Three hundred miles east of Ritzville, WA is Drummond, Montana. Peak outdoor season meant that the Montana State Parks were booked from Butte to Billings.
When that happens, it is often the small town parks you can depend on. Drummond is another small town in a railroad dominated community where people live spread out and travel in for gas, sundries and the rodeo attached to the City Park. With $10 camping and a stream for fishing and swimming, it was the perfect empty place off the interstate to overnight.
Here we met Tim, Lisa and their three toddler girls on a maiden voyage from Seattle to Yellowstone in their new truck and trailer who were searching for a place to let the kids out of the confines of the crew cab for a needed travel break. Their Nat Park ultimate destination was still four hours away. That got us to thinking that just because it was the most visited National Park in country AND it was the busiest weekend of the year with every campground booked, including the $150/night ones outside the park, there was no excuse to take the safe, utilitarian I-90 route to Billings, then south on I-25 through Colorado and into New Mexico. If Tim and Lisa could challenge the crowds (admittedly they had park reservations) then so could we. If it wasn’t for those pesky kids, we would have made a clean escape.
Eric burned the midnight internet oil, scouring Allstays for an A to E list of camping hopefuls, starting with Bakers Hole in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, just 2 miles outside the West Yellowstone entrance and ending with an overpriced private option more than 30 miles away. When riding without reservations on a flexible route, it takes in-the-moment research and a lot of luck to pull it off, as well as a 5:30 am alarm to reach first hope by 10.
Winning the Friday first come first serve battle, we barely secured first choice Bakers Hole and immediately took a nap. Being impulsive is tiring. After a drive through West Yellowstone and a stop at the library to post the Ritzville blog, we entered the 2 million acre park. Two million acres is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
At high season on the weekend in August, Yellowstone National Park felt similar to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. West Yellowstone is Main Street, a beacon of souvenir shops and soft serve; the gateway to the wonders of imagination and construction. To be fair, Disney World hosts 50+ million visitors a year on 25,000 acres while Yellowstone hosts 4+ million on 2,000,000 acres, so even on its most crowded day Yellowstone is a thousand times less crowded than Mickey’s place. But, when you are queued up 20 cars park at the entrance, it evokes similar feelings.
Reality check: You can’t do Yellowstone in two days anymore than you could visit the similarly sized Hawaiian Islands in two days. Honestly, it’s a recipe for getting annoyed and tired. Knowing that going in helped to tamper our tempers and expectations, taking on a reconnoitering approach for a someday return trip.
Disney has lands and villages with themed rides and activities while Yellowstone’s natural geology has eight villages with themed sights to see. Fantasyland is geysers and paint pots while Frontierland is meadows and bison watching. There’s Canyon Village and Fishing Bridge, Mammoth Hot Springs and West Thumb. If you wondered where the designers of Disney World drew their inspiration, this is the place: the original National Park, an entire entire ecosystem of natural wonder, herds of animals, villages and lodges, campgrounds and marinas within its boundaries.
In fact, prior to being christened Yellowstone, the park was called Wonderland. In truth, the comparison to Disney World is unfair to the grandeur of the park, it is simply that Disney World has a much bigger PR budget. After our visit, we sure hope it stays that way. 4 million visitors is already too many, and a future with millions more each year will not be good.
The Earth’s crust is the part of the Earth we live on. Most of us just call it ‘the ground.’ Compared to the whole Earth, it is as thick as the eggshell is to the egg. Since the Earth is a whole lot bigger than an egg, the crust is plenty thick most of the time. At Yellowstone National Park, the crust is thin. The hot stuff inside the Earth is pushing right up against the surface creating a mud bubbling, geyser shooting, hot springs soaking landscape. The most famous is, of course, Old Faithful.
Perhaps the best thing about the hit-and-run visit was that we checked Old Faithful off the list. Poor Old Faithful does its thing every 90 minutes or so, but it is hard to match the expectations of 500 families corralling bored children on benches intently staring at a mound of dirt and waiting for upwards of an hour for the 90 second water show. It would be so much better if it just happened to blow just as you were hiking by, but Old Faithful’s faithfulness has doomed it to a life of big crowds, high expectations and mild disappointment 7 times a day.
Following the BIG event at Old Faithful, there is a max exodus to cars and a bumber-to-bumber migration up the perimeter road to knock off the second biggest attraction, the Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin. Visiting on the busiest Saturday of the summer, the wonder of these unique geologic features was lost in the moment of fighting for a parking space and queuing up for the boardwalk tour flooded by gawkers with selfie sticks and iPhones. No lingering allowed. Snap and move on.
And so it went, exploring the resulting remains of the last super volcano – Yellowstone National Park – a heat powered 30 x 45 mile basin that fuels the world’s largest collection of hydrothermal features like geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. There’s desert and meadows and forest supporting bison, elk, bears and wolf; a ginormous 410 foot deep Yellowstone Lake for boating and fishing with rivers and creeks and gushing waterfalls for the flyfishers . Reviewing our pictures and videos of boiling hot springs, the sounds of steam vents with their whistles, hisses and bumps and eating lunch in the truck while a herd of bison caused a major traffic jam made us happy we followed our impulsive instincts into nature’s Magic Kingdom.
As a general rule, Yellowstone is best when the Bison outnumber the visitors. The park is home to large herds of bison, elk, and antellope, packs of wolves, and lone bears. In August, they are easy to find. Just look for the larger herd of Chevy’s and Ford’s gathered on the shoulder of the road. We made a note to build time to hike into the interior of the park, away from the crowds, on a future visit in order to experience what the great American west must have felt like before we paved it.
Yellowstone National Park lies a short distance north of Grand Teton National Park. We used the perimeter road of Yellowstone to transit there the next day. The motor-tour took us through whole new areas of the park that we had little time to explore. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone sounded amazing, but with Roxie in tow it would have to wait for a proper visit. Fortunately, our next visit will not have to include long lines and waits for Old Faithful – checked that off. We loved the look of the canyon region north of the big lake. In a post-COVID world when the campgrounds are open, we imagine a visit during a shoulder season where cold temperatures at night and empty trails will be our only concern.