On one of my many cross-country trips in the early 1980s, I took a considerable detour off of Interstate 80 and spent a few hours touring around Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone National Park. I knew that I didn’t have time to do Yellowstone justice, so I skipped it and vowed I would return at some point in the future.
Now, about 35 years later, I’ve made good on that promise. (Better late than never!)
Going into the trip, I was both excited and a little apprehensive. Excited because it was someplace new for me; apprehensive because I wasn’t sure that it was going to offer the sort of things that really appeal to me.
As with my story about the Grand Tetons National Park, please be patient as the photos load. Also, you may click on any photo to enlarge it.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is huge. At 3,471 square miles / 8.990 square kilometers, it’s as large as Rhode Island and Delaware combined, so there’s no way to see it all in a few days. You have to pick and choose what you’ll want to see based on the amount of time you’ll have in the park.
The Grand Loop Road forms a figure-eight of sorts, with a northern loop and a southern loop. Unfortunately, road construction has closed the Canyon-Tower road, lopping off the northeastern quadrant of the figure eight, turning it into a six. That, and some other construction between Norris and Mammoth made getting around a bit more challenging.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin is the first place I stopped after entering Yellowstone National Park. It’s also where I had my National Parks Passport book stamped.
The basin has a collection of geysers in a fairly compact area that you can walk through on boardwalks well above the fragile, superheated ground. Some of the geysers actually extend into Lake Yellowstone, and the whole area makes for a great introduction into the geothermal features of the park if you’re coming in from the south.
Hayden Valley is along the Yellowstone River between the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lake Yellowstone (more to the northern end of that area). In theory, you should be able to see some wildlife on the open, undulating grasslands, and I did, but not in large numbers.
There was a bison or two each day as I drove through the valley, and you could always count on the Canada geese and two swans on the river in the same location every day. I guess they claimed that section of the river as their “turf.” It must have been a great source of food for them, as they spent about as much time with their heads underwater as they did above water.
One morning, there was a traffic jam along the Grand Loop Road, and I thought, “Good. Maybe it’s something special.” Two coyotes. Cars backed up to see two cousins of the dog. Perhaps some thought they were wolves instead.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Yellowstone River carved the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone over the millennia, and it did a very fine job in doing so, revealing the yellow stone along the canyon cliffs that helped give the park its name.
There are two sets of main waterfalls as the Yellowstone River enters the canyon. The lesser-known and smaller Upper Falls, and the larger, iconic Lower Falls. The “money shot” of the Lower Falls from Artist’s Point was the top thing on my photography “to do” list, so I made a beeline for Artist’s Point the first day in the park.
Because the canyon runs essentially east-west, I wanted to be there early to have the rising/morning sunlight illuminating the waterfalls.
I was in the parking lot by 9 a.m. (it was fairly empty at that point), and took the short walk (about 500 m) to the main observation area. Only a handful of others were up there and, like so many others, I let out an audible, “Wow!” as I set eyes upon the scene before me.
With so few people there, I didn’t feel too guilty setting up my tripod in a prime location. I wouldn’t be blocking too many people. I snagged a few photos but then busloads of tourists began to arrive, and I packed up my tripod for the time being to allow them access to a great view.
Even so, I wasn’t done. I wanted to see how the light changed on the canyon walls as the sun rose higher in the sky, so I stayed. Later, around 10:30 a.m., I squeezed my tripod back along the front wall for another series of photos and then called it quits for the day.
I am torn between the vertical and horizontal compositions. Each has its appeal.
Mammoth Hot Springs
The Mammoth Hot Springs area is the north entrance to the park, and both times I was there, it was jam-packed with people. So much so that finding parking, either in the village or at the terraced hot springs, was next to impossible and I just wasn’t up for the battle. That means I’ll have to try again another time.
Black Sand Basin
Black Sand Basin didn’t have any black sand, as far as I could tell. It did, however, have a number of quite active thermal features.
Old Faithful Geyser
What trip to Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without seeing Old Faithful? It erupts about every 90 minutes or so, and the eruptions can last from about a minute and a half to nearly five minutes. During my visit there, the eruption seemed to be a bit on the shorter side.
We arrived about 45 minutes in advance of the scheduled eruption time and just enjoyed sitting on the benches around Old Faithful, eating a sandwich we bought in the general store.
After watching the show, we stopped in the famous Old Faithful Inn for a quick walk around.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the granddaddy of all springs in Yellowstone, and perhaps the most photographed. The best place to photograph it—or simply to observe it—is from the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook.
You’ll have to park near the Fairy Waterfalls Trail Head, and then hike about a kilometer or so down the trail until you reach the turnoff for the overlook. From there, you’ll climb about 130 feet / 40 meters in elevation before reaching the overlook itself.
It took me about 30 minutes to make the hike up to the top of the overlook, nursing a bum foot and sucking in the thin air at 7,200 feet / 2,200 m elevation, but it was worth every step.
To get parking, you’ll need to be there before 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m., but this is one of those rare places where photography is actually better in the midday sun. The higher the sun, the more colorful the spring appears. I hung out at the observation area for a good hour or so waiting for the light to improve. You can be the judge of whether it was worth the wait.
Lamar Valley is in the northeastern part of the park and it’s where you’ll find the large herds of bison along with a better chance of seeing wolves and grizzly bears.
Not long after entering the valley, there were a couple of bison near the road, just grazing on the grasses. Less than a mile away, was a larger herd of several dozen bison. Miles down the road, and you’re up on a hillside looking down into the valley with hundreds of bison scattered across the scene. It was quite the sight to behold, and I would classify it as an American Serengeti.
A younger man near where I parked had a spotting scope aimed across the valley and he said that he had seen a pack of six wolves circling around an injured bison, but they seemed to break off their attack when a second bison came into the picture. I could see the two bison together for a while. But one disappeared behind a row of bushes and was never to be seen again. At least as long as I was there. Whether the wolves were successful or not, I don’t know.
Lamar Valley was perhaps one of the more visually appealing parts of the park when it comes to the landscape side of things.
When I planned this trip in early March, the lodging options were quite limited, and my only choice was to stay at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
The accommodations were nice but pricey. Location, location, location. Five nights in the hotel set me back $2,183, or $436 per night. Ouch. Even pricier when you consider there was no TV or refrigerator in the room; Ethernet only internet service; and no air conditioning. (Verizon did have a small service zone around the hotel that allowed me to connect to the internet via my cell phone. AT&T was less likely to have service in the park.)
During COVID, meals were served buffet style and ran $15 for breakfast and $30 for dinner. I never ate there for lunch, as I was running around during the day.
Food & Fuel
The park is dotted with “general stores” that sell all of your tourist trinkets along with pre-made sandwiches and other snacks. Some have small grocery stores within them. Some have gas stations nearby and gas in the park was competitively priced with the gas outside the park ($3.69/gal).
I purchased a pre-made submarine sandwich my first night in the park and the first bite had an odd flavor to it. Perhaps I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t. The next two days, my stomach had some gastrointestinal gremlins dancing around in it. Nothing too serious, just enough to make you slightly uncomfortable and ever-aware of where the nearest toilet may be. I can’t say the two were directly linked for certain, but you do the math…
Driving & Parking
Plan on doing a lot of driving through the park to see even just the major sights. It took over two hours to get to the Lamar Valley from my hotel in the Lake area alone. I’ll have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by how light the traffic was the week after Labor Day. I couldn’t imagine what it might be like in July or August, the two busiest months for the park.
All of the roads are two-lane roads and are, for the most part, in good condition, save a few potholes here and there. The thing you have to be ever-vigilant for is the wildlife that can come out of nowhere. Turn a blind corner at 45 mph / 72 km/h, and there’s a 2,000 lb. / 900 kg bison standing on the shoulder.
Parking at some of the more popular spots is quite limited, so you either have to get there very early or you just have to wait for a space to open up. Old Faithful, because it’s at the center of the Yellowstone universe, had tons of parking and it wasn’t a problem to find a spot. Even so, be prepared to walk some distance from your parking spot to the attraction.
I lucked out with very nice weather for the entirety of my visit to Yellowstone. Because the park is situated at 7,500 to 8,500 feet / 2.286 to 2.591 meters in elevation, it got quite cool overnight with temperatures dropping to 34° F / 1° C in the morning to 78° F / 26° C by mid-afternoon. Dressing in layers was key.
Yellowstone National Park is an amazing place to visit, and I can understand why people rave about it and return to it year after year. There’s simply so much to explore. For me, however, I found the experience to be slightly repetitive.
Nearly everywhere you go in the park you’ll be driving through endless pine forests and, while each geothermal basin is unique, they all share common features.
Seeing your first bison in the wild is memorable, especially if it’s 30 yards / 30 m away and starts walking directly towards you. Seeing your 400th bison, not so much. Sitting on a lawn chair peering through a spotting scope for hours on end in hopes of seeing a pack of wolves in Lamar Valley isn’t my cup of tea. Or at least it wasn’t on this trip. Maybe at some point I’ll find wildlife photography more appealing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I went and had the experiences I did, and I would go back to give it another try knowing what I do now. (And perhaps without a gastrointestinal gremlin next time.) On this trip, I found myself going through the motions in Yellowstone, and I felt more of a spiritual connection to nature in Grand Teton National Park.