We happened to be in San Francisco on autumn 2019 and we had this crazy idea of visiting Yellowstone and Yosemite. We had 8 nights to spare and we were in for a great road trip. Arguably this was different from a lot of trips we had before, it involved a lot of driving and we didn't have much time to go off road for anything extra or stop for anything in between. Preparation was extremely important if we didn't want to loose any time thinking about next steps or exploring the area we would be in. This article covers the trip to Yellowstone. Another one will follow about the going from there to Yosemite!
For this trip we spent several days researching our options, would it make sense to fly in Montana or Salt Lake city and rent a car from there? Should we just abandon the crazy idea of combining all these from San Francisco? After all we had been to many national parks in the US and what we enjoyed the most was the laidback attitude of ours of exploring the nature without any stress.
In the end we decided we will drive all the way from SF, the flights were more expensive and weren't all that worth it, plus we weren't sure we would return anytime in that area to visit Yellowstone so we grabbed our chance when it was presented to us. Since the driving was going to be a lot especially moving between parks we decided to rent a big comfortable car that would be a breeze to drive. We also booked all the hotels beforehand and spent a few hours at a grocery store to prepare our trip.
Lastly a small note that we were due to arrive in Yellowstone 2 weeks before its winter break, almost all the campsites were full or closed by that time and were expecting some frosty mornings. Our only hope was for one sunny day so that we would catch the nice colors of the Grand prismatic spring!
Our goal was to maximize the distance covered when we were driving. We knew we couldn't drive up to Yellowstone in a day and since we knew we would have some jet lag we planned our first stop to be 6 hours outside of Yellowstone in a small city called Twin Falls in Idaho. We arrived there pretty exhausted from the drive, had a nice sleep and then raced in the morning to arrive in the National park and get a glimpse of what we do in the next few days.
Staying in Yellowstone can be quite expensive and we opted lodging 20 minutes outside of the West entrance of the park or a bit more than hour of the Old Faithful. One disadvantage from staying outside the park or further away from the entrance was the traffic in the morning. We were trying to be inside the park as early as possible but still had to spend more time in traffic when inside the park. We can't imagine how that would be during peak season!
Our first day in Yellowstone started early in the afternoon, we stopped at the rangers to get some precious information and maps, rent our bear spray and catch something to eat! We were ready to start exploring by 3pm. Our plans were to spend two days visiting the geysers and hot springs especially since there were quite a lot, another day catching up the canyon waterfalls and driving all the way to Mammoth springs while having plenty of time to maximize our potential of bear sightings.
Our goal was to visit the grand prismatic spring during the day with most sun since the colors are much more powerful and it looked like our first afternoon was our best chance. A semi cloudy afternoon with predictions that the next days would be rainy and cloudy. Well turns out we headed to that particular spring twice because the predictions were wrong and we had the chance of seeing the difference both on a sunny day and a semi cloudy day!
We had a few days to spend in Yellowstone and we tried to enjoyed as much as possible without any stress. Time spent driving in the park is unpredictable and be prepared to loose time on all sorts of reasons:
- road maintenance in several areas of the park
- stopping to enjoy a beautiful scene with the wildlife
- seeing a bear
- driving slowly to increase your chances of finding bears
- stuck in traffic because bisons decide to cross over
- stuck in traffic because bisons decide to rest on the road
In any of the above reasons don't try to force it. People driving slow in the park sounds annoying but it is really the best chance of seeing wildlife and as long as you allow others to pass it is a perfect way to spend a day in Yellowstone. If you are behind a slow moving vehicle, don't try to stick just behind them, it can be dangerous and you don't have to sound your horn on each turn! There are plenty of step aside passages that will allow you to go ahead. Patience is key and without it you might loose a bear!
We started our hot spring discovery with the grand prismatic spring and the midway basin. We hiked the overlook trail which was very easy to do and very rewarding. The overlook view of the spring is just wonderful!
After spending an hour on the trail we moved on to the Old faithful area for catching the geyser eruption and then exploring many of the other geysers and hot springs in the area such as the castle and grand geyser, the chromatic and morning pool. It took us about 2 hours to do the small hiking around the different nature wonders, spending also quite some time waiting for the castle geyser to erupt! Turns out you have to be really patient with that one and we almost lost it! Luckily when it does erupt it lasts for about 20 minutes so you have time to run for it!
Old faithful eruption was right on time and we had the chance to listen to a ranger explaining the what and hows of the eruption as well as many other interesting facts about the Yellowstone national park in general!
We also spent time visiting Norris Basin with the Steamboat and Echinus geyser and the colorful scenery before heading to the quite different and interesting Mammoth hot springs! Don't miss those, they are worth the drive and time!
Something we got really accustomed to do in the park is seeing bisons. Like really a lot of bisons! They are everywhere, whether on the road to midway basin, the lamar valley, hayden valley or basically anywhere you can go! And it is fun to count them, or not! They are a bit ugly but have something majestic in them! We also had a chance to see some young ones which were cute and playful.
We also had the chance of seeing some other wildlife while wandering around the park, be it elks or moose, antelopes, wild dogs or even some otters. Unfortunately we didn't see any wolves since we had to choose either spending our day behind telescopes for any chance of getting a sight of a wolf or wandering and driving around the park for bears! Luckily for us we made a good choice and we were rewarded with 4 bear sightings, two of the really special.
Seeing bears comes with a lot of luck, there are many people who visit Yellowstone and don't get a sighting and that's ok since the park has so much wildlife and nature wonders to offer. There are a few things we learned to do though to increase our luck of seeing a bear.
- Drive slowly in the park. You don't want to drive at the limit or anything near it! Seeing a bear in the woods while going at 40-45 mph is pretty impossible. Driving ar 20-25 gives you the chance to see better in the woods. If you do so let other people going faster to pass!
- When there are a few cars parked on the side road it often means they saw something. Don't be afraid of loosing 10 minutes for nothing if it will give you a chance to see a bear.
- Find out where the recent hunts happened. Usually the rangers pick up dead corpses to move the further inside the nature so that the bears or wolves don't approach the road. Well the smell keeps driving them to the area so there's a chance they return to the initial area.
- Talk with people with some photography equipment. Obviously don't harass them but there are people spending several days every year in the park to photograph bears so they know their whereabouts or where previous sightings happened. They will always be able to offer one or two tricks or tips!
- Drive around and then some more, and loop and back. And again and again! Really just driving around and searching can help. Do so in the areas where people usually see bears and you might be lucky enough!
- Avoid peak season! Bears don't love being around to people or cars! Peak season lower the chances of seeing a bear so if you can avoid it then better to do so!
From our tip list we make use of the number two for our first bear encounter. Possibly a grizzly bear with two cubs walking on the side of North canyon road. Sometimes they say first one is special and it really was. We were following the bears for nearly 15 minutes before they decided they had enough of people and moved further in the trees where nobody could see them. We kept our distance and were overly excited about what we were seeing. Unfortunately we failed almost or photos, some of them being out of focus, others being dark. We are not professional photographers so that wsa pretty evident!
A combination of 2, 3 and 5 led us to a pretty quick bear encounter a few turns before Tower Junction. The bear was pretty close to the road but rangers were in place already there and the bear being stressed left after we managed to see it for a minute or two!
We spent some time talking with a photographer after the last encounter and he told us where he saw yesterday a bear around the floating island lake after Tower Junction. After a few times passing by we saw a car that stopped by using their spotting scope and we stopped. Turns out a black bear was relaxing in the sun on a hill next to the lake. That was the only time we made use of our scope. Once again photographing the bear proved challenging since we didn't have a zoom lense.
This was our best encounter! Again near Tower Junction we saw several rangers stopping by and we stopped ourselves on a small hill. A black bear with two cabs found themselves on the other side of the road. We then descended to our car to try and pass by to photograph them while passing by and then again. On the last time we passed by something unimaginable happened. Rangers stopped us since they were trying to make the bear cross the other side of the road to go back to the mountains. We had no car in front us and we had the chance to see the bears walking around and crossing the road running in front us!
It was special, we were in 7th heaven and we just couldn't believe our luck. Even if our photograph skills failed us due to the overall excitement and unsureness on how to approach the situation we will always remember this moment!
We left Yellowstone being full of extraordinary memories. The combination of nature and wildlife was outstanding and we definitely believed that it was probably our preferred one. Every park in the US is special in its way and ranking them in our preferences was very hard and we bet it won't be the same for everybody!