Exploring Yellowstone: The Northern Loop

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I’m still trying to figure out why exactly it took me nearly three decades to make it to Yellowstone. Without a doubt, it has been one the highlights of the trip, which speaks volumes given how much countryside we’ve seen and ground we’ve covered.

After our epic adventure simply reaching the park, we allowed ourselves the liberty of sleeping in the first morning and didn’t get up and moving until almost noon. (Hey, we are on vacation after all…sort of.) Since we were going to be switching campgrounds for the last two night to Fishing Bridge, located along the southern route, our first day consisted of covering the northern loop.

One of the roadblocks I ran into in planning our time in Yellowstone was that no blog or travel guide detailed how much time one needs to do the park justice. It is a massive piece of land, after all; we didn’t want to be those people who showed up, sped through the terrain in two days, then left. So we gave ourselves five days, four nights in Yellowstone, then another three nights just an hour down the road in Grand Teton. While I’m sure you could stretch this out and spend a whole week (or more) in Yellowstone, this was the perfect amount of time for us.

On the first day, we headed due west from Canyon, stopping first near Norris—a hotbed (literally) of geothermal activity.

Due to all the rain and flooding the area had experienced in the previous weeks, the land was waterlogged. Good thing I packed those galoshes! SVV, Ella and I had no qualms with “off-roading” it a bit and trekking out through the muck to see what we could find.

Heavy rainfall also meant the waterfalls were really gushing, but alas, we didn’t get to see many of them.

We went all the way out to Tower Falls to find you could hike down to the river bed but not actually to the base of the falls due to a landslide the rain created.

We also saw a lot of evidence of past fires, which is a bit heartbreaking seeing how long the trees take to recover. (The saddest one we saw was the product of some stupid tourist and his stupid cigarette butt.) Just remember, kids, only you can prevent forest fires!

If I had to do it all over again, I’d still go back to Yellowstone at the same time: early June. The crowds don’t really start arriving until mid-month, and there were so few people in the park, we could really drive the roads at leisure and pull over onto the shoulder on a whim if we saw something we wanted to explore further in depth. Word on the street is that in July, you don’t have that luxury and the traffic is bumper to bumper.

We did this often, particularly where wildlife was concerned, like when we ran into this deer (who strangely resembled a llama) and her posse lounging under a shady grove.

Or this amazing elk, who wandered up just 15 feet away from where I was standing! I was awestruck by his beauty.

And simultaneously intimidated by his horns. Nice rack!

One fun thing to do near the north gate at Gardiner is to stop over at the 45 degree parallel, which is exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.

There’s a parking lot on the east side of the highway and a trail where you can hike out a half mile to some boiling hot springs and take a dip. We did the hike, but encountered a sign that said “no swimming in the hot springs.” This was due to the swollen rivers and the fact that we might get swept away if we tried to take a dip, so we did as the sign advised!

But all was not lost: Eagle Eyes SVV spotted a couple tiny dots that nearly blended in with the horizon line. We busted out the binoculars to find that they were mountain goats. We stopped and watched them for awhile, and eventually a pair came down the hill and decided to cross the street. (Here’s where I wish I were a jokester and had an appropriate “why did the mountain goat cross the street?” line to throw in right here. Alas, humor was never my strong point.)

As we were tired and weary and heading back to Canyon Village—it was dinnertime by this point—we stopped off at Mammoth for a glimpse at the hot springs and more thermal activity.

All in all, not a bad first day.


Week 3 Overview: May 29-June 4

Distance Driven: 853.6 miles

Total Trip Distance: 2931.8 miles

States Visited: South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming

Gas Used: 81.8 gallons, $322.08

Cheapest Gas: $3.65/gallon; Billings, Montana

Most Expensive Gas: $3.79/gallon; Miles City, Montana

Best Gas Mileage: 10.7 miles/gallon

Worst Gas Mileage: 8.1 miles/gallon

Lodging/Campground Fees: $210

Bison Burgers Eaten: 1

Break-Downs on the Side of the Road: 1

Snakes Spotted: 2

(Week 1 totals; Week 2 totals)

COMMENTS
  • June 22, 2011

    I remember seeing the Minerva Terrace with my family when I was really young. Possibly one of the most vivid memories from our trip to Yellowstone. That and the bison towering over us on the edge of a cliff one evening at dusk…that freaked my parents out for the safety of their 6 and 2 year old daughters.

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Oooh yeah, we have some great bison shots (especially of the calves) that I’m reserving for Photo Friday this week. I love those guys–their body structures just cracks me up. They look like fuzzy linebackers!

  • June 22, 2011

    Are you using ND filters on your long exposure/blurred water shots?

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Yes ma’am, we are. The only problem is that even bringing our heavy tripod for a change, we’ve had so much wind, we still get a lot of blur with a 15- to 30-second exposure. Any advice on avoiding that? We’ve tried to create human walls to block the wind =)

      • June 22, 2011

        Does it have a hook on (at the bottom of the center pole) it so you can counterweight it? If so, you can try hanging a heavy backpack, or, erm, purse, off it.

        • June 22, 2011
          Kristin

          Yeah, we’ve been counterweighting with our Canon bag (which is pretty darn heavy as we’re carrying a spare body and quite a few lenses these days). I guess sometimes you just can’t beat Mother Nature, eh? =)

          • June 22, 2011

            Ain’t that the truth!

  • June 22, 2011

    How lovely! Kyle and I have always wanted to spend a week camping in Yellowstone. Looks like it’s well worth the trek!

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      For sure! Maybe just plan on entering from Jackson Hole so you don’t run into all the road closures we did…I do, after all, want you two to stay married =)

  • June 22, 2011

    Looks amazing! You got so close to that moose! Looks like a whole lot of fun!

  • June 22, 2011

    That 1st pic totally took my breath away! Love the waterfall pic too!!! GORGEOUS 🙂

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Thanks, AMPdL! 😉

  • June 22, 2011

    You did travel at a good time before school was out for summer, even considering the lousy weather. Just a chance to see some more rarely seen moods in the parks. We are slammed busy now too. Most visitors/tourons don’t plan enough time at any one park, truly their loss. You saw a lot, so far. And although no one goes to visit their public lands to see char please remember why and the importance of forest fire, not caused by humans. Your photos are so wonderful. I really do need to go back there. Maybe fall.

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      I think we hit at the perfect time, too. There was still a lot of snow–though friends tell me they’ve been in early July and there’s been snow then, too–but it was the one time the whole trip we’ve had warm, sunny, blue-sky days. And the rain/fresh snowfall we got was only in the mornings or at night, so our daytime exploration wasn’t hindered a bit.

      And yes, i totally get the necessity of fires in restoring the trees, having lived in California for four years and having a pair of scientists as in-laws, but what got me were the tourist-created forest fires that served no purpose. How can tourists be so stupid sometimes?

  • June 22, 2011

    Awesome photos! They make me want to do a western road trip!

  • June 22, 2011

    We’re planning to explore Yellowstone when school is back in session in the fall, another good time to avoid the crowds. Exploring the northern loop is on our list as is a visit to Lamar Valley. I’m glad you had at least a few sunny days on your road trip.

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      We drove through Lamar Valley on the way into the park–it’s gorgeous (that’s where we had our first bear sighting!). I was reserving all my pictures from there for a Photo Friday this week =)

      I hope you guys get to see wolves—apparently, that’s where they hang out at sunrise and sunset, but we didn’t hit it at the right time.

  • June 22, 2011

    I have so many more parks to do- but I want to go back to Yellowstone with my new DSLR camera! Your pictures are so awesome they are testing my will! I wonder if my boss would notice if I just disappear next week….

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Ha! I think you should make that happen =)

      And I know what you mean, too: I lived abroad in three different countries and explored dozens while based in Europe before I finally switched to a DSLR in 2006 (I had an SLR before that, but a digital point-and-shoot was so much more convenient). I don’t have very many photographic memories from those years (not clear ones at least). If only, I could recreate all those travels, but this time with my camera equipment in tow!

  • June 22, 2011

    Those elk horns are out of control!

  • June 22, 2011

    I think we were there (Jackson/Teton side of Yellowstone) around the same time you were–weekend before last! I thought the time of year was perfect as well. Not too many crowds, and I actually think all the snow made the wildlife viewing better as all the wildlife was down out of the snow. Such an amazing, beautiful place, and so quintessentially a part of the American Experience, don’t you think? I can see why there were so many foreign tourists there when we were there. In some ways we thought it was similar to our safari experience in Botswana and South Africa, except there we were doing our own driving and wildlife spotting.

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      How funny–I bet we passed each other en route! We were in Yellowstone June 3-7 and Teton Village June 7-10. Did you guys see any bears? We saw one black bear cub and three adult grizzlies. It was amazing!

      • June 22, 2011

        Yep–we were in Jackson the 9th-13th! We saw one mama grizzly with two cubs–one of the daughters of the famous grizzly mama 399. They were the only bears we saw, but we were there as she killed an elk calf and she and her cubs sat there and ate it (basically in front of us) for about an hour at dusk. It was pretty amazing, although admittedly tough to hear (we couldn’t see the calf, but we could hear the whole thing. Here’s a link to my hubby’s pics of our trip (if you’re interested)–the two of the grizzlies are not great because it happened at dusk and we didn’t have his DSLR with us (I know, bad photographers!)
        http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidbump/sets/72157626972812082/with/5837883677/

        • June 22, 2011
          Kristin

          Wow. I am truly jealous, but at the same time, I don’t know if I could bear (no pun intended!) to watch and listen to that! I am quite squeamish.

          Those shots are awesome–I keep a G11 as my purse camera when I don’t want to tote around my DSLR, and my photos never look anything like that! Do you know what mode your husband shoots in? Admittedly, I haven’t done much with that camera–I usually just shoot in P or in the low-light mode if indoors.

          • June 23, 2011

            Oh my god I just need to have him email you to chat about this stuff. He’s a Canon geek as well. He shoots pretty exclusively in RAW, which helps. Mostly I think we shot this in P mode, and then he did a lot of adjusting in Lightroom (I think you use that?) for white balance, black level and exposure. Even when the image comes out of the camera looking disappointing, it’s amazing what you can do when you are choosing what to adjust rather than letting the camera’s tiny computer decide whether you’re shooting a sunset or a bear in the willows.

            • June 23, 2011
              Kristin

              Ah, good point. I totally forgot the G series has a RAW option! We shoot in RAW with our DSLRs, but I’ve never switched the setting on the G11. I think I just need to spend some time playing around with it–I got it for free through credit card points last summer and use it primarily as our diving camera. Your husband has some mad Lightroom skills!

  • June 22, 2011

    So gorgeous! And excellent photos, as always.

  • June 22, 2011

    You’ve only eaten ONE bison burger? FOR SHAME.

    We still haven’t visited Yellowstone, which leaves a hole in my heart every time I think about it. And of course your awesome photos are really helping. 😉

  • June 22, 2011

    Nice rack, indeed! 🙂 Yellowstone looks gorgeous. Paul has fond childhood memories of visiting there and I’ve never been, so it is for sure on our “Take the Meyers Someday” list. I’m glad to hear you loved it!

  • June 23, 2011

    Incredible photos!

    By the way, I cannot believe how expensive gas is. Since I haven’t bought it in 8 months, I forget about things like that back home.

    • June 23, 2011
      Kristin

      Oh girrrrl, it’s painful! I mean, prices are a lot worse in California–when we left, it was about $4.50 a gallon, and today in Washington it was $3.55–but I get about 25 mpg with my Altima, whereas in the truck towing a trailer we usually average only about 10. At least we don’t live in Europe or elsewhere in the world where gas is charged by the liter!

  • June 23, 2011

    Great photos, I was amazed at how much wildlife I saw despite the crowds.

  • June 23, 2011

    Wow, I had no idea the mid-point between the equator and the north pole was here, in the U.S. (Where the hell else would it be, I know? Duh, Sarah.)

    • June 23, 2011
      Kristin

      Oddly enough, we found ourselves in Oregon today and we ALSO passed the same sign–so now we’ve crossed over the 45 degree parallel three times this trip, ha =)

  • June 25, 2011

    We went on a backpacking trip to Yellowstone last year. The animals didn’t get the memo that we were coming and we barely saw anything 🙂 Just our bad luck I guess. Did you get a chance to see the rainbow-colored lake?

    • June 25, 2011
      Kristin

      Really? That’s such a bummer! Seems like you had my luck for a change =)

      Rainbow-colored lake, hmmm…is that Yellowstone Lake? I wouldn’t really know as all the lakes were completely FROZEN over while we were there. I could have ice skated on them!

      • June 26, 2011
        SVV

        Might be referring to the Paint Pots? Those we did see, indeed.

  • June 26, 2011
    Karmen

    so fun to read your journey! we just got back on the 24th from Yellowstone – we went in through Cody & there was still one route that was closed off (cannot remember which one). we also stayed in Canyon Village, though in the cabins. I hadn’t been in about 35 years but we all loved it (husband & 7 year old son) and spent a huge amount of time walking around all the geysers – of which we saw 4 more super big ones blow (in addition to seeing Old Faithful 4 times!) this was the 7 year old’s dream vacation – after visiting Yellowstone w/ geysers, water falls & mud pots his reaction to Mt Rushmore on the drive back to MN was “it’s just a bunch of rocks that don’t DO anything!” we also went through Shoshone Nat’l Forest – I’m a nervous wreck as a rider & could not relax around all the curves & cliffs…never used to be like that! anyway, looking forward to more of your adventures!

  • June 27, 2011

    Gorgeous! I love the Mammoth pics!

    xox

  • June 28, 2011
    Mister Sister

    the weather out there is doing WONDERS for SVV’s curls 😉

  • July 3, 2011

    In all my years living out West, I somehow managed to miss Yellowstone too. Big regret, and your pics have now prompted me to add it to the must visit (and soon) list. Gorgeous!

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