July 14, 2010 0

Road Trip 2010 – Day 12

By in Travel

May 26, 2010
Yellowstone National Park, 184 miles
9 hours, 4 minutes

When people think of national parks, they think of Yellowstone. From its thermal features to its canyons to its wildlife, this section of northwest Wyoming is nothing short of amazing. It was the world’s first national park and remains one of the most awe-inspiring. While most of the park can only be accessed via backcountry hikes, many of the main features are fairly car-friendly. We spent the entire day wandering around the northern half of Yellowstone, eventually finding our way to Yellowstone Lake.

As you enter the park from Gardiner, Montana, you first drive through Galantin National Forest and pass under the Roosevelt Arch. This structure was completed in 1903 as the main feature of the Yellowstone’s northern entrance; Teddy Roosevelt laid its cornerstone and soon after the arch was given his name. Inscribed in stone is a message from the legislation creating the park, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” ¬†Driving under the arch and into the confines of Yellowstone felt like driving into American history itself.

Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, an area where water is warmed by the Earth’s molten core and infused with chemicals as it rises to the surface. The result is thousands of brightly colored terraces and ponds, each one stranger and more delightful than the last. While the terrain here may look like normal clay and ice, it is actually primarily composed of travertine and can reach surface temperatures of hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit. It feels like walking on another planet.

After winding our way past all of the tourists at the entrance, we drove through a shallow ravine called Golden Gate and experienced our first “bear jam”. ¬†Yellowstone is famous for wildlife, and bears are some of the most elusive critters to spot. When tourists find a group of them walking around, all of the cars will just stop in the middle of the road to take a peak. At this particular stop, we heard rumors of a female Grizzly bear and four cubs but never actually saw them. (We wound up spotting them the next day!)

One of the spectacular aspects of Yellowstone is that you’re thrust back into nature and see it up close and personal. We saw elk in the parking lots of Mammoth and bald eagles flying overhead, but seeing bison next to our car was something else entirely. With calf in tow, this small herd walked alongside our car until they decided they wanted to jaywalk. After all, this is their turf; we tourists were not about to get in their way. As it turns out, spring is a great time to visit if you want to see all of the new babies!

Yellowstone’s geologic wonders are actually the result of volcanic activity over millions of years. The entire park is actually one giant volcano. After a quick picnic lunch, we headed towards Dunraven Pass to climb to roughly 9,500 feet in altitude up Mount Washburn and catch a glimpse of the massive caldera, the name for a volcano’s rim. From this height, one can see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and huge valleys in between. It’s impossible for a camera to capture how impressive this 55-mile wide mountainous rim really appears.

On the northern side of the pass you cross over to the northern side of Mount Washburn and the view of the Tower Creek below. Where the snow melted away to grassland, we could see a herd of about a hundred bison roaming the plains.

Just north of this valley, Tower Creek runs towards the Yellowstone River and plunges 1000 feet to form Tower Falls, so named because of the towering rock formations at the brink of the falls.

Normally you can hike right up to the base of the falls, but due to winter storms the trail was washed out during our visit. We wandered down as far as we could, but in a way I’m glad we couldn’t make it all the way. At this altitude, hiking back up is something you shouldn’t take lightly.

Our final stop before dinner and sleep was one of the most beautiful, Artist’s Point. From this popular viewpoint you see straight down the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, along the Yellowstone River and up to the Lower Falls. As the river sneaks down the mountains, it forms Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, two of the most scenic waterfalls in the park. Apparently many artists have painted this scene over the years, the most famous being an 1871 piece by American painter Thomas Moran.

Since it was too cold to camp at Yellowstone and we didn’t have an RV, we chose instead to obtain lodging at the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel. The oldest hotel in the park, it was built by the railroads at the turn of the century to attract customers. Today, it stands renovated in all of its Victorian-era glory, complete with a picturesque lobby and fine dining room, both with spectacular views of Yellowstone Lake.

We opted to stay at one of the cozy yellow cabins behind the hotel. These were simple, one-bedroom shacks built for those early customers who couldn’t quite afford the main building. Perfect for us, our cabin was quiet, warm and right in the middle of the woods by the lake.

Our first day at Yellowstone was a memorable one, and a good night’s sleep under the stars and off the grid was exactly the way to end it. Before I went to bed I wandered down to the lake to capture a few nighttime images. A full moon reflecting over the frozen lake was the perfect setting to reflect on the day and relax my way into a restful evening.

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