In June of 2022, Yellowstone National Park experienced devastating flooding near it’s Northern border. We visited the park in July. So, not all entrances were open at the time of our visit. However, Yellowstone is a massive park, a staggering 2.2 million acres. It is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. So, we were able to explore three of the five entrances safely and without being affected by the floodwaters to the North. The majority of the park is located in Wyoming. But, it calls Idaho and Montana home as well. We started our trip through Yellowstone at the east entrance near Cody, Wyoming. Cody is a great town. Read more about Cody here: https://underanelmtree.com/2022/07/22/cody-wyoming/. “Near” is a relative term. It takes about an hour drive just to reach the gate to Yellowstone. You will then need to drive an additional 28 mi to reach a point of interest- Yellowstone Lake. Hayden Valley is 31 mi. This is a popular area to view wildlife. If you are trying to spend one day in Yellowstone and see the highlights like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring than the East entrance is not a practical choice. It would take about about 6 hours round trip to get to this area of the park and back.
We decided to enjoy the drive past Yellowstone Lake and travel to the south entrance of the Park. We are traveling full-time in a 42 ft fifth wheel RV and Yellowstone is the first National Park we have visited that has a “big rig friendly” campground. Technically, the campground sits in a parkway between two National Parks-2 mi south of Yellowstone and 5mi North of Grand Teton National Park. The location of the park is fantastic. There is also a restaurant, gift shop, gas station, and small store with food and supplies within walking distance. The showers and laundry are clean and adequate. So, we had everything we needed. My kids really enjoyed being in a wooded campground where they could use their hammocks and we were pleased to find that we could have campfires (not all campgrounds in the West allow fires) and we were allowed to grill even in bear country. They have very strict rules to make this work. No grills or coolers can be left outside unattended and the garbage situation is locked down-literally. Things about the campground that we weren’t crazy about? The sewer hookups were plumbed in a really dysfunctional way. They were basically unusable. We ended up relying on our holding tanks and waiting until our next campground to dump our sewage. Luckily, we weren’t staying for an extended amount of time. Also, the spaces are very tight. We were lucky that the spot across from us was empty the day that we departed. Otherwise, I’m not sure how we would have maneuvered out of the spot.
We decided to spend the next day in Yellowstone as well. From the southern entrance, we drove about a 1/2 hour to arrive at the visitor center for Old Faithful. Charlotte and I got in line to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet while the boys found a bench near the geyser. The Junior Ranger Program is a program for kids at nearly all the National parks. They provide an activity booklet, usually it’s free. In Yellowstone, there’s a nominal fee. Different age groups are required to complete a different number of activities. But, usually kids interview a Ranger or attend a Ranger-led activity. Then, they learn about flora, fauna, and history of the park through filling out pages in the workbook. After they have completed the pages, they return to a visitor center or park bookstore to be sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive their Official Junior Ranger badge. Each park badge has a different design. So, it’s fun to collect them. Charlotte is working on a special Girl Scout patch that requires 10 hours in National Parks learning about nature through ranger-led activities. So, she’s been doing Junior Ranger programs at every park we go to. She was excited to find out that Yellowstone doesn’t just have a run of the mill badge but, a really nice iron-on patch that she can put on her Girl Scout uniform as well.
I talked to the ranger about the hot springs in the park, picked up some trail maps, and selected a sticker to add to our collection. Then, we headed to the big show. Old Faithful was scheduled to erupt shortly. The Old Faithful geyser is a quintessential American road trip landmark. I was excited to check it off the bucket list.
Old Faithful has erupted more than a million times since Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park in 1872. It’s an institution of American culture. It’s a place where people take their children and grandchildren and then generations later, those kids come back with their children and grandchildren. It was really special to be a part of the tradition.
But, Old Faithful isn’t the only geyser to see. There are an estimated 10,000 thermal features in the park. Boardwalks are built to help guests get close enough to see the hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and geysers but keep visitors at a safe distance. Over 20 people have died when they ventured off the trail and fell or waded into the hot springs.
Over half of the world’s geysers are within Yellowstone boundaries. We walked the geyser basin around Old Faithful and then drove to Grand Prismatic Spring. Everyone has heard of Old Faithful. But, you may not be familiar with Grand Prismatic Spring. In my opinion though, it is the crown jewel of the park. It is the the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
Leading up to it there is a bright blue spring. It looks like an inviting blue lagoon. It’s gorgeous. But, it’s extremely hot. Just walking next to it, you can feel the intense heat radiating off the water. It’s a breezy area. So, cool breezes mix with sweltering heat and mists. It’s a conflicting wild sensation. Further down the boardwalk is Grand Prismatic. It is the biggest hot spring in America. But, what makes it special is it’s deep vibrant colors. The center of the spring is blue. But, the surrounding mineral rich waters are covered in microbial mats. Basically, layers of heat loving bacteria, microbes, and chemicals like chlorophyll and carotenoids combine to create color. In summer, they tend to be orange and red. The temperature gradient changes in winter and the color changes to a deep green. It is 121 feet deep in the center of the spring. I’m told that is the equivalent of an 11 story building.
Words don’t begin to do it justice. I just stood in dumbfounded awe. It. is. gorgeous. Old Faithful is iconic. But, Grand Prismatic Spring is the star of the show.
Yellowstone is so vast and so geographically diverse. There are mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and lakes. There’s canyons, geyser basins, even a mud volcano. There is way too much to see in just a couple of days. I was surprised to realize there are medical clinics, gas stations, and auto repair shops inside park property as well. Yellowstone covers so much territory, it’s necessary to have the infrastructure.
We saw couples kayaking, friends backpacking to the backcountry, teams of elite bicyclist mountain biking, and anglers wading the rivers. The wildlife here is amazing as well. We spotted bison and moose.
If you decide to stay in the park for more than a couple of days, you’ll need to plan in advance. The cell phone signal in the park is pretty much nonexistent. I was very frustrated with the maps they gave us at the entrance stations also. We have visited a lot of national parks and I always rely on the free maps that are given upon entering the park and my cell phone to navigate. Yellowstone is the exception to this. If you are going to spend a lot of time here, I highly recommend buying a guide book, especially if you plan to hike. Otherwise, you’ll have to drive to each visitor center and purchase individual trail maps for the immediate area around that visitor center. Furthermore, they aren’t very detailed. Unfortunately, I didn’t even realize there was a mud volcano until we were two hours away from it. So, my biggest suggestion for Yellowstone is to be prepared. Lodges and campgrounds fill up quickly. We saw people sitting outside campgrounds without a reservation. I knew that they might have to drive a couple hours before they found a place for the night. Hiking or backcountry camping without a detailed map, permit, and plan could be catastrophic in a place like Yellowstone. There is limited signage at trailheads and provided maps are extremely vague. So, do your research before venturing out and invest in a thorough guidebook specific to the activity you plan to do.
The next day, we decided to explore Grand Teton National Park, just a few miles from Yellowstone’s southern entrance. This park protects the majestic snow-capped Teton Mountain Range. Grand Teton has an interesting story to tell.
Jackson Hole was one of the last places to be settled after the Homestead Act of 1862. If you aren’t familiar, the Homestead Act allowed anyone over the age of 21 or the head of a household to obtain a tract of land from the government for free. About 10% of American land was set aside for this purpose. Pioneers headed west to “prove their claim.” After applying for a claim, 160 acres were given to the settler. He must then prove the claim by living on the land, building a home, improving and farming the tract. Claims in the area of the Tetons were brutal. Long winters, rocky soil, and difficult access meant that few could make it work. But, remains of these homesteads still dot the valleys of this wilderness memorializing the grit and determination of the Americans that conquered it.
Later, dude ranchers and locals were vehemently against the establishment of Grand Teton National Park. John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased 35,000 acres to donate to the establishment of the park. Surprisingly, locals viewed it as a violation of state’s rights. Ranchers were concerned that traditional hunting and grazing would be ruined. Others were concerned about taxes. Many feared change. It was 15 years and numerous bills and appeals before the federal government could finally accept Rockefeller’s gift. Over decades, the park expanded slowly but surely into what it is today.
Our family stuck to the northern part of the park and went to Colter Bay. We did a nice hike around Jackson Lake. It is beautiful in this area.
The hike around Jackson lake is in a thick pine forest. The park stresses that everyone is “bear aware” here. They recommend that everyone carry bear spray, hike in groups, and talk and make noise on the trails. It’s always important to be aware of your surroundings but, here it is especially important.
The Teton range has about a dozen mountain glaciers among it’s peaks that are slowly diminishing. There are wetlands full of birds here and beautiful wildflowers. The park is popular with photographers and kayakers.
The next morning we drove to the West Entrance of Yellowstone. This entrance is also convenient to the geyser basin areas and the hot springs. It is also the only entrance to realistically access the mammoth hot springs in a day with the northern entrances closed sue to the flood. The west entrance is a fantastic area for fishing and wildlife viewing. We were thrilled to see bison and for the first time on our cross-country trip, we finally spotted elk! It was so exciting!