Yellowstone – Wyoming
From downtown Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park, it’s a 15-hour 1,007-mile drive on the 15 Freeway North, which takes approximately 18 hours when you account for rest stops. Our solution to undertaking this otherwise daunting drive was to break it up, take our time, and make the journey as enjoyable as the destination.
On the first day, we drove as far as the charming town of St. George, Utah. We arrived in the late afternoon, checked into our hotel, then set out for an evening walk in the Red Hills Desert Garden. The gardens rest in the shadows of towering red-rock formations. A path weaves around rocks and pools of water among exotic cacti and desert plants. One of the highlights of the gardens are the remarkably clear dinosaur tracks. When leaving the park, the exit road winds past an array of sculpted formations. Bring a picnic dinner, choose one of the many tables that dot the area, and savor your dinner and a beautiful Utah sunset. It’s the perfect antidote to aching shoulders and stiff knees acquired after hours of driving.
On day two, we drove as far as Idaho Falls, where we were delighted to find ourselves spending the night in a town with an atmospheric, refurbished, Old Town that invites one to stroll and discover the stores, the bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants.
The Snake River Walk is a gorgeous park that follows the Snake River on both its sides for a total of five miles. It’s carpeted in bright green grass and populated with sculpted riverside benches, an impressive variety of trees, and fabulous life-size sculptures of the animals native to Idaho. Consider booking into a hotel that sits on the riverbanks, and don’t miss a long walk to get some fresh air and stretch your cramped legs after another day of driving.
Mid-morning of day three, we arrived in Yellowstone. Our first stop was at the Information Center on the edge of town near the West Entrance. Here you can pay your entrance fee ($35 for a non-commercial vehicle valid for seven days) and receive your entrance card; get a map of Yellowstone; and information on any road closures. Make sure to always have your entrance card with you in case you choose to exit the park and reenter.
We stayed in the little town of Yellowstone West, which we found to be very convenient as it’s only minutes from the West Entrance of the park. It has a couple of nicely stocked small supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, and bars. Alternatively, there are inns and lodges inside the park. (Note: During the Covid 19 epidemic, they may be closed).
With an entire afternoon to begin our Yellowstone adventure, we found out the time of the next Old Faithful eruption and set out in that direction. No wonder that it’s called Old Faithful: it erupts at regular intervals approximately 20 times a day, and the timing of the eruptions can be predicted with ninety percent accuracy within a ten-minute variation, which means that hundreds of visitors arrive to watch the spectacle. The viewing area is extensive, but it can be difficult to find a parking spot in high season.
From Old Faithful, we drove north to the Midway Geyser Basin, where the first glimpse of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring takes one’s breath away. The Midway Geyser Basin colors are like an artist’s canvas of rusty red, orange, yellow, green, and turquoise.
A raised boardwalk leads one on a walk through this hot spring wonderland. Allow yourself time to take it all in – to stop and stare in awe at this otherworldly scene. To fully appreciate Grand Prismatic’s beauty and size, hike up to the overlook on the Fairy Falls Trail. It’s a half-mile uphill hike that rewards the hiker with an unforgettable view.
Early mornings and late afternoons are by far the best times in the park. We would enter just before sunrise when the wildlife grazes in the valleys and on the sides of the scenic road that hugs the Madison River. We saw elk, bison, and foxes daily along this route. As the sun crests the horizon, and the early morning mist and steam from the geysers and hot springs unite, it’s a mystical, magical sight.
Head north at the Madison intersection towards Mammoth Hot Springs. Wear your comfortable walking shoes as you will want to walk the boardwalks all the way to the end.
As the tiered, martian landscape unfolds, it compels one to stop every few minutes and marvel at the beauty and the silence broken only by the sound of hissing, boiling, bubbling, and steaming hot springs and geysers. The travertine terraces (at the end of the boardwalk) are the absolute highlight. They are a sight out of a fairytale world where the steps resemble frozen waterfalls and multilayered, pure white frozen cakes.
You’ll find clean bathrooms at the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center, a restaurant, gift shop, picnic tables, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, a gas station, and historic Fort Yellowstone. In 1910, soldiers were stationed in the park barracks to prevent the poaching of wildlife. Take a walk along Officer’s Row, where today these residences are used to house park employees. The red-roofed houses sit on a carpet of green grass, their tall red chimneys reach for the sky, while their garden patios are a restful, homey feature that could tease one to trespass, settle into a comfy chair, and soak up the tranquil atmosphere.
The Lamar Valley is best visited in the early morning or late afternoon when the angle of the sun brings out the richness of the colors. It is also the area (together with the Hayden Valley), where you are most likely to see wolves and bears at dawn.
At daybreak, we drove to Canyon Village, where we picked up an area map and recommendations for viewing the highlights of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. From the village, take the North Rim Drive, park in the lot, and hike down the Lower Falls Trail. Bear left at the first fork in the trail. Be aware that the path, though short, is a continuous series of steep switchbacks; however, the reward will be arriving at the viewing platform where you are literally standing beside the thundering falls as they tumble 308 feet into the canyon below. The sound, the spray, the force, and the breath-taking beauty of the water snaking through the canyon, is a sight I’ll never forget.
From the parking lot, it’s a short drive to Grand View Point, where you’ll have unobstructed views of the canyon.
Artist’s Point should be your next stop. It’s an easy walk from the parking area. The sight of the Lower Falls from this observation point has inspired artists to paint and photographers from across the globe – both professional and amateur – to capture the magnificence of the falls and the canyon.
Continue driving south through the Hayden Valley in the direction of Lake Village. Stop on the bridge that overlooks the Volcanic Landscape. Sulphur Caldron boils, churns, and steams with sulphur-rich gasses.
Next stop, Mud Volcano, and the gentle hike up to Black Dragon Caldron and the Churning Caldron. Be aware as you stroll the boardwalk that you are enjoying the unique experience of walking at the top of an active volcanic crater formed by a major eruption, which resulted in the collapse of the mouth of the volcano.
A short distance from Lake Village, you’ll see the trailhead to the Natural Bridge. It’s an easy three-mile hike. Be on the lookout for bears. Clapping your hands now and then and talking will alert them of your approach.
You’ll now be driving along Yellowstone Lake, which stretches into the distance. It covers 136 square miles, has 110 miles of shoreline, and has the appearance of an ocean as opposed to a lake.
While most of the sights that we explored in Yellowstone filled me with a jaw-dropping sense of awe, West Thumb has a serenity that transformed me into a meditative state. Its location on the shores of Yellowstone Lake imbues West Thumb with its exceptional tranquil beauty. Cone-shaped geysers – that resemble ancient clay stoves – rest along the turquoise water’s edge, quietly huffing and puffing. One can imagine that they could have been used centuries ago as hot-pots to prepare a meal.
Black Pool – is actually bright turquoise blue and so clear that one can gaze into its depths; while steps away, it looks as though an artist painted the ground in burnt-orange to create an eye-catching contrast to the emerald blue of the lake and a sky swimming in blue.
Just when we thought nothing could match the sights that we had already uncovered, our sixth day delivered sights beyond our imagination. We reached Norris before sunrise when the boardwalks were still covered in a thin sheen of ice and headed straight for Steamboat Geyser. Wow!
This geyser, which can be dormant for years on end, is described as being unpredictable and temperamental. However, at the time of our visit, it was boasting its prowess by sending spectacular columns of steam toward the heavens. It made Old Faithful look like an amateur by comparison. We visited on October 11th and 12, 2020. On September 26th, it had a major eruption; then, on October 13th, it erupted like a spacecraft heading into orbit. Geophysicists had anticipated this spectacle, and Steamboat delivered, much to the delight of photographers who had waited patiently for days on end to capture the moment.
A walk around the area beyond Steamboat is worthwhile. You’ll most likely have it all to yourself in the early morning. It’s otherworldly. Pools bubble, geysers hiss, sulphur smells, and the landscape looks as though it has been bombed!
Make your way back towards the parking area and the Porcelain Basin, where a vast network of boardwalks will lead you through a magnificent, mesmerizing landscape that will give you the feeling of walking on another planet.
As you head back towards the West Entrance of the park, you’ll see people standing waist-deep in the river engaged in fly fishing. It’s such a peaceful, idyllic scene that it can inspire anyone to take up fly fishing.
Day Seven – Destination Jackson Hole
We made one more visit to Steamboat Geyser then headed south toward the Fountain Paint Pot – where the hot springs produce an array of vibrant colors. Farther south, Lewis Falls, just a few hundred yards off the main road, snuggles among the trees in a beautiful, secluded setting.
We bade farewell to Yellowstone National Park that had captured our hearts and far exceeded our expectations. Grand Teton National Park greeted us, and what a majestic greeting it was.