This was our fifth trip to Yellowstone in five years, so we didn’t feel a need to run around and do everything. We could be strategic and prioritize a few things we had not done before, plus focus on wildlife sightings. If you read our Glacier post, you know how important it is to us to find and photograph the wildlife.
The other thing about Yellowstone is that because it is such a huge park, what you choose to see largely depends on which side(s) of the park you’re staying on. On this trip, we started our visit on the north side of Yellowstone, staying both in Gardiner (just outside Mammoth Hot Springs) and 35 miles north of that in Paradise Valley. We were unable to get campsites inside the park, though we have previously stayed at Mammoth Hot Springs (no hookups). We then switched to West Yellowstone to explore geyser country.
Before getting to Yellowstone, we visited two places that were new to us.
1. GREAT FALLS, MONTANA
After we left Glacier National Park, we spent one night in Great Falls, Montana. We have read books and watched a lot of programs about Lewis & Clark, and there have been a number of Corps of Discovery historical sites we have visited over the years as we have crossed the country. Great Falls figured prominently in the Lewis & Clark narrative. It was the water they feared as they traveled up the Missouri River. We wanted to see the falls for ourselves.
Unfortunately, the city of Great Falls doesn’t really seem to value the historical nature of the Great Falls. It was tough to even find information about the falls online. When we got to town, we visited the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, which was very helpful, and also informative about the journey of the Corps of Discovery. There were actually 5 different waterfalls that the Corps had to portage around because there was no way they could take their boats over these falls. It took them several weeks, and it was exhausting work to haul the boats and all of their gear up from the banks of the Missouri River and over an 18-mile stretch of land to a place where they could safely put them back in the water.
Nowadays, you can see four of the five falls, but several dams make the viewing and the falls themselves less spectacular than they would have been when the Corps of Discovery encountered them (Hank called them the “Not-So-Great Falls”). Nevertheless, we enjoyed a peek at Rainbow Falls, Black Eagle Falls, and the Great Falls themselves. All are part of a big hydroelectric project that generates electricity for parts of Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
We wish the city of Great Falls would celebrate the historical nature of these falls and provide more signage, maps, directions, and interpretive services related to their Great Falls, but we did get to see them and tried to imagine what it would have been like for Lewis & Clark and their team.
2. PARADISE VALLEY
For three nights we stayed about 35 miles north of Yellowstone at an RV park in Paradise Valley. This part of Montana has a lot of farmland, but also the foothills for the mountains that are part of Yellowstone. We camped right along the Yellowstone River and enjoyed scenic drives and views of ospreys and sandhill cranes.
At Glacier, we went in search of ice cream because it was so hot. But we also search for good barbecue on our trips, and we found Follow Yer Nose in Emigrant, MT, a tiny town in the Paradise Valley. And because you are seated at picnic tables family style, we met some great people from St. Louis and Billings, MT, who told us about the Chico Hot Springs nearby.
3. THE SCENERY AND GEOLOGY OF YELLOWSTONE
In Yellowstone, we stopped at Undine Falls, which is a pretty waterfall just off the road between Mammoth and Tower.
Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest corner of the park is a unique set of natural structures—limestone terraces, hot springs, and steam vents that are shaped in all kinds of weird formations. We did the walking tour, using the boardwalks (a great way to get in your stair-climbing exercise) and also did the driving tour of the Upper Terrace. Both give you great views of such features as Canary Spring, New Highland Terrace, and Angel Terrace.
Later in the week, we hiked a part of the Fairy Falls trail to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook. We keep trying to get the iconic picture of Grand Prismatic Spring, and this time was a little clearer than last time, so that’s progress. These hot springs are so vibrant and colorful, they don’t even look real.
We also did an easy 5-mile hike to Lone Star Geyser, just south of where Old Faithful and other geysers are located in Upper Geyser Basin. You can actually ride bikes to Lone Star because the trail is just an old paved level road, but I had tweaked my back, and we thought a walk would be a little less jarring. It’s a mostly-shaded walk along Firehole River with Canada jays serenading you as you walk.
What’s at the end? A rather ordinary looking geyser cone greets you in a setting of forest and grassland. About every three hours, this geyser comes alive. First it gives you a small eruption, which some people think is the main event. We waited almost 90 minutes for this eruption and were considering taking off after it occurred.
Fortunately, Hank talked me into staying a little longer, since the first eruption only lasted about a minute. Twenty minutes later we were rewarded with more activity, and this time, Lone Star Geyser shot about 45 feet into the air, taller than the nearby trees. This went on for over 20 minutes. It was an amazing show! Here’s a 30-second video of Lone Star Geyser erupting.
Eventually, only steam came out of the geyser, and we had a chance to be citizen scientists and record the initial eruption and the steam phase in the log book for Lone Star Geyser. This solitary cone may not reach the heights of Old Faithful, but it’s a terrific eruption that only a few people ever get to experience. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new people as you all wait for the geyser to erupt. We met a young man who was backpacking from the Mexican border to the Canadian border along the Continental Divide–wow! That was impressive.
4. THE WILDLIFE OF YELLOWSTONE
Most of our time in Yellowstone was spent looking for wolves and other animals in Lamar Valley and the areas nearby. Bison were in the midst of their mating season in early August, so we saw hundreds of bison as we drove along the northernmost part of the Grand Loop Road in its figure 8 pattern that makes up the major Yellowstone roadway.
A true bison jam occurs not just when the bison are next to the road, but when they are actually ON the road. We love bison jams—they slow the traffic down and remind us of why we are here—to see the wildlife.
With so many bison in Yellowstone spread out over many miles in the park, there is almost always plenty of photo and video opportunities. See some highlights in this short one-minute video.
We spotted wolves over the course of three early morning visits to Yellowstone. It is so hard to get good photos and videos because they are far away and their fur color blends right into the environment. Here are a few shots and a 2-minute video of the wolves (you can see them howling).
Yellowstone has lots of picnic areas and well-positioned turnouts, so it’s easy to find a pretty spot for a picnic lunch.
After lunch one day, we encountered, not a bison jam, but a bear jam. We had had great grizzly bear sightings in Glacier, but only a quick look at a black bear. So, it was wonderful to encounter a mother black bear and her two cubs between Mammoth and Tower. The bear and cubs were trying to get to a small river and had to cross the roadway to accomplish this. Because of cars parking and driving by, the bears couldn’t get across until the rangers came and stopped all traffic. It was so delightful to watch the cubs scamper across the road and down toward the water. What a treat!
Elk and pronghorn were also in abundance, and we enjoyed all our views of wildlife, including some bighorn sheep near the road. This is one reason why we keep going back to Yellowstone.
If you want to see more of the traditional Yellowstone sights, we’ve visited many of these sights on previous trips, so here are some of our earlier blog posts:
Perhaps these views along the Madison River, where we enjoyed our last dinner and evening drive, will inspire you as they did us. We hope we’ll be back because there is always more to see in Yellowstone.