We entered Yellowstone National Park from Grand Teton National Park via the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway and the southern entrance. Though the weather was picture-perfect with astonishingly blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s, there was virtually no line to get into the park.
There are no major sights in the southern part of the park and the road through heavily forested areas and along ridges and lakes, so less likely to be susceptible to large animal traffic hold-ups often seen in other parts of the park. It made for nice unimpeded driving through gorgeous scenery but it did also make it harder to stop when I caught sight of something. For instance, as we passed Isa Lake where there was not only a marker for the Continental Divide but I could see a picturesque stop with dark water and ice, I thought I should pull over. However as the parking area was small and busy I opted to continue on, saying we could go back another day, but we never did.
We headed on to the Old Faithful area. We were ready for a stop, a chance to stretch our legs and see one of the most iconic sights of the park. Though there were some exciting false starts, the geyser did not disappoint. At least not us. We did hear one person lament how it had been “underwhelming” and another guy musing out loud “I would really like to understand the mechanics.” (Um, hello? You might find information in the visitor center RIGHT BEHIND YOU.) For us, that nature would provide such a regular display of its power, was extraordinary. The good weather and perfect viewing spot were icing on the cake.
After watching Old Faithful and checking out the visitor’s center we were ready for lunch. And this is where we ran into some of the pandemic staffing issues. The National Park Service app had warned visitors of personnel shortages that were leading to the cutting of some services, including many restaurants remaining closed or having more limited hours. Lunch service was particularly affected; I assume the park guessed that many visitors could grab sandwiches or other portable foods to consume while sightseeing or hiking. This led to some very long lines.
We made a few more stops afterwards — pulling into the parking lot that led to the Fairy Falls trail as there looked like there could be some bison vs people interaction with two large bison crossing the path while dumbfounded walkers stood by (well within the recommended 25 yards) in awe. Luckily, the bison were entirely uninterested. We tried to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring but the small parking lot was overflowing, yet we had to inch through it to discover this. But having started the day in Grand Teton and ending it at the Canyon Lodges in Yellowstone, with some beautiful sights along the way, we were good.
The following day I made some adjustments to our plan based on weather and food options. With the forecast set to be warm and clear and the breakfast area a crowded, slow mess, we opting to head to the Canyon area after purchasing some breakfast and snacks at the Canyon Village grocery which opened at 9 AM. I have no idea what time the store may open when its not a pandemic, but it seemed late. Yet, the park had warned us of this, so the Canyon area, right by our lodging, seemed the most logical choice for that morning. And no sooner had we driven five minutes when we came upon an elk feeding right next to the road.
Canyon is otherworldly. Though I have never been to the Grand Canyon I have been to large canyons in other countries, but there was something about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone I could not really wrap my head around. Nearly every photo I took of it looked staged, as if I had had used a fake background. Even staring at the Lower Falls and the cascading river far below with my naked eyes did not quite feel real. It was too big, too grand, to seem possible. I have looked at other photos online and they too give off a photoshopped vibe. And yet it is all very real.
We stopped at various points on both the upper falls and lower falls roads including Artist’s Point and Inspiration Point. We caught a rainbow forming at the base of the upper falls. I drove for a very, very short time the wrong way on the lower falls road and suffered the ire of the male driver of a large vehicle who made the time to slow down, roll down his window, and shake his fists down at me while mouthing “one way!” I was embarrassed for sure but I 100% swear there is no signage regarding the traffic direction of said road (though you can find a tiny black arrow on your Yellowstone map — be forewarned!). And for the rest of the trip we would jokingly arch our backs, shake our fists, and mouth “One Way!” to each other.
We made it back in time to enjoy a nice lunch at the Canyon Fountain & Grill, a 50s style soda fountain eatery inside the Canyon Village shop. It was one of the few places in the park open for lunch so we took advantage that day. After lunch my aunt had a quiet afternoon at the lodge while C and returned to the Old Faithful area to meander around the trails to see other geothermal features and took another shot at visiting the Grand Prismatic Spring – with success this time. However, we discovered after approaching the spring that it did not in fact lead to the overlook where I had wanted to be. We had already walked for miles that day (with us tracking about 25,000 steps) and we didn’t have the energy for a two hour round trip to the overlook. So that too will need to be earmarked for a future trip.
With our third day in the park predicted to have rain, we opted to spend that morning in the Lamar Valley, known for having some of the best opportunities for wildlife spotting. This reminded me so much of self drive safaris in Africa – all safaris are a matter of luck, but in self driving you do not even have the upper hand of experienced guides and trackers. We sure did luck out that day as we came across a bottleneck along the road just before Tower Falls, where a mother black bear had been spotted lying beneath a large pine where her two cubs were safely ensconced. We could barely make out any of them, but a fellow visitor, who happened to be a retired school teacher with a powerful scope, was kindly letting everyone take a look at the bears from a safe distance.
In the valley itself, there were many bison herds, full of young calves, grazing near the road and occasionally crossing it. We also saw pronghorn deer, ground squirrels, a bald eagle, and a sandhill crane. The animals certainly did not mind the cooler temperatures and misting rain.
With the weather improving through the morning, I opted to head us to Yellowstone Lake instead of Mammoth for lunch. And it turned out to be fortuitous as we passed yet another bear in the Chittenden area just north of the Canyon lodging and a lone wolf on the far side of the river in the Hayden Valley. We were then able to stop at the Mud Volcano area and lunch at the Wylie Canteen at the Lake Lodge, which had just reopened for lunch service a few days before.
On our final day in the park, Sunday, June 12, our luck with the weather ran out. The rain of the previous morning had returned the evening before and poured down for hours and was still falling in the morning. Though I was disappointed, I hoped that as we drove out the north entrance of the park back into Montana, that we might catch a break in the storm and be able to see some of the area. In the end, we drove only one short loop, Upper Terraces Drive, braving the elements only once with rain gear and umbrellas. We stopped in to the Visitor’s Center, hoping that again we could kill some time in the educational center, but the rain only intensified. The one lunch space was packed full of people and with a very long line, so we decided to cut our losses and drive on to Gardiner, Montana, the town right outside the park at the North Entrance.
Little did we know that as we lunched on pizza in Gardiner and then drove on to the Chico Hot Springs Resort in Pray, Montana, how very lucky we would be. Chico, a beautiful 122-year old resort in Paradise Valley, is also where my friend CLK has worked for decades. Years ago, she came out after college to work for nine months and she never left. I visited her in 1998, and she took me on my previous foray to Yellowstone. My daughter and I enjoyed a swim in the glorious natural mineral spring swimming pool, and then she and I and my aunt met CLK and her eldest son for dinner in the award winning Chico dining room to feast on Montana steaks and the dining hall’s famous dessert: the Flaming Orange, a delicious concoction of orange, chocolate, vanilla ice cream, meringue and a good dousing of alcohol, including 151 proof rum, that guarantees a big flame when lit. It was amazing to catch up with CLK, meet her son, and to introduce her to my daughter and aunt.
Unbeknownst to us a disaster was brewing. By that evening, the unprecedented rain and snowmelt led to the Yellowstone River bursting its banks and swallowing parts of the park’s northern roads. The folllowing day the Yankee Jim canyon just north of Gardiner would flood and the Carbella Bridge, a historic steel-trussed bridge built in 1918, washed away. And the National Park Service would close Yellowstone and evacuate visitors and workers.
That afternoon as we lolled around Chico enjoying the quiet and beauty, contemplating another soak in the hot springs, CLK messaged me to inform me that we might strongly consider evacuating. According to reports, Livingston, the town 24 miles to the north of Chico and on the way back to Bozeman, was partially evacuating. Part of the highway, which had been already been under some construction, was flooding. There was one bridge still open heading that would get us to Bozeman, but it was not sure how much longer it might remain open. We could take our chances and stay but there was no way of knowing if we would be able to get out the next morning as more rain was predicted that night. I made the executive decision to pack our bags and leave in the next 30 minutes. CLK helped us pack quickly and hand-drew us a map that would take us on back roads to Bozeman, avoiding Livingston.
The bridge was still holding when we crossed, though the waters were high and we could see large debris, including 10 foot trees, floating swiftly on the currents. Once safely over, we got out to watch the waters in wonder. Under a dazzlingly blue sky that belied the catastrophic flooding occurring, the river was rising and widening. It did not look as though the bridge would be open much longer (note: amazingly enough it apparently never closed!). Then we headed over the hills to Bozeman where we would stay the night — meeting several other evacuees from the park and nearby areas.
It was a rather exciting end to an amazing vacation. I am glad to have had the chance to experience these parks with my aunt and my daughter. We were so incredibly lucky to be able to see the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone regardless. To have seen it first in such gorgeous weather, with so many animal sightings, was wonder enough. Then to have made it out just before the calamity fell (what the U.S. Geological Survey called a 1 in 500 years event) is truly extraordinary. It is terrible to think of the economic and environmental costs of the floods will be for years to come. It makes me all the more grateful we not only saw it just beforehand, but also made it out in time.
And now we prepare for our next adventure: heading to Conakry, Guinea. I hope our trip there will be uneventful.