Experience Yellowstone National Park through the eyes of a first-time visitor.
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One of the tenets of fiction is creating a suspension of disbelief. The author’s goal is to construct a world that’s so real that the reader forgets it isn’t.
Mother Nature needs to work on that.
It was Day 9 of our 35-day road trip from Elgin, Illinois, to the Oregon coast and back. In the previous eight days we’d explored a UNESCO City of Literature, met a man named Lizard, camped in the middle of the bison, and circled Devils Tower.
This was Yellowstone day.
We entered through Montana and the most beautiful scenic drive in the country. The Northeast Entrance station, like the visitor center in Devils Tower, was constructed in 1935 and with the same rustic style. The ranger gave us our map and our Visitor Guide and pointed us in the direction of Madison Campground. I had reserved our spot back in April, somehow securing the last reservable campsite for the dates we wanted to be there.
The deeper we ventured into the park, the more vivid the colors became. We were soon drenched in emerald grass and pastel blue skies and bright white cotton ball clouds. A herd of bison rambled and lollygagged along the side of the road. We pulled off by a wide, meandering creek studded with sandbars and smelled a hint of sulfur.
This was the Lamar Valley and we were getting closer to the caldera, the hotbed of geothermal activity.
We stopped at Tower Falls because we knew we wouldn’t get back that way again. Then we drove through groves of bare lodgepole pines, remnants of a past fire surrounded by new growth.
And then, steam billowed from the earth and we were in the dragon’s lair.
Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Jim had been to Yellowstone before. He’d seen the hot breath of the burning center of the earth. For him, it was the stuff of experiences remembered and the excitement of seeing them again.
For me, it was a whole new mythical, magical, world.
We reached the campground a little after seven. Our sprawling site backed against the woods. Fellow campers included families, a couple of guys who slept in hammocks strung high enough that the bears couldn’t reach them, an adventure guide leading a tour, and a group of students from Teton Science Schools.
This was bear country, which meant that just about anything we weren’t wearing, sleeping on, or sleeping in, had to be secured inside Jeannie the Jeep. The idea of setting up our camp kitchen just to break it down and store it again was more than we could bear, so we settled for cold bagels and went to bed.
Tomorrow was going to be a beautiful day.
People often ask me what part of our 35-day road trip to Oregon and back was my favorite. What was my favorite park, where was my favorite destination, what was my favorite experience.
To use a cliché, that’s like choosing a favorite child.
But, this day was up there.
It was the place, yes, because you cannot not be moved by Yellowstone, but more than that it was a singular moment of kindness. It will forever stand out, especially whenever things are bleak or when I doubt humanity’s capacity for compassion.
Traffic started early that morning. I could hear cars at 6:30, and while it initially surprised me, I realized it shouldn’t. The park is nearly 3,500 square miles. Most of that may be wilderness, but it still takes a lot of people to manage the millions that visit every year.
It was chilly when I stepped out of the tent and I was glad I had a stash of knit caps and had put on four layers before going to bed. (What? I get cold.) We shared our last breakfast bar. It was a fast meal; we needed to get moving before the masses hit.
If I can give you one tip for visiting Yellowstone National Park, it is this: get up early and go to Old Faithful first. Don’t cook breakfast, don’t stop along the way, don’t dilly-dally. Just go.
Even with our abbreviated morning routine, it still took us an hour to get out of Madison campground. We were on the road by 7:30, and ignoring every desire to pull over save one, made it to Old Faithful within 40 minutes.
Along the way we drove through steam so thick in places it looked like the ground was on fire.
By 8:10 am it was already getting crowded. Inside the visitor center we checked the time of the next eruption, and since it was projected to happen in just a few minutes we made our way outside to the benches.
There were two rows that wrapped around a portion of the geyser. The first was full, so we stood on top of the back row. As we waited we could see steam rising from the earth in multiple places, stretching out in a row towards the tree line.
The crowd was quiet. Eventually, the steam from Old Faithful billowed higher and higher, and although we couldn’t see much of the eruption, we could hear the water sizzle as it landed on the scorched earth. I expected a bombastic explosion, but it seemed calm and kind of gradual, probably because it was hidden by the steam.
Still, it was something to behold and imagining the pressure required to push that stream of boiling water more than 100 feet in the air, pressure that had been building under our feet, was humbling.
Bicycles were allowed on the route from Old Faithful to Morning Glory, a short path that’s only two miles round-trip. We helmeted up and rode, stopping at each hydrothermal feature in turn.
Next to Castle Geyser a bubbling pool rimmed with crusted white minerals and orange mud intermittently boiled, and then steam would roll out of the neighboring cone like a puffing train engine.
Across the path Shield Spring simmered, and further down Grotto Geyser looked for all the world as if a mythical beast had collapsed and turned to stone, eroding over the centuries.
At the end of the trail, Morning Glory hot spring was a rainbow of orange, yellow, green, and blue surrounded by a ring of white. At the edges, dead lodgepole pines wore “bobby socks” and reminded me of Iowa’s White Pole Road. The trees had wicked up the mineral-rich water, and after the moisture evaporated a ring of silica stayed behind.
We quickly rode back to Jeannie and munched on trail mix while we drove to Biscuit Basin. We parked and a sign warned us that the area was volatile and unpredictable. Another pointed out that the ground was so acidic in some spots that it could burn through boots, so stay on the boardwalk and don’t be an idiot.
Streams of steaming rivulets flowed into the Firehole River. Pools of bright aqua looked painted, and amazingly, confoundingly, wildflowers popped up near bleached and contorted trees.
Hordes of tourists from a pair of buses blocked sections of the boardwalk and we carefully, very carefully, sidled by so we wouldn’t get dumped into the scalding, burning earth by a stray selfie-stick.
It was our first encounter with the masses and we decided that any future stops would be dictated by the number of tour buses in the parking lot.
The hike up to Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook was just six-tenths of a mile from the trailhead with an elevation gain of 105 feet. It only took us ten minutes, even with a flatlander (me) leading the way.
Fortunately, I had trained before we left so I’d be in better shape, because even though that trail was short, when it began at an elevation of 7,270 feet with some fairly steep spots, it wasn’t necessarily easy.
At the base of the trail, where it split off from the Fairy Falls hike, we stopped to stare at the steam floating above the hot spring. It was, and I kid you not, orange and blue.
We made our way up and caught glimpses through the trees. After one tight turn and final steep stretch, we stepped onto the platform and looked at the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world.
Grand Prismatic Spring is aptly named, and it was easy to see why early reports of Yellowstone’s natural wonders were dismissed as the ravings of crazed lunatics. But after enough stories, skeptics could no longer deny that these fantastical descriptions may be real.
Grand Prismatic Spring from Above$30.00 – $75.00
We picked our way down the trail. About halfway through our descent we stepped to the side to allow a trio to pass. It was a man and woman carrying another man in a running wheelchair. They set him down for a moment and she leaned in to check on him, and then they picked him up again and resumed their hike.
This. This was one of the kindest gestures, one of the most humble displays of humanity I have ever seen.
It’s a moment I grasp and clutch, this privilege of witnessing these selfless people. I made up stories in my mind, but they all had the same moral: two people went to extraordinary lengths to make sure another could see a magnificent view.
Our next stop was going to be the spring itself, but after seeing three tour buses in the packed parking lot, we decided we’d come back early the next morning on our way out.
We drove north and I nearly broke out in hives. Traffic heading the other direction towards Old Faithful was backed up for miles. MILES. I wanted to tell them “turn around, see something else, don’t sit in traffic in YELLOWSTONE.”
We took a detour on Firehole Lake Drive and found a secluded picnic spot nestled in the pines. An unexpected benefit of being in bear country was that we had to keep our kitchen with us, and we fired up the Coleman and heated up burgers I’d cooked in an Extended Stay in Billings.
While we ate, just the two of us in a sunny spot on a hill, I thought of all those people we had passed and hoped they found a quiet place of their own.
The day was disappearing quickly. We packed out what we’d packed in and drove on, wanting to see everything we possibly could in our short time at this amazing place.
Norris Geyser Basin sits at an intersection of three fault lines. It is the hottest, oldest, and the most volatile of all of Yellowstone’s hot spots.
On one side is Back Basin, known for trees and Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world. On the other, Porcelain Basin, a white-washed depression spotted with color. In the middle is the Norris Geyser Basin Museum, an original trail museum built in 1929 – 1930.
We walked through the breezeway and entered the museum, browsing the displays and learning that those various colors we’d seen around the hot springs were actually itty-bitty tiny creatures.
The green was heat-loving algae and the red and orange were thermophiles and “extremophiles,” a real term for microorganisms that survive in extreme environments.
By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we walked the Porcelain Basin route because it was shorter. Plus, the park was doing construction on the boardwalk in Back Basin. With thermal features at least 199°F, which is boiling point at that elevation, it’s surprising there was a boardwalk at all.
We took the steep walk down past fumaroles, quite literally openings in the earth’s crust that spew sulphuric steam, towards an almost-blinding valley. No wildflowers sprouted there and it was nearly devoid of trees. A bronze hat made of straw sat in a steaming pool the same shade and I clamped onto my cap to make sure it didn’t suffer a similar fate.
We’d hiked. We’d biked. We’d narrowly avoided being dumped into ground that could dissolve our very bones. My feet throbbed. My body ached. But this was Yellowstone! So, we kept going.
A quick stop at the National Park Ranger Museum was non-negotiable. Park Rangers are some of my favorite people.
I’m normally loathe to lump any group, but every person I’ve met that works in a National Park has been helpful, enthusiastic, and passionate. Bruce and Collins, retired rangers at the museum, were no exception. Collins had to be in her 70s, yet she told us how she’d backpacked in Grand Teton that past weekend.
I want to be her when I grow up.
It was after 4 pm, so we asked the two volunteers whether we should go to Mammoth Hot Springs or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. “Canyon, no question,” urged Bruce. So to the canyon we went.
This canyon, this Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, did not seem real. It was a painting of a canyon. It was a pastel gash. Spiny slopes of yellow, coral, and rust led my eye to a narrow river of rapids.
It wasn’t just rust-colored. It was actual rust created when the iron in the rhyolite was exposed to moisture and oxygen.
We turned to look the other direction; the waterfall that fed those rapids cut through the pines and dropped in a wide band. We wanted to climb down the trail and get closer, but that would’ve meant we had to climb back up. It was getting late, we were getting hungry, and we still wanted to see the other side of the canyon. So, we drove and parked again, and got close enough to the falls to feel the spray and touch the rainbow, and we kissed and I said “yes.”
Eleven hours after leaving camp we returned. I made up for our bagel the night before with a dinner of shrimp cocktail followed by ditali topped with Italian tomatoes, ground beef, and mushrooms.
It had been an amazing day. An exciting, exhausting, awe-inspiring, humbling, and amazing day.
We were up and out by 8:30 am the next morning so we could get to Grand Prismatic Spring before the throngs, making a quick stop to take a photo of an actual, real live working phone booth near the campground entrance. (There’s little to no cell service in Yellowstone, and that’s how you can call if there’s an emergency. It’s quite anachronistic.)
We got to Midway Geyser Basin and found a parking spot just as a couple of tour buses were unloading, so we raced to the boardwalk and crossed over the Firehole River.
On the way, Excelsior Geyser exhaled so much steam that we only knew it was there because a sign told us. A thick crowd milled near the spring itself. It was a polite group, with people shuffling in and out so everyone could see and get the obligatory photos. I overheard a retired man and woman talking about the National Parks they’ve visited.
“I never made it to Denali,” she said.
“You didn’t miss anything,” he countered.
I had to step away from that nonsense, and we went the opposite direction of the tour bus denizens, who were selfie-by-selfie getting closer to the main attraction.
By the time we got back to the river, we’d counted five hats that had been blown into the unrecoverable muck.
We walked over the bridge as runoff from Excelsior dumped 4,000 gallons of boiling water into the river and we grumbled about the people beyond the “KEEP OUT – Revegetation Area” sign on the other side. Showing remarkable restraint, I did not point at them and scream “They’re degrading the surface!”
But I wanted to. Oh, boy, I wanted to.
We crossed the Continental Divide, twice, before stopping at West Thumb Geyser Basin. I thought we might be done with the geothermal portion of the visit, but nope. Instead, we entered a caldera within a caldera, one as large as Crater Lake in Oregon.
About 600,000 years ago, an enormous volcano erupted, leaving behind Yellowstone Caldera, a 30- by 45-mile basin. It was the third in a series of super-eruptions, the first of which had happened two million years ago, give or take a few millennia.
Then 174,000 years ago another volcano in the same vicinity erupted, leaving behind what is now the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.
A boardwalk surrounded the geyser basin, part of it bordering the shore of the lake. It was an odd juxtaposition in a land of odd juxtapositions.
On one side, a calm lake with mild ripples.
On the other, a steaming chasm rimmed by green grass and yellow flowers, followed by ground leached of color surrounding an even deeper, bluer pool.
Here and there were puddles of orange. In a sun-drenched glen of pines, an elk with a matted mane ate, ignoring the shutter clicks just a few yards away.
We made one more stop at one more waterfall, and then our Yellowstone National Park visit was over.
Visiting Yellowstone National Park
Even if you’ve only got a short time available to visit Yellowstone National Park, do it. While a week would be incredible, and two better, even the 44 hours we were there was worth it.
How the first National Park began
In 1872, during an era of unprecedented growth and the continued doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the U.S. government decided to set aside nearly 3,500 square miles for the enjoyment of its people.
That land couldn’t be bought, stolen, or borrowed. It was there for everyone, and was a remarkable development at a time of almost rabid desire for expansion and ownership.
It happened because not everyone thought Manifest Destiny, the idea that the U.S. had a divine right to take over whatever land it wanted, was a great idea. I learned in school that the policy of expansion was the policy. I never learned that there was opposition or that a vast number of citizens and politicians thought it was not only poppycock, but also immoral, amoral, and oppressive.
Fortunately, President Ulysses S. Grant was one of those politicians who thought land-grabbing wasn’t always a good thing. He turned that belief into law by signing legislation that created our first National Park. Ulysses S. Grant gave us Yellowstone.
Our Yellowstone National Park Itinerary
After driving Beartooth Highway, we arrived late enough that we only had time to stop at Tower Falls before setting up camp in Madison Campground.
- Old Faithful
- Bike trail to Morning Glory, stopping at Castle and Grotto Geysers
- Biscuit Basin
- Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail in Midway Geyser Basin
- Firehole Lake Drive – picnic lunch
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Museum of the National Park Ranger
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, North Rim Drive
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, South Rim Drive
- Dinner at campsite
- Midway Geyser Basin: Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser
- Continental Divide
- Yellowstone Lake: West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Lewis Falls
And then on to Grand Teton!
Passes to Yellowstone National Park are good for seven days.
- Private, non-commercial vehicle $35.00
- Motorcycle or snowmobile $30.00
- Per person, walk-in or bicycle $20.00
- Non-commercial vehicles with a capacity of 16 or greater $20.00 per person
As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the Interagency Annual Pass.
Yellowstone National Park Lodging
Yellowstone has nine lodges, with two open in the winter. You’ll need to make reservations way in advance because these lodges fill often.
- Canyon Lodge and Cabins: 400+ guest rooms spread across 5 hotel-style lodges, with 100+ cabins being more rustic accommodations.
- Grant Village Lodge: 300 guest rooms spread across 6 two-story, hotel-style lodges.
- Lake Hotel and Cabins: Large lodge that has hotel room-style and cabin accommodations.
- Lake Lodge Cabins: 186 cabins.
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins: Large lodge that has hotel room-style and cabin accommodations.
- Old Faithful Inn: Rustic lodge with hotel room-style accommodations.
- Old Faithful Lodge: Cabin accommodations.
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge: Large lodge that has hotel room-style and cabin accommodations.
- Roosevelt Lodge: Cabin accommodations.
Camping at Yellowstone National Park
With twelve campgrounds and over 2,000 sites, it seems like there’s plenty of room for everyone. Nope. At the end of April, there was one spot left for the two nights we wanted in early June. Book your campsite early or you’ll be out of luck!
They’ll ask for your vehicle length and tent size, so have that handy before you start your search.
I hope you enjoyed this look into a first timer’s visit to Yellowstone National Park. To read more stories about my epic cross-country road trip, get your copy of Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2!