There are a few National Parks that are on nearly everyone’s “Gotta Go” list. I’m sure Yosemite, Glacier and Denali National Parks make it on an awful lot of those lists. But I’d bet Yellowstone is on practically everybody’s. And if you own a Class B motorhome, like our Roadtrek Agile Charley, Yellowstone isn’t written on the list in pencil. It’s written in ink! And it never gets crossed out, no matter how many times you go.
We recently returned from a wonderful couple of weeks in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (you can check out my previous post for info on GTNP) and we’re already planning a return trip. Why? Because there just isn’t anywhere else in the lower 48 that offers so much to see, and so much to photograph.
In fact, there are so many unique scenes to photograph; I’m going to break our trip to Yellowstone into two parts. Today, I’m going to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of camping, eating and getting around the park. And I’ll share some photos of some of our favorite places in the park as well. In my next post, you’ll see how much fun Rochelle and I had finding and learning how to photograph wildlife.
If you could propel yourself into the sky and look down at Yellowstone, you’d soon figure out that the main road in the park is comprised of a giant figure 8. At the south end of the 8, you’ll find the famous Old Faithful geyser and the venerable Old Faithful Inn. Halfway up the west side of the 8, you’ll pass several geyser basins before coming to the Madison campground and the West Yellowstone Entrance. At the top of the 8, you can explore the amazing geothermal landscapes at Mammoth and the North entrance to the park at Gardiner. If you split off from the northeastern corner of the 8, you’ll drive through the vast Lamar Valley. As you drive down the eastern side of the 8, you’ll pass Roosevelt in the upper part of the park, Canyon, in the middle of the park, and then the gigantic Yellowstone Lake towards the southern end. A little bit further and you’ve come full circle.
So, with so many areas in the park to choose from, where should you stay at night? Well, for us, the answer is pretty simple – we stay at Canyon because it’s about as close to the middle of the park as you can get. The Canyon Campground is large, but the spaces we had were generous in size. There’s a laundry mat, lots of clean, hot showers and several places to eat, just on the other side of the road. But the main advantage for us, as photographers, is we can get to just about any part of Yellowstone in about an hour, or less. And that sure helps when you’re trying to get out before sunrise, or if you’d like to get home before it gets too dark.
The Canyon Campground takes reservations and it’s best to get them as far ahead of your trip as possible, especially if you’re thinking about visiting the park in late June through early September. There are a few campgrounds in the park that are first-come, first-served, but we didn’t try to stay in any of them this time around. If you don’t have reservations, you had better hit these places early in the morning.
We stayed in Grand Teton National Park before we visited Yellowstone, so we drove north out of one park, directly into the other. And the first stop we made on the drive in was at West Thumb Geyser Basin. What a cool place. What makes West Thumb different from the other geyser basins is its proximity to Yellowstone Lake and the fantastic colors of its geothermal features. It’s a short walk around a nicely maintained trail, and on it, you’ll find plenty of scenes to feed that hungry camera hanging around your neck.
Just a note of warning about West Thumb, and really, all of the popular locations in the park, they can get crowded. Especially when the tour buses show up. Sometimes the walkways get a bit difficult to navigate. But if you’re patient, you’ll usually be rewarded when the big tour buses pull away and you can soak in the scenes in relative quiet. And, of course, because you’ve got your own little motorhome with you wherever you go, you won’t be annoyed at the extended bathroom lines. In fact, every time I saw a big queue for the bathrooms, it put a big smile on my face. Smug, ain’t I?
Another good reason to stay at Canyon is because it’s just minutes away from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From various turnouts, you’ll be able to see the Yellowstone River about 1,000 ft. below you. You’ll also see the two most remarkable features of the Canyon, the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Now to our eyes, having lived right next door to Yosemite for the past dozen years or so, the Yellowstone falls aren’t exactly awe-inspiring. Our Upper Yosemite Falls is nearly five times the size of Yellowstone’s largest falls. And to tell you the truth, they’re a giant pain in the neck to photograph. But, when the 300-foot Lower Falls is running heavy, it is a very pretty sight to see.
This shot was actually taken on our last trip to Yellowstone, in the fall of 2012. There was still plenty of water flowing, but what makes the falls so difficult to photograph are the steep canyon walls, and the way the sun travels in the sky. We were faced with dark shadows along one side of the canyon and bright sunshine on the other, as well as on the water. I imagine, with some research and some luck, you could photograph these falls with some nice, even light. And if you do happen across those conditions, please let me know when they occurred.
One of the most interesting scenes to see and photograph in Yellowstone is the area in the north of the park called the Mammoth Hot Springs. The Hot Springs look different nearly every day as the hot water from the springs dissolves the limestone and deposits a white, chalky material on the surface. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a cloudy day, you can capture some wonderful and eerie landscapes. But you won’t have the same luck if you’re there on a sunny, cloudless day. Those white deposits on the cliffs reflect the sun like crazy. Can you say “overexposure”!
There’s a little village at the base of Mammoth Hot Springs with a hotel, a restaurant or two and a general store. So between those conveniences and the attraction of the Hot Springs, you’re going to be dealing with some crowds. And if it’s a hot day, you’ll soon realize the Hot Spring’s walk is uphill, and there’s no shade. So bring some water and a hat and put on your sunscreen. Or, you can sneak up the hill in your van past the Springs, and find the “hidden” parking lot at the top. That’s where all the good stuff is anyways. And you’ll save yourself from heat stroke too.
Of course, you can always stop down at the village and get some ice cream to cool off. For some reason, there are ice cream shops all over Yellowstone. In some places, there’s two or three. And it’s really good ice cream too. I highly recommend the Moose Tracks. Trust me on that one.
On the drive back from Mammoth to Canyon, make sure you make a side trip to the Lamar Valley. Some folks have called Yellowstone the American Serengeti and nowhere is that more apparent than the Lamar. But, I’ll have lots more on that next time, when I talk about photographing wildlife.
The turnoff to the Lamar Valley is also the location of the Roosevelt Lodge. We didn’t go on their trail ride cookout this year, but it’s on the list for next time. You either ride on a horse, on in a wagon to a western cookout in the wilderness. Doesn’t that sound like fun? But the main reason I want to go the next time, is we got a taste of the cooking at the Roosevelt Lodge and it was just plain wonderful — the best food we had in Yellowstone. The fried chicken and mashed potatoes couldn’t have tasted any better if your mother made it special for you for your birthday. And make sure they bring you a basket of their corn muffins. Each table as a big jar of honey to slather all over them. It was so good, we went back the next night and I ordered the same thing. Goodness! But if you go, go for dinner. Family members had mixed reviews when they stopped by there for lunch. And besides, they don’t serve the fried chicken at lunch.
Another must see in Yellowstone is the Grand Prismatic Spring. The Grand Prismatic is an oversized pool of eye-catching turquoise and rusty orange. But, to get the most dramatic view of the springs, you might have to do a little off-roading, and I don’t mean in your van. This shot was taken after Rochelle and I climbed up a steep slope just west of the spring. To get there, drive south past the Middle Geyser Basin and look for a small parking lot. Park and walk back towards the spring, along the base of some small hills. When you reach the Grand Prismatic, work your way up the hill until you get a decent view. But I have to warn you, it’s not easy. In fact, a man was killed this past June when he was hit by a falling tree while he climbed up that hill. Of course, what are the odds of that happening twice?
Every evening when we got back to the Canyon Campgrounds, Rochelle spent some time practicing her newest obsession – intentional camera movement. And really, the Canyon Campgrounds are the perfect place for it. That’s because the campgrounds are located in the middle of a Lodgepole pine forest. The photographs Rochelle pulled out of that forest are mesmerizing. Here’s how you do it. Simply set your camera to shutter priority and set a speed of ½ of a second. As you gently move the camera up, or down, press the shutter. Make sure you follow through the movement as you press the shutter. For even more dramatic effects, you can do the same thing from a moving vehicle; which Rochelle did every time she got a little bored.
If you have never visited the park before, you have to go to the Old Faithful area. In fact, I think that might be a law in Wyoming. However, if you’re like me, you might not think it’s exactly your cup of tea. The Old Faithful Geyser itself is pretty impressive, but the amount of concrete they’ve put around it feels unnatural to me. I prefer walking out on the trails beyond Old Faithful to some of the lessor-known geysers. I have a bit of hard-learned advice for you if you’re shooting a geyser; if you shoot one without anything to give it a sense of scale, you might has well be shooting bubbles in your bathtub. The best subjects you can have in your geyser shots are the bears, the bison and the elk that inhabit the park. But if the wildlife isn’t cooperating, people can be pretty good stand ins too.
I’d like to share a few closing notes. When they say it can snow any month of the year, they aren’t kidding. We had light snow twice during our stay – in late June, so be prepared for any kind of weather. Showers for two people are free for every day you’re registered in the campground. The cafeterias in the park are pretty fair, the little dinner at Canyon was better, and the dining room was even better than that. But nothing compared to dinner at Roosevelt. There are spots with hookups in an area called “The Fishing Bridge”. They only allow hard sided vehicles over there because of the abundance of bears. So if you’re bear shy, you might want to skip the hook ups. Cell phone access is horrible just about every place in the park. We did find some decent reception around Yellowstone Lake, especially on the east side. Access was spotty around the more developed areas. And finally, the gas station at Canyon carries diesel. That sure made Charley and me happy!
After a week in Yellowstone, we had to head out for home. But, Yellowstone wasn’t quite done with us. This fantastic cloud display served as the closing credits for our Yellowstone Adventure.
Next time, wildlife!