Our last visit to Yellowstone was in the fall of 2013, just after we started our fulltime travels. We returned in early June this year with the hope of seeing baby animals, exploring areas we didn’t get to last time, and doing a lot more hiking. What we discovered is that 1) Yellowstone is bigger than we remembered, 2) There are always road closures and traffic jams that interfere with the best-laid plans, and 3) Many hiking trails don’t open until sometime in July.
The best part of coming to Yellowstone in early June? The waterfalls are flowing at full force, baby animals are plentiful, and the park is relatively uncrowded. Still, we got caught in a traffic jam on our way to the Old Faithful area that was so daunting we bailed in favor of an alternate plan. And we never got to Old Faithful (although we went last time we were here, so that was really okay). When you’re in Yellowstone, head for any attraction far earlier than you think is reasonable.
In four days, we only explored about one-third of the park, and some of it was a repeat of what we did the first time in 2013. Fortunately, the part we did see has some of the most stunning features and abundant wildlife in the park.
Now into the sixth year of our fulltime journey, we’ve realized that once we set up camp, we like to keep our explorations pretty close to home. Traveling fulltime and moving frequently, the last thing we want to do is spend a lot of additional time driving.
We concentrated our attention on the northern section of the park, revisiting Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin, exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and driving the Lamar Valley in search of wildlife. As for the lower section of the park, we’re planning to base ourselves at the western or southern entrance to explore those areas on a future visit.
Geysers And Other Thermal Wonders
Yellowstone is unique because it sits directly on top of a giant, active volcano. Major eruptions are few and far between—the most recent was 630,000 years ago. If the volcano should blow, it will be a catastrophic event that will rain ash over the entire country. But no one reputable seems to think there is imminent danger of an explosion, so I just ignore the fact that we’re wandering around on a supervolcano.
There is no question that Yellowstone is a hotbed of thermal activity, though. The earth steams, bubbles, and explodes in great geysers of boiling water, little burbling fountains, and blooping mud pots in surreal shades of turquoise, brilliant orange, and emerald green. Throw in a bright blue, cloud-studded sky and the effect is dazzling. Even on a gray and rainy day, Yellowstone is stunning.
Geysers are among the rarest of nature’s features, and there are more in Yellowstone than anywhere else on earth. Miles of boardwalks wind alongside hundreds of geysers and hot pools throughout the park. Each has its own personality—Pearl is a dainty little thing. Dragon’s Mouth Spring erupts in great bursts of steam roaring from a cave. There’s Whirlygig, Pinwheel, Jewel, Emerald, Morning Glory, Kaleidoscope, Vixen, and hundreds more, including Porkchop (someone must have been hungry when they named that one).
Steamboat, in Norris Geyser Basin, is the largest geyser in the world and its eruptions can reach 400 feet into the air. Not knowing when it’s going to erupt is part of the allure.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Just a few miles inside the north entrance to the park lies Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the most beautiful and unique thermal areas in Yellowstone. Over centuries, hot mineral water bubbling up through limestone deposited thin layers of calcium carbonate, forming travertine terraces that look like waterfalls frozen in time.
Almost two miles of boardwalk wind around the terraces, offering close-up views of nature’s sculpture and wonderful panoramic views of the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District.
Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin, about 17 miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs on the west side of the park, is the oldest, hottest, and most active hydrothermal area in Yellowstone. Three miles of winding, looping trails lead through a mesmerizing landscape of hissing vents, boiling hot springs, spouting geysers, and colorful runoff channels. It’s a festival of sound and color, and one of our favorite spots in Yellowstone.
The chalky white basin gets its porcelain color from geyserite, a mineral deposited over centuries of thermal activity. Heat-loving microorganisms called thermophiles are responsible for the riotous colors of Yellowstone’s geysers and hot pools. Apparently, these microscopic life forms were the beginnings of life on earth billions of years ago.
The Grand Canyon Of The Yellowstone
Our longest drive was to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, about 40 miles southeast. Carved over eons by wind and water, the canyon is nearly 20 miles long and almost a mile wide. We were there during peak runoff, with more than 60,000 gallons per second of water crashing over the falls. Later in the year, the runoff diminishes to 5,000 gallons per second.
You can see the canyon from numerous scenic overlooks, but the trails along the canyon rim are fun to hike. The views are breathtaking—and so are the hikes that descend steeply into the canyon.
And Of Course, The Wildlife
In the early 60s, my family made a cross-country trip to Yellowstone in a VW bug. (Doesn’t THAT sound like fun?) My most vivid memory is of feeding the black bears, an activity that was encouraged by the rangers. We rolled up slices of bread in the windows of our car, and the bears would lumber up and snatch the bread from the window. It was thrilling!
How times have changed. Now we don’t go anywhere in Yellowstone without our bear spray.
Early June is a wonderful time to see all kinds of animals and their young in Yellowstone. Driving the Lamar Valley is a good place to see bison, elk, and bear. But we had our best elk sightings hiking from Mammoth Campground to Mammoth Hot Springs. We gave them wide berth—elk are highly protective of their young, and we didn’t want to add our names to the roster of tourists who do stupid things in Yellowstone.
About The Campgrounds
We needed to do laundry, we wanted electric hookups, and we didn’t want to deal with trying to snag a first-come, first-served site within the national park. So we reserved three nights at Yellowstone RV Park, just outside the northern entrance to the park in Gardiner. Not a lot of privacy here, but we liked our site backing up to the Yellowstone River. Full hookups, laundry, wifi, and a convenient walk into the cute little town of Gardiner. It’s expensive, but so is every private park around Yellowstone.
After assessing that Mammoth Hot Springs Campground (a first-come, first-served national park campground) had sites available each morning, we moved into the park for two nights. It’s a pretty campground, close to the road (but traffic noise wasn’t an issue) and best of all, hiking distance to Mammoth Hot Springs. We saw more elk here than anywhere else in the park. No showers, but they have restrooms and potable water throughout the campground. Verizon was usable.
Yellowstone, we’ll be back! And we’ll finally get to the Tetons, too, when we return.