September 8, 2014: As mentioned in previous articles chronicling our “North to Alaska” journey this summer, one of our stops on our return trip was Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is one of our favorite places to explore and enjoy the majesty of nature. We have visited Yellowstone several times but have yet to see and experience everything it has to offer. This article will provide a small sampling of our experiences during this visit. In addition, I will try to provide some information that might be useful to RVers who have not yet had the thrill of visiting this, our nation’s oldest and largest National Park.
First, just a bit about the history of Yellowstone National Park – it was founded March 1, 1872, with the passage by Congress of legislation making Yellowstone the world’s first national park. Theodore Roosevelt was a major proponent of Yellowstone’s development. During its early years, Yellowstone was protected by the U. S. Army. During the summer season, visitors can join a ranger at the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center for a short, easy walk around Fort Yellowstone to learn about the park’s historic events and to discover the role the military played in protecting Yellowstone.
The park covers 2.2 million acres of land area, of which 80 percent is forest, 15 percent grasslands, and 5 percent water.Ninety-six percent of the park’s land is in Wyoming, 3 percent is in Montana, and 1 percent is in Idaho. The park has a great diversity of both flora and fauna. There are seven species of conifer trees, more than 1,000 species of native vascular plants, 67 species of mammals (including grizzly bears, wolves, black bears, bison, moose, big horn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and elk), and more than 320 bird species. For nature lovers, Yellowstone offers unparalleled opportunities for observation and photography.
In 2014, entrance fees to the park are $25 for a private noncommercial vehicle (including motorhomes), $20 for motorcycles, and $12 for visitors entering the park on foot. The fee provides for a seven-day entrance permit to both Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. Senior Pass fees are available for U. S. citizens or permanent residents 62 years or older for $10.
There are five campgrounds located within the boundaries of the park run by park concessionaires. Most sites are first-come, first-served, and all site cost $22.00 per night. There are RV sites with full hook-ups at Colter Bay RV Park and at Headwaters Campground and RV Park. Fishing Bridge RV Park has more than 300 RV sites, all with full hook-ups. Most of the campgrounds are filled by mid-afternoon throughout the summer.
Seven campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service. These are Mammoth, Norris, Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, and Tower Fall. Sites are first-come, first-served and fill rapidly during the peak late June – to mid-August weeks. Only Mammoth is open all year. Most of the sites at Mammoth are pull-through. It is highly advisable to call the park to find out the size limits for motorhomes at any of the campgrounds and whether reservations are available.
There are also several private campgrounds located near the park’s five entrances. We have stayed twice at Rocky Mountain RV Park & Lodging in Gardiner, Montana. The RV park is situated on a bluff overlooking Gardiner and is only 4 blocks from the North Entrance to Yellowstone. Gardiner is a delightful town with great restaurants, gas stations, curio shops, and the headquarters of the Yellowstone Association, a not-for-profit organization that works to promote and support the park. It operates 11 educational park stores and, through the Yellowstone Association Institute, offers more than 600 in-depth courses each year. Having experienced Institute courses personally, I can strongly recommend them. The park’s North Entrance at Gardiner is the only entrance that is open all year.
During this visit to Yellowstone, we visited Mammoth Hot Springs, which is one of the park’s most spectacular formations. Mineral-laden hot water from deep within the Earth’s crust seeps to the surface and builds layers of cascading, terraced stone. This formation was begun thousands of years ago, and its ‘creation’ continues today. This past year has seen the flow of water decrease significantly – for reasons yet unexplained. However, it remains one of the many wonders of Yellowstone. If you ever visit Yellowstone during the winter, don’t miss spending some time here. The photography potential during the winter months is unbelievable!
We also spent time in the Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest, most thermal geyser basin in the park, and which boasts the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat, and a variety of other geysers and hot springs. We hiked to the top of the Artist Paintpots, where the hot, liquid mud burps and tiny geysers push their way to the surface of the ponds.
On the way down to Norris, we stopped at Sheepeater Cliff, used by ancient native hunters who lived and hunted in the area to drive sheep over the jump for slaughter. Sheepeater Cliff reminded us of the massive Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump we visited near Fort McLeod, Alberta.
Also, in the Norris area, we toured the Museum of the National Park Ranger, located at the Norris Campground. The building housing the museum was built as an Army outpost in 1908 and is part of Fort Yellowstone National Historic Landmark District. Exhibits in the museum focus on the Army era of park administration as well as the evolution of the National Park Service ranger profession. It is a great stop to gain a perspective on the life and work of park rangers throughout Yellowstone’s history.
Of course, we spent much time, as we always do, driving through the Hayden and Lamar Valley areas of the park. “If you only have a day” to spend in Yellowstone, these areas offer the greatest chances to see wildlife – especially bison, antelope, bears – and to view the beauty of the park’s landscape. In summer, the wildflowers are fantastic. Go off the beaten path and drive the one-way Blacktail Plateau Drive for a great wildflower-viewing trip. Slough Creek near Tower-Roosevelt on the park’s northern road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City is also a favorite wildlife viewing area – and a place where, if you are lucky, you might spot one of the wolf packs that now roam the park. Very early morning is apparently the best time to catch a glimpse of these magnificent, elusive, creatures.
At Roosevelt-Tower, we experienced a fabulous “tourist” event – a Stagecoach Ride and Campfire Dinner provided by Xanterra Parks & Resorts concessionaire. Xanterra offers a wide variety of park tours and activities, including photo safaris, partial and full-day coach tours, horseback rides, and boating and fishing adventures. One of their most popular activities is the nightly Stagecoach Ride and Campfire Dinner. It’s a lot of fun as the horse-drawn coaches take guests out across the valley to an area that is set up for a delicious steak dinner and musical entertainment. This was a great ‘tourist experience’ even for seasoned travelers like us!
There is so much to do and see in and around Yellowstone that one could easily spend several weeks at a time taking it all in. Even though we have been to Yellowstone several times and at different times of the year, it is for certain that we will return again to explore other areas of the great national treasure that is Yellowstone National Park.
Until next time, Happy Trails to you!