We had big plans for Yellowstone. We thought we’d make it completely around, hitting all the highlights. We thought we’d make it through the South entrance to visit the Grand Tetons. We thought we’d see some wildlife, including a bear. And we had visions of hiking and biking and picnicking. But, for us, four days was not enough.
I should have known better. After all, my mom is a Yellowstone expert. She worked there for two summers and hiked over 100 miles of trails. We were so focused on preparing to travel full time and planning our initial route, we didn’t give Yellowstone enough advance consideration. It is a place that deserves at least two weeks, if not longer, and reservations need to be made many months in advance.
When we finally knew the approximate dates we’d be in the area, staying at a campground inside the park was not an option as the ones that were open were completely booked. We were able to reserve four nights at Wagon Wheel RV Park in West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside of the West entrance to the park. Wagon Wheel is an older campground, one of several in the middle of this little touristy town. It wasn’t designed for big RVs with slide-outs, but the proprietors do a great job of helping different sized rigs fit into their spaces. Our nightly rate was $69, which can be pricey for a campground, but it was one of the more reasonably priced campgrounds in the area. We would stay there again. In fact, we wanted to extend our stay by one or two nights, but they had no availability.
We didn’t see a bear or any long-horn sheep. And we didn’t make it to the Grand Tetons. As it was, we didn’t even get to see all of the highlights of Yellowstone—partly because of time, partly because of road closures in the park, and partly because of the crowds. What we did see and experience was incredible, and we hope to get back there in a few years to finish exploring this multi-faceted park.
Yellowstone National Park is in the top northwest corner of Wyoming and spills into Montana and Idaho. It has five entrances around its perimeter, with eight main highlights and dozens, if not hundreds, of other gems to explore.
In this time of COVID, visitors centers were closed, but staffed information tables were set up at most of them. The stores were open with monitored capacity, and there were a few restaurants offering take out. Half of the campgrounds were closed, and hotels, lodges, and cabins were either closed or at reduced capacity. These limitations did not stop the influx of people. In fact, Yellowstone had its highest level of August visitation this year, compared to other Augusts in the past. Campgrounds were full, and parking at various stops was often difficult to find. But most people were respectfully wearing masks and worked to maintain social distancing, which was encouraging to see. One road was closed on the East side of the park due to construction. Another section of road in the South was closed due to a wildfire. But there was still plenty to see and do.
Our first day into Yellowstone was not a full day, but we were anxious to begin exploring. Once we checked into our RV park and got the Airstream set up, we headed to the West entrance. The first 14 miles was relatively flat, running along the Madison River, with views of mountains on either side, people fly fishing in the river, and a family of elk grazing near the road. This caused a traffic jam coming into and leaving the park that day. Our highlights for the rest of the afternoon included Firehole Falls, Firehole Lake Drive to view several geysers, the Fountain Paint Pots, and checking out Fountain Flat Drive (where one of the few bike trails is located). The water in these geysers is clear, beautiful, and almost inviting. But it is hotter than boiling water and will easily melt one’s skin. Yellowstone is a volcano, after all … just a matter of time before it erupts.
Our first stop was Old Faithful, which took us nearly an hour to get to—30 miles away going 45mph or slower. While there, we peered into the closed lodge, waited in line to go into the small store, and chatted with other visitors while waiting for Old Faithful to blow. Then we headed back up through Madison and went over to Canyon Village, stopping at various turnouts and features along the way. One stop on the way out of the park that afternoon was in Norris to see the Steamboat Geyser. From what we understand, this geyser actually shoots much higher than Old Faithful. But its timing is not as predictable. It can be 3-6 days between episodes. It was interesting to see “faithful” followers of these geysers. Although they are not allowed to camp at this particular site, they covered their cars in the parking lot to protect them from any debris from the geyser, and they brought chairs to sit at the geyser and wait until it blows.
We drove from Madison to Mammoth Hot Springs and to the North entrance in Gardner, Montana, where the classic Yellowstone Arch is located. We also drove to Lamar Valley—beyond Mammoth Hot Springs and toward the Northeast entrance—where the bison were beginning to gather for rutting season. Other highlights included the Artists Paintpots, the Yellowstone River, and a petrified tree.
On our last day, we were exhausted but wanted to see the Grand Prismatic Spring, a major highlight for those who get to see it. So, our plan was to get there early to see it, drive through the Madison campground, and then picnicking along River Drive as we exited the park. Our plans changed when we got into the park and discovered that the road past Old Faithful was open (it had been closed all week because of a wildfire). It was an easy decision to drive to Grant Village after stopping at the Midway Geyser Basin (a story in and of itself!), visiting the shore of the West Thumb lake, which is part of the massive Yellowstone Lake, and having a picnic in the woods. Since we had our bicycles with us, we decided to ride on a bike trail that we had discovered a couple of days earlier. It was on our way back to Madison (which, by the way, was the first intersection we would come to each day from the West entrance). The bike trail was a little tough because the gravel path was soft and thick. But it was peaceful, free of crowds, and gave us a peek of what other riches Yellowstone holds off the beaten path.
Our Brief Story about the Midway Geyser Basin and the Grand Prismatic Spring
One of the most breathtaking sights to see—and one of the most popular—at Yellowstone is the Grand Prismatic Spring which, when seen clearly, looks like a large blue-green eye with a gold-toned rim. There are several other, smaller springs/geysers at the Midway Geyser Basin, and there are boardwalks to make sightseeing easier and safer. This was our first stop our last morning there, and we were able to get a spot in the parking lot although it was relatively full. Our mistake was that we tried to view this in the morning. The air was chilled and the springs were hot, so there was a lot of steam coming off of them, making them virtually impossible to see. After walking around the boardwalk, we decided to drive to Grant Village and come back later as we were leaving the park.
While in Grant Village, one of the sales staff at the general store told us the best way to see the Grand Prismatic was to park at Fairy Falls and take a one-mile hike to an elevated area that overlooks it—a much better view best done as the day warms up and the steam is not so dense. That sounded like a great plan, but was not possible to do. By the time we got back to that area, there was a traffic jam of people trying to park, the parking lot was full, and people were parking along the road (a no-parking zone) at least a ½ mile away from the parking lot, if not further. The best plan, we decided, would be to come early one day, go directly to Fairy Falls to park and hike to the elevated area, then wait until the steam clears for a better view. We opted, instead, to avoid the stress of parking and the crowd and to take a bike ride.
I could easily write more about our trip to Yellowstone, but I’ll let the pictures do some of the work. I’ll leave you with two final thoughts:
- Each entrance into the park and each section have completely different characteristics. From rivers to massive hot springs to vast valleys, cliffs and canyons, waterfalls, lakes, geysers and mudpots, and so much more. Some roads are long and flat; others are tight and curvy; still others have steep grades. Every day could be a completely different experience. Go slow. Stop often.
- If you are not within a couple of hours’ drive to Yellowstone where you could easily visit it more than once, then I recommend at least two weeks. There is a lot of driving, a lot to see, and a lot do while there (especially, and hopefully, post-COVID). If you want to see more wildlife, it is best to get in the park early in the morning, or stay until dusk settles in. I know for a fact that elk love to roam the streets and parking lots of Mammoth Hot Springs in the evening. Bison are by the hundreds in Lamar Valley, at least at the end of August and beginning of September. Seeing a bear might mean taking a few day hikes (go with at least two other people and keep bear spray with you).
It might not be until 2023, or it could be next year, but we will be returning to Yellowstone to experience more of what this park has to offer.