Honeymoon – Part II: Yellowstone

Giddy on the high that was Grand Teton, we headed north into America’s first and most visited national park: Yellowstone.

Truthfully, Yellowstone is everything you have ever heard about and more. It is epic, vast, and otherworldly. There are times when you honestly believe you must be on another planet. For example, Mammoth Hot Springs felt like we were on the set of a post apocalyptic, sci-fi movie. We tried to imagine what the first people who explored this land must have thought. The indigenous people considered the land sacred. And it is said that when white explorers returned to their homes with tales of what they had seen, no one believed their stories of boiling mud pits and explosions of water and steam erupting from the very earth. This is in no way surprising. 

In addition to the unique thermal features, Yellowstone’s topography and landscape constantly evolves as you drive through. It contains rugged mountains, grassy plains, deep canyons, valleys with winding rivers, and hidden waterfalls. It truly feels like a sampling of many different parks have been stitched together to make one giant Yellowstone quilt. There is literally too much to talk about when it comes to Yellowstone, so I have tried to narrow it down for the sake of brevity.

West Thumb Basin

Highlights

  • Upper Geyser Basin – This is where you’ll find Old Faithful, Morning Glory Pool, and many other famous geysers and thermal features as well as the visitor’s center and the Old Faithful Inn. A boardwalk makes this hike very pleasant and accessible, yet around every turn, you will find something fascinating. We timed it perfectly to see several geysers erupt and avoid most of the crowds. If you only have a few hours to stop while driving through the park, this is probably the biggest bang for your buck.
  • Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – I anticipated the need to throw a few elbows in order to stake my claim to a small spot to photograph the iconic waterfall, but much to our delight, we arrived at Artist’s Point at sunrise and were the only people there. We experienced at least 45-minutes of solitary photography in one of the country’s most iconic locations. After that, we did a 5-6 mile hike along the South Rim, which was snow packed and slick in some areas, but overall a gorgeous experience. We followed that with a drive to all of the scenic overlooks on the North Rim. We took the paved trail to the lower falls – but don’t let that fool you – this was a punishing trek straight down passing switchback after switchback. At the bottom you are standing at the precipice as the water crashes off the edge of the earth. The noise and spray of the water engulfs you with its intensity. On the way back up, I wheezed, I cursed, and I took multiple breaks as I lashed out at Logan for his apparent ease and lack of exertion. This “paved trail” was not for the faint of heart. Yet, I saw people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities conquering this journey and I was inspired by the fortitude of those who simply wanted to see the roaring of the waters. After Inspiration Point, we hiked along the North Rim to the Silver Cord Cascade Lookout. Even though it was midday, we were quite literally the only people on the trail. In total, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was possibly the most mileage I have ever done in one day, but I begrudgingly admit it was well worth it.
Brink of the lower falls.
  • Mammoth Hot Springs – When we arrived in Mammoth, I was feeling a little weary, but this place was so weird and fascinating. While the entire location is boardwalked, there are quite a few stairs, so it is not as accessible as some other locations in the park. But it seems that with each tier that you ascend, you enter a new alien landscape. 
  • Bison Babies – We were lucky enough to be present on what must have been “birthing day.” As we drove into the park after Grand Teton, we didn’t see a single baby Bison, but the next morning we woke up to thousands. Literally. We saw many, many babies take their very first steps on spindly little legs just minutes after being born. They played and chased one another like precocious puppies. They are actually called “red dogs,” which I thought was weird, until I saw them. The mothers looked absolutely exhausted. It was an amazing experience to see so many at the same time.

West Yellowstone

West Yellowstone is a convenient place to stay as it is directly outside the west entrance of the park and most accommodations are reasonably priced; however, I wouldn’t classify it as a particularly noteworthy or must-visit town. There were a couple of interesting looking restaurants and tons of tourist trinket shops. Our hotel was simultaneously the most expensive and most mundane of the entire trip. If convenience is your highest criteria, then West Yellowstone is a great place to start. But when we visit the park again, we will probably choose to stay in Mammoth or Gardiner instead to have a different experience.

Next Time:

Get Over My Fear – A couple of our planned hikes were actually closed due to Grizzly activity. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad relieved. After all, would it be closed if the trail was safe? Since spring is “baby season,” I think it is better to be safe than sorry. Skipping the Lamar Valley hike, however, was clearly a product of my fear. This was a high priority hike for Logan and I am ashamed to admit that I chickened out. At the time, I was positive of our impending death-by-bear. Now I realize it was a missed opportunity. We drove through Lamar Valley several times and had excellent wildlife sightings, but next time I would like to push through my discomfort and spend more time hiking in this spectacular place.

Lamar Valley

Uncle Tom’s Trail – This short, but steep metal staircase leads you down the side of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the base of the lower falls and came highly recommended as a great photo op. It is over 300 steps down (and back up again), but by all accounts, well worth the cardio. Unfortunately, it was closed due to the season (apparently the steps get very icy and treacherous).  

Grand Prismatic Spring – Missing this was disappointing to say the least. We chose not to go first thing in the morning as our research said this sight was best seen in mid day. (The cool temperatures of the morning lead to steam and fog that is not ideal for photographers hoping to capture the brilliant colors of the pool.) Perhaps it was our timing, but the line into the parking lot to Grand Prismatic Springs was backed up in all directions. We opted to come back the next day – it never happened. But truthfully, what I was more excited about, was the hike to the Grand Prismatic overlook, to get panoramic views from above. Unfortunately, that trail was also closed due to bear activity. (You may have seen the recent viral video of a Grizzly wrestling a bison on a bridge at Yellowstone. That was filmed at the Grand Prismatic Overlook trailhead, mere days before our arrival. No wonder it was closed…) This spot is a high priority for our return.

Old Faithful Inn – The epic timber lobby of the historic Old Faithful Inn was on my bucket list to visit and photograph, but unfortunately, the Inn was closed to the public due to Covid. I couldn’t justify the $400+ a night that these rooms command, but next time, I think it will be worth the splurge… at least for one night.

Major bummer…

Beartooth Pass – This was mostly just bad luck. Touted as the most beautiful drive in America, this scenic highway between Wyoming and Montana is usually only open from mid May to mid October. We thought we would make it in time, but as it happens, we were there mere days prior to the seasonal opening. We turned away mere miles from the pass and with no GPS or internet signal, we found our way to Billings, Montana for our final night on the journey. Next time, we will make this drive a priority.

Final Thoughts

Yellowstone is awe-inspiring in the way beauty, danger, and drama lurks around every turn. But in all its majesty, there is a different vibe to Yellowstone when compared to other national parks that I have experienced. There is infrastructure, boardwalks, illustrated signage, gift shops, and cafes. I will undoubtedly get some hate for this, but Yellowstone has a subtle essence of ‘National Parks for Dummies.’ We saw countless clueless tourists in flip flops and gift shop hoodies trespassing off the designated paths, attempting to take photos of their four-year-old child with a newborn baby bison while its enraged mother snorted and stomped nearby. There was a complacent “zoo” vibe of expected safety. Like, “Watch me feed this bear a cheese puff!” We were disappointed to see tourists leaving the safety of the boardwalks, ignoring the signs, and walking on the delicate thermal features in order to snap selfies. I’m not surprised people foolishly try to touch the thermal features. The bubbling, vibrant, jewel-toned waters beckon you closer like a magical hot tub, and, in keeping with the lowest common denominator of human intelligence, every year some idiot tries to take a dip. (Don’t believe me?  Check out Idiots of Yellowstone.)

~the level of accessibility directly corresponds with people’s complacency regarding their assumed safety~

I once heard Yellowstone described as the Disneyworld of National Parks, and in a way, it is. It is accessible, which is fantastic. National Parks should be available for everyone to enjoy. That is the entire point. But I think the level of accessibility directly corresponds with people’s complacency regarding their assumed safety.

{Logan here: The Disneyworld description sort of implies that there is something fake about the experience, which is absolutely not true. The crowds are your base tourist types, but what you are seeing is truly astounding and cannot be seen nor reproduced anywhere else in the world. If you are willing to get off the boardwalk (on trails… seriously, people, stay on the boardwalk when there is one), you can definitely get away from the worst of the tourists. The harder you are willing to work, the less people you will find around you and the more you will be rewarded.}

There was also an air of snobbery that surprised us both. There were a few choice quotes that irked both me and Logan: “I can’t believe you haven’t seen any bears yet. I have so many pictures of black bears, I just quit taking them.” “The grizzlies were right on the road yesterday. You must not be trying hard enough.” Or, my favorite piece of advice when coming across a group of people staring down the barrels of their high powered telescopes: “Oh Sweetie, you might want to stick to shooting bison. You won’t see anything with that lens.” Yeah, thanks… 

Here’s a piece of advice we actually found VERY helpful. One thoughtful person, upon hearing our wildlife photography frustration said, “look for the people with big camera lenses like yours. Avoid the people with telescopes. The people with telescopes are likely watching something miles away, and it’s not worth stopping for, because you will never be able to see it. And even if you see it, your pictures won’t be very good.” That person was right. We started looking for people with similar gear to our own and were rewarded with a wolf sighting and a grizzly sow with two cubs. (In fact, the grizzlies marked the culmination of an epic trip.  We literally saw them on our way out of the park on the way home and were trapped in a “bear jam” for two hours.)

In one photo, Logan captured grizzlies, “bear jams,” and Idiots of Yellowstone.

The truth is, this place can be damn dangerous.  

Yellowstone is overwhelming in its intensity. That is the best way I can describe it. I realize that this article reads a bit negative – like I didn’t enjoy Yellowstone – but that is not the case. It was utterly amazing and I will definitely return. Yellowstone simply had an intense aura about it. There is so much more to experience, and it is worth a second and even a third visit.


Tips for Both Grand Teton and Yellowstone

  • Sunrise, sunrise, sunrise! All of our best Yellowstone experiences happened early in the morning: Hundreds upon hundreds of newborn baby bison in Lamar Valley. A solitary sunrise at Artist’s Point at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Front row seats to Old Faithful. A snowy morning bison jam… These are the experiences that await you if you are willing to forgo sleeping in. Get into the parks as early in the morning as possible. Not only are the sunrises epic, you will avoid the crowds and see more wildlife. We had many solitary experiences at viewpoints and attractions and rarely felt in the way with our tripods and photography gear. By the time 10:00 am rolls around, traffic and crowds ramp up and parking and solitude becomes harder and harder to find.
  • As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared!” Dress in layers, bring snacks, and water. The weather changes drastically from one part of the park to the other, particularly in Yellowstone. We often started the day with jackets, gloves, and knit caps only to shed layers down to short sleeves, only to add it all back again when climbing to higher elevations. On our very last day, the news told us to expect a “light dusting” of snow – we woke up to 8 inches! You’re in the Rockies. The weather is always crazy.
  • GyPSy Guide – In all of our research, this amazing app was only mentioned once but I am so happy we tried it. It is like having a tour guide in your car. The app automatically draws your attention to upcoming points of interest and plays tidbits of information based on your GPS location. We learned the history of the parks and were alerted to points of interest that were not previously on our itinerary. The app and the specific location guides are not free, but for us, the $10-15 investment was well worth it. The only downside I would note, is that if you are in a particular park or area and backtrack a lot, the app will continue to alert you to the same locations over and over again (based on your GPS location), but the alerts are easily skipped.
  • Protect your Photos – Seriously. Learn from our mistakes. The majority of the photos featured from this trip were taken by me.  Logan lost literally thousands of photos upon returning home due to a failed computer hard drive. Even the Geek Squad could not recover them. This was a truly heartbreaking loss after this purposefully photo-centric trip. Thankfully, Logan had posted some of his best pictures to social media, so all was not lost, but almost all the photos that exist of me on that trip are cell phone selfies. From now on, we will take no chances and back-up all files immediately upon returning home.  

Yellowstone and Grand Teton were both amazing experiences. The vibe was different. The tourists were different. There was a different level of appreciation and respect for the land and animals. Yellowstone was overwhelming, intense, otherworldly and awe-inspiring, but Jackson and Grand Teton straight up stole a piece of my heart. I would return to Yellowstone over and over again for a visit, but I could totally call Jackson and Grand Teton home. We encourage you to visit both places and send us your thoughts. Either way, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Britt

Disclaimer: All opinions are entirely our own, and exactly that – opinions. We are not sponsored and have not been compensated in any way for a favorable review.

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