Yellowstone National Park – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 12)

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Welcome back to Part  12 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, I’ll cover our visit to Yellowstone National Park. We spent three action-packed days exploring the geysers, mud pots, waterfalls, and lakes of what is arguably the nation’s best national park. 

A brief recap of our trip: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles. 

Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van

To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts.

Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):

  1. North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
  2. Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
  3. Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
  4. Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
  6. Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
  7. A Week in Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
  9. California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
  10. Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
  11. Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
  12. Yellowstone National Park
  13. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force

Join me for part 12 of our trip across the country as we explore Yellowstone National Park.

We entered through the west gate of Yellowstone, then traveled all over the park over the next three days. Our hotel was in Gardiner, Montana on the north side of the park near Mammoth Hot Springs.

In Part 11 of our cross country road trip summary, we were staying in Idaho Falls, Idaho after visiting Salt Lake City, Utah and Antelope Island State Park.

From Idaho Falls we drove 1.75 hours to get to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We spent the rest of the first full day visiting Yellowstone geysers and other attractions within the park. Late in the day, we headed north to our hotel for the next three nights in Gardiner, Montana.

We stayed at the Ridgeline Inn in Gardiner. I used an average of 10,667 Choice Hotel points per night to book a 2 room suite with full kitchen for six people. In total, the three nights we booked cost 32,000 points which are worth around $200 when valued at the “normal” 0.6 cents per point that I’ve seen used in the travel hacking community. The cash rate was over $600 per night! Needless to say, we got a good deal in an area that has ridiculously expensive summer lodging rates.

We spent the second and third days visiting other parts of Yellowstone as well. For those unfamiliar with the size of the park – it’s huge! The park takes more than two hours to traverse in the north-south direction and just as long in the east-west direction. And those 2+ hour travel times are before factoring in long traffic delays since the park gets very crowded at times. 

We did a lot of driving in Yellowstone, but we still managed to see the highlights during our short three day visit. 

I’ll cover each day of our visit in order in case anyone wants to “copy” our itinerary (or parts of it). 

Yellowstone Day 1 – Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful Geyser

After the almost two hour drive to Yellowstone from Idaho Falls, we were pleasantly surprised to see zero cars in line at the western entrance to Yellowstone. That meant we wouldn’t have to wait at all! We had been warned that lines to get into the park could be very long. Another lucky break for us!

Once inside the park, we drove alongside the Madison River then the Firehole River for about 30 minutes before arriving at our first stop of the day: Grand Prismatic Spring. This was one of the “must see” attractions for us, so we made it a priority to stop here first. 

Grand Prismatic Spring

The parking situation at Grand Prismatic Spring is pretty rough. The parking lot itself is jam packed with lines backing onto the main park road. Fortunately there is on-street parking along the main road, so we skipped the traffic jammed parking lot and parked on the side of the main road. From our parking space, it was about a quarter of a mile walk down to the trailhead for the Grand Prismatic Spring.

We walked past the long lines of cars waiting for a space inside the parking lot, then proceeded up the trail and onto the boardwalk through the Grand Prismatic Spring and several other pools of scalding hot water. 

The rust-colored ground around the Grand Prismatic Spring

I felt the heat rising from the pools as we walked along them. In spite of the hot summer day, the steam rose non-stop from the thermal pools. 

Old Faithful Geyser and Geyser Hill

After touring around the Grand Prismatic Spring boardwalk, we headed back to the car and proceeded to the Old Faithful Geyser. The section of the park around Old Faithful is covered in parking lots and roads to service the needs of all the tourists that come to this area. 

We found a parking space and as we walked toward the geyser, we asked a fellow tourist about the eruption schedule. “It’s due any minute” they said. We scurried to the Old Faithful Geyser just in time to watch it erupt.

Watching Old Faithful geyser erupt

Old Faithful is named for it’s somewhat predicable eruption cycle – about every 90 minutes. After watching the first eruption, we decided to spend the next 90 minutes checking out the dozens of springs and geysers on the Geyser Hill trail just north of Old Faithful.

Pump Geyser near Old Faithful
Ear Spring Geyser near Old Faithful

We circled around the short Geyser Hill trail, stopping frequently to observe the closely spaced geysers and springs bubbling and spurting at seemingly random intervals. 

We returned to the back side of the Old Faithful Geyser just minutes before the next eruption. We timed it just right! 

After watching Old Faithful erupt again, we walked to the nearby Old Faithful Inn. This classic structure was built in 1903 and looks amazing inside. We used the vintage bathrooms and couldn’t tour much of the place as it was roped off for “guests only”. 

Interior shot in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. Amazing timber frame construction.

Fountain Paint Pot Area

We headed back to the car, left the Old Faithful area, and proceeded north toward our hotel which was still an hour and a half away. Along the drive, we stopped at the Fountain Paint Pot geyser area. Since it was getting late in the day, the Fountain Paint Pot trail through the geysers and springs wasn’t that busy.

We saw some bubbling mud pots, deep blue springs, and impressive geysers spewing non-stop during our half mile walk. 

Silex Spring in the Fountain Paint Pot area

Headed toward our hotel in Gardiner, Montana

Our family was pretty exhausted after a busy day of sightseeing, so we hit the road once again destined for our hotel at the northern edge of the park. Along the way, we drove past a rare black wolf! We circled back to take a closer look but it ran off right as we spotted it again. 

We passed through the town of Mammoth Hot Springs on the northern side of the park. It was packed with wild elk roaming about the central town square and surrounding area. 

We finally make it to the Ridgeline Inn in Gardiner, Montana just after nightfall. While passing through Gardiner I went ahead and fueled up the van to prepare for another full day of sightseeing the next day. 

Yellowstone Day 2 – West Thumb and Yellowstone River Falls/Canyon

We decided to do some backtracking on Day 2 so that we could get a better view of the Grand Prismatic Spring in the southern section of the park. We wanted to visit the West Thumb set of thermal pools and geysers which is on the southern edge of the park as well.

We grabbed some breakfast at the hotel, packed our lunch and dinner in the cooler, and headed out for what would be four hours of total driving time to get to the southern edge of the park and then loop back through the eastern part of the park on the way back to our hotel. We knew we would be squeezing every drop of sunlight out of the day and would be exhausted by sunset, but onward we went. 

Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook

First stop was the Fairy Falls Trail parking lot about a mile and a half south of the Grand Prismatic Springs parking area. We eventually found a parking space in the very crowded dirt lot. Then headed out for the “short 0.6 mile hike” according to the National Park Service trail guide. 

Spoiler alert: it was a bit longer than that according to my Strava app. I think the NPS guide meant it was 0.6 miles from the parking lot to the turn off for the walk up the mountainside to the actual overlook. So add another quarter of a mile each way including a couple hundred feet of vertical ascent. Including the long walk through the parking lot to the trailhead, we walked about 2 miles.

The overlook for Grand Prismatic Spring was great! I liked the view MUCH better from up there compared to the view from the boardwalk right next to the Grand Prismatic Spring. The vertical perspective from further away, looking at it from above, really gives a better impression of the scale of the spring and a more comprehensive view of all the vibrant colors.

Grand Prismatic Spring from the overlook.  100% worth the hike up there.

It’s like stepping back from a Monet painting to take in the scene as a whole. The picture looks much better from a distance instead of looking up close at each individual element in the painting. It’s a matter of perspective. Needless to say, I’m glad we did the “backtracking” to come back here and make the 2 mile hike up to the overlook and back to the car. 

West Thumb Geyser Basin

Our next stop on Day 2 was at the West Thumb Geyser Basin about 30 minutes down the road from The Fairy Falls Trail parking area. West Thumb is a collection of several dozen geysers and thermal pools interspersed with a mile of boardwalks.

A section of the boardwalk parallels the “West Thumb” section of Yellowstone Lake. The name West Thumb comes from the fact that this section of lake extends like a “thumb” from the main body of the Yellowstone Lake further to the east.

West Thumb Lake

We spent about an hour strolling among the various geysers. While we were checking out the Black Pool Spring, along walked two big elks. They casually strolled between some geysers and across the boardwalk, mostly ignoring us human interlopers. On they go, and on we go as well.  

Elks at West Thumb
Black Pool Hot Spring at West Thumb
Abyss pool at West Thumb
Lakeshore Geyser at West Thumb

Yellowstone Grand Canyon and Waterfalls

Back at the car, we set the GPS for the Yellowstone Grand Canyon and Yellowstone River Falls area about an hour away to the north. For half of the trip, we would skirt the shore of the expansive Yellowstone Lake before heading inland through the park along the Yellowstone River. 

Along the drive, we took a break to let a huge bison walk down the middle of the road as we watched. So cool!

Eventually we arrive at the various overlooks for the Yellowstone River upper and lower falls. Since it was getting late in the day and we were tired from the previous hiking and walking, we decided to stick to the overlooks that didn’t require lengthy hikes to the vantage point. We worked our way down the northern bank of the Yellowstone River along Rim Road and checked out the two sets of falls from several points of view. 

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. This section is known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone River rapids

The “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” was visible from the last couple of overlooks we visited. It’s basically a very deep canyon with mostly yellowish rocks lining the canyon walls along each side of the river. The yellow coloration comes from oxidized iron in the rocks. When I saw how yellow it was, I assumed it was sulfur. But it’s not!

We wrapped up our sightseeing for the day as the sun started to dip behind the trees. We had an hour of driving ahead of us before we got back to the hotel, so we set out for a twilight drive through Yellowstone park. Along the way home, we stopped a few times when we saw interesting wildlife. 

After an exhausting day of sightseeing, we were glad to make it back to our hotel safe and sound! 

We spotted some bighorn sheep on the drive back to the hotel

Yellowstone Day 3 – Mammoth Hot Springs

On our last full day in Yellowstone National Park, we visited the Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern section of the park. 

We only had a short 15 minute drive to the Mammoth Hot Springs from our hotel. We enjoyed a relatively relaxing morning at our hotel after a couple of very busy days exploring Yellowstone. Then we set out for Mammoth Hot Springs. 

The Mammoth Hot Springs are a collection of dozens of travertine limestone terraces holding back hot spring waters. Some are white, some are a deep rusty red color, and others are various shades of blue or green. The color of each pool depends on what microorganisms thrive in the various mixes of temperatures and micronutrients present in each hot spring. 

The Mammoth Hot Springs are divided into the “lower terraces” and the “upper terraces”. It’s possible to walk from upper to lower terraces or vice versa. However, we decided to park by the lower terraces and explore the lower section on foot first.

View from the lower terraces
Another impressive formation in the lower terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs
lower terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs
Mineralized travertine

Once we finished with the lower terraces, we drove to the upper terraces and walked the boardwalk among the second set of hot springs. The upper terraces section also has a short 1.5 mile loop road with frequent stops for overlooks of more hot springs. 

An overlook in the Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs

The Mystery of the Boiling River (and avoiding Federal Trespassing Charges!!)

After visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, we were hoping to stop at the Boiling River spot along the Gardner River on the drive back to our hotel. However, the Boiling River spot was closed for the summer without much explanation on the signs warning us of this closure. The signs did warn us of federal trespassing charges if we hopped the fence and went to Boiling Springs on our own! 

We kept on driving a few more miles along the Gardner River and eventually found a decent looking spot to wade into the river for a bit. We still weren’t sure if the whole river was closed or just the spot where the boiling hot water seeps out of a natural hot spring.

When we parked at the not-boiling part of the river, a park ranger pulled into the pull-off area right next to us. I guess we were about to find out if dipping our toes in the river was a federal crime or not!  

The park ranger ignored the half dozen vehicles parked at this pull-off and quickly did a U-turn. Perhaps to catch some more egregious toe-dippers back at the highly illegal Boiling River section of the Gardner River? 

We’ll never know for sure, but that cool Gardner River water definitely felt refreshing on this hot July day in Yellowstone. 

After relaxing for a while, we packed up and headed the last few minutes down the road to Gardiner, Montana and our last night in the Ridgeline Hotel. 

…And now, a Spelling Mystery

The astute readers among you might notice that I have spelled the Gardner River one way and the town of Gardiner, Montana slightly differently. There’s apparently an extra “i” in the name of the town according to Google Maps. 

After some research, I discovered the reason. The river was named after Johnson C. Gardner, a fur trapper and early explorer of this region in the 1830’s. A few decades later, the town was established and named after Mr. Gardner following visits from the Washburn Party of explorers in 1870. The explorer doing the naming of the town was from Virginia and spoke with a southern twang, so he added the “i” in “Gardiner” because that’s how he pronounced it. Apparently you can name stuff whatever you want if you’re an explorer! 

The Yellowstone River along the Grand Loop Road

We spent three days exploring the vast wilderness area known as Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming. 

The first day, we visited Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful geyser, and the Fountain Paint Pot area. We saw dozens of geysers, hot springs, and mud pots throughout the day.

On the second day, we revisited the Grand Prismatic Spring from an overlook that required a couple miles of hiking. After that, we walked among the geysers and springs by the West Thumb area of the Yellowstone Lake. To close out the day, we visited the waterfalls of the Yellowstone River in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the eastern section of the park. 

We devoted our third day to exploring the Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern section of the park. These mineral formations were different than the geysers and hot springs we saw elsewhere in the park. 

Throughout our three day visit to Yellowstone National Park, we saw tons of wildlife including bison, elk, and even a rare black wolf!

Yellowstone National Park is incredible. Ever been? Do you want to go now?

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