I am a fan of national parks. I love them. They are our national treasures, and I think they are the best thing about this country, by far. American National Parks feature various ecosystems, geological formations, showcasing the topographic wonders of this country while always continuously championing conservation efforts.
Yellowstone was the first National Park in the United States and one might say it’s the granddaddy of them all. It was signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and covers a vast land area over Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Yogi Bear also lives here.
Just kidding, I know he lives in Jellystone.
Let’s go get us a pic-a-nic basket…
I am usually the designated driver whenever my family heads out on vacations, so I was more than pleased to hand over the wheel to a tour bus driver for this trek of the Northwest. I don’t love tours, but they’re convenient and organized, hitting most of the “must see” features of the region you’re visiting. However, I feel like they are a little time constricting, and you don’t always get to choose food or hotels. In areas where your options are limited anyway (mostly mid-range chain hotels), taking a backseat while someone else steers for the long haul is welcome.
We started our Northwest travels somewhere in the Black Hills, headed towards Devil’s Tower. This is the country’s oldest national monument, established in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a behemoth monolith and it has the most badass legend surrounding it. According to Native American folklore, a group of girls was being chased by bears. They found this rock and prayed to their Great Spirit to save them, then the Great Spirit raised this platform towards the sky. The bears kept scratching (leaving distinctive marks on the rock) but the girls were safe out of harm’s way. Best story ever because it looks like it could conceivably be true.
Continuing the sojourn, we headed to Cody, Wyoming–named after illustrious showman (and forever PETA enemy) of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill Cody. This is cowboy country, has its roots in the Old American West, and the city embraces this. There is a large Buffalo Bill Center, that encompasses multiple museums: Plains indians, history, firearms, Western art, and one dedicated to the man himself.
The downtown area, while small, is thriving due to the tourists who come into the region to go to Yellowstone. There are lots of shops selling souvenirs from bison heads to western patterned rugs; anything you’d need to outfit your upscale chic hunting lodge.
The famous Irma hotel was founded by Buffalo Bill and features a beautifully sculpted bar made from cherrywood gifted from Queen Victoria.
Because there is a booming tourist industry, there are some good restaurants at any price point. We ate at the Local, a contemporary dining room where asking for something gluten free won’t make anyone bat an eyelash. I had wild boar in blackberry sauce because when I put my cowboy boots on, I think I’m some sort of Annie Oakley.
If you’re able, strongly consider entering Yellowstone from the Montana side. You’ll go through the cutest town, Cooke City, which basically demarcates the beginning of the park.
By entering on the Montana side, you’re heading in via the Northeast entrance which will lead you right into Lamar Valley. This is the best place to see a ton of bison. It’s open, they’re roaming around, it’s magical. I love bison, top five favorite animals. They’re huge, but they can run fast on their little legs and they’ll charge the hell out of you if you mess with them. Spirit animals.
Mammoth Hot Springs are incredible limestone formations created from slow erosion. The village is popular amongst tourists and the herds of elk that like to laze on the lawns of the buildings.
There’s lot of restaurants, picnic areas, and a visitor’s center that has taxidermy and information about the area.
The Yellowstone caldera is basically a huge volcanic crater, and the park displays the vestiges of eruptions such as basalt columns, fumaroles/steam vents/hot springs.
The continental divide sits in Yellowstone, but there’s no real place to see water running in opposite directions. There’s a nifty sign though!
Valleys, canyons, forests, plains, Yellowstone has it all.
We stayed in Grant Village, at one of the lodges. Highly recommend staying at a lodge. There’s no TV or internet, so it’s “roughing” it in a sense that you’re in a lodge with a really comfortable bed and they give out bear shaped soaps. I love them.
Grant Village sits on the banks of Yellowstone Lake which is one of the largest lakes in North America. There are a few restaurants around the area, one of which serves asian inspired dishes. As a person who grew up in Southern California, I would skip the pho (unless limp noodles with tough meat in brown water is your thing, then by all means, be my guest). I appreciate the effort I guess, since I was a little over eating burgers.
The next morning, they took us to Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which is totally where I would stay if I had a lot of money (and reservations at least one year in advance).
Onto more geologic wonders. Mud pots are bubbling hot springs of mud, and there are a lot of these in the park.
Fumaroles, or regular hot springs, are steam vents found throughout the park.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is probably one of the most picturesque places in the park, there are no bad angles or views.
Canyon Village is a great place to stop for lunch; there’s a ton of options from American fast casual to American cafeteria fare. Although, their gift shop and soda fountain sells cup of noodles if you’re jonesing for something different. The visitor’s center has many interactive displays and more taxidermy.
The Fountain paint pots are a palette of colors and steam and heat.
Bacteria are actually what give the hot springs their different colors. The temperatures are more than scalding, and there’s people who die every year from falling into these hot springs.
Painted pots are mud pots that just happened to be more colorful than their regular counterparts.
And then for the piece de resistance. Old Faithful Geyser. Maybe the most famous resident of this park, this reliable gusher of pressurized steam spews boiling water about every 60-90 minutes. In this day and age, it’s nice to have something that is predictable that you can depend on. It doesn’t disappoint.
The Old Faithful Inn is another hotel that is full of character. It’s also very crowded with people wanting to catch a glimpse of the geyser from its restaurants and patios.
We were lucky, we saw the Old Faithful blow off its steam twice during our stay. And the second time, I caught it with a rainbow.
A sunrise trek to West Thumb capped off the last day in the park.
The great thing about this park is the availability of pedestrian walkways out along and over the thermal features so you be close enough to examine yet far enough to stay safe.
A short drive out of the park and you’re already at the Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. Colter Bay Visitor’s Center provides a panoramic view of the trinity of mountains.
Johnson Lake has a nice picnic area and is popular for recreational activities: paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing.
Jackson, Wyoming is a charming mountain town nestled within this valley. It is a mountainous playground of the elite for a reason. Even when it’s not snow season, there’s a mix of high end galleries and cowboy culture. It has the first Starbucks I’d seen in days, so that should tell you something.
The iconic town square cordoned off by antler arches at its four corners. There are a ton of places to eat, but I really enjoyed the pho at The Kitchen, a welcome respite from the various grilled meats I’d been eating for three days.
A drink and live music at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is a must to cap off your night…
and the end of your trip…