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.
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.
We hike back to Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser too, which is as beautiful as I remember it.
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.
Back inside Yellowstone, it’s interesting to see the differences from 2015.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
- Tips for Visiting Yellowstone – My best advice to get the most out of your Yellowstone trip!
- 100 Mile Hiking Club – A collection of all the day hikes I’ve done in Yellowstone from most to least recent, go back to the end of page 2 for the first post which explains more
- You Don’t Mess with a Mountain – My last drive over Beartooth Pass
- Gallatin Forest Camping – More on Moose Creek Flat Campground
- Campgrounds and Storm Point – More on Pebble Creek Campground (and one of my 100 mi Hiking Club outings)
- Working at National Parks for RVers – If you’re interested in work-camping
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