Before arriving at Yellowstone National Park, from what I had seen before, and most recently in the Ken Burns' documentary America's Best Idea, I had an impression that Yellowstone was going to be a vast, chalky landscape that smelled like sulfur with steam hissing all over the place. And bison, tons of bison. Well, it was that, but it was so much more, as well.
This was a family trip, and as on many family trip, there really wouldn't be a chance for me to range far and wide, hiking on remote trails to spectacular peaks. Therefore, as on other trips, I was making mental notes on where I would explore if I ever had the chance to backpack in Yellowstone.
We left San Diego for a short, uneventful flight to Salt Lake City. From there, we met up with our other family members, McD, MB and the ever fun Lauren, Sophia's cousin that would turn 4 shortly after our return. We all boarded a small turboprop and waved goodbye to the Great Salt Lake. Before long, we were over the Grand Tetons. More mental notes were clicking in my head, as I saw green meadows in beautiful basins leading up to granite ridges. I wanted to walk all over those mountains.
The mountains gave way to a plateau the was reminiscent of the Tunguska blast in Russia, where millions of trees were felled in a blast of unknown origin. This event, however, was known. In 1988, over a 3rd of Yellowstone was on fire. Now, 23 years later, Yellowstone is still recovering, but younger forests are sprouting up all over the place.
After a very bumpy ride and a very steep turn, we landed at West Yellowstone. We picked up our rental car and drove the 5 minutes it took to get into town. Our first trip through town was over nearly before it began, due to the fact that West Yellowstone is such a small town. We got settled into our cabin, did some grocery shopping and we barbecued on the porch. The weather was nice and the cabin was huge and comfortable. We planned our next day and settled in for the night.
The next day, we drove into the west entrance to Yellowstone and was quickly amazed by the beauty of the area. The Madison River flows next to the road. This was not the wasteland I was expecting. We stopped at the visitor center so the kids could run around. The valley opened up before us. Before long, we were eager to see as much of the park that we could see in a day, so we continued on.
We stopped at the first geysers we saw and walked on the boardwalk around the area. This was what I was expecting to see and it didn't disappoint. Many people were holding their noses at the smell of sulfur, but we all thought it was fine. We saw bubbling mud (The Fountain Paint Pot) and impossibly blue springs. We were surrounded by steam when the Spasm Geyser erupted when we were downwind.
Back to the car, we headed towards Old Faithful village, where we had lunch. The kids were tired, so we decided to go for a long drive past Yellowstone Lake. When the kids woke up, we saw our first bison on the side of the road. Before long, we saw a couple of more. They seemed totally unreal, anachronisms of nature, as they fed on grass and lumbered around. We stopped again at Le Hardy Rapids. It's important that the kids run around and play. At every body of water, they wanted to rush in and play, but we had to be careful, since the water was moving pretty quickly at many of the rivers.
After the kids had their fill, we decided to head north to The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We passed Hayden Valley along the way, as it opened up wide ahead of us. We saw our first geese in the creeks and were really surprised by the beauty of the area.
We took the South Rim Drive to Artist Point. The immensity of the Lower Falls was almost overwhelming. I could imagine the early explorers on horseback encountering the canyon and wanting to share it with the rest of the world. I took a about 20 pictures of the same thing, since I wanted to make sure I captured it. But a camera cannot truly capture what a singular place this was.
We lingered at Artist Point for an hour or so, but the light was beginning to fade. We decided to start heading back towards the cabin. On South Rim Drive, we saw some traffic stopped ahead. There was a bison on the road, taking his time. Cars were stopped in either direction, but "bison don't care," he just was plodding along and crossed the road right behind us.
Thinking our wildlife experience was done for the day, we passed a herd of elk, grazing in the setting sunlight in a meadow next to the Madison River. We were elated and tired. And this was just our first day.
We woke up the next day and decided to not to do quite so much driving. We got a late start and headed to Idaho. I had read about Big Springs, a pretty little area tucked away off a dirt road near Island Park. Only about 30 minutes down the road from West Yellowstone, we found the parking lot without a problem. We popped some popcorn before we left, since someone had told me about how much the trout like it. Not fishing is allowed, as all these giant trout relax under the bridge. Every once in a while, a muskrat would swim out from the banks of the spring and nibble on a piece of popcorn.
The kids loved it. The trout ended up being full or just not interested in the popcorn, since the local seagulls snatched everything away for the trout even feigned interest in it. The weather was great, the area extremely tranquil. The other side of the spring was adorned with the Johnny Sack cabin, built by hand in 1929, when this area was still fairly wild.
It was nearing lunch time, so we decided to head back. I lingered, taking some pictures of the bridge. I turned and looked downstream and saw two moose in the water. As quietly as I could, I let the others know what I saw. They came back from the car and we quietly made our way down the trail towards the large animals. We got as close as we felt safe, and took plenty of pictures and then just enjoyed their presence. After a while, they turned and went upstream, crossing the path back to our car.
I told everyone to wait while I went ahead to make sure they were truly gone and we all excitedly went back to the car, completely charged up by the experience.
We had some lunch and walked around the shops at West Yellowstone, capping it off with some huckleberry ice cream from a corner stand.
On day three, we decided to go back into Yellowstone and do the northern loop. And the kids really wanted to go swimming. We stopped at the Beaver Lake turnoff, but most of the water was gone. The kids still had fun playing in a barely moving stream. Before long, we headed up through Mammoth Hot Springs and on to the Boiling River. We hiked about a mile with the kids and they were rewarded with a hot spring flowing into an icy river. Where they met, there is a nice warm place to swim. We were there for hours. The kids had such a great time, they didn't want to leave. However, after seeing a deer sipping from the stream, it was time to head back. While going through the town, we saw some elk, lounging on the lawn by a hotel.
The girls slept pretty quickly, worn out from all the swimming. And most of the adults slept, too. As a result, we didn't get to stop in the Roosevelt/Tower area of the park, which contains some of my favorite county. I loved looking out at the rolling yellowing grasslands, studded with dark green oaks. I saw a group of horses, headed out for a late afternoon ride. Since I was driving, I took no pictures.
Everyone finally woke up south of Mount Washburn, where we stopped at a view point to stretch our legs. Before long, we were into the Canyon area, having some dinner and some ice cream. We shopped and allowed the kids to play their hearts out. Give them a bench and some water and they can keep themselves busy indefinitely.
On the way back, we saw a bunch of cars near a turnout and slowed down when suddenly, a black bear was rearing up next to our car. Similar to the bison before, it decided to cross the road behind us. All over in mere seconds, it was too fast and too dark to take a picture, but it's a moment I will not soon forget.
The next day, we were itching to get back into the park, so we drove the southern loop again, determined to hit the points that we missed the first time there. We wanted to see the Grand Prismatic Spring, but not from the boardwalk that is adjacent to it. We really wanted to see the colors, so we decided to hike the trail that runs west of the spring. Once we crossed the Firehole River, viewed some grazing elk, and were lined up with the spring, we realized that the trail wasn't much higher in elevation than the boardwalk, so the view wasn't that great.
We looked behind us to the use trails that led to the ridge above and we decided to have a go at it. We wondered if the kids would make it, but we shoudn't have worried. Occasionally holding their hands, we scrambled up the loose soil and falling trees to a nice viewpoint above the basin. We were rewarded with a wonderful view of the spring. All around us, the wind started blowing and the clouds got darker. We heard thunder in the distance. We thought it was a good idea to descend back to the trail.
We hiked back to the river while the clouds got darker. We saw a bald eagle in a tree high on the ridge and a small family of birds were wedged into a corner of the bridge. The kids played with some logs and we headed back into the car. We wanted to see Old Faithful, since we missed it last time.
We got to Old Faithful Village as the sun was starting to set and had some dinner overlooking the great geyser herself. As we were walking out to the patio, it started erupting. Shooting skyward with great rushing noises, it was a sight to behold. However, the kids missed it. We decided to hang out until the next "showing" and walked around the basin. About an hour an a half later, we were done with our hike and it was nearly dark. After several false starts, Old Faithful spouted high for a long eruption. Too dark for pictures, seeing the geyser erupt in the dark was a cool thing to see. We drove home in total darkness.
It was our last full day at Yellowstone. What did we do? We headed back into the park. There was so much to see, so we headed up to the Mammoth Hot Springs area, to see what we had missed when we merely drove through the other day. On the way, we stopped at Gibbons Falls for a rest and at Sheepeater Cliff for a picnic. Every new place we saw was yet another face of the park.
After playing with the woodpeckers and squirrels, we headed up to Mammoth Hot Springs to get some ice cream. On the way we drove to the terraces, which were yet another fantastic example of geothermal features. The kids needed a rest, so I wandered the town and went into the visitor center. I bought the kids some Yellowstone National Park patches, since they had been so good at spotting animals. We took our time there. Once again the weather was great. We soaked up the scenery and decided to head back as the sun set.
Not to disappoint us, we passed another lone bison in a meadow below the road.
We woke up on the last day and decided to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. We did a little shopping along the way and took our time. Our flight was at 5PM and the airport was literally 5 minutes away with no real security lines.
Once inside, the girls wanted to skip the interior exhibits and go straight to the animals outside. It was another warm day, but there was shade. We saw the grizzly bears right away. They were immense. Whenever I see them in an exhibit, I wonder what it would be like to encounter them while on the trail, far away from help. I can only imagine what my behavior would be. Probably a lot of shouting and holding my trekking poles in a defensive manner.
We then saw the wolves and were treated to some coming right up to the glass, long legs and all. We had a little picnic outside the center and then we decided to go back into the park, one more time. It was getting warmer and we found a spot where the kids could play in the stream. The Madison River is truly beautiful; a fly-fisherman's dream. It was a perfect way to end our trip.
We still had some time, so we stopped in town and got some hand-made huckleberry ice cream. It was delicious.
We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. We watched the beautiful landscapes of Yellowstone fall away as we gained altitude. We saw some wildfires in the distance. The wildlife and various personalities of Yellowstone were etched on our memories.
I'd like to come back some day and walk all over those mountains.