Old Faithful
Old Faithful

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

If I had to pick one word to describe Yellowstone, it would be diverse. It has everything you could ask for in a national park: animals, canyons, fishing, geysers, hiking trails, hot springs, lakes, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, to name a few.

At more than 2.2 million acres, the park is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. There are 466 miles of road, 310 miles of which are paved. The main road is called the Grand Loop, consisting of an upper loop and a lower loop. The Grand Loops closely resembles a figure eight. The entire Grand Loop is 142 miles long, with numerous side roads and pull offs along the way. There are five entrances to Yellowstone: the north entrance from Gardiner, MT, and the northeast entrance from Silver Gate and Cooke City, MT, intersect with the upper loop. The south entrance from Jackson Hole, WY, the east entrance from Cody, WY, and the west entrance from Island Park, ID, all connect with the lower loop. The north entrance is the only entrance to the park that is open year-round.

Currently there is a five or six mile stretch of road construction underway between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyer Basin, with delays of up to 30 minutes. The pavement in this section has been removed, and only one lane is open at all times. It rained off and on all day on May 24th, the day we arrived in Gardiner, so our Jeep got filthy driving through the construction zone the following day.

There are also several other closures either currently in effect, or that will go into effect soon, so keep these in mind if you plan to visit the park this summer:

  • The Brink of Upper Falls will be closed from July 2018 through the summer of 2019.
  • Inspiration Point and Inspiration Point Road are closed for reconstruction. Expected completion date is July 2018.
  • The North Rim Trail is closed between Cascade Falls and the Brink of Lower Falls, and between Grand View Point and Inspiration Point. During this closure you will not be able to walk the entire North Rim Trail. There is no data available for when these portions of the trail will reopen.
  • Uncle Tom’s Point and Parking Area, Uncle Tom’s Trail (the stairs), and the entire South Rim Trail are closed for reconstruction: expected completion date is July 2018.

We didn’t mind some of the trails being closed, but it was annoying dealing with the road construction. Rather than drive through the mud and sit still for long periods of time, we took the eastern side of the upper loop back to the north entrance each time we visited the park. The eastern side of the upper loop is 16 miles longer than the western side, and under normal circumstances, takes an additional 45 minutes to drive. But given the extreme delays in the construction area, not to mention the mud and the ruts, we decided we’d rather be moving than sitting still and getting splattered with mud.

Driving through Yellowstone requires keen observation skills and infinite patience. While some animals, such as wolves, are more likely to be seen during dawn and dusk, you never know when you might spot a pack. One surefire way of knowing if animals are around is to see a large crowd of people standing on the side of the road, and cars parked haphazardly alongside the roadway.

Bears and wolves seemed to draw the most attention on each of the five days we visited the park, but people will stop in the middle of the road to take pictures of elk or bison, heedless of the fact they are blocking traffic. Harry swears some folks will stop if they see a large rock off in the distance.

Elk are the most abundant species of mammals in the park, but you see a lot of bison too. Bison and buffalo are often used interchangeably, but it is not correct to do so. There are no buffalo in North America, only American bison. Yellowstone has the largest herd of bison on public land. The bison population varies, ranging from 2,300 to 5,500 animals. The bison at Yellowstone are divided into two subpopulations, based are where they breed: The northern herd breeds in the Lamar Valley and on the surrounding high plateaus. The central herd breeds in Hayden Valley. The bison think nothing of crossing the street, stopping traffic in both directions. We’ve seen as many as fifteen cross the road, one right after another, taking their sweet time. It’s like sitting at a railroad crossing waiting for the last car to rumble past.

Old Faithful is the most popular attraction at Yellowstone, but ironically, it is not the tallest geyser in the park. That honor is bestowed on Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world. Steamboat is known to eject a column of water 300 feet or more into the air, whereas the average height of one of Old Faithful’s eruptions is 145 feet. Old Faithful, the first geyser named in the park, earned its moniker because its eruptions are highly predictable. It erups every 60-90 minutes on average. Up until March 15 of this year, the last time Steamboat erupted was in 2014. For some inexplicable reason, Steamboat, which is located in the Norris Geyser Basin, has erupted a total of seven times this year. The last eruption occurred on May 27. Naturally, we missed it.

If you asked a dozen people what their favorite thing is about Yellowstone, I expect you’d get seven or eight different answers. Harry liked the animals and the geysers best, but for me, it was the mountains and the waterfalls. There are over 100 waterfalls in Yellowstone, and we have only seen a fraction of them so far. The roadside waterfalls are easy to view, but many of the falls require a trek in the woods to see. We only made it to one waterfall—Wraith Falls—that required a half-mile hike. We had to navigate a muddy trail and traverse a small creek to reach a footbridge at the bottom of the falls, and then climb some steps to get to the top of the falls. It wasn’t the highest or the prettiest waterfall we’ve seen by a long shot, but it was definitely worth seeing. Wraith Falls earned its name because of its ghost-like appearance.

Yellowstone was once referred to as Wonderland. Even Theodore Roosevelt used the term when he dedicated the eponymous Roosevelt Arch on April 24, 1903. Roosevelt said in part: “Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the park are scrupulously preserved…”

The comparison of Yellowstone to Wonderland dates back to 1885, when the Northern Pacific Railway took advantage of the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, launching an ad campaign that presented Yellowstone as America’s “New Wonderland.”

I could wax philosophic about Yellowstone until you were bored to tears, but to be perfectly honest, you have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate the beauty of our nation’s first national park. It truly is a wonderland.

Note:  We spent ten days at Rocky Mountain RV Park in Gardiner, MT. We have stayed at countless RV parks on our way to Gardiner, but Rocky Mountain was our favorite. It is a family-owned and operated campground. The owners are a young couple, very friendly and outgoing. They live on site, and are quick to react to any problems you might incur. The park is nicely landscaped, well maintained, and very peaceful and quiet. The views of the mountains are breathtaking. The restrooms and laundry room are spotless, and the rates are extremely affordable considering the park is only four blocks from Yellowstone’s north entrance. We paid $46.00 per night from May 24-31, and $59.00 per night for June 1-2. Our Good Sam membership afforded us a 10% discount off these rates. The campground is within easy walking distance of local restaurants and shops. We would definitely stay there again should our travels bring us back to Gardiner. 

Absaroka Range
Absaroka Mountain Range


Undine Falls
Undine Falls
Wraith Falls
Wraith Falls
Bison grazing by the side of the road
Elk lounging around in the Mammoth Hot Springs historic district
Black bear. I took this shot from the car while we were stopped in traffic

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