[Mile 1,348 to 1,820]
It’s hard to visit a place so majestic as Yellowstone without reflecting on the boundless cruelty and hubris imported to this country. In 1800 there were over 60 million bison that once roamed from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico and from New York the Pacific Ocean. By 1840, less than 36 million. And by 1900 only 300 bison were left in North America. Enormous herds were slaughtered for their hides, their unused bodies left rotting in the sun. The US government mass exterminated the bison in the belief that starving the native people who relied on them would force them to migrate to reservations and give up their lands without fighting. If not for the endless fight of a few influential people, the bison would have been completely exterminated in the span of 100 years. The same story repeats over and over again. Without the parks, nearly every large predator would have also been exterminated. When Europeans landed in North America, it was covered with dense old growth forests. And within the same amount of time, they nearly clear cut the entire continent claiming the ruin as progress. Without these parks, nearly all of the country’s original beauty that had survived for millions of years would have been destroyed by greed and relentless destruction. It’s really hard to imagine.
I’ve been to Yellowstone twice before over 20 years ago, but both times I really knew nothing about the park and only drove through. A quick stop to Old Faithful, a quick peek at the Prismatic Springs, a slow drive past a bison. But the park is enormous. It takes days to see the whole thing even if you’re driving the whole time. This time, having watched the Ken Burns documentary about the parks and doing some research, I knew so much more and it added important depth to the visit.
We boondocked on a nearby mountain the previous two nights and drove down into the North entrance at Gardiner where the famous Roosevelt arch stands. From there we drove to the west entrance where our next campsite was, past Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris geyser basin. The next day we dedicated to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Our third day was a chill day parked by a river. Then Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Hot Springs on Monday to avoid the crowds.
The crowds were relentless but there were still spots you could find yourself relatively alone when you needed to. Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Hot Springs were a complete circus with hundreds or more tourists packed in, most without masks, looking for a quick picture, crying children in tow. Honestly there are so many other great spots in the park, if you only have a short time, I say skip them.
Arriving through the north gate.
Katy was bouncing with joy to arrive at the Roosevelt arch that was erected after Roosevelt made a train stop to the local town of Gardiner after visiting the park and gave a speech. A quote from that speech was enshrined on the arch and became an unofficial guiding motto: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”. The notion that these great places should be preserved for the enjoyment of every American instead of owned and fenced off by the ultra-rich like has happened in so many other places. The irony that they were taken by force from their native inhabitants is not lost on me.
Mammoth Hot Springs.
The first large attraction we arrived at was Mammoth Hot Springs. It was early so the crowds weren’t so bad yet but it was certainly hot. We parked at the bottom and walked up. There are tier after tier of wooden walkways that zigzag up a mountain of hot spring formations, terraced pools, and bright runs-offs of barn red, rust, and ochres streaming down the hillsides from algae growth.
Norris Geyser Basin
We stopped here on a whim but it turned out to be one of my favorite spots. Two loops of various geothermal features. Lots of interesting stuff to see. We first took the right loop and descended under the constant spray of a geyser shooting maybe a hundred feet up, soaking the walkway in warm sulfurous mist. Then down into flats filled with boiling ice-blue pools and colorful algae streams or bacteria pads. We walked a bit on the second loop but abandoned the endeavor half way through. We were getting a bit tired at that point.
Driving to the west entrance.
Artist Paint Pots
On the way to the canyons we noticed no line for the Artist Paint Pots parking lot so we swung in and found an empty spot. A short walk and you’re treated to bubbling pools of white mud that indeed seemed as thick as house paint and clear pools of boiling water.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Our second day was dedicated to the Canyon section of the park. I had never seen this area. It was indeed impressive. A massive canyon painted in bright colors and an emerald green waterfall and rushing river through it, so far below you couldn’t hear it. We spent most of the day driving around both rims stopping at turnouts and going on short hikes to viewpoints. Along the way we stopped for lunch in a wooded spot and took nature photos.
Driving the southern loop and a mud volcano.
My trusty Canon M6 gives up the ghost unexpectedly.
My trusty companion for the past 2.5 years and countless adventures, my Canon M6, suddenly went black and completely bricked while I was shooting a video of the mud volcano. At first I imagined a battery incident but after 3 new fully charge batteries it became clear that it was something more. I scoured google for troubleshooting, checked lens mounts, battery door switches, switched memory cards, everything I could think to do. But the poor thing wouldn’t even blink, no power to body at all. No impacts, no warning signs. Pretty sad.
Online I discovered that a newer version had been released since last I shopped, The Canon M6 Mark II. So I guess at least I’m getting an upgrade out of the deal. I ordered a new camera on Amazon and sent it to our campground. The plan was to spend a few days in Grand Tetons National Park to the south and then on the return drive to I90, pick it up at the campground. I threw in some polarizing filters for my other lenses too. By now they’ve all arrived but I’ve had no cell reception since we left Yellowstone to verify. Fingers crossed.
We waited till our last day, Monday, to see the bigger attractions thinking the crowds would be milder as others drove home from their park weekends. But apparently everyone else had the same idea. The lines entering the park were longer than the weekend lines. But we had a very early start so it was easy to find parking near Old Faithful.
I couldn’t even recognize the area from my memories of a couple decades earlier. Huge lodges and stores, a massive parking lot for hundreds of cars, and streaming crowds of tourists. An observation deck had been constructed most of the way around the geyser with rows of benches and the hundreds maybe over a thousand people sat patiently in the hot direct midday sun. Some children complaining but mostly just a tense quiet waiting. We took a seat on the far side of the deck where the people were less thick and we could be a bit more socially distant. The woman behind us told stories of the park and geyser to a friend and I happily eavesdropped while we waited.
We were lucky. It only took about 20 minutes out of the 90 minute interval to see the geyser spray. After which the dense crowds all filtered back to cars and onto the road, to be replaced by the next wave of tourists for the next spray. I expect all day, every day, for rest of summer.
Honestly this is not my scene. Too crowded, too commercialized. But you have to do it right? Take the picture, see the eruption, on your way. Sadly all I had was my phone.
Firehole Lake Drive
We wanted to also visit the Prismatic Springs after Old Faithful but our spirits were broken by the crowds and it was clear that our Monday strategy had been a failure. The parking lot was a madhouse. So we kept driving and turned on an unassuming road labeled Firehole Lake Drive. To our surprise it was one interesting spring after the next with easy uncrowded turnouts and occasionally short hikes. So much nicer than our morning had been. I did my best with my cellphone. I think a few of these turned out.
Grand Prismatic Springs
The next morning on our way to the Tetons we tried once again for the Grand Prismatic Springs. It’s the huge rainbow colored springs that look somewhat like a Mandelbrot fractal set. We arrived an hour or two earlier this time (I am not a morning person) and went straight there, easily finding a spot. When you walk the ring you can’t really see the spring, it’s too large. But it’s still interesting to see. The steam rising off the water looks blue and the bacteria beds are extremely bright. The best view is actually a lookout spot on the Fairy Falls trail, which is where you’ve most likely seen it shot from. Our plan is to come back for my camera and then do this trail before heading back north to I90 on the following Saturday or Sunday.
Fountain Paint Pots
We also took the opportunity to see the Fountain Paint Pots a short drive away from the Prismatic Springs, snatching the last parking spot. Interesting to look at but not so great for photos, especially when all you have is a phone. A short loop walk and we were off to the Tetons!
Driving Lamar Valley and then away
After our Tetons adventure we drove back through Yellowstone and stayed at a camp spot inside the park that Katy lucked into online. Earlier we wanted to drive the northeast region of the park where many of the animals were at this time of year but the southern access road was closed and we ran out of time. So we left lots of time to catch this drive on the way out. And we were not disappointed! We ran into large herds of bison, a variety of sheep, and even some elk.
A few funny signs I liked.