RV Trip West Journal: Yellowstone National Park

The Yellowstone River cascading into the canyon at Artist Point

The Yellowstone River cascading into the canyon at Artist Point

The buffalo roam again around Yellowstone!

The buffalo roam again around Yellowstone!

Yellowstone. Just the name seems magical. This is a difficult post to write because it could go on for days! The magnificent landscapes the larger-than-life wild life all around the park, the geothermal features. But let's back up to "getting there".

Dragon’s Lair… he’s still in there!

Dragon’s Lair… he’s still in there!

When we first talked about going to Yellowstone, we knew we wanted to see the geothermal features - that's all we had heard about. We knew they were spread out over quite a distance and the Park is immense. Our big question was how to navigate the Park. At first, I looked into making campground reservations in the Park, but learned quickly that only five of the twelve campgrounds accommodate RVs and few had hookups. That's still ok, we don't mind boondocking.

It was the conflicting reports about driving an RV through the park that made us a bit wary. Some said it was no big deal, others mentioned some very steep and winding roads, and still others mentioned roads not fit for RVs. Who to believe?

After a bit of searching, I found a guide service - a bit too pricey for us, but they also offered a park tour. The description outlined what stops the tour made, which attractions and features they would include and how long the tour would take. Seemed like a good idea to let someone else do the driving so I wrote down the tour company's information. With the uncertainty of road conditions it made sense to either take an organized tour or rent a car to tour the park on our own, leaving the RV at the campground.

Old Faithful geyser still draws a crowd

Old Faithful geyser still draws a crowd

Because of the crowds at the Yellowstone campgrounds, we ended up booking a campsite outside the park - just thirty minutes away in Livingston, Montanta. And, yes, "a river runs through it" - this is where that movie was filmed! Situated on the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone's Edge Campground is a quiet respite after a crowded day at the Park. The sites and park are probably the cleanest and most manicured that we have ever seen. And the views of the fast moving Yellowstone River can't be beat. The mountains make a terrific backdrop and, although the highway on the opposite side of the campground was a bit noisy during the day, it was pretty quiet at night.

The distance to Gardiner and the north entrance to Yellowstone Park (also the original entrance), was only a 30 minute drive from the campground through stunningly beautiful mountains and along the Yellowstone River. We called to find a rental car to tour the Park, but none were available. Then I remembered the tour service and gave them a call.

The girl told me they were completely booked - - until she realized that we were coming in from the Gardiner entrance to the Park. She hesitated and then said, "Oh, wait, there is a tour from Gardiner in the morning. I can book you on that!" (turns out it was the West Yellowstone entrance tours that were booked up. Now I really felt like the Livingston campground booking was a great idea!)

Beautiful but deadly hot, Sapphire Pool

Beautiful but deadly hot, Sapphire Pool

And it was a good idea. Our tour van ended up with just two couples and a guide - almost a private tour! The Gardiner tours are new, so fewer people know about them. We parked our RV at the tour pick up point and met our guide "Beth". We made our introductions all around - the other couple touring with us, Mike and Judy, were from California. And then off we went.

Beth warned that road construction can only happen for a few months each year - and all those months are in peak tourist season. That means wherever you go in the park you may run into delays with flagmen directing one lane traffic on rough and winding roads. Such is August in Yellowstone.

With that, Jim and I knew we had made the right decision to take a tour instead of driving through the park on our own. We found construction throughout the route and in three instances, we had to sit and wait for fifteen minutes when construction closed down the two lane roads to one very narrow lane.

We also were grateful for Beth's knowledge of the park - all the ins and outs of timing for parking at the most popular attractions, when to view Old Faithful geyser, access to tour bus parking at Mammouth Springs and several other spots where parking was so very limited. We just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery without a worry about traffic, parking, or missing the best places in the park.

Thunder Mountain’s steamy beauty in the early morning

Thunder Mountain’s steamy beauty in the early morning

When we spied a herd of bison, Beth pulled the van onto the shoulder of the road, turned off the motor and let us gawk at these huge beasts. Then she pointed out a very large male sauntering our way. We all snapped photos as he casually made his way alongside the van and then across the road, unconcerned with the traffic - bison always have the right of way!

As we passed through the park service headquarters area, she pointed out the heard of elk as they wandered across the lawns and around the buildings like neighborhood dogs. Again we stopped to get photos of the groups of elk grazing.

Then, as we stopped to watch a herd of bison grazing, we spotted something different - it wasn't a bison or an elk. Large and dark, it was hard to make out from a distance. Jim pulled out his binoculars and exclaimed - "It's a grizzly! And it looks like he's finishing his elk dinner!" We all took a turn with the binoculars to confirm it was a grizzly - the distinctive hump on his back helped identify him. Quite satisfied with ourselves at spotting bison, elk, and grizzly, the only big animals we had yet to spot were the big horn sheep and wolf.

The dramatic terraces at Mammoth Springs

The dramatic terraces at Mammoth Springs

We all sat in silence for a while, taking in the beauty of the scenery around us as Beth drove to the geyser area. She pointed out Thunder Mountain where huge plumes of steam vented from the rock face. Years ago the steam escaped with such force that it sounded like thunder. Now it just looked like a steaming cup of tea. Still quite dramatic in the cool morning air.

We stopped and stood mesmerized at Artists Point, gazing at Yellowstone Falls and Canyon. What a stunning sight! It was hard to look away it was so beautiful. Our visit to Old Faithful geyser began with an eruption at nearby Bee Hive geyser and then another smaller geyser before Old Faithful burst into its steamy glory. While we waited, we wandered through the Old Faithful Inn. A beautiful hotel built in the National Park style with huge timbers used as posts, beams, balcony railings, and ceiling. Burnished by the years, the old timbers reflected the light streaming through the high windows.

Elk resting on the limestone terrace on Mammoth Springs

Elk resting on the limestone terrace on Mammoth Springs

Lunch was quick but not crowded since Beth knew a small concession stand near Yellowstone Lake next to the old Lake Yellowstone Hotel. No crowds here, and we picked up hot dogs, salads, and wraps. Sitting in the bright sunshine next to the huge lake, we learned about its icy cold temperature despite a number of thermal vents on the bottom.

The cut throat trout, native to the area, used to thrive in the lake but are being edged out by other trout species introduced years ago to "build the stock" for fishing. And Beth also reminded us that the magma chamber under Yellowstone Lake is actually raising the bottom of the lake- Yikes! But it was hard to be concerned with all this beauty surrounding us. Mountains, trees, and a drop-dead gorgeous lake made our fast food lunch seem elegant.

On our next stop, the bubbling mud pots caught us by surprise as we strolled along the wooden boardwalks. Like thick pudding, they boiled and spat steam. Then on to the hot springs with their amazing blue-green color. They look so much like a cool Caribbean lake, yet billow with steam. The bacteria and algae that thrive in these hot springs create colors from blue-green to orange, red and gold. Quite the spectacle.

Mud pots and steaming pools abound

Mud pots and steaming pools abound

Our last stop was Mammoth Springs. A huge spring that has formed limestone terraces in lovely colors. I walked up the pathway to get a closer look. Stunning to see the steaming water cascading down the terraces. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elk - just sitting on the lower terrace where water no longer flowed. She seemed quite content to enjoy sunbathing on the bright white limestone terrace with all the people on the walkway taking her photo. She sat no more than two yards from me! It is a privilege to see these animals at close range.

As we headed back down the mountain and through the park service village again, we noted all the elk still grazing on the lawns. Then Judy called out - "sheep at one o'clock!" And sure enough there, on the mountainside, climbing an impossibly steep slope were a couple of big horn sheep. We watched as they climbed higher and higher, admiring their agility.

Beth made the comment that we were "wild-life lucky". We had seen four of the five big animals in the park! We all agreed we felt quite lucky to have seen all that we had seen, that Beth had been our guide, and that we had all decided to take the tour instead of driving the park ourselves!