In my previous post, I outlined my child-like desire to visit America’s first National Park and introduced the 3-week trip that finally made my dream a reality. After years of sitting on the bucket list, we finally witnessed Yellowstone’s geological wonderland in September of 2015. It didn’t disappoint. The place has it all: Mountains, geysers, canyons, waterfalls, animals, hikes… tick, tick, tick. With merely a week and an SUV, we attempted to cover as many park highlights as possible before travelling south to the Grand Tetons en route to Salt Lake City. Here’s a flavour of our days and some tips I’ve taken away.
Day 1: Bozeman to Gardiner
Our first day began in the wonderful historical downtown area of Bozeman, where I admit I got a little over-excited by the fact Montana has zero sales tax! After a Costco run to buy a new camera (tax-free), packs of water (tax-free) and some essential road-tripping snacks (tax-free), we marvelled at the slide-show of expansive scenery as we sped south along Highway-89.
Yellowstone was our destination, and by late afternoon we arrived in the small gateway town of Gardiner. It’s a real laidback kind of place where the local elks cross the road using the pedestrian crossing. With just a couple of hours of light remaining, we hauled it straight to the park.
As the sun gradually receded we found ourselves completely alone in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Information signs guided us around the upper and lower travertine terraces, explaining their formation from hot spring water cooling and depositing calcium carbonate over thousands of years. The resulting mounds coated in crystallised calcium carbonate look a bit like inside-out caves. The sulphur smell was certainly potent.
Tip: Looking into purchasing an annual America The Beautiful pass which for $80 can work out a bargain if you will be visiting multiple parks, or spending more than a couple of days in a National Park.
Day 2: Gardiner to Canyon Lodge, Yellowstone N.P
Herds of bison and elk greeted us early the next morning as we drove to the north-eastern region of the park. The remote Lamar Valley area was recommended by a park ranger as the most likely location for spotting Yellowstone’s famous wolves. Sadly they didn’t make an appearance for us that day. But it didn’t stop many other people from camping out in their cars for hours on end in the hope of seeing the elusive creatures. Not us. I’m not that patient. We contended with the grandeur of mist-covered mountains, serene wide valleys, and quite a few Pop Tart munchies before heading south towards the canyon area to check out Yellowstone’s answer to the Grand Canyon.
We took far too many photos on this particular day. In every direction something stunning caught my eye, it felt other-worldly and overwhelming. Perhaps the most astonishing sight was the powerful Yellowstone River. It’s raging flow carves a 24-mile canyon through the park, measuring 4000 feet at its widest point and plunging 1200 feet deep. We spent hours viewing the pastel-coloured canyon from the collection of viewpoints and short trails dotted around the north and south rims. There are 3 waterfalls in the Canyon area: Upper Falls, Lower Falls, and Crystal Falls.
Tip: Even with limited time it’s worth taking a few short hikes or even just venturing a small distance from trailheads to evade the coach-loads of point-and-shoot tourists. My favourite hike in the Canyon area was Uncle Tom’s Trail. In just 328 steps you descend from the top of the south rim to the base of the 308-foot Lower Falls. It’s a steep climb down and back-up a metal staircase, but worth the quad burn for the epic views. Flip-flops are not advised!
Day 3: Canyon Village to Yellowstone Lake Lodge
Daybreak in Yellowstone and we are coasting the Grand Loop road heading west. The sun is burning off the morning mist and there’s a feeling the park is alive thanks to steaming geothermal wonders.
Today’s park focus? The geyser basins along the Firehole River, the best place to see hydrothermal wonders at work. According to the Old Faithful Education Centre, the park holds close to 60 percent of the world’s geysers, with the Upper Basin home to the largest concentration of these. Parking by the grand-looking Old Faithful Inn, we spent a few hours walking around the series of short boardwalks that hover above the steaming ground.
This area was easiest the busiest part of the park we experienced. The predictability of witnessing Old Faithful erupt – and proximity to a parking lot – draws huge crowds. We saw it go off twice, growing in size and velocity for a couple of minutes, before retreating back into the ground to simmer away for another 90 minutes.
A few miles further north along the loop road and we tick off another Yellowstone marvel. The rainbow-ringed Grand Prismatic Spring is the parks largest hot spring, and one of the most iconic images associated with the region. To really get an idea of its magnitude it’s best viewed from above. We parked at the Fairy Falls trailhead and scrambled up an unofficial but well-worn path blazed into the adjacent hill for this view…
Just north of Grand Prismatic Spring, we made one further stop to Fountain Paint Pots where the highlight was the striking blue Sapphire Spring – see feature image. The sky couldn’t have been clearer, as if reflecting the vibrancy of the water in its tone. Somehow it took nearly 2 hours to drive the 50 miles to our hotel on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. We rewarded ourselves after a long, tiring day by sipping drinks in the hotel’s decadent bar. Through the windows, the moon illuminated the lake whilst inside fires roared and the sounds of the piano carried through the timber hallways.
Tip: If possible I’d recommend staying inside the park. It feels such a great privilege to sleep in the historical buildings, although camping is also an option. Practically it saves heaps of time driving the slow roads to the gateway towns, so means you get to maximise your time in the park. Most crucially for wildlife lovers, you can roll out of bed and find yourself already in the centre of the action when the wildlife stir – at dawn and again at dusk. These beautiful beasts conveniently came right up to our doorstep…
Tip: Food inside the park can be limited and expensive so bring lots of snacks. The small diner inside the Old Faithful Basin Store also provides a decent cooked breakfast, although I happen to remember it opened pretty late for our liking.
Day 4: Yellowstone Lake area
With a 2-night reservation in the Lake Lodge, we decided to do minimal driving today. Continuing to rise before the sun, we grabbed coffees and took an isolated morning cruise north to the Hayden Valley for some potential wildlife watching. Herds of bison stole the show, appearing out of the valley mist before bringing the road to a standstill. Incredible. To tick off a few more hydrothermal sites we made brief stops at the bubbling Mud Volcano and Sulphur Caldron on our return leg. Cool, but I think yesterday’s geysers were honestly far more impressive. We didn’t stick around long.
Back at the lake village, we completed the 3.6-mile Elephant Back Mountain trail, which climbs 800 feet through dense pine forest to a viewpoint of the lake. I admit to being a little rattled by all the bear warning posters at the trailhead, so stupidly made sure to talk extra loud, and in moments of long silence even randomly clapped my hands. The trail was virtually empty, yet I couldn’t help but notice that every single other person we encountered either carried bear spray canisters attached to their hips or had bells on their packs. The constant jingling bells are super annoying though! Thankfully we didn’t meet any grizzlies.
In true Yellowstone fashion the weather took a turn by early afternoon so in light rain, we decided to take the ‘easy’ tourist option and board a 1-hour boat trip across the lake. Departing from Bridge Bay Marina the trip cost us $16 each, and apparently was one of the last of the season. The boat navigates across a northern section of the lake, passing Stevenson Island, as a local guide provides an animated account of the park’s history and stories from over a hundred years of the lodge. A sucker for a story, so I really enjoyed the ride.
Tip: If you are hiking in the back-country the general park advice is to carry bear spray. I’ve never purchased or used it myself, but I guess it couldn’t hurt! Having said that, people would help themselves and the bear population both if they educate themselves beforehand on bear safety. For a start, ensuring you are careful with food storage and litter will help by not attracting the bears in the first place. The wild is their home after all. This video I found on YouTube contains some solid advice.
Day 5: Yellowstone Lake Lodge to Grand Teton N.P
Skimming the western shoreline of Yellowstone Lake by 7am, we stopped in the deserted West Thumb Geyser Basin area. With an ethereal quality as warm thermal steam rising from the ground collided with the cool morning air, we looped around the short board-walk. A small raft of ducks floating across the calm lake appeared the only sign of life. I remember that morning fondly because the sights feel infinitely more special on the rare occasions that you get to enjoy them all to yourself.
Our last stop before exiting Yellowstone concerned a much-needed hot breakfast. We arrived in Grant Village just in time to see the waitress flipping over the ‘open’ sign. Piling into the diner for warmth, we made the most of the free coffee refills. Before driving away we decided to check out the visitor centre and was happy to see a film playing. The short documentary in the auditorium brought to life a horrific and highly destructive wild-fire, which back in 1988 destroyed a third of the park.
Crossing the Continental Divide it doesn’t take long before the road is surrounded by towering mountains and we cross another park boundary. On the edge of Jackson Lake, we take a stroll in the crisp Autumn breeze. The gentle Colter Bay Nature trail is only 1.8 miles round-trip but provided the view that became our computers screen saver for years to come…
The Teton range is impressive. It perfectly frames the lake’s western shore. In sunnier months you can apparently rent kayaks, but by mid-September it appeared most ventures were closed, including the pizza restaurant – what a blow!
We take a turn off the main road and slowly wind up Signal Mountain. At nearly 8000-feet the views are expansive. On one side the Snake River silvers its way through a vast valley. In the other direction Jackson Lake and its splendid backdrop shimmer beyond the trees in the afternoon sun.
Tip: Before you leave: A week before our trip commenced I was glancing over the Yellowstone N.P website and discovered – to my horror – that a section of the grand loop road (the only road through the park) would be closed for construction works during our visit. This changed some of our plans and might be the reason why our route looks a little disjointed. I would recommend checking out this kind of information on the park’s website long in advance – oops!
Day 6: Jenny Lake area, Grand Tetons
Up unusually early once again due purely to the time difference, we felt determined to make the most of our only full day in the Tetons. By 8am we are parked at the String Lake trailhead and set out along the loop trail. The early morning views at String and Leigh Lakes are supposed to provide some of the best mountain reflections in the park but this day is sadly grey and overcast.
After around 2 miles the trail starts veering away from the lake’s shoreline and we ascend through lodgepole pine towards Paintbrush Canyon. It’s at this point a startling noise stops me dead in my tracks. Feeling very alone up there – we hadn’t seen another person since the trailhead – I’m frozen in fear. Is this the noise angry bears make? The noise sounds again. It’s a high-pitch shrieking that pierces the air. Then he appears. A huge elk with giant antlers slowly climbs the mountainside ahead. The sound emulating from him doesn’t look right for his stature. I know he can see us. Whether it’s a warning or a mating cry I’m not sure. But we stand still and watch as he crosses the trail and eases up the steep hillside before disappearing into the mist. I’m in complete awe.
Our main hike for the day involves catching the shuttle boat from Jenny Lake visitor centre to the western shore of Teton’s largest lake. The service starts at 10am, so we are there ready for the first boat with a handful of others. I can’t help but notice the temperature has dropped as my legs shiver in the cropped leggings I’m wearing as I sit on the 12-minute boat ride. Once we disembark we virtually sprint off up the Cascade Canyon trail towards Inspiration Point. At around half a mile in, we take a short detour through tall conifers to see the 200-foot Hidden Falls.
Continuing on up we make it to Inspiration point just in time for the snow. I notice very few other people who took the boat still around. Perhaps they were much wiser than us. We stare out across the large lake wishfully hoping the clouds will suddenly depart. With a feeling of mild optimism, we decide to push on heading west into Cascade Canyon. But alas, we probably make it another mile or so into the dramatic rocky canyon before deciding enough is enough. It’s cold. Apparently, my lips are blue. I’ve got the camera wrapped up in a plastic bag, so I’m all out of photos, and the snow isn’t letting up. We turn back and eventually join the Jenny Lake trail 2.4 miles back around the southern edge of the lake. I’m overjoyed to see the car and turn on the heated seats!
Just before dark, we discover our new favourite National Park-located bar in Jackson Lake Lodge. The snow has stopped and it’s brightened up. From our bar stools, floor-to-ceiling windows afford an incredible view of the sun setting across the wide Willow Flats grazing area. The drinks were pretty good too…
Tip: Waking up to an early start in the parks is great if you can. Most park accommodations don’t have TVs anyway, so early nights are easy. It makes for enhanced wildlife spotting and helps beat the crowds in popular areas. We packed Poptarts – the snack of champions!
Day 7: Jackson Lake to Jackson, WY
Our final morning in the Tetons didn’t quite go to plan. We had risen early, dressed appropriately – the thermometer read just 20 degrees F (minus 6 C) – and set out towards Death Canyon trailhead where we expected to complete the 7.2-mile Phelps Lake loop. The hike is located inside the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, promising scenic lake views and a glimpse of Death Canyon. But as we passed through the Moose entrance station a ranger leaned into our window to sternly inform us that Phelps Lake was out of bounds. A large section of the connecting Moose-Wilson road had been closed due to ‘aggressive’ bear activity. That’s the thing about nature: it can be mighty unpredictable! Not wanting to travel back on ourselves, we instead snooped around the exhibits at the Craig Thomas Discovery Centre before reluctantly returning to the road destined for Jackson.
En route we took a short diversion along Antelope Flats Road to see the historic district of Mormon row. Just a few wooden structures remain, but they offer a glimpse of frontier America and reminded me of the TV show Little House on the Prairie. What a spectacular, wild setting those pioneers ‘discovered’!
Our limited time in the Grand Tetons had provided a mere taste. I longed for more. In fact, in a week it felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of both parks. I must return. It’s easy to under-estimate how vast these places are – Yellowstone is the second largest National park in the continental US (right behind Death Valley). It wouldn’t be difficult to spend weeks exploring the many remote recesses of both places without getting bored.