Theodore Roosevelt National Park

When we lengthened our stay in Yellowstone, we considered skipping our planned visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. They had an event called Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival planned for this weekend, so we decided on a short stay instead of skipping it. 

Unfortunately, when we got there it was rainy with temperatures in the 40s, so some of the astronomy events were cancelled. Also, the entire town of Medora, ND is already closed for the season! 

The first day and a half of our visit, we mostly hid from the rain. We were planning to boondock, but stayed at a campground since our solar panel doesn’t work too well in total cloud cover. The last day it was 65 and sunny, so we spent all day exploring the park. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects the North Dakota Badlands, where Theodore Roosevelt spent time in the 1880s. He originally came to hunt bison, and then to get involved in cattle ranching. His time in this area helped to develop his conservation ethic, which led to the protection of 230 million acres of land when he was President. We have him to thank for the Antiquities Act, 5 National Parks, 18 National Monuments, the National Forest Service, and 150 National Forests. The park has the Maltese Cross Cabin open for tours, where Roosevelt lived one of the first summers he stayed in the area. 

Before visiting, I knew the park contained badlands, bison, and prairie dogs, so I expected it to be similar to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. There are similarities, but it’s more different than I expected. The Little Missouri River runs through all three units of the park, the South Unit, Elkhorn Ranch, and the North Unit. There are trees, and they are starting to turn yellow, so it is much more colorful here than in Badlands National Park. 

We visited the North Unit and the South Unit, even though the North Unit is about 80 miles to the north. There is a scenic drive in each unit. We saw bison, coyote, feral horses, mule deer, and prairie dogs. 
The prairie dogs look like they are fattening up for winter, which makes them even cuter! It’s a good idea, too, because I hear North Dakota winters are no joke! A ranger told us there was a three week period last year where the temperature didn’t get above zero.

The last night of the astronomy festival they were able to have the telescopes out and star gazing. There was about a dozen astronomers (most were serious amateurs) with telescopes pointing at various things. We saw Saturn, star clusters, binary stars, nebualae, and galaxies, and occasionally clouds (boo). It was fun! The astronomers kept changing what they were pointing at too, so we were able to see a lot. 

In spite of the rainy weather, the last day here made the stop worthwhile.

Day 354 | Mile 38,085


Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park is just south of Yellowstone, so we visited there next. When we arrived, there was so much smoke from wildfires in Idaho and Montana, that we could barely see the mountains! They were ghost mountains. We were questioning our decision to visit, but thankfully each day got clearer.

The Teton Mountains became a National Park in 1929, but the Jackson Hole valley next to the mountain range was not included. John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought up the land nearby, and donated it to the park service, which became a National Monument in 1943, and was added to the park in 1950. 

These mountains are different from other ranges because they were created by earthquakes, which made a fault, and one side sank down (the valley), and uplifted the mountains on the other side of the fault. The mountains are made of granite and still rising, so they are very craggy and sharp. They also have no foothills, so there aren’t any roads to drive into mountains. Because of this, the beautiful mountain views are really important to the enjoyment of the park, which is why we didn’t really go crazy for this park when we first arrived and everything was a smokey haze. 

One of the first things that we saw was a black bear! We had turned off the park road heading to the Colter Bay Visitors Center, and it was in the bushes and trees nearby. Later in the week, we saw two more black bears on Moose-Wilson Road, and a mama and cub in Yellowstone as we drove through leaving Grand Teton. Five bears in a week! Bears are really hard to photograph. They move quickly, and we don’t want to get too close. I know bears are out there, so the bear spray is always handy. 

The most popular hikes in the park are near Jenny Lake, which is one of the glacial lakes at the base of the mountains. There is a ferry that takes hikers to the other side of the lake to cut a few miles off the hikes. On the other side of the lake is a waterfall called Hidden Falls and a deep canyon called Cascade Canyon. We decided not to take the ferry out, and hiked first to Moose Ponds, where we saw a male moose. He spent a lot of time in the two ponds with his face in the water, happily eating lake grass, and lifting his face out to breathe. We watched him for awhile, and by the time we moved on we realized we spent an hour and a half on moose-admiration! 

We hiked to Hidden Falls, and from there to the boat launch (half a mile) was pretty crowded, since a lot of people take the ferry and hike to the falls. The trail that connects Hidden Falls to Inspiration Point, and on to Cascade Canyon was closed, so we had to take a detour. After we passed the boat launch the hike got steep. I struggled with this part, and I wasn’t sure if the mile-long uphill would be worth it! 

Once we got into Cascade Canyon, the trail followed a river into a valley between the mountains. This was the best part of the hike (besides Moose Ponds), and I wish we could’ve spent more time there, but we didn’t want to miss the last ferry back, which left at 4, now that they are running on fall hours. 

We caught the ferry, which I referred to as my rescue boat, and I was thankful that the 8 or so mile hike wasn’t longer.

Just south of the park is the cute touristy town of Jackson, WY. We went there for dinner one night, and groceries, and to check out the cute shops. Unfortunately the Airstream doesn’t have space for the bear throne. 

The last full day that we were in the park, Brian got a one day Wyoming fishing license, and we hiked out to Phelps Lake and he fly fished on the north side of the lake. Bringing his waders and boots and fishing pole on the hike added a lot of weight to his pack. 

When we got to the trail, there was a closure where 0.1 miles of trail was closed and there was a rerouted that was 0.6 miles. This added a mile to our round-trip hike, and it seemed unnecessary for it to be so long. The trail was nice, and we hiked next to the lake. 

When we got to the north side, there was a small beach that Brian used to get into the lake, and I hung out on the beach while he was gone. 

I had a traumatic experience while waiting for him to return. I saw a small object floating along in the lake. I looked closer, and it was the head of a snake, swimming effortlessly through the water! My waking nightmare. 

Brian caught two Cutthroat Trout, and kept them. He generally keeps fish when it’s allowed, because we like to eat them. In Yellowstone all the cutthroat trout are protected (catch and release), but here he could keep up to three.

The hike ended up being about 9 miles, including circling the lake, finding the right spot to fish, and the (too long) trail reroute. It didn’t require much uphill hiking though, so it wasn’t too challenging. It was a great hike! 

We boondocked on National Forest land, in a spot that is practically in the middle of the park. The views were beautiful. Aside from the lack of hook-ups or toilets, it was hard to believe it was free! 

Brian cooked delicious meals, including ricotta-saffron pasta, wedge salads, beef cooked over the fire, and fresh-caught trout. It’s a pain to wash the dishes when we are boondocking, because we have to be careful of water use and tank space (especially since we need to shower too!), but I’m glad the propane water heater is working again. 

Grand Teton National Park is beautiful, and we enjoyed our visit here. It took a few days to grow on us though, maybe because of the wildfire smoke, or the trail closures, but I think it’s mostly because Yellowstone is a hard act to follow. 

Day 350 | Mile 37,234

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone, the world’s first National Park! It was established as a National Park in 1872. It is on a volcanic hot spot, and is half scenic wildlife paradise, and half steaming hellscape. We were definitely excited for this visit.

The drive from Colorado through Wyoming was pretty uneventful. There are vast areas of this country with barely anyone in them! We drove through the Wind River Canyon just before dark, and it was very scenic. We ended up with a large bug collection on the truck, so the next day in Cody, WY we stocked up on groceries, and washed the truck and trailer. It has been awhile since we were so shiny!

We camped at Fishing Bridge RV park in Yellowstone, which is the only full-hookup campground in the park. We made reservations about two months ago, and they were the only reservations we had for this part of the trip. Yellowstone is so big that it’s important to camp within the park. Fishing Bridge RV Park was a bit of a tight squeeze, with no picnic tables or fire pits. They discourage eating outside because of bears. Brian was sad to learn fishing is no longer allowed from Fishing Bridge.  “Worst name ever” according to Brian.

Yellowstone National Park is on an active supervolcano, with the caldera from the most recent eruption (640,000 years ago) encompassing about a third of the park. Because there is magma is closer to the earth’s surface here, there are thousands of geothermic features in the park, including geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles (the fancy name we learned for steam vents).

Hot springs are created when there are cracks in the earth letting heated water up to the surface. When the cracks in the earth include constrictions, these can become geysers. Fumaroles exist when there isn’t as much water as in a hot spring. Mud pots are created when the water is acidic.

Sixty percent of the world’s geysers are in Yellowstone. The geothermic features were amazing to see, but kind of scary too. There are boardwalks in different areas of the park that take visitors past many of these features, but one step off the boardwalk could boil a person alive!

The features are dynamic, a ranger told us that they have to move a boardwalk every five years or so because the features change. We saw evidence of this, there were a few places where the parking lots had steaming holes in them! It’s amazing that it is even safe to view these places.

There are several areas to view geothermic features, and each is different. We visited all of the main areas including Mammoth Hot Springs, Mud Volcano, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin (where Old Faithful is), Fountain Paint Pot, Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin, and Norris Geyser Basin.

The first full day we were in the park we visited Old Faithful first thing in the morning. We got there just in time to see it erupt, and it went off about 8:30 am. What we didn’t expect was that it was so cold in the morning, and the eruption was basically a steam cloud! We decided to see it again, midday when it was warmer and we could see some water, too. The days tended to be chilly in the morning and hot in the afternoon, with lows in the 30s-40s and highs in the 70s-80s. The sunny days really feel hot at altitude, and locals commented to us that is was about 10 degrees hotter than normal.

The Upper Geyser Basin has a lot to see besides Old Faithful, so we walked around the boardwalk and saw other geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles. The colors in the water are caused by thermophiles, which are heat-loving bacteria. The different colors signify water temperatures, all of which are very hot. We consistently resisted the temptation to test the water temperature with our fingers!

Afterward, we decided to stop at Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the largest hot spring in the park. We pulled off at a parking lot near it, based on the not-very-detailed park map. We thought we were at a viewpoint or boardwalk, so we only brought out a water bottle and camera.

There was a trail, and many people headed out on it, but we found no information at the trailhead. So, we started out and headed in the direction of the spring. After about a third of a mile, there was a sign saying “trail ->”, but it was heading in the opposite direction of the spring so we stayed on the wider path we were on and didn’t take it.

After a couple miles it became apparent that we weren’t able to access the boardwalk around Grand Prismatic Spring. We could see the spring, but the boardwalk was on the other side.

We were already out there, so when we saw a handwritten sign saying “Fairy Falls 1.6 miles,” we decided to at least see a waterfall! It was a pretty boring hike, but the waterfall was nice.

After the waterfall we still didn’t really know where we were, so we continued on a bit, and found another hiker to ask what was down the trail. He told us there was a geyser a little ways ahead, so we kept hiking. Imperial Geyser was really beautiful, and somewhat redeemed the hike that we didn’t really mean to take. The geyser was within a blue-green pool, and we only encountered four other people while we enjoyed it. It was hard to leave it!

We often discuss (judge) all the seemingly unprepared hikers we see who barely bring any water on long hikes, but this time we were the idiots with one water bottle (between the two of us) on what accidentally turned into about an 8 mile hike.

The mistake we made was pulling in one parking lot too early to access the boardwalk to the spring. We also learned that the trail in the “wrong direction” was to a beautiful overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Several days later, during Labor Day weekend, we returned and, what do you know, they had added information on the overlook trail at the trailhead! We completed the half mile hike to the overlook this time, and were rewarded with this view. It’s hard to believe this exists!

We also found the correct parking lot for the boardwalk. The Grand Prismatic Spring is impressive from ground level, too, but seeing it from above was really cool.

Mammoth Hot Springs are in the northwest corner of the park, and it took us about two hours to get there from Fishing Bridge campground in the southeast side. We happened to get there right before a ranger program at the Upper Terraces, so we joined and learned a lot about how the terraced hot springs are formed. This area has limestone, and when the hot water goes through it, it deposits calcium carbonate at the surface. This rock (called Travertine), can grow 6 feet a year!

The West Thumb Geyser Basin is right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. There is a hot spring called Fishing Cone where they used to cook fish that had just been caught called “cooking on the hook”. That was a great idea until they discovered the hot spring contains arsenic.

The Mud Volcano area smelled especially like sulphur, which reminded us of rotten eggs and spent bottle rockets. It has mud pots, full of acidic water. The pH level was one up from battery acid. It was so hot and stinky walking through the steam coming off the features! Bison and elk like these areas, and seem to know where not to step. One of our favorite features here is called Dragon’s Mouth, and it hissed and gurgled as steam poured out of it, and occasionally a wave of water came out of the cave.

Fountain Paint Pot boardwalk went passed a mud pot that looks just like paint, and it was fun to see mud bubbles form and pop!

As we turned around a bend we saw Fountain Geyser just starting to erupt. It erupts every 4 hours or so, and keeps erupting for about 25 minutes. There are two types of geyser, cone geysers that typically shoot water straight up into the air (like Old Faithful) and fountain geysers, that slosh around and look more random. Fountain Geyser was beautiful and hypnotizing to watch. It reminded me of the Bellagio fountain. And just when we though it was dying down, it would shoot up again. There were two other geysers nearby (Jet Geyser and Clepsydra Geyser), and at times all three were erupting at once.

Later in the week we returned to the Old Faithful area, and remembered to check the visitor center for predicted times of the other large geysers in the area. We sat at Grand Geyser for an hour because the eruption could occur within an hour before or after the predicted time. Grand Geyser is the tallest predictable geyser and can be up to 200 feet. It erupts about twice a day. It was fun to see, but I don’t know if it was worth waiting so long in the hot sun. It’s a fountain geyser, and it was taller than Fountain Geyser, but not more beautiful.

While we were there, we saw a couple more eruptions of Old Faithful. It is easy to see why it is so popular. It erupts every 68 or 98 minutes (depending on the length of the previous eruption), plus or minus 10 minutes. The eruptions are very frequent and very predictable compared to other geysers that have estimated eruption windows that are plus or minus an hour or two. Midday on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend was a busy time at Old Faithful!

Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest area of the park. Since different bacteria can live at different temperatures, this means that there are more colors in this area. Also, the entire area steams, especially in the morning when it is chillier!

Brian’s two most vivid memories from his trip to Yellowstone when he was 10 are being separated from his siblings at Old Faithful, and getting stuck in bison-related traffic jams. The very first night we drove through Hayden Valley and found ourselves stuck in a line of cars while bison blocked the road. Nearly every day we spent at least a few minutes stuck behind a bison. On our last day in Yellowstone we were stuck in traffic for an hour while a herd of bison had a parade on the road.

Hayden Valley is a beautiful area where there are always bison, but it is also where we witnessed some of the worst driving behavior in the park. Drivers were pretty terrible everywhere though. Every time there was wildlife near a road, people lost their minds. At one point a car stopped right on the road next to a bison, and the passenger was getting out of the car, when a ranger nearby announced over a loudspeaker “Do not get out of your car. Do not stop on the road.” These don’t seem like things that should have to be announced, but we saw people doing this all the time! There are so many cars on the road that the bad behavior is hard to ignore. It’s also crazy to see how close some people try to get to wildlife. It’s not like they don’t warn people! We kept our distance, and always carried our bear spray.

Everything is so far from everything else that we spent at least two hours driving each day, usually more. The park is set up as a figure 8, and the Grand Loop Road is 142 miles! It’s hard to complain about the driving distances though, since every road is scenic. We also spotted wildlife from the car, and heard a buck elk bugling and saw a coyote stalking squirrels.

The park was busy, especially midday, so we decided to wake up early each day. The park is really beautiful in the early mornings! It’s chilly then (30s-40s), so there’s steam on all the rivers and the lake. We caught a few beautiful sunrises. Brian fished in Yellowstone Lake one morning during sunrise.

Brian bought a 7-day Yellowstone fishing license, and fly fished each day for an hour or two. He fished in Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone River, and Gibbon River, but had the most luck catching fish in Lamar River in the Lamar Valley. He caught two Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and safely returned them to the river before a third one broke his hook. Another day he caught three more at another place in the same river where it enters a canyon.

The Lamar Valley is also a great place to see wildlife, and we saw a beautiful pronghorn who came pretty close!

The last day of our visit we went to Lamar Valley and parked near a herd of bison that were resting near the road. We wanted to see them kick up dust and wallow in it, and we saw many of them do it! There were round dusty areas where they must do this pretty often. It’s cute how they kick their legs up and rub their backs in dust, they look so happy! We stayed for over an hour, watching the herd. I felt like we were getting to know them (from a safe distance).

As though wildlife and thousands of geothermic features aren’t enough, Yellowstone has its own Grand Canyon, a 24 mile long, 1,000 feet deep canyon including a gorgeous waterfall.

After viewing it from Artists Point on the South Rim, we visited the North Rim and went to the Brink of the Upper Falls, which is a short hike, and then the Brink of the Lower Falls, which is a short but steep hike. It was fun to get so close to the waterfalls!

Yellowstone is a weird and wonderful place, but it’s hard work! Every evening we came home pretty exhausted. After our 8 days at Fishing Bridge RV Park were up, we didn’t want to leave! So we didn’t. We moved to Mammoth Campground on the northwest side of the park for 4 more days. It is a no-hookup, no reservations, first-come first-serve campground, with picnic tables and fire pits, and frequently elk.

After we moved, we took it a bit easier, and had a couple campfires. Our water heater propane ignition board decided to stop functioning, but thankfully there is an rv repair shop in the park. On our way out of the park we stopped and Brian bought the part and got the water heater working again.

We had a great time at Yellowstone and even after 12 days, which is a long stop for us, it was hard to leave! The steaming, roiling, and erupting features of the park were difficult to capture in photographs, so I made this video.

Day 344 | Mile 36,685