More than any other natural place I’ve ever been, Yellowstone is a place for the senses.
We saw the depth of the canyon and the colors in the springs. We felt the thunder of the 300-foot waterfall tumbling into the valley. We heard the grunting of the buffalo, the bugling of the elk and the bubbling of the mud pots. We smelled and tasted the sulphur and iron from the hot springs. We felt the steam and heat from the geysers and then the cool breeze when the wind changed.
Unfortunately, Yellowstone is the kind of place that can make a middling former newspaper writer think he’s Thoreau. I’ll try to dial it back as we wander through Wyoming.
Our first stop in Wyoming was at Devil’s Tower National Monument. It looks cool and Braden got a Junior Ranger badge there. That’s really all there is to say.
Jess took a great photo of a longhorn, a bison and the tower, but the bison completely ruined it. She’s titled the photo “Epic photo ruined by pee.” She shot several like that as we drove away and the bison is going in all of them, which tells me everything I need to know about a buffalo bladder.
The tower, which we had seen in the film Frank and the Tower at last year’s Lookout Wild Film Festival, is odd to look at, but unless you are climbing it, there’s not much there. Just outside the monument there is a KOA campground and I have no idea what those people do if they camp there for more than a few hours.
Bighorn National Forest
We were running a little later than we’d hoped passing through the Bighorn National Forest. It got dark as we drove through the trickiest downhill section of the entire trip. I was using everything I knew to do in the RV books to keep our speed down, but everything still smelled like brakes. According to the tire pressure monitor, the front tires were registering a temperature of 160 degrees. I’d never seen them about 115 degrees or so. It was also the first long leg of the trip where I hadn’t plugged in the dash cam to record our drive.
So of course, that’s when a mule deer decided to mosey out into the highway. I slammed down on the brakes, sliding the dogs’ half-full water bowl into the back of Jess’s seat. The RV stopped and the deer moved on unharmed. We were all lucky.
Needless to say, we were happy to make it out of the Bighorn Mountains and into the RV Park in Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Ten Sleep was our favorite Wyoming town name, but we also liked the town of Emblem. Population: 10. Yet, somehow it still had a post office.
The next morning on the way to Yellowstone, we saw an actual tumbleweed blowing through the main street of a town in Wyoming. Who knew that actually happened?
Also that morning, Jess had her window down as we wound along a spaghetti noodle of a road when we thought we saw a bug zip into the RV on the breeze. We didn’t think much of it, until Wrigley, our black dog, started yelping and in one smooth motion jumped up to Jess’s lap and headed out the window. I’m convinced she would have jumped out of the moving RV if Jess hadn’t grabbed her. A honey bee was still dug into Wrigely’s lip when Jess was able to get her still. Jess flicked the bee out the window and we never broke stride. Clearly it was time for us to get to parked in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park
The phrase Jess and I kept saying as we drove around Yellowstone was: “It’s got that too?”
The park is often called “Wonderland” and a drive through it really does reveal one wonder after another.
When we first checked into to our campsite at Fishing Bridge Campground inside the park, we got a tip from the attendant about a buffalo carcass in some rapids on a river nearby. As we learned, people keep up with carcasses in Yellowstone because they are clues to where bears or wolves may show up next. The other tip the attendant gave us was to look for old guys with spotting scopes on the side of the road and then go see what they’re looking at.
After a quick stop at the visitor center (apparently so Braden could kiss another ranger) we headed out for the carcass. Right beside the visitor center, we saw our first wildlife: a pretty red fox with its poofy tail bouncing behind it.
We found the carcass and some old guys watching it with spotting scopes, but didn’t see any non-deceased animals. We headed down the road until we saw another group of spotters who were watching a grizzly bear get in the river at about 300 yards out.
Also on that first drive, we saw a black wolf, cow elk, buffalo and trumpeter swan. We couldn’t believe our luck to see a bear and a wolf in our first few hours in the park.
Our luck continued. Before we left, we were fortunate to see a big horn sheep, pronghorn, prairie dog, white wolf, (distant) mountain goat, bull elk, two black bear cubs in a tree and bald eagle. I couldn’t believe we saw so many.
After the wildlife, Yellowstone is probably most known for it’s geological weirdness. Yes, the whole area is a giant super volcano that may wipe us out one day, but for now it’s just fun to look at.
Old Faithful itself was actually pretty disappointing to us. I expected a rumble or a boom or something, but it kind of just silently fizzed up for about four minutes and then dropped back down. It’s cool that our Earth is a dynamic place where that can happen, but the experience for me fell flat. Maybe if Trump is elected and takes charge of the National Park Service, he’ll add some pizzazz to it like the fountains in Vegas. Now there’s a scary thought.
But if Old Faithful didn’t meet our expectations, the other features like the Mudpots, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Spring and the Dragon’s Mouth far exceeded them. The colors of the minerals in the spring were otherworldly and the constant upheaval in the mudpots and other springs was mesmerizing. Even 25 feet away, we were uncomfortably warmed by the heat from some of the features as a the breeze blew waves of the hot, super-humid vapor toward us. The next second, the wind would change and the moisture on our skin from the vapor would evaporate and give us a quick chill.
And then there’s the smell. I asked Braden about one of the Mudpots and he said “It’s exploding.” I asked him what it smelled like and he said flatly, “Egg toots. That’s all I can say. Egg toots.” I couldn’t really argue with him.
Jess really wanted to see Mammoth Hot Springs and I’m glad she talked me into the drive because it was spectacular to see. Plus, from there, it was a short few miles up to the Roosevelt Arch in Montana. On one of the other drives, we saw a forest fire burning on a mountainside at night and the firefighter helicopter working to put it out with a load of water.
But what struck me about Yellowstone the most was what I didn’t expect. I didn’t realize the park had the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know it also had one of the most beautiful, colorful canyons anywhere. Massive snowy mountains on the north end of the park; lush lowland ponds full of ducks, geese and swans; valleys of yellowing cottonwoods charted by winding, clear blue streams — know you see why Jess and I kept going “They’ve got this too?”
It doesn’t seem fair for one place to have all of that, but we’re lucky that it does and that it’s out there for us to go see.
Also, we really miss fried chicken.
Grand Tetons National Park
Before we even get there, Grand Teton National Park provided a new experience for us. The campsite I had booked months ago (for $70 the most expensive of the trip) was closed for the rest of the season due to damage from a forest fire. Luckily we were able to get an even better (and much cheaper) water and electric spot at a first-come-first-serve campground at Coulter Bay.
From our site, we could see a couple of the peaks, which lived up to their billing of impressive, jagged, snow-capped mountains. For a time, the Tetons had been No. 1 on my National Parks Bucket List so I was glad to see them. The haze from the fires kept the photos from being what I’d hoped for, but I won’t complain.
Some of our best views came from around Jenny Lake. We knew it was one of the most popular points in the park and there was always a line of cars trying to get in. So we mounted the bike rack to the Honda and drove a few miles down the road from Jenny Lake and biked up to it. Biking almost in the shadow of the huge mountains was something I’ll remember for a long time. When we got to Jenny Lake, we took the seven-mile out-and-back hike to Inspiration Point, which Braden handled admirably. Jess and I did ok, too.
It was a pretty hike with great trees and creeks. It had several spots that we thought were the summit before we finally made it to the real point.
At one of the stops, I dropped part of a granola bar and Braden fussed at me and said I had to pick it up so we didn’t feed the wildlife. I guess he is learning a few things in the Junior Ranger books.
On the bike ride back, we came up on a pronghorn antelope only a few feet away from the bike trail. We continued to have great luck with wildlife seeing a pika, more elk and a mama black bear with cubs. But by far, the most exciting spotting for us was the moose. Along with a loon, a moose was an animal we’d hoped to see ever since the Great Lakes. Rangers and the old men with spotting scopes had told us moose sightings were rare and especially that time of year, people didn’t usually see moose. We went for a drive down Moose-Wilson Road and after seeing the bear and cubs, came up to a juvenile male moose right off the road in a marsh. Braden yelled that he saw him, which somehow didn’t scare the moose away. Jess snapped a great photo of him and we almost couldn’t believe what we’d just seen. For the next 30 minutes I told everyone I saw where the moose was. Seeing a moose had made our visit and I wanted them to experience it, too. It got to the point where as I was driving and passed another car, I would put my hands up to my head like moose antlers and then point them toward Moose-Wilson Road. Clearly I had caught moose fever and I don’t really regret it.
Luckily, I had calmed down by the time we needed to leave the park so I could drive the RV with both hands on the wheel. We turned East for the first time in a couple of months and moved on to Colorado!
Serious question from Braden: “Does Colorado rhyme with leaves?”
For some reason, I decided to wear a do-rag on one of our hikes. As you can see from the photos, it’s a regrettable look for me.
We were happy to arrive in the Tetons in time for an astronomy festival. Unfortunately it was too cloudy for most of the activities, but Braden was able to shoot a paper rocket with a two-liter bottle.