On Day 3 in Big Sky, Montana we decided to make the trek into Yellowstone National Park. Only 1 hour drive south of Big Sky Resort is the city of West Yellowstone – the Western gateway to America’s grand first National Park. So, we “geared up our loins with fresh courage” to take on what we assumed would be huge summer crowds and traffic jams. I’ve been to Yellowstone several times over my lifetime, although it had been about 12 years since my last visit. Although there’s plenty to love in the park, there’s a few things I loathe.
#1. Crowds of people who have no sense in their heads!
#2. Long lines and traffic jams due to [presumed] animal sightings involving crowds of people who have no sense in their heads!
#3. Impatient drivers who take unnecessary risks swerving into oncoming traffic, illegally parking, passing in non-passing lanes and over-abusing the art of horn honking…all in reaction to long lines of backed-up traffic due to [presumed] animal sightings involving crowds of people who have no sense in their heads!
You get the idea.
I would have been perfectly happy not to have returned to Yellowstone National Park. Been there. Done that.
But, then Daughter A reminded me that she visited sooo many years ago she really did not remember it. And, Mr. Mo reminded me that Yellowstone is “the holy grail” of vacation destinations in the Western USA, so we “really ought to go since we are so close”. The die was cast. I was outnumbered.
There was only one thing left to do…make a stress-free plan!
YELLOWSTONE PLAN OF ATTACK
- We would only see the Lower Loop
- We would arrive early, but not too early (if you arrive too early, you run the risk of joining the insanely long line of people who also wrote “arrive early” at the top of their travel plan.) Therefore, our arrival would be between 9:00-9:30 am at the entrance gate.
- When 95% of all other visitors turned right, we would turn left! [translation: We would proceed to travelling the Lower Loop in a clockwise manner from the Madison junction - as opposed to the majority who always travel counter-clockwise, and thus we would be avoiding, as much as possible, travelling in caravan-style from one stopping point to the next along with the unbearable masses.]
Our plan of attack got off to a great start.
#1 – Lower Loop only. check. agreed.
#2. Arrived at 9:35 am. Only waited about 15 minutes to get through the line of cars and purchase our 7-day pass. Note: Entrance costs $25 per car for 7 days… OR… if you happen to have someone in your car age 62 and older then you only have to pay $10 and it’s a LIFETIME pass good at ALL National Parks …
In other words, you may want to BRING GRANDMA WITH YOU.
#3. As everyone else was queuing up to turn right, we sped on by and turned left with a big Cheshire grin. :)
About 14 miles up the road we made our first and last big mistake by turning into the site indicated on the map as “Artists Paintpots”. The parking situation looked like something out of Mr. Toad’s Ride. This lot is not equipped to accommodate the amount of visitors that wanted to be there, so cars were twisted and turned every which way in utter chaos attempting to “create a space”. People choosing to stop to wait for someone to leave inevitably were trapping a dozen cars behind them setting off a stream of honking! There is only one handicapped parking slot in the lot which was unfortunately grabbed up by a van in front of us. So, we joined the throng finding “creative parking alternatives”. Daughter A had to take her life into her hands weaving her walker around the cars in the lot.
We found ourselves following along with the masses on a very, very long, hot, dusty and ugly gravel path wedged between dense scrawny pine trees – with no view of anything except the trail – which seemed to go on and on forever, and a bunch of telephone poles which just ruined the whole ‘National Park back-to-nature’ ambiance. We wondered if it would even be worth all the effort in the end. And, sure enough, it was not! One smallish paintpot with a boardwalk around the rim on one side, or a bunch of stairs will lead you to a look-out point over the telephone poles. That’s it. And then you make the long, hot, dusty, ugly trek back to the parking lot again and try to extricate your car from the chaos. Because our daughter is disabled and uses a walker, it was an especially difficult and long trek for her to get to the site, so I had run ahead to check it out and when I realized how inaccessible it was and how crowded and pointless, I ran back to her and turned her around.
Here is the one and only photo I took from the site. Interestingly enough, it was from the warning sign.
For anyone planning a trip to Yellowstone, I strongly advise crossing “Artists Paintpots” off your list! Trust me. There’s so much better use of your time [and sanity] in this lovely National Park! Just move along.
Thankfully, that was the only big mishap of our day. The rest of the time we found handicapped parking spaces available at each location and we were able to enjoy the sites.
Gibbon Falls has a beautiful path and the lookout was built with large native stones during the depression-era work program. They are still holding strong today. The view of the falls and the canyon below it is very impressive and there’s lovely places for photo-ops with the family.
Next up was Norris Basin, one of the largest geothermal areas in the Park to explore. This is where all of the serious research is done in the park. There’s a great visitor’s center with rangers on site to answer questions and give tours as desired. There’s a small book store, and miles of interesting boardwalks to travel. This is a very busy tourist site, but the parking lot is built super-sized and the area absorbs the crowds well. In addition to viewing all of the literal melting pots, it’s fun to see such a melting pot of people on the boardwalks, and listen to all of the different languages being spoken. Yellowstone is truly a destination point for not only the nation, but also the world!
[note: be sure to use the restroom before you go out onto the basin, as there are no facilities available around the craters.]
By noon we were headed into Canyon Junction looking for a place to eat our picnic lunch. Fortuitously, we discovered the Canyon Lodge and made it inside just in time before a sudden large rainstorm hit, drenching anyone in its path. We enjoyed our lunch from the comfort of our own table and chairs in the public lounge, and then did a little souvenir hunting in the attached gift shop while we waited out the rain which ended in about 20 minutes and the sun returned. :)
Now we were heading south on the Eastern side of the lower loop. This is where the stunning “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” is located. As you can see, this is also where the park gets it’s name. Here is my Instagram photo of the famous Lower Falls
And the Upper Falls are really nice to see, too.
Next we come to the high prairie of the lower loop. This is where the majority of the “animal sightings” take place [Bison, and sometimes Elk]. This is also where you will need to exercise all of your patience and long suffering because you will spend more time looking at idiot tourists running across the road than wild animals. People apparently do not think that the 100 warning signs posted all over the park about how dangerous the animals are, and how you should NOT approach them, actually apply to them personally.
Here’s my photo of a lovely example- Yellowstone Grandma with a death wish (and taking the child along with her, of course):
NOTE: We have witnessed a Bison charge someone. These suckers are unbelievably FAST and MEAN! Trust me, if a Bison suddenly decides they don’t like you getting all up in their business, they are going to get all up in yours, and can flip you like a pancake in 2 seconds. You won’t know what hit you. PLEASE STAY BACK! REALLY.
[invest in a good telephoto lens]
The Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest fresh-water crater lakes in the USA and it is the deepest at 410 feet to the lake floor. It’s a beautiful lake and worth taking a stop or two along the shore to stretch and have a few photos.
After a 30 minute drive through some very pristine forest and crossing the continental Divide not once, but twice (!) you will eventually come to the turn-off for the big kahuna…i.e. Old Faithful. The famous geyser has an entire complex of buildings surrounding it called the “Visitor Education Center“. Here you will find lodging and dining options, multiple gift shops, the historic hotel, a brand new visitor’s center, and of course, Old Faithful itself.
The geyser is actually not “quite” as faithfully timed as it used to be. It goes off approximately every 90 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes. The height and length of the eruption also varies. We saw two eruptions during the time we stayed. The second one was actually higher and lasted quite a bit longer. Tourists seem to come out of the woodwork when it’s getting close to the time of an eruption. They line the long boardwalk around the geyser mound, as well as take refuge under shade trees set back a ways. We snagged a couple of logs under a shady tree and had to wait for about 20 minutes. There were several “false starts” that got people overly excited…but, then it finally blew and everyone applauded and screamed like they were at a fireworks show. It was quite a spectacle. :)
Note: A completely unprofessional video filmed with my cellphone of the event! (please excuse the auto-focus issues! Apparently the phone’s camera doesn’t respond well to any kind of movement)
The most interesting and fascinating site here was visiting The Old Faithful Inn. Built in 1903-04, it is billed as the largest log structure in the world. The craftsmanship is truly amazing. This is the only building remaining in the park crafted from all native materials. Afterward, someone got smart and decided they had better preserve the parks resources. But, the Old Faithful Inn is the real deal – truly magnificent, and a must see! The lobby is an engineering masterpiece, complete with a giant 6 story high “treehouse”! (Sadly, since the 1959 earthquake guests are not allowed to walk on it, or climb up to the Crow’s Nest – disappointed :()
Leaving the Old Faithful area, we turned North on the lower loop toward Madison. Our next stop was the geothermal area of Biscuit Basin. This is a great place to stop! Lots of variety and activity to see. This is also home to the Sapphire Pool which we found very intriguing. How deep is it? Apparently no one really knows. But, it is lovely to gaze at.
You can look at photos of Yellowstone, and read blogs like mine, but you will never fully get to know Yellowstone until you have experienced it with all of your senses! Here is a fun little [unprofessional] video I took so you can see and hear the hotpots. Now, when you watch this, you also have to imagine the smell of rotten eggs (sulfuric acid) assaulting your nostrils, a salty/metallic taste in your mouth, and hot steam hitting your face.
As the day was drawing to a close, a light rain began. This is always welcome in the park because it cools things down, and it often clears out the crowds. We enjoyed seeing Midway Geyser Basin. There is an especially nice new boardwalk that’s made out of some sort of non-wood tyvek material. It’s very sturdy and great for pushing wheelchairs! This is a stunning place to enjoy watching some giant hot pots and a large hot lake which flows down into the cold running Gibbon River with lots of steam and drama. The 200-by-300-foot (60 by 90 m) wide Excelsior Geyser pours over 4,000 U.S. gallons (15,000 L; 3,300 imp gal) per minute into the Firehole River. The largest hot spring in Yellowstone, the 370-foot (110 m) wide and 121-foot (37 m) deep Grand Prismatic Spring is also found here.
Next up was the Firehole Lake Drive [we drove through and didn't see anything of great interest, so we just kept driving - but, this is usually a good place to see some wildlife toward the end of the day] And then came the last site of the loop – Firehole Falls Canyon Drive! This really is one of my favorite places in Yellowstone. It is a two-mile one-way road stretch that offers a beautiful forest vista, stunning views of the Firehole Waterfall, and – when weather is warm enough and water levels are safe – a public swimming hole that is warmed by a hot spring [sadly, the trade-off for having amazingly high & fast running water this year is that the swimming hole is currently closed due to safety concerns].
Last but not least, we had our own personal Animal Sighting! Yay! Just as we were leaving the park for the day and the rain was beginning to come down a little harder, a Bison was standing right next to the road [close enough to take a nice photo from a safe distance seated inside of our car] ;) Here’s my instangram of our Bison:
We did it! We not only survived but thrived during our day trip to Yellowstone National Park! We enjoyed our day immensely, and returned tired but unscathed, with our nerves in tact! Our “Plan of Attack” was a success. In comparison with past years, this time around the Park was smooth sailing. Hooray! What a beautiful world we live in! God has created some really amazing and awesome things to see and experience all in one place. Yellowstone National Park is a jewel for all of us to treasure and enjoy. - MoSop