Whenever I talk to people about my experience thus far in Wyoming, I always preface it by stating that I had never anticipated calling the cowboy state home. In fact, before I came out here for the first time in 2018 Wyoming wasn’t even on my list of states to visit – which is something that I made adamantly clear in my blog post about my first summer out here – but as I’ve spent more time experiencing all of the beauty that Wyoming’s outdoor spaces have to offer, I can’t stop from falling more in love with my dusty little home.
Recently John and I were able to get four consecutive days off of work, so naturally we packed up the van and drove to what is in my opinion the most gorgeous corner of Wyo: the Northwest. Northwest Wyoming is home to countless acres of public land, including Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. We devised a plan to explore as much of both parks as we could in the short amount of time that we had, starting in the Grand Tetons and working our way north. Today I’ll share our day full of adventures in Yellowstone National Park, and you can read more about our time in the Tetons here.
Since John and I only had one day to explore Yellowstone and neither of us had been there before, we figured we should focus on the iconic landscapes that make the park famous. I had no idea how massive and diverse Yellowstone was until I gazed out the window while John drove along one of the many roads that winds through the park; there was one section of the drive that took us from grassy meadows, through towering canyons, around bleach white boulders, and down below mountains.
With so many gorgeous environments to immerse yourself in, it’s hard to know where to start when visiting Yellowstone National Park. Since it was early in the morning when we first arrived and there weren’t clear signs of an overwhelming crowd of people, John and I opted to visit Old Faithful first.
Old Faithful Geyser
The turnoff for the geyser is one of the first things that you’ll see when you enter the park, and to be honest it’s a little overwhelming. The road is very reminiscent of an interstate or highway, with huge signs, exit ramps, and even an overpass. As we approached the geyser parking lot I was blown away by the unparalleled infrastructure of Yellowstone; the visitor center was the largest I’ve ever seen and was bordered by a massive hotel, there was a general store stocked with anything you could possibly need, and we even passed the park’s auto shop. I felt less like we were in the middle of Wyoming’s pristine wilderness and more like I was at a theme park. This claustrophobic feeling lingered on throughout my escapades in the park, and while it’s probably just a side effect of my isolation in Saratoga, it definitely influenced how I viewed Yellowstone and the other visitors there.
When we got out of our van and approached Old Faithful it felt like we were venturing onto another planet. Mounds of tan dirt rose out of the earth and spit hot steam up at the already gloomy sky, and a wooden boardwalk meandered around geysers that sputtered and spewed. We didn’t hang around long enough to watch any of them erupt – after all, we had a full day of adventuring that we had to get to – but the sight of the geysers on the horizon was alien and magnificent enough for me to feel satisfied that we stopped.
Pro tip: call the Old Faithful visitor center ahead of time in order to get a rough estimate of when the geyser will go off. That way you can enjoy the rest of the park without waiting on Old Faithful.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Our next stop on our tour de Yellowstone was the Grand Prismatic Spring. I still remember learning about the unique microbes that grow in the thermal pool during my high school Biology class, so being able to gaze upon the prism of colors with my own eyes was an experience I’ll never forget.
The first time that we walked up to the thermal spring, however, we weren’t treated with a spectacular view. In fact, the dense morning fog combined with the thick layer of steam coming off of the spring made it impossible to see much of anything. We returned later in the day after the sun decided to make an appearance and were lucky enough to see the rainbow of colors.
If you want a bird’s-eye view of the Grand Prismatic Spring, I recommend hiking along the Fairy Falls trail to a spot overlooking the spring. Fairy Falls is an out-and-back trail that ends in a towering waterfall, and it is either 5.4 miles or 6.7 miles depending on how much you want to add onto it. The overlook of Grand Prismatic Spring is hard to miss and as the day goes on it becomes a sea of people, so if you’re looking to avoid the crowds try to go either early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
In my opinion the best view in Yellowstone National Park is of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a spot where the Yellowstone river carved away at the landscape and eventually formed a deep canyon. Watching the rushing river snake its way around yellow, orange, and red rocks is mesmerizing in itself, but the crown jewel of the canyon are the two massive waterfalls.
John and I walked along the North Rim trail, which has several vantage points that give you a stunning view of the Lower Falls and the Yellowstone river. As I gazed down at the slowly changing landscape, I couldn’t help but wonder how the passage of time has shaped the area. I later learned that hydrothermal activity gave the rock it’s unique color, and even now there is evidence of geysers and hot springs bubbling in the canyon, a constant reminder of the super-volcano lying dormant below the surface.
I hesitate to call what we did along the trail “hiking” because it was as close to walking along a paved road as we could get, so if you’re looking for an easy or family friendly activity then this is for you.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Our last stop in Yellowstone was at the Mammoth hot springs, which is one of the farthest corners of the park. Driving to the Mammoth Visitor Center was a bit surreal because we went through so many distinct natural landscapes only to end up at what felt like a small tourist town in the South. Civilization sprawled around the visitor center, complete with a post office, gas station, numerous hotels and cabins, a community center, a chapel, a general store, a justice center, and so much more. People milled about on every bench and green space in sight, and I truly felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of activity.
Finding a parking spot amongst all of the mess was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do, but somehow we were able to snag one in the Upper Terraces area. The Mammoth hot springs are essentially a large network of travertine terraces that form when thermal water reacts with limestone. The various terraces form intricate layers of gleaming pools, bubbling springs, and slick algae that result in a variety of colors.
What makes the Mammoth hot springs so unique is the fact that they lie outside of the caldera boundary but are still attributed to the thermal forces of the underlying volcano. I can’t help but wonder how extensive the volcano’s influence is on the surrounding landscape.
For whatever reason the thermal energy dances around from spot to spot under the terraces, sometimes turning one “off” while turning another “on.” There were plenty of active springs to admire as we walked between the upper and lower terraces, but I couldn’t help but notice the areas that are now cold, gray, and lifeless. Like I mentioned earlier, Yellowstone National Park is truly a constantly changing landscape.
Yellowstone National Park is a huge piece of land, and while John and I managed to check off most of the “must-dos” there is still so much that we didn’t get to see. Our decision to add the park to our itinerary was very last minute, which meant for the most part we were going in blind. The inability to find a parking spot at most of the visitor centers coupled with the long lines at the ones we did visit made getting information a little difficult. There’s a lot that I learned during and after our visit that would have made our stay a bit more enjoyable, so hopefully you can be more prepared if you end up making the trek out there.
Finding a free camping spot near Yellowstone is like finding a needle in a haystack. The area lies extremely close to the border of Grand Teton National Park, with the John D Rockefeller Jr memorial parkway sandwiched between them. Since this tiny sliver of land was the only public space around, we had to find a spot there or risk being fined for illegally sleeping in the van in a National Park. Grassy Lake road follows Cascade Creek as it winds its way through a valley full of dead pine trees and golden grass, and there are a handful of pull offs along the road with free camping.
We found a spot for the van late in the evening and settled in for the night. After being immersed in the beauty of the Tetons for several days I was convinced that my amazement meter was at capacity, but the drive along Grassy Lake road had me in awe the entire way.
If you don’t mind spending some money in order to avoid the drive into the park in the morning you can always camp within Yellowstone itself. Some sites are only available as first-come-first-serve, but others can be reserved online ahead of time. Check out the Yellowstone NPS website to learn more!
Its impossible to live out West without being conscious about fire safety, especially whenever you spend time in dry states like Wyoming. Everywhere we went during our vacation had either information regarding fire safety or stark reminders of past wildfires. The area where we camped outside of Yellowstone National Park was ravaged by the Berry Fire in 2016 that burned over 20,000 acres. While the area has regrown since, the graveyard of burnt pine trees still remains to warn about the dangers of fire.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has some great information regarding fire safety when camping that can easily be applied to other states. That being said, be sure to do your research before spending time outside in order to find out if your state has any specific rules and regulations. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Always use pre-established fire pits when present (if none are present at your campsite, it might be for a reason!)
- Never leave a fire unattended, even just for a moment.
- Douse your fire until it is cold to the touch. Hot embers can easily reignite, especially in Wyoming.
If you’re a human who spends time on the internet, then you probably know about the recent bison charge that left a young girl injured in Yellowstone. The scary thing is this kind of behavior is not uncommon, mainly because the wild animals that call outdoor spaces home are just that: wild. They are the locals, and we are just tourists.
The national parks in Wyoming are great spots to watch some beautiful wildlife, especially in Yellowstone, but if you think that gives you the right to approach or interact with those animals then you’re deluding yourself. Since that incident with the nine-year-old girl, promotional flyers and media warning the dangers of wildlife have sprouted up all over the place. By following park rules and treating wildlife with respect you protect yourself and the animal. I’ll touch more on bear safety in particular in my Grand Teton blog post.
Warning rant aside, the wildlife in Yellowstone are definitely worth seeing. The park newspaper advertises Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, Madison, and the geyser basin as the best spots to see wild animals. For the best success, be prepared to sit and wait for long periods of time in order to catch a glimpse. Always remember to keep your distance when observing wild animals, and never leave food unattended.
We only had time for day hikes and scenic drives during our visit to Yellowstone, but I’ve already made up my mind that when I return I’ll prioritize backpacking. The various terrains and landscapes in the park make it a backpackers dream; you can easily go from flowering meadows to a deep canyon or a tree covered mountain, all in one trip. You can get a backcountry permit at most ranger stations in the park, and at only $3 per person per night you can get outside in the middle of nowhere.
What are your favorite things to do in Yellowstone? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.