National Park Count: 20, 21
Hello fellow Adventurers! The Sidekick and I just returned from a pretty spectacular trip to Yellowstone National Park! This place is out of this world! In case you somehow don’t know at this point, Yellowstone is the largest supervolcano on Earth and the whole area reminds you of that at almost every turn! The planning for visiting the Yellowstone area must be on point as it is quite a pricey place to visit and reservations book up VERY quickly! And, I have to say, we ran our plan to about as much perfection as could be had! If you are interested TL;DR , check out the itinerary. I have it streamlined in the itinerary section at the top!
As you may know from a previous post several weeks ago, I am traveling a TON using that fancy companion pass with a crap ton of points from using credit card options from Southwest Airlines. Southwest has a noticeable gap in destination coverage in the upper midwest (bummer – but nobody lives there or goes there really :/) so when they dropped Bozeman, MT as a destination, much to my surprise, in early March, I was actually sitting in my living room hanging out with the Sidekick and we booked a flight within minutes! Book first, ask later! Southwest always has free and easy change and cancellations! Anyway, booked!
Next up to book was the car. I booked a week or two after the flight for 500 bucks for a Tuesday PM through Saturday early AM. In May that total price was the DAILY price when I looked for curiosity sake. So, BOOK EARLY. Anyway, next up was just figuring out where to stay. Yellowstone is HUGE. It is essentially the NW quadrant of the ENTIRE state of Wyoming, plus parts of Montana and Idaho. Realizing there was a part of the big Grand Loop Road through the park that was closed, and we also wanted to try to make a stop in Grand Teton, we settled on two nights in West Yellowstone, and two nights in Gardiner, MT, at the north entrance. In West Yellowstone we selected Al’s Westward Ho Motel. Truthfully, the price at $200ish a night at that point was actually on par or better that most other places AND it was the closest hotel to the western entrance to the park. We also chose a motel called Yellowstone Big Rock Motel in Gardiner. This one was pretty significantly cheaper, but still $200ish a night, than other options in Gardiner, while still being only a few minutes from the Northern entrance to the park.
So now onto the trip itself! I just want to throw out there really quickly, that flying into Bozeman was cool! Coming from a Denver connection you fly over the northeast part of the park which is cool! And then the descent into Bozeman is neat because the town is nestled in the mountains and the airport itself is newly built/renovated and is a really neat rustic/lodge-y look.
We got into West Yellowstone around 3 PM and headed right into the park. Since I have embarked on this national park journey, it is always an exciting moment to see that ubiquitous arrowhead and the welcome sign! So, after the requisite pictures, in we went through the west side en route to the grand loop. If you travel to Yellowstone you ABSOLUTELY must spring for the 5 or 10 bucks for the Gypsy App. It’s a super useful smartphone audio guide that runs off the GPS – there is limited to 0 cell phone coverage in the park. Also to know: the Grand Loop Road through Yellowstone can be described as a large figure 8. Please look at the map below to get a sense of things to help get a sense of the blog entry!
We drove to the Madison Junction and headed down toward Old Faithful, but that was not today’s goal. Today’s goal was simply to scope out things a bit and visit the Grand Prismatic Spring. We actually saw Old Faithful go up from the road and there was a beautiful rainbow, but sadly, there are no pictures…we were just driving along and there was this big spray and the rainbow. En route, we pulled off into a side area where you can walk to the river and watch a bison herd on the other side. We also pulled off at our first thermal feature, the Fountain Paint Pots area. This was a very NEW thing to me. The smell and the heat coming off of these features was definitely present, and would be a recurring sensation throughout the trip. We continued past Grand Prismatic and down to the Old Faithful village area. Pulling into that area and seeing how jammed packed it was solidified the plan to get there super early as planned in a couple days. Driving back up to the Midway Geyser Basin, we parked at the trailhead for the Fairy Falls Trail. This leads to an overlook that gives the best view of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. What a gorgeous thermal pool! The view from up here is far better than what you would get from the boardwalks surrounding the spring. After departing Grand Prismatic, I would definitely suggest heading onto the little side road called the Firehole Lake Dr. This is a short looping road that was very quiet and peaceful. It features some bubbling fountain geysers (geysers that come out of a pool) and many pools. The best part was there were *limited* people! That was the extent of our afternoon and we headed back to West Yellowstone. That evening we stopped for grub and drinks at the Slippery Otter, which seemed like a good hotspot in the town Side note: businesses in West Yellowstone seem to shut down mainly around 10 PM, so plan accordingly!
The next morning we did not get up super early, which is unusual. Rather we rose, grabbed some bear spray from a rental kiosk, and found a bookstore nearby, the Book Peddler, that was operating a breakfast cafe. It wasn’t fancy but the food and coffee were good, and definitely hit the spot before we headed back into the park! So this was the day that we had planned to visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Getting to Madison Junction we decided on an audible. Instead of trekking to the canyon we first went right back in the direction we went the previous day. Not far from the junction is Firehole Canyon Road. This road descends off of the main road to parallel the river. There are some pull outs with some really nice waterfall views and some hiking trails. At the end of the road is a swimming area which was sadly closed during our visit. Dammit Covid! Anyway, this road was a solid side excursion for sure. The waterfall here really was the first highlight of the power of the waters flowing throughout the park!
Onward back to the north and past Madison Junction we found our next stop: Gibbon Falls. This is a pretty large roadside feature with a nice large parking lot to check out this waterfall and get a huge sweeping view of the valley in this area. This is also very near the rim of the caldera (supervolcano remember!). Just past this was our next quick stop: Beryl Springs. Like one of the fountain geyser pools we encounter along Firehole Lake Dr the previous day, this was another one located right next to the road and super easily accessible. When I had planned out this day it was super low on things to do. I believe my written itinerary was just explore the canyon area and possibly the Firehole Canyon Road. As we approached the intersection that leads to the canyon, our good Gypsy App guide was insisting on a visit to the Norris Geyser Basin, so we stopped in! This one is really close to the big intersection here, that forms the nook on the left side between the top and bottom of the figure 8 of the Grand Loop through the park. This basin is very large and features many pools and geysers, including Steamboat Geyser, which is the largest geyser in the world. This one goes off very unpredictably and can go decades without erupting, but it has been erupting the last couple years, but not this day! Still, this is another cool must do area in the park and we spent an hour or so there, but I think you could easily spend several! Now, heading across the park to the canyon, we ran into another Yellowstone feature: traffic jams. We had actually run into a pretty good one the previous day on the way back into West Yellowstone. These jams can be caused by bison, or they can be caused by careless or inattentive humans. It is hard to say which caused this one and it was pretty lengthy, but did offer the chance to watch a lonely male bison up close walking along the road. He passed us several times!
We finally arrived at the Canyon Village, stopped to check out the visitor center, and grabbed some lunch at one of the park restaurants. I grabbed a beer from one of the local MT/ID breweries along with a fancy Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone glass! We headed to the canyon and parked in the first parking lot which is for Uncle Tom’s Trail. This trail is closed for the year and that was sad because it goes down to the base of the lower falls of the canyon. But it also is a part of the trail that follow the rim of the canyon allowing for views of that falls and also the lower falls! These two waterfalls are IMPRESSIVE and beautiful. This is absolutely a must do. This trail continues for a short ways to the next big visitor draw, Artist Point. This is THE spot to get a picture or a selfie, AND we even saw an artist there doing artist things at Artist Point. So cool! After some pic snapping and oohing and ahhing, we continued on the trail for awhile. We were thinking about making it a couple miles to a spot called Point Sublime. Upon later research I do not think I made it there, but I found a spot on this trail that was the first spot, and also appeared to be th highest spot, that allowed a view from the waterfalls entirely through the canyon and out to the other end of the park. Outstanding! We hiked back to the vehicle and had still yet another awesome moment! A mamma cinnamon black bear and her two babies were along the road and they ran out RIGHT in front of our vehicle. Oddly enough, other than two grizzlies in Denali WAAAAY off in the distance, these were the first close views I have had of a bear in a national park! Anyway, we began the long trek back to West Yellowstone and ran into another bison jam on that same stretch of road. Baby bison are cute AF if you haven’t seen one! That night we hit up another local place called Bullwinkles. Not gonna lie, I am not going to be in the habit of saying anything about a business that is not positive, but it was tough to find the positives here. I would avoid this place, especially if you have a vegetarian in your group, or like fresh food, or timely service. The good thing about this place is its very large and has a handful of slot machines if that’s your thing!
The next day was the loooong day, but it was packed and we got in national park number 21! I mentioned that nothing in West Yellowstone is open late. Nothing is open early either. Just a heads up on that one. In June, the sun comes up before any place is open, and the sun goes down just before everywhere closes. If you want to get into the park super early, but need coffee or breakfast, the GoGo Espresso Cafe, which is one of those shipping container coffee shops, is your place. A delicious bagel and tasty cappuccinos in tow, and we were off to Old Faithful! We got down to the geyser around 7 ish. There were not a ton of people and there was a bison just randomly hanging out there by himself. The geyser went off a little before 8. Compared to the day we first strolled through, early morning is DEFINITELY when you want to see Old Faithful, without a doubt. After the eruption we headed toward the south entrance and Grand Teton National Park. The south end of the park is just as pretty as the rest and there is a pretty big canyon of its own rights down there along the road, but not much in the must-see category I would say. There is another geyser area we were going to visit on the way back up and another village that was due to mainly open…the next day! D’oh! The segment of the trip to The Tetons was always a “flex” option due to timing and distance but we thought, hey might as well while we are here! The plan was to go to Jenny Lake and get on a boat to some trails in the range proper. We left a little on the later side, so as we approached, our gypsy app guide was insisting on a visit up Signal Mountain. To get from Jenny lake to our new hotel that evening was about a 3 hour drive, so I was a little hesitant about running into jams and making 3 hours much more…so we decided to make the Signal Mountain visit our Grand Teton National Park “thing,” and what a thing it was! Honestly, it was a pretty standard 20 or 30 minute mountain road ascent, but the view of the Tetons from the top was KILLER. And this mountain was covered in a carpet of beautiful yellow wildflowers. This was the extent of our visit to Grand Teton National Park. It was brief, but it counts! I got a stamp in my passport book, got the unigrid map and that’s good enough. But I will certainly be back. Stunning area, absolutely jaw dropping. There are some who say this is the most beautiful national park…I am not sure I am totally on board with that, but I can see why they would think that!
After departing the Tetons we backtracked up through the South Entrance of Yellowstone and headed toward West Thumb Geyser Basin. This is another thermal area featuring boiling mu holes to the depths of hell, and hot springs, but they are all right alongside Yellowstone Lake. The lake itself would be a cool place to explore, but you can only get into it via guided tours: there are many thermal features in the lake itself, and the park probably doesn’t want anyone farting around with them. We explored this area for a bit and it’s probably another definite must see just for the scenery around the lake!
After West Thumb it was time for the lengthy trip up to Gardiner, MT, just outside of the North Entrance. There is not much to tell here. About half of this drive was backtracking past features we had already seen. It was not until the Norris Geyser intersection that we saw anything new, from that point all the way up to Gardiner. The one striking feature of this area is that is really became a little more mountainous and the thermal features seem to be further and fewer between. We did stop at a spot called the Golden Canyon, which was close to the North Entrance. This is a cliff hugging road that comes into a more sketchy driving area. From there we proceeded through Mammoth, past the Mammoth Hot Springs (to be seen the next day), and up into Gardiner. The trip out of the park brought us the opportunity to see some mountain goats way up high (no pics, too high). We stayed that evening in Gardiner at a motel called The Yellowstone Black Rock Inn. When I booked this motel it was literally the cheapest to be found at about 200 a night, and it was booked in March. The view from our third floor door was exceptional, and honestly probably a better view than any other lodging in Gardiner. The hotel was clean, the room was big, and it seemed way more modern that I was expecting. Al’s in West Yellowstone was close and convenient but not a spot I would have wanted to just hang. This one was a definite sit outside on the balcony and chill and look at the mountains as the sun sets kind of place. That evening we stopped for dinner at Ironhorse Bar and Grill, a spot with a big balcony right on the Yellowstone River.
As I start this paragraph I realize that if you are still reading, KUDOS, it is a LOOOONG entry, but that’s how this trip was. We have arrived at our final day in Yellowstone! We began with an early exploration of the Mammoth Hot Spring area. As with everything that steams in Yellowstone you are again reminded of the supervolcano you are standing in! The entire area was impressive and it’s easy to see why it has been named Mammoth! After finishing at Mammoth we hit the road across the north of the park into Lamar Valley. This is technically the right “spoke” into the park’s Grand Loop, from the northeast. This is an awesome area. We saw coyotes, badgers, many many bison, some bears and it was a serene area to drive through! Our itinerary called for a drive through Lamar and to a hiking spot at Trout Lake and then on through Cooke City, MT and then on past that spotalong the famous Beartooth Highway. We pulled another really decent audible here. We decided to do the Trout Lake hike later on, and proceeded into Cooke City. At this point, we had been on the road a bit and felt a stop for a bite to eat and a beer would be good. There is pretty much no cell signal to be found in Yellowstone, and Cooke City was no different, so after finding a little visitor center with WiFi we discovered a well reviewed bar called the Miner’s Saloon. GO HERE. They had a veggie pizza that was amazing! And, it just so happens that the bartender, a chap named Chris Warren, wrote a BOOK about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Yellowstone and Cooke City! HOW NEAT!? Twenty bucks later we have a signed copy! Super cool! This is why travel is soooo important! After lunch we went up the Beartooth Highway a bit. We were trying to find a good spot to park and string up some hammocks we had brought along. Our stop for lunch had made it so driving up the intense parts of Beartooth was not possible, but we managed to stumbled upon some of the most aggressive river water I had ever seen, the Crazy Creek Falls. This is not marked on the road and if you are driving by any not paying attention you would miss it. Truth be told, we only found it because across the road was a pull out that we were searching for hammock spots. There was a pretty raging river there, and it came under the road. We could see that there was some little trailish looking area across the highway, so we ventured over there and then could see this amazing huge cascade of water rushing down from a decent height. Super awesome find! We finally did find a little boondocking site to set up those hammocks for an hour or so and then headed back into the park. The next stop was Trout Lake. The sidekick took a break and I went out exploring! The trail was surprisingly strenuous right from the get go, but it was not long – maybe 3/4 of a mile to the lake. Once at the lake though…some awesome nature views! I made my way to the creek that comes into the lake and the trout were clustered in that creek and jumping! How neat! Upon the return to our hotel, we simply sat outside out motel balcony and finished off some food and some beer before the morning return home.
Ok. That was a lot. Probably as much as my entry for my Alaska trip. I will say that this area is AMAZING and an absolute must see. This area of both Montana and Wyoming is stunning and really kind of changed my worldview of the area. I am looking forward to a return to Montana and The Tetons in Wyoming. I feel like a return to Yellowstone is not needed as I think we saw all the “must sees” but I would go back for sure. A return to the Tetons is definitely in the cards!
Overall impressions: Pros: Otherworldly scenery. SO MUCH TO DO. It is not possible to not see lots of wildlife. All the thermal things….you probably have not and will not ever see that stuff again. Cons: Pricey is about it. There are lots of people, but honestly, if you plan properly that’s not much of a problem.
The Adventurer Final Word:
Five Stars, undoubtedly. The whole trip. Even the airport was notable!