Yellowstone National Park

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.

Devils Tower to Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live #Vanlife

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 Welcome Sign - The Places We Live

  • 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
  • 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.

Travertine at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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!

Norris

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 Campground

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 at Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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).

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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.

Brink of Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We LiveYellowstone Canyon, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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.

Grand View, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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.

Biscuit Basin, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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 12 to 5 minutes. The average height of an eruption is 145 feet (44 m).”

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park - The Places We Live

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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3 Days in Yellowstone - The Places We Live


Devils Tower, Wyoming

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but visiting Devils Tower has been on my bucket list for years. I grew up watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so it’s always had a special place in my mind. On this leg of our #Vanlife journey, I get to check off another item off the list and hunt for aliens in the wilderness of Wyoming!

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Wyoming, a western state, is one of the least populous states in the country, bordered by Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Although small, Wyoming packs quite the punch in terms of beautiful country. Nearly 50% of the land of Wyoming is owned by the federal government, and much of that has been set aside as national parks. Yellowstone National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, and Grand Tetons National Park are all located (wholly or in part) in Wyoming, drawing over 6 million tourists annually. That’s roughly 12 times the population of the state!

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The monument is located in the northeast corner of Wyoming. We stayed at the Devils Tower KOA Campground, which is located right at the base of the mountain. Consequently, it set us back about $30 per night to park in the grass, but we had a picnic table, fire pit, tree cover, and wifi. Further, the site also included access to clean bathrooms, hot showers, laundry machines, a pool, playground, and an on-site restaurant. After a week or more at less equipped campsites, we felt like we were living large!

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Close Encounters

KOA Camp Host – “Each evening at 8:00 PM, we show the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind at our little outdoor theater.”

Camper Ahead of Me In Line – “Why in heaven’s name would you show that movie?!”

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Movie poster for the unaware

I am a huge fan of the 1977 alien movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the movie, Earth is visited by aliens. A few special people are entrusted with a vision after coming in contact with the aliens. Consequently, this vision leads them to Devils Tower, where the aliens land and make first official contact with the governments of Earth.

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Our outdoor viewing area, with the Tower visible in the background

Hence, it is my love for this movie that has drawn me to Devils Tower. This simple mountain in the middle of nowhere was on my bucket list for years. I am so excited that I not only got to visit this crazy and weird natural structure, but had the opportunity to watch an old favorite again with the iconic tower looming in the background. It was a surreal experience, and a real treat.

Devils Tower National Monument

In 1906, Devils Tower became the nation’s first national monument [Editor’s note: by an outdated cartographical convention, the apostrophe is omitted intentionally from the name. It’s driving me a little nuts.]. The butte is made of igneous rock and stands over 850 feet (230m) tall from base to top. Rather than forming straight out of the ground, Devils Tower National Monument was formed when magma fountained up through the hundreds of feet of softer, sedimentary rock that covered the region millions of years ago. Over time, that softer rock was slowly eroded away, leaving behind the solid stone that forms the tower. Up close, Devils Tower reminded me of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, which has similar basalt columns.

Giant's Causeway. Devils Tower - The Places We Live.jpg

For a single car, the entrance fee to Devils Tower National Monument is $20. Thankfully, we were able to enter for free using our America the Beautiful Pass. Once inside, we learned about the history and geology at the Visitor’s Center, then walked the 1.3 mile (2km) Tower Trail, a paved path that circles the butte. The short hike had amazing views of the monument and the surrounding area.

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Unfortunately, there is no trail to the top. Rather, it is possible to climb to the top. That is, if you’re braver and more skilled that I am. To climb the 5.7 – 5.13 rated route, climbers must register at the climbing office and are only allowed to use temporary anchors. Best of luck you crazy kids!

Wrap Up

Rather than climbing to the top, I googled what it looked like, said “huh”, and moved on with my life. While the surrounding view is spectacular, the mountain top itself is nothing special. No aliens. No secret military base. Just a rocky mountain top.

In conclusion, we had way more fun at this stop than either of us expected. We loved camping out at the KOA, watching Close Enounters under the stars, and trying out the local brew named after the amazing and eerie monument. Our stop only lasted two days, because we had a bigger, and somewhat more famous, national park to visit. Which one, you ask? Hint: it’s also in Wyoming (mostly). Until next time!

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Devils Tower KOA - The Places We Live  Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming - The Places We Live


#Vanlife Dairy: Day 44

Our #Vanlife adventure continued with a 165 mile (265 km) drive from Badlands National Park in South Dakota to Devils Tower in Wyoming. This drive kept us on Interstate 90, where the views were nothing to write home (or blog) about. It was a short drive, one we spent doing crossword puzzles, debating on whether or not to stop at Mount Rushmore, and making a quick stop at the famous Wall Drug.

Map of the USA highlighting our route from Melbourne, Florida to Devils Tower, Wyoming: specifically Badlands National Park, South Dakota to Devils Tower, Wyoming. #Vanlife The Places We Live

Wall Drug

From the moment we crossed the border into South Dakota, we started to see signs for Wall Drug. For the nearly 300 miles (482 km) between the Minnesota border to Wall, South Dakota, there were advertisements galore.

Signs of Wall Drug

Although I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, there was no way that we were going to miss a stop at Wall Drug. Thankfully, Wall is one of the closest cities to Badlands National Park, so it took no time at all. The main drag of Wall was a cute collection of shops and restaurants in an Old West style.

Wall Drug is a HUGE drug store with a front and back area, each segmented into various shops, almost like a mall in miniature. The front area has gift shops, statues for photo opportunities, dancing robots, candy shops, a restaurant, doughnut stall, clothing store, tourist information kiosk, and a chapel. Oh, and an actual drug store. After walking up and down Wall’s main street, we noticed that all of the restaurants were in the same price range (over-priced), so we ended up eating at the Wall Drug cafeteria, which served large portions and allowed for some good people watching.

Josh from The Places We Live rides the giant jackalope (half rabbit and half antelope) statue in The Backyard of Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota.

The back section of Wall Drug is known as The Backyard and is a little more family friendly. There are statues to pose with, including the ever elusive jackalope (half jack rabbit and half antelope), a plastic stage coach, and a T-Rex. There are more gift shops, an arcade, and a little bit of space for kids to run around. It is also hosts Wall Drug’s “famous” free, cold water fountain. Overall, Wall Drug is not worth traveling to [Editor’s note: I disagree], but it was kind of a fun stop since we were passing through anyway.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

The remaining 2.5 hour drive was easy going. We had considered stopping at Mount Rushmore along the way, but it was a bit foggy. I had seen too many pictures of people posing in front of a cloud of mist where the faces of the presidents should be, so, we opted to skip the majestic mountain monument and instead went straight to the northeast corner of Wyoming to Devil’s Tower National Monument.

Once we were off the freeway, the road wound through hills that occasionally gave glimpses of the tower. It was so interesting to see the beautifully rolling landscape with Devil’s Tower just thrusting out of the earth as if from nowhere.

Mountain highway lined with fields and trees. In the distance, Devils Tower juts out among the hills.

We chose to spend some extra cash to camp directly below Devil’s Tower at the Devil’s Tower/ Black Hills KOA. It cost about $30 per night to park in the grass, but we had a picnic table, fire pit, tree cover, and wifi. The site also included access to clean bathrooms, hot showers, laundry machines, a pool, playground, and an on-site restaurant. We are livin’ large!

I have been obsessed with Devil’s Tower since I was a kid. My sister and I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind WAY more often than I would like to admit. Since then, I have been wanting to visit this strange mountain and find out what is really on top of it. Can’t wait!


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Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota, USA - The Places We Live