The Land of Big Ole’ Bison
Written by Jamie
Just a short 31-mile drive from Grand Teton NP up the scenic John D. Rockefeller Parkway is the O.G. of the US National Park system, widely regarded as the first national park in the world, the first-born, the one, the only – Yellowstone National Park! Established by Congress and signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Yellowstone is known for its diverse wildlife, terrain and geothermal features. Because of it’s reputation as the showpiece of the National Park System, it draws quite a crowd, especially in the summer months. We planned to spend a week here (mostly because of its size – 2,219,791 acres!), and there’s only 1 campground in the park that has RV hookups, Fishing Bridge, so we booked our campsite almost 6 months in advance.
We had a rainy drive into the park but stopped at Moose Falls for a quick leg stretch and photo op. We reached the Fishing Bridge campsite around lunchtime and headed over to the nearby historic Lake Hotel for a bite to eat. We also stopped by the Visitors Center and caught a ranger talk about the National Park Service Centennial that is being celebrated this year. The ranger highlighted how Yellowstone played a pivotal role in spurring the creation of the NPS and their mission – to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” He also spoke of the different types of wildlife that call Yellowstone home and suggested some places we could find them.
Ironically, on our way back to the the campsite, we encountered our first bison traffic jam in the Hayden Valley area (this would be one of many – any visitor to Yellowstone can relate). Bison are the largest land mammal in North America and used to roam most of the US, all the way to the eastern seaboard, but due to years of over harvesting, their numbers were greatly depleted. Yellowstone is the only place in the US where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. The bison that roam here comprise the largest population on public land and are among the few herds that have not been interbred with cattle.
On our first full day exploring Yellowstone, we woke up early to try to beat the large crowds to some of the sights. Our first stop was in the Mud Volcano area, where we saw multiple bubbling acidic cauldrons guarded by some lounging bison. We then headed to the Norris Geyser Basin, the oldest, hottest and most dynamic thermal area in Yellowstone. This area also contains very rare acidic geysers, along with the tallest active geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser.
Our second day in Yellowstone was marked with some amazing wildlife sightings. One of the park rangers had told us about the reintroduction of grey wolf packs in Yellowstone starting back in 1995. We happened to be visiting at a particularly exciting time because for the first time since 2010, 2 female wolves had just had wolf pups in a den that was visible from an easily accessible park location – Slough Creek in Lamar Valley. So, we got out early again and headed towards Lamar Valley. As we pulled onto the main park road from our campsite, a grizzly bear crossed in front of the car in front of us! We were so excited to experience this sighting so up close (not nearly as common as a bison sighting) on our 3rd day in Yellowstone! Sadly, he/she raced over to the Yellowstone River way too quickly for me me to snap a picture.
We made our way through Hayden Valley, which on this morning was shrouded in a dense fog, making it a particularly beautiful backdrop to the grazing bison. We continued up the road and pulled off on South Rim Drive to get some views of both Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls. These falls on the Yellowstone River are definitely some of the most photographed locations in the park, but because we were out early, we really didn’t have many others with us at the viewpoints, which afforded a very peaceful scene as the morning sun hit the walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
As we pulled off the main road into Slough Creek, we immediately felt the importance of this occurrence based on the number of people perched on the hillside with $1000+ spotting scopes trained on the den hole over a mile away. You could tell that many of the onlookers spent a lot of time here (all-day, all-season probably?) with eyes trained on the hillside waiting to catch a glimpse of the mother wolves and young cubs. We felt very ill-prepared, with not even a set of binoculars in hand. We decided to leave, Trae particularly discouraged with not being more prepared to see something so cool, but with a plan to go out and buy binoculars at first chance. Just as we pulled onto the main road, a grey wolf momma darted across the road in front of our truck. We slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, over the embankment next to us and kept her in our eyesight as long as possible as she continued down to the nearby stream and back towards the den. Couldn’t have asked for more perfect timing! While, again, the encounter happened too quickly for me to capture a picture, our spirits were lifted – we had just experienced something much more unique than a glimpse through a scope from over a mile away!
On the way back to the campsite, we stopped by Tower Falls for a few photos, although the area was now slammed with people (9am to 10am makes ALL the difference). We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon catching up on work and headed to the Lake Lodge which, as we discovered, had decent (although pricey) internet available, big comfy leather chairs, a roaring fireplace, and a bar with yummy beers on tap – the ingredients for a wonderful workplace ;) Just as we were pulling up to the lodge, the wildlife-sighting trifecta was rounded out with a spotting of 2 bull elk hanging out in the grassy field behind the lodge.
The following morning was stormy and overcast, so we took the opportunity to do some more work over at the lodge. The skies cleared up in the late afternoon, and we drove in a new direction over to the famed Old Faithful. As we parked the truck and were walking towards the viewing area, Old Faithful began to erupt! Kinda perfect timing, but the photographer in me wasn’t happy with the angle we were at during the eruption, so my very loving husband agreed to stay another 90 minutes until the next eruption. We headed into the historic Old Faithful Lodge, where on the Mezzanine level is an awesome viewing deck to look out over Old Faithful with drink-in-hand!
We woke up super early the next morning to hike the 2.8 mile Elephant Back Loop Trail just down the street from our campsite. The trail is rated moderate, and although you climb 800 feet to the summit, the grade never feels that intense. The majority of the trail is through mildly dense forest until you reach the summit, which has two log benches with a beautiful panoramic view of Lake Yellowstone below. We were the only ones on the trail when we set out and made sure to bring our bear spray. While we didn’t have any bear sightings on the trail, we learned later from a park ranger that having bear spray handy was smart, as last year a man was attacked and killed on that trail and many say he would have survived if he was carrying bear spray. We had the opportunity to meet up with my cousin Brian, his wife Emily and their 2 children, Sophia and Jackson, for a picnic lunch at Fishing Bridge. The whole family was in Yellowstone for the last few days and were heading back to Denver that night. It was so great to catch up with them, especially since we’ll soon be neighbors. It was also exciting because Brian and Emily are now proud owners of an Airstream too, so we got to show off our rigs and exchange upfit stories. Hopefully there will be many RV trips together in our future. After saying goodbye to them, Trae and I headed over to the lodge to do some work and sit by the fire.
We packed a lot into our fifth day in Yellowstone, starting our morning off early by making the long drive up to the iconic Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance of the park, followed by a stop in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. This is where the historic Fort Yellowstone is located, the original fort where members of the US Cavalry were stationed to protect this first national park, before the National Park Service was created. We explored the vibrant travertine Lower Terraces, followed by a drive along the Upper Terrace Drive.
We then drove south to the Artists Paintpots, followed by the Lower and Midway Geyser Basins. The spectrum of colors in these geyser basins is incredible, particularly in the Midway Geyser Basin, where the famed Grand Prismatic Spring is located.
We had no set agenda on our last day in Yellowstone. Just as we were leaving the campsite we caught 2 elk crossing the Yellowstone River by Fishing Bridge.
We headed out to Slough Creek again to try to catch another wolf sighting, but came up empty handed this time. We did get lucky with 2 black bear sightings (from a distance) along the Blacktail Plateau Drive. We then took a drive up Chittenden Road that partially climbs the side of Mount Washburn and ends at a beautiful subalpine meadow.
We spent the rest of the day straightening up camp and preparing for the next leg of the trip up into Montana, and wrapped up the evening with a final visit to our little workplace at the Lake Lodge.
We had spent more time in Yellowstone than any other stop thus far (excluding friends & family time in NY and MI), and while we at times debated if we booked too many nights in the park, in the end we were happy we didn’t try to cram this vast and diverse location into a shorter time frame. 7 nights allowed us enough time to leisurely enjoy the park at a comfortable pace while still allowing us time to work in the afternoons and evenings. Writing this post now, later into our trip, I can honestly say that no other location has come close to providing the wildlife encounters that Yellowstone offers.
Trae and Jamie