Four Night Stay In Yellowstone National Park
Halfway into the trip, it happened. We reached that point during a vacation at which thoughts of work, traffic and other occasionally stressful events had completely faded away to be replaced with a feeling of calm, almost careless relaxation that only comes deep into a long vacation. The sensation is like falling into the REM-stage of sleep, during which vivid dreams most often occur. It happened as we were approaching the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park. I remember thinking, “…perfect timing.”
Passing through the gates brought us to a land of firsts and mosts. Yellowstone was the first national park, established in 1872. It contains the most concentrated collection of natural geothermal features within its borders of any other location in the world, save Iceland. Yellowstone Lake, with 110 miles of shoreline, is the largest in North America above 7000 feet in elevation. Nearly half the entire 2.2 million-acre park sits atop an enormous ancient caldera that blew its top around 600,000 years ago. And Yellowstone is considered the premiere wildlife preserve in the lower 48 states.
We had mapped out a four-night itinerary — each night’s stay in a different location in the park, moving clockwise in a roughly circular “grand tour” of Yellowstone National Park. The first night was spent at Grant Village on the West Thumb bay of Yellowstone Lake.
This village, named after president Ulysses S. Grant, offers a heavily forested complex of pleasant campgrounds and facilities. Many sites are within yards of the water’s edge. Campsites are available for tents and RVs, and the campground has numerous bathrooms with toilets and sinks. Stores, restaurants, pay showers and a coin laundry are within a mile’s walk. There’s no electricity, but an RV dump station is available.
West Thumb geyser basin is within two miles of the campground, offering a dozen or so interesting geothermal pools and mud pots, accessible along a network of elevated boardwalks. This was an ideal place to begin our Yellowstone adventure, and we recommend a sunset walk on the lakeshore after dinner. Madison campground was to be our second night’s stop, but a full day of exploration lay ahead first. And where else but Old Faithful would a grand tour of Yellowstone begin?
Be prepared for large crowds if you’re visiting in prime tourist season — June through August. We were there the last week of August when visitation was beginning to taper off and daytime temperatures had already dropped into the sweater and jacket range. No matter when you visit, the most famous (others are more frequent and higher) geyser in the world is worth seeing more than once. Be there early in the morning for more steam and fewer people.
Stretching north from Old Faithful is a mind-boggling assortment of geothermal features. Some of the park’s most exquisitely colored thermal pools and largest geysers inhabit three major regions in a long valley reaching to Madison. Upper, Midway and Lower geyser basins contain hundreds of possibilities, each geyser, pool or mud pot beckoning with a different interpretation of Yellowstone’s thermal heritage. Among our favorites were Castle Geyser (named for its characteristic cone shape), Sapphire Pool (a deep translucent blue pool), Firehole Geyser (spouts from the bank of the Firehole River), Grand Prismatic Spring (an impressionistic kaleidoscope of fluid color) and Fountain Paint Pots (a boiling caldron of tinted mud).
Just a couple of miles south of Madison you’ll find the one-way, ribbon-thin Firehole Canyon Drive. We took the 35-foot Fleetwood Bounder motorhome (our home for this voyage) on this tiny road, but parking became an issue. Drive your car or ride your bike in, it’s much easier. A side trip here in the late afternoon is rewarded with a swimming hole in the chilly Firehole that’s warmed by a nearby hot spring.
Madison offers bathrooms and an RV dump station on-site. None of the campsites have electricity, but all are suitable for RVs or tents, and offer picnic tables and fire pits. This moderately forested campground is thoughtfully located atop a natural bench on the north side of the junction of three rivers.
The Firehole and Gibbon River combine to form the Madison, which marches westward and out of the park. Anglers will appreciate Madison’s proximity to so much flowing fish-filled water. Dawn and dusk are prime wildlife viewing hours and my timing and patience paid off with a half-hour visit by two elk cows and a calf feeding in a meadow along the Madison just below the campground. A bull elk could be heard bugling before dark. The following morning we found him feeding along the road leading east from Madison.
Our next night’s stay was to be in Canyon Village, but ahead lay another long day of exploration. We made three major stops along the northern loop of the figure-eight-shaped road system in the heart of Yellowstone National Park before reaching our roost for the evening.
First was Norris Geyser Basin. This is a must-see in our tour book. Do not pass up the Porcelain Basin, a palette of pearly off-white hues ringed by geysers, vents and pools.
Second was Mammoth Hot Springs. Its most remarkable geologic feature is the Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace, which unfortunately, has seen better days. Water flow over the lower terraces has dramatically declined due to an earthquake. Seismic activity is common in the region, often affecting the underground thermal plumbing system. Another shaker may get the faucet flowing again. However, the upper terraces are still flowing and quite beautiful. Mammoth is the park headquarters and offers a nice stop for lunch or shopping, and showcases one of the park’s most accessible elk herds wandering about the lawns of the village. The small Mammoth campground is in a dry, arid location down the mountain from the village, and not on our list of recommendations.
Tower Falls near the Tower-Roosevelt area was the third stop. You can go the short distance to the Tower Falls overlook, but the effort of tramping down to the bottom of the canyon, where the tumbling waters crash against the rocky floor is well worth the effort. An hour after hiking out of the canyon, we finally pulled into our assigned site at Canyon Village campground. There was just enough time to take a short bike ride and make dinner before the sky went dark.
The campground at Canyon Village is thickly forested, and located within easy bicycling distance of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its magnificent Upper and Lower falls. There are stores, restaurants, pay showers and a coin laundry nearby. Bathrooms are scattered throughout the campground, an RV dump station is available, but there’s no electricity.
Our morning in the Canyon Village area was spent on a two-hour horseback tour. We highly recommend this experience, as it gave us a completely different perspective of Yellowstone than our day hikes or bicycle touring provided. The wranglers were a colorful bunch, telling us about the legends and lore of the Canyon region while we rode through forest and meadow. Our early-morning ride offered crisp, clean views of the surrounding countryside.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone must be on anyone’s list of things to see here. There are several trails and viewpoints on the North and South Rims of the canyon, but we found the classic, postcard panorama from Artist Point to be our favorite spot for the Lower Falls. The Brink of the Upper Falls Trail (short and paved) brought us to a terrace directly adjacent to the torrential crest of the Upper Falls. The tremendous roar was both deafening and thrilling. Don’t be in a hurry here. The stature and power of both falls are overwhelming; their almost hypnotic authority demands your attention.
In the waning hours of the day we drove through Hayden Valley along the Yellowstone River toward our next camp. Hayden is one of the most heavily populated wildlife habitats in the park. Herds of bison were feeding in the meadows and flocks of white pelicans floated on the river’s surface — just another great day in Yellowstone.
Although some would consider it the least attractive campground in the park, Fishing Bridge RV Park, is nevertheless one of the most convenient. Resembling a series of small parking lots surrounded by thick forest, it’s the only in-park facility that offers full utility hookups, coin laundry, pay showers, store, and an RV dump station. For campers who brought a boat (or want to rent one), a marina is just a few miles away at Bridge Bay. Located at the northern tip of the enormous Yellowstone Lake, and near the Yellowstone River and the wildlife-rich Hayden and Pelican valleys, Fishing Bridge campground is for hard-sided RVs only, due to the large numbers of bears in the vicinity.
A dawn photo tour arranged through Yellowstone Park Lodges (as were all our campground reservations) had us spending our next morning with photographer-guide Doug Hilborn on one of the park’s classic yellow Ford touring busses. This was among the highlights of our Yellowstone visit. Passengers benefit from Hilborn’s skills as an outdoor photographer and 14 years of experience in the park. He can offer recommendations about composition, lens choice and exposure. And Hilborn can help you find the right time and place to create that perfect Yellowstone photograph.
As we settled in for our last night of camping in Yellowstone, our evening conversation turned to recently engraved memories. We had witnessed some of the most phenomenal geologic features and geothermal displays to be found anywhere on Earth. Our days had been filled with exciting wildlife encounters. Despite what we had heard, Yellowstone was not as crowded as some parks such as Yosemite, Smoky Mountains or Grand Canyon, because it has no population centers around it. And we had met dozens of friendly rangers, concession staff, wranglers and guides during our stay. All of these elements had been invaluable in helping us create our own perfect Yellowstone adventure.
Jim and Lindy Berry, regular Camping Life contributors, work for Yellowstone Alpen Guides in West Yellowstone, Montana. Contact the company at 800/858-3502 yellowstoneguides.com for complete information on day hikes, scenic motor tours, wildlife tours and much more.
The Yellowstone Association 307/344-2293; yellowstoneassociation.org also offers a number of year-round guide services for hiking and coach tours, including wildlife and scenic programs.
For lodging, dining, camping (at the five campgrounds we visited and Bridge Bay) or activity reservations, contact Yellowstone Park Lodges, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, 307/344-7311 or TDD 307/344-5395; travelyellowstone.com. Seven other campgrounds in the park are first-come, first-served. Contact the National Park Service (307/344-7381) for information on these campgrounds.
HOME ON THE RANGE: FLEETWOOD BOUNDER 35E
With long days on the road part of the plan, traveling and camping in a spacious RV was the hot ticket for a family on vacation. We checked out the new 2003 Bounder 35E from Fleetwood 800/444-4905; fleetwoodrv.com and were pleased to find it brought comfort, convenience and a sense of security to our Yellowstone adventure.
Although it took a day to get used to piloting a 35-foot motorhome, the cockpit was designed to make driving the Bounder a breeze. Comfortable and fully instrumented, including a rear-view video monitor with one-way sound, the command center of the coach offered panoramic visibility. Overhead was a 27-inch TV, DSS dish, CD player and VCR for entertainment when encamped. The generous size of the fully-equipped galley (featuring options such as a convection-microwave oven, three-burner range and gigantic four-door refrigerator/freezer) was matched only by the voluminous living area revealed when the super-slide, containing a convertible dinette and fold-down sofa/bed, opposite the kitchen was extended. The Bounder even had a small optional washer/dryer in the galley area. The master bedroom in the rear of the coach featured a slide-out queen bed, a small “office” area, a second smaller TV, and a bathroom offering a huge stand-up shower stall, storage cabinet with sink and a mirrored medicine cabinet. A smaller bathroom with sink and toilet was located mid-coach.
An incredible amount of storage space was offered in the cabinets and drawers of the galley and living room. A huge wardrobe, large-shelved cabinet and numerous drawers were provided in the rear master bedroom. And from nose to tail, up and down both sides of the coach, were large-capacity storage compartments with all-new aluminum baggage doors. New Bounder highlights also included front and rear caps, higher brake lights for better visibility, and a standard A&E electric awning. The comfortable and easy-to-operate Bounder 35E played a big part in the success of our cross-country voyage. Base MSRP range for the Bounder (six floorplans available) is from $85,000 to $106,000. The price as tested for the option-rich unit we lived with was $112,231.
Exploring neighboring Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming, is the perfect way to begin any Yellowstone vacation. In two days we absorbed as much scenery and “scene” as we could. Jackson’s central park, with its towering arches of elk antlers, is a delightful place to begin touring this “tony” town. Don’t pass up a wild-game meal at one of this picture-postcard mountain resort’s dinner houses. Grand Teton National Park is just a few minutes’ drive away, but it’s a threshold of wilderness. Jackson Lake, the Tetons (South, Middle and Grand) and Mount Moran are its most obvious landmarks. Jackson Lake is a busy place with a marina, lodges and restaurants. We just scratched the park’s surface, hiking the spider web of easy-to-moderate trails near Jenny, String and Leigh Lakes, set like gems at the foot of the massive Teton Range. If you have the time to do only one thing here, take the boat ferry across Jenny Lake and make the short, but strenuous hike to Inspiration Point — the view eastward across the Jackson Hole valley is stunning.
The Old Faithful Inn is a national historic landmark and the most requested lodging facility in the park. We spent a night there simply because it seemed like the thing to do when in Yellowstone. The rustic lodge, with log and wood-shingle exterior and interior construction is located adjacent to the world- famous Old Faithful Geyser. The original inn, known as the “Old House,” was completed in 1904 and includes an immense lobby with a huge stone fireplace. The East and West Wings were added in the early 1900s, with many rooms having been recently remodeled. Accommodations include rooms with and without baths. A restaurant, deli, gift store and interpretive tours are available at the Inn.
KAMPING ALONG THE WAY
While traveling to and from Yellowstone, we stayed in a handful of KOA facilities. We found all of the KOA Kampgrounds on our tour to be clean and well maintained, and the hosts friendly and helpful. Each had a store, bathrooms and showers, and a coin laundry. Tent and RV sites are available. Some had recreation rooms and pools. For information or to receive a planning kit, contact KOA Kampgrounds at 406/248-7444 or visit koa.com.