Utah loop road trip: Yellowstone National Park

When we were deciding how to get Artie back to Vancouver and if we could fit in a stop in Calgary to see family, we noticed that Yellowstone Park was roughly on the way from Salt Lake City to Calgary. The only things I can lay claim to knowing about this famous park is that it is where my parents spent their honeymoon, that it is known for geysers like Old Faithful, and that it is where Yogi Bear and Booboo live (I might need to fact-check that last assertion).

Since we were going to be in the area, it seemed worth checking out, though we weren’t clear about when we might get there so did not book any campsites. We were further challenged because we were ready to head that way on the Saturday of the Labor Day long weekend.

We found another Harvest Host location, at the Grand Teton Distillery (makers of the self-declared #1 in the world potato vodka), which was just west of the Grand Teton National Park, which, in turn, is just south of Yellowstone National Park. The distillery was about 3 ½ hours from our north-of-Salt-Lake-City stop. It was also time for laundry and showers and, since we wouldn’t be staying anywhere that offered these facilities, I searched our route for a town with a pool and laundry, finding Brigham City about 30 minutes north. The laundromat was open earlier than the pool, so that decided the order of things. It was a huge facility with a variety of sizes of clean washers and dryers, plus free WiFi. Perfect! An hour and a half later Artie was filled up with clean clothes and towels, and off we headed for showers a few minutes away. The huge outdoor pool was on its penultimate day of the season and, though a long weekend Saturday, was not very full at all. Ken and I had our respective shower rooms to ourselves the whole time. It’s kind of sad that such a beautiful facility—with water slides, lap pool, play pools, etc., closes right after Labor Day in a region that is still experiencing temperatures in the mid-30s (Celsius).

With our belongings and ourselves clean and fresh, we drove the remaining three hours to the distillery, arriving in time for Ken to experience a relaxing tasting. They are known for their award-winning Grand Teton Vodka, and the more recent Born and Bred potato vodka, a partnership product with Channing Tatum. But the vodka that seemed to be selling the most the day we visited was their rosy Huckleberry Vodka.

As other tasters were leaving I heard them mention a brewery nearby. I asked Jason, one of the distillery owners, about brewers in the area and he said that there were three, but one good one. He directed us to Grand Teton Brewing, about 15 minutes away.

The brewery proved to be a great choice as they had a lovely outdoor tasting area with loads of lounge chairs and tables in the shade. As the sun lowered and more people showed up, they pulled chairs out onto the shady lawn. A food truck on the lot offered snacks and meals, and the inside tasting room offered popcorn. Everyone just sat around, noshing and sipping, and enjoying the cool breeze, shade and mountain views. (I have proposed that the brewer become a Harvest Host as well—Ken would have tried more beers there if he didn’t have to drive back to the distillery!)

At 8:00 am sharp the next morning we called the Yellowstone reservations desk to see if there was any possibility of a campsite the same evening. Our National Park Services Yellowstone app indicated that there was some availability, but the reservation desk disagreed. From here, though, we found out that only half of the campsites take reservations and that the others are first-come-first-served. It was the latter sites that were showing up as having availability, and each showed at what time the day before they had filled up—anywhere from 6:45 am to 1:30 pm. We knew we couldn’t dawdle if we wanted a site, so we left the distillery immediately and, once at the park, drove past several stops of interest (hopeful that we would be returning when the long-weekend crowds were gone). Even with the uncertainty, it was very refreshing after all the heat and dust of the previous weeks to be driving through evergreen forests in cooler, comfortable temperatures.

Unfortunately, the campground we were trying to get to was closer to the South Gate than the West Gate, and the park is enormous, so it took us until noon to get there, only to see the Campground Full sign outside. We drove in anyway just in case. The ranger station was closed and there was only a self-registration area with instructions to drive around to locate a site and then return to pay. While we were reading the board a fellow camper walked down from the sites and said that there were several open. With our hope restored, we hopped into Artie and drove a few minutes up the road and pulled into a vacant site. Whew. It may sound minor, but if we hadn’t found a site in this location, it was unlikely that any of the others would have had vacancies by the time we got there, and we would have had to drive several additional hours to get outside of the park and try to find somewhere we could sleep and then try again the next day.

For our second day in the park, we drove up the east side of the lower loop, and across the belt between the two loops, just to where the road turns north on the west side of the upper loop. We decided to take our time and take a chance with campsites since it was the last day of the long weekend and we assumed that a lot of the visitors would have left for home.

Along the way, we meandered along the edge of Yellowstone Lake, stopped at villages and visitor centers and made many scenic stops.

We got to the Norris Campground in the early afternoon and had no problem finding a spot. Since there was still lots of light left, we had lunch and then drove the west side of the south loop, down to Old Faithful—a repeat trip from the first day, but this time we were free to stop and take in the walks and sites.

The Old Faithful village is huge with hotels, visitor center, grocery store, and a souvenir shop that rivals many department stores for size. The next-predicted occurrence for an Old Faithful eruption was just under an hour, give or take 10 minutes. It was a long time to wait, but we were there, and it seemed wrong not to stay and see it. We occupied our time with the excellent displays in the visitor center and then headed out to grab a seat on one of the many benches surrounding the geyser. About 10 minutes early, Old Faithful started showing signs of spewing, and then finally we were rewarded with about 1 ½ minutes of gushing water. As I watched, I imagined my parents watching the same spectacle in what was likely a much more primitive park environment about 64 years earlier.

Driving north again, we stopped at the Grand Prismatic Spring and walked the boardwalks to view the colourful pools and surfaces.

Selfie

We enjoyed many sightings of steaming fumaroles, geysers and meadows of grazing bison. One more stop and walk at Fountain Paintpot Trail and then we headed back to our campsite for the evening.

The next morning, our last in the park, we drove north on the west side of the upper loop, again making many scenic stops, sometimes waiting for bison to cross the road before we could move on.

Roaring Mountain

Our last major stop was at Mammoth Springs, and this area definitely deserves some time. It is completely different geologically than the other areas of the park we had visited. There are no geysers, mud pots, or fumaroles here as the water is not hot enough, but there are springs that have created travertine mountains and colourful pools. The textures and shapes created by the waters are fascinating.

The Albright Visitor Center, housed in a historic building from the days when a fort was built to protect the park, was our last stop. It is the only place in the park that offers WiFi. We had been without WiFi or cell service for several days so stopped to get caught up. Service was slow but good enough to check e-mails and messages.

The amount of time you spend travelling around this enormous park is completely unpredictable. It depends on how many stops you want to make and hikes you want to do, weather, and the time you want to spend at the visitor centers and shops. Because of this, it would be very hard for us to book campgrounds or accommodation ahead unless we planned for at least three or four nights and spaced them out at different locations with plenty of time in between. For camping, my preference would be to go at a less-busy time (starting right on Labor Day Monday is recommended!) and then taking advantage of the many first-come, first-served campsites when you are ready to stop for the night. This wouldn’t work in July and August as most of the campsites fill up very early in the morning.


TripBits

  • Yellowstone National Park entry fee: $35 USD per car or free with an Interagency Pass.
  • Lewis Lake Campground: $15 USD for a site with no services, pit toilets.
  • Norris Campground: $20 USD for a site with no services, flush toilets.

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