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The Secrets of Yellowstone National Park
What You May Have Missed..
When traveling to Yellowstone, it may be very easy to miss some of the most amazing sights. What you need is an insider; someone who knows the parks' in's and out's. It's easy to look at a map, and get confused about where to go. My Fiancé, Coty (coh-dee), works for National Park Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior. When he isn't working, we explore the park. So, let me tell you what I have found that's the most amazing in (and out) of the park, and give you a few insider tips on how to get the most out of your experience.
West Yellowstone, Montana
Depending which of Yellowstone’s five entrances you enter the park through will depend on what sights to see first. Obviously you don’t want to do a whole lot of back tracking, but sometimes it’s worth it to get a second glance. Most people don’t have a lot of time in their vacation, which is why most of this guide can easily be done in one day.
West Yellowstone, Montana: Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
West Yellowstone, Montana is a popular gate to enter the park. The town is quaint and fun with plenty to see. Before coming into the park through the gate, the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is a must-see. If you happen to be staying in West Yellowstone, you can see it anytime before you leave. During the summer, they close at 8:30pm. The GWDC has 10-12 Bears, and a dozen Wolves. The Wolves sleep during the middle of the day, so be sure to get there in the morning or evening, prior to closing. The bears wander around their fenced yard, and toss huge logs and rocks over to get to their food, which has been carefully placed by employees. The Raven’s are everywhere in an attempt to snag a Tomato. The Bears’ individual stories are located just beyond the fence for you to read about where they came from.
Remember: Wolf DNA is 99% identical to your Shih Tzu, so please; do not kill or harm a Wolf unless your life is actually in danger. Wolves are the most likely to befriend a human than to attack, so don’t assume you’ll be eaten. Treat them like you would a dog, and most of the time, they’ll run away or say hello. Just don’t feed them, that could get them killed later on.
Before you leave the center, check the schedule to see what time their “Birds of Prey” presentation is. It’s about 30 minutes, and you get to see a Great Horned Owl (he hoots constantly, you’ll understand why if you see the presentation), and a Hawk. These birds are big and beautiful, and you’ll never forget it. No, you can’t “pet” them.
West Entrance: Montana
After entering through the gate, the road is long. Watch out for animals, please. Also watch out for employees. Please don’t park in the road and block traffic. Some of us live here, and want to get out of the park to make the three hour drive to get groceries and try to get back before dark. We enjoy the visitors enjoying themselves, but we also get tired of Buffalo Jams and people parking on the middle of the highway. Live here for one month, and you’ll be honking and screaming. Yes, you will, you know it.
You’ll come across Madison River and a bridge. Look for Elk in this area (use pullouts), and Buffalo. They like to hang out right there for some reason, and are usually pretty close to the road. There will be a big open field to your right after Madison River Bridge. Lots of Buffalo, Geese and Elk hang out here during the summer. It’s a marsh-type area in the spring and early summer. There is a Mountain Lion that lives in that valley, also. If you’re lucky, you may even see the Wolf Pack that frequents the area.
Once you get to Madison Junction, there’s a pretty neat campground there. That campground is huge, but space is still limited. Make sure you call ahead for reservations because with three million visitors per season, it gets very busy. The Madison Campground also has a Junior Ranger program in which a video is shown. I haven’t attended it because I’m a bit too old for that, and I have no children. If you have kids, I’d definitely check it out.
Firehole Canyon Drive
At Madison Junction, this is where you make a decision. The decision to turn right or left; tricky, right? Wrong. Turn right, towards Old Faithful. If you’re like me, you’ve seen Old Faithful erupt about 900 times. Turn right anyway, do what I say! Kidding, of course, but turn right. About a mile up the road, take a right again. This road is called “Firehole Canyon Drive”. Drive slowly, please. It’s a one-way road and there’s plenty of room for a faster-paced car to go around you, so don’t worry. Take your time.
There has been a bear frequenting the area, so I wouldn’t recommend leaving your car far behind you, but you can get out and walk (with Bear Spray!). Along this canyon, make sure to look up at the craggy rock cliffs, and the fog that sometimes lingers up top. Look for large birds (Eagles, possibly!) at the tops of the trees on the cliffs. They are watching for fish in the warm river. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one snatch a fish!
The left side of the road isn’t special, so keep your eyes focused on the right side as you rise above the rivers edge. The road slowly inclines, and the higher up you get, the better the view. You’ll come across a horseshoe in the river. This is an amazing sight. It looks almost symmetrical, and make sure you get a picture. There are caves along the way, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The next major area you get to will be the Firehole Waterfall. Pull up next to the sign, it’s the best place to get a picture of the falls, and you can feel the spray of the water on your face and hands. Please don’t fall off the cliff (or drive off it).
There’s a trail you can hike on right at the Falls on the left side of your vehicle. I have never been on it, but I would imagine it’s great. There’s a map of the trail on a podium, so check that out if you’re into hiking. I am not into hiking due to an injury and I’m lazy, but there are a few trails I have been on.
Back to the caves, if you keep driving up the road you get into some thick trees where you can’t see anything. Once you pop out of those trees, look straight down into the river. There will be a cave on the waters edge on the opposite side of the river. This cave has bones in it. We aren’t sure what kind of bones those are, but if you figure it out, let me know!
Up a ways from there, there is a swimming area and fishing area. You can still fish there, but due to high waters (and bears) you can’t swim there, so don’t do it. Once you leave the swimming area and you end up at a stop sign, you’re two miles ahead of where you would have been if you had never gone on Firehole Canyon Drive. So, right turn to Old Faithful left to go back towards Madison Junction.
Continuing right, you go around the S-Curves along the river, and pop out on Fountain Flats. The steam in the distance covers the horizon, and you feel excited once again to be here. There are usually a lot of Bison to the right, so if you see some, take a venture down Fountain Flat Drive over the bridge. It’s a dead end (unless you want to walk the long trail; I don’t) so you’ll just have to turn around anyway. But, there is a little boiling pot of water down by the river a ways, and it makes for a good picture.
When (or if) you exit Fountain Flat Drive, go back toward Old Faithful. Look to the left (drivers side) and watch the tree line for bears. Bears seem to always be hanging out at the tree line, so you may see one moving around there. That trail is Mary Mountain, and I believe it is 14 miles. This is the trail a man was killed by a bear on last year in August. I also think that trial is still closed due to bear activity (we had a short winter), but I’m not entirely sure.
Fountain Paint Pots
Fountain Paint Pots is the Geyser Basin just around the bend from Fountain Flat Drive. This is the first Geyser Basin you come to, and definitely worth the stop. Please stay on the path, don’t touch the water at all. The colors in the water is actually bacteria; living organisms. These organisms form the bacteria mats, which people think it’s just hilarious to write their names in. It’s not hilarious, and it can get you a hefty fine. Also, don’t stick your hand in the water. You may think, “Oh, it’s not THAT hot!” but it is acidic. Your skin will fall of the bones like a buffalo wing. We did have that happen to a man, but it was hit boots coming off his feet. Actually, his feet and shin meat came off with his boots and just his bones were left. Gross, I know. It’s disgusting, but he died from it because he was trying to save his dog when he jumped in after him. The dog also died.
Firehole Lake Drive
After the Paints Pots, about a mile up the road, take a left on to Firehole Lake Drive. This road exits right in front of Fountain Paint Pots where you just were. It’s one of the coolest roads in the park, just like Firehole Canyon Drive. Buffalo usually hang out on either side of the road at the turn off to Firehole Lake Drive. The speed limit is 25, but if you’re like us, you’ll probably go 10 mph max.
Along the left side there will be a couple of hot pools to stop at. The second one in is very cool, especially during the summer. The bacteria mat is bright and colorful, and you can see the water boiling up under the surface as it erupts sporadically. When you go up a little further, a fence surrounds a boiling hot pool that only seems to boil around one edge.
Around the corner is Grand Fountain Geyser. This amazing staircase of water and rock erupts in the morning, and at night. Make sure to check the schedule as you walk onto the small boardwalk (with benches!) and see what the time says. When I went last, it said 7pm, but it is different every time. I have seen it erupt one time, and it can shoot up to 100 feet in the air. It is amazing, and worth the wait. The giant cone geyser down the road from that is pretty cool, it erupts often and squirts in a stream instead of gushing. Now I feel like a pervert. There’s really no better way to say it, sorry.
Following the road along, you end up at Firehole Lake. It’s more like a pond. Whatever. Continue to follow the road around, and then make your left turn toward Old Faithful again.
Midway Geyser Basin
This one has to explain itself. Make sure you see Grand Prismatic. It is the most colorful, and largest Hot Pool in the park and the third largest in the world! The other two bigger ones are in New Zealand, just so you know. Again, keep your filthy mitts out of the bacteria mats. You never know who will come up behind you and push you in while you’re bent over! All joking aside, if you see anyone else doing that, yell at him or her. I’ll back you up, and so will the Rangers.
Biscuit Basin is pretty sweet. I saw a bear here about three weeks ago. After you have made your way toward the back of Biscuit Basin (you have to see Sapphire Hot Pool), check out the weird tree that fell over with its Medusa roots. If you’re facing Grand Loop Road from Biscuit Basin, turn ninety degrees to your right and look on the side of the mountain. It’s better if you have binoculars or a camera to zoom, but there’s a waterfall up there. You can also hike to it, but I wouldn’t do it, I’m lazy, remember?
Old Faithful: Beyond the Geyser
I could go on and on about this place. Go see Morning Glory. If you don’t know where Morning Glory is, get your walking shoes on and take some water. The walk is about two miles, but its worth it. This is one of the longer walks I have done, and it’s not up or downhill, so don’t worry. Take your bear spray, and find the lower gas station by the Knotty Porch. The walkway in front of those two buildings is going to take you to Morning Glory. I have posted a picture of Morning Glory, so check that out. Don’t throw things in it please. You will see why I say that once you go there. A volunteer friend of mine had to clean Morning Glory out quite a bit last year. I guess it’s just hilarious to throw things in it, and block the hole so not heat comes up. This is why it’s green now, instead of bright blue, but it’s still beautiful.
Go see Old Faithful (Erupts about every 90 minutes. Check it out at night, too), and do all the normal tourist stuff. But, once you get tired of that, go to the Old Faithful Inn. It’s said to be haunted by hundreds of experiences people have had. Find the bookstore either in the Visitor Education Center or any gift shop, and find a book called “Yellowstone Ghost Stores” and flip to the section that says, “Old Faithful Inn Page 65”. These are short stories, so it won’t take up much time. Read, “Phantom Child” and “The Headless Bride”. Once you read those, you’ll know what I’m talking about and understand what you have to do. You have to go to the Inn around midnight, and watch for the ghost! You also have to go during the day, if you read the Phantom Child story also, you’ll understand.
When it gets dark and the moon is out, take a drive back down Firehole Canyon Drive. It’s even cooler at nighttime.
Between Old Faithful and West Thumb
If you have a destination in mind, you’re never going to stop at all the good places. Right passed Old Faithful headed towards West Thumb is Kepler Cascades. It’s not a long walk, and it takes two minutes to see. Though, you’ll probably take more like ten minutes because it’s beautiful. It’s a waterfall, and it’s pretty far down.
Between Old Faithful and West Thumb, there’s nothing crazy to see except for Isa Lake. It’s right on the first “Continental Divide” sign/pullout you come to after leaving Old Faithful area via Grand Loop Road. Isa Lake is just that; a lake. Except for it looks more like a pond, but it’s amazing in the summer. The Lilly Pads are huge, and the bright yellow flowers that grow on them are great. The trees reflect off the water, and it makes for a great picture with the bridge.
After you get done climbing all over the sign and taking pictures, head to West Thumb and stop off there to check out the Geysers that line Yellowstone Lake. The water is so pristine, and it makes you want to go swimming (don’t).
Yellowstone Lake Area
You can go to Grant Village and mess around, or you can stick to Grand Loop Road and head up to the Marina, great picnic areas and Lake Hotel. If you can, rent a boat and head out to Stevenson Island. There’s a steamboat that was burned down there by a man that used to run a company that took tourists around the lake. He was stubborn, and had his license revoked, so he took his new boat to Stevenson Island and torched it. This was in the Roosevelt days, and it’s still partially there from what I hear.
However, right before the Marina area, there’s a pull out where the road goes over the lake and you literally have lake on either side of your vehicle right on the water. It’s the coolest road at night with the stars and moon reflecting off the lake, and Lake Hotel lit up like a Christmas tree.
You can go in Lake Lodge if you want (the big yellow hotel) or you can go down by the waters edge on the North-ish side of the Hotel and check out the old boat shed. It says “Government Property, do not enter”. Well, you don’t have to go all the way in (I did not tell you to go all the way in), and check out the “graffiti” on the walls that says things like “Bill W. 1922” in paint. It’s all over, and it is amazing. Get some pictures. I did not tell you to go inside. Don’t touch the boats, they’re government property. You have to see that boat shed. The doors are open, so technically it’s not locked.
Fishing bridge is right after Lake Hotel, and it’s a giant bridge you can’t fish off of because it happens to be located by a fish spawning area, so it’d be cheating to fish there now.
When you go into Hayden Valley (right after Fishing Bridge), this is where the Buffalo enjoy their August Rut. The August Rut is mating season for them, and all the Buffalo in the whole park meet here every August. This is where they do a little dance, make a little love and fight a lot. The fighting is pretty intense, since one or both end up bleeding from the horns. The males fight over the females, like usual. The secret to this area is come in August time. Since the rut happens, the Wolves tend to flock here for food. Bring a scope, or a really long lens just incase. The Buffalo make awful grunting noises, and you may even see one make a love child if you’re that lucky. I haven’t had the honor of watching that, but I did look away and gagged a little.
There’s a road right as you come into Hayden Valley, and I can’t remember what it’s called for the life of me. It’s the only road you can turn right on as you come into Hayden Valley, and the road goes up next to the river’s edge. This makes for a good picnic spot, or to get you off the busy road for a bit to take some pictures. Please stay in your car around Buffalo, and other animals. People want that great picture, but the Rangers job is to stand between you and the potential threat. Plus, the Rangers will just tell you to get back in your car anyway.
Two years ago, some parents actually put their 1 year old on top of a Buffalo to take a picture in Old Faithful. They are 2,000 pounds and can run 30 mph in a heartbeat. Please stay away from them, even though they look gentle. They are afraid of dogs; however, there is a buffalo in our area (Bill, of course) who doesn’t seem to mind my dog. My dog is a Husky, so about the size of our Grey Wolves here. He’s 70 lbs. of love and laziness. When any Buffalo walk by our apartment and our dog is outside with me (off-leash, shh..) he just sits and waits for them to walk by, never moving a muscle except to stare. If I see a Buffalo outside before I go out, we don’t go. Or if there are multiple, but it is normal to be outside and have one come out of nowhere and walk on by.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
After you get through Hayden Valley’s roaming Buffalo, take a right on a road called South Rim Drive. Make sure you take this road over the bridge, and then take a left to check out the Upper Falls from the opposite side of the Canyon. The Canyon is amazing, and you’ll never regret seeing it. After you get done there, take a left out of the parking lot and go toward Artist Point. Artist Point is the most amazing view of the Canyon you will ever see in your entire life. If you sit on the bench (you will know which one), you will see the exact view painters had over a hundred years ago when some of the most famous paintings were done of this view.
Another “Stay Safe” moment:
Don’t climb over any chain link, allow your kids to climb on or over anything near the Canyon’s edge and don’t go off the trains or paths. We had an 18-year-old Russian employee for Xanterra (Concessions and Hotel workers) fall 400 feet to her death on her first day here in the park. She was at Inspiration Point, and was showing off for her new acquaintances. She climbed over the edge and loose gravel gave way. They short-hauled her out via Helicopter, which was brought in from Teton National Park. She fell to her death on June 7, 2012. Her family still has not been notified so her name hasn’t been released.
Once you have made it back to Grand Loop, take your next right again. It should say something like “Brink of Lower Falls”, I believe. I was just there last week, but I’m not staring at the signs much. I know it’s your next two-way right turn. We’ll go with that. Park in the parking lot (obviously don’t park anywhere else) and walk your happy butt down to walking path a bit, and down some really great stairs (is there such a thing?) and look over the edge. You are now at the exact area where the Waterfall is. (Please don’t lean too far over..)
If you look up at the cliff across the way, and to your left a bit, you will see where you were previously standing taking pictures of the waterfall. You may even see some people up there who probably don’t see you. Please don’t moon them, it’s not nice and they can’t see anyway unless they get home and go to frame a picture.
After you’re back on the road, take your next right again. This should be a one-way road, and it’s the greatest road ever (besides Firehole 1 and 2). Stop at every chance (with a parking lot) and look over the edge. The trails are cool and all, but I usually just jump out of the car and slowly (cautiously) walk to the edge and peer over. If you’re afraid of heights, take your time. I was a bit nauseous the first time I looked over the edge. It’s safe, don’t worry unless you climb over or think you can fly; leave the “bath salt” at home.
Check out the Glacial Boulder. That thing is huge, and you can read more about it in the Visitor Education Center in Canyon Village, which the one-way road will spit you out in and you have to take a left at the stop sign. That village is pretty cozy; we enjoy hanging out there. If you see a Yellow van in that parking lot, a Ranger named Erica was our neighbor here in Old Faithful last year and now works in the Visitor Education Center in Canyon Village. She’s very helpful, and will tell you anything you want to know. If you have kids, she’ll make them an honorary Junior Ranger, and they’ll get a pretty cool patch and some other kid-like souvenirs.
When you come out of Canyon, your choices are to go toward Norris Geyser Basin (straight) or Tower-Roosevelt (right turn) or back toward Hayden Valley (left turn). From here, you’re probably exhausted. It’s quickest to go toward Norris Geyser Basin (12 miles) and take a left to go back toward Old Faithful or West Yellowstone, depending on where you’re staying.
Tower-Roosevelt direction is beautiful. There is another section of Canyon up that way, and a beautiful waterfall. This is the top section of the Grand Loop. This section of Canyon is very unique with its pillars of stone and layers of millions of years of memories. There’s a gift shop there also, unless you’re all gift-shopped-out. At this point, you’ll have gone over Mount Washburn, which is pretty cool. Be careful on the switchbacks on the other side of the mountain, they’re ridiculously tight turns and it’s a long way down.
After the second half of the Canyon, look for Wolves, Elk and Bears. They’re known to be all over this area, although all I have seen is Elk and Deer. When you get to Tower-Roosevelt, check out the Lodge and Horses. Lamar Valley is up this way, and often you can see a lot of Wolves in this area also. If you follow the road toward Cooke City, Montana, there’s a left turn after a Bridge you can take that goes pretty far back into the mountainous area. There’s a lot of camping back in there, which always seemed like an amazing place to go that isn’t well known.
Petrified Redwood Tree
If you go towards Mammoth Hot Springs from Tower-Roosevelt, there’s a lot of amazing scenery and open, vast spaces that seems like a whole different type of terrain that the rocky cliffs you had seen maybe thirty minutes prior. After Tower-Roosevelt, look for a sign and a left hand turn that says, “Petrified Tree”. The road isn’t very long at all, maybe a half mile. Once you get to the tree, it’s up on the hill a little ways, but there is a walking path that’s easy accessible. The story there tells about the tree and how it was petrified by volcanic ash and pyroclastic flow. The tree is actually a Redwood tree, which used to be the prominent tree all over the park. Can you imagine Yellowstone with all Redwood trees instead of Lodgepole Pine? The tree is just the lower trunk area, but it’s still huge.
Mammoth Hot Springs & Gardner, Montana
On the road again, there’s lots of Uinta Ground Squirrels that look like Prairie Dogs along the way between there and Mammoth Hot Springs. When you go into Mammoth, there’s a huge bridge. Don’t look down! Or do, because it’s a really great view and the mountains that surround Mammoth are massive. Those mountains are super old (technical term) because they’re smooth, and flowing and not at all like the craggy rocks you’ve seen in the other side of the park closer to the Teton range.
Make sure you do all the usual tourist stuff in Mammoth, and check out the Travertine springs on the hill. Gardner, Montana is just five miles outside of Mammoth Hot Springs to the North. If you take that short five-mile trek, you can see the actual Roosevelt Arch. It’s a tight squeeze, so join all the other tourists outside their vehicles for pictures. What you may not know is that President Roosevelt put a time capsule inside the Arch when it was constructed. I’d really like to know what’s in that!
There’s a lot of information in the Mammoth Springs Visitor Center, so check that out. There’s an upstairs portion with lots of stuffed animals that look pretty cool. Some look a little cheesy, but you didn’t hear that from me. At this point, you’ve probably seen the hundred Elk in the middle of the road in Mammoth. For some reason, they like to hang out on the islands in the streets. If you come in late August or early September, the Elk bugle like crazy out there. I think this is their mating call since they mate after the Buffalo’s rut. Going back on Grand Loop passed Mammoth, the road curves in and out of the edge of the mountain. There’s an abrupt right turn you must take, and it’s just a short little loop that goes right back out to the main road, but it’s really neat. The rocks are huge, and the road is big enough for a car to get through.
Back out on Grand Loop, there’s a horse area that has a pullout that is a really great, high up spot for some amazing pictures of the mountains across the way. There’s a section of the road leaving the Mammoth valley that is a suspended road attached to the side of the mountain, so at one point you’re not actually on a solid road. It’s a little unnerving, but when you look down and see the pillars and that you’re actually on a bridge attached to the mountain, it’s pretty neat.
Norris Geyser Basin
Through the valley, there are lots of little lakes along the way. There’s plenty to see, but not much secret, cool stuff along the way. You’ll come to Norris Geyser Basin, which you have to see. It’s a lot of walking and I mean a ridiculous amount of walking, but if you’re up for it, you can see just about every geyser or hot spring you could ever imagine. The ground here last decade became so hot, Rangers had to close down Norris Geyser Basin to tourists.
Artist Paint Pots
Artist Paint Pots are an amazing section of hot pools between Norris and Madison Junction. It will be a left hand turn. Once you turn onto the road, the actual paint pots are on the side of the mountain. It's not a huge, long walk, but it's worth the look. Once you park, you have to walk about a quarter of a mile to a half mile to the actual basin. I have no idea why they didn't make the parking lot further back. As you're walking through the trees, take your bear spray with you just incase. The trees are dense, and you'll never see a bear until it's too late. Most of the time they will run away, but you never know. They say you have a greater chance of being hit by lightening than being mauled by a bear.
Once you get to Artist Paint Pots, it looks like one big paint palette. Make sure you walk to the upper area, there's a large mud pit up there. Watch yourself though, it squirts up onto the boardwalk sometimes.
Grand Loop Grand Finale
After Norris Geyser Basin, it’s only a short trek back to Madison Junction and the campground. You’ve made it around the entire Grand Loop, good job. Now have fun putting your 10,000 pictures on your hard drive, and posting them all over the Internet. I know you will.
If you have any Yellowstone questions, or any questions at all really, you can contact me at SketchG@gmail.com. Also, if I may have missed anything let me know! I don't claim to know it all, but I know what I have explored thus far. More to come! Thanks for reading!