Yellowstone National Park — Part One
This summer we set out for an almost four week trek through some of the most incredible scenery in the Western United States. After Jackson and the Tetons, we made the short trip to Yellowstone National Park. We spent a week camping in West Yellowstone and exploring the park, though we know we’ve only just scratched the surface. This video and blog post covers our first days in the park, where we mostly stayed on the west side of the main loop road.
Just a few weeks before we were set to depart, Yellowstone experienced massive flooding, and the park was shut down entirely for a few days. It was unclear for a bit whether we’d be allowed to enter the park, or if we’d need reservations, or if we’d be able to go some days but not others. We watched the footage of the flooding at home, overwhelmed by the damage created by the floodwaters. As we got closer to leaving, parts of the park started to open, and while we were in the Tetons, all entrance restrictions were lifted for the main loop road through the park. There were corners of the park we weren’t able to access, but that actually helped us focus our trip. This park is huge, just HUGE, and knowing we’d be limited in scope turned out to be useful.
We left the Tetons and drove the seven miles between the park boundaries. Even though they are just a few miles apart, getting from our campground in Jackson to our campground in West Yellowstone took two and a half hours. They were a lovely two and a half hours, and listening to our Gypsy tour helped us enjoy the drive even more. Towing the trailer through Yellowstone, from the south entrance out to the west entrance wasn’t complicated. We passed over the Continental Divide three times in one day. Only I had been to Yellowstone before, and that was when I was about the boys age. I had forgotten how lush and green the park was, how much of it was forests and rivers.
We stayed at the West Yellowstone KOA, which is an excellent campground. We loved the indoor pool, we enjoyed their BBQ and pancakes, and purchased both ice cream and fudge from their shops. Our site was shady and, if not exactly private, at least not rambunctous. We were close to a lovely hillside with wildflowers, where the sun would set late every evening. The cats made lots of good friends with the neighbors.
Yellowstone wisdom dictates that if you want to see the sights without huge crowds, you need to get to the park EARLY. I chatted with one of our neighbors on our first night and she said she’d been to Grand Prismatic early that same day, and had trouble seeing the colors because the cool morning air created steam over the spring. We made our plan to head straight to Old Faithful first thing the next day. Which meant at 6 AM we had two grumpy teens on our hands as we headed back into the park.
We had front row seats for the 8:45ish eruption of Old Faithful. It was fine. There was plenty of steam obscuring our view of the water, but possibly that’s always the case? We started on a loop around the geysers around Old Faithful, but even at 9:30 in the morning, it was already hot. And guess which family didn’t have any sunscreen packed in their bags? We made a quick stop in the Visitor’s Center, and went back to the truck.
Though we didn’t have sunscreen in the truck either (how that’s possible, I still can’t say) but I was able to raise morale with water and snacks. Our next stop was Biscuit Basin, which had all the bubbly, spouty, sulphury goodness you associate with Yellowstone. As we left Biscuit Basin, we tried to park at Midway Geyser Basin. At 10:30 AM, the lot was jammed. Circling and watching humans behave badly in parking lots was not what we wanted for our morning. So we left. We were headed back to our campsite to regroup when Gypsy Dave suggested we visit the Firehole Falls. Noah was disappointed the waterfall didn’t actually seem to be on fire. The rest of us found this to be a lovely little sidetrip that we would have missed without Dave’s suggestion.
Here’s where we made our first revolutionary discovery about visiting Yellowstone. QuailSnail insider tip: don’t go early, go LATE. We went back to the park after 4 PM, and had a lovely visit. We were able to park easily at the Lower Geyser trail and Midway Geyser Basin, the weather was cooler, and at least during our visits, we had afternoon thundershowers to add dark moody skies to our photos. This would become our pattern, spend the morning at camp or in West Yellowstone, head to the park around 5 PM. In the summer there was daylight until at least 9 or 10 PM, so that left us plenty of time for sightseeing.
The next day, I had promised the boys they could sleep in late. We were ready to adventure around noon, and we headed to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Though I had some concerns we’d not be able to see the whole place before we headed into the park that afternoon, in actuality, we were able to see all the exhibits in about 90 minutes. This was a great spot to get close to some of the big animals most people hope to see in Yellowstone. These were the only wolves we saw on our trip, and the only owls. The bears were awesome, but my favorite creatures were the river otters.
We went to Ernie’s Deli for lunch (again) and spent the afternoon in camp (again.) In the evening, we visited Gibbon Falls and walked through the Porcelain Basin Loop in the Norris Geyser Basin. Each time we headed into the park, we traveled much of the same road. Every time, though, we’d see new things, based on the time of day or changing weather. On the way home on this day, we spotted a white *something* floating in the Madison River. We managed to get into a pullout, and snap a few pictures of this awesome bird. iNaturalist confirmed it was a Trumpeter Swan, a creature on my “I hope I see one!” list for this trip.
Dinner that night was Haagen Daaz ice cream from West Yellowstone. Another QuailSnail tip: If you’re in West Yellowstone, have a late breakfast and a late lunch, then eat ice cream for dinner. There are at least five amazing ice cream stores for you to try.
The next day, we had an entirely different kind of adventure. When I thought we might not be able to get into the park because of the flooding, I booked us some time at Yellowstone Aerial Adventures. We’d never done a ropes course, but I thought the boys and I might enjoy it, while Nathan could enjoy filming from the ground. The course was right in central West Yellowstone, just a few minutes from the campgroud. We got into some safety gear, walked through the training, and hit the course. Everyone immediately got to overcome some nerves. For Noah, the big challenge was the wobbly bridges. Miles found the tightropes terrifying. Both boys pushed through some nerves and got through some obstacles. When they were done, I was determined to zipline. I got to the top of the course without much trouble (heights don’t bother me much, and I was really confident in my safety gear). From the top, there are four ziplines and one straight drop to get back down. There were some very confident teens behind me, who coached me on my ziplining, and with their help, I enjoyed that process. The last straight drop down was almost more than I could manage. Again, the teens coached me, and after a few minutes of imagining the staff would have to come get me with a ladder, I finally managed the last jump.
We spent the rest of that day at camp. We had a huge rainstorm that afternoon, and the boys were delighted to spend their time at the indoor pool. When the rain finally let up, we tried the KOA BBQ right at camp.
Our planning resources:
Music from this video, all from Epidemic Sound:
- Talking Trees by Max Kershaw
- Try and Find Me by Adriel Fair
- Calming Rain by Candelion