Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park and it definitely deserves that distinction. There are many videos and literature about the park and it’s not hard to get a good idea of what beauty it holds. I had high expectations before my visit and the park surpassed it. More than a million people visit the park each year with most visiting between May and September when the weather is the most appropriate. Most of the year, the park is covered in snow and the temperature is below freezing.
I chose to visit Yellowstone at the end of May, before the peak summer season and the traffic jam and general over crowding occurs. The weather was perfect for hiking, 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The park is large with dozens of waterfalls, geothermal sites and landscape features that shouldn’t be missed. Knowing this, I decided to take a small bus tour for the first two days of my visit to let a professional show me the best features of the park. On my third day, I would decide what I liked the best and revisit those spots.
The first day would cover the lower Yellowstone loop. The bus picked me up from my hotel at West Yellowstone and we proceed to Madison Junction. From there the loop starts and you can either go north or south, depending on your preference. We went north on the Grand Loop Road and then Right on Norris Canyon Road heading east to the Canyon Visitor Center.
Here, we stopped at the lower lookout point and got a beautiful view of the lower falls which sits at the end of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. And, wouldn’t you know, a rainbow appeared. Also, I got to see a 70 year old osprey nest. Its been used by multiple pairs of ospreys over those many years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t occupied at the time of my visit.
We moved on now heading south on the Grand Loop Road. We stopped at Hayden Valley, famous for wildlife including bears and wolves. We didn’t see any on this day but we did see other species including the bison that can be seen all over the park. The highlight of this stop was the bald eagles flying overhead. An adult and a youth that hadn’t received it’s distinguishable white head and tail feathers yet.
We continued on and stopped at the Lake Lodge and stopped to view Yellowstone Lake. The ice that covered the lake had begun to break up. But, the view reminded me of Alaska, not a May landscape in the lower 48 states. We were now driving west and stopped at the Continental divide and past a lake were the water flowed east and west at opposite ends of the lake.
We drove on and we were now heading north and toward the famed Old Faithful. This is were we stopped for lunch as well. While I was eating lunch, people had gathered around Old Faithful to obtain bench seating. People started to arrive about 45 minutes prior to its eruption to get seats so get here early. I got to the geyser just under 10 minutes to spare but all the bench seats were taken. Being by myself, I walked towards the front and sat between two benches. I didn’t come all this way to only see the top half of the geyser over everyone’s head. I had a front row seat, even though I had to sit on the ground. It went off about 2 minutes late from its predicted time but still dazzled the crowd. Yellowstone has half of the world’s geysers and this geyser basin, which old faithful sits on, has a quarter of the world’s total. It’s worth walking the trail and seeing the whole basin.
We moved on and stopped at the Fountain Paint Pot. The stop is filled with smaller geysers and beautiful springs and pools. The colors of the springs are amazing and mind blowing. For some reason, the guide didn’t stop at the Grand Prismatic Spring which is the most magnificent of them all. It was too windy and we wouldn’t get a good view of the spring hidden behind a layer of steam, that was his reason for not making the stop.
We were almost back to the Madison Campground and we were going to make one more stop and drive through the Firehole Canyon Loop. It’s the only area you can swim during the summer and it also features a waterfall. Unfortunately, the road was closed to buses at this time so we weren’t allowed to use the road. On the way back to the hotel, I got to experience a bison jam for the first time. Traffic had stopped due to bison were on the road. They weren’t crossing the road, they were walking on it as if it was a trail. This took about 20 minutes before the road opened up again and my first day in the park had concluded.
The second day would take me to the north end of the park as the tour would follow the Yellowstone Upper Loop. We drove into the park and quickly found ourselves in another bison jam and this one took about 45 minutes as a large herd walked along the road to get to a section of Madison Canyon. We finally got to Madison Junction as we did the day before and made another left. This time we would continue north. We took a quick stop at Golden Gate Canyon. In one direction, you can see the Grand Loop Road winding along the steep canyon rim and in the other direction hides the little known Rustic Falls.
We continued on and to Mammoth Hot Springs. I knew little about this stop but it become one of my favorites sites in the park. I walked along the wooden path and saw the amazing colors of the springs. The water from the spring came down as a cascading waterfall and I followed it up the path and the colors changed. The steam grew thicker as the super hot spring water streamed out of the ground. I could of stayed here all day and would have been satisfied.
We all got back on the bus and went east toward Lamar Valley. The valley is famous for all the wildlife you can see and our safari started even before we entered the valley. We encountered a small one year old black bear along the road. If the driver opened the bus door, it would have walked right in, that’s how close it was to the bus. We made another roadside stop as a group of big horn sheep were along the road, unfortunately these were all females. The males, rams, with their iconic large horns were no where to be found, unfortunately. We drove on and I could see a large nest along the road. It was another osprey nest, this one occupied. Two ospreys were in the nest. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a spot for the bus to park. We tried again on the way back but without any luck.
We were finally in Lamar Valley and the canyon turned into a valley of grassland. We could see hundreds of bison flanked by pronghorns and moose. This reminded me of the Serengeti and all the wildlife I saw grazing in the valley during my African safari. It was birthing season and there were multiple bison calves, some just born. We could see the evidence hanging from the mother. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any grizzly bears or wolves.
The upper loop would usually take you from Roosevelt Lodge south to the Canyon Lodge but that portion of the loop was still closed so we had to retrace our route. The guide added something extra to make up for that loss. We went to the north entrance of Yellowstone and the Roosevelt Arch. This was the original entrance to the park and it was once the only way into the park.
We continued to retrace our route passed Mammoth Hot Springs and we stopped at another amazing geyser, Chocolate Geyser. This one is all by itself so it’s just a small turnout across a creek so it was a quick stop.
We continued on to Gibbon Falls which is usually part of lower loop tour but It was missed on my tour. It’s a beautiful cascading waterfall and I don’t know why my previous guide wouldn’t stop here. In a park with dozens of waterfalls, you can’t see them all or maybe he it didn’t make his top ten list.
My third day in the park was a day I would return to the locations I most liked. I wanted to drive back to see the osprey nest and try one more time to spot grizzlies and wolves at Lamar Valley. Unfortunately, it’s at the opposite end of the park and it would take up half the day in just driving time. It’s a four hour round trip drive to the valley. I wanted to hike in the grand canyon of Yellowstone but the trail I wanted to do was closed. Many of the trails were still closed due to heavy bear activity. The other attraction I wanted to see was the Grand Prismatic Spring that my first tour left out so I planned my day around this site. I also wanted to visit the Firehole Waterfall which was near Grand Prismatic.
On my way to the spring, I stopped at some of the turnouts along West Entrance Road in the Madison Canyon. I wanted to see the view along the Madison River and at some spots there were herds of bison. I moved on and continued to Firehole River Road, a driving loop that takes you to the only swimming area in the park and to the waterfall. It’s a one way road which narrows at spots where people park along the road to site see, for instance at the waterfall and the swim location.
I stopped at the waterfall, which is beautiful, but it doesn’t have the best vantage point for viewing it. I had to climb on the log barrier to get a better view. The swim spot was closed and if you are thinking of visiting, keep in mind there is a set of stairs you have to take to get down to the river. I moved on and right before the exit I noticed a trail so I stopped to investigate. There was a great cliff view of the river gorge and the trail continued on. It became a dirt trail and I continued to follow it.
It brought me to a cascading waterfall, a second Firehole waterfall I didn’t know existed. I spent some time here just listening to the waterfall all by myself, such an amazing find.
I continued on to the Grand Prismatic parking lot and I noticed people were parking along the road before the lot. I assumed the lot must be full but I went in anyway and I got lucky. A couple of cars were just leaving and I was able to get a parking spot. I walked the trail and spotted two small waterfalls of steaming spring water plunging into the Firehole River. I continued on the steam covered trail to the spring. The wind had blown away the steam and it uncovered this landscape covered in multiple shades of brown.
As I continued closer, the brown had turned into multiple bright colors. I was blown away, it was the aptly named Grand Prismatic Spring in all its glory. I wish I could have taken the trail to the overlook but it was one of the trails that was closed during my visit. It would have provided a view of the spring in its entirety.
My next stop was Biscuit Basin. This area is filled with smaller geysers and beautiful spring pools. It had less visitors so I got to take a solo shot with one of the beautiful pools. I also noticed something coming in my direction, I was hoping it was a wolf but it turned out to be a coyote. It jogged through the Biscuit Basin not paying any attention to the people around it.
As I made my way back to the hotel, I made several more stops. I walked along the Nez Perce Creek and partially did the Seven Mile Bridge Trail. I wandered until I had enough.
I was happy that I did the two tours get a better understanding of the parks history, its wildlife and landscape. But, it’s not necessary if you want to wander the park on your own. Do your research and pick the points that interest you the most. The tour bus doesn’t stop at turnouts that happen to interest you, one’s not on the map but provide an amazing view or peek your interest. Something I enjoyed on my third day just wandering the park. Yellowstone is the oldest and one of the most visited parks in the world. It’s beauty is featured in magazines and videos but it will still blow you away when you visit. My visit to Yellowstone was definitely the pinnacle of all my national park expeditions. There is still so much to see so I look forward to another visit.
There’s no way for me to fit all the pictures into this post so I provided this video to represent my time in Yellowstone.