It takes words to describe Yellowstone, the first National Park; and yet as Theodore Roosevelt once wrote; “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”
Yellowstone is at times overwhelming, with its rising pillars of steams, roving bison, and dappled landscape. No words about a single hill, open plain or erupting geyser can capture all that this place infuses in the five senses. It is a magic kingdom of nature that must be felt and absorbed in order to truly experience its wonder.
Long before the sun rises or the birds begin to stir, wildlife eases onto the meadows for a taste of morning dew on freshly opened wildflowers. Three million tourists visit Yellowstone each year; most of them invade the national park from June – August. We were among them.
Like so many others, our rekindled spirit to visit the National Parks was inspired by Ken Burn’s 2009 documentary highlighting the attributes of America’s Best Kept Secret. We were fortunate that friends Lynn and Dwight had been to Yellowstone a year earlier, and were able to give us guidance as we mapped out our arrangements.
Obtaining accommodations in the park takes planning and foresight. We booked in October for our trip in August, and just managed to secure a room in the same facility for four days in a row. Others we met during our adventure lived like gypsies moving from lodging to lodging.
We took a pre-dawn flight out of North Carolina, taking advantage of the time difference, arriving in Denver around 9:30. We rented a car and headed up to Wyoming. It is a long drive! With only a few short pit stops on the highway it was 10 hours before we reached our lodgings in Canyon Village, located in the center of Yellowstone.
Canyon Village, like much of the lodgings in Yellowstone was part of the Mission 66 project. Tailored for the independent auto traveler, it was opened for business in 1957. The simple and unadorned rustic architectural style of Canyon Village has come to be called “NPS Modern”, and was created as a departure from the post-World War Two experience. The cabin we called home was part of a horseshoe complex; units were referred to by staff and visitors as “brownies. Painted brown in color, these square, flat-roofed cabins have been in service for half a century.
The 2 room cabin had a full bed, chair and desk, sink, shower and toilet; the sink was not in the bathroom. Though the park service website does not recognize these buildings as ‘historic’ they were primitive to the point that they are planned for demolition once a new lodge is built. Our first night we had no heat because the pilot light was out – it was a cold 38 degrees so plan accordingly. And on the note of weather – it changes by the hour from 30’s at night to 70-80 during the day, so dress in layers.
Being situated in the center of the park allowed us to divide the adventure into three single-day explore able sections. We labelled section one our geyser steam adventure, section two our wildlife adventure, and section three our water adventure.
Each day started early. According to all the travel guides the last of July and the first of August are the best weather days for visiting the park. Naturally everyone reads these guides and so the park gets busy quickly as the day unfolds.
Old Faithful is the most popular attraction with the largest visitor and shopping center in the park. Our goal was to make it there by mid-day, following Yellowstone’s Circle of Fire route to get there, stopping at some eye popping, mind-blowing sites along the way.
We got our first look at Yellowstone’s geothermal activity in an area known as the Artist Paintpots. It was a short easy hike along a trail that brought us to an area of bubbling mud, slow rising steam, and an array of colors. Throughout the Artist Paintpots mud shoot-up and danced around us like frogs jumping from spot to spot. You couldn’t help but become a little hypnotized as you watched your surroundings bubble and pop.
Just north of Old Faithful was the most incredible pool of water we’d ever seen. Even the blues of the Caribbean cannot match the neon-sapphire of this water found in Biscuit Basin. In contrast to this blue visual are the variations of yellow formed by the Mustard Springs that surround this blue jewel. Both formed by the hydrothermal elements of the park, which filled the entire basin with steam.
Our timing at Old Faithful could not have been better. The crowd had already gathered around the visitors viewing area, and eruption was imminent. We made our way to an open spot, managing to find a stump we could both stand on. It gave us a perfect line of sight to the geysers opening. Suddenly the water gushed into the air, it seemed like minutes passed as the water jetted up in a perfect column. Then slowly the column diminished until it receded back into the earth.
We spent a few hours in the Old Faithful area checking out the gifts shops, talking with local artists, and touring the exhibits in the visitor’s center. The most visited spot in Yellowstone was well equipped for the masses with lots to do and see for those making this their biggest park experience.
After a quick lunch, our adventure continued. Just south of Old Faithful, not far off the road we discovered the beautiful Kepler Cascades. Both of us are big waterfall enthusiasts. This torrent of water is tucked away in the woods off the beaten path. The view from above allows to you see the entire cascade as water tumbles over two rock hewn drops into the river below. From the cascades we journeyed back up to Firehole Lake Drive and Firehole Canyon Drive.
The first drive takes you passed several pools, a few small geysers, and to a series of boardwalks. These two boardwalks allow you to cross over steaming pools of water and prehistoric bubbling mud bogs. From the end of one boardwalk you can actually see fire burning under the water. Now while fire is in the name of the second drive, it wasn’t hot and steamy. This canyon is home to the Firehole River, its rapids and waterfall. Best of all at the end is a swimming area which looked like lots of fun, but was very crowded.
Dinner that night was in the Canyon Lodge cafeteria, which was actually very good. We were both tired, but excited about our next day’s adventure into Lamar Valley in search of wildlife.
Now both of us will confess to being members of the animal paparazzi. While not as rabid as many other in the fraternity, we have been known to pull suddenly off the road, drive down sketchy dirt byways, or hike up hills in hopes of seeing and photographing animals in the wild. (Rabbits and squirrels don’t count.) So for our trip into the Lamar Valley we were up before the sun and on the road.
As you drive north the valley comes into view as a boundless panorama to your right. Bison stand waiting to greet you with the very first turn. These majestic beasts are rulers of the park, roaming at will across roads, up hills, and through rivers and streams.
Posted signs ‘do not approach’ dot the road. This of course is a message directed to visitors, not the bison. These enormous animals are quite used to the human species and will wonder in and out between stopped vehicles on a whim. We experienced this first-hand several times, as bulls (larger than our Toyota Camry) would stop and look directly into the vehicle seeming to dare the driver to either ‘take the picture’ or drive on. It was a little unnerving. These large creatures can also run fast, and we saw many adults racing around with young calves.
The valley in the early morning was peppered with wildlife. Pronghorn sheep foraged on the perimeter of the bison herds, deer moved casually along the far ridges of the valley, and chipmunks scampered everywhere. We followed the valley road toward the parks north entrance, stopping along the way taking picture, after picture. You just can’t help yourself.
Among the animal paparazzi word travels quickly. Mountain Goats had been spotted on Barronette Peak in the northeastern most part of the park. With all do haste we made our way in that direction. We arrived to find the prestige’s Yellowstone Association Institute members lined up along the road. They had their telescopes and long lens cameras pointing up at the stark white peak. There was a lot of finger pointing at specks along the mountain face, but in the end it appeared that the long-haired goats had moved to the cooler shady side of the mountain.
Picnic areas are frequent in the park, and we had spotted one beside Soda Butte Creek. So on our return to Lamar Valley we stopped for a respite. The creek is the water connection between Pebble Creek out of Montana, and the Lamar River. It’s flat here with river stones lining both sides of the creek which at its deepest, only comes up to your waist. As you drive through the valley you can see fly fisherman standing and casting all day long in its waters.
The historic Yellow Bus tours of the park start making an appearance mid-morning to early afternoon. One of these park icons had also stopped in this fully equipped picnic area. As we strolled along the creek bed we could hear a commotion from the passengers. Then that magic word that sparks shutterbug fervor in Yellowstone hit the wind: BEAR!
Sure enough, just across the creek, foraging around an old fallen log was a bear. We moved in a pack to the creek’s edge. It was in a deeply shaded point directly across from us. The bear’s back and hindquarters making a clear showing as it dug around the old log. Much debate went on about the type of bear; the final conclusion was cinnamon black bear. This led to some disappointment among the crowd, who then began to leave. (Grizzly Bears are the holy grail of Yellowstone, and we never saw one.)
Once the bear moved out of sight, we moved on down the valley. We both felt excited at our sighting, believing this was the high point of our wildlife adventure. Little did we know what was ahead? In the middle of the road a man with camera and tripod over his shoulder was running, his eyes focused up on the hill to our right. A coyote was making its way along the ridge. We were out of the car in a blink, standing next to the photographer before he could plant his tripod legs and start snapping pictures.
Afterword we talked with the professional photographer out of Australia, who had been hired by an Atlanta magazine for a wildlife spread. He gave us a few pointers on spotting the elusive park wildlife, plus told us a few places to look for more bears. This proved a wonderful tip as we saw two more black bears during our park stay.
Lunch was at the Roosevelt Lodge. Situated on the old camp site Teddy Roosevelt once used on his frequent visits to Yellowstone. Built in 1919, the L-shaped one story log building features one large communal dining hall with fireplaces at each end. The lodge is constructed in the log cabin style, with exposed log roof beams supporting a low ceiling. We feasted on local cuisine, including the famous Roosevelt Beans.
Leaving the Tower-Roosevelt area we traveled toward Mammoth Hot Springs with a stop at the Undine Falls. While bison rule the valley, elk are the masters of the hot springs. Hardly had we stepped from our car than three elk wandered past us to an open field next to the Mammoth Hotel. Not only do they have a run of the town, but are protected by national park rangers keeping visitors at a distance from the herd.
To add to the strangeness of the whole affair, this area is a true community within the boundaries of Yellowstone. Once old Fort Yellowstone, this location is now home to park management and their families, the area features dozens of magnificent two-story stone homes, community center, fire department, theater, restaurant, shops and more. Once part of the old Army establishment of the 1900s, now restored for use by the Park Service.
If we had any regrets about our time in Yellowstone it was our departure from this area without one last look at our guidebook. Just a short drive from Mammoth Hot Springs is the north entrance of the park. We discovered later that at that entrance a great stone archway had been built. It is the only formal such entrance to the park.
Much of Yellowstone maintains that retro feel from the Mission 66 project, and we had dinner that evening in a vintage diner. The place was all 1950s, red bar stools, long white counters, skinny French fries, and classic cheeseburgers.
Our final full day in the park was our water adventure. Since it was centered around our lodging in Canyon Village, it allowed us a more leisurely start to the day, but still we stayed ahead of the crowds.
On our way up to Artist Point along the Yellowstone River we passed a majestic elk standing quietly along the side of road. We scrambled for the camera, but the bull called it a morning, moseying off into the thicket. The point ends at a cliff on the south rim of the canyon with a photographers dream view of the Yellowstone Falls. Both of the canyons falls, the upper and lower are impressive sights. At 109 feet and 308 feet respectively, Upper and Lower Falls are truly emblematic of the power of nature.
A short hike from Artist Point we took a trek along the North Rim Trail taking a recommended side path to the often overlooked Crystal Falls. It provided to be one of the most pleasant surprises in the Canyon area. The water pours from Cascade Creek, an off shoot of the Yellowstone River, and forms a striking, three-step waterfall about 129 feet high.
Back in the car, we drove to North Rim Drive, and ventured out on the Brink of the Lower Falls Trail. This long but easy to manage excursion takes you down into the canyon, and lands you just feet away from the thunderous rushing water of the Lower Falls. The observation deck sits right at the point the water breaks over the rock, and the volume of moving water is as awe inspiring as the view looking down into the canyon as it drops.
North Rim Drive offers a number of other stops for some grand views of the canyon and river. One stop you don’t want to miss is Inspiration Point. From the parking lot it is just a short hike to a platform that juts out from the canyon wall and offers panoramic views up and down the canyon.
From the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone we traveled along the Yellowstone Lake stopping for a look at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. At first sight from the parking lot visitors are disappointed at viewing a bright yellow building without any apparent character or charm. We almost didn’t get out of our car, but we were compelled to see how this place had rated as one of the Historic Hotels of America.
We soon discovered that we’d arrived from the rear of the hotel. Inside we found a newly renovated and restored building with a marvelous 1920s grandeur. The solarium off the main lobby offered a picturesque view of the lake, while the main entrance with classic white columns accenting the yellow exterior created a one of kind vision against the surrounding forest.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America. The Fishing Bridge Visitor Center and Museum overlooking the lake was part of our water adventure. The lake is home to numerous waterfowl and in the museum we learned just how many different species live along the water’s edge. We left Fishing Bridge in search of birds, and were lucky enough to spot a few common and uncommon birds, including the trumpeter swan.
Our day concluded with a simple dinner and a drive out to Steamboat Point to watch the sunset on the lake, and put a finish to our stay in Yellowstone National Park. Back in the cabin we packed and discussed the next day’s adventure in Grand Teton National Park.