Yellowstone: spectacular, interesting, magical, fun, cool, neat, a marvel, fascinating, pretty, beautiful, full of wildlife, full of many nice park rangers and employees, family- and kid-friendly.
Yellowstone: vast, huge, requires too much driving, frustrating, tiring, touristy, over-developed, anxiety-producing, stinky (lots of sulfa), crowded, noisy, sensory-overload.
So, yes, we have mixed feelings about Yellowstone. Our Yellowstone experience was certainly colored by two factors. First, we have been to some really gorgeous places recently, including Grand Teton National Park just prior to Yellowstone; these places have upped the ante, and we do feel like we’re a little bit on overload from seeing so much. Grand Teton was also completely majestic, breathtaking, and easy to love; after a near-perfect week there, maybe we should have adjusted our expectations a bit. Second, we visited Yellowstone over July Fourth week and weekend. Enough said. Really, though, after our experience in Arches National Park over Memorial Day week/weekend, we had vowed to avoid national parks during holidays for the rest of the year. But, as we approached Wyoming and Grand Teton and realized that we might wind up in Yellowstone over July Fourth, we just figured to heck with it! When in Rome… And we decided to brave the crowds and go anyway. We’ve gotten fairly good at avoiding crowds in the national parks by employing a number of various strategies: hiking longer trails, going into the backcountry, exploring more popular areas during peak mealtimes while everyone else is eating, etc., so we felt somewhat confident in our ability to at least minimize our exposure to the crowds. Well, we were humbled.
Every park has its own personality, quirks, norms, and ways of functioning. It took us a couple of days to figure out Yellowstone.
First of all, the park is huge and travel is time-consuming. It’s the largest park in the nation after several in Alaska and Death Valley in California and Nevada; it’s just under 3,500 square miles, and the Grand Loop Road that connects the eight major areas in the park is 142 miles! Between exploring the park and meeting up with a friend, we drove the entire Grand Loop one day and ended up driving almost 90% of it another day. Part of this was due to where we were staying in the park, which I’ll discuss soon, and part of it was due simply to wanting to explore all the major parts of the park. Suffice it to say, we spent a lot of time in the truck, which isn’t our favorite pastime when we’re in a park to explore the great outdoors.
Driving inside the park also isn’t easy or fast. All major roads are paved, and the few short dirt roads that we tried were in really good condition, which is more than we can say about most other parks we’ve visited this year (Big Bend, southern Utah parks, etc.), but driving (safely, at least) requires one to be hypervigilant and patient, the latter of which we’re not pros. One of the treasures of Yellowstone is that wildlife is plentiful and easy to view from the roads/roadsides; in fact, we saw more wildlife driving down the road than we did on any hiking trail, which was honestly okay with us! The abundance of wildlife near or on the roadways, though, does require one to be alert and defensive while driving. We had near-misses with a bear, deer, and bison even though we traveled at or below the speed limit, which is 45 mph max, and often less, throughout the entire park.
Additionally, fellow drivers and park visitors often stop alongside the road or, commonly, in the middle of the road to view wildlife nearby, which causes frequent traffic jams.
And, a huge area of heavily-traveled (at least for us) road on the Grand Loop was under construction, with miles and miles of roadway disturbed. While we certainly understand that construction has to happen this time of year, it seemed like an excessive amount of road was torn up at once. We also frequently had to sit in long lines to find parking in many lots. Between the wildlife traffic jams, construction, and crowds, Yellowstone felt like being in city gridlock at times.
Secondly, the campground system at Yellowstone isn’t terribly easy to navigate. About half the campgrounds are operated by a concessionaire, which automatically drives up the price; they also include things like two showers per day, which we don’t need because we actually use our RV shower. If there’s something we dislike more than spending money, it’s spending money on things we don’t need or don’t use. The other half of the campgrounds are operated by the park system (NPS) and are cheaper and first-come, first-served. We got a reservation at a concessionaire campground for the first night to make our transition from Grand Teton easier, and then we figured we could easily move to a more centrally located NPS campground. After all, we’ve become pros at working the first-come, first-served system. Well, we were humbled again. To make a long story short, due to a variety of factors largely out of our control, including some ridiculous rules and regulations, we ended up at the furthest north campground in the park in Mammoth Hot Springs. Though cheaper, we easily burned up our savings in gas. The Mammoth Hot Springs area is really neat – it’s home to the gorgeous Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces and to a historic fort and resort.
However, staying in Mammoth requires significant drive time to most other major areas in the park; hence, lots of time in the truck! The campground is long and narrow, situated in the middle of a big switchback in the road, which meant we heard traffic from three directions, as cars, motorcycles, motorhomes, and construction vehicles made their way back and forth along the switchback at all hours of the day and night. Additionally, the campground allows generator use for 12 hours a day. We were lucky enough to have a neighbor who ran his generator ALL DAY, along with his diesel engine truck most of the day in order to put additional charge in his RV battery/ies. He clearly had battery problems or no clue what he was doing. Since we’re generator-free, this was particularly annoying.
Third, on our first full day in the park, we went on our first, and as it turns out, only, backcountry hike in Yellowstone. The hike came highly recommended by a friendly park ranger, who told us it’s his very favorite hike in the park. So, of course, we set out with high expectations. The first mile or two were pretty and neat; we hiked across a huge old suspension bridge high above the beautiful, raging Yellowstone River and then hiked through a scenic sagebrush plateau. After that, we hiked and hiked and hiked with little scenic reward (we didn’t even see any wildlife beyond a deer!), disappointed that we weren’t even following the nearby stream, though we could see it occasionally just past the tree line. Additionally, the flies were relentless – they flew into our ears, mouths, and shirts and then started biting us.
After we finally got off the trail, we reassessed our options for the rest of the week. Given the vastness of the park, our campground location, and the crowds slowing us down, we simply weren’t going to have time to see the major front-country attractions and experience the backcountry, which at this point didn’t seem too appealing anyway. Plus, we figured we’ll have a lot more excellent hiking ahead of us at other parks. In short, we realized that Yellowstone, unlike many of the parks we’ve visited, is not a park where the best treasures are hidden in the backcountry; most of them are very easily accessible to the public and to the crowds. And our desire to avoid the crowds wasn’t worth missing the best parts of the park. As they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! So we did.
I certainly don’t regret our choice. The popular geyser basins and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are popular for good reason, and they didn’t disappoint. Refer back to my first set of adjectives at the beginning of the post if you’d like some words to describe these places. Yes, the crowds were obnoxious. At times, I was afraid I’d get pushed off the boardwalks at the geyser basins onto the hot, soft ground below, which has the potential to collapse and send you into fatally scalding water below (no, not at all scary, and also not very likely, but it did cross my mind many times and occasionally made it hard to enjoy what I was there to see). Also, if I never see another selfie stick in my life, I’ll be happy.
Our favorite day was spent at Upper Geyser Basin where we saw several big geysers erupt in one day through a combination of strategy, planning, luck, and information from a knowledgeable “Geyser Gazer” (geyser gazers are mostly retirees who meticulously clock and predict when even the smallest geysers will erupt). So, we saw Old Faithful, Grand (the tallest predictable geyser in the world), Daisy, and Lone Star erupt, in addition to several smaller geysers.
Part of what made the day so enjoyable was that we parked at Old Faithful and then rode our mountain bikes everywhere, including to Biscuit Basin and Lone Star Geyser, which are set apart from the rest of the Upper Basin; this allowed us to see more because we weren’t fighting traffic and parking lot madness.
We rounded out the day with seeing a cycling buddy from home and driving through gorgeous Hayden Valley at prime evening time to see wildlife and to enjoy beautiful photography light.
Other highlights of the week: biking and hiking to Natural Bridge; driving along Blacktail Plateau and Firehole Canyon Drives; exploring West Thumb, Midway, Lower, and Norris Geyser Basins; hiking a portion of the North Rim Trail where we took a side trail to an overlook of Crystal Falls, which hardly anyone seems to know about (our National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks book, which we LOVE, recommended it); and exploring several of the short trails and overlooks in the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls area in Canyon Village, including Uncle Tom’s Trail, which provides a face-on view of the massive Lower Falls near its base after descending 500 feet in half a mile via a steep trail with 328 steep, narrow metal stairs (yes, the basic law of what goes down must come up applies). We also lucked out and saw several rainbows at the Brink of the Upper Falls. Fun fact about the Norris Geyser Basin: it’s the hottest and driest basin, which means it’s full of steam vents that are like underground teakettles – boiling water below and steam shooting off above; in 2003, the ground temperature in this area increased to 200-degrees 1 cm underground, causing all the vegetation in the area to die immediately!
So, all things considered, yes, we had a very good five days in Yellowstone. In hindsight, the only thing I’d do differently next time (besides not going during a holiday) is stay at a pricier campground to guarantee a central location in the park. Even with reservations required at these campgrounds, we probably could have made it work this time (seems like there were a lot of cancellations and last-minute reservations), but we didn’t want to spend another half day driving and moving the trailer, which would have included dragging it through the large construction zone again. Hindsight is always 20/20.
And while we really mean it this time – no more holidays will be spent in national parks! – it was special to celebrate Independence Day in our country’s first national park, a place that helps preserve America the Beautiful.
As always, thanks for reading this lengthy post and following along with our RV gap year adventures! We’re currently enjoying a travel time-out in small town Cody, WY and will likely take a detour to South Dakota to visit Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks before heading to Montana and the Pacific Northwest for the rest of the summer.