Road Trip with Jess’ Family | Yellowstone National Park | Driving from Bozeman, MT to the Bighorn Mountains in WY | July 2021
On day 4 of our road trip home, we were up and ready to go by 5AM. Today would start with driving the 1.5 hours from Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park. Knowing that the best time to enjoy national parks is in the early morning, we were eager to get on the road and try to beat the crowds.
I was skeptical when we made Yellowstone part of our itinerary. I didn’t think visiting right before the Fourth of July weekend was a good idea, especially during this weird time when most people are starting to feel safe to travel and are flocking to National Parks in hoards – to the point that many National Parks had to turn away visitors over the weekend. We also had the dogs with us, so we were already limited on how much we could do. Honestly, I just expected the park to be overcrowded and overhyped. Out of the four of us traveling, Dad was the only one who had visited back when he was growing up. I knew Yellowstone was something I wanted to see at some point in my life, but we’ll just say I had low expectations going into it.
However, I’m happy to report that the park honestly blew me away! We arrived at the North entrance around 6:30AM and started out by walking around Mammoth Springs. There was hardly anyone there — so far, so good. Dad offered to drive with the dogs from the lower parking lot to the upper one, so Mom, Curtis, and I took our time walking up the boardwalk and enjoying the views of the springs and terraces. Yellowstone is centered around a region of high volcanic and geothermal activity. Water that seeps into the porous ground is heated by magma located relatively near the surface. The heated water then escapes through other holes in the ground. Depending on the shape and size of the hole and distance the water has to travel, one of three things could occur. If the water needs to travel further to reach the surface, it will still be a liquid and will seep out as a hot spring. This is the most common form of geothermal activity. And, since hotter water can retain more dissolved solids, as the water cools on the surface, these solids precipitate out to form travertine and similar crystal terraces.
After that, we continued driving US-89 South through the park. I kept my eyes glued to the places I thought we’d be sure to see wildlife, looking closely along the water. Sure enough, not long into our drive I spotted a bear! It was big and brown, so I think we can call this our first grizzly bear sighting. This brings our total number of bears seen on this trip to 3, or 4 for me. 🙂
Our next stop was at the Norris Geyser Basin. This stop was probably the highlight for us, since it was still early enough to not be busy. Curtis and I switched off hiking and watching the dogs with Mom and Dad, so we were all able to hike the Porcelain Basin loop trail and see the very active steam vents and springs. These vents, also known as fumaroles, are the second form of geothermal activity where water remains as a vapor, but is never sufficiently trapped to build pressure. The dissolved solids will often become entrained in the steam as it leaves giving the area the unmistakable sulfurous smell. We were fascinated by all the activity in the park, realizing that it was so much different than anywhere else we’d ever been (the closest we could relate it to was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park), and I decided that it’s definitely worth the hype. We noted how unlike other national parks where you may have to hike and put in effort to see the beauty, this park actually puts on a show for you for very minimal effort! No wonder people love it.
After this, we continued driving to Old Faithful. We were sure this would be the busiest spot in the park, but as long as we were here we decided to stick it out so that we could say we did the touristy things, and next time we’ll do more off the beaten path things. We noted that while the lookouts and trails related to geysers were packed with cars, the other random trailheads to peaks or who knows where were mostly empty. Next time, we’ll come with a plan to check those out. While we were driving to Old Faithful, we crossed paths with a bison who was strolling up the road in the other lane. The dogs weren’t a fan of him!
As expected, Old Faithful was packed with people. We arrived shortly after an eruption, but decided to stick around and wait for the next one. We took turns walking the boardwalk around and attempted to see another eruption down the trail, but another bison was blocking the path so we couldn’t make it in time. After waiting about 45 minutes, Mom, Curtis, Charlotte and I stood in a dog-friendly area and waited for the eruption, which finally came about 10 minutes after predicted. It was neat to watch, but my favorite part was seeing Charlotte’s unenthused reaction. It’s going to take a lot more than an old erupting geyser to impress her.
It was afternoon by now, and we were satisfied with what we had seen in the park. Because of some road construction, we couldn’t make a complete loop and see Yellowstone Falls, so we decided to save that for next time and we made our way around Yellowstone Lake and East on US-20. The crowds died down drastically and the roads were nearly empty as we finished driving through the park.
The views didn’t stop here though, we enjoyed the scenery driving from Yellowstone to Cody, WY along the Shoshone River. We especially enjoyed driving around Buffalo Bill Reservoir, and noted that there was a dam and power plant here — working for the Department of Reclamation is one of Curtis’ potential post-Navy job ideas, and we always enjoy seeing the cool places those jobs could take us.
In Cody, we got gas and Taco Johns and took it to eat at a park. From here, we only had 2 hours to go to make it to our campsite. Because it was almost the Fourth of July weekend, we thought it would be easier to find a first come-first served site in the Bighorn Mountains rather than anywhere near Yellowstone, and it would make our last two days of driving a bit shorter. Not long after leaving Cody, we could already see the Bighorns in the distance, and enjoyed the views as they got closer and closer. Curtis and I have a few hiking ideas for this area and hope we can take a trip out here to hike at some point, and just driving through and camping one night confirmed our desire to spend more time exploring this national forest.
We found a nice campsite in Shell Creek Campground, though the weather had turned and it looked as though it could rain on us. Thankfully it never did, though it got quite cold overnight. At least it gave us a reason to use our colder weather gear we had brought! We ate brats for dinner and played games before turning in for the night.