Yellowstone National Park is neatly tucked away in the Northwest corner of Wyoming, where the mountainous landscape does not obstruct the view of the expansive sky above. Peacefully grazing bison freely roam the open land while a tiny chipmunk scampers from one rock to another. The remnants of an early October snowstorm still coat the branches of the lodgepole pines.
A deep breath filled my lungs with the sharp smell of sulfur. Snapping me out of the fantasy of this enchanting forest. Just a few miles below my feet lay a volcanic hot spot. In sharp contrast to the heavenly nature above the earth’s crust, a volcanic pressure cooker is hard at work below. Forcing boiling water and steam to the surface from the depths.
This is just scratching the surface of all there is to see and do in Yellowstone National Park. Over five days, Aaron and I covered as much of the 2.2 million acres that Yellowstone has to offer. While five days may seem like enough time to put a dent in exploring Yellowstone, these five days include traveling to and from the National Park, shortened daylight hours in October, and some unforeseen obstacles camping in below-freezing temperatures.
Day 1 – Travel Day
Aaron and I flew into the Bozeman Airport to start our week-long adventure. As we began our descent for landing, we drifted through the clouds revealing a snow-covered land. Born and raised in Florida, this was the most snow I’ve ever seen in my life. It then became a daunting reality that we would be camping in this environment. I crossed my fingers that the clothes and camping equipment would be enough to keep me warm.
Before we made our way to Yellowstone National Park, we made a few pit stops to pick up supplies we couldn’t pack in our checked bags. Items like bear spray and tiny propane tanks for our portable camping stove are listed in big, bold type on the TSA website, strictly forbidding them in checked bags. Between the two of us, we packed the basics needed to set up camp: tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pad, and layers and layers of warm clothes. However, you don’t have to twist my arm to stop by an outdoor store, so I gladly roamed the isles of REI and Outdoor World searching for any last-minute gadgets.
We did pick up some dehydrated meals, but I wanted the full camping experience of creating a warm breakfast and dinners by cooking most of our meals over the campfire. While I was stumbling through my unorganized shopping list, I should have known I was overly ambitious with the number of meals I wanted to make, versus what was feasible.
Lesson Learned: Keep cooking simple! Stick to dehydrated meals that can be prepared by adding hot water. Buy fruit, canned soups, frozen meals, and ingredients for sandwiches. You absolutely must buy s’mores ingredients. Even if you only make one or two. Just keep in mind, if the temperature is below freezing your chocolate will freeze causing your teeth to crack against each other after thinking your torched marshmallow will warm up the rock-hard chocolate.
Our rental car was fully loaded with everything we needed to survive the outdoors for the next three days. As we drove out of Bozeman towards the West entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the sun was beginning to set over the mountains. We couldn’t have picked a better week to visit. Fresh snow coated the field and mountain tops, but the roads were cleared of ice allowing us to travel uninhibited. Between listening to Aaron’s playlist of his new favorite Italian songs and being enthralled by the beauty of Montana and Wyoming, the hour and a half drive to the National Park flew by.
It was completely dark by the time we checked into the Madison Campground. Buzzing with excitement, we unpacked the car to begin setting up camp. Aaron made the fire while I organized our food in the bear box and placed our neatly packed tent and sleeping bags out to be unfurled.
Lesson Learned: Flashlights and lanterns are great for walking around in the dark. A headlamp is a must for the hands-free setup of the campsite. You may look like a coal miner but your teeth won’t chatter against the cold exterior of the flashlight as you grip it between your teeth to drive stakes into the ground to secure the tent.
Day 2 – Popular Tourist Sights
On our first full day in Yellowstone, we decided to check off the most popular tourist sights, including Grand Prismatic Springs and Old Faithful. The distance between Madison Campground and Old Faithful is 16 miles. Which, at first glance, felt like we could easily cover the southern part of the park in a day. I was wrong, very, very wrong. We spent the entirety of the day along this 16-mile road. There are so many trails and turn-offs to see we barely drove a half mile before we wanted to stop again.
Fountain Paint Pot Trail
Our first stop was at the Fountain Paint Pot Trail in the Lower Geyser Basin. This is where we were able to get the first glimpse of the chaos boiling below. Wooden boardwalks hover just inches above the blooming bacteria mats seeping outward from the boiling springs. Snow was compacted onto the rail-less boardwalks, making my muscles tense every time I lost my footing.
The Lower Geyser Basin was the perfect place for us to become acquainted with the variety of hydrothermal features. In just over a half-mile loop, we saw how diverse the effects of heat and water can be to create different features once they have penetrated the earth’s surface. Hot springs and geysers have an abundance of water, while mud pots and fumaroles have limited water. I found the paint pots to be the most hypnotizing. Like a witch’s caldron, a pit of mud bubbled up from the ground. Each thick bubble is seemingly larger than the last.
Grand Prismatic Springs
The wallpaper on my phone rotates through famous landscapes around the United States. When the Grand Prismatic Springs pops up, I always have the same fleeting thought; I wonder if it’s as vibrant in real life as in photos? The short answer is, it depends. But let’s back up to our arrival at the Grand Prismatic Spring.
From the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, we continued south, our only option, for snow had closed the turn off-road to Fire Hole Springs. Understandably, during this time of year, the snowplows focus on keeping the main road clear and the scenic offshoots are boarded up for the winter. The short two-mile drive should have taken minutes to reach our destination. However, the popularity of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the tiny parking lot slowed us down significantly.
Lesson Learned: Patience is the name of the game. We’re all going to the same place. Be polite and let in one car merging from another lane. Don’t ride the bumper of the car in front of
Once parked, we headed for another iced over boardwalk. Only this time, we had the added element of an incline as we slowly trudged towards the top. From above, I’m sure we looked like ants in a single file line clinging to the handrails as we navigated the curves of the path. Once near the hot springs, the boardwalk leveled off. The heat from the boiling water below cleared the ice from the wooden planks allowing us to look up from our feet and enjoy the rainbow of colors projecting from the ground.
Leading up to the Grand Prismatic Springs were smaller but brightly colored pools. Water evolved from a light turquoise surrounding the perimeter of the springs into a deep sapphire near the middle. I caught myself straining my eyes, forcing them to see how far into the earth I was able to see. We continued following the boardwalk, eyes bouncing from multi-colored bacteria mats to cobalt blue pools of water. It wasn’t until I passed the sign for the Grand Prismatic Springs did I realize we almost passed by it. Traces of color peeked out from the edge of the spring while most of the water was blanketed by steam. It was as if we were looking into a cloud. A gust of cold air would roll through the valley and mix with the warm air coming from the spring. Like a curtain of a Broadway play, the steam would act as a hazy border between tourist and nature. For a few moments, the wind would pause, revealing the kaleidoscope of color. Cameras ready for the moment, pictures were snapped from every angle until the steam tucked away this natural wonder once again.
Fairy Falls Trail – Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook
Less than a mile and a half from the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot is the Fairy Falls Trail. This trail has a short detour that opens to the perfect overlook to the Grand Prismatic Spring. The hike to the overlook is a short 1.6-mile out-and-back hike. The snow and ice made parts of the hike a bit more strenuous as we climbed the 200-foot elevation. Glimpses of the spring below could be seen through the mesh of trees. It wasn’t until we arrived at the platform we were able to enjoy the full unobstructed view. From this vantage point, I could see the magnitude of color and size that attracts so many visitors to this spot each year.
Lesson Learned: Clean your camera lens and clean it often. Particles from the steam and snow are floating around everywhere. After hiking to the top of the overlook, you don’t want your perfect shot of the surrounding landscape to be obstructed by photobombing particles.
Our last stop for the day was to watch an Old Faithful eruption. Posted at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park entrance was the Old Faithful prediction phone number. Given plus or minus ten minutes, the recording broadcasts the next eruption time. With just under forty minutes to spare, we decided to head that way but left enough time to make a few stops for buffalo photos.
Unlike the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot, Old Faithful parking reminded me of Disney’s parking, minus the hero and villain signage and the trams buzzing around. I imagine during the popular times of the year, this expansive space quickly feels too small. But in October (non-peak season), we parked like VIPs almost in the front row.
As we walked towards the crescent-shaped viewing area, many people had already staked their claim on the benches. We squeezed in next to a family with two young kids, who curiously asked all the questions I was thinking in my head, “Dad, how much longer? Is it going to be loud? How high will the water go?” I sat there eavesdropping, hoping this dad had the answers to our questions, but he did not. He gave the classic dad answer, “I don’t know, we’ll just have to wait and see buddy.” Reside to staring at this steaming mound, I felt like I was willing the water to shoot from the ground like a magician levitating a person from a bed.
Like the impatient kids next to me, I didn’t really know what to expect. Steam had been billowing from the mound since our arrival. Changes in the volume of water and steam were so gradual it was hard to decipher if it was erupting or just doing its usual thing. Checking the time, we were inside the ten-minute window. Each geyser of water started to grow larger than the last. But there was no gasp from the crowd. No loud expressions of “Ooh” and “aah”. People held their phones up to snap a few photos and slowly trickled out of the viewing area. The whole experience was anticlimactic. After spending the day around sputtering steam vents and gurgling hot springs, watching Old Faithful was like watching a silent movie. However, as we walked towards the National Park Welcome Center, Aaron glanced at his watch, noting the prediction time was right on the dot. I guess that’s why she’s called Old Faithful and not Old Impressive.
Day 3 – All Day Hiking
We had every intention to start the third day as early as possible. Up before the sun, we got dressed, boiled water for our dehydrated breakfast and coffee, and hit the road. We chose to explore the Canyon area of the park, and this early in the morning few people were out. The only thing slowing us down was the increasing amount of ice remaining on the road the further we traveled north.
Before we set out on the hike, we stopped at the Canyon Visitor Center. After slipping on the iced-over bridges the day before, Aaron wanted to see if they sold snow cleats at the general store and they did not; but it is a good thing we stopped. As we were perusing the aisles, it dawned on me that I had forgotten to pack the sandwiches for our lunches.
We may not have had the hiking cleats for the hike, but we did think ahead and bring our hiking poles. I’ve never bought into the idea that hiking poles were a necessity. As we walked from the parking lot to the trailhead, I felt like a baby giraffe trying to time my legs in the correct cadence with the poles. I didn’t have to worry about startling a bear; the echo from kicking my poles and murmuring under my breath could be heard for miles.
All Day Hiking – Seven Mile Hole Trail
We decided to spend the entire day hiking Seven Mile Hole Trail, a strenuous ten-mile out and back with 1,980 elevation gain. The entrance to the trailhead was like stepping into the set of a Hallmark movie. The path was laden with fluffy untouched snow that made the most satisfying crunch below my feet. The tips of the tree branches were perfectly flocked. The only thing missing was an overly dramatic script for me to recite, describing how I have to find the perfect Christmas tree to display in the town square or the evil mayor will cancel Christmas forever. But I digress. The first two miles follow the rim of the Yellowstone Canyon, and glimpses of the river can be seen, steadily carving its way through the layers of rock and stone. If we stood still long enough, the sound of the river would climb the canyon walls, echoing all around us. The calming sound was like static through a white noise machine.
Piles of snow began to fall from the tree limbs as we walked further into the woods. It was like we were in a snowball fight with nature. Minding my own business, taking in the sights, and, BAM! A glob of snow hit my shoulder. A few flakes of snow found their way inside my jacket, forcing me to shake my jacket out like a bee had trapped itself inside.
The Seven Mile Hole Trail is mostly flat for the first three miles and then takes a steep descent into the canyon. The landscape also took a considerable change. Transforming from a magical winter wonderland to a hot shadeless desert. Exposed rocks, dead trees, and hissing steam vents dotted the path. Aaron and I felt like the Lion King’s Nala and Simba when they wandered into the elephant graveyard. I was just waiting for a Zazu to appear to warn us we had traveled too far.
As we descended further into the canyon, the path became muddy and slick from the melted snow. This is the moment I was grateful to have brought the hiking poles. Parts of the trail were less than a foot wide with little to cling to in the event I lost my balance. I methodically placed each pole before moving from the untrustworthy mud below my feet.
Finally, we made it to the bottom of the canyon! A small murky spring flowed through the rocks we decided to each lunch on. While the Yellowstone River roared past us a few feet away. The hike to the bottom took much longer than we anticipated. We also knew time was not on our side since we were now having to ascend the canyon walls. Aaron and I had flashbacks from our hike at the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail from earlier this year. The climb back to the top of this trail was going to be just as strenuous.
Thankfully we made it back to the trailhead just in time to watch the sunset over the canyon ridge at Inspiration Point overlook. We both felt a sense of accomplishment as we stood at the top of the canyon looking down at the river. The huffing and puffing up the canyon walls seemed to melt away as the sun disappeared over the edge of the horizon.
Day 4 – Mammoth Hot Springs
Like a kid who was holding his breath until I was awakened by my alarm clock, Aaron took in a huge breath and excitedly said, “Finally! I’ve been up for hours. Let’s get this campsite packed up and go.” Startled by the boom of his voice, I fumbled to turn off my phone. Three nights camping in below-freezing temperatures had lost its appeal, and we both were looking forward to a hot shower and a fluffy bed at our hotel.
We haphazardly threw everything in the car. Smoke-filled clothing was stuffed in the trunk and unrolled sleeping bags filled the back seat. The tent was still wet from the morning frost. We both agreed to make time to pack everything at the end of the day, but for now, we just wanted to return to civilization.
For our last night in Yellowstone, we stayed at the Mammoth Hotel. This beautiful oasis is centered in the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, recently completed renovations in the guest rooms and common spaces. Black and white photos of the ladies in long prairie dresses and parasols standing at the hot springs decorated the hallway. Dimmed chandeliers lined the walls as we made our way to the room. As we dropped our things, Aaron slid across the bed in an excited but exhausted huff. I immediately fired up the coffee pot as we decided our game plan for the day.
Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace
As we drove into Mammoth, it was hard to miss the towering walls of yellow and white travertine that had been built by thousands of years of water seeping from the hot springs. The Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace is a must for any visit to Yellowstone. The wooden boardwalk loops around the springs, each unique in color and shape. The natural formations of the hot springs reminded me of our trip to the Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio years ago. Instead of walking in a dark, humid cave, the Mammoth Hot Springs are on full display under the guise of the surrounding mountains. In the same way stalactites and stalagmites form over time by dripping water, so did the formations at Mammoth Hot springs.
Lava Creek Trail
We covered the entire Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace in an hour and a half. The weather was beginning to warm up into the high fifties, and there was still plenty of daylight left for hiking. The Trailhead for the Lava Creek Trail was just a few miles away. Listed as an easy out and back hike that parallels Lava Creek. Once out on the trail, one thing became abundantly clear, there are animals in the area. Judging by the amount and size of the poop littering the path, these animals are big. This trail was narrow, and in parts, we were unable to see around the turn. Some areas followed along the edge of a hill with nowhere to run other than forward or backward. I anxiously whistled and clapped my hands, hoping to warn potential animals I was coming their way.
This method seemed to be working as we continued to dodge manure landmines. That was until we crested the top of a hill only to find ourselves fifty yards from a grazing buffalo. He was unbothered by our presents, acting as if he did not hear my warning calls. Resolute in continuing to graze in the middle of the trail, Aaron and I took a wide detour through a dry creek bed growing over with brush. Not once did he raise his head from the ground to curiously glance our way.
The rest of the hike was not nearly as eventful. We stopped to eat our dehydrated snacks and took pictures of the surrounding views. I couldn’t believe the day before we were ankle-deep in snow, and the next, we’re sitting in a dry valley with our boots covered in mud. With plenty of daylight left, we made it back to the car, where we fully unpacked all of our camping gear. We folded, stuffed, and crammed everything back into our backpacks. I thought for sure the zippers were going to give way, and all of my gear would come spilling out like one of those trick spring-filled canisters.
We made it back to the hotel just as the sun began to set, turning the sky pink and then purple. Elk were roaming the front lawn of the hotel as if they were paid to be decorative statues. As we walked inside, I looked forward to a warm shower and a meal that didn’t consist of me hovering over a campfire.
Day 5 – Travel Home
Having already neatly packed our bags, leaving the hotel was a breeze. We exited Yellowstone through the North entrance and continued towards the airport. I scrolled through our photos from the week, amazed we accomplished so much in a short time. This has been a bucket list trip for years, and Yellowstone has a lot of ground to cover in the short amount of time we were there. I’m happy with the balance of visiting popular sites mixed with the serenity of hiking and the decision to camp and spend one night in a hotel.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thank you! I know it was a long story time post, but I hope it was entertaining and informative. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, what were the highlights of your trip? Did you find Old Faithful to be just as underwhelming? If you’ve never been to Yellowstone but would love to go, what sights would you look most forward to seeing?
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