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Road Trip: Yellowstone National Park

I am not sure what year it was when I first visited Yellowstone National Park. I think I was between the ages of 12 and 15.  It was the only vacation my entire family ever took.  Maybe that is why it stands out in my memory.

We were the Griswald's before there was the Griswald's. Mom, Dad, my brother, and our dog {No one would dog sit for us} in a beat up old station-wagon headed West to visit my uncle who lived in Cody, Wyoming.

I have wanted to return for so many years. So when Doctor J and I decided we could drive through Montana the next logical step was Yellowstone National Park.

The second day of our journey found us in Gardiner, Montana at about 1:00 in the afternoon. We stopped in at the Ranger Station and chatted with the Park Rangers, hit up a local grocery store for lunch and excitedly entered the park. Technically, we saw wild animals before we even hit the park's archway.  The animals do not recognize the same boundaries as we do. Several cow elk had left the park and were grazing on the town's football field.

Gardiner, Montana is known as the Northern Entrance to Yellowstone. It is open year round. It is also the "original entrance" to the park. The admission to the park is $25 per car load and that is good for an entire week. I think that makes visiting this breathtaking park very reasonable.

In doing our research we decided there were 10 things that we wanted to see/do while visiting the park. We only allowed ourselves two days to get those 10 things accomplished. {Planning your own trip to this area? We found their Yellowstone National Park's website to be very helpful!} Although we came up with 10 things one of our sights was closed for construction. We found out moments before we entered the park that it was closed and not accessible. So, we had a list of 9 things to see in less than two days.

Are you ready for our top 9? These are in the order that we saw them. Since we were spending the night in Gardiner, we focused on the northern sights the first day and the southern sites the second day.

1. Mammoth Hot Springs

Upon entering this area, the first thing I noticed was the Bison. They were roaming freely just mere feet from our parked car. Because they are so close you almost forget that they are wild animals. Spring is prime time for rejuvenation and the baby bison were no exception. If there is anything that animals and humans have in common it is our protective nature over our babies. I just wish all humans would realize that before going to a national park.  Many people try to approach wildlife in the park and I find myself amazed by that.

What I remember about the Hot Springs as a child was the overwhelming smell of sulfur. Maybe my adult nose has had more experience than my child nose, but the smell was not nearly as bad as I recall from my first visit.

The water temp is hot and it slowly kills any living plant that tries to grow in its area. I am fascinated how a thermal spring can just dry up and lay dormant for a long period of time and then just once again start again.

2. Lamar Valley

A heard of antelope crossing Lamar Valley.

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Lamar Valley is a great place to catch sight of a wolf.  We tried but we never saw any wolves. We did hear sighting stories from other visitors of the park but I think Doctor J and I just missed them that day.

While we did not see any wolves, on our way to Lamar Valley, we did see: Bison, Cow Elk, Bull Elk, Mule Deer,  a Bear and Bear Cubs, and Big Horned Sheep. While we might have been disappointed about the wolves, we went home happy that night! Here are some photos of the animals we did see that day:

 Baby Bison

 How cute is this baby bison? He had wondered away from the heard and Doctor J and I begged him to go find his Momma. We were in wolf territory and we did not want to see that kind of survival of the fittest!


 The first time I was at Yellowstone, I did not see bears. The Park Rangers told us, when you see a lot of people stopped, you should stop too. We saw a lot of people stopped and this is what they were looking at. A Momma Bear and two cubs. I wish everyone's trip to Yellowstone would include seeing bears...from a safe distance of course.


This is a bull elk we saw moments before we saw the bears. He was the only bull we saw. Did you know that Elk lose their antlers every spring. His antlers look a little fuzzy to me.

Mule Deer

 Big Horned Sheep

We were both so excited to see the sheep. To make it all even better, they were literally hanging right by the road. These shots were taken from the passenger seat of Doctor J's truck through her driver window. There were so many of them! The research I have read says the three in this photo are likely male as their horns curve. Females horns do not curve and are more straight.

3. Norris Geyser Basin

Hot Springs, Mud Pots and Fumaroles. Oh MY! Welcome to Norris Geyser Basin This was our first stop on day two of exploring the park.  Norris offers up thermal activity of all sorts. Pools of sizzling water. Boiling mud pits. Steam escaping from cracks in the ground. And maybe even a exploding geyser {Which we did not see!}. 

Norris Geyser is the site of an old volcano. The area sits on a few fault lines and is super active with thermal activity. Some even say the most thermal activity in the whole world.

 I know that it is amazing to see boiling water and mud bubble up from the ground below. The many different colors is breathtaking {the different colors are from different chemical composition}.

 There are so many thermal sites: Steamboat Geyser, Minute Geyser, Green Dragon, Porcelain Basin, Congress Pool, Huff and Puff, Whales Mouth, Crackeling Lake, Emerald Springs, Cistern Pool and Whiligig I am sure you can find one that is your favorite.

4. Upper/Lower Falls and The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

We found this area to be a little difficult to navigate. I think we turned ourselves around at least three/four times. Maybe we were tired or hungry? Anyway, all the trouble was worth it when you hear the noise that the falls makes and see the beauty of the waterfall!

Upper Falls is impressive. Until you see Lower Falls. Upper Falls was easy to access. We accessed the fall from Uncle Tom's Trail where a short walk gave you two view points.  At Canyon Village, The Yellowstone River takes a dive.

Lower Falls is some 200 feet higher than the Upper Falls. It is by far bigger and more breathtaking than the Upper Falls. We again used Uncle Tom's Trail to get us there but we were right above the falls and I wanted a more scenic view of it. Doctor J just rolled her eyes at me! If you are fit, there are stairs that will take you 600 feet down to get a closer look at the falls. But considering if you go down 600 feet you must come up 600 feet, we decided to see the falls from a nice viewing spot above the falls!

When you are at the Lower Falls in one direction you see the Lower Falls. In the next direction you see The Grand Canyon of  Yellowstone. It is just as impressive as the Falls themselves. A massive canyon has been carved out of the mountain leaving behind a beautiful site to see.

5. Hayden Valley

6. Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake is huge. You can catch a glimpse of it from many places. We stopped in at the Old Fishing Bridge and then drove Southwest down to West Thumb. For lunch on the second day, we stopped along the lake and made ourselves lunch.

7. Old Faithful

As a child all I remember about Old Faithful was my dad getting angry at us. My mom and I went to get drinks from the concession stand. We got in the wrong line and ended up waiting to get ice cream {a MUCH longer line than for drinks!}. As soon as we realized we were in the wrong line we quickly got our drinks and returned to an impatiently waiting father. He was so mad, he left and did not watch Old Faithful erupt.

Old Faithful Before Eruption

Old Faithful is not the largest or most impressive erupting geyser at Yellowstone. But it is the most consistent, therefore giving it its name. Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes. Each eruption is different. Some a stronger resulting in higher water. Some are longer. As a child I remember waiting a long time and being disappointed by the eruption. In fact, so disappointed that I considered skipping it this time around.

I am so glad that we decided to stop and watch it. Our wait was short. The crowds were minimal. It was drizzling rain while we were there. And the air temp was much cooler than the water temp causing a large amount of steam that caused visibility challenges. All that aside, it was a large eruption that lasted at least 4 minutes if not longer.

The massive lobby of the Old Faithful Inn
During our wait, Doctor J checked out the bookstore and I checked out Old Faithful Lodge. I do not recall seeing it during my initial visit and I was sure glad that I stopped in to see the massive hotel. The Today Show was scheduled to broadcast from Old Faithful just two days after we were there and they definitely had a presence while we were there.

8. Lower Geyser Basin

This area of the park is accessed by boardwalks {same as Norris and Old Faithful}. They lead you around thermal areas of hot water or mud. Some erupt and others just boil away.

We focused our attention to the Geysers along Firehole Lake Drive and saw all the ones at the Flower Pot. There are many many more. Remember, we were on a time crunch!

Fountain Paint Pot  is one of the thermal spots in the Lower Geyser Basin. Yellowstone says that in the spring the mud is thin and it bubbles. {Which is exactly what we saw} But in the summer,with less moisture, the mud gets thicker and creates unusual shapes.

This stop was quick. We spent less than a half hour looking at the geysers. I hate to say they all start to run together in your head but they kinda do. But the next one is still just as cool as the last so it keeps you motivated to see more.

9. Morning Glory Pool

Maybe we were suppose to access this pool from Old Faithful but we did not. In fact, we could not find a simple easy way to access this pool. Doctor J and I did some hiking to reach it. In fact, we found ourselves hiking alone on a trail an hour or so before dusk. We stumbled upon Elk and a Jack Rabbit on our hike. After that we started signing 99 Bottles really loudly to warn any potential bears that we were on the trail!

 This is Morning Glory Pool. It is the prettiest turquoise color you have ever seen. Something that would make you think tropical and refreshing! Instead it is a thermal spot. It is now multi-colored because humans threw things into the pool and changed the chemical composition.

 From the first angle it does not really look very deep but when you walk around to the side you get to see the depth of this hole. This is a site that is worth the hike to see it!

I told you all about how grumpy my dad was when were were here when I was a child. The next photos show why:

Can you see it? There is a small heard of Elk. Some are grazing. Some are resting. And then there are humans. Walking up to the elk like they are at a petting zoo.

As the Park Ranger told us, when you see others stopped you should stop. This is what Doctor J and I found when we stopped where a lot of others were stopped.  Elk and humans. It is recommended that humans stay 25 feet from all elk. It is printed on brochures. I felt myself becoming my father as I was annoyed by the stupidity of these people. I want to scream to them, "These are wild animals!" They are unpredictable. You can not reason with them. They will hurt you if they get spooked or feel threatened.

Our time at Yellowstone was brief but it made an impact on both of us. One trip here reminds you of what an amazing world we have been entrusted to care for. Two trips here and you see the changes since the last time you were here and you realize how precious this life is and how much you want to preserve it for the future. I am already planning my third trip. I can't wait to introduce my family to Yellowstone National Park.


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