Yellowstone Park Adventure

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
Trip End Jul 31, 2013

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Flag of United States  , Wyoming
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Yellowstone National Park (July 31-August 3)


We arrived in West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside of the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Our plan was to find a campground inside Yellowstone, but they were all full. Most campgrounds get booked up very quickly and those on a first come first serve basis are picked up early in the morning.  Luckily, we found one in the National Forest just north West Yellowstone.  This campground, called Rainbow Point, was situated on a lake.  It was very rustic set amid a young lodgepole pine forest with nice campsites but only pit toilets and once again, no showers (Michael has a knack for choosing showerless campgrounds).    The nights at this campsite turned out to be the coldest of our trip, with night temperatures below freezing.  This made for uncomfortable middle-of-night bathroom runs and painful mornings getting dressed, fed and into the car.

West Yellowstone town is quaint and touristy, but not over the top.  It had plenty of options for dinner and also several supermarkets.   Late afternoon we drove to Yellowstone just to get a flavor for the days to come.  The first thing that struck us was the amount of slow going traffic – like 25 mph down to stop and go traffic!   We learned that this was caused by animals, in small part, but for most part due to stupid human behavior.   Many drivers would stop in the middle of the road just to look at a bison (or deer, elk tree or other tourists bunched on the road) and quickly created traffic jams because they did not consider their actions on other visitors.  We also saw another interesting human phenomenon that we termed sheep behavior.  The moment there was a car that either slowed down or stopped to look at something, all other cars would do the same.  By our second day in the park, the boys came up with a great idea to just stop somewhere and start pointing in one direction and see how many people this would attract.  Although this seemed like a really fun experiment, we decided to pass in the interest of modeling good behavior.  There were also many tourists, particularly from Asia, who were driven in by bus loads and that too created a particular atmosphere, perhaps more Disney- like and less like a National Park.  After the shock factor of traffic and lots of people, we tried to find our own places and times to really enjoy Yellowstone.

The first full day was spent visiting geysers, fumaroles and mudpots.  The drive was amazing, in particular in the morning when the air was really cold (about 33F) and the fumaroles were steaming.   It as if there was dragons living underneath the earth and breathing out fire.  It's tough to really capture this drama in words.  The pictures that we included show some of the dramatic views.  We also went to see the famous Old Faithful geyser.  The reason it earned this name is because of its predicable nature.  The park rangers can predict within a 20min range when the geyser will erupt.   What was interesting is the number of people who were sitting around in anticipation of seeing this geyser – literally thousands!   It looked like a sports stadium with a cheering crowd – the wave and all.  It was quite a show.  The geyser did start and it was impressive, spitting out huge amount of water into the air.  And, as if someone in the back hit the switch off button, it turned off, and everyone left.

We drove around Yellowstone Lake which was enormous and quite beautiful.  There were places to go for a swim, but it was already late and we skipped this activity. The views were spectacular.  The following day we did a nice long hike and it seemed that all the crowds dissipated. There were some people on the trails, but those were the types we saw in other national parks.  We were looking out for bears since there were many in this park, but thankfully did not see any.  A couple who passed us by saw a moose.  Michael was very excited to see it, but we were unsuccessful.  We did see lots of elk and bison, which was a real treat.

Our next Yellowstone destination was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  We got to the falls very early in the morning when no one else was around and did a few hikes,  including Uncle Tom’s trail, which largely consisted of walking down about 300+ stairs and then back up (so, not for those with heart and breathing issues).  We visited the falls from the top and also down below.  The views were spectacular -especially with a rainbow over the falls - picture perfect.

We later went to the Norris area and participated in a park ranger program.  We learned that one of the geysers in the Norris basin erupts, it can be 2X the size of the Old Faithful and the largest in the world, spewing all kinds of the earth’s innards.  However, it erupts anywhere between 3 weeks and 50 year increments and there is no precise timetable.  The last eruption was 7 years ago, so the next one was anytime between today and 43 years on.  So, we watched it for a while with some surges of eruption, but nothing significant.  It was a tease.  There was also a great path to watch all the different geysers and fumaroles in the Norris Basin.  The best time to do it was early in the morning when it was still cool for 2 reasons.  First, the daytime temperatures were hot and with the heat coming off the geysers or fumerals, felt too much.  Second, when it was cold in the morning, the views were much more dramatic seeing the steams rolling off.  Finally (and most importantly for Michael), no other people are around!   What was thrilling and scary to find out from the ranger is that most of Yellowstone is sitting on one super volcano and should it erupt it would cause major destruction impacting the entire world, with debris hitting NYC on mere minutes!  I guess if it were to happen, better to be here for the instant vaporization.

Our final destination in Yellowstone was to see the Mammoth hot springs, which was really fantastic. The view resembled Cappadocia in Turkey with pure white rock.  The calcification from the hot springs created these white mountains with hot steamy water gushing out.   The Mammoth entrance to Yellowstone was a beautiful historic town with wonderful buildings, a nice Visitor’s center, great hotel and some nice architecture.  There are restored army barracks that housed those called into Yellowstone to help protect it from poachers.  The history is very interesting.   We had another treat – a herd of elk call this town home.  They come down to get protection from the many predators and stay there the year.   Mammoth Hot Springs was definitely a must see Yellowstone and it was a great way to end our visit to this park.

Unlike others who have praised this park as a real highlight, we have a different perspective.  It is a beautiful park and has a variety that may not be able to be found in other parks. That’s a real benefit.  However, where it fell short for us, especially having seen so many parks in the Southwest, is the peace to truly connect with nature and not feel like a Disney vacation.  We would certainly come back to this park again, but it’s not on my top 5 list.

Some additional Yellowstone observations:

-         The park is HUGE.  Just driving the perimeter takes the better part of a full day!  The first of the US National Parks, it sits mostly in Wyoming, but has portions in Idaho and Montana as well.

         The diversity of this park is unbelievable – almost like an entire country’s visual natural resources in one place.

         Make reservations to stay in an interior campground.  This will cut substantial in and out driving time.

         Start the day as early as possible and end the popular spot visits by 11AM.  Eat an early lunch and spend the afternoon hiking remote trails.

         Avoid the big crush of crowds by going shoulder season – May or September.




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