It was a stunningly beautiful October afternoon when we drove through the West Gate. The blue sky was big, as only the Western sky can be. The sun was bright and the temperature hovered in the mid-50s.
But, the wind had a bite. It made a person want to secure an extra button or pull your hoodie up around your ears.
Experiencing Yellowstone’s winter grandeur
Two days later, the morning of October 4, we pulled back the curtains at Yellowstone’s Snow Lodge to see the world covered in a layer of snow. It was a dream come true.
The snow was just a couple inches deep, and would disappear from the lower elevations in a couple of days, but it was thick enough to give us a glimpse of Yellowstone’s winter grandeur — without the travel complications that a true winter snowfall brings.
For the next two days pine trees, even at lower elevations, were draped in the fluffy snow. Bison, which we saw in incredible number, carried the flaky stuff on their massive foreheads. And, although purely psychological, it made the mountain air seem even crisper, cleaner.
The snow was a fortunate byproduct of our accidental October excursion to America’s original national park. President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation in 1872 protecting the more than two million acres spread across Wyoming and Montana as a national park.
When the original plan goes awry
Our original plan had been to visit Niagara Falls. The entire trip was mapped out – lodging booked, itinerary finalized. Unfortunately, we overlooked one significant detail — both of our passports had expired — something we discovered in mid-September.
Scrapping plans for Niagara Falls was momentarily devastating. But, within a month we were celebrating our good fortune.
While moping at the kitchen table one evening I suggested Yellowstone. One of the most-visited national parks, booking rooms anywhere near Yellowstone seemed a remote possibility. Most of the park’s hotels close in early October.
But, as it turns out, visitation drops precipitously during October. Despite just two weeks lead time, we were able to book rooms inside the park for five of the six nights we were there. With 2 million acres to explore, that is a serious plus.
The first full day in the park was spent on a bus tour. Various tours are offered each day. Taking at least one tour is a major plus. The day-long trip provides an overview of the park, allowing visitors to make informed decisions as to where they’d like to return.
With so much to see, that is a vital cog in a successful trip.
Of course, most of the world travels to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful — the massive geyser that erupts roughly every hour. Old Faithful is certainly worth seeing, but if you spend significant time at the park if probably will take a back seat to a host of other memories.
The major road through Yellowstone forms a rough figure-eight. If you do nothing else but stick close to this 144-mile route you will see elk, bison, antelope, waterfalls, mud pots, sulfur cauldrons and stunning views of Yellowstone Lake.
But, you will also be depriving yourself of the amazing prairies found in the Lamar Valley or the snow-capped peaks of Grand Tetons National Park just 70 miles to the south.
Another word to the wise, don’t think you can cover ground quickly. A 15-mile drive in Southern Illinois can take 12 to 15 minutes. Time and traffic stand still in Yellowstone.
The roads are narrow and traffic moves slowly.
Nature and wildlife abound
One of the first lessons learned while visiting a national park is that cars pulled to the side of the road usually means one thing – wildlife. It’s always worth a stop. You never know what you might see — it could be buffalo, elk, bison, bear, moose, antelope, mountain goats, or as we learned, even a badger.
And, sometimes the traffic jams are caused by bison marching down the middle of the road. We were stopped in traffic for nearly 20 minutes near Gibbon Falls one afternoon when the parade of bison finally reached us. They passed so close to the car we could have reached out and grabbed their horns.
Traveling to the various parts of the park is a necessity to truly see Yellowstone. The physical features, thermal features and wildlife vary greatly in different areas of the park.
Most of the thermal features are located near the north shore of Yellowstone Lake.
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Viewing Grand Prismatic Spring is a must — getting a whiff of Sulphur Cauldron should be considered optional. We made the mistake of opening our car windows while driving by the Sulphur Cauldron, then spent the next couple hours worrying the odor would never dissipate.
Unfortunately, our first visit to Grand Prismatic Spring was a bust. It was rainy and overcast. While the intensely blue boiling water was clearly visible, the overcast sky muted the effect. And, a dense fog prevented us from seeing this spectacular hot spring in its entirety.
Our tour guide suggested we come back on a sunny day to get a better view. Best advice ever.
We were leaving the park four days later on a gorgeous Sunday morning. The entrance road to the spring was on our route. We decided to make time, which in turn, resulted in one of the best memories of the trip.
Stepping out of the car in the parking lot, I noticed something moving in my peripheral vision. Glancing at the hill about 150 yards in front of us, I noticed five wolves trotting through the grass. It was a seminal moment. It was the first time I had ever encountered a wolf in the wild.
We sat spellbound as the wolves trotted toward a stand of trees about 50 yards wide. We were just about to turn away as the wolves disappeared into the trees, but then several elk came bolting from the trees with the wolves in hot pursuit.
It was a scene I’d viewed repeatedly in documentaries, but to see it unfolding in real life was breathtaking.
As fate would have it, a pair of park rangers pulled into the parking lot in time to see the elk fleeing for their lives. The animals had crossed the path we intended to walk to get a view of the springs. We were assured it would be safe to walk the path. The wolves were more concerned about elk than us.
However, about three-quarters of a mile into the walk, a wolf topped a small rise only about 30 yards in front of us. The wolf either didn’t see us or care about us, but he trotted directly at us for several steps before loping away.
The elapsed time of that encounter is fuzzy, but it was both terrifying and exciting at the same time.
Visiting Lamar Valley
At the same time, don’t miss the Lamar Valley.
The Lamar Valley will be physically recognizable because the terrain is reminiscent of every Western ever filmed. The rolling hills, covered with grass and sage, hold massive herds of bison. We also spotted herds of elk, the occasional pronghorn and mule deer.
As we were leaving the valley, we encountered several cars pulled to the side of the road. Knowing there was wildlife nearby, we dutifully stopped. Scanning the horizon, we saw no large mammals.
We were about to drive off, thinking it was a false alarm when we looked to the side and saw a badger searching the grass for prey. It’s not something we expected to see, but it became a personal highlight of the trip.
The chance encounters with wildlife are one of the many charms of a Yellowstone visit.
Enjoying the wide river valley
On a trek to the Grand Tetons National Park, it was necessary to stop for gas. The Lewis River flows just across the road from the convenience store, so we decided to pull off the road for a few minutes to enjoy the view of the river valley.
Another spectacular decision — we spent the next 30 minutes watching a moose family, a male, female and two calves, walking toward and eventually crossing the river.
Of course, there are some wildlife sightings that are nearly as predictable as Old Faithful.
Spotting elk at Mammoth Hot Springs near the north entrance of the park is almost a given. The town was once a U.S. Army base and the military planted Kentucky bluegrass, apparently an elk delicacy, throughout the town. The animals walk leisurely about the town, happily posing for photos.
And, views of bighorn sheep are common on the mountainsides on the road leading to Gardiner, Montana, at the north end of the park. Gardiner is home to the iconic Roosevelt Gate.
Finally, if you get beat down by a week of tourism, you can bubble your aches and cares away by dipping in the Boiling River. Hot springs feed directly into the river, creating pockets of natural hot tubs.
A word to the wise, dip your toes in the water before taking a seat.