Yellowstone Part I: From Gate to Gate
“For it is my opinion that we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation and our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland.” ~John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
I first started composing this post about our adventures in Yellowstone National Park with a grand proclamation about the park from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, but in all honesty, I think John Steinbeck more perfectly represents our impressions of Yellowstone. Don’t get me wrong, Yellowstone IS quite grand and majestic. However, what our family will remember most from Yellowstone is all the times it made us think, “What in the world?!” Yellowstone is, indeed, a freak show–a very beautiful freak show.
When early explorers to this corner of Wyoming shared tales of the shooting geysers and bubbling mud pots with friends back east, they were met with disbelief. In 1871, an expedition formally surveyed the landscape. Photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran documented the spectacles and shared these strange and stunning sights with influential politicians who were moved to protect the region.
The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, stated the region would be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Thus, in 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park.
With this history in mind, we decided it would be perfect to visit the first national park on our Birdy NPS 100 trip as we celebrated the centennial of the National Parks Service. Plus, we thought our kids would be great ages to appreciate the park’s interesting features and natural beauty.
Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway
After a short stay in Cody, WY, we officially embarked on the final leg of our journey to Yellowstone. The drive took us across the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway, which Teddy Roosevelt once deemed “the most scenic 52 miles in the United States.”
This byway takes visitors along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, past the Buffalo Bill State Park, and through the Wapiti Valley.
You’ll go over the river and THROUGH the mountains (literally, there’s actually a tunnel right through one).
The Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway also took us right by the infamous Smith Mansion. This unusual structure looks quite out of place in the lonely landscape around it (truth be told, it would look out of place in any landscape). Though myths and rumors fly about this curiosity, it was actually built as a family home.
Francis Lee Smith built this massive treehouse and lived there with his wife and two children, obsessively adding to the house over the years. While working on it, Smith fell to his death in 1992, and the house has been uninhabited ever since. You’ll get to gander at it as you pass by, but it’s not open for visitors at this time.
Yellowstone’s East Entrance
Since Yellowstone is such a huge park, it has five entrance stations in three different states. We entered through the east gate and planned to head across the park to West Yellowstone, just outside the west gate.
We weren’t sure what we would encounter while hauling a trailer across the full width of the park. However, it turned out to be an easy drive that only took two or three hours (thankfully, we didn’t encounter any of Yellowstone’s infamous buffalo traffic jams).
Once inside the park, it didn’t take long for the landscape to wow us. Rugged bluffs lined the roadway, and even though it was early June, traces of snow remained in the higher elevations along Sylvan Pass (8530 ft above sea level).
We were soon treated to sweeping views of Yellowstone Lake. Sitting at the heart of the park, this natural lake covers 132 square miles and is the largest high-elevation lake in the US. It offers scenic spots, as well as recreational opportunities. Though a wildfire burned many of the trees in this area, the snowy peaks and sapphire waters make for stunning views.
Just past Yellowstone Lake, we found a parking spot near the banks of the Yellowstone River. A short trail took us to an area known as LeHardy’s Rapids. This is a beautiful spot to take in the rippling waters and towering pines.
We enjoyed the sound of the cascading rapids as much as the sight. These waters are clear and cold, making them perfect for the cutthroat trout that live here.
As we continued north on Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, we came to an area known as Hayden Valley. Its verdant, undulating hills in the forefront, with snow-capped peaks in the distance, make for a classic Yellowstone view.
Alum Creek gracefully sweeps through the valley, creating a ribbon of blue in the green hills.
With plenty of water and grasslands, Hayden Valley is a popular spot for wildlife. Visitors will almost certainly spot bison in the area.
While we only saw waterfowl and bison in Hayden Valley, the more elusive wolves and bears can also be spotted here, if you’re lucky. Another popular place for wildlife viewing is Lamar Valley, in the northeast corner of the park. We didn’t get there on our visit, unfortunately, due to the mileage and time it would take.
As we made our way across the center of the park, we headed toward the west entrance. Since we were staying in the small town of West Yellowstone (at Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park) on the park’s edge, we would enter and exit through this gate each day.
This area is home to the Madison River, which runs along the park road for many miles, making for a truly scenic and relaxing drive.
Our family enjoyed looking for both wildlife and human life as we made our way in and out of the park each day.
Some national parks have long drives between the gates and the major sites, but as we headed out of the park on our first day, we realized the west entrance would put us in a good location for exploring Yellowstone’s major sites.
Making a Game Plan
Cutting across the heart of Yellowstone on our first day gave us a taste of the spectacular beauty of the park, as well as an understanding of the lay of the land. After we set up camp in West Yellowstone, we made a game plan for the three days we would be spending exploring the park.
This series of posts about Yellowstone will also include a post (or two) about our favorite must-see attractions, as well as a post full of tips for planning a Yellowstone adventure of your own.
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