You may remember that we very nearly didn’t make it to Yellowstone at all.
Well, it almost happened again – when we were right outside. Considering we were now completely in off-season, we had hit lucky for almost all of our road trip, from missing a snow storm in the Canadian Rockies, to having absolutely beautiful weather everywhere except for one of our days in Monument Valley.
Now, finally, we were about to hit up our last national park of the trip, and the weather wasn’t playing ball, at all.
But let’s rewind a bit and catch up where I left off. I’m going to begin our Yellowstone story the way no Yellowstone story has ever begun: with dinosaurs.
It had seemed totally ridiculous to go off on such a crazy detour, when we could check out Salt Lake City and take a more direct route towards Yellowstone. As always, the reasons we were making this detour were also totally ridiculous. You see, not only did we want to drive through Ash’s namesake, Ashley National Forest (marking a great entrance to Wyoming, if you ask me), but right over another state border is a fantastic little town called Dinosaur.
So let me tell you all about our fun-filled half hour in Colorado.
It was crap.
Dinosaur is not a fantastic little town. It has nothing. It’s literally short streets of dilapidated buildings and a feeling that you’re about to be murdered for accidentally trespassing. I feel bad – I’m sure the residents are actually delightful, but damn.
As we drove along Brontosaurus Boulevard (true story), we spotted an information centre that looked closed – looked like it could have been closed for years – and anyway, there was a car parked outside with a burly guy stood over it, watching us menacingly from behind his cigarette, so we weren’t about to go and find out. He was probably the nicest guy ever.
So the only thing going for the town was the main reason we went at all – all the streets are, brilliantly, named after dinosaurs! Like, hello, who doesn’t want to go to Stegosaurus Street or Diplodocus Drive? If you don’t, you’re lying to yourself.
We took photos of the street signs without even leaving the car, and instead of taking even more of a detour to go to the actual Dinosaur National Monument, drove back to the safety of Vernal, back in Utah.
Vernal itself is ridiculous. It is also dinosaur themed. There are dinosaur parks, dinosaur hotels, and random dinosaurs. It was more dinosaur-themed than Dinosaur.
But it was time to finally leave Utah once and for all.
Wyoming was exciting, because it was my first new state since Oregon. We were in real unknown territory now, with no idea what was going to happen between here and Vancouver.
It’s probably a good thing Wyoming has Yellowstone to stake claim to, because other than that it was proving to be a pretty dull drive. What had started off as excitement about being in cowboy country quickly gave way to boredom as it all looked the same. Although we did pass some actual highland cows!! And potentially a wild horse.
By the time we arrived in Jackson, it was dark, though we were entranced by the lit up bars and restaurants that we passed. This was somewhere we were actually going to need to check out, we decided.
We had treated ourselves to a night just outside Jackson, and it was easily the best place we had stayed on the trip! Welcome to the Elk Refuge Inn, on the edge of Grand Teton.
In the morning, we had a quick wander around Jackson before we got on our way.
This is cowboy town on a touristy level. But that’s okay, because it’s a lovely place!
We stopped for hot chocolates in the aptly named Cowboy Coffee Company – it was the first time we had really felt the cold on this road trip. We, unfortunately, saw our first Trump t shirt on sale. (Amazing, right? Our eighth state and this was our first indication that anyone actually supports him – and it was a shop, not an actual person.)
Honestly – we could have spent a few days here! It’s the perfect base for exploring, with two national parks practically on its doorstep. I can’t help but imagine how busy it gets in summer.
Worryingly, the south road into Yellowstone was still closed. We were going to have to make a new plan of action over our hot chocolates. It was going to add almost an hour to our journey to drive into Idaho and up to West Yellowstone – plus I’d been excited to see Grand Teton National Park on the way up to the south entrance.
We decided to drive through Grand Teton anyway – but it turned out to be a bit of a bust.
The weather was awful; although it wasn’t stormy any more, the clouds were low, which isn’t ideal when you want to see beautiful mountains. Furthermore, the scenic route past Jenny Lake was shut (which I knew), so we wouldn’t even get the postcard view of “the most photographed barn in America”. (side note: anyone else notice that there seems to be two different barns in the photos?!)
However, we did see a moose. Conveniently, right around Moose.
It was really far away, but it was still a moose! (Hint: between the trees, centre right)
We knew we were going to have to turn back, which was a real nuisance given that we were on a time constraint now. It meant that we were looking at getting to Yellowstone mid-afternoon instead of late morning, and we had no idea what to realistically expect from driving times once we were in there.
If you’ve ever been to or researched Yellowstone, you’ll know the number one rule: it takes way longer to get between places than you expect, mostly due to people stopping for wildlife by the road. Even in off-season, we had no idea if we’d immediately find a queue of traffic leading up to a bear, or an elk wreaking havoc on the roads.
But our biggest concern was arriving at West Yellowstone to find that road shut, too.
Luckily, it wasn’t, and after a quick jaunt through Idaho (state #9) and Montana (state #10), we were in. There was no queue to get into the park, nor any queues anywhere. We were amazed.
Within a minute, we caught a fleeting glimpse of an elk.
And by the time we’d got to the first junction, we’d passed some incredible scenery. I wasn’t expecting this – when you think of Yellowstone, you only really think of the famous landmarks.
Soon after, near the hot springs a little further south, we passed our first bison.
A little while later, we passed some more. These were right by the road, and a few cars pulled in to observe them. I can only imagine what ruckus this would cause in the summer, but at this time of year, it was a peaceful moment. One bison even walked in front of the car ahead of us. At this point, I was a little wary – he was a big boy, and if he’d just walked in front of me, I would have pooped myself.
Therefore I’m going to jump in now with a VERY IMPORTANT PSA.
Respect the wildlife.
Seriously – it’s not that difficult.
About 30 seconds after Big Boy Bison crossed the road, another car pulled up behind us. I watched with horror as a girl rolled down the window, screaming “BISON SELFIE!!!!!” at the two bison still right next to the road.
HER FRIEND THEN GOT OUT OF THE CAR.
I couldn’t believe it. Official safety guidelines recommend that you stay 25 metres away from wildlife (and 100 yards away from predators such as bears and wolves).
The following day, we stopped by a huge herd of elk. They were far enough away that no one could harm them, nor them us, but that didn’t stop a group of guys screeching and whooping, trying to get their attention so that they’d look up at their phones. Trying to get wildlife to pose for your photos? Really?!
It is no wonder people get attacked in Yellowstone. Bison are hugely fierce, and they could kill you with one blow. But it’s totally worth it for that selfie, right?
The wildlife was undoubtedly my highlight of Yellowstone. We didn’t even see any bears, wolves or moose, but what we did see was incredible.
The only problem was the weather. We missed Old Faithful on our first day; we did head down there, but there wouldn’t be another eruption for over an hour. We had arrived too late, really, so we focused on the hot springs instead.
Or at least, what we could see of them.
We took a side road (Fire Hole Lake Drive – where we saw the roadside bison) to check out the geological wonders hidden away.
Sadly, we didn’t get many of the vibrant colours that you see in photos. I was most excited about Grand Prismatic Spring, but after a walk around it, we decided it wasn’t worth going up to the upper viewpoint in the snow, because the mist above it was insane.
I did get a couple of nice photos of the smaller springs surrounding it though.
The whole place felt like this alien landscape, and I think the mist made it even more exotic (trying to find the upsides here!).
On our way out, I slammed my brakes on and took a side road.
I’d spotted a hell of a lot of brown.
We stood alone, observing an entire herd of bison across the river. This was probably the best end to the day that we could have asked for!
The following day, after a night in Bozeman, Montana (more on that later, because we surprisingly loved it!), we set off early towards to the north entrance of the park.
(As an aside, Gardiner, right at the entrance, looks like a really cute little town and I wish we’d looked into accommodation options there!)
It was great to see a different side of Yellowstone, because even though we weren’t going to get to the waterfalls, the north side is home to a great little museum about the geology and wildlife of the park.
After a quick wander in the warmth of the museum, we checked out the Mammoth Hot Springs. I know a little less about this area, but it was even more alien like than the landscape we’d already seen.
We ventured further south, into a lot of snow. Like, a lot. Remember how we were completely stung by our rental company charging us almost the rental price again for upgrading to snow tyres? After a month, it was finally worth it.
We made a couple of stops at places we had never heard of, and eventually hit the junction that we’d been to yesterday. After the journey down, it was almost a relief to hit familiar territory, and even better – the snow was suddenly dissipating (probably due to the hot springs and being on the world’s biggest supervolcano, who knows?). We had been worried that the further south we got, the more likely it would be that the road would suddenly be shut. Unsurprisingly, the road towards Canyon Village was already shut, putting a stop to any option of seeing Yellowstone Falls.
Instead, we had to make do with a smaller waterfall – Gibbon Falls.
We had timed it phenomenally well, all things considered. By the time we got down to Old Faithful, the northern entrance and road were shut. Apparently someone very close behind us had crashed, which was a little unnerving.
So now, with less than 24 hours until the winter closure of the park, the only roads open were Old Faithful to Madison Junction, and along to the West Yellowstone entrance. Talk about cutting it fine!
It was kind of exciting seeing Yellowstone on its very last day of the season. It closes for a month or so in November, in order to prepare for the winter season, when tourists are only permitted in snow vehicles or on tours. Unfortunately, when I was first planning the trip, I read that October/November is one of the best times to visit, and happily put it on our itinerary without realising that they do in fact close the park altogether.
When we got to Old Faithful, the weather was worsening, and we looked around the museum to keep out of the cold while we waited for the eruption.
You can see how quiet it is! Old Faithful erupted about five minutes after this, and apart from the group of four taking our photo, only a couple more people joined to watch.
I thought the park might have been busier, with people like us trying to squeeze it in before they close. On the contrary, everywhere we went was quiet, which meant that we were getting a pretty unique experience.
If we’re going to be absolutely truthful, coming to Yellowstone in November was a bit of a mistake. I’m glad we went, and I’m very glad we didn’t experience the heaving summer crowds, but we missed out on a lot, and we didn’t have enough time there anyway. We always knew we wouldn’t. Yellowstone is a place we’re very much hoping to come back to – it’s not as far from Calgary, which means next time we visit my cousins in Banff, it’ll be far easier to pop down to Yellowstone for a few days than try to squeeze it between Utah and Vancouver.
But that’s fine – we saw some of the best wildlife on the entire trip, and even though it was cloudy (and geysers don’t exactly look amazing with a grey background), we watched Old Faithful erupt with maybe ten other people there. That’s something a lot of people can’t say.
I think October would probably be a great time to visit, after the crowds have dispersed and before the weather takes a turn, but it was impossible for us to time it right.
Anyway, we’ll be back. Yellowstone has been on Ash’s bucket list for as long as he can remember, so it was great to visit (especially as there were no other decent routes back to Vancouver anyway) – but equally, it would be good to do it properly one day.