Posted by on Oct 17, 2013 in Gallery, Montana, National Parks, Travel |

We arrived in Yellowstone National Park with the intention of spending about three days. Eight days later, we weren’t quite ready to leave. However, the government sent us on our way when they shut the gates to the park on October 1st. According to the stone arch that we drove through every day to enter the park, Yellowstone was created “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” But we won’t dwell on the insane shenanigans of our government officials here. Instead, we’re going to focus on how absolutely spectacular Yellowstone is, and we’re going to do our best to share our experience with you.

Which is impossible. I just want to say at the outset that trying to capture Yellowstone in photographs is challenging, to say the least. There’s just so much that doesn’t fit into the photo frame. Nothing quite prepares one for the vastness that is Yellowstone. And the diversity of landscape. And the wildlife. And the crazy weather. We learned that we definitely could not trust the weather forecasts for Yellowstone. They are always wrong. It’s not their fault. Yellowstone is just not to be tamed.

We experienced rain, sun, snow, sleet, hail, and torrential winds, sometimes all in one day. But we decided to not let any of it stop us.

The main park road is laid out somewhat like a figure eight, with a main entrance at the north (near the town of Gardiner, Montana) and another main entrance at the west (near the town of West Yellowstone, Montana). We started our adventure at the north entrance, choosing to stay in an RV park in Gardiner because a snowstorm was forecast, and we didn’t want to be stuck in a park campground with no electricity or water. It was a good decision. The nearest campground in the park (Mammoth) was crowded and sandwiched between two busy roads. In contrast, our RV park campsite was right on the river, peaceful, and convenient. We ended up staying six nights, extending our stay every afternoon when we returned from exploring and realized that we weren’t done yet.

After setting up camp, we took off for our first exploration of Yellowstone. The helpful volunteers at the Yellowstone Information Center in Gardiner advised us to drive the Lamar Valley before the impending snowstorm. The Lamar Valley is known for wildlife sightings: We put bison, elk, pronghorn, grizzly bears, and wolves on our wish list. Heeding the advice of the rangers, we also bought an enormous canister of bear spray. And we were tutored in exactly how to use it: If a bear makes a threatening move, aim the spray toward the ground and give the bear a warning blast (make sure you’re not downwind of the spray). If the bear keeps coming, unleash the remainder of the pepper spray into his face. Other instructions—don’t run, and don’t scream. Which is exactly the opposite of what every cell of your being is programmed to do.

Things have changed dramatically in Yellowstone since the last time I visited. It was 1961, I was 7 years old, and our family was on a cross-country road trip in our VW bug. My most vivid memory from that trip is of feeding the bears. We rolled up slices of bread in the windows of our VW, and the black bears would lumber up to the car and snatch the bread from the window. It was thrilling! The rangers at that time displayed a laissez-faire attitude toward the interaction of people and wildlife. But at some point in the ensuing decades, it became obvious that feeding the bears wasn’t such a great idea. I think it was when the bears figured out that they could just break into cars and tents and take whatever they wanted.

Since that time, grizzly bears have also made a comeback in Yellowstone. That, combined with stories of more aggressive black bear behavior, and the fact that fall is the time when bears are ravenously foraging for food before they go into hibernation, encouraged us to fork over $45 for the bear spray.

The entire time we were in Yellowstone, we didn’t leave the truck without Eric strapping on the big red canister of bear spray (the rangers cautioned us to wear the canister at all times on a belt or shoulder harness). We also talked and sang on every hike, because bears don’t like to be surprised. I like to converse while we’re hiking, admiring the beauty of the landscape, naming the plants, spotting birds and animals along the way. But it was exhausting even for me to keep up constant chatter. As for Eric, after a hike to Beaver Ponds just above the Mammoth area (where bears had been spotted and so we talked and sang the entire way), I told him he talked more on that hike than in 16 years of our previous hiking together. We decided then that we weren’t doing any more hiking in forested areas where we couldn’t see what was around us.

Here, the first half of our adventure in Yellowstone:

Day 1: Drove through golden Lamar Valley along the winding Lamar River with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. It was a gorgeous drive, and almost right away we saw bison. In fact, as we attempted a short hike to Wraith Falls, we were blocked by bison on the trail, and decided to turn around and give them the right-of-way. We also saw an enormous herd of elk in the little enclave of Mammoth Springs—one bull, and at least 15 females. He was busy the entire time we were at Yellowstone bugling and charging vehicles and people. There were several rangers on duty at all times trying to keep insane people from getting too close. When I mentioned to one ranger that it must be a pain trying to keep people from doing stupid things, he remarked, “If I had my way, I’d let people do what they want. If they want to be nominated for a Darwin Award, let ‘em at it!”

Day 2: Mammoth Hot Springs is just a few miles inside the north entrance to Yellowstone. It’s a 300-foot brilliant white travertine mound, encircled in clouds of steam from the various pools that cascade down the sides. A couple of miles of boardwalks, connected by steep stairs, meander around the pools. We walked the boardwalks, enjoying the cascading springs and the views from high above of the lodge below.

Late in the afternoon, we hiked a half-mile trail in heavy fog to soak in natural hot pools, at the sweet spot where the Boiling River meets the ice-cold Gardiner River (just inside the park boundary). We lucked out in that most people were apparently deterred by the weather, and there was only one other couple at the pools. Wading about 50-feet over slippery rocks in the knee-deep, swirling, freezing river to reach the hot pools was challenging, but soaking in the pools, mist rising around us, was magical.

Day 3: Stormy and cold! In the afternoon it cleared enough for us to hike the Beaver Ponds trail, a 5-mile hike above Mammoth Hot Springs. This was the hike that convinced us we weren’t going to hike any more trails at Yellowstone that involved densely forested areas (and potential encounters with bears).

Day 4: We drove about 20 miles to Norris Geyser Basin, one of the most active geyser areas in the park. I browsed the little museum at the entrance to the boardwalk, and saw an image of the molten lava that bubbles beneath all of Yellowstone. It’s a bit unsettling to realize that Yellowstone is one of the largest super volcanoes in the world, and that at some point, it’s going to erupt again (the last time was about 650,000 years ago). But I was relieved to find out that officials have an evacuation plan just in case things heat up. (I’m sure that’s going to go smoothly.)

A better plan is to just not think about the fact that you’re walking above an active volcano. Norris Geyser Basin was our favorite of the geyser areas—dozens of varied hot pools, geysers, mud pots, and steam vents; all simultaneously bubbling, gurgling, popping, and whistling. Great clouds of sulfurous steam surrounded us as we walked the couple of miles of boardwalks. It was like strolling through a beautiful version of hell.

Yellowstone, Part I

Gateway To North Yellowstone

Yellowstone RV Park, Gardiner

Yellowstone Park Info In Gardiner

Post Office In Mammoth Hot Springs

With His Harem In Mammoth Village

Lamar Valley Drive

The Wolf Watchers

Bison On The Trail

Enormous And Shaggy

More Wolf Watchers

Sunset Lamar Valley

Mammoth Hot Springs Near Entrance To Boardwalk

The Boardwalk Around Mammoth Hot Springs

On The Boardwalk At Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs Village

Palette Spring

Canary Spring

Do Not Approach If Hungry

On The Trail To The Soaking Pools

First View Of The Soaking Pools

The Boiling River

To The Soaking Pools

Fleece Vest And A Towel

Packing Bear Spray

How Things Used To Be

Approaching Norris Geyser Basin

Entrance To Norris Geyser Basin-CCC Structure

Norris Geyser Basin

On The Boardwalk Norris Geyser Basin

Steambath In The Norris Geyser Basin

Geyser Spouting

Porcelain Springs

Bubbling Hot Spring

Geysers And Hot Pools Everywhere

Gorgeous Colloidal Pool

Colorful Heat Loving Microorganisms

Illustration From The Museum-This Is What Lies Beneath Yellowstone!

Up To No Good On Top Of Our Kayak

Yellowstone, Part I
Gateway To North Yellowstone
Yellowstone RV Park, Gardiner
Yellowstone Park Info In Gardiner
Post Office In Mammoth Hot Springs
With His Harem In Mammoth Village
Lamar Valley Drive
The Wolf Watchers
Bison On The Trail
Enormous And Shaggy
More Wolf Watchers
Sunset Lamar Valley
Mammoth Hot Springs Near Entrance To Boardwalk
The Boardwalk Around Mammoth Hot Springs
On The Boardwalk At Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs Village
Palette Spring
Canary Spring
Do Not Approach If Hungry
On The Trail To The Soaking Pools
First View Of The Soaking Pools
The Boiling River
To The Soaking Pools
Fleece Vest And A Towel
Packing Bear Spray
How Things Used To Be
Approaching Norris Geyser Basin
Entrance To Norris Geyser Basin-CCC Structure
Norris Geyser Basin
On The Boardwalk Norris Geyser Basin
Steambath In The Norris Geyser Basin
Geyser Spouting
Porcelain Springs
Bubbling Hot Spring
Geysers And Hot Pools Everywhere
Gorgeous Colloidal Pool
Colorful Heat Loving Microorganisms
Illustration From The Museum-This Is What Lies Beneath Yellowstone!
Up To No Good On Top Of Our Kayak
Yellowstone, Part I  thumbnail
Gateway To North Yellowstone  thumbnail
Yellowstone RV Park, Gardiner thumbnail
Yellowstone Park Info In Gardiner thumbnail
Post Office In Mammoth Hot Springs  thumbnail
With His Harem In Mammoth Village thumbnail
Lamar Valley Drive  thumbnail
The Wolf Watchers  thumbnail
Bison On The Trail  thumbnail
Enormous And Shaggy thumbnail
More Wolf Watchers  thumbnail
Sunset Lamar Valley  thumbnail
Mammoth Hot Springs Near Entrance To Boardwalk  thumbnail
The Boardwalk Around Mammoth Hot Springs  thumbnail
On The Boardwalk At Mammoth Hot Springs  thumbnail
Mammoth Hot Springs Village  thumbnail
Palette Spring  thumbnail
Canary Spring  thumbnail
Do Not Approach If Hungry   thumbnail
On The Trail To The Soaking Pools  thumbnail
First View Of The Soaking Pools  thumbnail
The Boiling River  thumbnail
To The Soaking Pools  thumbnail
Fleece Vest And A Towel  thumbnail
Packing Bear Spray  thumbnail
How Things Used To Be thumbnail
Approaching Norris Geyser Basin thumbnail
Entrance To Norris Geyser Basin-CCC Structure  thumbnail
Norris Geyser Basin  thumbnail
On The Boardwalk Norris Geyser Basin  thumbnail
Steambath In The Norris Geyser Basin  thumbnail
Geyser Spouting  thumbnail
Porcelain Springs  thumbnail
Bubbling Hot Spring  thumbnail
Geysers And Hot Pools Everywhere  thumbnail
Gorgeous Colloidal Pool  thumbnail
Colorful Heat Loving Microorganisms  thumbnail
Illustration From The Museum-This Is What Lies Beneath Yellowstone!  thumbnail
Up To No Good On Top Of Our Kayak  thumbnail