Great Yellowstone Adventure Part 1: The Front Country

It takes a couple days of driving to get from the Hiker Trailer rally in Colorado, to Montana where my Great Yellowstone Backpacking Adventure starts.

I arrive at Moose Creek Flat campground outside of Big Sky, MT on July 1st with a smile. It’s taken four years to get back to this area, but I finally get to camp here now. The cost has gone up from $14 to $20 a night which doesn’t surprise me, it’s not far from one of the most popular national parks in the country, and in a very pretty valley surrounded by mountains. And open! It’s the one forest service campground in the area not shaded by trees, which when you’re solar powered is a huge plus.

But there isn’t much sun today. It’s cool and cloudy with periodic rain. Near sunset, mist creeps over the mountains behind Gallatin Road. It’s not a colorful scene, but pretty nonetheless.

Two days later, I pick Julie up from the airport.

Julie is my best friend, and was my roommate before I became nomadic. She has traveled with me on a couple occasions before, and now she joins me to see Yellowstone for the first time. We stock up on supplies in Bozeman, MT, then I move camp to a boondocking spot outside West Yellowstone. It’s pretty up here, the wildflowers are blooming.

I worked at Old Faithful the summer of 2015.

As such, I’ve already blogged about and shared photos of much of the park before, and will link some of my favorites from that summer at the bottom of this post. Here in Part 1, I’ll go over some of the front country stuff we saw on this trip, focusing on new stuff and changes since my last visit. Part 2 will focus on the three back country backpacking trips we did, which will be all new as I’ve never backpacked here before.

I show Julie the western part of the park the first week we’re here, visiting the numerous thermal basins.

Excelsior Geyser Crater, Midway Geyser Basin

One noticeable change from four years ago, there’s now an official spur off the Fairy Falls trail that climbs the hill behind Grand Prismatic Spring, so that visitors can get a better view of it. Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the park, and brilliantly colored.

The tiny people on the boardwalk give a sense of scale

We hike back to Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser too, which is as beautiful as I remember it.

Water in red, yellow, and blue. (Well, actually red, yellow, and blue bacteria living in the water.)

On July 8th, we get a special tour of the Grizzly and Wolf Discover Center in West Yellowstone.

Julie use to work with a vet in South Carolina who has moved out to Montana and is now the vet for the center. So we get to see the bear enclosures in the back and the new, 12 week old wolf pups that are only available for limited public viewing at this tender age. No pictures were allowed in back (because it’s so easy for people to take a picture of a captive animal out of context and spin it into something negative), but as someone with a vet tech background I was pretty pleased with the conditions and care the animals receive. Here’s a picture of the front bear display.

Sam, he’s actually a Kodiak grizzly from Alaska – bigger than Yellowstone’s grizzlies

Back inside Yellowstone, it’s interesting to see the differences from 2015.

I finally got to see Grand Geyser erupt!

The hydrothermal features are not static. The past two years, Steamboat Geyser (the world’s tallest geyser) has been very active, it’s already had over 20 major eruptions this year and is on track to beat last year’s record of 32 (the previous record was 29 set in 1964). The summer I worked here, it didn’t erupt once. It doesn’t go off while Julie and I tour Norris Geyser Basin, but several geyser gazers have their chairs and equipment set up by Steamboat, waiting. Part of the boardwalk is roped off because eruptions have been soaking it in hot water.

Steamboat quietly steaming. Note that all the little pines behind it are dying

Just below Steamboat, Cistern Spring is sporting a new hue. In 2015 is was teal with almost yellow edges. Today it’s more of a robin’s egg blue, indicating a hotter temperature. It’s not the only color change I notice among the thermal features in the park, but one of the more dramatic ones.

On July 14th, we move camp to Pebble Creek Campground in Lamar Valley.

Of the various campgrounds inside Yellowstone that I looked at in 2015 this one was my favorite, and like Moose Creek Flat, I’m happy to finally get to camp here. Pebble Creek is one of the first-come-first-served primitive campgrounds in Yellowstone, meaning no reservations are required but there are no hookups and you better arrive early if you want a spot.

Two of my neighbors here were Casitas, which made me smile

We actually pull in rather late at 11:30 am after a backpacking trip and are expecting it to be full, but are pleasantly surprised to discover that there are spots still available. And amazingly, the price remains unchanged at $15 a night, making it actually cheaper than the forest service campgrounds outside the park. We pay for four nights.

Lamar Valley, how I’ve missed thee.

Lamar Valley is one of my favorite places in the world. The river is pretty, the wildflowers are amazing this time of year, the spruce and pine are tall and majestic, and framing it all are snow-tipped mountains. There’s a certain timelessness about it that is hard to put into words, truly a beautiful location.

A day hike in Lamar Valley

And then you add the animals. Lamar Valley has been called America’s Serengeti, it’s a superb location for wildlife viewing, and possibly the best place in the world to view wolves in the wild. I’ve been captivated by wolves since I was very young, the summer I worked here I took a wolf watching class. This visit, Julie and I go out at sunrise and sunset on a few days and see four different members of the Junction Butte Pack. This is 996M, a subordinate male.

Photo credit: Darren out of Denver, CO. This is about a $5,070 photo. $4,500 for the high quality spotting scope, $500 for the iPhone, and $70 for the attachment that hooks the iPhone to the spotting scope. A bit out of focus, but the wolf was over a mile away. Always stay 100 yards from wolves and bears, and 25 yards from all other wildlife!

While camped here, we detour to the north entrance to see Mammoth Hot Springs.

This is the part of the park that changes fastest. The ground at Mammoth Hot Springs is limestone and mineral deposits build up quickly, so the hot water bubbling up is constantly changing the topography. In fact, a part of the boardwalk has been covered by deposits and bacterial mats where part of the spring has been more active.

There are no geysers at Mammoth, the ground is too soft for pressure to build up. Instead you get these pretty stepped pools, very different from all other thermal features in Yellowstone.

 

And of course we can’t camp this close to the northeast entrance without driving over Beartooth Pass.

This trip is very different from my last experience traveling this squiggly road four years ago. Last time the air was thick with smoke, and a storm blew in on my drive back dumping rain, sleet, hail, and snow to make the drive treacherous. Today skies are clear and blue and being almost two months earlier in summer, there’s a lot more snow. Some of the alpine lakes even have rims of ice still.

This photo made into a computer wallpaper is one of the $5 Patreon rewards for July. 🙂

We even see skiers. From talking with one we discover that the janky looking lift that I wasn’t even sure was operational last visit, runs from Memorial Day until early July. It’s stopped for the season now, but there are still a couple runs that are open… as long as a person is willing to walk back up. It isn’t until we inspect one of these slopes later that we see just how scary they are. These routes are only for very skilled and experienced skiers. I’ll settle for driving the road, thanks!

After Lamar, we book it south along the east side of the park.

Yellowstone Lake

We hit Mud Volcano, Yellowstone Lake, and West Thumb Basin in a single day on our way out of the park. For most vacationers, two weeks in Yellowstone sounds like a lot of time (and it is), but most fail to comprehend just how big the park is. With 2.2 million acres, it takes hours to drive from one end of the park to the other… and that’s if you don’t stop to see anything on the way!

Runoff from Black Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin.

As the Yellowstone sign fades away in the rearview mirror, the mountains of Grand Tetons National Park loom ahead. As one adventure ends, another begins…

Up next, Great Yellowstone Adventure Part 2: The Back Country. Which will cover the three backpacking trips Julie and I did while in Yellowstone!

Related Yellowstone Posts:

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

20 Comments

  1. jill iles on August 25, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Well written travelogue, packed with soul nourishing information and “wow” facts. On to part 2.



    • Becky on September 5, 2019 at 7:10 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this Jill!



  2. Mike O'Connor on August 22, 2019 at 4:27 am

    Well done Becky! Incredible pictures of a beautiful place. I visited a number of the spots you posted photos of here in 2006 while on a motorcycle trip. Brings back a lot of great memories. Keep having fun, living a great, life and take care!!



    • Becky on August 23, 2019 at 1:01 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this post Mike!



  3. Dawn in Michigan on August 14, 2019 at 7:27 am

    What an amazing place. Went when I was a kid, probably 50 years ago. Still remember so much about it. Would love to see it again someday.



  4. Noreen N on August 11, 2019 at 7:25 am

    Great vlog, gorgeous pictures! Yellowstone is still my favorite National Park. I hope to go back someday. Thanks for sharing.



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:52 am

      Thanks Noreen and I’m so glad that you enjoyed this little virtual trip around Yellowstone. It’s my favorite park too, but shh, don’t tell the others. 😉



  5. Tom Kepler on August 11, 2019 at 3:44 am

    Great travelogue, Becky. It has a good balance of detail and narrative flow. Your “voice” is also evident in a good way–personal yet also allowing the content to remain in the forefront. I keep working on this with my blog posts.
    Tom Kepler recently posted..Bend in the River Tiny Trailer BasecampMy Profile



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:51 am

      Thanks Tom, glad you enjoyed this post. My writing style has evolved over the years, practice definitely has helped. 🙂 I just looked it up and apparently this is my 642nd published post, haha.



  6. Ernesto Quintero on August 10, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Yosemite and Yellowstone are my top two NP. Becky, I have a question, I noticed your trailer has a motorcycle size license plate, what’s the story about that? Travel safe and keep on taking gorgeous images.



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:49 am

      Haha, that tiny plate sure does look out of place doesn’t it? I was wondering if someone would bring that up eventually.

      That’s the standard size of South Dakota’s trailer plates, they’re smaller than vehicle plates. But in Colorado where I ordered the trailer, their trailer plates are full sized. So I have a tiny plate in a big holder.



  7. Rob on August 10, 2019 at 11:44 am

    This was a nice post!



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:47 am

      Glad you enjoyed it!



  8. Trent M. on August 10, 2019 at 4:24 am

    You were right. This one is a good one. Thanks.



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:46 am

      Thanks and you’re welcome.



      • Trent M. on August 11, 2019 at 10:14 pm

        Becky I don’t know if I am using this phrase right or not, having never been there, but here it goes. “Pura Vida” Have a good day.



  9. Ron on August 9, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    Stunning photos, When we toured Yellowstone we took 3 weeks and camped North side, West side, South side and Fishing Bridge. Felt like we could have stayed all Summer and still missed a lot.



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:46 am

      I totally get it Ron. I sure didn’t get to see everything the summer I lived there!



  10. RGupnorth on August 9, 2019 at 3:36 pm

    Nothing like taking the drive over the Beartooth from Cooke City to Red Lodge – A cinnamon roll at the Bar Claw in Cooke City is also a treat. Haven’t been to Yellowstone in a long time – thanks for the picture reminders.



    • Becky on August 11, 2019 at 9:45 am

      It’s such a beautiful drive… when the weather cooperates, hah! I’ll keep Bar Claw in mind for next trip. 😉



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