Some landmarks are so essential to the American landscape, that you truly need more than one visit. Yellowstone is such a place. We first visited in September of 2015, and this was only the second National Park that we had ever been to. We had a few days in the park, and saw and hiked as much as we could…but goodness, Yellowstone is massive. You need a lot of time to explore it!
When we returned this May, I knew exactly what we had to do. You see, I already had my Yellowstone Bucket List…and we simply proceeded down the list, where we had left off.
Visiting 2 Years Ago
First…these are my favorite photos from our 2015 visit. Isn’t it crazy, how much my kids have grown in two years!!!
In 2015, we were able to camp/park near Chris’ sister, Lana, and her family several times. We met up in four different states and created some amazing memories. My favorite pic from our Yellowstone trip with the Herzans was this:
That first trip to Yellowstone…we witnessed Old Faithful loose her cool, we experienced the beauty of Grand Prismatic Spring, captured photos at Artist Point (the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone), explored the Norris Geyser Basin area, saw wild Bison and blazed the trail on our first Yellowstone hike.
The experience was beautiful and unique. Obviously we left with many things still unseen. So after careful planning…we finally returned.
In 2015, we entered the park through West Yellowstone. This time we were coming from Cody, so we used the East Entrance.
The East Yellowstone Entrance
First of all, this drive is spectacular. Picturesque and beautiful…and in May, still blanketed with plenty of snow. The roads were completely clear though.
On two separate occasions, we found bighorn sheep, right after entering through the park entrance. This was super exciting for all of us…and especially for me. Viewing a bighorn sheep, happened to be on my bucket list, as I had never seen one in the wild!
As you descend down from the East Entrance, you meet Yellowstone Lake. This lake really shines in the spring. We were amazed with its beauty as the clouds and mountains were reflected in its transparent waters. And fortunately for my Angie, it had rained that morning, so she had her rainboots on…perfect for stepping into the frigid lake water!
There was an easy pullover lot, so we were able to snap some photos and hop back in the truck easily.
Mud Volcano Area
The Mud Volcano area was on our must see list. At first I had no desire in walking around this sulfur pit. However, the more I read, the more I was intrigued. These bubbling mud pots, fumaroles and boiling caldrons are simply fascinating.
This portion of the Yellowstone Caldera is quite unique. It is also pretty cool for kids. Though the sulfur smell is stinky…where else can you hear a spring that belches, a pot of mud that makes guzzling sounds and see so many smelly and odd natural wonders?!
How amazing that all of this underground heat is escaping to the Earth’s surface in so many unique ways.
The views around Mud Geyser are pretty fabulous. This is also an area where bison tend to congregate with their young, so it really does offer a complete photo opportunity.
Another item on our must see list, was to view a grizzly bear. Guess what? It happened! But it was crazy…and not in the sort of way that I had hoped for. I had alway imagined that we would be hiking, and see the elusive grizzly, off across the field…or maybe even near the road as we were slowly driving a scenic byway.
I did not anticipate that a road closure would redirect us two hours around the park, in the opposite direction….to stumble upon a whole bunch of traffic on the opposite side of the road…followed by my husband agreeing to let me pull over the truck and walk along the road to see what all the fuss was….only to discover a mama grizzly and her cubs about one hundred feet from the road. Nope….never anticipated that one.
It happened and it was so awesome that all five of us could witness this bear in person. It also provided opportunity for us to be reminded of how bone-headed our fellow humans can be. Did you catch the part where I said it was a mama grizzly…and her cubs? Hello?!!! I could not believe that as thirty something people were taking photos, at least another ten or so were walking down the embankment from the road to get a closer look! Clearly those individuals did not read the park information given to them at the entrance, nor did they take the Yellowstone Pledge. Good grief!
This leads me to another thought…
The average tourist will pull into the park for a few days, take a ridiculous amount of photos with their hands up in the air, get way too close to innately fierce animals and never step foot on the trails that lead away from the top attractions. Hummm….I’m so glad I’m a traveling adventurer, and not a tourist.
Anyways, this trio of bears, was just the beginning. We ended up seeing 8 bears total in Yellowstone. So cool!
Grand Prismatic Spring
Though we had seen this beauty before, we had to see her again. Grand Prismatic is one of our favorite features in Yellowstone. There is something about the vibrant colors that just captivates us all.
Though I dislike experiencing natural beauty with crowds of people…it almost can not be helped with this crazy wonder. Even arriving before Memorial Day…this geothermal feature attracts a huge crowd. Crowd or no crowd….it’s worth seeing firsthand. We just truly love the colors and the ridiculous size of this spring. I do believe that I will always want to see this gorgeous sight, no matter how many times we visit the park through the years. I just think she is that cool…worth taking the time to see repeatedly!
Mammoth Hot Springs
So this was one of the main items on our must see list. If you have looked at a map, then you know that this geothermal feature is at the very tip-top of the park. It is not close to anything else really…and the only road between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs is currently under construction as they attempt to widen it. Let’s just say it was a long drive. We did it though! I will not name names…but certain members of my crew chose to take naps while I drove through the construction zone and traffic….yep. But hey…it was a quiet drive!
We visited the Visitor Center and then explored this big beauty. It really is of Mammoth proportion.
I am really glad that we took the time to see it. With the fuss of road construction though, I really would not recommend fighting the traffic to see it…if you have to drive the construction zone between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs, when the park has so many other things to offer. If you happen to see it, it is awesome. But if your time-table does not allow for the slow drive with traffic and construction…I would just leave it for your next visit. Like I said, there are so many amazing things you can see that are easier to get to!
This was the highlight of the northern part of the park. Lamar was on my bucket list from our previous visit, but it is a good 2-3 hour drive from where we were staying in 2015 and then again from where we were this year. We decided to make the drive. When we turned north at Yellowstone Lake, we noticed the road closure sign. To our dismay, the road to Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs (around Canyon Village) was closed until the following week. This meant that we had to drive the entire loop of the park to get north. Yikes! Thankfully my amazing family appeased me…ok, maybe just my husband, as the kids didn’t realize the amount of time this decision would add onto our driving day until much later in the afternoon….and yes, you can imagine how excited they were to find out that after visiting Lamar Valley, we still had a three hour drive home!
So yes, we finally visited this stunning valley. It was all that I had anticipated and more. We saw black bears here.
This was the first time any of us had seen a mother bear and her cub in a tree.
The acres of bison seemed to stretch as far as our eyes could see.
This is also where I had hoped to hike. Sadly though, the Lamar River Valley Trail was closed due to flooding. So this still remains on my bucket list.
The wildlife viewing is phenomenal here. If we had been able to arrive earlier in the day, we would of spent hours upon hours up here, there is just so much to see. Sadly though, we had a lengthy drive back to Cody, so our time was limited.
Hiking The South Rim & Uncle Tom’s Trail
On our last day in the park, we opted for a fun family hike. Uncle Tom’s Trail was the last item on our must see list that we wanted to accomplish this trip.
We had attempted to hike this trail in September of 2015, but there was literally a line of people waiting to climb the stairs and it seemed like hundreds on the staircase at one time…not our idea of fun! This time, there were maybe a dozen or so hikers on the trail total. Between the snow and a closed parking lot, I think many people thought the trail was closed. It was fabulous for us…because we definitely do not like crowded trails!
We parked near Artist Point on South Rim Drive, in the Canyon Village area. The parking lot for Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed for improvements. This turned out to be a blessing, because we were able to hike along the Rim Trail to the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s Trail…which was gorgeous!
Almost all of the Rim Trail was packed in snow.
It was so much fun to maneuver across the snow and have such a killer view at the same time. If you make this trek in the late spring, I highly recommend wearing sturdy hiking boots. I saw a few attempting the trail in non-hiking footwear, and it was just ridiculous.
If you have followed our adventures before, then you know that we sometimes tend to be a bit silly…
And we like to climb, whenever possible!
We had no idea what to expect for Uncle Tom’s Trail. We began down the trail, and eventually started descending the stairs.
And then we came to this beautiful view.
Which got even better…and became this:
The hike back up the stairs gave us some fabulous cardio and worked our legs…just a bit.
328 stairs each way! This is my mountain man, making it look easy.
We were invigorated…and a little pumped after completing the stairs and climbing out of the snow…yes, just a little pumped up. Sometimes, our kids think we are a little crazy. This photo of mom and dad, may offer up a little evidence to their theory.
Hiking back along the rim, we enjoyed the view and managed to snag a few more photos. We were so blessed to find a fellow hiker that snapped a family pic, it just took some funny cropping to edit the random hikers out of my shot, but it will do.
And this is how we finished off our Yellowstone trip, with one fabulous hike!
What an awesome trip!
In the end, it was an incredible trip. We saw 8 bears total (grizzly and black), pronghorns, bighorn sheep, bison, elk and deer. We discovered a little more of this amazing national treasure…and remain eager to discover more of the parks beauty in the future.
Thoughts & Suggestions:
As I reflect on our experiences in Yellowstone, this is what I feel contributed to a successful trip…and what you may want to consider:
- Roads into Yellowstone – There are five main entrances to the park, we have now driven four of them. We have driven through the East, West and South Entrances, pulling our fifth wheel…and that all went well and was quite easy. The West and South Entrances are the easiest in my opinion for RV’s. The East Entrance is beautiful, but steep. My husband did not mind driving the fifth wheel on this road one bit, but if you are new to RVing or skittish with heights, you may want to consider this, especially heading out of the park as you will be driving closer to the edge. This trip we drove the truck (no RV) out of the Northeast Entrance of the park, along Beartooth Highway, back to Cody. Yowzers! I highly recommend that you NOT take and RV on this road!! It is a gorgeous, long and incredibly laborious drive. I am so glad we drove it…but it is a VERY long drive…2 hours from the park entrance to Cody. You basically drive all the way down the mountain into a canyon, and then all the way over a very tall mountain in a series of tight switchbacks. To sum it up…it is a very tough drive after a very long day of exploring the National Park.
- Not In My RV – I would not drive our fifth wheel on the road between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs, until the construction is completed. This road is very narrow and I overheard a ranger explain the purpose of the road construction. Apparently, when two RV’s pass one another on this road, it is quite narrow and not uncommon for them to rub/scratch sides as they pass each other. There is also no extra space along the road, so when your tires cross the line in certain areas, you will go off the road. I drove it in a dually….and it is tight! Note that many of the lower roads in the park are extra-wide lovely Wyoming-style roads with plenty of room.
- Planning – For both of our trips to this park I have used suggestions from Ash at Dirt In My Shoes. She is a former park ranger who is now a mama, and she shares tips and insights (even creates custom itineraries) for families just like us! She has lots of great info on visiting Yellowstone, which you can find HERE. I specifically like her list of twelve things you should not miss when visiting the park, which you can find HERE.
- Hiking in Yellowstone – Most people that visit this park, do not hike. While you can visit all of the main attractions without hitting the trail, I think you will be missing out greatly. This park is incredibly large. If you can make the time, get out onto the less beaten path. With all of the driving that is needed in this park, a small hike will be a welcome treat. We take trail safety pretty seriously and never hike in bear territory without our bear spray. Plan ahead and be prepared, it is a gorgeous place to hike.
- Fuel – You will find gas stations in West Yellowstone, Cody, Colter Village (Grand Teton National Park) and at the General Store near Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Timing – When planning your trip, I suggest reviewing a map carefully. This park is crazy big. Always plan a minimum of one hour just to get into the park…and then another hour to get where you want to go. It takes a solid hour to get from Buffalo Bill State Park (the western most part of Cody) to Yellowstone Lake. You can find the official park map HERE. (At the top left of the online map you will find a toggle bar to switch between park tiles and brochure map. Select brochure map to see the NPS map of Yellowstone.
- Patience – If you are traveling during the peak summer season, plan for lots of people. I definitely recommend getting an early start to your day…especially if you have have children. Though it can be tough to get the kids out super early, it would behoove you to head into the park at dawn and see a bunch befor it gets crowded. Trust me, your kids will have more fun if they are not sitting in traffic for hours. Yes, there is traffic. Bison stop in the middle of the road and back-up cars for miles and silly people stop on the road trying to see bears….it can make the drive even longer. Be prepared with snacks and drinks and your favorite car tunes, and just enjoy the scenery.
- Wifi – Verizon was spotty and unreliable in the park. Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center offers free wifi and the other Visitor Centers have wifi available for a fee. Depending on who your cellular carrier is, it may be helpful to utilize wifi calling if you need to use the phone.
- For more information, visit the National Park Service website HERE.
So, who is going to Yellowstone next?