Lamar Valley and Grand Canyon

Friday night, it rained. It rained and rained and rained. And then it rained some more. I’m pretty sure there was also some hail mixed into it all. We were very grateful for our snug trailer. The kids also survived the night in their tent covered with an EZ up. Aaron had picked a good place for the tent, and it avoided the puddles that formed in other parts of the site. But it was very, very wet and cold.

We had heard that the place to see wildlife in Yellowstone was in a section of the park called Lamar Valley and that the best time to see them was before 9am or after 6pm. Since Lamar Valley was about 90 minutes from our campground, we woke up really early (Des and Auggie stayed in their PJs) and took off before 7. The nice thing about being out and about at that hour? There weren’t many people around.

So we got to pull over and enjoy the overlooks such as this one. Looks fake, right?

I also really like their “don’t fall over the cliff, stupid” signs.

See if you can spot the three bison in this photo. There were a lot of herds of them in Lamar Valley, but most of them you need some pretty strong binoculars to see.

Here’s another larger herd.

As we were watching another large herd in the distance through some binoculars, we noticed some other smaller animals mixed in with the bison. They were much lighter in color and ran around as quickly and agility as rabbits. I almost thought they were wolves at one point except that the bison were utterly unconcerned, and then I thought I glimpsed horns and long legs (the binoculars were not very high powered). Meanwhile, this guy snuck up on us. This is a closeup; he wasn’t actually this close to us, but still much more identifiable. Consulting our list of common Yellowstone animals, we figured out he was a Pronghorn Antelope.

We continued onto the end of the valley. There was a picnic stop at the end that we planned on using to have a bit of breakfast, but then we reconsidered when we saw how wet and cold it was. It was a lovely site next to a river, but just not very comfortable at that moment. So we turned around and went back through the valley.

We stopped at a pullover where there were a crowd of people staring at this cliff for big horned sheep with powerful lenses. Some of them were also looking at the other side at this river where they said they could see some antelope. I wasn’t able to see either; just some people walking further down into the river bed, looking for more animals. So we got back into the van and continued on our journey.

Next, we ran into another herd of bison that were holding up traffic by standing in the middle of the road. These two were just a car length ahead of us to the side of the road.

This picture was taken out our front windshield. The bison just stood in the middle of the street for a while, completely unconcerned with all the cars around him or the traffic he was holding up.

Afterwards, we drove back to our campgroud for some breakfast and, at least for me, a bit of a nap. It had been an early morning.

After a bit of a rest, we headed down to the visitors’ center so that Gigi could get her Jr Rangers book stamped. We looked at the exhibits for a little bit and then got back in the car (Yellowstone involves a LOT of driving) and drove down the road to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, the place that our campground was named after. Wow. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but this was beautiful.

If we didn’t have a clumsy two year old with us, I would have loved to have hiked further along the canyon and explore all the different colors and textures in the canyon. But steep cliffs and a kid who doesn’t always stay close to us and isn’t old enough to have good safety judgements isn’t a great combination so we reluctantly left. And that was pretty much the end of our great Grand Canyon adventures. I would love to come back later when the kids are older and we can do some longer hikes.

Yellowstone Supervolcano

On our first full day at Yellowstone, we headed west and south from Canyon towards the Yellowstone supervolcano caldera. Our first stop was Artists’ Paintpots. The parking lot was a zoo, and we spent a lot of time waiting for the cars ahead of us who were waiting for someone to slowly pull out of their parking spot. The lane was narrow and one-way, so there was no passing someone who stopped. We lucked into a parking spot and started on the 1-mile Artists’ Paintpots loop.

At first, it was really pretty, but pretty normal foresty stuff that mostly consisted of remnants of a long ago forest fire with green new growth replacing it. And then we hit the first hot bubbling greenish-yellowish muddy spring with a geyser spouting off behind it. We were suddenly not in a normal forest anymore.

The path winds around the creek and up some stairs until eventually we had a view of the entire basin area and its totally bizarro alien surface. And yet, if you were to look the other way, you’d see that we were still, in fact, on Planet Earth, and there was still plenty of normal foresty stuff around us. It was just mixed up with all this excess energy bubbling up from the ground. The colors were beautiful and mixes of oranges and reds and blues and greens.

There was even a big spot full of white-grey bubbling mud that was really hard to photograph. The second shot shows the white-grey stuff and how it looks like it has just been dropped in the middle of this beautiful evergreen forest.

They built a boardwalk through most of this area since walking on the ground would not be a very good idea.

The next stop was just 5 or 10 minutes down the road from Artists’ Paintpots. Beryl Spring was name for its beautiful blue-green color. Super pretty. It basically looks like a giant natural hot tub. But one that would almost burn your skin off and be toxic to your health.

The next stop was Gibbons Falls, which marks the edge of the supervolcano caldera (from its last major eruption 640,000 years ago). Auggie had a lot of fun walking on the stones that lined the path and going up and down the stairs. Gigi and Des raced ahead to the end, meeting me as they were coming back from the end. “When can we go? Where’s Auggie? What’s a caldera?”

So I got out the Yellowstone map and showed Gigi where the caldera was supposed to be, covering about a quarter of the park. She asked me all kinds of questions about volcanos and craters and wanted to know why she couldn’t actually see the Yellowstone caldera. So many questions that I could only blindly repeat to her the answers that I had read. Yellowstone is still a pretty big mystery, even to experts, and my answers were less than satisfactory.

The kids were starting to get hungry at this point, and Auggie was getting grumpy and in need of a nap, so we decided to skip the next couple of stops and go straight to Old Faithful, which was as far south as we planned on going that day. As expected, Auggie fell asleep in the car on the way there, so he and Des stayed with Aaron in the car while Gigi and I went on an expedition for some lunch. We went into the HUGE gift shop, skirted the edge inside and went to the back where they had a small selection of cold, soggy, way overpriced sandwiches. But they would have to do, so I exercised my credit card and we took our dubious bounty back to the van.

Auggie was still sleeping after I finished my sandwich, so I left the family there while I went and scoped out the area. Although we had found the gift shop, the whole Old Faithful complex is so huge, that it’s not immediately obvious where exactly Old Faithful itself is. I eventually found it and, after overhearing some people talking, discovered that it was scheduled to go off in 15 minutes.

There was just enough of a phone connection that I could text Aaron the location and to wake Auggie up and join up with me. He texted back that he was on his way. And then I waited and waited and waiting. Old Faithful just kept looking like this. After not hearing from Aaron for a while, he finally texted again and said that Des had had an attack. We completed failed in the parent department that morning and forgot to give him his anti-seizure medicine.

So Aaron waited for Des to recover and then took both kids to the bathroom. Meantime, Old Faithful, which is supposed to go off within an interval of plus or minus 10 minutes, was 15 minutes late from her scheduled time. I waited and waited and waited some more. And then I spotted Aaron and the kids and waved wildly so they could see me. Which they totally didn’t. And then Old Faithful chose that moment to finally erupt. She had obviously been waiting for Aaron and the kids to show up. It was beautiful and impressive, but not actually my favorite thing of the day. The Artists’ Paintpots and Beryl Spring were just so cool.

I reminded Aaron that we had extra medicine for Des, but not an oral syringe, so we walked to the clinic (which was a bit of a distance, since the whole complex is just to big), explained the situation, and got a syringe for the nurse, who looked very relieved that we weren’t asking them to administer any medicine. As we walked back to the car, it started to rain. While I had been waiting at Old Faithful, there had bit a bit of lightning and thunder in the distance. It finally caught up to us. Luckily, we didn’t have far to go when the rain started, so we missed most it, but it was a pretty impressive storm that even included a bit of hail. But then it was over and quickly as it started, and the sun came out and it was warm again, all of a sudden.

Just in time for what turned out to be my favorite stop of the day: The Grand Prismatic Spring. At first, it looks like a very beautiful but otherwise ordinary river. But then you see this flowing into it. And then we saw this weirdness. And then further on the path is this gorgeous blue-green boiling hot pool that is apparently the site of the Excelsior geyser, which went off in the late ninteen century and then again once for a few days in the 1980s. Notice the little red dot on the screen. That’s someone’s hat that must have blown off. There was a whole collection of hats lying around and in the bubbling lagoon.

And then we walked further along the boardwalk and went squarely back into full, beautiful, alien territory. Words cannot do it justice. The story is that when the first white people who explored the area tried to tell people back East about this area, they were laughed at. “We do not print fiction!” was the reply to a memoir of one of these explorers. And I can totally believe it. Because it is something that really needs to be seen to be believed. These are just a few of my favorite photos.

After this stop, it was starting to get late, so we called it a day and headed back to camp. When we booked this trip, I was half-expecting that Yellowstone would be somewhat overrated, but it’s really, really not. I highly recommend it… furthermore, I’d skip Old Faithful and just spend time at all the other cool stuff that is much prettier and interesting than the big geyser.

Trip to Yellowstone

After a lovely breakfast at the hotel, we hitched back up the trailer and headed for Yellowstone. Going through the Absaroka mountains, we hit heavy rain followed by hail best described as somewhat bigger than a pea but smaller than a marble. Those on the road who didn’t pull over slowed down to 25 mph. We followed in the wake of a large trailer truck that helpfully displaced all the water from the road ahead of us.

After turning towards Yellowstone, the sun came out again and all seemed right with the world. This turned out to be a theme for a stay. Rain, thunder, hail followed by warm sunshine. When we managed to get any sort of data connection, the forecasts we pulled down were always either wrong or quickly out of date and totally useless.

We had a reservation at the Canyon campground in the middle of the park. When reading reviews of the campground, I found a lot complaining about how big and busy it was, but that it was in a great location since it’s really in the middle of all the main attractions. So I had braced myself for a somewhat unpleasant campground, but the opposite turned out to be true.

No one camps at Yellowstone “to go camping.” Everyone is here to see all the sites, which are definitely not in the campground. Maybe we lucked out, but everyone at sites around ours arrived late, left early, and were very quiet and inconspicuous in the meantime. Maybe after those days of RV camping, my tolerance for what is considered noisy and crowded is somewhat high. In any case, I highly recommend it for anyone considering a stay at Yellowstone. You still have to drive a lot to get anywhere, but the amount you’ll have to drive is fairly constant and not horrible for day trips.

Anyway, it took about an hour once we entered Yellowstone to arrive at Canyon campground. The journey is full of pot holes, curvy roads, and at least one hairpin turn. But it is also beautiful with rivers and mountains and green fields. And bison. And bears. And lots and lots of fellow tourists who will stop on the road at any hint of said animals.

In our first example of this, we saw a bison on one side of the road and two black bears off in the distance on the other side. Since there wasn’t any room on the side of the road to pull over, people were just stopping to take pictures from their vehicles. Since we were stopped anyway, I got a somewhat hazy picture of the bison through our side van window, but I was able to lower my window to get a less-hazy distance photo of the bears. I’m not going to win any awards, but it was pretty cool to see these animals so close and so soon after entering the park.

After we arrived at the campground, we unhitched the trailer and set up the tents. We made sure to put up both EZ-ups: one over our kitchen area and one over the kids’ tents. This turned out to be a very good thing since it pretty much started raining immediately after we arrived at camp. All that rain that we managed to avoid in Glacier hit us full force at Yellowstone. But all our wet weather camping in Oregon prepared us well, so it was more of an inconvenience than anything else.