With Labor Day quickly approaching, Ryan and I began brainstorming what our next adventure would have to offer. We tossed around many ideas including a road trip to southern Colorado (Telluride, to be exact) or possibly to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. However, as soon as I suggested Yellowstone National Park, we knew that was where our holiday weekend would lead us. After some quick research, we were able to book one of the last available tent sites in the park at the Bridge Bay Campground, come up with a two-day trip itinerary, and calculate that our drive time would be around 8 hours (which in my opinion, is totally worth it).
The Monday before our road trip was to begin, we were contacted by a friend who was inquiring about possibly joining us in Yellowstone as a birthday surprise for his girlfriend. Ryan and I do most of our adventures as a duo, but still love sharing our experiences with others, so of course we said yes! Minor changes were made to our plans to accommodate additional people, and we were ready to go. Now just to make it through the work week…
Day 1 (Friday):
The four of us all got off of work around noon in order to start our weekend early.We all met up at Ryan and my house, packed up the cars, and hit the road around 2pm! We were on the highway with music blasting and spirits high when we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of stop-and-go traffic; just great. We tried taking side roads to make the drive go by faster but those seemed to be just as crowded, forcing us to wait it out.
Once the traffic cleared we were nearly in Wyoming and were able to cruise between 85-95mph for the remainder of the drive. Exhausted from the traffic, we only stopped occasionally to fill up on gas or for a quick bite to eat at Five Guys Burgers and Fries in an attempt to make up for lost time.
As night fell, we had our sights set on Yellowstone’s East Entrance. We passed through the empty entrance gates around 2am, and lowered our speeds as we navigated the curvy mountain pass to our campground. Within five minutes into the park, Ryan slammed on the brakes. Confused, I looked around and my jaw dropped as a pair of glowing eyes emerged from the road ahead of us. A giant bison was slowly walking towards us, coming within a few feet of our car before veering off onto the other side of the road. The adrenaline and excitement gave us the energy to continue on to the campground, chattering about how amazing this trip will be for us.
12 hours later, we finally reached Bridge Bay Campground, located our site (in the I Loop), and began hunting for a semi-flat spot to pitch our tents… in the pouring rain. The obvious tent spot at the site had been transformed into a lake, forcing us into the trees. Cold, tired, and wet, we crawled into bed and dreamed of better weather.
Day 2 (Saturday):
We woke up to the rising sun around 8am the next morning, feeling much better than the night before. Temperatures were in the low 30s and the skies were partly cloudy, but we were offered a beautiful (and fresh!) view of both our campsite as well as Yellowstone Lake in the distance.
As we drank tea and cooked up the fixins’ for our breakfast burritos, we pulled out the map and formulated a game plan for the rest of the weekend. We decided that today, Saturday, would be spent driving the Upper Loop while tomorrow would be spent in the Lower Loop. There is just so much to see with so little time!
Around 10am we left camp and headed North; our first stop would be the Mud Volcano. By the time we arrived the clouds had began to spit out a light rain as the smell of sulphur surrounded us in the parking lot. We threw on our rain jackets and headed towards the steam! The Mud Volcano was spooky to watch and listen to as the thick water bubbled and splashed from beneath the ground while the Dragon’s Mouth roared nearby; it was rightfully named the waves, steam, and gurgling constantly emerged deep from within the cave.
Next along our route was both the Upper (109ft) and Lower (308ft) Yellowstone Falls. We were in awe over the expansiveness of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which is nearly 1,200ft deep in some places and effectively dwarfs the falls. The walls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone were stained different hues of pinks and yellows due to the mineral deposits of ancient hot springs, steam vents, and geysers (however, I was unable to fully capture these colors due to the poor lighting that the threatening clouds overhead provided).
We stayed here for a while taking in the views, but the hoards of tourists crowding the viewing platform and railings were becoming too much of an annoyance so we headed on our way.
Next up was the largest section of driving without stops (except for the occasional bison crossing, of course) so we simply cruised along the Upper Loop and as we continued through the burn scar, we were shocked to see just how expansive the 1988 Yellowstone Fires were, which burned around 800,000 acres (~36% of the park). As the road winded up and down through the cemetery of the forest, I did notice that smaller trees had begun to spring up with new life, providing evidence that a large wildfire is just what that forest had needed.
We stopped for lunch along the way at the Roosevelt Lodge where we enjoyed delicious brisket sandwiches (seriously, if you make the trip.. get one!). Feeling refreshed, we continued on to the Mammoth Hot Springs!
Upon arriving in the park headquarters, we were greeted with a herd of elk! There were many cows with one HUUGE bull. They crossed roads and nonchalantly grazed on the manicured lawns as tourists took photos (yes, by standing far too close to the animals..tsk tsk). We snapped a few photos from our car and then headed up to the Hot Springs.
It was around 3pm when we began walking around the Mammoth Hot Springs, and from a photographer’s standpoint, I would recommend you visit in the early morning to ensure the best light, as the rising sun will be directly shining on the formations. Nonetheless, the Terraces and Springs were just as spectacular to see. We took a short hike up the boardwalk to the overlook and were rewarded with a view of the north side of the park.
Our last stop of the day would be to the Boiling River for some swimming in one of Yellowstone’s only “tourist friendly” hot springs. This was just what I needed after being in the car all day! The actual entry point of the hot spring into the river was very crowded so we found a spot further downstream that still offered warm waters and we relaxed in nature’s hot tub for a while before heading back to camp for the night.
We arrived back to camp around 5pm and while the girls put on warmer clothes, the boys got a fire started as the temperature started to drop. The rest of the evening was spent with good food, drink, and company. The wine and beer flowed as the beef and chicken kabobs roasted over the fire, and the sky gradually began to clear up and expose the spectacular starry night. Due to the late arrival the night before, we were ready for bed around 10pm and made our way towards the tents as the fire burned out.
Day 3 (Sunday):
The alarm went off at 6am. I was eager to get an early start this morning not only to get the opportunity to photograph this beautiful National Park in the golden hour but also to see as much wildlife as I could. Ryan and I quietly snuck out, leaving our friends behind to catch up on a bit of extra sleep.
We started driving North, and it was not long before we had a few elk cross the road with a herd of bison nearby.
We arrived at Hayden Valley right at sunrise, which turned out to be perfect timing. As I ventured around the area searching for the best shots, a crowd of people began excitedly chattering about wildlife sightings in the Valley. A man was nice enough to let me take a look through his spotting scope and I saw not only a lone grizzly bear in the distance, but also three wolves down by the river! My camera lens does not have the capability to zoom that far (the animals were ~1mi away) but Ryan was able to see them with his binoculars and we were just as excited to watch them as the professional photographers beside us were.
It was cold out this morning, somewhere in the 20s, and we soon headed back to camp for a hot breakfast. We ate and got ready for the day as our friends packed up their gear; they needed to be home tonight as opposed to Monday so they were leaving a night early. But that is no issue, for Old Faithful was the itinerary for today!
We stopped at Kebbler Cascades along the way, and it was worth the quick pitstop.
We carried on to Old Faithful, which upon arrival we were notified that she would not be blowing for another half hour. We headed into the lodge to browse the giftshop and get a cup of coffee. By the time we returned to the viewing platform, it had filled with other tourists and we were ready for the show! Only a few minutes early, Old Faithful lived up to her name.
From here Ryan and I said farewell to our friends (they exited through the South Entrance) and continued along the Lower Loop on our own. It was not long before we arrived at the Midway Geyser Basin where we adventured around the boardwalks surrounding the Fire Hole, Great Prismatic Spring, and the Excelsior Geyser Spring.
The Great Prismatic Spring was my favorite, for it is not only the largest hot spring in the United States, but it is the third largest hot spring in the whole world! How cool is that?! The vibrant colors are a result of the microbial mats and bacteria that live in the mineral-rich waters. I thoroughly enjoyed looking at it from all angles, but there was a bitterly cold wind and I left my jacket in the car so we headed back. Looking back on it, I greatly regret not venturing up the hillside to the overlook over the Great Prismatic Spring. I guess we’ll just have to do that on our next trip!
We continued on our way along the Lower Loop, stopping at both the Fountain Paint Pot and the Artisan Paint Pots (which also contained some mudpots). These scalding hot, bacteria filled pools of water displayed dramatic colors which made for some interesting stops along the trail, as each pool provided different sizes and colors. We also watched the Clepsydra Geyser which seemed to be erupting nonstop, providing us with an interesting show on the eastern side of the Fountain Paint Pot area.
Our last quick stop on the drive back to camp was at Gibbon Falls, which was not only beautiful in itself but also offered a breathtaking view of Yellowstone. We sat down and enjoyed our tupperware’d lunches that we had made before leaving home, taking in the scenery and enjoying the sun that finally decided to come out.
We returned to camp late in the afternoon and had some down time, so (of course) I set up my hammock while Ryan sat nearby. The evening was cooling off, but with the sun shining into our camp, we were perfectly content relaxing and chatting about our weekend’s events. As the sun began to set, we hopped back into the car and drove back to Hayden Valley for more photography and wildlife viewing opportunities. While all we saw were more herds of elk and bison, we were gifted with a beautiful sunset as we spent our final night in Yellowstone. As soon as the sun fell behind the horizon, the temperatures soon followed and we headed back to camp for the night to enjoy some brats and s’mores over the fire.
Our final morning at camp was spent with the wildlife. We were joined by three young Mule Deer as well as several Gray Jays who were begging for food as we finished our breakfast. We were sad to leave and dragged our feet as we packed up camp; it was by far the most beautiful day in Yellowstone that we have had. The temperatures were nearly in the 60’s around 10am and not a single cloud was in the sky. We finally made our way out of the Bridge Bay Campground (which already had cones everywhere, as it was closing weekend for the season), and headed towards the East Entrance for our long drive home.
Driving past Yellowstone Lake on our way out of the park was breathtaking; because we arrived in the night we had no idea just how big it is! Glistening in the sun with small whitecaps forming from the wind, I couldn’t help but think of the ocean back home (until, that is, I saw the Tetons in the distance and realized that the mountains are where home is now).
What a trip. Holiday weekends are amazing, and so are our National Parks.
“Traveling– it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller”