A Note to the Surfer
This page takes up the journey at the point where we arrived in West Yellowstone, MT, ready to visit Yellowstone National Park. That was three days after we got to Nevada, and those days were by no means devoid of interest, although we have no pictures to document them. If you're interested in our adventures with Basque cuisine and other fascinating Nevadan phenomena, or our journey across Idaho, click here. (A link is provided bring you back to this point when you're ready.) To skip all that and get right to Yellowstone, continue below.
During the last 50 or 60 miles of our drive from Twin Falls, ID to West Yellowstone, MT, the road climbed into some mountains in the Targhee National Forest, and this put us right inside the clouds, where the rain, slight until then, became constant and heavy. We were slowed a good deal by poor visibility. It was still raining on and off when we got to the motel in West Yellowstone. The weather didn’t encourage exploration, and I was pretty well worn out from the driving (mostly that last 60 miles), so we continued our read-loaf-and-snooze routine.
I wasn’t sure where we’d eat that evening, having picked up few suggestions in advance, but Dorothea encouraged me to inquire at the desk whether the Wolf Pack Brewing Company really had gone out of business. I had found good comments about them on the Web, but their site seemed to have disappeared, so I figured that they’d gone under like many small brewers. But no — they had only moved, and the people at the desk were glad to give us directions. We arrived early enough to get a table in the pub’s small dining area. Dorothea’s “Thai chicken salad” didn’t really work too well, but was big enough to provide sufficient pickings. My bratwurst and sauerkraut sandwich with beer-battered fries went well with Wolf Pack’s German-inspired beers. I liked their Altbier — an amber ale not quite like English or West Coast varieties (perhaps because of the German hops they use) but fine in its own right.
Weather reports were suggesting intermittent rain for the next day as well, so we resigned ourselves to the probability that our visit to Yellowstone would be at least somewhat dampened. Our luck with weather had been so good up to then that we didn’t feel entitled to complain.
Surprise! We looked out the window when we awoke at 7:15 to see a couple of inches of snow. It was melting, and the sky, though mostly gray, had an encouraging streak of blue in the northwest. Since most of the weather had been coming from that general direction, we had some reason to hope that the day would clear. We headed out for the park a couple of hours later, and found two long lines of cars at the entrance booths. We chose the left line — wrong choice. While we crept forward, two more booths were opened on the right, but we couldn’t get over there. And when we got close enough to the booths to read the signs posted there, we learned that the rightmost lane was an express lane for those who (like us) had passes. But we were still stuck the left lane. Even so, the delay only lasted 15 or 20 minutes, during which the sun came out and melted the snow off our roof.
We soon found ourselves driving through spruce and fir forests silvered by the snow that still clung to one side of every tree. Even the burnt-over areas (from the big 1988 fire) looked comparatively good in this outfit.
We had planned to begin with a southern loop past Old Faithful to Grant Village and north from there, but at the park entrance we learned that the road between these two points was closed by snow in Craig Pass. So we decided to go straight to Old Faithful without stopping, then turn around and work our way back north along the same road, this time stopping at all the viewpoints we could fit in. Then — reversing the direction of our original plan — we’d go north to Norris Junction, west via Canyon Village, and south to Lake Yellowstone and Grant Village, where we had reservations in one of the park's motel units.
This map shows (in red) the route we wound up taking. The part between Madison and Old Faithful was traveled twice, once in each direction, and we didn't drive south of Grant Village until we were leaving Yellowstone the next day.
The drive down toward Old Faithful was beautiful: hills and mountains half-whitened with snow, big meadows, rushing rivers in which trout fishermen were already wading, and then, as we went farther, interesting puffs of steam from various geysers, hot springs, and such. In spite of our plan, we couldn’t resist stopping once or twice to take pictures. This one includes at least two buffalo. To see them blown up (so to speak) click here.
As the road climbed, however, we drove out of the sun and were soon in falling snow. The temperature, according to our car thermometer, had fallen from 41° to 29°. For most of the way there wasn’t enough snow to make the roads slick, but by the time we reached Old Faithful and figured out where to park for the visitor center, we had to tramp through a blizzardlike snowfall to get inside. Dorothea remarked that these were the sort of conditions where, at home, we’d decide to stay in rather than take the car out.
Old Faithful, we learned, wasn’t due to erupt for more than an hour (and, since its famous punctuality has slipped in recent years, the time can now be off by as much as 40 minutes either way). We decided to forget it, at least for that day, and head back toward the sunshine, where we would resume our plan of stopping at whichever viewpoints and geothermal roadside attractions we could manage.
This we did. The snowfall was pretty much over when we reached Firehole Lake Drive, where we first took some pictures around Great Fountain Geyser, though we hadn’t found out when it was due to erupt.
A short distance farther on we did catch White Cone Geyser in the act. It looks impressive enough, especially in a picture that doesn't show its true scale. Click here for one that does. This geyser erupts only 15 or 20 feet high because so much mineral material has been deposited in and around the opening.
We took a boardwalk hike, slipping and sliding in slush, around the Fountain Paint Pot area (which was visually less exciting than we had hoped and expected).
Afterwards we continued north through some meadows where a herd of bison were feeding, some quite close to the road. I stopped long enough for Dorothea to take a few pictures through the car window. We were in the middle of the road, and the shoulder belonged to the bison, so we had to move as soon as someone came up behind us.
We also saw a trio of doe elk close to the road, and later in the day Dorothea saw an antlered male standing alone in a meadow. (This particular meadow was supposed to have an entire herd of elk in residence, and it occurred to me that the lone male might have been a stuffed display. Though I questioned Dorothea closely on this point, she remained adamant that, though not particularly active at the moment, he was alive and free.) Bison — in sizable herds, groups of two or three, or alone — were visible in several places we passed. My only wildlife exclusive, such as it was: I spotted a coyote taking a crap. Dorothea was denied (or spared) this sight by the shoulder of the highway, which was close enough to see over from my side of the car, but not from hers. Finally, we saw a lone swan on one of the broad reaches of the Yellowstone River.
That concludes the animal report for the day, which I have interrupted our sequence to present. Back to the journey.
In the early afternoon we reached Norris, where we looked out over a geyser area called the Porcelain Basin and then took a short walk to Steamboat Geyser, which erupts hugely at intervals of 4 to 50 years and modestly every few minutes in between. Its modest eruptions (the only sort we observed) are mostly little gushes of steam — we were never quite sure that we saw an actual stream of water going up, though with all the steam it was hard to tell.
Yellowstone Park is situated around a caldera — the site of an ancient volcano. The molten magma underneath, constantly shifting and bubbling, accounts for the geysers and mudpots, as well as the many small earthquakes that are common in that area.
We stopped at Canyon Village for lunch and it was past midafternoon when we left. Late though it was, we took the loop that follows the rim of the Yellowstone River Canyon, deciding not to take time for trails but to stop only for views that were accessible from the parking lot, or were no more than a few steps away.
We were glad that we didn’t decide to skip the canyon altogether, because we got some remarkable views down into the deep, narrow, multicolored canyon with the river raging way down at the bottom. During several of our afternoon stops, including those at the canyon, we ran into snow and hail. Fortunately, the hail was small and of the lightweight “popcorn” variety, not hard ice. Our canyon photos were mostly taken through snow, although this is hard to see in the result.
All in all, we felt that the snow, while it introduced some complications and a few difficulties, added more to our visit than it took away. This would certainly not have been true had the heavens disgorged rain instead. Though we couldn’t begin to photograph every beautiful sight we saw, we got a good sense of Yellowstone’s remarkable variety — much greater than any of the other parks we visited (which were of course smaller), and we felt grateful for such a wonderful day. The weather was especially memorable for a Memorial Day weekend.
At Grant Village, when we finally arrived at six, we found ourselves assigned to the second floor in a building with no elevator and a long walk from the parking lot. We explained our luggage problem, but it was late, they were well booked, and all they could do was assign a bellguy to help us — which he did most competently and pleasantly. That and his services the next morning added $10 in tips to the cost of our room, but we had gotten a good rate on it, and he earned every penny.
Dorothea was feeling a bit better at last, and had a good appetite for dinner, so we decided to celebrate at the Grant Village restaurant. We ordered identical feasts: tuscan bean soup (really vegetable with a few beans thrown in), 10-ounce top sirloin medium rare, with bourbon/shallot butter glaze, plus vegetables and potatoes. For dessert we ate brownie sundaes. I also had two glasses of Ravenswood zinfandel.
Snow, which we could see through the dining room windows, was falling throughout the last part of our meal, and the car’s windows needed sweeping before we could drive back to our motel building. We had been considering a return to Old Faithful the next morning before going on to Grand Teton from where we were, but it looked as if Craig Pass might still be closed.
The odometer that night read 18,800 miles: 6,809 miles driven since we began.
This section last updated 12-13-2004