The natural wonders and wildlife found in Yellowstone National Park are things nobody ever seems to see enough.
Driving north from Arizona one summer, my wife Elizabeth and I headed off on Interstate 15 through Utah, then Idaho. Our destination? Yellowstone National Park.
We’d made reservations in advance at the Yellowstone KOA (800-562-7591 / 406-646-7606) for four nights, as July and August are extremely busy. West Yellowstone has other campgrounds, but the KOA was a good base and only six miles west of the park’s entrance. It was also quite a large camp, able to accommodate big rigs as well as tents and camping cabins. The cabins are worth mentioning, since five are handicap-accessible; one even has a roll-in shower, propane heater, and an extra-wide parking area.
Approaching the park entrance we were stunned at the amount of traffic going in. There is a fee of $25 a vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, and $10 Senior Pass (age 62+). People with disabilities have free entry with a Golden Access card obtainable at the gate.
Entering the park we drove east on Highway 20, along the Madison River, turning south at the junction of Highway 89 toward Old Faithful. Not much later, south traffic came to a stop as visitors spotted a bald eagle perched in its nest atop a tall lodge pole pine. It was amazing that folks could even see the baldy, as the day was so overcast.
The drive south along the Firehole River was an unbelievable first day. Every now and then, you could see an angler in the river, fly casting for cutthroat trout. You can still see some of the effects of the great fire of 1988, but the regeneration of the forest is amazing. Meadows were lush with grass and wildflowers, making the upper, mid, and lower geyser area a perfect home for some of the bison, elk, and other wildlife that visit the abundant hot springs.
We took the Firehole Lake drive, got out of the van, took the boardwalk, and got our first view of Firehole Spring. Steam rose into the air; the water was so clear and blue, yet the heat emanating from the spring felt good on my face. The water is about 158° and contains high levels of carbon dioxide that allow the water to carry more calcium to the surface, creating the beautiful travertine terraces and pearl-like deposits (sinter) around features like Great Fountain Geyser that we see today. This loop is only 8 miles north of Old Faithful, and, while not as well known, really shouldn’t be missed.
We arrived at Old Faithful around 1:15 p.m., bypassing Biscuit Basin, which we would visit another day. The geyser was predicted to erupt in 45 minutes, give or take 10 minutes either way, and we wanted to be there.
While in the Visitor’s Center, we learned a little of how a geyser operates. Next was a walk along the boardwalk for a good spot to see the eruption. We found ourselves cheering and clapping at this geologic wonder, as countless others before us had.
We drove east, through Craig’s Pass, crossing the Continental Divide. The views were stunning as the road now took us northeast, along Yellowstone Lake, where we pulled over onto one of the many turnouts to eat our packed lunch. The lake lies within the caldera (crater) formed by a volcano, carved and filled by glaciers around 14,000 years ago. It was a privilege to drive past meadows of grazing bison on one side of the road and the beautiful blue of the lake and waterfowl on the other.
The next stop on our list was Mud Volcano. From the parking lot we took a short boardwalk trail and came upon a mud pot. Mud pots are hot springs, only with less water. Farther up the trail we came to Mud Volcano, where we read the interpretive panel for the history of this feature. In 1870, explorers watched as the volcano spewed mud high into the treetops, and reported a pool of muddy bubbling water. The volcano blew itself apart two years later.
We next came to Dragon Mouth Spring, fed by acidic water surging from a large cave. A great rumble and roar emanating from the cave was caused by gases and steam exploding through the water. Combined with the steady flow of steam, you could imagine a dragon preparing to exit the cave.
After visiting Sulphur Cauldron (just across the road), we were ready to head back to camp. There was a slight delay, when a herd of bison took their time crossing the highway. We also stopped for a look at Upper and Lower Falls along the river. Due to steps, Elizabeth walked down to the overlook and took lovely shots of a rainbow spanning the river. The roar of the rushing water was incredible!
Turning left at Canyon Village and traveling west along the Gibbon and Madison rivers, our drive home was just as pretty as it had been all day.
On our second day at Yellowstone, we turned left at the 89 Junction, going north and climbing in altitude. Where on the day before the attractions were mostly geothermal, today’s drive would be through a more subalpine environment. If we were lucky enough to see a wolf or bear, this would be the country.
Only a couple of miles before Beryl Spring, we stopped to take pictures of a herd of mountain goats. Not having anyone behind us allowed a rare chance to spend a full 90 seconds for photos and just enjoy watching these animals, posing on rocky crags and surveying their vast domain.
We never seemed to tire of seeing hot springs, and Beryl Spring was the most crystal clear, aquamarine blue I’d ever seen, with a cave above spewing forth a constant flow of steam. While not a roar as what came from Dragon Mouth, Beryl was every bit as lovely and unique.
Reaching Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, we took another accessible boardwalk to the springs. We stayed on the lower terrace, staring in awe at the colorful travertine saturated in calcium carbonate, resulting in the haunting beauty of the formation known as Minerva Terrace with sparsely scattered limber pines.
We hit the road again, stopping for a quick photo and look at Wraith Falls, and driving east along the Blacktail Deer Plateau to our next stop, Tower Fall. The waterfall was formed by Tower Creek and would eventually flow into the Yellowstone River, a section of which we’d seen the day before. It was getting late, and it was time to head back to camp.
Our third day was perfect: blue sky, little clouds, and wind. We decided to head for Old Faithful again, with a short stop at Biscuit Basin. We soon learned there is no such thing as a short stop there.
The area got its name for the biscuit-like calcium deposits that once lined the edge of Sapphire’s crater. In the 1880s it received its name for its knobby formations, many of which were broken or dislodged during an earthquake in 1959.
Sapphire Pool is the main attraction of the geothermal features of Biscuit Basin, its water gently flowing into the Firehole River, running alongside the pool and the highway. Other geothermal features along the boardwalk were Shell Geyser, which has a golden-lined crater, and Jewel Geyser.
My favorite site was Jewel Geyser, which on that August day erupted every 7–12 minutes, each one lasting less than a minute. First we heard a rumble, then a rush of steam was followed by a 10-second spout of water, maybe 12 feet in height. Too cool!
We arrived at Old Faithful again with an hour’s wait until the anticipated eruption. As we walked around the geyser, it was fun seeing the various mud pots and hot springs surrounding the main attraction. It was a good idea to get our spots early. Just before the moment of eruption, all seating and available space was taken. The wind still blew, and we were again misted by the sulphur-scented water. But the event was just as thrilling as the first.
Making our way back to camp, we thought about everything we’d seen the past three days, from long photo-op gazes at bison, bull moose, and mountain goats to snatched glimpses of elk, osprey, and trumpeter swans. It would take a lot more than three days to see and appreciate everything here.
Established in 1872 as the first national park, Yellowstone is an adventure accessible to most. The park also has camping, operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, for RVs; some sites are handicap-accessible. For information, go to www.nps.gov or contact Xanterra at 866-GEYSERLAND (439-7375 / 307-344-7311.
We hope you have the opportunity to see this scenic wonder and enjoy it as much as we did. And if you visit Yellowstone during the summer season, the KOA serves an awesome flat iron steak!