Monday, September 6, 2021

Plan an awe-inspiring trip to the stunning Yellowstone National Park

After 6 months largely stuck at home because of COVID19, I needed some space in a big way. So we decided to take advantage of the relative flexibility of digital learning and remote work and head westward for two weeks of work and play. 

We planned this very quickly and with all of the pandemic restrictions in mind, and it turned out absolutely perfect. Glorious scenery, amazing daily hikes, and a great home base for a week of remote working. I cannot recommend Yellowstone and Grand Teton enough. I am not exaggerating to say that in a very difficult time, it was good for the soul to be somewhere filled with so much natural beauty.

Adventurous Tastes| A river and fall colors at Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park in fall

When considering where to stay in the Yellowstone area, your choices are staying in the actual park, West Yellowstone (west of park) or Gardiner (north of the park). Alas, there appears to be no such thing as a nice hotel near Yellowstone, so no matter what you're stuck spending more than you expect for a 2-star kind of hotel experience. Staying on property has a major convenience factor but properties book up way in advance (as much as a year from what I read) and prices are very high for generally pretty mediocre accommodations. West Yellowstone is a more bustling town with more restaurant and hotel options, so we opted for 3 nights there and 2 in Gardiner. The park is huge, so you'll want to move around if you want to avoid super long driving times. 

We opted for the Best Western Dessert Inn on the West Yellowstone side and the Wyndham on the Gardiner side because they were reasonably priced, well located near the park, and most importantly had kitchenettes which let us eat more meals in our room. I'd describe the hotels as good enough. They're not as nice as what I'd book for myself in most cities (there isn't anything as nice as even your local Marriott) but the beds were comfortable and the rooms were clean. Both came with free breakfast, served in a COVID-safe way, which was a nice bonus.

Yellowstone Itinerary

Day 1: Bozeman, drive to West Yellowstone. Stay: Best Western Desert Inn, West Yellowstone, MT

Day 2: Yellowstone National Park, Stay: Best Western Desert Inn, West Yellowstone, MT

Day 3: Yellowstone National Park, Stay: Best Western Desert Inn. West Yellowstone, MT

Day 4: Yellowstone National Park, Stay: Wyndham Gardiner, Gardiner, MT

Day 5: Yellowstone National Park, Stay: Wyndham Gardiner, Gardiner, MT

Day 6: We continued on for another week in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton, and I'll cover that in another post!

Read after the jump for the day-by-day details including recommended hikes!

Daily Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park

Adventurous Tastes| Bison blocks traffic at Yellowstone
Bison jams are a real thing! 

Day 1: Bozeman, drive to West Yellowstone 

Stay: Best Western Desert Inn, West Yellowstone, MT

Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room, COVID. We thought about doing this as a road trip, but ultimately flying felt safer and way easier than spending 2 days on the road each way. We chose Delta because their policies included mandated masks and no middle seats. We traveled with a big bottle of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, and our masks, and the flight felt safe if not normal. Would I go right back to flying as much as I used to? No. Nor would I feel comfortable flying on one of the airlines with laxer rules, but for this once in a lifetime chance to spend two weeks in Montana and Wyoming, it felt worth it. 

Late September/early October felt like a perfect time to see the park. The summer hoards were gone, and although there's not a lot of variety in fall foliage, the yellow aspens and golden fields made for some great photos. It was crowded enough, with full parking lots and traffic jams near the most popular sites, that I can't imagine wanting to be there during high season. For me the point was space, so being crammed up against others fighting for a view would be the opposite of what I came for.

Before we left Bozeman we stopped off at Walmart to pick up our pre-ordered bear spray (a must for hiking in Yellowstone and cheaper to just buy vs. rent) as well as spray cleaner that we used to clean all surfaces in each place we stayed. Next, we made an oh so necessary stop at Mountains Walking Brewery A selection of their excellent beers was our companion for the rest of our trip and was well worth the quick detour. Twisted Karma and Sweets Blackberry were both delicious!

Traffic was blocked for what seemed like an eternity by road work so we got into West Yellowstone much later than anticipated. I don't know if this is the norm or just random chance, but we had to wait a full 45 minutes for the construction sign to let our side of the road go only to get stopped again a couple miles down the road for another half hour. Ugh!

We finally checked into our hotel and grabbed tacos from Las Palmitas, a school bus that dishes out solid Mexican food. There was a long wait for food which gave us time to head back to our room for jackets. The temperature drops off quickly when the sun goes down!

Day 2: Yellowstone National Park (9/24)

Stay: Best Western Desert Inn, West Yellowstone, MT

My number one tip for these parks is to invest in the GyPSy Guide app. There is no cell service in the park, so you can forget looking up maps or details on the fly. This app is like having a personal tour guide with you, and it just so happens to be a dead ringer for Jeff Bridges (so much so that we were convinced it was him, but my post-trip google sleuthing indicates it was not). It uses GPS tracking to chime in with recommended stops and tons of history and science as you drive through the park and led to us finding lots of sites we wouldn't have considered otherwise.

My second most important tip is if you see a bunch of people pulled over, then there's a good chance there's something cool to see. I've never seen so much high end camera equipment, and these guys know how to find the cool stuff, so go where they go. On our drive into the park, we saw tons of people stopped on the side of the road and asked them what was going on. There was a bear with his recent elk kill on the other side of the river, and although we opted not to stop since the nearest parking was so far away, we managed to catch a quick glimpse of the bear. 

Adventurous Tastes| Herd of buffalo grazing in Hayden Valley at Yellowstone
A herd of buffalo grazes in Hayden Valley

Animals are at their most active at dawn and dusk, and for east coasters like us, it was easier to start early. Hayden Valley is in the middle of the park so you're looking at an hour drive even from the closer West Yellowstone side. So we set off in the dark with coffee and muffins from our hotel and wow did it ever pay off. We arrive just before sunrise to see an enormous herd of bison spread out across the valley. It was awe inspiring and so gorgeous for photo purposes to see so many of these imposing creatures in such gorgeous morning light. A photographer's heaven! Take a photo tour with a local expert to ensure you know all the best animal-spotting locations. 

To get to Hayden Valley we had passed by the famous Upper Falls, so we doubled back and opted for the 3.8 mile hike to the falls. You can drive to the falls viewpoints if you prefer, but the hike was relatively easy and gave us multiple vantage points for the Upper Falls and Lower Falls, and afterwards. we headed nearby to the stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Artist Point. This is a must-see area of the park!

Adventurous Tastes | Waterfall, river and canyon at Artist Point in Yellowstone
Yellowstone's Artist Point

We checked out lunch at one of the park dining areas and were pleasantly surprised with the quality of our steak stirfry and bison meatloaf. On subsequent days we opted to pack our lunch with provisions picked up at the local grocery stores, so we could eat wherever and whenever the mood struck. The park is big, so sometimes dining can be quite far away. 

We found a random pull off that was chock full of elk and stopped to take some pictures. We got incredibly lucky to have such a close view of a bull elk with a huge rack of horns, and it was almost like he posed for us! This was our first day, so we were psyched to see elk, but turns out they're quite prevalent so by the end of the trip elk elicited more of a "whatever" response. There's nothing like the first time!

Elk bull with large horns at Yellowstone National Park
An elk poses for us at Yellowstone

On the drive back towards our hotel, we were able to check Norris Geyser Basin off our list. The park is chock full of geysers and other geologic features. This 2.9 loop trail is not hiking so much as just a long walk on an elevated path that keeps you from falling into boiling hot water. Norris made for an perfect introduction to Yellowstone's many unique geologic features with steam rising from the earth and brightly colored pools. They look so inviting, but don't go too close as people have died falling into these super heated pools!

Adventurous Tastes | Blue hot spring pool at Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone
Norris Geyser Basin at Yellowstone

By this point, we were totally beat even thought it wasn't that late in the day. We headed back for some rest and dinner in our room. We picked up groceries at one of the stores in town and surprisingly good pizza from Wild West Pizzeria. After so much hiking, we were starved, and it went down very easy with a Mountains Walking beer!

Day 3: Yellowstone National Park 

Stay: Best Western Desert Inn. West Yellowstone, MT

We headed back into the park to check out another very famous spot - Grand Prismatic Springs and the Midway Geyser Basin. From the basin you can get up close to the amazing multicolored Grand Prismatic Springs but with the wind blowing, you're mostly seeing steam. The real view is from above, so park at the Fairy Falls Trailhead and hike up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. This isn't a particularly long walk but it is uphill. 

Adventurous Tastes| Brightly colored Grand Pristmatic Springs at Yellowstone
Yellowstone's famous Grand Prismatic Springs

We continued on the Fairy Falls path to see the falls themselves. This was one of our least favorite hikes because the majority of it was through pretty boring woods. But the payoff of a lovely waterfall was worthwhile. It's not a must, but if you have plenty of time like we did, it's not a good post-Grand Prismatic option and is easy enough for little kids.

Adventurous Tastes | Man and woman in front of Fairy Falls waterfall in Yellowstone
Fairy Falls - the payoff at the end of a boring hike!

From here we continued down into the upper geyser basin and the park's most famous stop - Old Faithful. By this point it had turned cold so we made our way around all of the geysers pretty quickly. Old Geyser is predictable enough that the park publishes an anticipated eruption time, so you should definitely check when you have cell service to make sure you time your visit appropriately. 

For many people, Old Faithful is the thing to see at Yellowstone, but I am of the controversial opinion that it is overrated. In fairness, I've seen a pretty cool geyser in Iceland before, so maybe it's that it doesn't hold once-in-a-lifetime appeal for me. But even with the schedule, we waited ages, and it was cool to see it erupt but nothing in comparison to seeing a herd of bison or a pack of wolves.

There are two main seating areas to view Old Faithful, and for whatever reason nearly everyone was packed into the one to the right. I didn't feel like being in a crowd given the COVID situation so we sat in the must sparser left seating area, and we could see just as well.

Day 4: Yellowstone National Park

Stay: Wyndham Gardiner, Gardiner, MT

On day 4 we changed hotels to one in Gardiner, near the northern entrance to the park, so we could be closer to the parts of the park we hadn't seen yet. First up for the day, another must-see, Mammoth Hot Springs! This otherworldly thermal area is unlike any other in the park due to it's unusual travertine formations. It's an easy 1.75 mile walk around the upper and lower terraces.

Adventurous Tastes| White travertine formations at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone
The otherworldly Mammoth Hot Springs

For our daily hike, we chose the Yellowstone River Picnic Area, a 3.9 loop trail. It has a gentle rise to a high vantage point with a beautiful view of both river and canyon. One note is that it was very windy on the day we went, so definitely hold on to anything not connected to your body! 

Adventurous Tastes| Man hiking Yellowstone River Picnic Area
Hiking the Yellowstone River Picnic Area

For dinner that night we checked out the popular Gardiner restaurant, The Corral for elk burgers. The burgers were a bit too dry for my taste, so not my fave dinner of the trip.

Day 5: Yellowstone National Park

Stay: Wyndham Gardiner, Gardiner, MT

Another crack of dawn start today so we could head deep into the park to the must-see Lamar Valley, known as America's Serengeti. We didn't have as much luck here as we did at Hayden but we still had a pretty epic animal viewing experience. We saw an entire pack of a wolves, making a beeline for a lone bison bull. Turns out that even a 20-wolf strong pack doesn't want to take on one of these big guys, so after some tentative sniffing, they let him be. The wolves were quite far off so no great pics of this but some of the people near us with amazing spotting scopes let us take a peek. Wolves were one of the animals I most hoped to see, so I was thrilled to check them off my list.

By this point, we felt like we'd seen most of the park, so we took a detour out of it to drive Bear's Tooth Highway, an extremely scenic drive into the mountains complete with hairpin turns and even some snow. We followed this drive until the road was unexpectedly closed and reached our highest point of our trip - almost 10,000 feet. I've since read harrowing articles about how the weather can turn frightening on this drive, so I am thrilled that we got to check it out without once fearing for our lives. 

Adventurous Tastes| Scenic mountain view from Bear's Tooth Highway
Not a bad view from Bear's Tooth Highway in Montana

That afternoon we set off on our favorite hike of our Yellowstone visit - Slough Creek Trail. I couldn't have predicted from what I'd read about this path that it would be such a delight, so it's a true hidden gem. It's a 20 mile out and back, so we just walked until we felt like turning around. Probably about 5 miles round trip for our journey. We saw almost no one on the whole hike, and the golden fields, yellow aspens and views of the mountains were incredible. There was a moment on the trail when there was complete silence, something I never experience in normal life, and it was bliss!

Adventurous Tastes| Golden fields, mountains and blue skies on Slough Creek trail in Yellowstone
The gorgeous view from Yellowstone's Slough Creek trail

We capped off a great day with delicious elk chili and Western sour cherry cider on the patio at Wonderland Cafe. This was my favorite meal in the Yellowstone area, so don't miss it!

Adventurous Tastes | Bowl of elk chili and glass of cider

Day 6: Yellowstone and Grand Teton while driving from Gardiner to Jackson, WY

On day 6, we packed up to head to Jackson Hole. We took the scenic route through both Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks to get there so it made for a great drive. This gave us a chance to check out the one last major area we'd missed, Yellowstone Lake and the West Thumb Geyser Basin. I wouldn't call this a must-see but it's photogenic and was worth a quick stop on the way south out of the park.

Adventurous Tastes| Bright blue hot spring in Yellowstone's West Thumb Geyser Basin
Gorgeous blue hot spring in West Thumb Geyser Basin

I'll save the Grand Teton sites from that day for another post, but suffice it to say it's incredible and a must-do if you're already in the area for Yellowstone.

Odds and ends

  • I was very pleasantly surprised by Yellowstone bathrooms. They were plentiful all around the park, remarkably clean and included always full containers of hand sanitizer.
  • We generally felt very safe around Yellowstone with regards to COVID. We kept our masks with us at all times and pulled them on whenever we were going to pass people on a trail.
  • Stuff does start closing as you head into fall so not every activity, rest stop or trail was open, but there was more than enough to do in September and early October. 
  • Check NPS site for closures and warnings. We were there when the Lone Star fire was burning so some trails were closed. Other areas close due to bear or other wildlife activity. I hadn't really considered the impact of fires until about a week before our trip. One warning is that all the west coast fires could have, but thank goodness didn't ruined my trip. Check out IQAir if you're concerned about air quality.
  • I was definitely scared of encountering a bear during our trip and was very glad to only see one from afar. Don't forget your bear spray and make sure you know how to use it.
  • I was hoping to see a moose in the park but I heard from a local that most of them migrated to Grand Teton after the last big fires. So we didn't luck out and see moose until we got there. But we managed to spot a bear, wolves, a fox, deer, and more elk than you can shake a stick at. Oddly missing were birds of pray. I saw an eagle from a distance but the skies were generally devoid of interesting birds.
  • Park entry is $35 for a one week pass and covers just Yellowstone (not nearby Grand Teton). Definitely invest in an America the Beautiful Pass which works for one-year at any national park instead. We bought our pass from REI for just $80 and it has more than paid for itself.
Adventurous Tastes | Guided to Yellowstone text over image of an elk in a field

Happy travels!

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