I entered Yellowstone National Park from the west entrance in Montana, passing through the town cleverly named West Yellowstone of course. Many souvenir shops line the main drag of West Yellowstone, and you should take a stroll to check out a few of them if you have the time.
I was coming from Utah, and didn't get to the Yellowstone entrance till fairly late in the day. My intention was to get a campsite in one of the many campgrounds inside the park. I asked the ranger as I paid and entered if he happened to know if the Lewis Lake Campground had any openings, but unfortunately he could not confirm if they did or not. After paying for entry, I took the chance and started the 60 mile drive to the campground. One thing you will learn quick is that nothing is close by in Yellowstone! The park even spans across 3 states, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The slow speed limits don’t help get you anywhere quick either, but Obey them, you don’t want to drive fast anyways and miss all the sites to see as you drive the roads of this beautiful, and the Nation's First, National Park. The world's first according to most.
After a rather lengthy drive, I arrived at the Lewis Lake Campground. Unfortunately for me, there were no open campsites to setup in, and the sun was already setting. There were no other campgrounds that I knew of anywhere in Yellowstone that had openings, So I decided I would head south out of Yellowstone down towards Jackson Hole Wyoming.
I passed a few camping areas outside of the park on the way to Jackson, but it was very dark by this time and I wasn't to keen on setting up in the pitch black dark of any of these open sites. A lot seemed to discourage tent camping due to Grizzly Bear activity, so I figured it was on to a Hotel for me! There were numerous animals off the sides of the road as I made my way down the 191. I wish it was daytime as I made the drive to see more of these animals and what I had to assume was a beautiful mountain scenery off in the distance.
The drive out of Yellowstone was a long one, taking almost an our and a half to find my way into Jackson Hole. By this point, it was 11 pm and every hotel and motel I passed by had no vacancy signs glowing in the night. I finally found one with an available room, and of course, it was a "suite" and the going rate was $180.00 for the night.! I have a general rule of thumb while on road-trips and that's to get into a hotel room at an early enough time that I get to spend at least 12 hours in it.! With an 11am checkout time, I’d be paying 180$ for 11 hours of use of this room!
After a full day of driving though, and the odds of not finding any other place to call home for the night, I decided to take the room. The front desk clerk was nice and gave it to me for a discounted rate of $150.00, maybe because I was in the Choice hotel member's club and this was a hotel in the chain, or maybe just because the odds of another customer showing up this late was slim. I had never been to Jackson before, and didn't realize it was an actual "hot spot" destination for many and with that comes a higher price for almost all accommodations in this mountain town.
The is one example of why you need to add a little buffer zone to your trip budgets and planning. I had no idea I was going to get to Yellowstone so late after running into unexpected slowdowns on the way to the park, nor did I know there wasn't going to be a single open campsite anywhere in the park. I had expected to start camping that night at an average of $20-$25 a night for campground fees, and had to spend 7 times that amount just for one night in a hotel, which is more than I ended up spending on all the nights I camped in Yellowstone combined.!
After a good night sleep and taking advantage of the hotel's continental breakfast, I got back on the road and headed north, backtracking my journey last night to head back into Yellowstone. Not even 12 hours after my first unexpected expense, Bam, another one.! As I approached what I thought was the entrance to Yellowstone, I am greeted by a ranger collecting money to enter the Grand Tetons National Park. I told them, I'm just heading back into Yellowstone, I already got the pass last night but had to travel south to find a hotel and now I’m going back in. They refused to allow me to pass of course. It would have been nice if the rangers at the west entrance that told me about heading south out of the park if there were no open campsites would have mentioned you will have to pay an additional $20 to re enter from that direction, but I tried to just think of it as another donation to the park.
I recommend just paying the extra money to get the pass that allows you access to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton if you think you will have any chance of exiting the Yellowstone South entrance and want back in. If you are going to a few national parks on a road trip, it is almost always worth it to get an annual pass. I ended up spending about 70$ more than I had to before I purchased the annual. If you are a senior, go for that lifetime pass if they are still offering them.
Once I got back into the park, I headed right back to the Lewis Lake Campground and luckily I was there early enough in the day to snag a nice spot. It had perfect trees to string my Hammock between and a nice view of some snow capped mountains off in the distance to wake up to every morning. When you are setting up your tent, look around and angle your door so you can see a nice feature like that from inside, it will make the start of your day more motivating to get up and out there, even on cold days, and on those rainy days, which I had while in the park, it gives you something nice to look at from the comfort of your warm and dry shelter.
After setting up camp, I got on the road and headed to the Storm Point Trail. This trail is a beautiful and fairly easy hike to do. There is a variety of scenery to take in and numerous types of surroundings while on this trail. If you start where I did, the trail is open and surrounded by short grasses and a pond to the left. I ran into a rather large Buffalo very close to the start of the trail near this pond. When you end up walking close to one of these animals you will see how massive they really are. Keep your distance though as they warn in the park, you will not win against a buffalo!
The trail then tapers down into a very wooded forest with a thin path that snakes through the trees. You cross a very small wooden bridge and hug a lake for a little. Look into the surrounding trees and you will most likely find some deer or elk and other animals. You can see the few that were right off the trails in some of the pictures I posted. As always, you should be looking for bears and making noise especially if you are alone. I carried Bear Mace with me and it is highly recommended. It will set you back about $50 for a can at a Cabela's or similar outdoors store, or you can buy some at the park. You would be better off having it and never using it than needing it and not having it, so if you can spare the money, go for it.
The Storm Point trail then opens up into a lot more open land with some small rolling hills and green grass everywhere. You will most surely see the orange-ish little Yellow-bellied marmots running around the central pile of rocks here. I saw numerous ones and they look cool when the wind is blowing their fur around. After the open area, it goes back into a fairly thin trail where you are surrounded by trees.
As I emerged from this final section, there was another large buffalo eating grasses off to the one side. It could have been the same one from the start of the hike, but not sure. I took a few pics of him and headed back to the car.
From here, I decided to travel north in the park, far north to the Lamar Valley and Slough creek area to look for wolves. This took about an hour and a half to get up to that area, and after all that, I saw no wolves at all. Only saw a few Buffalo and a Pronghorn or two. The drive to get there was very scenic and worth it in itself, but I had been really hoping to get to photograph a wolf or an actual pack of wolves.
After looking around the area for about an hour, I decided to start the travel back. It was going to be a 3 hour round-trip journey so I had to start heading back to camp if I wanted to get back in time to cook while there was a little bit of sunlight up.
After numerous twists and turns on the drive home, I came to two cars completely blocking the road in both directions. Turns out there were a few grizzlies walking in the woods off to the side of the road. I can understand the excitement to see these animals in person, I love to see them too, but try to follow the guidelines and rules the park has established and find an area to pull over if you want to watch these animals. You shouldn't entirely block the only road anyone can use to get through the area on. The view was so occluded by trees and leaves of these bears that I couldn't even attempt to get a photograph, so I kept on moving to get back to camp.
By the time I pulled into my campsite, it was after 11pm. It was dead silent too when I got out of my car, not a single campfire going anywhere in sight and no one outside of their tents! It started to rain too right as I was finishing dinner so it made the decision for me to get into my tent, and there is nothing more soothing and relaxing to my ears than a light rain on the top of a tent. Good Night sleep, here I come!
Woke up feeling refreshed and ready for another day of Yellowstone Adventure. I made some of that freeze dried Mountain House food you can pick up in camping stores and it turned out to be pretty tasty. I had the eggs and bacon bag with some oatmeal I picked up in Utah earlier on this trip.
After breakfast and a quick clean up, I got in my car to head to Old Faithful. Don't leave any food related items out in your camp, not even an empty wrapper, Bears will come looking for it when they pick up the scent and if they find an easy food source, they will frequent the area. Store all food and garbage in the bear boxes in your campsite.
You will most likely park around the Old Faithful lodge. Parking was an absolute Pain! It was as if I was pulling into Disney Land, going back and forth up row after row to try finding an open space. Once you are parked though, you will be ready to enjoy the star attraction.
Old faithful is a pretty cool sight to see, especially after seeing it for years of your life in movies and TV shows, it's nice to see it in person. There are plenty of other geysers around this area that can all be seen by walking the boardwalk path that weaves in between the many geysers. Some are fairly regular and you can actually try to plan to be in the right area at the right time to see them, others are very infrequent and you may or may not get a chance to see them. After you get done checking out the other geysers, you can grab some lunch at the cafeteria in the Lodge. They had a pretty good selection of food and it was good too, and not expensive like some eateries at other attractions. While you are here at the Lodge, use the restrooms if you have to, they are cleaner than anything you are going to find back at Camp, and most likely better than any other places you are planing on going to next.
After leaving the Old Faithful area, I headed north a bit to the Midway Geyser area to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. This was a destination that I personally had more interest in seeing than Old Faithful. The aerial photography of this natural phenomena has always made the gears in my head start grinding around. It's not just a cool looking hole in the ground, the Microbes that live within those spectacular bands of color have been studied over the decades by NASA and other scientists to aid in everything from solving crime, to extraterrestrial research and "the sequencing of the entire human genome".
As amazing as this thing looks form above, the hike up to it and along side it doesn't give you any where near as interesting of a view of the features. It would be very hard to take in the sights of anything at ground level that is 370 feet in diameter! At times it was so steamy too that you couldn't even see through the haze to the edges of the spring. I would still recommend going to the Grand Prismatic spring to check it out yourself. There was a trail that offered elevated views of the spring, but they were shut down when I was there and apparently "illegal" to hike if you wanted to try to check it out. Rangers said they were in the process of opening a new observation deck that would offer elevated views, so maybe that is an option now. Do everyone a favor and do NOT go off the boardwalk by walking on the surface of the Grand prismatic spring or by hanging your legs off the side of the boardwalk and resting your feet on the "Bacterial Mats".
After the Grand Prismatic spring, I headed back to camp to be able to cook some food while there was still sunlight and get a campfire going before the day turned to night and the cold arrived.
Today's Yellowstone targets include areas in the grant Village and West Thumb area of the park. There was a visitor center in the Grant Village area where I watched a short film about Yellowstone. It was brief but informative and gave some interesting insight into the area. You can walk out the back side of this visitor center and gets some nice views of the lake behind it.
From here I drove up to the West Thumb Geyser Basin Parking lot to hike the Lake Overlook trail. It turns out I actually Hiked the Duck Lake trail on accident.! It was a very nice hike though, almost no one on it. The entire way to the lake, I only saw one group that was a family of 3. The majority of the Duck Lake trail is thin, lined with trees all along the way, and eventually opens up into a mid sized secluded lake. There is a good chance you will be the only person here if you do this hike, which is what I like in a hike!
When I finished this Hike, I walked the boardwalk area at the West thumb geyser Basin. This easy to do boardwalk weaves its way through numerous colorful pools. Some of my favorites were The Abyss and the Black Pool. There is also an odd feature that is unique to Yellowstone, and that is the Fishing Cone that you will have to look out at the lake’s shoreline to see. The word around the lake is that many years ago, people would actually stand on the edges of this thing, cast their lines to catch fish and then just drop them into the cone while still on the line to boil them! Talk about convenient.
After finishing the boardwalk, I still had a lot of time in the day, so I decided to do the initial hike I intended on doing, the Lake Overlook trail. This was a fun hike with a decent amount of elevation gain. The views up top were great too! Again on this hike, I only passed a family of 3 on the way up to the top and then 2 other people while I was up there. Be careful while up at the top. There are some areas that have warning signs about unstable ground that could be dangerous if you step on them. Stay on marked paths as much as you can in Yellowstone. There are thermal features all over and with one wrong step, it could be the start of a very bad experience.
From here, I jumped back into my car, headed back to the Old Faithful lodge, and grabbed a chicken pesto sandwich at the cafeteria. At this point, it had been a few days between a proper shower, so I headed to the front desk and inquired about the facilities here. They will rent you a shower with no time limit, which is rare in camping scenarios, and charged $4.24. They grant you access to use the same showers as the cabins they offer out back when you book one.
After cleaning up, I treated myself to some strawberry frozen yogurt and grabbed a seat outside behind the cafeteria to wait and watch Old Faithful erupt. On time as usual.
From here I drove north just randomly looking for animals. Didn't see much so I turned around. Shortly after heading back south, I came to a large heard of Buffalo crossing the road I just had drove on with no animals in sight. It shows how quickly a heard can move in. These massive animals appeared to be as large as some of the cars they were blocking on the road, as they slowly crossed, some faster than others. Many people stopped and got out to get closer looks, so I had to walk far out into a field and frame the buffalo in just the right way to remove all the onlookers. It made for some nice pictures with a distant thermal feature off in the background.
I packed up my camera gear after snapping dozens of photos and headed south towards the campground. Spotting many elk and other animals along the way, I stopped a few times to get more pics. The sunset was approaching and so I figured I would just head back to camp.
As I drove by a clearing off the side of the road, about 6.5 miles north of my spot at the Lewis Lake Campground, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye that appeared to be walking far off in the distance along the tree line. The brief second or so that I caught it in my peripheral, I thought it could have been a wolf. It was grey-ish white, and was like a big dog but looked like more of a blur from the point of view I had driving by. I pulled off the side of the road as quickly as I could when there was a shoulder to pull onto, grabbed my camera gear, and headed off through the trees to get to the clearing. Sure enough, as I got closer to the edge of the opening and the trees thinned, I could see what I saw while driving by. And it was a lone white wolf.! The animal knew instantly where I was and stopped to look at me from across the field. The sun was setting so low at this point, I had very little light and not the fastest telephoto lens, so I had to use a high iso to even have a chance of getting a decent shutter speed. I didn't get more than 3 shots off and the wolf just went on its way, and disappeared into the far trees.
I was very happy to have gotten a chance to see a wolf in person. I only wished I had gotten to see it for longer and had the animal not been standing behind a stick when it looked my way, the picture would have turned out a little better, but I'll still take it.!
Tonight was cold in the tent. I had to actually sleep with my gloves on.!
Back up for another day in Yellowstone. Made the Mountain house eggs and bacon again. Tasted even better today, maybe because it was hot and the air was cold! I drove to the north west area of Yellowstone today, the Mammoth Hot Springs Area. The area looks like a little town, and has a gas station too if you need to fill up. You can check out the visitors center that is multiple levels with a lot of cool things to check out. You can also take advantage of the free wifi you can pick up here and check up on weather or emails if you have your cell phone or laptop in your car. My cell phone completely died in Utah and I was unable to get a fix anywhere, so I went 3 weeks without any type of communication, which was real nice but also a bit of a problem when you are trying to schedule the next leg of your trip without any way of doing so. Having intermittent wifi was very useful whenever I got to an area that had some to tap into.
This visitors center had a lot of taxidermy, and one of the coyotes they had somewhat reminded me of the white wolf I took a photograph of the previous night. I got a little curious to know if it was an actual wolf that I caught on camera or a coyote, So I showed my photo to a ranger in the center and they confirmed it was a Wolf. There were elk laying around the visitor center too, Just hanging out in the shade between cars and the buildings.
I headed to the Mammoth Hot springs from here. This was a very cool looking collection of rock formations and unique geology. It's a fairly easy walk on a boardwalk. Many families, kids, and elderly can manage the walk.
On the drive out of this area, a man was on the side of the road with a large camera and lens, which basically caused a traffic jam. Anytime anyone sees someone with a professional looking long Telephoto lens pointed at anything, they generally slam on their breaks and jump out thinking there is something awesome to see. This time, it was just a guy taking a picture of a duck. It is pretty comical to see a traffic jam for a duck, but hey, people are excited to be here, as they should be.
I stopped at The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to take some pictures of this famous area. You can hike down to the lower falls area, which is nice and simple going downhill. Not the same story on the way back up. It's about a 600 foot elevation gain in a quarter mile. With camera gear and a tripod, it makes for a bit of a tiring trek.
After huffing and puffing my way back up to my car, I headed back towards camp. I stopped by the same clearing where I spotted the white wolf the night before to see if I would be so lucky as to see it again. The ranger that confirmed the sighting said that wolves are known to hangout in the same areas so there would be a chance it could still be around there. I had no such luck and after waiting there about an hour, I decided to pack it up for the day and retire to the campsite.
Today is my last full day of Yellowstone. I checked out Gibbon Falls. There were some pretty nice views of this waterfall. I didn't spend much time in this area, and then drove the FireHole Canyon road. A quick drive with some nice views and some areas you can pull over and get out to check out the scenery. After this I headed to The Artist Paint Pots.
The Paint pots area was a pretty interesting place to check out. There were numerous points of interest in this area, all accessible along a boardwalk trail that was accessible by hikers of all ages including some in wheel chairs. The Mud pots are things you wont see many places. They are like bubbling cauldrons of, well, Mud.! You can see by the spots of mud splattered all over the boardwalk and signs, that they can sometimes explode fairly big. Not sure how hot the mud is but wouldn't really want to be standing next to them if they popped that large. There are some very colorful areas here too, that you can see well from the upper areas of the walking path.
I went back to the Old faithful lodge for one last meal, some ice cream, and a 5th viewing of Old Faithful. From here, I stopped once again at the same spot I saw the wolf now two nights ago, and was once again, sitting in a field all by myself. Had a nice sunset behind the tree's though.
I was going to try one last stop since it was my last night here, and pulled into the Heart Lake Trail head parking area, but didn't venture too far from my car. There were Bear warning signs posted everywhere and said it was shut down, not another person in sight, so I Jumped back in the car and called it a day.
I retreated to my campsite, started a fire, and just enjoyed the dark skies above and the sounds of nature around me. This was my first time at Yellowstone, and can't wait to get a chance to stay here again. I am eager to get back out here in the winter months, to get a chance to photograph the Buffalo in the Winter wonderland that Yellowstone turns into. I will just have to make sure I have the sleep gear and clothing that can handle the frigid cold winters this park is notorious for.Thanks for Reading
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