Reaching Yellowstone: It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

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We were told it would take us an hour and a half to reach the entrance to Yellowstone from Billings, Montana, where we camped for two nights. Baloney. It took us seven.

OK, to be fair, had we not decided to visit Montana and Wyoming during The Actual Worst Summer, Ever, perhaps it might have taken us that projected hour and a half (or more like three, seeing as we were towing a trailer). But we are unlucky, to put it mildly, and as we reached the quaint town of Red Lodge, Montana—do yourself a favor if passing through: stop in the visitor’s center and ask for Gail—where, for once, the sun was shining bright, we confirmed that Beartooth Highway, the road we were to take into the park, was closed.

Beartooth Highway is one of the more scenic stretches in Wyoming and Montana, maybe even in the entire country—or so I’ve been told by multiple credible sources. I wouldn’t know anything about this firsthand, of course, as we never saw it. We headed south instead, as Gail rerouted us. I’m truly grateful that a Twitter friend who was also driving a similar route that day and just minutes ahead of us had Tweeted me that Beartooth was closed; there were no signs down in Red Lodge, so we could have driven miles further to find the closure sign, only to have to turn around and go all the way back and then detour! In fact, Beartooth only finally opened for the season on June 19 due to all the snow. Lesson learned: Always stop in the visitor’s center to find out pertinent information. We had checked on the national parks website just that morning, and there was absolutely no notice of Beartooth’s closure.

Initially, I had wanted to drive a bit further and enter the park through Cody, Wyoming, as SVV’s cousin said it was one of her favorite towns during her four-month, 35-state road trip last fall. Alas, the Sylvan Pass entrance to the park was also closed—well, not entirely; it was open from the hours of 10pm to 8am, but we didn’t want to wait that late and arrive on a windy, questionable road after dark. Are you sensing a theme here? Where we go, doom follows—or rather runs ahead and throws one massive roadblock after another in our parth. So even if we took the detour all the way down to Cody, we still would have had to drive back up and enter the park from Cooke City, Montana.

Those five hours that followed—the topsy-turvy roads that took us through Wyoming and back to Montana to the Cooke City gate—were not the most direct way to reach our final (for a few days) destination. What you can’t see on this map are all the little connector roads that we could have taken to shorten the trip…had they been open.

But it turned out OK, because while we didn’t get to see the splendor of Beartooth Highway, we went the “less scenic route” (*snort*…I find it hard to describe anything in Wyoming in less than favorable terms) and did get to drive through Shoshone National Forest. Which was just gorgeous.

And covered in snow. In June. I know! Good thing I packed my parka. Why we didn’t also bring along our ski gear is beyond me. So many ski resorts that usually close in April have stayed open this entire time due to the wacky weather. Next time, we’ll know how to pack (and will probably experience record-breaking heat waves as a result of our attempt at preparation).

We had heard great things about Cooke City, so were surprised to arrive and find it rather drab and depressing. Perhaps that’s because everything was closed—at 6pm on a Friday night in summer? odd—but I did find one diner open who was willing to sell me a hot dog, a cup of soup and a chocolate chip cookie (an unlikely dinner combo, I’m aware, but I was desperate for sustenance).

We fueled up, took the pup for a walk and continued on our way…into Yellowstone, at last!

We reached the northeastern entrance, flashed our national parks pass and drove for 15 miles until we saw another car. So much for the bumper-to-bumper summer traffic we’d heard invades the park in summer months.

When we finally spotted a few other tourists, they were parked on the side of the road, milling about with their cameras. Which can only mean one thing: WILDLIFE SIGHTING.

We inched toward the crowd, as a baby black bear came barreling down a hill and out into the street. SVV and I remained in the truck and took some photos from the safety of our vehicle, as the other tourists closed in on it BY FOOT. Clearly they didn’t get the memo that where baby is, mama is not far behind. Idiots. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out if mama got her a late-night snack.

We drove a bit further to find that Dunraven Pass—the road that would take us directly to Canyon Village Campground, where we were staying—was, you guessed it, closed. Instead of driving the 16 miles it would have taken us to reach the spot directly, we were made to do an entire circle around the park, which tacked on 50 miles—maybe more—and took a couple of hours given that it was dark and roads were slow and windy (and you always have to drive extra carefully at night in the park to make sure you don’t maim any wildlife).

Finally, we arrived at Canyon Village smothered by darkness. We had been so worried about the park being full that this was the one place we made reservations in advance ($20 a night for water and electric), only to arrive and find it at about a quarter capacity. It was 11pm, and the registration guy had long since gone home for the night. The campground was cloaked in a blanket of snow and ice banks. In fact, due to eight-foot-tall drifts, we couldn’t even make it into the spot they assigned us. So we picked our own secluded campsite and worried about sorting things out the next morning.

*****

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COMMENTS
  • June 20, 2011
    SVV

    Favorite parts of this:

    1) Reflections of sky on the truck roof.
    2) The idiocy of the tourists. Note the people standing in the woods on left. Clearly walking into the woods prior to scaring baby bear.

    • June 21, 2011
      Joy A

      Darwin Award contestents. Whenever somebody wins that award, I always wonder if they had a chance to reproduce before offing themselves.

    • June 21, 2011
      Kathie

      At least they were near the road – when we were hiking in Grand Tetons National Park (18 years ago!) we came across a baby bear in a blackberry bush patch and so many other people out hiking were trying to get pretty close to it – we hightailed it out of there because we didn’t want to be anywhere nearby when the mother came along – especially since we were on foot and not too near any roads at the time. Stupid people, that’s for sure!

  • June 20, 2011
    Dayla

    No fair SVV made my comment 1st! Love the reflection of the big sky on the big truck! What an amazing trip. Your photos and sense of humor during Road Trip Adversity are great!

    • June 20, 2011
      Kristin

      Thanks, Dayla! It’s been an adventure, that’s for sure. Next time, we’re doing this route in August, though =)

  • June 20, 2011

    I have to echo SVV’s comments – especially #2, I’ve experienced this in Alaska and have been appalled at the behavior of stupid tourists when it comes to wild animals (my mom calls them tourons (tourists x morons).

    Happy travels 🙂

    • June 20, 2011
      Kristin

      Laura, the same happened to us in Alaska, too! We saw a couple of brown bear cubs in a tree–no mother in sight–and there were all these dumb tourons (LOVE) clustered at the tree base. We watched them be stupid from a couple hundred feet away on an elevated deck to be safe! We might have been hoping one would have gotten eaten, but we’ll never say 😉

  • June 20, 2011
    sbc

    Ahhhh Yellowstone! We always add a few extra hours to our travel time here. Weather or wildlife is bound to hold you up, but that is part of the experience. Last Sept. in WY we woke up to unexpected snow, had to wait 4 hours for the park to clear the road near sylvan pass. No worries just back to the cabin to do laundry until the road was cleared. You just have to adapt.

    • June 20, 2011
      Kristin

      The funny thing is that the few afternoons we were there were the only blue-sky days we’ve had on this whole trip! At the same time, we also woke up to snow (or rain) most mornings. It just made the park even prettier! I can’t believe it took me so long to make it to Yellowstone; it has to be my favorite park in the world.

  • June 20, 2011

    Wow, what an adventure but certainly worth it. Love the blue skies over snowy mountains. And where did that rainbow come from. I haven’t been to Yellowstone since my honeymoon 30 years ago. Guess I’m due for a visit. And you got to meet Nina.
    The tourons leave their brains at home while on vacation.

  • June 21, 2011
    Sid

    OMG. There’s a bear. Crossing the road. And the tourists are taking pics! Why are tourists always so stupid??? Seriously! Bears. Claws. Death!

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Not only are they taking pictures, but can you tell how the tourons (still loving that) in the woods are forcing the bear out of his home and onto the street? Insane.

  • June 21, 2011

    Who thinks it’s a good idea to circle up around a baby bear? Who? WHO? GAH!

    Other than that, lovely. Simply lovely. My jealousy of your adventures increases daily, it seems, and my list of places to visit grows longer and longer. Ah, well, there are certainly worse things in life!

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      I think instead of “ugly Americans,” we should be called “dumb Americans.” Though I can’t say with accuracy that these people were, in fact, American–they could have easily been from other countries, countries where bears don’t roam free, and not have had any common sense to LEAVE THE CUB ALONE.

  • June 21, 2011

    I love the photo of the clouds and sky from the truck (right above the skiing paragraph), it is gorgeous. And the bear – people are nuts, I would not stand out there with a baby either! You are going to need a vacation from your vacation!

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Thanks, Andi! I was actually just holding the camera out of the window above the truck–I’m glad some of them came out! =)

  • June 21, 2011

    I’m surprised the mama bear didn’t come barreling out onto the street as well and eat the dumb tourists!!!

    Love your photos–they are just gorgeous!

  • June 21, 2011
    Briel K.

    You guys can’t seem to catch a break! I guess if things went as planned it wouldn’t be such an adventure. 🙂

    Love the clouds/sun/sky photo!

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Briel, I never can catch a break! It’s sort of how I roll, and by now, I’m completely used to the fact that everything that can go wrong, will.

  • June 21, 2011

    So much snow! I can’t believe it!

  • June 21, 2011

    The weather this year is crazy! Last year, we went to Yellowstone in late May (the week before Memorial Day), and none of the roads were closed. We did have some snow on our first day there and then about a week later in Teton, but overall the weather was pretty good. We tent camped no problem (though we got lucky and grabbed the very last spot, since at that time of the year only a very few campgrounds are open, none of which take reservations). We had a few crazy weather days (tornado warnings as we sat up our tent in eastern South Dakota and a huge thunderstorm in the middle of the night in Custer), but overall we lucked out. Sounds like you’re handling all the roadblocks with aplomb though!

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Theresa, sometimes I fear it’s my presence that brings the crazy weather! It’s like I have some sort of electromagnetic force surrounding me, ha. Blog friend Emily said it right on Twitter: “Should we warn the Semester at Sea students that your ship will prob be followed by hurricanes/typhoons/sea monsters?”

      But yes, we’re still having a blast, all things considered!

  • June 21, 2011

    Wow – People really don’t get the bear thing at all. Last year, when we were camping out there, a number of people in our campground got too close to what seemed like a “friendly” bear. When it started to get aggressive, they threw food as a distraction so they could run away. Park rangers kept their eyes on the bear for the next several days and suspected they were going to have to put it down because it had gotten human food (which changes the ways bears behave towards people).

    • June 21, 2011
      Joy A

      Pity the rangers couldn’t put down the idiotic humans who indirectly killed the bear.

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Kent, that is just terrible and breaks my heart. People are idiots and do what they want, don’t they? It’s sort of like how in diving you are told that under no circumstances may you touch the turtles because you could rub away their protective layer of mucus. (Ditto to touching coral.) it’s not just something park rangers/dive masters say to be a rule enforcer; they do it to keep the animals alive.

  • June 21, 2011

    Glad you made it there. I’m currently working my way through the National Parks of the lower 48 (280 of 340) and Yellowstone is my favorite! Have fun & safe travels!

    • June 21, 2011
      Kristin

      That is one impressive feat. I love it! I’m hitting my 50th state next month, so I might have to borrow the national parks idea from you and tackle that next. How many years has that taken thus far?

      • June 21, 2011

        The first real trip on this quest was in 2003 (I count 9 parks I visited before the, but only those visited as an adult), and I’ve done them in trip numbering from 4 days to 3.5 weeks. I’m an unabashed fan of the National Park Service. They, like all organizations, are not without their faults, but they generally have really passionate, dedicated people. It is amazing how diverse the units are, too. It’s really an amazing organization. I really have only been disappointed in a handful, while the number that blew me away is very high.

        • June 21, 2011
          Kristin

          Agreed! I don’t think you’d do such a job if you didn’t really love it–NPS employees, for the most part, definitely seem passionate about what they do and they’re typically super friendly and eager to share what they know. One of my long-time blog friends, Gaelyn (http://geogypsy.blogspot.com/) is a park ranger in the Grand Canyon, and I love about hearing about her life living in the parks. What a backyard, huh?

          Side note: I bet you’re one who really gets his money’s worth out of the annual parks pass!

  • June 21, 2011

    Holy ass balls! I am amazed by your optimistic spirit. Kyle and I both would have been frothing at the mouth and throwing things were we met with as many adversities as you guys were. I mean, we’ve definitely been met with our share of traveling mishaps, but they’re more of the instant, quick decision, jump into action kind, and we deal well with that kind of pressure. But the slow, agonizing, bang your head against the wall for 7 hours kind? Not like you champs do.

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      When you’ve experienced 28 years of bad travel luck, you learn to just roll with the punches, I s’pose =)

  • June 21, 2011

    I love Yellowstone!! Looks like you had a great time!!

  • June 22, 2011

    Hi Kristin, Beautiful pictures and very vivid narration. I am heading for Montana (from Toronto) in July, so thanks for the post! 🙂

    • June 22, 2011
      Kristin

      Oh, that’s awesome! We spent two weeks in Montana after Yellowstone, and I’ll be posting all about it toward the end of the month. Have an amazing trip!

  • June 27, 2011

    I just got back from Yellowstone (came in from Bozeman through Gardiner, gorgeous bit of drive, and no closed highways), I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts!!

    xox

  • July 6, 2011

    Sorry you didn’t get to go through the Beartooth’s…they truly are amazing! I landed in Billings before noon one day for a week of work conferences, checked into my hotel and booked it for Yellowstone. I spent all of a few hours there but the drive was amazing and to boot, I saw bears and elk.

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