Yellowstone National Park 2017 Trip Reports
Yellowstone Spring Trip Report ~ by Jeff Womack
19 through 22 May 2017
~ May 2017 ~
A week or so ago I found this group and passed the rigerous test to be allowed in. I am so thankful for that, love seeing and sharing about YNP. Yellowstone is one of my two favorite places on Earth and in May I was fortunate enough to take my wife and step kids on an epic road trip from San Antonio Texas through the Rocky Mountain States to Yellowstone and back. On the entrance exam I was asked what would I contribute to this group and here is my first original contribution, a story (turned Russian novel in length) about our experiences on the four days in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Due to my daughter's job and commitments, we planned an early season trip. We got to Grand Teton on May 19th and our intention was a drive through the park along Teton Park Road getting as close as we could to the lakes and the mountains. It was my wife and kids' first experience with mountains this tall. Being mid-May there was still a lot of snow in places and my 15 year old son loved that. Before hitting the Teton Park Road we did the little side trip over to Mormon Row and visited the infamous barns for those iconic Teton photos. Unfortunately Mother Nature wasn't cooperating with us on that day and the tops of the mountains were not visible.
Friday - May 19th
Upon leaving out of GTNP we headed to the South Entrance of Yellowstone. For many first time visitors to Yellowstone, they don't understand how different the areas of Yellowstone can be and just how spread out the park is. Because we arrived in mid May only the main roads were open (for the most part) and all the little side road gems were unavailable. The snow banks on the road coming from the South Entrance to Old Faithful reached 10 feet in some places and my 6 foot tall 15 year old from South Texas thought that was amazing. Due to the snow, not much wildlife was seen in the southern end of the park.
Our first real stop was at Old Faithful (OF). This was my third visit to Yellowstone and I knew that OF was the "must do" thing in Yellowstone according to people who haven't been there before. We arrived at OF area around 4:30 on a brisk day so there weren't too many people there. Only a few minutes before the Visitor Center closed so we checked the predicted eruption time and we were fortunate to be within 20 minutes or so of the next predicted time. We headed out and my family had their first geyser experience with Old Faithful. Afterward all the shops and the visitor center had closed (at 5 pm when we were there in May) so we walked over to the OF Inn and walked around there for a bit. My tips for this area are: 1. Plan to visit OF early in the day or late in the afternoon when crowds aren't as bad. 2. Park as far north in the parking lot as you can (closer to the OF Inn). More on #2 in next section. We were staying in West Yellowstone so we headed out from OF to the west entrance road and as we would see over the next few days, had some of the best wildlife viewings on the road from Madison Junction to the West Entrance.
Saturday - May 20th
Day 2, our first full day would once again see great wildlife viewing on the road from West Entrance to OF including stopping to see a group of Bison crossing the Madison River which is too deep for some and seeing them "swim". Back to OF but with one of the few side trips available that early in the season; the Fire Hole Canyon Road. This road is just south of Madison Junction on your right if you are heading south. It is closed to RVs and buses and most people don't go that way so it is a nice opportunity to see an area without all the buses of visitors. We didn't see a lot of wildlife on that short detour but the beauty of the road was fantastic. In the middle of the summer or late summer I can imagine it would be a huge hit. Back down to OF and my #2 suggestion above. Park the farthest north you can get in that parking lot. We had already seen OF erupt so that wasn't a priority this morning but a quick trip to the Visitor Center showed we would likely see it again very soon. We made note of the other predictions and headed out on to the boardwalk to see OF again and then to the Upper Geyser Basin walkway to see all the other wonders in this area. I think if someone only had one day in Yellowstone, hitting OF area including the Inn and the Upper Geyser Basin walkway would be the thing to do. They say the walk from the visitor center directly to Morning Glory Pool is 1.5 miles and as always (and we didn't do a lot of times) take water with you! We got lucky and were able to see Riverside Geyser erupt and to tell you the truth, it is my favorite geyser. You just can't beat its location on the opposite bank of the river, spraying out over the river and if the sun is shining just right you get the rainbow effect. After a good portion of the day at Upper Geyser/OF we headed up to Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately because it was in the 40s or low 50s Grand Prismatic was covered with low fog and we really couldn't catch its full beauty. The trail to the overlook was being rebuilt or more accurately being built into a REAL trail so we weren't able to do that. Additionally in Midway we noticed for the first time a trend we would see a lot while we were in Yellowstone. People's hats in the thermal features. Seriously, no one cares about your hair and if you can't keep a hat securely on your head take it off! Upon leaving Midway we were going to go to Firehole Lake Drive but it was too early in the season for that to be open either. Tips to share: 1. Going early in the season means less crowds but also means some things will not be open yet. It also means plenty of snow will still be everywhere. 2. Don't wear a hat around thermal features! No one wants to see your stupid baseball cap in a beautiful thermal spring!
Sunday - May 21st
Day 3 gets a little murky in my mind as I know we adjusted our schedule some but the goal was to get to Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth is one of my personal favorite areas of the park. I guess it's the military guy in me that loves the old Army fort. Like I said previously this was my third visit Yellowstone and I had never taken the quick drive out of Mammoth to Gardiner before and more specifically to the Roosevelt Arch. This was one of my goals for this trip and the Arch did not disappoint me at all. Back in Mammoth, the Elk were sparse but there were at least a dozen in "town" including several lounging on the lawn in front of the clinic seemingly waiting for their names to be called! I'll throw this in at this point but while you are in ANY National Park, make sure to take a second of your busy life to notice the name tags the workers are wearing. We have two companies providing seasonal workers to fill most of the worker positions in the National Park. The NPS Rangers and staff are great but the young lady behind the counter at the Mammoth Ice Shop is just as important to keeping the park enjoyable for all. Take a second and TALK to them. Most of them are probably up in the park for the first time as college students but many are seasoned vets with many seasons of work in YNP or National Parks under their belts. Going to break this up here. Tips for this section: 1. Go out the North Entrance to Roosevelt Arch, it's pretty cool! 2. Talk to employees and see where they are from and why they are there. 3. As in any commercial area in the park, enjoy some ice cream! 4. There is/was construction on the road from Norris to Mammoth so check that out before your journey. It could add quite a delay and a non wildlife delay is not fun.
We headed east out of Mammoth towards Roosevelt and the Lamar Valley. Going to try to shorten this but because we were there before Memorial Day the road from Tower to Canyon was closed. We decided to skip the short hikes to the falls just east of Mammoth and headed towards the Lamar Valley to see the Bison. We had seen plenty already on the trip but were assured by the visitor center in Gardiner that the Lamar Valley would probably give us a whole new perspective. Just east of the Lamar Bison Ranch we spotted a herd in the valley just south of the road. This was the "Dances with Wolves" scene with CGI faking it. There were hundreds of Bison grazing the valley floor and "Red Dogs" running and playing about. This scene was truly epic. Having lived in Colorado for several years with the military and previous visits all over "Bison Country" the animals have always amazed me but seeing them cross the Madison River and this scene of hundreds and hundreds of them in one giant location literally took my breath away. THIS is why we have National Parks. Tip: Head out to Lamar Valley and the Bison Ranch. The potential to see a massive herd of Bison is just too great to pass up!
Still Day 3 (a marathon day!) and we headed back through Roosevelt, Mammoth, and Norris and towards Canyon. Like I said, Dunraven Pass wasn't open so what should have been a short drive over the pass turned into a long drive around the northern loop. We arrived at Canyon Visitor Center with a real need for a REAL clean restroom. Lots of snow everywhere and as we were heading inside there was a gentleman on a motorized chair also going inside. It appeared the doors were not equipped with automatic or push button openers so I ran ahead and held the door and my son the other door. As the man passed I noticed "Santa Bill" on his jacket. Santa Bill was a "real bearded Santa" and another highlight of my trip to YNP 2017. You see, I am not a "real beard Santa" but I do have a suit and a nice wig and beard set and dress up for hundreds of children each Christmas. Santa Bill and I talked for a while and enjoyed each other's company. Once again, there are wonderful people to see and meet in YNP, it's not just the wildlife or scenery! After using the facility we headed down to Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the open overlooks. Unfortunately we were there two weeks after the sinkhole closed the road south of Canyon so we were only able to go the first mile and a half and we couldn't get to the other side of the Canyon without another major drive. The big tip of Day 3 is checking the YNP for road closures. Road closures were a major factor for us due to snow, construction and a sink hole while we were there. Another tip is always having a full tank of gas when entering the park. Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres or roughly 3 times the size of the state of Rhode Island. Much of that is not accessible by car but driving is a major activity when visiting. Either you are driving or someone else is driving for you. Most of the major areas of the park are about an hour of driving from the next major area (without wildlife or traffic delays and can be much worse!).
Oops, I forgot a major Day 3 thing! Before the trip we had watched a documentary on the wolves of Yellowstone and learned a bit about the Slough Creek pack. When we were heading back from the Lamar Bison Ranch I spotted a turn off for the Slough Creek Campground so we headed up that way. We saw a lot of cars pulled off the gravel road by the pile of rocks (this was the marker we were told to watch for) and stopped. Camera and lens envy set in as the professional wolf watchers were out with their very nice camera setups. We didn't have that type of setup so seeing a wolf den across the valley. HOWEVER, there was an unexpected surprise and delight to most of the people out there. A coyote and a badger, apparently allies, were playing around between us and the wolf den. Much closer and much more active, many of us staring watching them. We were across the creek from them but eventually the badger decided to cross the creek. Swimming like Michael Phelps, it crossed quickly. Its friend the coyote was not so sure and looked more like me trying to swim. Just enough not to die! Eventually they both crossed the creek and the next thing you know the badger was coming up right below numerous photographers who were watching the wolves. Dozens and dozens of people were excitedly shouting at the photographers. The badger and coyote got to the top of the embankment and headed off behind us all, not really caring about all the crazy humans. The interaction of the two species, the coyote and the badger was quite funny and cute.
Monday - May 22nd
Day 4 and our final day in YNP. We started our final (sigh) trip along the road from the West Entrance to Madison and then down through OF to Fishing Bridge (remember the sinkhole had the Canyon to Fishing Bridge section closed). Along the way we felt like we were saying goodbye to all the wildlife we saw. At the lake we headed north to Hayden Valley towards the Mud Volcano. While there weren't near the number of thermals on this drive the valleys of Yellowstone really give you a sense of the immensity of the park. We ended our visit by heading out the east entrance to Cody and beyond.
My tips for the park:
1. Pack food, snacks and water!
2. Follow all the rules, they are there for a reason.
3. Enjoy the wildlife and scenery but don't forget to meet and enjoy the people too!
4. Always start the day on a full tank of gas. Each major area of the park has a gas station and the gas outside the park isn't much cheaper so fill up!
5. Plan ahead! We essentially had 2 half days and 2 full days in the park. I think I could spend an entire summer there and still not see half of the park. Plan ahead but be flexible. Road closures, wildlife and people will likely foul up your plans! Lol.
6. Souvenirs! The best deals are the combo packs of shirts and ball cap or two t-shirts!
7. One final one, it's a tradition I started with my kids when I married their mom. Take plenty of quarters and shinny pennies. Those penny flattening machines often in gift shops make cool and cheap (51 cents) souvenirs. My kids are now 15 to 22 and still keep their!
* * Editors Note: If you see folks in a pullout with spotting scopes, binocs, and or cameras, Stop. Find out what they are watching. In most cases, they will share what they are watching and also share their spotting scopes with you. They love to share and help folks see what they are enjoying! * *
Yellowstone National Park
Lamar Valley Map - Yellowstone National Park
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