Day 3: Cody, WY to West Yellowstone, MT
This day was spent primarily exploring the east and northeast sections of Yellowstone National Park. The route to the East Entrance travels through some beautiful country west of Cody, including Buffalo Bill State Park. However, the eastern side of the park has been decimated by fire and pine beetle, leaving the landscape barren of live trees. There are some impressive granite peaks in the area, which reminded me of areas further north in the Rockies into Montana or Canada.
Wildlife sightings in the park are frequent and impressive. There are lots of bison roaming around, and it would be impossible to spend a day in the park without seeing multiple herds. On the drive into the park, we spotted the other distinguishing feature of Yellowstone – geothermal features.
Next, we turned North towards Canyon Junction, following the Yellowstone River. We stopped at LeHardy’s Rapids for a short walk down by the river.
Along the way we also stopped at the Mud Volcano. At the time, it was a really cool feature with one of the loudest vents we heard at the park. The amount of water in the ground dictates the character of the vents. In wet times, geysers and hot springs form. In dry seasons, pure steam exits the ground in fumaroles. Unfortunately, the Mud Volcano area was hit hard by wildfire during the August 2013 wildfire season, so I’m not sure how the area is looking right now. When we visited it was really nice.
We went on our way towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The area south of Canyon Village is open tundra where the Yellowstone River winds around.
We stopped briefly in traffic before Canyon Village due to a huge bull elk in the woods off to the side of the road. We did not mind the “animal jam” because somehow nobody else in the car had seen an elk before.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is where the river cuts deep into the softer volcanic rock, giving the canyon a crumbly yellow appearance and giving the area its name. It is probably my favorite area of the park due to its spectacular scale.
We took the trail to the brink of the falls which wasn’t as much elevation loss (and gain) as the park would have you believe. It’s a unique way to see the falls and totally worth the trip. I had previously seen the falls in early Spring, and huge ice formations were on either side of the river, calving off chunks into the water. Those were completely gone by the time of our most recent visit in August.
Before leaving the area we stopped at another couple of overlooks, including one where we had a great view of an osprey nest on an exposed stone pillar.
By this time it was getting a little late in the day and rain was threatening, so we took the long way round to get out of the park before nightfall. We didn’t stop at Tower Fall but did hike around Mammoth Hot Springs for a little while. The colors were muted because of the flat light, but we still enjoyed seeing the unique terraced formations.
It took us another hour and a half or so to get out of the park to our hotel (the Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone). Food options in town were largely expensive, tourist-oriented places, but we did appreciate the ice cream options available. West Yellowstone got pleasantly chilly at night, which was appreciated knowing that we were about to descend into the Utah desert in another two days.
Day 4: Yellowstone National Park
Day 4 consisted of a full day in the park. We started out the morning taking our time along the road to Old Faithful. We stopped a couple of times to look at cow elk in the various meadows along the way. Old Faithful was not nearly as exciting as I had remembered, possibly because it was very steamy and the cloud hid the actual column of water. A BBC documentary crew for a kids show was filming nearby and I hope they weren’t too disappointed by the footage in the dryer summer season.
Next, we wanted to check out some of the other features at Midway Geyser Basin. We stopped at a packed parking lot next to some smaller geysers and lots of steam. After hiking around the boardwalk, we happened upon what we found out was the largest hot spring in the US, the Grand Prismatic Spring.
This hot spring greatly exceeded my expectations. I had no idea that that bacterial mats could produce such vivid colors, and the deep blue color of the water was stunning, especially as the light changed as clouds would roll by and block the sun from time to time.
There were also some other smaller hot springs worth looking at on the same boardwalk.
After checking out Old Faithful, we were looking for something to do, so my brother and I decided to hike to the observatory at the top of Mt. Washburn. The drive was sort of long to get there (requiring a drive all the way past Canyon Village and over Dunraven Pass but the hike was fairly easy and well worth the trip. There is a graded 4WD road all the way to the top, where a concrete shelter and fire observer’s home are located. There was a smaller sub-peak that we visited for a better, unobstructed view.
After Mount Washburn, we were pretty tired out and decided to head back to West Yellowstone for a more relaxed evening.