We made it to Yellowstone National Park in the early afternoon on June 30th just as planned. We spent a few nights in Badlands National Park in South Dakota on our way out. We saw bison, prairie dogs and wild storms of thunder, lightening, heavy rain and even hail! At one point the winds were hitting the side of the RV so hard it was rocking… fun. Scary. We stayed in the no hookup, first come first serve RV park, Sage Brush. It was awesome!! Highly recommend it if you want to be “nowhere” for a few nights with amazing animals and mother nature all around! There were a couple of out-houses, trash receptacles and ranger talks in the evening when there was no wild storms.
Overall Sightseeing Experiences
Driving through the park
Yellowstone is working to improve the roadways on a couple long stretches of road. This made travel in these areas tough and added to the traffic on the other roads. Also, if you’ve never been to Yellowstone you may not be familiar with “bison jams.” That’s what the volunteers and rangers called the long traffic jam that piled up throughout the park. Think of a narrow two lane country road. Add a couple shoulders here and there as pull-offs. Now add thousands of cars all looking for wildlife. Someone spots a bear, elk, wolf, etc and stops in the middle of the road to get a photo. What do people coming in the other direction do? They, of course, stop too! Soon there are 50 plus cars slowing, stopping and sometimes getting out for photos.Video of the bison.
Hiking the trails
The trails in the park we most often created by the wildlife that live there. A cool fact we learned from a ranger on a hike we made early the second week. We also learned from emails before arriving in the park and signs throughout the park to carry bear spray. We always did! The trails were really well maintained and we wished we got to hike more of them! Some of our favorites were Elephant Back Loop, Lost Lake Loop and a no name trail at the end of a dirt road near the West Entrance of the park. Elephant Back Loop was a climb… quite a change in elevation as we made it to the height of the trail and saw a fantastic view of the West Thumb Lake, the islands and shoreline! We decided to take this hike on a rainy morning since it was only a few miles from Fishing Bridge Campground and we figured if we were freezing and soaked that it was only a short drive home and the rain held off for us anyway. I think it was only about 3 1/2 miles.
On a few occasions we were able to spend time with the Yellowstone Park Rangers. Next time we are in a national park we will be sure to take more advantage of the Ranger offerings! We heard a few great evening talks given at the amphitheater near our campground. We learned about the history of Yellowstone, of all the National Parks, the near demise and then restoration of the bison, and other facts about the wildlife in the park. In addition to the late night fireside chats we took a hike with a ranger and a VIP (Volunteer in the Park/Very Important People) along the Yellowstone River. We learned on this hike about the change in flow of the river (it used to flow south and to the Pacific Ocean and now it runs north and ends up eventually in the Mississippi and the Gulf!) as well as about the different fires that occurred more recently in the park. The area near Fishing Bridge, where we were hiking, had not burned for over a hundred years and so it had many very old and mature trees including lodgepole pines (these make up most of the forests in the park), spruce and fir. On this hike we watched a fox playing in a field as we heard stories of adventure seekers from the late 1800s and early 20th century surviving, after being left behind by their traveling group, by eating different plants. We also learned about a couple different types of lichens (algae and fungus living together) and that some are edible and just seeing them on the rocks and trees is evidence of how clean the air is in Yellowstone. These interesting and beautiful “creatures” don’t live where there is bad air quality.
We saw bear, elk, and learned that the bison we saw rolling in the dirt may have urinated in the dirt first. This is how the males make sure they smell just right to attract a female! It is that time of the year…
On another occasion we took a boat tour of West Thumb. Our Ranger on this day was a very knowledgeable and entertaining gentleman, and taught high school science for 50 years and at the same time spent every summer as a Park Ranger in Yellowstone! Most of the rangers and volunteers work in Yellowstone for part or all of the summer and have other jobs elsewhere the rest of the year as it is so cold and snowy in the late fall through spring that most of the roads and buildings are shut down.
Other fantasticl experiences occurred at noon one day and at 11:00 PM another! The Museum of the Rockies offered a viewing of the sun through special lenses so we could see the sun spots as well as flares coming off the sun! The night time viewing was absolutely awesome. We were able to see Saturn and the rings, Jupiter and its five moons, a cluster of stars and planets that with the naked eye was just black sky, as well as an up close and personal view of the craters of our moon… these telescopes were so powerful, and the things we could see were just spectacular! The one gentleman was telling us that Yellowstone is one of the few places left in the country where the night sky is so visible because of the lack of human made light.
*Boardwalks and Visitor Centers *
The major hydrothermal aspects of the park seem to have roads right to them. There may be some not accessible by car but we honestly saw a ton of sulfur scented mudpots, geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles all over the park. These are all features that exist because Yellowstone has lava just a few miles under the surface. The rainwater and snow melt seep into the ground and is heated. Each hydrothermal feature is created with slightly different conditions. Also, the stunning colors of the features are created differently. The hot springs can be clear or beautifully colored depending on the organisms that live in them. It was amazing to see the roiling water, so hot, and know there were organisms living in them that we don’t even understand yet! The mudpots, also known as paint pots are created by water and different levels of acid. There are some as acidic as a battery acid. The acidity actually dissolves the rocks and minerals and can cause really stunning colors as the bubbles pop at the surface. Mammoth Hot Springs is known for the beautiful travertine terraces. These are created by the hot water and limestone reacting together. All these features were accessible by car, boardwalk and paths throughout the park.
My favorite experiences were near Old Faithful but didn’t include its eruption! It is not as faithful as it once was likely due to earthquakes shifting things around. Anyway, our second night in Yellowstone we went over to Old Faithful after 8 o’clock hoping to see it and the other hydrothermal features without too many people. The place is mobbed during the day. We arrived just as dark clouds started to gather in the distance. We had several great sightseeing opportunities throughout this trip when it rained. This was the BEST! We walked onto the boardwalk behind Old Faithful to see the other features, geysers, and hot springs. The boardwalk emptied with exception of maybe five other people. The sky was magnificent with the setting sun and storm, the thunder and lightning were close and we had the most amazing 50 minutes wandering, listening, watching, and smelling the rain blow in. We made it back to the car by the time it started to drizzle and drove home totally pleased with the experience!!
Plants in the park
SO many amazing plants all over Yellowstone. There were evergreen trees, from saplings to hundreds of years old, trees with “bobby socks” and even a redwood petrified from a long ago volcanic eruption which shows how much the environment of Yellowstone has changed! Flowers were everywhere, all different colors and sage brush with its amazing smell covered the “high desert-like” areas. We loved being in the open clean air, and smelling the rain when it blew in.