I’ve been blogging for over a year now and yet I’ve somehow managed to barely mention the one place I’ve visited more than any other: Yellowstone National Park.
I’ve been there at least 50 times (not an exaggeration) and it just never gets old. Consequently, I have well over 2000 photos of the park. Which is a large part of the reason I’m just now getting around to writing about it. That’s a LOT of photos to sort through. You’d think I’d just stop taking pictures of places I’ve been before. Yeah, not so much. My mom always jokes that she has other photos of a certain place, but “not with this camera.” And so our Yellowstone photo collection continues to grow.
I grew up less than 2 hours away from both the north and west entrances to Yellowstone, so a visit to the park was a day trip, a weekend camping getaway, or a winter cross-country ski destination. Usually all three in a given year.
Yellowstone is huge. And filled with incredible variety. Where else can a person see geysers, hot springs, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, elk, and bison all in the same day? Of course, if you’re not from the area and are going on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to Yellowstone, I recommend spending much more than one day there. We took Pat there last summer for three days and even then there was plenty we didn’t see. Heck, there are things I still haven’t seen. My point is, there’s something there for everybody and you’ll never run out of things to do. I’ve never gone somewhere in Yellowstone that I didn’t like.
My advice: take every hike, stop at every pullout, and visit every geyser basin, because each place offers something different. Plan enough time to really enjoy the park.
The park is relatively square in shape and the main roads form a rough figure-eight. There are five entrances so the park can be accessed from all directions, and since the roads are loops everything is reasonably well-connected. With the photos below, I’m going to start in the northwest corner at the Gardiner, MT entrance and work my way counterclockwise around the park in a series of posts. After much deliberation, I’ve managed to narrow my photo collection down to the few that best represent the variety the park has to offer. Well, okay, so “few” might not be the right word.
Anyway, from the north entrance station, the road hugs the Gardner River and immediately begins to climb. Rather steeply. It’s not the most fun road to navigate. But the views from the top are fantastic and we sometimes catch a glimpse of bighorn sheep on the cliffs that rise above the road. The road also passes the 45th parallel, which is the line of latitude that lies exactly half way between the equator and the North Pole.
Next is a parking area for Boiling River. This is a section of the Gardner River that is heated by a natural hot spring, and a short trail leads down to an area that’s open for soaking. This is the only place in the park that this is allowed. Soaking in the Boiling River is especially fun in the winter when the landscape is covered in snow but you’re sitting in the river, nice and warm.
At the top of the hill is Mammoth Campground. We’ve stayed here a lot, and there are always plenty of elk wandering through. We’ve also seen bears, pronghorn, and deer in the area.
Beyond the campground (and up another rather steep section of road) is Mammoth – both the small town and the hot spring. Yellowstone is more famous for its geysers, but there are also many hot springs in the park. The heat of the water provides the perfect environment for heat-loving thermophilic bacteria to flourish, while the minerals in the water accumulate over thousands of years, contributing to the unique formations at Mammoth.
There is a parking lot and boardwalks at the base of the Mammoth Hot Spring terrace and also a 1.5-mile loop drive on top of the terrace. I recommend doing both; the terrace looks very different from each vantage point. It is of course very important to stay on the established roads, trails, and boardwalks. The ground at Yellowstone is very fragile and easily damaged, not to mention the fact that there is often boiling water just beneath the surface that can cause third degree burns if someone’s foot should happen to break through. Okay, safety spiel completed.
From Mammoth, there are two options; head east towards Tower Junction or south towards Norris Geyser Basin. For this post, we’ll head south.
On the way to Norris are many roadside attractions: Golden Gate Falls, Sheepeater Cliff, Obsidian Cliff, and Roaring Mountain are the main ones, but of course there are forests, lakes, and viewpoints all along the 21-mile route. Yellowstone also has an abundance of picnic areas so you’ll never be far from a place to stop and eat.
The one thing I haven’t done in this area that I’d really like to do is summit Bunsen Peak. My mom and sister did this hike a couple summers back and the views were amazing! Unfortunately their time on top was cut short when a giant grizzly bear appeared, so I guess they’ll just have to hike it again…with me this time!
At this point we’ve arrived at Norris Geyser Basin. This is one of the most active basins in the park, and it’s certainly the most rapidly-changing one. Yellowstone is very dynamic; every time I visit, something is different. Thermal features change all the time. One day hot water bubbles up and the next, things have shifted and what once was a spring is now a dry bed of minerals. This is because Yellowstone experiences hundreds of tiny earthquakes each day that shift around the underground plumbing.
The pastel-colored springs of Porcelain Basin are also accessible from the Norris Boardwalks. I haven’t spent as much time down in Porcelain Basin, but I absolutely love the views from above!
This post is getting really long, so I’m going to end it for now and I’ll pick up here in the next post.