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Sunday 5 July 2020

Our Trip to Yellowstone National Park

Last weekend we packed our bags, loaded up our car, and did something we haven't done in an awfully long time. We went on vacation!

Like most of you we've been at home since early March, pretty much only venturing out to the supermarket or for walks around the neighborhood (and more recently a few mask clad trips to Denver Zoo and a Denver Selfie Museum which reopened with strict social distancing rules). 

We've missed a few planned trips in those months including Spring Break in Chicago, Ava's school trip to Washington DC (I'm most bummed about that one), and smaller weekend getaways that we'd planned here in Colorado before the weather warmed up too much. I had pretty much written off Summer when it came to travel, but then I saw that local friends had visited Yellowstone National Park a few weeks back and it was pretty much empty. I knew that the opportunity to visit one of our bucket list destinations without the crowds was probably not going to come up again any time soon, so right away I got online and booked a hotel. I can't tell you how excited I was making that booking after so long!

Now that we're in Colorado, Wyoming is just over an hour away from our home but we had been yet to head north across the border. Yellowstone National Park is located at the very top of the state, but at around an eight hour drive, it's an easy destination for a road trip from Boulder (or Denver). It's also an easy drive from cities in neighboring states including Idaho, Utah, Washington, Montana and Nebraska. When looking at the map I realized that my friend Lindsey, who lives in Spokane, Washington, was a similar distance away making Yellowstone the perfect meeting point for a catch up. A little last minute planning, and both our families were booked in for a trip to Wyoming!
Last Saturday we hit the road and headed to the idyllic mountain town of Jackson, where we based ourselves for our visit to Yellowstone National Park. Jackson is located about an hour away from the south entry of Yellowstone. It's a handy spot to use as a base, especially now while the hotels inside the national park are closed due to COVID. 

While the town of Jackson is idyllic, unfortunately the weather we were met with was not! With memories of last Summer's trip to Arches National Park in my head, I had been a little worried that we'd once again find scorching hot weather for this national park trip. The opposite was true! While the weather on either side of our trip was a lovely 25c(77F) and sunny, we were met with rain, hail and even a little snow, with maximums barely reach double digits in Celsius (below 50F). If you know me, then you'll know I'm not a fan of hot weather, so while the chilly temperatures weren't ideal, I'd take them any day over heat. 

Our first full day in Wyoming we had planned to visit Grand Teton National Park. With low cloud and rain making visibility minimal, visiting a park where the mountains are the main attraction isn't ideal, so we switched up our plans and headed straight to Yellowstone. Mountains peaks might not have been visible, but hot springs and geysers sure were!

Our first stop in Yellowstone was Lewis Falls. Mathilde had been a little worried about bears and didn't want to get out of the car at first (especially after finding out that Lindsey and her family had actually seen bears on their way into the park), but once she was out of the car her fear went away and she was running up the path toward to the top of the falls. 

Our next stop was Yellowstone's most famous attraction: Old Faithful. This particular part of the park features more than just the famous geyser. Here you'll find boardwalks that lead past hundreds of geysers and hot springs. This is also where you'll most likely find crowds so make sure to mask up. From what I could tell, a lot of visitors don't venture far from Old Faithful itself, so once you hit the boardwalks and walk a little further away to explore the other geysers and hot pools social distancing becomes very easy again. In fact, those who only watch Old Faithful erupt and then leave are missing out, as the other geysers and hot springs here are much more interesting. 

The walk from the parking lot will take you straight to Old Faithful where you can find plenty of places along the boardwalk to watch nature's spectacular show. When we arrived there was an awful lot of steam coming from the geyser so we were hopeful that it was about to erupt. Turns out there is always an awful lot of steam coming out of Old Faithful - and all the other geysers in the park! We waited about 40 minutes before Old Faithful erupted. With the grey sky as a back drop the water rushing out of the geyser didn't show up quite as much as I'd hoped, but it was still impressive to see. 

You can see a detailed post on the Old Faithful area here.

As I mentioned above, the other geysers and hot springs at Old Faithful were more impressive. I mean, look at those stunning colors! The turquoise pools surrounded by orange and white crystallized ground are my favorite. Aren't they stunning? I'll be sharing more in a dedicated Old Faithful post soon, so expect to see more like this. 

From Old Faithful we ventured on to Midway Geyser Basin, home to the spectacular Grand Prismatic Spring. Grand Prismatic Spring had been what I was looking forward to seeing the most, and while the cooler conditions meant that there was a lot of steam obscuring the view, it was still stunning to see. I'd love to go back and see it on a clear day. 

The springs and geysers surrounding Grand Prismatic were pretty stunning too, with some leading down to the Yellowstone River below. 

You can see a detailed post on our visit to Midway Geyser Basin here

Yellowstone is an awfully large park, so by this time it was getting quite late in the day and time to head back to Jackson for the night. From Midway Geyser Basin we were about an 2.5 hour drive away from Jackson.

The following morning we headed back to Yellowstone for a little more exploring. This time we headed to West Thumb Geyser Basin. It was actually snowing every so slightly when we arrived. Isn't that crazy? The snow melted as soon as it touched the ground though, and once we were by the geysers it was actually quite warm. Well, warm compared to not being by the geysers! I wouldn't have taken my jacket off!

West Thumb is similar to Old Faithful Geyser Basin in that it has lots of hot springs and stunning colors, but it also features a few different sights that we'd been yet to see. Boiling mud pools were one such sight as was Yellowstone Lake. The colors here also seemed to be much more vibrant, but I'm sure that changes daily based on the weather.

You can see a detailed post on our visit to West Thumb Geyser Basin here

We were lucky to see an elk grazing around one of the hot pools while we were at West Thumb. This was such a treat, especially for the kids.

From West Thumb we made our way north to Mud Volcano, which as the name suggests, spews boiling hot mud! It was probably the stinkiest stop of our trip, but very impressive to see. Here we also found an amazing cave with steam pouring out of it. This particular hot spring has been named Dragon's Mouth, and you can really see why - if your glasses aren't fogged up, of course!

From Mud Volcano we continued north toward Canyon Village where we took in views over Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and waterfall from various look out points. Canyons aren't really what you think of when you imagine Yellowstone, but this canyon sure is gorgeous! I'm guessing all that yellow rock along the canyon walls is where the park gets its name from. As you can see in the pic of the waterfall, there are hiking trails that lead right down to the bottom. Had we had more time I would've loved to hike down to the bottom of the canyon, but we still had one more stunning destination to get to in the park before the sun set.

Our last stop in Yellowstone was my favorite. Mammoth Hot Springs is located right at the very top of Yellowstone, just miles from the Montana border. It's about a three and a half hour drive from Jackson, but definitely worth it. The travertine terraces are like nothing you've ever seen before and they gleam so beautifully in the sun like crystal steps leading down the hill.

Every way you look the view changes at Mammoth Hot Springs. Rolling lush green hills, and rocky mountains surround this area where you'll find not only the terraces, but also colorful pools, stunning rock formations and a flat area at the top that Mathilde referred to as looking like the surface of the moon. 

Mammoth Hot Springs is also home to historic Fort Yellowstone. We didn't get a chance to explore the buildings much, but they sure were beautiful. The post office was my favorite, and it was fun to see that the bear sculptures at the main entrance were decked out in masks!

You can see a detailed post on our visit to Mammoth Hot Springs here.

With a three and a half hour drive ahead of us we hopped back in the car, only stopping to take pics of some of the wildlife we spotted along the way. Don't worry, I used my big zoom lens for these shots. No getting close to the wildlife for us. Actually, I learned after we got home that a California woman was gored by a bison while trying to get close for a photo just a few days before we arrived. Leave the wildlife alone folks! The bison and elk may look docile, but they can charge in an instant and they're much faster than we are.

We had hoped to spend our third full day in Wyoming in Grand Teton National Park, but this ended up being our chilliest day yet, and with low cloud obscuring the mountains it wasn't worth the visit. Plus, we were all exhausted from the long days before so we decided to just take a quiet day to explore Jackson. We went out for lunch at Persephone Bakery (the best!), checked out the antler arches in the town square, spent a lot of time in a local playground and then went out for dinner with both families for the first time on our trip. We'd been so exhausted the previous nights that we all just ate microwaved meals in our rooms!

In true ironic form, the clouds parted, the sun came out and the temperatures increased on our very last day in Wyoming ie. the day we spent driving home! Ha! We headed back to Persephone Bakery for breakfast with Lindsey and her family before parting ways for our long drives home. We took a different route home that took us past the Grand Tetons, and with the clear sky we finally got to see them in all their glory.

We made one last stop in Wyoming before crossing the border back into Colorado. Can you guess what we bought? With fireworks illegal to purchase in Colorado, there are quite a few fireworks stores close to the border in Wyoming. We bought some small fireworks for 4th of July and continued on home.

I'll be sharing more posts about our trip, going into more detail about each destination in Yellowstone National Park as well as our experiences travelling during a pandemic. There was lots of social distancing and we wore masks pretty much most of the time.

Have you been to Yellowstone before? Have you traveled anywhere since Covid broke out? It sure was a little different than our previous travel experiences.

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