After an amazing couple of days spent hiking and looking for aliens at Devils Tower, it was time to move on to granddaddy of all parks, Yellowstone National Park. The farther west we travel, the larger the states become, and each leg of the journey gets longer. In this case, we had a 450 mile journey ahead of us. I don’t like to spend more than four consecutive hours in the car, so we split up our drive and stayed at a free campsite just outside of Billings, Montana. The next morning, we woke up early and drove the remaining 247 miles to Yellowstone so we could secure a camp site and explore the park.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is an American treasure than spans almost 3,500 square miles (8,900 km²) and is spread out over three states. It is particularly famous for its geothermal features, hosting half of the world’s geysers and the world’s largest petrified forest. Sitting on the largest volcanic system in North America, the Yellowstone Caldera has been termed as a Supervolcano, which is reserved only for volcanoes that have maxed out the Volcanic Explosivity Index at a magnitude of 8.
Although the park is green, wooded, and full of wildlife, the volcanic activity is apparent at nearly every turn. It was chilling to wake up in the morning, hear the birds chirping and feel the cool wind on my face, then look to my right and see steam coming out of a random hole in the ground. Although a picture perfect landscape of solitude and natural beauty, this park is creepy AF!
- Yellowstone National Park is open year round
- Most campsites and service stations close for winter (Sept – May; for those keeping score, that’s an 8-month winter!)
- During the summer months, roads and gates are open 24/7
- It costs $35 per car to enter Yellowstone National Park for 7 days
- America the Beautiful pass holders enter free
- The best season to visit Yellowstone is spring and fall
- Summer – 40° to 80°F
- Spring and Fall – 20° to 60°F
- Winter – 5° to 40°F
Mammoth Hot Springs – Day One
We drove in from the north on HWY 89, so our first scheduled stop in Yellowstone National Park was Mammoth Hot Springs. This area hosts the park headquarters, gas station, hotel, Albright Visitor Center, and of course, the hot springs. Before we could even reach our first natural wonder, we came face to face with the park’s wildlife, spotting a bull elk wandering down the streets near the hotel/visitor’s center.
Water bubbles up out of Mammoth Hot Springs atop hills of travertine (a kind of limestone formed by spring water deposits). The water here is a little cooler than some of the other springs, allowing algae to grow and turning the travertine brown.
There are two main terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. The upper terrace does not allow RV or bus parking and leads almost immediately to a hike down some stairs (scaring off some of the seniors), so I strongly suggest parking and starting on the upper terrace. The hike around Mammoth Hot Springs is mostly on wooden boardwalks that provide amazing views of the travertine and the bubbling pools below.
From Mammoth Hot Springs, we had planned to visit Indian Creek, but unfortunately it was closed for the season. We visited in September, and much of the park was closed due to remodeling/repair or simple seasonal shutdowns. However, that didn’t keep the park from being busy – there were tourists EVERYWHERE. Several times we pulled in to hiking spots or water features, only to have to keep driving for lack of parking. If you are going to Yellowstone (which you absolutely should), be sure to bring your patience with you!
With Indian Springs closed, we continued on south to the Norris area. This section of the park hosts Norris Geyser Basin and the Museum of the National Park Ranger. We attempted a visit to Norris Geyser Basin without much luck. We drove through the parking lot three times before we finally got a spot, but once we were inside it was almost shoulder to shoulder traffic, and we were already tired and a bit grouchy, so we left. It’s supposed to be very nice, though.
Thankfully, our next stop was nearby and really gave our spirits a lift! Artists Paintpots was a fantastic hike and really something to see. It ended up being our second favorite stop in Yellowstone National Park. It’s a slightly longer hike than some of the others (1 mile round-trip), but well worth the effort. It starts out with a walk through the forest, which for the most part looked normal, except for the parts with dead trees and the ground steaming eerily. At the end of the hike are the “paintpots” which are bubbling mud and clay pits. Again, there is nothing quite so creepy as boiling dirt.
Norris also happened to be the place where we camped for the night. We got a parking spot with a picnic table, bear box (to store food), and a fire pit. The campground included a lovely view and bathrooms, but no showers, electricity, or wifi. It got pretty chilly at night, dipping down to below freezing, but it was overall a comfortable stay.
Note on Bear Boxes – Yes, there are bears in this part of the country and yes, they will eat you and all your food if they get the chance. Bear Boxes are a common amenity found in campgrounds around the western USA. They are large metal cupboards with an awkwardly shaped handle. If visiting bears smell food, they are likely to trash whatever container the food is in in order to get to it. This means ripping tents apart and clawing at cars. It is just safer and easier for everyone to store all food in the Bear Boxes, which were created specifically to keep bears out.
Bison are America’s national mammal. They are beautiful, majestic, and total dicks. They like to wander through camp sites like they own the place. Do not approach bison, as they are huge and can be grumpy as hell! Also, they are not super bright, and will walk through your clothesline and get all tangled up, which makes them angry and smashy. Not a good thing when Bison are in your campground. For this reason, campers are not allowed to hang clotheslines between trees. If you, like us, find yourself out of clothes and needing to do laundry, consider hanging your clothes from the back of your hatchback (assuming you have one).
Canyon Village – Day Two
Canyon Village is a short drive east of Norris and hosts a visitors center, service stations, and the Yellowstone River Canyon. This was our absolute favorite stop in Yellowstone National Park! The canyon is stunning, and there are plenty of hiking options, all of which are worth the effort to visit.
Our first stop was Brink of Lower Falls which took us, surprise surprise, to the brink of the falls. It was a long, steep, switchbacked hike to the viewing area, but once we were there, we had a view of the valley and the upper edge of the falls.
Our next stop was Grand View, which Josh and I agreed was one of the best hikes we have ever done. It wasn’t particularly long, but included both dirt trails and wooden boardwalks. There were switchbacks, but also steps and long stretches of slope. The variety was great, but the view at the end was even better.
Lastly, we visited Inspiration Point, a short walk that overlooks the canyon from the opposite end of the brink. It was windy and a bit crowded, but still offered a nice view of the falls from afar.
Old Faithful – Day Three
A visit to Yellowstone National Park would not be complete without a visit to Old Faithful herself. We made a couple of stops along the way, including Lower Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin (very crowded), and Biscuit Basin. We really enjoyed Biscuit Basin with its variety of colorful pools.
The Old Faithful area had a huge parking lot, three hotels, service stations, and visitor’s center. We, of course, showed up exactly as Old Faithful was doing her thing, glimpsing only the top of the spray above the trees lining the parking lot, so were forced to wait around for the next go.
After exploring the area and reading just about everything in the visitor center, I grabbed a front row seat (that’s a thing) for the show. Old Faithful is a large geyser and is the star of Yellowstone. It is called Old Faithful because it is very predictable, erupting every 70-90 minutes. Wikipedia says “Eruptions can shoot 3,700 to 8,400 US gallons (14,000 to 32,000 L) of boiling water to a height of 106 to 185 feet (32 to 56 m) lasting from 1 1⁄2 to 5 minutes. The average height of an eruption is 145 feet (44 m).”
It was the perfect ending to our Yellowstone National Park adventure. After nearly three full days without a shower or internet, we were more than ready to move on. Next up, we’re back in our home state of Idaho for a volcanic adventure of a different kind: Craters of the Moon!
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