Ah, Yellowstone. For those of you who are unfortunate enough not to know of it, it’s kind of a big deal. The first national park in the world. Close to 3500 square miles in size. Boasting one of the largest high-elevation lakes in North America and centred over the largest supervolcano on the continent. Oh, and it has bucketloads of bison, elk, deer, grizzlies (we arrived in the park mere days after a park worker had been killed by one of these big fellas), wolves, and other things which are awesome and deadly at the same time. And we spent one glorious week there.
Entering the park from the northern entry point, we flashed our national park pass (being chronic park-goers by this point) and were through into nature’s playground. First stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, where we spent a little time in the cool historic village to buy copious amounts of ice cream, get fishing licences (each park rather inconveniently typically having it’s own fishing regulations), and observe tourists observing elk in a range of ridiculous fashions (us now also being chronic wildlife-observers, we were largely immune to large mammals wandering through human settlements by this point).
Suitably equipped with large ice creams to combat the blistering sun, we strolled through the famous hot springs, marvelling at the crazy shapes, colours and movements of the springs. The place was absolutely crawling with tourists, but the visit was well worth it.
Next, we took a leisurely cruise (and by this I mean a hellish climb over countless mountain passes in the Hunk o Junk) southward through the park, towards Tower Falls, our next notable visitor attraction. Here I’m going to pause and try to emphasise the sheer enormousness of the park. It’s bloody huge! The roads through it wind on forever, with mountains, forests, waterfalls, volcanoes, herds of bison and all sorts of other cool stuff dotted throughout. It was kind of surreal knowing you were in America, one of the most populated countries in the world, but also knowing there were 30 grizzlies, 200 wolves, 300 bison, 10 mountain ranges and 8 geysers between you and the nearest town (probably not too much over-exaggeration there, either).
Anyways, Tower Falls – a little bit smeh, on account of the fact that you can’t really see the falls very well from the viewpoint, and we’d seen so many cool waterfalls already on our trip that we didn’t even bat an eyelid at these ones. We went for a “stroll” down the hill (some serious elevation differentials in jandals/flip flops – not too enjoyable) to see if we could get closer to the falls, and it turned out we could not. So that was a waste of energy. But all was not lost – we dipped our feet in the Yellowstone River at the bottom of the hill, which was nice, and saw a cool birdie, which was also nice. Niceties all round.
Continuing our trip southwards, we somehow coerced the RV over it’s highest elevation yet via Dunraven Pass, sitting at an impressive 8859 feet. After allowing the RV some well-deserved cool down time, we sped downhill towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This was very grand indeed, and we spent a long time being bedazzled by the amazingness of the Lower Falls, which were particularly awesome considering the falls’ spray spread out over the inhospitable canyon below, leaving a lush green tinge to the otherwise yellow (surprise surprise) hue of the valley. Quite an excellent juxtaposition.
By this time, the day was waning and we had a date with Fishing Bridge RV Park. If I were to sum up this park in a word, it would be “shit”. If I were to sum it up in a few words, I would take what one lady said to me whilst shaking her head – “they pack you in like sardines, don’t they?” – and add “RVers packed like sardines into a can of shit”. That may be a little melodramatic, but the RV park was overpriced (I think around USD$55/night), way too crowded, and way too under-facilitated (there were only 3 showers which were supposed to serve not only this large park (340 sites, meaning probably upwards of 1000 people when full, due to the fact that the average RV holds at least one oversized family) but also the nearby Bridge Bay campground as well! Thats some serious line-waiting, or some serious pit-odour, if you chose not to wait in line, as we did).
Ok, back on to more positive things. The next day, we spent some quality time driving between Yellowstone Lake and Canyon Village. Here, we saw all sorts of cool stuff, including geysers, bubbling pools of noxious mud, a cave with a dragon in it(!), fumadores, hot springs, and bison. Lots of bison. These guys have the run of the place, and more often than not were causing traffic jams as they strolled nonchalantly along the road, until a point where a park ranger would step in and race through with sirens blaring and actually physically bump the bison off the road with their trucks! Pretty hilarious. The bison didn’t seem too phased by the ordeal though. Oh, and we also saw a lot of bison swimming across the river, which was cool to see.
Day three saw us getting up bright and early to bike over to Yellowstone Lake for a spot of early morning fishing. We cruised on over to the Pelican Creek outlet, making plenty of noise to “scare” away the many grizzlies which we were warned frequented the area. Here, as usual, the fishing was rubbish, but the views across the lake were pleasant and we saw lots of wildlife, including a pelican (uh huh), a coyote, a bald eagle, and a pair of sprightly kingfishers. Later that day saw us once again trekking into the park on a fishing errand, this time to Cascade Lake, a widely acclaimed fishing hotspot. The walk in was enjoyable, aside from the fact that we had to sidestep a stubborn bison blocking the trail (having earlier that day been entertained by various news stories of people being gored, trampled or thrown about by the very same beasts throughout the park). The fishing, unsurprisingly, was not so good, although I did finally manage to pull one of the native Cutthroat Trout out of the water with my fly rod, but failed to land it, so I guess that doesn’t count. In the wake of this failure, I suggested that we walk a further 2 miles to Grebe Lake, which I had visited a couple of days earlier and had much luck on my first fly-fishing skirmish (the lake positively teeming with hungry Rainbows and the native Arctic Graylings). This was something of a mistake, as it soon poured down, soaking us quite thoroughly, then it took a very long time to walk to the lake for some reason (the 2 miles may have been more “as the crow flies” than “as the man walks”), with Liivi looking and sounding more and more unimpressed with every clod of mud that she somehow managed smear all over her shoes and legs. By the time we got to Grebe Lake, we were hungry, thirsty, and it was windy. Not ideal conditions for fly fishing. Needless to say, we slept well that night.
The next day was earmarked for geysers, and we got our fair share of those. We drove from our overnight lodgings at Bridge Bay Campground (another shit, overpriced campground, as it turned out) towards Old Faithful via West Thumb. West Thumb was quite a nice “warmup” for the geyser mania surrounding Old Faithful, and it had an excellent array of gurgling, bubbling, fuming, spewing pools and fumadores, some of which were actually growing out of the bottom of Yellowstone Lake.
Then it was another 2-3 crossings of the cursed Continental Divide (this requiring the RV to chug up numerous mountain passes) and we were at Old Faithful, one of the most famous landmarks on the continent. This was also clearly the focal point of the park, as the parking lots stretched as far as the eye could see and yet there was little space to maneuver our great beast of an RV. We were initially quite unimpressed by the Old Faithful geyser itself, which was merely chuckling merrily away to itself as we walked past, but were quickly entertained by bucketloads of other geysers and hot pools surrounding the extensive pathways which wound through the volcanic basin. Eventually, we ascertained by means of listening in to other, more learned, peoples’ conversations that certain geysers, Old Faithful included, were on a schedule of sorts, and these “eruption” schedules were posted at the start of the trail, which we had somehow bypassed. But by following these same learned people around (at a sufficiently un-suspicious distance), we were able to view quite a few impressive geyser spewings. Finally, our energy spent, we trudged back towards the RV (in the meantime having to be ushered by park rangers around a belligerent pack of bison) and were rewarded with a coincidental eruption of Old Faithful itself, which was considerably more impressive than when we first saw it.
The next day was relatively uneventful, as we made our way up towards the Madison area of Yellowstone. We stopped off along the Yellowstone River at a couple of locations and had a fish, but were then forced to turn back to Fishing Bridge as our starter battery finally decided it was done with life. This was no great surprise, as since the starter issue in Golden it had been getting progressively worse, until a point where we were having to start it every time by opening the hood and connecting the jumper cables between the starter and house batteries in order for it to get enough juice to crank the engine.
Happily, the battery was replaced at Fishing Bridge auto repair with no dramas and a reasonable price (considering we were literally smack bang in the middle of a national park), and we were back on the road in a jiffy. Next stop was Canyon Village, where I stocked up with food and backcountry camping permits while Liivi used the overpriced wifi to write some articles. Having paid over $200 US for only four nights of primitive camping at the park so far, we were somewhat unwilling to fork out more mula for similarly crap accomodation somewhere else in the park. Thus I had devised a scheme to “plan” a backcountry trip, whereby you paid $3 per person for a backcountry campsite, watched a cheesy video about how to not get eaten by a bear, and were on your merry way. Naturally, Liivi and I had no inclination to actually camp at this site – we merely parked up at the agreed trailhead, placed our backcountry parking permit on the dash, closed all the curtains and hunkered down for the night in our cosy RV. An excellent cheapo solution for essentially the same camping experience as you would get at one of the park campgrounds.
Thus as dark approached, we found ourselves parked up at the Ice Lake trailhead parking area, and next morning went for a stroll around the lake to see if any fish were hungry. They weren’t. Unperturbed, we continued on around our route, enjoying the scenery and stopping off at the Madison River for a swim (which Liivi soon abandoned after we saw a small snake slithering through the water) and a spot of fly fishing. Following this, we stopped off at yet more impressive geothermal attractions, including the famous Grand Prismatic spring, and then settled down for the night at our second “backcountry” site.
By this point, I had been getting a trifle upset that we hadn’t used our fancy inflatable kayak in quite some time, so we devised a plan to kayak across Lewis Lake, up the Lewis River, and spend the night at Shoshone Lake. Paying a visit to the backcountry office in Grant Village, we were soon informed by the friendly elderly ranger couple that the winds along the lake were expected to be gale force that day, and then implored us to delay our trip until the morrow. Having been asked so nicely, we were inclined to acquiesce, paying for out boat and backcountry permits and spending the night at the rather pleasant Lewis Campground.
The next morning, we made ready for our expedition, cramming as much as we could into our packs and then trying to find suitable plastic bags to prevent them from drowning (in lieu of actual dry sacks, which we couldn’t locate at any of the stores within the park). Kayak inflated, we spent a hilarious half hour attempting to secure all our packs, airbed, food and water into the kayak – mission accomplished, however it was dangerously unstable and looked completely ridiculous.
Setting off, we were soon buffeted by strong headwinds, which was to be the norm for the entire journey. Being a 12 to 14 km journey with an inflatable tandem kayak loaded to the teeth, I’m sure you can imagine our lack of enthusiasm at the unfavourable winds. Nonetheless, we pressed on, and soon made it to the distant shores of Lewis Lake and tried to warm for leg two of the journey, which would see us paddling up the Lewis River towards Shoshone. Being Yellowstone, there was of course geothermal activity on the beach where we stopped, and I made the most of the steaming hot water by thawing my frozen hands in the slimy depths.
The kayak up Lewis River was enjoyable for the most part, with some excellent scenery and occasional respite from the wind. The pleasantness soon came to an end when we reached a the last two miles of the river – here, the river became too shallow and fast-flowing to paddle, and we had to drag the hefty kayak along the river and against the current. The kindly old man at the ranger station had warned us that we’d have to walk the kayak for a small section of the river, but I suspect he underestimated how lower the waters were at this time of year, and as such the “small section” ended up being a very large section, and it took us bloody ages to traipse up the river. Finally, after many dramas, cursing, and stubbed toes, we made it to the river inlet and Lake Shoshone, and limped (if such a thing can be achieved with a paddle) towards our backcountry site for the night.
Our site, fortunately, was pretty awesome, and boasted it’s own extensive beach, composting toilet (aka “The Throne”) and food prep area complete with a location for hoisting food-containing bags in the air to avoid bear ravaging. We set up the tent in a secluded little spot and proceeded to dry all of our wet gear on the beach. I went for a skinny dip in the lake (there was literally no-one around for miles, so why the heck not??), did some fishing, and then we just chilled.
That night was ridiculously cold, dropping to minus 3 degrees, so we spent most of it wide awake and shivering, listening to all manner of hoots, howls, growls, screams, and rustlings seemingly right outside our tent. Not the most pleasant of nights, but we made it through with all appendages intact. With the joyous rising of the sun, we ran around outside and tried unsuccessfully to warm up (it still being below freezing and us not having enough warm stuff to wear, as usual).
After finishing the remainder of our rather sad collection of food rations, we broke camp and made the long haul back to Lewis Lake, this time opting to carry the kayak and all our gear along the trail beside the river, rather than drag it through the water as we had done yesterday. This ended up being a mistake, and it was far more difficult to carry a 25 kg kayak, paddles, seats, bags, food, water fishing gear, and ourselves along the trail than it was to drag the kayak through the water. After nearly exhausting ourselves, we finally made it to deeper waters and paddled back along the river and across Lewis Lake, once again meeting strong headwinds. Upon arrival back at our launching point, we promptly collapsed on the shore and crawled to the RV, having unanimously agreed that we had thoroughly maximised Yellowstone and now needed to get the hell out of it.