Touring Yellowstone National Park

A microbrewery/pizzaria in Cody - what could be better?

I was born and raised in the Midwest. The first time that I ever saw real mountains was on a roadtrip that I took with my friend Eric one summer during college, way back in the early seventies. A friend of a friend was working on a dude ranch in Wyoming so we started our trip by stopping by to say hello. We had to drive forty miles from Cody Wyoming along the South Fork of the Shoshone River to the end of a dirt road. We camped at Deer Creek Campground, a remote spot on the edge of the huge Washakie Wilderness area. From there I did my first mountain hike. We followed the trail that went up Deer Creek from the campground. We had no idea where it went. Little did we know that it's one of the longest, most remote wilderness routes in the continental US. Needless to say we didn't go all the way to Yellowstone Lake. But I did get a feeling for the mountains and for big wilderness and have been hiking ever since.

Looking into the Washakie Wilderness east of Yellowstone

After that hike we toured Yellowstone National Park. It was pretty but did not have spectacular scenery. I thought the most impressive mountains were in the Washakie Wilderness just to the east of the park. Yellowstone's big attraction was its size. With the surrounding National Forest Wilderness areas, it has some of the most remote country left in the lower forty eight states. It's not a place to day hike. It's a place to do long distance backpacking, where you can get two or three days walk from any road.

Grand Teton National Park was a stark contrast. A much smaller park, the scenery is incredible and the hiking and climbing is world class. Over the years I returned to the Tetons several times to hike and climb, but I never did go back to Yellowstone. Although I thought about it, I've never done a really long backpack trip. So when Shannon said she wanted to visit Yellowstone when her and Jimmy visited us, I was excited at the chance to go back. It had been over forty years since my only visit.

Bison grazing along the side of the road

I made sure that we included time in Grand Teton National Park as part of the trip. We did a great hike there and Shannon and Jimmy did a trail ride on horses. Based on my previous trip, when we did get to Yellowstone National Park we did more car touring. The first thing that we did was see Old Faithful.

We spent the last night of our trip in Cody Wyoming. It's the gateway town outside the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park. When we looked for someplace to eat, I found a place called Millstones Brewery and Pizzaria. What could be better than a microbrewery and a pizza place combined? I immediatly said that we needed to go there. Sandy and Shannon weren't too sure but Jimmy quickly jumped in and agreed that it sounded like the perfect place. That settled it.

It turned out to be pretty good too. I actually had pasta instead of pizza because I was still recovering from my oral surgery and had to eat soft foods. But pizza, pasta, I don't care as long as it's Italian food. Their beer was good too. The weather was perfect and we had dinner on their patio. I even got one of their logo tshirts. It was a perfect evening IMHO.

A thermal vent alongside the Yellowstone River

After dinner everyone else was tired so we went back to the hotel. I dropped everyone off and then went out to gas up so we could get a quick start in the morning. I even went back downtown to look around. There were a lot of shops but when I checked out the tshirts they were mostly cheapies and I wasn't interested. Yes, there actually is a grade of tshirt below what I will buy. I know, it's hard to believe.

It was a beautiful night and the town was hopping. Two places had patios with live music. Bars and restaurants were crowded, both inside and on their patios. I was the only one in our group who was still out. All the old people had already crashed. I guess riding those horses had worn out Shannon and Jimmy.

Since we turned in early we got an early start the next morning. We made a quick stop at a convenience store where everyone grabbed something for their breakfast. Then we hit the road. Of course I got myself a pack of Twinkies and Jimmy was grossed out yet again.

A boiling thermal vent in the middle of a meadow

As we retraced our route from yesterday back to the park I made a stop along the road. There was a beautiful view of the mountains in the Washakie Wilderness to the south, the first mountains I had ever seen in my life, so long ago. They still looked pretty spectacular, more than any of the mountains in Yellowstone National Park.

As we drove to the park I was thinking of mentioning something that had happened on my first trip. Driving through this very canyon a bird had flown head on into our windshield. It killed the bird and startled both me and my friend. That was the only time that had ever happened to me. Just then, a bird swooped low over the road...and crashed head on into our windshield. Now that was weird. Very weird. It has happened only twice in my whole life, on the only times I ever drove one particular stretch of road. Cue the Twilight Zone music. There wasn't any blood but the windshield was completely covered in bird poop. I could hardly see to drive and I wasn't about to use the windshield wipers. Fortunately in a few miles, just before we entered the park, there was a gas station at the Pahaska Teepee Resort and I was able to clean off the windshield.

The boardwalk trail through the thermal area

Some time after we entered the park I noticed a bison grazing just beside the road up ahead. There were no other cars in sight so I pulled off just opposite him. We rolled down the windows and everyone got great close up shots of him from the car. He didn't pay any attention to us. He was too busy eating.

Later as we were driving beside a calm stretch of the Yellowstone River, we noticed a large plume of steam rising from a vent right next to the river. We stopped the car to take pictures. It seemed amazing to come across a thermal vent just driving along. But then we noticed a little puff of steam from the meadow right next to where we had stopped. We walked over and there was a tiny hot spring. There was a pool of water about two feet across, boiling and bubbling a couple of inches high, right in the middle of a meadow surrounded by yellow flowers. Only in Yellowstone National Park.

Steam rising from the Dragon's Mouth

Further along there was a strange roadsign. It said to expect possible traffic delays due to wildlife. Huh? That seemed sort of weird but we didn't think too much about it.

Until fifteen minutes later when all the cars in the road ahead of us were completely stopped. The road passed through a large meadow and it was filled with bison, maybe thirty or forty of them. Some of them were right next to the road. Sometimes one or more of them would wander across the road. Traffic was barely moving. People were gawking. They were taking pictures from their cars. Some people got out and got quite close to the bison to take pictures. We watched as one lady got out of her car, walked to within five feet of a grazing bison, and turned around to pose while her friend took a picture of her. That was not a good idea. The bison in Yellowstone are wild animals and can be very aggressive. If one charged it would be like getting hit by a car. I'm sorry to report that the car the lady got out of had Wisconsin plates. She must have been from the South Side.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

At the start of the morning we were excited to see a single bison by the side of the road. By midmorning we were tired of inching our way along through herds of them. It had only taken an hour for us to become throroughly jaded. Fortunately though, after that stretch, although we did sometimes see bison along the road they didn't cause any more traffic jams.

As we passed a parking area we saw a lot of steam vents nearby so I pulled in to check it out. We had found the Mud Volcano area. There was a short boardwalk trail that we followed to several interesting geothermal features. The boardwalk is there because it's possible to break through the thin crust around the vents and fall into boiling water. Over the years there have been many deaths in Yellowstone. Just a week before our visit, a man fell into a hot spring and was badly burned. Although there were lots of warning signs, apparently people don't pay attention to them. Like the lady we had seen earlier getting her picture taken with the bison even though there are signs everywhere warning people that they are dangerous.

The Mud Volcano which the area was named for was a big pool of bubbling mud. Interesting but not that impressive. Apparently some years ago though it was so active that it would blow hot mud into the surrounding trees. At some point though the mud volcano blew itself apart. What's left is fairly tame.

There were lots of other pools and springs. My favorite was Dragon Mouth Springs where there was a small cave opening over a pool of water. A large plume of steam poured out of the cave and every few seconds a wave of boiling water would spurt out, with appropriate boiling, bubbling and gurgling sounds and a very strong smell of sulfer. It did kind of look and sound like there was a dragon breathing just inside the cave.

Sandy at the top of Yellowstone Falls

Next after the thermal area was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Falls. We started by taking the South Rim Drive to its end at Artist's Point. From there we had the classic view of the canyon with the lower falls at its head. Next we drove around to the North Rim Drive. A short walk took us to the top of the Upper Falls. It was a remarkable place, with the river roaring through rapids before plunging over a hundred feet over the falls. Both the sight and the sound of the river and the falls was amazing.

We continued along the Rim Drive. There were lots of places to stop. We got out at two of them. By that time everyone was starting to get hungry and I would hear groans when I pulled into a parking spot. I guess after you have seen one viewpoint, you have seen them all.

There was a nice trail that followed the north rim for almost four miles that looked like it provided almost continuous (and continuously changing) views of the canyon and waterfalls. I think it would be fun to go back and hike the trail some day. Maybe in another forty years on my next trip to Yellowstone.

The Yellowstone River rushing towards the falls

By now the natives were getting restless so we made a quick stop at the Canyon Village store for drinks and snacks. It was also my last chance for tshirts (yes, I got one). I also found an interesting book on the Yellowstone Supervolcano.

Then it was time for us to hit the road and head for home. We had a nice drive through the rest of the park but didn't make any more scenic stops. When we left the park and reached the town of West Yellowstone, we stopped for lunch at The Outpost, a rustic Western-style restaurant. Unfortunately after everyone had ordered but me I found out that the spaghetti I was planning to get was only on the dinner menu. Lunch was sandwiches only, which I still couldn't eat with the stiches in my mouth. My solution was to get a hot fudge sundae for lunch. Life's uncertain. Eat dessert first.

From West Yellowstone we had about a six hour drive home. We did have one last nice view of the Tetons from the west when we were north of Idaho Falls. When we got home around nine pm Abby sure was glad to see us.

Looking over the brink - Upper Yellowstone Falls

It had been a good trip. We did a great hike in Grand Teton National Park. We had car toured through a lot of Yellowstone National Park and seen some of the wildlife and natural sights there. It's not as much of a hiker's park, unless you are a serious backpacker who wants to get far from a road, so for us car touring gave us a good sampling of the park. We also got to see some interesting western towns in Jackson, Cody and West Yellowstone. Sandy and Shannon and Jimmy said they had a good time and I did too. I'll try not to wait another forty years till I go back again.