A longtime dream of mine is to visit every state in America, popping in at every national park on the way. When I was in my second year of university, I printed 51 pages off the internet, each page holding a black and white map of a different US state. The spare time in those eight months of my second year was spent painstakingly plotting driving routes along iconic roads in various states. I would have 20 tabs open on my laptop at a time, each with a different compiled list of ‘must-see’s and bucket lists galore.
I would calculate the distance between towns I wanted to visit using the little ruler in the bottom corner of each map. Then I would convert that distance into an hourly figure, and would devise an itinerary that I thought covered just about every single nook and cranny of the United States that existed.
I have yet to go on this epic roadtrip, but I do have a boyfriend who is willing to drive me over 3000km to visit two of these incredible national parks I have long dreamed of seeing.
Turns out my original plans weren’t perfect anyway. Not only have new roads been built in the last five years, but most of things that I thought would be very important to do and would add crucial elements to my life were actually not quite what I had envisioned.
For example, on the Montana page, where I had carefully inscribed a #133 in the bottom right-hand corner indicating this was to be precisely my one hundred and thirty third day on the road, I also added Caras Park, Missoula to my absolute must-see-this-thing list. But somehow, in all my detailed planning, I had forgotten to put a star next to Glacier National Park.
You can’t blame me – not only did I believe Glacier National Park to be in Canada (there is one, but it’s called Glacier National Park of Canada…), but it also wasn’t printed anywhere on my map I had carefully downloaded off the internet.
I had however planned that I would spend exactly 4 nights in Montana, spending exactly $210 on hotels in various cities, and travelling a total of 1101km which, according to my calculations, was going to take me 10.75 hours on the dot.
Fast forward a couple years, and Sam and I are making our way down the highway from the Alberta-Montana border bound for Yellowstone National Park, just on the other side of the Montana-Wyoming border. Gas prices have skyrocketed, we don’t just drive for 10.75 hours straight and actually take pee/walk/eating breaks like normal humans, and we certainly aren’t stopping at Caras Park in Missoula.
Instead, we’re bound for Yellowstone (my 6th park out of the 59), and its iconic geysers. Well, now you’ve got the backstory, here’s the guide for this national park. Many stops in the park come with an informative guide-book available for a minimal donation. The history and facts are well worth the read and add that bit more depth to your photos.
How to Get There
We drove straight down from Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta through Montana into Gardiner, the little town on the outskirts of the national park. Montana is mostly just straight roads. On some special parts of the highway however, we found gems like this:
Camping at Yellowstone
We never got the chance to camp in Yellowstone. Camping lots fill up by 9am each day for the preceding evening, so if you’re wanting to camp here, you better be quick. Having arrived at 7pm thinking we could just saunter in to one of the many available campsites, we were turned around at the gate and left to search off their list of ‘Campsites Outside Yellowstone’ for a suitable alternative. At least we clearly aren’t the first to make this mistake.
We spent the night at Yellowstone RV Park, an overpriced tiny lot right on the river that managed to have such high prices due to its proximity to the park entrance and the valuable knowledge that people like us would be desperate to drop $38 US dollars on a single tent site for the night.
On our way back from Yellowstone, we stayed at a KOA in Livingston. About 50km north of Yellowstone, this one was also high up there in the price range ($32/night for a tent site), but the quiet and calm of being along the river combined with the mountain view from our tent made that an easy choice.
What to See & How to See It
Yellowstone National Park is laid out in a figure-8 ring road. The most logical way to see everything in the park is to enter at one of the 5 entrances (North, Northeast, East, South or West) and do the outer loop. There’s nothing to see on the inner band of the 8.
We began our trek at the North entrance at 7am, originally determined to nab ourselves a campground for the night. Turns out the whole National Park can be seen at a leisurely pace in just a day and we decided against spending another night in the area, instead making our way back into Montana by 5pm that same day.
The first stop on the route is the incredible Mammoth Hot Springs, which would end up being my favourite. Perhaps it was that we were there just after 7am, meaning no-one else was around. The park gets very busy between 9am-3pm and you’ll be battling with other tourists for your iconic shot. At Mammoth you can meander through rickety wooden-planked stairs and platforms to take in the incredible colours – and stinky rotten egg smells – of the salty hot springs.
As you drive along the figure-8 road, you’ll see many geysers bursting out of the ground. These are in fact bubbling hot springs that result from really hot water underground breaking through to the surface.
One of the most common animals of Yellowstone is the bison, a massive creature that seems to enjoy lying around and eating grass. If you park quietly on the side of the road, you can get some incredible up-close views of these majestic animals.
At the Norris intersection, a major geyser basin bubbles away. The first thing you’ll notice is the smell of sulphur, very similar to rotten eggs, and the second thing is how cool it is, even though you’ll be wandering through hot springs. The world-famous Steamboat Geyser also lives here. The last major eruption of this iconic geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser, was 2014..and who knows when the next one may come.
The Lower Geyser Basin is home to what is called the Fountain Paint Pot. Featuring geysers, hot springs and dead trees galore, this place is a photographer’s paradise.
From the lower basin, the next pull-out on the road is the midway basin, where the gorgeous Grand Prismatic Spring allows visitors to wander all around over wooden-planked pathways to take in the incredible landscape and reflections of the thermal pool.
Continuing the drive takes you to the southernmost portion of the figure-8 road where West Thumb Basin shows off turquoise waters (and smelly fumes!).
We did peer over the edge at Sulphur Caldron in Hayden Valley, a great spot for noticing the crater you are driving through!
Our final stop in Yellowstone was the gorgeous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Informative pit stops along the route provided for incredible views towards the booming Upper and Lower Falls.
*Including photos by Sam