Happy Fourth of July! Today seemed a very appropriate day to post Part One of a two part post about America’s first national park, Yellowstone.
This trip began a week ago when my parents and I flew to Bozeman with plans to see Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons before heading over to Billings for a wedding over the weekend. This was particularly exciting for me because as some of you know, I have nine states left that I haven’t been to and I was going to knock three of them out on this trip (Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho).
Anyway, we got into Bozeman around 11AM local time and headed off in search of food. I don’t know about you but when I think of Montana, I think of beef and dang it, we needed beef! We quickly found a cute place called Burger Bob’s that claimed to have some seriously good burgers (and apparently various Food Network and Travel Channel shows think so too!). It looked like a hole in the wall (my favorite type of establishment!) and felt like a diner in a small town. Which I suppose is appropriate since it IS a diner in a small town. I ordered the What Comes First Bob (burger with bacon, cheese, and a fried egg) with tater tots and it was wonderful! The burger was simple and delicious. At around $12 a meal it was reasonable too. While I didn’t think it was quite of a caliber to be featured on national food shows, it was still great and definitely worth a stop.
From lunch we headed toward Yellowstone where we planned to spend a few hours before heading out to the cabin we had rented for the night, just outside of West Yellowstone and just into Idaho (yay new state!). A beautiful mountainous drive took us into the North entrance of Yellowstone. I’ve heard so many people say it and I’m going to say it too – Yellowstone is HUGE. One does not simply Go To Yellowstone. One must plan what one wants to see in Yellowstone and consult a map to make sure you’re not driving around aimlessly in its almost 3,500 square miles looking for a geyser. One must also account for road construction within the park and “animal jams,” which are just as they sound – traffic jams caused by animals. Let me just spare you the suspense now – animal jams are REAL. We’ll discuss a bit later…
We had this day and the following day in Yellowstone, so we decided that on our shortened first day, we would visit Mammoth Hot Springs and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We entered the park at the North entrance and were immediately greeted by about a dozen elk, just standing along the side of the road. As we made our way into the park, it quickly became apparent why this area is protected… the landscape is stunning and there is wildlife roaming free everywhere. It was remarkable to see how varying the landscapes were in Yellowstone – you might be looking at the face of a mountain one minute and gazing at a fast-flowing river the next. Not to mention the hot springs and geysers that dot the landscape.
We arrived at the Mammoth Hot Springs visitor area and were immediately met by three elk (two adults and a baby) who were grazing in the area directly in front of our parking spot. As soon as we got out of the car, a ranger barked at us to get back, which startled us since we were literally just getting out of the car. We heeded the warning and stepped back a few feet and were able to get some great pictures of the cute elk. Wildlife is no joke in Yellowstone – it can get really close and you should always listen to the rangers and to warnings about getting too close to the animals. They are large and wild, so enjoy them from a distance! I was particularly excited to see bison in the wild and was hopeful after seeing all of the elk that we would be treated to a herd of bison at some point. Remember that I said that. Ugh.
After a pit stop in the Albright Visitor Center, we hopped in the car and started the drive through the Mammoth Hot Springs area, which is full of turnouts where you can park and walk on paths to see the features. I admit I don’t fully understand the differences between a terrace and hot springs and mudpots and fumaroles, but these geothermal features are really cool to see in person. Just be sure you stay on the designated boardwalks because it’s a fragile area, not to mention hot!
From Mammoth Hot Springs, we headed toward the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. As someone who believes that the actual Grand Canyon in Arizona is the most spectacular place on earth, I was a bit skeptical about Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. As you can imagine, Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon definitely pales in comparison to the actual Grand Canyon BUT, it was beautiful nonetheless. There are two large waterfalls (Upper and Lower) and numerous turnouts where you can pull over for stunning views. Unfortunately it was still too mountainous for spotting any bison.
After the Grand Canyon, we decided to head toward the West park entrance/exit because our accommodations for the evening were about 20 miles outside of the West entrance and we were tired from a long day of traveling and exploring. We hopped in the car and since we were going to be driving through relatively flat areas on the way out, I was again hopeful we would spot some bison. We started out around 7:15PM from the Grand Canyon. After about 15 minutes of driving, we came to a slowdown, which wasn’t surprising since there was considerable construction happening on the roads in the park and we’d been warned about the animal jams where large wildlife might be crossing the road and causing delays. I took advantage of the opportunity and took some photos of the surrounding scenery.
After about 15 minutes of not moving at all, we were starting to get antsy, as were other people in the line of traffic. Not many cars seemed to be coming from the other direction and people were starting to get out of their cars and walk up the line of traffic to see if anyone knew what was going on. Ah, those poor souls… little did we all know how long we would be in this line.
I was hoping for an animal jam which we’d be able to pass in a few minutes so I’d finally see my herd of my beloved bison. This notion, however, was not to be. Every 10 minutes or so, we’d crawl along for what felt like maybe 50 yards. Passengers who had gotten out of their cars to walk toward the front of the line had long passed us up and every once in a while there would be a quarter or half mile of movement and we’d pass the people on foot only to be lapped by them again in a matter of minutes. By now it had been about an hour stuck in this line. With no cell service, there was no way to check the road status or find out how far away we were from the exit. With limited radio reception, we had intermittent bursts of classical music and 90s pop between numbing periods of static.
By around 8:30PM, a few cars coming from the other direction had stopped and were speaking with some of the people on foot and drivers in the cars ahead of us. The pedestrians brought word to cars up and down the line that a herd of bison up ahead were causing the delay. Hooray! There was still enough light out that I figured we’d surely be able to see this herd as we inched past. What we should have asked these passing drivers was how far ahead the bison were…
Cut to 9:47 and we are still.in.line. We were all hungry and had already raided the bag of snacks from the airplane. Our water supply was low, which was probably a blessing since there was little to no chance of coming across a restroom. Patience was dwindling. Eyes were struggling to stay open. Morale was low. Came upon this sign that said “No Stopping Next 1 Mile,” which brought about a brief laugh until we quickly realized it wasn’t funny. By this time, it was dark enough that even if there were bison nearby, we wouldn’t be able to see them.
10:30 PM. We are still in line. My mom is asleep in the backseat. My dad is in the front seat, trying to stay awake for moral support while I drive but I can see he is out of steam. Within minutes, I am the sole awake occupant of our vehicle with nothing but radio static, a full bladder, and a rumbling stomach to keep me company. And the occasional person walking along the side of the road, trying in vain to get to the front of the line.
11:30. We have gone exactly 10 miles in 4 hours. My mom has woken up and is none too pleased to discover we are still in the car and are still at a standstill. All of the sudden, the cars start moving and we get up to 30 MPH and I can scarcely believe we are moving so quickly! I don’t want to get my hopes up yet, but then we climb to 40 MPH and suddenly the road is clear as can be! Of course it’s pitch black so if there was in fact a herd of bison near the road, we had no chance of seeing them. We figured there must have been an accident or construction or something else because it seemed highly unlikely that a herd of buffalo was hanging out in the middle of the road for four hours. But we saw no signs of an accident, no signs of construction, no signs of anything as we headed toward the West Entrance. We were too tired and hungry to care anymore and headed toward our cabin in Island Park, Idaho for the night and would try to tackle Yellowstone again the next day…