for the final must-see on our list: Old Faithful.
Yellowstone is a crowded place in general, but the Old Faithful area takes the crowds to a whole different level. If you want to see Old Faithful erupt (which I assume you do, because everyone does) the best thing you can do is get there early. We weren’t super early, but I think we got there somewhere in the area of 9:00, and that worked pretty well. We were able to line up with the rest of the masses maybe 20-30 minutes before the expected showtime and get a good spot:
But, as you can see, there were a LOT of people. It’s very much a communal experience; everyone murmurs and gasps in unison when the geyser starts to rumble a few minutes before it really gets going.
Old Faithful is famous because it’s a relatively impressive geyser that erupts frequently and regularly; there are bigger geysers out there to see, but the timing is much trickier to nail down. But Old Faithful’s not so shabby:
Then my camera’s memory card filled up and I didn’t get any more photos. This was a very distressing experience for me, but I persevered (and odds are I wasn’t going to take the World’s Best Photo of the world’s most photographed geyser even if I’d been able to take 300 more pictures like I planned). Then I rushed off to buy an overpriced memory card from the gift shop inside Old Faithful Inn.
After we watched Old Faithful, we headed into the visitors center….along with all 8 million other people who had been watching with us. Tip: right after Old Faithful erupts is the absolute worst time to check out the visitor center. We ducked right into the movie that was about to start, though, and waited out the crowds a bit in there before checking out the exhibits (which, at this visitor center, aptly focus on geysers and other thermal features):
We had a few other things on our agenda for the day: we wanted to see some of the other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin, hike up to Observation Point to see Old Faithful from a different angle, and do a guided tour of Old Faithful Inn.
We ended up not making it to Observation Point, mostly because the Upper Geyser Basin is so much bigger than we expected. Nearly 60% of the world’s geysers are in Yellowstone, including 150 just in the Upper Geyser Basin. Inside the visitors center there’s a sign telling you approximate eruption times of a few of the more predictable geysers. We noted a couple with what seemed like good timing and set out. First we got turned around and wound up taking a scenic route. The advantage of this was another viewing of Old Faithful from a less crowded side:
…but the disadvantage of making us miss the geysers we’d planned to see (which, it turned out, were much farther away than they looked on the map). We walked around for forever, though, and saw lots of cool stuff:
And we managed to catch another geyser eruption after all:
File under: take better notes next time: I’ve been squinting at maps and photos online for the past 20 minutes, and I think this is Daisy Geyser, but I’m not entirely sure. Wait! Ari has confirmed that it is Daisy Geyser! At any rate, we had really lucky timing here, showing up just 10 minutes or so before the eruption and getting to watch it without the crowds that Old Faithful draws.
We spent so long in the Upper Geyser Basin that we ran out of time to make the hike to Observation Point (next time!) and had to rush off for our tour of Old Faithful Inn. The building is amazing and the tour was fascinating (and free); I highly recommend it. I talk in detail about it over on the other blog.
Finally, we left Old Faithful and drove to the Midway Geyser Basin just to the north. By the time we got there it was well into the afternoon and very crowded, but we managed to find a decent parking space and join the hordes gawking at more thermal weirdness.
I think if I had to name a single spectacle at Yellowstone as my favorite/most impressive/weirdest, it would be Grand Prismatic Spring. You’ve probably seen photos of it, in all its colorfulness; the photos don’t capture the weird feeling of the hot air blowing in your face and shifting with the wind, though. We didn’t get up above to see it that way; there’s a trail that will take you there, but I think it was closed while we were there. But the view from the ground isn’t bad, either:
The short boardwalk trail takes you around to see a few other features, but Grand Prismatic really steals the show:
And, with that, our Yellowstone time was over and we were ready to head south to the Tetons!
I’ll have one more post up soon about West Yellowstone and Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park, though….
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