Recently, I got a new lens for my mirrorless camera. Honestly, there are not many better ways to test it out than by visiting the very first national park. I was actually in Yellowstone about one year ago, but that trip was strictly fishing. The last time I had seen the main sites of Yellowstone had been ~6 years ago. The memories had definitely begun to fade so when my friend Alyssa reached out wanting to take a trip, you can probably imagine that I was quite excited.. This was the perfect opportunity to refresh my memory and see the park through quite literally, a different lens.
Alyssa and I spent two full days exploring all of Yellowstone National Park plus an extra day driving through Grand Teton National Park. From geothermal geysers to stunning animal encounters, this trip had it all. If you wanted to see the video recap of the trip, check it out below! Otherwise the rest of this blog will be detailing exactly what we did.
Where We Stayed
I am pretty fortunate to have a few friends all over the country. My one buddy, Andy, lives on Henrys Lake near Island Park, Idaho. We crashed at his place over the weekend which was perfect because we were only about 20 minutes from the the west entrance of the park at West Yellowstone, Montana.
Day 1 - The Northern Loop
Alyssa and I woke up early on Saturday morning with literally 0 plan besides drive to West Yellowstone, get coffee, and figure out the rest from there. After stopping at an information center, we realized the main roads in Yellowstone formed what was essentially a figure 8.
With 2 days to explore, it made natural sense to do a loop of the 8 each day. So day 1 we set out to explore the northern loop, going through the middle portion first in a counterclockwise path.
We rolled through the west entrance of the park and stopped at our first overlook at Gibbon Falls. As the light was breaking over the landscape, we had stunning views of what I believe is the Madison River.
Our trip continued in the same fashion, driving and stopping at unique sites and overlooks. The next stop on the agenda was the Artists Paintpots. This was the first of many geothermal features we saw in Yellowstone. We hiked through a forest as the morning mist hung in the air. After a short walk, we reached the boardwalks that traversed the area around the various pools and paintpots. Since it was the fall, the mud material was thicker and really bubbled and slopped around from the escaping heat.
After the paintpots, we continued along til we hit the Norris Geyser Basin. We hiked a few miles along the various boardwalk trails. There were many deep, aqua pools steaming as the heat escaped into the crisp fail air. Yellowstone's largest erupting geyser, Steamboat Geyser, is in the Norris Geyser Basin. While it would have been cool to see this shoot water and stream over 300 ft. into the air, it is an infrequent erupting geyser, and is not easily predicted like Old Faithful.
The next area ended up being Alyssa's favorite of the whole trip. We drove the rest of the lower portion of the northern loop until we hit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Now Yellowstone is definitely known for its geysers and wildlife like Bison. This site ends up flying under the radar, but it really is something to behold. There is a beautiful canyon of yellow and black rock that surrounds the Yellowstone River. We hiked right down to the brink of the Lower Falls where we could see the giant amount of water cascading over the edge of the cliff. It was a moment that made you feel small as you stared in awe. After hiking back up the canyon, we stopped at viewpoints to look at the falls from a distance as well.
Now at this point, I was pleased with all the sites, but was itching to see some wildlife. This was the main reason I was so excited to be back in Yellowstone with my new camera lens. We drove north and saw some stunning landscapes on the way to Tower. There were even some bison way in the distance, but not exactly what I was hoping as those shots weren't as unique.
For those who weren't aware, Yellowstone experienced some severe flooding and much of the roads in Lamar Valley were closed from the damage. This is one of the best places to see wildlife, so we still turned this direction to drive to the point where they blocked the road. Almost immediately, we were rewarded as we came upon a herd of bison creating a natural roadblock. We were unable to move, but we couldn't care less because this is exactly what we wanted to see, and is what makes Yellowstone so cool in my opinion. I snapped many pictures and videos of the large beasts before they finally cleared off the road and into the trees.
Following this encounter, we had a small lunch at a pullout in some grassland area while we watched a different herd of bison. Here are some of the highlights from the next hour or so:
Eventually, we pulled into Mammoth Hot Springs, which was our last stop of day 1. One of the things I distinctly remember from the last time I was in Yellowstone was the amount of elk that hung out in this town. This trip turned out to be no exception and we saw a huge bull elk almost immediately. He sat in the shade right by the small church, just watching as cars drove past.
Then we checked out the actual hot springs near the town. This was pretty unique as the the rocks had some really interesting shelf-like features. They almost made natural hot tubs, though I wouldn't dare to take a dip in them!
We then closed the northern loop and began to head back towards the west entrance. All of the days adventures would have totally been enough, but we were blessed with two more awesome moments. Firstly, we came across some people pulled off the road, so we joined them to see what they were looking at. There was a coyote lurking around amongst the trees. While I didn't get a great picture, I got some great videos which I edited into my YouTube video I linked above! Then, there was a major traffic jam. It probably took us about 30 minutes to go a few miles, but in the end it was well worth it. There was a bear! I didn't get any pictures of this, but again got a lot of decent videos so check out my YouTube video at the top of the page! I will drop a screenshot from that video so you can see the bear!
And with all of that adventure behind us, we drove back to Henrys Lake to hang out with my friends. Day 1, was in the books.
Day 2 - The Southern Loop
The next day we again started with some coffee at West Yellowstone before heading through the west entrance. We turned south to being our trek around the southern loops of the figure 8 this time. The first site we came across was the Fountain Paintpots. The boardwalk around the various features and pools were really cool, but the sulfur smell wasn't quite sitting well as both of us were hungover from the night before. But, more of Yellowstone was ahead of us so we pushed on!
The next stop of the day was Midway Geyser Basin. Now this area was really sweet! We parked the car and crossed the Firehole River. There was numerous springs of boiling hot water bubbling up on the banks and eventually trickling into the river which created a ton of steam. It created a cool parallel of flowing water and cool stream moving around. The day before we had already seen a ton of geysers and pools at different areas, but the ones at Midway Geyser Basin were definitely the best. Excelsior Geyser had the best name in my opinion, and the Grand Prismatic Spring was a light aqua-blue color surrounded by orangish rock. The contrasting colors were so unique and not something you experience in the wild very often. Definitely don't miss this stop on your way to Old Faithful.
As I hinted, next up was Old Faithful! This may be the most popular site in any national park, and you could tell driving up to it. There is a beautiful village with lodges, restaurants, and a visitor center. Massive parking lots flanked all the areas to accommodate the number of visitors that come to see this reliable attraction.
We started by hitting the visitor center. One of the nice things about Old Faithful is that it's, well, faithful. It erupts on a fairly normal cadence so we knew we had about an hour until the next eruption. The visitor center had plenty to offer while we waited. Alyssa and I went through the educational areas reading about the various geothermal features of Yellowstone. After a while, we walked outside and settled at a prime spot to view the eruption. A circular boardwalk encapsulated this famous site dotted with plenty of benches. As it drew closer to the estimated eruption time, the benches slowly filled in with others eager to see the eruption like us. Then, it began. The geyser started steaming faster, and eventually spewed steam and water about 50 feet into the air. It lasted for a few minutes before dying back down.
Following Old Faithful, we drove along the southern border to Yellowstone Lake. It's a massive lake, actually the largest "high elevation lake" in North America. It is also the lake that holds the largest population of cutthroat trout. The lake was a pretty dark blue color. If you looked across the lake to the east, you could see a picturesque mountain backdrop.
For our last adventure of the day, we made a second stop at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but from a different viewpoint. I am super glad we did, because this was the best viewpoint compared to the ones we stopped at the day before. If you are making a trek out this way, don't miss the southern rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, as you will get some incredible photo opportunities.
With that, we ended our explorations of Yellowstone National Park, checked out West Yellowstone, and headed back to hang out at the cabin with my friends once again.
A Pitstop in Grand Teton National Park
Now the adventures didn't end on that day actually. Since we were already up in Montana, we decided to take a long detour through Wyoming on the the way back to Salt Lake City to see the Grand Tetons. We hit the same roads as the day before, but this time turning southward towards the other national park. Needing to pee, I stepped out of the car into the cold morning air, and I could hear elks screeching in the distance. It was a chilling moment, but in a good way. Hearing nothing else but the bugling calls was moving, and I took a second to enjoy the sound of nothing but the wilderness
Not long later, we bid our last goodbye to Yellowstone, as we crossed the border on the road into Grand Teton National Park. After hearing elks in the morning, we came right up next to one enjoying some vegetation off the side of the road. I got out my camera and snapped as many pictures as I could.
After that encounter, we made it to Jenny Lake, probably the most famous area of this national park. There are numerous hikes and the sites are very beautiful. The lake is also nestled right up against the mountains, making for some stunning photo opportunities.
We made our way along the lake, electing to hike to the Moose Ponds in hopes of seeing some moose ourselves. We were unsuccessful in this endeavor, but it was really nice to stretch our legs and take a nice casual 3 mile hike around the area. The ponds did look like a prime location for moose as the banks of the lake had a lot of vegetation and cover where I would have expected to see some feeding.
The last stop in the park, and of the whole trip was for some photographs at Mormon Row. There is a really cool rustic barn with the mountains as a backdrop. Because we were there in the prime of fall too, there were some vibrant yellow trees which just added that extra touch to all the pictures.
With that, we ended our amazing weekend in a brewery in Jackson, Wyoming, reminiscing on all the memories and sites we had seen. Overall, you couldn't ask for much more. It was a lot of driving, but that is expected with any national park. We saw nearly all the sites we wanted too, enjoyed good company with my friends and each other, and I filled the SD card with so many cool shots and videos from my new lens. I hope you enjoyed hearing about our adventures and can gain some inspiration for your next trip!
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Until next time!