As our next trip is a fair ways off, this seems like a good time to reminisce about road trips of summers past. This particular post is, as you might have guessed, about our trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Back in the summer of 2013 we took a trip which set the benchmark for all of our subsequent road trips. We had it all planned out. Where we would go, how we would get there, were we would stay… Okay the last one, not so much. For more on the adventures related to that lack of planning on my part, check out some of my wife’s accounts of our trip here, here and here. In spite of all of the unexpected events of that trip, it was two of the best weeks of my life!
Yellowstone is one of those places where there is something breathtaking around every corner. And sometimes those wonders go on for miles. We drove most of the main roads in Yellowstone except that between Norris and Canyon Village and from Canyon Village to Fishing Bridge.
By the time we left the park for good, we’d been in every entrance but the one from West Yellowstone and out every exit but the southeast entrance. If you’re headed in from the east, I highly recommend the northeast entrance. This will bring you through the Lamar Valley.
It is quite a stunning place and full of wildlife during the summer. I feel this is also a good time to remind everyone that the animals in Yellowstone are wild and though some have acclimated to the presence of humans, that doesn’t make this a petting zoo. DO NOT approach the wildlife and please don’t try to take selfies with it. The NPS has strict regulations on approaching wildlife and it’s for both your safety and that of the animals! And if some of my photos look like they were taken close to the animals, they were either taken from the relative safety of a car or with a telephoto lens.
It’s also worth noting that this is one of the few roads that is kept open year round. Many of the roads are closed from November through April. While a number of areas of the park are still accessible, don’t expect to be driving your car to them. I look forward to the day when we’re able to visit during the winter.
During out trip through the valley we were even fortunate enough to see one of the Yellowstone wolves. It saddened me to hear about a year later that several members of that pack were killed outside the park by hunters. As best I can recall from the descriptions that were given, this was likely one of them.
Even after all of the research that I did leading up to this trip, it was still hard to grasp the size of Yellowstone and it hardly seems like you’re on top of one of the world’s largest super volcanos. There are places where you can see the walls where the edge of the last eruption occurred about 640,000 years ago. Some maps will even show you the outline of where the caldera is today. It is even on the official Yellowstone Map. Someday, hopefully many thousands of years from now, it will erupt again. For now though, lets enjoy the beauty, spender and geologic treasures that it has to offer!
Don’t underestimate the amount of time that it takes to get around Yellowstone. With 142 miles on the Grand Loop through the park and a maximum speed limit of 45 mph, it pays to be patient. It’s also to your benefit as there are beautiful things to see all along the way. Don’t be surprised if you end up in traffic and find out that there’s a bison or a moose that decided to stop in the middle of the road and just stare at the cars before moving along quick enough that almost no one actually saw them. This happened to us on our hunt to see a moose. Sadly, we never saw one during our trip.
Yellowstone has one of the largest concentrations of geothermal features of any area in the world. Among them are many hot springs, geysers and mud pots. The colors found in the springs are breathtaking. Sometimes though, people have a way of interfering with them.
During our visit to Grand Prismatic Spring, we witnessed someone walking out across the edges of the spring to get to the boardwalk from a trail that runs along the other side. Not only did everyone there lose a little faith in humanity, but we were also quite concerned for his safety. The picture at the top of the page is of Grand Prismatic Spring from the boardwalk where we watched this poor soul walk across. The one to the right was taken from atop a hill on the opposite side of the spring and only about a mile up an easy trail and then a careful assent up the hill. Be mindful when venturing anywhere off trail to minimize your impact on the park.
The colors in these springs are caused by different types of microbes who thrive in often very distinct temperature ranges. They are also very fragile. Hence stepping on them, can cause significant damage that will take a long time to repair. The surface under these microbes can also be quite fragile and may be quite thin. In one area we observed where a bison had been walking near a small vent and the ground had collapsed. If you were to fall through the ground in these areas, help is not close by and the temperatures below are scalding. Remember folks, you are walking on top of an active volcano! While the park staff do their best to keep it safe, disregarding posted warnings puts your life at risk and has the potential to force the Park Service to close areas to visitors.
On our way back from this hike we were talking and my wife just happened to look back over her shoulder to find a bear and two cubs coming out from the trees to forage on the hillside. It was one of those situations where you pause to take some pictures, but also remember that bears are faster than people. We were easily a couple hundred yards away and I doubt the bears even noticed us, but we didn’t linger too long as the rain was moving in. When we got back to the trailhead, that was about a quarter mile from where we noticed the bears, it was both good and somewhat puzzling to see so many people standing behind a metal gate that was there to keep vehicles off the trail. I’m glad they were keeping their distance, but they also seemed to think that this gate was going to protect them if the bears came down. To be clear, this was a gate with a single horizontal pipe. It wasn’t really going to stop anything. Either way, I’m glad the bears were left alone and that no one was in any real danger at that time.
Among the can’t miss attractions of Yellowstone is of course Old Faithful. It was a nice experience, but it was a bit too crowded for me to want to linger for more than one eruption. We had lunch at the restaurant there and were back on our way. It was getting late and we were embarking on the adventure of finding a place to stay for the night.
At the time of our visit, I believe this was also one of only a few areas where there was cell phone reception in the entire park. It was quite refreshing to not have service for most of our time in Wyoming. While it was tempting to want to tag ourselves at various landmarks to share our trip, it was great being unplugged! I suppose next time I’ll just have to turn the phone off.
Because of the vast size of the park, we spent a great deal of time driving from place to place. While we intended to do more hiking, after our side trip down to Grand Teton National Park and our adventure around Jenny Lake, we were in recovery mode. The great thing about Yellowstone though, is that you’re still quite likely to see some amazing things. For being as remote as it is, the park is remarkably accessible.
All of the pictures posted so far except for the one overlooking Grand Prismatic Spring were taken either from the car or from an easy trail. If you’re up for a bit of adventure though, I highly recommend Avalanche Peak trail. There isn’t much parking at the trail head, but that also keeps the traffic on the trail at any one time down. It’s about 4.6 miles out and back with 2,100 feet of elevation gain. Remember this is an out and back, so all of that elevation gain is actually in about two miles. As you get above the tree line, the rocky trail can move a bit under your feet, so be careful!
The upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone river are also a must see and another easily accessible attraction. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a pretty spectacular site.
There are a great many places we hope to go back to in Yellowstone, among them are Mt Washburn, spending some more time near Yellowstone Lake and with any luck some backcountry hiking as well. If you’ve never been, it’s truly an amazing place and I encourage anyone who has the time to make the trip and those who don’t, make the time. You won’t be disappointed!
Have you ever been to Yellowstone? What was your favorite part of your trip?
All of the pictures included in this post were taken by the author. Some of the above photos as well as others are available for purchase through Fine Art America. Since you made it this far, use SLMSYV for a discount off any of their products featuring my photographs through 2/29/2016. Thanks for your support!