We headed west out of North Dakota and made for Yellowstone, arguably one of the most famous National Parks (and the oldest). Our route took us through Montana where we stopped for one night and camped along the Yellowstone River. The highlight of that evening was a bald eagle perched on the tree overhanging our car, who then quickly flew across the river. No great photos as he was quite a ways away, but still awesome to see.
In the morning, we continued south towards Wyoming and took some time at a coffee shop in Billings, Montana to sit down an unwind with some internet service. We also made our first stop at Plant Fitness for the sole purpose of showering, and it was glorious. Clean, private showers with great water pressure and temperature. A great decision. We finished our brief stay in Montana with a stop at a local Billings favorite, Kings Hat, for a quick dinner, before heading into Custer Gallatin National Forest to spend the evening just outside of the park.
On the way to find a spot to park we starting seeing signs warning about bear activity and food storage. While stopping to read a sign at the entrance to the National Forest, we spotted just the leg of an animal (deer? elk?) on the ground. We found a spot just off a dirt road with an incredible view of the valley and the town of Gardiner. We were pretty happy with our spot, until Mike went for a short walk down the hill and stumbled upon a grave yard of animal bones…
We felt a little uneasy going to sleep that night. At some point in the early morning hours we both woke up to the sound of something outside our car. We’re pretty confident it wasn’t a bear (it sounded like it had hoofs), but still an uneasy feeling. We eventually fell back asleep and woke up feeling grateful we were sleeping in a car rather than a tent.
Yellowstone National Park
We planned to head to Mammoth Campground, which is just inside the park. We heard almost all in-park campgrounds are filled each day, so the only way to get a spot is to show up early and wait. We arrived around around 7:15 and were the 17th car in line (they give you a number to make sure everyone gets a spot based on when they arrive). Looooonnnggggg story short; we waited 2.5 hours until we got our spot. Though I was quite cranky during that time period (no cell service, oof), it was worth the wait.
We got a great spot on the outside edge of the campground in close, but not too close, proximity to the bathrooms. We picked Mammoth largely because the bathrooms here were flush toilets (rather than pit toilets) and had sinks with running water, which again was well worth it. Our spot also overlooked the main highway but at enough of a distance that sound wasn’t an issue. The coolest part of the campground experience, though, was the full herd of elk that stayed there during the day.
The herd had to be two-dozen strong and was made up almost entirely of doe with one large, boisterous, male bull elk. The attendant at the front of the park even warned us that he was rutting and very active, and that he had actually chased campers several times this week. She warned us to have an escape plan in case we came face-to-face with him. Thankfully we never had that issue, but did see plenty of elk throughout our stay.
About midday after finishing our coffee we headed to the trail that Emily picked out to hike Bunsen Peak, which is about 8,500 ft elevation. Fun fact: this peak is named after the same Bunsen who invented the burner. What a guy. The hike required a vertical climb of over 1,500 feet over a 2 mile distance, which catches up with you quickly. We crushed it, though and found a nice spot at the top to stop for lunch.
Unfortunately due to wildfires both in the park (in other areas) and perhaps even from further away on the west coast, the views were significantly muted with smoke. We couldn’t see any direct evidence of ongoing forest fires in the immediate area, but the air was full of smoke. That said, the view was still incredible. We finished our PABJ (peanut and almond butter and jelly) sandwiches and made the return trip down the mountain.
We arrived back at the campground just at dusk which was maybe a bit later than we wanted, but this timing came with a nice surprise. The elk were quite active, including the bull, who was bugling constantly as he shepherded the rest of the herd from the adjacent plains back up into the campground. We think the herd stayed in the campground for safety from predators (lots of people and noise around). Note: The shot below is not from the campground but rather from our trip around the park, but a great shot and worthy of inclusion.
Dinner was a quick meal of broccoli and cheese tots and beef raviolis, and we settled in for the night. The next day brought rain, which thankfully we anticipated, so our plan was to drive the loop road around the park for the day and target stops at some of the most popular/famous features. Another benefit of the rain was it helped clear up the smokey skies.
Our first stop of the day could not have possibly been anticipated. As we rolled through the park we saw dozens, even hundreds of people congregated along the banks of the river. We knew this meant some sort of wildlife, but could not see for ourselves, so we parked along side the road (half a mile away was the closest available) and headed back to the scene. Where we parked, a man in the car next to us told us there was a grizzly bear laying on top of his freshly killed elk at the bank of the river. Uhh, what?
We nestled into a small opening among the crowd and used our camera with 300 mm zoom to get a better look. What a scene. The grizzly bear (bear #791, a 600+lb male according to the chatter we heard) was sleeping, stretched out atop a mound he’d built over his freshly killed bull elk. The elk’s head and front left shoulder/leg were exposed, just above the water level at the river’s edge, with the rest of the body covered in soil. I’d guess that two thirds of the elk was covered, which gives you an idea of how big this elk was.
The other people standing on the side of the road filled us in on the action that had happened the day prior at 6:00 am or so. The bear apparently chased some elk from out of the woods (on the opposite side of the road we were on), across the road, and singled out this big bull elk. He managed to get a hold of him and drag him down into the river. Ultimately, he got the elk across the river to the other side and drowned him on the way. Are you kidding? How amazing is that? When we showed up, the bear was napping, but some people said he took a few bites out of the haunches before covering him up. Though we just saw him sleeping, this was still a crazy site. Later in the day, after our 2nd and 3rd passes by this location to check on the bear, we were able to snap some photos of him standing over his kill. So cool!
While writing this post we found there’s a ton of data and information about grizzlies and other animals in Yellowstone, and according to Wikipedia as of 2017 there are over 700 grizzly bears in the park. That’s just grizzlies. There are also just as many black bears.
Though we wanted to stay and see what the bear would do next (which a lot of people were doing; some people had been there nearly the entire time since the kill took place), we kept moving along our loop to see more of the park. Our next stop was “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, which sounded like a potential dud but was actually really cool. Obviously smaller, the canyon was not nearly was wide but still super deep. We stopped at a parking area adjacent to a water fall, which made for some pretty great shots.
Shortly thereafter was our first return trip to the bear, only to see he was still sleeping. We’d be back, though. Our next stop was the West Thumb Geyser basin, which is home to numerous geysers of all shapes and sizes. FYI: Geysers are all hot springs that discharges water when pressure builds up beneath the surface (but not all hot springs are geysers). Speaking of geysers, of course was had to go see the most famous one.
Old Faithful is arguably the most famous geyser out there since it’s eruption is so predictable. There are several large inn’s and restaurants nearby and quite a crowd had gathered when we arrived around midday, which was to be expected. Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes and, fortunately for us, erupted just a few minutes after we arrived.
Though one of the employees said the day’s eruption wasn’t as big as normal, it was still an incredible sight to see. Following the eruption we took a lap around the geyser (which brought you up to a number of other geysers near Old Faithful) and got back in the car to head to the Grand Prismatic.
A small hike took us to the upper viewing platform of the Grand Prismatic spring. The spring is massive, over 350 feet in diameter, and showed off numerous vibrant colors, apparently due to different types of bacteria. On a cool day (like the day we were there) steam is constantly rolling across the surface of the spring, so the colors may be somewhat obscured compared to a warmer day. I think we hit the sweet spot with temperature, though, as we were able to see the entire range of colors as well as a great plume of steam coming off of the surface.
With our loop complete, we felt compelled to return to check on the bear. During this pass, he was finally up and standing over his kill. It wasn’t clear why he’d moved (whether he was finally eating, or if something else had come into the area [wolves?] to challenge him for the meal) but it put on display just how huge he was. I’m not sure photos do it justice, but that is a massive elk beneath that mound. And, on another note, the amount of river bank that he cleared to dump on top of the elk is massive unto itself. Emily and I both agree that this may be the single coolest wildlife/nature experience we’ve had, and that it will be incredibly difficult to top.
With light fading we were forced to head back to the campsite for dinner and our final night in the park. Much less visible elk activity on the second night, but we still heard our man bugling through the night and early morning. We awoke early and set off through the park to the west entrance towards Idaho Springs (a quick stop in Idaho, mainly based on proximity to our next stop) for our once-a-week AirBnB day. Grand Tetons next…