1YoT: Yellowstone (and the Grand Tetons)

Yellowstone was unreal, unlike anything we’d ever seen. We were repeatedly blown away by everything the park had to offer: geothermal basins, Old Faithful, scenic views, gorgeous drives, abundant wildlife. Any one of these would have been worthy of a national park, but for them all to be in the same location… I’m sorry Yosemite and Grand Canyon, but Yellowstone is my new pick for greatest US national park.

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First thing we did after entering Yellowstone was secure a campsite. Reservations book up way in advance and the first-come-first-serve sites generally fill up within an hour. We showed up early and waited for the first-come-first-serve sites to open, then we got the first available one. 

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Our campsite was near Mammoth Hot Springs. As we drove through town, we saw several elk strolling by.

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The first geothermal action we saw was the hot springs at Mammoth Hot Springs. The above picture, a small but beautiful part of Mammoth Hot Springs, is a formation known as travertine. Travertine, made of limestone and mineral spring water, is white in color, and the yellow/brown/gold hues in this image are from billions of microscopic bacteria living on the white surface.

Even though we are in Yellowstone National Park, and despite passing Mammoth Hot Springs, we are still outside the Yellowstone Caldera. On our way to it, we drove by these interesting sites. On the left is Golden Gate Canyon, one of the first entrances to the park (the entry road was originally built in 1884; it has been replaced several times since then). On the right is Sheepeater Cliff, a hexagonal columnar basalt cliff created by lava flow.

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We also passed by several large grasslands on our drive to the caldera. I don’t remember the name of this one but it was beautiful.

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We are now entering the Yellowstone Caldera, a massive supervolcano producing tons of geothermal activity, most of which can be seen in the form of geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles (fumaroles are openings in the earth’s crust where steam and gas are emitted). Welcoming us (pictured above) is a fumarole and hot spring in Roaring Mountain.

Traveling south through the caldera (we recommend traveling this direction, as it allows the geothermal activity to build in grandeur), the first basin we came across was Lower Geyser Basin. This basin blew us away; it felt like we were transported back in time, to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. 

Some of the geysers were quite active, and even if dry, howled with a great fury.

Up next was Midway Geyser Basin, home to the largest and most colorful fumaroles we saw on our visit.

Below Midway Basin was Biscuit Basin, the most active basin in the park. I should mention here that as beautiful as all this geothermal activity was, it also stunk. One of the gases fumaroles emit is sulfur dioxide, and it gave us headaches it smelled so bad.

Another, smaller basin whose name I can’t remember.

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Finally we arrived at Upper Geyser Basin and its most famous feature, the most famous feature in all of Yellowstone (and maybe even the entire national park system): Old Faithful.

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Waiting for Old Faithful to blow. We saw Old Faithful erupt twice, the first time it erupted one minute after it was predicted and the second time it erupted four minutes after predicted. Pretty accurate if you ask us.

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And here it is, our first eruption. It was huge, lasting longer than three minutes and shooting hundreds of feet into the sky (Old Faithful’s eruptions average 3500-8500 gallons of water and shoot up an average of 145 feet). It was amazing.

With that we ended our first day in Yellowstone.

On our second day, we woke up to find twelve elk in our campsite. Not just our campground, our specific site!

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Then, on the way to today’s destination, we saw a grey fox crossing the road.

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Today we actually left Yellowstone and drove to nearby Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons are pictured above, Jackson Lake in front of them.

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Another panorama from Grand Teton. The ecosystem near the Tetons was very unique; it was sometimes forest, sometimes tundra, like the park couldn’t decide which of the two to be. In some parts there were even small islands of forest (called Timbered Islands) in the middle of the tundra; that was one of the more unique sites we’ve seen on this trip.

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The crown jewel of Grand Teton National Park is Jenny Lake, a beautiful, secluded glacier formed lake that reminded us of the lakes in Glacier National Park.

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Uh oh, a storm is approaching.

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Because of the storm, we didn’t stay at Grand Teton for long. However, we did stop by Oxbow Bend on our way out. This is considered a prime animal viewing site, but unfortunately, all we saw were ducks.

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Back in Yellowstone, were we took the long route back to our campsite. Here we are passing Yellowstone Lake, much larger than Grand Teton’s lakes but not nearly as beautiful.

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While Yellowstone Lake was nice, it was not the reason we took the long route. We took the long route so we could drive through one of two prime buffalo viewing areas in Yellowstone. We didn’t see a single buffalo.

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The route did take us through some interesting rock formations, including Dunraven Pass, the most intense pass Inna and I have ever driven through. We also stopped by Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, but we didn’t take any pictures of it.

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And the storm is upon us! Thankfully we were out of Dunraven Pass by this point. We drove slow, saw some deer and fawns, got delayed by a fallen tree (cleared quickly by park rangers), and eventually made it to our campsite.

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The next day, our last in Yellowstone, we woke up to cloudy skies but no storm. It was a beautiful day.

Not only was the weather beautiful, it was also prime buffalo weather. We saw so many of them, one even crossed the road right in front of us, less than two feet from our car (pictured upper right)!

Seriously, we saw so many buffalo; we estimate we saw more than a hundred up close, and if you include the ones in the distance, we saw more than five hundred! Above are some of the pictures Inna took.

We got super-lucky seeing these buffalo because this portion of our trip, through the second of two recommended buffalo viewing areas, was the last thing we did in Yellowstone. From here we continued east, through Wyoming and Montana, which you may not know (we didn’t until we drove it) has lots of cool stuff!

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