After seeing the BBC documentaries (there are several) on Yellowstone, this park had been very high on my list. But… I was not the only one who had the park on his list. Summer has always been busy here. But it seems that since Covid a lot of people in the US to the ‘great outdoors. So now some parks are really being overrun during the holidays. We were there in the second part of September and had hoped that things would have calmed down a bit. But from other travelers, that it was still “horribly busy”: no camp spots, traffic jams for hours, no parking, fighting for pictures… We were bracing ourselves for the ‘worst’ and started working on a plan. In the end it was even better than expected.
Our plan of attack was to be in the park at sunrise and explore until 9 o’clock (when the crowds arrived) and then we took a break, went for a hike or did some homeschooling. At noon when everyone went for lunch we would move to the next place where we stayed until about 4 pm and while everybody was leaving the park we would go visit one more place. It worked very well. The only real traffic jam we had was a pretty interesting one. We came from viewing sunset at Grand Prismatic Spring and it was dark already when we ended up in a jam. we thought it was because of bison crossing the road but all of a sudden we saw a big herd of bison walking towards us. They were being chased by traffic coming from the other side and the closer they came the faster they were moving. By the time they got to our van, it was a reall ‘stampede’. Very impressive but after seeing the educational movies about their power, it was scary too (they can do a lot of damage to a vehicle)! Unlike most other vehicles we had turned off the motor but what we did not think of was that this also turned off the headlights. So the bisons thought there was a gap in the line of vehicles and tried to get through. So at some point our van was completely surrounded by bisons that came storming on. Somehow, they all managed to avoid hitting us.
We tackled the west side of Yellowstone first. This part of the park is dominated by all kind of volcanic activity. Mammoth Hot Springs was the first stop. The white limestone cliffs look like some kind of frozen rock waterfall created by the hot water that is bubbling up all around. The landscape here changes all the time as hot springs dry up and pop up somewhere else. Mammoth Springs was also the area where we met the ‘superstar’ Elk from the park educational videos. The park has many videos with incidents of bison and elk charging people and car. And our friend (the most dominant male of the area) was in quite a couple of those. Our visit coincided with the ‘rut season’(end of September) for the elk. The rut is the 2-3 weeks when they are looking for females to mate. This is also when they are most aggressive as they have fight for the ‘ladies’. The morning we were there he had a stare down with a younger challenger but the latter had retreated without clashing. But our bull elk was still really ‘pumped up’ and was bugling (a sound they make to show off their strength and willingness to fight) the whole time. The rangers were on full alert as hundreds of tourists and an aggressive bull elk really don’t mix well. People were being herded together by the rangers whenever the bull made a move. It’s crazy to see how some people really can’t listen to instructions and seem to forget all about their safety just to get a cool picture. People were creeping closer on one of the viewing platforms and, as was to be expected, the bull charged the platform, just missing the photographers.
After a nice morning hike to Bunsen peak we drove on to the next type of volcanic activity: the geysers of Norris Basin where we not only witnessed all kind of geysers but also learned about the biggest geyser in the USA: “Steamboat”. It used to only erupt about once a year but since an earthquake some time ago it erupts multiple times per year. There was some minor activity while we were there but unfortunately it did not erupt while we were there. Or maybe we were fortunate that it did not erupt as the eruptions that go up to 100m high usually destroy the windows and paint of half the cars in the parking lot.
We learned that it is not dangerous to walk in/through the spray of a geyser. The temperature of the water cools down in a fraction of a second and it is not acid either. It does contain a lot of sticky clay like deposits so it is best to shower afterwards. And for the cars it can require a new paintjob as it seems very hard to wash it off…
The next day we visited a number of other geysers among which Old Faithfull that has been erupting very ‘faithfully’ every 90 minutes for as long as people remember. As such it is the perfect geyser for the travel books/tours but we found it a bit underwhelming. It’s neighbours ‘the bee hive’ and ‘the castle’ have eruptions that are much le
ss predictable/frequent but much more impressive.
Before leaving the ‘volcanic area’ of Yellowstone, we still had to visit the probably most iconic feauture of Yellowstone: Grand Prismatic Spring. And even though the light conditions were fare from ideal when we visited the colors were still mesmerizing. Especially when we observed it from a hill in the distance. When we walked next to it, we only caught glimpses as the steam was so dense.
Before going to the East side of Yellowstone, we went further South into the adjacent Teton National Park which we had heard a lot about but turned out even better than expected.