A&A Travel Review of Yellowstone National Park
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
End of Week #14
Atherton Creek Campground, Kelly WY > Riverside RV Park, Bellevue ID
Miles traveled since last week’s post (on Saturday) = 262
Total miles traveled to date = 1908 with trailer, 2001 including longer off roading adventures
Oofta – it’s been a long week already! Yesterday we traveled our furthest miles yet – 262! We have only traveled over 200 miles one other time, but we really wanted to cover some serious ground as we head out of Wyoming and into Idaho. It was really hard to say ‘goodbye for now’ to Wyoming, and to make matters worse we both agreed our last campsite was our favorite spot yet. It started out rough, literally on very rough road, and we were unable to get the trailer level for awhile – but it ended up being our most scenic and peaceful spot. I am sad to leave the Tetons, Jackson Hole, and all of Wyoming, but I know there are so many more exhilarating adventures to look forward to yet so I can’t get hung up on one.
A full review of the Tetons, and Jackson area will be coming to my blog later this week!
“Everywhere I go I keep falling in love with the trees and wanting to stay just a little bit longer…”
But let’s get back to business with the famous Yellowstone National Park, an area that deserves a whole post all to itself. Yellowstone is vast and wide, taking up much of the northwestern side of Wyoming, and it is a place filled with so many secrets!
Experiencing Yellowstone National Park in 5 Days or Less
History & Geology of Yellowstone
Welcome to United State’s FIRST National Park! (I would say it’s also the most popular.) I knew what Yellowstone was at such a young age, having been here by the age of 10 – but I also remember it being something that came up with classmates in school, as a lot of kids would vacation here with their families in the summer. In my opinion, it’s the most wild and wicked National Park we have (but who am I to say anything as I haven’t been to them all, yet).
Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the entire WORLD’S first National Park, mainly due to the fact that it had an unparalleled collection of geysers, springs, mudpots and steam vents. Each one are essentially an eruption of steaming hot, possibly very acidic, water in hydrothermal territory.
The entire park is an active volcano environment, and yes I said ACTIVE. With at least 3 extreme volcanic eruptions in about 3 million years time, the area is highly catastrophic if it wants to be. Yellowstone is made up of a few different volcanic calderas, boundaries of eruptions – with one being from about 2.1 million years ago, and another being about 640,000 years ago.
“Park Mission: Preserved within Yellowstone National Park are Old Faithful and the majority of the world’s geysers and hot springs. An outstanding mountain wildland with clean water and air, Yellowstone is home of the grizzly bear and wolf and free-ranging herds of bison and elk, Centuries-old sites and historic buildings that reflect the unique heritage of America’s first national park are also protected. Yellowstone National Park serves as a model and inspiration for national parks throughout the world.”
For ten years after Yellowstone was established as a National Park, it was still undergoing threats from those who wanted to exploit its resources instead of protecting them. Incredibly, in 1886 the US Army stepped in to help and built Fort Yellowstone as an important resource to preserve the parks future.
One Day or Seven Days
No matter if you have one day or seven days in YNP, you will still have enough time to truly understand and experience it’s marvel. We spent a total of about 4-4 1/2 days exploring YNP, and a few of the days were jam packed while others were leisurely. Here is a review to tell you how you can experience YNP in just five days or less!
A pass to Yellowstone will cost you at least $35, but possibly be active for several days in a row. There are also combined Yellowstone-Grand Teton passes you can get for $50. Luckily, we had our Annual Park Pass for entrance to National Parks and these fees were already covered for us!
Traveling into the park, from Cody, WY
Cody “Yellowstone” Wyoming is just about 50 miles outside the East entrance of the park, and a great place to travel in from if you are just exploring about for the day. One afternoon while we were in Cody we drove into the East to take a look around as we had thought we would be staying in West Yellowstone, further away, and possibly preventing us from seeing this area. It’s a beautiful, scenic drive coming in from the East, as you go through the Shoshone National Forest, and drive next to the Shoshone River.
Yellowstone Lake / Fishing Bridge
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake (over 7,000 feet) in North America and it stretches about 286 square miles in almost the center of the park. It is one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen, shining magical shades of blues and greens. We saw this lake in its calmest form our first day, compared to the intimidating white caps we saw later in the week. Usually the lake is covered in ice from December until possibly June!
This lake was formed by glacial activity and volcanic events that carved the central basin and all the ragged shorelines. Yellowstone Lake also overlies the edge of the Yellowstone caldera, essentially a previous volcanic eruption boundary where the major eruption collapsed the mouth of the volcano and formed a caldera.
We drove around the eastern shoreline of the lake, stopping at a few overlooks including Steamboat Point, where there was a lot of hydrothermal activity, until we eventually landed in Fishing Bridge.
Hiking Avalanche Peak
This 4-mile round trip hike offers great views of Yellowstone Lake, the Tetons and the Absaroka Mountain Range, on a clear day. The route is steep and takes you to a 10,566 foot bare summit. You first climb through a thick forest and into a meadow where you can then see the slopes you have to hike to get to the dramatic summit. The day we went there started to be some afternoon clouds, turned thunderstorms, that seemed to be looming in on us. We were probably only 5-10 minutes away from the actual peak when we decided to turn around, as we could see lightning in the distance and did not want to get stuck at the top as the next electrocuted target. As this was our first hike in bear country, we were also hyper aware and listening to every sound. Grizzly bears frequent this area for pine tree nuts and I did not want to be surprised by one!
Where did we stay
We were privileged enough to have an opportunity to camp right in the park with full RV hookups. The area we stayed in was in between Lake Village and Fishing Bridge and was pretty central to a lot of things in the park.
Thankfully, there are a lot of campgrounds in YNP, some that you can reserve and some that are first come. You can also find a lot of accomodations in West Yellowstone, just outside the West entrance in Montana. If hotels are more of your thing there are even a few of those too, something I still find kind of odd for a National Park!
West Thumb Geyser Basin
An area of boiling springs right on the shore of Yellowstone Lake! The first afternoon we arrived to camp in Yellowstone we wanted to still take advantage of exploring something nearby. A few miles south of us was this specific geyser basin, full of steaming hot colors on the beach. We were there for all but an hour and walked the entire boardwalk in the basin. On our way back we also saw a couple moose, an elk and possibly a wolf!
You could essentially cross the divide amongst three different opportunities in the park, all near Old Faithful and the south entrance. We choose to seek out the sign stating said crossing on our second day here, however we saw other signs in the park the next day too. The Continental Divide is a ridge of high ground that runs irregularly north and south through the Rocky Mountains and separates eastward flowing from westward flowing streams. (See photo above.)
Our third day brought us driving around the entire center of the park – completing a loop of 100 miles!
Upper Geyser Basin – Old Faithful
This basin is home to most of the world’s active geysers and a large concentration of
hydrothermal features. This activity is more evidence of Yellowstone’s active volcano environment. When you are in this geyer area, you could have partially molten rock, or magma, as close as 3-8 miles below your feet!
The famous Old Faithful geyser is housed in Upper Geyser Basin, and is the geyser that erupts more frequently than any of the other big geysers. Did you know it is not the largest geyser in the park though? Old Faithful’s eruption predictions are over a 10 minute plus/minus time range, and this geyer sure knows how to draw a big crowd. We got there early and sat along the boardwalk to watch the show. Quite honestly, it wasn’t as impressive as I remember seeing it as a 10 year old, but nonetheless it is an incredible display of the natural world.
Midway Geyser Basin – Grand Prismatic Spring
The motherload and main event I was looking forward to here with Grand Prismatic Spring! One of the world’s largest, deepest hot springs that is larger than a football field at 370 feet across and deeper than a 10-story building at 125 feet. This hot pool of water shimmers with many colors from bacteria and microorganisms that thrive in the super hot boiling conditions. At Midway Geyser Basin there is a boardwalk going near the Spring, however it does not offer you the same views as the overlook on Fairy Falls Trail. We did not know this overlook was an option while we were there until we spotted people up on a hill in the distance behind the Spring. We drove to a super full Fairy Falls parking lot and walked a little over a half of a mile to the overlook. Outstanding views! One of the coolest things in the park in my opinion.
Offers a nice scenic route you can take called Firehole Canyon Drive, that goes alongside the Firehole River and features a waterfall!
An 84 ft multi-waterfall right off the main road. There is parking and a nicely constructed overlook for optimal viewing capacity.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris is the most volatile geyser basins in all of Yellowstone. This area is the hottest and most acidic of all of the hydrothermal areas. It is also part of the worlds largest active volcanoes. Whoof! The hot springs and fumaroles here have temperatures above the boiling point, and seismic activity often changes the features. Reason being for all of this – Norris is near the intersection of three major faults, which create conditions that create dynamic geysers. The strangest thing about the area is that each year new hot springs and geysers go active, and others become dormant. Even just small earthquakes can trigger and alter the hydrothermal behavior.
[Fun fact: All of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas are heated by magma and partially molten rock!]
You could basically call this area home of the wild buffalo roaming! The Yellowstone River goes through the eastern edge of the valley, and is home to what seems like all the buffalo in the park. We drove this route through the valley a handful of times, and were stopped by buffalo in the street, crossing the street, or causing tourists to stop dead in the street to stare at them – every. single. time! There are plenty of pullover stops on the road, so if you are one of those tourists please act accordingly next time!
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
This area of the park illustrates the complex geological history throughout dramatic colors and shapes in the canyon. The upper and lower waterfalls add beautiful unique treasures to find on your exploration. This canyon formed when hydrothermal activity altered and weakened the bedrock, making the stone softer and allowing the Yellowstone River to erode the rocks and form the canyon.
To this day, activity from water, wind, and earthquakes continue to alter and sculpt the canyon. Scientists think that the oldest rock in the Grand Canyon formed about 150,000 years ago.
In order to view the Grand Canyon area, you can take South Rim Drive, and North Rim Drive, to a series of overlooks, hikes and other viewing points.
Uncle Tom’s Trail – I had every intention of completing the 300 steps that lead you down about 500 feet for an unparalleled canyon waterfall experience, however to my dismay this point was CLOSED while we were there!
Artist Point – All the way down South Rim Drive you will reach a series of overlooks, and you will quickly understand why this is the most photographed view in all of Yellowstone. The Lower Falls appear framed by the canyon walls, with forests as a backdrop.
South Rim Hiking Trail – We intended to complete this, however we were not successful in trying to find the trail from Uncle Tom’s Trail and did not want to then hike it from Artist Point. The South Rim trail connects to the two areas and parallels the canyon. It is about 1.75 miles long!
Brink of Lower Falls Trail – Easily the best experience of the whole Grand Canyon, and the very last thing we went to that day. You get to descend down a steep trail that winds you down 600 feet, right on top of the Lower Falls. Your overlook faces the canyon and in the afternoon you can catch rainbows! Best viewpoint if you have to pick just one. Well worth the hike!
Lookout and Red Rock Point – Another super great viewpoint that takes you down 500 feet into the canyon where you can view the Lower Falls head on.
Grand View Overlook – Easily accessible, and super colorful, this overlook can be reached by taking the North Rim Hiking Trail.
Inspiration Point – [Fun Fact: the original Inspiration Point overlook tumbled into the canyon during an earthquake in the 1970s.] Here you get views of the canyon both upstream and downstream.
Glacial Boulder – Near Inspiration Point, basically a humongous boulder on the side of the road, nestled in between pine trees, that looks like it doesn’t belong. This rock came from the Beartooth Plateau when a glacier scraped down from those mountains and deposited throughout the park.
The 308-foot Lower Falls is the site to see here. This waterfall also marks the point where the volcanic bedrock beneath the river turns to hard rock, different from the hydrothermal rocks that are just downstream.
The Upper Falls stands at just 109 feet tall, and marks another geological shift in the environment. The canyon here is multicolored and a results of hydrothermally altered rhyolite and sediments.
Hiking Mt. Washburn
One of the most popular trails in the park, this 6.2 mile hike takes you to Mt. Washburn peak, at 10,243 feet where there is a fire lookout tower. This was one of my favorite lookout towers we have ever hiked to, as it was filled with information about the area inside for you to look at it. It also showed you what you could see in the distance when you are looking out each side of the tower. This hike was moderately strenuous with many switchbacks, but we completed the entire thing in just less than 3 hours. Lots of wildflowers lined the trail and there were insane views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone as we climbed higher. It was SUPER windy at the peak, and multiple other trails connected at this point. There are a lot of signs up here warning you not to go off trail, as the vegetation is super delicate and can be damaged for years to come just by you stepping off trail!
Not quite anything to write home about, compared to the other waterfalls in the park, but just north of Mt. Washburn is Tower Falls, near the junction to go east to Lamar Valley or west to Mammoth Hot Springs. It stands at 132 feet.
If We Had More Time …
Mammoth Hot Springs, located near the northern border of Wyoming with Montana, was one of those things on our list we just didn’t get to. After our full day of exploring geyers we became “hot springed out” and didn’t want to make the 50 mile one way trek up to see it the next day. With that being said, it’s an area I would still love to explore sometime, full of living like sculptures shaped by volumes of waters, the slope of the ground, and anything in the waters path.
Located near the northeast entrance to the park, this valley is said to be home to all the big game out here. It is also usually home to the Yellowstone wolf pack! However the best times to see game here are in the early mornings and at sunset, and it was just not something we made the drive to.
I wanted to make this happen SO BADLY, but we really ran out of time to make the drive up. If we would have ended up staying in West Yellowstone it would have only been about an hour one way, but not so much the case from the middle of the park. Big Sky will be HIGH on my Montana list for next summer – as I’m already scoping out Ousel Falls Hiking Trail and Beehive Basin Trail!
Duh! Are you even surprised? There are over 1,000 miles of hiking trails in Yellowstone and I would have loved to explore so many more of them! The most popular day hike trails include: Mount Washburn, Beaver Ponds, Lone Star Geyser, Fairy Falls and Storm Point.
Signs of Climate Change
It is unfortunate to discuss this kind of thing, but in our day of age it’s the new norm. Sadly, the National Park Service anticipates that climate change will create significant challenges to the preservation of park resources, infrastructure, and visitor experiences in the years to come. With increasing temperatures, scientists expect ecosystems to change, and they have already noticed changes to rain and snow patterns. Other expected effects include alpine zones shifting higher, meaning decreasing or eliminating species that live in this super important habitat now. It also means more wildfires, and of a higher intensity. (We totally saw a fire across Yellowstone Lake the day we were heading out!) There will continue to be increased insect and disease infestation in the trees, something already incredibly prominent and obvious in the park. They also expect to see more declining wetlands, an essential habitat for frogs, salamanders and birds and insects. Grizzly bears in the park will have less of their nutrients available to eat and native plants will be lost and replaced with invasive exotic species.
This shit is real, and it’s happening before our very eyes. It’s been 20 years since I was last in YNP and things have already changed in that short timeframe. It is absolutely devastating to think what kind of condition the park could be in within another 20 years.
Park Visiting Rules & Reminders
Yellowstone National Park is bear country! If you are exploring hiking trails or doing other off roading excursions, you NEED to carry bear spray with you! This is the safest way to defend yourself from and repel an oncoming bear. If you don’t have any spray of your own, you can rent some from the park!
DO NOT approach wildlife! I’m sure you have heard of or seen some of the videos on YouTube of people being attacked and catapulted through the air by Bison… yeah, don’t fucking go near the wildlife yo! It’s not rocket science – these are WILD animals. Do not walk near them, and do NOT let your children either! Just stay in your car or on a viewing ledge. Simple! [Fun fact: YNP is the only place in the US where Bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times!]
Tour park favorites earlier in the morning to avoid all the crowds. As an added bonus, the wildlife are also more active at sunrise or sunset!
Your safety is your own responsibility when you are in the park. Stay aware and alert!
Stay on all boardwalks & designated trails in the park. Going off trail could harm yourself or the environment.
Cell phone service is super limited in the park and surrounding area, especially during peak season. But there is WiFi available for purchase at each visitors center!
Yellowstone National Park was a real treasure, and something that already holds such a special place in my heart as it was the first real adventure I went on with my dad 20 years ago. I can only hope that this park will remain a marvelous wonder for years and years to come! Do your part when visiting the park to leave it better than you found it.
By the end of this week, I plan to post a review on the Grand Tetons & Jackson Hole area. Next week I will talk about an update on what we are up to this week in Idaho, and I will talk about the best things we never knew we would need on this journey, and all the things I thought I would miss, but don’t. I am also planning for next week’s bonus post to finally be about traveling with our Bengal cat friends!
Future Updates: We are heading into Utah next weekend, to tackle like a gazillion National Parks – a few of which we will be tackling with friends, as our first visitors arrive! I can only imagine the month of September will bring about so many more interesting topics for the blog.
We plan to launch our Nomadic Newsletter ASAP. I hate to say it again, but this will be delayed until September 2019, due to high amounts of adventuring and low amounts of a 4G connection. I swear I’m just still getting into my groove of things – this delay will not continue!
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