We have covered some serious miles recently. We went from being stuck in Summerland, British Columbia with a broken truck to Kansas City, down to Eureka Springs, AR and back to KC in just a week and a half! That is about 2400 miles (not including all the miles we drove in the parks) and 37 hours of drive time according to google maps. If you have ever towed a trailer, you know that 37 hours according to google maps is closer to 42 hours of towing. I did the driving for almost every mile so that Lenny could work in the car. I listened to hours of podcasts and now have a level of confidence towing the Airstream that I couldn’t imagine 4 months ago. AND, in between all of that, we certified three scuba students (Lilya included) and visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks! Needless to say, we are excited to sit still for a bit. Now that I have some time and I’m not driving like a trucker, I thought it would be good to get some updates out.
Yellowstone wasn’t really on our list this year, but we knew we would be close on our drive back, the weather would be pretty good, we had an extra day off over Labor Day, so why not just pop in and check it out? Funny enough, until we started talking about Yellowstone with others, Grand Teton wasn’t even on our radar, and we didn’t realize how close the two are. The very first thing I will tell you is that we certainly plan to go back. 3 days is not anywhere close to enough time to explore these remarkable places. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide but rather a way to share what we experienced and also help you maximize the time you do have if you decide to visit.
First Things First
When you visit any National Park, the very first thing you should do is to go to the visitors center and tell them what you like to do. Do you just want to see the highlights, drive through the park, picnic, camp, hike, photograph, etc.? Park Rangers are the best resources hands down for making the most of the time you have.
Our next best resource for National Parks is the Just Ahead app. We discovered this app when we went to Big Bend during the government shut down, and there were no Park Rangers or resources to guide us. The app works like a local guide. As you drive through the park, it will point out areas of interest, give you history, tell you how long drives and hikes will take, and let you know when there is a highly recommended stop.
We opted to use Gardiner, MT as our base into the park, which is near the North entrance. We stayed at Eagle Creek National Forest Campground which is high on a bluff overlooking Gardiner and about a 10 min drive to the park entrance. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and were able to get the last spot available. We quickly unhitched and headed into the park to the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs and got the highlights from the Park Ranger. Mammoth Hot Springs is like a little village in the park that I think is mostly inhabited by elk. Elk were absolutely everywhere, and not shy to the cars and people walking the streets at all. Clearly, they felt quite protected. With only a few hours left in the day, we headed over to see the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. We walked the boardwalk and enjoyed the beautiful travertine terraces then headed back into Gardiner to grab dinner and make a plan for the next day.
If you have looked at a map of the roads running through Yellowstone, you realize the main roads make a figure 8 through the park. We planned to drive the full figure eight on Sunday and try to hit as many of the highlights as possible. We started out from the North entrance and headed toward Tower Junction. From Tower Junction, we headed south toward Yellowstone Lake. This was a beautifully scenic area, and we drove through most of this side of the park, stopping at a few places recommended by the app. Some notable areas included Tower Fall, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Dunraven Pass, and Hayden Valley.
Yellowstone is clearly known for its geysers, but the East side of the park should not be missed. Tower Fall is a quick stop and easy walk to an overlook of the fall and its unusual rock columns. Dunraven Pass is a beautiful alpine area including the highest point of over 10,000 ft at Mount Washburn. Lots of high winding turns, but the view makes it all worth it.
Hayden Valley was a vast expanse where we encountered hundreds of wild bison. When bison decide to stand in the middle of the road, you figure out quickly that you are a visitor to their land and you are on their time, so we pulled over and enjoyed watching them, from a distance of course!
Probably my favorite place in the park though was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We hiked the Brink of the Lower Falls Trail which is a short distance down to an overlook where Lower Falls spills into the canyon.
The hike back up is steep, but the view on this hike far outweighs the effort. You can also see Upper Falls further up the river on this hike.
Heading further South, we stopped near Grant Village, grabbed some food and drinks from the store, and sat on the edge of Yellowstone Lake for a picnic. It’s a pretty drive through this area of the park, but if I were short on time, I would skip the southeastern loop of the park.
After filling our bellies, we headed toward the southwest loop and wrapped up our day with the classic visit to Old Faithful. Even though this is not the most impressive geyser in the park, it is a must-see. As the name implies, it faithfully goes off several times a day and is reliably +/- 10 mins of its predicted time. We arrived for a 7:30pm eruption which I thought was perfect. The crowd was not too large, and the sun was beginning its descent, providing subtle warm lighting and an ideal way to wrap up our day.
We heard that there was a pack of wolves that had been feeding on a dead bison in Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is coined the American Serengeti, and the Yellowstone wolfpack is apparently a pretty rare treat. Knowing that the best time to catch wildlife is near dusk and dawn, we left our campsite at 5:30 am to reach Lamar Valley by sunrise. There were lots of people along the side of the road looking through spotting scopes and with enviable camera lens apparently enjoying a viewing of the wolves. I think we expected we would be able to see them closer, but we were ill-equipped so if this is on your list be sure to bring your scope/binoculars/telephoto equipment. Even though we didn’t see the wolves, the drive was incredible at sunrise, and we did see elk, pronghorn, and again hundreds of bison right by the road so no regrets or complaints from anyone about the super early wake-up!
Starting out so early also gave us an advantage over crowds as we headed back toward the west side of the park from the North. We didn’t stop much along the North West side of the loop since we had already been to Mammoth Hot Springs and there was quite a bit of construction on that side. Our first stop where we got out of the car was at the Norris Geyser Basin area where we hiked around the Porcelain and Back Basins.
This area is one of the most geothermally active regions in the world. It is full of color, noises, smells, and erupting hot water everywhere! Many of the cars in the parking lot have protective coverings over them because Steamboat Geyser, the worlds tallest active geyser was expected to erupt. This clearly must be a spectacular show because there was a large group of people who brought lawn chairs and appeared that they may have been camped out at this geyser for several hours, if not days.
We really wanted to see Grand Prismatic Spring, but the parking lots were completely full, so we opted to continue our drive south, stopping at the Old Faithful Visitors Center for a park ranger talk where Lilya finished up her Jr. Park Ranger badge and we had another opportunity to see Old Faithful erupt.
At this point, we decided to head south into Grand Teton National Park. With limited time, we stopped at Colter Bay Visitor Center, attended a Ranger-led talk and then drove south to Jenny Lake. We took a short hike around Jenny Lake, where the views of the Tetons over the water are simply breathtaking. It was in this part of the park that we decided we absolutely must come back to explore again. I can only describe it as what I envision is summer in the Swiss Alps with jagged peaks towering over serene lake settings where visitors frolic along the shore.
We drove back North, stopping at the visitor center so Lilya could be sworn in yet again as a National Park Jr. Ranger, her second in one day. On our way out of the park, we went to a great pizzeria at Leeks Marina.
We had a lovely relaxing dinner on the porch overlooking the water and then hopped back in the car for the long drive back to Gardiner. It was an incredibly long day but well worth it. I would not recommend this pace for most, but I do think we saw most of the highlights and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to go. My biggest regret is missing Grand Prismatic Spring, not getting to dip in the hot springs, and not having the chance to see any of the wolves but we will make sure we add those to our return visit.
All of Yellowstone is incredible, but for us, the Northwest (minus Mammoth Hot Springs) and Southeast are pretty drive but have the least amount of attractions so if you have limited time, save these until the end. If I were to return, I would trade more time in Grand Teton over those sections of Yellowstone, but of course, we may have missed something. Also, starting at the Northwest or North entrance may provide the easiest route to cover these areas since you could primarily just cover half of the figure eight on your way into Grand Teton.
If you have questions, or if you know of areas we missed that are on the top of your list, please post in the comments below.